The Shaman and the Epic Hero’s Journey: Separation-Initiation-Return

“The standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero is a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage: separation-initiation-return: which might be named the nuclear unit to the monomyth“ (1949:30).
Joseph Campbell

“The shaman is a healed healer who has retrieved the broken pieces of his or her body and psyche and, through a personal rite of transformation, has integrated many planes of life experience: the body and the spirit, the ordinary and the nonordinary, the individual and the community, nature and supernature, the mythic and the historical, the past, the present and the future” (1979:18).                                Joan Halifax

The Shaman and the Epic Hero’s Journey: Separation-Initiation-Return

Under the shifting veneer of myths that come from every corner of the earth from every time period there exists one continuous theme made up of archetypes in humankind’s subconscious. The characters of the stories change, the settings vary dramatically from the tropics to the frigid steppes of Siberia, but the core elements remain the same. Joseph Campbell refers to this myth as a “secret opening thorough which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation” (1949:3). These manifested stories are part of what he refers to as the “monomyth.”

In many epic narratives, myths, a hero goes through a process that includes three stages, separation-initiation-return (1949:30). The result of this process is a transformed human being a person who has “passed through the test of fire” and is made new. This process is also seen around the globe not only in myths but also in initiation rites and the shaman’s journey.

Here we are going to look at the three stages of this process separation, initiation, and return, how each of these elements are integral part of both myths and the shaman’s journey, how both of the shaman’s journey and the myth serve in a transformational capacity, and how the hero as well as the shaman are being initiated into the possibility for a new existence.


The call to shamanhood often sends the neophyte into the wildest of terrains, into a world inhabited only by beasts and spirits. It is in these lonely places that the sacred mysteries, which infuse all yet are visible to none, can find their way to the human mind. For the shaman…nature’s wilderness is the locus for the elicitation of the individual’s inner wilderness” (1979:6). Joan Halifax

“The herald’s summons may be to live…or…to die. It may sound the call to some high historical undertaking. Or it may mark the dawn of religious illumination. As apprehended by the mystic, it marks what has been termed “the awakening of the self.”…whether small or great, and no matter what the stage or grade of life, the call rings up the curtain, always on a mystery of transformation-a rite, or moment, of spiritual passage, which, when complete, amounts to a dying and a birth” (1949:51). Joseph Campbell

Call-Supernatural Aid-Womb of the World

The separation process starts with a mystical call. Its enchanting tone and deeply

profound nature penetrates deep into the soul of the recipient. The initiate is chosen. To refuse is to deny oneself the cosmic power and fulfillment being offered. No matter what the superficial outcome of the life of one who refuses the call may be their greater reality will be a dry and withered soul dead to all achievements with out the aid or blessings of the gods.

The call to be a shaman is a demanding one that requires a death to all that is in the past and a rebirth to a new life answering to voices from the immutable plan moving behind all the concrete symbols and giving our world it cohesive story. This call may occur at birth with signs indicating the sacred nature of the newborn’s calling. Membrane of an infant’s amniotic sac is interpreted by the midwife of the Maya of Lake Atitlan in highland Guatemala. If this membrane is perceived to be a “little shoulder bag,” then the child is destined to be a shaman (1975:708). Eliade makes reference to a similar practice by the Yurak-Samoyed in Siberia. A shaman’s new-born son with a caul or “shirt” of membrane is called by the gods to become a shaman (1964:16).

A call may come later in life and in this case directly to the initiate at transition times such as adolescence. Take for instance the case of adolescent boys among the Siberian people receiving the call to become a “soft man being” (1975:23). The call from the spirit guides requires the initiate to “braid his hair like a woman’s and put on woman’s clothing (1975:23). Eventually the young shaman relinquishes all his former male traits and fully takes on a feminine role. The ramifications of not obeying such a call and its requirements may be dire. Many young Siberian shamans who received this call have committed suicide rather than follow these commands (1975:23).

