Lesson One: The Hero’s Journey
Storytelling is teaching. Anytime we hear a story, or read a story in a book, or watch a story unfold in a movie, we are being taught something we must figure out for ourselves. This basic understanding of storytelling has been lost in the modern world that often reduces storytelling to entertainment for children or a primitive way of explaining natural phenomena or human behavior.
There is a type of story told by all cultures around the world in exactly the same way, for it gives the same basic human teaching. This mythic story is called the Hero’s Journey.
The Hero’s Journey is essentially a template on human transformation. It teaches that human transformation is a struggle and that one must be prepared for that struggle to succeed. The power of this story is such that almost all movies are based on its story structure.
It is useful to understand this story as one prepares to take on a job or career. To do this, one must change to a new level of understanding and being. The responsibilities of a job or career challenges anyone to stop doing only what makes them happy and to put the needs of others before their own.
The Hero’s Journey follows a distinct pattern and again, is told in this pattern by cultures world-wide.
The following is the pattern as developed by Carol Pearson in the book, The Hero Within. The archetypes in this sequence are the same individual transforming during the journey; they are not different characters, but the single protagonist changing in the course of the story.
This is the first stage where the hero is an orphan; their parents or people have died or are gone. Or else they feel like an orphan; alone, unloved, or confused. Think of all the literature or movie characters who are orphans. Luke Skywalker from Star Wars, Dorothy Gale from The Wizard of Oz, Harry Potter, Batman, Simba the lion cub from The Lion King, and even Napoleon Dynamite. And because the orphan is alone and troubled, they ask big questions about their life; Why did my parents die? Why am I alone? Why am I always in trouble? What will I do with my life?
This next phase has the orphan looking for the answers to their big questions, but they don’t know where the answers are at. They know they can’t sit and wait for the answers to come to them but they don’t know exactly where to go to find them. So they begin to wander, hoping they find the answers somewhere. They go to places they’ve never been before. Harry Potter goes to Hogwarts, a school he’s never heard of before; Simba runs away to the desert because he thinks it is his fault his father died; Dorothy goes to the Land of Oz; Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings heads to Mount Doom, where he’s never been before, to destroy the ring; and Luke Skywalker gets on a spaceship and travels across the universe to help a princess fight a thing called the Evil Empire.
As the hero wanders they meet people and befriend them, but this is more than just being a friend. This next step is where the hero learns to care more for other people than he cares for himself. He is now the caretaker. In literature and movies we can see this change as when in The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy meets the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion and invites them to go with her, essentially creating a little family that protects and works for each other. In Star Wars, Luke befriends Princess Leia, Han Solo, and the Wookie, Chewbacca, and they likewise become a family and are willing to die for one another. And in the film Napoleon Dynamite the title character makes friends with Deb and Pedro.
The hero then fights a battle or enters a struggle. We usually associate the hero with this action, the battle, but as we can see the hero must prepare for that battle. The hero doesn’t just walk up and enter the fray; they have taken steps to be ready. The battle can be external or internal. For example, Harry Potter is fighting Lord Voldemort with magic wands on the outside, but on the inside he has another struggle. If he uses dark magic he can be more powerful than Voldemort. Just as Luke Skywalker knows if he turns to the Dark Side he can be more powerful than Darth Vader.
When the hero finally wins the battle, they are transformed into a new person. They then return to where they started, changed, and with two outcomes. One, they realized they knew the answers to the questions that started the whole journey all along, inside themselves; and two, they bring back a gift to their people. Some Native people have a problem with the term “magician” as it infers trickery. They suggest we use the term “shaman,” which suggests a personal power.
In The Wizard of Oz, after she has destroyed the Wicked Witch of the West, Dorothy is told the slippers she wore throughout the movie had the power to take her home any time. When Dorothy asks why she wasn’t told this before, the answer was, “You would not have believed me.” She had to go through the journey to truly understand. Or Simba realizes he was meant to be exactly like his father and protect his lion pride and the pride lands.
There is another important character in the Hero’s journey who is not the hero. Somewhere in the story an elder appears to teach and guide the hero. So in The Lord of the Rings, the elder was Gandalf; in Harry Potter, it was Dumbledore; and in The Lion King, it was Rafiki, the baboon.
