- Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” is a timeless exploration of the hero’s journey in mythology and psychology.
- Dive into the world of universal storytelling and discover the transformative power of the hero’s journey by reading the rest of this insightful book.
The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1948) is a seminal work of comparative mythology. It reveals that foundational myths from around the world share similar structures and themes, which trace back to some of our earliest stories and continue to hold a strong power over us today.
Introduction: Discover the psychological power of the classic hero myth.
Table of Contents
When Joseph Campbell traveled to Europe as a college student in the mid-1920s, he began to hear first-hand the philosophies and mythologies of other cultures. It led to a lifelong passion in comparative mythology.
After studying cultures around the world, including Asian, African, European, Polynesian, and Native American, Campbell noticed their stories didn’t just share thematic elements. The heroes in these tales also had a tendency to go through three distinct stages: they would be separated from their communities, made to endure a series of difficult trials, and emerge as enlightened beings who then returned home to share their newfound wisdom and powers.
These stages became known as the monomyth, or the archetypal hero’s journey, and the structure Campbell describes has been influential to countless storytellers ever since. Perhaps most famously, George Lucas was only able to finish his screenplay for the first Star Wars movie after reading Campbell’s work.
In this summary, we’ll guide you through all the steps and stages of the hero’s journey – and discover why it’s been such a reliable story for so many centuries.
Stage One: The Departure
As we embark on the hero’s journey, it’s important to know that we’re going to be dealing with mythology, which is a world of symbols and metaphors. Campbell notes that this is very much the same world as our unconscious dream state. After all, these myths are the result of the fertile human imagination, and were often created in response to our ancestors’ deepest fears and concerns. In fact, after studying the case files of the famous psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, Campbell found that modern people’s dreams were still full of the same symbols and conflicts that make up the monomyth.
So, why is this important? Because the hero’s journey is as much about unlocking inner truths as it is about slaying dragons. Along the way, the hero inevitably discovers they had everything they needed to overcome adversity and find enlightenment the whole time.
So, let’s start at the beginning – at the first stage of the hero’s journey – which is known as the Departure. The Departure covers five steps, or subsections, in which the hero leaves the comfort of their ordinary environment and crosses the threshold into a more dreamlike world.
The first step is known as the “Call to Adventure.” This is the moment when the hero is confronted with something that lures them away from their normal routine. It could be a mysterious stranger standing by the side of the road, or something as fantastic as a talking animal. In some cases, the hero might catch a brief glimpse of a hidden world. Either way, in symbolic terms, this encounter is also a momentary personal revelation. The hero recognizes that the call to adventure is speaking to something special that has been repressed within them – which is why the hero often greets this development with a mix of fear, uncertainty, and anxiety.
Right from the start we have a conflict, which leads us to the second step: the “Refusal of the Call.” Often, we don’t want to leave the comfort of our normal lives. We don’t want to venture forth into some new and potentially dangerous world. Or, more to the point, we don’t want to confront that scary, repressed element that lies within us.
But for the heroes who eventually do answer the call, there is encouragement in the third step, known as “Supernatural Aid.” This often comes in the form of a mercurial elder or mentor who supplies the hero with the advice and protective amulets they need to embark on their journey. This is the character who first mentions that the hero has a “destiny” they must fulfill – that the repressed element within them is a gift that must be unlocked. The mentor figure might be the fairy godmother of children’s lore. But more often than not, they’re a mixture of friendly and menacing. Yes, they serve as guardian and guide – but also as someone who is luring the hero into danger. In Dante’s Inferno, this is the character of Virgil. In Goethe’s Faust, it’s Mephistopheles who sends the hero off to face the trials and tribulations that await.
Essentially, this supernatural guide is leading the hero across the border into a realm of darkness and mystery, which is why the fourth step is called the “Crossing of the First Threshold.” At this point, the hero tends to encounter another menacing figure – a “threshold guardian” who challenges and wards off intruders. Numerous mythologies are populated with fearsome characters and monsters who reside on the borders of uncharted forests, oceans, jungles, or deserts.
