Liminal Elements of The Hero’s Adventure

The first two weeks of the upcoming Mythology Discussion sessions (9:00 AM and 12:00 Noon at the First Unitarian Society of Ithaca, corner of Buffalo and Aurora streets) will be built upon a conversation between Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers about the “Hero’s Adventure”. Campbell first wrote about this theme 62 years ago, in a book entitled The Hero With A Thousand Faces.

In that book, Campbell described the journey of the hero as having the following structure:

Part 1 – Departure
Part 2 – Initiation
Part 3 – Return

liminal realmDescribing part 1 of this experience, Campbell writes of crossing the threshold, and in part 3, crossing the “return threshold”. This structure matches the interpretation of ritual first described by Arnold Van Gennep in his book The Rites of Passage. Van Gennep writes of the “liminal” experience created by ritual acts in rites of passage. The word liminal is derived from the old word limen, referring to the threshold, the space within a doorway between spaces, a place in which the identity of a person moving through the doorway is itself betwixt and between.

In The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Campbell only briefly refers to to Van Gennep’s work, writing of the “numerous strange rituals that have been reported from the primitive tribes and great civilizations of the past” that “the purpose and actual effect of these was to conduct people across those difficult thresholds of transformation that demand a change in the patterns not only of conscious but also of unconscious life… so that when, at last, the time has ripened for the return to the normal world, the initiate will be as good as reborn.” Still, it’s clear that Campbell’s work stands firmly on the shoulders of Van Gennep.

Van Gennep’s concepts of the structure ritual were introduced into American academic culture by Victor Turner, an anthropologist who lived and worked for a time right here in Ithaca, New York. Turner’s fieldwork shows that the symbolic structures that Joseph Campbell wrote about weren’t just a matter of myths as stories that people like to tell, but are present in the symbolic activities that create and communicate meaning in people’s lives in cultures around the world – including our own.

For those members of the First Unitarian Society of Ithaca, the organization that is hosting this mythological discussion series, let me propose the following as a subject for consideration in the period leading up to our first meeting on November 20:

How are we using ritual to spark the Hero’s Adventure for members of our congregation in the many passages of life?


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9 responses to “Liminal Elements of The Hero’s Adventure”

  1. Clare Flourish says :

    If a member felt the need for a ritual, you could work with that person to create one, fitting for them. Ritual could be endlessly various.

    • ithacamyth says :

      Clare, thanks for the comment at our new effort. You bring up a couple of important questions about ritual:

      – Is ritual something that people feel the need for in itself, or do they feel the need for something else, something that can be addressed through ritual means?
      – Does ritual work when it’s designed for individuals, or does it need to have a broader social authority to be effective?

  2. Clare Flourish says :

    I think the desire has to be for something else, which is achieved through ritual. In worship, it is not the ritual itself but the Connection it creates, which has value, the ritual without the connection would be something else, appreciation of music or words or smells or whatever.

    I think ritual needs authority, but that authority can be given by church members, or even just by one individual who undertakes the ritual, and through symbol makes a shift in her own subconscious. There, ritual could have the purpose of reinforcing positive ways of being in the World.

    • ithacamyth says :

      It’s interesting that you’re talking about individual ritual, on the one hand, and Connection through ritual on the other hand. Victor Turner discussed the way that the liminality of ritual can create a sense of what he called communitas among those who participate in a ritual – a sort of esprit de corps. Is this, the connection between individuals in a ritualized situation, what you’re referring to when you speak of “Connection”, or is it something else?

      Also, I’m wondering what thoughts you have on the way that ritual builds connection, given that it takes place, itself, in a sphere set apart – not connected – from everyday reality.

      • Erin Kerr says :

        I feel like ritual creates community, in the most mundane sense as well as connection to the divine. No matter the purpose of ritual, we connect in a rhythmic manner that incites introspection, reflection, meditation and a sense of belonging to something larger. This applies to folding laundry (very meditative thanks to repetition) or personal or group ritual for any purpose. Anything that is done with a certain rhythm connects us to each other, the Earth and her manifestations, and, ultimately, the divine. That is, if we’re paying attention and do it with intention. 🙂

      • ithacamyth says :

        Erin, I appreciate and identify with your idea that ritual meaning pervades the apparently mundane existence around us. We have learned to take it for granted, and for some reason I don’t really understand, it takes powerful concentration to break through the veil of the ordinary.


      • Erin Kerr says :

        I have one, likely unpopular, suggestion as to why it’s so hard for us to access the divine or something otherworldly during ritual and/or meditation: technology. Our pervasive creation, use of, and constant honing of technology has moved so swiftly to create more social opportunities in a more efficient manner and has effectively made us less social and otherwise disconnected. The longer we “socialize” online, use email instead of the phone or stopping by, cook indoors, etc…, the more we divorce ourselves from other ~real~ people and nature herself. We are moving at such a pace to keep up and become more efficient in our lives that we aren’t slowing down to consciously eat, converse, wander, contemplate, CONNECT–to anything or anyone, let alone the divine. We need to make room for ritual, connection, community in order to attain – or reattain – it. Maybe.

      • ithacamyth says :


        What’s less “real” about people when they’re online? What makes the phone more real than email? If people are able to socialize online, then isn’t that a potential way to increase connections?

        Some people say that what makes humanity special is that we’re symbolic beings, able to craft metaphor. Others say that what makes humanity special is that we’re technological, developing tools. What if the two are connected? What if, through creating technology, we are crafting physical metaphors? Doesn’t the online world has the potential to create opportunities for transcendence, and for new levels of ritual that are even more powerful than what’s possible in a merely physical environment?

        With this blog, and with the Ithaca UU Facebook accounts and the antique list serv, I’m trying to use online technology to create opportunities to deepen the conversations we’ll be having about mythology in person. With the in-person interaction in the Adult Religious Education sessions, there’s a serious limitation of time that makes discussions relatively brief and shallow. There’s only an hour for people to talk and listen, and what I’ve seen as a result is that discussion moderators cut people short, just as the conversation starts to get interesting.

        Here, online, people don’t need to worry about talking over each other. Many conversations can take place at once, and there’s no one telling you that you have to keep it brief.

        Could it be that there are multiple ways of being online, as there are multiple ways of existing in the offline world, some more powerful than others?

  3. Clare Flourish says :

    I am a Quaker in the UK. It is too complex to say what I mean by “God”, but I did mean a connection to The “Something”(!) as well as to other worshipers. And I find worship may connect people to others, but does not have to. I have worshipped with Anglicans with little connection.

    How? Through a common purpose, a common understanding, being together- I have not analysed this, but these are initial thoughts. Perhaps also they seek to build connection- when they do ritual together, they seek connection in other ways.

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