an empire of her own: the heroine’s journey ( + a woman’s quest for her own thing)



Alas for those that never sing,
But die with all their music in them.
— Oliver Wendell Holmes

I’m at the World Domination Summit in Portland, Oregon, an annual conference for creatives, the brainchild of Chris Guillebeau.

I got up this morning to a newsletter from Chris Brogan about building online empires.

Dominating the world.

Building empires.

Both Chris and Chris are using these terms in a playful way. Still, what would the world look like, I wonder, what kind of world could we make, if girls grew up talking with this level of confidence and ambition? Shoot for the moon, you might catch the stars. Girls and women achieve, no question, but we have this habit of doing it in a good-girl kind of way: we try to be perfect instead of truly great.

We talk about leaning in, about sitting at the table, about finding that mythical work/life balance. We talk about fitting ourselves into a masculine model of success that wasn’t built for the rhythms of motherhood (or parenthood in general, although you don’t see quite so many articles about men downscaling their goals and aspirations). We talk about staying in the game. We don’t talk about triumph or greatness and what that might look like for women, not just as professionals but creatives and artists and educators and healers and rising young entrepreneurs.

We don’t talk about how we could manage to “have it all” over the course of a life — if we stop buying into this apparent belief that life ends at 40 or 50 or when the kids go off to college. As if there aren’t a lot of years left over. As if a woman doesn’t yearn to create her own thing, whatever that might be, whatever money she might earn from it.

Meanwhile the culture feeds us stories about female politicos and CEOs as unnatural castrating he-women; about brilliant but loveless female artists who become obsessed with the men who won’t have them (because they go home to traditional wives) and throw themselves off bridges or stick their heads in ovens or wander aimlessly in the rain until they’re carted off to insane asylums; about female entrepreneurs as mompreneurs (where are the dadpreneurs?)

Stories like these – that get inside our heads, under our skin, and into our subconscious the way only stories can do – not only play down the power of women, they teach women to play down their lives.

I was telling a woman about my last blog post, how pleased I was when Rosario Dawson retweeted it as a “call to greatness”.

“Radiance?” the woman said.

“No,” I said. “Greatness.”

“I thought you said call to radiance. I like that much better.”

I like that phrase too – call to radiance – there’s a touch of the poetic about it.

“Because greatness is –“ The woman grimaced. “But with radiance you just –“ And she made a gesture as if light beams were shining from her head.

“Greatness is a bit of a male word,” I said, as if in agreement, but then I thought: Why? Because it implies ambition, and ambition is nasty and distasteful and so very unladylike?

When you radiate, you just are. You can, as they say, “be yourself.” Even if a lot of work goes into that, it can seem natural and effortless, as if you fell out of bed and rose up beaming.

Greatness requires action, sacrifice, dogged perseverance, focus and selfishness: you can’t become great at anything when you’re doing everything for everybody else. When you go after greatness, you do it openly; people see you investing all that effort in your own apparent agenda and for your own apparent interests. Which is why we’re maybe not so comfortable applying the concept to ourselves instead of the men in our lives (or we want in our lives).

Except then we get frustrated and restless with our own perceived smallness. We talk about the need to play a bigger game. We buy books and courses that promise to show us how to do that.

How can we play a bigger game if we don’t have the words for what that bigger game is or could be?

There is so much conversation about Joseph Campbell and the hero’s journey, built into the culture like a road for people to follow. Recently I learned that there is a heroine’s journey as well: Campbell, probably because he’s not a woman, wasn’t interested in exploring it. Instead of questing for her own self-actualization, a woman was, to Campbell, the goal or prize for the hero: his damsel in distress, his arrival point (or fatal temptation).

The heroine’s journey – which you see in what one blogger refers to as girl underground stories — involves sacrifice, descent, the confrontation with darkness that ends in death and rebirth. No rainbows or unicorns or Disney songs here. There is, instead, an encounter with the Dark Goddess, so the heroine can absorb her knowledge and power and return, fully integrated, to the everyday world.

