My Heroine’s Journey:
The Feminine Monomyth and Transformation through Time
This is the story of how I developed my art quilt, My Heroine’s Journey: The Feminine Monomyth and Transformation through Time. This project was part of the culmination of my final work for my Master’s Degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling with a concentration in Expressive Art Therapy at Goddard College in 2018. If you don’t want to read the paper, but want to see pics, scroll down to the gallery below.
In 1949, Joseph Campbell published his groundbreaking work, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. A student of myth and folklore, Campbell traveled the world and studied the culture and storytelling traditions of people from all over the globe. He was deeply inspired by Carl Jung and his work on the archetypal forms. Campbell looked at thousands of stories and found recurring patterns throughout them. He stripped these patterns down to their core and conceived of a formula, a cycle of sorts, which captures the essence of a great deal of stories with astonishing accuracy. He identified three key aspects of this cycle: separation, initiation, and return. He called it, “The Monomyth,” a term he borrowed from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake (1939), which means, “the one story”. This later became popularly known as “The Hero’s Journey”.
To sum up a 432 page book in a few paragraphs, the Hero’s Journey is as follows: The Hero, an unlikely character who is not known for fighting or adventuring skills is suddenly called to adventure. This call may come from an archetypal visitor, like a Gandalf figure who is always stirring things up, or it may come from a very essential place like a need to slay a dragon or otherwise save the world. Being the unlikely Hero that he is, he will almost always refuse this call and decide not to go, only to quickly realize that this task is appointed to him and cannot be refused – Maybe he knows it will lead to a lifetime of regret, or perhaps because it literally means life or death. On his way to adventure, the Hero gathers strength and tools, and almost always comes into supernatural aid of some kind. This is often where an archetypal “wise old man” or “wise old woman” character might appear. Along with supernatural aid, the Hero is frequently given a weapon, which quite often seems to be a magical sword (though not always). With this newfound weapon and confidence, the Hero steps over the threshold gate from the mundane and ordinary world into the world of adventure. At the gate, he often encounters Threshold Guardians (another archetypal form), whom he must battle. Upon winning this battle and finally stepping across the threshold, the Hero is emboldened. At this point in the story he begins the road of trials. This is a part of the story Campbell referred to as “the belly of the whale”. Here, the Hero is confident, yet he is beginning to be tested in the limits of his courage, strength, perseverance, and wits. Along the road of trials he is bruised and battered. Trial after trial is undertaken, he often must face his own shadow, and he is worn down. It is when he is at his darkest place that the stakes are raised significantly and he reaches the point of the story known as the abyss. It is here that a fierce, culminating battle is fought. Sometimes, the Hero does not survive and actually experiences death. Other times, death is symbolic. Perhaps he experiences the death of parts of himself – his ego, his pride. Maybe it marks the end of something. Whatever happens, he emerges in a rebirth of sorts, from the pits of Hell, bedraggled and completely spent. It is here where he again receives supernatural aid. Sometimes the aid comes from an unlikely source, like a previous enemy (in the end of Lord of the Rings, Gollum saves the world by biting the ring off Frodo’s finger and falling into Mt. Doom). Whatever happens, the Hero’s ascent from the underworld is usually magical and miraculous. Ascending from darkness, the Hero also carries a boon. This boon is sometimes symbolic, other times it is an actual physical object of power. When the Hero returns to the conscious world, he returns with the full glory of a Superhero. In many stories he becomes the true King, or even ascends to Godhood. But the Hero is changed forever by the journey, he carries it with him in a way that has transformed him – and in the end that may not always feel good – but he knows that he would not prefer to go back and have lived his life without the adventure. The Hero’s burden is part of the toll he pays for the experience of adventure and transformation. Below is a graphic showing an overview of the Hero’s Journey:
This is a very abridged version, but it gives you an idea of the main aspects of the cycle. The Hero’s Journey has become exponentially more familiar to the Western mind since Campbell’s book was published, as many writers of both literature and popular entertainment have used this story arc to develop their plots. Campbell worked with director George Lucas while he was writing the original screenplay for Star Wars. In fact, there is a lot of criticism of Campbell’s work because many people feel like this formula has resulted in lazy creativity and an overreliance on these recurring cycles in almost every movie and TV shows since he popularly identified it. The criticism is not without merit on that point and others. Certainly, the story arc has some issues. There are quite a few stories that do not fit this model at all. Hero stories are only one possible story arc among many others. But it is undeniable that Hero stories have always existed and always will exist, and Campbell’s model is an excellent, well-thought-out and thoroughly researched perspective on the central masculine journey. It is also incorrect to say that we can take ALL myth and legend and water it down to this cycle. Our folk stories represent the richness of our cultural heritage. They carry cultural symbolism and meaning of great importance to the people whom they belong to. To imply that all folk tales, myths, legends, and cultural origin stories are as simple as retelling one universal story is doing a major injustice to the importance and uniqueness of these tales. Recognizing that Campbell certainly had a bit of an ethnocentric and patriarchal view on the Hero, he was remarkably open-minded and knowledgeable for his time. The point of his overall message was not to homogenize all cultures. He was incredibly well-read and well-travelled, and he tried to understand the people he wrote about as well as he could, given the time and the circumstance. In sharing his model of the Hero’s Journey with the world, I believe Campbell was trying to bring us closer together and help us recognize how we share certain deep, universal understandings – while still finding infinite beautiful and unique variations on how we expand upon and express those themes.
