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THERE and BACK AGAIN,” with MythBlast author Stephen Gerringer”

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    Thanks for joining us to discuss “THERE and BACK AGAIN,” this week’s MythBlast essay (click on title to read). I would love to hear any thoughts, observations, inspirations, and questions that surfaced as you read  the essay.

    I’ll delve a little more into Joseph Campbell’s own experience in this post, but please don’t feel constrained by that. I’m just priming the pump; this isn’t a guided tutorial, but a freewheeling conversation. If you feel moved to take the discussion in a different direction, please don’t hesitate.

    The return and reintegration with society, which is indispensable to the continuous circulation of spiritual energy into the world, and which, from the standpoint of the community, is the justification of the long retreat, the hero himself may find the most difficult requirement of all.” (Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces)

    It’s difficult to fully understand any hero absent an awareness of the community which gives birth to that hero, and to which the hero returns. That’s often easier to determine in myth than in the contemporary world. Few individuals today are born into a traditional “village compound”; rather, there are so many communities – religious communities, political communities, artistic communities, socio-economic communities, and so on.

    In Joseph Campbell’s case, he was firmly ensconced in the academic community. He studied science at Dartmouth and the humanities at Columbia. He continued after graduation to earn a Master’s Degree in literature, and received a Proudfit scholarship that paid for a year at the Sorbonne in Paris and was uncharacteristically renewed to cover an additional year of study at the University of Heidelberg.

    But then, just days before the market collapse that signaled the start of the Great Depression in 1929, Campbell dropped out of the doctoral program (to this day many are surprised to learn Joseph Campbell never completed his Ph.D.):

    I know what I did. I was out in the woods in the middle of the Depression with nothing to do but read, and I read for five years without a job. I was willing to get back, but in my day, during the Depression, people who were what might be called “counterculture” had been kicked out. The culture itself had collapsed, so you’re out.” (Audio Archive L1183 EXPLORATIONS: The Hero’s Journey, Esalen, Big Sur, CA 11/7/83)

    In the middle of that five year “gap” – late 1931 through 1932 – Campbell drove out to California in his Model A Ford. Today, it’s easy to see this as a quest to find himself, but at the time, Joe was off in search of a job – which for him meant a search for a career and, if you will, a life. Along the way he wrote letters to over 70 different colleges looking for a teaching position to no avail, interviewed with the editor of the Hearst publications in San Francisco for a position as a reporter, and even visited the docks to ask if there were any jobs to be had aboard a tramp steamer.

    The only clear offer he received was one arranged by his friend, sculptor Angela Gregory, which would have had him specializing in Mesoamerican archaeology under noted Mayan expert Frans Blom at the University of Tulane in New Orleans. Campbell’s personal writings from this period reflect indecision and uncertainty; struggling to find a direction, Joe keeps bouncing back and forth between focusing on a career in anthropology, writing, or teaching literature.

    Along the way, he fell in with an eclectic bohemian circle in the Monterey area of the California coast that included biologist Ed Ricketts and novelist John Steinbeck, and had a series of adventures that expanded his perspective and, ultimately, changed his life. After returning home and accepting a job teaching at his old prep school, Campbell quit at the end of the school year and, in his words, “went back on the Depression,” returning to the woods to continue his self-study:

    I was following a star, and I really found what I’m now telling you during those five years. And, finally, the little message comes, would you like a job? At Sarah Lawrence College” (ibid)

    Joseph Campbell “return” was to a university community – but a setting with a dramatically different feel than the academia he had left behind. Sarah Lawrence was an avant-garde institution where faculty members were not chained to the typical “publish or perish” imperative; teachers did not assign letter grades, but instead held regular conferences with each student and wrote detailed evaluations; faculty members were given a great degree of latitude in developing their courses. Joe taught only three-quarters time, accepting less than a full time salary so he could pursue his own studies and writing.

    Looking back at Campbell’s life, we can see a structure to how that all unfolded, though it was far from apparent at the time. In Joe’s own words,

    My feeling is that mythic forms reveal themselves gradually in the course of your life if you know what they are and how to pay attention to their emergence. . .  I have recognized in my quest all the stages of the hero’s journey. I had my calls to adventure, guides, demons and illuminations.” (Keen, Sam: “Man and Myth”, Psychology Today, July, 1971)



    Love the title! Perfect.

