Rethinking Campbell: When Stages are not Stages

NOTE: You are welcome to link to this article, but do not copy or repost it. If you would like a PDF copy to use in your class or work, contact me. For a complete exploration of the monomyth, see The Path of Transformation or Campbell’s Monomyth.

Elaborating on the Theme of Transformation

by Reg Harris

Four, Six, Twelve or Seventeen?

Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey model, the monomyth, is described as containing between 4 and 17 stages. Ironically, perhaps the most famous model of the monomyth isn’t even Campbell’s, but the “Writer’s Journey,” a 12-stage adaptation created by screenwriter Christopher Vogler to help editors evaluate scripts at Disney Studios.Monomyth 4-Stage

Campbell, himself, lists 17 stages in “The Adventure of the Hero,” part one of his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). However, in Chapter 4 of Hero, he summarizes the monomyth in a chart (right) that shows the journey in four stages–Call to Adventure, Tests, Flight and Elixir–with other elements listed as benefits or possibilities within those stages. To complicate matters, his summary paragraph in that chapter actually mentions six stages in the Hero’s Journey: Setting Forth, Threshold of Adventure, Road of Tests and Trials, Nadir/Abyss, Return and Rebirth into the World.

So which is it: 4, 6, 12 or 17? The answer is none of them and all of them. The Hero’s Journey is so complex and variable that no single model can contain all of its permutations and contingencies. Campbell, himself, makes the point clearly in Hero:

The changes rung on the simple scale of the monomyth defy description. Many tales isolate and greatly enlarge upon one or two of the typical elements of the full cycle (test motif, flight motif, abduction of the bride), others string a number of independent cycles into a single series (as in the Odyssey). Differing characters or episodes can become fixed, or a single element can reduplicate itself and reappear under many changes (p. 246).

A Shift in Perspective

In this article, I am going to try to do what Campbell said cannot be done: describe the indescribable. I will explore the question, “Can we build a single model of the monomyth which can contain most (if not all) of its main stages, critical contingencies and central thematic elements?” Our first step is to realize that the monomyth Campbell describes actually transcends its origins in mythology. It is a journey through the transformation of consciousness. This transformational process is psychological, not mythological. The hero myths are metaphors for the process, not necessarily examples of it. I’m reminded of the Zen saying, “Don’t confuse the finger that points at the moon with the moon.” (Note that none of the myths Campbell uses to illustrate the monomyth contain all of his stages.)

In his conversations with Bill Moyers (The Power of Myth), Campbell stated, “What all myths have to deal with is transformations of consciousness of one kind or another. You have been thinking one way. You now have to think in a different way” (1988, p. 126). Thus, when we try to match the monomyth’s transcendent, transformative theme to the everyday particulars of individual hero myths, we are really trying to match two entirely different perspectives: the transcendent with the temporal, the spiritual with the mundane.

The point is that no model of a psychological process can possibly account for all of the local variables in myth. So, to create a “universal” monomyth, I propose that we stop trying to adhere to the myths, the metaphors for the process, and focus on the process itself: the transformation of consciousness. With transformation as our organizing principle, the elements in the monomyth fall into a logical hierarchy and sequence of stages, contingencies and benefits.

Stages or Elements within Stages

Campbell's 17-Stage Model - smallTo begin our quest for an inclusive model of the monomyth, we need to establish some guidelines. First, we need to differentiate fundamental stages, experiences that are a part of every journey and which change the hero in some way, from contingent stages, experiences that, while important, don’t necessarily change the hero or which are not part of every journey. Then we need to identify elements that are not experiences, but benefits and conditions the hero gains because of an experience. (Click here for a table prioritizing the stages by level.)

Here are some examples to illustrate my point. The “Call to Adventure” is a fundamental stage because it is a part of every journey and it changes the hero (disrupts his or her life). On the other hand, “The Call Refused,” while it is one of the most important elements in the journey, is not fundamental because it is not a part of every journey (i.e., not all heroes refuse the Call). Similarly, “Supernatural Aid,” the “Ultimate Boon” and “Master of the Two Worlds” are not stages, but benefits or conditions that are part of successfully completing a stage. Now, using these guidelines, let’s examine the 17 stages of Campbell’s original monomyth.

Fundamental Stages

A careful look at the 17 stages shows us that only seven of them are actually fundamental stages, that is experiences that are part of every journey and that change or develop the hero in some way (again, see my table for more explanation):

1. The Call to Adventure
2. The First Threshold
3. The Road of Trials
4. The Meeting with the Goddess
5. Atonement with the Father
6. Apotheosis
7. The Return Threshold

We can expand and improve this outline if we incorporate the material from Campbell’s summary paragraph (Hero, p. 245-246). First, Campbell includes a Return stage in his summary, a stage which he only implies in Part One, so we will add that. Second, in his summary, Campbell combines the journey’s critical challenges—The Meeting with the Goddess, The Woman as Temptress and Atonement with the Father—in a single stage, the Abyss/Nadir.

