The hero with a thousand faces

by Joseph Campbell

Book, 1972



Call number


Call number



Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 1972.

Original publication date


Physical description

xxiii, 416 p.; 23 cm

Local notes

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 these pages, 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 part of the Joseph Campbell Foundation’s Collected Works of Joseph Campbell, this third edition features expanded illustrations, a comprehensive bibliography, and more accessible sidebars.

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.

User reviews

LibraryThing member dictator555
I adore Joseph Campbell's PBS interviews with Bill Moyer, The Power of Myth. So I was really disappointed by this book. I couldn't even finish the book. Campbell is such an excellent thinker, as the interviews make readily apparent. But the writing was awful! I'm really glad that Campbell manage to express his ideas to the public (and specifically to me) through his interviews, because otherwise I think his brilliance might have been inaccessible to a lot of people.… (more)
LibraryThing member ElectricRay
Joseph Campbell's writings have had more influence on late 20th century culture than you might expect: The Hero with a Thousand Faces resonates obviously through Star Wars, The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings and indeed almost any other contemporary Science Fiction work you could mention, and more subtly in any one of hundreds of films and novels of the last half century. Many indeed are the fruit of Campbell's tree.

In The Hero With A Thousand Faces Campbell sets out his stall early: his "monomyth" which is explained in fairly short order, and supported in more depth over the rest of the book by Campbell's account of hundreds instantiations of it embodied in myths from the Judaeo-Christian, Classical, Native American, Indian, African, Asian and Polynesian traditions. It is even illustrated, rather pointlessly, with sculptures and depictions of these various myths.

This means it's a fairly quick read: it is Campbell's argument that is interesting, not his field research in support of it, and his stentorian and humourless tone in recounting the legends is no incentive to dwell on them.

Campbell's main claim - to have extracted a solitary narrative essence common to all mythology - is unsustainable: even if you do allow the tortured interpretations Campbell makes of the myths he cites, the best that can be said is that any one of the dozen or more common features of the "monomyth" tend to show up in his examples (who knows whether they do in the myths he *doesn't* cite?); to say that they all do is false, even on the evidence Campbell presents in his book. And many of his examples don't fit comfortably into the roles which Campbell assigns them.

So in that regard, Campbell's thesis needs to be watered down to have any real value. As do the courage of his convictions in the validity of psychoanalysis: treating Freud and Jung as gospel in this day and age seems more than a little quaint.

But that's not to say there isn't something to be said for the importance of the subconscious in what makes a good story, nor that the elements of the "monomyth" do appear in mythology, nor that they don't make a great foundation for a mythology. Cogent evidence or that last point is provided by Messrs Wachowski and Lucas, who have openly used Campbell's template to create latter day myths of their - and, like it or not, our - own.

Where Campbell is persuasive is that myth a metaphor on which we can examine ourselves, and that as soon as we mistake metaphor for a genuine explanatory hypothesis, its very usefulness evaporates. In the current political climate, this is a point which can't be stressed enough.

In summary, this ought to be compulsory reading for any aspiring screenplay writer or novelist, and will be food for thought for anyone else interested in the structure of fiction. The Hero With A Thousand Faces may be the wrong side of fifty now, but it is no relic: as long as the likes of Luke Skywalker and Neo are part of the zeitgeist, Joseph Campbell's theories will have some significance in our culture, for better or for worse, for some time to come.
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LibraryThing member rcampoamor
Somewhat stilted and pedantic view of shared aspects of mythology. Jung did a much more engaging job of covering this topic.
LibraryThing member LTW
Campbell is unlike other writers on myth; he looks not at an entire myth but at its parts. By the end of the book, he has essentially created the Ultimate Hero Myth, which takes bits of every hero myth from virtually every culture (heavy on Native Americans). Campbell was not a dispassionate academic--this was his gospel, and he lived by it. This book is alive and inspiring like no other book I know. One unique aspect of it at the time it was published was its approach to Christianity. For Campbell, Christ's life had to be seen as a myth. Before him, most Western scholars wouldn't have dare to say such a thing. Others had written on that, but in a skeptical manner. Campbell's view is that the Virgin Birth, miracles, Resurrection, etc have meaning only because they ARE myths. Look, there'd be no "Star Wars" without this. No "Sandman" comics from Neil Gaiman. No "Watership Down." This book is for the intellectual who wants to LIVE, not just to sit sterile at the desk.… (more)
LibraryThing member melannen
I came to this book expecting to find a classic of comparative mythology. Instead I got meandering psychoanalysis of anecdotal dreams, interspersed with occasional bits of semi-evidence and theory, of the about the same quality I'd expect from Von Däniken. The prose style is finely crafted and scattered with bits of beauty, and it's worth a read simply because the monomyth idea has so influenced later writers, but it failed to convince me that it had any wider validity.… (more)
LibraryThing member mwlrh
If you want to understand the heroic archetype found in all the stories that resonate with us as readers, this is the scholarly text that demystifies the concept of the monomyth. The author analyzes a broad spectrum of cultural myths and points out the hero archetype common to them all. A bit dry, but worth a read if literary criticism (or writing) is your thing.… (more)
LibraryThing member lithicbee
I picked this book up based on my memories of a video I saw in high school, showing the hero myth and how it was used in Star Wars. This original text is a bit more dry, wouldn't you know? Still, there are a lot of interesting myths, folktales, and religious stories in here. I was a bit put off in the beginning by frequent references to Freudian psychoanalysis that, to me, accepted it at face value too readily. But by the end of the book, Campbell states what he believes myths are meant to accomplish, and freely admits that no one analysis is entirely correct. I didn't race through this, but it was interesting. Since I bought it to, on one level, help with my writing, I might instead try The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 3rd Edition by Christopher E. Vogler, which is based on Campbell's work but is more tailored to writers, from what I have read.… (more)
LibraryThing member ablueidol
Classic source of the myth structure. But an important criticism is that its based on male myths. A female alternative is The Bridge to Wholeness: A Feminine Alternative to the Hero Myth. And 45 Master Characters by Victoria Schmidt draws on both approachs to explore developing characters. A word of warning never use Myths or archetypes as rigid blueprints. This will become boring but recognise where a character or story draws on this deeper "truths" or to explore why the story may be failing to engage the audience.( It could also be your performance so never confuse what you need to make the story real for you with what makes it real for them!) For me these are part of the self relection that helps you understand the story and to start the process of what to communicate in performance.… (more)
LibraryThing member Borg-mx5
A standard for anyone who considers being a writer. A definitive text on storytelling, archetypes, and mythology.
LibraryThing member tole_lege
(This isn't the edition I have but I'm not overly concerned with particular editions). This book examines the hero's tale through different cultures and makes clear that most (if not all) of them follow the same pattern.

