In his magnum opus, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” Joseph Campbell reveals the common elements of the Hero’s Journey found in the world’s religions and mythologies. Campbell asserts that many teachings found in religion and mythology have become distorted and therefore lost their essential truths. Campbell wants to “uncover some of the truths disguised for us under the figures of religion and mythology . . . and let the ancient meaning become apparent of itself” (xii).
Because of the breadth of his learning and his ability to speak knowledgably on myths from so many cultures, this book is at its best when it synthesizes the shared elements. The book is able to provide a clear picture of the fundamental truths by which humanity gives meaning to their lives. There is a sense that Campbell is uncovering and revealing for the reader the totality of human story-making. Specifically, there are more similarities than differences in our stories about a hero’s journey, and the structure of these similarities Campbell calls the monomyth. It is the archetypal narrative in which, “The hero ventures forth form 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 to his fellow man” (p. 18). The rest of the book flushes out, brilliantly, the nuanced similarities and differences of the great myths found in different cultures, from different continents, from different times.
Campbell’s undergirding presupposition is that, “Myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into the human cultural manifestation” (p. 1). With that understanding in mind, he takes the reader on a ride through practically all of human history and the myths that arose from different cultures. We learn that we are not so different from someone who lived in AD 1500, or AD 500, or 500 BC. The human experience is the same in the most important respects: life, love, war, peace, the search for meaning, health and home.
Of course, as a Christian, I was curious to know how he approaches the stories found in the Bible. He makes frequent comparisons to other stories that use the death and resurrection motif, as well as themes of redemption, and even the new creation. But far from feeling slighted by these observations found in other mythologies, I felt strengthened in the truth of the Cross. God and his Christ are the source of all of life’s themes, and so naturally there will be echoes found elsewhere in humanity’s myth-making. Campbell himself asks, “Why is mythology everywhere the same, beneath its varieties of custom? And what does it teach?” (p.2).
After reading this book I feel fortunate to be alive during this time period of human history. After thousands of years of human culture and myth-making, those of us living today now have a vantage point of being able to distill the stories from the past and see more clearly their common themes. Our advantageous perspective enables us to see the human condition and the human struggle, interior and exterior, that gives meaning to our endeavors. There is a remarkable similarity I sense when I read a difficult passages of scripture. I have at my fingertips twelve different commentaries in my study that I can consult, and I can immediately learn the different interpretations and nuanced understanding of the truth being discussed. If I lived in the second century, I would not be so lucky. But because I am living in America in the year 2021, I can get a clear picture of the mind and faith of Christians that have gone before. I benefit from their learning and their spiritual seeking after God’s truth, and I can take those lessons and make them mine. I am blessed by those who have persevered. Clement of Rome, who lived in the first century said, “Follow the saints, because those who follow them will become saints.” The same could be said about learning from the myths and stories found in others cultures, from other times. This is the great accomplishment of “The Hero with A Thousand Faces” by Joseph Campbell.