Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces is a difficult book to summarize. I expected it to be focused mainly on laying out a great unifying theory of mythology. The commonalities underlying all myth would be exposed, their psychological significance explained, and all tied up neatly and presented in a way that made the overarching theory elegant and easy to digest.
That’s not the kind of book it is, it turns out. Campbell definitely does lay out a theory of myth; it’s just a partial and fragmentary one. Partial in that it leaves many important questions unanswered, even about its basic application. I’d be comfortable making some predictions about the structure of a myth I hadn’t read based on Campbell’s Hero’s Journey model for example, but on a number of points I’d have to demur, even though they seem pretty basic. (More on that below.) Fragmentary in that I couldn’t quite figure out how different parts of Campbell’s analysis fit together, giving the book more the feel of a catalogue of admittedly interesting myths and psychological insights, just not one with a discernible main thrust — at least not one that’s easy to name.
To the degree the book does have a central idea, I’d say it’s this: myths are a roadmap for life. They express in dramatic form certain fundamental psychological truths about human beings. These truths are more or less timeless: they applied equally to the earliest human beings as they do to us. Each of us is, for example, called upon repeatedly to embark upon the Hero’s Journey. In the language of myth, we stumble into an adventure that takes us away from home and into the cavernous den of a dragon we then slay, and whose gold we bring back for the benefit of our community. In more quotidian terms, circumstances upset whatever equilibrium we’ve established for ourselves and we’re called upon to face the unknown, learn something new (and perhaps unlearn old behaviors), and come out the other side transformed, empowered, and of greater use to others.
And there’s a lot more where that came from. Myths teach the dangers of biting off more than you can chew; the dangers of failing to submit to the inevitabilities of life; the true nature of the most powerful forces at work in the world (no, not the Strong Nuclear Force…); the necessity of continual adaptation; and more.
The Hero’s Journey is perhaps the best known idea from the book. It’s best regarded as a schematic model of myths; it specifies a common structure that many, perhaps most or all, myths exhibit. The structure unfolds as follows:
- The Call to Adventure. This is exactly what it sounds like. Something happens to wake the hero out of the tranquility of his life and challenge him to leave its comforts behind to pursue an adventure of some kind.
- Supernatural Help. Provided the hero accepts the call and sets out on the seemingly impossible journey, he immediately — to his happy surprise — encounters a benign supernatural power that helps him on his way.
- The Tests. No adventure can go by without some trials. This is the stage of the adventure where the hero endures those trials on the way to success. It’s the whole of The Lord of the Rings from the moment Frodo sets out from Rivendell to the moment Gollum falls into Mount Doom with The Ring. It’s also at this point that motifs like the whale’s belly, battle with the dragon, and crucifixion appear.
- The High Point. The high point of the adventure can take many forms. Campbell identifies four main ones that recur: the Sacred Marriage, in which the hero marries a goddess or princess; Father Atonement, in which the hero at least finds his father, who turns out to be divine; Apotheosis, in which the hero ascends to the realm of the divine himself; and Elixir Theft, in which the hero steals something precious from a divine force intent on hoarding it (think Prometheus here).
- Flight. An optional stage in which the hero must flee from the wrath of some greater power after achieving his great victory. This seems most relevant in stories where the hero wins by guile, without actually permanently defeating the enemy who blocked his path.
- Recrossing the Threshold. When the hero took up the call to adventure, he crossed a threshold from ordinary life into the life of myth; he must now return back, which occurs at this stage. The return may manifest as a straightforward return to his home, a resurrection of some kind, or a rescue by others.
- The Gift to the Community. Having gained knowledge and sometimes a precious physical gift from his adventure, the hero must bring back this boon to his community to benefit those who stayed behind.
It’s easier to think about this list in terms of four points, with the other points occurring within these four:
- The Beginning. In which the hero is called to his adventure and meets with unexpected favor from the divine if he accepts the call.
- The Trials. In which the hero must prove himself capable of withstanding all sorts of difficulties.
- The High Point. In which the hero gets what he came for — whether that’s marriage, reunion with the divine, or a sought-after treasure.