So how is the Hero’s Journey relevant to Mental Health Counseling? As a student of psychology, I recognize that our perspective has a lot to do with how well we fare in a given situation. We cannot control the cards that we are dealt, but we make a series of choices in deciding how we will play out our hand. Among those choices is our perspective. Changing one’s perspective is no simple task, and it is very easy to get stuck in a negative cycle, especially when we are chronically stressed, and/or we grow up without good examples of people with healthy life perspectives of their own. At the same time, we are all storytellers. In developing a coherent narrative and sense of self, we etch into our own memory a story about our life. In this story, many things happen to us. Sometimes our experiences are positive, while other times they are negative – but this is completely subjective. Often, when examining our experiences in retrospect, we can see that things that were awful and unbearable at the time they happened may have been for the best in the long run. Perhaps the change of plans led to a new path and new opportunities. Maybe your fiancée left you at the altar and it was devastating, but a week later you met your soul mate. But sometimes we look very hard and cannot find the silver linings in our clouds. Sometimes, we have a very difficult time viewing life from a big picture perspective, especially if the chips have been down for a long time.
I think the model of the Hero’s journey is a powerful way of examining our own story in a different context, so we can see it through a different lens. If we can see ourselves as the Hero in our own story, then we can look at the story arc and imagine where along the cycle we might currently be. A person about to make a major life change could see themselves at the threshold gate. A person who just lost a loved one to a long medical battle may feel themselves in the abyss. A person emerging from a difficult time may envision themselves experiencing a rebirth, perhaps something they learned from the ordeal may be recognized as their boon. Most importantly is the fact that these journeys are transformative – and while the change is always necessary, it is not always fun, it does not always feel good. Through the lens of the Hero’s Journey, we can breathe new life into our personal stories by giving meaning to our suffering and recognizing that we do have power. It is often beyond our control what happens to us in our lives, but our power lies in the way we perceive and tell our own personal narratives. We choose how we see and present our own story to the world, and most importantly, how we tell our own story to ourselves. This brings me to the Heroine’s Journey, and my own personal experience.
