Hero’s Journey or Exodus? Part 1

Joseph Campbell and the Book of Exodus offer contrasting models of the spiritual journey.

You may have noticed, as I have, that it has become popular in recent decades to talk about spiritual journeys. 

I’m not sure my grandparents would have, nor my parents. They would have talked more about piety. Many today, however, have thrown out the language of piety. They talk about spiritual journeys.

One reason may be that ours is an era of religious ferment. People are exploring many religious options different from the one they were raised in. 

Many more are holding up their religious convictions for reconsideration. They are on a spiritual quest. The words “spiritual journey” offer a feeling of openness, flexibility, and readiness to change–qualities today’s generations admire.

Today two different models for the spiritual journey compete for our attention: the hero’s journey and the biblical story of the exodus.

But what is a spiritual journey? What happens on it? Where does it lead? These are questions we may not always stop to ask. 

Today two different models for the spiritual journey compete for our attention: the hero’s journey and the biblical story of the exodus. Though they share some features, they are not exactly the same thing. They understand a spiritual journey in different ways. They do not aim for the same destination.  

In this posting, I will look at the model offered by the hero’s journey. In my next posting I will look at the contrasting model offered by the story of the exodus. 

The Hero’s Journey as Spiritual Journey

Joseph Campbell, 1904-1987

The form of the spiritual journey as a hero’s quest has been popularized recently in the writings of the late Joseph Campbell (1904-1987). A scholar of world mythology, he presented his view in several books, most notably The Hero with a Thousand Faces. He also discussed it in his famous TV interviews with Bill Moyer, which were transcribed in the book The Power of Myth. (Another compelling presentation of the hero’s journey is found in Robert Bly’s book Iron John.)

Campbell identified this kind of spiritual journey in numerous myths from a variety of world cultures. He called it the monomyth, the most basic myth of mankind, because its structure and pattern were repeated in stories and myths from cultures around the world. 

He summarized the myth in this way:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

He identified 17 steps that were customary in a hero’s quest story. I will not describe them in detail. If you wish to explore them, you can do so by clicking on the Wikipedia entry and diagram on the quest. I will just highlight a few important stages in the hero’s quest.

The quest begins with a man or boy (and usually it is a man or boy in the mythological stories, although women and girls can go on quests too) being called to go on an adventure. 

That call is usually associated with the hero becoming aware of a major lack in his life. He may not yet have fully grown up and become mature. He faces life challenges, but does not have the power or knowledge to meet them. Or he lives in a society that is also immature. It may be torn apart by conflicts or disordered. His journey may in fact begin with an act of injustice that separates him from his family and home.

The man sets out on a quest for something he needs to either live more healthily in his world or master it. The quest takes him out of his known world into an unknown world. On his quest he encounters mentors and tempters. He faces various tests and challenges. Usually he experiences some kind of an abyss experience, which Campbell calls entering into the belly of the whale.

Ultimately he experiences a transformation, usually coming after an encounter with a person of incredible power. This person may be divine, but often brings an experience of unconditional love. The transformation involves a unification of divided aspects of his life, a unification of his bodily and the spiritual dimensions, a gift of wisdom, or a transformation of consciousness, in which compassion becomes prominent.

He has now achieved his goal. He begins a return home. The return trip may have its various dangers and temptations, but the hero has strength to make it.

He returns grown up, mature, healed, with gifts of wisdom and power. He is free to live without fear. He is master of two worlds. He also returns home with a boon for the society in which he grew up. With his new knowledge and powers, he is able to help heal or transform his society and restores justice. In most of these stories, it is important to note that the hero returns home, returns home that is if he has met the challenges of the quest successfully. 

The Gilgamesh Epic

Gilgamesh depicted on an Assyrian palace wall

This model has deep roots in the ancient world. One of the earliest examples is the epic story of Gilgamesh. This is a poetic epic that comes from the Sumerian civilization that flourished in Mesopotamia around the start of the 3rdmillennium B.C.

Gilgamesh is king of the Sumerian city of Uruk. He is a lusty undisciplined king, delighting in warfare and sexual pleasure. His rule creates chaos in the city, and the citizens complain to the gods for relief. 

The gods create a companion for Gilgamesh, a wild man named Enkidu, to distract him from his tyranny. The two men become fast friends, engaging in all kinds of shenanigans out in the wild fields. Enkidu, however, is killed, and Gilgamesh is confronted with the reality of death. He becomes obsessed with finding the secret of immortality.