    Thank you for this! 🙏 (yes, yes and yes)

    Love the humor too:

    ”Coyote didn’t keep the Sun to himself in order to read in bed at night; he shared it with his community. Parzival wasn’t after the Grail so he could upgrade his coffee mug; his success on this quest healed King Amfortas and restored a blighted kingdom. Moses didn’t confront Pharaoh to secure power and riches, but to free his people.”  -Stephen Gerringer 

    Needed this…it’s great! Laughter is much needed in the world these days!

    And what Joseph Campbell says here:

    “Maybe the Hero’s Journey isn’t just all about me…

    It’s a cycle of departure, tests and ordeals, a realization of some kind. It may be great. It may be little. But it gives you the sense of realization. And then the return with your realization to the society that you left and somehow contributing to it. That’s the elixir boon.” 

    ZBS Media Interview with Joseph Campbell, 1971 (emphasis mine)

    That emphasis on realization has always seemed to me to be a Big Part of these stories and these quests. Or Awareness…(regardless of individual or group journey) 

    Campbells quote evokes the idea that Realization or Awareness is as much a boon or in some cases The Boon the journeyer/s can bring back with them. And through experience on the journeys, awareness is gained.
    But the challenge is “what to do with the gift given, attained or the “dawning of realization.” Of course one can choose to ignore the Awareness or Realization as well. Wry smile.

    I sense the fear of the selfish hero is the idea he/she will use their quest to “lord it over the people” on their return. Force “their way.”

    But if they do lord it over others erm they probably have failed the quest anyway.
    It’s hard for me to imagine that every individual quest has the potential to create darkness and egotism in every character or person…but rather that it is the state of  each person/character’s own mind and soul that makes a difference. (And the personal experiences which have informed their life.)
    Of course a ring or rings of Power might complicate the journey.

    Back to the return (with a good boon):?is the village ready? Is patience called for? Or will another Dawning happen in a collective way? Or a healing way?(i.e. The Parcival tale where only one question is required, the ripples take care of themselves and spread through the land?)

    If all goes well, then they can return to the people of their community and bring something back in a beneficial way.

    Even solitude can become an illusion when a deer walks in the yard or a Crow cries. There’s always some kind of communities around in nature too. 

    And maybe I’m wrong, but thought Joseph Campbell also hinted the path of bliss was a way to find one’s calling within society…just as evidenced by the history of his life you mentioned!

    And when he went into the forest after wavering… Any Road came to him…Sarah Lawrence! So his journey led to a gift back to community and a larger community than just his scholarly one. Love that!

    With a lot of focus on community/ties world wide today, it’s easy to see why there might be a tendency to cast away the “individual quest” in order to keep focus on “community,” “collaboration,” “cooperation.” (Even if the individual quest is for a good cause or helps community)  Everyone has a role in the play.

    And of course collaboration is both wonderful and necessary! But there also might be an advantage to not all going into the forest at the exact same spot at the exact same time.

    I really appreciate your And/Both approach. And reminder of The Return, which proves the good hearted are not in it for glory! Sometimes it’s nice to have company on the journey. Sometimes the journey calls for more than one. Sometimes the call waits in solitude.
    It’s all fascinating!

    Thank you again, Stephen!



    Appropriate title with “The Rings of Power” dawning in September on Amazon.


    Thank you, Stephen, for your insightful perspective into the Hero image. Your essay helps me understand better both the hero and Joseph Campbell. I can see that the hero is not about the individual and his deeds. It is about the individual in relation to the community that he/she serves. Emphasis in relation and in service. Without a community, there is no hero. It is the community that validates the hero. Which brings me to a better understanding as to why Joseph Campbell never completed his doctoral degree. His hero quest was not for an academic community. His community was broader, as the letters you mention indicate. Thank you.


    Happy Day, sunbug!

    You write

    Back to the return (with a good boon):?is the village ready? Is patience called for? Or will another Dawning happen in a collective way?”

