Two views of the hero myth

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.

James Hillman

James Hillman

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

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, “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:

  1. Using a pencil to “shoot” a “bad guy.”
  2. Nibbling a pop-tart into the shape of a gun.
  3. 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.

The day the music died

“We need magic and bliss, and power and myth, and celebration and religion in our lives, and music is a good way to encapsulate a lot of it.” – Jerry Garcia.

I was carried away in a rapture. And so i am a Deadhead now…” —Joseph Campbell

Jerry Garcia, 1966, by Zooomabooma, CC By-NC-SA 2.0

Jerry Garcia, 1966, by Zooomabooma, CC By-NC-SA 2.0

With all due respect to Don McLean, the music died on August 9, 1995, the day we lost Jerry Garcia, lead guitarist and most easily recognized member of the Grateful Dead.  Between 1965 and 1995, the Dead played an average of 77 shows a year.  Though volumes have been written about the experience, it is difficult to put into words.  Joseph Campbell was friends with several members of the band.  In a 1986 symposium with Garcia, drummer Micky Hart, and several Jungian analysts, Campbell said:

“The genius of these musicians- these three guitars and two wild drummers in the back… Listen, this is powerful stuff ! And what is it ? The first thing I thought of was the Dionysian festivals, of course…This is more than music. It turns something on in here (the heart?). And what it turns on is life energy. This is Dionysus talking through these kids. Now I’ ve seen similar manifestations, but nothing as innocent as what I saw with this bunch. This was sheer innocence…This is a wonderful fervent loss of self in the larger self of a homogeneous community. This is what it is all about!”

The Dead were always a touring band, and the shows were unique events that people loved or hated – I’ve never met anyone who was indifferent.  When they played Sacramento or Oakland on weekdays, half of the people in my department at work – and we’re talking electrical and software engineers – would arrive in the morning in tie-dye and take the afternoon off to attend.  The other half could not have cared less.

Campbell’s assessment reveals the “innocent joy” I felt after my first few shows, captured by the lyrics of “Scarlet Begonias:”

Strangers stopping strangers just to shake their hand,
Everybody’s playin in the Heart of Gold Band.

In reality, you don’t get that close to Dionysus without paying a price.  Thirty years on the road took its toll on Garcia.  In the summer of 1995, he checked himself into a rehab facility and died in his sleep of heart failure a week after his 53d birthday.

Jerry and the Dead left us a huge musical legacy, with at least one song, “Truckin,” designated as a National Treasure by the Library of Congress.  Surviving members of the band continue to release the best concert tapes, and everything has just been remastered for iTunes.  You can look at the collection here: Grateful Dead on iTunes.

In the end, maybe Joseph Campbell, with his eyes of innocence, saw it most clearly when he said, “It doesn’t matter what the name of the God is, or whether it’s a rock group or a clergy. It’s somehow hitting that chord of realization of the unity of God in you all, that’s a terrific thing and it just blows the rest away.”

Rest in peace, Jerry, and thanks for the ride!

The Legacy of Joseph Campbell on

Twenty-five years ago, Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell filmed a groundbreaking series that opened the world of myth, story, and folklore to a large audience.   The Power of Myth series was completed in 1987, shortly before Campbell died at the age of 83.  It aired the following year on PBS, and you still sometimes find it replayed during pledge drives.  The companion DVD set and book are still in print.

To commemorate this anniversary, Moyers has loaded podcasts of the first two sessions – “The Hero’s Adventure,” and “The Message of Myth” on his website.

If you’ve never seen this series – or even if you have – grab some popcorn and fire it up on your largest monitor.  This wonderful introduction to key stories from around the world was filmed at George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch.  Lucas was a serious student of Campbell, who structured the first Starwars trilogy around the hero myth.

Almost anything I have to say about myth and folklore is influenced by Campbell.  In these final interviews, he distills a lifetime of study into a clear but powerful series of tales and observations that forever changes one’s view of the great stories of humankind.

The Wasteland

One of the books I treasure is a battered old trade paperback with yellowing pages.  I value the book,  Creative Mythology, because of the author’s inscription: “For Morgan with all my good wishes. Joseph Campbell, 3/13/79.”  


