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 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...
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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 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...
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.
With this introduction in place, we’ll discuss each major stage of the monomyth in the hero’s journey.
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...
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.
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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.
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...
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?
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.
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...
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...
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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.
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...
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?