Crossing the Threshold: The Hero’s Journey, Stage 4 (Explained)

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What is stage 4 of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey? What is “crossing the threshold”?

Crossing the threshold is the stage at which the hero comes to a point where he is further away from the world of comfort and familiarity than he has ever been before. Crossing the threshold is stage 4 of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, from The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

We’ll cover what crossing the threshold entails and look at an example of this stage of the hero’s journey.

Crossing the Threshold

With aid and guidance in hand, the hero sets off on their adventure until they come to a point where they are further away from the world of comfort and familiarity than they have ever been before. Ahead of them lies the danger of the unknown. This is the moment of crossing the threshold in the hero’s journey. On an individual level, this aspect of the heroic monomyth parallels the dangers and uncertainties of growing out of childhood and away from the protection of one’s parents

It is at this point that the hero meets the guardian of the threshold, who stands between the worlds of the known and the unknown. This guardian is often a fearsome and monstrous figure who represents our fears of leaving our comfort zone and stepping out into the world beyond. The hero must overcome this obstacle, just as we all must overcome our fears of the unknown if we are to thrive and grow as human beings in the great adventure of life. Only those with competence and courage can overcome the danger at the stage of crossing the threshold of the hero’s journey.

The Greek god Pan is perhaps the best-known of this type of border guard. He instilled a wild, irrational fear into those who dared to cross into his realm (this is where the word “panic” comes from). To some, Pan would frighten his victims to death. But to those who paid him proper respect and homage, Pan would bestow bounty and wisdom. 

Crossing the Threshold Example: Sticky-Hair

A myth from India illustrates the element of crossing the threshold. Returning from his military training to the city of his father, Prince Five-Weapons comes to the edge of a great forest, which he is warned not to enter. He is told by local villagers that an ogre named Sticky-Hair, who kills every man he sees, resides within.

The prince ignores these warnings and enters the forest where, sure enough, he encounters the ogre. He vows to slay the beast using his newly learned military skills and his five weapons. But the prince finds that each of the weapons merely sticks to the ogre’s hair (hence the name) when he hurls them. The prince then assaults the ogre with his bare hands and feet, only to find these, too, getting stuck in the ogre’s hair. The ogre is impressed by the prince’s bravery and asks him why he seems to lack any fear of death.

Prince Five-Weapons heartily replies that he has a thunderbolt within his belly as his final weapon—if the ogre eats him, both will perish. This thunderbolt is, in fact, the Weapon of Knowledge and the prince is none other than the Future Buddha in an earlier incarnation. The ogre is persuaded and decides to let him go. The monster has become self-denying—the first step on the path to enlightenment and a key moment of the crossing-the-threshold stage.

Crossing the Threshold: The Hero’s Journey, Stage 4 (Explained)

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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

Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn is a writer and reading specialist. She’s published dozens of articles and book reviews spanning a wide range of topics, including health, relationships, psychology, science, and much more. Amanda was a Fulbright Scholar and has taught in schools in the US and South Africa. Amanda received her Master's Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.

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