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Obituaries : Joseph Campbell; Scholar in Mythology

November 03, 1987|BURT A. FOLKART | Times Staff Writer

Joseph Campbell, who wanted to be an American Indian but instead became an expert on primitive cultures, has died, the Associated Press reported Monday.

The mythologist, whose epic "The Hero With a Thousand Faces" became the genesis of Luke Skywalker and the "Star Wars" film trilogy, was 83 when he died Friday in Honolulu, where he made his home for many years.

A native of New York City, Campbell said in an interview with The Times in May that he had "thought I was an American Indian until I was 6, and it was one of the big disappointments of my life finding that I couldn't be one."

Instead he became a student and track star at Columbia University, where he also played in a jazz band before dropping out in 1928. Advisers of his doctoral program told him mythology was not an acceptable discipline.

He took what money he had earned from music and went to Woodstock, N.Y., where he studied and did research on the myths of man. That five-year exile of self-study led to an offer to teach mythology at Sarah Lawrence College, where he remained for nearly 30 years.

There he began the series of writings that were to include "Primitive Mythology," in which he explored the myth of the virgin birth that is common to many cultures, including the Aztec and Christian, and "The Hero With a Thousand Faces," which George Lucas has said inspired his "Star Wars" films and which focused on the hero as a means of exploring a culture.

Campbell's other books include "The Inner Reaches of Outer Space," the four-volume "The Masks of God," and "The Way of the Animal Powers," the first book in a planned multivolume Historical Atlas of World Mythology.

The second installment in the atlas series, "The Way of the Seeded Earth," is scheduled for publication next year.

Throughout his life Campbell tried to show that myth is not apart from objectivity--that instead it is often the basis of knowledge. He liked to cite as an example the belief in the Immaculate Conception.

"The virgin birth has nothing to do with a biological accident," he said recently. Instead it symbolizes "the awakening of spiritual life in the human animal. It's a mythic symbol. . . . All mythology is misread when it is read as referring to historical events or geographical places.

"The Promised Land is not a piece of land to be conquered by military might; it is a condition of the heart."

An hour-long film dedicated to Campbell's career, with "Star Wars" footage and music by the Grateful Dead, Campbell's favorite rock group, premiered in Los Angeles in May.

Bill Moyers, a television journalist, recently completed a series of six hour-long interviews with the mythologist that are to be shown on the Public Broadcasting System next spring.

Campbell liked to illustrate his theses with personal anecdotes.

A favorite occurred years ago when he was approached by a member of a religious cult after a banquet and was asked if he was an atheist.

"I don't think," Campbell replied, "you can call a person an atheist who believes in as many gods as I do."

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