Suggested Further Reading:

The Hero with a Thousand Faces
Joseph Campbell
Man and His Symbols
Carl Jung
The Golden Bough
Sir James George Frazier
Myths to Live By
Joseph Campbell
Transformations of Myth Through Time
Joseph Campbell
The World of Myth
David Adams Leeming
The Power of Myth

Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers
The Eternal Drama: The Inner Meaning of Greek Mythology

Edward F. Edinger

Questions and Answers(?)

There's more to a hero than you might think. Click on any of the questions below to see my response.

Who are Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell?
What are archetypes?
Why do we have heroes?
Are heroes relevant today?
How are heroes harmful?

Who are Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell? Previous | Home Page | Next

Carl Jung
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Joseph Campbell
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Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell are two of the most prominent explorers of the psychoanalytical and mythological origins for human and social behavior.

Carl Jung expanded the work of Sigmund Freud and the unconscious mind to emphasize the mythological forces working within the individual to shape his or her personality. Jung formed the concept of archetype and collective unconscious to explain the commonality of dream images and situations found in all people. Jung believed individual and social behavior and thought have their roots in a common palette of characters and situations the mind retains from early human consciousness development. To Jung, the archetypal hero represents the psyche's quest for individuation, the process that makes each person unique.

Jospeph Campbell built on Carl Jung's concept of the collective unconscious to encompass all the world's mythologies. Campbell studied the world's religions, art, and stories and discovered common threads throughout all, including the hero. Campbell believed that mythology is the collective "dream" of mankind, the "song of the universe." Campbell's work highlights mankind's common search, both personally and socially, for meaning and truth through the ages.

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What are archetypes? Previous | Home Page | Next

Archetype n. An original model after which other similar things are patterned. [Greek arkhetupos]

Examples of character archetypes:
Hero (Arthur, Theseus, Bilbo)
Scapegoat ("The Lottery")
Outcast (Cain, Ancient Mariner)
Devil Figure (Lucifer, Darth Vader)
Woman Figure
Earthmother (Mother Nature)
Temptress (Sirens, Delilah)
Platonic Ideal (Dante's Beatrice)
Unfaithful Wife (Anna Karenina)

Situation Archetypes:
Quest (Holy Grail, Ahab)
Initiation (Huck Finn)
Fall (Paradise Lost)
Death and Rebirth (Christ, Hercules)

Archetypal Symbols:

Simply put, an archetype is a recurring pattern of character, symbol, or situation found in the mythology, religion, and stories of all cultures. In the context of archetypes, Campbell defined his work as a search for "the commonality of themes in world myths, pointing to a constant requirement in the human psyche for a centering in terms of deep principles." (The Power of Myth xvi). Jung defined his concept of the archetype as a formula that is the result of "countless experiences of our ancestors. They are, as it were, the psychic residue of numberless experiences of the same type." (quoted in Gordon ii). Both men felt that the experience of being human can be examined collectively across time, space, and culture, and that our commonality can be traced to the most primitive origins of the human consciousness, where the archetypal themes originate in modern men and women.

Archetypes can be thought of as the precursor to conscious thought, existing in the unconscious mind as expressions of psychic happenings, but without a basis in the physical world. Humans didn't "invent" archetypes, but they do express archetypes in the conscious world of art, literature, and religion. Unconscious energies are given form in this way. Therefore, the hero is not someone "out there" in the world; he is all of us and our need to grow and mature.

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Why do we have heroes? Previous | Home Page | Next

Hercules illustrates the hero's reconciliation of the conscious/unconscious mind with one of his Labors.

Hercules kills all but one head of the Hydra, which he places under a rock. Hercules dips his arrows in the poisonous blood of the Hydra. Later, Hercules kills a centaur suspected of seducing his wife with the same arrows. Before the centaur dies, he gives Hercules' wife some of his own now tainted blood, telling her to use it on Hercules if she ever suspects infidelity. She eventually dips a vest in the blood and sends it to Hercules, who puts it on and suffers such a terrible burning sensation that he kills himself rather than live with the pain.

What's the lesson? Repression of unconscious forces, namely desire, will eventually invite disaster upon the psyche. The unslain head of the Hydra, whose blood eventually causes Hercules unbearable agony, represents a repressed force in the unconscious.

Heroes are constructions; they are not real. All societies have similar hero stories not because they coincidentally made them up on their own, but because heroes express a deep psychological aspect of human existence. They can be seen as a metaphor for the human search of self-knowledge. In other words, the hero shows us the path to our own consciousness through his actions.

Jung called the process of forming a consciousness "individuation," which means the process by which we reconcile the conscious/unconscious aspects of the psyche (Davies, et al. 327-331). Thus, when the hero slays a monster, he is not literally killing it in the real world, but facing an aspect of the unconscious, such as lust or rage, in order to control that side of his being. The hero stories can be thought of as road maps to successful assimilation of the conscious, rational mind with the unconscious, animal mind.

The images of the hero conquering death or returning from a successful battle provide the restricted conscious mind with new raw material into which to expand, thereby forcing the consumers of the hero stories to expand their conscious image of themselves (Davies, et. al. 331). The hero stories are both a record of primitive encounters with the unconscious and a prompt for individuals to enter into the struggle for higher consciousness. Functioning in this way, heroes give men and women hope for such things as life after death, reprieve from suffering, and a sense that order rules their lives.

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Are heroes relevant today? Previous | Home Page | Next

But what happens when, as Nietzche said, "Dead are all the gods."? Is modern, scientific man unable to experience myths and heroes as the ancients, as a guide and symbol? Are we so attuned to the scientific dissection of the myths that we fail to see the spiritual aspects of them? Is the hero nothing more than a remnant of the aggressive energy projected by a society to justify its dominance over less war-like societies?

