The Hero's/Heroine's Journey
What do the goddess Inana and Pinocchio, Hercules and Vasilisa, biblical Moses and Shrek have in common? All of them are the protagonists of stories, that while reading them you will recognize a similar pattern, which repeats itself in endless plots over thousands of years and across different cultures. The structure known as the 'Hero's Journey' on which ancient legends as well as cinematic works from the twenty-first century are based, is one of the most researched subjects in the fields of comparative literature, and the study of it spills over into the fields of religion and mythology, anthropology, psychology and more. It is a pattern that is so embedded in our narratives that it is difficult to really pinpoint its origin or its first appearances. These were probably even before the stories were written down, and reflected a human, mental pattern that is common to all people. The fact that this pattern repeats so commonly, even to the point of cliché, in the stories we all tell ourselves, as well as the fact that we can all identify with the heroes of those stories, are evidence that something basic in this structure is very familiar to us and is embedded in each and every one of us.
The first people to recognize this pattern and explore its meanings came mainly from the fields of psychology. The first was apparently the psychoanalyst Otto Rank, Sigmund Freud's student and the one who helped Freud to expand his research into the fields of culture, art and mythology. Just a bit later came another student and follower of Freud, Carl Jung, and his own student, Erich Neumann. Besides them were the amateur English anthropologist, Lord Raglan, the researcher of Russian folklore Vladimir Propp, and of course Joseph Campbell, the American mythologist. All of them were men who acted in the spirit of Structuralism, and studied mainly male heroes, while relating in a very specific way to the differences between the hero and the heroine, and between the mythical world of men and that of women. Female researchers began to enter this field only around the nineties, when Maureen Murdoch, a Jungian psychotherapist and student of Joseph Campbell, published a self-help book that dealt with the Heroine's Journey, and took a therapeutic stance using myths about female heroes. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, author of the bestseller "Women Who Run With the Wolves", also referred to the feminine aspects of the Hero's Journey, and explored what she calls the "Wild Woman Archetype", while seeking to restore the feminine power and connection to nature, which she claims has been lost. More and more researchers joined this field of activity, some with quite a bit of criticism of those who preceded them (mainly Joseph Campbell, I think) and the way in which they used the literary sources from which they drew their conclusions.
Despite the criticism Joseph Campbell received for his work, the milestones he identified in the Hero's Journey pattern, and especially the basic division he made between them, are still used by researchers, therapists, and even Hollywood screenwriters. Campbell based his ideas on the psychoanalytic perspective, and especially on the Jungian view, when he analyzed the basic plot of the Hero's Journey, and treated it as a metaphor for the mental processes that every human being goes through, in a cyclical way, during her/his life. The idea that the myth expresses a layer of the universal unconscious, and that each and every one of the characters inhabiting it represents some archetypal basic pattern, was used by Campbell in turning the reading of myths into a reading of the human mind, and himself into a cultural hero who presents the key to a better life. At a time when the New Age and self-help movements began to grow in the Western world, and especially in the United States, Campbell's ideas fell on ears hungry for exotic ideas from ancient and distant cultures, and also on the ears of his critics who complained about the popularization, flattening, and unprofessional research they claimed he conducted.
Joseph Campbell focused on the plot part where the hero is called to an adventure, sets out on it and then returns from it. When he came to use this part in order to characterize an all-human mental process, he painted the journey as a circular, cyclical path, which in myths does usually come to an end after one cycle/turn, but in life reoccurs again and again, as a pattern in which the human existence is imprisoned from the moment of birth, and to which one is doomed to return until her/his last day. Campbell characterized 17 stages in the emergence of the hero from the moment he is called to go on an adventure. He divided these stages into three main sections: the Departure, the Initiation and the Return. This pattern, according to Campbell and his predecessors, is a consequence of the human mental structure that conceived it and assimilated it into the myth, and in turn it can teach humans how to behave in the repeated adventures that chance upon them, as part of everyday life.
The cycle of the hero's journey, as Joseph Campbell perceived it.
