The Hero’s Journey: A Call to Learning and Transformation

“[W]e have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us, the labyrinth is fully known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.” (Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 1949, Chapter 1.)

It was twenty years ago that I first saw Joseph Campbell interviewed by Bill Moyers in The Power of Myth. It was a defining moment. I had just turned eighteen and I was rather lost and confused. It was my first year out of school and I had just opted out of a Science degree at the University of Sydney. What Campbell did was explain what it was in myth that we so often connect to and why we find myths useful in helping us make sense of life. His books, especially The Hero with a Thousand Faces, had a huge impact on popular culture. Many people had grown and continue to grow up with stories directly influenced by his work. George Lucas, the creator of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies, among many other directors and producers, used his work to craft his own myths along the lines of his archetypal model of the journey. These stories included all the key stages and figures that Campbell identified on the hero’s path, including the young hero called to leave the familiar world, the wise teacher, the trickster, and the journey into darkness where the old self dies and the new hero emerges.Achilles tending Patroclus wounded by an arrow...

Since seeing Campbell, I devoted myself to the study of the hero’s journey and to living consciously with it as a way of encoding my own life journey. Since 1997 I’ve focussed increasingly on the hero Achilles in Homer’s great epic, the Iliad. This was the focus of both my PhD thesis and my book, Descubre a tu heroe interior.

The hero’s journey is really the ultimate tale of personal growth and development. It’s a story of transformation. In the Iliad, we watch Achilles transform from a young, brash individual who has little control over his emotions and is chiefly concerned about his own honour, to a man who has become responsible for himself,  and has learned to check his speech and action. With this change Achilles is dedicated not to the gathering of honour for himself, but to the honour of his beloved friend who he sacrifices his own life to avenge. Even greater than this, by the end of the Iliad, Achilles has gone beyond this destructive rage and is a driving force  behind the restoration of humanity in this time of war as he facilitates the burial of the enemy’s champion, Hektor.

This isn’t just a new age take on an old story. Epics like the Iliad traditionally had a central place in the education of the elite in ancient Greece and even in Western education until relatively recently, though increasingly its relevance to the student’s life has been diminished. The main characters like Achilles, Agamemnon, Hektor and Priam are all nobles and the audience is meant to learn from this cautionary tale. We are shown models of successful and disastrous communication and leadership and the consequences of both. We see this use of myth in one of the best chapters of the Iliad, Book 9, when an embassy of Greek lords go to try to persuade Achilles to return to the battle. One of them, Achilles’ old teacher Phoinix, tells him a story about another hero as a model for Achilles to avoid.

So what is this transformation about? Well, I actually think that this varies depending on our life stage. I say ‘our’ because, I treat the hero’s story as our story. We are each the hero in our own life quest. But at every stage it’s about learning, learning what is needed to grow into life. Achilles is a young lord, hot-blooded with a quick temper and a tendency to violence which he excels at beyond most others. But his temper puts him in direct conflict with more senior leaders, namely Agamemnon, who have the power to punish him. Achilles’ effectively deserts the other leaders and the war effort and this allows the Trojans to pen the Greeks back into their beach camp, threatening the thousand ships with fire. Achilles turns a personal affront into a military disaster which sees every other leader of the Greeks injured. The tide only changes when Achilles’ cousin and best friend, Patroklos, goes into battle dressed in Achilles’ armour. He fights back the Trojans from the ships but he dies for his efforts. The death of Patroklos is a pivotal point because Achilles suffers directly and personally for his decision not to help his fellow Greek warriors.

This moment of recognition and awakening is the most powerful moment in the hero’s journey and it is reflected in the way the hero speaks and acts. As part of my doctoral thesis I charted the changes in Achilles’ communication leading up to the death of Patroklos and after. You can read it here: (Stratford-PhD_August-29-2011.) This is also useful for us as a tool to develop awareness of the states we go through in our everyday hero’s journey. Achilles goes through a very long phase where he adopts a victim mentality, he even describes himself as a dishonoured vagabond, and when you listen to his version of events you hear his complete denial of any responsibility for creating the situation he is in. After the jolt of Patroklos’ death, the passive speech of the victim is replaced by one of responsibility, action, and even tact.

What is critical here is that this is a deep cognitive shift that is born through experience. There is no way of short-cutting this process. The good news is that our lives usually provide us with plenty of opportunities to make such shifts. Depending on how rich and varied your life is, I find that there are actually several learning journeys going on at any one time – in your personal life, your professional life, and even with smaller subcategories of these.

If you’re reading this blog for the first time, you’ll see how I apply this way of looking at life through the hero’s ‘frame’ in all kinds of situations. It’s a journey that never stops. Indeed, to call it a journey is probably misleading as there is no end. There is only a ‘way’, in the sense that we can learn a process of growth and transformation that we can live by. And when we do, every challenge becomes a gift and an opportunity to grow, and every fear is an almost certain promise of something truly exciting beyond. The life we want, the life of our dreams demands this price. To quote Frank Herbert’s Dune, ‘The sleeper must awaken!’

The image at the top is a photo of mine of an ancient Greek Krater at the Met in New York (number 14.130.14). These large terracotta jars were placed as burial markers during the 8th century BCE, which is the period most scholars believe the epics of Homer became texts rather than existing exclusively in the oral culture. In this image we see the dead figure on his side, and below a procession of soldiers and chariots. The combination of images bears a close resemblance to the kinds of funerary celebrations we see in the Iliad, especially the burial of Patroklos and the military ‘games’ which are held in his honour by Achilles.

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