Campbell’s Hero Journey: An Overview

To start with I’d just like to clear up that the following is based solely on Joseph Cambell’s theory of the hero’s journey. There are many other iterations and versions of the journey, and while I’m not arguing they are less valid than Campbell’s, his is my personal preference, and the source from which the others are derived, so I am restraining my focus to his version. Also, unless otherwise noted, all quoted passages are from The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

The hero journey is a pattern, or underlying structure, that in his decades of studying myth, Joseph Campbell discovered at the heart of all mythological systems around the world. It is not the sole template of myth, but it is a pattern which recurs in every tradition, and typically, it can be found its most important stories (i.e. Jesus, Moses, the Buddha). Campbell described the hero’s journey and its stages in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, published in 1949. In that book, Campbell describes the hero journey briefly, as follows: “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.” And in Pathways to Bliss, Campbell describes the journey even more succinctly: “The basic story of the hero journey involves giving up where you are, going into the realm of adventure, coming to some kind of symbolically rendered realization, and then returning to the field of normal life.” Essentially, the hero journey has three major phases, what Campbell calls the “nuclear unit of myth”: Separation, or Departure, Initiation, and Return. Within each of these acts are a series of smaller “steps” which make up the journey.

But, in case you are wondering, “separation and return from where?” Joseph Campbell describes an “ordinary world” where the hero begins, and a “world of adventure” to which the journey takes them. The “world of adventure”, or “special world” which it is also called, is the world of the eternal and is outside of time. This is a world “transparent to transcendence”, it is a mystical realm not bound by the laws of our normal, time-bound world, where the magical and supernatural are possible, and in which a divine presence is apparent. The ordinary world, on the other hand, is the objective, time-bound world we (and the hero) live in.

Yet, the hero journey is not simply an adventure. And the world he emanates from is not simply ordinary, as Campbell explains, “the world in which [the hero] finds himself suffers from a symbolical definiciency.” The ordinary world is on the brink of ruin, and filled with death (physical or spiritual). It has lost touch with the divine, the ultimate source of all life, a source which has been stopped up. Perhaps by greed, jealousy, power-hunger, hatred, perhaps ingrown self-interest. In the mythologies of the world this hoarding force is often a monster, a dragon, or a tyrannical, false King who accumulates wealth and “the general benefit” for himself, as Campbell describes, he is “avid for the greedy rights of ‘my and mine.'” This apostate world must be saved, it cries for a “redeeming hero, the carrier of the shining blade, whose blow, whose touch, whose existence, will liberate the land.” The hero must journey into the world of adventure, the special world, which has not forgotten the eternal essence of all life, and become the “point through which the energies of eternity break into time,” back into the ordinary world which will be reborn from its former death and free again.


The Call to Adventure

The first stage of the journey where the hero, in his ordinary world, is literally “called” to leave his home and seek that which will heal the world. This is the point where “destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual centre of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown.” The hero does not know what lies before him, but only that he must go. The call itself comes in many forms: it may be the announcement of war, a cry for help, it may be that the hero is abducted or sent away by some malicious force, it may come in the form of a blunder or accident, or the hero may simply wander too far “away from the frequented paths of man.”

The Refusal of the Call

Heroes may not be immediately willing to heed the call to adventure, and it is very common for the hero to momentarily refuse or deny the call. In life, sadly, the call is most often refused. Campbell points out that “it is always possible to turn the ear to other interests” and remain in the ordinary world, distracted by some trifle or another, “[the walls of] boredom, hard work, or culture.” And because the hero journey is a quest which has as its goal the rebirth and regeneration of the world, the refusal of the call “is essentially a refusal to give up what one takes to be one’s own interest.” Or, to put it more bluntly: selfishness. But one must be warned, destiny cannot be avoided, if one is successful at refusing to heed the call into the world of adventure, one does not escape. What one does not experience positively, will be experienced negatively. It will re-emerge, distorted, terrifying, painful, most likely, but it will return. Yet, take heart, “Not all who hesitate are lost.” Quoting the Koran, Campbell is quick to emphasize “Well able is Allah to save.” A momentary refusal is not abandonment, and destiny will find a way to lure the hero forward.