He begins a long and complicated journey. It brings him ultimately to Utnapishtim, the one mortal and his wife who survived a great flood and were given the gift of immortality by the gods. Utnapishtim directs Gilgamesh to a garden where the plant of immortality grows.

Gilgamesh picks the plant but on his return home, it is eaten by a snake. Having lost the gift of immortality, Gilgamesh returns to Uruk with wisdom, understanding that immortality is not given to men. He becomes a model king for Uruk.

The Lion King

The hero’s quest is a theme we often encounter in modern movies. One excellent example is that beloved Disney masterpiece The Lion King.

In that movie, the lion cub Simba is driven out of his father’s kingdom by a wicked uncle after the uncle murders Simba’s father, the rightful king. In exile, Simba is befriended by a warthog and meerkat, with whom he lives into early adulthood.

He then encounters the lioness Nala whom his parents had originally intended to be his wife. She calls him to return to his father’s kingdom, which has become a wasteland under his uncle’s tyrannical rule. 

After many refusals, Simba does, but he returns not as a weak lion cub, but as a full-grown lion warrior, with the gifts and powers to do the task for which he is called.

The Story of the Buddha

If you wish to look for a more historical and less fictional exemplar of the hero’s quest, the best example is the life of the Buddha, the course of whose life follows the hero’s quest quite closely.

Image of the Buddha depicted in an old Buddhist monastery in Afghanistan

The historic Siddhartha Gautama is an Indian prince born into a princely family near Nepal in the 6th century B.C. His father tries to protect his son from all contact with the evils and sorrows of the world.

But as a young man, during a chariot ride outside the palace, he encounters successively an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and an ascetic. These encounters pop his psychological and social bubble, and Gautama decides to abandon his royal life and family and become an ascetic, searching for the answer to human suffering.

He becomes an ascetic for many years, until he experiences an enlightenment while meditating under a tree. This enlightenment transforms him. He decides to use the gifts given to him in this enlightenment to return to the world to become a teacher and preacher. From his ministry arises the whole movement of Buddhism that has left an indelible impact especially on the east Asian world.

Let me make a few comments on this model of the spiritual journey.

Myths as Symbols of Human Experience

First, Campbell interprets the mythological story’s elements as symbols of what happens to a human being spiritually and psychologically as he or she moves towards spiritual wholeness. The myths talk about spiritual and psychological experiences any of us might have in our own lives.

For example, when the hero moves from the known world into the unknown world, that can represent a person’s moving out of his conscious mind into the unconscious realm of a human personality. Campbell builds upon some of the insights of Carl Jung, who interpreted myths in similar ways.

The myths talk about spiritual and psychological experiences any of us might have in our own lives.

The hero’s quest is an appealing story of individuals overcoming hardship and trial and achieving salvation. Salvation comes in the form of integration of their fractured life or personality. Salvation also brings with it powers and wisdom so the hero can be a master of his life and destiny. 

The hero does not earn his salvation entirely by his own efforts. His wisdom and powers are often gifts given to him from a numinous source, sometimes a god or some other transcendent power. There is a strong element of grace at work in these myths.

Salvation as a Transforming Experience

The key to his salvation is a powerful transforming experience. For the Buddha it was that moment of enlightenment as he sat under the Bodhi tree. After this transforming experience, the hero is never the same.

One thinks of the irrevocable change that occurred for the apostle Paul after his Damascus Road vision of Christ.* One can also think of people who have had a powerful spiritual experience that they might describe as being born again in the language of the Protestant revival movement.

The focus of this model of the spiritual journey…is decidedly on the transformation of the individual rather than on the transformation of a people.

The transformed hero returns gifted with wisdom and powers that his disordered society desperately needs. He is able to bring order and justice and healing to the world. I think the Buddha is a superb example of the hero’s quest activated in a historical person’s life. After his enlightenment, the Buddha preached and practiced a message of compassion for other suffering human beings.

The focus of this model of the spiritual journey, however, is decidedly on the transformation of the individual rather than on the transformation of a people. Social reform begins with transformed individuals. Society may be transformed, but it will be primarily through the compassionate actions of transformed individuals. In this respect the trajectory of this model is more individualistic than social.

