-Image by Fraktalika Alicja Ochocińska-
We are here today to walk the path line of the hero’s journey. An archetypal journey imprinted within each of us. Using examples from world mythology we will unfold the process of the man entering his soul and undergoing the passage towards inner growth. We often referred to it as self-development or individuation where one passes through the limitations of his personality and connects with his authentic Self, developing all his potentials as a human being.
From the Great Above she opened her ear to the Great Below.
From the Great Above the goddess opened her ear to the Great Below.
From the Great Above Inanna opened her ear to the Great Below.
(Inanna’s Descent – Sumerian Poem)
There is a unique sound that reaches us which differs from any other. This is a calling that comes during the most peculiar moments in life. These are moments in which we experience fulfillment within ourselves or vulnerability and dissatisfaction. It is a calling that comes from the depth of the soul and it is questioning the content of our lives: “Is that all there is?”. This calling lights up an empty spot of something that is lacking from ones present experience. Something which has been taken away or has never been known that exists.
The calling becomes present more than once, in various forms through dreams, sudden insights or series of events, inviting us to come out of our habitual way of living. The story of prince Gautama Sakyamuni, the future Buddha, shows us the strong protection he received by his father beholding him from all knowledge of age, sickness and death. To achieve this his father provided his son with forty thousand dancing girls to keep his mind attached to the world of senses. When everything was ready, the young prince came across three events: seeing an old man crooked with trembling body, then seeing a diseased man and lastly a meditating monk. His heart became agitated in front of the realisation that there is more to life outside of his protected world. In tales and myths, the calling comes from ugly, filthy or fearful figures that are personifications of one’s undeveloped and repressed elements of the soul.
Responding to the calling
Responding to the calling means that the hero accepts the quest into the unknown which is usually symbolised by a dark forest, jungle, desert or wild sea. St. John of the Cross describes his departure into the deep Self like this:
In a dark night
with anxious love inflamed
O, happy lot!
Forth unobserved I went
My house being now at rest.
It requires from the hero a strong intention for the journey. This intention generates in him a force, an inner burning flame, that offers him the ability to break the barriers of his comfort zone. However, there are myths like the one of Apollo and Daphne where the calling is being refused. Apollo enchanted by Daphne’s beauty called her with his mysterious voice as he was approaching her. The maiden in fear flew away, but Apollo continued to chase her until she was so tired that she turned to her father, river Peneus, and asked him to destroy her beauty. It was then that she was transformed into a plant. Here we see a maiden unable to develop into womanhood -from Maiden to Woman and then Queen. She cannot come out of her father’s house. Thus when perceiving the calling as a threat shows the inadequacy of the infantile ego to pass through the childhood walls. Father and mother are the guardians of those walls and the soul full of guilt and fear of punishment fails to make the passage.
Meeting the wise
The first encounter of the hero who begins the quest, is a protective figure of an old wise man or woman who provides him with appropriate supplies, often with magic qualities to use during trials. As it happened in the Navaho story of the twin boys while traveling to find their father, the Sun, they came upon the old spider woman. She warned them about the dangerous monsters and enemies on route to father’s house giving them a charm of two little feathers and teaching them the magic formula.
In modern times, the old wise man or woman can be met either in dreams or through creative active imagination with the image of a magician, witch, doctor, priest, shaman, guru, teacher, grandfather/mother. This experience allows figures of sage or crone archetype bringing forth further awareness of qualities that rest in a deeper level of the soul. These qualities are usually connected with clarity of thought, strength, skillfulness, attentiveness, intuition and much more. In dreams and myths the given help is symbolised by answers to riddles, objects, nature elements or animals. So, the hero accepts help and is ready to cross the threshold to an unknown land of the unconscious.
