The Night-Sea Journey & How to Use it in Your Story

The Night-Sea Journey & How to Use it in Your Story


Have you ever stood at the edge of an unlit sea at night, and looked out into its blackness? Whether you were in a busy restaurant or walking alone on the sands or even floating on top of the water, I’m sure you contemplated that space where the sea-sky was and invented stories about it.

I’ve been reading Joseph Campbell, as usual, and thinking about how to use light and dark in scenes to symbolise my character’s state in the upper and lower regions of the plot. The idea of the night-sea journey (die Nachtmeerfahrt¹) was described by ethnologist Leo Frobenius in his book, Das Zeitalter des Sonnengottes (The Age of the Sun God). He recognised the prevalence of the motif in myths from different parts of the world: the hero travels, often in the belly of a beast or in a vessel (a boat, an ark, a casket), across a dark, primordial sea, mimicking the unseen course of the sun after it sets in the west and then magically reappears in the east. Many ancient peoples surmised (as you probably would, if you hadn’t been brought up on the broth of the round world) that for the sun to perform this kind of feat, it had to travel under the earth or the sea. The sea reflects the sky and “extinguishes” the sun; also, it’s more penetrable than the earth, so it makes sense for a culture that lives near a sea to send their sun-gods down into it.

I only recently learned of a similar journey that the moon makes, and if you’re a (world-)navel-gazer like me, you may also be unaware of it. Every month or so the “old moon” sets for the last time as a sliver in the eastern sky. For about three days it travels invisibly alongside the sun until, magically born anew, it appears on the third day at sunset, on the western horizon. This course not only sets the moon in direct opposition to the sun, it also gives rise to various resurrection myths in which the hero spends three days in the underworld.

Here’s Frobenius’s diagram of the night-sea journey. It might remind you of the lower part of Campbell’s diagram of the hero’s journey and perhaps shed some light (or night) on why it proceeds in an anti-clockwise direction!

Leo Frobenius - The Night-Sea Journey from Das Zeitalter des Gotter

A hero is devoured by a water monster in the west (Devouring). The animal travels with him towards the east (Sea-journey). In the meantime, he lights a fire in the belly (Fire-lighting) and when he feels hunger, he cuts himself a piece of the hanging heart (Heart-cutting). Shortly thereafter he notices that the fish has slid onto dry land (Landing); he begins directly to cut the animal from the inside outwards (Opening); then he slips out (Slipping-out). In the fish’s belly it had grown so hot that all his hair has fallen out (Heat-Hair). Often, at the same time, the hero frees those who were devoured before (All-devoured) and they also all slip out (All-slipping-out).


Obviously, the first question is:
Is a night-sea journey necessary and appropriate to your story?

If yes…
Why does the character undertake the night-sea journey?
What is the appropriate time for this journey?
What pushes the character into undertaking the journey?
What is the character struggling with?

The World Navel

Jung in Wandlungen und Symbole der Libido (Symbols of Transformation) as well as Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, interpret the sea as a return to the mother’s womb (the “world navel”), and hence also as a rebirth. Campbell refers to the episode in the monomyth as “the belly of the whale”. This is an inward journey that the character makes as they cross the threshold of adventure and leave the ordinary world behind. The night-sea is a boundary that characters are usually reluctant to cross because it is dark, indistinct and populated with all the monsters that the unconscious can conjure. Of course, Jung is quick to point out that water is a classic symbol of the unconscious, especially useful for submerging suppressed libidinal desires, and it isn’t difficult to discover a sexual “undercurrent” in Frobenius’s whale-myth.

Odysseus undertakes a night-journey while trying to escape Calypso’s island on a make-shift raft. For the past seven years he’s been marooned there as her unwilling lover, unwilling to even attempt an escape and antagonise the goddess. But finally Athene intervenes on his behalf and Calypso is forced to speed him on his way, providing him with all the material for his raft, and food and drink for his long journey (eighteen days). In this way the character can be thrust into the sea, half-unwillingly, but they may also have a helper. It’s also worthwhile to note that the night-sea journey doesn’t necessarily need to take place at night; in fact, to set it in the dark may lean too close to pathetic fallacy. Nor does it need to be a sea crossing. These are simply ways of representing the psychological trials of the character that will arguably be understood universally.

The motif is still everywhere in modern stories. It’s easy to find the counterparts of the sea-monster in ships and submarines, and as I mentioned at the beginning, the sea is one of the few expanses of darkness left us in our urban lives. Of course, space travel has opened up a whole new arena of nothingness – a more complete nothing, perfect for our postmodern age – and as always, artists are the first to explore it in spirit. Nevertheless, we still resort to sea-faring metaphors, as I’m sure trekkies can attest.


