The Hero's (or Heroine's) Journey

The hero’s/heroine’s journey occurs in every culture, at every period of history – in myth and fairy-tales, in great literature, opera and film.  It is also our story.

The Power of Myth...

In Cold Mountain Charles Frazier tells the story of a man returning home from war - he’s a Confederate soldier and the war is the American Civil War.  It’s set in North Carolina, between the Appalachian Mountains and the Atlantic - a harsh landscape of mountains and forests.  The hero in this story is struggling home to the woman he loves.  En route he encounters strange characters, danger and violence, but he also meets with unexpected kindness from strangers.  Meanwhile, at home, the woman he loves and her helpmate await his return while they plough and plant, spin and weave.

I recognized when I read the novel the echo of Odysseus and his travails.  Homer’s tale of the hero of the Trojan Wars (the king of Ithaca) and his return journey home is an enthralling adventure story.

The Odyssey begins some ten years after the end of the Trojan Wars, and Odysseus is stranded on an island with an enchantress named Calypso.  Calypso helps him set out to sea on a raft, but Poseidon causes a storm and Odysseus is shipwrecked.  He is saved by a sea-nymph and then taken to the court of the king and queen of Phaecia, where he narrates his adventures since the ending of the War. 

It is a tale full of encounters - the Lotus-Eaters (a people who live on narcotic plants); the one-eyed monster Polyphemus; Aeolus, king of the winds, who gives Odysseus a bag containing all the contrary winds, so that his journey home will be safe.  Unfortunately, his men think the bag contains jewels and open it, so that the ship is tossed in the wrong direction as the winds escape. 

After this disaster they arrive at the harbour of the Laestrygonians, cannibal giants, who eat many of the crew; they land on Circe’s island, and she drugs the men and turns them into animals.  With the aid of Hermes, who provides a magic herb to annul the effects of Circe, Odysseus forces her to free his men.  But they end up staying on the island for a year.

Before he can return home the hero has to visit the Underworld, where he meets the ghosts of some of those killed in the Trojan War - Agamemnon, Achilles and Ajax.

Finally departing from Circe’s island, Odysseus is warned to beware of the Sirens, then Scylla and Charybdis on either side of the Messenian Strait, and the cattle of Trinacia.  The hero successfully passes each test, but in the land of Trinacia his men steal the cattle and are punished for eating some of them.  They die in a storm and only Odysseus is saved.

This is the heart of The Odyssey - the middle section of the 24 books of the epic poem.  Finally, Odysseus does arrive home, where his faithful wife Penelope is waiting for him.

As a child I was enthralled by these stories.  I thought they were just stories, nothing more.  But, of course, they were very powerful stories, powerful because they are myths.  So what exactly are myths? 

Myths are profound psychological understandings about the nature of the human journey.  They are in fact our story.  I’m reminded of something John Steinbeck wrote in East of Eden:

‘If a story is not about the hearer, he will not listen. ... a great and interesting story is about everyone or it will not last.’

Myths are not literally true, but they are always psychologically and spiritually authentic.    They help provide meaning for us - they are models for understanding how to live.  They help us live in a manner which fulfils us, keeping us grounded, whilst at the same time experiencing life with richness.  

Odysseus’s voyage has become a paradigm for the Hero’s or Heroine’s Journey.  The work of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung has been important in helping us understand its true significance. 

The Hero’s Journey is a set of concepts derived from Campbell’s  exploration of mythology and the depth psychology of Jung which enable us to become more fully alive and effective in the world.   It is a template for self-discovery, for how to look at our lives and the challenges we face when we want to discover who we really are and how we should live.

The pattern is universal.  It occurs in every culture, at every period of history.  Not only does it occur in myths and fairy tales, but it also occurs in great literature, operas, films, and often in dreams.  There are countless examples: the epic of Gilgamesh, Beowulf, King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, Dante’s  Divine Comedy, The story of Exodus, The Ramayana,  Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, Kerouac’s On the Road, Star Trek, Peer Gynt,  Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Jason and the Golden Fleece, Alice in Wonderland, The Canterbury Tales, Moby Dick, Lord of the Rings,  the Wizard of Oz, Harry Potter…

Always, the Hero’s Journey is about being called to take a very special kind of journey - the essence of which is about finding the treasure of his true self, and then returning home to share the gift - transforming the kingdom and his life in the process.

