How the Joseph Campbell Monomyth Inspires Pilgrimage

Yucatan, Mexico. Photo by Carly Plett.

The Joseph Campbell monomyth has become somewhat legendary in academic circles. Mythologists, literary critics, and fervent spiritual seekers alike have turned toward Campbell’s mythic model not only to understand folk tales and lore, but to comprehend their own journeys, too.

Joseph Campbell was a mythologist who got his start studying the humanities as a college student. He took a particular interest in medievalism, eastern religions, and foreign languages. Biographical accounts detail how during the great depression, Campbell spent the remainder of most of his 20s in Woodstock, New York engulfed in reading and studying.

Campbell’s story is important because it explains how he popularized the monomythic model that was first introduced by psychologist Otto Rank and anthropologist Lord Raglan. Although Campbell used the monomyth as a framework for comparative religion and world mythologies—as laid out in his The Hero with a Thousand Faces (perhaps the most famous of the Joseph Campbell books)—many use it as an effective framework and inspiration by which to live their lives.

At Sacred Earth Journeys, we like to look at Campbell’s work as a model to inspire pilgrimage and adventure. We find the monomythic model handy for harnessing incentive to embark on journeys required to “level up” in life. 

What is the Joseph Campbell Monomyth?

We’ve written about the Joseph Campbell monomyth in previous articles, but allow us to share it in a new way. The Joseph Campbell Foundation offers some insightful Joseph Campbell quotes:

“This is what Joyce called the monomyth: an archetypal story that springs from the collective unconscious. Its motifs can appear not only in myth and literature, but, if you are sensitive to it, in the working out of the plot of your own life. The basic story of the hero journey involves giving up where you are, going into the realm of adventure, coming to some kind of symbolically rendered realization, and then returning to the field of normal life.” — Joseph Campbell, Pathways to Bliss (Pg. 104)

Irish novelist and poet James Joyce first coined “monomyth”, which isn’t surprising given his affinity toward epiphanies and spiritual realizations. After all, that’s what pilgrimages are all about, at least in part—initiating epiphanies about how to better live our lives once we return home. 

So the monomyth is essentially a narrative model that most world mythological stories, novels, fairy tales, and even movies follow. Campbell believed it stemmed from Jung’s collective unconscious because of the way the narrative structure transcends cultures and time. 

The Monomyth as a Template For Our Own Lives 

Joseph Campbell monomyth
Cusco, Peru. All rights reserved.

The monomyth follows this trend: departure, initiation, and return. Within this framework, there are smaller steps such as the call to adventure, the road of trials, and freedom to live.

Take a closer look and it might become obvious why such a narrative ark stems from the collective unconscious of humanity. In truth, we all desire meaning in our lives, and the monomyth is the ideal model by which we acquire it. Think about your favorite book or movie. Who is the protagonist? Do they undergo and ultimately transcend some special set of challenges? Does their perseverance inspire you in your own life?

Perhaps this is why people go on pilgrimage. They yearn to leave the comforts of their known world to traverse parts unknown to them. This way, they’ll gain insight, experience—epiphany, even—that will enable them to return home stronger, renewed, and aligned.

Some pilgrimages follow the footsteps of spiritual teachers, such as our Nepal and India journey “Finding Buddha” with Buddhist psychotherapist Dr. Miles Neale. Other journeys trace cultural delicacies to find out what it’s like to live and be inspired by the artistic richness of other countries. This description is most aligned with our Italy journey “La Dolce Vita” with Phil Cousineau, where we explore how to imbue life with the sort of passion it deserves.

How the Joseph Campbell Monomyth Inspires Pilgrimage

When we watch Star Wars, Marvel films like Doctor Strange, or read books tracing the spiritual quests of religious heroes, such as Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, we feel the tingle of adventure journey up our spines. Learning about heroes that follow the monomythic model (most follow some hybrid form of it), we long to go on an adventure ourselves, to further situate ourselves as a “hero” in our own minds.

At Sacred Earth Journeys, we understand the power of myth and the need for stories. As Campbell discovered, stories are powerful tools from cultures all over the world that carry transformational messages. They’re not merely for entertainment, but for change. 

We host journeys like our Peru tour “Heart of the Pachamama” with Andean medicine man Puma Quispe Singona and Mexico trip Maya Temples of Transformation with Maya teacher Miguel Angel Vergara because they provide participants the opportunities to not only learn stories but to live their own.

Once among the spiritual richness of the Sacred Valley Peru or the Maya temples in the Yucatán, a person feels like their journey is larger than life. On these journeys people undergo the soul-growing challenges of travel, create new friendships, create space to ponder their lives back home, and eventually return ready to implement important changes into their realities. 

In our articles about Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, we often talk about author Phil Cousineau who happens to be one of our journey leaders. He was a close student of Campbell’s who harnessed inspiration from his work to become a veteran pilgrimage leader and very talented writer.

This quote from Phil’s The Art of Pilgrimage (in which he quotes Campbell) appropriately describes the goal and power of pilgrimage:

“In Joseph Campbell’s popular book of essays Myths to Live By, he described something pertinent to our theme of sacred journeys: ‘The ultimate aim of the quest, if one is to return, must be neither release nor ecstasy for oneself, but the wisdom and the power to serve others.’”

The monomyth is complete when the hero returns with a boon to bestow upon their community. Sometimes that boon isn’t a physical thing, per se, but a renewed quality of the soul. Thus through pilgrimages such as the tours Sacred Earth Journeys offer, we aim to not only entertain, but to transform and add value to your being so you can become a walking inspiration to others.

~Jacob Lopez, staff writer