Joseph Campbell, the remarkable mythologist and author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, uncovered basic patterns, structures and stages that are common to mythologies across time and culture, forming what he terms the Monomyth. The Calling is the opening of the myth, followed by the Initiation or Journey.
Having answered “The Calling,” the hero is now ready to embark upon her or his harrowing journey, frequently beginning with the intervention and assistance of a mentor or supernatural aid. It is often said that when one steps through the door of the unknown, many hands reach out to help; this is perhaps a modern restatement of this classic truth. In The Ring Cycle, by Wagner, the hero Siegfried forges the great sword “Nothung” to defeat the fierce dragon Fafner. The mentor and supernatural aid represent the protective powers of fate and destiny. When one has embarked upon one’s true spiritual journey, to align one’s Ego and Soul, all of what you need will become available to you – because it is all within you.
In this section of what Joseph Campbell refers to as the “monomyth,” or the hero’s journey, one finally enters into the field of unpredictable adventure, leaving behind the known parameters of one’s own world and exploring the unknown and dangerous realm, where rules and limits one has known no longer apply.
Frequently, this stage is followed by what is called entry into the “Belly of the Whale,” taken from the Book of Jonah in the Old Testament and Hebrew Bible. While often described as the low point of a person’s life – being euphemistically swallowed whole by a whale – this is actually the point at which one begins the separation or transition between worlds, or even within oneself. It is the point of recognition by the hero that he or she is willing to undergo transformation, to die to him or herself.
In the metaphorical language of mythologist Joseph Campbell’s Hero Cycle (or Monomyth), the hero’s journey moves from the comfort of the known world into the frightening and dangerous unknown through an unprecedented crisis; using Western mythology, he likens it to Jonah being swallowed by a whale.
The entrance into the belly of the whale represents a metamorphosis, crossing the threshold between the known into the unknown, and being reborn as an entirely new individual. While it may appear to be a low point – one seemingly dies to the world one has always known – it is in fact the beginning of the great and perilous heroic journey of one’s life. In the terms of depth psychology, this is the point in one’s life when exploration of one’s unconscious begins, when the great, heroic inner journey truly takes shape.
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
Heracles (Hercules, in Latin) is considered by many to be the greatest of all Greek mythological heroes. The son of Zeus and a mortal woman, he is hated by the goddess Herra, the wife of Zeus. Her attempt to kill him as an infant is thwarted when he strangles the poisonous snakes she places in his crib. By use of a potion, she later tricks Heracles into killing his wife and children; when the effects of the poison wear off, he is struck by grief, and agrees to undertake twelve impossible trials given him by the jealous Herra to earn redemption.
Heracles, however, undertakes all of the seemingly impossible tasks, conquering them one by one, battling fierce lions and serpents, moving earth and rivers, and then descending into and returning from Hades for his final trial. Upon completion, he walks into a burning pyre and is reborn into eternal life as a god.
The finale represents the death of the Ego, and our rebirth as a hero who lives in service of the divine – the Soul.
One of the greatest heroes in Norse mythology is Siegfried, and perhaps the greatest telling of his story is in Richard Wagner’s “The Ring of the Nibelung” opera.
Siegfried is the grandson of Wotan, the King of the Gods, who had decreed that only a hero of pure heart, who knew no fear, could forge a sword strong enough to defeat the vicious and terrifying dragon, Fafnir, who protected a vast treasure of gold – and the Ring of Power.
Mime, a Nibelung dwarf, coveted the Ring and, having raised Siegfried after his mother had died in childbirth, intended to kill him. Siegfried, however, bravely fought the dragon and, upon killing him, tasted his blood, an act which gave him the ability to understand the language of nature (specifically of the birds); he absorbed nature into his system. The birds told him of Mime’s treachery, whereupon he killed the dwarf.
The defeat of the Dragon Fafnir represents the acquisition of the skills necessary to find and reconnect with our souls. In Jungian psychology, the Dragon represents the Ego; when you conquer the Ego, you bring it into service of the Soul.