Supernatural Aid

Once the hero takes the first steps on the journey he will encounter a “protective figure (often a little old crone or old man) who provides the adventurer with amulets against the dragon forces he is about to pass.” Campbell explains that the call to adventure is also “the first announcement of the approach of this initiatory priest.” This figure is often in the form of a mentor, but not always. The purpose of this aid is to help the hero prepare for the obstacles and trials ahead. This may come in the form of advice, a prophecy, or even a special weapon. This figure may be what lures the hero from his refusal, as Campbell describes: “even to those who apparently have hardened their hearts the supernatural guardian may appear.” This is also the first sign that the hero’s journey is divinely supported.

The Crossing of the First Threshold

Eventually the hero comes to the edge of the known world. From here, the ordinary world disappears and the world of adventure truly begins. The point of this threshold is often known by the presence of a threshold guardian, a being or force “at the entrance to the zone of magnified power … for the crossing of the threshold is the first step into the sacred zone of the universal source.” The hero’s ability to pass the threshold guardian indicates his readiness, and rightness, for the adventure. This may require a battle with the guardian, worship or acknowledgement of him, or perhaps the simple boldness to pass through, like the Buddha, unmoved by the temptations of fear and desire.

The Belly of the Whale

This is an alternate version of the threshold crossing. Here the hero still crosses the threshold between the known world into the unknown world of adventure, but it is not an act of will or force. Instead, the hero is “swallowed into the unknown,” as Jonas by the whale, “and would appear to have died.” Campbell explains the purpose of this particular motif in mythology is to communicate that crossing the threshold “is a form of self-annihilation.” It is a death to the world, and a willingness to relinquish one’s world-bound identity, or ego. To this end, this stage is often filled with womb-like imagery, representing the beginning of the hero’s rebirth (and that of the world).


The Road of Trials

Now inside the special world, the hero experiences a succession of trials: tests and ordeals. It is here that the advice or weapons furnished him by the figure of supernatural aid met earlier become of use. Additional magical helpers and aid may also appear. While the ordeals are increasingly difficult, the hero is often equally supported by a greater power. The ultimate goal of these trials is “the purification of the self,” where the hero becomes more and more focused on “transcendental things.” The hero is no longer identifying with his own personality, but with that of the larger forces in the universe. The trials render moments of illumination about the self, the world, and the divine.

This series of trials culminates in a “supreme ordeal” which bestows upon the hero his reward. The ordeal is very often an encounter with death, and sometimes requires the physical death of the hero. Here, the hero “must put aside his pride, his virtue, beauty, and life, and bow or submit to the absolutely intolerable.” It is through this death (symbolic or physical) which the hero is resurrected and reborn. As a quick side note, in Christopher Vogler’s version of the hero journey, he makes separate stages of the road of trials, the ordeal, and the hero’s resurrection (resurrection is implied in the following “reward” stages for Campbell). My impression is that he does this in order to mould the journey onto the three-act structure common in Hollywood – this may or may not be useful to you. Personally, my interest in the hero journey is far beyond using it solely as a writing technique, so you won’t find any of that here.

As for the hero’s reward following the ordeal, there are several versions this triumph may take: meeting with the goddess, woman as temptress, atonement with the father, apotheosis, or the ultimate boon.

Meeting with the Goddess

Often, the hero’s journey culminates with his mystical marriage to a Goddess. The meaning of this is twofold, firstly, Campbell explains the marriage “represents the hero’s total mastery of life; for the woman is life, the hero its knower.” Secondly, the journey is the path by which the hero “discovers and assimilates his opposite… he finds that he and his opposite are not of differing species, but one flesh.” This is part of the process of giving up one’s identification with yourself as a separate, independent being, and realizing your oneness with not only the whole of life, but its very source.

