The Hero’s Journey in Ancient Myth and Storytelling

Today I want to talk about a book that all writers and lovers of history and mythology should have on their shelf: The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell.

Every time I pick up this book, I’m struck by the truth of what Campbell says. I think of all of the stories that have struck a chord with me over the years, and the things they have in common. Campbell says:

“The archetypes to be discovered and assimilated are precisely those that have inspired, throughout the annals of human culture, the basic images of ritual, mythology, and vision… The hero… has died as a modern man – he has been reborn. His second solemn task and deed therefore… is to return then to us, transfigured, and teach the lessons he has learned of life renewed.”

(The Hero with a Thousand Faces; Joseph Campbell, Third Edition, 1973)

Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed (by Alan Lee)

If you stop to look at storytelling, past and present, you can indeed see the recurring themes and archetypes of myth. They’re everywhere. And this applies not only to western literature, but to storytelling across time, across cultures.

In studying Greek, Roman and Celtic literature and mythology, medieval and Arthurian romance, I’ve noticed that I’m drawn to certain elements. It’s not just because of the way these stories are told, or the language the writers or poets used. Let’s remember that the beauty of language is often lost in translation.

No. What draws me into these stories are common elements that appeal to something deep within my psyche, the blood in my veins, the fibre of my muscles, the dreams at the back of my mind. My inner youth, adventurer, lover, warrior, and wise man, all yearn for the stories that are food for the soul.

Without that food I begin to starve.

Such is the power of storytelling.

Sir Galahad upon his quest

The Hero with a Thousand Faces takes you into a world of great depth, of ideas and examples. There is too much to be able to do it justice in one blog post. However, in the book there is a chart of the Hero’s Journey that I believe can be infinitely useful to a writer and lifelong student of history and mythology.

Oftentimes, writers can get stuck, feel as though they’ve written themselves into a corner and are not sure how to get out of it. Perhaps they’re not sure where to turn next, which path their protagonist should take. Other times, a writer will wonder whether a certain path in the story will appeal to the reader, or else put them off so much that they go off in search of another adventure.

Campbell’s chart of the Hero’s Journey is an excellent point of reference, a tool or weapon to help a writer to get out of the traps that can halt the creative process.

(The Hero with a Thousand Faces; Joseph Campbell, p.245-246, Third Edition, 1973)

I think it prudent here to quote Campbell on what the journey entails:

“The mythological hero, setting forth from his commonday hut or castle, is lured, carried away, or else voluntarily proceeds, to the threshold of adventure. There he encounters a shadow presence that guards the passage. The hero may defeat or conciliate this power and go alive into the kingdom of the dark (brother-battle, dragon-battle; offering, charm), or be slain by the opponent and descend in death (dismemberment, crucifixion). Beyond the threshold, then, the hero journeys through a world of unfamiliar yet strangely intimate forces, some of which severely threaten him (tests), some of which give magical aid (helpers). When he arrives at the nadir of the mythological round, he undergoes a supreme ordeal and gains his reward. The triumph may be represented as the hero’s sexual union with the goddess-mother of the world (sacred marriage), his recognition by the father-creator (father atonement), his own divinization (apotheosis), or again – if the powers have remained unfriendly to him – his theft of the boon he came to gain (bride-theft, fire-theft); intrinsically it is an expansion of consciousness and therewith of being (illumination, transfiguration, freedom). The final work is that of the return. If the powers have blessed the hero, he now sets forth under their protection (emissary); if not, he flees and is pursued (transformation flight, obstacle flight). At the return threshold the transcendental powers must remain behind; the hero re-emerges from the kingdom of dread (return, resurrection). The boon that he brings restores the world (elixir).”

(The Hero with a Thousand Faces; Joseph Campbell, Third Edition, 1973)

As I read this, all the stories that I’ve ever loved flash through my mind. I see heroes such as Arthur, Frodo and even Luke Skywalker, taken from their quiet worlds and cast into the unknown with the aid of such legendary characters as Merlin, Gandalf, Obi-Wan Kenobi and others.