Most of the Native people sharing their stories in this curriculum are trying to serve as either the Shaman, as they have completed this part of their Hero’s journey, or an Elder, trying to help others that are on the same path.
Look at the following quotes from some of the interviews to see how each person is trying to give back or share a wisdom they have learned:
“Acknowledgement and respect are the most important teachings in Native culture. It’s not about beads and feathers. Acknowledgement allows us to touch people…the spirit.” —Johnny Moses
“I feel it’s an important time… especially for the younger generation coming… to hear and be part of that journey… and recognize it is a lifetime journey.” —Judy Bluehorse Skelton
“I thought, ‘Well, that’s why we’re getting educated, to go back and help our communities.” —Don Motanic
“So, one of the lessons people need to learn… you’ve got to come in humble and say I’m willing to learn from you, and you really have to devote yourself to that. Because people have a lot of practical knowledge on how to run things here. You may have a lot of knowledge, but you don’t have a lot of wisdom yet.” —David Lewis
Those are the basics of the Hero’s Journey. Let’s see if it illustrates Karina’s story.
As we look at Karina’s story, we can see the Hero’s Journey in action. She started out as a child who believed she was not capable. Every message she got from school was that she wasn’t smart. She saw herself as an outsider, different, and she even said, “schooling was destructive” to her. She is sure her options are limited.
She goes off to college to continue her athletic dreams and is sure she can’t get good grades. When she is injured, her original plans are lost. She has to adapt and transform.
She meets elders, teachers, counselors, and guides throughout her story. They encourage her and give her direction. One gives her a chance to study sociology if she passes a test, which she does. Another challenges her to go into a field of work she was unfamiliar with because the elder saw her potential. So Karina rises to the challenge.
Through these opportunities, Karina enters the Native communities; both reservation and urban. Her commitment is now to these people in helping them through research. She has given over her quest to the benefit of others. She cares more for them than her own personal goals.
Her battles are external and internal. She fights for the Native communities to help them gain access to resources they need to solve their great problems. Because of her heart-felt commitment and hard work, she is successful. Her internal battle was her belief she couldn’t do it; that she lacked the skills or ability to do these things.
She overcame both.
She continues to serve Native people and help them successfully gain access to needed resources and she realizes she was always a smart, capable, and gifted person. She encourages others now, as her elders encouraged her in her journey.
So in her Hero’s Journey of transformation, there were smaller changes that had to take place before she could move forward. She had to pass smaller tests before she could get to the biggest one.
Read the following traditional story from the Haida people of southeast Alaska and see if it follows the Hero’s Journey pattern. And if it does, were there tests within the test the Hero had to accomplish?
(A Haida North Coast Story)
A long time ago… In a village far to the north there lived four brothers. They were the sons of the village’s head man, and they were all strong and intelligent and handsome.
One day, one of the brothers, for reasons no one knows, decided he wanted to be different than his brothers. He could not be like them anymore.
One day, this brother, dragging his blanket behind him, went to the fire and lay down in the dirt next to the fire, covered himself up with his blanket, and went to sleep; right in the middle of the day while everyone else was working.
The people came up to him and said, “Wake up, lazy one! What are you doing, sleeping while everyone works?” He did not get up. He kept sleeping. No matter what the people said he did not move. So after a while the people stopped talking to him. Now they talked about him. “Let him sleep. He is lazy and good for nothing! Let him sleep his life away. We don’t care anymore. He means nothing to us!”
So he would sleep by the fire day after day. After a time his hair and skin were covered in dirt and soot. His skin was dirty. So the people gave him a new name. They called him “Duk-thul” which means dirty skin.
Unbeknownst to the people, while they were asleep at night, he would arise and go outside. He would run up the mountains. He would lift heavier and heavier rocks and boulders. He would run along the beach in the sand. He would swim for miles. He would bathe in cold water and rub his skin with hemlock boughs. He would listen to the voices of the spirits and they guided him in becoming stronger. Every night he was getting stronger.
Before the sun came up he would go back into the house and lay by the fire, cover himself with his blanket and go to sleep. So when the people arose in the morning they would see him still asleep by the fire. A worthless and lazy good-for-nothing. They did not know he was getting stronger.