The story of Parsifal is part of the medieval legend of King Arthur and the Quest for the Holy Grail. The Grail myth dates back to at least the twelfth century in Europe, and was transmitted in various versions, including French (from the poet Chretien de Troyes), English (Le Morte Darther, by Thomas Malory), German (Wolfram von Eschenbach’s version, which became the basis for Richard Wagner’s “Parsifal” opera) and others. The Grail myth speaks directly to our psyche, and in particular, as the great Jungian analyst Robert A. Johnson notes in his seminal work, “He,” to the development of the psychology of the masculine, in both men and women – and it is as relevant now as it has ever been.
The myth surrounds the wounded Fisher King, Amfortas, the king of the Grail castle. He is in agonizing pain, and the kingdom suffers as a result. The Fisher King wound, in psychological terms, is a common condition for Western Man, where every young man, as Johnson notes, “has naively blundered into something that is too big for him. He proceeds halfway through his masculine development and then drops it as being too hot. Often a certain bitterness arises, because, like the Fisher King, he can neither live with the new consciousness he has touched nor can he entirely drop it.” This wound, however, is crucial for the development of consciousness, for its redemption, through the intercession of Parsifal, is what leads to the complete integration of the Self – it is what leads to a life of self awareness, contentment, passion and authenticity.
The court jester explains that the Fisher King could only be healed through the actions of an innocent fool, who would spontaneously need to ask a specific question. As Johnson again so eloquently explains, “A man must consent to look to a foolish, innocent, adolescent part of himself for his cure. The inner fool is the only one who can touch his Fisher King wound.”
Enter Parsifal, a name which means “pure fool,” an innocent young man raised by his overly-protective mother in poverty, knowing nothing of his dead father (who himself was a knight), without any direction or schooling. He is dazzled one day by the appearance of a group of knights who visit his village and, to his mother’s dismay, decides with all the bluster of youth to seek them out to become a knight himself. She agrees to let him go, but gives him a homespun garment that he elects to wear for much of his life; this garment, Johnson notes, represents the “Mother Complex” in psychology, and will prove costly to Parsifal in his development.
Parsifal finds and enters Arthur’s Court but is initially ridiculed and expelled; however, legend held that a damsel in Arthur’s Court who had not smiled for years would burst into laughter at the sight of the greatest knight – which she did at the sight of innocent Parsifal. The Court immediately held Parisfal in high regard and Arthur knighted him on the spot.
Parsifal, naive and not burdened with fear or anxiety, seeks out the most fearsome knight of all, the Red Knight, a warrior so fierce he had never been defeated. Parsifal, in his earnest naivete, confronts him and asks him for his horse and armor. Laughing, he agrees, but only if Parsifal can take it. Predictably, Parsifal is knocked to the ground by the powerful knight but, as he fell, Parsifal throws his dagger into the Red Knight’s eye, killing him. This victory, as Robert Johnson surmises, represents the integration of the “shadow side of masculinity, the negative, potentially destructive power . . . [he] must not repress his aggressiveness since he needs the masculine power of his Red Knight shadow to make his way through the mature world.”
The newly empowered knight goes out seeking battle and adventure, rescuing maidens and defeating opponents, but not killing them; any knight Parsifal overcame he instead instructed to join Arthur’s Court and swear allegiance to him.
The First Encounter with the Fisher King
One day along his heroic quest, Parsifal sought lodging, but was told there was no place to stay for miles. He then encountered a man fishing in a boat on a lake, and asks if he knows of any place to stay for the night. The fisherman, the Fisher King, tells him to go down the road a little bit and go the left. Parsifal obliges and suddenly finds himself on the grounds of the Grail Castle, windows gleaming, knights and ladies greeting him, the splendor of which he had never dreamed of in his life.
A great ceremony was about to begin, one which occurred every evening. A great feast and celebration was held where maidens brought out to all assembled the Holy Grail, from which all would partake, immediately granting them whatever they desired – everyone, that is, except for the Fisher King. Because of his agonizing wound, he was unable to drink from the Grail, and his affliction continued to wreak havoc across the kingdom.