As with any good story, this is our story.  The far-off kingdom, the undiscovered country is the deepest part of our own being.  Though life is a journey from birth to death - it’s the inner journey we embark on at a certain point in our lives that is the Hero’s Journey.  Until we embark on that journey we’re constantly drawn outwards in the world.  We seek new experiences, new relationships.  We seek to acquire.  We strive to achieve something. We push ourselves to the limits of endurance - it’s different for all of us in terms of what we choose to do, but generally we tend to seek for something which will bring us satisfaction, fulfilment, happiness - outside of ourselves.  It seems that as human beings we’re restless, eternal travellers, seeking here, seeking there....

Tolstoy tells a story of a crippled beggar who lived upon a small patch of ground.  He was so poor that when he died, the townspeople buried him on the spot.  But as they began to dig his grave - they unearthed a treasure of gold coins just below the surface.  The poor man had literally been sitting upon a fortune and hadn’t known it.

So it is with us.  We have a treasure deep inside ourselves - but we spend our time looking for it outside ourselves.  If we’re more fortunate than Tolstoy’s old man, however, at some point in our lives something prompts us to embark on this inner journey.  We might have achieved those things we set out to do, and found that it doesn’t bring us the satisfaction that we hoped for, or we may well feel that we’re selling our souls in order to achieve what we thought we wanted.   But something makes us realize that there has to be another way, another kind of journey - and that inner journey is about the struggle to be truly ourselves in a world that tries to make us like everyone else.

We may have done well on our outer journey through life, managing to keep all the balls in the air, but we may well have paid a price in ending up feeling empty, exhausted, not good enough, or simply that we’ve been banging our heads against a brick wall, or climbing the wrong ladder.  This underlying sense of unease or alienation can however lead us to something deeper and richer ultimately.  Often life has to fall apart before it can be transformed into something more fulfilling. It’s when we’re on our knees that we know we need to make the inner journey.

I’m reminded of an analogy used by the Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa.  He talks about us being in a cocoon, a cocoon of comfort - a completely enclosed world in which our whole reference point is ourselves and the maintenance of our comfortable cocoon.  But - there is a longing for the possibility of something else in this comfortable world we’ve created, and this longing creates a slight tear in the cocoon.  And through that tear comes ‘a fresh breeze of delight’.  The breeze enables us to see the cocoon we’ve created for what it is.  To feel the ‘breeze of delight’  is very much to undertake the Hero’s Journey, to take ‘the road less travelled’, to embark on the spiritual path.

The Elements of the Hero’s (Heroine’s) Journey

In spite of its infinite variety (Campbell’s book is after all called The Hero with a Thousand Faces) - the elements of the Hero’s journey are always the same:

  • The hero leaves comfortable, ordinary surroundings to venture into an unfamiliar and challenging world.  He may well feel unsettled, a sense of dis-ease.
  • He is ‘called’.  But he resists the call through fear, or laziness, not wanting to leave the comfort zone.
  • A mentor appears and gives help and advice.  The hero commits and crosses the threshold.
  • He is then ‘tested’.  During the process he finds allies and enemies.  This is the ‘descent’ - perhaps to the inner-most cave.
  • The ‘ordeal’ or ‘initiation’ follows.
  • Surviving death, or maybe only appearing to die so that he can be reborn - the hero takes possession of the ‘treasure’ or reward.
  • But he’s not out of danger yet!  Often a second life and death occurrence happens, as if testing to see whether the hero has truly learned the lessons of the ordeal.
  • The hero is transformed by these experiences and is able to return to ordinary life with new insights.
  • Returning to the ordinary world, he brings back the ‘treasure’, or ‘elixir’, or ‘lesson’ - the purpose of which is to be used for the greater good, to heal or serve in some way.
  • The myth’s appeal is precisely because it concerns us all.  It reflects the journey each of us makes from ignorance to self-knowledge, from being fragmented to being whole. The journey is full of dangers, but offers great rewards.  We grow and change as we progress - the old self dies and we’re in effect reborn.

The Archetypes as aspects of the Hero (Heroine)

The archetypes are facets of the hero’s personality.  They are like sub-personalities, the parts of us, vying for attention.  They stand for aspects of the complete human personality.  Our task is to bring together the divided self, to integrate the archetypes.   We will all need to dive deep and bring to the surface the parts of ourselves we have not cultivated, and accept and integrate them.

It’s about wholeness, not about perfection.  It’s not a journey with a goal that is reached as such.  It’s a process without end.  Jung called this process ‘the journey of individuation’.    In the process of integrating the archetypes we become more and more who we truly are - we awaken to authentic power and fulfil our potential.

The Hero Archetype: A hero is someone who is willing to sacrifice his own needs on behalf of others.  The hero archetype represents the ego’s search for identity and wholeness.  In the process of becoming fully evolved human beings, we are all heroes facing internal guardians, demons and helpers.  All the villains, tricksters, lovers, betrayers, teachers, guides can be found inside ourselves.  The psychological task we have to face is to integrate these separate parts into one complete, balanced entity.