In general, and at least by the way we see it, the Hero's Journey echoes the basic archetypal duality between the Known and the Unknown, which we expanded on in the first chapter of the Archetypal Workshop. It is actually a journey of human consciousness between dichotomous concepts such as Order and Chaos, Culture and Nature, Good and Evil, and so on, which are reflected in the mythical plots as well as in human life (as they are interpreted in our understanding). The hero or heroine is torn from their familiar place, called to a challenging task, in which there is a significant chance that they will scrape the bottom of the abyss, and if they cross it successfully, they will return home with some kind of reward. Everybody knows this pattern, that as it appears in almost every story or movie, it also comes back and constantly pops up in our private lives, with every challenge or task that stands in our way - from something as trivial as studying for a test at school, to dealing with a deep mental or health crisis in our adult lives.
In the current chapter we will be introduced to a few stages in the Hero's Journey pattern, which we see as common to almost every human adventure or challenge. Since the subject is very broad, we wanted to point out a number of basic moves that are relevant to almost every event in human and creative life. And to examine what is in them that can help us understand our personal experience in the world, and perhaps even help in reshaping it.
In accordance with the spirit of Heterosophy, we offer here a certain point of view while recommending to maintain a reflexive reading, a critical view and healthy skepticism. General patterns, by their nature, are easy to identify with and agree on, and therefore have the potential to create fixations and automatic reactivity. Therefore, one should behave with them carefully, and should not be afraid of violating them, constantly examine their limits, and maintain a creative dialogue with them.
The first step that all researchers of the "Hero's Journey" pattern recognize is the Call to Adventure, which often comes with the refusal to respond to it. Every narrative that brings the plot of some main character, begins with the ordinary, usually comfortable, life of that hero/heroine, which in one moment is interrupted by a sudden event or an unexpected guest, who places at the hero's door the task he must carry out. For the most part, it is a fateful mission, which should dramatically affect the life of the hero or the life of someone from his immediate environment, and it may even cost him/her his/her life. Many times, the protagonist will respond by refusing to take the call, with various excuses: he is not worthy of the task, he has no time, he has no interest, etc. In the Hebrew bible, Moses standing in front of the burning bush asks the voice emanating from it, “Who am I to go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” Even the prophet Jonah, whom God commands him to go and warn the city of Nineveh, runs away from the task and leaves for the kingdom of Tarshish, in order to not being found by the Lord. This pattern of call and refusal also found its way to Hollywood plots such as that of "The Lion King" and "Shrek". In other cases, the hero finds himself actually curious to cross the border into the unknown, and even though he is faced with the option to refuse, he chooses to respond positively to the call (we all remember the blue and the red pills, which are presented before Neo, the protagonist of "The Matrix" from 1999 ).
If we try for a moment to look at this plot element through a metaphorical lense, we will discover that the call to adventure emerges from every corner of our own lives - from the most trivial moments like waking up in the morning or going to work, to much more traumatic events such as an illness or the loss of someone important. In fact, what we seek to show in these lines is that the same cyclical pattern of the Hero's Journey, not only repeats itself time and time again throughout our lives in a circular fashion, but it appears and resonates over and over again, in a fractal and simultaneous manner. We are being called to an adventure at almost any given moment, and in almost every such call, there are elements that can be identified as part of the Hero's Journey pattern, in our personal story.
And just as the call to adventure peeks out from every moment and from every corner, so the refusal to respond to it is an inseparable part of the restraints that are fixed in our consciousness. Some of them are motivated by our feelings of inferiority, our anxieties, or the feeling that we are not worthy or capable, and some come from external voices, such as those of the society around us, which seems to always have something to say. "Don't go this way", "Leave it, it's not for you", "It's better not to wake up sleeping bears", "What will you do with it later" or "What will you do for a living", are voices that are familiar to all of us, from different and diverse situations in life. For the most part, we have already assimilated them as inner voices and as part of our own Self, and they are there to castrate us even without us "needing" the concrete figures who conceived them in the first place (parents, educators, employers and others).
