Have you had the sense that there’s an answer just beyond your ability to think it? Some insight right on the tip of your mind, but not quite making it to the surface? Something that, if you could just reach it, would make everything else make more sense?
There is, but I can’t tell you what it is.
That answer is the treasure we all seek, and no one can give it to you, but there is a map that can show you how to find it. There’s a map that’s been right in front of you ever since your parents started reading you stories as a child.
That map is the Hero’s Journey.
At least, this is what Joseph Campbell claims in The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
So come with me, take the Journey, and find out for yourself.
It starts right here, right now.
0. Status Quo
The Journey begins wherever you are. It begins with things as they are.
So, how are things?
Who are the people you interact with? Family? Friends? Teachers? How do they see you? How do you relate to them?
In Hero stories, there is some problem with the way things are. It may be a slight annoyance that grows worse and worse. It may be a traumatic event that overthrows all sense of normalcy.
Take Jason, of Argonaut fame, a classic mythical Greek hero. His story starts when he’s a baby and his father, the king Aeson, is deposed in a bloody coup by his treacherous brother Pelias. Jason grows up in relative peace, but in exile: there is a fundamental injustice that frames his life. Things cannot be quite as they should be until it is addressed.
What are the problems you face in your life right now? Is there discord in your family? Hopefully your family members aren’t murdering each other, but maybe they sometimes want to, just a little bit.
Or perhaps things seem pretty good among your close friends and family, but there’s some larger social injustice that you’re aware of. Maybe you can’t fully enjoy the relative peace and security you live in until everyone else has the same opportunity.
When I was a teenager, I was becoming more and more aware of the contradictions and injustices in society at large and the norms of social life right around me.
These are just examples. What’s that niggling problem that imposes itself on your thoughts as you go about your day?
1. Call to Adventure
The call can come from inside, outside, or both. It is that feeling that there’s an answer to the questions your life is asking you.
Here is a video exploring how to apply the Hero’s Journey to your life, which focuses on hearing and responding to the call:
I’ll use myself as an example of how to apply the Hero’s Journey to your own story. For me, the call to the most profound Hero’s Journey of my life so far came when I was 16. My mother gave birth to twins and one of them died a month later of a brain hemorrhage. This in itself was a difficult experience, of course, but what really set me on my Journey was that the doctors and police suspected abuse, even though there was none, and social services took away the other twin.
When the detectives interviewed me, I was as honest as possible, thinking they were impartially weighing the evidence, but they weren’t. They were looking for evidence of abuse, so they found it in what I and my family members said.
Your call to adventure may not be as dramatic as mine. If there’s nothing in your life screaming for you to rise to a particular challenge, then this text you’re reading right now IS a call to embark on your own Hero’s Journey.
In this case, as in many others, it comes along with an offer of help:
In The Hobbit (as in The Lord of the Rings), Gandalf shows up with a call to adventure and an offer of assistance all rolled into one. In fact, in The Hobbit, he just comes right out and says, “I’m looking for someone to share in an adventure I’m arranging, and it’s very difficult to find anyone.” Bilbo, true to Gandalf’s prediction, is difficult to persuade, but eventually answers the call.
Are there any calls to adventure you’re resisting? Is there something you’ve wanted to do, but haven’t summoned the courage or willpower to begin?
There’s no time like the present.
If the rest of the Hero’s Journey is any indication, it will be well worth it, despite the real dangers that may be involved.
In Jason’s story, He receives assistance from two different allies. First, he is sent away to be educated by Chiron the centaur, an epitome of wisdom, the teacher of many of the famous heroes of Greek mythology.
There are symbolic meanings to be found in most of the details of old myths. In the case of Chiron the centaur, who is half man and half horse, we can see the perfected balance between the spiritual, human, and animal sides of our nature. Chiron’s wisdom comes from understanding the proper role of each, not allowing his animal desires to dominate (as other centaurs did) nor denying them altogether. This kind of knowledge and control of one’s nature is an important prerequisite for success on the Journey.
You can also find meanings, as I just did, in the details of myths. You can go reread your favorite myth, or pick up a new one, and when some detail jumps out at you as odd, spend some time turning it over in your mind until you see how it might apply to you and your situation. There’s no right answer here. Myths and symbols can give your mind a way to think differently about problems that have been puzzling you because you keep coming at them from the same unsuccessful angle.
