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The Hero’s Journey in Dreams

By Martin Boroson

Many of us enter therapy when we admit that the life we have been living no longer works, when our illusions about ourselves are shattered by what seems to be a cruel fate. For those who are a little more fortunate, therapy – or the search to find a deeper meaning to our lives – does not begin with crisis but curiosity. Sometimes a Freudian slip, or something we do when our guard is down, lets us know that there is far more below the surface than we had imagined. Thus begins a journey that can take us through excruciating trials, to great heights and depths, through death and rebirth, and ultimately, if the gods are smiling, to a reunion with the world.

The therapeutic process is a journey within and it mirrors the mythological quest of the hero. This is not a coincidence. All of the events portrayed in world mythology – all of the adventures that befall the hero – owe their origin to the human unconscious. Myths are the generalized dreams of a culture, of the individual dreams of important cultural leaders. They describe typical moments in the human psyche’s attempt to individuate.

All mythological motifs arc invented and repeated every night in the dreams of ordinary modern people. Our dreams tell the story of our own unique, heroic quest, and each night we get one or two fragments (not necessarily in order) of our own myth.

When we first embark on a journey within, we are identified only with what could be called our Ego. We may have a hint that there are deeper parts of ourself. Consciously or unconsciously, we are in search of a deeper (or higher) part of our self, what Jung simply called the Self, or the inner image of God. What the Ego is seeking on this quest is a glimpse of, or some insight from, or a dialogue with, the Self. In mythology and in dreams, the Self – the goal of the journey – is portrayed as the treasure “hard to attain, a pot of gold, the trapped or frozen lover, a perfect or enchanted place, and images of wholeness such as quaternities, sacred circles, etc.

In our dreams, in addition to the many strange characters and objects, there is usually an “I” figure, a character with whom our waking consciousness closely identifies. People relating a dream will say, for example, “I was doing something, looking for something, trying to get somewhere, trying to get away from something.” At the very least, there is an “I” who observes the happenings in the dream. This figure in our dreams – the one who experiences the dream – can be considered the “Dream Ego”, or the dream’s representation of our waking Ego. All of the other characters and symbols in the dream represent other parts of our psyche.

This Dream Ego is a portrayal of how the waking Ego is doing on its quest for self-knowledge. The important question in dream interpretation is: According to the dream, where am I (my Ego) on my journey to find the Self? Other questions one could ask are: According to the dream, how am I (my Ego) behaving relative to the other parts of my psyche? What am I avoiding? What is holding me back? Who is distracting me? What parts of myself do I fear, but will not go away? What parts of myself are in charge of my Ego?

The stages of the Ego’s search for the Self are recognizable as recurring themes in mythology. In other words, our dreams tell stories that arc structurally quite similar to that of most myths. The mythologist, Joseph Campbell, has provided an extremely useful tool for dream analysis in his book, The Hero of a Thousand Faces. Campbell observes that hero myths, from whatever culture or epoch, all have remarkably similar features, and he has organized and classified these typical features, giving us a map of the timeless journey of the hero. This generalized journey (or we might say, the ‘archetype of archetypes’) Campbell calls the “monomyth”. Familiarity with these stages, or what I would call ‘mythical moments’, is extremely useful in the interpretation of dreams. I will summarize Campbell’s presentation of these stages and refer to some parallels in dream imagery and the therapeutic process.

[Throughout, I will follow Campbell’s convention of using “he” instead of “he or she”. Unfortunately most of the surviving hero mythology suggests a male hero. Campbell implies that the stages on the journey that he describes arc essentially the same for all myths, including those in which a woman is hero, and that these stages would apply, with a few exceptions, for feminine psychology.]


