Understanding the Hero Archetype

Written by on May 13, 2013 in On Archetypes

iStock_000002023281XSmallIntroduction

The hero is one of the most enduring and prevalent archetypes in our society. It has been around for a long time and seems destined to be around for a long time to come. Some of our earliest images and motifs of the hero comes from Greek and Roman mythology. Characters like Jason and the Argonauts and Hercules are prominent features of our psychic landscape that provide us with a clear symbol of the archetypal pattern of the hero and a symbolic map of our own journey. The hero is inexorably connected to the quest or journey that all heroes must undertake. Our modern mythologies of the hero are currently expressed in comic books and superhero films such as Superman, Batman and other similar superhero characters. It cannot be ignored that many if not all the mythological hero figures are male. But a rash of female heroes have emerged in modern society including Wonder Woman and Elektra. But the female heroines have been modeled after their male counterparts in many cases. Rather than highlighting the feminine powers the female heroes are relegated to copy cat versions of male heroes. With such a lack of clearly defined hero archetypes for the female many women have also tried to reproduce the characteristics of the male hero rather than discovering the unique powers of the female hero.

The Female Hero

If you are a woman and you feel that you have the Hero archetype you may have struggled with getting in touch with your femininity. Concepts such as beauty, tenderness, and vulnerability  may seem like weaknesses or you cannot identify with them. You find it easier to relate to men than other women, especially women who are highly feminine. But simply copy cat versions of male heroism are not satisfactory to the female hero. Many female superheroes portray physical prowess and cool detachment. But neither of these qualities are feminine. While women have proven their skills in fields most reserved for men such as the military, police force, and firefighting physical strength is not a woman’s greatest strength. She has proven her intelligence in succeeding as CEOs and business owners around the world as well as her political savvy and her ability to govern others as roles in the world governments are filling up with more and more women all the time. She has nothing left to prove but to highlight her inherent strengths which have largely been ignored and left languishing under the foot of the feminist movement. Don’t misunderstand me, I consider myself a feminist in the tradition of the Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton types. I support the freedom for women to explore the totality of their abilities and to break free from the constraints of stereotypes and traditional roles.  But what we have instead is a stereotype of the tough female that can go toe to toe with any man and who is also highly sexual. This stereotype is unrealistic and denies women their innate strengths. In order to find center one must first swing far to the left and the right. The feminist movement has been swinging for some time now. I have noticed a change though; a shift in perceptions of the power of woman. This change is reflected in books such as The Da Vinci Code and a huge resurgence in Goddesses and Divine feminine associations. There are even a few books with female characters beginning to reflect a different kind of  female hero. The Hunger Games is one of these books. The main character Katniss is not some tomboy wannabe but is a skilled hunter who developed her abilities out of necessity for feeding her family. She exhibits fears, and yet shows courage. She is compassionate and many of her difficult decisions are chosen through a distinct female perception. She is not made into a sexual object that wears skimpy clothes and still has the fighting abilities of a karate master. She is placed in difficult even impossible situations and she is not overcome but them but continues to show her vulnerable sensibilities. She is not unnecessarily violent but highlights her accuracy and skills as a hunter. This character is a good beginning for development of an emergent version of the hero archetype. The female hero.

The Hero in All of Us

There is something universal about the hero archetype. We all have an inner hero and we are all on a journey through life that in many ways parallels the journey of the hero. I believe that this is why the hero factors into so many of our movies, music and books. But for some, the archetype holds a special significance. Perhaps you can relate to the hero in a more personal way than others. This could mean that you can call the Hero archetype one of your personal archetypes.

Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey

I would be remiss to write an article about the hero archetype and not mention the work of Joseph Campbell. His seminal book The Hero with a Thousand Faces Campbell provides us with a map of the hero’s journey in seventeen steps. All hero stories seem to follow this pattern as well as real life heroes. It may be interesting or helpful to look at this pattern in your own life. You are, after all, the hero of your own story.

