Hi everyone, this is a pretty long revision of a Think Free entry. Feel free to skim and zoom in on parts that may interest you. I tried to punctuate the text with images that explain what’s going on. — MC
Depth psychologists and New Age enthusiasts often talk about the idea of the hero. This particular usage isn’t referring to a Martin Luther King, Neil Armstrong, Rosa Parks or Terry Fox. While these individuals certainly were heroes by the primary definition of the word, they weren’t necessarily heroes from the perspective of depth psychology or New Age spirituality, which after literary heroes takes third place within the Oxford definition of “hero.”
In fact, the existential psychiatrist R. D. Laing writes in The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise that we tend to valorize the externally observable hero while denigrating heroes who take on the inner world, one not so easy to publically share.
Everyone can watch a potentially life-threatening mission to the moon. Not many can appreciate an inner voyage where a seeker risks lunacy and perhaps suicide if for whatever reasons they are not able to come out on top. That was Laing’s argument. And I think it’s a fair observation.
The psycho-spiritual idea of the hero involves a supposed archetype of the hero. And the notion of the archetype can be traced back to the Greek philosopher Plato and his theory of Eternal Forms or Perfect Ideas. After Plato, the idea of the archetype was reimagined by various medieval thinkers. We need not go into their complicated theories here.
What’s important for us is how the Swiss psychiatrist, C. G. Jung, adapted the ideas of the archetype and the hero into one concept—namely, the archetype of the hero. The Jungian archetype differs from the Platonic formulation, most notably because Jung’s archetypes involve eternity but are grounded in the human body. Plato’s archetypes are just “out there.” They are imprinted in the eternal soul and have some kind of relation with matter but they are not grounded in matter.¹
For Jung, the archetype indicates the psychological contents of a proposed collective unconscious. He says the archetypes are inherited patterns encoded in the body, universally shared by mankind. Not unlike the gods and goddesses of ancient times, archetypes apparently have a psychic life of their own extending beyond everyday consciousness and concerns.
According to Jung, when the conscious ego encounters the archetype, the individual experiences a sense of the numinous. This encounter may be psychologically constructive or destructive, healing or disorienting. The effect of the numinous on ego-awareness depends on the psychological stability and maturity of the individual, as well as the character and intensity of the numinosity, itself.²
Visible manifestations of the archetypes appear as archetypal images. Jung distinguishes these recognizable images from the archetype proper, which he says can never be known entirely. So for Jung, the archetypal image of the hero may appear in countless forms, but there’s only one hero archetype.
Joseph Campbell built on Carl Jung’s beliefs about a hero archetype in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949). Campbell says the idea of the hero’s journey to the underworld is found throughout world myth and religion.
Typically, the hero is born into a problematic situation. Two biblical examples would be the infant Moses and Jesus Christ. Moses was abandoned as a baby and left in a basket to float down the Nile river. Jesus was born in a manger because his parents were forced to flee the paranoid anger of King Herod (c. 73-4 BCE) who hoped to kill the infant Jesus by ordering the execution of all children in Bethlehem under the age of two.
Campbell says the next phase of the hero’s life is a “call to adventure.” The hero usually doesn’t want to be a hero but is slowly drawn into his or her historical, perhaps sacred role. At this stage, he or she may exhibit some kind of superhuman powers and insight.
A turning point in the hero’s journey is precipitated by some kind of crisis. The hero is either sucked into a whale’s belly (e.g. Jonah), dismembered (e.g. Osiris), abducted (e.g. Sita, Eurydice), abandoned (e.g. Joseph), hanged (e.g. Odin), sent on a ‘night sea’ voyage (e.g. St. John of the Cross) or a strange journey (e.g. Alice in Wonderland), forced to fight a threatening dragon (e.g. St. George, Beowulf), drawn into battle with relatives (e.g. Arjuna) or demons and monsters (e.g. Gilgamesh, Hercules), all of which point to a passage from the ordinary into a supernatural world of danger and magic (again, in Jung’s terms, the experiential world of the collective unconscious).