- The Return. In which the hero must get out of the adventure world he spent so much time in and return to the world of ordinary life, equipped to help those who stayed behind.
Campbell does a great job of chronicling how each of these elements really does occur in a number of myths. That goes for the items in the longer list, too.
The way Campbell talks about the High Point (my term, like all the other names) makes it seem like perhaps it can only manifest through marriage, reunion with a divine father, ascent to a heavenly realm, or theft of a great treasure from the gods. I suspect that’s a mistake, or at least it’s easier to use Campbell’s framework if you imagine that the High Point is just when the hero gets what he was after. In some myths — Campbell might say, the most profound myths — the hero’s adventure has carried him all the way into the domain of the divine, where one of the Sacred Marriage, Father Atonement, Apotheosis, or Elixir Theft occurs. In others, the hero might “just” have slain a dragon. Either way, the High Point is the point of triumph.
I’d be inclined to take a similar attitude toward the other elements. Some myths might (and do, in fact) shift focus away from some of them, but all of them occur in every adventure — in some form, even if the myth omits their mention,
This ambiguity of application is one of Campbell’s weaknesses. He throws out all the structural elements and explores their significant in depth (more to come on that). Yet he never really gets around to addressing how they all fit together, what alternations occur in the presence or absence of particular pieces, and how the different flavors of myth relate to each other — given that they all fit this model reasonably well, but differ in some of the particulars of how it manifests.
Campbell writes most grippingly when we comments on the psychological significance of the myth elements. Here he is on what happens when the call is refused — a pattern that occurs in some abortive myths where the adventure never begins (e.g. the story of Daphne, who ran from the god Apollo’s romantic advances and turned into a laurel tree to protect herself):
The myths and folktales of the whole world make clear that the refusal is essentially a refusal to give up what one takes to be one’s own interest. The future is regarded not in terms of an unremitting series of deaths and births, but as though one’s present system of ideals, virtues, goals, and advantages were to be fixed and made secure. King Minos [whose son was the Minotaur] retained the divine bull [sent by Poseidon], when the sacrifice would have signified submission to the will of the god of his society; for he preferred what he conceived to be his economic advantage. Thus he failed to advance into the life-role that he had assumed—and we have seen with what calamitous effect [—namely, the birth of the Minotaur]. The divinity itself became his terror; for, obviously, if one is oneself one’s god, then God himself, the will of God, the power that would destroy one’s egocentric system, becomes a monster. (50-51)
Or here’s another one. After recounting the story of an Irish hero who deigned to kiss a hag and thereby discovered her to be a beautiful goddess, Campbell launches into this analysis. (It’s important to know for this that the hag says to the hero, “And as at the first thou hast seen me ugly, brutish, loathly—in the end, beautiful—even so is royal rule: for without battles, without fierce conflict, it may not be won; but in the result, he that is king of no matter what shows comely and handsome forth.”)
Such is royal rule? Such is life itself. The goddess guardian of the inexhaustible well—whether as Fergus, or as Actaeon, or as the Prince of the Lonesome Isle discovered her—requires that the hero should be endowed with what the troubadours and minnesingers termed the “gentle heart.” Not by the animal desire of an Actaeon, not by the fastidious revulsion of such as Fergus, can she be comprehended and rightly served, but only by gentleness: aware (“gentle sympathy”) it was named in the romantic courtly poetry of tenth- to twelfth-century Japan….
The meeting with the goddess (who is incarnate in every woman) is the final test of the talent of the hero to win the boon of love (charity: amor fati), which is life itself enjoyed as the encasement of eternity. (99)
Campbell is pointing here to the relevance of the Sacred Marriage motif to the psychological life of all people. “The mystical marriage with the queen goddess of the world,” he writes, “represents the hero’s total mastery of life; for the woman is life, the hero its knower and master.”
(Those with a squeamishness about traditional conceptions of the masculine and feminine might find Campbell hard to stomach. He has absolutely zero qualms about discussing them openly, though it should be said that mostly he’s interested in what’s sometimes called the symbolically masculine and feminine — which map only partially onto the gender of human beings.)