In this first stage, the hero gradually lets go of the familiar world of his youth and begins the inner journey.

i. The Call to Adventure

The journey begins with a glimpse of a non-ordinary realm, a non-ordinary state of consciousness. In dreams and in mythology, this is often symbolized by strange new rooms in houses, “a distant land, a forest, a Kingdom beneath the waves … a secret island . . . but it is always a place of strangely fluid and poly­morphous beings, unimaginable torments, superhuman deeds and impossible delight.”

ii. Refusal of the Call

Some people may not realize that they have been called to individuate or to face their deeper truth. Some may feel the call, but arc too afraid of change. Sadly, if the call is imperative (ie, if something in the unconscious demands attention) then the dreams of exciting new places turn into nightmares. The unconscious literally must scream at consciousness to compel its attention. Those who refuse the call to individuate may get a second chance but this is usually through a crisis. The angry god within must cause disaster in the outer world, a collapse of some kind (marriage, physical health, psychological health, etc.) to force the hero to look within and begin the journey.

iii. Supernatural Aid

Those heroes who follow the call are rewarded for their willingness. One of the first archetypes they meet in their journey is a protective one, often “a little old crone or old man, who gives the hero amulets against the dragon forces he is about to pass”. In short, if we are willing to undertake the journey, our first encounter with the unconscious is usually a helpful and friendly one and strengthens us for the trials ahead. I am reminded how many clients, who are sincerely working their way through terrible material, are often given a dream of great beauty or shown a glimpse of something new and wonderful, or given a synchronicity in the world to reassure them and remind them that they are on the right track. It is terribly important for the therapist to make sure that these moments of joy and hope, often so tiny, are noticed and appreciated.

iv. Crossing the First Threshold

But the journey cannot remain pleasant if real growth is to happen. The first level of the unconscious, according to Jung, is that of the Shadow, where we meet all of the repressed biographical material. Originally unpleasant to us, this has been deprived of light and integration and become putrid and terrifying. In mythology, this region is one of “magnified power. Beyond the hero is darkness, the unknown and danger . . . The regions of the Unknown are free fields for the projection of unconscious content.” This region is protected by a guardian – or perhaps I should say that we arc protected from it by a guardian, whose purpose is to make sure that we have the mettle (that the Ego is strong enough) for the confrontation.

v. The Belly of the Whale

Once we cross the threshold we experience a genuine Ego death. We are no longer what we were – indeed we discover that we are many things that we wished we weren’t. The most prevalent mythological motif for this terrifying experience is that of being swallowed, lost in the belly of a whale. In mythology and in many religious rituals, and certainly in dream imagery, the hero at this stage of the journey is often physically mutilated, burned, scarred, crucified. He is also often portrayed as entering a temple, going through gates, jaws, etc.


In this stage, the hero has let go of his ordinary life (the client has let go of defences and suffered an ego death) and dwells in the deeper and deeper levels of the unconscious, awaiting and seeking rebirth.

i. The Road of Trials

Unfortunately for the hero, the first Ego-death is followed by more and more unpleasant lessons. “Dragons have now to be slain and surprising barriers to be passed – again, again, and again.” One by one the client must work his way through his complexes. One by one, he must take back and take responsibility for all of his naive projections.

ii. The Meeting with the Goddess

One of the common mythological motifs representing the hero’s goal and his success is that of the mystical marriage between “the triumphant hero-soul with the Queen Goddess of the World”. In Jungian psychology, this is the moment in which a masculine ego comes to terms with the inner, unconscious feminine qualities (anima), or the feminine ego comes to terms with the inner, uncon­scious masculine qualities (animus). In either case, it is the hidden inner opposite, the idealized other, the soul or spirit or muse – often banished or sealed away by time – that must be rescued and married. This results in an enormous expansion of the personality.

iii. The Woman as Temptress

In this stage, Campbell implies that the (male) hero, having found some form of idealized spiritual truth, mistakenly projects all that was bad about his former, earth-bound existence onto matter, or life itself, often symbolized by a woman. [In modern times, with the reassertion of the feminine principle and the urgent need to reconcile ourselves with Gaia, this life-negating or patriarchal stage has become a questionable goal for the journey.]

iv. Atonement with the Father

An alternative motif for the peak of the initiation experience for the male hero, is the conclusion of the battle with the father. Often this has been a bloody battle, where the piercing judgement of the father-figure literally annihilates the childish hero, wrenching him from the innocence and security of his mother’s protection. Atonement with the father means that the (male) hero triumphs and/or makes his peace with an all-powerful father figure and receives, as his reward, the father’s spiritual instruction. The hero/son learns that the power of the father to destroy is also the power to create.

v. Apotheosis (The Hero’s Divination)

