The idea of what exactly a hero is, is subject to change with whoever is answering the question because the idea of a hero is redefined as society changes and its pantheon of heroes changes (White, O’brien 17). Some will say a hero is a someone who saves other people or someone who has powers or just simple someone people are able to look up to. Christopher Reeve, popular for playing one of the most well known heroes, Superman, is quoted as saying “a hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles” (5).
Regardless of what a hero is, they always seem to conform to Joseph Campbell’s monomyth called the Hero’s Journey which has three overarching themes: The Departure, The Initiation and The Return (Campbell, 34) Two heroes that are very well known in today’s society despite the vast time gap between them are The Odyssey’s Odysseus and Spider-man’s Peter Parker.
In both of these stories these main character’s cycle through most of the seventeen stages of The Hero’s Journey, although, not always in exact order. This conformity to Campbell’s idea shows that no matter the time period, be they ancient Greece or modern times, heroes share similarities and some differences within their individual journeys.
The Odyssey was written by Homer is an epic Grecian poem thought to be written during the 8th century B.C. It is the sequel to Homer’s first poem, The Iliad, and focusses mainly on the central character, Odysseus’s, journey to return back to his wife, Penelope, and his son, Telemachus, in his home of Ithaca, where he reigns as king.
The book outlines all of the different trials and challenges Odysseus faces, like battling mystical creatures and trying to survive against the wrath of the gods, during his 10-year trek home after fighting in the Trojan War (Homer). He does eventually return home, though, by the end of the poem and is reunited with his family.
The 2002 film, Spider-Man, directed by Sam Raimi is an adaptation of the story of Peter Parker aka, Spider-Man who was originally a comic book character. This movie follows his journey he undergoes after being bitten by a radioactive spider on a class field trip. He is imbibed with the ability to climb walls, super strength and is able to swing around the city with webs that shoot out of his wrists (Spider-man). He uses his abilities to help those around him by creating his superhero alter-ego, Spider-man and faces many difficulties during his transformation like the death of a family member and not being able to love who he wants, Mary Jane. He does find peace with himself and his abilities by the movies conclusion, though, and becomes a hero that his city can depend on.
In his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell walks his readers through seventeen stages that make up his idea of The Hero’s Journey. The Departure is the first part of this which includes the call to adventure, the refusal of the call, supernatural aid, crossing the threshold and the belly of the whale (Campbell, 34). The character lives in a world that is ordinary to the other characters and receives a call to embark on some kind of adventure but they are reluctant to go but they experience something that prompts them to go with the help of a mentor. The Initiation is the second part and it is comprised of the road of trials, the meeting with the goddess, woman as temptress, atonement with the father, apotheosis and the ultimate boon (Campbell, 34).
During this section the character has begun the adventure and must face multiple tests that challenge their progress but ultimately the character is able to overcome and completes their quest. The last of the Hero’s Journey, The Return, is made up of the refusal of the return, the magic flight, rescue from without, the crossing of the return threshold, master of two worlds and freedom to live (Campbell, 35). This section of the journey is when the character returns back to the ‘ordinary’ world while keeping everything they learned during their adventure which allows him insight between both of the worlds he has encountered.
The departure of both characters start within their own, individual ordinary worlds, where they experience the call and the refusal of the call to adventure before crossing over the threshold with the help of their supernatural aids. One of the obvious differences within this section of their journeys is origin of their characters. Odysseus is living the life of a king, ruling over his land of Ithaca with a wife and a son (Homer). Peter on the other hand is a nerdy high-school kid living with his aunt and uncle in the Queens borough of New York (Spider-man).
Within both of their worlds they are presented with an adventure they must embark upon. Odysseus is called upon to fight in the Trojan War when the Trojans attack the people of Greece. Unwilling to leave his newborn son and his wife, Odysseus refuses and tries to stay in Ithaca instead of leaving and pretends to not be of sound mind, but is ultimately forced to go to war when the Greeks test him by putting Telemachus’ life in danger. Peter’s call comes in the form of a radioactive spider bite he gets on a school field trip that gives him amazing powers and abilities. Not recognizing that this is in fact a ‘call to adventure’ Peter chooses to hid his abilities and use them for his own gain (Koh, 742). He uses his powers to win money in cage fights in order to buy a car to impress his crush. At one moment Peter allows a robber to go past him instead of stopping him in order to get revenge on the man who would not pay him for one of his fights which results in the death of his beloved uncle.
The next steps in the departure section of the Hero’s Journey are the supernatural aid and the crossing of the first threshold. The aid acts as the hero’s mentor who prompts them into leaving their ordinary world and embarking upon their true quest (Campbell, 34). This is shown in The Odyssey when after ten years of fighting, the Trojan War was finally over and Odysseus tried to make his way back home to Ithaca. On his way there Zeus became angry with him and as punishment he wrecked Odysseus’ ship, trapping him on an island with Calypso.
After seven years of being on the island, Athena begs and pleads with the other gods to allow Odysseus to return home, to which they agree before sending Hermes down to inform Calypso of their decision (Homer). Odysseus thinks she is trying to trick him but he realizes that she is serious and he starts his real journey home, crossing the threshold by committing to this quest to return home. Calypso’s island has become a secondary, ordinary world to Odysseus as he has been there for almost a decade. He is reluctant to leave but his desire to see his family outweighs his fear and he listens to the urgings of Athena and crosses the threshold out of the world he has become comfortable with (Taheri, Jalaly 256).