Crossing the threshold
Entering the unfamiliar zone the hero experiences a descent. He walks down the dark path of a labyrinth, the underworld, a dense forest or sails in a wild dark sea. He is given by the god Pan from Greek mythology sudden, groundless frights causing him panic. Is he brave enough to bear the darkness? He is in the land of shadows, dragons, wild animals and monsters. The hero’s task is to encounter the intimidating and deadly creatures, he either fights them or tames them, by trusting his magic supplies. He knows it is only the beginning, the first series of tests and all these terrifying creatures are the guardians of the unknown land. Psychologically this is a period when the man’s head is flooded with thoughts, ideas and images of being in danger, bringing to him sensations of fear. He feels vulnerable in many situations. For example, unsafe being in his house, insecure of being alone, afraid to begin his day, he experiences somatic pains and disturbances. All these thoughts, images and sensations are projected in the outer environment and life becomes very difficult. These fears are imaginary, their aim is to provoke and bring distraction by forbidding the man to enter further into his unconscious land. These are shadows of the past, originated in infantile unfulfilled needs or traumas that need to be explored.
In the whale’s belly
The hero by defeating the monsters instead of gaining power slights deeper into the dark belly of the unknown. Like the prophet Jonah from Hebrew Bible and Old Testament, being thrown by the sailors into the sea to calm its waters, he was then swallowed by a whale. Reaching the whale’s belly he stayed there for three days and nights. In this phase of the journey the man experiences a gradual withdraw. He turns his interests away from the outer world and chooses spaces where he feels contained and protected. It is a period when he feels grief and sorrow. Within him there is a feeling of isolation and self-reflection that takes place. Although it is a painful moment, it is a life-renewing act reaching inward to be reborn again. The man enters the World Womb or the great inner temple where he undergoes metamorphosis. He needs to abandon his infantile needs, attachments, desires, fears of life and die, so he can be born into maturity.
To allow transformation to happen the hero has to face a series of trials that he must complete. For example, in Greek mythology, Psyche in search for her lover Eros, she needs to pass the tests given by Venus his mother. Psyche has to separate the wheat, barley, millet, peas, lentils from the ground with the help of the ants. Then she has to collect the golden wool from wild ships applying the instructions by a green reed. Later, Psyche has to bring water from a spring on a high rock guarded by a sleepless dragon. An eagle offers to help her. The final test is to go into the abyss and bring a box full of supernatural beauty. Psyche following the advice of a high tower gives the right offerings to Charon and Cerberus.
This psychological state requires hard work on behalf of the man. He is in front of the undifferentiated mass of various elements of his soul and he must separate the vital ones from those which are harmful or unnecessary. He stays there for a long time growing his devotion and willingness to hard work. Doing this the man experiences one by one his resistances to break. He learns to let go of his anger and annoyance, he learns to put aside his pride, knowledge, virtue, beauty, belongings, his whole life, and submit to the absolute intolerance.
Death & Rebirth
Then the ultimate death comes. Inanna the Sumerian Sun goddess desired to attend the death ceremony of the Queen’s husband in the underworld and learn the sacred mysteries. She uninvited reached the Queen’s throne room, naked from all her precious charms, she dared to walk towards the throne making the mourning Queen furious. Immediately, Inanna was turned into a corpse and hung on the wall for three days and nights. And this is it! In the deepest chamber of the heart the letting go happens, of the fake ideas of who I think I am. Psychologically the man realises and accepts that everything that is rejected by him or considered to be different from him, is actually one flesh with him. It is an understanding that “me” and “not me” are one. This comes within a painful condition which in myths is symbolised by the death in the underworld.
The hero wakes up from death in a clean and pure state. This is a rebirth. Inanna came alive after receiving the water and food of life. It is the moment that the hero is initiated into life as virgin again. He is now able to use his gentle heart -not the animal desire nor the fastidious revolution- to approach the savage goddess who is the guardian of the inexhaustible well of life. In an Irish story, the youngest son was thirsty in front of a well guarded by an ugly earthy old woman, he did not only give the kiss she required but also, an embrace. A submission that Inanna did not offer to her sister, the mourning Queen. There in the Irish story, the ugly woman transformed into a young woman made by a galaxy of charms giving the young son the water of life. The “gentle heart” is the awareness of the man, without ego’s resistances and perceptions. It enables him to meet the feminine archetype, anima, in its pure form. The feminine archetype represents the knowledge of nature, the life circle and the aliveness of life. For the male is the connection with the purity of love and life, and for the woman is the connection with all her qualities as they are rooted in the Great Feminine.
