The goddess in Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey can sometimes be seen as a mother figure. So can a female helper, especially if she’s an older woman. The father is also often present in myths. Sometimes he’s just a wise or tyrannical male figure, but some myths have the hero searching for his father. This is a part of the journey known as “atonement with the father.” It’s really about maturation and rebirth. And like the goddess, the father also has a dual nature. He’s both helper and destroyer.
Campbell begins this section with a Puritan sermon meant to break the Ego* of the listeners by making them aware that only the mercy and grace of God keeps them from being destroyed by Him in the most horrific ways. The idea is that the all-powerful Spirit can tear us apart but won’t, so we have to surrender completely to it.
Atonement (at-one-ment) consists in no more than the abandonment of that self-generated double monster–the dragon thought to be God (superego) and the dragon thought to be sin (repressed id). But this requires an abandonment of the attachment to ego itself, and that is what is difficult. One must have on faith that the father is merciful, and then a reliance on that mercy.
When we’re young, we don’t know the ways of society. We’re also learning about what we need and want and how to demand it. Finally, we’re learning about our individuality, what’s unique to us. Traditionally, the father is the one to teach us the rules of society and lay down the law. Obviously this doesn’t reflect modern life, especially with statistics on single moms and absent dads, but symbolically, the father is the rule-enforcr. As a result, we associate the father with the harsh disciplinarian.
Human nature doesn’t thrive on constant discipline, so there’s a part of us that drives us to break the rules and even go a little crazy sometimes. Naturally, if this happens too often then we’ll end up with a society in total chaos. Most of us realize this but also need to assert our autonomy and individuality to keep from feeling like robots, so we grow up developing a fundamental conflict between wanting (and sometimes needing) to break the rules and wanting (and sometimes needing) to follow them.
The ego allows us as we’re growing up to control this conflict. It knows the rules, but it also is fiercely individualistic. Ideally, the ego can negotiate between situations where following the rules is a better choice versus situations where doing so would be oppressive and unnecessary. But that still leads to a duality between following the rules and thus conforming to what others want us to be and breaking them and often bringing chaos and disharmony into our lives.
Campbell seems to be saying that atonement with the father is a maturation process where we drop this duality. We trust in ourselves and the Universe. We trust that:
- Meeting our needs and desires won’t lead us into destructive behavior because we trust in our awareness of the higher good in everything we do.
- Working for the greater good through honoring our individual destiny won’t annihilate our individuality and make us into society’s/our family’s puppet.
- We won’t be punished (by the father, the Universe, fate, or whatever) for breaking society’s/our family’s rules.
- We can take responsibility for our own transgressions. We’re our own law-keepers, and we practice both severity and mercy based on the situation.
Campbell also brings in the female helper (mother figure). She’s essentially another aspect of the father (and he’s another aspect of her). Atonement with the father is an “ego-shattering initiation,” which is a frightening experience because the ego makes us feel like we’re in control, so we lose that control. The female helper or mother figure provides support, which is really support of the Divine, and the “ego-shattering initiation” is the Divine guiding us to move beyond material existence and to reach a higher level of consciousness (or if one isn’t spiritually inclined then to move beyond the everyday issues of materialism and to live a more meaningful life). So both mother and father are supporters in this maturation process, though in different ways.
Tests and the Second Birth
Campbell tells the story of Phaeton as an example of what can happen when we’re not ready for the atonement with the father. Phaeton is the child of the sun god, Phoebus. He finds his father and insists that Phoebus let him ride his fire chariot for a day to make it known that he’s his son. Not as vigilant as a father should be, Pheobus prematurely gave Phaeton the promise that he’d grant him anything he wished, so he feels he has to abide. Phaethon ends up nearly destroying the earth with the sun’s fire and is killed by Jove.
Phaethon wasn’t ready for the atonement with the father because his request shows he was only serving his Ego. Kids at school taunted him about the absence of a father, and that’s why he wanted everyone to know who his father was. The story shows what happens when we receive responsibility we’re not ready for–chaos and destruction. Hence we can see the father’s tests as blessings of the highest order. If we pass them, we know we’re ready for atonement with the father (and thus a realization of our true power).