Jason’s other assistance comes from the goddess Hera. When Jason’s training is complete, Chiron urges him to go forth and restore his father to the throne. On the way, Jason meets an old woman who is trying to cross a river flush with spring rains. He puts her on his shoulders and, at some risk to his own life, swims across the torrent. He loses a sandal, but is otherwise unscathed. The old woman reveals herself as Hera, queen of the gods, and promises to return his kindness.
This is a common occurrence in myths: the hero helps some destitute nobody, simply because his ethics and values tell him it’s the right thing to do. To his or her surprise (but not ours, as astute readers of myths), this nobody turns out to be a great god or spirit.
This shows us that our values provide a compass that can guide our steps on the Journey, that when we live by our principles regardless of what we stand to gain or lose, help may come from unexpected quarters. There may not be gods hanging out on street corners waiting to test us, but over the long term people will recognize our adherence to principles and trust us more deeply than they will trust people who do what’s right only when the right people are looking.
And perhaps there is an even deeper meaning. Perhaps the more we follow our principles and values, the closer we come to the part of ourselves that is most like a god, the source of generosity and wisdom within us, and that part can help us through obstacles that we could otherwise see no way past.
Jason arrives at the court of his uncle Pelias, the usurper of his father’s kingdom, and announces that he is there to return the kingdom to its rightful rulership.
Pelias has earlier received an oracle telling him he would be deposed by a man who came wearing one sandal, but thinks he might be able to shake Jason off by sending him on an impossible quest, so he promises to give up the throne without a fight if Jason returns with the famed Golden Fleece.
Jason then does something that many heroes don’t: he assembles a team of friends to help him out. Jason brings together several of the greatest heroes of Greek mythology: Perseus, the slayer of Medusa, Heracles (aka Hercules), renowned for his many feats of strength and daring, Theseus, slayer of the Minotaur, and Orpheus, the legendary musician.
This is one of my favorite things about Jason. The Hero’s Journey is usually portrayed as a solitary quest, and there are certain parts of it that must be done alone. But Jason understands that by asking his allies for help, he doesn’t just make his chances of success far greater, he also gives them a share the excitement and glory of the adventure, and creates deeper bonds of friendship that can benefit all of the Argonauts for the rest of their lives.
Jason and his friends build a ship, which they name the Argo, board it, and set off on their adventure.
You can also ask for help, from your friends, your family, your mentors and teachers. This does not diminish your accomplishments, but enriches them. And your friends will be more likely to ask your help in the future.
In fact, as I look back, one of the greatest and most lasting treasures from my Journey to Manhood was the friends I made along the way. As I descended into my own underworld of anger and depression, my friends stuck by me, and the connections that still remain from that time are some of the strongest I have.
When my baby sister died and her twin brother was taken, my parents hired a lawyer, went to court, insisted on an autopsy, and two or three weeks later, we got the surviving twin back. But for me, the damage had already been done.
My misgivings about society deepened hugely. I lost my belief in the goodness of the world and the people in it. Seeing that the world wasn’t good, I stopped trying to be good myself. I stopped believing in good altogether. There is no such thing as good, I thought. There is just the world. Nothing in it is either good or bad. It just is.
The departure is the place where the hero enters a separate world, also called the Threshold Crossing. Jason just pushes out to sea, but many other heroes must enter the underworld and bring something back.
In your journey, this other world is the inner world. The fearsome monsters, duplicitous witches and wizards, and benevolent spirits that dwell there are parts of you that hinder or help you.
The first of these creatures that a hero usually has to face is the Threshold Guardian. This is something or someone that guards the gateway to the special world, the world of your inner mythology. In Greek mythology, the underworld is guarded by Cerberus, a three-headed dog with a snake for a tail:
Most Greek heroes have to get by Cerberus at some point in their adventures, and each one does it in his own way, according to his own special talents and abilities. Heracles opts for good old-fashioned force, and wrestles Cerberus into submission. Aeneas, the mythical founder of Rome, feeds him drugged honey cakes that put him to sleep. Orpheus, the master musician, plays him a lullaby and he nods off.
When I stopped believing in right and wrong, I came face to face with my own Threshold Guardian: the concentrated force of all the anger I’d been storing up for years. Anger at other kids for making fun of me, anger at the police for not believing my family; anger at the whole society for its hypocrisy, its apathy, its unthinking adherence to convention; anger at my parents for all the little ways they didn’t quite prepare me for all of this (looking back now, I see that they were just people trying their best, just like I was, and they did a pretty darn good job all things considered).