One day, the father told the sons he needed them to do an important task. The village was holding a great feast for many tribes and he wanted a special food for the meal. He wanted his sons to hunt for sea lions.
Hunting for sea lions is not a simple task. The sea lions do not live along the beaches, they live on great rock islands in the middle of the ocean. It would take much strength to get there. These islands are hit by great waves that crash upon the rocks. It would be dangerous to try and land upon them. And sea lions are large strong animals and will fight to protect their families. So this hunting trip would be very dangerous. Because their father asked, the brothers obeyed. They would make this dangerous hunt.
The brothers were getting ready all the equipment they would need to make this hunt. They were gathering spears and harpoons, nets and ropes, and floats and bailers. From behind them, from near the fire they heard a loud yawning.”YAH-HUUWHHHHNNN!” Duk-thul sat up looking at his brothers and rubbing his eyes.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Go back to sleep, lazy one!” they cried. “We are going to hunt sea lions and it is very dangerous hunt!”
“That sounds interesting,” he said. “I’d like to go along.”
“No!” they exclaimed. “It will be dangerous and we don’t need a lazy good-for-nothing going with us.”
“Wait!” the father said. “It might be good for him to go along. Maybe he will learn something.”
The brothers said in a disappointed voice, “All right, Duk-thul. Get ready. You can go with us.”
And so, the brothers carried all the equipment with them to the canoe on the beach. Duk-thul followed, but he only dragged his blanket behind him. When they got to the canoe the brothers loaded it with the gear and got in. Duk-thul got in the back of the canoe, lay down, covered himself with his blanket, and went to sleep.
The brothers paddled the canoe for many miles far into the ocean. They finally got to the home of the sea lions. Great waves crashed upon the rocks. Big bull sea lions watched the canoe approach. This would not be easy.
The first brother said, “Get me close to the rocks so I can jump onto the island!”
So they paddled the canoe close to the island and he stood on the front of the canoe, preparing to jump. But just then a big wave came and crashed over the canoe, sending the brother into the water. They dragged him back into the canoe.
Coughing and sputtering, he gasped, “We had better turn back! It’s too dangerous!”
The second brother said, “Get me close. I know what to do.”
So the other brothers paddled the canoe close to the rocks again. The second brother held onto the prow of the canoe as a big wave crashed over them. He stood up and jumped onto the rocks when another wave hit the rocky shore and swept him into the icy waters. His brothers dragged him back into the canoe.
Coughing and sputtering, “We must turn back!” he cried. “It is too dangerous! One of us might die!”
The third brother said, “Get me close to the rocks. I can do it.”
They paddled the canoe close to the rocks and he held onto the prow as one wave crashed over them. He jumped onto the rocks and held onto one as another wave crashed. He stood up and a great bull sea lion rushed out of the rocks and hit him hard, knocking him back into the water. His brothers dragged him back into the canoe.
He moaned, “I was almost killed! We must turn back now before we are killed!”
Just then from the back of the canoe, they heard the loud yawning. “YAH-HUUWNNNNN!” It was Duk-thul.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Go back to sleep, worthless one!” his brothers yelled. “We are turning back. We were almost killed! It’s too dangerous.”
Duk-thul said, “Let me try.”
The brothers paddled the canoe close to the rocks. Duk-thul held onto the prow of the canoe as a great wave crashed over him. He jumped onto the rocks and held onto a rock as another wave hit him. He stood up and faced the great bull sea lion as it rushed towards him.
He was holding a sealing club in his hand and hit the sea lion across the head, killing it with one blow. Another sea lion bull charged at him, and he killed it with one blow. And then another, and another. His brothers watched in amazement as Duk-thul killed five sea lions in this way.
He turned to them and called, “Bring the canoe here! We have sea lions to take home.”
He lifted up one of the sea lions that weighed hundreds of pounds as though it were nothing.
When the canoe got close, he loaded all the sea lions into the canoe as thought they weighed nothing.
His brothers were amazed. How could this worthless lazy good-for-nothing do all this work? Duk-thul said nothing. He lie in the back of the canoe, covered himself with his blanket, and went to sleep.
When the canoe neared the village, the people saw the canoe approaching, loaded with sea lions. They gathered at the beach and called out, “Great hunters! Great hunters! You bring back food to the people!”