During his quest, Parsifal had encountered a mentor, Gournamond, who had instructed him in the ways of knighthood. When encountering the Holy Grail, Gournamond instructed Parsifal to ask an important question, “Whom does the Grail serve?” This was the question that would heal the Grail King’s wound. However, his mother had also told him not to ask too many questions and hers was the advice Parsifal heeded this time in the Great Hall. All assembled knew the prophecy that one day an innocent fool would enter the castle and ask the question that would heal the King – all except Parsifal – and very quickly the ceremony ends, with everyone retiring for the night. The next morning, Parsifal rides out and the Grail Castle disappears.
This loss tormented Parsifal, and it would take years of grueling, rigorous battles and quests before Parsifal realized that the homespun garment that he wore beneath his armor – the psychological symbol of the Mother Complex – had to be removed before he could partake of the Grail and heal the Fisher King.
Parsifal spends some twenty years earning his way back to the Grail Castle. They are difficult years, however, and he grows in bitterness and disillusionment; these represent the difficult years of middle age, where one begins to question one’s very existence and the choices made. After twenty years of searching in vain for what was lost in his first encounter at the Grail Castle, Parsifal has had his arrogance and pride beaten and humbled. One day, along his latest quest, he is introduced to a forest hermit.
At first, the hermit scolds him for his failures – especially for not asking the question when he first encountered the Fisher King. However, he soon softens, sympathizing with Parsifal, and then invites him to go down the road a little bit and go to the left . . .
Returning to the Grail Castle
Again, Parsifal suddenly finds himself on the grounds of the Grail Castle, this time, however, with twenty long years of earned experience and humility. Again, he finds himself in the midst of the great feast and celebration where maidens brought out the Holy Grail for all to partake.
This time, however, Parsifal asks the question, “Whom does the Grail serve?” The simple act of asking the question immediately heals the Grail King and the entire Castle erupts in celebration! What is the answer to the question? “You, My Lord, the Grail King.” And what exactly does this answer mean? Very simply, we serve something far greater than ourselves. Carl Jung, the great psychologist, would say that by asking this question, one comes to the realization that the Ego now comes into service of the Self.
The goal of life is not merely to attain personal happiness. Rather, it is to serve the Grail – that is, to live a life not of ego but of our most authentic nature, our souls. As Robert A. Johnson so eloquently sums it up,
One can not pursue happiness; if he does he obscures it. If he will proceed with the human task of life, the relocation of the center of gravity of the personality to something greater outside itself, happiness will be the outcome.”
For a beautiful examination of this myth in much greater detail, please see the book “He: Understanding Masculine Psychology” by Robert A. Johnson, from which all quotes above were derived.
You may wish to ask yourself some important, penetrating questions when embarking upon your own Hero’s Quest: By What Truth Do I Live? Who’s Life am I Living? Who am I Being? To create your own life, to reconnect with the divine, you must break free of the constraints of your ego life by overcoming your fear and aligning your ego with your soul.
The skills, knowledge and power you acquire in the first part of your life must be brought to serve your soul, not your ego. In service of the ego, power can be abusive, tyrannical, and will destroy you. What is required is what the great philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, called the highest form of human morality, compassion.
Dr. Viktor Frankl, neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, found that even in the most horrific conditions of Nazi labor camps, one could find meaning in life, that the human spirit is indomitable. We must accept that suffering is a part of our quest, and that it is required for us to grow and free our souls. “Suffering” has roots in the term “sacred,” and is an inevitable part of our Road of Trials . . . and with Compassion, we can share in and empathize with the suffering, the sacred experience, of everyone and everything.
Look deeper, let go of arrogance. What is Your Mission? What is Your Bliss? What is Your Calling? Like Parsifal, Siegfried, even Luke Skywalker, we must let go of hubris, arrogance, foolish pride. Your Soul, Your Joy, Your Adventure Awaits!