Starting in the 1970s, a movement began among Western women of reclaiming of our stories and conceptions of the sacred nature of femininity. Women were fed up with living under patriarchy and were rediscovering feminine power once wielded by our ancestors – power which had been hidden and obscured by dominant cultural narratives. Many women began reconnecting to these roots in different ways such as reclaiming ancient herbal knowledge, practicing Earth-based religions, and examining cultural myth and folktales that tell women’s stories. Emerging amidst this climate, Maureen Murdock published her book, The Heroine’s Journey, in 1990. Murdock was a student of Campbell’s and was familiar with the Hero’s Journey story arc. She felt alienated by it in many ways, however, and had a difficult time conceiving of herself as the Hero in this model. Herself a student of myth and folklore, she decided to develop her own model that she felt more closely aligned with women’s experiences. I credit Murdock with being the first person to identify this and bring attention the Heroine’s journey, and I definitely identified with many pieces of her model. A graphic showing Murdock’s story arc:
I love that Murdock’s model is a cycle. I think that women’s journeys are very cyclical and in tune with nature, and we experience many Heroine’s journey’s throughout our lives. Some of those journeys are large, life-changing undertakings like battling life-threatening illness, losing a dear loved one, or becoming a mother. Other times, they may be more temporal experiences like attaining a life goal, starting a new career, or ending an unhealthy relationship. The end of each cycle is always change, and as we evolve through life, these journeys are our catalysts for growth. I also recognize some truth in Murdock’s position that the Heroine’s journey involves a schism between her feminine and masculine nature. Women are socialized differently than men. This is true in the West as it is true everywhere. The arguments as to how deeply our gender roles are determined by our biology versus our society have been going on for a long time and don’t appear to be reaching resolution any time soon. And while gender roles are thankfully changing in the West, it is undeniable that patriarchy has dominated the entire world for a very long time. In places where patriarchy did not dominate, as in ancient Khemet, much of the history has been obscured and suppressed. Women the world over are socialized to be subservient to men and to “go along to get along”. We have been taught to stay home, do as we are told, raise the children, and uphold the status quo. So when a woman rebels against one or more of these roles, she must embrace more of her masculine nature. Again, how much of this is socialization and how much is in-born, I cannot say. I do believe that we all hold a balance of feminine and masculine nature inside of us. This is irrespective of gender – men experience Heroine’s journeys and women experience Hero’s journeys as well. This is about the feminine and masculine archetypal forms; what Jung described as the “Anima” and “Animus”. Regardless of what sex your body is, your psyche contains both a feminine and masculine nature, and the more in balance they are, the healthier you tend to be in your ability to go out in the world and get what you need, set appropriate boundaries, and maintain control over your life – while at the same time maintaining compassion for yourself and others, exercising creativity and flexibility in your perspective, and experiencing a full spiritual and emotional life. A Heroine’s journey is all about the protagonist recognizing her own power and taking charge of it, but she also must learn how to reconcile that with the part of her that still has responsibilities towards others that she wants to uphold. Each cycle of the Heroine’s journey helps the protagonist to live in balance with both sides of her own nature, on her own terms.
Another awesome take on the Heroine’s journey was presented in, From Girl to Goddess, (2010) by Valarie Estelle Frankel. Not only is Frankel a student of mythology, she is also an avid consumer of pop culture and comic books. She has brought her knowledge of myth and legend into a modern perspective, examining thousands of Heroine stories and recognizing key archetypal elements relevant to both ancient and modern women. I loved Frankel’s title and thought of it often while making my quilt. The Heroine literally changes archetypal form as she transforms from a Girl into a Goddess through the course of her journey. A graphic of Frankel’s model (this one moves counter-clockwise from home):
Frankel’s model is much more closely paralleled with Campbell’s and keeps much of the essence of transformation. Some key points really resonated with me. She mentions that in contrast to the Hero, who is often gifted with a magical sword on the way to the threshold, the Heroine almost never gets a weapon of any kind – least of all a blade. She points out occasional stories where a Heroine will receive a bow and arrow or some type of “distance weapon”, but Heroines do not fight in the same sense a Hero would. Weapons are extremely rare for female characters on Heroine’s Journeys. Frankel goes on to discuss the kinds of equipment the Heroine does receive. This includes many stereotypically feminine items such as combs, rings, necklaces, etc.; items symbolic of femininity such as bowls, cups or grails; as well as magical items such as maps, compasses, cloaks etc. These objects symbolize the Heroine’s preparation for the journey, and also sometimes represent inner traits that she will need in the trials to come. Frankel also points out that in contrast to masculine journeys, where the Hero is out to save the world or become the true King; feminine journeys are often a quest to rescue a loved one, taken on for more selfless and “good of the whole” kind of reasons, versus the Hero’s very egotistical, albeit necessarily so, journey. Another important point that Frankel makes is that Heroine characters often start out naively believing they can count on the men in their lives to protect them. Later in the story, they find this is a false security and they must rely on their own wits and clever use of resources to survive. Often stories will symbolize this with an image of an incapacitated father. The Heroine’s protector will appear in her story when she needs his aid, but for some reason, he cannot help her. Perhaps he is captured or killed, or maybe he betrays her. Whatever the reason, this is a pivotal point in her story where she must recognize her capacity to help herself or perish.
