The Hero Myth, Transcendence, and Joseph Campbell

April 2001
by Jon Blumenfeld

When you go to the movie theater, does it sometimes seem as though you’re seeing the same film over and over again? Are you tired of seeing a hero with hidden talents called reluctantly to greatness, guided by a knowledgeable mentor, faced with a series of challenges and with his own self-doubt, finally overcoming it all in a heartwarming culmination, and returning triumphantly with gifts for all mankind? Did you ever wonder why so many popular stories seem like retreads of the Passion play or possibly The Karate Kid? It’s no coincidence, and it provides insight into why people are ready to believe any nonsense that comes down the pike, forking over their money and their faith and their trust again and again on the flimsiest of pretexts.

Transcendence. The magic word. Perhaps it doesn’t explain everything – how could a single word sum up the complex inner world of the entire human race? Still, the desire for transcendence runs like a deep current through the river of human history, and there is no better window on this overwhelming need than the myths and hero stories that cut across all cultures, repeating the same elements over and over. It is the desire for Transcendence – the longing to rise heroically above the mundane world of the common occurrence into a magical world of demons, dragons, heroes, gods, and the possibility of redemption and salvation.

The idea that the ‘hero’ pervades all human culture has had no greater advocate in the twentieth century than author Joseph W. Campbell. Heavily influenced by both Freud and Jung, Campbell believed that human life consists primarily of an oedipal struggle – the desire to kill one’s father in order to secure the love of one’s mother. He also firmly believed in the Jungian idea of ‘archetypes’ – that all people fit into certain categories of behavior. The hero myth, then, is an oedipal story about some archetypal character, and Campbell works hard to fit literally every human myth into his framework. More than that, Campbell abandoned his objectivity early on (if he ever had any), giving his approval to the transcendent hero myth and lamenting its apparent decline in recent history. He tells us that ‘the lines of communication between the conscious and the unconscious zones of the human psyche have all been cut, and we have been split in two.’ We have lost our imagination and our need for the symbols of extraordinariness. His pseudo-historical analysis, his pop psychological terminology, and his flowery prose all provide a thin veneer over his desire to reinstate the hero myth into popular consciousness. A quick look at Hollywood’s output and the popularity of new-age transcendent gobbledygook shows that he succeeded all too well.

Star Wars: Young Luke Skywalker longs to leave the farm and find adventure. He discovers that he has a hidden power to use the ‘force’, the all-pervading energy of the universe. Guided by Obi-Wan Kenobi, he faces a series of challenges, all the while struggling against his own dark side. In the end, he overcomes the evil Darth Vader (his own father) and saves the galaxy.

The Matrix: ‘Neo’ is a computer programmer who doubles as an underground hacker. He discovers that the real world is an illusion, and that he is the savior of mankind. He descends into the hell the real world has become, and guided by ‘Morpheus’, he learns to use his powers and defeats the evil machines, returning to guide all mankind out of ‘The Matrix.’ [My favorite part of this is an exchange between ‘Neo’ and ‘Cipher,’ another of the humans struggling against the bad guys:

Cipher: Did he tell you why you’re here?
Neo: Yeah.
Cipher: Jee-zus Christ!]

Searching for Bobby Fischer: Based on the real-life story of chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin, the movie version has some less-than subtle changes from the book (and from reality). In the movie, 7-year old Josh discovers an amazing ability to play chess, reluctantly but soundly beating his father with little effort. Guided by chess master Bruce Pandolfini, Josh struggles with his own self-doubts, finally facing them in a match against his arch enemy, a child who plays chess 40 hours a week instead of going to school. Josh defeats his opponent, bringing together different styles of play and emerging as a better human being.

All this is not to say that Campbell doesn’t make some pretty good points. It’s hard to dispute the idea that many of our myths follow a common structure that makes them very similar to each other, and Campbell does a pretty good job of codifying the major story elements. Consider this brief summary:

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).

Campbell acknowledges that not all myths follow this structure exactly. Many of them emphasize one or two of the major elements, some of them have become distorted or obscured over the years, and many of the tales invert some or all of the elements to make anti-hero stories. In addition, heroes can become sidetracked or stuck at certain points, and the story of the hero who fails at some part of what Campbell calls the ‘monomyth’ is an entire sub-genre of its own. Even so, it is not hard to see this monomyth in our oldest and most treasured tales, as well as our more recent popular fiction. Gilgamesh, Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, Beowulf, King Arthur – it doesn’t take much stretching to fit their stories into the above paragraph. It is no coincidence that Superman, Frodo Baggins, and Luke Skywalker follow the same path and wear the same (figurative) clothes.

For the average, everyday human being there are two problems associated with these stories, and both of them lead us powerfully toward magical ways of thinking, in which we place ourselves, either directly or through association with an adept ‘master’, into the hero stories, allowing us to borrow a little bit of transcendence at the cost of a mere loss (or even temporary suspension) of rationality.

The first problem is that in the world of the transcendent hero, there are really only two kinds of people (or beings, if you like). There are those that can influence the story, primarily heroes and villains (the big machers, for you students of Yiddish), and everybody else (there are several Yiddish words for them – schlemiels is as good as any). Only the hero is chosen by fate, and only he (or, rarely, she) can undergo the trials, descend into the underworld, and return with gifts. Only the villains, magically powerful creatures themselves, can interfere. The average people, the great hoi-polloi, can choose which side they prefer to die for, but they can have no direct influence on events.

