Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey begins with a call to action. Once we answer it and set out on the journey, we meet helpers or “supernatural aid.” In myths and fairy tales, this is often an old woman or old man who is wise and has magical knowledge and tools to give the hero. These help him deal with the monsters he has to fight later on. In real life, we’re constantly receiving help, though not always from old women and men (and not always magical!).
Helpers as People
Campbell sees slightly different roles for the helper depending on the gender. He sees women as nurturers and supporters. He describes them as representing “all the forces of the unconscious” and “Mother Nature herself.” In other words, he saw the helpful old woman as a mother figure.
The male helper is different. Campbell writes
[p]rotective and dangerous, motherly and fatherly at the same time, this supernatural principle of guardianship and direction unites in itself all the ambiguities of the unconscious–thus signifying the support of our conscious personality by that other, larger system, but also the inscrutability of the guide that we are following, to the peril of our rational ends.
In other words, Campbell felt there was something sinister in the male helper that isn’t in the female helper. He can be the wise father figure, but he can also be the deceptive trickster who lures the hero into dead ends or the darkest places.
If we think of the helpers as people who help us on our journey (i.e., from childhood to adulthood, from a crappy job to a great job, out of a bad marriage, etc.), Campbell’s views of the male and female helper are pretty romantic. Not all female helpers are nurturers, and not all male helpers are deceptive.
The important thing is to know the difference. Even deceptive helpers are helpers. When we’re manipulated by someone who claims to want to help us, we learn to read people better. We learn more about our vulnerabilities. We become stronger. They serve a purpose, but when we’ve learned what we have to learn from them, it’s time to shed ourselves of their “help.” That, too, is part of the ‘help” they’re giving us.
Helpers Within the Psyche
Helpers, though, aren’t always human. Guidance exists within the mind. We have the unconscious (through dreams, for instance), intuition, and feelings, and we also have rationality and the will. All can be nurturing or deceptive. The unconscious, for instance, may present us with a creative solution to a problem that we need to solve in order to proceed on our journey. It might also drive us to react to a perceived threat in a certain way before we’ve had time to reflect on whether it’s really a threat.
Anything can trigger a realization: a dream, a chance remark, a fleeting interaction, a quote from a film or book. If we’re alert to “supernatural aid” on our journey, as we should be, we’ll pick up the message and turn it over in our minds. We’ll realize something we need to change and make an effort to change it. It might be a belief, attitude, or approach. We might need to let go of something that’s holding us back or adopt something we’ve resisted adopting for too long. That change helps us get through tougher challenges later on. It becomes a helper within the psyche.
Campbell tells us that the helper “represents … the benign, protecting power of destiny.”
One has only to know and trust, and the ageless guardians will appear.
Trust is a challenge for many of us. So is accepting help. But if we look at myths and folktales as reflecting the journey(s) we all take in life then we better learn to deal with that because we can’t progress without trust and without help.