Roots of the Hero’s Journey

Roots of the Hero’s Journey
Gannep - Rites of Passage Nietzsche - Allegory of Man Jungian Individuation Campbell's Hero's Journey Frobenius - Night Sea Journey

Gannep - Rites of Passage

Rites of Passage: Another figure who appeared in the discussion at Eranos was Arnold Van Gannep—especially his work on Rites of Passage. When Campbell talks about the three phases of the journey he calls, Separation, Initiation, Return, they’re familiar to a crowd who knew of Gannep’s, Preliminary Rites of Separation, Liminal: Threshold Rites, and Postliminal rites of Incorporation. For Gannep, it was all about the consistency of narrative pattern across a broad spectrum of ritual processes.

Nietzsche - Allegory of Man

The Three Metamorphosis: Another major influence of Jung and Campbell’s was Friedrich Nietzsche and the Three Metamorphisis he described in Thus Sprach Zarathustra. The three metamorphosis represent the story of “how the spirit becomes a camel, the camel a lion, and the lion at last a child” (23). This is the story arc from doing as you’re told for the world as is to the overthrow of authorities and creation of a new world. The world overthrown starts out stifling to the spirit and managed by tyranny—not unlike the wasteland described by Campbell. The creation of a new world is as a redemption of wasteland and the creation of a new day.

At the beginning of the allegory, everything is governed by a tyrannical dragon, "You shall," which sparkles

with gold - a beast covered with scales; and on every scale glitters a golden, "Thou Shalt!" The values of a thousand years glitter on those scales, and thus speaks the mightiest of all dragons: "All the values of all things - glitter on me. All values have already been created, and all created values - do I represent. Truly, there shall be no 'I will' any more. Thus speaks the dragon”

Having not yet seen the dragon, the spirit takes on the burdens laid out by its world. This is to be a good little boy or a good little girl who does as they’re told. Nietzsche writes, “Many heavy things are there for the spirit, the strong weight-bearing spirit in which reverence dwells: for the heavy and the heaviest are what its strength longs for. What is heavy? so asks the weight-bearing spirit; then it kneels down like the camel, and wants to be well loaded” (24). To show off the value of its strength to the world, it asks, “what is the heaviest thing, you heroes?” (24). The answer is renunciation of personal will for the service of others. Having loaded up with the heaviest of thou shalts, “the weight-bearing spirit … like the camel … when burdened, speeds into the wilderness” (25).

            What follows next is the spirit’s recognition of “Thou Shall.” In the “loneliest wilderness the second metamorphosis happens: here the spirit becomes a lion” (25). “The spirit that once loved ‘You Shall’ as its most sacred: now is it forced to find illusion and arbitrariness even in the holiest things, that it may capture freedom from its love: the lion is needed for this capture. Zarathustra continues, “to create itself freedom for new creating - that can the might of the lion do. To create itself freedom, and give a holy No even to duty: for that, my brothers, there is need of the lion” (25). It is the lion that seizes its “freedom, and [seeks] its last master…for victory it will struggle with the great dragon” (25).

However, “to create new values - that, even the lion cannot yet accomplish” (25). This is “what the child can do, which even the lion could not.” As Nietzsche describes, Innocence is the child, and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a self-propelling wheel, a first movement, a sacred Yes. For the game of creating, my brothers, a sacred "yes" to life is needed: the spirit now wills its own will” (25). The culmination of this journey is when the “one who had lost the world now attains its own” (25).

Perhaps the best example of this theory’s translation into art can be found in the climax of 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which a new baby opens its eyes to the famous song, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. When Campbell saw the film, he first saw it as an example of the Hero’s Journey’s unconscious appearance. What we’ve since learned, however, is that when Arthur C. Clarke was stuck, Stanley Kubric gave him a copy of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which Nietzsche’s allegory is prominently featured. Another favorite example can be found in the beginning of Solo: A Star Wars Story. Han decides he doesn’t want to be a mule anymore and wins freedom by defeating his tyrant. The most interesting part is that this particular tyrant looks strangely similar to a version of Thou Shall created by Jung. In this image, a man is bound above a great monster below his view. When it appears in the Red Book, it is precisely the defeat and death of this figure at the bottom of the cosmological cycle that relates to “new life.”