Commentaries on the psychological theses in the book could easily fill up a long essay themselves, probably even a book of their own. For here, in the interest of the big picture, I’ll move on to the second part of the book: the “Cosmogonic Cycle.”
You can think of the Cosmogonic Cycle in several ways. On one level, it’s the great cycle of the entire universe. At least a few ancient civilizations held that the world was habitually destroyed and recreated, according to a more or less predictable timetable. I think it’s systems of myth like that that gave us the 2012 Mayan scare, for example. On another level, it’s the cycle of birth and death that every human being participates in: we’re born, coming into existence out of nowhere, and then we die, returning to that non-place whose nature we don’t really understand.
If the first part of the book concerns psychology, you can think of the second part as concerning spirituality. In Campbell’s own words:
And so to grasp the full value of the mythological figures that have come down to us, we must understand that they are not only symptoms of the unconscious (as indeed are all human thoughts and acts) but also controlled and intended statements of certain spiritual principles, which have remained as constant throughout the course of human history as the form and nervous structure of the human physique itself. Briefly formulated, the universal doctrine teaches that all the visible structures of the world — all things and beings — are the effects of a ubiquitous power out of which they rise, which supports and fills them during the period of their manifestation, and back into which they must ultimately dissolve. This is the power known to science as energy, to the Melanesians as mana, to the Sioux Indians as wakonda, the Hindus as Sakti [accent omitted], and the Christians as the power of God. Its manifestation in the psyche is termed, by the psychoanalysts, libido. And its manifestation in the cosmos is the structure and flux of the universe itself.
The apprehension of the source of this undifferentiated yet everywhere particularized substratum of being is rendered frustrate by the very organs through which the apprehension must be accomplished. The forms of sensibility and the categories of human thought, which are themselves manifestations of this power, so confine the mind that it is normally impossible not only to see, but even to conceive, beyond the colorful, fluid, infinitely various and bewildering phenomenal spectacle. The function of ritual and myth is to make possible, and then to facilitate, the jump—by analogy. Forms and conceptions that the mind and its senses can comprehend are presented and arranged in such a way as to suggest a truth or openness beyond. And then, the conditions for meditation having been provided, the individual is left alone. Myth is but the penultimate; the ultimate is openness—that void, or being, beyond the categories—into which the mind must plunge alone and be dissolved. Therefore, God and the gods are only convenient means—themselves of the nature of the world of names and forms, though eloquent of, and ultimately conducive to, the ineffable. They are mere symbols to move and awaken the mind, and to call it past themselves. (221-222)
The idea is simple enough. It’s also in keeping with what ancient meditative traditions teach about the nature of subjective experience. As most every Buddhist meditation text teaches, all sensory, emotional, and cognitive phenomena arise, remain in consciousness briefly, then pass away into the oblivion they came from — to be replaced by the next arising phenomenon. From that perspective, life is Cosmogonic Cycle all the way from the largest individually-observable scale (a lifetime, let’s say) down to epochs of a life (childhood, university, one’s time in a particular job, or in a particular relationship) down further to the fine level of particular moods, sensations, and thoughts.
One of the more interesting and practical manifestations of this cycle is its appearance as the cycle of deep sleep (non-existence), dream (creation-dissolution), and waking (the fully created world). As Campbell puts it, waking life is the domain of “hard, gross facts of an outer universe, illuminated by the light of the sun, and common to all,” while in dreaming we become aware of “the fluid, subtle forms of a private interior world, self-luminous and of one substance with the dreamer.”
This formula puts words to an experience I’ve often had, yet had never articulated. It’s not just that the logic of dreams shows, as Campbell puts it, a “baffling inconsistency” with the logic of practical life. So does the logic and language of emotions and art. I always notice this when I’m overcome by a really intense emotion; something really angers me, or really saddens me, say, and suddenly I’m transported: the concrete, light-world realities of the moment cede the stage to a fuzzier, shadowy set of perceptions — inwardly compelling, yet nebulous, hard-to-articulate, and in some cases tied to reality so distantly, interpreting them properly is its own act of dream interpretation. I can have similar experiences when I’m moved by music, a book, a movie. And just like a nightmare dissolves in the light of the next morning, the mood or feeling can disappear in a flash, leaving nothing behind except a question. In Keats’ words, “Fled is that music — do I wake or sleep?”