In contrast, John Fire Lame Deer, a Lakota Sioux medicine man, sought his call through a vision quest out of the desire to be a medicine man. He believed that becoming a medicine man is not taught although the skills and rituals can be acquired in that manner. Learning the techniques, like training in ‘white man’s’ medical school are meaningless without being infused with the power of a vision, a call (1979:70-73). At the age of sixteen, after purification by means of a sweat lodge, he sat crouched in a vision pit on the same place that his ancestors had sought their visions and meditated for two hundred years (1979:73-74). There, alone for the first time in his young life, he is “swallowed into the unknown” and remained for four days and nights miles from any other human without food or drink waiting for the “call to adventure” that would call him to the vocation of medicine man (1979:74-75, 90).

Now, the boy who would become Lame Deer separated himself to go to a spiritual threshold that would open him to receive his call from supernatural forces. These forces or guiding spirits came to him in this manner:

“a voice was trying to tell me something. It was a bird cry, but I tell you, I began to understand some of it…I heard a human voice too, strange and high-pitched, a voice which could not come from an ordinary, living being. All at once I was way up there with the birds…A voice said, “You are sacrificing yourself here to be a medicine man. In time you will be one. You will teach other medicine men. We are the fowl people, the winged ones, the eagles and the owls…A man’s life is short. Make yours a worthy one (1979:74-75).

Four arduous days and nights were a period of awakening and transformation. The young boy’s life was dismembered by means of his experiences. His old ways of being no long fit the man he had become. Change is made manifest to the community by the giving of a new name. Lame Deer recounts the words of Chest, the old medicine man mentoring him saying “the vision pit had changed me in a way that I would not be able to understand at that time. He told me I was no longer a boy, that I was a man now. I was Lame Deer” (1979:75).

Transformative moments are also seen within myths and dreams. Campbell tells us that there is an “irresistible fascination about the figure that appears suddenly as guide, marking a new period, a new stage, in the biography” (1949:55). The awakening to this call is not always immediate. Future Buddha, Prince Gautama Sakyamuni, received a series of four calls prior to his coming aware of the invitation being given him. Protected from the realities of the world and indulged with every earthly pleasure the future Prince inadvertently encounters the realities of the world. During four different carriage rides on four separate days, he comes upon that which his father had shielded him from which are “all knowledge of age, sickness, death or monkhood” (1949:56). The final segment of the call, monkhood, has been setup by exposure to and awareness of suffering through age, sickness, and death (1949:57). Now, the call is strong enough to entice Gautama Sakyamuni to leave the comfortable realm of the known and begin his adventure. Life as he had lived it is no longer an adequate expression of his transformed view of the world. Things no longer fit. He answers the hero’s call, takes the risk, transcends the known and strives to become transformed through the unknown.

Found within the Popol Vuh, the Quiche Maya myth of creation is a tale of twin boys, Hunahpu and Xbalanque. The “call to adventure” is also illustrative here in the story of twins who reside with their mother and grandmother. Distressed that their garden had been magically prepared for planting is returned to its original state overnight, the boys lay in wait to apprehend the culprits who are causing this impediment. In the middle of the night, the boys hear the forest creatures call out, “Arise, conjoin, you trees! Arise, conjoin, you bushes!” (1985:110). The creatures parade by Hunahpu and Xbalanque. They snatch deer and rabbit by the tail and each break off explaining the stub tails of these creatures down to today. All the animals evaded capture but rat is caught in a net. They seize the rat choking him and burning his tail over the fire leaving all future rats with hairless tails (1985:111). Rat reveals to them that gardening is not their job. They have another destiny. The twins demand for the nature of this destiny to be revealed and the rat responds “My word is in my belly, and after I name it for you, you’ll give me my morsel of food” (1985:111). Pledging they will honor their promise to feed the rat, they receive the information that ‘opens the door’ to their destiny:

“Very well. It’s something that belonged to your father, named One Humahpu and Seven Hunahpu, who died in Xibalba. What remains is their gaming equipment. They left it up under the roof of the house: their kilts, their wrist guards, their rubber ball. But your grandmother doesn’t take these down in front of you, because this is how your fathers died” (1985:111)

This is the irresistible call to the hero’s journey referred to so eloquently by Campbell. The veil between the known and the unknown is torn open and the secrets of the past revealed. The game of the boy’s father contains too great an attraction to turn away. It is their destiny to ‘play out’ their role. The twins’ journey will take them into dangerous territory both physically and spiritually. They will, as with the shaman, have spirit guides to protect and guide them through their trials if they shed the scales from their eyes which have limited their vision and push forward fearlessly through this new terrain.