The Mentor Archetype: The wise old man or woman - this archetype teaches and protects the hero and gives him/her gifts.  We need to find him inside ourselves.

The Threshold Guardians Archetype: This archetype can represent the ordinary obstacles we face in the world around us.  On a deeper psychological level, they stand for our internal demons - the neuroses, emotional scars, vices, dependencies and self-limitations that hold back our growth and progress.  Threshold guardians are not defeated but incorporated.

The Herald Archetype: Heralds announce the need for change.  Something deep inside us knows when we are ready to change and we receive a wake-up call, which could be a dream, an incident, a person, a book, a new idea etc.  Heralds provide motivation.

The Shapeshifter Archetype: Shapeshifters change appearance or mood.  They’re elusive.    An important psychological purpose of the Shapeshifter archetype is to express the energy of the animus and anima - Jung’s term for the male element in the female unconscious and the female element in the male.  The repressed qualities live within us.

The Shadow Archetype: The Shadow represents the energy of the dark side, the unexpressed, unrealized or rejected aspects of something.  The Shadow archetype stands for the psychoses that threaten to destroy us.  The function of the Shadow is to challenge the hero.

The Trickster Archetype: The Trickster embodies the energies of mischief and a desire for change.

The Higher Self Archetype: This represents the divine within us.

Maps for the Journey

The Tarot: There are innumerable maps of the Hero’s Journey to guide us on our way.  The archetypes are seen very clearly in the Major Arcana of the Tarot, for example...

The Fool is unnumbered and is placed at the beginning of the sequence of 22 cards.  Our hero embarks on the journey with its strange landscape.  Why undertake such a journey when he can stay in the ordinary world?  Our inner fool urges us on to life - the fool is the impulse deep in the unconscious that makes us want to set out on the quest.

Cards 1-7 - Magician, High Priestess, Empress, Emperor, High Priest, The Lovers, and the Chariot - are about finding our place in the wider social context.  They’re about making the most of our potential in the world and about preparation.

Cards 8-14 - Justice, The Hermit, The Wheel of Fortune, Strength, the Hanged Man, Death, and Temperance - are about turning inwards, about initiation (the Hanged Man represents a kind of crucifixion and Death, transformation).

Cards 15-21 - The Devil, The Tower of Destruction, The Star, the Moon, The Sun, Judgement, and the World (representing the integrated whole) - are about the search for enlightenment and the clearing away of all obstacles to integration.

So you can see these 3 clear stages - preparation and purification; the death of the old self; the realization of gnosis or enlightenment or integration.

The Conference of the Birds: This fable by Farid-ud-din-Attar is another example of stages on the path.  The Hoopoe calls an assembly of all the birds in the world, known and unknown.  They have no king, but the hoopoe knows of the Simurgh, a fabulous bird worthy to be king.  But the Hoopoe cannot set out on the difficult journey alone to find him.  Each of the birds, like each of us, makes excuses not to heed the call.  The Hoopoe then describes the 7 valleys, which are not actual places, but conditions of the soul - the maqamat - these demonstrate our resistances or psychological hurdles, and ways of overcoming them.

1  The Soul’s infancy - like the Fool in the tarot, everything is attractive and we are open to whatever comes along.

2  The enchantment of life - we form an attachment to people and things we like.  We build our cocoon.  We know desire which leads to the need to possess which leads to disappointment.

3  The need to understand why.  The stage of knowledge.

4  Disenchantment with the things which used to give us pleasure.  We see through illusion to the valley of detachment and renunciation.

5  The way of the wise - living in the world but not being of the world.

6  The valley of bewilderment - we see that everything is different from what we thought.  Confrontation with truth leads to conflict.  We begin to see that things are not as they seem but as they are.  Bewilderment.

7  The stage of the mystic.  We see the cause behind the cause.  We give up the personal view and see from a more far-reaching perspective.

The Interior Castle: St Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle is also a map which can help us on the journey.

The Castle has seven rooms through which the soul passes on its way from mortal sin to union with God.  Many souls live in the courtyard, but they are not interested in entering the castle or in knowing who lives there.

God calls to us and we listen.

In the first two rooms we are separate from God.  This is ‘the purgative life’ - withdrawing from worldly preoccupation, praying to God, getting to know our weaknesses and working to correct and purify them.  We pray and meditate, but lack determination.  God shows us compassion and continues to call us further on.

The next two rooms are ‘the illuminative life’ - virtue, detachment and humility are required.  We need to practise obedience and effort.

