Book Summary: The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell
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- 1-Page Summary
- The Journey, Part One: Separation
- The Journey, Part Two: Initiation
- The Journey, Part Three: Return
- Beginnings and Ends
- Epilogue: Interpreting Mythology
1-Page Book Summary of The Hero with a Thousand Faces
The Hero With a Thousand Faces is a journey through the world’s mythological traditions, from the ancient Egyptians, to the Romans, the Hindu and Buddhist legends of the east, and the folk-tales and foundation myths of the indigenous peoples of the Americas and Oceania.
It explores the common themes and story elements that define the world’s mythologies—though cultures are separated by vast gulfs of space and time, they all tell their stories in similar ways, using the same essential mythological template: the hero’s journey.
The Hero’s Journey
The archetypal myth is that of the hero’s journey, which details the exploits of an exalted figure such as a legendary warrior or king. But the hero can also start out as an obscure figure of humble origins, on the fringes of society. Frequently, this hero is born to lowly circumstances in a remote corner of the world and is the product of immaculate conception and virgin birth. Thus, they start out with some essential element of the gods already inside them.
The hero sets out on a journey to acquire some object or attain some sort of divine wisdom. This can be something material (like Arthur’s quest for the Holy Grail) or something with far greater spiritual weight (like the Buddha’s journey to find ultimate enlightenment). The hero undergoes great trials and tribulations during the course of their quest, undergoes a spiritual (and sometimes literal) death and rebirth, and transforms into an entirely new being. They gain new powers, and with those powers, achieve their goal—they receive the ultimate boon. They then return home to share this heavenly reward with their people—and in doing so, redeem all mankind.
Although the hero’s journey is often filled with daring exploits, the slaying of fantastical monsters, and unions with strange and beautiful goddesses, it is at heart a deeply introspective and inward-looking adventure, one with profound spiritual and psychological implications. Through their arduous trial, the hero learns new things about himself or herself and discovers hidden strengths that were dormant within them the entire time—in fairy tales, this is often made literal by the revelation of the hero to have been “the Chosen One” or “the King’s son.” These new (but latent) powers enable a thorough transformation of the hero’s outward being and psyche.
When viewed this way, mythology is deeply egalitarian. It tells us who we are and the rewards that await us if we would only set aside our focus on the day-to-day humdrum of life and embrace the hero’s journey. The hero, far from being just a literary character of long-dead civilizations, symbolizes the great godly potential within all of us.
The Hero With a Thousand Faces breaks down this mythological template even further and also explores the creation and destruction stories that mankind has told since before the age of recorded history, from cultures all over the world. A few key themes emerge.
The core structure of mythology is called the monomyth. It involves three rites of passage—separation, initiation, and 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 pattern of the hero’s journey usually follows this cycle: 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.
There are familiar beats throughout world-legend—the call to action; the initial reluctance of the hero; the aid of a supernatural helper; the crossing of the threshold into the world of the unknown; union with the mother-goddess; the slaying of the father-god; the return to the land of the living; and the sharing of the ultimate boon.
Creation and Destruction
Myths also point us to our place in the cosmos, our role in the great movement of the universe. Just as the monomyth shows the death, birth, and transformation of the individual in the form of the hero, so does mythology show the workings of all time and space—the origin story of the universe, and the means by which it will be destroyed and rebuilt. This is often represented as a universe without end, a universal round.
In a version of this cycle told among the Aztecs of pre-Columbian Mexico, each of the four elements—water, earth, air, and fire—in their turn marked the end of an age of the world:
- the age of water ended in a flood (flood-myths are a common feature of mythological tradition)
- the age of earth culminated in an earthquake
- the age of wind finished with destruction by wind, or hurricane
- and the (present) age of fire would be brought to an end by flames.
In the cosmogonic cycle of the Jains, eternity is represented as a spoked wheel, with each spoke representing one of the endlessly repeated ages of the universe, continuing in a permanent cycle.
Myths are a society’s outward manifestations of inner conflicts and desires—they represent the expression of unconscious fears and desires. Here are common elements of myths that relate to psychological tensions or needs:
- The hero often first refuses the call to adventure. In psychoanalysis terms, this reflects the clinging to infantile needs for security. The mother and father are the figures preventing true growth and transformation.
- Once set off on an adventure, the hero encounters a point where they are further away from the world of comfort and familiarity than they have ever been before. 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.
- The hero often encounters goddesses, taking the form either of beauty and the feminine ideal, or of a witch who attempts to harm the hero. These figures represent the need to balance 1) our need for the love and protection of our parents (especially our mothers) with 2) our concurrent need to grow up and become independent adults.
- The hero also often encounters a father-god figure whom the hero must either overcome or reconcile with. In Freudian terms, this echoes the psychological rivalry that children feel toward their fathers. The father is the original intruder who enters the infant’s life after the serenity and union with the mother (goddess) in utero.
