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The Hero with a Thousand Faces

Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces was the most interesting non-fiction book that I have read in a long time – if not in all time. I can understand that it is often described as one of the most influential works of the 20th century. The book was first published in 1949. Campbell (1904 - 1987), a scholar who spent his life studying mythology of different cultures, reveals in this book of comparative mythology what he calls the monomyth. This, in blunt terms, is a common pattern or structure of all myths and stories regardless of their cultural background, based on what Jung would call the collective unconscious.

A big part of the book attends to the Hero's Journey, the said common story structure, i.e. the call to adventure, the refusal of the call, initiation, thresholds, the road of trials, the return, and a lot more that may happen in one form or another during the hero's adventure.

But this is not merely a book about structure, it is a book about the transformation of the hero, the role of mythology as a vehicle to understand life and to create value for self and society, the task of gods as icons to "transport the mind and spirit, not up to, but past them, into the yonder void" (p. 180); it is about the often underestimated or even ignored power of the unconsciousness, and how all of this can serve us today not as in opposition to modern life and science but as a precious and often forgotten enrichment to everyday life.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces gives great insight into different cultures, religions and rituals based on mythology - certainly not in all depth but to all degree that is possible in only one book. I can see a certain preference of Eastern wisdom over Western religion in Campbell's work but that may be shaped through my own perspective.  In most parts the author tries to keep a neutral position, but some warnings seem to be very close to Campbell's heart:

"Symbols are only the vehicles of communication; they must not be mistaken for the final term, the tenor, of their reference. No matter how attractive or impressive they may seem, they remain but convenient means, accommodated to the understanding. Hence the personality or personalities of God–wether represented in trinitarian, dualistic, or unitarian terms, in polytheistic, monotheistic, or henotheistic terms, pictorially or verbally, as documented fact or apocalyptic vision–no one should attempt to read or interpret as the final thing. The problem of the theologian is to keep his symbol translucent, so that it may not block out the very light it is supposed to convey. 'For then alone do we know God truely,' writes Thomas Aquinas, 'when we believe that He is far above all that man can possibly think of God.' And in the Kena Upanishad, in the same spirit:'To know is not to know; not to know is to know.' Mistaking a vehicle for its tenor may lead to the spilling not only of valueless ink, but of valuable blood." (p. 236)

Not to give a wrong impression with the quote above, this book does not at all try to be moralistic and cautionary. For me it opened up the door to the fascination of mythology, but also to the recognition of my own subconscious and the vast riches that can derive from there. It lead me to read, understand and enjoy ancient texts such as the Lotus Sutra (a book based on the 2500 year old teachings of the original Buddha) that in the Expedient Means chapter talks about exactly the above mentioned importance not to mistake the symbol for the message. The Hero with a Thousand Faces is also a great inspiration to become the Hero in the adventure of our own life. It can even be a rather practical resource if you are into storytelling or screen writing – and the book has in fact been used by Campbell's close friend George Lukas to develop the stories for the Star Wars movies.

Honestly, it took me a while to actually start reading this book. My first attempts were in vain. If you don't read scholastic works on a daily basis it may take a while to get into it. This book is not extremely hard to read, but same as the hero on his journey I had to cross the threshold of the first few chapters. Then, however, I could not stop. Joseph Campbell uses a lot of mythological stories from all over the world to illustrate his points – and the stories are not only brief summaries, but often on page after page detailed, beautiful and uninterrupted storytelling. Sometimes he starts a story that he picks up at a later stage and then tells to the end. So it is not purely scholastic, it contains a lot of the magic that made Campbell so passionate about mythology himself.

An easier digest for a start would be the television series The Power of Myth that was recorded in Campbells last years by journalist Bill Moyers or the TV lecture series Mythos.

One reason, I believe, why The Hero with a Thousand Faces has been so successful and inspired and fascinated so many people is that it really makes you feel smart. It makes you feel really clever. That's Campbell's talent to communicate what he loved. Also, this book touches our human nature and the often dormant desire to know more about life than we would ever understand.

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