Can the ‘Wheel of the Year’ structure be mapped as Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’?
The Wheel of the Sun
There is a little known place in north County Meath, which many locals have not even heard of or visited, called Sliabh na Caillí (or ‘Hill of the veiled one’), more popularly called ‘Loughcrew’. It is one of the first places I loved when I began my Irish travels, and it is the place I’m blessed to now call home.
It is one of the great megalithic complexes of Ireland; a series of hills dotted with about 30 stone cairns built by a Neolithic farming society 5 or 6 thousand years ago. They are possibly the oldest man-made structures in Europe, and the site is 2,000 years older than its more popular cousin, Newgrange.
There is a tremendous amount of lore, possibilities and magic to be found in such a site, but its main function, in my view, was as one huge calendar. Many of the cairns (or what remains of them) have been discovered to have alignments with various points of what is known as the ‘Wheel of the Year’: a division of the year in 8 equidistant points which marks the journey of the Sun through a full year, and our psychological response to the varying amounts of sunlight during its travels. What’s more mindblowing is that this society built a handful of similar sites, all around the island, in many cases aligned with each other through miles and miles of bog and mountain.
Even though in modern times the word ‘Celtic’ has been attached to the concept of the ‘Wheel of the Year’, it has existed for thousands of years before the coming of a metal-working people who became eventually known as the ‘Gaels’ (what is indeed incredible is that the Gaels did observe, and in many ways keep observing, the same cosmovision). It is really likely that this new society either absorbed or destroyed the builders of megalithic sites, as apparently there’s currently no genetic link discovered between the modern Irish’s ancestors and the Neolithic people (also, and it is no small thing, there is no archaeological evidence of use or habitation of these sites during the Iron Age, which is popularly thought of as the Gaelic ‘golden age’).
Loughcrew’s most popular alignment is of course Cairn T, which receives the sunrise light into the cairn on both Equinoxes, Spring and Autumn. But not many people know that Cairn U, just right next to it, is aligned with the sunrise at Imbolc; or that just on the other side, Cairn S is aligned with the sunset at Lughnasadh. Yet on the other side, Ken Williams has recently discovered a Summer Solstice alignment on Cairn V. On a different hill within the same complex, Cairn L is aligned with the sunrise at Samhain.
This place was built by a newcomer farming people, probably escaping some sort of dire situation in their homeland, and in terrible need to adapt their crops to the new climate of this island. I think they built these monuments to answer the most important question you must answer to re-create a society: WHEN are we? Building the cairns allowed them to keep track of the stages of the year, helping them to keep track of and engage with seasonal changes in weather, movements of herds and agricultural cycles.
In its most basic form, the Wheel of the Year is divided into four Solar Festivals (two solstices and two equinoxes, so a longest night and a longest day -solstices-, and two dates of equal amounts of day and night -equinoxes-) and four Fire Festivals (celebrations where nothing specifically is happening in the sky, but they mark the stages of the agricultural interactions of humans and land on the midway point between an equinox and a solstice).
The wheel is divided vertically into a Dark half of the year and a Light one (beginnings of Winter and beginnings of Summer). Turning sun-wise, starting from what is usually regarded as the ‘Gaelic New Year’ or Samhain, a time of introspection and incubation; to Winter Solstice, the longest night which is also the returning of the light, since right after it the days begin to lengthen; to Imbolg, the time for planting and gradually shaking off the Winter slumber; to the Spring Equinox, a time of equal dark and light where the outdoors feels inviting again; to Bealtine, the beginning of Summer and the blooming of life; to Summer Solstice, the longest day which is also the return of the dark, since right after it the days begin to shorten; to Lughnasadh, the time for harvesting and enjoying abundance; to Autumn Equinox, a second time of equal dark and light when we prepare to retreat inside again, and back to Samhain to begin all over again, even though we’ve been changed by the journey.
But could it be that the Wheel is also a map of our personal experiences of being human? Could it be that, as the Sun progresses through the year from its longest nights, to its longest days and back again, it also shows us the cycles in our own lives and experiences? What if the Wheel of the Sun is also a map for everyone who’s ever lived and experienced something worth telling about, some kind of change and growth, in other words, a Hero?*
*Apparently the term ‘hero’ is academically accepted as gender-neutral word, so by using it I am in no way whatsoever referring specifically to males.
But, what is a Hero?
Dropping all modern references and meanings attached to the word ‘hero’ in this age of Cinematic Universes and comic-book characters who favor muscles and tight spandex, the word carries a different meaning, a deeper, less tangible yet more universal motif.