What sexual desire is your character trying to hide, control or express?
How will you represent the sea in your story? What does it symbolise?
How will you represent the belly of the whale in your story? What does it symbolise?
How will you represent the vessel in your story? What does it symbolise?
How does the character perceive the night-sea journey?
Does anyone give the character protective talismans or sustenance before they set out?

Descent to the Underworld

So is there a difference between the journey to the underworld (katabasis) and the night-sea journey? Well, I think the latter can be a part of the former, but (at least for the purposes of storytellers) they’re actually two motifs governed by differing rules. The underworld is usually under ground rather than water. It is the land of the dead, where the hero communes with the spirits of the beloved or the renowned (nekyia) as Odysseus does in The Odyssey, and as Dante does in The Divine Comedy. Also in this sort of journey, the hero often has a quest to retrieve something that was lost (such as Orpheus trying to recover his wife, Eurydice), or to learn something (such as Odysseus consulting Tiresias). So if you’re following The One Page Novel, you’ll find that the katabasis or night-sea journey fits perfectly at the transitional Quest stage.

Like the night-sea journey, the descent to the underworld is a journey of death and rebirth (beautifully depicted in the myth of Persephone, for example). The hero dies and goes underground, where he is tested by the gods of the underworld. If he is found worthy, he passes the initiation and is allowed to continue his journey. If not, he must remain in the shadows forever. These days, the failed hero lives almost exclusively in the domain of literary fiction; popular culture is obsessed with success to the detriment of every other artistic concern (plot, character development, common sense, etc). But I digress… The belly of the whale can also be a figurative land of the dead, populated by the people the beast has previously swallowed. In this case, the hero’s act of cutting himself out and setting the others free seems to parallel the monomyth’s hero crossing back into the ordinary world and bringing the elixir of life with him.

Jung equates the River Styx, although it isn’t a sea, with the waters of the night-sea journey. All souls must cross the Styx, yet however dark, inhospitable and terrifying it appears, it remains the changeable, mysterious maternal sea that keeps you afloat and spits you out once again into the world, reborn like the sun.

Is the night-sea journey part of a longer descent to the underworld?
Who judges your character’s worthiness in the underworld?
Who else does he meet in the underworld?
How does this journey advance the character on their quest?
Do they find something in the underworld that they bring back with them?


In the fool’s journey of the Tarot, the night-sea journey is represented by The Hermit – a card symbolising seclusion, silence and self-reflection. This is the essence of the experience of the crossing for the character. Whether they have a companion or not, they alone can make the transition. Adrift in the night-sea, they have no choice but to listen to the voices in their head. Odysseus, like my character, Orman (see below), deals with his unconscious by talking to it. I do like Lawrence’s phrasing: “heavily did he commune with his own high courage,” and a little later: “he questioned his own brave spirit”. Such is the power of the journey that even a renowned hero like Odysseus is reduced to tears and prayer, and to questioning the very characteristics that make him “Odysseus”. Accolades and epithets, alas, count for nothing, and it is only when the character is stripped of them that they begin to understand who they really are and are able to learn their true name.


How does your character deal with their fear?
If they talk to themselves, what part of their self do they address?
What is the tone of their questioning?
How are they sequestered from the world and from other people?
What epithets is the character forced to part with?
What does the character learn about their real character and their true name?

The Ego, The Threshold Guardians & The Old Boatman

It’s impossible for me to write this essay and not mention the night-sea journey from my favourite book, His Dark Materials. This is from the final part, The Amber Spyglass. I’ve tried to elide any spoilers:

The path turned to the left, and a little way along, more like a thickening of the mist than a solid object, a wooden jetty stood crazily out over the water. The piles were decayed and the planks were green with slime, and there was nothing else; nothing beyond it; the path ended where the jetty began, and where the jetty ended, the mist began. Lyra’s death, having guided them there, bowed to her and stepped into the fog, vanishing before she could ask him what to do next.
“Listen,” said Will.
There was a slow, repetitive sound out on the invisible water: a creak of wood and a quiet, regular splash. Will put his hand on the knife at his belt and moved forward carefully onto the rotting planks. Lyra followed close behind. The dragonflies perched on the two weed-covered mooring posts, looking like heraldic guardians, and the children stood at the end of the jetty, pressing their open eyes against the mist, and having to brush their lashes free of the drops that settled on them. The only sound was that slow creak and splash that was getting closer and closer.

