The Via Feminina: Revisioning the Heroine’s Journey by Mary Sharratt

Campbell’s Hero’s Journey

Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, the Hero’s Journey, is outlined in his 1949 book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Drawn from his studies of comparative mythology and Jungian psychology, the Hero’s Journey has become a foundation myth of modern culture. The hero, generally young and vigorous, sets off into the unknown to battle antagonistic forces and returns transformed, a hero and guide to his people.

As Campbell writes in The Hero with a Thousand Faces:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

The Hero’s Journey has served as the go-to template for Hollywood screenwriters and bestselling novelists. We see this mythic pattern of the conquering male hero played over and over again in popular culture. Think Luke Skywalker in the original 1977 Star Wars—or any protagonist in a George Lucas or Steven Spielberg movie. Creative writing teachers encourage their students to pattern their story arcs on the Hero’s Journey to give a sense of archetypal depth and resonance. But this technique has been overused to the point of becoming a cliché. A deeply sexist cliché.

Campbell drew his monomyth primarily from classical Greek mythology, which evolved in one of the most misogynist eras of history. Women appear as either the disempowered chattels of men (mothers, daughters, wives, damsels in distress) or—if they have any power or agency—as the evil temptress/witch/monster that the hero must defeat. These Greek myths evolved in a time when being a hero meant taking up arms, subjugating other peoples, and burning your enemy’s city to the ground.

Theseus pummels a centaur. Sculpture by Antonio Canova, 1757-1822. Künsthistorische Museum, Wien

Campbell, who was born in 1904 and died in 1987, was not only patriarchal in his outlook but apparently willfully ignorant of the fact that women might want to set off on their own journeys and be the protagonist, not the helpmeet. When his student, Maureen Murdock, questioned him about where women fit into his monomyth, he replied, “Women don’t need to make the journey. In the whole mythological journey, the woman is there. All she has to do is realize that she’s the place people are trying to get to.”

In response to this, Maureen Murdock wrote her watershed book The Heroine’s Journey: Women’s Quest for Wholeness, first published in 1990.

Murdock’s Heroine’s Journey

In the Heroine’s Journey, Murdock explores the cyclical nature of female experience. As screenwriter Jill Soloway observes, “If the Hero’s Journey was an arc, it increasingly became apparent to me that the Heroine’s Journey was a circle.”

Murdock also describes that the Heroine’s Journey, in patriarchal culture, is much more complicated than the Hero’s Journey, as she must battle the sexism of the dominant culture, as well as her internal assumptions of what women can or should do.

Murdock, a Jungian analyst, envisioned her Heroine’s Journey as a quest that culminates in the heroine healing the wounded masculine and reconciling the masculine and feminine within her own psyche. “The final stage of The Heroine’s Journey is the Sacred Marriage of the Masculine and Feminine, the hieros gamos,” Murdock writes.

This is a concept that some feminists and non-Jungians may find as dated and unhelpful as Campbell’s original male-centric monomyth. Why is it women’s work to heal the wounded masculine and why is this inner reconciliation symbolized as a hetero marriage? Is this relevant imagery for our 21st century world?

Recent cinematic adaptations of the Heroine’s Journey take it in another direction entirely. In popular films such as Wonder Woman, Brave, Hunger Games, etc., women and girls at last have agency and drive the action. But there are clichés here, too. These heroines are inevitably young and beautiful, physically healthy and victorious. They wield weapons and brute force as skillfully as their male peers. Think of She-Achilles in a sexy corset battling zombie armies.

What would the Heroine’s Journey look like if it truly reflected our authentic, lived experience as women and girls today? And if it was conceived wholly from a female reference point and not derivative of the work of men like Campbell or Jung?

In her book Writing a Woman’s Life, Carolyn G. Heilbrun observes how both biographers and autobiographers have suppressed the truth about lived female experience to force it to conform to society’s script of how a woman’s life should be. Heilbrun even mentions Margery Kempe, the first person to write an autobiography in English and also the heroine of my new novel, Revelations.

