Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

The Hero’s Journey in Myth

By Steven Pressfield | Published: May 16, 2012

“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.

Quetzalcoatl

Quetzalcoatl. Believe it or not, we've all got a lot in common with this dude.

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.

LUKE SKYWALKER

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.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

20 Responses to “The Hero’s Journey in Myth”

  1. May 16, 2012 at 3:18 am

    Hi Steve,

    Thanks for this! A psychology based entirely on the hero’s journey is what I’ve been practicing for 18 years. Having this plot to give shape to the therapeutic journey, galvanizes my clients’ own internal powers of resilience, and has never failed as a scaffold for positive, uplifting, and often bold change.

    Juliet

    • May 26, 2012 at 10:32 am

      Steven –
      Many thanks for these concise and most enjoyable posts on the Hero’s Journey. I’ll echo Juliet in saying that there are more than a few of us out there using the technology of the archetypal journey. We are all mything links.
      In gratitude,
      Julienne

  2. May 16, 2012 at 4:35 am

    You’ve struck the nail on the head. I recommend to your readers the 1988 PBS documentary “The Power of Myth,” a fantastic conversation between Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers. The CD set is available in most libraries and certainly for sale all over the Internet.

  3. May 16, 2012 at 5:51 am

    “We have not even to 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. And where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.”
    - Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

  4. May 16, 2012 at 6:49 am

    I’ve always liked Jean Houston’s definition of myth as “something that never was but is always happening.”

  5. May 16, 2012 at 7:37 am

    I’m enjoying this. Not much to add; others have listed references. Time to sally forth.

  6. May 16, 2012 at 8:08 am

    Isn’t Jungian therapy, although not exclusively this, at least largely based on similar concepts with its focus on archetypes? (This is not a correction but an earnest question. I honestly don’t know.)

    This is a great post, and one thing I find interesting is that even though the hero’s journey seems timeless, it does seem to evolve to adapt to the audiences of different eras. For example many people consider this the instant gratification and constantly “plugged in” generation, always vegetating in front of TVs, the Internet, and mp3 players. And the hero’s journey we got for the 2000s was the Matrix. All the guy has to do to receive the call is swallow a pill, a “magic bullet.” He doesn’t have to travel all that long or that far. He “trains” passively, just by basically watching TV and listening to earphones and having skills basically spoonfed to him. It’s all about the most reward and fame for the least amount of work, with a healthy dose of predestination thrown in. It’s a hero’s journey through a very narcissistic filter.

    I’m not saying that the Matrix was created by hacks, but I do see how it’s message can appeal to the hack mindset described in War of Art, that person that expects all doors to be opened to them and greatness immediately recognized the moment they set out to do something.

  7. skip
    May 16, 2012 at 8:11 am

    dont all politicians see their lives this way?

  8. basilis
    May 16, 2012 at 8:54 am

    Great and true! Nothing else to add.

  9. May 16, 2012 at 10:49 am

    I’ve been reading Michael Shermer’s “The Believing Brain”, and he mentions something which might be germane to our understanding of The Hero’s Journey.

    It appears there is a part of the brain called the left-hemisphere interpreter. What this part does is apparently put together the story we tell ourselves about our world. Its job, amount other things, is to apply some kind of sense to the random crazy things that happen in our lives.

    To give you an idea, here is an exempt from another book (Michael Gazzaniga’s “The Ethical Brain”:

    “Experiments on split-brain patients reveal how readily the left brain interpreter can make up stories and beliefs. In one experiment, for example, when the word walk was presented only to the right side of a patient’s brain, he got up and started walking. When he was asked why he did this, the left brain (where language is stored and where the word walk was not presented) quickly created a reason for the action: ‘I wanted to go get a Coke.’”

    Now, if the stories we tell ourselves follow the basic structure of the Hero’s Journey, (and I suspect they do) then I think it is reasonable to conclude that the foundation for this journey lays within the neural framework of this particular part of the brain.

  10. May 16, 2012 at 11:35 am

    Bravo…as usual…nice work and thanks for sharing!

  11. May 16, 2012 at 11:51 am

    My client coaching just changed dramatically. Much thankage!

  12. May 16, 2012 at 7:12 pm

    Thanks Stephen. This was a good reminder for me today.

    I think this is partly how Jung tried to help people – by taking them through the archetypes – the central figures of the hero’s journey.

  13. May 17, 2012 at 6:54 am

    Short, sweet and useful. A nano-manual for story.
    Thanks, Roger

  14. May 17, 2012 at 2:29 pm

    I like this: “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.”
    For me, that is the purpose of life. Identifying that life calling and going after it. I see The Hero’s Journey and The War of Art as completely entwined. Let us heed the call and engage in the work of becoming a hero for life!

  15. Scott Ware
    May 18, 2012 at 7:32 am

    I see it as the journey of the heart over the ego.

    The ego pushes the quest, thinking it’s about obtaining the “thing.”

    But life has fooled the ego, because self-actualization happens, and the “thing” is no longer important.

    Then the ego fades into the background, its apoplectic pleas unheeded.

  16. Mike Laughlin
    May 23, 2012 at 8:22 pm

    As baby boomers we grew up, in the 50’s with heroes that were humble, put upon, suffered, did good, protected the weak, defeated the bad guys …
    in movies (Shane, any John Wayne, High Noon),
    in black and white TV (Mighty Mouse, Sky King, Roy Rogers, Buck Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, Popeye …) and
    in parochial school (the life of Christ, the saints, the martyrs)

    Yes, these heroes did imprint on me, and influenced my behaviors throughout life … still do. Wonder how the post-60s “anti-heroes” have influenced my kids and grandkids?

  17. May 30, 2012 at 7:43 am

    Steven,

    I studied many of Campbell’s ideas while getting my masters in depth psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute. We were steeped in all things Campbell (they have his archives there – which are like a church when you enter) and Jung there.

    Great stuff. Love the series.

    Best.

  18. June 7, 2012 at 9:48 am

    I’m a little behind reading the blog, so I’m reading this a couple weeks late. Thank you for the Hero’s Journey posts! I have been a Joseph Campbell fan for many years and he talked about the idea that we are all on our own hero’s journey. You have really distilled that and explained it in a vocabulary that I really understand–movies.

    I definitely relate to what you are saying about having someone just point out where you are on your own journey. My whole life I have felt that longing for the hero’s journey. I thrashed around my whole adult life searching for, as The Jerk would say, “my special purpose.”

    Your explanation really reveals the arch of the journey. I think you have come up with a great tool to help people discover their inner Merlin.

    Cheers!

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