Burning Bush, Seventeenth century painting by Sébastien Bourdon
In the stories, the hero (or heroine) always agrees in the end to take on the adventure, whether willingly or whether the situation is forced upon him. The refusal fades, along with it the castrating voices also fall silent, and the hero hits the road, simply because the plot must continue. In reality, of course, it is not always like this, and the inner doubts, the lack of a supportive environment, the concerns, the procrastination, the guilt, the feelings of inferiority and even laziness, often outweigh the adventurous urge and the courage to take the first step towards the conflict. Not sure, by the way, that it's always bad; the feelings of castration and self-doubt also play a role, and many times they seek to protect us from danger or from jumping into the unknown. We believe that a high awareness of the existence and quality of these forces, while directing attention towards them, can help us distinguish when it is a real warning, and when it is unjustified restraints that prevent us from moving forward, develop or simply do what is best for us right now.
Just before setting out on the journey, the hero will receive what is known by mythologists as a “meeting with a guide” or “supernatural assistance”. This is mostly about a good advice received from a god or a goddess (sometimes directly and sometimes through a messenger), or about receiving a magical object as a gift, which will prove to be very useful later on in the journey. Before entering the Minotaur's labyrinth, Theseus receives from the king's daughter, Ariadne, a coil of magical thread with which he would be able to find his way back from the depths of the labyrinth. Perseus receives a number of gifts from the gods before he goes out on the hunt for Medusa, and little Vasilisa receives from her dying mother a doll in her own image, which will be of help for her during the rest of her life. The examples are many, and each of them represents some aspect of the hero's personality, or some talent that he must acquire before going on an adventure. Think about your journeys, and how you need guidance or the acquisition of a certain talent, before you set out on the road towards meeting the conflict. Except in cases where the adventure was forced on us suddenly as an unexpected trauma, usually before we go into the confrontation we will consult with friends or teachers, study the material, ask the experience of others and so on. Only after we feel ready, we will move to the next stage, known as “crossing the threshold”.
Ariadne gives the thread to Theseus.
(Image generated by AI)
“Crossing the threshold” is actually the transition to the unknown. This is the stage where the hero has already made the decision to “jump into the water”, equipped himself with the necessary knowledge and gear, and set out for the adventure. Crossing the threshold can be short and immediate, and it can last a certain amount of time, during which the hero will spend time in a kind of liminal space (think, for example, of Charon, the ferryman of Hades, who transports Orpheus to the underworld on his way to find dead Eurydice) that is neither here nor there, and which is largely the first competency test he/she faces, just before the main challenge. Crossing the threshold is the first step that must be taken and from which there is no way back before the task is completed. Although the hardest part is probably still ahead of us, many times crossing the threshold is the most difficult proactive step to take.
The next stage is called by Joseph Campbell "The Belly of the Whale". This is the descent into the underworld, and the beginning of the initiation process at the heart of the adventure on which the hero embarked. At the climax of the process, the hero will have to fight the monster, as well as his/her inner demons. On the way there, he/she may face various tests which he/she will have to pass before his/her main struggle (such as the famous tasks of Hercules, or the tasks assigned to Psyche, among which she has been commanded, for example, to sort an enormous pile of legumes). Often at this stage the magical object or the wise advice that he/she received earlier will come to his/her aid.
"The Belly of the Whale" is the place of Chaos, of the unknown - the eye of the storm of the trauma that the hero will have to face. This could be literally the belly of the monster (like with biblical Jonah, or Pinocchio), or it could be the kingdom of the dead, the dragon's cave, the Minotaur's labyrinth or any other arena where a terrible monster lives. Often the monster also guards a treasure or the actual thing for which the hero went out for the adventure in the first place. It will be difficult not to fall into clichés when presenting the interpretation of this metaphor, which seems obvious, but we will go for it anyway: the hero will often discover that the monster that dwells in the labyrinth is nothing but a projection of his/her own personality, and that in order to defeat it he/she must reach deep insights about himself/herself and about his own psyche and feelings – The confrontation with the boss you want to ask for a raise is actually a fight against that part of yourself that fears the very act of dealing with him/her. The same goes for the fight against depression, fear or any other physical or mental opponent – The monster is first and foremost within you.