The Circular Character of the Hero’s Journey

Another feature about this model for the spiritual journey is the circular character of the quest. The hero leaves home in search of some kind of healing or transformation. When he does find it, he returns home an emotionally and spiritually mature human being, who now can use his powers and gifts to bring order and healing to his community. 

In fact, Campbell has diagrammed the 17 steps of the journey into a circle.

The circle begins at the hero’s home. It ends with the hero’s return home.

I find this circularity fascinating because it mirrors the circular way in which the ancient world (in which this myth arose) tended to think of historical time. 

Religious life in the ancient Mediterranean world, as well as in many other parts of the ancient world, such as the Maya in the Americas, was deeply rooted in the cycles of nature—the cycle of day and night, the cycle of the solar and lunar years, the cycle of the repeating seasons, and the cycle of life and death among both animals and humans.

These cycles were critical to the fertility of the land, on which ancient life depended. As a result many ancient religions were focused on ensuring these cycles should continue without interruption. Religion tended to be fertility cults.

We must remember this as we encounter the myths of a dying and rising god that we meet in the ancient Near East. Those myths gave theological justification to the cults themselves.

The Sumerian myth of Dumuzi offers a good example. This myth arose about the same time as the Gilgamesh epic. In it a minor god named Dumuzi is married to the great goddess Inanna, one of the principal gods of the Sumerians. 

There are various versions of the myth. One says that Dumuzi was having terrible nightmares, and his sister Gestinanna interpreted them as attacks of demons. Dumuzi tries to hide from the demons as a gazelle among his sister’s sheep. But the demons find him and carry him off to the land of the dead in the underworld. Gestinanna eventually finds him there and persuades the gods of the underworld to let her brother return to earth for six months in each year, while she remains in the underworld until he returns. 

Another version of the myth tells how his wife Inanna is angry with her husband because of his unfeeling behavior to her. She asks the demons to take him off to the underworld. There he remains six months out of the year, during the hot, sterile months of summer. He returns to earth around the autumnal equinox, bringing renewed fertility to vegetation, herds, and people. 

The myth of Dumuzi and Inanna is clearly a fertility myth. Variations of it are found all through the ancient world, for example in the Babylonian myth of Tammuz and Ishtar, in the Greek myth of Adonis and Aphrodite, and in the Asia Minor myth of Attis and Cybele, which was so popular in the Roman world. 

The Cyclical Character of Time

In these ancient myths we find expressed the ancient understanding of time as circular or cyclical.

What counts most in this ancient mindset is the moment of origin for the world. In that initial act of creation the gods created the divine structure of the world and the divine structure of human society. In that divine structure of society, the king becomes the intersection point between the world of the gods and the world of human beings.

The world remains harmonious and ordered in so far as human beings respect and obey that divine order, created at the time of creation. The king plays the important role in maintaining that divine order.

Home was where it all began, and returning home was the goal…historical time was seen as flowing in an endless cyclical course.

Each year at their New Year festivals, these ancient societies sought to return to that first day of creation and re-affirm or re-establish that divine order. In these annual festivals, people returned to their spiritual home in order to re-affirm it. Home was where it all began, and returning home was the goal. This meant that historical time was seen as flowing in an endless cyclical course.**

Now this mindset had a very practical impact on the society. It meant ancient societies tended to be deeply conservative. The annual reaffirmation of the divine order also included a reaffirmation of the divine social order of semi-divine king, nobility, and peasantry. 

This was the order established by the gods at creation. It was to be reaffirmed each year at the New Year’s Festival. As a result, the way ancient societies were structured and operated seldom changed in any radical way.

Author’s Note: In my next posting, Part 2 of this discussion, I will explore the contrasting understanding of a spiritual journey offered by the story of the exodus.


* Described in Acts 9:1-18.

**Mircea Eliade, a Romanian scholar of the history of religions, gives an insightful analysis of this ancient mindset in his book The Myth of the Eternal Return, first published in English in 1954. I am deeply indebted to this book for my insights into the ancient mindset.

Exodus and Easter

Christian celebrations of Easter are closely bound to the exodus story.

Fresco of the Resurrection in the Byzantine Church of the Chora, Istanbul, Turkey. 14th century.

Many people have been struck by the many uncanny parallels between the Easter story and the widespread pagan myths about a dying and rising god. It raises the question: Is there a connection between the two? More especially, did the pagan myths give rise to the Christian belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus? Many today believe that is the case.