Luke Skywalker receives his father’s sword from and Obi Wan Kenobi

Often, a hero experiences an event that thrusts him into the adventure. I think of Odysseus being ordered to go to war at Troy and leave his wife and baby behind, or in the Mabinogi when Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, goes into the otherworld of Annwn. Jason confronts Pelias and ends up on an expedition to find the Golden Fleece, the proposed price for getting back his father’s throne. There are so many examples. And often times, there is a sword: Arthur’s Excalibur, Luke’s father’s lightsaber or Bilbo’s sword, Sting, which goes to Frodo.

The tests are often what make up the bulk of the story which takes place in unknown realms. There are helpers in the form of other people, gods or animals along the way. In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo has the help of Aragorn (a hero on his own journey – a journey within a journey) and the rest of the Fellowship – elves, dwarves and others. Arthur has his knights who each have their own adventures. Theseus has Ariadne whose aid provides him with the key to the labyrinth. Jason gets aid from the blind prophet Phineas who tells him how to reach the Golden Fleece.

Calypso and Odysseus by Sir Wiliam Russell Flint

When the hero reaches what Campbell calls the ‘nadir of the mythological round’ there is an ordeal and reward. Odysseus passes through death in the form of Scylla and Charybdis to be washed up on the shore of the goddess Calypso’s island. He spends time there, loved by the goddess, and regains his strength before embarking on the final stages of his journey.

Jason and the Golden Fleece

Other themes at the ‘nadir’ are the attainment, by theft or gift, of the elixir that is sought by the hero. This could be the Golden Fleece, the Holy Grail, or the promise of a return home in the case of Odysseus. The promise of a healing of the land, of body, of spirit, is in the hero’s sights. But the journey is not yet over.

More challenges emerge before the hero can cross that threshold once more to get back into the known realms. Arthur must face Mordred, Odysseus must still reach Ithaca before destroying the suitors and taking back his home. Luke must escape the Death Star to destroy it in a final battle.

Arthur receives Excalibur

Once the final confrontations are overcome or dealt with, the hero achieves peace for himself and his realm, an overall healing of wounds and righting of wrongs that gives way to a golden time. If the hero dies in the attempt, he goes on to a better place and his example will be one that inspires future generations (e.g. Arthur going to Avalon).

You can take almost any story from any culture and apply the elements Campbell mentions.

The elements of the hero’s journey are universal.

Because these archetypes, these themes, are a part of our storytelling tradition, we often include them automatically in our writing without thinking about it.

Frodo and Gandalf (picture by Alan Lee)

But a writer often is the hero on a journey, and doesn’t always know where the road will lead. We need helpers, a sword (or pen!), and certainly divine help and inspiration from the Muse should not be shunned. (Just read Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art for more on that!)

Sometimes writers need a guide like Joseph Campbell to put one back on track. And that’s ok!

Odysseus and Arthur, Luke and Frodo – they all had help. So did Pwyll and Yvain, Herakles and Jason. It’s not cowardly to receive aid. The true test comes when one decides what to do with the aid provided.

Whether I’m writing the first words, or flipping the first pages, of a new story, I relish the adventure to come, the trials and tribulations, learning from the unknown, and gathering the courage to slay my own dragons.

I like to think that that is what being human is all about. If you look at it a certain way, you’ll see that our stories are more a part of us than most people think. They’re not whimsical flights of fancy that have no real relation to us as human beings. They’re a deep part of us, and if we ignore or forget those stories, we lose a bit of ourselves.

Sir Percival and the Grail

Thanks for reading!

If you would like to find out more, here are a few places to start:

The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

The Power of Myth – A conversation between Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers (filmed at Skywalker Ranch). This is also available as an audio book or DVD.

Star Wars: The Magic of Myth – This is a fantastic book, not only for Star Wars fans but everyone with an interest in mythology. George Lucas was friends with Joseph Campbell and adhered closely to the ideas of the hero’s journey in the creation of his brilliant story ‘A long time ago… In a galaxy far, far away…’

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield – in this fantastic book, historical fiction author, Steven Pressfield, talk about writing, Resistance, and doing the work of the Muse. A must-read for any creative person!

