“What each must seek in this life never was on land or sea. It is something out of his own unique potentiality for experience, something that never has been and never could have been experienced by someone else.”
“You are the hero of your own story.”
~ Joseph Campbell
The hero’s journey is an ancient storytelling pattern discovered and popularized by the the great mythologist and scholar Joseph Campbell. While studying the mythologies of cultures throughout history Campbell realized that many similar themes, archetypes and patterns arise throughout the ages, creating a cyclical architecture of story that has been utilized by teachers and storytellers for millennia.
At its core the hero’s journey expresses the progression of a individual from a ‘normal’ state of affairs/perspective (i.e. not ideal, mundane, unconscious) to a higher, individualized state of consciousness through a series of trials and travails.
The hero’s journey (HJ) is powerful tool to help understand our personal lives and travels in a broader, mythological context. The ‘journey’ is both an internal progression of self transformation and a physical journey through the world. For travel storytellers the HJ can provide a mythologically based map to the interplay of internal and external events in relation to the individual on a globetrotting journey.
The HJ has been the subject of discussion many times in both simple and complex terms. Here I present eight simplified steps. Usually the HJ is represented in 12 or 17 steps, or many more. This particular exploration of the hero’s journey is intended for the world traveler who wishes to view their life-changing journeys through the lens of a personal mythology.
This is where you find yourself when life seems mundane and you wish for a higher purpose or calling. Maybe things don’t outright suck but the Ordinary World does not satisfy. Perhaps you can’t quite put your finger on it, but something is missing. You know there is more for you… but what? This is a situation we may find ourselves in before set out on our travels; in a world that is not calling us to our higher values or broadening our perspective. Just as we can’t know sweetness without the sour, we have to experience the banality and frustrations of the Ordinary World before we are ready to hear the Call to Adventure.
Traveler Translation: Step one in the HJ is being where you don’t want to be. Your hometown, your depressing job – wherever it is that you consciously or unconsciously want to escape. This is the jumping off point of the journey.
‘The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty yes to your own adventure.’ ~ Joseph Campbell
Something breaks the spell of the ordinary world and summons you to your journey. It could be a novel, a beautiful travel video, a chance conversation, getting fired, launching your blog or an article you read on your lunch break that stirs your wanderlust. The call can be anything.
In mythological terms the call to adventure often comes from a character known as a herald or from the mentor (more on the mentor in a moment). The movies are filled with these archetypes; a classic Herald was the owl delivering Harry Potter his invitation to Hogwarts and a classic Mentor figure is Gandalf showing up at the door of Bilbo Baggins. The Call of the Herald or the Mentor signal that the would-be Hero is being summoned by the powers of the Universe and that adventure is afoot.
Traveler translation: We may actually experience the call to adventure many times before we acknowledge and accept it. It’s also important to note that the call happens on many scales smaller than epic world travels — the call can be fulfilled on daily basis wherever you are. It’s about responding to a prompting to explore further and accept the invitation to the unknown. Or it’s just about getting out of the city and into some waves.
The mentor’s role is to aid the Hero by providing guidance, spiritual support, pep talks, the occasional smack on the head and a vital Gift. The Mentor is wise and has been down the roads the Hero will walk many times and has in the course of their journey learned a great deal that will aid the hero…if the Hero is open. The Mentor can be a person you know, a friend, colleague or family member. The mentor can also be a stranger, who seems to waltz into your life at the right moment, with the right words of advice and encouragement. The mentor can also be an artist, brand or group that embodies the values and aesthetics of the hero and calls the hero’s higher nature into being. The Mentor can be a blog. It doesn’t matter who or what the mentor is — what matters is that the Mentor prompts the Hero in someway towards the call of adventure and provides the Hero with an indispensable gift that will serve the Hero on their journey.