There was one additional model I relied on in envisioning my own version of the Heroine’s Journey. In her book, 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters (2012), Victoria Lynn Schmidt outlines her own model of the Heroine’s Journey. Schmidt’s book is written for writers, it is a reference for developing plots using feminine and masculine archetypes, which she describes in detail, analyzing them from several different psychological perspectives. She talks about some of the differences between Hero’s Journeys versus Heroine’s Journeys and really gets to the heart of the matter. One lies in the power dynamics. Heroines must recognize that they even have power at all in order to go on the journey in the first place. In this sense, the Heroine “wakes up” right at the beginning of the story. This could mean that she is fed up with the status quo and something inspires her to leave on a journey, or it could also be a betrayal (Dorothy is betrayed by her uncle when he lets her neighbor take Toto to be put down). Something happens that causes her to lose faith in her illusory “perfect world”. She sees things as they truly are, and must leave home because nothing can be the same again now. Conversely, the Hero usually knows that he is powerful and heads out on his journey with confidence. In a sense, his own awakening does not happen until the end of the story where he must actually compromise some of his power in order to become whole and emerge victorious (Frodo casting the ring into Mt. Doom, or Luke Skywalker rejecting the power of the Dark Side). If he can’t make this compromise, then he succumbs to the dark side of power and becomes consumed by it (Darth Vader, Gollum). So the time of awakening and the recognition of power are quite different for the Hero versus the Heroine. Another related issue is the pressure from others. The Heroine will almost always encounter resistance to her desire to go on a journey and change – after all, it’s not lady-like to be off slaying dragons. The world is a very dangerous place, especially for a woman. She has been socialized to believe she is vulnerable from birth, and she surely would not survive the journey. The Hero, on the other hand, is lauded and celebrated for going, and all hands are on deck to help him in his preparation to set out. He too, fears a dangerous world – but he has been socialized to fight, and told that it is better to succumb to the journey than to have never left home at all. There are also significant differences in the pressures these archetypes face. The pressures to take care of responsibilities are very demanding on Heroines. Both in myth and modern tales, women struggle to balance their own dreams and aspirations with the need to care for the family and keep the home, along with work and other responsibilities. To leave on a journey of self discovery seems downright selfish and cold-hearted to the Heroine, and those around her do not hesitate to remind her of this pressure. The Hero has different pressures. For him, it’s the pressure to succeed and win at all costs. This is coupled with the pressure to provide and the pressure to protect. Should he fail at any of this, his very manhood is at stake, and that is a steep price to pay for failure. After discussing some of these differences, Schmidt has her own story arc of the Heroine’s archetypal journey. The steps are as follows:
Act I: Containment
1. The Illusion of a Perfect World
2. The Betrayal or Realization
3. The Awakening—Preparing for the Journey
Act II: Transformation
4. The Descent—Passing the Gates of Judgment
5. The Eye of the Storm
6. Death—All Is Lost
Act III: Emergence
8. Rebirth—The Moment of Truth
9. Full Circle—Return to the Perfect World
Schmidt’s model is fairly straightforward and I used it as a foundation for my own because of its simplicity and the way it resonated with me. All of the authors I referenced for this work spoke about the myth of Inanna. Schmidt goes so far as to say that all Heroine’s journeys are based on the myth of Inanna, while all Hero’s Journeys are based on the Epic of Gilgamesh. Being that these Sumerian myths represent some of the oldest stories in recorded human history, she may be on to something. Inanna is a Sumerian Goddess who journeys on a descent into the underworld and back again. On her descent, she must pass through seven gates, and at each of these gates she must give up a symbolic piece of her own armoring. By the time she reaches the underworld she is naked and completely vulnerable. On our own Heroine’s journeys, we must give up many things in the process of descent before we can pass through the fire and be reborn. This stripping away is a very uncomfortable process and it is easy to get stuck here, on the descent. But this is one of the darkest points on the journey, the worst spot to dwell, and it is a place from which there is no turning back. The only way out is forward, through the fire, and the Heroine must be willing to delve deeper into her pain in order to escape the torment she is already experiencing. It seems counter-intuitive, but fear is another piece of armoring that she must strip away. Upon emergence on the other side, the Heroine is now transformed. It is through the trials that she has become. This is THE most important part of the journey, as it represents the apex. This is what Campbell referred to as Apotheosis. It represents initiation to the highest peak, oneness with source, and elevation to a higher status of being. Transformation is what the Heroine’s journey is all about. We grow and change through the trials that we endure. While in the midst of the struggle, pain is all too real, and the light at the end of the tunnel is sometimes so dim it is practically invisible – but perseverance and time brings us closer to the light, and if we survive, we grow.
