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The Hero’s Journey:
A Campbellian Look at the Metaphorical Path to Personal Transformation

By Lynne Milum
Copyright © 2003 by Lynne Milum. All rights reserved

What is mythology?

Have you ever contemplated what makes a great story? How is it that humankind has generated so many great stories throughout history? Why does the reader feel aligned with the heroes of these stories in such a way that the stories go beyond the printed word and impact our own lives back here in "the real world"?

While many people believe that myths are stories that are "untrue" or even "lies," in fact, resonant mythologies are metaphors that provide us with symbols of a life we long to experience. To read a myth literally is to miss its higher truth.

Mythological narratives may or may not be based in fact. Myths that are temporal will cease to inspire over time and will die out. The perennial myths, however, are those which persevere and project a timeless truth which point the way to our ultimate destiny. To pursue this destiny is
The Hero’s Journey.

A Campbellian Analysis of the Hero’s Journey

There are three major phases to great stories in mythology, based on Joseph Campbell’s work and documented in The Hero with a Thousand Faces.[1] These phases are Separation, Initiation and Return. Key story elements as presented by Campbell follow.


Separation:
Separation is the culmination of a person awakening from a world of drudgery and despair to pursue a higher calling.

The initial step is a ‘Call to Adventure’ where the heroic figure is made aware of a place beyond the world he has known his whole life. A herald is encountered that gives the hero a reason to rethink what he (or she) "knows." This herald usually provides some direction to enter into the adventure and may remain with the hero as a guide.

The hero may refuse the adventure or deny the ability to move beyond the status quo. The heralded event may even be ignored – All of these constitute the
‘Refusal of the Call.’

The use of magical intervention is then needed to plunge the hero into the unknown. The reluctant hero requires supernatural forces to urge him on, while the willing adventurer gathers amulets (magical items) and advice from the protector as aid for the journey.

A portal or threshold represents the transition into the world of adventure, the step of ‘Crossing the First Threshold.’ A sense of danger as well as opportunity is conveyed. The threshold guardian or "gatekeeper" must test the hero’s mettle for competency before he may enter the realm. Gatekeepers are terrifying creatures such as Cerberus (the three-headed dog of the Underworld), Pan, ogres, and shape-shifters of classical mythology.

The hero having crossed the threshold is swallowed into the unknown abyss, reborn in the new world, and may appear to those left behind as dead or lost. This may manifest as the hero is swallowed into the darkness and lands in the ‘Belly of the Whale.’ There he awaits rebirth or release from this purgatorial state. His release here symbolizes a relinquishing of attachment to the world left behind.

Initiation:
Having crossed over into the new realm or escaping the belly of the beast, the hero encounters a series of tests known as ‘The Road of Trials.’ Each task prepares the hero to pursue the ultimate mythological goal. These trials show the hero as moving from childish behaviors to self-reliance. This is his personal evolution from personal limitations to unrealized potential.

The Road of Trials leads to an encounter with the Queen of the World – the ‘Meeting with the Goddess.’ The goddess figure is representative of the Earth Mother or source of life. She may be approachable, as the hero’s mother, sister, beloved, or She may be seemingly larger than life. She is encompassing beauty, unrevealed mystery, and unification of good and evil.

In myth, Woman is the totality of what can be known. As the hero is initiated into life, the goddess becomes transfigured through his understanding. Alas, those with inferior eyes cannot see her magnificence – they may even perceive her as ugly. While the goddess can never be greater than the hero, she always promises more than he can comprehend. The hero can take her as she is and thus be the king of her created world. Through the goddess, the hero attains mastery over life itself. His trials have prepared him to recognize the richness of life that She offers.

The hero may encounter the negative side of woman – ‘Woman as Temptress.’ In this scenario, the hero finds himself occupied with selfish pleasures. The ease with which the hero falls into temptation places the path to enlightenment in peril. While the purified hero will be repulsed by these offerings, the struggling hero must soar beyond the sin and despair, to regain his path.

Atonement with the Father: In myth, a parental figure is responsible for guiding the hero through the journey. This representation echoes the need for each person to break free from childhood into adulthood. A father figure may be portrayed as the vengeful male threatened by the rise of the hero and so establishes a horrifying conflict. The hero seeks atonement or "at-one-ment" with the father. Despite a wrathful figure, the hero has faith that The Father is merciful and he must rely on that mercy. In turn, The Father has a change of heart and the fearful image dissolves. The hero is released from the situation through reconciliation, forgiveness and mercy.