So what’s all this about a gift? In the myths of old the Gift was often a physical object, usually badass and magical — a special talisman, weapon, garment or secret knowledge — that the Hero would wield at some crucial point. In our lives the Gift can be as simple and as intangible as permission to be and do as you please. The gift can be a guidebook, rucksack, lightsaber, novel, surf board or mantra. The mentor’s gift can be the support and inclusion in a community of like-minded individuals. The gift can simply be the example of the mentor sets to follow. Whatever the mentor’s gift may be, it helps set the Hero in motion and will be indispensable during the journey.
Traveler translation: Who or what is stepping into your life, inspiring and motivating you to heed The call and live your personal journey to the fullest? This is a mentor. What gift — what tool, point of view, mantra, group inclusion or information are they providing you with that stokes your fire and aids your Journey? This is the gift of the mentor. Look for the Gifts of the Mentors in your life and remember the old saying “when the student is ready the teacher appears.”
After the Hero has followed The Call to Adventure there quickly comes a point where a border or boundary must be crossed.
This Threshold is the line that separates the Ordinary World from the Extraordinary / Unknown World that the Journey will take place in. The Threshold is a place of excitement, uncertainty and of immense possibility. It draws a line between the two distinct worlds of the Hero — The Known and the Unknown. The Threshold is often attended by what is known mythologically as Threshold Guardians. It sounds pretty daunting, like something out of a comic book ; Threshold Guardians of the Galaxy. This is as much the troll that blocks access to the bridge as it is the rude TSA agent that must be endured silently. The Threshold is not always a fun place to be, but it is necessary.
Traveler translation: For us travelers the Threshold can be easy to identify. It can be the boarding of an airplane, the crossing of a border, ocean or timezone. It can be setting foot on foreign soil and hearing for the first time the garbled cacophony of new languages and cultures. The Threshold signifies the real start of the Adventure. The excitement that builds and makes nests of nerves in your stomach tell you that some internal and external line is being crossed. Externally speaking, on one side of the Threshold is the Known place and on the other side is the Unknown place. Internally, the Threshold signifies the leaving behind of the old you to be transformed by the eventual outcome of your Journey.
‘If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That’s why it’s your path.’ ~ Joseph Campbell
Once the threshold has been crossed the journey really begins. It is at this stage in the HJ where the hero gathers allies and experience as she makes her way through the unknown world. The road is a stage of maturation for the Hero as she gains valuable insight and learns to better wield the potential of the mentor’s gift. It’s also a great time for a montage to show how the Hero is learning and leveling up through trial and exploration. In mythology, this stage is often called the road of trials, because the hero is tested and gathers strength.
Traveler translation: The word travel comes from travail — so the term Road of Trials is actually on point. For all the glamor and excitement, world travel tests you and asks you to learn quick and roll with the punches. Think of the Road as the stage of travel where you are finding your feet, meeting fellow wanderers and learning valuable lessons about how to travel well. This stage is a transformational one where you the Traveler/Hero come into your own, become more comfortable with the Journey and pave the way for the deeper experiences and perspectives that present themselves later in the Journey.
‘Opportunities to find deeper powers within ourselves comes when life seems most challenging.’ ~ Joseph Campbell
Simply put, The cave symbolizes inner conflict, death and rebirth. I know that sounds pretty gnarly but stick with me.
In the movies this stage is the Big Boss Battle, where the Hero faces certain death at the hands of her foe should she fail. This is a dramatic high point where the hero is tested. In some of the myths of old the archetype we call the Dragon’s Cave was at times depicted literally as that, a dragon’s cave (Smaug!), yet still symbolized the dark inner forces that impede the realization of the true self. In the cave a conflict takes place in which the Hero stands to lose or gain everything and which all of the lessons learned on the road and the power of the mentor’s gift are brought to bear. In some of the old myths the ‘descent’ into the cave was depicted as a visit to the underworld where the Hero face the deities of death who depict the dark forces of his unconscious that he must master.