Having examined three very different models of the Heroine’s journey, as well as reading Campbell, Jung, and a great deal of myth and folklore, it was time to develop my own Heroine’s Journey. I have been experimenting with textile and fiber arts for many years now. I conceived of an idea to create a quilt that would tell the story of this journey without words, using fabric, embroidery, and felt. I worked on the quilt over the course of several months, my entire final semester of graduate school. The decision to undertake this degree process was a Heroine’s Journey in its own right, and I have been tried and tested in the process. I have also grown immensely and personally transformed. This quilt represents that for me, as well as other personal journeys I have gone on throughout my life. I tried to also leave the symbolism open to interpretation so that people experiencing the quilt can project their own journey onto it. In the process of creation, there were times that I felt overwhelmed and got stuck trying to intellectualize every detail. I realized that making the quilt was a journey of its own, and that I had to let go and trust in order to allow the art to speak through me. Then the pieces began to fall into place and my Heroine’s story emerged. The final piece is a synthesis of all of the models I studied, but it also includes many of my own personal elements and ideas. Because archetypes are symbolic figures that speak to us on a level beyond words, I used symbolic language to convey the message of my work. I feel that the final piece does speak for itself, and I hope that the use of universal archetypes makes it relatable to others who may recognize their own journeys within it. My Heroine’s Journey is as follows:
Click the above images for a full resolution picture of the whole quilt (top with gates closed, bottom with gates open)
Over the hill the Heroine is frozen in awe. There in a deep blue lake, bathed in the brilliant metallic golden sunlight, is a manifestation of the Goddess. This Goddess does not represent any particular deity, though she is inspired by a few. She is not intended as a religious Goddess, but a representation of the archetypal form of woman in all her infinite incarnations. She is Maiden Mother and Crone combined. She is pregnant with all the life-forms in existence – in her womb, she incubates the entire universe. Her appearance in the full light of the sun represents the solar nature of this particular manifestation of the Goddess. Solar energy being regarded as masculine, she represents the Animus and the Heroine’s need to embrace her masculine side. In her hair, the Goddess wears a glimmering lotus jewel. This jewel is symbolic of her divine nature, her elevation beyond human into the supernatural world. In her hands, she holds gifts for the Heroine. Her left hand holds a cowry shell, an ancient symbol of femininity. This is to remind the Heroine of the power of her divine feminine nature. She does not need weapons because she has gifts far more powerful. She has the ability to spawn life and see the world through the other’s eyes. Her empathy, compassion and creativity are what sets her apart from the Hero, and what will ultimately be her light in very dark places. In her right hand, the Goddess holds a mirror. The mirror has a crescent moon around it, symbolizing the need to balance her feminine and masculine nature. The mirror represents the need to look within. A Heroine’s journey is an inner journey. It is a process of learning more about the true self, beneath all of the masks that the protagonist may wear. Through her trials, she must remember not to look to others to place blame, rather, she must look within to discover what lessons the universe is providing her with through each trial. Recognizing and internalizing the lessons is the only way to successfully pass the test and move forward. This meeting with the Goddess is transformative for the Heroine, who knows now for sure that she has made the right choice in coming here. Equipped with new insights and tools, the Heroine begins her descent into a world completely unknown to her.
Successfully passing through the gate and over the threshold to adventure, the Heroine must now take a leap of faith. She has no idea what awaits her, and once she jumps, there is no turning back. She steps off into the darkness. She lands on a path floating in the aether, the ground that greets her is lined with hot coals. The road of trials has begun.
“The heroine has learned to set boundaries, take action, and listen to her own inner voice. She has reclaimed her identity and her weapons and realizes she is the creator of her own fear. She has found her courage, used her brains, and won her own heart. The three combined are needed to attain her goal…She takes the final steps to show her transformation. Where she once cried, she now laughs. Where she was once hesitant, she is now eager. Where she was shy and unsure, she is now bold. Where she was tough and unfeeling, she is now caring and considerate. Where she was once soft, she is now a hard fighter. She now embodies the opposite of her former coping strategy.” (Schmidt, 2012, p. 87)
Campbell, J. (2004). The hero with a thousand faces (Commemorative ed.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Frankel, V. (2010). From girl to goddess: The heroine’s journey through myth and legend. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co.
Murdock, M. (1990). The heroine’s journey. Boston, MA: Shambhala.
Schmidt, V. L. (2012). 45 master characters: Mythic models for creating original characters. Cincinnati, OH: Writers Digest.