Woman as Temptress

This is not so much as reward as another way in which revelation may be reached. It’s also not limited to temptation emanating from women. Essentially, in this section, Campbell describes the hero’s attachment to the material world and the physical body. In this context, the physical body and world are potential distractions from the journey – whose ultimate aim is a spiritual one. It is in this stage, if included, that the hero realizes “that everything we think or do is necessarily tainted with the odour of the flesh, [and] not uncommonly, there is experienced a moment of revulsion: life, the acts of life, the organs of life, woman in particular as the great symbol of life, become intolerable to the pure, pure soul.” The woman may thus be, as the symbol of life, a representation of the spiritual source of life, or a stand-in for the material, physical life in the world of time. While this section may sound frightfully negating (and sadly is often over emphasized in modern religious systems), this is not necessarily a demonizing of physical life, but ultimately an affirmation of the spiritual realm.

Atonement with the Father

The Father may be the hero’s actual father, or spiritual father, but either way, the Father figure is emblematic of a god. Gods have both terrifying and benevolent aspects, he is both destroyer and life-supporter. Campbell explains the hero “must have a faith that the father is merciful, and then a reliance on that mercy” despite his outward, fearful appearance. The “secret of the father” is that “the energy behind the elemental pairs of opposites, fire and water, is one and the same,” and the task of the hero is to “pierce himself (and therewith his world) precisely through that point.” The hero “rises to a glimpse of the source” where there are no opposites, but from which the opposites that appear in the field of time emanate. The hero “beholds the face of the father, understands – and the two are atoned.” The reward of understanding decay and life arise from the same loving source, is that, for the hero, “the world is no longer a vale of tears but a bliss-yielding, perpetual manifestation of the Presence.”


Apotheosis is the realization that “You are It.” The hero breaks through the final bounds of his own ego consciousness and becomes identified not only with, but as, the divine source. It is to recognize “the distinction between eternity and time is only apparent,” something constructed by the rational mind. It is to attain an understanding, and a perception, which transcends, or sees through, all duality to total oneness. The hero rediscovers his true identity: “I and the Father are one.”

The Ultimate Boon

The boon of the gods is symbolic of the inexhaustible energy source of the universe. This is often represented in fairy tales as the well that never runs dry, or the plate of food that replenishes itself continually. It is the healer of all wounds, the filler of all lack. The hero may encounter this source, or bring back some symbol of it to the world of time. The other lesson implicit in this stage is that the gods are not, in and of themselves, the source of the universal energy, rather, they are simply the guardians of “the elixir of Imperishable Being.” In fact, the gods themselves do not exist: the hero is actually seeking the power of the gods, the “miraculous energy-substance and this alone is the Imperishable; the names and forms of the deities who everywhere embody, dispense, and represent it come and go.” The hero who faces a god and asks for great wealth, or an unbeatable weapon, will not attain the boon. He is still trapped within his own identity, his own perception of the world as separate from himself. Rather, the Imperishable is a recognition of the source of all things, and all people.

An alternate version of this stage is the boon theft, as in the story of Prometheus who must steal fire from the gods. The gods in these stories may be tyrant figures, the hoarders of this life-giving energy, and in order to be the world saviour, the hero must defy them.


The Refusal of the Return

In order for the hero journey to be complete, the hero must return from the special world to the world of time. For it is for the continuing life of the world that he first departed. But just as the hero may refuse the call to adventure, many also refuse the call of the return. It’s a great responsibility to bring the boon back to the ordinary world. As Campbell points out, “even the Buddha, after his triumph, doubted whether the message of realization could be communicated.” And many heroes choose to stay in the immortal world, but in order for the journey to be complete, he must come home.

The Magic Flight

This stage appears in journeys where the hero is not supported by the gods, such as in the case of boon-thefts. The hero’s return here becomes either a pursuit, or another test or ordeal – as in the case of Orpheus, who is allowed lead his beloved, Eurydice, from the underworld, but must not look back at her until they are beyond the threshold of the afterlife, something, of course, he cannot do. The message of this kind of return is the powers of the universe are not to be engaged lightly, and it’s not for the uninitiated: for to meet a god in their full glory would be to lose any separate sense of self and disintegrate. Thus, in this version of the journey, the hero does not totally relinquish his ego, but rather saves it.

Rescue From Without

In the case of a hero who is reluctant to return home, his society, or some envoy of the ordinary world, will attempt to rescue him. It could be that the hero does not wish to return, or that he has so succumbed his self-concept that he remains enraptured, blissfully unaware of the world without. This return crisis underlines the supreme difficulty of re-entering the ordinary world. It is to return to a “long-forgotten atmosphere where men who are fractions imagine themselves to be complete.” It is for this reason there is an implicit understanding in the hero that his boon may not be revered, accepted, or even welcome, and this inspires doubt.

