Joseph John Campbell (March 26, 1904 – October 30, 1987) was an American Professor of Literature at Sarah Lawrence College and taught comparative mythology and comparative religion. His work covers aspects of the human experience. His most famous book is The Hero with a Thousand Faces which he wrote in 1949 and where he discusses his theory of the journey of the archetypal hero that is seen in all of the world mythologies and what he termed the monomyth. Since the publication of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell’s theory has been used by many writers and artists. He became most famous when George Lucas credited Campbell’s work as influencing the making of Star Wars.

In the Hero with a Thousand faces, Campbell designed a road map of the human journey that describes a script of our lives described in different stages. This work led to a vision for how to find your bliss and have a fulfilling life. Using the wealth of knowledge from ancient myths from around the world, he realized that human beings on some level live the lives of some of the most popular cultural icons.

Heros tell us about ourselves, and we are all really heros struggling on a life journey. We engage in struggles to develop as individuals, and find our place in society. Beyond that, we long for wisdom and want to understand the universe and the significance of our role in it. “

So let’s go down the rabbit hole and take the Hero’s Journey with Joseph Campbell:


The hero begins in the ordinary world. This is the place where we are covered in the myths of our family, our comfort zone and where we have bought into the beliefs and concepts of all the people around us. We see the world through a veil and the influence of others, so technically we have no idea who we really are. We are simply a bundle of all the pieces around us. At this state we may wonder if this is all there is to life? Many things will be presented to us, like Alice in Wonderland was with an opportunity to go down the Rabbit hole. This is the moment when you get the call, something changes in your life, a move, a divorce a death a birth. We are presented with an opportunity to separate ourselves from the ordinary world, there is a call to adventure or destiny. Unfortunately time and time again refuse the call.  


Many want to play it safe and stay where they are and so there they remain, bored and unsatisfied in the field of fears and missed opportunities. The opposite is an opportunity to break through our fears by facing them. There is a wanting to go forward, but there is also resistance. The new opportunity is always a calling to obstacles and challenges since we have never been there before. We resist because we like predictable patterns where we can predict the future. We can also find the piece of resistance, which may be our test. This is when we refuse the call and then sink back into boredom, hard work or culture and lose our power of action. The refusal is essentially a refusal to face ourselves. We see things as needing to be fixed versus stepping into trusting the the universe and venturing into the unknown. We may refuse the call several times


Cinderella has the Fairy Godmother, Dorothy had Glenda and Alice had the Rabbit. In your life it may be a parent a friend or even just a book that you read. They are often protective figures, often older and wiser who provides the adventurer with the courage to take on the unknown. This is a moment when something is triggered inside of you. You may see a coincidence or miracle and this may save you from a disaster that is waiting to happen. This figure represents the benign, protecting power of destiny and the advice that there is a protective power that is always and ever present within the sanctuary of the heart and that one has to trust. In modern society it is often not our family as they prefer we stay in the predictable world so that we do not upset the norm. Unfortunately our world lacks the wise shaman who appears, so it may be worthwhile to seek them out.


This is the place where the person embraces adventure and agrees to leave the limits of the ordinary world and venture into the unknown, agreeing to experience what may be perceived as dangerous and where they do not know the rules. These might be times in our life like going off to college, moving to another country, taking a life changing job. This is the place of the decision to cross over and often we meet a threshold guardian who are sometime portrayed as the custodians of the four directions which are on the edge of the hoer’s sphere or life horizon. Someone reaches out their hand, an opportunity arises miraculously, someone mentions a word that sets off the untangling of bonds and you enter into a zone of experience. This is the passage beyond the veil of the known into the unknown and where you engage in risk. “The wall of paradise which conceals God from human sight, is described by Nicholas of Cusa as constituted of the “coincidence of opposites”, its gate being guarded by the highest spirit of reason, who are the way until he has been overcome”. The pairs of opposites being and not being, life and death, beauty and ugliness, good and evil, and all the other polarities that bind the faculties to hope and fear, and link the organs of actions to deeds of defense and acquisition are the clashing rocks that crush the traveler, but between which the heroes always pass.”  The heroe passes released from the ego. The cross over the threshold is almost to experience a death and separation from the familiar. It can be an internal or external adventure. You may then meet a mentor or someone who helps to get your from the ordinary into the non-ordinary world. It may be a book that you read, a piece of information that changes you or the moment in indigenous communities, knows as the vision quest or walk about which is an intense test of your existing reality. This is the point of no return, when we decide we are going to travel the world, write a book or seek any new endeavor.


