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.

2 thoughts on “Hero’s Journey or Exodus? Part 1

  1. Judy Brown

    Gordon,  you have covered at least a year’s worth of study into one e-mail.  After reading it, I need time to begin to absorb it!   I will go through it again, and take some notes.  I may have some questions for you. OK?  When do you have time to do all this research?  Judy

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    1. Thanks for your feedback, Judy. This posting and the next one that will follow grow out of research that I did for a Lenten talk at Christ Church in Scottsville about ten years ago. They were doing a Lenten series on spirituality and asked me to give a lecture on this subject. I had time back them to do the research. I felt I could draw upon that lecture to work up an appropriate ending for my series on Exodus. Watch for the next posting that will complete my discussion.

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