Knowing that these two modes of experience exist and really differ from each other seems genuinely valuable. When the dream world intrudes into waking, serious problems ensue. It’s incursions like this that lead to the most extreme unhealthy behavior, I’d guess: we argue with and curse at our partners, make significant practical decisions to appease feelings we don’t understand, or numb ourselves to avoid facing the terrors of that other world. If we can recognize the intrusion of dream into waking, though, there’s at least a chance we can stay with the experience and recognize it for what it truly is — a message from deep within, carrying, maybe, a wisdom we’d do well to decipher.
This part of the book is filled with mystical reflections. Depending on your temperament, you might find yourself gripped by their poetry, or you might find yourself wanting to throw the book across the room and angrily demanding why Campbell is wasting your time. For me, these seem to correspond to the dream-world and waking-world perspectives. There is something compelling and deeply true about the mystic’s perspective, yet it also baffles the mind and must be handled with care — treated as metaphor, as a guide for contemplation, but not as practical guidance that can be immediately assimilated.
Take these passages:
In mythology, wherever the Unmoved Mover, the Mighty Living One, holds the center of attention, there is a miraculous spontaneity about the shaping of the universe. The elements condense and move into play of their own accord, or at the Creator’s slightest word; the portions of the self-shattering cosmic egg go to their stations without aid. But when the perspective shifts, to focus on living beings, when the panorama of space and nature is faced from the standpoint of the personages ordained to inhabit it, then a sudden transformation overshadows the cosmic scene. No longer do the forms of the world appear to move in the patterns of a living, growing, harmonious things but stand recalcitrant, or at best inert. The props of the universal stage have to be adjusted, even beaten into shape. The earth brings forth thorns and thistles; man eats bread in the sweat of his brow. . . .
Herein lies the basic paradox of myth: the paradox of the dual focus. Just as at the opening of the cosmogonic cycle it was possible to say “God is not involved,” but at the same time “God is creator-preserver-destroyer,” so now at this critical juncture, where the One breaks into the many, destiny “happens,” but at the same time “is brought about.” From the perspective of the source, the world is a majestic harmony of forms pouring into being, exploding, and dissolving. But what the swiftly passing creatures experience is a terrible cacophony of battle cries and pain. The myths do not deny this agony (the crucifixion); they reveal within, behind, and around it essential peace (the heavenly rose).
The shift of perspective from the repose of the central Cause to the turbulation of the peripheral effects is represented in the Fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. They ate of the forbidden fruit , “And the eyes of them both were opened.” The bliss of Paradise was closed to them and they beheld the created field from the other side of a transforming veil. Henceforth they should experience the inevitable as the hard to gain. (241, 247)
These passages are just a few of many where Campbell develops the idea of the essential unity of existence. Although he doesn’t ever exactly nail down what that means to him, I think I see what he’s getting at. Advanced practitioners of meditation regularly report experiences of identification with the broader world — a dissolution of the ordinary boundaries of our identities as just ourselves. Some even report that a careful examination of subjective experience undermines their belief in the separateness of individuals. What I imagine they perceive instead is a roiling mass of thoughts and sensations, appearing in the consciousness of different people, yet so linked across people that it becomes strange to say that people are totally separate from one another, given how cause and effect don’t seem to respect those boundaries.
Or here’s another. Ordinarily, each of us have some sense of self. We know what we like and dislike, what we hope and what we fear, and generally how different circumstances affect us and what we want out of life. Yet, it’s possible to change a lot of that; some degree of change happens naturally, and once we get the hang of it, we can learn to change to a surprising degree. Moreover, we are not the authors of our selves. We became who we are in this moment in significant part due to the specific circumstances life threw us into, due to a combination of necessity and the preferences and influences of the people we came into contact with.