- After conquering their fears, the hero at last achieves their long-sought enlightenment. They have shattered the bounds of consciousness and reached a divine state. This teaches us that this power lives within us all—we achieve it through our own herohood.
In modern times, this need to express unconscious desires is filled by the psychoanalyst, who analyzes and interprets dreams (a pure expression of the unconscious) and gives them meaning and structure. This is, in fact, a deeply ancient and profoundly mythic function— the psychoanalyst, like the medicine man and bard of old, helps us gain a deeper understanding of ourselves, our world, and our relationship to the cosmos. When we open ourselves up on the therapist’s couch, we are going into the furthest corners of the mind—we are, in effect, undergoing our own hero’s journey.
The Function of...
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The Hero with a Thousand Faces Summary Introduction
The Hero With a Thousand Faces is an exploration of the power of myth and storytelling, from the ancient world to modern times, and spanning every human culture across the world. All peoples, and indeed, all individuals, make sense of the world they live in and grapple with the experience of living by telling stories. Myths are the foundation of all human physical and intellectual pursuits, be they religious, economic, social, or cultural, because these myths tell us who we are and what destinies we are here to fulfill.
The Composite Hero
The heroes of mythology, whether it’s King Arthur, Odysseus, the Buddha, the Chinese emperor Huang Ti, or Moses, share similar characteristics.
They are often figures who have unique talents or gifts and hold an exalted position within their society—they are renowned scholars, warriors, or kings. But the opposite can also be true: the archetypal, or composite hero can also start out as an obscure figure of humble origins, on the fringes of society. But whether they start out as prince or pauper, they set out on their journey to address some sort of need, to fill some kind of spiritual void. In simple romance tales or fairy tales, this can be nothing more than obtaining a golden ring or the hand of the fair princess, while in myths with deeper theological undertones (like the story of Christ), the hero sets out to redeem and renew the spiritual life of the entire world and save it from falling into ruin.
When the hero returns with their newly obtained powers (earned through great physical and spiritual trial), we see that this spark of divinity was within the hero the whole time—but it could only be discovered through the journey. We see this in tales where the hero is revealed to have been “the king's son,” and is now ready to assert his powers for the good of the kingdom. This speaks to the inherently introspective nature of the hero’s journey: the hero symbolizes the godly potential within all of us.
The Mythological Template
Although the settings and plots of myths vary widely...
Shortform Exercise: Breaking Down the Monomyth
Explore the power of myth and storytelling.
Have you ever undergone a major transformation (either physical, spiritual, or emotional in nature)? Did you pass through any of the three stages (separation, initiation, return) of the hero’s journey? Briefly describe the experience and what it taught you about yourself.
The Hero with a Thousand Faces Summary The Journey, Part One: Separation
With this introduction in place, we’ll discuss each major stage of the monomyth in the hero’s journey.
The Call to Adventure
In the first part of the monomyth, we meet our hero, our “man of destiny,” and witness their call to adventure. The call to adventure can come about through chance, even a mistake or blunder, which introduces the hero to a hidden world of possibility, guided by mysterious forces which the hero will come to understand through the course of their journey.
A frequent device employed in mythology is that of the herald or conjurer, the (often unlikely) figure who reveals the hero’s destiny and spurs them to action. The herald represents our subconscious, wherein all of our darkest fears are hidden. They are forcing us to confront things that we do not want to. As such, the herald is frequently a grotesque or unpleasant-looking figure, like a frog or a beast, or otherwise some veiled, mysterious, or unknown figure.
The hero is fascinated by the arrival of the herald. The herald represents the first conscious manifestation of the world of the subconscious. The world which the hero has known suddenly becomes devoid of value or interest—mimicking the universal experience of growing out of childhood and into the trials and adventures of our adult lives.
Sometimes the herald will reveal that the hero’s ultimate fate is to die, but in other cases the hero might be called upon to live for some higher purpose or reveal for humankind some grand religious awakening. In psychological terms, the hero is summoned to an awakening of the self, in which they will come face-to-face with their most suppressed fears and desires. But the journey will always represent a symbolic death and rebirth of the hero (and in some religious founding myths, like the famous crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, a literal death and rebirth). The hero has outgrown their old ideals and consciousness—these must be shed so that a new awakening can occur and a new threshold can be crossed.
King Arthur and the Hart
In Arthurian legend, King...
Shortform Exercise: Exploring the Hero
Take a deep dive through the heroes of mythology.
We’ve identified a lot of heroes from ancient mythology. Identify a modern-day counterpart to the ancient heroes and briefly describe how their adventure cycle fits into the classic hero’s journey template.
The Hero with a Thousand Faces Summary The Journey, Part Two: Initiation
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.
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. 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 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:
- 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...
Shortform Exercise: Delving into the Journey
Explore the deeper meanings of the hero’s transformation.