As lonely, isolated, and unconventional as the shamanic path may be, initiates do have the aid of spirit guides, benevolent helpers who use their magical powers to assist in overcoming the obstacle that will impede their progress during their journey. Eliade tells us of an Avam Samoyed initiate who met the “Lady of the Water” and the “Lord of the Underworld” and was given “two guides, an ermine and a mouse, to lead him to the underworld.” There he was taught about different diseases that plague humankind. Spirit guides, angels, magical creatures of all sorts, and anthropomorphic creatures are all possibilities for help in the shamanic and mythical plan. The transparent membrane between the material world and the supernatural is torn apart and the hero, be he/she shaman or mythical hero transcends the confines of the mundane. Nothing is as it had appeared. Whatever trials the initiate has to withstand, no matter how terrifying or life threatening, these supernatural assistants teach the skills of alchemy.

Now, the shaman and the epic hero are swallowed into the “worldwide womb image” (as Jonah was in the belly of the whale) and “would appear to have died” (1949:90). Hunahpu and Xbalanque, the twin heroes of the Popol Vuh, descend into the underworld at the summons of Xibalbans the gods that reside there. They enter several dark chambers each devised by the gods to defeat them including the Razor House designed to slash them to pieces and the Jaguar House in which they are to be ripped to shreds. This symbolizes the act of being ripped from the ego. The old self is being dismembered through the trials that demand new dimensions of the self to be revealed.

For many shamans this process takes place through a period of trial, as with Lame Deer, or may entail a period of sickness. The account of a Gol’d shaman was recorded in the early 1900’s by Lev Iakovlevich Shternberg, a Russian ethnographer. At the age of twenty this shaman felt seriously ill and remained that way until he embraced shamanic practice on his own. During his illness while in bed a beautiful woman appear to him and said “I am the ayami [this is a spirit teacher] of your ancestors, the shamans. I taught them shamaning. Now I am going to teach you. The old shamans have died off, and there is no one to heal people. You are to become a shaman” (1979:121). It was after this illness he “married” this spirit and came under her tutelage.


“Shamanic initiation demands a rending of the individual from all that constitutes his or her past…the shaman is an observer of his or her own dismemberment. In that state of awareness, he or she learns the territory of death” (1979:13). Joan Halifax

“The agony of breaking through personal limitations is the agony of spiritual growth….As he crosses threshold after threshold, conquering dragon after dragon, the stature of the divinity that he summons to his highest wish increases, until it subsumes the comos. Finally, the mind breaks the bounding sphere of the cosmos to a realization transcending all experiences of form-all symbolizations, all divinities: a realization of the ineluctable void” (1949:190). Joseph Campbell


Initiation and its trials include struggle with the supernatural and if successful a transformed life for the epic hero or the shaman. For the Gol’d shaman it was surrendering himself to the requirements of his ayami who transfigured herself into an “old woman,” or “winged tiger,” or as a “wolf” in these forms being “terrible to look at” (1979:121). In exchange or this submission, he was granted a new life he was resurrected with the gift to heal.

Joel, a young man from Brooklyn searching for his correct path, approached Adamie a Dogrib Indian shaman to “learn the path of the shaman” (1979:149). His first encounter with Adamie, the call, evoked unexplained fear. Joel began to “feel a sweaty fear of survival” at the same time rationalizing that it was “crazy” to feel that way “just because an old Indian, tattooed by the wind and cold, had spoken to me was no reason to run” (1979:150). He did not run for he could not resist the call. He soon found himself undergoing the initiation into the hero’s journey. His description of Adamie’s investigation of his spirit reveals the core of what the trial period of the journey is meant to refine. He reports that “Whatever [Adamie] had been done, he snatched me,…looked at all the cracks in my soul, saw what he liked and what he didn’t like” (1979:149). The “cracks” in Joe’s “soul’ are revealed to his teacher and now they will be dismembered during the arduous trials of the hero’s journey. For Joel, this entailed beatings, whippings, baths in ice cold water, and being badgered in ordinary reality or what is called by Michael Harner as ordinary states of consciousness.* These trials where designed, like those of the mythic hero, to tear him from attachment to his past life and make way for something new. This brutal ‘boot camp” method loosens the grip on what is known, perceived to be valid and the ‘only way’ making way for its destruction.

