Joseph Campbell and the Myth of the Hero’s Journey

In the 20th century a number of thinkers studying comparative mythology and religion noticed something peculiar about the myths of different cultures throughout history. Many of them shared fundamental similarities in theme, structure, and symbolism.

This led to the question as to how such similarities could arise in cultures separated by both space and time. Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, two of the more prominent thinkers studying this problem, proposed that the reason for such similarities was due to the fact that many mythological themes and symbols emerge from an area of the mind called the collective unconscious.

In addition to the mind consisting of a personal unconscious, which is composed of elements drawn from an individual’s life experience, the collective unconscious contains elements or cognitive structures which evolved over human history, and are therefore common to all.

These evolved cognitive structures, which Jung called archetypes, cannot be observed directly, but manifest various images or symbolic patterns which form the basis of many myths – explaining how similar myths can arise in cultures separated by hundreds or thousands of years.

As Joseph Campbell, the 20th century’s foremost expert on world mythology, noted:

“The symbols of mythology are not manufactured; they cannot be ordered, invented, or permanently suppressed. They are spontaneous productions of the psyche.” (The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell)

As manifestations of the deepest layers of the unconscious, myths are thought to reveal timeless truths about the yearnings, fears, and aspirations common to every individual.

In the words of Jung:

“Myths are first and foremost psychic phenomena that reveal the nature of the soul.” (Carl Jung)

Myths have served various functions in different cultures across time. One of the more common of these functions has been to provide individuals with a template or model to assist in their psychological maturation and development.

Psychological development via what Jung called the individuation process, occurs when unconscious contents of the psyche are integrated into one’s conscious personality, resulting in the formation of what Jung called the “true personality”.

There are various ways in which unconscious content can be made conscious – becoming aware of one’s dream life is the most well known. Exploring mythological symbolism is a lesser known, but equally effective, way to bring unconscious content into the light of consciousness.

As Campbell explained:

“These [mythological] symbols stem from the psyche; they speak from and to the spirit. And they are in fact the vehicles of communication between the deeper depths of our spiritual life and this relatively thin layer of consciousness by which we govern our daylight existences.” (Pathways to Bliss, Joseph Campbell)

Activating unconscious content is important because the unconscious contains unrealized potentials, which if discovered and integrated into one’s consciousness, can result in a personal transformation. To discover and nourish these potentials within Campbell called the “pathway to bliss”.

Myths of individuals undergoing heroic adventures as they attempt to actualize their higher potentials and find their own unique pathway to bliss are abundant in many cultures throughout history.

While these myths vary in detail depending on their time and place of origin, they share a common pattern which Joseph Campbell coined the “myth of the hero’s journey”.

In myths which follow the pattern of the hero’s journey, the hero ventures forth from a familiar world into strange and sometimes threatening lands – be it a passage into the desert, a plunge into the ocean, or getting lost in a dark forest.

Campbell proposed we view this as symbolic of the individual’s departure from their conscious personality, into the unexplored regions of their unconscious in search of the “ultimate boon” – the unrealized potentials hidden within.

For the remainder of the video we’ll briefly trace the pattern of the hero’s journey, noting its relevancy to those who, feeling lost and disoriented in life, could benefit from venturing forth into their unexplored unconscious psyche.

The hero’s journey always begins with a “call to adventure”. In myths this call is often personified as an animal the hero encounters, symbolic of one’s instincts, or gut feelings, which are insightful but too often ignored. In the words of Campbell:

“Often in actual life, and not infrequently in the myths and popular tales, we encounter the dull case of the call unanswered; for it is always possible to turn the ear to other interests. Refusal of the summons converts the adventure into its negative. Walled in boredom, hard work, or “culture,” the subject loses the power of significant affirmative action and becomes a victim to be saved.” (The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell)

While the call is often initially refused, “not all who hesitate are lost.” (Campbell). There are forces within which understand the importance of the adventure, and act to ensure the call does not remain unanswered forever. In myths these forces are often personified as supernatural helpers.

“In fairy lore it may be some little fellow of the wood, some wizard, hermit, shepherd, or smith, who appears, to supply the amulets and advice that the hero will require. The higher mythologies develop the role in the great figure of the guide, the teacher, the ferryman, the conductor of souls to the afterworld.” (The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell)

Assisted by internal forces, the hero eventually answers the call to adventure, and ventures off into unknown territory.

At the boundary of the familiar and unexplored regions, the hero encounters the “threshold guardian”. In myths this guardian is often a menacing being, or Mephistophelean figure, which represents one’s shadow – the portion of one’s personality which has been rejected over time and thus relegated to the surface layers of the unconscious.

In myths the threshold guardian instills panic among those unprepared to meet him; just as in real life confronting one’s rejected personality can be difficult and distressing.

Yet if one finds a way to accept their rejected personality, one gains access to an inner strength which will be of assistance as one descends into the deeper, and sometimes threatening, layers of the unconscious.

“And so it happens that if anyone…undertakes for himself the perilous journey into the darkness by descending, either intentionally or unintentionally, into the crooked lanes of his own spiritual labyrinth, he soon finds himself in a landscape of symbolical figures (any one of which may swallow him).” (The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell)

Descending deeper and deeper into the psyche, overcoming trials and experiencing moments of ecstatic insight, eventually one’s previous self begins to disintegrate, and a new, more impressive self begins to form.

In myths this stage is symbolized as a death and rebirth, in which the hero enters a dark area such as the belly of a whale, a tomb or dark cave, and after a period of time emerges from it reborn.

Reborn with a new sense of strength and purpose, the ultimate boon – or unrealized potential within – is discovered soon after.

Finding the ultimate boon is described in different myths in a variety of ways, yet it is always meant to signify “an expansion of consciousness and therewith of being (illumination, transfiguration, freedom)” (The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell).

While the discovery of the unrealized potentials within is a highly significant moment, it is not the end of the journey. One still must determine how to nourish these potentials, and bring them forth in the world. This, can be exceedingly difficult, as Campbell explained:

“The whole idea is that you’ve got to bring out again that which you went to recover, the unrealized, unutilized potential in yourself. The whole point of this journey is the reintroduction of this potential into the world…It goes without saying, this is very difficult. Bringing the boon back can be even more difficult than going down into your own depths in the first place.” (Pathways to Bliss, Joseph Campbell)

As you attempt to bring forth your potential into the world there is the possibility that nobody will care or pay attention. There is also the possibility that the applause of others will divert you from your authentic path, leading to a life of mimicry or enslavement to the opinions of others.

The optimal possibility is to carve out your own corner of the world, where you can nourish your potential, and offer your work to others without concern of applause or fear of rejection.

In doing so, you will have found your own unique pathway to bliss, and your life will have followed the thread of the hero’s journey:

“What I think is that a good life is one hero journey after another. Over and over again, you are called to the realm of adventure, you are called to new horizons. Each time, there is the same problem: do I dare? And then if you do dare, the dangers are there, and the help also, in the fulfillment or the fiasco. There’s always the possibility of a fiasco. But there’s also the possibility of bliss.” (Pathways to Bliss, Joseph Campbell)

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