The concept of the “Hero’s Journey” comes from Joseph Campbell who was a writer, mythologist, and lecturer. Campbell introduced this idea in his book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” which was published in 1949. The theme underlying in the Hero’s Journey is that many myths, stories and legends, from differing cultures throughout the world and throughout history follow a similar pattern or structure. Psychologist Carl Jung referred to this innate relationship as the collective unconscious. The Hero’s Journey consists of roughly 12 distinct stages for a “chosen one” to navigate. Specific details may vary from culture to culture, but the overall structure remains fairly consistent. Examples would be that of Gilgamesh (Sumerian/Babylonian Mythology), King Arthur (Arthurian Legends), The Odyssey and Jason and the Argonauts (Greek Mythology), The Ramayana (Hindu Mythology), Sun Wukong (Journey to the West – Chinese Mythology), Inanna’s Descent to the Underworld (Sumerian Mythology), and Siegfried, the dragon slayer (Germanic mythology).
This structure of storytelling has also been popularized by modern authors of books and movies such as Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games and maybe most widely known of “Star Wars“. George Lucas of Star Wars was inspired by Campbell’s writings, but the two did not meet until well after Lucas had already produced his famous movies. I think that if we look carefully and reflect inward, we may be able to also see the pattern of the hero’s journey in each of our own lives. Why is this important? Because seeing our lives from this perspective can help to add clarity and focus to the unique meaning and purpose that we all possess but are not always aware of.
I find Sam Keen and Anne Valley Fox’s Your Mythic Journey published in 1973, to be quite relevant to current cultural and societal issues. Specifically, that of myths being defined as lies or something opposite of being factual. I too used to think of myths as lies or mere stories to entertain us, until becoming educated otherwise to this stigma. Keen elaborates that myths are a strict set of interconnected stories, customs, rituals, and rites, that serve to inform us while providing a sense of meaning, purpose, and direction to an individual, a family, a community, or culture. Keen expresses that telling of myths, ancient as well as modern have fallen to the wayside due to advances in technologies and the evolution of cultures and societies. When particular things can be seen as “good,” there is always the other opposite or contrasting perspective of there existing some amount of “bad.” While technology might be a factor in people choosing to not write their stories down as much as in years ago or choose to commit them to memory, because they know that they can always just go look them up on the internet. The other side of this coin is that modern technology has opened up the ability for more people to access other nations’ information bases and various cultures’ stories, myths, and knowledge, literally from the comfort and convenience of their own homes. In years past if someone cared to pursue learning about a particular culture, they might very well be best informed if they were to travel across the oceans to find a source that was willing to share. Today we just pick up our smartphone to travel in our thoughts to the other side of the world.
I have been immersed in a Taoist lifestyle for over 40 years, both from my martial arts and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) background and study of this philosophy. With this in mind, I am drawn to see the yin and yang or the balance and contrast, in all things. This concept of yin and yang dates back thousands of years where Taoism has its origins around 500 BCE. Perhaps Taoism came about from the passing of myths to one another, or some myths may have come about from those having studied Taoism. Or maybe both are true, a debate for another discussion. Keen’s words have yin and yang written deep throughout them, as he hints that the contrast between heroes and enemies, is what gives meaning to either side.
Keen later goes on to speak of the inner voices of our ancestors and those around us, that often run through our minds. I have come to know this as our inner dialogue, and when not in check, referred to as the “monkey mind” that is constantly and incessantly jumping from one thought or story to another. Organizing our stories and our myths in our own mind is the challenge. These stories can offer us purpose and meaning to each of us in our own individual and unique ways in spite of standing on the shoulders of those who came before us with their stories and myths. Current popular culture in the US seems somewhat focused upon people needing to come to some realization of “their truth” as opposed to what Keen speaks of as “their story.” Can various different people having the same experience have different truths? I think not, but they can definitely have different stories of their own unique experience. An underlying theme that Keen speaks of is the need for someone to stand in the shoes of another, if they are to truly understand another’s story, whether in their myths, culture, traditions, symbols, etc.
I find Keen’s comments about how few people really know the depth of their own thoughts and imaginations quite accurate. I see more people concerned with what is going on within the virtual computer-generated and online social worlds outside of themselves, rather than understanding what is happening within their own minds. Some people can claim to know about driving a race car in virtual reality when they actually only know how to drive a standard vehicle in the physical world. Learning to understand and differentiate our public and private selves or “discovering our many selves” as Keen states, is a bit of foreshadowing of what I read later as some strong Carl Jung influences of personas, and archetypes as well as Sigmund Freud’s concepts of the id and ego.
The 12 steps of the hero’s journey:
I feel that we are all pursuing a hero’s journey on some level as we all manage and cope with our daily trials and tribulations. However, it is up to the individual to reach some inner clarity and cultivation of character to better understand how this concept applies to their story.
Campbell, J. (1949). The hero with a thousand faces. Pantheon Books.
Keen, S. (1989). Your Mythic Journey: Finding Meaning in Your Life Through Writing and Storytelling. TarcherPerigee.
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