Wiktionary gives us this etymology for the word Hero: “From Middle English heroes, from Old French heroes, from Latin hērōs (“hero”), from Ancient Greek ἥρως (hḗrōs, “demi-god, hero”), from Proto-Indo-European *ser- (“to watch over, protect”).”
A hero would be a remarkable individual who, by saying a strong “yes” to life and its challenges, would undertake an out-ward or in-ward journey to the depths of the human experience, leaving their known world and people behind and who would face the scariest, darkest corners of their own self; to obtain a certain wisdom, and eventually bring it back to be shared with the rest of society. This is almost a textbook definition of a spiritual journey of self-development, which is all that mythology really is: stories about how to be human, and what can we within reason expect to go right or wrong in such a journey. There is strong evidence for the practice of “hero-worship” in Ancient Greece, where a sort of shrine would spring up around the tomb of a remarkable individual, and people would come to this shrine to meditate and seek within themselves those qualities that they admired in the deceased hero.
Unfortunately, in modern times the word ‘hero’ has had strong patriarchal, separatist motifs attached to it, notions of being a ‘chosen one’ or being remarkable at the expense of others not being it.
In my own views, the ‘hero’ archetype is applicable to any human, of any gender, society, social status or beliefs, who has said “yes” to an initiatory experience of being alive, has voluntarily engaged with the joys and sorrows of the world, and has understood hence that any wisdom, skill or blessing they have obtained through that experience is never for themselves alone, but for society. I believe that’s the origin of the concepts of “defender” or “protector” that normally go hand in hand with the idea of hero: A hero helps heal the world around them through healing themselves. Their own shadows are a part of the shadows of humanity itself, so it follows that, by facing up to their own, the hero is facing up to the shadows of humanity.
As long as they breathe, all humans are constantly invited to do this by the mere fact of being alive. If there is indeed a “separating” element regarding who is a hero and who isn’t, it is this willingness to participate in the dance of life, or not. This dance can be anything, anything that invites you to say “yes, I’ll go”. A new job, a feeling, a creation, a walk in the park, a fight against evil, forgiveness to those who hurt us, even a trip to the grocery shop. Any human experience has the capacity to expand awareness, if you say yes to it.
This is why being ‘heroic’ is deemed remarkable: because a hero has chosen to go into the heart of reality and found what’s eternal in us, the mystery of life and death; and then they’ve informed society of what their own experience has been there, so that others are inspired and helped to have their own.
It is a beautiful, self-sustainable system of survival and development.
The exact process of how this happens, and the steps involved in the experience of being alive (which is available, by definition, to every single human), is told in every story we’ve ever told ourselves, in any age and any part of the world. We call it:
The Hero’s Journey
One of my greatest teachers in life has been Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) an American scholar of comparative mythology. He was the first academic in modern times to recognise a pattern in the mythologies of the world, through all times and cultures that ever existed.
During his research, he discovered something amazing: Every single story that was ever told in this world is the same story. Christians, Native-americans, Sumerians, Greeks, Chinese, Irish, Vikings, medieval Europeans, Ancient Egyptians, Muslims, Aboriginals, Aztecs. All of these people and more, across all those different eras and places, have always been telling the same story.
Of course, different places and circumstances will give the story specific flavours. Different peoples, at different times and places in human history have had different ways to interact with life as it is in their own environments. For example, the stories that the Polynesian peoples came up with in their world of sunlight are very different to the stories that the Vikings told about giants made of ice. But even though the details may vary, the core remains the same: both societies created stories to explain how to be human in their specific settings. It is the costume of the myth that changes from culture to culture and time to time. The essence of the story, just like the essence of being human, sentient and alive, is the same for all of us. We all breathe in and out, we are all born, we all grow, we all die.
How can this be? Campbell’s glorious insight was the realisation that though the details vary from story to story and teller to teller, every story ever worth writing about is in essence the same: The journey of an entity who has an experience which expands their awareness and makes them transition from one state of being into a higher, more self-realised one; and how this always has a positive impact in the world around them.
Not only that, but Campbell recognised that the same statement is true for any Human life that’s worth living. If there’s no growth and positive impact in your environment, what’s the worth of a life? Who wants to hear about a person or a character that does not change?