Traveler translation: This stage of the HJ marks the ‘half way’ point in the hero’s journey. When the Hero’s Journey is represented in a circle, as it so often is, this is the bottom, 6 o’clock position that stands polarized to the 12 o’clock first position of the ordinary world. The experience of the cave, even if it is uncomfortable, is exactly what you wanted/needed and that is why it stands in exact opposition to the Ordinary world you chose to leave behind. The Cave does not have to be a negative experience. Ultimately it is about facing your bullshit, dying to your old self and leveling up. The cave can be getting mugged. The cave can be getting the courage to introduce yourself to your future wife. It can be facing down your first class of eager yet silent ESL students. For me, the cave has been breaking up with my girlfriend while on the road. At another point the cave was a long night deciding that I was not getting on the plane to go home, not yet.
For simplification we can think of this stage as the cave part two. In short, the treasure is that which the hero has gained during your conflict in the dragons cave. In the myths this was often physical boon such as a sword, gold or magic item. Awesome magic swords aside, the treasure is best viewed as an attainment of the inner dimensions. It’s about leveling up. The Hero has faced her greatest fear and foe and wielding the power she has gathered on her journey she has emerged from the Cave reborn. The physical treasures are merely symbolic of the inner treasure that a hero has gained.
Traveler translation: What realizations, truths or breakthroughs came from your time in the cave? When you were challenged, whether it was a positive or negative experience for you, what did you learn about yourself, how did you grow? The Treasure is the inner gold that we seize on our Journey and take with us. It is how travel changes us for the better. It symbolizes a death of the old self and a phoenix rebirth.
Eventually you may reach a point where you are on the path back ‘home’ — perhaps to the exact same place that you left behind in The Ordinary World at the beginning of the journey. The road home is at times taken reluctantly and at times outright refused. Mythologically this stage is thought of as the magic flight — where the hero must either race home to save the ordinary world (from something nasty) with his new found powers and inner mastery. The hero is often aided by super natural powers (Eagles Gandalf!). It is at this stage that the affects of the cave and the seizing of the treasure have sunk in and the hero has reached a sort of atonement with herself and the world.
Traveler translation: The road home is a chance to reflect on the journey and the self transformation that has taken place. For many of us world travel is one of the most influential, inspirational and transformational experiences we’ve had…period, end of story. The road Home is a time to deepen the connections you have made on your journey and ponder what this new you means and what you will do back in the ordinary Wwrld. In myth we think of this stage as ascending from the cave and moving again towards the threshold again.
‘We’re not on our journey to save the world but to save ourselves. But in doing that you save the world. The influence of a vital person vitalizes.’ ~ Joseph Campbell
The hero, what Joseph Campbell would now call “The master of two worlds” has come full circle and returned to The Ordinary World that she had left behind. Only now she has been initiated as a traveler, tested and rewarded in the Unknown World. In this way she has ‘mastered’ both worlds, the known and the unknown, the inner and outer, the physical and spiritual.
The last step is perhaps the most important; the hero must help heal, upgrade, remix, and remaster the ordinary world with their new knowledge and empowerment. Something vital and personal MUST be brought back from the journey and applied to the ordinary world — an ideal, some wisdom, photography, poetry, freedom, love, stoke…
Traveler translation: Travel changes us. Hopefully for the better. That positive growth is brought back with us and affects the world we inhabit. We upgrade and so does the world, thank you very much holographic fractal universe. The conscious application of the treasure we seized from our journey must happen for the circle of the Hero’s Journey to be complete. This does seem to put a certain responsibility on the traveler — but more often than not we can’t wait to share our travel-won Treasures with the world. That’s why the greatest storytellers have often been great travelers.
Share the treasure of your journey for your sake and for ours.
If you are interested on learning more about the work of Joseph Campbell and the hero’s journey the excellent Power of Myth series filmed in the late 1980s is a great place to get a feel for this fascinating topic and is on Youtube and Vimeo. His masterpiece ‘The Hero with A Thousand Faces’ is a big, thick tome and well worth the time for the student of world culture and mythos.