The Seventeen Steps of the Hero’s Journey

Departure

    1. The Call to Adventure
      The call to adventure signals a change in the persons life.
    2. Refusal of the Call
      Often when the call is given, the future hero refuses to respond to it.  There are many different reasons for the refusal including fear, inadequacy or feeling that there are prior obligations that prevent the person from heeding the call.
    3. Supernatural Aid
      Eventually, the hero begins the journey. Once the hero has committed to the quest, consciously or unconsciously, his or her guide or supernatural helper appears or becomes known.
    4. The Crossing of the First Threshold
      This is the point where the person actually crosses into the unknown, which is a dangerous realm where the person is entirely unfamiliar.
    5. The Belly of the Whale
      The belly of the whale is sometimes referred to as the person’s lowest point or the most fearful, darkest hour. It represents though, the transitioning between the old self and the new self. By entering this stage, the person shows their willingness to undergo a metamorphosis, to die to him or herself.

 Initiation

    1. The Road of Trials
      After the dark transition period begins the road of trials. This is a series of tests, tasks, or ordeals that the person must undergo to begin the transformation. The person frequently fails one or more of these tests, which often occur in sets of three.
    2. The Meeting with the Goddess
      The meeting with the goddess represents the sacred marriage or the union of opposites. This may take place within the person and the person begins to see him or herself in a non-dualistic way. Meeting the Goddess also means finding the person that the hero loves completely and unconditionally. The Goddess symbolizes unconditional love and self-unification.
    3. Woman as the Temptress
      This step is about those temptations that may lead the hero to abandon or stray from his or her quest. It does not necessarily have to be represented by a woman but woman is a metaphor for the physical or material temptations of life, since the hero-knight was often tempted by lust from his spiritual journey.
    4. Atonement with the Father
      In this step the person must confront whatever holds the ultimate power in his or her life. The father figure who, in many myths has life and death power represents this. This is the center point of the journey. Everything previous has led up to it and everything that will come flows out of it. For the transformation to take place the hero must be “killed” by the father figure or thing that has the most power over their life. This allows for rebirth.
    5. Apotheosis
      Apotheosis means to be elevated to divine status.  This is the period of peace that follows the transformation and death processes.
    6. The Ultimate Boon
      The ultimate boon is the achievement of the goal of the quest.  All the previous steps serve to prepare and purify the person for this step, since in many myths the ultimate boon is something transcendent like the elixir of life, or the golden fleece of immortality, or the Holy Grail.

Return

    1. Refusal of the Return
      The hero does not want to leave the apparent bliss of their apotheosis and resists the call to return. Returning can sometimes feel like “going backwards” to the hero.
    2. The Magic Flight
      Sometimes the hero must escape with the boon, if it is something that the gods have been jealously guarding. The return journey can be just as precarious and adventurous as the call to the quest.
    3. Rescue from Without
      Just as the hero may need guides and helpers in the beginning, he or she must have powerful guides and rescuers to bring them back to everyday life, especially if the person has been wounded or weakened by the experience. Or perhaps the person doesn’t realize that it is time to return, that they can return, or that others need their boon.
    4. The Crossing of the Return Threshold
      The trick in returning is to retain the wisdom gained on the quest, to integrate that wisdom into a human life, and then maybe figure out how to share the wisdom with the rest of the world. This is usually extremely difficult.
    5. Master of the Two Worlds
      For the hero, this may mean achieving a balance between the material and spiritual worlds, to become master of the inner and the outer. As Jesus put it, “to be in the world but not of the world.”
    6. Freedom to Live
      Mastery leads to freedom from the fear of death, which in turn is the freedom to live. This is sometimes referred to as living in the moment, neither anticipating the future nor regretting the past.

If you have the Hero archetype you may feel a personal connection to the hero’s journey and the experiences required to pass the tests it entails. Below are seventeen things I have observed about the hero archetype from books, movies and ordinary folks who seem to possess the spirited energies of the Hero archetype.

