A Local Athenaeum: Personal Reflections on Mythological Studies

Posted by Erik Davis on Jun 8, 2016 3:10:44 PM

Contributed by Jonathan Young, Ph.D. As published in CASA Magazine.

Given the Mediterranean atmosphere of the Santa Barbara area, this is a fitting home for the world’s leading graduate program in the interdisciplinary study of mythology in all its multicultural forms. We tend to associate the myths with ancient Greece and Rome, but mythic stories, images, and rituals enrich all cultures, ancient and contemporary.

It was a series of visits to Santa Barbara by noted mythologist Joseph Campbell that led to the rise of this unique educational endeavor.

Many myths include a creation story, so let me start at the beginning. The school that was to become known as the Pacifica Graduate Institute grew out of a grant from UCSB following the Isla Vista riots. The funding was to launch a counseling center. The center provided counselor training and, beginning in 1976, offered a certificate. I was one of many local psychotherapists brought in to teach in this well-regarded counselor training sequence. The program grew into graduate courses and, in 1982, an M.A. degree program. The PhD in Clinical Psycholgy began in 1987.

The school moved in 1989 from an old craftsman farmhouse in Goleta to the Lambert Road campus near Summerland that had was originally the estate of philanthropist Max Fleischmann.

Those of us on the original faculty, who had been teaching in an old barn on Hollister, were dazzled by the beautiful new campus.

The emphasis on Depth Psychology drew heavily on the work of Carl Jung. Rapid growth stemmed from unique content that included classes in myth, literature, and world religions.

Joseph Campbell was an early supporter. He gave many public seminars and provided guidance, starting in the 1970s. After his 1987 death, the Campbell family chose the Pacifica campus as the home for his library. I had been strongly influence by Campbell while assisting him at seminars. So, in addition to teaching, I became the founding curator of the collection.

The archive work was quite a quest. It involved gathering artifacts and reference materials used by the famous mythologist. Poet Robert Bly and scholar Houston Smith spoke at the 1992 dedication. From the first day, visitors to the Campbell Library would inquire if Pacifica had a program where they could study his ideas and those of similar thinkers.

With strong support from Pacifica founder Stephen Aizenstat, I began exploring starting a graduate department to continue the work of Joseph Campbell, especially understanding the metaphors in the stories and images that serve as the structure for culture. I chose the phrase Mythological Studies to reflect the broad range of inquiry to include literature, ritual, theater, art, music, and film. Previous study of mythology, mostly in departments of classics and religious studies, took a narrow focus on specific ancient texts. The program at Pacifica builds on classic myths, sagas, legends, and fairy lore to include current expressions of the mythic imagination. Ideas from aesthetics, psychology, and spiritual traditions are included in the study of cultural sources from around the world.


We gathered leading scholars as faculty. Experts on Carl Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz were drawn to the interdisciplinary project. David L. Miller from Syracuse University and goddess scholar Christine Downing were key figures in shaping the curriculum. As founding chair, I was impressed by the intense response to the initial announcement. Even while being selective, we had to double the capacity of the program before the first class in 1994, to accommodate the many outstanding applicants.

Since the launch, my personal involvement in the field has grown. I have been invited to participate in conferences all over the world on the renaissance of interest in mythology. I am now a commentator in documentary series on the History Channel. I also consult on a wide range of creative projects. The film studios call me in to advise on mythic themes in screenplays. Mythological Studies leadership passed on to Patrick Mahaffey, who oversaw an enormous growth in the program, and then to Evans Lansing Smith, who also worked with Campbell.

Over a thousand graduates have found success in a wide range of careers, including the arts, education, business, filmmaking, religion, law, the helping professions, as well as community and environmental leadership. Many dissertations have become significant books. Alumni teach at a wide range of universities, drawing on guidance provided long ago.

That is how an unusual learning center came into being. Here in a landscape much like the Aegean coast, there are unique gatherings in the groves of academe. A dedicated group of scholars reflect on ancient visions that endlessly find new forms – to provide creative inspiration for our times. 

Jonathan Young Ph.D. is a local psychologist who now teaches in the distance learning program at Pacifica. His website is folkstory.com.

Topics: Mythology