    An important question you raise – sometimes the village is not ready:

    The function of the orthodox community is to torture the mystic to death: his goal.” (A Joseph Campbell Companion)

    And even if martyrdom is not in the cards, one’s original community does sometimes reject the hero when s/he/they returns:

    The principal gain is a sense of an authentic act – and an authentic life. It may be a short one, but it is an authentic one, and that’s a lot better than those short lives full of boredom. The principal loss is security. Another is respect from the community. But you gain the respect of another community, the one that is worth having the respect of.”

    Joseph Campbell, Myth & the Body: A Colloquy with Joseph Campbell (Copyright © 1999 Stanley Keleman; Joseph Campbell’s contribution © Joseph Campbell Foundation) p. 39

    So it’s not exactly an either/or. Campbell spends a great deal of time in a few different places discussing the quester’s options when society is not open to the boon one brings back.

    For 2022 at JCF, our MythBlast essay series is focused on an exploration of the Hero’s Journey, but not as traditionally discussed. Rather, our theme for the year is “De-centering the Hero.” That doesn’t mean we are anti-Hero’s Journey, trying to upend Campbell’s work; rather, we are looking beyond the traditional notions of the muscular hero, examining other essential elements of the quest – such as the female hero, the collective hero, the trickster as hero, and what happens to the hero after returning from the quest (hint: it’s not always pretty – but that’s a subject for an upcoming month).

    Nevertheless, the individual quest remains central to Campbell’s understanding:

    It has to be found first in private life. I would say that whatever is about to occur in the way of
    transformation of consciousness will have had to have occurred, first, in the hearts of individual human
    beings, who will then have had—as a result of their very presence—an influence in the larger
    community.” (Interview with Joseph Campbell by E. Bouratinos: Emilios Review, 9-30-85)



    Thanks, Juan, for that affirmation.

    Of course, that way of reading Campbell is something so many critics miss. It doesn’t occur to them one can’t simply apply for the position –”hero” is not a career.

    In most hero tales, the hero is not conscious that s/he is a hero, at least not as their story unfolds. Arthur has no ambition to be King of the Britons – he just wants to save himself a few steps and a bit of time while fetching a sword for his step-brother; Gilgamesh wants to bring his dead best friend back to life; Heracles does not think himself a hero when he undertakes those herculean Labors – he is performing penance for the murder of his wife and children while in the throes of madness; and Vasilisa encounters the terrifying Baba Yaga as the culmination of a series of tasks assigned her by a cruel stepmother. None know they are heroes – but what all have in common is a focus that is not on fulfilling their personal desires, along with a willingness to brave the unknown.

    But many of the critiques of Campbell I’ve read in recent years don’t seem to grasp this sense of the hero’s journey. A number of respected critics seem to assume a hero has consciously decided to be a hero; they often vociferously voice their opposition to what really is their own understanding of Campbell’s description of the Hero’s Journey as encouraging people to set themselves up as saviors – as if “hero” were a title. Much criticism gets that all tangled up with privilege and power dynamics, thinking it’s an ego trip. Their issue is with a common stereotype of the hero, rather than an archetypal pattern that will manifest no matter what we call it.

    But, at least in general, the returning hero doesn’t so much save society, as bring back a contribution to his/her/their community – which is one reason why Campbell focuses on re-integration rather than conquest.


      Stephen, I think you bring up an important point that is often missed. So often the Hero is seen as an image, as opposed to a potential aspect of the individual’s character. In Jungian-speak this would the archetypal image, not the archetype itself. In other words, the Hero is an aspect of our true nature that if “awakened” can change us, the life we live, and the lives of others in significant ways.

      The Hero as an image gets a lot of press; (especially if there is fame or notoriety involved). But my sense of it is the Hero is not a concretized pattern like a figure to be modeled after, but a dimension of the individual human spirit that is potential in everyone. Anyone has the potential to be a hero; and this is what speaks to us from the depths of our soul. That at any moment something can happened that can call forth from the depths of our experience our ability to rise to the call that beckons us forth if we answer it. It doesn’t have to be saving a child from a burning building but also someone fighting cancer. It is the potential dimension within us that tells us something just won’t do, and we must rise to the challenge of dealing with it.