This brings us to the fifth and final step of the Departure stage: the “Belly of the Whale.” This is where the hero is consumed by the unknown. The first impression at this point is that, rather than capturing the power of the mysterious dark world, the hero is overcome and killed by it.
Death is one of the most important parts of the journey. Throughout the mythologies of the world, there’s a common notion that to attain a higher state of being, the old form must cease to exist. So before the hero can continue their journey of transformation, their previous unenlightened form must be extinguished.
Stage Two: The Initiation
Having left home, crossed the threshold, and emerged like a metaphorical newborn from the belly of the whale, the hero can now embark on the second stage of the journey: the Initiation.
This is the part of the hero-myth where the transformation to a powerful, new being really begins to take place. It starts with the sixth step of the journey, the “Road of Trials.”
Countless stories involve putting the hero through a series of trials that both test their resolve and expand their capabilities. Take Psyche, who was trying to win the love of Cupid. Cupid’s mother, Venus, made her sort a giant pile of grains and seeds, collect the golden wool from a poisonous wild sheep, then get a bottle’s worth of water from a mountaintop inhabited by dragons. Each challenge was more difficult and deadlier than the last. But without fail, Psyche received help at just the right moment – which is another common trope. An army of ants helped her sort the pile of grains. A magical reed helped her gather the wool. An eagle helped her retrieve the water.
During their trials, the hero tends to be humbled by the gift of help. This further eliminates the ego, and it focuses their energies on the path to enlightenment. Often, the help they receive is, in one way or another, pointing them in the direction of their newfound higher purpose.
After clearing the barriers along the road of trials, the next step – the seventh in the overall journey – is the “Meeting with the Goddess.” Here, the hero comes face-to-face with the Queen Goddess of the World. If you were to look at the hero’s journey as a circle, this would be the bottom point – but it’s also the apex of the quest.
From here on, things can get a little complex and contradictory. This makes sense: in many cultures, as well as some Eastern philosophies, the ability to reconcile the contradictory facts about life is one of the keys to enlightenment.
In the “Meeting with the Goddess,” the hero is confronted by a figure who represents all women, and all the creative power that entails. She is the sister, the mistress, the wife. She is the benevolent, loving mother as well as the overbearing, disciplinary one. This part of the journey is about the hero understanding both the womb and the tomb – two things that go hand in hand.
Next is the eighth step, known as “Woman as the Temptress.” How willing is the hero to give up the earthly pleasures they once knew in order to attain the higher powers of a more enlightened being? This is yet another test the hero must pass.
The hero is then confronted by the other parent in the ninth step: “Atonement with the Father.” Much as with the “Meeting with the Goddess,” this step is about abandoning any lingering dependencies or notions – such as the superego and the id – that might stand in the way of achieving transcendence. This is also the step where the hero has to reconcile the potentially conflicting concepts of God and sin. It’s about finding harmony in contradiction, letting go, and moving on.
The tenth and penultimate step of the Initiation stage is called “Apotheosis,” which means deification, or the act of becoming a god. After confronting the Goddess and the Father, the hero has achieved a true understanding of the world – and the transcendence and enlightenment that comes with it. In Buddhist terms, the hero becomes a bodhisattva, or “he whose being is enlightenment.” Things like fear, pain, and pleasure, as well as concepts like “good” and “bad,” become outmoded concerns. In Hinduism, it’s called jivan mukta, “the one freed in life.” The hero is now desireless, compassionate, and wise. The ego is utterly dissolved to the point where even enemies are beloved.
The Initiation stage closes with the eleventh step, the “Ultimate Boon.” This is the achievement of the goal that set the journey in motion. Everything that has come before has prepared the hero for this moment. Given the transcendent state they’re now in, the boon is finally captured with grace and ease.
