Exploring the “Inmost Cave” and the Hero’s necessary descent into darkness

Ancient Greek initiation rites included a ‘Night Journey,’ a ritualised form of chthonic descent, or katabasis, an atavistic experience, apparently carried out in actual caverns or catacombs.

Ancient Greek initiation rites included a ‘Night Journey,’ a ritualised form of chthonic descent, or katabasis, an atavistic experience, carried out in caverns or catacombs.

This phase of the Hero’s journey brings the greatest tests of his resolve, courage, and character. Even if the he never faces literal death, he faces the death of his personality structures. Something will be sacrificed; some part of him will be left behind in the Inmost Cave. In this way, the Hero is initiated into his own inner mysteries, and is forever changed.

Stage Seven: Approach To The Inmost Cave

For Joseph Campbell’s initiates, this part of the journey was literal; his research was concerned with real tribesmen who went knowingly into bear caves to face death as a form of initiation into manhood. For the writer, the “inmost cave” is a metaphor that can be applied to the most dangerous place in your story the Hero will be lucky to emerge from with his life intact (or, if you’re not writing an action-adventure story, with his sense of self or something else he values highly, perhaps a love relationship).

“Approaching” this “inmost cave” therefore represents a testing ground for the Hero and his allies, as well as an opportunity for enemies to get the upper hand (for a time). Campbell referred to this experience as “being in the belly of the whale,” which refers to Jonah’s Biblical story of descent, much like Orpheus, into Stygian blackness. Vogler refers to the ‘cave’ as a ‘shamanic’ place, caught between life and death.

For his sin of running from God's request ("Refusing the Call") Jonah is sacrificed to the sea. A whale swallows him; Jonah sits for three days and nights, mulling over his promise to God. When he emerges from the belly of the whale, he accepts God's call, and, a changed man, commits himself to the quest God set out for him.

For his sin of running from God’s request (“Refusing the Call”) Jonah is sacrificed to the sea. A whale swallows him; Jonah sits for three days and nights in the whale’s belly, mulling over his promise to God. When he emerges from the belly of the whale, he accepts God’s call, and, a changed man, commits himself to the quest God set out for him.

From my research into Ancient Greek mystery cults, this moment in your plot aligns with the stage of initiation where the supplicant is expected to lose his or her psychological, and possibly physical, innocence during a complicated (and probably drugged) process that leads toward increased self-awareness, as well as an eventual change of status.

This usually involves being blindfolded and guided into a cave, to have one’s senses distorted by darkness and confusion.

For the character in your book, this metaphor might have to be extended and stretched a bit. In terms of the psychological motivations your character will have to exhibit, however, the “inmost cave” might be an apt metaphor for this phase of the journey. The “inmost cave” is the place of greatest ‘danger,’ as you define it, for the purposes of your story.

Some questions to ask yourself during this phase are:

  1. In what ways is the Hero, in facing external challenges, also encountering inner demons and defenses?
  2. Is there a physical Inmost Cave or headquarters of the villain which the Heroes approach?
  3. Is there some emotional equivalent (not all stories are going to include a villain’s lair, after all).
  4. Does conflict build, and do the obstacles get more difficult or interesting?

I think it’s important to keep in mind that this phase of the Hero’s journey is often a prolonged ‘battle’ scene of some kind, in which the Hero does internal (psychological) or external (fighting) battle with his or her opponent, so as to gain access to the “villain’s” lair. 

Until it became fashionable to be bitten and transformed into a vampire, loss of life was considered a scary venture.

Until it became fashionable to be bitten and transformed into a vampire, transformation from being alive to becoming the undead was considered a scary venture.

Stage Eight: The Ordeal

The Hero is finally in the deepest chamber of the Inmost Cave, facing the “greatest challenge and the most fearsome opponent yet” (155) which might be a villain, or one’s own self-doubts. Vogler says the “simple secret” of the Ordeal is that, (similarly to the initiation ceremony), s/he must die to be reborn. Obviously, this will not always be a physical death; the death is to some part of the psyche, the old way of being. The popular version of this motif nowadays is the vampire story, which requires that the supplicant of the mystery give up something precious to her—her life—before she can be initiated into a new world, a new reality.

Most stories deal with the “death” of the character’s personality structure, which is also a large part of ancient initiation ceremonies. What you previously thought, believed, or hoped, was important, must be sacrificed so that a new, more self-aware you can be reborn. This is as true for writers as it is for their characters (and Vogler makes the point that the writer’s journey is a hero’s journey,’ of sorts).

The point for the Greeks was the “purification process, the change of status, even the identity” of the initiate; compare that to what your characters undergo, and you’ll see a similarity as they are forced to enter the darkest cave of their fears and engage with “the enemy,” which might even be a projected part of themselves.

The Ordeal is usually “the central event of the story, or the main event of the second act” (156). It represents a crisis where “things have to get worse before they can get better” (157). In a love story, the lovers have to be separated at this point, perhaps irrevocably, while one of them denies his or her feelings. This process might take the entire movie to resolve, with the one who is in denial either realising, at the end, that s/he really does love the other after all; or, conversely, in a tragedy or sad story, never coming to this profound inner awareness, never changing, never making the sacrifice that must be made if the character is to transform into a new, more committed ‘self’.

Even love stories have their transforming moments. Rochester and Jane will soon be parted, perhaps forever, by the truth he's been hiding.

Even love stories have life and death ordeals. In “Jane Eyre,” Rochester faces physical death, Jane the death of her dreams. Rochester and Jane will soon be parted, perhaps forever, by the truth he’s been hiding. Rochester will have to sacrifice a great deal to win back Jane’s love.

Stage Nine: Reward

Although adventure stories like The Hobbit literally show the Hero, Bilbo, gaining a reward of priceless gems and gold after facing his ordeal of a near-death experience at the hands of goblins, most stories are not quite so obvious. Once again, writers will mostly rely on metaphor to show how their Hero has “won” or claimed victory after surviving death in the “inmost cave.”

Step one on this part of the journey might be the Hero acknowledging those who haven’t made it out of the cave, the friends and allies who fell while supporting him. Similar to the pause to muster forces during the “approach to the inmost cave,” the period of Reward requires that the Hero, not done yet, stops and assesses what has happened so far, the extent to which s/he’s changed, while they figure out what to do next.

As you’d expect for someone who emerges from the life-changing experience of the Inmost Cave, perceptions, including self-perceptions, are altered. This alteration is necessary if the ‘reward’ of this phase of the Hero’s experience is to bear fruit. Whereas Vogler calls this experience “seizing the sword” (in reference to Arthurian or Grail quest stories, where receiving, seizing, or stealing a sword leads to the Hero’s ultimate fated victory), Campbell refers to it as a great gift, or “boon” which the Hero earns, and will, ideally, share with his village.

I had to translate Vogler’s phrase (“seizing the sword”) into Joseph Campbell’s language (“gaining the boon”), then compare all of that to Campbell’s inspiration, a French ethnographer and folklorist who wrote about the history of rites of passage, before I could understand what it is that Vogler’s really getting at in this phase of the Hero’s journey.

Questions to consider now include:

  1. What does the Hero of your story take possession of after facing death or his greatest fears?
  2. Does your hero realise he has changed?
  3. Is he self-reflective, does he recognize there are wider ramifications for his actions?
  4. Has your Hero learned to deal with his inner flaws?
  5. What does he learn by witnessing, causing, or experiencing death?
  6. How is your Hero transformed by his experiences; what does he turn into, what type of person?

Next blog post: Stages 10-12

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