Campbell theorised a series of stages, steps in the journey, that every being, real or fictional, undergoes. Not all stories have the exact same amount of steps or in the same order, but to a huge degree, these are all stages that every character must go through. The best stories are the ones that lead us through these stages in a creative, dramatic and ingenious way. We all know the Hero will likely win in the end. What hooks us up is not knowing exactly how. And the more tension there is, the higher the stakes, the more we enjoy it.
Why? Because it reflects back to us our own lives. It is the reason the Greek invented theatre: to reflect our feelings back at us through the experience of catharsis.
These are stages which all of us go through in our real lives, as we grow and develop. And that’s the power of mythology: It shows that we all go through the same things as we live our lives, and that there is actually a human model we can follow in order to navigate life. Campbell specifies a difference between the folk-tale, which has the aim of entertaining, and mythology, the use of which is for spiritual instruction.
Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of Human life, helping us put our minds in touch with the experience of being alive. They are the clues left behind by those who have walked the labyrinth before us.
“Thinking in mythological terms helps to put you in accord with the inevitables of this vale of tears. You learn to recognise the positive values in what appear to be the negative moments and aspects of your life. The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty “yes” to your adventure.” – Joseph Campbell
The Hero’s Journey is divided between The ‘Ordinary World’ (where the Hero’s adventure begins, and to which he returns) and the ‘Special World’ (the realm of adventure outside the comfort zone, where the Hero experiences and experiments with change).
It begins in the Ordinary World, the ‘everyday’ life of the Hero, where they have little or no awareness of a certain problem or lack. Suddenly, something sparks an increase in their awareness of this problem and they have a Call to Adventure. The Hero will very often experience reluctance to change, a Refusal of the Call, but the only Heroes worth writing about are the ones who do dare to go on the adventure, so they’ll eventually embrace it. Then, they’ll meet a Mentor, a benevolent force that helps them overcome reluctance, offers guidance and imparts valuable lessons. Once ready, the Hero will do the Crossing of the First Threshold, meaning that they will take their steps into the Special World. Here, they’ll have Tests, Allies and Enemies; as well as experimenting with the needed change. As their skills and knowledge grow, they’ll prepare for the big change and Approach the time to actually go for it. This will be the Ordeal, the attempt at change, standing up to the opposing Shadow forces that are keeping them from their objective. The more tension between the Hero and their Shadow, the more enjoyable the drama that follows. If successful, the Hero will reap the Reward of facing up to their Shadow, and obtain a certain blessing, knowledge or boon needed to address the issue that set them off in the first place. But the adventure is far from over, and the Hero must now take the Road Back towards his ‘everyday’ life by re-dedicating themselves to the change they’ve experienced, who they’ve now become. Before they can rejoin society, and now back in the Ordinary World, the Hero must have one final confrontation with the Shadow, a go at definitely overcoming the problem, by applying all they’ve learned in the Special World. This usually implies a symbolic death and a Resurrection, since a part of themselves has died in the experience: they’re not who they used to be anymore. Experiencing Death of Self while still living is what charges the human experience with such meaning and potential for growth. Contact with what is timeless changes a person forever. Finally, the Hero obtains mastery over the problem that set them off in the first place – they Return with the Elixir, the blessing that they found in the Special World and, if they’ve really learned something from their adventure, they’ll put it in the service of something greater than himself.
In Campbell’s own words: “You leave the world you’re in and go into a depth, or into a distance or a height. There you come to what was missing in your consciousness in the world you formerly inhabited. Then comes the problem, either of staying with that, and letting the world drop off; or returning with that boon and trying to hold on to it as you move back into your social world again.”
This is true for stories, and true for life.
The Heroic Wheel
“One way or another, we all have to find what best fosters the flowering of our humanity in this contemporary life, and dedicate ourselves to that.” says Campbell.
One of the hardest challenges I had in my own Journey finding a way to move to Ireland, definitely a big part of my Ordeal stage, was not knowing exactly how long it would take for the necessary legalities to come through. As I traveled to and back from Ireland with short-stay visas, I faced years of bureaucratic uncertainty as the possibility of an European citizenship loomed sometimes close, sometimes far. Both the Heroes’ Journey and the Wheel of Year helped me make sense of where I was in life – where had I been, where I was now, where I was going, and why. Over time I wondered if they were both one and the same, a map left behind by generations and generations of seekers before me. By meshing some of the steps of the journey into the one, and juxtapositioning one on top of the other, it started to make sense.
The Heroic Wheel, as I’ve decided to call it, I divided in 4 quarters, or Seasons, each with its corresponding Element and overall theme of what occurs, internally, during each one.