The belly of the whale represents the separation from the hero’s known world and self. By entering this stage, the person shows willingness to step into the cocoon of the caterpillar and change. It is also symbolized as returning to the womb as if swallowed by the unknown and dead. This is the only place to be born again into the recollection of who and what we are which is mainly a realization that we are simply particles in a form. This interior temple is where oneness is experienced, that everything is the same. This place of departure is seen in the approaches to and the entrances to temples that are defended by dragons, gargoyles, lions, drawfs etc. They are the threshold guardians. By entering we will change, there is no going back as we die and are returned to the world womb. Ananda Coomaraswamy says “no creature can attain a higher grade of nature without ceasing to exist. So, the physical body of the hero may actually be slain or dismembered. The Hero will not succeed at every test, he must also know what failure feels like as this will make him grow.

Campbell says” “In the cave you fear to enter you will find the treasure that you seek”


“Once the hero has crossed the threshold it is time to face tasks and trials, many times alone. This is the yellow brick road. It is time to slay dragons, take on bad witches and hit barriers to cross over again and again. In real life this may be an addiction or fear of something that keeps greeting you. Maybe this is where you encounter “friends” who try to stop you. They may seem to have good intentions but what they are really doing is hindering your journey. Many will sabotage your journey since they unconsciously are fearful of their own. Often times the supernatural helper may appear again or there will be a realization that there is power available everywhere. This is the stage of dissolving and transmuting the infantile images of the past. This is only the beginning of an initiation and moments of illumination. There are still dragons to be slain and surprises that appear to be dealt with over an over although there will be small victories and a glimpse of the paradise to come.” Joseph Campbell


This is the moment when the hero experiences unconditional love and all the barriers have been overcome. When the love of the mother comes shining through. It can also be a time when we find our soulmate or the person that we most completely love. This is the comforting, the nourishing and the good mother. There is also the possibility of the bad mother, the one who was absent, punishing, aggressive, unattainable that we must overcome.


This step is about temptations that may lead the hero to stray from their journey. It does not mean it is a woman that appears, but is a metaphor for the material (maternal) temptations of life and the lack of acknowledging our weaknesses and shortcomings and thereby connecting ourselves to another person, like Eve in the creation story. Then the goddess becomes a nag and the marital problems are because of the spouse, the husband is no longer prince charming as he is lazy and abusive. “Every failure to cope with a life situation must be seen as the end to a restriction of consciousness. Wars and temper tantrums are the makeshifts of ignorance; regrets are illuminations come too late. Who and where are the negative beings, that are the reflection of your own enigmas. Our view of life is seldom what it really is. we generally refuse to admit within ourselves or our friends and family, the pushing, self-protective, carnivorous, lecherous fever which is the very nature of the organic cell. We instead ten to perfume, whitewash and reinterpret, meanwhile imagining that all the flies in the ointment, all the hairs in the soup are the fault of some unpleasant someone else. When it dawns on us that everything we do is tainted then we realize we have more to go to purify the soul, but with the every watching mother helping us to relearn our innocence.” Joseph Campbell


This is the step when the hero must confront whatever holds power over its life. It is again another look at ego and the nursery scene of what we are leaving being. The abandonment of that investment in a double headed monster of right and wrong. This is the passage into the sphere of the father. At this point the hero is purged of hope and fear and at peace in the understanding of the revelation of being and opening the soul beyond terror. This is the moment of soul satisfaction accepting a revelation that we can go beyond our satisfaction of friends and move beyond intimidation.


This is the hero’s elevation to the rank of God. The Hero is treated as almost divine. The hero is at the brink of death but then returns. This is the shattering of the bounds by his vow that before entering the void he would bring all creatures without exception to enlightenment arriving at a divine state beyond ignorance. There is no fear in change. There is not pain or pleasure. The hero shines over all things that exist and embraces all beings. This is the pause before the threshold of Nirvana, the revolution to forego until the end of immersion in the untroubled pool of eternity and that time and eternity are two aspects of the same experience, the jewel of eternity is in the lotus of breath and death.” Joseph Campbell


This is achieving the goal of the journey, getting what the person went on the journey to find. All the previous steps are to prepare and purify the hero for this step. It is like in the Wizard of oz when the lion wanted courage, the tin man compassion. “We have perhaps conquered our desires and passions like lust or greed or indifference. Now we feel capable of achieving any challenge. The agony of breaking through personal limitations is the agony of spiritual growth. Through Art, Literature, Myth, Philosophy, the hero can move past limiting horizons into spheres of ever-expanding realization. Finally the mind breaks the bounding sphere of the cosmos to a realization transcending all of the experiences of form….a realization of the void.” Joseph Campbell


