Joseph Campbell refers to the next phase of the Hero’s Journey as “the belly of the whale.” Passing into the unknown place is a process of death and rebirth. When we leave the familiar behind, fighting the guardians who are trying to keep us out of this scary territory is just the beginning. We can’t get through the unknown place and come out winners with our old self. We have to cut away all assumptions and beliefs that could drag us back to the place of destruction that we’re trying to leave.

Womb of Rebirth

What Campbell refers to as “the belly of the whale” is really any womb-like, dark, narrow place in myths and fairy tales: the belly of some animal (recall Little Red Riding Hood being swallowed by a wolf), a tomb or burial place (Osiris in the sarcophagus), a cave (Bilbo in The Hobbit), and others. The darkness perhaps symbolizes the lack of knowledge of what’s really in there. The narrowness might represent the way this lack of knowledge closes us in.

These are all also classic symbols for the unconscious mind. Psychologically, the passage into “the belly of the whale” means coming up against the part of us that needs to hang onto the destructive beliefs and behaviors that we’re trying to leave behind. For an addict, it might be the feelings and beliefs that prompt him to use drugs despite his desire not to. For an abused woman, it might be the assumptions and fears that have kept her in an abusive relationship until now. (I’m setting aside here practical or physical circumstances and just referring to things that come from within.)

Painting of Jonah emerging from the mouth of the whale on the shore

Jonah and the whale. Painting by Jan Brueghel the Elder, in the public domain

Not a Pretty Death

Campbell also talks about gruesome images from myths and rituals of the hero cutting himself up as a sacrifice to the gods. He writes:

This popular motif gives emphasis to the lesson that the passage of the threshold is a form of self-annihilation.

Annihilation is a pretty strong word. It means “total destruction.” Osiris, for instance, is cut into pieces twice (according to some versions of the myth), and his body is scattered throughout the land.

Ideally, we get rid of all destructive beliefs and assumptions that can bring us down. In practice, I think the “self-annihilation” is always a partial one. With every journey we take into some unknown territory beyond our comfort zone, we perhaps tear off a piece of ourselves and grow a new part in its place. Doing that is one step along the journey of life.

Let’s take the abused woman as an example. Battered women typically leave and return to their abusive partners multiple times before they make a final break. Sometimes, physical circumstances like lack of money or health problems can cause this. A lot of times, though, it’s because of assumptions and beliefs about themselves, their partners, how others view them, and what life should be like that drives them back. All abuse survivors have to go through a rebirth process and cut away those destructive assumptions and beliefs before they can allow themselves an abuse-free life.

It’s Not Just About You

Campbell implies that the annihilation and rebirth process isn’t just about becoming a better person or having a better life. Cutting away limiting beliefs and assumptions opens us up to connecting with something higher, whether we think of it as all of humanity or the Divine (or both).

He compares passing the threshold of the unknown place and entering “the belly of the whale” to going into a temple or place of worship. It does, in fact, feel different to enter a place of worship. Time and space don’t really matter. We know we’re connecting to something beyond the material world, the Eternal or “the Uncreate-Imperishable.”

Psychologically, we can see this as leaving the Ego behind and surrendering to a higher power (the Divine, Spirit, the good of the whole, etc.). The place of worship is like being in a canyon surrounded by mountains. We become aware of how we’re only one small part of something much bigger that we don’t entirely understand.

“The belly of the whale” is, I think, about recognizing how we suffer and why we suffer. Then we have to bolster the desire and courage to stop the suffering, which begins the rebirth process.

Note: I got a bit careless and neglected to note that the Belly of the Whale marks the end of the first phase of the Hero’s Journey called “Departure.” This leads into the next phase called “Initiation.”