It’s an initiation into a wiser state of being, and it doesn’t happen once but many times within a heroine’s lifetime.

When you feel lost or depressed — when the ground shifts beneath your feet — when you pull down into the depths of yourself to face the demons there, you are the heroine gone underground. It might take days or weeks or months or years but eventually you rise, stronger for the broken places.

(Just as women can be heroes, men can be heroines. Both genders embark on both types of journeys.)

The original heroine was the goddess Inanna. She didn’t descend underground because she wanted to radiate — she radiated as a matter of course. She went to claim a throne. She was after greatness — and she got it. She wasn’t perfect. No one who knew her would describe her as a good girl. She was sex and love and beauty – over time and a few civilizations and conquests, she evolved into the goddess Aphrodite – but she was also learning, knowledge, achievement, power.

She’s a mythical figure, an archetype, deeply patterned into our collective unconscious. And when someone like that lives somewhere in your head, don’t you think you’re going to hear — every now and then — your own call to greatness, to self-actualization? As the heroine’s journey differs from the hero’s, a woman’s life has its own movements and rhythms, and this applies to achievement as much as anything else. Just because we might not have accomplished our dreams by 30 or 40 – or lost our way for a bit, or stayed home with the kids, or gone underground – doesn’t mean that meaningful accomplishment is no longer possible. Our dreams have a way of evolving as we do.

We like to say – and I believe – that it’s about the journey, not just the destination. It’s not the goal but the person you become en route to the goal; it’s how the goal forces you to change and stretch and grow.

An epic goal makes for an epic journey; an epic journey makes for an epic life.

So many of us want that.

That’s why we come, men and women both, to conferences with audacious names like the World Domination Summit. We are looking for something in our lives, and ourselves, that’s mythic. That glimmer you see in the distance? That’s your personal greatness, calling you onward, alight with a radiance of its own.

Jul 7, 2013

16 comments · Add Yours

Oh I LOVE this post…thank you Justine. I’m radiant over here just reading your words.


Dammit Justine, every time I read a blogpost of yours, my Amazon wishlist grows by 5 books or so.

This is a fantastic build to your last post, being the hero/heroine of your own story. Your own mythic baddass. Especially considering today is a dark moon – a perfect time to harmonize with your own inner dark goddess. ;)


I couldn’t have said it better! I love your take on the sacred feminine and what it means to be a heroine and not a hero. We have our own unique gifts to bring to the world and honoring that feminine energy can make a huge difference in our lives (and health!)


Oh, my gosh! The Heroine’s Journey! I feel all a-buzz! Thanks, Justine.


LOVE THIS!! You’re right, we don’t yet have the words. I really feel there is a new language rising here to support the heronie’s journey. XX


Dear Justine,

Thank you for the reminder that women have heroine journeys that can be just as epic (or more) than those by men.

And there are other scholars who have touched on this topic. One of the first was possibly Marija Gimbutas (a colleague of Joseph Campbell, I think) in her archeological work on the goddesses in Crete. She really liked the snake woman, for example.

Another is Jean Bolen. She has a chapter ‘The Heroine in Everywoman’ that captures some of these ideas in her book: Goddesses in Everywoman

If you want to find more traces of the Warrior-Heroine, take a look at this (first part of a two part) series of an archeological dig on the Steppes. The Steppe women were tall, proud, good riders, armed, generally kick-ass.


Justine, you just never, ever fail us. Every single post you write empowers your readers. That’s what I strive for on my blog, too. I hope you’ll tell us your experiences at the World Domination Summit. I’m working on a Woman’s World Domination event for next fall. You’d be perfect as a speaker.
I love the Heroines Journey and going for…radiant greatness!


