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Cowboys and Archetypes

Updated: May 17

“This first stage of the mythological journey—which we have designated the “call to adventure”—signifies that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown.” (Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, 48).

The conditions under which destiny summons the hero are reconfigured and recast in every time, every place, and every generation.  

How about you? What was it like when you heard the “call to adventure?” I’ll bet many of our readers experienced a moment of vocational clarity and gave up one life to pursue another. That’s classic. Eligibility for that sweet moment of mystical awakening is not reserved for Buddhas and Brahmins but extends even to common laborers. I speak of my grandfather. 

I come from a long line of such heroes beginning with my namesake, John Bonaduce, born in the lovely Abruzzi region of Eastern Italy by the shores of the Adriatic in 1902. As a teen he dug ditches while his father became a carrettieri, or freight handler, driving two decrepit mules across several Italian provinces. 

This was the time just after the end of World War I when Nonno (the Italian familiar for “grandfather”) and his myth found one another.  At the time, Nonno was angry because he felt his father had betrayed the family. Instead of purchasing a new four-cylinder truck to replace the mules he’d worked to death, the paterfamilias returned to Abruzzi with two more mules.  

The little Italian boy had visions of a technological future—internal combustion engines, electricity, telephones—but simultaneously, he was gripped by images of a romantic past, a non-Italian past, indeed, he yearned to embrace what was then arguably the greatest myth of the Americas.

He wanted to be a cowboy. 

He told his father that very night that he was leaving for America. It was not a sensible decision. It was not grounded in any of the pressing necessities of life.  He had the kind of single-hearted madness which Campbell notes in artists, but certainly applies to my Italian forebear in particular.  

“Survival, security, personal relationships, prestige, self-development—in my experience, those are exactly the values that a mythically inspired person doesn’t live for. They have to do with the primary biological mode as understood by human consciousness. Mythology begins where madness starts. A person who is truly gripped by a calling, a dedication, by a belief, by a zeal, will sacrifice his security, will sacrifice even his life, will sacrifice personal relationships, will sacrifice prestige, and will think nothing of personal development; he will give himself entirely to his myth. (Pathways to Bliss, 138)

Blame it on the movies. Campbell’s monomyth translates very well to celluloid and the Westerns of the day not only tended toward depictions of the hero’s journey but also inspired the desire to live that adventure in the hearts of impressionable peasants. 

Destiny summoned my grandfather that day in the new medium of motion pictures and his plan came into sharp relief at exactly 26 minutes into a full-length silent film, The Squaw Man, when he saw a close up of a man’s finger pointing to a map. It was a map of Wyoming in letters that spanned twenty feet of silver screen. From this point, the narrative seemed to speak to him not so much as an entertainment, but a prefigurement of the rest of his life. 

In DeMille’s epic, the hero crosses a wine dark sea to seek his fortune and escape from his European circumstances. He experienced Campbell’s “road of trials” as surely as any Argonaut, slipping the clashing rocks of competing cultures to find his singular path. There were many dangers at every turn but there were also unseen hands helping him in the form of a Native American woman who would save his life, and whom he would marry. 

Racists call it miscegenation. Mythologists call it the heiros gamos, the sacred marriage.

America, already saturated in its own mythology, triggered some innate releasing mechanism in my grandfather who saw his own future projected at 24 frames per second, demonstrating that a European can wear a Stetson, strap on a six-shooter, and who knows, marry a Native American and live happily ever after (although the Native American love interest called “Nat-U-Rich,” a member of the Ute tribe, dies at the end of the movie). 

The transAtlantic passage was brutal on a teenager whose experience of the sea was limited to the gentle lapping of the Adriatic where he had grown up. 

Ellis Island was the crossing of the threshold for generations of displaced Europeans and here he met his first threshold guardians, the ones whose job it is to screen aliens for Typhus and misspell their names—this is where Berkowitz becomes Burk and Rossini, Ross. (Nonno stubbornly clung to every vowel of his noble surname). 