Entranced, Joel envisioned creatures surrounding him that “rip and tear, take pieces” of him as he fell down. He says, “when I hit bottom they all descended on me and tore me up: a falcon on my eyes, a many toothed dog pawing my backbone” (1979:155). Finally, rather than fear and resistance, he “obeyed the fear and went with it.” Then, “some spirit-some force-cried Stop! “ and he was “put back together again” (1979:155). Here is the process of “purification of the self” where “senses are ‘cleansed and humbled” and the focus becomes one “concentrated on the transcendental” (1949:101). Following the dismemberment is reintegration of the self. Joel tells us that:

“Something was there that wasn’t there before, but as it put itself, molded itself, back together I began to understand that something had been added. Instead of being structured 1-2-3, I was structure 1-2-3 and 4. That 4 was very important, it made that whole thing more than it had been” (1979:155).

This is the awareness that the death to the past self and the reforming of the dismembered elements have created something new. Disassociation has taken place and can be seen in the use of “it put itself…back together” rather than I put myself back together. This was a completely alien form. It was not the person that existed before the dismemberment although it is composed of the same material. The same elements with an additional “something” integrated into the form making it all new. The resurrected incorporates the gift within the new form.

* “In engaging in shamanic practice, one moves between what I term an Ordinary State of Consciousness (OSC) and a Shamanic State of Consciousness (SSC). These states of consciousness are the keys to understanding, for example, how Carlos Castaneda can speak of an :ordinary reality and a “nonordinary reality.” The difference in these states of consciousness can perhaps be illustrated by referring to animals. Dragons, griffins, and other animals the would be considered “mythical” by us in the OSC are “real in the SSC “(1980: xix).

Trials, dismemberment, and resurrection are also seen in the myth of the hero twins in the Popol Vuh which says of Hunahpu and Xbalanque, “They did whatever they were instructed to do, going through all the dangers, the troubles that were made for them, but they did not die from the tests of Xibalba nor were they defeated by all the voracious animals that inhabit Xibalba” (1985:130).

First, the twins endured the Dark House. They were required to do the impossible by the gods, to keep the light of a single torch and a cigar each burning all night and return them unconsumed in the morning. Here within the underworld the twins plunge further into the unknown where all illumination is shut out. Artificial lighting is given to them by the gods that is inadequate for their long night of darkness. The twins create their own ‘artificial light’ transforming the tail of a macaw to look like a torch and fireflies into embers of the cigar (1985:119). This signals the beginning of the transformation process that is taking place. The exterior elements, props are expressions of the twins’own metamorphosis that will come upon successful completion of the tests.

The Macaw House (which corresponds to the Bat House in a later test) was founded by mythical characters that “stole fire form the Quiches rather than pledge themselves as sacrifice victims” (1985:337). This is an interesting relationship as the twins appear to see in spiritual darkness. They use the tail of the macaw knowing it will illuminate by giving reference to the bat sight that is not through physical eyes but relies on a mysterious source of information that sees through the opaque realm of the mundane into the transcendent.

Macaw House is also the name of one of the first four women created by the gods (1985:347). By the fourth test, the twins are deep within the womb of this first mother. It is here that the dismemberment begins; as a necessary step prior to being made new. Humahpu looses his head to a snatch-bat but his brother Xbalanque calls the animals and uses their food to create a new temporary head. By trickery, they are able to recover Humahpu’s head which they reunite with his body. He moves back and forth from a transformed state to his old form becoming master of both (1985:126-129).