Consider Star Wars, a story that keeps coming back up, because beyond its nearly ubiquitous familiarity, it is a work that was heavily influenced by Campbell and which intentionally followed the monomyth outline. In the story there are thousands of Rebel soldiers who bravely fight and mostly die for their cause, and there are likewise thousands of imperial storm troopers who are not shy about doing their duty for their emperor, but in the end the battle is not between fleets of ships and armies of men. It is single combat between the Jedi knights (Luke and Obi-Wan Kenobi) and the Sith Lords (Darth Vader and the Emperor). In a galaxy presumably filled with thousands of planets and trillions of people, history is decided by a teen-age savior trained by the last surviving Jedi knight. Their opponents are in a similar position – in the latest installment of the saga, we discover that there are only ever two Sith lords at any one time.

While it is stimulating to the imagination to follow the exploits of these heroes, it is important to see the effect they have on our thinking. It is easy and thrilling to imagine ourselves as Luke Skywalker, using the force to save the universe, and I’m sure there are those of us who get a kick out of Darth Vader’s black leather, latex, and heavy breathing. It is less thrilling, and probably an unfamiliar experience, to imagine ourselves as hapless imperial storm troopers who get mowed down by laser fire after tripping over our own feet, and then having our heads stepped on by Vader as he goes off to torture some small animal or interrogate Princess Leia. Everyone wants to be the ‘big macher,’ but who wants to be the ‘schlemiel?’

With this in mind, it should not seem like too great a leap to expect people to search out their own ‘hidden powers’ that allow them to fulfill their own destiny. People want to believe that they have a purpose, and it’s a lot more fun to be a history-maker than a piece of cannon fodder. It is also possible to ‘borrow’ the transcendence of others, with the promise usually made that the follower will be brought along with the hero. This is the promise of faith healers, mediums, channelers, cult leaders, and a host of charlatans, fakers, and false prophets. ‘Follow me,’ they say, ‘and you can share in my secret, special power.’ The hero’s friends may not have powers of their own, but they can share in the glory of his victory, or ride off in the UFO that saves the chosen few from Armageddon.

The second problem is fascinating from a practical point of view, and shows the persistence of the human desire for transcendence. In all of our history, from before we even recorded it, this ‘monomyth’ has been central to our stories. The magical, fate chosen, transcendent hero is everywhere – in our stories. In real life, though, there is no evidence that there has ever been such a hero! Every single one of our myths is just that – myth. Real life heroes have no magical powers, and it’s hard to know what it even means to be chosen by ‘fate.’ Real heroes are just people who find themselves in a place and time where something has to be done, and they either do it or they don’t. They may not be particularly brave, they may not have ever done anything heroic before, and they may never do anything heroic again. They are probably no more ‘pure of heart’ than anyone else, and they themselves may not understand why they do what they do. On the other hand, some people may be brave and good, and may perform heroic deeds over and over again – there is no formula for heroism.

In any case, the real life hero does not have a magic sword to rely on, and guardian angels and fate-manipulating gods are notoriously rare and ephemeral. To be a hero without the aid of magic or divine intervention is the hard way, because there is no script, no second chance, and no guarantee that the deed can be done or that the hero will survive.

Consider Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who single-handedly delayed the deportation of Hungary’s Jews during World War II. He hid 20,000 Jews in buildings that he rented and declared Swedish sovereign territory. Others, following his example, hid 20,000 more. He defied the Gestapo and often had machine guns pointed at him, and never backed down. He prevented the Germans from carrying out a plan to liquidate the Budapest ghetto, saving another 70,000 Jews. When the Russians arrived, there were nearly 120,000 that had not been deported, a little less than half of Hungary’s before-the-war total. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that all of them owed their lives directly to Wallenberg. Was he chosen by fate and endowed with magic powers? Could he count on German bullets bouncing off his impenetrable chest? I doubt it. After the war, did Wallenberg triumphantly emerge from the underworld with gifts for all mankind? Unfortunately, he didn’t. He was arrested by the Red Army, disappeared, and despite occasional reports of sightings in some Russian gulag or other, he was never heard from again.

The real hero is up on a wire without a net, and maybe without a wire.

For magical thinkers, this leads to the second (and less charitable) explanation for the willingness to believe in magic. A safety-netless world is a frightening place, and true heroism requires true bravery and has no guarantee of reward or even success, whereas mythical, magical heroism is a product of destiny and divine will. For some it may be difficult to get out of bed in the morning without a strong belief in a guiding hand and a sense of purpose, let alone to perform heroic acts. Signs of magic, hidden worlds, and controlling powers must be reassuring to terrified humans, worried that they are alone and friendless in a ‘vast and uncaring’ universe. If Uri Geller can bend spoons with his brain waves, if a little girl lying in a coma in Massachusetts can heal the sick, if our minds are connected by silver cords on the Astral plane, and if we can control the universe with our thoughts, then our safety net is restored. We can live, we can act, we can even act heroically, with the knowledge (or at least faith) that there are unseen worlds, forces, angels, and demons, and that we have hidden talents and purposes to fulfill.


1) ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’, Second Edition, Joseph Campbell, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1973.
2) ‘Resonant Lives: 50 Figures of Consequence’, Paul Greenberg, Ethics and Public Policy Center, Washington D.C., 1991.
3) ‘1000 Years, 1000 People: Ranking the Men and Women Who Shaped the Millenium’, Agnes Hooper Gottlieb, Henry Gottlieb, Barbara Bowers, Brent Bowers, Kondasha America, New York, 1998.