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Encountering the Monomyth


Today, we begin a discussion of the hero’s journey.

The hero’s journey—also called the hero’s quest—is a profound metaphor infusing each magickal and mundane path we take throughout our lives. The writer and comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell is credited for his work in identifying the common threads winding throughout world mythology and tradition and linking these under a common idea, which he called the monomyth: the “one story.” Campbell developed this idea of the monomyth after discovering that all of the world’s great cultures tend to tell the same stories, albeit with regional variations. To folklorists and mythologists, a “myth” is a story that a culture tells about its most sacred nature and origins. Thus the monomyth captures the story of humanity, retold over and over in a number of guises.

Campbell used these ideas to define and explain the hero’s journey, a theme that appears repeatedly throughout ancient and modern literature, art, music, dance, drama, film, and storytelling. The hero’s journey model also permeates various magickal traditions, including the Tarot and all forms of magickal training, such as the well known “year and a day” and apprenticeship models common to structured forms of study. Even more important, the hero’s journey model touches us through its elements of “shared story.” We don’t have to think too hard about the steps in the journey: we instinctively know them already. They resonate within us, and the pattern seems so obvious that the first time details of the hero’s journey are pointed out, we’re startled by the truth of it.

LapNonfiction writer Barry Lopez would explain this sudden awareness as a realization of “story.” He writes,  “Story creates an atmosphere in which [truth] becomes discernible as a pattern” (11). Lopez suggests that when a writer relates natural details in an accurate way, along “traditional lines of meaning,” they “ring true,” leading to “a pervasive sense of congruence within [the reader] and also with the world” (8). We hear the story, we recognize its repeated rhythms, and it just makes sense.

Lopez explains in an eloquent passage:

"A story draws on relationships in the exterior landscape and projects them onto the [reader’s] interior landscape. The purpose of story telling is to achieve harmony between the two landscapes, to use all the elements of story—syntax, mood, figures of speech—in a harmonious way to reproduce the harmony of the land in the individual’s interior. Inherent in story is the power to reorder a state of psychological confusion of those relationships we call “the land" (9).

This is where we start today, with the idea of the hero’s journey as a traditional form that tells our internal stories and maps our external lives. We’ll explore the journey’s details one step at a time, considering how and why they’re relevant to our lives, mundane or spiritual. Each quest consists of a call to destiny, a road of trials, and a “return” to the known world. In the next blog entry we’ll consider what happens when destiny becomes known and the first step must be taken…. It is a leap of faith.

Works Cited

Opening image from Creative Commons,

Embedded image from Creative Commons,

Lopez, Barry. “Landscape and Narrative.” Harper’s. December, 1984. Rpt. in Vintage Lopez. Ed. Barry Holstun Lopez. New York: Vintage/Random, 2004. Print.


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Susan “Moonwriter” Pesznecker is a writer, college English teacher, and hearth Pagan/Druid living in northwestern Oregon. Her magickal roots include Pictish Scot and eastern European medicine traditions. Sue holds a Masters degree in nonfiction writing and loves to read, stargaze, camp with her wonder poodle, and play in her biodynamic garden. She’s co-founder of the Druid Grove of Two Coasts and the Ars Viarum Magicarum Magical Conservatory (school of magic). Sue has authored Crafting Magick with Pen and Ink and The Magickal Retreat (Llewellyn, 2009-2012) and regularly contributes to the Llewellyn Annuals. Visit her at on Facebook.


  • Sable Aradia
    Sable Aradia Thursday, 20 March 2014

    I look forward to this series with excitement! I did a three-part series on the Monomyth and how to apply it to our own lives at my Patheos column: I have found working with the Monomyth incredibly useful in my own life. Looking forward to seeing how you apply it.

  • Susan “Moonwriter” Pesznecker
    Susan “Moonwriter” Pesznecker Friday, 21 March 2014

    Thank you so much! I look forward to looking at your work.

  • Pegi Eyers
    Pegi Eyers Friday, 28 March 2014

    You need to know that there is a a huge critique of the "monomyth" that has been underway for some time. Now criticized as an oversimplification, and the “profoundest flaw in mythological thinking”, this kind of reductionism leads to the breaking down of cultural diversity, and also allows for the normalization of cultural appropriation. The influence of Campbell and his generic approach has furthered the questionable idea that a multiplicity of spiritual activities, or the "spiritual marketplace" is perfectly acceptable. Being immersed in the ethics of patriarchal Eurocentric scholarship, Joseph Campbell could not see that the specific religious property and/or spiritual practices unique to each cultural group should be preserved, not stripped of ethnographic context. And contrary to popular opinion, “all religions are not different paths up the same mountain – they’re different paths up different mountains.” (John Beckett)

    Please read "The Unfortunate Effects of Joseph Campbell" by John Beckett

  • Susan “Moonwriter” Pesznecker
    Susan “Moonwriter” Pesznecker Friday, 28 March 2014

    Thanks, Pegi, for your comments. I am aware of "Campbell criticism"-- I'm a college English professor and a trained folklorist. One of the beauties of academic scholarship is that discussions branch out in a number of directions, and it's through the discussion that a discipline grows and flourishes. From readings Campbell's initial texts and notes, it seems clear that he had no intention of muddying the waters or givign a thumbs-up to cultural appropriation. What he did do was identify common threads-- a sort of cultural dissemination-- showing the ways stories were shared (intentionally or otherwise) and spread among different traditions. Never did I see him suggest any practice should be stripped of its practices or amalgamated into others; rather, he used his curiosity to identify relationships and mull on why they might have happened and what it might mean.

    I am all for diversity of both culture and thought, which is one of the very reasons I explore Campbell's works with such interest. Myths are the ways that people tell the story of their sacred origins and purposes, and Campbell was seminal in getting people to look at those myths and consider the ways they made people both similar and different. These observations have a lot to do with the way we humans approach every aspect of our lives.

    Again, I appreciate your comments!

  • Susan “Moonwriter” Pesznecker
    Susan “Moonwriter” Pesznecker Friday, 28 March 2014

    And I apologize for the typos above. Augh. Wrote this rather fast before dashing out the door-- that'll teach me! :p

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