 

Seventeen Things Have I Learned About the Hero Archetype

  1. Strength is a key feature of the hero. Others perceive them as strong and they sense within themselves an irrefutable power. This strength is similar to the comic book hero’s super power. The hero must learn to harness this power or go down with it as it will drive their life.
  2. The hero is driven to fulfill the quest that is their life mission. Heroes tend to have a clear sense of direction and are good decision makers because they have an intuition about their personal journey. I call this inner knowing the compass. The hero has a strong compass for guiding their life.
  3. The hero’s journey is a personal one. Somehow along the way, the hero ends up helping others and being a source of inspiration to others. When the hero tries to be inspirational or heroic he or she falls off the true path of personal empowerment and is not inspiring or helpful.
  4. Heroes can be distant, aloof and hard to penetrate emotionally. They tend to be guarded and self protective. Being vulnerable is a real challenge to the hero.
  5. Heroes have a drive to excel in whatever they do. They will not attempt something that they think they cannot be superb at. They want to be the best of the best. This makes many heroes perfectionists or single focused on the highest level of success.
  6. Heroes are particularly sensitive to injustices, cruelty to the weak or helpless and corruption and often feel that at least some aspect of the quest involves righting wrongs.
  7. Heroes usually love superhero movies and comic books or shows that follow the classic hero’s journey such as The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter or Star Wars. This is not always the case but the archetype is driven by the quest and these books and films illustrate the rise of the hero into his own personal power and a confrontation with a nemesis.
  8. Heroes thrive on challenges and obstacles. They enjoy overcoming difficulties and would not want to pursue something that came too easily. As such, they are not easily discouraged and are highly determined types. The more difficult the path the more intriguing it is to the hero.
  9. Heroes can be single minded about their path overlooking the role others play in their lives. While they can be selfish at times the hero is often so focused on their path that they can overlook the support system that usually surrounds them. Learning humility and recognizing others is part of the great learning for the hero.
  10. Heroes are willing to delve into the dark side of things as it is part of the hero’s journey. This is a necessary part of the hero. All heroes must face the darkness alone. The hero knows that the line between hero and villain is a narrow one and the only way to maintain the virtues of the hero is to keep a sharp eye on the dark side, lest they fall prey to it in their attempts to succeed or gain power.
  11. Heroes will always push themselves to constant improvement and are not satisfied with mediocrity. They strive for the highest and the best especially if it appears unattainable.
  12. Heroes will defend others and feel a protectiveness toward those who cannot protect themselves.
  13. Heroes know that they are born with a special gift or tool. It may take many years before they hero becomes aware of this gift or tool but they have an subconscious knowing of this gift and have always sensed it was there.
  14. Heroes are willing to do things alone if necessary. Being alone or doing things on ones one is part of the pattern of the archetype of the hero. If the hero has too much help the accomplishment is greatly diminished. They thrive on the sense of power and success they feel when they do things alone or against incredible odds.
  15. Heroes often love fantasy because the books or stories tend to focus on the heroes journey.
  16. Stubbornness or determination, (call it what you will) the hero has ample amounts of it.
  17. The hero often shows an in interest in death and rebirth (the symbol of the phoenix for example) or has experienced the death of a loved one at a vulnerable age. Death either plays personal role in the hero’s life or there is an appreciation for the relationship between life and death.

Shadow Hero

Aspects of the Shadow Hero

Just as a reminder, it is important to remember that the shadow behavior in any archetype is unconscious. This means we aren’t aware of the motives that are driving our behaviors. When we do become conscious of our motives and behavior it can come as a shock and surprise, not to mention a wee bit embarrassing. But as it is said, “awareness is the key to change.” Take a good honest look at what may be lurking in the shadows of your own psyche.

