Understanding the 3 Stages of a Hero's Journey

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What are the 3 stages of a hero’s journey? How does the legend of Moses illustrate the hero’s rite of passage?

The 3 stages of a hero’s journey include separation, initiation, and return. The cycle involves the hero separating from the world he has always known, gaining spiritual power in seclusion, and coming back to share the power with humanity. This is well illustrated in the legend of Moses, where he secluded himself to Mount Sinai, received the tablets of law from God, and returned to share the word of God with the people of Israel.

Read on to learn more about the 3 stages of a hero’s journey.

The 3 Stages

Although the settings and plots of myths vary widely across time and space, from the Homeric poems of ancient Greece to the enlightenment of the Buddha in India to the Christian story of the birth and resurrection of Christ, they all share a certain core set of themes, a standard template. This template is the mythological adventure of the hero—someone who sets out on a journey, often with the help of a sage guide and allies along the way, overcomes obstacles, and achieves some sort of transformation which he or she then shares with the world. This can either be the sharing of a literal bounty (bringing abundance and prosperity back to a hungry and impoverished community) or a deeper, more spiritual redemption of a wayward and fallen people.

The point in space and time where divine wisdom is imparted to the physical world is known as the World Navel. It is the center of the universe, the spot from which all life grows: it is the portal between our world and the world of the divine. It is represented in a variety of ways across religious and mythological traditions and throughout time—it is Rome in Catholicism, Mecca in Islam, or the Immovable Spot in the Buddha legend—but the idea is always the same.

This transformation of the hero comes from tapping into a source of deep spiritual wisdom, which is often revealed to have been within the soul or psyche of the hero from the beginning. Thus, the archetypal hero’s journey involves a spiritual awakening, an attainment of some piece of the gods. We see this, for example, in the story of Prometheus, who ascended to heaven and stole fire from the gods, which he then imparted to the world. We also see this in the myth of Jason, who sailed through the Clashing Rocks and defeated a dragon to obtain the Golden Fleece, which enabled him to win back his throne from a usurper. 

The essential feature, the basic common denominator of mythology, is the monomyth. It is the core structure of the myths, the journey that all heroes must undergo. It involves the 3 stages of a hero’s journey—separation, initiation, return. From the myths of the ancient Egyptians and the medieval Arthurian legend to the folk-tales of the native Maoris of New Zealand, the 3 stages of a hero’s journey are present: a separation from the world he or she has always known (embarking on the quest), gaining some spiritual or other-worldly power, and a return in which they share the boon of the new power with humanity. 

Let’s discuss two examples of myths that illustrate the typical 3 stages of a hero’s journey.

The Struggle of the Buddha

In the story of the Struggle of the Buddha, the founding story of Buddhism, we see all the 3 stages of a hero’s journey. First, we see separation. The prince Gautama Sakyamuni (also known as Siddartha Gautama and the Future Buddha) escapes his ancestral home and cuts off his royal locks. He assumes the costume of a monk, wandering through the world and living a life of extreme austerity and asceticism. During this time, he transcends to the eight stages of meditation.

Next, we witness initiation. One day, he tosses an empty bowl into a river, and sees that the bowl flows upstream. This is the signal that his time of ultimate enlightenment is near at hand. He journeys to the Tree of Enlightenment, where he meets Kama-Mara, the god of love and death. Kama-Mara attempts to dislodge him from the tree, deploying all manner of fearsome monsters and deities at Gautama. But in repelling all of Mara’s onslaughts, the Future Buddha acquires knowledge of his previous existences, the power of omniscience, and a divine understanding of the chain of causation. He becomes Buddha, “The Enlightened One.”

Finally, we see return. After this victory, Buddha initially despairs of being able to communicate his message. But the god Brahma dissuades him from this pessimism and urges him to teach gods and men the path of enlightenment. Thus, Buddha returns to the cities and the hustle and bustle of the world from which he had originally come to share the gift of his knowledge and wisdom with the world.

The Legend of Moses

The 3 stages of a hero’s journey is also present in a story more familiar to Western audiences, that of Moses in the Old Testament. After the Exodus from Egypt, Moses leads the Israelites through the wilderness of Sinai (departure). Moses ascends Mount Sinai to receive the Tables of the Law from God, who commands Moses to share them with the Israelites, the chosen people (initiation). 

When Moses returns to share the word of God with the people, God shakes the bounds of the world, unleashing fire, earthquake, storm, and hail. God appears from all directions, to demonstrate His all-knowing, all-seeing power. The crowd gathers to see the spectacle, but there is room for all—God is one with the people of Israel (return).

Understanding the 3 Stages of a Hero’s Journey

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Hero with a Thousand Faces summary :

  • How the Hero's Journey reappears hundreds of times in different cultures and ages
  • How we attach our psychology to heroes, and how they help embolden us in our lives
  • Why stories and mythology are so important, even in today's world

Joseph Adebisi

Joseph has had a lifelong obsession with reading and acquiring new knowledge. He reads and writes for a living, and reads some more when he is supposedly taking a break from work. The first literature he read as a kid were Shakespeare's plays. Not surprisingly, he barely understood any of it. His favorite fiction authors are Tom Clancy, Ted Bell, and John Grisham. His preferred non-fiction genres are history, philosophy, business & economics, and instructional guides.

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