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What is a Hero's Journey?

In many Medieval epics, a questing knight must overcome temptations that threaten to lead him astray.
According to the Bible, God started Noah on his Hero's Journey.
As with Buddha, a hero's journey might end in transcendence.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 03 July 2014
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The Hero's Journey is a group of events in a story or myth, used by Joseph Campbell, who was influenced by Jung, to describe the similar elements in all mythic structures. In each story that represents a Hero's Journey, the hero must experience steps that represent the struggle for psychological wholeness, or as Jung termed it, individuation.

The Hero's Journey begins with either an inner longing to go on a quest, or an exterior call that enlists the aid of the hero. Heroes may, at first, refuse the call, or may at once respond to the call. There is usually some resistance to the call as it means leaving a comfortable existence to walk into unknown physical and psychological danger.

In some cases, a guide or supernatural aid will direct the first part of the Hero's Journey. Such is the case in various Biblical passages where God, for example, instructs Noah to build an ark, or where angels reveal the path Christ must follow. The next step is a crossing of the threshold, the moment when the hero must leave the known world and venture into parts unknown.

In the Hero's Journey, one may encounter a threshold guardian, who tries to discourage the hero from the crossing. In Greek myths, travels to the underworld mean getting past Cerberus, the three-headed dog, and physically crossing the river Styx. The threshold crossing is symbolically interpreted as entering the unconscious psyche.

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Once into the unconscious, the hero frequently has moments of doubt and despair, called “The Belly of the Whale.” Dante’s narrator bemoans his waking in the middle of the woods and first entering Hell. This despair is short lived and is followed by various trials that will test the hero and reveal to him his true nature.

After trials, the hero must negotiate with his feminine side or anima. He tends to meet a goddess and/or temptress, though this is not present in all myths and religions. The goddess tends to represent sacred marriage (union between masculine and feminine parts), while the temptress attempts to sway the hero from the continuing on his path. In Grail legends, women offer sexual gratification to tempt the knights. When an offer is accepted, the quest is a failed Hero's Journey. Knights like Galahad or Percival refused such offers and revealed such women to be demons.

The final conflict prior to returning to the normal world is confrontation with the father figure. In some cases this means killing the father, while in others it means in some way vanquishing the father’s power over oneself. In The Return of the Jedi for example, Luke offers his father Darth Vader a chance to redeem himself, instead of taking up his light saber to slay him. Luke saves Vader from his own evil nature, and though Vader dies, Luke has now dealt with that which exhibited ultimate control over him.

This step can lead to either deification or a time of rest and relaxation prior to returning as individuated self to the normal world. The return may be fraught with difficulties, where the hero must prove himself or be rescued. Conversely, it may prove uneventful.

The result of the return in the hero’s journey can be living with wisdom throughout the rest of one’s life, or becoming truly transcendental like the Buddha or Christ. This result in the Hero's Journey means true individuation has been achieved. Living and dying are not feared. Variants include deification, ascension into heaven or dramatic changes in the direction of a hero’s life.

The hero’s journey applies very well to male heroes. It seems more artificial to apply it to heroines, though some aspects of the journey may be similar. Women, however, have the power to create, and many feminists argue that a Hero's Journey not marking women’s ability to conceive and give birth is considerably off the mark. Nevertheless, the similarities between different cultural conceptions of the Hero's Journey for males are striking and well worth examination.

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anon251745
Post 9

Christ's hero's journey is not unique. In the Celtic Creation myth, the Children of Danu travel to the Island of Destiny in order to overcome evil and despair so that the children of the Earth can live lives of goodness and virtue.

amypollick
Post 8

@Armas1313: Just to clarify: It was Moses who led the Israelites out of Egypt. Joseph was a few hundred years before Moses. He was sold into slavery by his brothers, rose to prominence in the Egyptian government and helped the Israelites when they were facing a terrible famine in their land.

Moses was born an Israelite in Egypt. Pharaoh was fearful that the Hebrews were multiplying too quickly, and might overtake the Egyptians. Therefore, he decreed that male Hebrew children should be drowned in the Nile River. Moses' mother sent him down the backwaters in a pitch-lined basket and he was found by Pharaoh's daughter, who raised him as her own son. He killed an Egyptian, then spent 40 years in the desert as a shepherd to escape punishment. God sent him and his brother, Aaron, back to Egypt to confront Pharaoh and to release the Israelites from slavery. This is the Exodus.

@christensen: Indeed, there are many stories in Hindu and Buddhist writings of those who made sacrifices. Almost without exception, however, these are humans who made great sacrifices at the behest of their god.

Let me clarify something, though: Abraham did not actually sacrifice Isaac. He was willing to do it if he had to, but God stayed his hand. This is the only record in the Bible (or in the Torah, to my knowledge) of God asking any person to sacrifice a child, or to even show that willingness. In later books of the Bible, religions are condemned that demand the sacrifice of their children to a god. Worship of these gods, in fact, got Israel into serious trouble as a kingdom.

It is also true that many religions feature the dying and reviving gods. Osiris comes to mind. However, the journey and sacrifice of Christ was, as Proxy414 noted, different because the God in this case, took on a complete human form. He became man in all ways. Fully human and fully divine. This is a heavy concept to get your head around, I'll admit.

Nevertheless, also as Proxy noted, it was not necessary for God to take this journey. He did it out of His profound love for humanity. Only the Judeo-Christian God has ever been portrayed as this kind of God. And, God has a habit of reaching us where we are, and the people of that time understood the dying and reviving god concept.

Imperfect people make up Christianity, and this of course, gives rise to problems. Nevertheless, we try to rise above our individual imperfections to undertake our own journey (heroic or not) to "press on toward the mark of the high calling." Often, we fall, we fail, we do not give our best to the cause of Christ, but we still try.

christensen
Post 7

I think it's a big claim to suggest that Jesus' profound act of love is unparalleled by any other religious stories. Many mythic or religious stories involve intense and amazing acts of sacrifice.

In the Judaic tradition for example, willingness to sacrifice a child at the behest of one's god, is pretty profound. In fact, most parents would any day of the week rather be faced with self sacrifice than sacrifice of their children.

There are many other stories in Hindu and the various Buddhist traditions that speak to this depth of sacrifice.

Armas1313
Post 6

There are selfish heroes in the Bible as well, who are predecessors to Christ. Heroes in various mythologies are similar, and are favored but selfish. Joseph was a hero who was forced to run away into the wilderness because of a crime he committed, but was brought back (resurrected) to lead his people out of Egypt.

Proxy414
Post 5

@BigBloom

I agree that all religions need a hero's journey, and an ultimate hero's image. Some religions have painted a poor picture, however, of a truly good and loving hero. Greek mythology, for instance, only shows the hero undertaking a journey because he has to. Buddha observes and feels sorry for those less fortunate than himself, and so attains Nirvana. But no hero has ever gone from a place of supreme deity to suffer a contemptuous death for people who hated him. No hero except for Christ.

BigBloom
Post 4

@Proxy414

I think that there are similar instances, and the fact that the hero's journey occurs in every religion points to the fact that they are all so similar. Human religions all derive from a single religion and feeling of mutuality which we all share. The sooner we recognize this and are able to coexist, the better.

Proxy414
Post 3

Almost all mythologies have some sort of hero, and the hero generally undertakes a similar sort of journey, symbolizing man's inner desire to overcome his darkest troubles and emerge victorious. Christ's hero journey is unique, however, because it involves a God-man who takes a journey he did not need to take, but decided to take in the place of his enemies. This profound act of love is unparalleled in any other religion.

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