The Crossing of the Return Threshold

As the hero crossed a threshold into the special world, he must now cross the threshold back into the ordinary world. However, there are different dangers here. The mighty task of the return threshold is to be able to survive the return of the disillusionments, duality, and hardness of the world. It is a common motif in myth and fairy tale for the hero’s boon, if it has come in some objectified form, like a sword or a chalice, to disintegrate or break upon crossing back. Oisin, in Irish myth, returns from Tír na nÓg (the Land of Youth) and upon touching the ground in the world of time, ages, and turns to dust. The hero must be able to retain his experience, the expansion of his consciousness, and “knit together his two worlds.”

The Master of the Two Worlds

While during the journey crossing the thresholds between the two worlds is fraught with danger, the master is able to cross back and forth without difficulty: he is Nietzsche’s “Cosmic Dancer.” Campbell describes the fully triumphant hero “an anonymity”: “His personal ambitions being totally dissolved, he no longer tries to live but willingly relaxes to whatever may come to pass in him.” The hero is no longer bound by the ordinary world, but nor does he negate it. The hero recognizes that the world of time is simply a shadow of the eternal, both arising from the same source, and he accepts both.

Freedom to Live

Now. Here is the real trick. Campbell states “the hero is the champion of things becoming, not become.” The hero is the saviour of the world because he restores the flow of energy from Imperishable Being back into the ordinary world. Stopping, or delaying that flow of energy is the work of the tyrant. The hero champions becoming, and so he must accept the conditions of life in the world of time, which includes death. The world of time is where the eternal throws things into form and from which those forms disintegrate back into the eternal, like the inhalation and exhalation of breath. Free of his identification with his ego, a small self-concept of separateness, the hero has lost the fear of death as he understands it’s simply the illusion of time. As he now identifies with the inexhaustible eternal. The hero is free to live because there is nothing to fear: there is no longer an “I” to suffer.

Here, the journey is complete. But there is more to understand: as Campbell underlines again and again, the entire point of myth is to relate, and reconcile, the individual to life. As the Buddha says, “All life is sorrowful.” The careful eye will notice that while the hero is described as the world’s saviour, he does not change the world. While his success may be represented as the return of a river, or harvest to the physical land of his ordinary world, he does not conquer, or even venture to alter, the basic sorrows of life: impermanence, vulnerability, pain, and death. Instead, he transforms his relationship to sorrow. It is for this reason, Campbell argues, that the images and incidents in myth and fairy tale are that of fantasy, and are “unreal”: “they represent psychological, not physical triumphs. Even when the legend is of an actual historical personage, the deeds of victory are rendered, not in lifelike, but in dreamlike figurations; for the point is not that such-and-such was done on earth; the point is that, before such-and-such could be done on earth, this other, more important, primary thing had to be brought to pass within the labyrinth that we all know and visit in our dreams. The passage of the mythological hero may be over-ground, incidentally; fundamentally it is inward – into depths where obscure resistances are overcome, and long lost, forgotten powers are revivified, to be made available for the transfiguration of the world.”

The hero may begin by needing to be separated from his society, but he must return. Not because life in the temporal world is more real, but because the full journey reveals to the hero the Self in All. Upon his return he recognizes the eternal, breathing source through all things and people. Separation is not only no longer needed, it is overcome. Sorrow is not destroyed, rather, the hardness of life “is balanced by an assurance that all that we see is but the reflex of a power that endures, untouched by the pain.” It is only the resistance to the flow of life – whether judged, wrongly, as positive or negative – that threatens. But, “Well able is Allah to save” and new heroes arise continually to restore inexhaustible process of becoming.

In the next several weeks I’ll be taking a closer look at each stage of the journey, and I’ll also outline Campbell’s cosmologic cycle, the universal context in which hero journey’s take place. Hope to see you again soon 🙂

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About Sinéad Donohoe

A writer from London, Ontario. These are her adventures in writing, movie loving, and general mayhem.