First published in 1949, The Hero with a Thousand Faces is Joseph Campbell's central work and is regarded as one of the most influential books of the 20th century.
What is personally intriguing to me is that I knew nothing about it until 2006 when an individual who was active on this site at that time asked me what I thought of it, as it mirrored my writing on personal mythology. "You seem to be picking up where Campbell left off," this person said. After reading Hero and a great deal of Campbell's other work I have come to regard this as one of the greatest compliments I have ever received. One needs to read the book to form their own opinion, and you can find many critical reviews of Hero about the interwebs. What follows is my own interpretations colored by my own experiences and my own lens. Also note that like the book itself, this is told from a completely male perspective. Campbell and I differ on the nature of the heroine's journey, but we won't get into that here.
This is not that strange, as Joseph Campbell worked to "decode" the common language behind all myths throughout the history of mankind, the Monomyth that frames great stories, from fairy tales to the stories of religion. My focus is sort of like Campbell in reverse. I study the personal stories and translate them back to a mythological framework. Campbell's work was much harder and required infinitely more research.
The book basically provides a framework for the heroic journey we are all capable of, and often undertake without even realizing this is what we are doing. The book is filled with examples from mythology, fairy tales and mid-20th century psychoanalysis, which I will not address here. Instead I will compare the stages of the hero's journey to my own experience. In doing so I hope to convey the idea that each of our journeys can be studied within Campbell's framework.
The journey begins with The Call to Adventure. We all have a comfort zone, a stasis point, or as I like to call it, The Wait. My life these days consists of many periods of time that I refer to as The Wait, and I accept it as a time to recharge the batteries and prepare myself for the next call to adventure. The call to adventure is something that draws you out of your comfort zone, that asks you to take some level of risk and abandon that comfort zone. This is most often followed by The Refusal of the Call, which is basically where you say, "Screw this, I'm staying home to watch television." It is something of a universal pattern that refusing the call disturbs the comfort zone. You know that you need to follow the call to adventure and that avoiding it is the wrong choice, so you feel uneasy sitting in your recliner with your iced tea and your Oreos. In my experience, all sorts of things begin to happen that slap you in the face and tell you, "Get up and follow the call you dumbass."
Dreams, which can be considered the subconscious effort to guide your journey, are often where the call is made and then translated into the waking world. In the mid-1990s I was strongly guided to find a certain woman with the only tangible clue being to "go where there is no snow." I fought against this for two years, and during that time it seemed everything I did and worked toward fell apart or was purposeless, leaving me feeling empty and eventually leading me to follow the call. This brings us to the third stage of the journey, Supernatural Aid, which isn't quite as funky as it seems, at least not in all cases. It is one of the most misunderstood elements of the hero's journey, sometimes completely written out of interpretations of the stages, but it is key regardless of one's belief system. In my experience help does appear when needed to help you move forward. It is rather uncanny.
When one agrees to heed the call and accept the adventure, one generally feels overwhelmed or directionless. "Where do I go from here?" In my experience, things start to happen, things that point you in the right direction, things that give you strength when you need strength, and reminders of who you are and what you are capable of when you find yourself in doubt. Back in the mid-1990s there was a series of women who entered into my life. They all had some variation of the same name, Christina, and they all seemed to be guiding me in the same direction, to "go where there is no snow," and one of them actually took me to the place where I needed to go. This stage is the great leap of faith when one lets go of the completely rational and logical and follows signs into the unknown because something within us insists we need to go in that direction.
The next stage is The Crossing of the First Threshold, which happens after that leap of faith where, as Joseph Campbell says the hero has "the personifications of his destiny to guide and aid him," he meets the "threshold guardian." That is another personification, as the threshold guardian can be many things. It is essentially the great barrier between mundane existence and the beginning of the adventure. It may be something as simple as the rejection of this course of action by friends and family. It may be the great difficulty of acclimating oneself to a new place and new surroundings that are unfamiliar. It is personified as an ogre who stands at the gate and says, "You must defeat me to pass this point," but it takes on an infinite number of forms, all of which represent something that will not be easily overcome.
What follows is The Belly of the Whale. One finds oneself enveloped by the challenges of the adventure and experiences a rebirth on one level or another. The adventure brings us into a new world. We have left behind the comforts and known qualities of the life we were leading and finds there is a new set of rules and constructions around us. We must adapt to the challenge and rise to meet it.
There is then a period of Initiation where the first aspect is a Road of Trials. This stage is the most easily recognizable when one reads myths and great literature. You never find a hero simply walking up to that which was the goal, picking it up and casually walking out of Dodge City. The Trials make the story and they make the hero.
I have learned through the course of my journey through life, which has consisted of a number of great adventures, that once one masters a certain type of challenge there is a new set of challenges to face. They take on different forms and are difficult to anticipate. What is the sense in throwing more ogres at a hero who has shown he can defeat armies of them with one arm tied behind his back? The trials evolve, becoming less about defeating outside barriers and monsters to dealing with internal challenges. I am currently on a Road of Trials that challenges my patience and ability to accept certain things being out of my control, watching as a person I believe I have been sent to help and guide is being torn apart by a life she clings to that brings her great unhappiness. This has become the most difficult trial I have endured, but it is very much like one I already endured and overcame. The lessons from that road can be applied to this one and I can see the main difference being that I have no direct influence in this case whereas in the former case I had direct influence. It is actually more challenging to watch a person come undone from an enforced distance than it is from the front row and this is something I never would have believed if I had not directly experienced. The Road of Trials is about testing yourself and its challenges are unknown until you experience them first hand.