What is your Threshold Guardian? What does the monster that guards the gateway to your inner world look like? What fears do you have to move past to change yourself for the better?
And what are your special abilities that you can use to make it past? Are you a clever trickster like Odysseus? A musician like Orpheus? Or perhaps you are an athlete like Hercules and pushing yourself physically helps you to overcome mental blocks.
Other mythological trials include Scylla and Charybdis, which we discuss in Our Approach to exploring ideas and stories on this site.
Jason and the Argonauts face many trials on their way to Colchis, home of the Golden Fleece, and we don’t need to look at all of them to understand the Hero’s Journey.
But once they get there, Jason’s travails are far from over. He tells the local King, Aeetes, that he is there for the Golden Fleece. Unsurprisingly, Aeetes is not eager to let it go, even though it’s guarded by a fearsome sleepless dragon so nobody (including King Aeetes) can actually get at it.
Aeetes puts before Jason a set of tasks which he must complete alone. He must yoke a pair of ferocious, fire-breathing bulls, make them plow a field, sow the field with dragon’s teeth, then slay the army of warriors that (for some reason) will then sprout up from the ground.
Here we get to the part that other people can’t do for you. In this part of the Journey, we’re in the inner world, so Jason, the ill-tempered bulls, the field, the dragon’s teeth, the warriors, they’re all parts of you. Which parts do you think they are?
Perhaps the two bulls are two different untamed parts of yourself that often butt heads with each other and mess up your life in the process.
The field could be your unconscious mind, which grows whatever you plant into it. If you sow the dragons teeth of self-hatred, you’ll get an army of thoughts that try to kill you, or at least make you miserable.
These are just examples. Look inside yourself. What are these things for you?
Luckily, myths don’t just give fanciful depictions of problems, they also show us ingenious solutions.
Jason stuns the bulls by smacking their heads together (no joke–the old Three Stooges trick works for Jason) and then yokes them together. Once he gets the yoke on them, they become docile and he’s able to plow the field.
What does the yoke represent? What can you use to join together the parts of yourself that war with each other and make them serve a useful purpose?
Jason then obligingly sows the field with the dragons teeth and up spring the warriors, ready to attack. Here, Jason’s solution is very clever: he throws a stone into the middle of the army. The warriors, who really just want to attack something, don’t know where the stone came from, so they attack each other and keep fighting until all of them are dead.
What meaning can you make from this?
Now comes the heart of the Journey. For Jason, this is killing the dragon and taking the Golden Fleece.
This is also where his earlier good deeds pay off. The goddess Hera impels Medea, the daughter of King Aeetes, to become infatuated with Jason. She steals away from her bed that night and offers to help Jason kill the dragon if he will take her with him and marry her.
The thing that makes this dragon so difficult to get by is that it never sleeps, by night or by day. But Medea is a witch, with knowledge of plants and of magic. She gives Jason a potion that will put the dragon to sleep. He uses it, and the dragon slips off to dreamland. Jason beheads it (just for good measure) and sails off with the Fleece, the Argonauts, Medea, and her brother Apsyrtus, before the King can wake up and realize what’s happened.
The crisis for me was that without the confining cage of conventional morality to keep it in check, my Threshold Guardian ran amok, becoming a fearsome, raging dragon. I even thought about killing other people. Just random people. I thought about how I would do it, where I would do it, what time of night I would lie in wait for an unsuspecting stranger, what I would wear, what I would do with the weapon afterwards.
I didn’t do it.
Sometimes the triumph is that simple. An action not taken. Over and over, I thought about it and didn’t do it.
The treasure may seem a bit underwhelming on the surface. If there were a bumper sticker on the Argo it might say, “I sailed through clashing rocks, yoked fire-breathing bulls, defeated a supernatural army, slayed an unsleeping dragon, and all I got was this lousy golden fleece.” I mean, there’s only one Golden Fleece, so it is special, but really, what do you do with a golden fleece?
The real treasure of the Hero’s Journey is not some object that can be carried home and shown to people.
Ultimately the treasure is that Great Treasure without price, the true Wisdom that can be learned but not taught, King Solomon’s one request from God, the object of endless searching by philosophers and mystics throughout history.
