The Five Stages of the Hero Quest

There are five stages of the heroic quest if it is fully developed, but in some hero tales only two or three appear. To illustrate the points of the quest two of three examples will be given, but it is expected that you will be able to use other heroes of differing types as illustrations.

1) The Call to Adventure
Each hero receives a call to his task--either through some inner voice of feeling of through outside circumstances. he may eagerly accept of bluntly refuse his task. (If he refuses, he is usually forced through trickery or violence to accept.)

Theseus -- as soon as he heard of the predicament of Athens- the sacrifice of the youth to the Minotaur--, he volunteered to go.

Jason -- actually suggested the search for the golden fleece to his uncle Pelias.

Odysseus -- refused to answer the call to the Trojan War by pretending madness, but was tricked into going.

2) The Struggle or the Crossing of the Threshold

These are the steps into the world of conflict and danger, which may be conceive in human terms (e.g. a war) or in religious and mythological symbolism (e.g. monsters the lower world). The hero often has a helper (human or divine) who aids him with extra knowledge and strength. At times the hero must seem to die to his old life in order to enter the world of the quest (e.g. disappearance for years, descent to the underworld.).

Theseus -- his entrance into the labyrinth with the help of Ariadne

Jason -- sailing through a series of more of less human adventure into the Black Sea (most crucial symbol- the Clashing Rocks)

3) The Tests of his Will, Abilities, and Endurance

These test (whether only one or a series) usually take the form of conflict or battle with monsters, natural forces, or hostile humans. Again, the hero may have help, but he must successfully overcome the obstacles himself.

Theseus -- this aspect is either missing or occurs earlier (his tasks on his way to Athens)

Jason -- the impossible tasks in Colchis, which Medea helped him perform, but which still tested his own abilities

4) The Ordeal and its Reward
This is the supreme test of everything the hero is and represents, and ultimately decides his fitness to be a hero. It ends in his triumphant reward which may be expressed in terms of human love (marriage), triumph in battle, reunion, possession of some treasure or precious substance, or deification.

Theseus -- symbol of the rising civilization of Greece (Athens) against the dying, tyrannical one of Crete (epitomized in the Minotaur), slew the monster and won the triumph of freeing Athens from bondage, and marrying the princess Ariadne

Jason -- again with Medea's help, succeeded in seizing the Golden Fleece

5) The Return

If the successful accomplishment of the heroic task is to be truly beneficial, then the hero must return to the world he left, bringing the princess, gift, treasure knowledge, of whatever it is with him. If he is the symbol of a group, then he is bringing a benefit to them all.

Sometimes his return is aided by the gods or other forces; sometimes he must flee hostile forces that resent his seizure of the reward. This is a theme of renewal and rebirth, the way the old individual, nation, and/or world can be restored and live again.

The hero's return, though often greeted with approval, sometimes is not appreciated by others; and he himself may be tempted to stay in the world of bliss; but by returning he does more good than by staying. [cf. Plato's Allegory of the Cave, where the philosopher who has gained true knowledge finds it his duty to return to the cave of false knowledge to spread the truth, even though he knows they will not believe him and may even born him.]

Theseus -- though his return is marred by his desertion of Ariadne, nevertheless he brought freedom and new life to Athens. His coming out of the labyrinth (holding the thread of life) is, like the revival of vegetation in the spring, a symbol of rebirth.

Jason -- because the forces were still hostile to him (as symbolized by the king and his son), he and Medea had to flee with the fleece and were pursued

This document was placed on the web by Professor Thomas J. Sienkewicz for his students in CLAS230 Classical Mythology at Monmouth College, Monmouth, Illinois. It is based upon material he has used in mythology classes for many years, first at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and then at Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois. If you have any questions, you may contact him at