What is The Hero's Journey?
The Hero’s Journey is a model derived from mythologist Joseph Campbell’s research into the great stories of the world. While he was compiling his Historical Atlas of World Mythology, Campbell realized that there was an archetypal story at work that manifested in the stories from diverse and unrelated cultures and across all time periods.
The Hero’s Journey has been employed not just in mythology, but in countless novels, movies, and video games. It is used so frequently because creators recognize it as something we can all instinctively relate to – leaving what is familiar, going through a series of transformative experiences, and then emerging as a different person at the end.
It is this familiarity that makes the framework so powerful – not just when used in art but when applied to our own personal development as well.
I am fascinated by The Hero’s Journey and I often gravitate towards stories that include moments of failure, triumph, and transformation.
Want to learn more? Let’s begin by going over each stage of The Hero’s Journey. The stages exist within the bigger themes of the Departure, Initiation, and Return.
The first group of stages is known as the Departure. It represents departing from the ordinary world and into the special world where the hero’s transformation will take place.
The Call to Adventure
The Call to Adventure is that voice inside telling the hero to create a life that fulfills her and her potential. It’s their soul and their gifts yearning to be expressed in the world. In mythic tales, the Call to Adventure is oftentimes an event that shakes up the ordinary world, demanding some kind of choice to be made to either leave things as they are or restore the balance.
The Refusal of the Call
The Refusal of the Call happens when the hero either never begins their journey, or begins it but then turns back because of fear of the unknown, self-doubt, or some other limiting belief.
Meeting the Mentor / Supernatural Aid
During this stage, the hero comes across a mentor who provides her with sage insight from their own knowledge or past experience. They also may give the hero some tools to help them on their journey.
Crossing the First Threshold
This stage represents the first big action that the hero undertakes. It occurs when the hero takes action by choosing to move from the known to the unknown world.
Belly of the Whale
During this stage the hero begins to understand the rules of this new world. This includes how they interact with their environment as well as with others. They also get a sense of what is really at stake.
The next group of stages is referred to as The Initiation. This is where the hero comes up against their most harrowing challenges.
The Road of Trials
The Road of Trials is filled with shadowy monsters, clever plans, and narrow escapes. During this stage the hero is tested several times. Sometimes she fails and sometimes she succeeds, but she’s always learning and growing.
The Meeting with the Goddess
The hero has overcome the tests and receives gifts or knowledge that will help them as they complete their quest.
The Woman as Temptress
In this stage, the hero becomes aware that the world they’ve been fighting so hard for is not as perfect as they thought it was. They may become disillusioned and want to give up on their quest altogether.
Alternatively, they may be presented with another path, one much easier than the one they are currently on, and be tempted to abandon their current journey for this other one without as many barriers.
Atonement with the Father / Abyss
The hero reconciles the horrors of the world with the beauty of it. He recognizes that the dualities we are faced with in life can exist simultaneously, that it’s not an either / or scenario.
Through the realizations and deeper understanding they’ve cultivated along the way, the hero finds the resolve they need to complete their journey.
The Ultimate Boon
Achievement unlocked! At this stage, the hero has achieved what they set out to do. This often takes the form of a physical item, like an elixir or a magical object, that they will bring back home with them. It can also be great knowledge that they will need to share with others in order to put things back in order.
The journey home. These are the final stages of The Hero’s Journey. Much transformation has occurred during the Initiation process, but the challenges are far from over.
Refusal of the Return
At this point the hero must make a choice of whether to return home at all. They’ve done what they set out to do, but they may be consider whether they have the ability or desire to share their gifts with those they left behind.
The Magic Flight
If the hero achieved their prize a little too easily or the guardian of the treasure disapproves of the hero’s plans to share it with others, they may be pursued out of the supernatural world.
Rescue from Without
In this stage the hero connects with helpers who can give them return passage back to the ordinary world if they need it.