“After the discovery of bliss and enlightenment, the hero may never want to return to share the experience. There may even be demons of doubts that have to be resolved and that the hero continue to see obstacles. At this moment the hero may see that others have been reduced in stature and may feel a giant among others. The hero is free from ego and now desires freedom from it all. The hero may depart again and dedicate himself to his last attachment to forms of being. So, instead of returning, there is a decision to retreat one degree still further from the world.” Joseph Campbell  


“The myths of failure touch us with the tragedy of life, but those of success only with their incredibility. And yet, if the monomyth is to fulfill its promise, not human failure or superhuman success but human success is what we shall have to be shown. That is the problem of the crisis of the threshold of the return.” Joseph Campbell


Heros may need a rescuer to bring them back to everyday life or from their emotional wounds. The hero may become depressed or negative and then the mentor comes to the rescue. This is the difficulty of crossing the threshold from the mystic realm into the land of the common. As Campbell says “entering the long forgotten atmosphere where men who are fractions imagine themselves to be complete, yet he must confront society with his ego-shattering, life-redeeming elixir and take the blow of queries, resentment and good people at a loss to comprehend.”  


This is the struggle of how to render back into light-world language the speech defying pronouncements of the dark? How represent on a two dimensional surface a three dimensional form, or a multi-dimensional meaning. How to communicate to people who insist on the exclusive evidence of their sense the message of the all generating void. The first problem of the returning hero is to accept as real the passing joys and sorrows and noisy obscenities of life. Why enter such a world? Why attempt to make plausible or even interesting to men and women consumed with passion the experience of bliss? The hero may simply return again, close the door and retreat. The trick here is to integrate the wisdom and share it with the rest of the world. The new found powers however have given the Hero the freedom to live out their life on their own terms.” Joseph Campbell


This is the balance between the spiritual and the material and that you can live in both worlds more fully. The freedom to pass back and forth across the world division…not contaminating the principles of the one with those of the other, yet permitting the mind to know the one by virtue of the other is the talent of the master. At this stage the hero through many psychological disciplines, gives up completely all attachment to his personal limitations, idiosyncrasies, hopes and fears, no longer resists the self-annihilation that is the prerequisites to rebirth in the realization of truth, and so become ripe at last for the great at-one-ment. Personal ambitions dissolve, he no longer tries to live but willingly relaxes to whatever may come to pass in him.” Joseph Campbell


The mastery leads to freedom from failure which becomes the freedom to live in the moment, free from the past and the present. ” The battlefield is symbolic of the field of life, where every creatures lives on the death of another. There may be though at this time a false image of oneself as a phenomenon in the world not guilty as others are, but justified in one’s inevitable sinning because one represents the good. Such self-righteousness leads to a misunderstanding, not only of oneself but of the nature of both man and the cosmos. The goal is to dispel the need for such life ignorance by effecting a reconciliation of the individual consciousness with the universal will. Even as a person casts off worn-out clothes and puts on others that are new, so the embodied self casts off worn out bodies and enters into others that are new. This self cannot be cut, nor burnt nor wetted nor dithered. Eternal all pervading, unchanging immovable, the self is the same forever. Do without attachment the world you have to do. The hero is the champion of things becoming, not of things become. He is not fearful of the next moment or the other thing.” Joseph Campbell

The Hero’s journey involves problems and without problems, troubles and tensions, there is no story and nothing to engage us. The hero must face his problems, surmount his fears, resolve his tensions, or fail. Without problems and tensions, there can be no growth. Psychological development is the process of overcoming setbacks, limitations, and conditioned behavior to reach maturity. Few people however ever fully embrace the Hero’s Journey, a psychological odyssey that leads the individual to wholeness. Because of our fear of the unknown, many of us refuse the call to adventure. We delay our journey in many ways. We put important things aside and procrastinate life. But there is always something brewing inside of us. An internal tension builds. It may be small at first, but it grows stronger in the darkness. Tensions are those opposing forces at play within us. This internal conflict creates disharmony. Humans don’t like disharmony, and so these internal tensions can catapult us out of the familiar. The feeling of discord leads to action and ultimately, some resolution.

For more information about the amazing Joseph Campbell you can visit this website

If you would like to hear Lori’s talk about the Hero’s Journey, here is a video of her presentation. 



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