Book notes: The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell book summary review and key ideas.

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The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell


“Since its release in 1949, The Hero with a Thousand Faces has influenced millions of readers by combining the insights of modern psychology with Joseph Campbell’s revolutionary understanding of comparative mythology. In this book, Campbell outlines the Hero’s Journey, a universal motif of adventure and transformation that runs through virtually all of the world’s mythic traditions. He also explores the Cosmogonic Cycle, the mythic pattern of world creation and destruction.

As relevant today as when it was first published, The Hero with a Thousand Faces continues to find new audiences in fields ranging from religion and anthropology to literature and film studies. The book has also profoundly influenced creative artists – including authors, songwriters, game designers, and filmmakers – and continues to inspire all those interested in the inherent human need to tell stories.” -Audible

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Opening thoughts:

This book has been on my list for a while now as it was recommended by a lot of people and Tim Ferriss‘s podcast. It was also directly referenced in Will by Will Smith. I’m pretty excited to read it though I’m curious what my experience will be like. I think this is a collection of many short stories, but I think there’s a cohesive theme to it if I’m not mistaken.

Key notes:

Chapter 1: myth and dream

  • The hero is the man of self-achieved submission
    • But submission to what?
    • That is precisely the riddle we have to ask ourselves
  • Dream is the personalized myth. Myth is the depersonalize dream
  • The hero is the man or woman who has been able to battle past his personal, local, historical limitations to the generally valid normal human forms

Chapter 2: tragedy and comedy

  • Tragedy is a shattering of the forms and of our attachment to the forms
    • Comedy, the wild and careless, inexhaustible joy of life invincible
    • Thus the two are the terms of a single mythological theme and experience which includes them both and which they bound
      • The downgoing and the upcoming

Chapter 3: the hero and the God

Chapter 4: the world navel

Part one: The Adventure of the Hero

Chapter 1: departure

1. The call to adventure
  • All moments of separation at new birth cause anxiety
  • The call to adventure signifies that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from within the pail of his society to a zone unknown
2. Refusal of the call
  • The refusal is essentially a refusal to give up what one takes to be one’s own interest
3. Supernatural aid
  • For those who have not refused the call, the first encounter of the heroes journey is with a protective figure who provides the adventurer with amulets against the dragon forces he is about to pass
4. The crossing of the first threshold
5. The belly of the whale

Reader’s note: I’m sort of possibly listening along but it’s hard to focus and pay attention when they go back-and-forth between a bunch of short stories and some larger thematic ideas. One idea I caught was “being consumed and going into somethings belly” as a sign of rebirth for the hero. Other than that, I didn’t catch much from this section

Chapter 2: initiation

1. The road of trials

Reader’s note: Seems like this section is a discussion on how the hero will face trials that they must overcome. They will have breakthroughs, learn insights, and have small victories

2. The meeting with the goddess
  • The goddess is the hero’s goal
    • She is the incarnation of the promise of perfection
3. Woman as the temptress
4. Atonement with the father
  • When the roles of life are assumed by the improperly initiated, chaos supervenes
  • The father is the initiating priest through whom the younger being passes on into the larger world
5. Apotheosis
6. The ultimate boon

Chapter 3: return

1. Refusal of the return
  • Once the goal has been achieved and the prize obtained, the adventure needs to bring back this prize
2. The magic flight
  • The magic flight is when in a story the protagonist uses magic to flee or get away 
3. Rescue from without
  • The hero may have to be brought back from his supernatural adventure by assistance from without, meaning the world may have to come and get him
4. The crossing of the return threshold
5. The master of the two worlds
  • The master can go back-and-forth between the two worlds, not contaminating the principles of one with the other, and also to be able to separate the two
  • The message and stories of these heroes is more important then whether or not these figures actually lived in history
  • The meaning of all religious practice: The individual, through prolong psychological disciplines, gives up completely all attachments to his personal limitations, idiosyncrasies, hopes and fears, no longer resists the self-annihilation that is a prerequisite to rebirth and the realization of truth
    • And so becomes right at last for the great at onement
    • His personal ambitions being totally dissolved, he no longer tries to live but willingly relaxes to whatever may come to pass with him
    • He becomes that is to say an anonymity
    • The law lives in him with his unreserved consent
6. Freedom to live
  • The hero is the champion of things becoming, not things become because he is