Campbell then goes on to describe some rather gruesome initiation rituals of Australian aboriginal tribes and draws parallels to ancient Western practices and myths that depict the same thing. All involve the initiate (a boy or young man) being “killed” as a child and reborn as a man. The boy or young man essentially goes through the father’s tests and unites with him, if he passes
So the father is annihilated and the son becomes the father through this initiation. We can see this as the maturation process being about becoming responsible for our actions, making sure we adhere to our values and keep the common good in mind, and punishing ourselves if we transgress. In other words, we have to learn for ourselves what’s truly right and wrong and be responsible for carrying those values out.
Unfortunately, Campbell uses patriarchal language when discussing this experience for women. The father represents “the future husband” and the woman is the one “to be mastered” by the initiated son. This places the female strictly in the role of supporter (which goes along with her later role when guiding the next generation of men in atonement with the father). This simply doesn’t reflect modern life. We all need to go through this maturation process, and we all need to sometimes be supporters for others.
The Father’s Dual Nature
Like the goddess, the father has a dual nature. He is both sun god, who makes things grow, and the storm god, who brings destruction. “[T]he delusion-shattering light of the Imperishable is the same as the light that creates.” This wording is interesting when compared to the wording describing the dual nature of the goddess because it feeds into traditional ideas of “male” representing thoughts and actions and “female” representing feelings.
goddess=joy and suffering (feelings)
father=insight and creativity (thoughts and actions)
Campbell states that the secret behind our connection to a divine source (“time out of eternity”) is with the father. It’s this secret that the hero is after. In order to get it, he has to go to the “umbilical point” where life emerged from the eternal, which is where the father dwells. If he can “pierce…precisely through that point,” he’ll learn “how the sickening and insane tragedies of this vast and ruthless cosmos are completely validated in the majesty of Being.” When he gains this understanding, he is at one with the father. In other words, we cease to wonder why we suffer. We learn to see it as an expression of Spirit alongside the blessings we receive. It’s all to be celebrated as the manifestation of the Divine.
We tend to search for some kind of explanation for misfortunes like illness, disaster, poverty, and death. Campbell seems to be saying that myths teach us that the reasons of the Divine aren’t necessary for us to know, nor are we plagued with such things because we did something wrong. Perhaps the wisest we can do in the face of such disasters is calm ourselves by recognizing them as learning experiences because they certainly help us grow.
As an abuse survivor, I go through periods of anger and resentment towards life, particularly when I uncover yet another block from the past that I have to work through in order to know peace. But I eventually recognize that this experience is part of my life’s learning, and why it happened to me doesn’t change that. We rise to a higher level of consciousness when we recognize the wonder of existence not just through joy but also through suffering.
The trials that the father throws at the hero (and at us) are meant to ensure that we’re mature enough to handle greater knowledge and power. It’s like a rebirth from one who depended on rules and lessons from past authorities to one who gets full permission to violate those rules and lessons as well as take full responsibility for them. Alongside this psychological maturation process is a deeper spiritual lesson that the right to receive blessings is the same right to receive suffering.
Note: Hero’s Journey elements pop up in our dreams all the time. Seth Mullins recently wrote a post about a dream he had involving “finding the father.”
* The word “ego” can be seen in two main ways. We generally think of it as something negative, that which makes us think consciousness is the ultimate reality and thus keeps us from experiencing unity with the Divine. Freud introduced the ego as that part of the mind which remains in touch with reality and thus curbs our passions, albeit not always in healthy ways. It also helps us differentiate between what is us and what is other. Coming from an enmeshed, abusive family, I can’t myself see the Freudian ego as a completely bad thing. It allows us to recognize our values, desires, beliefs, and capabilities as distinct from our family’s, society’s, and others we interact with. Following conventions I’ve seen elsewhere, I use a capital letter (Ego) to refer to the first concept and a lowercase letter (ego) to refer to the Freudian concept of the ego. Note that Campbell doesn’t follow this convention, but he seems to have appreciated that the ego isn’t an entirely negative thing.