Margery’s Heroine’s Journey started not when she was in the bloom of youth but amid the disillusionment of midlife. She was forty, a desperate housewife, a failed business woman, a mother of fourteen, and trapped in an abusive marriage. Marital rape was her lived reality and a fifteenth child might have killed her. She seized back control by setting off on the perilous pilgrim’s path to Rome, Jerusalem, and Santiago de Compostela. In era when women were subject to forced marriage and forced childbirth, she literally walked away from it all. She could have chosen the safer option by fleeing her husband in order to enter the cloistered life as a vowess, but instead she chose the open road with all its adventures and perils, thus forging her own way, a Via Feminina.

It’s soul-destroying for a woman to force herself to conform to someone else’s script or template. Every heroine embarks on her own unique quest and enters terra incognita. She has no choice but to draw her own map and blaze her own trail. Later, when she returns, she can share her authentic story as a guide for other women.

On May 13, I’ll be teaming up with Christine Valters Paintner of Abbey of the Arts to offer a mini-retreat centered on the Via Feminina as mirrored in the lives of the mystics Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich. You can learn more here.

 

Mary Sharratt is on a mission to write women back into history. Her acclaimed novel Illuminations, drawn from the dramatic life of Hildegard von Bingen, is published by Mariner. Her new novel Revelationsabout the globe-trotting mystic and rabble-rouser, Margery Kempe, will be published in April 2021. Visit her website.



Categories: Feminism, General, Myth, Popular Culture

Tags: , , ,

24 replies

  1. Thanks for this post.

    Murdock’s book is a great critique. But the Jungian categories are problematic. Intelligence and courage etc. are not masculine properties nor are love and care feminine. These are human qualities. I am not expressing my sacred masculine when I am smart and strong. I am expressing my female selfhood. Also I think the sacred marriage “archetype” comes into being as part of the patriarchal takeover. The marriage is between the king and the Goddess. Kings are conquerors and they have not always been part of human cultures. In marrying the Goddesses of the land, the kings assert their power over the land they have conquered.

    Liked by 8 people

    • Hi, Carol, my comment below was in reply to yours, so I’m reposting it here for clarity!

      Thank you for so eloquently pointing out the problems with the Jungian designations of “masculine” and “feminine,” which seem completely at odds with feminism and human wholeness and integration.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Agreed – I believe the sacred marriage archetype (is there such a thing or is this part of our CURRENT socially constructed reality?) did come into being as part of the patriarchal takeover.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, finally someone who sees it this way! I’m all for splitting these universally human traits into two groups – but not gendered groups. Instead of masculine/feminine energy, I prefer fire/water or sun/moon energy, etc. I’m sick of being told the healthiest expression of my “feminine energy” is softness, surrender, flow and nurturance, etc. I’m sick of being told that women who are doing a lot have “imbalanced masculine energy”. It all reeks of New Age sexism to me and it drives me nuts that more people, particularly spiritual feminists, aren’t more critical of it.

      I’m not opposed to gender roles. I love traditional gender roles and I love conforming to them – consciously and in moderation. When they’re applied to everyone, even those who don’t fully resonate all the time with their narrow definitions, and imposed upon us as some kind of inescapable divine spiritual truth, they become oppressive.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for so eloquently pointing out the problems with the Jungian designations of “masculine” and “feminine,” which seem completely at odds with feminism and human wholeness and integration.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I could not agree more with your assessment of the heroine’s journey than I do. I was spoon-fed by Campbell and became a Jungian analyst who stopped practicing when she realized that she was harming the women she worked with…By the way, what a relief to see the word heroine – note how today we have returned to “hero” – The female’s journey is a tough one – perilous too. But if we are dedicated to becoming authentic we must make it and it helps to tell the truth about how difficult this journey can be for some. I almost never read fiction but your book intrigues me…. Thanks so much for this post and the photos that reveal the POWER based heroines of today complete with guns – these photos are as much of an assault on my psyche as “barbie” is.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you so much for reading, Sara! How fascinating that you stopped being a Jungian analyst when you realized it was harming the women you worked with. This is a book in itself!

      “the photos that reveal the POWER based heroines of today complete with guns – these photos are as much of an assault on my psyche as “barbie” is.”