Self-Centered

The Shadow Hero is a difficult person to live with as they are not relationship-focused. They can be very selfish and indifferent. The drive hidden within the archetype of the hero must be channeled into expression or purpose otherwise the person will be consumed by the Shadow Hero. They are self focused and in their drive to fulfill their life purpose they cannot see  that they are supported and aided by others continually. They are however, aware that others are watching them and the Shadow Hero needs to prove their abilities and highlight their successes to others. They secretly want others to look up to them and admire them.The Shadow Hero lacks both humility and self awareness.

Ignoring the Call

The Shadow Hero hears the call of the personal quest but resists this call for a variety of reasons. But this refusal to respond can result in depression, unreasonable burst of anger and/or escapism through addictions or avoidance behaviors.  Sometimes the Shadow Hero ignores the call of the journey to their OWN self empowerment by trying to fix others who appear weak and in need of direction. They might feel compelled to push others onto the journey that they themselves refuse to take.

Escapism and Fantasy

The Hero enjoys stories of great accomplishments and wild successes based on persistence and exceptional skill. The Shadow Hero can get lost in the fiction, providing them with the feeling that they have actually performed feats of wonder themselves-a sort of pseudo-accomplishment. This pretend success gives the Shadow Hero a false sense of their own abilities and a well as their own limitations. They live out their struggle through the safety of books or movies. They may also find that imagining that they are doing things is adequate for providing them with a feeling of success rather than results. This type of escapism is a way for the Shadow Hero to avoid the challenges they would rather not face. If the Shadow Hero is in the grip of depression they may use escapism to distract themselves from the torment of the inner conflict of needing to fulfill a personal quest and finding ever more creative ways to avoid it.

Superiority

The Shadow Hero has a superiority complex. The can be overly competitive at any challenge or they may feign indifference if they think that they are not up to the task. If they cannot mop the floor with their opponents they would rather not show up at all. The fear of failure, appearing weak and public humiliation are negative forces that drive the behavior of the Shadow Hero.  The Shadow Hero will go to great lengths to prevent others from seeing their weaknesses. While they might be comfortable talking about a failure after the fact, they will rarely share much about it while they are in the midst of their struggle. Their deep fears of vulnerability make them overly confident or they may project false confidence to hide their feelings.  They are good at projecting invincibility and authority and can be a first rate Know-it-all.

Alone at the Top

“It’s lonely at the top” is a fitting phrase for the Shadow Hero. In the quest to achieve all that they desire the often step on others to get there. They might reach the height of accomplishment but they often find themselves all alone. The Shadow Hero also unknowingly promotes this by wanting others to see them as impermeable and unruffled by problems and fears. The Shadow Hero suffers alone, fears alone, struggles alone and believes that he or she is meant to do it all, and do it alone. Having help diminishes the quality and value of their success. They push others away from them and in its darker mode, the Shadow Hero will make others feel diminished and dis-empowered as a way to feel more powerful themselves. By highlighting others weaknesses the Shadow Hero reinforces their own sense of importance.

Violence

The Shadow Hero is sometimes attracted to violence as a means of accomplishing their goals. Most superheroes are excellent fighters and all of them have skills that far surpass the ordinary person. The Shadow Hero can resort to violence believing that they are accomplishing a greater good by stopping a perceived threat to society or to remove an obstacle. Not everyone who has this archetype will resort to violence or even consider violence as an option but I felt it was necessary to bring it up. The extreme version of the Shadow Hero can be seen in kamikaze fighters and suicide bombers for example. This is where heroes are transformed into villains. In the movie Star Wars Darth Vader turns to violence and force to accomplish his goals and it ultimately drew him to the dark side. (Shadow side) It is important for those who have the Hero archetype not to overlook the temptation of force or violence as an attractive option.