Good introduction to the study of mtyhthemes, and indeed, to the Star Wars films...… (more)
LibraryThing member KhrystiBooks
Very interesting, with some pretty cool thoughts. I did feel culture shock over some stories, though.
LibraryThing member kencf0618
I believe that this was the book (following "A Skeleton Key to Finnigan's Wake") which first brought Joseph Campbell reknown. It also inspired the screenwriters of "The Road Warrior" (1981).
LibraryThing member Nandakishore_Varma
Ever since I was a child, I have been fascinated by the similarities between Hindu myths and Greek myths. Then during my early twenties, I discovered Campbell and said to myself: "Voila! Somebody has noticed it before me!" Ever since then, I've been a Campbell fan.

The structure of the monomyth is so prevalent in many hero cycles, fairy tales, children's stories and popular films so it's a wonder how anybody can miss it. Campbell does an exhaustive job of digging through various mythologies of the world and bringing the similarities to light.

Whether you are a serious student of myth or just an ordinary person who loves stories, this book will hold you spellbound.
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LibraryThing member Kurt.Rocourt
A great study on myth and how humans view history.
LibraryThing member JaneAnneShaw
Current reference background reading for PhD proposal, ~ slightly passe now, but contains useful threads & ideas as, in re. Classical Studies generally, it's as important to know where we've come from as much as where we're going!
LibraryThing member HadriantheBlind
Hardly the last word on stories and how they shape our lives, but a brilliant place to start.

Analyzes collective world mythologies, and boils them down into their component parts and recreating the story of our own lives - the monomyth. Incredibly interesting stuff.
LibraryThing member cainmark
Superb introduction to mythology for the layman in layman's terms. Campbell was a genius in this subject.
LibraryThing member margaretfield
JC at his best.
LibraryThing member thebradking
This is a great book to understand narrative structures. Campbell takes a qualitative look at stories from cultures around the world, and breaks down mythological stories along a baseline.
LibraryThing member willszal
I have been hearing about Joseph Campbell, and this book in particular, for many years now. The first significant exposure I had to his ideas was via Jonah Sachs ["Winning the Story Wars"]. I listened to and enjoyed his interviews with Bill Moyers.

I was discussing this book with Bill Plotkin ["Nature and the Human Soul"], and the first thing that came up was the blatant racism and sexism in the book. Published in 1949, it's an archaic text in many ways.

Looking beyond that, I like his meta-arc of the Hero's Journey:

1. The Call to Adventure
2. Refusal of the Call
3. Supernatural Aid
4. The Crossing of the First Threshold
5. The Belly of the Whale

1. The Road of Trials
2. The Meeting with the Goddess
3. Woman as the Temptress
4. Atonement with the Father
5. Apotheosis
6. The Ultimate Boon

1. Refusal of the Return
2. The Magic Flight
3. Rescue from Without
4. The Crossing of the Return Threshold
5. Master of the Two Worlds
6. Freedom to Live

But I don't find the structure of the book helpful in elucidating this journey. Most of the book explores this arc via a myriad of myths from a variety of cultures. And yet they are so numerous, that I found myself getting lost in the haze. I would have much preferred this arc to be outlined in an introduction, and then cover stories in their entirety, looking at the entire map in action.