Then suddenly there was the boat.

Only the boatman and the dragonflies seemed indifferent to the journey they were making. The great insects were fully alive and bright with beauty even in the clinging mist, shaking their filmy wings to dislodge the moisture; and the old man in his sacking robe leaned forward and back, forward and back, bracing his bare feet against the slime-puddled floor.
The journey lasted longer than Lyra wanted to measure. Though part of her was raw with anguish … another part was adjusting to the pain, measuring her own strength, curious to see what would happen and where they would land.

Pullman’s description has so many archetypal elements, that I wonder whether he worked them in deliberately, or whether much of it was simply “instinctive”. This is Campbell’s point, after all, that these images are all available to us in the collective unconscious. First of all, if you’ve read the trilogy, you’ll know the great price the children have to pay in order to cross. Whether the hero travels across the surface, or is pulled down into the depths, psychologically they are at a difficult crossing. They must relinquish their ego, a process which Pullman describes in the most heart-wrenching terms of any story I know. The ego is the identity we spend our lives building with intricate care. To be torn from it is to accept that it has all been a sham: that the opposite of our way of life, our opinions and our best behaviours is just as valid (or invalid); that stripped of it all we simply don’t know who we are. This process can even end in literal or figurative self-dismemberment: complete self-annihilation.

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The dragonflies are the threshold guardians, symbols of the water of life, of the transience of existence, and of the transformation that the children are about to undergo. Dragonflies belong to the order Odonata, from οδόντoς, meaning “tooth”, because they have toothed mandibles (so says Wikipedia, anyway, I don’t know much about it). This draws an interesting comparison with the teeth of the beast (“the jaws of death”), which Campbell equates with the threshold guardians:

The temple interior, the belly of the whale, and the heavenly land beyond, above, and below the confines of the world, are one and the same. That is why the approaches and entrances to temples are flanked and defended by colossal gargoyles: dragons, lions, devil-slayers with drawn swords, resentful dwarfs, winged bulls. These are the threshold guardians to ward away all incapable of encountering the higher silences within. They are preliminary embodiments of the dangerous aspect of the presence, corresponding to the mythological ogres that bound the conventional world, or to the two rows of teeth of the whale.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into the text, but after all, why do we write if not to create and disseminate meaning and to inspire others to do the same? The dragonflies flit easily to and fro because they are already free of the ego. Campbell again:

The hero whose attachment to ego is already annihilate passes back and forth across the horizons of the world, in and out of the dragon, as readily as a king through all the rooms of his house. And therein lies his power to save; for his passing and returning demonstrate that through all the contraries of phenomenality the Uncreate-Imperishable² remains, and there is nothing to fear.

I don’t know about you, my friend, but that brings tears to my eyes.

And finally, just like the anti-clockwise hero’s journey, we see the spirit guide leading the children down “the left-hand path”, which is “a passage by way of the senses – the eyes, the heart and spontaneity of the body – to a realization and manifestation ‘at the still point of the turning world,’ in act and experience on earth, of the radiance, harmony, bounty, and joy of nature at the summit of Mount Helicon, where the lyre of Apollo sounds, the Graces dance in tripody, and the golden rose unfolds.” (Campbell, Creative Mythology). Which, of course, is precisely the message of His Dark Materials. Matter loves matter.


What does the threshold represent in your story?
How is the threshold depicted?
Where is the threshold?
How is the threshold approached?
What sort of guardians would be appropriate symbolically?
How do the guardians challenge the character?
Do the guardians pass easily back and forth across the threshold? How and why?
Is there a guide figure? If so, how do they lead the character?
How does the character shed their ego?
What is the sacrifice they make?
Does the character pass the threshold successfully?
Does your character have a companion in the night-sea journey?

I hope I may have given you some idea of how writers adapt these archetypal stories to their own purposes and how you can do the same. Let me leave you with the first draft of a scene I wrote last night under these influences (for the bildungsroman I mentioned starting a few weeks ago whose narrator is named Orman, or Or for shor’):

