Most writers of fiction are already familiar with the so-called “Hero’s Journey” as put forth by mythologist Joseph Campbell. This narrative archetype involves various steps taken by a given hero, such as a call to adventure, a crossing to a new world, and seizing of the sword, all of which invariably lead to the return home. This is reflected in ancient epics such as Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, and Beowulf, and in modern cinematic classics such as Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and The Avengers. However, poet, author, and therapist Maureen Murdock noticed a trend with each of these journeys: they all revolve around a male central figure, or even some cases, a group of men.
She addressed this discrepancy with Campbell, who replied that “In the whole mythological tradition the woman is there. All she has to do is to realize that she’s the place that people are trying to get to” (qtd in Murdock 2). Murdock was, understandably, shocked. Firstly, any student of mythology should find themselves well-equipped with examples of women going and doing. Secondly, if “people” are trying to get to the feminine, then this naturally creates a divide between the two, making women either less or more than, but never equal to men. Thus Murdock thus set out to write her own definition of the heroine’s journey.
Condensed from Campbell’s original seventeen steps, Murdock’s ten step journey at times mirror’s its masculine counterpart, at times departs from it entirely. It is, as a whole, a useful blueprint for any author attempting to write a female character with any amount of realism or depth. Murdock also draws on many mythological references throughout her work, pointing back to archetypes that can be both drawn upon for inspiration and used as a means of understanding the journey with greater insight.
The first stage of the journey is separation from the feminine. According to Murdock, “The journey begins with the heroine’s struggle to separate both physically and psychologically from her own mother and from the mother archetype….There are two poles of expression of the archetype of Mother: the Great Mother…and the Terrible Mother” (17-18). Thus, a writer whose heroine who is dealing with separation from the feminine may find her running from a mother, older sister, or other mature feminine presence who means her harm. She may also find her simply struggling to find her own identity in the shadow of an all-good, all-loving mother who has allowed no room for herself to blossom.
The next step of the journey is the identification with the masculine. Having dealt with the mother, this is where Murdock has noticed, both in myth and her therapy practice, that many women look to their fathers for guidance. She terms these women “father’s daughters.” She likens them to Athena, who sprang from her father’s head fully formed, ready to do battle.
Wonder Woman is a modern example of an Athena or father’s daughter. She never backs down from a fight, and, no matter how messy said fight may get, emerges with perfect hair and make-up. She works alongside a team of almost exclusively male colleagues like Batman, Superman, and Aquaman. Despite the fact that she has no actual father-figure, Diana has cast her lot with the males of modern American society, rather than the women of her mother’s tribe.
Having identified with the masculine, the heroine’s journey falls into line with her male counterpart. She experiences a road of trials and finds a boon of success as she battles the ogres and villains in her path. Unfortunately, no real women, and very few mythological women, find the successes of the Amazonian princess. Most find more sympathy with the long-suffering Grecian Penelope or Norse Sigyn. Bound to men who journey far away or cause mischief in the home, these women are forced to sit hours at the loom or holding an ever-filling dish of toxic emotions.
When they realise these feelings, these women have arrived at the next step in the journey: an awakening to feelings of spiritual aridity when the boons of success do not prove to be enough. This, in turn, leads to the descent to the goddess. This is not to be confused with Campbell’s “meeting with the goddess.” The descent, as described by Murdock, is akin to death.
This journey to the underworld is filled with confusion and grief, alienation
and disillusion, rage and despair…A woman moves down into the depths to
reclaim the parts of herself that split off when she rejected the mother and
shattered the mirror of the feminine. (88-90)
Characters entering this stage of the journey may feel that they are at the end of their road. Murdock references Inanna, the Sumerian goddess who literally descended to the Underworld for three days. However on the flip side of that myth was Ereshkigal, the dark goddess of the Underworld, who causes so much torment, yet was full of suffering herself. A writer who wishes to use this step of the journey to explore their character more, may find themselves considering unique viewpoints of various characters.
Having encountered the dark goddess, the heroine will then feel an urgent yearning to reconnect with the feminine, then begin the process of healing the mother/daughter split. The most classic example of the broken mother/daughter relationship and its attempt at healing is the myth of Demeter and Persephone. Murdock relates that the mother/daughter healing may never happen, or may happen incompletely, as in the Greek tale of the two goddesses, who are only reunited temporarily each year. It is, nonetheless, integral to discuss in the shaping of any female character.
Finally, the heroine can begin to heal the wounded masculine nature and integrate the masculine and feminine within. It is imperative that, in this step, the heroine does not lose her femininity in reintroducing the masculine, or she will find herself starting the journey all over again.
I found this book extremely helpful in my own journey as an author, attempting to navigate the construction of female characters in an increasingly complex world. Not only did it expand the breadth of narrative possibilities, but also increased the depth of character development. I would heartily recommend it to anyone attempting to gain an insight to the Heroine’s Journey.
Murdock, Maureen. The Heroine’s Journey. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1990. Print.