What Joseph Campbell called the hero’s journey contains a lot of insights about the search for love. Love was, after all, what the hero found.
In this article, I’m going to surface some of those insights by showing how each of his 17 archetypal steps manifests in searches for a committed monogamous relationship.
Campbell divided the journey into three sections: Departure, Initiation and Return.
The Departure is about getting started: Being called. Acknowledging that a committed monogamous relationship really is something you want. You dip your toes into the dating water and plunge in. You agree to let dating change you.
Campbell’s model identifies 5 steps in the Departure:
- The Call to Adventure
- Refusal of the Call
- Supernatural Aid
- The Crossing of the First Threshold, and
- Belly of the Whale
The Call to Adventure – You’re “in a mundane situation of normality.” You have a routine that works. You don’t feel that unhappy (“no complaints,” as they say) and perhaps life even looks like it should feel pretty good. And then the idea that you could be in love starts to sink in.
“The unknown…a place of strangely fluid and polymorphous beings, unimaginable torments, superhuman deeds and impossible delight” is a pretty good description of a loving relationship, don’t you think?
Refusal of the Call – Sometimes we shy away from love out of “a sense of duty or obligation, fear, insecurity, a sense of inadequacy, or any of a range of reasons that work to hold (us in our)….current circumstances.” How many times has one or more of those gotten in your way? And isn’t it kind of true that if you refuse love, life loses something very human “even though, like King Minos, (you)… may through titanic effort succeed in building an empire or renown?”
Supernatural Aid – The journey to love certainly brings out “the dragon forces.” The only way through is to rely on something a lot bigger than you, namely the “protective power ..behind the unfamiliar features of the world” of romantic love.
Something so big that it’s beyond our comprehension decided we should be in couples. This is not a desire that comes from you. It’s a desire that called you. People loving is “the great rhythm of the historical process” and the way to get there is to tap into the “benign, protecting power of destiny.”
The Crossing the First Threshold – This is when you put yourself out there and start dating, “venturing into an unknown and dangerous realm where the rules and limits are not known.” That’s a good description of how others will experience you, as well
Belly of the Whale – You have to be willing “to undergo a metamorphosis.” Dating is much more than a necessary evil on the way to love. You are not ready to love to your fullest when you start and dating is what’s going to get you in shape. Dating is the essential catalyst for your transformation.
In the Initiation section, you meet and experience love. You date and fall in and out of love until you meet someone who feels like your soul mate. But it’s still not easy riding. You’ll face temptations of all sorts (people, career, and your old ways) and eventually your relationship will need to integrate with your deepest sense of who you are. And then you’ll experience a new kind of love, the ultimate boon.
Campbell’s model identifies 6 steps in the Initiation:
- The Road of Trials
- The Meeting With the Goddess
- Woman as Temptress
- Atonement with the Father
- Apotheosis, and
- The Ultimate Boon
The Road of Trials is the dating world, “a series of tests, tasks, or ordeals that the person must undergo to begin the transformation. Often the person fails one or more of these tests.” You’re aided by resources you didn’t know you had and perhaps “discover… for the first time that there is a benign power everywhere supporting (you)… in (your)… superhuman passage” because we really are meant to love. Loving is the dance of the universe.
The Meeting with the Goddess represents the beginning of a monogamous committed relationship. It’s a goddess for both men and women because you ““experience… a love that has the power and significance of” the love “a fortunate infant may experience with his or her mother.”
The meeting evolves over time. You might not even experience it right away. And if you weren’t one of those “fortunate infants,” you’ll probably have trouble recognizing it when it comes your way. And there may be times you thought you met the goddess, but you didn’t.
Woman as Temptress: – (“Woman is a metaphor for the physical or material temptations of life.”) Temptations to turn away from the relationship are as inevitable as they are essential. They can take the form of other romantic interests, your career, your tennis game or any of the things that used to give you sustenance. Since some of the apparent goddesses were not real, some temptations will need heeding because those are relationships you should turn away from.
When you do find the authentic goddess and want to become “the pure, the pure, pure soul,” you’ll need to “surpass the temptations…and soar to the immaculate ether beyond” because as long as the temptations tempt, you won’t be truly free.
Atonement with the Father: This, too is a gradual process as your relationships wax and wane and that father “does not have to be a male; just someone or thing with incredible power.” As you move deeper and deeper into a relationship, it will eventually come into contact with and ask questions of what you hold most dear.
The “incredible power” is the power to set values. Life starts off with the fatherly external world setting your values. Those values will inevitably have conflicts with the relationship. As the relationship becomes more important, the “father” will start to lose some of that “incredible power” it has over you.
“This is the center point of the journey” because it’s when you take charge of your life back from your fear of external disapproval and your fear of your inner self.
It requires a faith that those external values are “merciful and then a reliance on that mercy” as you assert yourself that not only won’t you incur the wrath of the father, but that those external values support you becoming your own person.
And the person who you love will give you nourishment through this experience of meeting your deepest self.
Apotheosis: You did it. You’ve met the goddess, transcended temptation and made peace with your demons.
The Ultimate Boon: the loving relationship, “the elixir of imperishable being”
The return is about integrating your relationship with your life. Do you just love in the confines of a blissful cocoon or do you take your love into the mundane world from whence you started and let it radiate through your family, friends and larger world? Is a committed relationship the beginning of a journey or the end?
Campbell’s model identifies 6 steps in the Return:
- Refusal of the Return
- The Magic Flight
- Rescue from Without
- The Crossing of the Return Threshold
- Master of Two Worlds, and
- Freedom to Live
Refusal of the Return: Now that you’ve found a loving relationship, will you just stay in the bliss of coupledom or will you bring the wisdom you’ve gained back into the world “where the boon may redound to the renewing of the community, the nation, the planet or the ten thousand worlds.” The temptation to stay in your cocoon will be strong and “numerous indeed are the heroes fabled to have taken up residence forever in the blessed isle of the unaging Goddess of Immortal Being.”
The Magic Flight: If your love has been blessed and supported by those in your social circle, it will be relatively easy to bring it into that world and find places for it to contribute. However, if you love outside your circle’s comfort zone, your friends who supported the idea of you finding love may fear losing you to the new world you and your lover are co-creating.
Rescue from Without: It’s not really possible to keep your love life separate. After a honeymoon of loving each other in private, “sealed in by the beatitude of the state of perfect being (which resembles death),” the world will once again loom large because “in so far as one is alive, life will call.”
The Crossing of the Return Threshold: “The trick in returning is to retain the wisdom gained on the quest, to integrate that wisdom into a human life, and then maybe figure out how to share the wisdom with the rest of the world.” How do you keep in touch with your love as you go about your life as an individual in the world and how do you let it change your interactions so it impacts others? Will that previous world be open to love or will the couple “discover themselves playing the idiot before a jury of sober eyes?”
Master of Two Worlds: This is about “achieving a balance between the material and spiritual. The person has become comfortable and competent in both the inner and outer worlds.” The heart world of love and the ego world of daily life become not an “either or” but a “both and” where you “know the one by virtue of the other.”
Freedom to Live: “Mastery leads to freedom from the fear of death (of the relationship), which in turn is the freedom (for the relationship) to live.” Once we stop worrying about maintaining the relationship in a certain form and are willing to speak up and change things, we become “the champion of things becoming, not of things become.”
We won’t all experience all of these steps and we won’t all experience equally deeply. Love is a very big thing and the hero’s journey tells me that most of us hold back quite a bit. There’s a lot more there, but it sure asks a lot of us.
I wonder how much courage I have. How about you?