In the period after world creation, a super-hero emerges in the myth cycle to teach the community about survival, art, culture, science, and anything else within the capacity of human knowledge. But as the cosmogonic round continues, humanity gets further and further away from Spirit. Enter the human hero. His childhood foretells of his Divine nature, Joseph Campbell tells us in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Though endowed with special powers and the ability to communicate with Spirit, the human hero is also often rejected by his community and sometimes his family until he returns from his journey triumphant and recognized as a wise teacher.
Dual Role of the Hero
Having grown up Catholic, it’s not surprising that Joseph Campbell had a special interest in myths based on people who actually existed, such as Jesus. He insisted, however, that the fantastic powers and deeds attributed to these heroes shouldn’t be taken literally. Jesus, for instance, didn’t literally rise from the dead. Resurrection is a symbol of triumphing over a materialistic worldview and recognizing one’s spiritual nature.
Heroes, especially “world redeemers” like Jesus and the Buddha, can be seen in two ways:
- Models for enlightenment, whose unselfish, sacrificial, compassionate actions should be imitated
- Symbols of the Divine nature that’s within us all, whose stories should be contemplated
A hero is someone we naturally look up to, and there’s nothing wrong with imitating the virtuous behavior of a hero. However, blind imitation teaches us very superficial lessons. I suppose many would say that blind imitation is still better than no imitation since someone is outwardly practicing compassion, love, generosity, and so forth. This is true, but I personally believe that humanity doesn’t rise to higher levels of consciousness through blind imitation. True enlightenment only comes from feeling the nature of the “world redeemer” deep within the heart.
For instance, the first step to healing from my abusive past was removing emotional distance, a defense mechanism that’s very common for trauma survivors. If I’d wanted to imitate the compassion of the Buddha or Jesus, I would have been imitating it without heart. It wouldn’t have been true compassion up to that point. Healing opened up what’s called a sacred wound where our experiences become the basis for giving. When I began sharing my experiences with others, I was moved to soothe the pain they were suffering from emotional abuse because I knew what it was all about. Only then could I practice the kind of compassion taught by these spiritual leaders.
Campbell, though, was primarily interested in #2, the hero as a symbol of the divinity within all of us. The Hero’s Journey, which often consists of two main parts, shows us the way to illumination:
- Journey to the central place where the hero can break through to Spirit. In other words, he travels back through the stages of the cosmogonic cycle in consciousness, from fragmentation of the One (for the sake of creating the manifest world) to recognizing the unity of all things.
- Return from that consciousness of unity to the world of fragmentation to teach others what he knows.
There’s a correlation between the journey and the wisdom the hero attains. The nature of #1 determines the nature of #2. The journey of the folk hero, for example, may take him into the forest to slay the evil monster that’s been threatening his people, and through it, he brings material prosperity to the community. However, a “world redeemer” like
[t]he Buddha broke past even the zone of the [world-creating] gods and came back from the void; he announced salvation from the cosmogonic round [because he had transcended it].
Similarly, the depth of the wisdom we attain from the Hero’s Journey that we travel depends on how deep the journey is. When I was writing about the first part of Joseph Campbell’s book, which described the Hero’s Journey proper, I saw in this mythic structure the journey of change that we’re always on if we want to grow. Not all change is life-shattering. The deeper we have to go into the darkness of our own minds or of human nature, the harder the journey back is, but the more we learn that changes our life.
Extremely common is the theme of rejection of the hero. He may be deformed or physically handicapped in some way. He may be looked down upon because the community assumes he’s stupid, lazy, or a loser. He may be everyone’s physical and verbal punching bag. He may be abandoned or sent away. He suffers emotional, and often physical, isolation from his family and community.
This theme of rejection serves several purposes. First, it singles him out in some way, which “accords with the view that herohood is predestined, rather than simply achieved.” Second, it’s part of what pushes him to undertake his journey. Why should he want to venture into the unknown if everything’s comfy at home? Third, symbolically, it demonstrates that that which is dark, imperfect, and “off” within us is that which leads us into the light. We learn the most from the worst within us.
Finally, the rejection is an important part of the hero’s spiritual development.
He is thrown inward to his own depths or outward to the unknown; either way, what he touches is a darkness unexplained.
While he does get help all along the way, the adversity he faces is life-threatening and he’s forced to use his own “supernatural” strength to make it through. In this way, he learns deeper things about the true nature of life. Since the conventional trappings of the material world such as beauty, wealth, position, and popularity aren’t usually his*, he isn’t blinded by them.
I find the concept of the hero’s rejection intriguing because it shows us that that which is the weirdest in us leads us to what we have to give to the world that’s unique. Perhaps it’s a creative way to view the world that nobody around us seems to “get.” Perhaps it’s our form of self-expression that gets constantly ridiculed. Or maybe it’s our interest in serious topics that those around us can’t understand. However, it sprouts raw within us, and we need to shape it so that we turn it into something that others can receive, if they’re willing to open their minds wide enough to receive it. So the Hero’s Journey can be seen as that process as well.
The young hero enjoys acceptance by his community when his divine nature is eventually revealed. This brings down the status quo and gives to the community (or the world, if he’s a “world savior”) wisdom and power it had never known before. This touches off destruction and chaos, but when people recognize that this as a good thing, order and joy follow. The myth, of course, tells of massive changes, but when we have tamed our weirdness and found a way to make others understand it, we too shake up the status quo of those we touch until they recognize it as a good thing. We too have taken what was “off” about us and turned it into something beautiful that others can see.
Campbell says that this triumph marks the end of the childhood cycle of the hero. There’s something about a child suffering from rejection and misunderstanding that creates immediate identification within us. Perhaps this is that part of us that nurtures our weirdness. And if each one of us has a weirdness within us that opens the doorway to something unique that we have to give then, like the human hero of the Hero’s Journey, we are all predestined to herohood.
* Obviously there are many exceptions. The Buddha, for instance, had wealth, popularity, position, and beauty, but his “weirdness” was in not being satisfied with them and hungering for deeper knowledge to the point where he was willing to give it all up.