Or perhaps that’s just what I think it is, being a philosopher and a mystic.
What is the treasure for you?
Think back to the last time you met a challenge you weren’t sure you could overcome. What new resources did you find within yourself that you didn’t know you had?
The treasure that I received from my harrowing adventure into the depths of my own dark side was an understanding of why ethics are important.
Ethics are important because we have to make choices. No matter which way I tried to think my way around it, I still had the undeniable, irreducible experience of choosing, throughout my day, every day. We all must make choices, and we have to decide how we’re going to make them.
We can simply let whatever impulse is closest to the surface at any given moment run the show, but this in itself is a choice. Another choice is to think out, in advance, what we want to base our choices on in general, what kind of life we want to lead, what kind of person we want to be, what kind of effect we want to have overall through the course of our lives. This process of thinking it out in advance is ethics.
I can’t tell you what the one true ethical system is, but I can tell you that in my own experience, it’s a lot better to have one than not.
And I think what distinguishes a child from an adult is this decision about how to make decisions. What makes you an adult is choosing consciously who you’re going to be, how you’re going to act, what effect you’re going to try to have.
Some heroes manage to help and befriend the occupants of the special world, and are sent off with the treasure and a feast of honor to boot.
Jason has acquired the treasure through deception, against the wishes of the King of the realm in which he found it. Thus, Jason must flee in the dead of night and be pursued on the return Journey.
What do you think makes the difference?
Myths don’t always show us heroes who are completely successful on their Journeys. Sometimes they show us what not to do and why. On his return from the isle of Colchis, Jason gives us one such example.
Despite the craftsmanship of the Argo and the legendary prowess of its sailors, King Aeetes’ ships are coming closer and closer. The Argonauts, though they are formidable, aren’t sure they can take on Aeetes’ entire army.
Medea then offers a plan: Jason can dismember her brother, Apsyrtus, and throw the parts into the sea. She knows that her father will stop his pursuit to collect the pieces of his son and land his ships to bury them.
This is a crucial decision in Jason’s story.
Dismemberment is a motif that shows up in many stories of initiation (that’s really what the Hero’s Journey is: it’s a story about moving from one stage of life or state of being to another). Often, a hero will be dismembered and then reformed as one of his or her trials.
The image of dismemberment is a graphic way of asking the basic question of the Journey: Who are you?
When an arm is cut off, the question is, “are you your arm?”
When a leg is torn off, the question is, “are you your leg?
As each part of the body is removed, the question becomes, “are you your body?” If the answer is no, the question becomes, “Are you your feelings?” “Are you your thoughts?” “Are you your mind?”
Jason goes ahead with Medea’s plan.
Jason’s mistake is not just chopping up his innocent brother-in-law, but also leaving his own body intact. He returns home to install his father as King, bringing the power of the Golden Fleece and of Medea’s magic, but he returns as the same self who embarked on the adventure so long before. He keeps his identification with his body, his lust for glory, his thoughts and ambitions. When the chips are down, rather than sacrificing himself, he sacrifices someone else. And while he gets away with it for now, he will pay the price later.
After returning in triumph, marrying Medea, having children, and living somewhat happily for a while, Jason will tire of his new life and plan a marriage with the daughter of another king. Medea, enraged, will kill Jason’s would be bride. Then she will kill her own sons by Jason, fearing that a worse fate will befall them if they are captured by the vengeful relatives of Jason’s murdered fiancee.
So, while Jason is able to take the easy way out on his return from Colchis, he paves a much harder way for himself later in his life. He does not pay the sacrifice for the Golden Fleece up front. Instead, it is extracted from him later on much more terrible terms.
Let’s compare Jason to another hero, the Welsh Gwion Bach.
Gwion Bach is enlisted by the goddess Caridwen to help her make a potion of Wisdom. The potion requires a year of constant stirring, and Caridwen isn’t about to do it herself. She puts the ingredients in the cauldron and commands Gwion Bach to begin stirring.
When the year is nearly up, three drops of the precious elixir spatter out and land on Gwion Bach’s hand. The liquid is scaldingly hot, so he licks his hand and discovers that he has obtained the boon that the goddess had wanted for herself. Knowing she won’t be pleased and not wishing to know what she’ll do about it, he flees before she can return. Sadly, even with a head start and the magic of the potion, he is no match for Caridwen.
