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Maybe because I’m watching the Olympics right now, and probably because I’m inspired by Simone Biles’ courageous decision to step out of her place in the Olympic games, I’ve been thinking a lot about the archetype of the Hero.
Our concept of what and who a hero is arises primarily through our (mostly unconscious) internalization of the Hero’s Journey, which Joseph Campbell popularized in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
The full Hero’s Journey can be condensed into a three-step arc:
- Leave the ordinary world to set off on a great adventure.
- Face trials and ordeals.
- Return home, victorious; receive widespread recognition.
Some of our favorite storylines utilize the Hero’s Journey to map their stories, including “Harry Potter,” “The Lion King,” “Star Wars,” “Lord of the Rings,” “The Matrix,” and many more. In fact, the Hero’s Journey is one of the primary models used to make films and write books. Its roots live deep in our consciousness — so deep that it has become part of us, both individually and societally.
Dig further into myth and legend, and you’ll find the Hero’s Journey prevalent here too—the term was coined by looking back on the greatest human stories such as The Iliad and the Odyssey and King Arthur.
The archetypal characteristics of the Hero are clear. The Hero must:
>> Be male. Cambell himself says: “All of the great mythologies and much of the mythic story-telling of the world are from the male point of view.”
>> Be all-conquering/win a decisive victory
>> Slay the dragon or enemy; never negotiate, tie, or share
>> Save the world/family/way of life
>> Find some magic boon/inner gift/wisdom/holy grail
>> Have a special gift waiting to be uncovered along the journey
>> Display great feats of courage and fortitude; never give up (or, maybe once, like Simba in “The Lion King”)
>> May have helpers or sidekicks, but mostly for comic relief
>> May have a mentor, but after that, our hero is generally independent/self-sufficient
>> Endlessly innovative and creative
Our ingrained belief in the Hero’s Journey teaches us that when humanity needs a hero like the one described above, one will appear.
I don’t know about you, but right now, we could use a good hero.
We are facing nearly insurmountable odds in respect to climate change, the pandemic, the rise of fascism in America and around the world, and the persistent thorn of racial and income inequality. If real life were a movie, now is as good a time as any for Superman to show up with his supernatural speed, power, and charming good looks.
And yet, no hero is arising. We are apparently left to our own devices.
Perhaps now is the time to see if we’ve been doing this hero thing all wrong. Maybe this motif is hurting us more than we think.
Maybe it’s time to develop a new model of heroism and define a new kind of hero.
Enter the myth of “Eros and Psyche.”
If you’ve not read this myth, first of all, you might want to change that. It’s an entertaining, well-told story with layers of meaning of which I have only scratched the surface.
Here is a recap and small snippet:
Psyche, a human woman, falls in love with Eros (Cupid), son of Aphrodite (Venus). She wasn’t supposed to even know that the man she was sleeping with each night was the God of Love. She disobeyed many direct orders and fell under the influence of her gossipy, jealous sisters to uncover his identity. Once she discovers this, Eros flies away from her, and Psyche finds herself at the mercy of an angry Aphrodite, who gives Psyche four impossible obstacles to complete, each harder than the one before.
Already, we are departing from the usual Hero narrative: Psyche is not undertaking these tasks as some great feat or display of strength. She’s undertaking them because she’s in trouble with a goddess and she’s not been given another choice. Thus, her journey does not begin as a quest or a great adventure; it’s a punishment at a time in her life when everything is falling apart.
She’s not in any way trained for these ordeals. She has no special skills or talents (unless you count being beautiful enough to attract Eros’ attention and Aphrodite’s ire, which, maybe we should?).
Psyche’s first impossible task is to sort a huge pile of grains and seeds into individual, separate piles by morning. Her first impulse upon receiving this task is to throw herself into a river. But, the river washes her gently back to the shore, at which time Pan, a god/goat, encourages her onward.
You might think now she’d get to work, and our takeaway would be a message about diligence, steadfastness, and working our fingers to the bone to complete a task on time. After all, isn’t this part and parcel of Western society? Who needs decent pay, breaks, time off, and access to healthcare? Get those seeds sorted, amiright?
