In The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), Joseph Campbell argues that many myths follow a typical pattern involving the hero's departure from familiar surroundings to a unfamiliar setting, ultimately culminating in some sort of epic battle or otherwise reaching some seemingly insurmountable goal.

I've seen this same type of myth applied to all sorts of other fictional works (perhaps even over-used to some degree) from classics to contemporary, and from western and eastern literature as well. Its ubiquity across cultures suggests some sort of universal appeal. Has there been any academic research suggesting a reason for the ubiquity of the hero's journey in literature across the world?

  • I think it is because it requires action that can be approached in many different ways.
    – Benjamin
    Commented Jan 19, 2017 at 22:15
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    I understand why this was closed for being primarily opinion-based, but I sense that there's a good question in here somewhere. Maybe something like "What research has been conducted on the longevity of certain stories types, such as The Hero's Journey?"
    – Gaurav
    Commented Jan 19, 2017 at 22:32
  • It is not as POB anymore
    – bleh
    Commented Jan 19, 2017 at 23:00
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    Frankly, most of such research shouldn't be in Literature, but in a combination of psychology, neurophysiology, history/anthropology, and the Dawkinish side of biology that deals with memes. E.g. "virgin birth" myth has more to do with socioeconomic issues that arise in early agricultural society and less with literature.
    – DVK
    Commented Jan 23, 2017 at 3:05
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    DVK: As you say, analysis of literature often straddles a thin line between philosophy, psychology, history, biology, etc... I think that was the kind of analysis I was hoping for in an answer.
    – Paul
    Commented Jan 23, 2017 at 17:57

1 Answer 1


This answer is essentially a re-post of my answer to the same question from the Mythology Stack Exchange.

Although Joseph Campbell is very popular with the general public, there are a number of significant flaws in his theory that people tend to ignore. To quote from Alan Dundes, a professor of Folklore and Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley:

My sole point in mentioning this disheartening incident is to suggest that for many members of the literate public, the study of folklore means precisely Campbell and his writings. Yet professional folklorists have said very little about the huge corpus of Campbelliana. I do not know if any of his many books were ever even reviewed in JAF. Is this a case of "silence gives assent"? Very likely more people were introduced to the subject matter of folklore by the writings of Campbell or the PBS television series of lectures by him than by any other source. And yet we folklorists have said little or nothing about him and his theories.

Dundes makes a number of criticisms of Joseph Campbell. One of these is of his assumption that myths are universal, which, as Dundes quickly proves, is not the case. To quote from Dundes:

It has long been a popular fantasy among amateur students of myth that all peoples share the same stories. This is clearly an example of wishful thinking.

Examples of myths that Joseph Campbell claims to be universal but which are not are include:

  1. The flood myth, which is "absent from sub-Saharan Africa" (Dundes).
  2. The "virgin-birth" motif, which is only present in three separate myths, and is absent from "Africa... Siberia, Polynesia, ... Melanesia, ... Australia and New Guinea" (Dundes).
  3. The "belly of the whale" motif: this "motif" is only present in the old testament (Dundes). The only other example Campbell cites of a "belly of the wale" motif -- the story of Red Riding Hood -- is a horrible example. Red Riding Hood is only swallowed by a wolf in the written version of the story; in the oral version of the story "the girl is not swallowed by the wolf at all... Instead she escapes through a clever ruse by pretending to need to go outside to defecate" (Dundes).

I think it would be safe to say that Joseph Campbell's arguments that the monomyth is "universal" aren't very sound. If you are interested in reading more, Dundes' article is available on JSTOR, which you can usually access for free from a public library. Dundes has other criticisms of of Campbell, but they aren't relevant to the question asked by the OP.

I also recently wrote a blog post about Joseph Campbell that might interest you. It elaborates on the points that I made in this post.

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    "absent from sub-Saharan Africa" merely means it's present in a vast majority of cultures and populations. I'm not sure that's a valid basis of criticism of universality ("almost universal" vs. "universal"). Virgin Birth is likely a story that is contemoraneous with agricultural societies around a specific level of development, where virginity became an important thing. No wonder societoes that somewhat bypassed that stage (the ones you cited, ironically) lack it. Again, not really a valid criticism of universality, if you include societies where it'd likely be possible to arise.
    – DVK
    Commented Jan 23, 2017 at 1:26
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    @DVK here's the big-picture response to your comment. If the hero's journey is "almost universal", then Campbell needs to spend time looking at the outliers, the cultures that don't have the hero's myth. No where in his research does Campbell do that.
    – user111
    Commented Jan 23, 2017 at 2:07
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    that is actually a very valid criticism. However, "he didn't do a good enough job to expose cultural and historical backgrounds driving the spread of specific myths" is diffferent from "monomyth doesn't exist because there are counterexamples".
    – DVK
    Commented Jan 23, 2017 at 2:33
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    @DVK Scholars have actually critiqued the idea of the monomyth existing in the first place. This criticism rests on the fact that although Campbell outlines a 14-step process for the monomyth, most of the examples he cites only fit one or two steps. In other words, he never really defines the monomyth in a consistent way. He adds or removes steps depending on the evidence.
    – user111
    Commented Jan 23, 2017 at 2:48
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    Again, that seems like a valid yet different critique. "Monomyth not existing" != "monomyth in the precise form specified by Campbell isn't universal". That doesn't prove that monomyth exists, merely that this specific critique isn't enough to prove that.
    – DVK
    Commented Jan 23, 2017 at 2:50

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