The Hero’s Mask

Joseph Campbell on the Roots of Halloween

In the first of two speeches on the symbolism of All Hallows’ Eve, myth master Joseph Campbell delves into the holiday’s Celtic roots and its eternal resonance.

10.31.14 9:50 AM ET

Trick Or Treat

Part I October 25, 1981

I can’t tell you what a feeling I have of the privilege of participating in this perfectly beautiful event, in this magical atmosphere of these lovely windows, and the music that we’ve heard, and the amusing entry of the little people—the little goblins; the recently born.

It was not at all inappropriate or even a radical change of mood and meditation that your minister should have mentioned the passing of one of the members of the congregation, a person who evidently meant a great deal to you and has returned to the source land from which we all derive. 

Hallowe’en, the eve of the holy days (that’s what the word means), is a festival of the ancient Celtic world particularly. It is matched six months away by the festival of May Day and by the eve of Walpurgis Night which precedes it. The time of this festival is the time of the passing of the organic world in which we live into the realm of darkness, of falling leaves. The other opposite day is of the breaking forth of the fresh leaves of spring.

With this, mankind—or at least the people in those early pastoral days—joined their meditation with the actualities of the natural world, participating in the world by way of meditation and relevant action.

Now, who are these little goblins that appear? As I said, it is not inappropriate to think of death at this time. In fact, the day after Hallowe’en is All Saints’ Day followed by All Souls’ Day. In Europe on these days people go to the graves of their beloved ones who have passed away. For centuries, they brought not only prayers and recollections but also little gifts. There is a secret psychological aspect to this. So often when a dear person dies, we have a sense of guilt and regret for the lovely things we have not done, and for the little negative acts that we wish we had not rendered.

This can be associated with the idea of the dead as tricking those and hurting those who have hurt them. There is a fear of the dead that is an old, old feeling. It is based on this regret, actually, with respect to the attitude we have had toward them. In Germany and Vienna and the Catholic Europe generally, people go to the graves. But in the Celtic world—the world with which Hallowe’en is associated—it is the dead who come to visit the homes. Hallowe’en is the night of the re-entry of the dead into their domiciles, visiting again the people with whom they had dwelled. The idea of giving a gift, a treat, or suffering a trick—a shocking, surprising, nasty little trick—is associated with the guilt feeling.

There is another aspect that belongs to the old thinking about this, related to the return of the dead. There is a notion of reincarnation; namely, that our children are really returning ancestors. In a sense, they truly are. That is to say, the ancestral genes, the ancestral strain of inheritance, appears again in these little children. Many people in traditional cultures look at the child to see who it is who has returned. So these little creatures coming in here are indeed our children; but they are also representatives of that general energy of life which pours through us and of which we are momentarily manifestations and creatures.

The whole game of wearing masks: We know that what’s behind the mask is an innocent little creature. I thought it was darling as they came down those aisles. They got smaller and smaller; and the costumes became more and more incongruous and outrageous. In their incongruity and outrageous character, they were more and more effective. You had a sort of belief; you had an emotional impact from this crazy little face even though you knew that behind it was this darling little innocent. These two attitudes are proper with respect to all mythological beliefs.

I had another experience just before seeing the children. It was in the vestry where the choir was putting on its garments. I saw these gentlemen of Grand Rapids—businessmen, medical men perhaps, distinguished citizens and so forth—transforming themselves into angels. And I thought, “Well, I’m willing to believe it, you know.” At the same time, I knew that they were these gentlemen whom I had just recently met. Then, as I sat here on this “throne,” this beautiful choir struck my ears and senses. It was a lifting moment. And you know indeed they are angels. Angels are mythological characters whose function is to sing the praise of God: benign choirs of angels singing the nine aspects of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; Father in relation to the Son and Holy Ghost; Son in relation to the Father and Holy Ghost; Holy Ghost in relation to the Father and Son. What happened? What happened was that putting on the costume, identifying with the role that it represented, actually brought out of these gentlemen (and the ladies who were in another attiring room, of course, and whose voices came to me as a surprise) the angelic quality that is within them; namely, the quality of contemplation and meditation on the marvelous mystery symbolized in our image of the Trinity. The costume actually talks to and evokes something deeply inside which is more permanent, which is archetypal, which is more eternal within us than the secular character that we represent in the world.

We live these two lives. I am staying now in the Grand Plaza Hotel. The glass-enclosed elevator that I take shows another building being erected, with a great derrick and all. Yesterday, as I went up and down in the elevator, I could see men working there. I could see their daily lives and all the city in daily life, doing the jobs of the secular moment. But today, the derricks were perfectly still, and no one was there. The people were in one way or another enjoying or experiencing the festival day. Sunday, the festival day, (or Hallowe’en, a very special festival day) gives us a chance to exercise our imagination—to bring out, as has been done so beautifully here, some of the structuring forms that underlie our spiritual life and which we may forget in our daily work.

Now, do these little masks have a reality of any kind? That is to say, is the reality of the forms that excite our imagination and actually invoke and evoke creative lively energies that give a joy and bounce to life—do these have a reality? Or are they simply figments that pass away with no sense?

I would hold that their reality is in a way truer and deeper to the source of our life and joy and existence than the realities of Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. The realities with which we are engaged in our daily lives are secondary realities. They have to do with taking care of things as they are today in the world of time and space. But those eternal energies and principles that brought us into being in the world, that have created these little children who came in to entertain us and give us the joy of delight in their presence among us, these forms that they represent, are symbolic of the energies of life that are truly eternal within us.

