The Hero’s Journey or The Wanderer Dream: Tangled perspectives in Embrace of the Serpent

Jack Cameron, One Room With a View writer, discusses how Embrace of the Serpent subverts the typical hero’s journey

London Film School
7 min readFeb 12, 2021

Tales of adventure and exploration in the jungle have long captured the Western imagination. Sailing down river from familiarity into mystery is a typical story which provides a perfect frame for the Hero’s Journey, a structure of myth popularised by Joseph Campbell in the 1940s. Described by him, the Hero’s Journey is a recurring story which follows a single narrative pattern:

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

Campbell suggests that this is a myth shared by various cultures. Yet most of these stories, and the theory behind the monomyth itself, are subject to an occidental perspective.

The original intention for The Embrace of the Serpent was to create a film that would be historically representative of life in the Amazon. In his research, Colombian director Ciro Guerra initially drew from two Western travel diaries. These historical accounts were celebrated for being the first to humanise the Amazonian peoples and were influential in challenging established racist depictions. However, after working directly with Amazonian communities, Guerra realised that any adaptation of a historical account would not be able to rid itself of the Western perspective that originally wrote it.

In order to avoid any reproduction and be truly faithful to the underrepresented perspective, his script would have to get creative.

“I had to stop being faithful to the ‘truth’,” he said in an interview with Cineaste, “because to them [the Amazonian communities], the ethnographic, anthropological, and historical truths were as fictional as imagination and dream, which for them was valid. The historical film needed to contaminate itself with Amazonian myth.”

He could not faithfully and respectfully tell an Amazonian story without blending history with fiction. The result is a film that combines Western stories with an Amazonian imagination, one which disrupts the typical Hero’s Journey and creates a far more ethereal and transcendent narrative.

It opens on Karamakate, a lone shaman, as he is visited by Theodore von Maritus, an elderly ethnographer (based on Theodore Koch-Grünberg, author of the first diary). He presents Karamakate with the typical Campbellian Hero’s Journey. Theo is deathly sick and needs Karamakate to take him to the location of a medicinal plant called yakruna, where he also claims Karamakate will find the last of his people. Theo knows where the yakruna is, but only Karamakate knows how to prepare and administer its medicine.

This journey is to be a collaborative one, and the ‘boons’ bestowed on fellow men are not in treasure, but knowledge. Karamakate is stalwart in his dedication to traditions and he will soon learn that without his guidance his people, subject as they are to the all-consuming power of colonial capitalism, are in danger of forgetting them.

On their way, they stop at the village of another tribe. There, Theo loses his compass, and upon discovering that it was stolen by the chief he demands, unsuccessfully, to have it back. Karamakate berates him,

“You don’t own knowledge. Knowledge belongs to all men.”

To which Theo retorts that if they learn to use the compass they will forget how to navigate by stars and river, as they have done forever; that the introduction of his knowledge can also mean the eradication of theirs.

Perhaps Theo knows what awaits them at the site of the yakruna. When they arrive, Karamakate finally sees the scale of the corruption. Karamakate’s people normally practice prohibitions to keep balance with the jungle. Under the rule of the colonial settlers, it’s implied everything is allowed in excess. His people are alive but unrecognisable; afflicted with alcoholism, and consuming the sacred yakruna unreservedly, as little more than a drug. His people have been cut loose from their indigenous traditions and knowledge, and Karamakate learns that he cannot undo this damage. In a rage, he chooses to burn the last of the yakruna rather than see the likes of Theo corrupt it, and his people, any further.

Their collaboration ends, he leaves Theo to die, and his journey fails.

Guerra has explained that yakruna is fictional but based upon other plants like ayahuasca that are considered gifts from the Anaconda, key to the Amazonian creation myth. These plants have properties that we would consider hallucinogenic, and therefore were often used recreationally by Westerners. But, traditionally, they were consumed as a means to communicate with the Creator, or to embrace the serpent; “it takes you to a faraway place, before life existed and you can get a new perspective of the world.” The plant grants access to a mystical knowledge, one which can only be understood through a lived experience.