• Winter / Introspection / Water
It starts at Samhain/The Ordinary World, the beginning of Winter, a time of no change and incubation. Like the life-force of plants, we’re like babies in the womb waiting for a cue to step out into the realm of experience. In a way, this is the Initiation of a journey. A blank slate.
From a time of no change, we come the Winter Solstice/The Call, an increased awareness of a problem or objective, a cue to step into action, even if we originally refuse it. It is the longest night, but also the triumph of Light since days begin to lengthen right after it. Like the Sun itself, it is a Birth, an invitation to say “yes” and go have an experience in the world.
• Spring / Illumination / Air
From that increased awareness of a problem we find ourselves committing to the necessary change we must undertake in order to solve it, at the stage of Imbolg/The Crossing. In this time of planting seeds we are choosing to engage with the world around us, taking our first steps out of our Known world of Becoming into the world of Being. This stage is an Inspiration, the divine clues of where to go and what to do now that we’ve chosen to do so.
After committing to change, we must now undergo the necessary training to obtain the skills needed to make that change a reality. This stage of Spring Equinox/Trials is the time of equal length of night and day. Friends, enemies, lessons, mistakes, triumphs and insights teach us the skills we need and help us measure our strengths and weaknesses. It is definitely a time of Growth.
• Summer / Ignition / Fire
Our training finished, we decide to go for it, we attempt to do the change we committed to and which launched us into action. This is Bealtine/The Ordeal, the beginning of the Light half of the year and the time when life itself blooms. This is a first test of how much we’ve learned so far, a taste of what we’re able to do when we face our own Shadows, our own Unknowns. By the mere act of showing up, there is a Restoration happening. This is the physical manifestation of affirming Life.
Life rewards the brave, and even the bravery of attempting to change is remarkable and heroic, regardless of the details of the result. And so we reach the stage of Summer Solstice/The Reward. We get to enjoy a breather moment, an exhilarating sensation of empowerment since we now know that it is possible to attempt change and survive. Our insight, our worldview, our spectrum of possibilities has expanded greatly, and we rejoice. It is a time of Health. But just like half-a-wheel ago, this triumphant time of Light redirects us back to Darkness: Days begin to shorten right after it.
• Autumn / Integration / Earth
What good is growth and development if it only serves you? The Stage of Lughnasadh/The Road Back is the otherside of the Call. We leave the realm of Adventure and cross back into a new Ordinary world (different because we are). It is the time of the harvest, and we’re called to establish our new selves in a new ‘everyday’ life, by having one last, final go at applying our newfound power. We come to terms with the change we’ve undergone by having one more experience that confirms we have been reborn anew, and our old way of being is no more. It is the Creation of something new.
From that acceptance of change we move into a stage of mastery over our original problem. In the Autumn Equinox/The Return, we’re again in a time of equal night and day. We integrate our experience and realise that we are now changed forever. The change we attempted gave us something we didn’t have before, and even if we go straight back to our original lifestyle or begin something new, we have changed. And because nothing is really disconnected, our new way of being can’t help but rippling around us, inspiring others, sharing the boon. We’ve let our old Self go, and we’ve become good pals with Death.
• There, and Back Again
Finally, we come to Samhain/The Ordinary World back again, all ready for a new journey, because there isn’t such a thing as ever being done with learning, growing and changing. While we breathe, while we are alive, while our hearts beat, we can always, always, always say yes to one more go in the merry-go-round. Or maybe I should call it the ‘merry-go-spiral’. We never really come back to the same starting point. After a go round the Wheel, the Ordinary World we come back to is always different to the one we set off from, because we have changed.
So, in even simpler terms, I find this is the most basic structure that marks the pace and progress of Human life as well as the rest of Nature:
Our starting points are always on a higher level than the ones before them, and the Road of Heroes, the Road of the Sun, the Road of Human Life itself moves in a spiral, ever upwards, ever forward, ever spirit-ward, ever rising over itself, like the original Big-Bang that set off matter and energy into motion and created the expanding Universe we call home.
Appendix: My Own Heroic Wheel
How did I get from visiting Ireland with a year-long work-and-holiday visa, to living full time in one of its most ancient megalithic sites, writing articles and making drawings inspired by Irish culture? Starting by taking the present as the end of the journey, and working my way backwards through the list, I can see a coherent path behind me, which felt anything but when I was back in the middle of it, not knowing how everything was gonna play out. This is a powerful exercise to obtain some perspective when the world seems unwelcoming:
1. Samhain / The Ordinary World
I was living in Ireland temporarily in 2013/2014, working at a restaurant in Dublin and living the backpacker life, thinking I’d go onwards and travel the world, somehow (I had limited awareness of my need to live here).