On a personal note, it’s been this exact maneuver that’s enabled the writing of this book. I’ve been culling and cultivating this material for years now for a forty-five hour lecture course with twelve weekly readings. What’s enabled this book is a shift in the ownership of my school that forced a big deep down. From the extended gap and lack of ownership came the willing of my own will. I decided to shrug off the scaly shackles of Thou Shall and write it how I see it. As with Tiamat, the flesh of Thou Shall is of use in the creation of a new world, but the service of this flesh is no longer to those who came before. The story I see and want to tell relates to the rise of a post-Enlightenment paradigm and the revival of adult imagination supported by Hollywood and the influences of psychological, religious, mystical, mythological movements that somehow converged in California.

Jungian Individuation

Individuation: If Eranos can be seen as the major meeting for mythologists and depth psychologists, Individuation can be seen as its central conversation. Jung was the undoubted anchor of the community. While most of the others came and went throughout the years, Jung was always there, and the center of Jung’s focus was Individuation. He writes, 

All these moments in the individual’s life, when the universal laws of human fate break upon the purposes, expectations, and opinions of the personal consciousness, are stations along the road of the individuation process. This process is, to effect, the spontaneous realization of the whole [person]. The ego conscious personality is only a part of the whole [person], and its life does not yet represent [its] total life. The more [it] is merely ‘I,’ the more [it]  splits [it]self off from the collective man, of whom [it] is also a part … But since everything living strives for wholeness, the inevitable one sidedness of our conscious life is continually being corrected and compensated by the universal human being in us, whose goal is the ultimate integration of conscious and unconscious, or better, the assimilation of the ego to a wider personality. Jung, On Dreams 78

Individuation is the journey through which one becomes whole, and in this sense, fulfills a destiny. Jung considers “it impossible for anyone without knowledge of mythology and folklore and without some understanding of the psychology of primitives and of comparative religion to grasp the essence of the individuation process … at the base of psychological compensation” (On Dreams 76). This is because, as was often the focus at Eranos, he saw the process of becoming whole unfold in myths and fairy tales around the world. A coming of age story, a resurrection myth, even the process of creating the philosopher’s stone—all were interpreted in the context of fulfilling one’s inborn journey to Self-fulfillment.

            It is no surprise that The Myth of the Eternal Return and The Hero with a Thousand Faces were both published by Bollingen, the name of Jung’s tower, and in the same year. Both related a series of processes to personal development—alchemy, agriculture, seasons, New Years, creation and heroic quests. For Jung, it started with his own dreams, which, as he documented in The Red Book, unfolded in a process that took place over an extended period of time and stimulated his own development.

In the depths of this near psychotic break, be became deeply engaged by the relationships between mythology and his own dreams. He writes,

It seems to me the typical motifs in dreams are of much greater importance since they permit a comparison with the motifs of mythology. Many of those mythological motifs—in collecting which Frobenius in particular has rendered such significance—are also found in dreams, often with precisely the same significance … I would like to emphasize that the comparison of typical dream motifs with those of mythology suggests the idea—already put forward by Nietzsche—that dream thinking should be regarded as a phylogenetically older mode of thought” (On Dreams 33).

He especially interested in symbols and what he called archetypes.[1] He writes,

At the same time the theft of the apple is a typical dream motif that occurs in many different variations in numerous dreams. It is also a well-known mythological motif, which is found not only in the story of the Garden of Eden but in countless myths and fairytales from all ages and climes. It is one of those universally human symbols which can reappear autochthonously in anyone, at any time. Thus dream psychology opens the way to a general comparative psychology from which we may hope to gain the same understanding of the development and structure of the human psyche as comparative anatomy has given us concerning the human body” (On Dreams 34).