Campbell recognized the decline of the relevance of religion and mythology in modern man's life. He laments that the bridge between conscious/unconscious is severed with no more heroes to serve as guides for reconciliation. With no connection to the collective unconscious we all share, Campbell views the modern ideals of nationhood and lethargic religions (propagated by hero images, among other things) as the new dragons to be slain, calling for the new, self-sacrificing heroes to step forward and bring about an annihilation of the extreme egoism of individuality that the loss of myth has brought about. (Thousand Faces, Power of Myth)

Heroes are a small part of a culture's mythology. They have been useful for thousands of years to the people for whom they serve as an idealized human, a sort of "super" person, capable of dealing with problems that surpass normal humans and their abilities. In this sense, heroes are:

Part of the perceptual system of a culture through which unfamiliar situations, originating either within the culture or outside it, are interpreted and fitted into old symbolic molds. In helping to pattern the relationships among basic beliefs, values, and behaviors that organize social interaction, [heroes] produce common social understanding of new social conditions (Breen and Corcoran 14)

In a sentence, heroes contribute to the society's necessary business of reproducing itself and its values. For most of history, religion has been the main force of reproducing the dominant society's traits by using mythical figures to illustrate moral and societal principles that help form a common social conception of such things as death and gender roles.

An excellent example of a modern hero performing this social conditioning is Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. Luke affirms our belief in the power of mankind over technology's "evil" invasion of our world. Computers were beginning to become fairly common in the late 1970's, and many people had anxieties about their dominance in society; hence, the hero is refashioned into a triumph of human spirit over technology's evil plans.

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How are heroes harmful? Previous | Home Page | Top

The hero is both an expression and a tool of the hegemony of "a lived system of meanings and values--constitutive and constituting--which as they are experienced as practices appear as reciprocally confirming. It thus constitutes a sense of reality for most people in the society, a sense of absolute because experienced reality beyond which it is very difficult for most members of the society to move, in most areas of their lives. It is, that is to say, in the strongest sense a 'culture', but a culture which has also to be seen as the lived dominance and subordination of particular classes." (Williams 110)

In the context of describing individualism as a form of control, Paolo Valesio says, "It [scene from a play] shows an individual who is frantically trying to individualize himself--that is, to become a hero--deriving courage for the enterprise by contemplating another individual, a famous one whose individuality has been institutionalized. A paradoxical process? Certainly, and as such particularly apt to illuminate the basically contradictory nature of the notion of 'individualism.'" (165)

Riane Eisler, quoted by Penelope Prentice in her essay calling for women to reclaim their power in society as peacekeepers, says, "Ours is a species that quite literally lives by stories and images, by the myths--be they religious or secular--that tell us what is 'sacred,' 'natural,' and 'true.' And for a long time our conscious minds have been fettered by stories and images that serve to maintain a dominator system." She goes on to say, "the all too familiar archetype of the hero as killer (all the way from Odysseus to Rambo) inculcates the minds of both men and women with the notion that domination and conquest--whether of women, other men, other nations, or nature--.... The powerful archetype of woman as evil seductress (from Circe in the Odyssey to Glen Close's role in Fatal Attraction) serves to further justify men's domination over women and the Feminine." (Prentice 2-3)

Every successful society must have means by which it indoctrinates its members into the society's system of values and morals. One of the darker aspects of the hero is the role he plays in disseminating these values. If one looks at the heroes outlined in other parts of this site, one notices they are mostly European and all warriors, fighting and even killing to solve their problems. They reflect the violent history of their respective societies in conquering other groups. The hero reflects the appearance and values of the dominant societal group and justifies the society's crimes against others by showing the hero's strength and violence resulting in the hero's people gaining independence, usurping power, or obtaining any of a number of other results favorable to the dominant group, usually at the expense of marginalized groups. Obviously, this reinforces violence as the only means of gaining power; in fact, for persons living in a nation with violent heroes, it's hard to imagine any other way. And, unfortunately, being militarily dominant has historically been very effective in maintaining dominance for privileged groups.

In today's global village, however, the hero's aggression and nationalistic/ethnic symbolism are detrimental to cooperation among and within nations. Breen and Corcoran in "The Myth in the Discourse" say, "We can see that other societies are culturally-constructed but we feel that our world is not at all the result of a historical process. As innocent myth-consumers, we read our myths as facts instead of culturally-constructed images." (25). In other words, Americans no more doubted John Wayne was going to beat those "brainwashed Japs" than Nazis believed they could and should commit genocide against "filthy Jews". The hero justifies the actions of a nation--but only if one is part of the group the hero represents.

Another aspect of the hero that is potentially dangerous is the misapplication of his story in modern media. In Campbell's examination of the hero's life, he outlines three steps of the hero: separation-initiation-return. Campbell emphasizes the hero not only conquers the problem, but returns to society to "bestow boons on his fellow people." (Thousand 30). Ken Burke points out that in modern American cinema, the fixation on the conquering or initiation aspect of the hero has hidden the full life of the hero--that of maturation into leadership and wisdom--from viewers of modern myth. Ancient heroes would often return after their journeys to marry and lead a mature life, imparting their hard-won wisdom to their people. Burke says the lack of portrayal of this part of the hero's life in modern media leads to an "arrested adolescence" that "constantly avoids social responsibility and marital commitment." (6). The result is an incomplete individuation process, with members of a society caught in a dangerous, "self-destructive individualism," (3) unable or unwilling to reconcile the worlds of personal ego and community that Campbell believes the heroes were trying to show could be done. The necessity of heroes, Campbell felt, was to "pull together all these tendencies to separation, to pull them together into some intention." (Power 134)

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