But when we turn to those first centuries of Christianity when the distinctive Christian understanding of Easter takes shape, we find a surprising phenomenon. We would expect to find allusions to those ancient fertility cults in the earliest accounts of Easter in the church. However, we find no allusions to the fertility cults at all in our earliest accounts. That is strange if Christians were drawing their Easter beliefs from the fertility cults or shaping their Easter traditions along the lines of the common fertility cults to appeal to pagans. 

…the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus comes clothed to us in the imagery, symbolism, and language of the Jewish Passover.

What we find instead is that Christians associate their Easter celebrations not with the pagan fertility cults, but with the Jewish festival of Passover. In those early years, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus comes clothed to us in the imagery and symbolism and language of the Jewish Passover.

In fact, the name these early Christians give to their Easter festival is the Greek word paschaPascha is a Greek translation of the Hebrew Pesach, which is the Hebrew name for Passover. The Latin church picks up this usage and calls Easter in Latin as pascha as well. And from that Latin origin, modern European romance languages get their name for Easter:

    • French: Paques
    • Spanish: Pascua
    • Italian: Pasqua

New Testament Antecedents

We see this linkage between Passover and Easter already in the New Testament. Probably the earliest reference of all is a verse in the apostle Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. 

In Corinth Paul is dealing with a church undergoing intense conflict. He seeks to guide this church into living harmoniously with one another, by counseling them to give up their fights and petty bickering, and the intellectual or spiritual pride that lie behind them.

As a part of his advice, he strangely says this:

Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Corinthians 5:6-8)

Unleavened bread forms a part of the Jewish Passover meal, and Paul is alluding to this in what he says. But what is most interesting is his describing the crucifixion of Jesus as a Passover sacrifice, with Christ forming the sacrificial lamb. Here the link between the crucifixion and Passover is already assumed. Paul does not introduce it as a new concept, but one that the Corinthian Christians are well aware of. Keep in mind that this passage was probably written no more than 25 years after the death of Jesus.

We find other New Testament passages making this same link between the Jewish Passover and the death and resurrection of Jesus. In the Gospel of John, Jesus dies on the cross on the day of 14 Nisan. This is the day each year when the lambs served at the Passover dinner are sacrificed in the Jewish temple. According to John, Jesus dies at the same hour as the Passover lambs. 

In John the Last Supper is not a Passover dinner, but in Matthew, Mark, and Luke it clearly is. There when Jesus breaks the bread and shares the cup of wine with his disciples, it is important to note the words he uses with the cup of wine. 

In all three accounts, Jesus links the wine to his death, describing it as the blood of the covenant or of the new covenant. This wording links what is happening in this last supper and the upcoming crucifixion with the spilling of blood that sealed God’s covenant with Israel, as described in Exodus 24. We are not only remembering the exodus, but also re-experiencing it. 

The Linkage of Passover and Easter in the Patristic Church

In the years following the New Testament, this linkage between Easter and the Jewish Passover becomes well-established. The first Easter sermon to survive from the early church is a sermon given by a bishop named Melito of Sardis about the year 170 A.D. It’s a longish sermon. Strikingly it is almost completely a long meditation on the Jewish Exodus events which are interpreted as symbolic of the reality that has now occurred in the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. 

What we find in Melito is that the Jewish Passover is seen as a type of the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. This is a technical way of talking about the linkage. A type is a symbol of its antitype, which is the reality to which the type points. The type foreshadows the reality to come.

The type serves as a kind of symbolic prophecy of the antitype, which is the reality to which the type points and its fulfillment. In this way of thinking, the Jewish Passover lamb is the type or the foreshadowed symbol for the crucified Jesus. There is a hint that this understanding of the Passover as a type for the death of Jesus was already operative when the evangelist John describes Jesus dying on the cross at the very hour when the Passover lambs were being sacrificed. 

Likewise the crossing of the Red Sea in the Jewish Exodus is a symbolic foreshadowing of the Christian sacrament of baptism.

The Pascal Vigil: the Chief Easter Celebration

By about the 4th century, this understanding of Easter as the Christian Passover is so well established that it is the core of what became the primary liturgical celebration of Easter in the early church. This was the service known as the Paschal Vigil. This service was celebrated on the night before Easter Sunday. 