The Crossing of the Return Threshold
This stage isn’t so much about finally being back home, but rather beginning to take everything you’ve learned and introduce it into your daily life and share it with the world.
Master of Two Worlds
At this point the hero has successfully integrated both the inner and outer worlds – the spiritual and the physical. They are comfortable with traveling back and forth between both.
Freedom to Live
Now that the hero has overcome so much and fully integrated all that they’ve learned, they can move forward in their life embracing the present moment, rather that living in the past or the future. In doing so, they gain the peace they’ve always desired.
The Hero's Journey In Action - Theseus And The Minotaur
Let’s take a look at a classic myth of greek mythology – Theseus and the Minotaur, and explore how The Hero’s Journey is laid out in the story.
First some background. On the island of Crete there lived King Minos and Queen Pasiphae. Zeus had gifted a bull to King Minos but when the bull was not sacrificed in his honor, Zeus punished King Minos by bewitching Queen Pasiphae into having relations with the bull. She became impregnated and had a half man / half bull son.
King Minos was furious but didn’t want to kill the infant lest he incur Zeus’ wrath, so he constructed a labyrinth and banished the Minotaur there. The King would then send his enemies into the labyrinth to be devoured by the beast.
One day King Minos’ human son Androgeus traveled to Athens to participate in the Panathenaic Games, but was killed.
Enraged, King Minos ordered that Athens send 7 youths and maids to be sacrificed to the Minotaur every nine years, or else suffer bloody war with Crete.
Now this is where our hero comes in. Theseus, son of Aegeus, King of Athens, volunteers to stop the sacrifices once and for all and kill the beast of the labyrinth. This is the Call to Adventure.
There is no Refusal or the Call as Theseus is ready to embark on this quest and it’s his own idea, but he does meet with his father, his mentor before he goes. His father begs him not to leave, let another Athenian go in his place, but Theseus is resolute. Although the king doesn’t give him any supernatural aid, one could argue that this conversation helps Theseus solidify his commitment as he considers the full weight of his decision, and moves forward with full knowledge of the stakes involved.
Before he sails for Crete (Crossing the First Threshold), he promises his father that when the ships return to Athens, if he is alive the crew will put up white sails. If he is slain, the sails will remain black, the mark of the ships bearing the sacrificial victims to the monster. This way his father would know right away the fate of his son as he keeps watch over the sea, awaiting his return. With that, Theseus sets sail for Crete, and his destiny.
Once in Crete, Theseus is stripped of his weapons and meets King Minos. He is now in The Belly of the Whale.
Theseus meets King Minos’s daughter, Princess Ariadne. They fall in love and Ariadne, wanting to help Theseus find his way out of the maze if he should succeed in killing her half-brother, gives him a ball of thread that if unspooled starting at the entrance, will eventually lead him back out. This is the Meeting with the Goddess. It is also The Woman as Temptress, because in falling in love with Ariadne he is tempted to forget his mission and abscond with her. But he makes the choice to remain and face his foe.
Now it’s time for Theseus to enter the labyrinth and face the Minotaur within. (In this story, the Road of Trials stage is skipped and we go straight to the final showdown.) Armed with a sword that he had hidden under his cloak and Ariadne’s ball of thread, Theseus enters the dark and winding maze. As he ventures deeper and deeper, he must face his inner fears and muster his courage to continue with every step. This is Atonement with the Father / Abyss, since he must accept that heroism does not come from simply accomplishing great feats, (and he has accomplished many up to this point in other quests), but overcoming the dread, self-doubt, and fear to undertake them for the benefit of humanity and the ones you love. You can’t have courage without fear.
When he encounters the sleeping Minotaur, Theseus has a choice. He can either wake up the beast and fight, or run back out of the maze and flee to his ship for safety. He decides to fight (Apotheosis).
The two great warriors use all of their strength against the other, but in the end, Theseus is able to overcome the beast. Finally, with a swing of his sword, beheads the Minotaur, ending his bloody reign of terror (The Ultimate Boon).
