Joseph Campbell Knew NOTHING About Tarot

Joe kind of comes clean about his shtik (yeah, with my help, whatever), a swindle so good it even conned poor George Lucas into crafting "Star Wars" around the basic ideas of "A Hero's Journey". Well, at least Campbell had read some mythology. He hadn't read a bloody thing about Tarot but believed he was possessed of some kind of interpretive superpower that could unravel hopelessly pedestrian nonsense like Tarot cards. Campbell was, you know, dead wrong.

But you wouldn't be able to tell that from the videos* just put on Youtube, that give the impression that Campbell was an accomplished scholar of Tarot, almost as good as Robert Langdon probably.
*—Videos since removed, this was a series called "Joseph Campbell on the Tarot".

The funny thing about Campbell, who along with Mighty-Archetypal Carl Jung, are the two main intellectual inspirations for the modern, i.e post-modern, Tarot, is that he proudly admitted that he knew nothing about Tarot, although he does it in a manner intended to convey that he was just so knowledgeable about all things symbolical that he could be Alfred E. Newman (What? Me study?) regarding any new symbolic system he encountered.

After all, as Campbell understood Jungian things, ALL symbolism in the world, ALL myths, ALL human work in creating metaphors of the myriad contexts they inhabited, were reducible to basic Archetypes. Proof of that? Well, look how that idea works when Campbell got asked to blow hard about the subject of Tarot.

In the vids, Campbell says he was lecturing at Esalen, "a long time ago", and "somebody asked me “what about the tarot cards?”

Yeah, what about those things, asked the students of Oz College. Certainly a certified Wizard ought to be able to tell us.

Joe modestly pointed out, in the lecture, that he'd need an evening to ponder it a bit.
"Well, I said, give me a pack, and I’ll go to my room and tomorrow morning I’ll come out and tell you what I think."
Now, before we consider what Joe produced out of this pondering, we should consider that there is a bit more to the setup than he's letting us know here.

In an interview with David Kennard, the filmmaker who directed "The Hero's Journey", Campbell provides some additional, and pertinent, data about this incident:
"The most interesting question I ever got was when I was lecturing here at Esalen in the [Abraham] Maslow Room in 1967. Somebody asked, 'What about the symbolism of the Waite deck of tarot cards?'"
So, it was the Waite deck Campbell was supposed to explain, not a Marseilles Tarot at all.

Campbell continues in the interview:
"Well, I hadn't thought about it. I'd seen tarot packs and I can remember my old master, Heinrich Zimmer, giving lectures on cards, and I remembered a couple of things he'd said. So I said, 'Well, give me a tarot pack and let me take it back to my room and I'll say in the morning what I found.'"
So, this is the guy you want an insight from? A fellow who admits "I hadn't thought about it"? But just hang on, because it's Joe Campbell, and if he thinks about it for a few hours, he can straighten out anything, right?

But, now we have a little problem. Both in the video and in the interview, Campbell says that one of the cards that immediately struck him, and about which he Jungianally understood the meaning and the medieval roots, was the Waite card, Temperance—a Tarot card made in 1909. Not exactly medieval, except as a fanciful modern ornamentation.

Here it is, compared to the Marseilles Tarot version of the same card, that is used in the video:

The Waite-Smith version of Temperance, 1909. We see two yellow or golden cups, not a red and blue one, as Campbell describes. We also see a lot of other yellow elements, which would seem to suggest a connection. Note the angel's wings are RED...hmmm.

The Marseilles-style Temperance used in the video. The symbolism here is basic—blue is water, and red is wine (the thing being tempered)—and Campbell's explanation would have mystified any medieval symbolist, because it isn't a medieval view, or a traditional view, but a Campbell view.

In the video, Campbell tells us:
" is a woman pouring water from a blue into a red vessel. Now, knowing medieval symbolism, this is pouring the energy of life from the earthly to the spiritual vessel. And this is called Temperance. It’s called Temperance because when that happens you may become inflated, you know—Oh, I’m just spiritual—[laughter] in some ashrams you notice this."
So, this medieval image is intended to instruct us about the Jungian concept of "inflation"? And anyway, wasn't this supposed to be an exposition about the Waite-Smith Tarot Temperance? The one with two golden cups? And should I just read Waite to figure that out anyway? Unlike Campbell, Waite had taken more than a single evening to think about the meanings of Tarot cards.

