Six years ago I was literally elbow deep in the Joseph Campbell archives, retrieving dozens of audio cassette tapes on whose delicate ribbons were etched hours of Campbell talking about goddess myths. Between 1972 and 1986 he gave over twenty lectures and workshops on goddesses, and so it was from these tapes that Goddesses: Mysteries of the Feminine Divine was born. We could say that this volume was incubating for decades, waiting for the right moment to emerge from the archives, and I had the privilege of being able to act as its midwife.
For Campbell, the main themes of goddess myths are those that deal with the mysteries of initiation both in terms of how temporal life is animated by eternal mystery, and also in how we experience the great round of life and death. Even though Goddesses itself is a posthumous publication, goddesses figure throughout Campbell’s work. This is because one of Campbell’s favorite themes was the transformation and endurance of the symbolic powers of the feminine divine, even in the face of these last three thousand years of patriarchal and monotheistic religious traditions that have attempted to exclude them.
His characteristic brilliance required a large range of discourse, and this is evident in the territory that is covered in the volume. From the one Great Goddess to the many goddesses of the mythic imagination, Campbell traces for us the deep symbolic threads — from the Paleolithic period to Marija Gimbutas’ studies of Neolithic Old Europe, into Sumerian and Egyptian mythology, through Homer’s epic TheOdyssey, the Greek Eleusinian Mystery cult, the Arthurian legends of the Middle Ages, and into the Neoplatonic Renaissance.
While there are many stories and insights from this volume that I love, at this moment I am reminded of what Campbell said at the close of a lecture he gave to an alumni audience at Sarah Lawrence in 1972:
I taught at a women’s college for nearly four decades, and as I said to my students, all I can tell you about mythology is what men have said and have experienced, and now women have to tell us from their point of view what the possibilities of the feminine future are. And it is a future—it’s as though the lift-off has taken place, it really has, there’s no doubt about it. And it’s been one of my great pleasures teaching at Sarah Lawrence all these years instead of teaching a classroom of anonymities, to have had these person-to-person conferences with one woman after another. The sense of individuality that I got from that is something that makes all this general talk about women and men mean nothing to me at all. There is something that the world hasn’t really recognized yet in the female, something that we are waiting now to see. And so, with Goethe’s old line ‘the eternal feminine is what draws us on,’ (Faust II,having been drawn on for thirty, what is it now, eight years, I watch it to go on its own and go back into a sort of observant rather than teaching role, watching the marvel of this ascent into heaven of the Goddess.
Campbell’s sensitivity to the need for women to enter this stream of ideas — the mythic images and their psychological significance — on our own terms and in relation to our needs, is a message of profound support. Myth is nutrient-rich material for the psyche; we need these stories and images to help give shape and imaginal depth to our lives.
Safron Rossi, Ph.D., is Associate Core Faculty at Pacifica Graduate Institute in the Jungian and Archetypal Studies program; for many years she was the Director and Curator of the Joseph Campbell library and archive. Her research areas are Greek mythology, archetypal psychology, and astrological symbolism and practice. Safron is also a consulting astrologer. Her website is www.thearchetypaleye.com