The final section in the first part of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which is titled “The Monomyth,” ends with a summary of the Hero’s Journey and some final comments. In my series, I’ve been discussing the Hero’s Journey on two levels: spiritual enlightenment (which is what Campbell refers to) and a process of change. This last section includes a circular diagram that makes Joseph Campbell’s vision of the journey a little clearer. It also, to me, shows how comfortably the Hero’s Journey can be seen in a practical way as the cycle of change.


Circular diagram of the Hero's Journey as spiritual enlightenment

The Hero’s Journey as spiritual enlightenment. Note: This is not the same diagram as in “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”

Creative Commons License “Hero’s Journey: Spiritual Enlightenment” by Rainbow Gryphon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Note: The license allows modification of this image as long as you attribute the original diagram to me, use yours only for noncommercial purposes, and share your modified image under a similar CC license. If you use this image, please also include the note that this is different from the image in The Hero with a Thousand Faces to avoid any confusion.

Spiritual Enlightenment

In his summary, Campbell clarifies how the mythic structure offers some variations on how the hero reaches the point where he has access to the boon. Upon receiving the call to action and either answering it eagerly or being dragged to the threshold of adventure by the ear, the hero can:

  • Fight a battle with the guardian(s) of the threshold (a creature, an army, etc.) OR
  • Be torn apart by the threshold guardian(s) OR
  • Sacrifice himself to the powers of darkness that the guardian represents for the sake of his community or all of humanity OR
  • Be kidnapped by those powers and taken by force into the darkness OR
  • Be taken on a magical journey by the threshold guardian into the darkness OR
  • Be swallowed by some creature in preparation for rebirth (another representation of the darkness)

Luckily, the Universe supports the hero by sending him helpers whenever he needs them. When the hero acquires the boon,

Once the hero is at the return threshold:

  • He voluntarily crosses it into the world he left behind OR
  • He is reborn (if he was dismembered, sacrificed himself, or underwent “The Belly of the Whale” process) OR
  • He’s drawn out of his state of nirvana and persuaded to return by outside forces OR
  • He undergoes some struggle, internally or externally, in order to pass into the world he left neither too high above those he wants to communicate with, nor sunk too deeply into the concerns of the world he left.

Finally, he’s in a position to be an effective teacher, sharing the boon with the world.

This, of course, is a simplified diagram, and Campbell is well aware that plenty of myths play around with the elements.

Many tales isolate and greatly enlarge upon one or two of the typical elements of the full cycle…., others string a number of independent cycles into a single series (as in the Odyssey). Differing characters or episodes can become fused, or a single element can duplicate itself and reappear under many changes.

He also laments the corruption of mythic elements when retold by a culture different from the one in which it grew. In some cases, storytellers modify details in order to serve whatever agenda they want their story to serve. In others, memory of some story they heard becomes faulty, so they substitute details that Campbell feels inserts meaningless connotations, for which faulty explanations have to be invented. For instance,

Mt. Olympus became a Riviera of trite scandals and affairs, and the mother-goddesses hysterical nymphs. The myths were read as superhuman romances.

Campbell ends this section with a warning about taking myths (including those found in scriptures) as representing something literal. The New Testament isn’t a biography of Jesus of Nazarth. The Old Testament isn’t history. Creation myths aren’t science.

To bring the images back to life, one has to seek, not interesting applications to modern affairs, but illuminating hints from the inspired past. When these are found, vast areas of half-dead iconography disclose again their permanently human meaning.


Circular diagram of the Hero's Journey as a process of change

The Hero’s Journey as a process of change.

Creative Commons License “Hero’s Journey: Process of Change” by Rainbow Gryphon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Note: The license allows modification of this image as long as you attribute the original diagram to me, use yours only for noncommercial purposes, and share your modified image under a similar CC license.

Process of Change

Not all parts of the Hero’s Journey strictly apply to the process of change, but the basic structure is there. It begins with the call to change, often coming from some external circumstance (for instance, job loss,  addiction, homelessness) but also possibly from an internal desire (for example, reaching the breaking point in an abusive relationship or meaningless job).

This leads to the first threshold where we take the first step towards change. Usually this involves both actions and changing how we think. This brings us up against destructive patterns that make us feel safe. We also encounter doubts in ourselves and what we’re trying to do. We endure many tests that make us want to run back to what’s safe. (Many, of course, do and never get to the place where the boon is.)

Luckily, there’s almost always help, either directly (family, friends, support groups, charities) or indirectly (guidance from books or other learning materials, spiritual practices, prayer). If we endure the tests, we get the boon. Change happens. We release ourselves from our prison and make our lives better. Sometimes, we have to “escape” from those who would hold us back if we let them.

Many times, we’re satisfied with the change that’s happened and go on with our lives. At other times, however, we make the return, feeling we want to “pay it forward.” Sometimes we need a little push from others to recognize that we have something from our journey to give or to prove to us that we’re willing to deal with the pain of deja vu in order to give it. In any case, all who “pay it forward” need to deal with maintaining empathy for those who show weakness on their journey towards change alongside resisting getting sucked back into the darker aspects of the experience. We can then be effective helpers and support people as we were supported on our journey.

A Word About Helpers

In his summary, Campbell writes “[a]t the return threshold the transcendental powers must remain behind.” In other words, the helpers accompany the hero only to the point where he needs their support: into the unknown territory, down the road of trials, to the place of the boon, and from there to the point just before he passes from the spiritual world back into the mundane world. The idea, perhaps, is that at that point the hero has progressed in the evolution of his consciousness that he no longer needs magical help from an external source. He’s found the source of magic (Spirit) within himself.

I don’t, however, feel that this always reflects the way it works in the process of change. We certainly grow less dependent on our helpers when we cross the return threshold, but helpers are always coming in and out of our lives, whether directly or indirectly. I really think this is an important point to emphasize because we need to cherish our helpers, whoever or whatever they are, throughout our lives. They further inspire us to be helpers to others.

The cyclical diagram to me makes it clear that the Hero’s Journey isn’t a single journey. We’re always undergoing some process of change. I also believe that spiritual evolution is ongoing. Although this is the end of Part One of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, this isn’t the end of Joseph Campbell’s wisdom in this book. I’ll continue to write about what he has to say about the cosmogonic cycle: emanation from the void, birth from the mother, transformations of the hero, the end of the Universe, and myth and society.