The Menstrual Cycle as Heroine’s Journey

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the hero’s journey and how it can be mapped onto the menstrual cycle…

Joseph Campbell wrote extensively and famously about the hero’s journey – a ubiquitous framework for stories in which a hero is called to adventure, leaves the ordinary world, faces challenges and ordeals, and finally returns home transformed with some new knowledge. And yet, shockingly, Maureen Murdock writes of being told by Joseph Campbell that women don’t need to make the hero’s journey. Apparently he told her that ‘In the whole mythological tradition the woman is there. All she has to do is realise that she’s the place that people are trying to get to.’ (1)

This made me bristle when I read it, because of course, rather than just being the place people are trying to get to, the idealised and passive destination, women themselves are people. Women do indeed need to make the heroine’s journey – both outwardly in the world as the call to adventure comes and new projects, opportunities and endeavours are embarked upon, but also within, to find their own voice, power, and agency.

I’ve written in a previous post here about how the seasons of the year correspond to different phases of a woman’s life. From the youthful Spring time Pathfinder phase, into the expansive Summer Creatrix, the Autumn abundance of the Maga/Healer phase and the wisdom of the Winter Crone. And these seasons also show up in microcosm every month for those of us who menstruate.

In the monthly cycle, Spring corresponds to the time just after menstruation, the energy is building, we come out of our period of rest and release and start to move into expansion. It also corresponds to the energy of the waxing moon (though of course not always in synch with the moon in these days of artificial lighting). Summer is the lead up to ovulation, a time of outward focus and energy, full expression in the world and high energy levels. This is the full moon energy of shining our light into the world. After ovulation, as we move into the Autumnal follicular phase of the waxing moon, our focus turns more inward, we become more in tune with our intuition and this can be the time that PMT arises. Finally Winter is menstruation itself, a time of releasing and shedding all that needs to be left behind, a time of deep rest within.

The illustration below shows this visually (though note it should be read anti-clockwise)

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So how does this correspond to the heroine’s journey?

At ovulation, the heroine is in the ordinary world, her energy is directed outwards, into projects, friends, hobbies, whatever it may be. And then comes the call to adventure, the call to start directing some of her energy inwards, to journey towards the underworld… It may be that she would prefer to refuse the call, but the inward cycle can’t be put off.

Willingly or not, she begins her monthly descent.

In the Autumn phase, the pre-menstrual phase, she may face inward challenges. At this time she moves closer to her internal wisdom, all that may have been ignored and not dealt with internally can arise to be heard. We sometimes think of ourselves as ‘too emotional’ or ‘hormonal’ at this time. But there is nothing that comes up during this stage that doesn’t have a reason to be there. On the face of it, the pre menstrual night that I had a tearful confrontation with my then partner over him not going to buy biscuits sounds wildly overblown and irrational (and I thought so, the next day). But when we slow down and tap into the wisdom of our inner state it becomes clear that the small things we think we are reacting to at this time can often point the way towards a deeper underlying need. That night was not about biscuits. It was really about feeling unsupported, it was about not feeling nurtured in the relationship as a whole.

Every month, in microcosm, we get the opportunity to feel what needs to be felt. And in feeling it, acknowledging it and offering compassion around whatever is arising, there is a healing. But this is not the time to make big outward actions in response, for the descent to the underworld is not yet complete. This is a time to listen, and keep listening, to what your body is telling you.

Finally we enter the cave, the underworld of menstruation and this is where the deeper wisdom lies. We have dived all the way into the abyss in search of the pearl of wisdom and knowledge, and this is the time to embrace the darkness. This darkness is not something to be feared, it is the welcoming, embracing darkness of the earth in which the seed germinates, the welcoming womb of the mother. It is comforting, as long as we take this time to really honour our own needs and create a deep, nurturing period of rest and relaxation. Sometimes the body cries out for this nurturing with period pain and cramps. We can’t always take time off from busy lives every month, but we can try to add nurturing practices to the time we have.

Our heroine is now closest to her priestess or wild woman self, to She who knows. Meeting the internal wild self and learning what is truly needed in her life is the work of this time of the month.

To come face to face with the inner wild hag is to acknowledge and face the parts of ourselves that frighten us. It is to confront the life/death/life nature, the power of the serpent of rebirth, to confront fear of judgment for not fitting into a prescribed role, and to reclaim the right to be a whole person. When met by a courageous and resourceful heroine, the hag or Baba Yaga of the folktale gives magical gifts. The crone teaches that the worth of a woman does not rest upon her being nice, beautiful, young, and fertile; and that to embrace the unacceptable parts, the repressed and marginalised parts, is to tap into deep wisdom, power, creativity, and ultimately freedom.

The final part of the heroine’s journey is to return to the outward world, armed with the new knowledge gained during her time in the underworld. Perhaps she now sees where she has been self abandoning and needs to attend to her needs more; perhaps she has new inspiration, born in the germinating darkness; perhaps she now sees a different path forward; or feels even more sure she is already on the right path. Whatever she has learned, she emerges with the pearl of wisdom from deep in the dark underworld, and now she can take aligned action with the burgeoning energy of her personal Springtime.

Each month, as we go through this cycle, we get the chance to practice for the larger portal of mid life awakening that will come at perimenopause and menopause itself. At that time, entering the Autumn phase of the larger life cycle, all that has not yet been felt becomes even more insistent. But more on that in the next post!

If you feel that you would like more personalised guidance on tapping into your own inner wisdom I have some spaces available for individual online sessions of embodied coaching. More details here
More thoughts… and a short practice for checking in to the power of your womb
  1. MURDOCK, M. 1990. The Heroine’s Journey: Women’s Quest for Wholeness, Colorado, Shambala Publications Inc.

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