the 12 stages of the heros journey


The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 3rd ed.
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Joseph Campbell was a writer and lecturer who is best known for his work in comparative mythology and comparative religion. The role of the hero was a large part of Campbell’s work and in 1949 he published The Hero with a Thousand Faces in which he introduced what he called the monomyth; a term he gave to a pattern that he saw as running through all hero tales.

Campbell divided a myth or “hero tale” into basic stages or steps:

  • The hero receives a call to enter an unusual world of strange powers and events. A call to adventure.
  • If the hero accepts the call, he must face tasks and trials. He may have to face these trials alone, or he may have the assistance of a companion or benefactor (sidekicks).
  • At its climax, the hero must survive a severe challenge, often with help/gifts/weapons/training he gained on the journey.
  • If he survives, the hero may achieve a great gift which often results in the discovery of important self-knowledge.
  • The hero must then decide whether to return to the ordinary world with this boon, often facing challenges on the return journey.
  • If the hero is successful in returning, the boon or gift may be used to improve the world.

Very few myths will actually contain all of these stages. Some may have many while others might contain only a few. Some myths may focus on only one of the stages while other myths may deal with the stages in a different order.

These stages may be organized in a number of ways, including division into three sections: Departure (sometimes called Separation), Initiation and Return. “Departure” deals with the hero venturing forth on the quest, “Initiation” deals with the hero’s various adventures along the way, and “Return” deals with the hero’s return home with knowledge and powers acquired on the journey.

Departure

  • The Call to Adventure: The call to adventure is the point in a person’s life when they are first given notice that everything is going to change, whether they know it or not.
  • Refusal of the Call: Often when the call is given, the future hero refuses to heed it. This may be from a sense of duty or obligation, fear, insecurity, a sense of inadequacy, or any of a range of reasons that work to hold the person in his or her current circumstances.
  • Supernatural Aid: Once the hero has committed to the quest, consciously or unconsciously, his or her guide and magical helper appears, or becomes known.
  • The Crossing of the First Threshold: This is the point where the person actually crosses into the field of adventure, leaving the known limits of his or her world and venturing into an unknown and dangerous realm where the rules and limits are not known.
  • The Belly of the Whale: The belly of the whale represents the final separation from the hero’s known world and self. It is sometimes described as the person’s lowest point, but it is actually the point when the person is between or transitioning between worlds and selves. The separation has been made, or is being made, or being fully recognized between the old world and old self and the potential for a new world/self. The experiences that will shape the new world and self will begin shortly, or may be beginning with this experience which is often symbolized by something dark, unknown and frightening. By entering this stage, the person shows their willingness to undergo a metamorphosis, to die to him or herself.

Initiation

  • The Road of Trials: The road of trials is a series of tests, tasks, or ordeals that the person must undergo to begin the transformation. Often the person fails one or more of these tests, which often occur in threes.
  • The Meeting with the Goddess: The meeting with the goddess represents the point in the adventure when the person experiences a love that has the power and significance of the all-powerful, all encompassing, unconditional love that a fortunate infant may experience with his or her mother. It is also known as the “hieros gamos”, or sacred marriage, the union of opposites, and may take place entirely within the person. In other words, the person begins to see him or herself in a non-dualistic way. This is a very important step in the process and is often represented by the person finding the other person that he or she loves most completely. Although Campbell symbolizes this step as a meeting with a goddess, unconditional love and /or self unification does not have to be represented by a woman.
  • Woman as the Temptress: At one level, this step is about those temptations that may lead the hero to abandon or stray from his or her quest, which as with the Meeting with the Goddess does not necessarily have to be represented by a woman. For Campbell, however, this step is about the revulsion that the usually male hero may feel about his own fleshy/earthy nature, and the subsequent attachment or projection of that revulsion to women. Woman is a metaphor for the physical or material temptations of life, since the hero-knight was often tempted by lust from his spiritual journey.
  • Atonement with the Father: In this step the person must confront and be initiated by whatever holds the ultimate power in his or her life. In many myths and stories this is the father, or a father figure who has life and death power. This is the center point of the journey. All the previous steps have been moving in to this place, all that follow will move out from it. Although this step is most frequently symbolized by an encounter with a male entity, it does not have to be a male; just someone or thing with incredible power. For the transformation to take place, the person as he or she has been must be “killed” so that the new self can come into being. Sometime this killing is literal, and the earthly journey for that character is either over or moves into a different realm.
  • Apotheosis: To apotheosize is to deify. When someone dies a physical death, or dies to the self to live in spirit, he or she moves beyond the pairs of opposites to a state of divine knowledge, love, compassion and bliss. This is a god-like state; the person is in heaven and beyond all strife. A more mundane way of looking at this step is that it is a period of rest, peace and fulfillment before the hero begins the return.
  • The Ultimate Boon: The ultimate boon is the achievement of the goal of the quest. It is what the person went on the journey to get. All the previous steps serve to prepare and purify the person for this step, since in many myths the boon is something transcendent like the elixir of life itself, or a plant that supplies immortality, or the holy grail.