Jung and virtually anyone that came to Eranos was interested in dreams that “contain symbolical images which we also come across in the mental history of mankind” (41).  Examples he uses come from his own patients:  

A young man dreamed of a great snake that guarded a golden bowl in an underground vault. To be sure, he had once seen a huge snake in a zoo, but otherwise he could suggest nothing that might have prompted such a dream, except perhaps reminiscence of fairytales. Judging by this unsatisfactory context the dream, which actually produced a very powerful effect, would have hardly any meaning. But that would not explain its decided emotionality. In such a case we have to go back to mythology, where the combination of snake or dragon with treasure and cave represents an ordeal in the life of the hero. Then it becomes clear that we are dealing with a collective emotion, a typical situation full of effect, which is not primarily a personal experience but becomes one only secondarily. Primarily it is a universally human problem which, because it has been overlooked subjectively, forces itself objectively upon the dreamer’s consciousness” (Jung, On Dreams 78).

Such dreams and stories, according to Jung, convey deep psychological meaning. He offers another example in the form of a widely spread tale about “the doings of a lion and an ass,” for instance, among “Aesop’s fables … Taken superficially and concretely, the tail is on the impossible phantasm, but the hidden moral meaning is obvious to anyone who reflects upon it” (On Dreams 25). He reflects, “it is characteristic that children are pleased and satisfied with the exoteric meaning of the fable” (On Dreams 25). Many are, just as many are happy with the pure entertainment of a big film or juicy show, but there is generally a more advanced audience—including fellow masters of the craft—whose interest is in the meaning. This is especially true for those who believe a story or dream’s “symbolic content sometimes outlines the solution of a conflict” (On Dreams 41).


[1] Building on the lineage of Aristotelean archetypes, Platonic forms and Pythagorean numbers.

Campbell's Hero's Journey

Hero’s Journey:

             Joseph Campbell is one of the great syncretists of human history. He was a well-traveled super sponge with incredible conversation partners. After an MA thesis on the Grail Quest with Roger Loomis, one of the leading Arthurian scholars of a generation, he & Jean Erdman were married in 1938. By which time he was contributing to the first major journal for the Post-Modern Dance Movement. In 1942, he edited The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna (1942), to which California’s Perennial Philosopher, Aldous Huxley, wrote the forward. In 1943, he published the first Bollingen nook with Maud Oaks, When the Two Come to the Father. By the time he published A Skeleton’s Key to Finnegan’s Wake in 1944, he’d taken an interest in what Joyce called the monomyth. And in 1946 and 1948, he edited together posthumous works by Heinrich Zimmer, a leading philologist, Hindu scholar and friend of Carl Jung’s. By the time he published The Hero with a Thousand Faces in 1949, a recurring narrative pattern from countless myths, theories and fields of study was jumping out at him. This pattern has come to be known, The Hero’s Journey.

             The Hero’s Journey created a bridge from the intellectual lineages carried forward by Campbell to the media industries centered around Hollywood, which have adopted and adapted his model. On one hand, the model empowers artists to write profound philosophical, psychological and even spiritual stories. On the other hand, producers and studios are interested in the model’s global recipe and commercial success—as demonstrated by Star Wars and endless examples of popular films.

By now, there’s a Joseph Campbell quote on Superman’s suit and Wonder Woman’s sword. Nolan described Batman Begins as a Hero’s Journey and Marvel directors like Jon Favereau have talked about its influence. The same can be said of Ed Catmull, President of Pixar, and Michael Bay of the Transformers franchise. The Wachowskis were taught the Hero’s Journey as freshmen at Bard. And Vogler has had a major influence on Disney animations. In 2018 I had a chance to talk with Bryan Cogman about the Hero’s Journey and Game of Thrones. This is to say, Campbell has had a role to play for a majority of the best financed and most commercially successful franchises in the history of film. (Several of the others came from Inklings and their heirs.)

