The Hero’s Journey is a theory from Joseph Campbell that was
originally intended to help people look more deeply into myths and the way they live life (see the quote at the end of this post added October 22, 2011). He first wrote about it in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. This is the book I’m studying now. I’ve read it before, but it’s so dense that I think I only picked up on some general ideas. I want to explore it more deeply because I think there’s a lot of truth in the Hero’s Journey in terms of both personal development and spiritual development.
Before I go any further, I need to bring up the gender issue. Notice that it’s called the “Hero’s Journey.” Campbell was drawing on myths and fairy tales that mostly featured male protagonists. Female protagonists do pop up, of course, but typically their goal is to get married and have kids rather than to conquer evil and bring peace and harmony to the world.
Campbell’s theory is, of course, not limited to men, although he seems to have had very traditional ideas about the role of women in society. I believe that all traditional ideas about gender roles are invalid anyway. In any case, when I talk about the Hero’s Journey or the monomythic journey, I’m talking about the human journey through life that (unfortunately) has been mostly represented in myths and fairy tales by a male protagonist. Such is patriarchy!
Monomythic Journey Framework
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
That’s it in a nutshell. We go into the unknown, fight the darkness with the help of the light, gain special knowledge, and return to the world we left with wisdom to dole out.
Obviously there’s more to it than that, and understanding the ins and outs of each part of the journey helps us identify where we are on that journey. Extremely helpful when we’re feeling frustrated or wondering if the darkness will ever end. Also useful to identify help being offered. A lot of us get an “ugh” feeling when someone holds out a helping hand, but help we need if we’re to get through the journey successfully.
The Cosmogonic Cycle
Campbell’s book is divided into two parts. The first part focuses on the monomythic journey we know and love. The second part is about creation myths: the universe out of the void, forms or elements of nature, birth from the Mother, the human race, and the eventual end of the world. He ties these in with the monomythic journey.
I’m going to be honest here. When I first read Campbell’s book, I didn’t get that part. I’m still not sure I get it. In the first chapter, which gives an overview of his theory, Campbell writes
[t]he effect of the successful adventure of the hero is the unlocking and release again of the flow of life into the body of the world.
So perhaps the discovery of the hero is the connection we have with the divine source of everything that is at the foundation of our being. Not sure about this. I’m going to have to wait to find out.
Added October 22, 2011: In a later section of his book, Campbell states the following:
The whole sense of the ubiquitous myth of the hero’s passage is that it shall serve as a general pattern for men and women, wherever they may stand along the scale…. The individual has only to discover his own position with reference to this general human formula, and let it then assist him past his restricting walls. Who and where are his ogres? These are the reflections of the unsolved enigmas of his own humanity. What are his ideals? Those are the symptoms of his grasp of life.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that one of Campbell’s original intentions was to describe a structure that we can apply to life and not just to myths or stories.
Added December 2, 2011: Joseph Campbell: A Fire in the Mind is a comprehensive biography of Campbell written by two of his former students and friends, Stephen and Robin Larsen. They write the following about the Hero’s Journey:
What Campbell sought to eludicate in his books and in all of his teaching was a spiritual method for the West, one equivalent to the great Eastern paradigm of spiritual awakening, a model through which to comprehend and integrate the realizations that come through experience. Its focus should not be simply to attain to the transcendant, but to glimpse its presence ever and again (transparently, as it were) amng the ordinary opaque realities of our daily lives. This is how we come to recognize the monomyth that renders our separate journeys comparable, and resonant with each other’s–the hero with ‘a thousand faces.’