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What is stage 6 of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey? What is the “road of trials”?
The road of trials is the stage of a hero’s journey during which the hero undergoes a series of trials and tests. The road of trails is stage 6 of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, from The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
Will cover what the road of trials may look like and explore two examples of a hero on the road of trials.
The Road of Trials
Now we move into the main action of the myth, wherein the hero undergoes a series of trials and tests, with the aid of their supernatural helper. The hero might also discover the existence of a benevolent, omnipotent power guiding all things in the universe. The road of trials in the hero’s journey is the first stage of the second of three larger stages: Initiation.
Connection with Our Subconscious
Removed from the confines of their safe and familiar world, the mythological hero now confronts a land of symbolic and allegorical figures—according to the psychoanalysts, the same imagery we see in our dreams. These are the elements of the road of trials. Just as the images are instrumental in helping the hero achieve their transformation, they are also puzzles that each of us must unlock in order to understand what our subconscious is trying to tell us.
Unlike the ancients, we do not have the benefit of allegory and mythology to help us make sense of the bubbling up of our subconscious. As a secular, rational society, we increasingly lack the language to process this—psychoanalysis may be the closest thing, but it’s not a substitute for the power of mythology and religion. Indeed, we have rationalized and argued our gods away. It is only through studying these ancient soothsayers and shamans and the dead gods they once worshipped that we can truly grasp our fullest humanity.
Descent into the Underworld
In mythology, the road of trials of the hero’s journey often requires entering the underworld or the land of the dead.
Psyche and Her Tasks
In the ancient Roman novel Metamorphoses, Psyche pleads with the goddess Venus to release her lover Cupid (the goddess’ son) so that the two can be married. Venus beats Psyche and orders her to conduct a series of tasks on the “road of trials”:
- First, she orders Psyche sort an enormous quantity of foodstuffs before night. Thankfully, an army of ants helps Psyche accomplish her task (supernatural aid).
- Next, Psyche must collect golden wool from a flock of wild sheep whose bites carry deadly venom. Fortunately, a green reed shows her how to obtain the wool without being poisoned.
- Next, Psyche must retrieve water from a spring at the top of a high mountain guarded by dragons. Once again, she’s aided by an eagle who helps her fetch the water.
In her final and most fearsome task on the road of trials, Psyche is told to descend into the underworld and bring back a box full of supernatural beauty. Her last supernatural helper, a high tower, instructs her how to safely go down into the underworld and gives her charms and amulets to ward off the demons and hell-hounds she will encounter there. In doing so, she earns the elixir of mortality, which will enable her to live with Cupid forever in Paradise.
The oldest story of descent into the world of death and the road of trials comes from the world’s first civilization—the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia, in what is now Iraq. The goddess Inanna goes down to the underworld, guarded by her sister (and enemy) Ereshkigal. At each of the seven gates of this hell, Inanna is ordered by the gatekeeper to remove a part of her clothing—in due course, she removes her crown, rod, necklace, stones, breastplate, ring, and garments, finally presenting herself naked before the judges of the underworld.
The dual image of the two sisters, Inanna and Ereshkigal, is important. Indeed, duality is a common theme in mythology. The hero often finds the monster to be an aspect of themselves. This is because all journeys are ultimately about identifying and conquering a new aspect of the self. As we’ve seen, this is often done through the act of swallowing or being swallowed.
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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