I picked her up gently. Her skin was burning where I held her, with one arm under her neck and one under her knees. It was a moonless night, and the ghost of the fire danced in my vision as I carried her towards the sea. She didn’t weigh much, or perhaps I’d grown stronger, as she’d said. I couldn’t tell if her eyes were open, but at the first touch of the cool water she started up and clung to me.
“Shh, it’s okay,” I said. “You’re burning up; I thought the water would help.”
“No,” she moaned. “No, don’t leave me here.”
“I’m not going to leave you. I’m right here,” I whispered, leaning close to her. My eyes had begun to adjust to the darkness, and a faint starlight, or perhaps it was a hint of phosphorescence in the sea, showed me her features. She leaned one cheek on my arm. God, she was hot. I continued to edge my way into the water, even though she was shivering.
“I can’t see anything,” she whispered. I felt a drop of water on my arm and somehow I knew it was a tear.
“I can’t see anything either, Ro,” I said, though it wasn’t entirely true. I could see the wet track of the tears on her face now.
“Aren’t you afraid?”
“Of what?”
“Ohh, the darkness. And the weird slimy things that live in the sea.”
I considered pretending that something had brushed past my leg, but decided that it wasn’t a good time to joke. The pebbles on the seafloor were digging painfully into the soles of my feet. I took a deep breath of the cool current of air that was flowing low across the surface of the water. “No,” I said. “Actually it feels…” I searched for the right word. Dangerous? Alive? Exciting? Full of potential? “Calm,” I said finally. I inched a little further and again Rose shied away from the sea and clung even tighter to me. She buried her face in my t-shirt and I wondered whether it was because she was feverish or whether she was really afraid of the water.
“Or, please don’t. I’m so scared,” she whispered and I felt a violent shudder run through her body.
I considered turning back, but I had to do something to try and break her fever, and this still seemed the best way.
“Rose, is it the water or the dark that you’re afraid of?” I asked.
“The dark water. There’s something in there. Something sinister.”
Now I was sure she was feverish. I took another step but the seafloor dropped more than I’d expected and my foot slipped. For one heartbeat before I regained my balance I thought I would drop Rose into the sea and lose her, and she let out a small cry and threw her arms around my neck. But then I found my footing and the sea buoyed her so that she was even lighter in my arms. As though her spirit is rising up, said a voice inside me. I told it to shut up, and instead sent a silent prayer to whatever old gods seemed appropriate – Asklepios, Artemis, Poseidon, Aphrodite, Zeus.
“I’ve got you,” I whispered into Rose’s hair. She was weeping freely now. We were both chest-deep in water and as I held her wet body against mine, I wished fervently that we were in the dark sea together to make love.
“Or, what’s wrong with me?” she asked.
“I don’t know. It’s probably just some foreign virus you aren’t immune to. We’ll find a chemist in the morning and see if they can give you something.”
“No, that’s not what I mean. I mean why am I afraid of everything? Why do I always run away?”
“We’re all afraid of something, Ro. There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re just feverish and the dark’s making you morbid.”
She leaned back against my arm and looked up at my face.
“You don’t seem afraid of anything,” she said. “How can you stand in the middle of all this nothingness and be so calm?”
“What do you mean?” I asked, my voice rising in a note of surprise. “This isn’t nothingness.”
“It’s like a great big black hole in the world,” she said. “It’s as if we live in islands surrounded by emptiness and we spend all our energy trying to ignore the fact.”
She seemed suddenly very animated.
“This isn’t nothing,” I insisted. “I can feel the sea all around us, stretching all the way to the shores of the islands, and I can see the starlight above us, and I can smell the salt, and I can feel the rocks and the seaweed under my feet. And I can feel you, in my arms.”
I added the final clause hesitantly, not wanting her to think I was taking advantage of her weakened state.
“Are you holding onto me?” she asked.
“Yes, can’t you feel it?”
She dragged one arm back and forth through the water. I could see her hair fanning out behind her in the sea like a pale bridal veil, and through her thin, wet dress, the small peaks of her nipples breaking the surface. She seemed to be relaxing, but I couldn’t tell if her fever had slackened.
“I feel like the water’s holding me up,” she murmured at last, just as I was beginning to think that she had fallen asleep.

These characters are still (appropriately enough) inhabiting the vague landscape in which characters are born(e). Clearly this is Rose’s dark night of the soul, but the ease with which Orman inhabits the night-sea makes me wonder whether he’s already been through this stage. Only time (& writing!) will tell. There are two more small excerpts on, should you care to read them.

¹ Nachtmeer – so deceptively like “nightmare”! Jung also points out incidental similarities between words for sea, mother, fate, and nightmare. Etymology can be quite unsatisfactory at times…
² Uncreate-Imperishable – referring to Parmenides: “There is one story left, one road: that it is. And on this road there are very many signs that being is uncreated and imperishable, whole, unique, unwavering, and complete.” (from Wikipedia)

Image credit: Der Mönch am Meer by Caspar David Friedrich