      If you lost your house, if you lost a loved one, if you lost your world can you create a new one from the ashes. Can you be Prometheus that steals the fire from the gods, can you be Jesus that has compassion for those suffering you see around you. Can you pick yourself up and go on when all seems lost from some catastrophe you have suffered? These are just a “tiny few” of the possibilities of the Hero that lies within all of us. Can we summon this aspect of ourselves forth is the question?

      Joseph talked about many versions of the Hero and many different applications as well. But to me it has as much to do with the individual circumstances and how this concept is understood within one’s own life; but that’s certainly not the only aspect of the Hero character or what its’ application might be, but one I’ve heard most often in everyday life. (Stephen or anyone else may have more to add on this.)


      Loving this! Your responses to me and Juan are so well expressed! Very clear.
      And I know what you mean about de-centering the hero…Born of Water might be overlooked for Killer of Enemies.

      The Spiritual quest counts too with or without action. And what of studies of human consciousness shared? When you are with people in celebration, sharing words to songs with strangers…or be still in a forest until it’s no longer a background but a presence…or look to the stars. There has to be More than…that’s what I thought Transcendence was about.

      The journeyer or journeyers are the ones who become Aware (and that’s not necessarily a muscular thing but more of a Consciousness thing)

      I understand the need to look at the “distribution” end of the quest but I prefer your choice of words “integration.” The Spiritual aspects of the quests are ignored for a physical resolution. A more intellectual resolution. You mention the inner work people might do…it begins with one man…

      What about the journey of a Thomas Merton and Thicht Nhat Hahn? Both very much part of communities but also with their own awakening within. And look at the ripples they caused beyond their own communities. A reintegration of the spiritual in the physical world. Another And/Both. 

      You are right, The focus on the muscular hero or the greedy treasure and fame hunter has dimmed other journeys.  Of course Set Quests can draw all types…and the greedy and power seeking may jump at that chance.

      The village compound and collective journeys seem to understand direct action best. And sometimes that is what is called for…but what fascinates me is sometimes the instructions the village provides to find/acquire a boon may not always be applicable in the forest adventurous or equivalent. A different awareness may be needed or learned. Unless the story follows the letter of a given structure.

      So this gives me the idea of Myth itself being a trickster! A character outside of all the journeyers and characters. Sort of an outside in view.  And for certain myth could cause mayhem and havoc! It does have a way of bucking at the gates sometimes…but maybe Myth can also be a trickster by providing a different path or way to the boon and providing that outside of the village bounds and ways.
      Now that could definitely complicate things. Not the way of ego of a mad scientist or blood thirsty warrior but of realization.  Myth as holy fool.

      I think dawning of awareness though beautiful can be hard sometimes in a world that values action and intellectual reasoning…not that there are not values there but those other parts of the stories tied into intuition or even spontaneous compassion might be overlooked or dismissed.
      It would seem to be about finding a balance.



      It has been said that heroes are ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. This points out, to me, to the relational nature of the heroic act. Without a circumstance, there is no hero. The individual or ego alone is never the hero, nor initiates, motivates or is the source of the quest. In fact, it could be argued that the individual has to break out of the ego shell before he/she becomes the hero. This is what the initial resistance to the call describes, in my view. The ego does not want to go there. The call to the heroic quest comes to the individual not from the ego but from a dimension that transcends it. That is why, when accepted, it is transformative.



      The individual or ego alone is never the hero, nor initiates, motivates or is the source of the quest. In fact, it could be argued that the individual has to break out of the ego shell before he/she becomes the hero. This is what the initial resistance to the call describes, in my view. The ego does not want to go there.”

      Your words ring so true. Thanks for sharing this perspective.



      You write

      The Hero as an image gets a lot of press; (especially if there is fame or notoriety involved). But my sense of it is the Hero is not a concretized pattern like a figure to be modeled after, but a dimension of the individual human spirit that is potential in everyone.”

      Though I haven’t done this since Covid landed, prior to that junior high teachers often invited me into the classrooms to introduce their students to the concept of the Hero’s Journey. Of course, if you want 12 and 13 year olds to pay attention, you really can’t approach it like schoolwork (if they know they’re being taught a lesson, kids automatically tune it out)), so I would start by mentioning a dream I’d had the night before, and then we’d spend ten minutes talking about dreams. No surprise everyone would clamor to talk about a strange dream they’d had, and the energy level would ratchet up as students assumed they hd succeeded in pulling me off task.