As the brothers beached the canoe they said, “We didn’t do it. Duk-thul did it. He killed the sea lions.”
Everyone looked at Duk-thul for an answer, but he said nothing. He got out of the canoe, went into the longhouse dragging his blanket behind him, lay down by the fire in the dirt, covered himself, and went to sleep.
And so it went on. The people saw Duk-thul every day sleeping in the dirt by the fire, thinking him worthless and lazy. And every night Duk-thul would be running, swimming, bathing, and getting stronger.
One day, the people noticed the mountains were moving closer to the village. A little closer every day. After a time, the people became frightened. If they were not stopped, the mountains might crush the village and kill everyone. Who could save them?
The three brothers said they would stop the mountains. They went out and dug deep trenches, but the mountains rolled over them as thought they were nothing. The brothers chopped down great trees and made a great fence, but the mountains smashed it.
Now the people were very frightened for no one could stop the march of the mountains. The people became panicked and were running around crying and wailing.
From inside the longhouse, they heard that yawning sound. “YAAH-HUUUUN!” It was Duk-thul. He walked out of the house rubbing his eyes.
“What is everyone doing?” he asked.
The villagers told him how the mountains were going to crush the village and that no one could save them. They were packing and abandoning their village.
Duk-thul said, “I will talk to the mountains.”
He went to the mountains and asked, “Why are you coming so near my village? Why do you frighten my people?”
The mountains said, “We are tired of you people and the way you treat the earth! We will push you into the ocean and be rid of you!”
Duk-thul said, “I will stop you!”
He picked up a giant boulder, as though it were nothing, and he threw it into the nearest mountain, splitting the mountain in half. Then, he picked up an even larger rock and threw it into the next mountain, splitting it as well. And then another, and another.
Then he said to the mountains, “If you want to be destroyed, keep coming and I will destroy you. If you want to live in peace, go back to where you belong.”
The mountains were frightened. They had never seen anyone so strong, so they retreated. They went back to where they are today.
The people rushed up to Duk-thul to thank him, but he brushed by them and went back into the house, covered himself with his blanket, and went to sleep.
On another day, the people saw the trees were coming closer to the village. Every day a little closer. The people became worried. If the trees kept coming, they would smash the village, pushing it into the sea. Who could save them?
The three brothers said they would stop the trees. They went out and began to cut the trees down with axes, but every time they cut down a tree, ten would take its place.
The people were now very scared for no one could stop the trees. They ran around in a panic, preparing to abandon the village before it was destroyed.
From inside the house they heard the loud yawning again. “YAAA_HHHUUUUN!” It was Duk-thul.
“Why is everyone making so much noise?” he asked.
“The trees are coming towards our village!” people cried. “They are going to smash the houses and all of us! We must escape now! No one can stop them!”
Duk-thul said, “I will talk to the trees.”
He went to the trees and said, “Why are you coming so near my village? Why do you frighten my people?”
“We are tired of you people and the way you treat the earth!” the trees said. “We will push you into the ocean and be rid of you!”
“You will not!” Duk-thul said to the trees.
He wrapped his arms around a tree and pulled it out of the ground by its roots. He threw that tree into the forest, as though it weighed nothing, and knocked down ten trees. Then he did the same with another tree, knocking down ten more.
Then he said, “If you want to be destroyed, keep coming and I will destroy you! If you want to live in peace, then go back to where you belong.”
The trees were frightened. They had never seen anyone so strong. So they retreated, and went back to where they are today.
The people gathered around Duk-thul to thank him, but he only went into the house, covered himself with his blanket, and went to sleep in the dirt by the fire.
One day, a runner appeared announcing the arrival of a group of strangers. The runner said, “We travel with a giant going all along the coast. Every village we come to, we challenge their strongest man to fight our giant. If your strong man wins, we leave with no problems. But if our giant wins, we can take anything we want from that village. Get ready! The giant will be here within the hour.”
The people were worried. “Who can fight a giant?” they asked. “What if our strong man loses?” The people became frightened.
The three brothers said, “Don’t worry. We can defeat anyone who will threaten our village.”
In a short while, the giant and his group arrived. The giant man was huge, towering over the houses, twice as big as anyone they had ever seen before.
“Where are your strong men?” he bellowed. “Send them to fight me!”
