Joseph Campbell: The Monomyth and the Hero’s Journey

Introduction

Joseph Campbell is one of my most favourite thinkers and authors of all time. I believe that the main reason for this is that Joseph Campbell explored some extraordinarily unique and complicated ideas, such as his idea of the Monomyth and the Heros’s Journey, but he always managed to translate them into language relatable to everyday life. At the same time, I find that his ideas transcend our current age, and manage to connect the distant past to the present and the future, making us realize how deeply connected we are to our ancestors, as well as to eachother.  

          One of Joseph Campbell’s most interesting and inspirational ideas was his idea of the Monomyth. In this article I will explore this idea of the Monomyth further, I will define the concept and discuss the purpose of the existence of the Monomyth. I will first briefly discuss Joseph Campbell’s vision of mythology, which is necessary to explain the concept of the Monomyth properly.

Joseph Campbell’s Mythology

Joseph Campbell is perhaps most famous for his extensive research on mythology. It is extremely interesting to see the world of mythology through the lens of Joseph Campbell and, when one does look through this lens, one will easily understand the concept of the monomyth.

          As discussed in a previous article, Joseph Campbell stressed the importance of myths, most notably as a bridge between the unconscious and conscious world, but also as a stimulus for some of the most important activities of human beings throughout the ages. In his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell stressed the importance of myths and indicated that myths are in many ways universal: “Throughout the inhabited world, in all times and under every circumstance, myths of man have flourished; and they have been the living inspiration of whatever else may have appeared out of the activities of the human body and mind.” (p.1)

          Moreover, Joseph Campbell believed that myths serve as a foundation for our connection to the energies of the universe, which may sound a bit vague, but hopefully it will make more sense at the end of this article: “It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into the human cultural manifestation.” (p.1) Furthermore, according to Joseph Campbell, myths are not constructed, instead they are unconscious creations of the spirit: “They are spontaneous productions of the psyche, and each bears within it, undamaged, the germ power of its source.” (p.2)

          At the same time, Joseph Campbell believed that myths, whether they are old Eskimo tales or stories from West African tribes, they always follow a similar story line: “It will always be the one, shape-shifting yet marvellously constant story that we find, together with a challengingly persistent suggestion of more remaining to be experienced than will ever be known or told.” (p.1) Even though our culture is lacking a certain cohesive mythology, according to Joseph Campbell, these ‘constant stories’ will still make themselves known to us: “In the absence of an effective general mythology, each of us has his private, unrecognized, rudimentary, yet secretly potent pantheon of dream.” (P.2)

The Monomyth

These ideas combined resulted in the idea of the Monomyth: (1) myths exist everywhere and throughout all ages, (2) myths connect us to our unconscious and are spontaneous constructions of the unconscious, (3) myths universally follow a similar story line. The monomyth can therefore be defined as the overarching, universal pattern which is present throughout all mythology.

          The similar story line, i.e., the Monomyth, which these myths follow is that of the hero’s journey: “The standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero is a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage: separation – initiation – return: which might be name the nuclear unit of the monomyth.” (p.23) Essentially, throughout every myth, the hero follows the same pattern of departure, initiation and return: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” (p.23)

          The journey of the hero is unique because it is in a sense not a personal journey, but a universal one. It is interesting to note how Joseph Campbell explained the differences between myth and dreams. Joseph Campbell indicated that dreams are a sort of personal myth, while myths are universal dreams: “Dream is the personalized myth, myth the depersonalized dream: both myth and dream are symbolic in the same general way of the dynamics of the psyche. But in the dream the forms are quirked by the peculiar troubles of the dreamer, whereas in myth the problems and solutions shown are directly valid for all mankind.” (p.14)

The Monomyth and the Hero’s Journey

It is the task of the hero, according to Joseph Campbell, to transcend this distinction between personal symbols, as presented in dreams, and universal symbols, as presented in mythology, both originating from the same source: “The hero, therefore, is the man or woman who has been able to battle past his personal and local historical limitations to the generally valid, normally human forms.” (p.14) Once the hero has been able to battle past these limitations, he or she will be able to transcend his or own morality: “Such a one’s visions, ideas, and inspirations come pristine from the primary springs of human life and thought. Hence they are eloquent, not of the present, disintegrating society and psyche, but of the unquenched sources through which society is reborn. The hero has died as a modern man; but as eternal man – perfected, unspecific, universal man – he has been reborn.” (p.15)