So what comes after this? Aren’t we finished? Not quite. In the final section, we’ll wrap things up with the third and final stage of the hero’s journey.
Stage Three: The Return
The hero’s journey is not one of selfish desires. The point is to share the boon, along with the wisdom and enlightenment that have been achieved. A hero is, after all, someone who helps others. So to do this, we must return home to the community we left behind.
Appropriately enough, the Return is the name of the final stage of the journey. But the first section of this stage, which is the twelfth step overall, is called the “Refusal of the Return.”
Sometimes, the hero is simply too overcome with the ecstasy of transcendence to return home. Other heroes might doubt the point of going back – would it even be possible for the people there to understand the profundity of the gift? Still others might attempt to go further and prolong the Departure stage.
But for the journey to truly continue, they must turn homeward. This return is often kicked off by a thirteenth step called the “Magic Flight.” You’re probably familiar with tales where the ultimate reward is protected by a sleeping giant or some other threatening guardian. So when the hero snatches the boon, a chase ensues that often involves fantastic feats of derring-do. More magical barriers may be in place, but the hero makes a narrow escape – perhaps with the help of some supernatural aid.
In other stories, the hero needs assistance in getting back home, which is why the fourteenth step is called “Rescue from Without.” Maybe the hero is stuck in a blissed-out euphoric state. Or maybe they’re trapped or imprisoned somewhere. In the case of the Japanese goddess Amaterasu, she leaves a message before she begins her journey, saying something to the effect of, “If I don’t return by a certain time, come and get me.” That’s exactly what happens, and rescuing Amaterasu becomes its own hero’s journey.
Whether by rescue or magic flight, the fifteenth step is the “Crossing of the Return Threshold.” Here, we explore what happens when everyone discovers that the hero has been forever changed by their adventure. In the story of Rip Van Winkle, who returned home after being asleep for 20 years, the hero is unrecognizable. The people from his hometown treat him as a suspicious and potentially dangerous outsider. This is why reintegrating into society, and sharing the ecstatic joy of enlightenment with an unwitting and unprepared community, can be one of the biggest challenges of the entire journey.
The sixteenth step is called “Master of the Two Worlds.” The hero has found a way to cross the divide, and displays this mastery to the people. This moment is so compelling that it crops up in the foundational stories of numerous religions. It’s when the unenlightened see the hero’s display of power – and instantly recognize the significance. It’s often a frightening thing to witness, but the profound meaning of this godly power is undeniable.
Finally, we come to the seventeenth and last part of the journey: the “Freedom to Live.” Sounds pretty good, right? This stage indicates the immovable nature of the enlightened hero we discussed during the “Apotheosis” stage: No fear of death. Zero attachment to pain or pleasure. The ability to see everything as an equally valuable part of the whole.
But now that the hero has shared the gift, they’re also truly free to live without concern – they know that what’s within them will live on inside of others.
The hero’s journey forms the backbone of our most foundational mythologies, which date back to ancient times. This three-act structure isn’t just a powerful storytelling tool. It’s also a symbolic narrative that has become the basis for multiple religions, and which continues to influence the stories we tell each other today.
The idea of “reaching our full potential” isn’t our only concern – we want to be certain we’ll be remembered. The hero’s journey reminds us that we can achieve this goal by sharing our wisdom and making a positive impact on those around us. In this way, the people we help can continue our work long after we’re gone.