The first brother approached the giant. The giant looked at the brother and laughed. He reached down and, with the flick of a finger, knocked him to the ground.
That brother got up and said, “We cannot defeat this giant. He is too strong!”
The second brother came forward. The giant again laughed and reached down and flicked his finger at the brother, who ducked out of the way. But then the giant hit him with a fist and knocked him across the village.
That brother struggled to his feet and said, “My brother is right! This giant is too strong. We might get killed!”
The third brother walked up to the giant. The giant smirked and flicked his finger. The brother dodged that blow. The giant swung his fist and the brother jumped aside. But then the giant kicked the brother and knocked him into the woods.
That brother staggered back into the village and groaned, “We must give up now! We cannot beat this man. He is too big and strong!”
Just then, the people heard a loud yawning noise from the longhouse. “YAAA_HHHHUUUUN!” Duk-thul walked out of the house dragging his blanket behind him.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
He walked up to the giant.
The giant looked at Duk-thul in disbelief. Duk-thul looked dirty and unkempt, his body and hair covered in soot from the fire and the dirt from the floor.
“This is your strong man? He is small and filthy. I will crush him like a flea!”
The giant flicked his finger, but Duk-thul ducked. The giant swung his fist, but Duk-thul jumped aside. The giant kicked, but Duk-thul leaped away. Then Duk-thul grabbed the giant by his wrist and began to spin him in the air as though he weighed nothing. Duk-thul swung him about for a long time, then threw the giant into the woods where the giant hit a tree and broke his back and died.
The people who traveled with the giant had never seen anyone so strong. They ran away, leaving the village unharmed.
The villagers rushed to Duk-thul to thank him, but he just walked back into the house, lay down by the fire, covered himself with his blanket and went to sleep.
One day a canoe came to the village from the ocean, and in it were strangers no one had ever seen before. The people gathered around the canoe and one of the strangers said, “We hear you have a strong man in this village. We want to talk to him.”
The people ran to the house. “Duk-thul! Duk-thul! There are people here to see you. They wait in a canoe by the beach!”
Duk-thul yawned loudly and got up. He walked to the beach and to the strange canoe. “You wanted to see me?” he asked.
The strangers asked, “Are you the strong man we have heard about?”
Duk-thul said, “Yes, I am.”
They told him to get in the canoe. “There is someone who wants to meet you,” they said. So Duk-thul got into the canoe, lay down in the back, covered himself with his blanket, and went to sleep.
The strangers paddled the canoe out into the ocean. Duk-thul’s people watched the canoe as it traveled. They saw the canoe disappear under the water.
The canoe went a long way to the middle of the ocean. There was a great house at the bottom of the ocean and they stopped before it. Duk-thul got out and went into the house.
In the middle of the great house was a bed, and lying on the bed was an old man. The old man held on his chest a great tree that went out of the house, into the ocean, and up into the sky.
Duk-thul went to the old man. “You wanted to talk to me?” he asked.
The old man looked at him and said, “This tree I hold is the tree that holds up the world. If this tree should fall, the world would be destroyed. I have been holding this tree for a long, long time. I am an old man now and cannot hold it much longer. Strong Man, we are looking for someone to take my place. Duk-thul, will you take my place?”
Without even a thought, Duk-thul said, “Yes, I will.”
And so, they took the tree off of the old man’s chest and he got out of the bed. Duk-thul lay on the bed and they pressed the great tree upon his chest to hold. And so that is where Duk-thul is today, holding up the tree that holds up the world. If the tree should fall, the world would be destroyed.
But Duk-thul is an old man now. He has been holding up the tree for many, many years. And if they asked you to take his place, what would you say?
And that is all.
- Does this story follow the Hero’s Journey model? Why or why not?
- The element of the story that his people did not know he was always getting stronger and called him a “worthless, lazy, good-for-nothing” is repeated more than once in the story. Why do you think this is important to this story? Is it important to our own story of transformation?
- Duk-thul had many smaller tests in the story to prove his strength. What are some smaller tests we face as we grow in our lives? In your opinion, what is the purpose of the smaller tests?
- Duk-thul accepted his final challenge/test, without thought, as though he understood it to be his destiny; what he was meant to do. Do you feel you have a destiny? Why or why not?