That is really the sense of the festival. That is the sense of the Saturnalia, of Mardi Gras and of these moments of entertainment. They reintroduce us to deeper thoughts. For people who are simply bound to the daily life of Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and so forth these may simply seem to be romantic notions; but people who remain there without participating in the romantic notions tend to dry up in their lives. They lose the joy of humor. They become serious. The play of Sunday, the play of being angels in the choir, is not just a peripheral secondary marginal realm of activity. It really is something that touches our own most profound depths.

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The other day I received a phone call following one of my lectures where I had spoken of the imagery of religion as mythological, not to be interpreted historically. He said to me that he has to interpret it historically; and yet on the other hand, he somewhat doubts it.

“Well,” I said, “the thing to do is to live with it and act with it as if it were historically true.” The man is bound to the historical plane of thinking.

But there is another kind of truth that is not historical but eternal. These things speak to that. One lives with myth, one lives with these children in their masks, as if there were a truth there. When you live that way, with the as if, gradually it builds into you and there comes what in some of the Buddhist traditions is called “the awakening of faith.” You know that it is true. You know that it is your own inner truth. The worship that holds you for a few hours a week becomes, then, the clue to that deep truth inside.

To move from the more serious to the more playful again—the make-believe, the play, the humor, the delight is the mythological perspective on life. In the Hindu tradition, the world is said to be “God’s play,” “God’s dance.” When one plays life that way, one in a way awakes creative vital energies in oneself that otherwise are not available. Watch a youngster going down the street. He may be galloping as though he were a horse. If he were just walking, he might be a little bored. The galloping brings up life energy.

I had a curious experience some years ago driving up to a curb, and there was a youngster about as big as the smaller ones who came in a few minutes ago standing there in a rigid sort of catatonic posture. As I opened the door to get out of my car, he said in a very very strong voice, “You can’t park here!” I looked around for signs, but there were no warnings.

I said, “Well, why?”

He said, “Because I’m a hydrant.”

So, I went down the block a ways. I didn’t want to break into his meditation. And it was a meditation. I don’t know what got him started on that. And I thought, “Yes, this is a make-believe.” Then I thought of the clergy in its vestments, and I thought, “I wonder how seriously they’re taking this thing?” (I’ll let that one go…)

Here we are in this sanctuary with these forms around us. They are not just windows. They are making a mythological statement. They are speaking to something in us that suggests a role to play.

This whole business of playing roles… Carl Jung in his writings speaks of the roles that we play in life, the roles that society puts upon us. Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief, doctor, lawyer, Indian chief, and all that. People sometimes identify with the role and think that that is what they are. Jung calls these roles “personae.” Persona is the mask worn by an actor.

These roles include the whole moral structure of society—how you are to behave; what kind of clothing you are to wear. Moral and customary habits are included in these roles. Jung says that we lose our vitality in playing the role if we identify with it. We should play the role and realize that we are transcendent of it, and playing into it.

This is one of the reasons why young people enjoy theatrical activities. My wife is a dancer, and I’ve had plenty of opportunity to see what happens to young people when they participate in theatrical works. They’re playing roles; but they’re playing roles actually that are somewhat inside themselves, and you can see the whole person develop through this. You can see them come alive in a new way. I’ve watched them from early to late years in the creation of their artistic life. This is a great privilege artists have, to play their roles.

I think that in the secular life of people in business or industry there are two kinds also. There are those who play the role. I know many of them, and they have a wonderful vitality of personality. There are those on the other hand who are it, who identify with it and lose themselves in it. If you play a life role as though it were a mythological game, there is vitality and wonder in it. One thinks then that perhaps the whole universe, as the Hindus say, is God’s play. He doesn’t take it too seriously. He comes in, as Saint Paul says in the epistle to the Philippians, and he doesn’t think that godhood is something to be held to. That was a role. The Christ did not think godhood something to be held to but came down, took the role of man even to the death on the cross which of course then relieved him of that role and returned him to the other. There is this sense of play.

There is a beautiful passage in one of the apocryphal texts, I think it is the Acts of John, where at the Last Supper Jesus said, “Let us dance.” There’s a recitation of a kind of litany of miraculous and universal marvels, recited phrase by phrase with amen, and the round dance of Jesus and the apostles, the crucifixion itself being part of the dance of that play.

That is the theme that it seemed to me well to bring forward at this lovely and memorable and enchanting occasion for which I feel so grateful—the theme of the mask, and the play, and death, and birth and childhood. It’s all part of a wonderful life game that one can play, not in the way of having it thrust upon one, but in the way of joyful participation and enactment so that even death is enacted. There’s a wonderful aristocratic tradition in Japan of language which is a way of speech of the aristocratic caste. It’s called play language. You meet a person whose father has just died and you say, “I hear your father has played dying.” That’s a beautiful theme, and all of us can bring new energy and will into our lives by thinking of it in that playful way. I think Hallowe’en is perhaps one of the best meditations for this… the playing of being children, the playing of being the returned ancestors, and the playing of dying.

That is my meditation for this beautiful day. I can’t leave without thanking you all for participating in my experience of this congregation and its playful invention of one of the most convincing rituals I think I’ve witnessed in a modern community. My thanks to you all.

This essay is drawn from the first of two sermons that Joseph Campbell delivered a year apart at the Fountain Street Church in Grand Rapids Michigan; the first was on October 25, 1981, and the second was on October 31, 1982. To read the second essay, visit

Used by permission of the Joseph Campbell Foundation,