The Hero’s Journey – Initiation

Initiation is a primary component of Joseph Campbell’s schema of the Hero’s Journey (click for description). He has said that the schema he developed is a magnification of the Separation – Initiation – and Return typically employed in rites of passage. (Christopher Vogler’s two parts, “descent” and “initiation,” are equivalent to Campbell’s one, “initiation.”)

To overlook the significance of “initiation” may be to defuse the potency of the schema. According to the dictionary, “to initiate” is “to formally admit to a group; to begin.” But, Campbell and modern anthropologists see more deeply into the lived experience of these rites.

Some of the common rites of passage would include: birth, naming, puberty, marriage, and burial. Studies by anthropologists inform us that often rites are formal and can be quite severe. The ritual has to do with recognition of a new role; the process of throwing off the old one and coming out in the new. This is a recognition by both the initiate and the community. Through the initiation process the mind of the initiate is radically cut away from the attitudes, attachments, and life patterns of the stage being left behind.

by funkydoodledonkey – Xhosa boys are shown wearing the white clay painted on their bodies that signifies transition to manhood. Around the teen years, Xhosa males traditionally are initiated into adulthood. The initiation includes a period of separation from family, during which older men mentor the younger ones. Still widely observed in rural areas, the initiation ends with the rite of circumcision.

Commonly, the transition from adolescence to adulthood is what comes to mind when the subject of rites of passage is discussed. An example of another passage is that of childhood to adolescence. In “Peter Pan,” Wendy leaves the childhood of the nursery for the adolescence of a room of her own; not for adulthood.

For the most part, the purposes and actual effects of rites of passage in any given society are to conduct people across those difficult thresholds of transformation that demand a change in the patterns not only of conscious but also of unconscious life. The various passages are nothing less than the mystery of transfiguration. The result of initiation is no less spectacular than the mystery that takes place within the chrysalis. Initiation is also the chiropractic that aligns the initiate and the community to the transformation.

In a culture such as that found in the West, where rituals and rites are often barren or totally absent, the depth of the initiation process is easily undervalued or misunderstood. If you, as a writer, decide to take advantage of the structure of story available though the Hero’s Journey, your story will be on firmer ground should you harness the significance implied in “initiation.” Some basic attitude, attachment, or life pattern of your hero will be eradicated forever. In mythology, often the hero experiences some sort of dying to the world he/she has known and comes back as one reborn; that is, replicating the extreme transformation exhibited in the successful rite of passage.

The Hero’s Journey – An Overview

Here is a primitive diagram of the Hero’s Journey. Basically, it follows Aristotle’s story design of Beginning, Middle, and End.

For writers, this structure also mirrors the 3-Act play, where both the “Descent” and the “Initiation” make up the middle act.

The Ordinary World isn’t necessarily “ordinary”.  What is meant by the term “ordinary” is the day-to-day world the Hero finds him/her-self in.  The “ordinary” world can, in fact, be quite fantastic.  The “ordinary world” of Stars War (Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope ) with interstellar travel is not “ordinary” in our typical understanding of the word.  Do not be misled by this nomenclature.

The Ordinary World is in contrast to the World of the Adventure or Quest otherwise known as the Special World.  The extent of the contrast is determined by the needs of the story and skill of the writer.

Typically, in the Ordinary World, the community is experiencing a threat or, in some manner, life has become out of balance. The Ordinary World is the launch pad: commonly this is where the Hero is first introduced in the story.  Frequently the Ordinary World is static but unstable. The situation may be known, but is now escalating or becoming radically unstable.

The Hero’s Journey is a quest to restore balance to the village; hence the Departure or Separation.

Then come the Trials and Tribulations of the Special World.  The boon is not easily accessed or readily offered. The Hero has to work for it in the Descent and Initiation.

However, the story does not end at this point.  What is the benefit if he/she cannot restore balance to the village?  Therefore, the Hero must Return.  There are forces at work here that challenge the Hero’s Return.  The Hero leaves the Special World and returns to the Ordinary World to bring the boon back to the community that he/she has gained. The story is in a crescendo to the climax in the Return with a brief denouement displaying, or at least implying, that order has been restored.

For detailed discussion on The Hero’s Journey, mythology and writing see The Hero with a Thousand Faces and The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. For examples of the Hero’s Journey in film, see Stuart Voytilla’s Myth & the Movies.