      Eventually I’d circle around to types of dreams (“How many of have dreamed you were falling and then jerk awake? What about flying dreams? Or scary bad guys/witches/monsters trying to break into your house? Or coming to school naked?” etc.) . . . and then I would discuss patterns, introduce the concept of motifs, relate that to stories (like “The One Forbidden Thing,” whether it’s Adam and Eve being told what not to eat, or Bluebeard telling his bride what house to never go into,  etc.), and back into a discussion of the Hero’s Journey as a recurring motif.

      At some point, I’d ask the class if they ever thought of themselves as heroes – and, of course, the universal response would be “No,” since they’d grown up watching movies and thinking of heroes as bad ass dudes who beat the villains with guns or martial arts in a life-or-death struggle. But then I’d bring up asking someone to the junior high dance for the first time ever, or studying for that killer math test, trying out for the track team, making new friends, and other things they could relate to, and point out how those were examples of, in one sense, slaying dragons, and then launch into what the arc of the Hero’s Journey in stories they’d read, and in their own lives.

      That stereotype of what a hero is gets impressed upon us at an early age. Just as it’s essential to re-frame the concept for adolescents, even more so for adults, who have lived with that Hollywood-fueled image their entire lives. It’s so important to get past the sense that “I could never be a hero” to embrace  the realization that “the hero” is potential in everyone.

      Thanks for bringing that up.


        Stephen, I really like the way you articulated the basic idea I was trying to get at and expanded on it. Yes, in a sense the idea of a patterned form to model after is usually what I think most people look to or think about in their idea or concept of what the hero represents “to them”. Joseph says something interesting about this that has come up in conversations about this topic in the forum discussions before. In the book: “An Open Life – Joseph Campbell in Conversation with Michael Toms”; on pages 109-110 he is talking about this concept a little bit differently than what we normally think of as the Hero as a set image and expounds on this model aspect but with a twist.


        Michael Toms starts out by saying: “One of the things that seems to have been lost to us is the presence of the hero. We constantly search for the person who is going to pull us out, be it the President or Superman. But the knight on the charger is not appearing as we supposed he would.”

        Joseph: “There are two aspects of the hero, I think. The hero is somebody whom you can lean on and who’s going to rescue you; he is an ideal. To live the heroic life is to live the individual adventure, really. One of the problems today that with the enormous transformation in the forms of our lives, the models for life don’t exist for us. In a traditional society—the agriculturally based city—there were relatively few life roles, and the models were there; there was a hero for each life role. But look at the last twenty years and what has come along in the way of life possibilities and requirements. The hero-as-model is one thing we lack, so each one has to be his own hero and follow the path that’s no path. It’s a very interesting situation.”

        Toms: “Or at least the models we tend to use are very strange ones. I think of Hollywood stars…”

        Joseph: “Oh, now those models come flashing in front of us and they are heroes of sorts. I think the athletic hero is right there. But these are bizarre kinds of heros because they can’t really be incorporated into one’s life. Actors, personalities, politicians—they are mostly heroes in life contexts that are not of the people who admire them. That’s just a curious result of the fact that our society is changing so fast. But I think there are heroes—there is just no doubt about it. I think Martin Luther King was a hero. Kennedy was a hero—both Kennedy’s. And certain athletes.”

        Toms: “They filled the model.”

        Joseph: “They filled the model. But they are not doing much for us in the way of helping us build our own lives. There are very few models for life. I think the individual has to find his own model. I found mine.”

        Toms: “Isn’t it important to respect our own uniqueness?”

        Joseph: “I think that’s the most important thing of all. That’s why, as I said, you really can’t follow a guru. You can’t ask somebody to give The Reason, but you can find one for yourself, you decide what the meaning of your life is to be. People talk about the meaning of life; there is no meaning to life—there are lots of meanings of different lives, and you must decide what you want your own to be.”