The twins are seen as undefeated by the gods but now, passing all the tests, and,disassociated from their past, they must completely die to their former selves; to be reshaped into new resurrected beings. Aware of this, the twins know the gods will kill them. Duality exists here in that death is now necessary because the twins did not die during the tests proving they are ready for the metamorphosis that can only take place after complete destruction. So in winning they must die to their former selves. They reconcile their “individual consciousness with the universal will” (1945:238).

Summonsed by the messengers of One Death and Seven Death,* they know the fate laid out for them, death by fire. Taking their fate into their own hands the boys plunge into the oven created for their destruction. Joseph Campbell points out that fire is part of the Stoic teachings “of the cyclic conflagration” where “all souls are resolved into the world soul or primal fire” (1949:262). Returning to this fire the twins have merged themselves with their beginnings. As with the Stoics, the time for “the formation of a new universe” is at hand (1949:262). In preparation for this, each of the brothers bones are ground separately on a stone in the same way the sacred “corn is refined into flour” and

* The one and seven in the names of One Death and Seven Death as well as One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu who are the joint fathers of the twins are, according to Dennis Tedlock, symbolic of the “thirteen possible numbers, occurring first and last among the number prefixes of any given day name” (185:351). This would correlate with the idea of the alpha and the omega meaning the beginning and end in the Christian Greek scriptures of the Bible. This reinforces the idea of the cyclical nature of the Maya world. Yellow and white corn is the medium used by the gods to create the first acceptable humans (1985:146).

then they are” spilled into the river” (1985:130). Rising up from the river they are resurrected in new form. Transmuted by the trials they have passed through, they return to confront the gods one final time. Disguised as vagabonds they defeat the gods thereby gaining immortality by destroying One Death and Seven Death.


“The dissolution of the contraries-life and death, light and dark, male and female and reconstitution of the fractured forms is one of the most consistent impulses in the initiation and transformation process as experienced by the shaman. To bring back to an original state that which was in primordial times whole and is now broken and dismembered is not only an act of unification but also a divine remembrance of a time when a complete reality existed” (1979:22).                                                                           Joan Halifax

“Freedom to pass back and forth across the world division, from the perspective of the apparitions of time to that of the causal deep and back- not contaminating the principles of the one with those of the other, yet permitting the mind to know the one by virtue of the other- is the talent of the master. The Cosmic Dancer…” (1949:229).                                            Joseph Campbell

Returning Over the Threshold-Master of Two Worlds
Returning from the journey to reintegrate into one’s original community is the final challenge for the hero and the shaman. How to bring back the gifts received by infusing the transformed self and the ineffable into everyday life is a task even those who have passed through the fire find daunting.

Joel must leave the isolation of Adamie’s home and the fish camp and pass over the threshold back into his own culture. He must leave the protective womb where his re- creation has taken place and bring his “new song” back with him. This is how he talks about the gift he was given, “There was a sound and it was coming up from within me. I was singing a song, the song of my experience, and I felt the song gave me new strength and power. I knew I must remember that song. It is my medicine song…” (1979:155). The journey, however does not stop here, he is driven to continue saying “other forces are calling me to continue…” (1979:155). To refuse to continue would be to stay in the physical and emotion “barrenness” that denial of his true path would hold for him. But, he questions how it is possible to reintegrate and share the gift he has received. He says:

“It’s coming back into the world with a song after having a vision-but then there aren’t many people to share it with, not like a primitive tribe where you can come back and say, “Here are my bear’s teeth or my vision, this is what my name is, this is the spirit who guides me” (1979:156).

Joel says he is “coming back into the world” with an acknowledgment of his transcendent experience. He has triumphed and yet, bringing back the spoils of victory may be a greater feat and more intimidating that the trials he has undergone. He is not alone in his feeling of intimidation at this juncture of the journey. Buddha also questioned whether he could communicate the “message of realization” (1949:195). This is a responsibility that is oft times refused (19949:195). However, Joel rises to the challenge and would not be defeated declaring beautifully:

“I felt I had to go back to my own culture, to work things out. I had to somehow take the little I mastered back to my own culture, and make it work there. There’s no grounding mythology for me here, no strong physical presence of a human guide, but the song remains. The song is always there” (1979:156).