Certainly, the big ideas of the book are wonderful and important, but there are likely better ways to access such material these days.
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LibraryThing member hailelib
There are several good reviews of The Hero with a Thousand Faces so I will be brief. Campbell takes us on the hero's journey or quest through all its stages with examples at each step of the way and his explanation of its meaning. The stories he tells are from every inhabited continent and help make his point that all mythologies tell much the same story. Many of these myths and folktales were new to me and I enjoyed encountering them. This is not really an easy book but one to make the reader think.… (more)
LibraryThing member dbookbinder
Joseph Campbell's masterwork 'The Hero With a Thousand Faces' changed my understanding not only of literature and mythology, but also of story in general, both in media and in my own and other's lives. In this thread, it would be great to share something of our responses to the book, and also, perhaps, a bit of our own Hero's Journeys.

- David
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LibraryThing member Lukerik
Campbell’s thesis is that cultures around the world share a particular myth. You know the one: hero sets out on adventure, overcomes some obstacles, and returns. These myths (the monomyth) share certain features, not all of which are always apparent on a first reading. He illustrates each feature with a couple of myths from widely separated cultures. I find his arguments convincing.

Campbell further argues that these similarities are as a result of deep-wired human psychology. He uses Freud and Jung to back up this argument. I’ve read neither of those writers so can’t really comment on the specifics of what certain story elements symbolise to the subconscious, but overall I find this argument convincing too. Consider the alternatives, of which I see two in particular.

All stories of this type can be traced by descent to a single progenitor, recently by text and before that, orally. As the story is shared by all cultures, some of which had the story before they were contacted by other cultures, we would have to trace the line of descent back to Africa, to the first humans. There is of course no evidence this did not happen. In some cases there is clear evidence of literary dependency. Take Moses and Jesus, both of whom conform to the myth. It’s quite clear that the story of Jesus has been told in such a way as to call Moses to the mind of the reader. Jesus is a new Moses. But I would argue that of all the elements from the story of Moses that the writers could have drawn on they chose so many of those elements that conform to the monomyth. It seems likely that something about the monomyth makes stories feel right to us because of the way our brains are wired.

The second objection would be that what Campbell is describing is something we like to call “plot”. Quite right. It is plot. But why is it plot? Why is it that stories of this type that have the elements Campbell defines perfect? Plot doesn’t happen in real life, but when we’re a hero, or have an adventure, or do something bad, why do we plot the events, create a narrative? And why is the story we create so often analogous to the monomyth? I would argue that it is because the monomyth is hard-wired into our brains.

While reading the book I found it useful to keep before me one particular myth. Campbell can be rather an abstract thinker and it can be useful to ask “What would be a practical example of this?”. I used Star Wars. I should imagine that most people who read this book these days do so because they’ve heard George Lucas based Star Wars on it. If you are a Star Wars fan you’ve probably seen that circular diagram of the Hero’s Journey knocking about on You Tube or something. That diagram is in the book. Seeing the diagram on You Tube is not a substitute for reading the book. Reading it is a rich and rewarding experience, far deeper and wide ranging than the narrow focus of my comments here.

I could give umpteen examples of why every basement-dwelling, neck-bearded man-boy should read this book, but will restrict myself to one. You know the sequence where Luke Skywalker leaves the family farm to find R2D2 and gets beaten up by the Sand People? I had always taken this purely as plot. There is of course world-building and character development, but this is all window-dressing, fake rocks and all. For story purposes Luke must meet Obi-Wan Kenobi. Having read Campbell’s book it’s now apparent to me that this episode conforms to what he calls “crossing the threshold”. The Sand People are Threshold Guardians “at the entrance to the zone of magnified power”. That realisation led me to another thought I’d not managed before: that that episode actually fore-shadows the climax of the whole film where (spoilers) R2D2 and C3P0 are out of action, and with Luke facing defeat it is the appearance of Obi-Wan that saves the day.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces has achieved the impossible and made me appreciate the artistry of Star Wars all the more.
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LibraryThing member andycyca
File under "To be reread, and to relearn many more times in the future". I'm not smart enough to give better review of this great book.
LibraryThing member DanielSTJ
An amazing compendium of what heroes are in the various myths that bridge continents, cultures, and societies. Campbell, with a niche understanding of what makes his subject relevant and appealing, manages to strike all the right notes and make us understand the deepest psychological facets that relate to the hero and the myths at large. There are vast explanations, cited materials, and relevant information that follow this through and seek to raise up his points to the top of the citadel that he has built upon from the very foundations (as if to reach something higher in the altitude of humankind.) I recommend this to all that are interested in the subject, but also to those who have an inquisitive and intellectual mindset and are willing to delve into why we create myths and how they, in turn, make us more human.

5 stars.
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