Without further ado, Campbell summarizes the journey as follows:

The mythological hero, setting forth from his common-day hut or castle, is lured, carried away, or else voluntarily proceeds, to the threshold of adventure. There he encounters a shadow presence that guards the passage. The hero may defeat or conciliate this power and go alive into the kingdom of the dark (brother-battle, dragon-battle; offering, charm), or be slain by the opponent and descend in death (dismemberment, crucifixion). Beyond the threshold, then, the hero journeys through a world of unfamiliar yet strangely intimate forces, some of which severely threaten him (tests), some of which give magical aid (helpers). When he arrives at the nadir of the mythological round, he undergoes a supreme ordeal and gains his reward. The triumph may be represented as the hero's sexual union with the goddess-mother of the world (sacred marriage), his recognition by the father-creator (father atonement), his own divinization (apotheosis), or again-if the powers have remained unfriendly to him-his theft of the boon he came to gain (bride-theft, fire-theft); intrinsically it is an expansion of consciousness and therewith of being (illumination, transfiguration, freedom). The final work is that of the return. If the powers have blessed the hero, he now sets forth under their protection (emissary); if not, he flees and is pursued (transformation flight, obstacle flight). At the return threshold the transcendental powers must remain behind; the hero re-emerges from the kingdom of dread (return, resurrection). The boon that he brings restores the world (elixir) (211).

 If there’s a book I hope you’ve read before this one or that I hope you’ll read next, it’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which has become one of the 500 most assigned texts in the English language. 

This diagram come from the 2004 publication of The Hero with a Thousand Faces was not designed by Campbell himself, despite its frequent treatment as Holy-writ. Following extended conversations with Robert Walter, Campbell’s friend and editor who wrote the introduction for New World Library’s 2004 edition, I’ve come to agree that instead of moving towards orthodoxy, we should be moving away. The diagram on the left is created from Campbell’s words in the same way any graphic designer would have done, but I simplified and selected a set of words for the purposes of creating an elegant diagram that best demonstrates its connection with other models in this particular conversation. Permission of the Joseph Campbell Foundation to create this diagram for the Hero’s Journey does not make it definitive or orthodox in any way. With the JCF, our preference is for a variety of non-orthodox well-researched iterations.

Frobenius - Night Sea Journey

Night Sea Journey: Before shifting entirely to the Eranos crowd with Jung and Campbell, we should look at another of their early influences, Ferdinand Frobenius. In addition to an early version of archetypes, he contributed a theory about the mythic journeys in which heroes are swallowed by a whale or sea monster. His comparative analysis is as follows,

A hero is devoured by a water monster in the west (Devouring). The animal travels with him towards the east (Sea Journey). In the meantime, he lights a fire in the belly (Fire Lighting) and when he feels hunger, he cuts himself a piece of the hanging heart (Heart-cutting). Shortly thereafter he notices that the fish has slid onto dry land (Landing); he begins directly to cut the animal from the inside outwards (Opening); then he slips out (Slipping-out). In the fish’s belly it had grown so hot that all his hair has fallen out (Heat-Hair). Often, at the same time, the old hero frees those who were devoured before (All-devoured) and they also slip out (All-slipping-out).

Jonah, Hercules and Pinnocchio are probably the most familiar examples of this motif. I’m personally very curious if the Pinnocchio author read Frobenius or modeled the journey after another whale myth. As we recall from the film, Monstro is laying on the bottom of the ocean floor when Pinocchio has the bright idea of lighting a fire, which triggers their escape and return to land. Frobenius’ interpretation is that the journey between devouring and slipping out mimes the solar journey from sunset and sunrise, between which, for example, a fish—Cetus—eats the penis of Osiris.[1] It is from Frobenius that we get the phrase, Belly of the Whale.


[1] Cetus is a constellation near the nadir of contemporary star charts.