Abyss Archetypal Structure OptThis is a much more reasonable arrangement because the polar aspects of the male and female archetypes, representing the poles of the eternal and the temporal, are really two aspects of one system (see diagram at right). And each of those two archetypes has its own set of poles. The female archetype, represented by the Earth Mother, contains the Goddess and Temptress, while the male archetype, represented by the Father figure, contains the God and the Ogre. In both cases, Earth Mother or Sky Father, the aspect experienced by the hero depends on the hero’s level of consciousness when he encounters the archetype. So, because these archetypes are complimentary and mutually-defining, they belong in a single stage.

After we make these changes — adding the “Return” and combining polar aspects of stages into the “Abyss” — our transformational model of the journey takes on this seven-stage form (with Campbell’s other stages and key elements subordinated within these stages):

1. The Call to Adventure

– The Call Refused (contingency)
– Supernatural Aid (benefit)

2. The First Threshold

– (Threshold Guardians)
– The Belly of the Whale (contingency)

3. The Road of Trials

4. The Abyss/Nadir

– Meeting with the Goddess
– Woman as Temptress (contingency)
– Atonement with the Father

5. Apotheosis

– (Consolidation)
– The Ultimate Boon (benefit)

6. The Return Threshold

– Refusal of the Return (contingency)
– Magic Flight (contingency)
– Rescue from Without (contingency)

7. The Return

– Master of the Two Worlds (condition)
– Freedom to Live (condition)

The Psychological Model of the Monomyth

We are not quite finished, however. Because we are describing a psychological transformation, we need a stage where the essence of that transformation occurs. This happens between the death-and-rebirth in the Abyss and the consolidation of meaning in the Apotheosis, so we add the “Transformation” as Stage 5. Thus, when we express these seven stages psychologically rather than metaphorically and include a stage for the transformation brought on by the journey, we have this basic, eight stage outline of the process Campbell was describing in his monomyth:

1. The Call to Adventure: a disruption, in ourselves or in our world, makes us aware of limitations, contradictions or potentials in our lives.

2. The First or Exit Threshold: We must decide to address this disruption and commit ourselves to resolving the limitations, incongruities and inconsistencies in our lives.

3. Road of Trials: We experience a series of challenges and temptations that, (1) breakdown our old, ineffective ways of believing and acting to make way for the new, and (2) prepare us for the greater challenges that will follow.

4. Abyss/Nadir: With our old meaning structure shattered, we enter a void while we wait for new meanings and structure to emerge. This death-and-rebirth experience is completed with a revelation, which turns the chaotic void into a fertile void and we are reborn.

5. Transformation: With the Revelation pointing the way, we experience transformation into our new life: new attitudes, new beliefs, new behaviors—all arising from our expanded, more-inclusive consciousness.

6. Apotheosis: After the turmoil of the journey and the rebirth of a new self, we take time to reflect and consolidate our experience by building new meanings for our life, meanings that will project us into a greater, more fulfilling future.

7. The Return Threshold: There is point at which we must question our ability or willingness to return to our former lives. Have we transcended not just ourselves, but our community as well? Will our community be willing or able to accept our change and incorporate our insights and greater understandings, or will they reject and, perhaps, vilify us as a threat to the community’s stability?

8. The Return: With our new status within our community negotiated and resolved, we are ready to resume life at a higher level of consciousness and responsibility, ready to contribute our new skills and understandings to the community’s well-being.

Benefits of this “General Human Formula”

This model, because it focuses on fundamental stages and groups elements based on the transformational process Campbell was describing, has a number of benefits:

Monomyth Eight-Stage Round Opt1. It is easier to teach because it is simpler and because it more clearly illustrates the psychological process behind the monomyth. It organizes the stages in a coherent, hermeneutic sequence so that understanding whole (the process) gives us a broad perspective for understanding the parts (the stages), and understanding the parts gives us a deeper insight into the whole.

2. It is more easily applied to both literature and life. With its focus on the psychological process of transformation, the model can help us explore and analyze all narratives, whether those narratives are fictional or real.

3. It is a more practical guide to understanding and navigating our own journeys in life, which was, after all, Campbell’s primary goal in presenting the monomyth. As Campbell, himself, wrote:

The whole sense of the ubiquitous myth of the hero’s passage is that it shall serve as a general pattern for men and women, wherever they may stand along the scale…The individual has only to discover his own position with reference to this general human formula, and let it then assist him past his restricting walls (1949, p. 121).


Campbell, J.  (1949). The hero with a Thousand Faces (2nd ed.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University.

Campbell, J. with B. Moyers. (1988). The Power of Myth: with Bill Moyers. Flowers, B. (editor). New York: Doubleday.

Copyright © 2017 by Reg Harris. All rights reserved. Reproduction of this article in any form or in part or in whole, without the expressed written permission of the author is prohibited. Posting this article or any part thereof to the Internet in any form without the expressed written permission of the author is a violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and strictly prohibited. If you would like a PDF copy of this article to use in your class or work, please contact Reg Harris.