Cultures the world over, many in geographic isolation from one another, have mysteriously told stories that follow a remarkably similar story arch with themes and characters that, while they may look different on the surface, are joined at the roots of what they symbolize and represent.
Mythologist Joseph Campbell calls this universal storyline the Hero’s Journey, and has broken it down into distinct stages that can be found in myths from Arcadia to Kenya to the southwest of Turtle Island.
This may provide insight into why tarot resonates so much with so many, because the symbols, even if we don’t think we “know” what they mean, touch on something beneath or above the level of our conscious awareness that connects each of us. A shared human story, a collective psychic inheritance.
This universally told story always begins like so:
An ordinary person hears the call to adventure (Judgment), and has the choice to either accept or refuse it. Campbell wrote that this stage indicates “destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown.”
A call comes from beyond the gates of one’s village, which could represent one’s literal community, but could also symbolize a relationship, job, or way of living. It may not be clear exactly what it is that’s calling, but what is clear is that there’s now a choice, where before there wasn’t. Option A is to stay the same. You don’t know exactly what Option B is yet, but you’re spellbound.
Option A is staying on what Campbell would call the “interpreted path,” where everything has been laid out for you (Two of Wands) and where you might not need to rely on instincts as much, but where you won’t get the satisfaction of knowing you can survive by relying on them either.
You can tuck yourself quietly into this choice and it will protect you from the anxiety of traversing the “dark forest…of original experience,” where nothing is cohesive, you have to do your own transcribing and arranging, and where “you’ve got to work out your life for yourself.”
My guess is that if you’re still with me, you might resonate more with Option B. Perhaps you have already set out on the journey. Or maybe you’ve chosen Option A but feel stuck, bored and caged in by it. This is normal. The second stage of the classic storyline is refusal of the call (Four of Cups).
I work with many people who are in the liminal stage between hearing the call and either refusing or accepting it. I think the symbolic nature of tarot cards just invites this particular experience, and so I’ve had to learn to make space for people’s ambivalence about growth. I’ve seen the ways that acting like every part of a personshould be on board with leaving their comfort zone is an effective way to keep them there.
But people also seek other healing experiences like therapy, psychedelic trips and vision quests because they’ve heard the call to change and they need a charm, a talisman, a guide to help them along. In fact, the first thing that happens when the hero does set out on the journey is that they encounter a “supernatural aid,” an old crone or sage who gifts the hero with some form of protection for the trail. This could be a therapist, a healer, a teacher, a friend, or a stranger on the street. If you’re just setting out on the path, keep your eyes peeled.
As an example of the kinds of offerings the hero might expect, here is a verse given to the Twin War Gods at the start of their journey by the benevolent Spider Woman of the Navajo people from the Southwest of Turtle Island, to dissipate the anger of any enemies they encounter along the way:
Put your feet down with pollen. Put your hands down with pollen. Put your head down with pollen. Then your feet are pollen; your hands are pollen; your body is pollen; your mind is pollen; your voice is pollen. The trail is beautiful. Be still.
So back to the comfort zone. I typically tell people: Stay as long as you need to. You can rest assured that your comfort zone, like all things, will not and cannot stay the way you know it or want it to be forever. Remember the Anais Nin quote about how the day comes when staying balled up in a bud becomes a bigger risk than blossoming? Yeah. Humans since time out of mind have wrestled the urge to defend against blossoming. You are not alone. This isn’t personal, it’s archetypal.
Where things really get interesting, and the reason I’m telling you all of this in the first place, is in the fourth stage of the journey, which Campbell called “the crossing of the first threshold.” In myths, this is where the first challenge is encountered “at the entrance to the zone of magnified power” (The Devil).
It is only natural to project all of our deepest fears straight into the unknown places of our lives; the forests, deserts, oceans, and lakes whose opposite shores we can’t see yet. This is why children are afraid of the dark, and why some adults are, too.
But not all of this is imagined, because we do encounter real danger in the unknown. Old stories tell of ogres who induce panic, serpents who seduce and then kill, well-intentioned lotus eaters who share feasts of flowers that put all those who eat them to a deep, enduring sleep. At every threshold there are gatekeepers.
It feels useful to me to consider that the ogres and serpents and lotus eaters of old stories represent internal challenges more than anything. Anxiety, unworthiness, lust, complacency.
In some psychotherapy traditions, the goal of the work is to build psychological flexibility, which is defined as the ability to move in the direction of one’s values even in the face of internal obstacles (Six of Swords). In mythic terms, it is the ability to hear the call, answer it, and not be pulled off the path by the ogres, serpents and lotus eaters.
Even if these stories don’t explicitly state that the obstacles blocking us from “entrance to the zone of magnified power” are internal, they still offer wisdom for how to cope with internal challenges. For example, the Arcadian God Pan induces panic in those he encounters, and anyone who attempts to escape from him dies. But to those who find a way to honor him as they enter his forest, he gives blessings. With his powers he ensures that their crops yield abundant bounty and their health is good.
The moral of the story here is clear: When we attempt to outrun, hide from, deny, or even destroy our internal gatekeepers, we’re likely to find ourselves in deep trouble. But to the extent that we learn to honor these difficult experiences—be they fear, anxiety, anger, grief, loneliness, despair, guilt, shame—they cannot “kill” us; they cannot pull us from our path. We honor them by extending kindness, willingness, and a genuine desire to understand (Strength).
Indeed there is a mythic quality to each of our journeys, and I think connecting with this energy is important because it can make us feel less alone. We are tiny-bodied beings ricocheting through one universe, in one galaxy, among who knows how many. Somewhere high up in our consciousness, we know this. We lose track of ourselves sometimes.
Understanding where we are in connection with all those who came before us, and the heroes they’ve told stories about to cope with their own challenges, can position us in space and time, remind us who we are, where we are, where we’re headed and from where we’ve come.