One of the most profoundly insightful books I’ve ever read is The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. In this book Campbell uses myths from around the world and psychoanalytic theory to reveal the Monomyth, the archetypical hero journey that underlies the many-varied myths and folklore from the world’s cultures, past and present.
In this article I can only give an introduction to the basic concepts of the Monomyth, with a few examples and some notes on the importance of mythology and the usefulness of understanding it better. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell goes into much more detail, discusses the nuances and variations of the Monomyth, and provides a ton of interesting examples. I encourage you to read it.
Why Mythology Is Important
Myths are psychological. The symbols and metaphors of mythology are the outer representations of the inner spirit—the animating force that shapes meaning, purpose, and our connections with each other, society, and the world. This animating force is powerful and transformative, but it lies deep within, beneath and behind the solid forms of the everyday world and the small fancies of human reason. Myths are able to guide us to that animating force and help us on our own spiritual journeys. According to Joseph Campbell:
“Myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation.”
“It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those other constant human fantasies that tend to tie it back.”
Some knowledge of mythology is especially important for men today because modern society has been transformed by rationalism, mechanistic paradigms, and a preoccupation with the material world. Many people no longer believe in a formless, unfathomable, yet enduring spirit-energy, and instead they see only forms that can be understood by the human mind—the ephemera of ideas, feelings, and material stuff.
As a consequence, people discard rites and traditions when they become inconvenient, and they often treat myths as nothing more than entertaining stories, thereby casting aside the guidance and wisdom of the past. This, of course, is destructive. As Campbell notes:
“It may well be that the very high incidence of neuroticism among ourselves follows from the decline among us of such effective spiritual aid. We remain fixated to the unexorcized images of our infancy, and hence disinclined to the necessary passages of our adulthood. In the United States there is even a pathos of inverted emphasis: the goal is not to grow old, but to remain young; not to mature away from Mother, but to cleave to her.”
Campbell published this in 1949, pointing out the social and spiritual breakdown of manhood that has only worsened since then. Modern culture does little to foster spiritual growth, and so many men have fumbled in the dark, trying to make their own spiritual journey without the kind of guidance and wisdom available to men of the past. Luckily, though, myths both old and new are waiting to speak to those who know their language.
The hero journey is one of rejuvenation. It begins with a problem, with society out of balance and in decay. The hero is called to adventure, and must leave the ordinary (human) world and enter the dangerous and mysterious world of the divine, such as a magic realm or the wilderness. The hero is tested, and his reward is the Ultimate Boon. He carries this boon back with him to the ordinary world and uses it to rejuvenate, to redeem the world.
My favorite illustration of this is the story of Perseus from the film Clash of the Titans (the 1981 version). At one point in the movie, the queen of the city of Joppa blasphemes against the goddess Thetis. As punishment, Thetis demands that Joppa sacrifice the princess Andromeda to a giant sea monster, the mighty Kraken. If the people of Joppa do not comply, then the Kraken will destroy the city and all its citizens.
To stop the Kraken, Perseus must defeat Medusa, whose eyes turn all who look at them into stone. Perseus defeats Medusa and brings her severed head back to Joppa where he confronts the Kraken, a monster so huge and terrible that not even an army could defeat it. And yet Perseus, armed with the Ultimate Boon, defeats the Kraken—he reveals the severed head of Medusa and turns the giant monster to stone, saving both the princess and the city.
Here is a succinct diagram of the Monomtyh from the book:
This model is the archetype, the complete hero journey. Some of these elements are obvious from their names, but others are not. The Sacred Marriage is also called the Meeting with the Goddess, and it’s the stage wherein the hero tempers himself with a feminine force, such as intuition or compassion, to gain the knowledge or power unobtainable by a purely masculine approach. The Father Atonement is when the hero no longer resists the father figure, but reconciles with him, and the Elixir is another name for the Ultimate Boon.
Among the myths of the world, these components are manifested in different ways. Each component can have more or less prominence, and some components may be absent in some myths. Here are some examples of these components drawn from a few contemporary stories:
Call to adventure: Neo gets a call from Morpheus
Threshold crossing: Taking the Red Pill
Tests: Martial Arts and Jump programs
Helpers: Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda
Sacred Marriage: Luke switches off targeting computer, trusts his feelings, and uses The Force
Father Atonement: Luke stops trying to fight his father and surrenders to him
Apotheosis: Neo becomes Matrix Jesus
Elixir Theft: John Connor destroys Cyberdyne Systems, steals parts from original Terminator
Flight: The T-1000 chases John Connor and friends
Threshold Struggle: T-1000 is defeated / John must accept the death of the good Terminator
Elixir (after return): The world is safe from Judgment Day and John has become a man
What does it all mean?
After you understand the basic cycle of the Monomyth, you can recognize it again and again in stories and in the rhythms of life. People every day cross the threshold into the energetic abyss of sleep, and later they return to the waking world, renewed. The hunter leaves his village and crosses into the wilderness to test his strength and skill—if he succeeds, then he will return with life-sustaining meat.
The young man leaves his family in search of a mate, and if he passes the tests and wins his bride, he brings her back to become part of his family and to create new life. Out of the darkness of the womb we come into this world of tests and growth, and inevitably we pass into the darkness of the grave.
More practically, familiarizing yourself with the Monomyth will allow you to appreciate stories in new ways, and may help you learn some valuable lessons. After all, there are plenty of myths and folklore in which the would-be hero fails. There is a high price for he who takes the journey unprepared—he who doesn’t control his id, or can’t set aside his ego; who abandons his duties; who disrespects the forces of nature.
In your own life, what might these components represent? What journeys are you on? What are the thresholds you need to cross? What are the tests you need to pass? How is the world of your life in decay, and what do you need to do to redeem it? Listen for the call of adventure, and then strive to become a more heroic man.
Read More: How To Become A Superhero