At this stage, the hero encounters mythical beings and beasts. Some are helpers, others are tricksters, and yet others are fearsome enemies. In learning how to discern among these mythical creatures, the hero faces a series of life-threatening tests (e.g. Odysseus binds himself to his ship’s mast to prevent the Sirens from luring him to his death; Jesus rejects the temptation of Satan in the wilderness, in the holy city and on the mountain).
The hero’s journey continues to the inner depths of an abyss, a dragon cave, a bottomless ocean, a deep underworld pit, or in modern myth a Death Star or a Borg cube. At this critical moment, the hero hopefully discovers what the alchemists call the lapis (philosopher’s stone or inner human). There may be atonement with a father or a father figure, a sacred marriage, a theft, or perhaps a bargaining for the elixir of immortality.
Having found the proverbial Holy Grail within, the hero gains profound insight into the eternal, infinite relationships among life, death, space, time, heaven and hell. But like Theseus after slaying the Minotaur at the center of the labyrinth, the hero must return to the world of day-to-day living. After his or her return to everyday life, he or she is symbolically reborn.
Concerning the journey to and from the underworld, the hero understands Plato‘s observations from his famous cave analogy about entering and exiting the cave.
The eyes may be confused in two ways and from two causes, coming from light into darkness as well as from darkness to light… the same applies to the soul.³
In practical terms, the hero’s quest is often confusing and disorienting due to the sheer magnitude of fast-paced change one must endure. Not everyone finds their way out of the collective unconscious. Some simply go mad or become victims of a mental health system that by and large is ill-equipped to deal with exceptional cases.
In myth and religion, Theseus escaped from the labyrinth by unwinding a ball of thread that Ariadne had provided in advance. Moses and the persecuted chosen people were delivered from the Egyptians by the miraculous parting and subsequent closing of the Red Sea. And Jesus, after his death, descended to hell for three days before ascending to heaven.
Parallels among mythic and religious stories about the hero obviously differ in important details. In fact, the content of hero stories usually varies quite dramatically. And each arguably has a qualitatively different effect on seekers investing their time and energy into the stories. However, Jung and Campbell maintain that all the hero stories exhibit a basic structural similarity.4
In psychological terms, hero stories point to a circular passage from ego → archetypes → self → archetypes → enhanced ego. On returning to everyday life, whether having been rescued or resurrected, the hero is transformed. He or she might reclaim former elements of their former personality but these are put to a new purpose, integrated within a fresh sense of self and meaning.
On the social level, the hero brings various boons of wisdom and possibly miraculous abilities gained from their journey through the underworld. Of course, some rogues go into the underworld and come out psychologically unresolved and essentially warped, wreaking havoc on the world with paranormal abilities they keep under wraps so as to maintain their edge on hapless innocents. Some may even marry a naive soul and use them as a kind of ‘cover’ while they work their nefarious agenda.
This may sound crazy to some but I firmly believe it can happen. You just need eyes to see it.
¹ For an unusually good summary of Plato’s theories about the soul, see Herschel Baker, The Image of Man: A Study of the Idea of Human Dignity in Classical Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance (1961).
² Speaking from my own experience, I find that some forms of Asian and New Age mysticism can make me feel psychologically ‘extended,’ ‘dissolved’ or ‘fuzzy’ and are potentially uncomfortable. Christian mysticism, however, lifts me up and never obscures my personal sense of self. That’s why, in a nutshell, I left the many to embrace the one.
³ G. M. A. Grube (trans.), Plato’s Republic, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1974, p. 170 [par 518a].
4 Campbell champions the film Star Wars as a contemporary portrayal of the hero cycle. He also met with and helped George Lucas to better understand the idea of the hero.
One thought on “The hero revisited – Do they all come out good?”
edit – shortened sentence to avoid redundancy
“…but these are put to a new purpose, integrated within a fresh sense of self and meaning.”
18:23 – tweaked opening para