You could say Campbell’s  four day lecture series that spring did much to open the path my imagination has followed ever since.  None of the stories Campbell unpacked in his lectures or books affected me more than Parzifal (or Parsifal) and his quest for the holy grail. The version of the grail story Campbell recounts is by Wolfram Von Eshenbach (1170 – 1220).  Wolfram was a German knight and poet, and his Parzivalis regarded as one of the finest medieval German epics.  Campbell looks to this version because it’s roots reach deeper than later Christianized versions where only the pious and chaste Galahad can attain the grail.  What matters for this post are those echoes we can see in the tale of the ancient legends of sacred kingship, and the ways an unfit or weakened king can blight the land.

Wolfram Von Eshenbach from Codex Manasse

Sometimes in youth we receive a vision or powerful experience that shapes much of the rest of our lives.  So it is with Parzival who finds his way to the mystical Grail Castle and meets its wounded king, Anfortas,  who is also known as The Fisher King.  As a young knight, a spear pierced the Fisher King’s “thighs” – a euphemism for testicles according to Campbell.  In ancient times, the virility of the king and the fertility of the land were one.  In the grail stories, Fisher King could not be healed and couldn’t die.  All the realm was barren.

Robin Williams as the Fisher King in the 1991 movie of that name, a contemporary retelling of the story

While in the castle, during a mysterious ritual, Parzival has a vision of the grail, which is described as a stone, though its shape isn’t fixed, and it brings everyone “what their heart most desires.”  Though he is intensely curious, Parzival does not ask the meaning of what he sees.  In the morning, the castle is empty.  All traces of life are gone.  He rides away, and when he tells his story, listeners turn away in disgust.  If Parzival had asked the right question, he would have healed the king and restored the land.    The young knight wanders the blighted realm for 20 year, enduring hardships and contemplating his failure.  Just like us, he watches time turn his youthful dreams of glory to ashes.

“Parsifal” by Odilon Redon

At last, one cold Christmas Eve, Parzival encounters a hermit, tells his tale, and learns the question he should have asked. After that, he achieves the castle again.  When the ritual ends, Parzival asks, “Whom does the grail serve?”   Everything hinges on asking the right question.  Anfortas is healed, spring returns, and Parzival becomes the new Grail King.


Hearing this old tale, we have to ask how the story plays forward.  “Wasteland” clearly describes the state of the world we read about in the papers, and “impotent” seems an apt description of most of the world’s governments.  This perception is not even new, for T.S. Eliot named it ninety years ago in his poem, The Wasteland:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man, You cannot say, or guess, for you know only A heap of broken images, where the sun beats, And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, And the dry stone no sound of water.

Giving mythical weight to our latest headlines, storyteller and mythologist, Michael Meade says: “Like Parsifal, the modern world has awakened from a deep sleep to find that the castle of abundance has disappeared, that the financial markets are in ruins, that blind religious beliefs are once again producing mindless crusades, and that great nature itself threatens to become a barren wilderness. Like Parsifal, we failed to ask the right questions when surrounded by abundance.” From “Parsifal, the Pathless Path, and the Secret of Abundance,” first published in Parabola, Fall 2009.

This has happened before, again and again, Meade reminds us – beginnings and endings, decay and renewal.  The castle of abundance waits for us, individually and collectively, somewhere in the wilderness, but old pathways won’t take us there.  There’s a time to do as Parsifal did – drop the reins and let the horse, an image of our instinctive wisdom, pick its way through the forest. The old stories were told in the winter, when the nights were long and the fires warm.  This winter, I am drawn to look at some of these tales, to see what they are still whispering to our souls, for they are wiser than the daily ephemera that passes for wisdom but is really the source of our confusion.

As Michael Meade puts it: “Despite the current confusions of dogmatic religions and the literalism common to modern attitudes, the earthly world has always been a manifestation of the divine. Call it the Grail Castle, the Kingdom of Heaven, Nirvana, the Otherworld; it has many names and each is a representation of the eternal realm that secretly sustains the visible world. When time seems to be running out it is not simply more time that is needed, rather it is the touch of the eternal that can heal all time’s wounds and renew life from its source.”