Conversely, the father figure may be benevolent, recognizing that as with all life, the cycle must continue. While he assists the hero through his journey, the father figure is mindful that the budding hero is destined to replace him. Just as the mother may be portrayed both as good or evil, so does the above contrast represent the father as a positive and negative force. Our initiation into an adult role in life is contrasted with this dual role of the parent.

The hero’s transformation could be a kind of deification or realization of the essence of life and ultimate purpose – this is his ‘Apotheosis.’ This may be achieved through the conquering of an enemy or the acquisition of supernatural powers. The most far-reaching achievement is that of selflessness, a new ability for unconditional love.

‘The Ultimate Boon’ is the benefit, favor, or blessing that is bestowed on the hero figure. There is a drive for the hero to share the boon with humankind, whether it is an elixir of immortality, a holy grail, true love, perfect knowledge, or the meaning of life. Most prevalent is the recurring theme of Immortality. The hero achieves illumination that there is an indestructible life beyond the physical body. This Immortality is timeless and experienced in the here and now.

Return:
On closure of the quest, the hero generally sets off for home to bring the knowledge of his adventure to others. In some cases, the hero does not wish to flee the newfound world – this is his ‘Refusal of the Return.’ He may hold a belief that those still in the former world cannot comprehend what the hero has learned. The hero may take refuge in his immortal bliss accompanied by the Goddess – free from the burdens of ordinary life.

For the hero who accepts the need to return, there are two principal scenarios – flight or rescue. Where the hero has won blessings, he is commissioned to return to the world to heal it. The protector may assist him on a supernatural return journey or ‘The Magical Flight.’ If the treasure was obtained through conflict or without consent, this will become a flight of difficult obstacles and pursuit by the angered force.

In the second case, the hero requires the outside world to pull him back from the adventure – this is the ‘Rescue from Without.’ The reluctant hero loses all desire to abandon his bliss, he does not want to take on the burdens of the world. Someone or thing may facilitate his miraculous return from apparent death. An overriding reason is necessary to bring the hero back to the world to save it.

Regardless of how the return is accomplished, a supernatural force is again needed to resolve the final crisis, ‘Crossing the Return Threshold.’ The narrative now brings the hero full cycle – it is his destiny to depart from the mystical world he has discovered, and return to the banalities of life with his bounty. Symbolically, through this adventure, the hero has lost his life (self or ego), but by grace it is returned.

On return, the hero must resolve the Two Worlds – divine and human; known and unknown; yin and yang. The key to understanding the myth is that the two kingdoms are actually one. The unknown is a forgotten dimension of the world we already know. To explore that dimension is the whole deed of the hero. By crossing this final threshold, the hero recognizes that the apparent separation in reality does not exist – and he becomes the
‘Master of Two Worlds.’

What is the result of the journey and return? The last task of the hero is to try and communicate his discoveries and the boon for all humanity. He encounters many incapable of comprehending beyond their physical world. But inevitably, another will hear the message, and arise as the next hero.

Our hero achieves a ‘Freedom to Live’ – that is, the ability to pass freely between realms. The hero is transfigured – unencumbered by personal limitations and death holds no power over him. Through his transfiguration, the hero is prepared for at-one-ment. He is a presence benefiting the world as it perpetually renews itself, understanding perfected knowledge is imperishable.

Seeking A New Mythology

So it is that this cycle is used throughout history, and is written on the human psyche. Our great stories, songs and works of art follow this heroic path, usually culminating in the accomplishment of a "happy ending" or greater good. The story is familiar to our subconscious, and regularly manifests itself in our dreams, where our identity becomes the hero. And the same cycle has been documented with patients experiencing temporary or permanent madness.

In other words, this "Monomyth" (cycle of mythology) is common to all humanity and is written in the way we think and understand ourselves. Mythology is a set of symbols we use to describe our purpose and what each one of us is capable of achieving. Our great religions, social structures and, yes, even our best stories, all achieve the major elements of this cycle

One key characteristic of the monomyth is to recognize the boundaries of our lives and create anticipation of what lies beyond. In days of old, boundaries were represented in the tribe or kingdom, with that beyond to be conquered. The social values and belief systems of the times are contextualized by these boundaries.

In our modern world, where news is instantaneous, language is of minor limitation, and technology allows us to go where no one has gone before – boundaries take on a new nature. Where do our human limitations end? As alluded to above, all humanity faces limitations in time and ability to release from ego. Our hope and salvation is in surpassing those limitations in our individual journey. A new mythology for our times is evolving. Can you see it?
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[1] Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 3rd printing. Bollingen Series. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1973.

 

 

 

 

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