 

The Enlightened Hero

Determination

One of the easiest ways to spot the Hero archetype is to notice how determined a person is. The Enlightened Hero is a fortress of determination. Giving up is not even an option. Persistence is one of their greatest assets. It is almost as if the Hero CANNOT give up even if they wanted to so strong is the need to continue on to the end and fulfillment. The Enlightened Hero can be seen as mountain climber. The steeper the climb the more vigor and interest the Enlightened Hero has for the task. They must reach to top of the mountain, anything short of that is the same as having never started. So failure is not possible. The Enlightened Hero enjoys being challenged. An obstacle is no more than a puzzle to be worked out and they can become single minded about solving it or overcoming it. They know that challenges help them grow and develop endurance and so they embrace them as training exercises. They have total confidence in their ability to overcome anything and everything.

The Inner Journey

The Enlightened Hero is aware that the quest is an inner one. They respond to the call of the quest by being willing to take risks and to fall down. The Enlightened Hero knows all the answers to this journey are inside. They have an ability for introspection that is unique to this archetype. They live in the inner world much more than the outer although they seem to have a knack for bridging the two worlds together. The real journey is the inside one and the Enlightened Hero knows that the outer world is a mirror for the inner world. This is one reason the Hero enjoys fantasy and myths because they both originate from the inner world. Part of their path is to bring the wisdom gained from their inner journey to others.

Humility: The Painful Lesson

Humility is a long and rough road for the Hero but the Enlightened Hero recognizes it as a guidepost. Humility will keep the Hero on the path and not allow temptations and other distractions pull him or her off of the path. It is through humility that the Enlightened Hero gains access to the inherent wisdom that is connected to the archetype. Without humility the Hero is an arrogant, know-it-all, show off. While their intentions may be to help or serve others the deeper ulterior motive drives them in the opposite direction. The Hero will often encounter a humiliating experience or a devastating failure to help him or her return to the right path. Because they are re-bounders, this humiliation serves as a warning or motivator, reminding the person of  the need for humility.  Humility is a central feature of the Enlightened Hero and is seen as a great strength.

Empowering Others

A key lesson in the life of the Hero is that of empowering others. The Enlightened Hero is able to see the strength and gifts of others and help to draw them out. They bring out the best in their colleagues, co-workers, children, spouses and even complete strangers. The Enlightened Hero recognizes that true power comes from empowering others. The Hero may find the act of empowering others quite difficult. It is common for the Hero to have others admire and look up to them. This admiration can become a snare for the Hero. The Enlightened Hero has learned to recognize the shadow and its need to be important and resist this temptation. The Enlightened Hero sees that their own empowerment is connected to the empowerment of others. Therefore the Enlightened Hero does not accept others’ worship but consistently returns their admiration back to themselves. They know that by taking on the praise of others they lose the source of their own power. To use a superhero metaphor, praise is the Hero’s kryptonite. By empowering others, the Enlightened Hero maintains his or her own true power. They know how to put others first in a way that is beneficial to everyone.

Vulnerability

Being vulnerable is a fear of the Hero but the Enlightened Hero uses vulnerability as a strength. The Enlightened Hero becomes vulnerable through honesty, openness and a willingness to take the necessary risks required to live fully in the present. Being vulnerable also means being flexible and open to change. This vulnerability gives the Enlightened Hero the tools for bringing the wisdom of their experiences to the world and the people in their lives.

Resp0nsibility

The Enlightened Hero knows that others look to them. They tend to be leaders and role models. The Enlightened Hero takes responsibility and does not blame others or become victimized by situations that don’t turn out the way they had envisioned. The have a knack for seeing the big picture and this helps them take ownership for their own lives. They don’t take their role in the limelight lightly and respect it by living a life of integrity.

Conclusion

The Hero archetype is endlessly fascinating and can be see everywhere. Be sure to notice it the next time you read a great novel or watch the latest hero movie. Hopefully, this can give you a window into your own situation and help you on your path toward accomplishing whatever you feel compelled to do in your own life.

 

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  1. Aimee says:

    So interesting. I think I can cross the hero off as one of my archetypes.