After killing the Minotaur, Theseus uses Ariadne’s thread to exit the maze. He gathers up his fellow Athenians and Ariadne and together they set sail back home. Along the way the stop at and island to gather provisions and to celebrate Theseus’ victory. After a long night of partying, Ariadne is sound asleep when Theseus and his crew leave the island without her. In some versions of the myth, it is accidental (chalk it up to hangover brain). In other versions of the story, Theseus purposefully leaves her behind.
This action can be linked back to Woman as Temptress and Refusal of the Return. Ariadne represents a dangerous distraction from his urgent need to return to Athens and let his father know that the Minotaur is slain and the Athenians are no longer under King Minos’ thumb. When he leaves her behind (purposefully or not), he still chooses to keep going instead of turning around to go back for her. This means that he has chosen his spiritual journey and heroic quest over her. (But don’t feel too bad for Ariadne. Dionysus ends up marrying her and she becomes an immortal goddess, so she does just fine.)
At the Crossing of the Return Threshold, Theseus sails into harbor but forgets one very important thing. Whether it was his anguish over leaving Ariadne behind, or just too much partying, he forgets to change the sails from black to white, signaling to his father that he has returned to him alive and well. King Aegeus, seeing the black sails on the horizon and overcome with grief, plunges himself into the ocean in an act of suicide. (This is how the Aegean Sea got its name.)
Theseus returns to Athens as a Master of Two Worlds. He has returned his land to its former stature and saved countless future youths from a terrible death. He and all Athenians now have the Freedom to Live in the present moment and choose their own paths, instead of having a fate thrust upon them by a foreign king.
How The Hero's Journey Can Help Us Lead Legendary Lives
So now that we’ve gone through the stages of The Hero’s Journey and seen it in action, let’s explore how this framework can be applied to your own personal transformation.
Psychologist Carl Jung developed a model for the human psyche. He said that we have a conscious mind, an unconscious mind, and a collective unconscious. The conscious mind houses are ego and our thoughts. The unconscious mind holds our habits and patterns, as well as all the unexpressed or repressed versions of ourselves. Finally, the collective unconscious is an intuitive knowledge and recognition of patterns imprinted on all of us at conception. For example, archetypal characters such as the wise woman or the trickster are universal in world cultures and instantly recognizable.
Jung explained that when we only operate from our conscious minds, we are missing out on living up to our full potential because of all the expressed parts of ourselves that remain in our unconscious. We must journey into the unconscious mind and face these hidden aspects of ourselves and integrate them with our consciousness so we can bring our total Selves to the world.
This is The Hero’s Journey. During the Departure stages we are working from our known reality, our conscious minds. When we are being Initiated, we are peeling back the layers and facing our inner fears and accessing aspects of ourselves we didn’t even know were there. Then at the Return, we take all that we’ve learned, all the emotional and spiritual breakthroughs and realizations, all the newfound understanding, and bring back only what will serve us as we strive to fulfill our callings in the world.
The goal of personal transformation, after all, is to have the Freedom to Live. That balance, peace, and ecstasy of becoming who we truly are is what we long for, which can happen only when we integrate and resolve the unconscious realm within ourselves.
This is also why it’s so important to understand where you are on your own journey. For example, if you have experienced the Call to Adventure but are having issues with taking action, maybe finding a mentor is your next step to continue your momentum. Maybe you’ve Crossed the First Threshold but you’re feeling overwhelmed in this Belly of the Whale stage, and the answer is you need to get acclimated to your new situation and not run for the hills. Having this insight is both instructive and consoling to realize that the struggles you are facing are just part of the process.
So there you have it – a complete overview of The Hero’s Journey and how it can help you on your personal journey to self-discovery and fulfillment! The next time you are feeling overwhelmed and out of your league, just remember that it’s all part of the plan. You got this!