It began with the lighting of the new Easter fire about midnight. From this fire a priest lit the Paschal candle which represented the risen Jesus in the service. And from this one candle all the worshippers present lit their personal candles or torches until the church was filled with light.

Following that the deacon led the congregation in the singing of the distinctive Easter hymn/acclamation, known to us by its Latin name Exultet.* After that came a series of readings from the Bible, with many of them drawn from the Old Testament dealing with the Jewish Exodus story. After the readings and sermon came the baptism of new converts to Christianity. After their baptism they were dressed in white robes and led into the church for their first Eucharist. 

The service could last for several hours into the night, and was the Easter service of the early church. It has been largely preserved in the Eastern Orthodox churches. It has been revived as a strong liturgical tradition in the Roman Catholic and many Protestant churches in the last 50 years.

We should note a number of things about this service. One, it was called the Paschal Vigil, or the Christian Passover Vigil.

The language of the service is heavily soaked in the language of the Jewish Passover. This is very clear in the wording of the distinctive Easter hymn, the Exultet. The Old Testament readings chosen for the service dwell upon the Jewish exodus experience. 

Baptism is seen as a Christian form of passing through the Red Sea. Baptism leads the new convert out of spiritual Egypt and introduces him or her into the Promised Land, which is the church. One sign of this is that at some vigils, new converts were served not only bread and wine at their first Eucharist, but also milk and honey. 

In this early period, you had the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus celebrated all in one festival service rather than in three separate festivals as today. The Christian Passover was not just Easter morning alone but included Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Ascension Day as well. Together they formed the Christian Passover.

Easter Hymnody

Another example of this linkage between Easter and the Jewish Passover is an example of an early Easter hymn from the 7th century. It is a hymn composed by the Eastern Orthodox church father John of Damascus. Most Protestants will know it best from the English translation made by the 19th century Anglican translator John Mason Neale.

The first two stanzas read:

Come, you faithful, raise the strain of triumphant gladness!

God has brought forth Israel into joy from sadness,

Loosed from Pharaoh’s bitter yoke Jacob’s sons and daughters;

Led them with unmoistened foot through the Red Sea waters.


‘Tis the spring of souls today: Christ has burst his prison,

And from three days’ sleep in death as a sun has risen.

All the winter of our sins, long and dark, is flying

From the Light, to whom we give laud and praise undying.**

Someone uninformed about early church liturgics might be puzzled by John’s bringing a reference to the Exodus into an Easter hymn. What’s going on here, they might ask. But if we have some knowledge of how early Christians thought of Easter as the Christian Passover, it all makes sense. Like Melito, John sees the exodus as a type of Jesus’ death and resurrection. 

When Christians describe the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus as another Passover, they are also signaling how they regard those events. The death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus are seen as events of liberation, in this case, not from Egyptian slavery but from slavery to sin, the devil and death. Easter then becomes another Passover festival celebrating God’s salvation, salvation seen as God liberating humanity from a kind of spiritual enslavement. The Christian Pascha is a celebration of an event and of an experience of liberation. 

Additional Note:

I lead this posting with a reproduction of the Eastern Orthodox image for the resurrection, a mural on the walls of the Byzantine Church of the Chora in Istanbul, Turkey. Orthodoxy does not picture Jesus rising from his tomb as does most Western art. Instead it focuses on the theological significance of the resurrection as that moment when Christ shatters the gate of Hell and releases imprisoned humanity. The symbol of Christ leading humanity into freedom is the image of Christ lifting Adam and Eve by the hand out of the abyss. The shattered gate of Hell lies in ruins beneath him. It is an image–and understanding–of Christ’s resurrection as a liberation event. It owes much to the early church’s linkage of Easter to the exodus event. 


* The Exultet contains a striking understanding of the original sin of Adam and Eve. The hymn calls it a  “truly necessary sin” and a “happy fault (felix culpa)”. It suggests that in a paradoxical way the sin of Adam has turned into an occasion of great happiness and rejoicing for humanity, because it was the prelude to the great redemption that is Christ’s resurrection. 

** In the second stanza of the hymn we find John bearing witness to the Christian linking of Easter to the seasonal return of spring. Through this linkage some elements of the old pagan fertility cults seeped into Easter celebrations, like eggs and bunnies. But this linkage is a later development in Christianity. It is not a feature of the earliest celebrations, as we see in the Easter Vigil. There the link is entirely to the exodus story.