Peter’s aid comes in the form of his Uncle Ben. Peter is going to another one of his cage fights under the guise of going to the public library and his uncle offers to drive him there. When they park, Uncle Ben tells Peter how worried he and his wife are about the mysterious changes he is going through and he tells Peter to remember that “with great power, comes great responsibility” (Spider-man). A few hours after this Uncle Ben is killed by the robber that Peter allows to walk past him. Peter then goes to seek revenge on his uncle’s killer and when he succeeds he realizes that he wants to live by his uncle’s advice and in turn he becomes Spider-man, which is his own crossing of the threshold. His world of secret cage fighting became his norm until his uncle’s words really sank in after his death and he leaves this world he knows and crosses over into the unknown world of being Spider-man (Koh, 742).
The second part of the Hero’s Journey is the Initiation. During this section the heroes undergo many challenges and trials that test the strength of their character, both physically and mentally (Cambell, 34). Odysseus encounters many obstacles on his road of trials, one of the most notable being his battle with the Cyclops, Polyphemus. He comes across the Cyclops as he and his men are looking for food for their trip and they come across Polyphemus’ flock of sheep. The Cyclops becomes irate and begins eating Odysseus’ men in two before Odysseus gets him drunk and blinds him by stabbing his eye and the rest of the men get away by tying themselves to the sheep.
Odysseus must also triumph over deadly sirens and lotus eaters. He must also resist his meeting with the Goddess, Circe who in this case is also the woman temptress, as she succeeds in convincing Odysseus to stay with her, if only for a short while, before he sets off again and segues into his time with the Phoenicians (Homer). His time with the Phoenicians where he spends a good amount of time telling his tale is his apotheosis which Campbell says is the time for self-reflection, where the hero prepares himself with his new knowledge, for the next part of his journey (41). After he is done telling his story to the Phoenicians they accompany him back to Ithaca, prompting Odysseus to reach the stage of the final boon, which is the achievement of his goal of getting home to his family.
Peter, now Spider-man, has his own set of trials just as Odysseus did, one of them being figuring out the range and limitations of his powers. One of the biggest trials Spider-man faces is his battle with the Green Goblin that he has during a parade in the city. The Green Goblin starts to attack civilians and at one point blows up a balcony, resulting in civilians almost falling to their certain death. Spider-man perseveres, though, and ends up saving everyone and defeating his foe, albeit, temporarily. This defeat, shows that Spider-man is gaining a better understanding of his powers at this point in time which inches him towards the final battle he will have with the Green Goblin, who he has discovered is the father of his best friend. This knowledge that he has acquired is his own apotheosis (Koh, 744).
The Green Goblin discovers Spider-man’s true identity which puts the lives of the people that he loves in danger and that triggers a final battle between Spider-man and the Green Goblin that results in the Green Goblin’s death. This death is Spider-man’s ultimate boon because Spider-man’s quest was to ultimately protect the ones he loves from his enemies. A difference between the two heroes’ Initiation is that while Odysseus has a meeting with the goddess and the woman temptress, Peter only cycles through the road of trials, the apotheosis and the final boon.
The third and final part of The Hero’s Journey is the Return. During The Return the heroes must cross the return threshold maintaining their newly acquired knowledge and wisdom they gained on their quest (Campbell, 35). This knowledge and wisdom will in turn establish and cement their freedom to live because of their understanding of the two worlds they have become a part of. Odysseus, finally back home where he belongs, witnesses first hand the numerous suitors who have been vying for his wife’s attention while he’s been away.
Instead of becoming violent with them as he surely would have during his younger years, Odysseus seeks council from the gods, in a show of respect, and successfully rids his palace of them. This is Odysseus’ crossing of the return threshold which means he is now able to reenter his ordinary world while applying everything he learned while on his quest which is also shows him becoming master of two worlds. He has learned to balance the life he lived while on his journey with the life he lived before his journey. This balance that Odysseus has achieved is the final step of the Hero’s Journey, the freedom to live, which he has acquired because of the peace he has having accomplished his quest.
Spider-man’s crossing of the return threshold comes in the form of him rejecting the love of his life. He has done this because he realizes that as long as he continues to be Spider-man, the people he loves will always be in danger and no matter how powerful he is, he will not always be able to save them (Koh, 748). He is taking his uncle’s earlier words very seriously as he realizes, with the close call he had with the Green Goblin finding out who he really was, that the responsible thing for him to do is to keep his identity secret in order to keep his loved ones safe. This double life that he is living now as both Peter Parker and Spider-man is his mastering of two worlds. Although unable to love who he wants, Peter has achieved the freedom to live because he has made peace with his role as Spider-man and with his secret abilities that aid him in keeping his loved ones safe.
A hero is many different things depending on who it is that has been asked and the role of a hero is ever changing because society is ever changing. Despite the mixed answers on what exactly a hero is, when put into writing or on film, hero’s often undergo the same series of events that is known as The Hero’s Journey. The Departure, The Initiation and The Return are the overarching steps that both ancient heroes and modern heroes go through, like Odysseus and Spider-man. The fact that these two characters go through most of the same steps in their vastly different journeys shows that Campell’s idea of a formulaic journey for heroes, both ancient and modern heroes share man similar aspects of the journeys they are subject to.