Aragon, the conquering hero who survives perilous journeys to reclaim the throne of Men, in The Lord of the Rings trilogy . . . Luke Skywalker, who rises from a lowly farmer on a backwater planet to become a Jedi Master who saves the galaxy in Star Wars . . . Neo, a “nobody” living an empty life, who wakes up and breaks free of the machines that have enslaved mankind to become “The One,” the savior of humanity, in The Matrix.
These characters, and many more in contemporary literature and art, represent archetypal heroes – individuals called to become something great, something far bigger than themselves, who face mortal challenges and ordeals, and become legends upon their return in service to the people. This is perhaps what one can take from these stories and myths: that we can all be heroes, and that the journey calls us to our own greatness.
Honor and glory being the traits most valued by the ancient Greeks, it is no surprise then that the most successful military leader of the ancient world, Alexander the Great, would sleep with a copy of Homer’s Iliad under his pillow before going into battle. Inheriting the kingdom from his father Philip, Alexander, the King of Macedonia, embarked on an incredible journey, proceeding to conquer the entire known world at the time.
More notable than the breadth of his achievement was the character and honor he frequently displayed in his pursuits. Taught by Aristotle himself, Alexander encouraged his men to intermarry with the conquered (as he himself did on a number of occasions), and would not raze a conquered territory but instead would invite the rulers to swear allegiance to him. His enlightened, passionate embrace of his destiny made him a legend.
The great philosopher and religious historian Mircea Eliade speaks of the Rites of Initiation with respect to crossing the threshold from ordinary to sacred space, where transformation occurs. One must willingly submit to this Initiation to signify one’s readiness to undertake the heroic battles ahead. The “road of trials” is a sequence of tasks, tests or ordeals that one must undergo to undertake the heroic journey ahead, and is an idea that can be found in Joseph Campbell’s concept of the heroic monomyth.
In Depth Psychology, this portion of the journey refers to the point at which the supremacy of the ego is overcome and the process of individuation of the psyche can begin. That is, the facade of the ego world is no longer in charge – one is now coming to the realization that there is so much beyond the paltry world of the ego. One is beginning to understand that we must live from our souls.
“The original departure into the land of trials represented only the beginning of the long and really perilous path of initiatory conquests and moments of illumination. Dragons have now to be slain and surprising barriers passed — again, again, and again. Meanwhile there will be a multitude of preliminary victories, unretainable ecstasies and momentary glimpses of the wonderful land.”
Quoted from David Adams Leeming from his work, Mythology: The Voyage of the Hero
In the legend of King Arthur and the quest for the Holy Grail, whenever a knight would come upon a road with footprints, he would stop and take a road not yet traveled. This is a beautiful analogy for our own spiritual journey – you must find your own path; otherwise, you risk the danger of living someone else’s idea of what your life should be – your church, your parents, your society.
We are each called to greatness, and the nature and character of the call we have no control over. Our souls guide us, let us know what is right and meaningful in our own lives. No one else can tell you, you must find what it is your soul desires, or risk losing it!
Mother Teresa was asked why she chose to accept her struggle: “I realized I couldn’t live without seeing people die with a smile on their faces.” What calls you?
My known self will never be more than a little clearing in the forest . . . Gods, strange gods come forth . . . and they go back . . . I must have the courage to let them come and go.”
– D. H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers
We spend so much of our early lives focused upon this little clearing in the forest – the ego. The soul is as fertile and magnificent as the entire forest, and ego must come to serve it.
Our souls whisper to us, in symbols, myths and dreams. It is that reassuring voice deep within us, that authentic longing that gently – but firmly – calls to us. Though perhaps not consciously, we often know, deep down, what our souls are guiding us to do, and it may take us in unexpected and thrilling directions one had never planned to go. Nevertheless, we must answer, for that is the way to our joy and fulfillment.
Anthropologists have shown that common themes in mythological stories repeatedly show up in cultures across the planet and time. The same motifs, ideas and iconography appear over and over, underscoring their transcendent value.
Mythologist Joseph Campbell has suggested that “One explanation [for these similarities] is that the human psyche is essentially the same all over the world … [and] out of this common ground have come what Jung has called the archetypes, which are the common ideas of myths.”
The psyche, in fact, is everywhere; it’s not a thing, but it transcends duality.
Myths form the fertile ground of not only cultural identity but act as a roadmap to deal with the deep, overarching questions that have confronted us from the beginning.
In the 2006 series “Bill Moyers on Faith and Reason,” Mr. Moyers discusses the power of mythology for community and connection. Myths, he argues, have historically worked not only to educate people but to connect whole societies together by affirming the values and ideologies central to the community. Myths play a critical role as symbolic storehouses for the ideals and principles that form the heart of a society and identity of its members.