Knowing all of this raises some difficult questions. How much of who we habitually are and how we habitually act do we still want, and how much of it would we better off letting go? Could it ever be worth letting go of some of our most cherished self-concepts and hopes and fears? In the name of what would such a surrender make sense, when those conceptions and feelings seem to form the basis for our very navigation in the world?
Myth — and here I think myth actually gives way to religion — provide one set of answers. At the top of the list is the answer to the question of fundamental identity. If you strip away everything by which we define ourselves ordinarily, what remains?
In poetic terms, we are manifestations of the Imperishable. Each of us is a manifestation of the great unfathomable reality of this world, a particular incarnation of the laws of mind, body, and spirit. Just like a mountain bears witness to awesome geologic forces, or like a black hole illustrates the cataclysmic extremes of physical law — and just like all such things inspire wonder and love — each person, if looked at properly, testifies to the sublime pre-verbal grandeur of the universe, and to its essential goodness. As a meditation teacher I know once told me, “To see a person in their essence is to love them.” Exactly, and that’s part of what myth tries to teach.
The other part of the answer is that the essence of a person is a form of nothingness. That’s why seeing truly makes it so easy to love. We are not, the great myths teach us, the sum total of our family circumstances and professions and preferences and life experiences. We are not even the sum total of our choices and characters, our sins and virtues. Prior to all that, each of us is a person, and the life we’re leading, a human life. Each of us is part of the whole, and each of us bears the same responsibility to act in a way that is conducive to the flourishing of self and other. Each of us lives with the same basic constraints, the same basic pains, and the same basic dilemmas. Each of our personalities also shares something in common with the great spiritual heroes — a capacity for self-transcendence and for consistently choosing Good over Evil, to the benefit of ourselves (though we might not always see it) and to the benefit of others. That essentially heroic and divine nature — accessing which enables us to undertake the struggle we all desperately need to undertake — is, however, often obscured by our desire to be spared from the difficulties of life and our desire for life to be other than it actually is — safer, more controllable, less constrained. Part of the function of myth, Campbell argues, is to help us let go of that desire and step into our roles as fully-mature adults capable of seeing things as they are and acting accordingly.
This last part brings us back, from the quasi-theological reflections that fill the second part of the book, to the hero whose adventure filled the first part. The hero can now be characterized as a person who has completed the journey to wisdom. He has discovered the great secrets of life — the mysteries of meaning, joy, fulfillment, relationship, purpose, place, or in a word, flourishing. He is the “master of the two worlds” and of their interplay, the worlds of waking, practical life and dreaming, emotional life. He has the “freedom to live,” having finally broken out of the limitations imposed on him by the mistaken meaning-making systems he learned in earlier life. He also enjoys the freedom to love unconditionally, seeing as he does the presence of the Divine in everything and everyone and no longer getting caught in needs for others to treat him a certain way.
Campbell ends his book with a reflection on the role of myth in the modern world. Certainly, he says, we’ve lost touch with our mythological roots: “Within the progressive societies themselves, every last vestige of the human heritage of ritual, morality, and art is in full decay.” He wrote these words in 1949. In 2020, they seem only more true, though there appears to be a new surge of interest in ancient teachings and so perhaps the pendulum is beginning to swing back.
In Campbell’s estimation, we need new myths — or new ways of relating to the old myths — for a new time. Our problems are different and so, too, must be our language for grappling with them:
The problem of mankind today, therefore, is precisely the opposite to that of men in the comparatively stable periods of those great co-ordinating mythologies which now are known as lies. Then all meaning was in the group, in the great anonymous forms, none in the self-expressive individual; today no meaning is in the group—none in the world: all is in the individual. . . .
. . . The modern hero-deed must be that of questing to bring to light again the lost Atlantis of the co-ordinated soul.
Obviously, this work cannot be wrought by turning back, or away, from what has been accomplished by the modern revolution; for the problem is nothing if not that of rendering the modern world spiritually significant—or rather (phrasing the same principle the other way round) nothing if not that of making it possible for men and women to come to full human maturity through the conditions of contemporary life [which have caused the old mythological-religious systems to become outdated and even harmful]. (334-335)
In other words, the great pendulum of attention and action has swung. For most of human history, our teachings about life emphasized role and place in society. Even in modern times — as anyone from a less individualistic society than the US can attest — the legacy of that way of thinking persists.