Chapter 4: the keys

  • Sometimes there will be a secondary elaboration and interpretation of the main story and lesson

Part Two: The Cosmogonic Cycle

Chapter 1: emanations

1. From psychology to metaphysics
  • Mythology in other words is psychology miss read as biography, history, and cosmology
    • Mythology’s understood function is to serve as a powerful picture language for the communication of traditional wisdom
  • The universal doctrine teaches at all the visible structures of the world, all things and beings, are the effects of a ubiquitous power of which they rise, which supports and fills them during the period of their manifestation and back into which they must ultimately dissolve
    • This is the power known to science as energy, or in other names Mana, Wakanda, Shakti, or the power of God
  • The adventure of the hero represents the moment in his life when he achieved illumination
    • The nuclear moment when while still alive he found and opened the road to light beyond the dark walls of our living death
2. The universal round
3. Out of the void – space
4. Within space – life
  • According to Plato‘s mysticism of sexual love, the ultimate experience of love is a realization that beneath the illusion of two-ness grows identity
    • Each is both
5. The breaking of the one into the manifold 
6. Folk stories of creation

Chapter 2: the virgin birth

1. Mother universe
2. Matrix of destiny
3. Womb of redemption
4. Folk stories of virgin motherhood

Chapter 3: transformations of the hero

1. The primordial hero and human
2. Childhood of the human hero 
3. The hero as warrior
4. The hero as lover
5. The hero as emperor and tyrant
6. The hero as world redeemer
  • Heroes who return with the knowledge that I and the father are one, returning as world redeemers
7. The hero as saint
8. Departure of the hero

Chapter 4: dissolutions

1. End of the microcosm
2. End of the macrocosm

Epilogue: myth and society

1. The shapeshifter
2. The function of myth, cult, and meditation
  • In his life form, the individual is necessarily only a fraction and distortion of the total image of man 
3. The hero today

Closing thoughts:

I’m going to be honest, this was an excruciatingly boring read. Not only was it extremely long (14.5hrs listening), but there was so much fluff.

To be fair, I think most of my disappointment with this book was that it had good ratings, reviews, and it was recommended by a few sources I trusted (Will Smith, guests on Tim Ferriss’s podcast). Perhaps this book might have received a higher rating from me if my expectations weren’t so high.

I think a large part of it was also that I wasn’t interested in the topic. I can see if the reader really enjoyed classical or mythological literature, they would absolutely love this book. The meat of the book follows the idea of the hero’s journey, a ton of mythology and classic literature that applies these concepts, and dissects it with an analysis. I felt like I was reading a college student’s thesis on how mythology is tied together by a handful of central themes.

Needless to say, I was very uninterested. I found myself asking “okay, so what?” for half the book. I think if I were interested in some sort of storywriting or creating literature myself, the concepts in this book would be valuable to me. Otherwise, it has very little application to the average person who isn’t interesting in such topics.

Putting aside the fact that this book was definitely not in a field of my interest, it spent hours and hours on the same topics, exploring the same idea in handfuls of different myths and folklore. I think the main ideas of the book could have been summarized in like 1/10th the length, or in a bullet point format. Unfortunately for me, I zoned out so much that I could barely catch the main ideas jumbled into the convoluted discourse. I barely managed to capture the headings for each section.

Overall, I’m glad my listen of this book is finally over. To be fair, this book might be very interesting to those who enjoy this topic of study. For me, it was a painful read.

One Takeaway / Putting into practice:

While I didn’t enjoy this book very much, there were a few lines in this book that I did find very insightful into the concept of the hero’s journey.

  • The hero is the person of self-achieved submission. He or she has battled past previous limitations to achieve illumination.

Essentially, it is someone who overcomes challenges in order to master themselves. I’ve never heard it put this way before. Needless to say, I really enjoyed this simplification of the journey and the purpose.


The author presents an outline of the Hero’s Journey, a universal motif of adventure and transformation, and analyzes it through countless mythic traditions in the world.

Similar books:


Rating: 1.5 out of 5.


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