Amazing enough to bring tears to my eyes. Even as a lifelong feminist who bristled any time it was said that something was a “boy thing” or a “girl thing” or (my favorite) “nice girls don’t do that” I still approach the concept of greatness in myself furtively, like I’m doing something wrong. I know it’s ridiculous, and I know it’s the pressures of culture, and I’m fighting against it, but it has to be a mindful effort on my part. Posts like this one remind me that I’m not alone in this fight against all the assumptions, the peeling-back of the “just the way things are” ideas that build fences around us as people.

So thank you. Your words–you–made a difference to me, on a day I really needed it.


Hurrah for you, Great & Radiant Light-being! Such truth that Men and Women both experience the Hero’s AND the Heroine’s journey.

Finally some integration in a wonderfully readable and sapient flow. Thank you!


Your wisdom, eloquence and insights have rocked my world. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for this brilliant post.


I really need to read more on this topic. I don’t understand the difference between the hero’s journey versus the heroine’s journey — especially since you indicated that men and women can/do experience each. Will you address this further in a future post?

Regardless, I loved this piece as it will have me pondering the ideas of greatness and radiance, and wondering which applies to me as a woman, and which I want to strive for more. Is it possible to be both radiant AND great?


I read a book (45 Master Characters, Victoria Schmidt) on mythic characters a while ago, and the author defined the hero’s journey and heroine’s journey (yes, based on Inanna) in a way that seemed to me would be better renamed as the temptation journey and the betrayal journey, since both men and women can experience either. Both are stories where character are struggling with identity, so they’re not appropriate for every type of story, but identity-stories like romances, historical fiction, utopias / dystopias, family sagas, political thrillers, and fantasy and science fiction in which the social and political setting is important seems to me the ideal stories in which temptation and betrayal journeys fit.


In this case ‘hero’ and ‘heroine’ refer to the masculine and to the feminine, not to the specific sex of the individual. The masculine and the feminine in this case exist as concepts, independent of actual gender. A man can take a feminine journey. A woman can take a masculine journey. The essential differences between the two journeys is that the hero’s journey is outward, in the world, externally focused (slaying the dragon, seizing the prize, etc.) whereas the feminine journey is about psychological descent, going into the underground and meeting the dark goddess. In both journeys you die and are reborn — in other words, you change, transform, which is what stories are all about. Referring to them as ‘temptation’ and ‘betrayal’ journeys (I’ve read that book also) is too restrictive for my liking — like any myth, there are many different ways into the story and many layers of meaning — ‘temptation’ and ‘betrayal’ are referring to specific aspects of the journeys, but the journeys are also about so much more than that. Both journeys also have different relationships to power, different awakenings — the feminine journey is about a character coming into power (the power of the dark goddess) to realize her authentic goals and connectedness, whereas a masculine journey has a men letting go of power to realize his.


Yet… a temptation is an attempt to manipulate the hero’s/heroine’s internal values, while a betrayal is a violation of a social relationship, which exists externally. I think either type can be external or internal. A hero for instance can face an entirely internal temptation journey.

I think of them as temptation and betrayal journeys solely because the other stages in each were identical, merely in different orders.


In mythology and depth psychology they’re very strongly masculine and feminine journeys. An entirely internal journey would be a feminine journey. When I say the focus is psychological, the journey is inward/internal, I mean it is much more about introspection and integration and healing the wounded shadow. The feminine nature of the journey also gets expressed through, say, “dealing with the unholy father” which addresses sexual violation or sexual abuse and healing, or the kind of talismanic objects the heroine uses (plain, everyday, domestic, not the special magical items of the hero). The heroine journey’s emphasis is on the descent (leading to “girl underground” stories) which is a metaphor for depression, pain, trauma, the stripping away of identity (as she passes through the seven gates) and then on integration — integrating the dark and the light — particularly relevant to the feminine because of how the feminine has been cut up into different categories: mother or lover, good or bad, smart or sexy, dark or light, angel or whore, etc.


What an enlightening post Justine! I always love reading your posts as they inspire me to look inward and strive towards the greatness my soul years for.


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