The hero’s trails continues until the final reparation comes. He needs to walk the path under the terrifying face of the King. In the Navaho story, the twins pass through strong trials ordered by their father the Sun. He would not accept them as his children before they completed the tasks. During the trials they were thrown on sharp spikes, they were steamed in an overheated sweat lodge, they had to smoke a pipe filled with poison. However, the twins succeeded to stay alive. It was only then, that the Sun changed his thundering face and showed his mercy by embracing them. The twins like their father became the masters of the universe. There is also, the story of Queen Esther in Hebrew Bible and Old Testament who ignored the royal rule and appeared to the King uninvited, in order to save her people, risking her life with death. She reached the inner garden of the palace where the King’s throne was placed. The sight of the powerful and enraged king made her loose consciousness. She recovered as soon as the King became compassionate by recognising her as his wife.
In myths when the hero is acknowledged by the masculine archetype in a form of a king father, a king husband or a god figure is given the royal blessing. He is transformed into King or Queen or Great Master participating in the mastery universe, the world or a kingdom. Animus, the other name of the masculine archetype, is the womb of a second birth. Psychologically the man’s qualities of misused power, aggression and judgement are transformed into humbleness, creativity, authenticity and teaching. The masculine archetype represents the dynamic principle of order and knowledge. In woman rise qualities of clarity of thought and expression, willpower, broaden memory, imagination, creative power, aspiration motivated by ideals. Where as the male becomes connected with all of his qualities contained in the Great Masculine. It is also, about surpassing the limitations of the inner tyrant and the inner victim, allowing forgiveness and service to grow within oneself.
The jewel in the lotus
The next state is where the hero immerses into the infinite and reaches what in Tibetan mythology is called “The Jewel in the Lotus”. Psychologically it is the inner experience of the union of feminine and masculine force within the man, dark and light attributes of the soul become one. With his inner eyes man sees that inside the psyche all opposing forces and forms are united. Rise from it and dissolve into it. The man is one with his authentic truth, detached from his personas, desires and fears. The hero now, has entered the treasure room.
It is the moment that the hero receives the gift from life’s endless treasure. In myths we see the hero discovering the hidden gold or the elixir which was his aim from the beginning. The gold and the elixir are symbols of the Self which arrives in consciousness. The man finally meets the true nature of his Being, opening the doors for its fulfillment in life. Under the grace of Self the man is being developed in his fullest potential.
After the gift is given, the hero needs to accept that the return to the world is real and it is part of his journey to complete. On walking back he deals with the question “Why re-enter the troubled world?”. His devotion on the elixir keeps him awake and alert, making his eyes see his true purpose in the world. Whilst maintaining confidence on his adventure, he delivers the elixir to the others with clarity, compassion and humbleness. He is not afraid anymore of what the next moment might bring because he recognises that change in time can not destroy the permanence of Self. He is not anxious for the outcome of his deeds so allows everything to manifest under Self’s nature. In Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says to Arjuna:
“Do without attachment the work you have to do…..
Surrendering all action to Me, with mind intent on Me,
free from desire, selfishness and grief,
(Bhagavad Gita 3:19 and 3:30).
The hero’s journey is about the inner descent into the soul. It is not about removing the difficulties from life because they are like clouds that come and go. The man who undergoes this journey learns to draw wisdom from life’s events. Using his observation, self-reflection and action he allows his soul to wake up undeveloped qualities, heal traumas and grow until Self is brought into consciousness. Self is always present, authentic and real. It is ready to be manifested in life offering the man all the gifts within, making him a complete human being.
Campbell, J. (1993). The hero with the thousand faces. London: Fontana Press.
Greek Bible Society (2003). Old Testament. Athens, 645 – 680, 1144 – 1147.
Harding, M. E. (1971). Woman’s mysteries. Ancient & Modern. Massachusetts: Shambhala Puplications, Inc.
Jung, C. G. (1968). The archetypes and the collective unconscious (2nd ed). London: Routledge, 207- 254.
Panduva, Th. (2015). Bhagavad Gita (5th ed). Athens: Institute of Book, 3:19, 3:30.
Saint John of the Cross (2007). The dark night of the soul (cover). New York: Cosimo, Inc.
Wolkstein, D. & Kramer, N. S. (1983). Inanna: Queen of heaven and earth. Her stories and hymns from Sumer. London: Rider, 51- 85.