The Journey to Goddesses

Goddesses: Mysteries of the Feminine Divine by Joseph CampbellIt may surprise you to know that Joseph Campbell (1904–1987) has come out with a new book: Goddesses — Mysteries of the Feminine Divine. The story of how this book came to be is a testament both to the enduring power of the late American scholar’s work and of the power of the subject itself.

In 1980, Campbell and his editor, Robert Walter, were in the process of creating Campbell’s magnum opus: The Historical Atlas of World Mythology (a work Campbell sadly never completed). The book would be published by a new company that they were setting up for the purpose; Alfred van der Marck, the publisher with whom they were working, pointed out that you couldn’t have a publishing company with just one book, and so Campbell and Walter sat down and drew up a list of books that they felt should be part of this new venture.

The first book on the list was a book on a subject that Campbell’s friend and colleague Marija Gimbutas had brought to the academic fore: the study of the feminine divine in all of its historical and cultural forms.

Robert Walter
Robert Walter

When Campbell died, Walter made that list the founding document for the keystone project of the fledgling Joseph Campbell Foundation: The Collected Works of Joseph Campbell. Drawing on Campbell’s lectures and uncollected and unpublished writing, the Collected Works has endeavored to keep Campbell’s work very much alive.

In 1990, just after JCF’s creation, Walter hired a former student of Campbell’s to collect the mythologist’s work on the Goddess, but the piece that she submitted was too fragmented to publish, and so the project was shelved in favor of more pressing concerns. In 1997, he hired another scholar; this time, the work was much more coherent, but less than half of it was actually written by Campbell. The project languished once more.

When I took over the publications program of the foundation in 1999, that checkered history was clear in the files. But I couldn’t help but be excited about the prospect of a new book by Campbell on the subject of Goddess mythology. Not only was it a topic noticeably absent from Campbell’s then-published work, but Campbell was being criticized (unjustly, it seemed to me) for having neglected the feminine aspects of myth. Every time I broached the subject, however, Bob Walter would groan, would point out that we had plenty of other projects to work on, and would, if pressed, say that we needed to find the right editor for the job.

Dr. Safron Rossi
Dr. Safron Rossi

Fast forward to 2010. With Bob, and JCF community-maven Stephen Gerringer, I went to Santa Barbara to deliver a large cache of material into OPUS Archives‘ Joseph Campbell Collection. There I met the OPUS staff, including Safron Rossi, who had just completed her doctorate in mythology and begun working there as an archivist. Safron was and is a serious, passionate scholar, whose main focus of study had been, in fact, the feminine divine. Bob, Stephen, and I had a wonderful time getting to know the OPUS staff, and we were all deeply impressed by Safron.

The following year, at JCF’s annual Esalen Mythological Toolbox seminar (a workshop that continues a tradition begun by Campbell, who would celebrate his birthday every year by teaching at the beautiful retreat on the Central California coast), Bob approached Safron about taking on the moribund Goddess project. He encouraged her not to look at the two previous drafts, but to go to the source material (which she, as the archivist for the Campbell Collection, knew better than anyone), and to see if she could find the material for a book there.

Working around her duties at OPUS — she was serving at the time as the organization’s acting executive director — Safron spent a year ascertaining that, yes, Campbell had provided the structure and the material for a book; she then spent most of 2012 assembling that mass of raw material into a coherent narrative. I helped her polish the text and find images. We worked with New World Library to transform what had been a mass of lecture transcripts and notes into a beautiful new book, which New World Library released just this past November.

From that first conversation between Campbell and Bob Walter, more than a third of a century had passed. I believe the end result, however, was worth the wait.

For more on the creation of Goddesses, see:

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