But the thing Campbell was seeking was the quality of an immediate recognition, which he explains is the only authentic way to deal with spiritual or mythological symbolism:
"A mythological image that has to be explained to the brain is not working. When you move to a culture field that is so alien to your own that the images don’t click off any response and any recognition then you’re out of sync."
To get something like Tarot cards, the meaning of whose symbolism is often intentionally veiled (and thus requires an explanation to the brain), to work, Campbell resorted to squeezing their symbols into neat little boxes called "archetypes", which are general forms of ideas allegedly found everywhere. The forms would then be "filled" with specific contents as per the culture. When Jungians interpret symbolism, they ignore the specific cultural or creator content, and instead force the forms they encounter into the Jungian archetypal explanation that seems to fit.

As you see in the videos, which run a constant stream of Tarot cards from different decks, including many from occult decks like Waite and Thoth, the implication is that the specific meanings intended for the symbolism are not pertinent—rather the archetypal data should simply erupt because the images are "clicking" for you in the way you require.

Or as Sallie Nichols puts it:
"It seems apparent that these old [Marseilles] cards were conceived deep in the guts of human experience, at the most profound level of the human psyche. It is to this level in ourselves that they will speak...Although the text which accompanies the Tarot in [modern occult] cases is usually introduced as an elucidation of the symbols portrayed on the cards, the net effect is more that of an illustrated book. In other words, it is as if the Tarot cards were devised as illustrations for certain verbal concepts rather than that the cards erupted spontaneously first and the text was inspired by them."
So, what you're looking for in good Tarot, according to the Jungians, is an immediate eruption of a connection, and recognition. If you have to read a book, unless it's a Jungian's book of course, the Tarot is alien or broken.

Brain no wanna ‘splainin’…Campbell rejects exposition or exegesis in favor of the Jungian “eruptive” effect. In other words, whatever stupid feeling you have about what you don’t understand, has gotta be better and truer than a silly academic, FACTUAL, explanation. Or so the Jungians claim.

As I explain in some detail in my article on Cartofeminism, this is how Angeles Arrien, one of Campbell's acolytes, argues for the erasure of Aleister Crowley's text, "The Book of Thoth", as a proper guide to the meaning of his Tarot cards, painted by Frieda Harris. Instead, the Jungian idea is that Crowley can only obstruct the true meaning of the cards by trying to fix them according to a specific scheme of meanings.

Thus, the Jungian and occult approaches are in fundamental conflict. As most people who have studied Crowley's Tarot will note, the Jungian approach is hopelessly vain and Angeles Arrien's book on the Thoth deck, The Tarot Handbook is the key example of why that approach is such a terrible idea for helping people to understand Tarot cards, and especially complex occult decks like the Thoth Tarot.

Meanwhile, back at the videos, people are praising the fact they are learning so much about Tarot from Joe Campbell. And he should get the credit or blame he is due for teaching Angeles Arrien, who then taught Mary K. Greer, and so on. These are the people, along with a host of other similar writers, who have dumbed pop Tarot down to the point where it has no discernibly interesting heartbeat left.

Thanks Joe, you fucking bastard.


Carolyn said…
I love Jung. However, he did sleep with his female clients and, ultimately, struggled with his own mental stability later in life.


Tarot Reader and Webmaster of
Benjamin said…
hello, (this has nothing to do with Jung btw)
I'm struggling lately with Christianity. I have been a magician for the past six years but have been turned off from magick because of the mark of the beast. Does liber avl advocate taking this?? I'm whole heartedly against any type of NWO and so my magickal practice has come to a screeching halt. I feel now that everything I took as symbolism in the third part of the book of the law was just a bunch of rationalizations and apologies for a basically mean spirited and hypocritical philosophy that truly advocates murder. I've been reading the bible more and I wonder what is wrong with the new testament?
The mark of some kind or another seems to be coming closer and closer to a reality (I sort of work in the field of RFID chips) but I despise the thought of being tagged so some elite assholes can know what I'm up to all the time. I think a one world government where everyone was chipped would truly be hell on earth. It seems to me Thelema is designed by the rich for the rich and those of us using it in magick are suckers perpetuating our own enslavement (the same critisism leveled against Christians) I know you are a tarot expert but I wonder if I could get your opinion publicly or privately. thank you. -Ben
chris said…
Very interesting...