The final rooms are about ‘the unitive life’ - where the riches, joys and treasures of union with God are finally attained.

The Hero’s  (Heroine’s) Task/Our Task: There are many other maps I could explore, but for now let’s return to the classic hero myths studied by Joseph Campbell. 

The hero’s task is to bring life to a dying culture.  The kingdom is a wasteland where there are no crops, no births, only alienation and despair.  Fertility - the sense of life - has disappeared from the kingdom.  This dilemma is associated with some failure on the part of the king. 

The youthful hero therefore sets out, confronts a dragon, and wins a treasure - this may be riches, or a more symbolic object like a Grail or a sacred fish.  When the hero returns, he is made king - and the kingdom is magically transformed.

The wasteland is very much a metaphor for our time - for all times.  We are called to take the Hero’s Journey.  While it’s a quest for ourselves on one level, it’s also the only hope for external transformation in the world around us.  It is only through transforming ourselves that we can have a beneficial impact on the world we inhabit, and to do that we have to make that inward journey, confront the archetypes and integrate them.

We have to explore the vast world inside ourselves.  We need to let the yogis and the sages be our inspiration, for they have been spiritual explorers travelling within for thousands of years.  Their laboratory was the human body; their microscope was meditation.  What they discovered in the course of their inner journeys were universal human truths.

The Upanishads (around 500BC)

‘As large as the universe outside, even so large is the universe within the lotus of the heart.  Within it are heaven and earth, the sun, the moon, the lightning, and all the stars ... in (that world) there is a lake whose waters are like nectar and whosoever tastes therof is straightway drunk with joy, while beside that lake is a tree which yields the juice of immortality.’

Kabir (1440-1518)

‘Why wander in the outer garden?  In your body there is a garden, an endless world... There the lamps of a million suns and moons are shining ... There joy arises as you drink the sweet honey that steeps the lotus of the heart ... There the sky is filled with music made without strings or fingers.’

Swami Muktananda (1979)

‘You are not just what you think you are; you are more sublime, you are greater.  Great and divine light exists inside you.  Inside there is a vast world which is worth seeing.  It’s a sublime world.  Compared to a vision of that world, the external world is nothing.  On the inside, you’ll hear such beautiful music, divine sound.  You’ll experience so much bliss, so much joy, a divine flame.  The deeper you go inside yourself, the more of this world you’ll see.  And once you find this joy inside, you’ll experience that same joy in the outside world as well.  Therefore, learn how to turn inside.  To turn inside is meditation.’

Trust the process

We’re all called to be our finer selves by going within, by taking the inner journey which is the Hero’s (Heroine’s) Journey.  We try to resist the call ... but eventually we have to respond ... and there’s no turning back.  It is the spiritual path, sadhana, integration - whatever term we want to use.  The journey is different for each of us.  We have to trust the process.  That process is more important than the goal, as Constantine Cavafy’s inspired poem ‘Ithaca’ shows.


When you start on your journey to Ithaca,
then pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
Do not fear the Lestrygonians
and the Cyclopes and the angry Poseidon.
You will never meet such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
emotion touches your body and your spirit.
You will never meet the Lestrygonians,
the Cyclopes and the fierce Poseidon,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not raise them up before you.

Then pray that the road is long.
That the summer mornings are many,
that you will enter ports seen for the first time
with such pleasure, with such joy!
Stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and corals, amber and ebony,
and pleasurable perfumes of all kinds,
buy as many pleasurable perfumes as you can;
visit hosts of Egyptian cities,
to learn and learn from those who have knowledge.

Always keep Ithaca fixed in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for long years;
and even to anchor at the isle when you are old,
rich with all that you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would never have taken the road.
But she has nothing more to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not defrauded you.
With the great wisdom you have gained, with so much experience,
you must surely have understood by then what Ithacas mean.

-K. P. Kavafis (C. P. Cavafy), translation by Rae Dalven

Practical suggestions

One of the comforting things about the process is that there are no wrong choices in our lives.  If we see our experiences as a spiritual path it makes no difference whether we succeed or fail.  We can use our experience to motivate us further along the path.  Obstacles are to be overcome, delights to be savoured.  This is not a linear process, but more of a spiral journey, so we may well find ourselves confronting similar lessons again if we don’t succeed in fully dealing with them the first time round.

Think about the 3 main parts to the Hero’s/Heroine’s Journey – and reflect on how your own life experience bears out the truth of the myth and how it helps in terms of your understanding.

  • Separation and departure
  • Trials and initiation
  • Return and reintegration.

More on the Heroine’s Journey can be found in my book, The Woman’s Book of Joy: Listen to Your Heart, Live with Gratitude, and Find Your Bliss