Remember what Campbell said about the “blunder” as oftentimes key to the ongoing quest. “A blunder—the merest chance—reveals an unsuspected world.” The mistake upon which the subsequent family fortune rests took place the second night in the New World. When Nonno got to the train station in Philadelphia he had the word W-Y-O-M-I-N-G block printed on a piece of paper just as he had seen it in the DeMille silent film. Overland passage by train cost far less than he imagined and after boarding, the scruffy Italian wayfarer slid his front-snap Gatsby cap over his eyes and tried to sleep… 

“Wyoming!” shouted the conductor. Really? How long had he been asleep? It seemed that even with his rudimentary grasp of geography, a trip to Wyoming should have taken much longer. He got off the train. Thus, would my grandfather spend the next twenty-two years digging for anthracite in the mines of Wyoming, Pennsylvania alongside other men who had made similar journeys, whose dreams slowly died in the daily katabasis into the mines. 

I will resist the temptation to check all the boxes of the monomyth because the value is diminished if too rigidly applied. However, we could make the case for Nonno’s “meeting of the goddess,” resulting in the heiros gamos (his marriage to the beautiful Michaelina Minicozzi) or the atonement with the father (Nonno’s eldest son, Joseph, returned to Italy after the war to keep his father’s promise only to arrive two weeks after the old freight handler had passed away). 

Long before Star Wars turned our attention to the hidden framework of the hero’s adventure, there were the Westerns with Wyoming, Montana, Utah, and the whole American southwest standing in for the eternal void of space, and populated by the same cast of archetypes, albeit armed with Colt .45’s instead of lightsabers.

Campbell’s insights are great by virtue of their astonishing universality, equally applicable to an Achaean mariner washed up naked on a Phaeacian shore or an Italian laborer asleep in a Philadelphia lumber yard dreaming of Wyoming.

MythBlast authored by:

John Bonaduce, PhD, a seasoned writer for Norman Lear and for most of the major Hollywood studios (Fox, Paramount, Warner Bros, et al.) developed a profound interest in story structure beyond the commercial objectives of the industry. His exploration led him to conclude that much of what we call myth derives from a biological origin. This insight inspired his pursuit of deeper relationships between biology and narrative through his theory of Mythobiogenesis, which he explored in his dissertation at Pacifica Graduate Institute and was recognized as a “discovery” in the field of prenatal psychology by Dr. Thomas Verny.

John was recently appointed to the editorial board of the Journal of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health (JOPPPH) where he advocates for an unrecognized level of human consciousness which exists at the border of biology and mythology.

As a featured writer for the Joseph Campbell Foundation’s MythBlast, he passionately showcases Joseph Campbell’s enduring relevance to a modern audience.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to John J. Bonaduce, 12437

Sylvan St., No. Hollywood, CA 91606 or

Sacrifice and Bliss on a green background with a tree, man and ouruboro collage.

This MythBlast was inspired by The Power of Myth Episode 4, and Pathways to Bliss.


Latest Podcast

In this episode we welcome Ben Katt. Ben has been helping people experience deep transformation and access lives of greater joy, compassion, and purpose for the past twenty years.

His first book, The Way Home: Discovering the Hero’s Journey to Wholeness at Midlife, is a guidebook and memoir about the inner journey we all must embark on in order to live our fullest lives. He writes regularly about identity, purpose, creativity, and belonging in his STILL newsletter on Substack. He is a certified advanced meditation teacher with 1 Giant Mind, holds a Master of Divinity degree, and was an ordained minister for over a decade. Previously, he led The On Being Project’s work in supporting religious and spiritual leaders in social healing.

In the conversation, Ben and Tyler Lapkin of the Joseph Campbell Foundation speak about Ben’s life, why he based his book around Campbell’s hero’s journey, what it means to have your heart, the necessity of following your weird, and why midlife is such an important crossroads for us all. To learn more about Ben and his book, visit


This Week's Highlights

A casual picture of Joseph Campbell

"The modern hero, the modern individual who dares to heed the call and seek the mansion of that presence with whom it is our whole destiny to be atoned, cannot, indeed must not, wait for his community to cast off its slough of pride, fear, rationalized avarice, and sanctified misunderstanding . . . It is not society that is to guide and save the creative hero, but precisely the reverse. And so every one of us shares the supreme ordeal — carries the cross of the redeemer — not in the bright moments of his tribe’s great victories, but in the silences of his personal despair."


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