He transforms himself into a hare to run faster, but she changes into a hound. He becomes a fish, but she becomes an otter. The two continue their shape-shifting flight and pursuit until Gwion Bach becomes a grain of wheat and hides himself in the piled up harvest in a nearby barn. Caridwen is again too clever for him. She becomes a hen, finds his grain among the thousands of others, and eats him whole.*
Gwion Bach’s shapeshifting is his realization that his outer form is not essential to who he is. His final form—the grain of wheat—is the seed of his being, the essence of who or what he is.
What is this for you? Is there one thing that, if removed, would make you stop being you?
For me, the return has been a long, slow process. At some point, I decided my obsession with violence was not making my life any better, and just gradually stopped indulging it. I let go of my generalized anger, my attachment to the ways I felt I’d been hurt. I focused on other things. I knew that wasn’t the person I wanted to be, but I wasn’t yet sure who I did want to be.
A sacrifice must be made on the Hero’s Journey. To change, to become a better version of yourself, you must not just obtain the treasure of insight or power. You must also let go of the things that hold you back, the person you thought you were but now know you’re not. And you must realize that the treasure isn’t just for you, but for your whole community.
10. New Life
Jason returns to his father, Aeson, and Medea uses her magic to restore him to youth and health. Then, the family returns to their ancestral home and takes the throne from the traitor Pelias. Aeson rules benevolently for many years (at least in some versions of the story).
Here, Jason uses his treasures to benefit his loved ones, not himself. He even offers to sacrifice his own youth to rejuvenate his father by having his blood transfused into the old king. Medea once again spares him this sacrifice by removing some of Aeson’s blood, infusing it with herbs, and returning it to his body.
Everything is as it should be, at least for now.
Gwion Bach is consumed as the grain of wheat, then he grows into a baby within Caridwen’s womb. After she gives birth to him, she’s still mad, but not mad enough to kill him, so she throws him into the sea. A fisherman retrieves him, and he has become Taliesin, a great magical bard-hero who possesses eternal wisdom but uses it to benefit others in the world of here and now.*
As we see above, the Hero uses his or her treasure to help solve the problem in the community that initially set him or her off on the Journey.
This website grows partly out of the gifts I brought back from my Hero’s Journey. For me, determining my ethics and values was literally a matter of life and death. I had to figure out what I was going to base my choices on.
So now I’m asking you: Who will you be? How will you make the choices that shape your life?
One way to help answer these questions is by looking at the journeys you’ve already been on:
What is a problem you’ve faced? What new abilities or understandings did you bring forth to deal with it? What inner monsters did you have to face to get those abilities or understandings?
How did you use them to help solve the problem?
Is there another problem in your surroundings—your family, your society, your personal life—that you think you could help with?
If so, are you ready to take a Journey?
If you’d like a guide on that Journey, take a look at our online mentoring course, in which we’ll help you figure out how to make use of the powers you already have to meet the challenges you face.
12. Status Quo
The Journey does not really end. We face a challenge, it forces us to go into our inner world to discover new powers or insights that we didn’t know were in there, we use those new resources to face the challenge and overcome it, and everyone around us benefits as a result. But then, inevitably, another challenge soon looms on the horizon.
Ideally, we move on to greater and greater fields of activity, we take on greater and greater challenges, and we bring forth greater and greater treasures from our depths to yield greater and greater services to the world.
It doesn’t always work exactly like this day-to-day, year-to-year. Sometimes it seems like we slide back into old challenges, old ways of being, then lurch forward into new ones. We don’t always have to be perfect heroes, but the Hero’s Journey gives us a map that can help us turn any challenge into an opportunity, to generally, over the long term, become greater and greater boons to those around us.
There’s at least one thing Joseph Campbell claims about the Hero’s Journey that isn’t quite true: he calls it the “monomyth,” implying that there’s really only one story that’s ever been told, that all myths can be reduced to the Hero’s Journey.
The Hero’s Journey does show us the power and usefulness of a good story for transforming self and society.
But there are other stories. Some of them have been written, and some of them haven’t. Your life doesn’t have to conform to just one story, no matter how many times it’s been told, and neither does your culture.
So please, seek out different stories and see how they play out in your own life and in the world at large.
And you can create new stories. The world is waiting to hear them.
*Paraphrased from Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Bollingen Series XVII, Princeton University Press, 2nd Edition, 1968, p. 197-198