The hero´s journey

“A hero is someone who has devoted his life to something bigger than himself” Joseph Campbell

In 1975 George Lucas, following the road of geniuses like Tolkien, had created in his mind an enormous world, with its own characters, colors and values. However, the thousands of ideas that he had for Star Wars were all spread out through his desk, without knowing how to organize them into something exciting and coherent. That same year, the filmmaker would find a book that were to show him something surprising: the pattern of all the epic stories of humanity.

The book was called The hero with a thousand faces. Written by the myth researcher Joseph Campbell, it showed that behind all of the leyends and myth of different cultures around the world there was a pattern, a series of simbols that are repeated over and over again. This pattern would constitute what Campbell called the Monomyth or the Hero´s journey, realizing that, if a story deals with the way people succed in overcoming the challenges of life, it follows this structure. As such, the Monomyth is the human story of becoming, growth and change.

The most important thing about the monomyth is that each one of us lives this pattern in times of changes, which are constantly repeating themselves. For example, it has been said that in people´s lifes there are cycles of change every seven years, like at seven, fourteen, twenty one and thirty five years old, in which the process of the Monomyth would be repplicated. From the big cycles to the ones that happen everyday, this process is relevant to all of us.

The basic structure of the Monomyth is Separation, Iniciation and Return. In this process, the hero lives twelve stages: (1) the ordinary world; (2) the call to adventure; (3) the refusal of the call; (4) meeting with the mentor; (5) crossing the threshold towards the unknown; (6) training, where the allies and enemies are known; (7) the approach towards the Challenge; (8) the rite of passage; (9) the reward; (10) the return; (11) resurrection and (12) the return with the elixir.

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The ordinary world is where the hero for better or worse lives his day to day (Gautama Buda lives in the comforts of his palace). Suddenly, an inusual event happens that opens the possibility of an unknown world for the Hero (Harry Potter receives the first letter from Howarts). Normally, the call to action is ignored, but always that life calls we have to respond, as through any means it will make us know that we have to get out of our comfort zone (the call of Katniss´s syster in the Hunger Games). After this, the hero directly or indirectly knows a mentor (Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wards, or the Lanista that buys Proximo on Gladiator).

With his help he enters an unknown world, in which he must train and realize his allies and enemies (the woman in Kill Bill starts his training with Pai Mei Wig). After all of this training, comes a test in which the hero can live or die, that requires all of his knowledge, ability and creativity to overcome it. If he survives this test, an old version of the hero will die and a new one will be born (the death and resurrection of Crist, Mitra, Osiries or Balder. Also in Fight Club the character must literally die, so he can become his new version: Tyler Durden).

After this, the hero receives a material or inmaterial reward and starts his way home (the return in Gilgamesh or the Odyssey). By returning and meeting again his previous world, the hero suffers a shock in which he is no longer the same and now he must again adapt himself again to this daily world. But, the hero has gained some kind of elixir like knowledge, a perspective, richness or weapons, that he will now incorporate to the community and probably will himself become a mentor for others (in the Hobbit, Bilbo must addapt again to his life in the Shire).

In this way, every epic story follows the basic scheme of the monomyth, just as our personal cycles of change do. What does this means? It means that myths, more than abstract symbols, represent a posibility, an inspiration to summon ourselves to the universal story of change. And it means that, even though the pattern repeats itself, the way in which it does is entirely subjected to each individual. How can you know your own path? You cannot but “Follow your bliss”, as Campbell used to advise his students.

The historical mind of the West has wanted to know the way Virgin Mary conceived Jesus, if the latter really resurrected, if Valkyries were real or if Zaratustra was born in Afghanistan or Kazakhstan. Does it really matter? The true function of stories are to be metaphors that serve as mirrors that appeal to something internal, not being a death symbol. Jesus himself was one of the most rebelious and creative person of his time, not an imitator. The most important message of Joseph Campbell is, in his own words, “All stories are truth, but none are literal”.

If you´d like to know more about these topics, I reccomend the work of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung


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