        This to me is one of the things that gets lost in the “hero journey process” and must be rediscovered, often many times along the way of the individual’s journey/adventure. And you can say it’s a template of sorts; but a very different approach than what people most normally think of as the: “The Hero’s Journey” per say.  And another very important thing is there is no roadmap into the dark forest; there is only the path that is no path. In other words, you are groping to find your way unique to yourself and often you have no idea where you are or where you need to go to get there; (wherever “there” is); so, to speak. “Lost in the woods” searching for your own individual unique destiny. You may hear a “call”, but even that disappears sometimes. This “Grail” business is not easy, or everyone would be able to do it; hence you are “the hero of your own life” as Joseph was pointing out. It’s not a model, at least in that sense I think, which to me is what Joseph was saying.

        Now others may have their own take on this; and it’s not for me to say what’s right or wrong for anyone but myself. But this idea is what has spoken to me throughout my own life; (which has been sort of a work-in -process full of: all kinds of mistakes, wrong turns, bumps and bruises along the way).

        Robert Juliano

          From 1913-1932, Jung engaged in what he called the “confrontation with the unconscious.” During that ‘confrontation’, he witnessed and participated in many things, and encountered many figures, some emphasizing to Jung that they were not symbols, but were real. The Septem Sermones ad Muortos (“Seven Sermons to the Dead”) in the beginning of 1916 comes from this ‘confrontation’ delivered by the figure of Philemon, in many ways Jung’s spiritual guide. Largely from 1916-1922, Jung learns of the “new religion,” and that his role was to accomplish its proclamation. In this “new religion,” community is essential.

          On January 8, 1922, Jung’s Soul emphasized the importance of establishing community, “otherwise the religion will not become actual. And it should become actual. But it expresses itself visibly only in the transformation of human relations. Relations do not let themselves be replaced even by the deepest human knowledge. Moreover a religion doesn’t consist only in knowledge, but at its visible level in a new ordering of human affairs.” In the Black Books, we see two important qualities to the “new religion”: community and at the same time uniqueness of experience and revelation. Thus, being true to our experiences and revelations, in the ancient notion of ‘religion’ as ‘relegere‘ – careful observation, gathering, collecting, recovering the numinous, and then conscientious reflection on what one has gathered. This is our contribution to ourselves and to the community.

          Furthermore, the importance of community is discussed in Philemon’s fifth Sermon. This would come to be incorporated into Jung’s notion of conscious individuation. In many ways, while on this path of individuation, one leaves the community, though, not necessarily physically. Jung found that such a path is often accompanied by guilt. He wrote “Individuation cuts one off from personal conformity and hence from collectivity. That is the guilt which the individuant leaves behind him for the world, that is the guilt he must endeavour to redeem.” Jung saw guilt as relating the pair of opposites of community and individuation, and in order for the individuant to redeem his/her guilt, he/she must successfully bring back “values which are an equivalent substitute for his absence in the collective personal sphere.” This is because “what society demands is imitation or conscious identification, a treading of accepted, authorized paths. Only by accomplishing an equivalent is one exempted from this.” Failure to successfully bring back equivalent values makes individuation immoral. I believe that Jung attempts to strike a good and fair balance between individuation and community by recognizing the importance of both. There are times when individuation might seem to have the highest value, but this is compensated by the recognition that “the existing society is always of absolute importance as the point of transition through which all world development passes, and it demands the highest collaborative achievement from every individual.”

          Jung wrote in his Red Book that his task of tasks was to “Give birth to the old in a new time.” He would return from his ‘confrontation’ and proclaim the “new religion,” but do so in a way that was amenable to the thinking and academics of his time. Thus, what he brings back is thoughtfully and reflectively massaged into a form that the community can digest and, thus, is shaped specifically with the community in mind.


          Okay time for a re-edit.


          Hey sunbug (and anyone else reading this),

          Just a helpful hint. When you want to reply to a specific post, look at the tiny menu across the top of their comment (with words like “Reply,” “Report,” and “Quote.” Click on the word “Reply,” and your response will appear, slightly inset,  directly beneath their post.

          Otherwise, your comment appears at the end of the entire page of comments, which can be confusing not just to whomever you are responding to, who then might not know nor ever notice you have replied, but also for anyone reading the conversation from the beginning (difficult to tell what post you are responding to, which makes the complete conversation a touch disjointed).

          If, on the other hand, you aren’t responding directly to anyone, but just adding your own thoughts in general for everyone, then posting the way you have been works best in that circumstance.

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