          As indicated, this adventure of the hero always follows this similar pattern of departure, initiation, and return. Joseph Campbell explored this pattern throughout his book the Hero with a Thousand Faces; the hero dies (leaves his current world), is reborn, and must then share his insights with the world. Joseph Campbell further subdivided each stage into several other stages, which you can see in the table below. I will not discuss these stages in further detail, however, in case you are interested I can highly recommend you read through them in Joseph Campbell’s book the Hero with a Thousand Faces. For now, it is interesting to note that, if you consider every myth, fairy-tale or religious story carefully, you might recognize, if not all, at least many of the patterns originating from the overarching Monomyth.  

          In the table I have used the example of the Lord of the Rings character Frodo, who is, at first, hesitant to submit to the call to adventure, eventually, with the aid of other supernatural characters, Frodo, however, crosses the first threshold to the other world. Frodo leaves the safe and comfortable world of the Shire and goes on an adventure to Mordor. Throughout this adventure he has to face many challenges and overcome many temptations. Eventually Frodo returns to the Shrine and, indeed, he becomes a master of two worlds. The journey of the hero’s present within the Star Wars movies follow a similar patterns, which is not a coincidence because Star Wars director George Lucas openly shared the influence which Joseph Campbell had on his work.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: MONOMYTH AND THE HERO'S JOURNEY
The Adventures of Lord of the Rings Charachter Frodo as an Exmaple of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth and The Hero’s Journey

          At the same time, besides these more modern examples, Joseph Campbell presented an impressive amount of other, older examples throughout his book the Hero with a Thousand Faces: “Promotheus ascended to the heavens, stole fire from the gods, and descended. Jason sailed through the Clashing Rocks into a sea of marvels, circumvented the dragon that guarded the Golden Fleece, and returned with the fleece and the power to wrest his rightful throne from a usurper.” (p.23) All these examples, wether age old stories of the struggles of Buddha, or the fictious character of Frodo, follow the similar pattern of departure, initation and return.  

The Purpose of the Monomyth

Joseph Campbell believed that every individual should heed to the call to adventure set by his own life, every individual should venture to follow the pathway of the Monomyth and become a hero his or herself. According to Joseph Campbell, we can use the adventures of those that went before us as an inspiration: “We have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path.” (p.18)

          Joseph Campbell was optimistic in believing that, if more and more people would go on a similar ‘hero’s journey’, as the pattern set out by the monomyth, this would result in more harmony in the world: “And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the centre of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.” (p.18)

          This is the purpose of the monomyth, it can serve as an inspiration for our own adventure, it connects both worlds, the conscious world of the day and the unconscious world of the psyche and serves as a bridge between both worlds. By connecting both worlds, Joseph Campbell believed that the human spirit could reach a degree of maturity which it would otherwise lack: “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 constant human fantasies that tend to tie it back.” (p.7) Joseph Campbell even considered the possibility that our modern age, which does not pay attention to the idea of the Monomyth and mythology in general, has a high occurrence of mental and spiritual problems, precisely because of this lack of myth: “In fact, 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 unexercised images of our infancy, and hence disinclined to the necessary passages of our adulthood.” (p.7)

Conclusions

Joseph Campbell believed that mythology lay at the heart of almost every thought present within humanity, whether it be in a personal dream, or an important worldwide religion: “Religions, philosophies, arts, the social forms of primitive and historic man, prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic, magic ring of myth.” (p.1)

               Moreover, according to Joseph Campbell, within this world of myth, a common pattern can be observed. Joseph Campbell used the term Monomyth to define this pattern. The common pattern which these myths are subject to is the journey of the hero, which consists of three main stages: departure, initiation, and return. The hero ventures into the world of the unknown, he or she is met with many challenges and eventually returns to the conscious world, whereupon he or she will realize the connection between both worlds, as well as a deep intrinsic connection between his or her own self and all which he or she did  previously not consider a part of the self: “The realm of the gods is a forgotten dimension of the world we know. And the exploration of that dimension, either willingly or unwillingly, is the whole sense of the deed of the hero. The values and distinctions that in normal life seem important disappear with the terrifying assimilation of the self into what formerly was only otherness.” (p.188)

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