The Hero’s Journey in Myth
“The hero’s journey” sounds a bit melodramatic, I admit. But hey, it’s real. If the phrase rings mythic, it’s because its origins (at least in expression) lie in myth.
What are myths? They’re the ancient, collective legends of the human race. The Odyssey, the epic of Gilgamesh, Beowulf; the sagas of the Buddha or Prometheus or Quetzalcoatl.
The hero’s journey, as Joseph Campbell famously observed, appears again and again in these myths. The specifics vary, but the overall contours remain remarkably consistent.
1. The hero starts as “stuck” and unconscious.
Like Luke Skywalker toiling on Uncle Owen and Aunt Varoo’s evaporator farm, he’s a slug. A peon. And he knows it.
If there’s a bright center to the universe,
you’re on the planet that it’s farthest from.
2. The hero receives “the call”—which he often resists.
When the messenger Palamedes came to summon Odysseus to join the Greeks in the war against Troy, Odysseus pretended to be insane so he wouldn’t have to go. He sowed his fields with salt. Palamedes cleverly placed the hero’s infant son Telemachus in the path of the plow. When Odysseus turned the blade aside, his ruse was revealed. He was drafted into the journey.
3. The hero wanders far from home—often for a long, long time.
Odysseus was gone ten years. The children of Israel wandered for forty. The hero’s journey lasts for such a length of time that the hero fears that it will never end.
Though the hero may strive on his journey to achieve a specific goal (reach the Spice Islands, find and capture the Golden Fleece), his primary object is simply to get back home.
4. The hero endures trials.
The hero encounters obstacles. He faces ordeals; he experiences adventures. He suffers, he is lost; he despairs.
5. The hero experiences wonders and encounters outlandish characters.
Theseus fought the Minotaur. Ravens spoke to White Buffalo Calf Woman. Conan slept with a witch who turned into a crone and tried to murder him. For the hero on his journey, the sun stops in place, planets reverse their courses. All kinds of crazy shit happens.
6. The hero receives aid from unexpected sources—often divine or semi-divine.
Ariadne showed Theseus to follow a thread back out of the Labyrinth. Yoda taught Luke how to use the Force. Most of what the hero learns (including the skills and stratagems by which he overcomes his adversaries) derives from sources he never knew existed.
7. The hero at last returns home—but in a form unrecognizable to those he left behind, as those left behind appear (at first) unknowable to him.
Washed ashore in rags, Odysseus was not recognized even by Penelope, his wife. Only the hero’s loyal hound Argus knew the returning king as himself.
8. The hero brings a gift for the people.
Moses comes down from Sinai with the Ten Commandments, Arthur returns to found the Round Table. T.E. Lawrence has the brainstorm to attack Aqaba from the landward side.
Why are these myths universal? Why does the hero’s journey appear within them again and again? According to Joseph Campbell, it’s because the arc of evolution of the human heart is the same in all cultures and across all millennia. Myths are the race’s way of describing that constant, universal heart and its unchanging, primal passage.
My own belief (and I got this from Joseph Campbell) is that you and I are born with the hero’s journey tattooed on our psyches. It’s the software we were hatched with. Our souls did not enter this world as blank slates, like hard-drives upon which no data had been written. They came with templates—and the primary template is the hero’s journey. This pre-programmed script is engraved on my heart and yours as a fill-in-the-blanks, yet-to-be-lived-out drama.
We will be stuck and frustrated on Planet ___________.
Our call will come in the form of _______________.
On our journey we will endure _______________, confront _____________, have sex with ___________ and _____________.
All the way through to the end.
I can’t prove it, but I would bet that a school of psychology could be founded (maybe it already exists), based on the hero’s journey and nothing else. The therapist’s role in such a school would be simply to determine at what point the client stands on his or her saga—and to make the client see his or her life in those mythic terms.
In other words, Merlin or Mentor (both mythic beings themselves) would supply meaning and significance to that pulp of experience which, perceived by the one it’s happening to, seems random and without cause or consequence.
Our forebears didn’t have shrinks back in the cave or on the steppe. They had myths. In ancient Sparta, the only “book” the young boys were permitted or required to know (the tradition was oral of course) was Homer’s Iliad. The Spartans thought that was enough. I agree with them.
More on this subject next week.