2. Winter Solstice / Call
I visited a Castle in the Irish midlands, which was ran by a team of live-in volunteers, and I had a vision of returning to it sometime and join them. But, instead of trying to make that happen, I refused the Call, fell in love with a Dutch fella and went to live with him in northern Argentina in 2015 (I had increased awareness of my need, as well as a reluctance to it).
3. Imbolg / The Crossing
The refusal took its time, and by 2017 I had become a freelancer and decided to heed the Call to Ireland and started studying Irish myth and history by myself while still in Argentina. I didn’t know how I’d do it yet, but I bought a ticket and off I went. I traveled around the island, ran out of time so I went to Belgium, came back to Ireland for 3 more months and finally, finally made it to the Castle and joined the volunteers (I had committed to the changes I needed to undergo to fulfill my need).
4. Spring Equinox / Trials
But I only had one month left on my visa. I had to travel back to Argentina, tried and failed to obtain a Volunteers Visa, but I was able to enact the long, costly process of claiming an Italian citizenship, without knowing exactly how long it’d take. In the meantime I decided to just come again to Ireland as a tourist for 3 more months at the Castle. This was a time of deep friendships, experiences, betrayals and lessons. I left for Europe once more, and once again I came back to Ireland, using a little loophole which allowed me many more months of Castle Volunteer life (a training which gave me skills to solve my need).
5. Bealtine / The Ordeal
When that time run out, it was time to go back to Argentina in late 2019 to await the citizenship, the boon that would allow me to live in Ireland full time as per the laws of the EU. It was a brutal time of uncertainty where with every passing months my Shadow grew more and more. I had never been so spiritually challenged to trust the Road. I had to sit with and accept a terrible powerlessness that I ended up finding I was able to do endure (I attempted to change).
6. Summer Solstice / Reward
But somehow, in the end, that blessed burgundy little booklet was in my hands and I got onto a plane 5 days later, straight back to the Castle which I so loved just a month before 2020. I never stopped reading and learning more and more about the Irish tradition. I experienced then a blessed downtime of finally enjoying Ireland without a clock ticking over my head (this bliss was the consequence of my attempt at change).
7. Lughnasadh / The Road Back
Like many Heroes before me, I thought the whole thing was over once I got what I wanted. But no. I hadn’t yet established myself in a new ‘everyday’. Helping at the Castle was beautiful work, but turned out I hadn’t done all of this in order to give tours for donations to Americans. All that work had been for something else. So the Road called again. The Pandemic started and for various reasons I found myself ‘homeless’ in Ireland. Ironically, I now was allowed to live here, but had nowhere to live in (this made me accept the changes I had gone through).
8. Autumn Equinox / Return
Because I was now so far from where I began, I spent the time between 2020-2022 living in a number of places around Ireland and engaging more and more with the land, its people and its culture, outside the microcosmos that was the Castle. I never wanted for nothing, and the scope of my work expanded the more I connected with other people and their own work. Eventually the road led me to that place I had loved for years, Loughcrew, where I finally found a home for myself in Ireland. I had found my new ‘everyday life’ (having obtained mastery over the problem of how and where to live in Ireland full-time).
9. Samhain (again)
I am living in Ireland full time, working for myself with Irish culture and ecology projects, living in a beautiful old cottage and thinking I’ll stay here forever, happily working to remind the Irish people of what they weren’t taught about themselves.
Looking back, I can’t believe how well it all fits together. How I was never left hanging, even when I couldn’t believe that things would turn out right. It was so hard to trust it would. I don’t think I always did. But somehow it now really feels as if some godly giant’s hand was carrying me all along, even if I couldn’t see it.
And that is a very encouraging thought.
Resources and Bibliography:
–Archaeoastronomy.com is a great resource to check the exact dates and times of the Fire and Solar Festivals. It is updated every year.
-The Power of Myth is a gentler introduction to Joseph Campbell’s work than his gargantuan essay, The Hero With a Thousand Faces.
-Another gentle introduction to the Hero’s Journey can be found in The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. Written for writers, it makes it really easy to understand the depths of the structure.
–Celtic Rituals by Alexei Kondratiev has a very grounded yet profound explanation of ‘Celtic’ history, and the Wheel of the Year with its associated themes (I’m not particularly crazy about the rest of the book though).