He has sacrificed himself, been transmuted and has arisen in a new form – a form in which spiritual vision is a gift for both himself and his community. As master of both the mundane and the spiritual, he can step through the thin shear membrane that separates these two realms at will. Joel intuitively recognizes that the gift brought back from “the transcendent deep becomes quickly rationalized into nonentity” (1949:218).

As with Joel, the hero twins of the Popol Vuh return to make their move over the threshold. The twins transcend the earthly plan and provide illumination both day and night. Xbalanque becomes the moon and Hunahpu the sun (1985:141). They are, therefore, both the physical and spiritual light of the world. There is a single Quiche word for sun-moon which refers to all “heavenly bodies” moving before a background of “fixed stars” which includes but is not limited to the sun and moon (1985:357). The two boys are the off-spring of One and Seven Hunahpu who’s names “stand for all thirteen possible numbers” (1985:351). They are much more than they appear to be at first glance, as they are the product of the beginning and the end. They become the foreground of heavenly knowledge playing out on a background of fixed opaque ideas. The knowledge they possess brings clarity, transparency where there once was dense nothingness. They have grasped the knowledge of not only their “personal fate, but also the fate of mankind, of life as a whole, the atom and all the solar systems, has been opened” (1949:234).

Within each twenty-four hour period the twins continue to die as they plunge behind the horizon line, each in their own time, and then arise regenerated. The red hot fire of the male image of the sun creates but also can incinerate. The mysterious female moon is the guiding light giving vision while the earth is shrouded; all beings are enclosed in a womb of darkness. The womb provides protective fertile ground for regeneration. Just as the twins (during their trials) learned how to easily come back to life after being dismembered time and again, they now do so in their return (1985:136-137). Back and forth from total destruction to resurrection they are free to live in both worlds. This is what Joseph Campbell calls the “Eternal, all-pervading, unchanging, immovable” self that is “the same forever” (1949:238). It is the recognition that the old can be thrown aside and a new body taken on. True self transcends the physical matter and cannot be destroyed.

This regeneration is prefigured through two corn plants the twins had planted prior to their journey. These stalks of corn were their communication to their grandmother who prayed and offered incense up in front of the corn in memory of her two grandsons (1985:139). When they were burned in the oven, the corn which had grown, dried up, and later turned green once again, to symbolize their transformation into new beings-the beginning of creation. Here the twins have already begun to bring their gift back to those who wait at home. Grandmother is a seer and knows how to read the signs. For those who are willing to see, the message is clear. It is writ before us all waiting only for our answer to the call. Transcend the physical realm in which we have become bogged down and step into the realm of the visionary.

The hero’s journey is a narrative embedded in the lives of all who dare to truly live. To embark on this journey is a call, a yearning that is in every human being. By answering the call to risk shedding the familiar and to step-over the threshold into the wilderness, one begins to examine the set parameters of the known and to learn to read the signs that makes individual existence one of fulfillment and meaning. The illuminating freedom received as a result of this journey is transcendence. The ‘ego’ has been released and the individual by sacrificing the self has risen above the boundaries of the former self. Made new, the hero, ironically, strengthens the intricate web of earthly existence by destroying all the conventions of the earthly realm.


Campbell, Joseph
1949 The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Eliade, Mircea
1964 Shamanism:ArchaicTechniquesofEcstasy.(BollingenSeries

LXXVI)Translated by Willard R. Trask, Princeton, Princeton University

Press. Halifax, Joan.                                                                             1979 Shamanic Voices: a Survey of Visionary Narratives. New York: Dutton. Paul, Lois and Benjamin                                 

1975 The Maya Midwife as Sacred Specialist: A Guatemalan Case. American Ethnologist Vol 2 No 4:707-728.

Tedlock, Dennis.
1985 Popol Vuh: the Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life. New York: Simon and Schuster.

COPYRIGHT © 2004 by Barbara E. Verchot