  2. Dan says:

    I won’t pepper your page with the many compliments I’d like to pay, I’ll just say I think there’s a level of insight here that I’d only expect to find with Joseph Campbell, Robert Graves etc. I know I will read and re-read. So thank you!
    It’s also a vital observation you make re the shackling of the feminine hero to masculine expressions of heroism, which more than being inaccurate representations of the feminine are in many cases (at least in the black and white of modern cinema etc) the absolute inversion of it! The unaddressed absence of the true heroic feminine in our culture will be the death of it, imo. If it remains unaddressed that is.
    I would be interested in your thoughts on the source of the archetypes. Do you see it purely in Jungian terms? I’ve wondered whether the archetypes (or at least the more prevalent of the ones we have today) could be a kind of alphabet of prescriptive mental software, encoded willfully into us by thousands of generations of myth (delivered by all manner of “elders”), surviving not by their inherent truth or natural efficacy so much as the preferences of the people who crafted those narratives and the social effects that resulted. We seem trapped in a mythosphere which universally offers us two halves of a controlled narrative with violent oppressor on one side and violent usurper on the other. Even if it’s some romantic sweetheart like King Arthur, Hektor, or Han Solo, they only ever get where they are going via endless veiled (and usually sanitised) slaughter; veiled to our conscious experience that is but as I’m sure you’ll agree, not our subconscious. Given that this murderous elephant in the room seems to be the key problem in the external socio-political reality which our conceptual realm generates, it makes me wonder: where are the culturally sanctioned stories of human transcendence through forgiveness and love? This seems to me the reason that many pre-Council of Nicea christian sects saw Christ as a man whose personal experience could be accessed by all, but Catholic’s and Protestant’s alike were given the “son of god”, spiritually better equipped to forgive than the rest of us sinners.
    James Joyce made some great comments on this regarding his much criticised refusal to glorify the Irish myths of Fionn mac Cumhaill (Irish hero of the classical skull crushing variety), which he saw not as an ideal rallying symbol to unite them against English domination, but a violent degradation and polar opposite to the values which would, in his opinion, elevate the Irish people beyond that historically prescribed narrative of violence.
    Sorry for the ramble, and thanks again!

  3. Susanna says:

    Thank you very much for your ramble! I love your questioning about the source of archetypes. I don’t claim to KNOW much of anything but I like to play in the field of thought and I have great curiosity about such mysteries. I think that archetypes are as fluid and evolving as are we, as humans. We are the myth-makers and myth-changers. I think society’s obsession with romance and erotic love stems from a deep desire to understand cosmic or transcendent love and even forgiveness, for example. We write books and make movies and live out the personal dramas in an attempt to get at a deeper truth. To find the answer to the unanswerable. For what we seek is only experienced. But we have the power to break the narrative that we have inherited and write a new story. It is possible to see beyond violence and reaction to that violence, to rise higher, not to deny it, but to simply not need it.

  4. Dan says:

    “But we have the power to break the narrative that we have inherited and write a new story. It is possible to see beyond violence and reaction to that violence, to rise higher, not to deny it, but to simply not need it.”
    So true. You could almost say that the act of leaving a better world than the one you found could be best achieved by leaving a better narrative than the one you were born into. Cultural alchemy!

  5. Lia says:

    I understand your attempt to break open the female hero stereotype, but I can’t help thinking you’re merely replacing it with another stereotype. Why do women have to be vulnerable and family-oriented? Why can’t we enjoy being highly sexual? Your article is filled with the assumption that I am deluded and unfulfilled because I don’t fit the new soft hero stereotype. Surely archetypes should be used to expand people’s options, not limit them?

  6. Susanna says:

    Lia, thanks for your comments. I am only adding another dimension to the female hero archetypes that already exist, including the sexual/fighter hero. It’s already been done and I am only exploring other aspects of the female hero that are less appreciated and valued. Women can be much more than the expectations that society would place on us. My point with this article is to push the boundaries outward allowing more versions of female heroism. There are many forms of the hero and I only expressed the possibility that gentle and open can also be heroic. Thanks again for your comments.

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