I just came upon another audio of Campbell lecturing in which it "appears" he is seeing it for the first time.
I thought that was rather fishy, as I'd already heard a lecture in which he is given a tarot deck "for the first time"... and you can't have it the first time twice.

So I google JC and tarot... and found this page.

Campbell's "inflation" continually lets down any good work he did on mythology.
Mark Browning said…
Strange, disjointed commentary on Campbell. That he may have been somewhat overconfident and overzealous when it came to his original read of the Tarot, no one had imbibed and synthesized so much of the world's myths from as many cultures. What he produced was a body of work that held up to the light the commonality of humans-- a great lesson to religious fundamentalists who want to kill each other over small differences in doctrine...and yes what he taught was that myth and mythical symbols were not dead but were living tools that enhanced the experience of life. Not a bad gift from a fucking bastard!
Glenn Wright said…
"That he may have been somewhat overconfident and overzealous"

You mean dead ignorant, and OK with that. And that's kind of the problem—unless you're into Tarot purely for the fantasy and don't care about the facts. Fine if you're a swindler. Not so much if you're pretending to be some kind of scholar.

And a deeper issue on the Tarot side of things—Campbell has often been pointed to as an authority on the subject of Tarot, when he was little more than a visiting clown of the subject.

"no one had imbibed"

Well, he was drunk, not informed.

His indifferent attitude about Tarot, and the way he attempted to show off his alleged knowledge of symbolism by pretending he could apply his ideas usefully to a particular symbolic artifact, undermines any suggestion he was a scholar, rather than a mountebank.

"myth and mythical symbols were not dead"

Well, they're dead enough in the hands of someone like Joe Campbell.
Mark Browning said…
Again, just a strange amount of anger directed toward a wonderful body of work. Campbell's contributions, in my humble yet not sole opinion by far, were immense. His take on the hero's journey was brilliant. However, maybe I just like being swindled, though the only snake oil the man ever sold me was a great synthesis of cultures that made, for the most part, beautiful sense. Enough said. You don't like the guy and that is fine.
Glenn Wright said…
"maybe I just like being swindled"

You needn't affirm the obvious.

"You don't like the guy"

Rather, I like Tarot, or more to the point I became sufficiently interested in it to study it. And along the way ran into Joe Campbell being promoted as an expert on the subject. And, as I have shown, that is a silly notion. With further study, I came to the conclusion Campbell was worshipped much by people who actually know very little about the subjects Campbell was supposedly explaining, and so they could not fairly assess his ideas as likely propositions.

As with many such persons, you are arguing how you feel. You are not showing how what I have said is wrong on the facts.
Mark Browning said…
I haven't seen any comprehensive explanation on your site: but out of curiosity, is there a definitive work on the Tarot that is widely accepted or, at least, provides what some such as you might call an accurate read on its symbolism? Something that would contrast with Campbell and be readily accepted by serious Tarot devotees?
Glenn Wright said…
" is there a definitive work on the Tarot "

Depends on the definition. Even the histories of Tarot, that do focus on facts, generally have issues of bias. So there are Michael Dummett's works on Tarot, such as "Game of Tarot", considered definitive by gaming historians, which do attempt to explain a lot of the iconography of the Tarot images, but generally give short shrift to occult oriented symbolism—and that is most of what people are interested in. This is because Dummett was a Catholic and disapproved of occultism.

The occultist works are also problematic, because their interest was in promoting their own authority and symbolic systems, through Tarot, instead of investigating the roots of Tarot symbolism. Still, if you want to understand the Waite deck and its symbolism, for example, you read Waite, not Joe Campbell.

As for "devotees", as opposed to students, many of them are precisely the people who favor Campbell's ideas, and this is because two of the more widely read pushers of popular Tarot are Campbell followers, which is to say followers of a Jungian approach to interpreting Tarot.

Lastly, naturally, I recommend my own book, "Rhapsodies of the Bizarre", simply because in terms of getting to the roots of occult Tarot symbolism, no other book explores that subject with as much detail, and focus on facts, instead of fantasies.

If you are really interested in understanding the political issues associated with interpreting Tarot symbolism—and you may be surprised to learn there are some, I would recommend you read these two articles (below). They will explain a great deal to you about what has happened to Tarot during its relatively recent popularization.