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The Nine Muses – Creativity and the Higher Realm

apollo-and-the-muses

And one day they taught Hesiod glorious song while he was shepherding his lambs under holy Helicon, and this word first the goddesses said to me – the Muses of Olympus, daughters of Zeus who holds the aegis: “Shepherds of the wilderness, wretched things of shame, mere bellies, we know how to speak many false things as though they were true; but we know, when we will, to utter true things.”

So said the ready-voiced daughters of great Zeus, and they plucked and gave me a rod, a shoot of sturdy laurel, a marvellous thing, and breathed into me a divine voice to celebrate things that shall be and things there were aforetime; and they bade me sing of the race of the blessed gods that are eternally, but ever to sing of themselves both first and last.

(Hesiod, Theogeny)

Hesiod

Hesiod

Sometime between the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. the poet Hesiod created his Theogeny, a work outlining the birth and genealogy of the Gods.

At the beginning of this epic poem, Hesiod talks about how, as a shepherd, he was caring for his flock on the slopes of Mt. Helicon, in the region of Boeotia. While there, Hesiod says that the Muses came to him and inspired him to create the Theogeny, a work that to this day provides the basis for ancient Greek religion.

Hesiod, before that, had not discovered his artistic self. He was a shepherd, the son of a farmer.

And yet, while on the slopes of this sacred mountain, the goddesses, the Muses, came to him and inspired him to bring forth his great work.

Mt. Helicon - 1829

Mt. Helicon – 1829

Hesiod does not say he invented the contents of his work, or that he gathered existing tales from all over the Hellenic world.

The Gods gave him that song to sing. They inspired it in him, and he heard them.

We may scoff at this sort of thing today, our modern, media-driven minds too dense and distracted to hear anything beyond the ping of a mobile, but in the ancient world, and later ages of faith, the greatest artists and creators were those that paid attention to divine inspiration.

In the ancient Greek and Roman worlds, creativity and artistic endeavour were the realm of the Nine Muses, the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, or ‘Memory’.

Tell me, Muse, the story of that resourceful man who was driven to wander far and wide after he had sacked the holy citadel of Troy. He saw the cities of many people and he learnt their ways. He suffered great anguish on the high seas in his struggles to preserve his life and bring his comrades home. But he failed to save those comrades, in spite of all his efforts. It was their own transgression that brought them to their doom, for in their folly they devoured the oxen of Hyperion the Sun-god and he saw to it that they would never return. Tell us this story, goddess daughter of Zeus, beginning at whatever point you will.

(Homer, The Odyssey)

Greece 2006 076

There is a wonderful book that every creative person should read and re-read. It’s called The War of Art, by historical fiction author, Steven Pressfield. The book is about doing the things that you love and were meant to do without giving in to any excuses, or ‘Resistance’, as Pressfield calls the artist’s enemy.

Whenever I read The War of Art, Pressfield reminds me of something that I forget from time to time.

Creativity should never be taken for granted.

If you feel that there is something creative you want to do, or be, it is your sacred duty to do or become that. When you feel those urges, you have to fight ‘Resistance’ and rationalization with all of your might so that you can bring those things you were meant to create to fruition.

Those urges are the Muses speaking to you, telling you it’s time. If you ignore them, it’s to the detriment of your own soul.

Because when we sit down day after day and keep grinding, something mysterious starts to happen. A process is set into motion by which, inevitable and infallibly, heaven comes to our aid. Unseen forces enlist in our cause; serendipity reinforces our purpose.

This is the other secret that real artists know and wannabe writers don’t. When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us. The Muse takes note of our dedication. She approves. We have earned favor in her sight.

(Steven Pressfield, The War of Art)

Homer and his Guide - William Adolphe Bouguereau 1874

Homer and his Guide – William Adolphe Bouguereau 1874

In ancient eyes, those who ignored the Gods didn’t do too well.

Hesiod and Homer knew that it was their duty to honour the Muses, they knew that they could not have created the works that they did without the goddesses’ help. Hubris was not a good thing in the ancient world.

But it was not just Hesiod and Homer who called on these goddesses for help. Throughout history, some of the greatest poets and other artists did so too.