Return

  • Refusal of the Return: So why, when all has been achieved, the ambrosia has been drunk, and we have conversed with the gods, why come back to normal life with all its cares and woes?
  • The Magic Flight: Sometimes the hero must escape with the boon, if it is something that the gods have been jealously guarding. It can be just as adventurous and dangerous returning from the journey as it was to go on it.
  • Rescue from Without: Just as the hero may need guides and assistants to set out on the quest, often times he or she must have powerful guides and rescuers to bring them back to everyday life, especially if the person has been wounded or weakened by the experience. Or perhaps the person doesn’t realize that it is time to return, that they can return, or that others need their boon.
  • The Crossing of the Return Threshold: The trick in returning is to retain the wisdom gained on the quest, to integrate that wisdom into a human life, and then maybe figure out how to share the wisdom with the rest of the world. This is usually extremely difficult.
  • Master of the Two Worlds: In myth, this step is usually represented by a transcendental hero. For a human hero, it may mean achieving a balance between the material and spiritual. The person has become comfortable and competent in both the inner and outer worlds.
  • Freedom to Live: Mastery leads to freedom from the fear of death, which in turn is the freedom to live. This is sometimes referred to as living in the moment, neither anticipating the future nor regretting the past.

Being a Tolkien fan, I can see almost all of these stages in the Lord of the Rings saga.

The reason I include this is because I believe that the “Warrior” meme many people desire to live out is based largely on the media, stories, myths and legends that we all, consciously or otherwise, have consumed or been exposed to in our lives. Almost all of us have had our mental model of the hero or warrior shaped or defined through stories, books, television shows, movies or comic books. This has been the case from the days of the bard singing lays and tales around the mead fire, to modern man watching “The Lord of the Rings” on the big screen.  I believe that if we look at the academic dissection of these influences, perhaps we may have a better understanding of what it is that drives us to do what we do. I am sure that anybody who has ever embarked on their own “adventure” can look at these stages and see their reflection within..life imitating art, or art imitating life?

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5 thoughts on “the 12 stages of the heros journey”

  1. Good analysis with one exception. As I believe our origins are as spiritual beings, the adventure, to me symbolized earth life and the return… to our source… again as purely spiritual beings. The journey of the earth life does not represent, to me, the totality of our selves. Our spirits are merely employing a physical body to enable us to take the journey. When our bodies expire we return. It is merely the vehicle. The spirit is actually the steering component of the physical vehicle.
    Or that’s what I got out of the story. The experiences of the journey are what we have come to collect and to learn from.
    I have learned to be a collector of experiences. How we use what we have learned is the real test.
    Thanks for the post. It was a surprise in a very material conscious world.

    jan

    1. Campbell’s observations about the ubiquitousness of the hero’s journey as well as it’s patterns can be used to organize any transformative tale, including ones with a metaphysical beginning/end.

      It isn’t about ‘the story’ as much as it is about ‘the arch’ if you study Campbell’s analysis of the hero’s journey.

  2. I also like the references to the different roles of companions (think of them as NPC’s if you play D&D or video games) along the hero’s journey. As in life the metaphor of the hero’s journey may be ‘individual’ but it isn’t solo.

  3. Thank you for a wonderful piece on Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. Of course, as I’m sure the author would agree, the journey is to be lived rather than understood. One of the quotes I love from JC is: ‘People often claim to be searching for the meaning of life, what I always wanted was an experience of life.’Brian O’Raleigh

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