Is Going to Burning Man a Hero’s Journey?

Part of the blog series for the 2017 theme, Radical Ritual.

“There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” – Willa Cather


Do you have a story of how you got to Burning Man? I do. It started with an artist friend leaving the city where we’d met and travelling across the country, then calling me, months later, from far away to tell me there was gathering of artists in the desert that I absolutely had to see.

I said no. Or rather, I said “yeeeaaaaaaaah, I don’t think that’s gonna happen …”

But she kept persisting. She got me to come to some regional events. And then … through a confluence of bizarre circumstances, I found myself in San Francisco, with a ticket in my hand, looking for a ride.

Then there was the experience itself: the trip into the desert, the line of fellow pilgrims, the gate with its guardians, the clear threshold — manned by greeters — to tell me I had no arrived somewhere unlike any other place I had been …

And the thing is, however distinct and weird my story is … does it seem all that unusual to you? In fact, the more you hear the stories of how people got to Burning Man, the more you think (at least I do) that however distinct they may be, they also have a lot in common.

Burning Man tech staff member Anselm Engle (who says he told his friend ““yeeeaaaaaaaah, I don’t think that’s gonna happen …”” for a full 12 years) put the pieces together, suggesting that the experience of going to Burning Man is itself a manifestation of the “Hero’s Journey” — a kind of mythical journey common to most (or even all) cultures.

The term was coined by legendary scholar of comparative religions Joseph Campbell in his book “The Hero With a Thousand Faces,” and it posits that common mythical structures exist in the collective unconscious of humanity, and that they manifest in our myths and legends. The Hero’s Journey, Campbell said, generally includes:

  • A problem existing in the ordinary world.
  • The hero-to-be receiving a call to adventure – there is a need that must be met or a challenge to be faced.
  • The hero-to-be refusing the call, or expressing hesitation.
  • The hero meeting a mentor figure or companion who offers advice or assistance.
  • The hero crosses the threshold between the ordinary world and the “underworld” or spirit world.
  • The hero is tested, and encounters allies and enemies
  • The hero and allies approach and face their great challenges, and endure and ordeal.
  • From the ordeal comes a reward, or a new life – and something that the ordinary world needs.
  • The hero returns, crossing the threshold again, to return to the ordinary world with this hard fought treasure.
  • The ordinary world is now transformed, as the hero was transformed.

And really, this covers my personal journey to and from Burning Man really well — not just the first time (though especially that) but most of the times. And, Anselm suggested, it actually maps pretty well to most people’s experiences.

We don’t need to read too much into this: it may be that this is simply the way human beings tell these kinds of stories, that this says more about our capacity to turn experiences into narratives than it does about Burning Man itself. But even so — this means that to go to Burning Man is to partake in an annual hero’s journey, shared by thousands, a ritual trip … undertaking no small amount of hardship and inconvenience … to a strange underworld in which our experience of ourselves and the world around us changes, and we return to the communities from when we came bearing new kinds of experiences.

And some of us are good with that. And others do it again, and again.

It’s something to think about during this year’s Radical Ritual theme. Anselm talks us through the implications of this way of thinking about Burning Man, in a Philosophical Center podcast.

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

7 Comments on “Is Going to Burning Man a Hero’s Journey?

  • Michael N Sane says:

    Nailed it! Not to be an echo chamber, but I could not agree more. It is a journey. It does take effort; way more effort than buying a ticket and going to a local concert or show. And though it may not make you a hero to anyone else, it may humbly elevate you to your own personal hero. I think that that could be the source of the oft repeated, “Burning Man changed my life!”, and also to the journey becoming a yearly ritual.

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  • DGE says:

    Yup. “right on” – nailed it – spot on. certainly deepened my impression of the Playa … and the nature of the beast to be confronted/embraced!

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  • Mike Myers says:

    Totally agree! I am speechless! A Hero’s journey!

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  • Simon of The Playa says:

    “to burn the impossible burn…”

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  • Miss Hannigan says:

    Totally, I’ve always recognised it for that. The Hero’s Journey is a great and inspiring mythos to use.

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  • Dani says:

    Well, now folks, you can walk right into a theater and watch the tale be told. Burning Man has finally really sold out. Wow. Search Vimeo for “The Girl From The Song.” A movie.

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