The Monomyth – aka Hero’s Journey

Interest in Joseph Campbell’s work continues to grow.  In a highly compressed whirlwind trip of world mythologies, Campbell shows us that many commonalities exist in our human family through a breathtaking sampler of mythological narratives across an expanse of time and location in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  That is not to say that differences are absent.  Rather, he attempts, through this work, to balance the extreme and extremist focus on the differences that appear to be the dominant view now for centuries, if not millennia.

Campbell quoting James Joyce says: “The monomyth is an everlasting reiteration of unchanging principles and events inflected in particular and unique way.”  That is to say, fundamentally, there is one narrative.  However, this form demands of us that we live our unique narrative out.  We cannot live someone else’s narrative.  Campbell was insistent that we enter the woods alone where it is thickest and where no path exists.

The monomyth is the journey each of us is on.  “Myth commonly is an allegory or metaphor of the agony of self-completion through the mastery and assimilation of conflicting opposites.  The process is described in the typical symbolic terms of encounters, perils, feats, and trials [in myths].”  This comment was made in The King and the Corpse by Heinrich Zimmer (edited by Joseph Campbell) before Campbell put to pen the monomyth.  Myths are metaphors to assist us in the confusing business of living life.

The common understanding of myth is as a story.  The content of myth as stories is important but there is something behind the content of the story: mythic form ( Dennis Patrick Slattery on The Relevance of Myth in our Lives). Slattery asked himself: “What kind of energy field gathers itself to coagulate or constellate that has this particular type of plot?  It’s not that myth as story is wrong; it is just insufficient.  There is something behind the narrative that each of us is living out.  To merely discuss the plot of our lives is to sidestep the form.”  The Universal emerges through unique local and individual expression.

For writers who use the Hero’s Journey as structure to guide them in their writing, the greater truth of the monomyth may be overlooked.  There are those who try to capitalize on the form saying things like there are 510+ stages of the hero’s journey. There are in fact uncounted stages of this journey as each of us “inflects in particular ways” the reiteration of unchanging principles.  Do not be taken in by jargon.  There is something very basic to the human condition here.  Jargon muddies these waters when clarity is desired.  Also, I suggest you do not dismiss the form because it appears simple.  Do not confuse simple with simplistic (and simple often does not mean easy).  The potency of the underlying truth is not diminished by the simplicity of the structure.  Another common error is to think of the form as if it were a formula.  If the writer does this, the story most likely will feel formulaic to the audience.

The story you writers tell (and the story that each of us must live) is uniquely our own.  If we do not follow the call, the story that only each of us uniquely has the capacity to live will go unlived; a vacuum will have been created because that gap cannot be filled by any other.  The everlasting reiteration of unchanging principles and events inflected in particular and unique ways is simultaneously a grueling demand to rise to the challenges that are presented to us and a gift, elixir, joy, and experience of the wonder of Life.

Replenish the Well

Imagination is mediated by, arises out of, and/or is informed by the psyche.  It is difficult to separate imagination, creativity, and the psyche.  C. G. Jung stated that psyche is image.

In her book, The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron reminds the creative person (who is all of us) to nurture the imagination; tend it; give it space to play; take it on a date.  When you have need to dip into the well of your imagination, ensure that it has not become dust.

I am currently reading Philosophies of India by Heinrich Zimmer.  The Indian mythologies are teeming with images: literary, visual, poetic. It occurs to me as I am reading it that the expanse of the images of Indian mythology is as broad as the subcontinent of India itself which supports these rich mythologies.

By delving into mythology you may hit the mother lode of images.

I do not want to “should” on you (see Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, “The Three Metamorphoses”, i.e. kill the dragon “thou shalt.”).  What I do is offer is a pearl of wisdom.  You choose to accept, reject, or revisit it at a later date.

Replenish your well.

Henri Studio - Rafaella Fountain

Henri Studio-Rafaella Fountain

And, mythology is not a bad place to start.



Recently, I was reading The King and the Corpse by Heinrich Zimmer (edited by Joseph Campbell). In it, he references a delightful Celtic story. In this story, a mean-spirited step-mother, the queen, challenges the hero of the story, Conn-eda, to a game of chess. To make the game more interesting she declares that the winner is to place a geis on the loser. However, this particular chessboard is charmed so that the owner, the evil queen, would always win the first game.

In her zeal of winning the first game, she challenges the hero to a second. This time Conn-eda wins. So, they place a geis on each other.

The Anglo-Saxons as well as the Irish had the notion of ritual “geis.” There is a great deal of latitude in geis. Forms of geis vary. They may refer to a code of chivalry or they may be merely superstitious. Regardless of what they were, they were considered sacred obligations. The prohibition dared not be broken for fear of forfeiting divine support (and a king with bad luck which affected his realm was often deposed).

The geis imposed on Conn-eda by this evil queen was formidable; in satisfying these requirements of this geis, Conn-eda would no doubt meet his death.

The terms and conditions of a geis are not always known. Sometimes they are fairly straightforward, for example, the taboo of not eating the meat of your totem animal. However, how do you satisfy or avoid breaking a geis that you don’t know has been put on you? That is when you seek the advice of a person well versed in the reading the “signs.”

photo by h. koppdelaney 2009 Titled: Protection

photo by h. koppdelaney 2009
Titled: Protection

I must admit, there are times I feel I have one of these unknown geis on me. Wherever I turn, whatever I do, things do not seem to work out. It’s not like I am treading water or even sinking. It’s more like I am asleep and cannot to wake up. (Do you remember the TV show The Prisoner?)

In the story I mentioned above, the geis was a quest to find and bring back mythical trophies from the fairy world. What if we are all under that geis? What if Life is a quest to retrieve the trophy of the luminous world. Unbeknownst to the wicked queen, by satisfying the geis, instead of having Conn-eda killed, he actually releases the brother of the fair king.  This brother of the king, was himself, under a geis. So, when the evil queen proclaimed the geis, she was actually doing the will of the world beyond, which restored balance, not only to that special world, but to the ordinary world of Conn-eda too.

If my geis, is to go in quest of the trophy, then go I must. It is my sacred obligation.  Maybe the lethargy comes from avoiding the quest.  Once I step beyond the limited awareness, perhaps, I not only will find the trophy, but restore balance to my world.

May your geis be your greatest gift.