Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth and Mormon Missions

Before I served my mission in 2011, I was very interested in Joseph Campbell’s ideas of the monomyth and attempted to apply the basic structure to my upcoming mission. It was an easy fit. Mormon missions are quite the adventure. Two years separated from your family, off in a foreign land preaching something that you believe in. Yesterday I went back and read what I had wrote, and thought that it was interesting enough for me to share here (with use of future tense changed to past tense and some minor changes made.) Enjoy:

For those of you who may not be familiar with Campbell’s work, he  went and studied the myths of the world, and noted that many of the ancient myths and stories had the same basic structure and characteristics. He compiled what he called the monomyth, a heroic arc that is followed in most ancient stories and in modern heroic stories such as Lord of the Rings or Star Wars.
The story follows a circle or parabola. The arc is divided into two parts, the known and the unknown. The hero starts in the known and travels into the unknown on his adventure, and when he has completed his quest, he goes back into the known, or normal world. So I’m going to take every point in Campbell’s monomyth and apply it to the mission. Certain parts don’t exactly line up, but I’m going to do my best.

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PART 1- Departure
1. The Call to Adventure- This one is pretty obvious. Missionaries receive a mission call that tells them were they are going to go and when they are going to serve, it is calling them out of the known world.

2. Refusal of the Call- This may manifest itself in many forms. In the monomyth motif, the hero usually has some reasons to stay in the known world. For prospective missionaries, this may be doubts or trials that come. Few actually reject the call, but many have second thoughts.

3. Supernatural Aide- After the hero has accepted the call, supernatural aide is revealed to them. I liken this to when missionaries start to prepare and they draw closer to the scriptures and the Holy Ghost. They become aware of the spiritual and seemingly supernatural aide that is surrounding them. Before the mission, a missionary goes through the Mormon temples ceremony and is given the knowledge and light that will help him better understand his purpose. When the time comes for them to start the mission, a stake president sets them apart, blessing them special promises that will help them on the mission.

4. Crossing the First Threshold- When the hero crosses the first threshold they leave the known world and start the new experience of the unknown. Obviously this is entering the MTC and starting the mission experience.

5. Belly of the Whale- The belly of the whale represents to complete separation from the known world. For me, this was when I got on the airplane for Russia. In the MTC I was still in America and more specifically Provo, a place that was still known to me. As soon as I got to Russia I was completely and totally in the unknown. This is the Belly of the Whale.

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PART 2- INITIATION
1. The Road of Trials- For me this is a pretty obvious one. After travelling into the belly of the whale, I underwent the trials of being in a strange land where I did not know the culture, the language or anything. I was lost and was be going through many trials, but it works to shape the “hero” into what he will become later.

2. The Meeting with the Goddess- This is a bit of a stretch, because in the monomyth, it is the part when the hero meets the person or thing he loves the most and who loves him. Without sounding weird, I acquaint this with getting a missionary companion to work with a mission presidents. No I was not in love with them, but they acted to create that bond. Like I said, a stretch.. but not a huge one.

3. Woman as Temptress- I was tempted by a woman, but I have decided to extrapolate it to any sort of temptation to deviate from my course and end my mission and go home, or back to the known world.

4. Atonement with the Father- In the stories, this is the part when the hero confronts that which holds maximum power over their lives and be accepted by it. I think that this is the part of the mission where a missionary finally starts to realize why he is out and has fully dedicated his life to the mission field.

5. Apotheosis- In the monomyth, at this point the hero has moved beyond the opposites of light and dark and has a clear understanding of the world. This is a rather mystical aspect so I loosely apply it, but I see this as the end of the mission when a missionary has completely understood the reason he is out, and is preparing to return to the ordinary.

6. The Ultimate Boon- This is when the hero receives what he was supposed to on the quest. For missions, this is less important since there is no physical goal, but rather a period of growing. I would say that the ultimate boon is near the end of the mission, the goal of completing two years almost up, and mastery of the missionary techniques earned. .
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PART 3- THE RETURN
1. Refusal to Return- Often times the hero has difficulty considering leaving the unknown world to return to the ordinary. This would be how it is hard for missionaries to want to leave the world that they have created on their missions.
2. The Magic Flight- In myths and stories this is a dangerous flight away from the land of adventure and back to the known world. In my little comparison, I will say that this is my flight home from Russia, which was not necessarily magical, but flying over the Atlantic ocean was an almost mystical experience.
3. Rescue from Without- The hero has a hard time returning from his quest, and requires somebody to help him out. I would say that this is like when my stake president released me from being a missionary. I could not fully leave the mission without him releasing me.
4. The Crossing of the Return Threshold- It is sometimes difficult for the hero to keep the wisdom that they have received on the quest. This is like the missionary trying to apply what he learned to his normal life in the known world.

5. Master of Two Worlds- In the myth this is the part when the hero is able to attain the wisdom of his spiritual quest and the wisdom of the normal world. He has become master of both because of his journey, just as a missionary may become the master of both the spiritual and temporal world when he returns.
6. Freedom to Live- At the end of the journey, the hero can continue his life in the known world. A missionary is now free to live, marry and continue onwards.

I hope that I haven’t made things seem overly mystical, but I found that this pattern applies extremely well to a missionaries journey.

This article describes the monomyth. Read it for more details about these parts.

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