Instead, Psyche gives in to despair and hopelessness and falls asleep. Some worker she turned out to be.
While she’s asleep, an ant comes along, sees the problem, and, from no desire for fame or reward, calls its ant friends, and all those little legs get to work to sort the pile and save Psyche’s “lazy” behind.
The second task Aphrodite gives her is to collect a bit of wool from a golden sheep. But the sheep will not let you just “take” it. Perhaps a typical hero would kill a sheep and steal its wool—the necessary sacrifice of other’s lives is a popular motif in most hero’s journeys.
Instead, once again, Psyche throws herself into a stream. And, once again, she is saved by forces outside of herself. A green reed then advises her on how to get a tuft of wool without disturbing the sheep.
Even when Harry Potter advises his competition, Cedrick Diggory, in The Goblet of Fire that dragons are the first quest, he later receives advice in return from Cedrick on how to open the Golden Egg. It’s an even trade, not a gift. It’s sure as hell not a handout—gah! Socialism!
Back to our story.
Aphrodite is growing angry that this foolish, naive human woman is somehow succeeding. She tells Psyche that her third task is to collect a vial of water from the mouth of the River Styx—the dangerous river that flows from the Underworld and is guarded by two fierce, watchful dragons.
A typical hero would now sharpen their sword and prepare to battle the dragons to steal the water. Requesting? Negotiation? Stealth? These are not qualities of a traditional hero.
Psyche, never having held a sword in her life, wails by the side of the river until Zeus’s eagle takes pity on her, tricks the dragons into looking away, and flies in to collect the vial of water on her behalf.
Imagine, for a moment, anyone other than Arthur pulling Excalibur out of the stone and Arthur still getting to be king.
Psyche’s final task is to ask Proserpina, the goddesses of the Underworld, for a bit of her beauty in a box and return it, unopened, to Aphrodite.
Psyche attempts to throw herself from a tower rather than take on this task. But, the tower gives her careful instructions on how to pay for passage to the Underworld, how to be a proper guest in Proserpina’s home, and how to return with the box containing some of Proserpina’s beauty—instructions Psyche follows quite well.
We start to think maybe our hero has learned something about the importance of following instructions. But no. The thing that got her into all of this trouble in the first place—her curiosity—gets her in trouble one final time when she can’t help but peek inside the box, which Aphrodite expressly forbade her to do.
What is in the box is not Proserpina’s beauty, but a sleeping potion to which Psyche immediately succumbs.
But, never mind! Eros comes, wakes her up, and takes up her case with the council of the gods, who pity Psyche and Eros and convince Aphrodite to let Psyche become immortal so she can be fit for marriage to her son.
After everything she’s failed to do independently, after having been on the edge of despair and only making it through because others helped her—she gains immortality. And, she still gets the guy.
I have to tell you: this is my kind of hero.
Never does she “come into personal greatness” (at least, not the human kind). Never does she find some hidden power, or learn some great lesson along the journey. She’s human and afraid, all of the time. She makes the same mistakes again and again; she often feels nothing but hopelessness. She cries constantly.
Best of all? She never obeys authority—even that of a powerful goddess. Isn’t that just as brave as Hercules slaying the heads of dragons? Maybe honest naiveté is a more courageous way to move through life than hoarding and clinging to false knowledge.
Perhaps it’s time we move on from the Hero’s Journey as a model for what heroism can look like, especially as we face some of the greatest challenges of our time—issues that are immune to superhuman strength, speed, and charming good looks but demand just your regular garden variety of human thoughtfulness, patience, compassion, negotiation, support, curiosity, humility, and grace.
Forget Achilles or Odysseus. I don’t need Luke Skywalkers or Neos as role models. Give me Psyche instead, reminding me that it’s okay to want to give up sometimes, to feel scared and unsure of my path. And that there’s nothing wrong with needing constant help, support, and advice—even as I often make the same mistakes over and over again.
We need a new kind of hero—one who succeeds through community and shared effort, not individual supremacy. A hero that reminds us more of ourselves (absent the “sleeping with the god of Love” part, of course).