In depth psychology and New Age publications we often hear about the Hero. This kind of usage isn’t referring to a Martin Luther King, Neil Armstrong or Terry Fox. While these individuals certainly were heroic, and heroes by the usual definition of the word, they weren’t necessarily heroes from the perspective of depth psychology or New Age spirituality.
The psycho-spiritual idea of the Hero is really talking about an 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 remixed 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 that extends 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 type of effect that the numinous has on consciousness depends on the psychological stability and maturity of the individual, as well as the character and intensity of the numinosity, itself.
Visible manifestations of the archetypes appear as archetypal images. Jung distinguishes these recognizable images from the archetype proper, which Jung says can never be fully known. So the archetypal image of the Hero may appear in many different forms, but there’s only one Hero archetype.
Joseph Campbell built on Carl Jung’s idea of a hero archetype in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949). Campbell says that the idea of the hero’s journey to the underworld (and return to everyday life) is found throughout world myth and religion.
Typically, the hero is born into a problematic setting. Two biblical examples would be the infant Moses and Jesus Christ. Moses was abandoned as a baby, left in a basket to float down the Nile river. Jesus Christ was born in a manger because his parents were forced to flee the paranoid anger of King Herod “The Great” (c. 73-4 BCE) who hoped to kill the infant Jesus by ordering the killing of all children in Bethlehem under age two.
Campbell says the next phase of the budding 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 definite 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 (in literature, 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 everyday into a supernatural world of danger and magic (again, in Jung’s terms, the collective unconscious).
At this time the hero encounters mythical beings and beasts. Some are helpers, others are tricksters, and yet others are 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 point 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 connections 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 well Plato‘s comments 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.²
In practical terms, the hero’s quest is often confusing due to the sheer magnitude of fast paced change that’s involved. Not everyone finds their way out of the collective unconscious. Some simply go mad.
In myth and religion, Theseus found escaped from the labyrinth because he’d unwound 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 often varies quite radically. And each story arguably has a qualitatively different effect on those who invest their energy into them. However, Jung and Campbell contend that all the Hero stories display a basic structural similarity.³
In psychological terms hero stories point to a circular passage from ego → archetypes → self → archetypes → ego. On returning, being rescued or resurrected, the hero is transformed. He or she may reclaim former elements of the older personality but these are put to a new purpose, integrated within a new sense of self.
On the social level, the hero brings to society various boons of wisdom, and possibly miraculous abilities, gained from the underworld.
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 G. M. A. Grube (trans.), Plato’s Republic, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1974, p. 170 [par 518a].
³ Campbell notes that the film Star Wars is a contemporary reenactment of the hero myth, rendering ancient stories and motifs into images that speak to people today.
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