Decades later, an elderly Karamakate tries to explain this to another Westerner also searching for yakruna, in the film’s closest Amazonian equivalent of a traditional Hero’s Journey. After consuming the plant, a warrior “must abandon all and go alone into the jungle, guided only by their dreams. In this journey, he has to find out, in solitude and silence, who he really is. He must become a wanderer dream.”

Karamakate can no longer take this journey as he cannot remember how to prepare yakruna. As Theo had warned, he has forgotten too many things and believes he’s caught between a disappearing world and an emerging one he cannot understand. He describes himself as a Chullachaqui,

“Like a ghost, lost in time, without time.”

He asks Evan, the Westerner, (based on Richard Evan-Schultes, author of the second diary) to do this in his stead, as he now believes

“If we cannot get the whites to learn it will be the end of everything.”

But Evan has no interest in this. He is searching for yakruna to complete his own Hero’s Journey.

In a total reversal of the previous roles, it is Evan who knows how to prepare yakruna, and Karamakate who leads him to it. Evan appears to be colonialism’s victory made manifest; armed with both a stolen indigenous knowledge and modern technology. Evan wants to prepare yakruna to grow as rubber, then cultivate it for use in the US war effort. Evan’s Journey will allow him to further rationalise the ‘smash and grab’ effect of colonialism, and his heroism will justify it.

However, as lost as he may be, Karamakate has always been aware of the jungle’s mysticism. For all that Evan seems to be superior to the elderly Karamakate, all of his knowledge is limited to a scientific, or anthropological logic. A logic that Karamakate is able to challenge:

“‘How many sides does the river have?’


‘How do you know?’

‘It has one. And then another.’

‘How do you know? The river has thousands of sides.’”

It’s an example of how Western logic can take for granted something which, from a different perspective, is far more complicated. In their own way, both men are right; they’re just approaching the question from two different angles.

Guerra was inspired by his experience researching the film where he learned that the Indigenous communities have over fifty words for the colour Green. He had wanted to make the entire film from this expanded Indigenous perspective but he worried it would make the film “incomprehensible.” Instead, the film would have to be a ‘bridge’ between cultures and this is best revealed in its structure.

The two narratives are not split chronologically, but are shown in tandem, with the river used as a time travelling motif allowing the story to literally flow back and forth through time. This structure creates an overarching mysticism, one that’s lost on the scientists and even the young Karamakate, but not to the elder caught out of time. “You are not one — you are two men,” he says of Theo to Evan. Despite both Westerners being physically different and historically separate this is a logic that makes complete sense to any audience.

The similarities between the two men also make it clear to the audience that Evan’s Journey was bound to fail. Most symbolically when Karamakate instructs both men to cast aside their belongings: books, papers and photographs, physical manifestations of their collected knowledge. While Theo refuses, Evan begrudgingly accepts, unaware that he’s swapping material knowledge for an experience more akin to the warrior’s journey Karamakate described.

Evan is ultimately denied the opportunity to collect and cultivate yakruna, but is allowed to consume it and embrace with the serpent.

Evan’s yakruna-induced vision ends the film in a spectacular psychedelic sequence. Most significantly it does not explain what Evan ‘sees’; that is not its purpose. Guerra wanted the film to engage the viewer’s imagination; it is enough that Evan, and by extension the audience, saw anything at all. The sequence is the film’s only use of colour and after hours in a monochrome world, it perfectly conveys to the audience that it’s possible to expand perspective. Perhaps this is the culmination of a third and more meta journey; one that is realised through the act of watching the film. The film reveals how the Hero’s Journey, in the context of colonialism, can justify the reduction of complex cultures for the benefit of Western science and medicine. This is a damage which cannot be undone. However, with Embrace of the Serpent, Ciro Guerra has given the world one of the most beautiful, cinematic, and mysterious invitations into an expanded and shared perspective; one with the power to heal.

Poster for Embrace of the Serpent



London Film School

The UK’s oldest film school, dedicated to the education of filmmakers in the heart of London.