The hero myth is found in every culture throughout the world, throughout the millenia. The process of call to adventure, initiation, wandering in the mythological woods, conquering evil, and returning home with knowledge to help the community is the basic story of every religious and spiritual figure, including Buddha, Jesus, Mohammad, Indian gods and Native Ameican spirits.
The basic stations of the hero’s journey are the call to adventure/action, preparation (receipt of advice/magic/weapons/saying goodbye), crossing the threshold to the new world, a death/rebirth experience (real or metaphorical), a showdown with the nemesis, crossing the threshold back home with a possible final showdown with the evil nemesis, and a return to the common day with the bounty or knowledge gained on the journey. While different cultures may emphasize different elements of the myth, these stations must all be present if the myth is to have an impact.
The mythic hero’s journey also lies at the heart of the greatest contemporary stories, whether obvious or more subtle – it can be seen in films from the Wizard of Oz, to Little Miss Sunshine to Indiana Jones. All the stations of the hero’s journey are meant to be given equal weight, but it is telling that the final moment (hero returns to community with knowledge gained and makes offering to the community) is often played out as the credits roll (if at all) in most contemporary American versions of the mythological story.
The emphasis on the individual triumph over the return to the community is a testament to the over-grown American myth of individual triumph/personal gain, and the cultural training we receive from film and TV that it is NOT important for the hero to return to the community and give back is one source of the dystopia that infects modern culture.
If the story of Buddha were a contemporary film, it would have ended with him conquering his fears (Mara) and achieving enlightenment. But as Buddha knew, there was one more step that would truly complete his hero’s journey – he had to return to his community and offer what he had learned, regardless of whether he was welcomed with open arms or not. The hollow feeling we get at the end of so many modern films, television shows, and theater can be directly traced to our hard-wired understanding that the hero’s journey should not end with individual triumph. It ends with the organic integration of the hero’s triumph into the fabric of his own society, the inter-weaving of personal transformation with societal transformation. After the hero goes home, neither he nor his world can ever be the same again.
I see the hero’s journey in the story of Barack Obama. Called to action, he left the comfort of his position to journey into the arena of global politics. Hillary Clinton played the part of the trickster, who says one thing and does another (Florida ballots?) – or she was the femme fatale, depending on how you feel about Hillary. Barack frequently refers to his own grandmother and mother as the perfect expression of female nurturing, putting them right in the mythological role of woman-as-mother and woman-as-goddess.
In classic myth, the anti-hero is called to adventure but refuses the call, either by simply refusing to go or by muddying his own core values so completely that he become unrecognizable. John McCain set off on his own hero’s journey and became the anti-hero in his own story. But in Barack’s story, McCain is the shape-shifting force of evil (evil here meaning a force directly opposed to the hero). Any character in myth can be a shape-shifter, and McCain has proven to be a frequent and clumsy one.
In the mythological structure, the sidekick to the force of evil in myth always appears less potent and less experienced than the main evil one, but in the end often proves to be far more powerful and effective than their master at mustering forces against the hero (cue Sarah Palin). Jon Stewart and the women of The View and Sarah Silverman play the part of the jester, offering essential wisdom through the lens of humor or playfulness.