Jonah and the Whale (1621) by Pieter Lastman.
One of the goals that the Archetypal Workshop offers as something to strive for is the establishment of another relationship with the monster – and not necessarily one of struggle. It is true that life summons quite a few encounters with demons and dragons that one has no choice but to fight them, but in many cases, it seems that making friends with the monster might be a better solution than killing it. Descending into the underworld and joining the monster instead of fighting it –working in cooperation with those transgressive, threatening and chaotic forces instead of fighting them or repressing them, rising and returning from the abyss after you have managed to feel comfortable in it – to a large extent, is the way of art: The creative life of the artist involves an encounter with the unconscious, working with the undefined impulses, and the transformation of the destructive forces of the psyche into conscious, aesthetic, meaningful contents that have a sublimative contribution to the audience. The treasure, with which the hero returns from the encounter with the monster, can also be the very friendship with it, a friendship that might hold great strength and potential.
Before Persephone's return from the underworld after being abducted there by Hades, he gives her some pomegranate seeds as a gift. Hades' gift contained a trap, and the pomegranate seeds she received bound Persephone forever to the underworld from which she was able to escape: since she received them, she is forced to descend and return to the underworld for a few months every year. While she is there, her mother, Demeter, goddess of agriculture and fertility, mourns and casts a curse upon the land and crops. They will return to flourish and to bear fruit only in the spring and summer, with the return of Persephone. This myth, like other stories from other mythologies (such as the one that tells the story of the Canaanite god Baal and his descent into the underworld), provide a theological explanation for the circularity of nature and the cycles of agriculture. But they also make another point about the cycle of the personal journey that each of us goes through, and the fact that many times it is precisely the treasure we found within it, that binds our fate with the monster and forces us to return to it again and again.
Conclusions & Highlights
1. The literary motif of the hero's journey echoes the personal journey that each and every one of us goes through, every day, every moment and in every aspect - from the simplest challenges to the most fatal traumas.
2. The pattern of the hero's journey includes several main stages, which are based on the fundamental duality of the human experience that distinguishes between what is known and what is unknown, between order and chaos.
3. The journey begins when the individual is called for some reason to venture into the unknown. He/she encounters internal and external voices urging him/her to avoid it. This is actually the first test he/she has to face.
4. From the moment he/she overcomes the voices and the barriers, the hero/heroine engages in equipping himself/herself - with advice, knowledge, objects and new skills - and together with them he/she crosses the threshold into the unknown. There, using the skills and gifts he/she has gathered, he/she will go through some more tests, and then he/she will meet the biggest challenge of them all. This is the "Belly of the Whale".
5. After overcoming the monster, the hero/heroine will lay his/her hands on the treasure in its possession, cross the threshold again, back to the known, and return to society with some new power and abilities, which may also give him/her a new social and/or economic status.
6. Sometimes it is better to befriend the monster than to eliminate it. We Heterosophians tend to believe that this is the path (or in fact the task) of the artist; Befriend the monster in order to mediate it for the others.
7. One of the important things to remember: the monster always resides within us, and is an inseparable part of our Self. Even when we struggle with an external "monster", the thing that allows it to be a monster, is us and our internal demons. Befriending these and recognizing their existence will significantly help us in the fight with the external monster.
8. Despite what is written in section 7, there are also real monsters out there, and they must be fought to the bitter end.
9. Many of the monsters we find ourselves fighting (both internal and external) are like the Hydra from Greek mythology: as soon as you have succeeded in cutting off one head, several new ones will grow in its place. This fact must be recognized, and this must be remembered: the journey never ends, it only changes.
10. No matter what the challenge is - submitting a report to the tax authority or fighting for life or death - the first step will always begin with the decision to make it, or in other words, with the call "Let’s go!".