Whether we are aware of it or not, myths are an intrinsic part of our day-to-day lives. Some myths have become the guiding principle in life for a number of people, such as the ever-existent thirst of humankind for glory and celebrity status. Others became subconscious desires or values, an example of this being the possibility and willingness to look beyond appearances to see the spirit of another person (Beauty and the Beast). Still others have paved the way to psychological breakthroughs or to the better understanding of the human psyche, such as Sigmund Freud’s application of the Oedipus myth to a child’s identification with the same-sex parent.
Myths have flourished in human lives and have become the inspiration for whatever may have arisen from following activities of the human body and mind. Religions, philosophies, arts, the social aspects of primitive and modern man alike, science and technology all stem from “the basic, magic ring of myth”. Our imagination is spurred by the smallest nursery fairytale, the legends and myths of ancient mythology and beliefs.
From infancy, we are made accustomed to these and begin to form an affection, and indeed to form a sort of psychological connection, to the characters who seem closest to ourselves or to the ones we wish to become. These characters are usually the protagonists, the central figures in the story: the heroes.
Arguably one of the best comparative mythology works of the 20th century, and the guideline for many of the contemporary animated or action movies (Disney mainly), Joseph Campbell sought to define and describe in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces the path the hero must take in his journey from the ordinary world to becoming a super-human. The monomyth, or the hero’s journey, is described by Campbell as a pattern present, in some form or another, in most narratives of human culture. He summarizes the monomyth thus:
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
The ideas in The Hero with a Thousand Faces are not new. Instead they are a placed in the foreground again and are emphasized for the reader’s acknowledgment. What Campbell basically does is to gather, to name and to expose them for what they truly are: a pattern repeated again and again in countless variations, making the myth, the story or the legend dynamic, entertaining and educational. What can also be considered as patterns in these narratives are the characteristics bestowed upon the hero. He is usually male, since women typically embody myths of creation and wisdom and thus do not need to make a journey. The hero is often shown to be of lowly birth or to have a high birthright that is revealed to him only later in the story. What is certain, however, is that his parents are more often than not dead, absent or uncaring. He possesses high moral values and his actions are marked by honor and nobility of purpose, even self-sacrifice for a higher goal, not to mention that he is always someone who has achieved something extraordinary or has done something no other could have done.
The hero’s journey is defined to consist of three phases: the Departure in which the hero leaves his home and familiar surroundings to venture into the unknown; the Initiation in which the hero undergoes a series of tests to prove himself; and the Return in which the hero brings the “boon” of his quest for the benefit of his people.
1. The Call of Adventure. The journey and the story begin here. The hero is shown in his ordinary world, the world he grew up in and the only one he knows. This relative calmness and serenity are broken by an unexpected event which will change the hero’s fate forever, leading him to faraway mystical realms or planets.
2. Refusal of the Call. After receiving the call to adventure, the hero begins to question his involvement in these bigger and more complex set of events and refuses to heed it, perhaps due to a sense of duty to some obligation at home or perhaps due to other reasons which keep him tied down in one place. However, the call cannot be ignored and fate controls events so that, in the end, the hero is left without a choice.
3. Supernatural Aid. The hero has accepted the quest and has left on his journey but he requires help. He needs a mentor or guide to show him the path he must take and to bestow upon him magical powers or objects that will help him reach his ultimate goal.
4. The Crossing of the First Threshold. This stage is represented by the hero’s departure from his old world and entrance into the unknown. The new world is a strange one for our unaccustomed hero, filled with darkness and dangers that he must overcome. Here is where he becomes truly committed to his journey but he must first face the threshold guardian in order to step beyond the veil, guardians who surprise and threaten the hero with sudden outbursts of violence, in a way preparing him for the violence he is to face later on.
5. The Belly of the Whale. The hero is pulled, indeed swallowed, into the unknown. He is all but doomed unless he faces the creature, the metaphorical whale that has him trapped. Symbolically, the belly of the whale is an element of rebirth for the hero, a womb in which he must recreate and redefine his own being. He must come out to the light a better and stronger version of himself. He must shed his old skin and begin anew or he is sentenced to death as unworthy of the path.
6. The Road of Trials. Once the first threshold has been passed, the hero enters a world where he will be constantly tested. This phase is the longest in the myth-adventure genre, capable of continuing simultaneously with one or more past or subsequent phases but it remains a step in initiation. The hero learns new skills, conquers obstacles or vanquishes monsters, aided by his companions, his mentor and the magical abilities or objects he possesses.
7. The Meeting with the Goddess. This, in itself, is as much test as it is rite of passage. The hero meets the symbolic Queen Goddess of the World who represents the all-encompassing love of the mother, the sister and the lover.
8. Woman as the Temptress. As mentioned above, the woman is a test. Our hero is tempted to leave the path he has walked so far in order to be with her. He is in danger of losing sight of his goal, choosing the easier path, subsequently losing his humanity and moral values. If he is to complete his journey, he must resist this temptation of the flesh.
9. Atonement with the Father. In this stage the hero is forced to confront his father or a father-figure who is seen to possess great power. It represents an abandonment of the hero’s attachment to ego. He must be brave and have faith, must be open completely to terror and death if he is to transcend life.
10. Apotheosis. Campbell hints that the hero takes on an androgynous quality at this stage. He has resisted temptation and has transcended his confrontation with the father, becoming almost godlike. He now has the power and mental discipline to face the final challenges.
11. The Ultimate Boon. This is the goal of the hero’s journey. Though it may have shifted as he walked his path, his sight is clear now and he can see what it is.
12. Refusal of the Return. Once the boon is won, the hero must return to his realm because the norm of the monomyth requires that the cycle be completed, full circle. This responsibility, however, has been frequently refused. Why should he return to the ordinary? Why should he go back when he has found so many riches in this new world? The hero is racked with a lack of certainty which taints and clouds his mind. He must make a choice.
13. The Magic Flight. With the prize firmly in sight, the hero embarks on the final stage of his odyssey.
14. Rescue from Without. The hero faces a moment when he feels he cannot continue. He is tired and battered and feels he can no longer win. He is in need of help from people or forces that are not involved in his final battle.
15. The Crossing of the Return Threshold. Though past trials have been difficult, it is only now that the hero faces his hardest test. He must make the final, marking choice: whether to stay in the world of magical forces or to return to his friends and family.
16. Master of the Two Worlds. Having made the choice to return, the hero has reached enlightenment by overcoming the full extent of his quest. Usually, this is the moment the hero loses all attachment to personal ambitions, limitations, hopes and fears. He has won victories on both the physical and spiritual planes.
17. The Freedom to Live. The hero returns to his kingdom or the kingdom of humanity with the boons of his journey. He lives in the now, no longer fearful of the next moment.
In studying the monomyth, it becomes clear that the stages of a hero’s journey are not limited to the classical or ancient narratives that could be defined as the myth-adventure genre, as diverse and numerous as they are. It can also easily be applied to modern examples. The monomyth’s structure can be used to tell the simplest bedtime story or the most complex drama. Yet at the very core of them, after all the magical elements and symbols are eliminated, lies their educational values. Though the order of the hero stages can be skipped or shuffled, they speak of courage in face of immeasurable odds, loyalty and purity of heart.