      YES!!! Barbie with deadly weapons . . .

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Excellent essay, Mary. Thank you. Your sentence: “It’s soul-destroying for a woman to force herself to conform to someone else’s script or template” is exactly right. I’ve spent a lifetime trying to get out from under that heavy yoke. One lifetime just isn’t enough!

    Liked by 4 people

  5. Brava, brava, brava! Excellent and very useful and topical post in these misogynistic times. Well, gee, I guess all times have been largely misogynistic. Ever since I first read the Iliad in high school, I kept rooting for the Trojans to win that war and drown all the Greek armies and their heroes, especially Odysseus. But I guess I hold a minority view. Except in this community? I’ve also been very suspicious of Jung’s patriarchal archetypes and Campbell’s hero. I like the word HERA to refer to female heroes because it’s also the name of the Queen of the Gods before Zeus arrived and raped and diminished her. (End of rant.)

    Mary, thanks for writing this post and for all your excellent work and your terrific books. I’m eager to read the next one! I hope you and your husband and the horses are happy in Portugal. Bright blessings to you and your talent and your work.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. I’ve long thought we need fairytales and myths featuring middle-aged or old women as the heroine. As I’ve commented in the past couple of posts, I’m eager to read your novel about Margery Kempe! Go, Margery!

    Liked by 4 people

  7. Great post, Mary. I started a book about the “hero’s myth” about twenty years ago, but never finished it. I never called it the hero’s myth, but instead the dragon-slaying myth. I wanted to call attention to the idea undergirding our culture that any conflict must necessarily involve potential or actual violence, you vs. me, us vs. them, even good vs. evil. Of course, the dragon was almost always female.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I wrote a trilogy based on the Hero’s Journey but with a female protagonist. Not a role-reversal but a hero whose strengths are rooted in compassion and relationship.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thank you so much for this edifying analysis. I really enjoyed the originality of illuminations, and I, too, have always been turned off by the Jungian sexualized “hero” myth. Yet there are elements in the myth that I find powerful, so I’ve designed my own gender-free template – to use or not!

    1. There is a protagonist (for lack of a better neutral word for someone of any age or gender) who is called to adventure, which involves righting a wrong that is oppressing, damaging, or threatening to destroy another person– and often a whole community. The protagonist usually has a psychic wound, which can only be healed by righting the wrong, which in turn can only happen when the protagonist is transformed in some vital way, which usually means letting go of some cherished illusion.

    2. The adventure occurs in a “dark wood,” a dangerous place with its own rules, where the “Evil One” responsible for the above-mentioned injustice dwells. In the dark wood, the protagonist encounters allies and enemies. The first of these, the threshold guardian, attempts to stop the protagonist with warnings that to enter the wood will result in failure or death. The protagonist’s courage/determination to do the right thing overcomes these warnings, and she/he/they enters the dark wood and learns its rules.

    3.In the dark wood, the protagonist strives to right the wrong in ways that need not involve violence but which in most cases will have physical consequences (e.g., the dark wood is a sweat shop, which the protagonist is attempting to unionize, resulting in better working conditions and perhaps unseating the CEO). The dark wood is also where all sorts of characters test the protagonist’s moral and spiritual values, enabling us to identify what values actually underlie this quest, while coming to ever new understandings of the values themselves. The ultimate confrontation is with the Evil One, whose underlying values are egoistic – and this confrontation usually happens in the Evil One’s personal domain. Usually, the penultimate or the final confrontation includes a temptation for the protagonist to achieve her/his/their superficial ego-goals at the expense of her/his/their underlying virtue. This is the ultimate test, involving the healing of the psychic wound and the abandoning of the cherished illusion. In the final confrontation, the protagonist chooses for the ultimate good and defeats the Evil One. Again, this defeat does not have to involve violence.

    4. The protagonist then returns to the community, having healed or saved it in a significant way.

    This template allows for many variations – e.g., sometimes the protagonist can’t return to the community and founds a new one instead, or the Evil One is not defeated but transformed. I realize that this template can be horribly misused, – as we’ve seen through the ages. But I’d hate to throw out the baby with the bath.

    Liked by 3 people

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