In this complex phase which resists description, the hero is ready to leave the world and become divine. His divination is symbolized by sublime androgyny (the reunion into one being, at a higher level, of masculine and feminine). But the hero at the point of renouncing the world for Nirvana, realizes that Nirvana is not, after all, to be found by leaving the world but to be found in it. This is the dizzying moment in which the raging clash of opposites is transcended: either/or becomes both/and – and the hero realizes that eternity can be found in time. In therapy, this exquisite occurrence is implied in moments of illumination, when a person who has been torn apart by opposites suddenly perceives a previously unimaginable third (transcendent) solution. With such a reconcilia­tion and transcendence of opposites comes and expansion of consciousness.

vi. The Ultimate Boon

One of the most common symbols for the treasure sought by the hero is the inexhaustible dish, the cornucopia of the gods. The hero is given food, fire, liquor, milk (from the “good breast”), grace, eternal youth – all from a magical source that seems to replenish or generate itself. This magical substance is energy or libido. (In the Jungian sense, libido is not necessarily sexual energy, but it can be spiritual as well.)


The hero, having succeeded in the journey, must now struggle to bring the treasure/elixir, or the knowledge of Self or God, back into the mundane world.

i. Refusal of the Return

Having found the Self, the hero must bring his insight back into the blinkered world of ordinary reality, where it will no doubt be misunderstood, rejected, or the hero will be laughed at. Many people who have seen divinity within are so enchanted by it that they refuse, or feel incapable, of leaving it. A person caught here could be one that society writes off as mad – someone so captivated by the inner world that he cannot bring back, or translate, its truth into ordinary language. More commonly, after a period of growth in therapy and a long and successful search for inner truth, a client may be reluctant to leave therapy and take the truths found out into the world. It may be necessary for the therapist to insist and push someone back into life, saying, “Go live!”

ii. The Magic Flight

Sometimes the hero has had to steal the treasure of elixir from the gods, in which case they are none too pleased and do all sorts of things to prevent him from returning to the world with his new wisdom. We see this in dreams and therapy often, when one has made a big breakthrough or had a small enlightenment, and suddenly everything gets worse instead of better. It is as if all of the dark, regressive forces in the psyche, the ‘old habits’, fight harder because they know they are losing control over the Ego. One has to work very hard to protect small victories of consciousness.

iii. Rescue from Without

In many profound rituals or shamanic practices, it is essential to have taken some precaution or to have arranged for some guardian to arouse one, to bring one back from the depths and into the ordinary world. In therapy, when someone has become too attached to the inner journey, sometimes something happens in outer life that compels attention, whether it comes from a landlord, employer, child, or Telecom Eireann. Often such an event comes at precisely the right time and synchronistically manages to advance growth rapidly and forcefully.

iv. Crossing of the Return Threshold

The Jungian analyst, Robert Johnson, says that when a dream has been under­stood we must fix its meaning in some tangible form – we must teach it to our body or ritualize it in some way, because meaning obtained in this way is “volatile”and if we do not fix it, it will “evaporate”. The world tries to seduce even the greatest guru away from his truth. The client who has completed a long period of self-examination must find some way to protect his truth. It might be something very simple: a piece of jewellery always worn, a certain painting, or a certain prayer repeated – or it may be a very dramatic change or decision about life circumstances. But it must be a change in the real world.

v. The Master of the Two Worlds

The hero who has mastered the return is able to live both in the mundane world and the immortal world. The hero is given a symbol – or indeed an entire religious practice or theology – that keeps him constantly in contact with both realities. If we take the mythological journey of the hero as a metaphor for a process of growth in therapy, then I think that it is fair to say that the conclusion of a long and often gruelling search for self-knowledge does indeed result in a kind of immortality – an awakened knowledge, an ironic sensibility that can perceive the divine in the ordinary and vice versa, a mature awareness that fate plays a hand in ordinary affairs.

vi. Freedom to Live

Finally the hero has achieved what was his destiny to find – simply the freedom to live. But he does not live as he once did, ie. blindly. He can live now with the freedom of awareness, or consciousness. Her has chosen to live according to his destiny, his individuality. He has effected “a reconciliation of the individual consciousness and the universal will”. And he will continue to live this way . . . until the journey begins again.

[All quotations come from Joseph Campbell, The Hero of a Thousand Faces]


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