What do you think the motif of the mythological descent into the underworld has to say about how we as humans confront our fears?
The Hero with a Thousand Faces Summary The Journey, Part Three: Return
After the completion of the quest, the hero must return home with their bounty, be it Jason’s Golden Fleece, or the Little Briar Rose of German legend. The final piece of the monomyth now requires the hero to share this wisdom, this hard-won prize back to the real world, where it will benefit the hero’s community, and, possibly, the universe.
Refusing the Return
But sometimes, mythology records a hero unwilling to return to the world. Just as they may have refused the initial call to adventure, so they may refuse their duty to return home and bestow their newfound wisdom upon the rest of humanity. Even the Buddha, after his victory at the Tree of Enlightenment, doubted if it was even possible to bring the joy of true enlightenment to other mortals. It is tempting for the hero to simply turn away from the world and reside forever in Paradise.
In an ancient Hindu legend, King Muchukunda is granted his wish for eternal sleep after helping the gods defeat an army of demons (his Ultimate Boon). He further requests that anyone who attempts to rouse him be burned to a crisp when he lays eyes upon them. He sleeps through the ages as empires and civilizations rise and fall.
After a great period of time, a youth named Krishna (an incarnation of Vishnu, Lord of the World) comes to power. In the course of a battle, Krishna is pursued by an enemy barbarian king into the cave where Muchukunda is enjoying eternal sleep. As Muchukunda awakens, the barbarian is burned alive, as is Krishna. Muchukunda laments what he has done and curses the folly of his worldly pursuits. As he emerges from his cave, he sees that men have become smaller and crueler. Despairing, he retreats back into his cave to live a life of asceticism and self-denial.
If the hero has won the Ultimate Boon through trickery or manipulation of the gods, their return home may be marked by a chase as the gods seek to regain the elixir that has been stolen from them.
In a tale from Siberia, the original shaman, Morgon-Kara, is said to have...
The Hero with a Thousand Faces Summary Beginnings and Ends
Mythology is more than just a common set of story structures that are shared across cultures. The myths of the ancients also point us to our place in the cosmos, our role in the great movement of the universe. Just as the monomyth we’ve explored shows the death, birth, and transformation of the individual in the form of the hero, so does mythology show the workings of all time and space—the origin story of the universe, and the means by which it will be destroyed and rebuilt. This is the cosmogonic cycle.
The cosmogonic cycle can be seen as a macrocosm of the cycle of waking and sleep that all humans experience. First is the state of unconscious deep sleep (the primordial beginnings before the creation of time and space); then there is the conscious waking state (the living, breathing world as we know it); and finally, we have the return to the unconscious (the destruction or end of the world as we know it). We repeat this cycle for all of our days on earth, just as the cosmogonic cycle turns over and over.
The cosmogonic cycle often shows a world without end, the universal round. In a version of this cycle told among the Aztecs of pre-Columbian Mexico, each of the four elements—water, earth, air, and fire—in their turn marked the end of an age of the world: the age of water ended in a flood (flood-myths are a common feature of mythological tradition); the age of earth culminated in an earthquake; the age of air finished with destruction by wind, or hurricane; and the (present) age of fire would be brought to an end by flames.
The Spoked Wheel of the Jains
The Jains of the Indian subcontinent believe in a particularly demonstrative example of the cosmogonic cycle. They see time as an endless cycle, represented by a wheel with twelve spokes. Each spoke represents an age, and the spokes are divided into two sets of six. The first set is called the descending series, during which each age gets progressively worse, with the first age of pure happiness yielding gradually (over millions of years) to the succeeding ages, during which vice and...
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Shortform Exercise: Unpacking the Origin Stories
Delve into the cosmogonic origin stories.
In a few sentences, explain why you think these stories about the beginning and end of the universe appear across so many cultures and historical periods.
The Hero with a Thousand Faces Summary Epilogue: Interpreting Mythology
There is no one set way to interpret the mythologies of humankind. Although we have traced the universal hero’s journey, the monomyth, and explored how so many cultures across time and space have made sense of the beginnings and ends of the universe, there is an infinite variety of ways that myths are told.
Myths do not reveal themselves automatically to us; they are not self-evident. They will only yield up the answers to the questions that we choose to ask of them. If we look to them as simply stories to entertain or amuse us, they will provide that. If we seek in them mankind’s earliest attempts at science, religion, literature, or moral instruction, they will provide that as well. And if we look to them to provide us with a higher meaning, an idea of where we come from and what we are meant to do with our existence, they can point us there, too. Indeed, the ways in which we can interpret myths are as limitless as the myths themselves.
If we can look to what the function of mythology is for mankind, it is perhaps to bind us closer and provide us with a shared sense of community....
Shortform Exercise: Reflect on the Hero’s Journey
Explore the main takeaways from The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
Why do you think mythologies have so much in common, across cultures and across historical eras?