Book review: Hero with a thousand faces

Hero with a thousand faces by Joseph Campbell
Princeton 1949

Hmm. This is one of those books you keep seeing referred to in bibliographies and on reading lists and so on. I came within a whisker of reading it in 1991, while doing an essay about ‘heroism’. Instead I ended up reading Ernst Becker’s “The Denial of Death”, which, in hindsight, was a bloody good move.

Essentially this is – but for its final section – anthropology as butterfly-collecting.

Campbell tells us early on that

The standard path of the mythological adventure is the hero is a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage: separation – initiation- return: which might be named the nuclear unit of the monomyth.
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.
Page 30

and then goes on at VERY GREAT LENGTH INDEED for VERY MANY PAGES INDEED about various examples.

There is a lot of Freud, a lot more Jung and more butterfly-collecting.

Sure, there’s interesting stuff about how silly/cowardly/naughty humans can be (King of Minos) in pretending we can ignore realities…

Often in actual life, and not infrequently in the myths and popular tales, we encounter the dull case of the call unanswered; for it is always possible to turn the ear to other interests. Refusal of the summons converts the adventure into its negative. Walled in boredom, hard work, or “culture,” the subject loses the power of significant affirmative action and become a victim to be saved. His flowering world becomes a wasteland of dry stones and his life feels meaningless – even though, like King Minos, he may through titanic effort succeed in building an empire of renown. Whatever house he builds, it will be a house of death: a labyrinth of cyclopean walls to hide from him his Minotaur. All he can do is create new problems for himself and await the gradual approach of his disintegration….The myths and folk tales of the whole world make clear that the refusal is essential a refusal to give up what one takes to be one’s own interest. The future is regarded not in terms of an unremitting series of deaths and births, but as though one’s present system of ideals, virtues, goals, and advantages were to be fixed and made secure. King Minos retained the divine bull, when the sacrifice would have signified submission to the will of the god of his society; for he preferred what he conceived to be his economic advantage. Thus he failed to advance into the life-role that he had assumed – and we have seen with what calamitous effect.
Page 59-60

and stuff about Phoebus and his silly sausage son Phaeton,

Phoebus anointed Phaethon’s face with an ointment to protect it against the flames and then placed on his head the radiant crown.
“If, at least, you can obey your father’s warnings,” the divinity advised, “spare the lash and hold tightly to the reins. The horses go fast enough of themselves. And do not follow the straight road directly through the five zones of heaven, but turn off at the fork to the left – the tracks of my wheels you will clearly see. Furthermore, so that the sky and earth may have equal heat, be careful to go neither too high nor too low; for it you go too high you will burn up the skies, and if you go too low ignite the earth. In the middle is the safest path.”…

it goes wrong

“The driver, panic-stricken, forgot the reins, and knew nothing of the road…”


The chariot, having roared for some time through unknown regions of the air, knocking against the stars, next plunged own crazily to the clouds just above the ground; and the Moon beheld, in amazement, her brother’s horses running below her own. The clouds evaporated. The earth burst into flame. Mountains blazed; cities perished with their walls; nations were reduced to ashes. That was the time the peoples of Ethiopia became black; for the blood was drawn to the surface of their bodies by the heat. Libya became a desert. The Nile fled in terror to the ends of the earth and hid its head, and it is hidden yet.
Page 135
This tale of indulgent parenthood illustrates the antique idea that when the roles of life are assumed by the improperly initiated, chaos supervenes.
Page 136

But if you are on any sort of time budget (and who isn’t in these kuh-razzzy times), then the epilogue “Myth and Society” will give you most of the salient points.

Today all these mysteries have lost their force; their symbols no longer interest our psyche. The notion of a cosmic law, which all existence serves and to which man himself must bend, has long since passed through the preliminary mystical stages represented in the old astrology, and is now simply accepted in mechanical terms as a matter of course. The descent of the Occidental sciences from the heavens to the earth (from seventeenth-century astronomy to nineteenth-century biology), and their concentration today, at last, on many himself (in twentieth-century anthropology and psychology), mark the path of a prodigious transfer of the focal point of human wonder. Not the animal world, not the plant world, not the miracle of the spheres, but man himself is now the crucial mystery. Man is that alien presence with whom the forces of egoism must come to terms, through whom the ego is to be crucified and resurrected, and in whose image society is to be reformed. Man, understood however not as “I” but as “Thou”: for the ideals and temporal institutions of no tribe, race, continent, social class, or century, can be the measure of the inexhaustible and multifariously wonderful divine existence that is the life of us all.
The modern hero, the modern individual who dares to heed the call and seek the mansion of that presence with whom it is our whole destiny to be atoned, cannot, indeed must not, wait for community to cast off its slough of pride, fear, rationalized avarice, and sanctified misunderstanding. “Live,” Nietzsche says, “as though the day were here.” It is not society that is to guide and save the creative hero, but precisely the reverse. And so every one of us shares the supreme ordeal – carries the cross of the redeemer – not in the bright moments of his tribe’s great victories, but in the silences of his personal despair.
Page 391

Well said sir. Couldn’t you have said it a little sooner than page 390, but?


About dwighttowers

Below the surface...
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2 Responses to Book review: Hero with a thousand faces

  1. robpatrob says:

    And this one Dwight

    “……. we have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the heropath. 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 centre of our existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.”

  2. dwighttowers says:

    Ah, that is good!!! Thank you.

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