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Joseph Campbell, the Hero of a Thousand Faces and the System.

Joseph Campbell, the American mythologist, writer and lecturer, best known as author of ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’, talked about the power of the system. In a video interview I watched while on vacation in Las Vegas, Joseph Campbell said that we all operate in relation to a system that could either eat us up, or help us become more human.

The central theme of Joseph Campbell’s work is the omnipresent myth of the hero’s journey, with the central theme of departure, transformation through adventure and trials, and finally fulfilment and return. In the video interview, Joseph Campbell said that we all live and operate in relation to a system. However, is this system going to eat you up and release you of your humanity, or are you going to be able to use the system for human purposes?

In asking if the system is going to eat you up, Joseph Campbell is comparing the system to a living creature and makes the connection to the story of Jonah and the whale. While sailing Jonah is believed to be to blame for a great storm. To rid them of this bad luck, the sailors throw Jonah overboard, and a whale swallows him. This is an example of the hero’s journey with departure, trial and return, as Jonah stays within the belly of the whale for 3 days and then returns having survived the trial and is transformed.

The whale is the system that we live in; we can all be swallowed up and forced to obey the requirements of the system. Joseph Campbell said the hero could be consumed and devoured, or could learn to live in the system.


I’ve recently returned from a vacation in the USA; flying into Las Vegas for a few days and then travelling to some of the nearby national parks. On this, my third visit to Las Vegas, I was taken by the juxtaposition of the glitz and glamour with the dark side of the city. On the same opulent streets, with the brightly-lit casinos and the magnificent musical fountains of the Bellagio hotel, sat people begging for money. These ‘down and outs’, some appearing half conscious due to alcohol or drugs, sat with signs around their necks asking for money. This was in stark contrast to the people wearing designer clothes walking past them.

The ‘down and out’ people were in the belly of the whale. The system had consumed them. In terms of the hero’s journey, they had departed but not yet returned, they had been devoured and were still experiencing their trial.

It was the dramatic contrasts of Las Vegas that made this so evident. But I would suggest that in every city, in every town, in every organisation, in every team, and maybe in every family, there are people experiencing their own trials. They have been swallowed and are being consumed by the system. They may not be sitting on the streets with signs hanging around their necks, but their trial is evident to them.

Joseph Campbell, and the mono-myth of the hero’s journey, would suggest that the cycle is inevitable. Departure, trial and return, is an unbreakable pattern that has been seen in diverse cultures around the world for thousands of years. But the myth also talks about the role of a guide. The guide has already completed their own hero’s journey, and is able to support the new hero on their journey.

Let’s hope that for everyone who has been swallowed by the system, there is a guide ready to help them with their trial. The ‘down and outs’ in Las Vegas and wherever else, may not be out of the belly of the whale yet, but it is a matter of time. A guide will help them return and become more human. In turn they can guide the next hero, and work to change the system.

We are all heroes and guides.

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