Psychology, Communication Skills, Motivation, Inspiration, Creativity, Nonfiction, Mythology, Philosophy, Writing, History, Religion, Classics, Anthropology, Spirituality, Counseling, Medical Psychoanalysis, Popular Psychology Psychoanalysis, Folklore and Mythology Studies, Affirmations and Inspiration, Comparative Religion, Self-Help, Relationships, Social Sciences, Literature
Table of Contents
Preface to the 1949 Edition
PROLOGUE: The Monomyth
1. Myth and Dream
2. Tragedy and Comedy
3. The Hero and the God
4. The World Navel
The Adventure of the Hero
CHAPTER I: Departure
1. The Call to Adventure
2. Refusal of the Call
3. Supernatural Aid
4. The Crossing of the First Threshold
5. The Belly of the Whale
CHAPTER II: Initiation
1. The Road of Trials
2. The Meeting with the Goddess
3. Woman as the Temptress
4. Atonement with the Father
6. The Ultimate Boon
CHAPTER III: Return
1. Refusal of the Return
2. The Magic Flight
3. Rescue from Without
4. The Crossing of the Return Threshold
5. Master of the Two Worlds
6. Freedom to Live
CHAPTER IV: The Keys
The Cosmogonic Cycle
CHAPTER I: Emanations
1. From Psychology to Metaphysics
2. The Universal Round
3. Out of the Void-Space
4. Within Space-Life
5. The Breaking of the One into the Manifold
6. Folk Stories of Creation
CHAPTER II: The Virgin Birth
1. Mother Universe
2. Matrix of Destiny
3. Womb of Redemption
4. Folk Stories of Virgin Motherhood
CHAPTER III: Transformations of the Hero
1. The Primordial Hero and the Human
2. Childhood of the Human Hero
3. The Hero as Warrior
4. The Hero as Lover
5. The Hero as Emperor and as Tyrant
6. The Hero as World Redeemer
7. The Hero as Saint
8. Departure of the Hero
CHAPTER IV: Dissolutions
1. End of the Microcosm
2. End of the Macrocosm
EPILOGUE: Myth and Society
1. The Shapeshifter
2. The Function of Myth Cult, and Meditation
3. The Hero Today
“The Hero with a Thousand Faces” by Joseph Campbell is a timeless and seminal work that delves into the realms of psychology and mythology. Campbell explores the concept of the hero’s journey, a narrative pattern that transcends time and culture, and reveals its profound significance in human storytelling. The book is divided into several sections that systematically break down the hero’s journey and its connection to universal human experiences.
Campbell begins by introducing the idea of the hero’s journey, which involves a protagonist leaving their ordinary world, facing various trials and challenges, and ultimately returning transformed. He draws from a wide array of mythologies and stories from around the world to illustrate the consistent elements that make up this journey. His exploration takes readers through stages such as the call to adventure, crossing the threshold, facing allies and enemies, and experiencing a profound transformation.
The book also delves into the role of myths in human culture, explaining how they serve as a reflection of our collective unconscious and a means to connect us to the transcendent. Campbell emphasizes the importance of understanding these myths as a source of wisdom and inspiration for individuals seeking purpose and fulfillment in their own lives.
“The Hero with a Thousand Faces” is an intellectual tour de force that offers a deep and insightful analysis of the hero’s journey archetype. Joseph Campbell’s erudition and passion for mythology shine through every page, making this book a must-read for anyone interested in storytelling, psychology, and the human experience.
Campbell’s writing is accessible and engaging, despite the profound subject matter. He weaves a tapestry of myths and legends from various cultures, demonstrating the universality of the hero’s journey. By doing so, he not only highlights the similarities among these diverse stories but also underscores the common threads of human experience that bind us all together.
One of the book’s most significant strengths is its ability to help readers see the hero’s journey not just as a narrative structure in stories but as a symbolic representation of our own personal growth and transformation. The book encourages introspection, making readers reflect on their own life journeys and the challenges they face.
In terms of criticism, some readers may find the book’s depth and breadth of material overwhelming, but it’s a testament to the comprehensive nature of Campbell’s research and knowledge. Additionally, while the book was groundbreaking in its time, some aspects of the psychology and anthropology have evolved since its publication.
In conclusion, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” is a profound exploration of the hero’s journey that will forever change the way you perceive and appreciate stories. It’s a book that not only deepens our understanding of mythology and psychology but also provides valuable insights for navigating the complexities of our own lives.