Joseph Campbell & the Hero’s Journey

"Into the Abyss" by Robh Ruppel

“Into the Abyss” by Robh Ruppel

“We need not even risk the adventure alone; for the he­roes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thor­oughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where we had thought to find an abomina­tion, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.”

— Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949)

Joseph Campbell was a student of comparative mythology and religion. He was Carl Jung’s disciple and perhaps Jung’s most famous popularizer. Campbell is perhaps most well-known for his Power of Myth interviews with Bill Moyers, which aired on PBS in 1988, and for his influence on George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars. In the context of Neo-Paganism, Campbell’s most important idea was the “Monomyth” or “Hero’s Journey,” which he explained in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). According to Campbell, many of the world’s myths and folktales follow the pattern of the Monomyth.

In its broad outline, the Hero’s Journey takes the form of a descent (katabasis) into and return (anabasis) from an under­world, a descensus averni or “descent into hell,” followed by a mirac­ulous return. According to Campbell, this Journey involves three stages: “a separation from the world, a penetration into some source of power, and a life-enhancing return.” These stages correspond to the stages of all rites de passage described as by anthropologist, Arnold van Gennep: a separation from the community, a liminal phase of transition, and a reintegration with the community having attained a new status.

According to Campbell, the first stage, separation, involves a call to adventure by a herald of some sort. The hero (who may be male or female) may descend willingly or may initially refuse the call. Typically, there is some form of supernatural interven­tion, a testing by guardians of the threshold, and a crossing of the threshold. The hero may defeat or conciliate a threshold guard­ian or may be slain and descend in death. The crossing is a step into the unknown, a plunge into the “belly of the whale.”

The second stage involves a series of trials. He or she may be aided by divine helpers. The test may take the form of the hero’s assimilation of their opposite or shadow self, or it may be a tempta­tion to abandon the quest. When they arrive at the nadir of the mythological round, the hero undergoes a supreme ordeal and gains their reward. In the case of a male hero, the triumph may be represented as his sexual union (hieros gamos) with the Divine Feminine or his atonement with a father figure. It may take the form of the attainment of an ultimate boon like immortal­ity or an expansion of consciousness (enlightenment).

“The idea that the passage of the magical threshold is a transit into a sphere of rebirth is symbolized in the world­wide womb image of the belly of the whale. The hero, instead of conquering or conciliating the power of the threshold, is swallowed into the unknown and would appear to have died. This popular motif gives em­phasis to the lesson that the passage of the threshold is a form of self-annihilation. Instead of passing outward, beyond the confines of the visible world, the hero goes in­ward, to be born again. The disappearance corre­sponds to the passing of a worshipper into a temple—where [they are] to be quickened by the recollection of who and what [they are], namely dust and ashes unless im­mortal. The temple interior, the belly of the whale, and the heavenly land beyond, above, and below the con­fines of the world, are one and the same. That is why the approaches and entrances to temples are flanked and de­fended by colossal gargoyles: dragons, lions, devil-slay­ers with drawn swords, resentful dwarfs, winged bulls. The devotee at the moment of entry into a temple un­dergoes a metamorphosis. Once inside [they] may be said to have died to time and returned to the World Womb, the World Navel, the Earthly Paradise. Allegori­cally, then, the passage into a temple and the hero-dive through the jaws of the whale are identical adventures, both denoting in picture language, the life-centering, life-re­newing act.”

In the last stage, the hero may have to flee a vengeful force or may have to be rescued. They encounter the last threshold guard­ian and then return to the mundane world carrying with them some part of the divine world, either literally or within them in the form of knowledge or wisdom.

Campbell speaks of the hero as masculine, because the hero represents the ego, which is archetypally masculine, in contrast with the unconscious, which is archetypally feminine—but the hero may be male or female. One of the most popular pagan myths among Neo-Pagans is the Sumerian/Babylonian myth of the descent of Inanna/Ishtar into the underworld. In one version, Ishtar goes to the underworld in search of her dead consort, Du­muzi/Tammuz. When she leaves the upper world, all procrea­tive life falters. Ishtar must pass through seven gates, and at each gate she surrenders one of her veils or one of her divine attrib­utes, until she stands naked before her sister/shadow self, the Queen of the Dead. She is rescued by divine intervention and guile and returns to the upper world, bringing with her renewed life. This myth inspired the Wiccan Legend of the Descent of the Goddess.

Jung called this cyclical process of separation from and re­turn to the divine source “individuation.” It is this process that is symbolized by Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. In Jungian psy­chological terms, the Hero’s Journey represents the return of the ego to the unconscious, which is the symbolic womb and mother or source of consciousness. Personally and collectively, we are alienated from that source. Returning to the unconscious source is, therefore, a psycho-spiritual necessity. This reunion or marriage with the source is experienced by the ego as a kind of death, and for this reason it is resisted by the ego, sometimes vio­lently. This is the origin of the threshold guardians, the drag­ons who must be slain, and the temptations that must be refused by the hero on their journey. But the hero’s death is a necessary step toward renewal.

Jungian, John Dourley, explains that the ego …

“constantly dies in its conflicted and restricted conscious­ness toward patterns or resolution of opposites and broader, more encompassing empathies, in a pro­cess that can never be completed in a lifetime, but can never be avoided without the sin of self-betrayal.”

The unconscious is, therefore, not only mother, but also lover, destroyer, and renewer (all three aspects of Robert Graves’ Triple Goddess) of the ego. This is not a one-time event, for while each death and subsequent rebirth results in an expansion of conscious­ness, the expansion is always only partial, for the creativ­ity of the unconscious source is inexhaustible. Therefore, the Hero’s Journey is never complete.

Updated 2019

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