Tell me, Muse, the causes of her anger. How did he [Aeneas] violate the will of the Queen of the Gods? What was his offence? Why did she drive a man famous for his piety to such endless hardship and such suffering? Can there be so much anger in the hearts of the heavenly gods?

(Virgil, The Aeneid)

Praxiteles' Hermes and Dionysos

Praxiteles’ Hermes and Dionysos

The artist who called on the Muses for aid and blessing was the one that was listening.

We know of writers and poets who have called on the Muses in their work because they have been written down, but I imagine that painters and sculptors would have done so too. What might Praxiteles have done before he broke the surface of a piece of marble? Or Michelangelo before he put his brush to the ceiling of the Cappella Sistina? What went through Mozart’s head before the first heavenly notes of his Clarinet Concerto in A major came to him? Just listen to it…

Before an ancient singer breathed those first notes, or before the lyre player plucked that first string at the Panathenaea or the Pythian Games, you can be sure that some inner prayer, conscious or unconscious, was sent up to their own Muse.

Apollo

Apollo

You can also be sure that for the artist whose heart was open to this, the Muses spoke back.

…and I alone was there, Preparing to sustain war, as well Of the long way as also of the pain, Which now unerring memory will tell. Oh Muses! O high Genius, now sustain! O Memory who wrote down what I did see, Here thy nobility will be made plain.

(Dante, Inferno)

But who were the Muses? Early traditions said there were three, but that eventually turned to nine, and that is the number that has been given for ages. Their leader was Apollo, the God of Art, Light and Prophecy, and in this particular capacity he was known as ‘Apollo Mousagetes’, or ‘Apollo Muse-leader’.

Each one of these goddesses was responsible for a particular art form, and so, individual artists may have called on certain Muses. The names of these goddesses and their assigned art are as follows:

Calliope - Epic Poetry

Calliope – Epic Poetry

Clio - History

Clio – History

Erato - Lyric Poetry

Erato – Lyric Poetry

Euterpe - Song and Elegaic Poetry

Euterpe – Song and Elegaic Poetry

Melpomene – Tragedy

Melpomene – Tragedy

Polyhymnia – Hymns

Polyhymnia – Hymns

Terpsichore – Dance

Terpsichore – Dance

Thalia – Comedy

Thalia – Comedy

Urania – Astronomy

Urania – Astronomy

I will begin with the Muses and Apollo and Zeus. For it is through the Muses and Apollo that there are singers upon the earth and players upon the lyre; but kings are from Zeus. Happy is he whom the Muses love: sweet flows speech from his lips. Hail, children of Zeus! Give honour to my song! And now I will remember you and another song also.

(Homeric Hymn to the Muses and Apollo)

Some of the arts assigned to the Muses might not seem like ‘art’ to us today – I’m thinking of Astronomy and History in particular. However, to the ancients, this made perfect sense. Astronomy involved philosophy and the understanding of the Heavens; it required great imagination and thought.

Mnemosyne by Gabriel Dante Rosetti

Mnemosyne by Gabriel Dante Rosetti

And History? Well, to me that is ‘Mnemosyne’. History is the record of human achievement in all areas, including art. History, poetry, and storytelling go arm in arm.

It must have been a humbling experience for ancient artists to know that the Muses were looking over their shoulders as they carried out the work they were inspired to do.

It must also have been a wonder-full experience to feel that, to know that you were not alone.

My hope is that we have not totally lost this today – artists, writers, athletes, inventors, creators of all kinds will find themselves in what we call ‘The Zone’. Many will thank ‘God’ for their successes, they will be exhilarated after a good session.

Sun

As a writer, I know that when I sit down and have a fantastic writing time, even after the worst of days, there must be something more at work. I feel like I’ve had help that day. I feel like I have done justice to the art that I love, and for that, I am grateful.

If you are a creator of something, anything, it behoves you to acknowledge the help that you have had, especially if that help is Heaven-sent.

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend The brightest heaven of invention! A kingdom for a stage, princes to act, And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

(William Shakespeare, Henry V)

Thank you for reading.

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