It is at this point that one comes to discover the nature of the adventure one has undertaken and what it means. It is through the trials that one sees where the road ahead leads. The Meeting with the Goddess mirrors my own Three Queens, the driving force behind my journey. Campbell describes it as a mystical marriage at the central point of the cosmos. This lends itself to an overly literal translation of the purpose, and it was that literal translation that I was challenged to overcome during the adventure in which I encountered Tina, the first of the sacred queens of my personal mythology. It is reflected well in my favorite passage from The Hero with a Thousand Faces:
"Woman is the guide to the sublime acme of sensuous adventure. By deficient eyes she is reduced to inferior states; by the evil eye of ignorance she is spellbound to banality and ugliness. But she is redeemed by the eyes of understanding."
Another element of one's journey is an inevitable Atonement with the Father, which can also take on many forms, some of them literal. Atonement with one's actual, biological father, is a common theme in the lives of many people and can be a very challenging adventure for some depending on the type of relationship they have had with that literal father. Some might consider it to be an atonement with a deity figure. On any level it becomes about atonement with whoever or whatever has represented a father figure in their lives they have become on some level estranged from. The story of the prodigal son is one version of the atonement tale. It can also be a less obvious atonement story.
While I have had many adventures along my journey, there remains what I call The Grand Journey, which began with my suicide and death experience in 1994. In the course of that experience I encountered an older version of myself sitting on a chair in a desert, which represented the void that existed within my soul at that point. My decision to return to this life involved certain unspoken promises between the personification of my future self and me. What I saw in that moment was a consignment of my essence to a lonely emptiness, an existence inside what I had decided my life was, a purposeless void that was not worth continuing. The unspoken promise was that I would change this, that I would bring meaning and purpose to my life and free that personification of my future self from the void I had consigned him to. My atonement is essentially with my future self, which becomes essentially a father figure. I symbolize this atonement by insisting on keeping my hair long, because that future self had long hair, and this serves to remind me of those unspoken promises.
And then there is Apotheosis. Literally is means becoming a god, but it has a much deeper meaning. It is about reaching a higher level of being and understanding. It is what results from any truly successful journey. You come out of it with a sense of enlightenment and have been in some way changed by your experience. It is something that empowers you, in a sense giving you a new superpower. My journey into death resulted in my having absolutely no fear of death after my return and therefore becoming capable of undertaking challenges I never would have considered before. The adventure of the first queen gave me the realization that I could positively impact the lives of others just by being a character in their life story. Each apotheosis is different and each grants you a new superpower.
"The agony of breaking through personal limitations is the agony of spiritual growth."
The Ultimate Boon is that which one takes from the adventure, ultimately to bring back to the world he knew. It is that prize, that great thing, tangible or symbolic, which he returns with. It is often a realization of that superpower and how it can be applied to life in the ordinary world known to him. And it is with this he must Return.
What follows is generally The Refusal of the Return, which is very much like The Refusal of the Call, and comes with similar reminders. If you think of a great adventurer who has gone into a mystical land of wonders that is awe inspiring and magical, leaving this place and going back to the ordinary world becomes something of a bummer. But the return has to be made if the journey is to be complete. In some cases the return is not so hard, it is The Magic Flight where one has the blessings of the goddess, the aid of the father figure, and so forth and is aided in his return so that it becomes easy. The Rescue from Without takes place when some figure or force from the ordinary world assists the hero in returning from his adventure and often becomes necessary when the place of adventure has not taken on the character of a heaven but that of a hell.
One of my life's adventures where I answered the call to follow the second of my three queens into oblivion ended with what is known in my personal mythology as The Battle of Temple Lodge. Suffice it to say it was a long and difficult struggle that ended with me being seriously wounded and in need of aid. It was clear that I had to leave the place where the adventure had unfolded and return to the place I had been before. I could not make the return without a great deal of assistance, which I received from a number of sources, including folks who are active on this website. That was The Rescue from Without in all its glorious trappings.
"How to teach again, however, what has been taught correctly and incorrectly learned a thousand times, throughout the millennia of mankind's prudent folly? That is the hero's ultimate difficult task."
The Crossing of the Return Threshold eventually comes with the realization that the world of the adventure and the world in which we live is the same world. It is another dimension, another level of reality that takes us out of the mundane and into the world of adventure, it is the lost "realm of the gods" as Campbell puts it. Upon the return the hero quickly finds that his boon becomes rationalized and reduced by those he shares it with and this is the inspiration for the next adventure.
It is because of this that the hero must eventually realize that his experience with the transcendent is a personal experience and cannot be translated directly upon the lives of others. It is with this realization that the hero eventually, through countless adventures, learns to become the Master of Two Worlds, living in both the world of light and the world of the transcendent experience at the same time. And it is through this realization that he attains the Freedom to Live.
While the experiences we have on a spiritual level are individual and personal, they can be utilized in the broader sense to help and guide the journeys of others. My own life has taken on the character of my personal interpretation of the bodhisattva. I've learned to interpret the world of my dreams into a path to be followed in waking life and a blueprint for adventure. I see that my own blueprint requires that I seek enlightenment through my relationship to others, not through retreating to a quiet little place to meditate and be alone.
Your journey is your own and may take on completely unexpected aspects if you allow yourself to follow. Joseph Campbell saw the blueprint through his study of comparative mythology and the stories told throughout the history of mankind. They all follow a certain pattern, but within that pattern is a unique personal journey that we each must discover ourselves. Campbell equates it to Grail legend where each of the knights must enter the wilderness at a different point and create their own path or they will most assuredly fail in their quest.
Written from my own notes on The Hero with a Thousand Faces
Joseph Campbell's Third Edition of the book used as reference
This is my interpretation of the text and should not be treated as definitive.
Go read the book now.