In a recent post, I discussed heroes and anti-heroes in spy movies and westerns. This is the followup post I promised, but I’m going to leave the realm of popular heroes – those of fiction, entertainment, sports, and all who wear masks and tights. I’m going to discuss the heroes of myth, especially the “monomyth” as Joseph Campbell summarized it in The Hero With a Thousand Faces:
“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.”
Here is a graphic that makes the elements of this type of story clearer:
I can’t think of heroes without remembering James Hillman, (1926-2011), the father of archetypal psychology and one of the most creative thinkers of our time. The two differing views of the mythic hero announced in the title of this post are Hillman’s own. He never shied away from ambiguity; “I don’t have answers, I have questions,” he said.
Hillman often railed at the negative effects he saw flowing from the hero archetype, which he saw as ego enshrined as narrow self-interest, both individually and collectively. For Hillman, the “heroic ego” was often a source of evil and mischief. Noting that heroes slay dragons, and earlier generations of Jungians wrote of dragons as “the mother,” Hillman claimed that heroes like Hercules in Greek mythology were emblematic of the modern world’s subjugation of women, “the feminine,” and “mother nature.” On another occasion he said, “Killing the dragon in the hero myth is nothing less than killing the imagination.”
Yet a recently published collection of Hillman’s work (Mythic Figures, 2012) includes a chapter on Joseph Campbell, compiled from talks he gave in 2004 in which he spoke at length of the positive hero. He put his earlier negative comments in context:
“A mistake in my attacks on the hero has been to locate this archetypal figure within our secular history after the gods had all been banished. When the gods have fled or were declared dead, the hero serves only the secular ego. The force that prompts action, kills dragons, and leads progress becomes the Western ‘strong ego’ – capitalist entrepreneur, colonial ruler, property developer, a tough guy with heroic ambitions on the road to success.”
When Hillman used terms like “soul” and “the gods,” his concern was religious, but not in the way of the literal truths of most organized religions. For Hillman, such literalism was the enemy of soul. He spoke only and always of the truth of the psyche because it precedes every other kind of truth: “Every notion in our minds, each perception of the world and sensation in ourselves must go through a psychic organization in order to ‘happen’ at all.” (Revisioning Psychology, 1977).
This understanding of the true hero in service to a Power greater ego prompted Hillman to revise his understanding of the “Father/Dragon/Ogre/King” the hero slays:
“A civilization requires the Ogre to be slain. Who is the Ogre? The reactionary aspect of the senex who promotes fear, poverty, and imprisonment; who tempts the young and devours them to increase his own importance. The Ogre is the paranoid King who must have an enemy. He is the deceitful, suspicious, illegitimate King whose Nobles of the Court [have] committed themselves to the enclosed asylum of security where they nourish their world-devouring megalomania.”
St. George and the Dragon by Paolo Uccello, ca. 1458
I think we know what he meant in 2004 by speaking of “paranoid kings” whose nobles live in “the enclosed asylum of security.” It has only gotten worse. How desperate the Ogre is to quash any budding heroes was revealed in a piece on August 19 on Time.com, “School Has Become too Hostile to Boys,” by Christina Hoff Summers. Three seven year old boys, in Virginia, Maryland, and Colorado, were recently suspended from school for the following acts:
- Using a pencil to “shoot” a “bad guy.”
- Nibbling a pop-tart into the shape of a gun.
- Throwing an imaginary hand grenade at “bad guys” in order to “save the world.”
The rationale for these suspensions were “zero tolerance for firearms” policies. Punishing pop-tart weapons in a culture that went on a gun buying binge in the wake of the Sandy Hook shootings seems too ludicrous to believe unless you see it from Hillman’s perspective – another step in the dragon’s war on imagination, in this case, the male imagination, the perspective from which most of our current hero myths derive. Along with banning snack food guns, such schools have renamed “tug of war” games as “tug of peace,” and halted dodge ball as too violent.
Fortunately, as Christina Hoff notes, such efforts to “re-engineer imagination” are doomed to fail – all they will do is “send a clear and unmistakable message to millions of schoolboys: You are not welcome in school.”
In We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World is Getting Worse, 1993, Hillman made clear his belief that pathology lies in cultures as well as individuals, and we deprive the world of something when we take our rage and our grief exclusively to the therapist. Hillman never shied away from critiques of the world at large. Depression is “an appropriate response” to the world we live in, he said.
Yet stronger than the Ogre, said Hillman, is the myth of the Hero – not this or that particular hero, but the heroic pattern itself that Joseph Campbell restored for our times, which renews culture “by revivifying the archetypal imagination displayed by peoples the world over…The panoply of materials that Campbell catalogued shows that the hero wears a thousand faces and cannot be reduced to the modern ego. Especially important in recognizing him is recognizing the heroic liberating function of myth – that it speaks truth to power, even the Ogre’s power.”
We know from history and the nightly news how much suffering the decay of empires involve as paranoid kings strive desperately to hold on to power. We also have the examples of James Hillman and Joseph Campbell, who spent their lives pointing toward soul, psyche, and the language of myth and imagination. That is where we must look to find the larger truth – the hero brings the gift of renewal as surely as spring returns after the darkest time of the year.