Practical Campbell Essay: Mysteries Sacred & Profane

Date of Publication: February 17, 2007

Author: Stephen Gerringer

Magick potions are the stuff of myth and faery tale – but might they be more than metaphor? In this Practical Campbell essay, Stephen Gerringer ponders the role sacred plants have played in religious history and what they reveal about the mythic imagination, along the way plumbing Joseph Campbell’s thoughts on everything from shamanism to the psychedelic sixties.

In the mid-1960s, Joseph Campbell was shocked to see royalties from The Hero with a Thousand Faces jump up “one full decimal point.” This happy mystery was solved when he learned that his classic work on the hero’s quest had become “a kind of TripTik®” for the LSD experience! Campbell seems an unlikely candidate for hippie patron saint (Robin Larsen, in Fire in the Mind, recalls Joe complaining about “hippies and liberals” during the Vietnam War); even more surprising is the thought that this dignified, dedicated scholar might somehow be associated with the drug culture.

At the same time, Campbell enjoyed friendships with Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who first synthesized LSD in 1938 (and who celebrated his one-hundred-and-first birthday last month – still going strong); Huston Smith, a noted religious studies scholar involved in early psychedelic research at Harvard; Alan Watts, celebrated author and mystic who was no stranger to LSD; Stanislav Grof, known for his research into the nature of consciousness (including observation and documentation of thousands of LSD research sessions at the Psychiatric Research Institute in Prague and the Maryland Psychiatric Research center in Baltimore), and a frequent collaborator with Campbell at Esalen seminars; and, the last years of Joe’s life, the Grateful Dead, who occupied the epicenter of psychedelic counterculture for over three decades. Joseph Campbell seems one of the few in his circle who didn’t partake of psychedelics at some point – a conscious choice on his part – but he remained open-minded, not at all inclined to discount the experiences of those who did.

Of course, the drug culture of the sixties faded into oblivion; Campbell’s encounters through the seventies and eighties were with serious practitioners in psychology, anthropology, biology, and other fields who approached the subject of psychedelics not as a lark, but as one tool among many that expand our understanding of the nature of consciousness. Campbell certainly valued the research and insights of these recognized experts, whose observations often paralleled his own.

But what might those parallels be? Perhaps a case could be made regarding insights into the nature of human consciousness, but what possible light could the study of hallucinogens shed on mythology?

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