Hero's Journey

The Hero’s Journey – Initiation


According to Joseph Campbell the Hero’s Journey is a magnification of the rites of passage. For Campbell this was a three-part process: separation, initiation, and return.  Christopher Vogler broke down this structure into a four-part process: separation, descent, initiation, and return.

To overlook the significance of “initiation” may be to defuse the potency of the schema. According to the dictionary, “to initiate” is “to formally admit to a group; to begin.” But, Campbell and modern anthropologists see more deeply into the lived experience of these rites.

Some of the common rites of passage would include: birth, naming, puberty, marriage, and burial. Studies by anthropologists inform us that often rites are formal and can be quite severe. The ritual has to do with recognition of a new role; the process of throwing off the previous role and coming out in the new. This is a recognition by both the initiate and the community. Through the initiation process the mind of the initiate is radically cut away from the attitudes, attachments, and life patterns of the stage being left behind.

Commonly, the transition from adolescence to adulthood is what comes to mind when the subject of rites of passage is discussed. An example of another passage is that of childhood to adolescence. In “Peter Pan,” Wendy leaves the childhood of the nursery for the adolescence of a room of her own-not for adulthood.

For the most part, the purposes and actual effects of rites of passage in any given society are to conduct people across those difficult thresholds of transformation that demand a change in the patterns not only of conscious but also of unconscious life. The various passages are nothing less than the mystery of transfiguration. The result of initiation is no less spectacular than the mystery that takes place within the chrysalis. Initiation is also the chiropractic that aligns the initiate and the community to the transformation.

This photo by funkydoodledonkey is Xhosa boys shown wearing the white clay painted on their bodies that signifies transition to manhood. Around the teen years, Xhosa males traditionally are initiated into adulthood. The initiation includes a period of separation from family, during which older men mentor the younger ones. Still widely observed in rural areas, the initiation ends with the rite of circumcision.
This photo by funkydoodledonkey is Xhosa boys shown wearing the white clay painted on their bodies that signifies transition to manhood. Around the teen years, Xhosa males traditionally are initiated into adulthood. The initiation includes a period of separation from family, during which older men mentor the younger ones. Still widely observed in rural areas, the initiation ends with the rite of circumcision.

In a culture such as that found in the West, where rituals and rites are often barren or totally absent, the depth of the initiation process is easily undervalued or misunderstood. If you, as a writer, decide to take advantage of the structure of story available though the Hero’s Journey, your story will be on firmer ground should you harness the significance implied in “initiation.” Some basic attitude, attachment, or life pattern of your hero will be eradicated forever. In mythology, often the hero experiences some sort of dying to the world he/she has known and comes back as one reborn; that is, replicating the extreme transformation exhibited in the successful rite of passage.

If you think the Hero’s Journey archaic and without relevance to our modern life, you might consider the pandemic of 2020-2021 as an Initiation that was thrust upon us.

The Covid-19 Pandemic Seen through the Lens of the Hero’s Journey

Anthropologists cite separation, initiation, return or integration back in the community as the basic modalities common to rites of passage across the globe and throughout time.  In 2020 individuals, countries, and a large part of humanity globally experienced “separation” as lock-downs were suggested or forced onto individuals, communities and nations. People were isolated in their homes, hospital rooms or other quarantined spaces.  Unlike the rites of passage in a tribal community, we were left without guides and guidelines to support our passage through this time of testing. 

After the separation the initiate experiences some sort of testing, often a dark, dangerous, and fearsome test, a “descent.”  When we are left in solitude and are forced to go inward and meet our psyche untutored and unsupported, these dark forces of our psyche test our mettle. Many experienced mental suffering and that suicide is alarmingly on the rise speaks to the lack of knowledge of a rite of passage in our modern world and the benefits such rites offer to transform. 

Those that succeed in the initiation phase of this “dark night of the soul” emerge stronger, more mature, and with a new outlook on what is important in life “radically throwing off attitudes, attachments, and life patterns” previously held. To avoid this opportunity to expand and grow is to fail yourself, your community and humanity.  To fail the initiation is to stay stuck, static in one stage of life. One grows older without maturing. 

The day will come soon enough when the lockdowns will be lifted, the virus will be reduced, and we will Return to community.  As part of the Return of this forced initiation will you bring a boon to the community as the Hero often does in the Hero’s Journey?  Will you Return as a transformed individual with some basic attitude, attachment, or life pattern forever altered? Successfully traversing a rite of passage is heroic.  Did you come out on the other side of this rite of passage called a pandemic a transformed person? If so, congratulations, you are a hero!

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