Yet, in the most affluent societies in the West, the focus has shifted. We live with a profound awareness of our individuality. In its positive aspect, we see our individuality as freedom, potential, and inherent worth — though, interestingly, we seem to struggle with that last one. In its negative aspect, we see our individuality as an ultimate burden and an ultimate loneliness. As Galadriel says to Frodo: “You are a ring-bearer, Frodo. To bear a ring of power is to be alone. This task was appointed to you, and if you do not find a way, no one will.” To me that encapsulates the all-inclusive meaning and all-crushing responsibility of the individual in the modern world: each of our lives is an adventure assigned to us specifically — and in religious terms, I might add, each of our salvations is a task appointed to us alone — and, although we might come to see in that an inherently worthy project, it’s a project that also feels profoundly lonely.
That profound loneliness might in fact be a symptom of the magnitude of the pendulum swing. As Campbell tries to point out, we don’t quite seem able to reconcile our individuality with our place in the collective. Some of at least don’t know how to live out our individual sacred adventure in a way that other people — both near, in the form of our friends and family, and far, in the form of those mysterious others who write the stories that fill pages and screen time — will honor, in a way that is genuinely honor-able.
One way to think about the transition we have made as an organism is this. For most of human history, the natural world presented a baffling terror to the human mind: baffling in that we struggled to discern its patterns, terrifying in that it regularly brought us death through disease, famine, and injury. To some degree, of course, the fearsome unknown of the external world persists; I’m writing this as the number of people infected with coronavirus inches ever closer to 100,000, its death toll already in the thousands, reminding us that, no, we haven’t truly conquered nature. The potential catastrophe of climate change reminds us of the same thing. But, on the whole, we’ve achieved a control over our physical world that our ancestors would not have dared dream of. It’s this habitual control that makes it even possible to forget that our lives, ultimately, are not our own and that we are in an important way, the playthings of the gods (or of God, if you prefer).
The greatest mystery left in the universe is… us. The hidden laws that govern individuals and societies — studied by psychologists, economists, social and political “scientists” — represent the most urgent frontier of our knowledge. Where before we feared the next famine, now the locus of fear in the developed world has shifted more to unemployment and other forms of financial ruination, personal failure, loneliness, trauma, and even political disempowerment (real or imagined). This is of course truer the richer one is, since the poorest members of even American society still struggle with the timeless problems of poverty: hunger, homelessness, and total lack of control over one’s circumstances.
Campbell puts it eloquently:
Man is that alien presence with whom the forces of egoism must come to terms, through whom the ego is to be crucified and resurrected, and in whose image society is to be reformed. Man, understood however not as “I” but as “Thou”: for the ideals and temporal institutions of no tribe, race, continent, social class, or century can be the measure of the inexhaustible and multifariously wonderful divine existence that is the life in all of us. (337)
And that’s where he leaves us. There’s nothing tidy about spirituality, and the ending of the book reflects that fundamental untidiness. So many questions remain. Is the disintegration of the old mythological-religious systems a problem, exactly? It seems that some people would say yes, others no. If myth can provide an ultimate release, through wisdom, from the torments of daily life, how do we drink from that well of relief? No easy answer comes. In fact, we get the opposite: “And so every one of us,” Campbell concludes, “shares the supreme ordeal—carries the cross of the redeemer—not in the bright moments of his tribe’s great victories, but in the silence of his personal despair.”
Is there a less satisfying answer than that? Probably, but this one’s up there. In the end, the deepest significance of myth, like the deepest meaning of life, is not something to be known conceptually but something to be discovered in the act of living. And so we have to take both the stories Campbell tells and the sense he tries to make of them as roadmaps, or signs, pointing to a place and a truth that we can’t just grab and hold onto, but that we have to struggle to discover and rediscover in a forthright pursuit of the greatest good.