The mythic hero is recognized as special from birth. The hero’s childhood shows him to have more strength, wisdom, intelligence, cunning, or what have you than those around him. At the same time, he’s strange in some ways and is often rejected by his community and sometimes even by his family. He recognizes, however, his destiny as the warrior of truth. He goes forth to slay the dragon and thus keep the rhythm of change flowing, as it must, for change is a principle upon which the Universe exists.

Blessings of the Divine

The hero, we said, must leave the place of comfort and venture into where he’s been warned never to go. As the childhood of the hero is special, so is his place of birth, which is the place he eventually returns triumphant. Campbell in this chapter says the place of birth or the place of return of the hero is the center of the world (World Axis, World Tree, etc.) where the spiritual energy from the hero after enlightenment radiates.

There’s some confusion for me here because I’m not convinced that this is true for every myth. I understand, of course, that the hero must go to a central place where he receives illumination. However, I think in some myths, this isn’t his place of birth or the place of return. The important characteristic of this central place, the center of the world, is that it’s where spiritual knowledge can be communicated. It radiates a special energy, but the hero himself radiates that energy wherever he goes as one who is filled with this knowledge.

In any case, the place where the hero gains enlightenment, wherever that might be, is the place where he accepts the blessings of the Divine. This sometimes happens through a nurturing goddess figure. However, when journeying to the father, the blessings of the Divine are given by a male figure. This is a point of maturity for the hero, when he passes from the world of childhood to the world of adulthood and accepts his destiny as a warrior of truth.

Painting of Greek hero, Cadmus, slaying a 3-headed dragon

Many are familiar with Saint George who slayed a dragon, but so did a Greek hero, Cadmus. “Cadmus Slays the Dragon” Paining by Hendrick Goltzius, circa 1573-1617. In the public domain

Slaying the Dragon

The hero, of course, usually goes off to fight at least one battle once he shifts from child to adult. Campbell tells us he generally has two types of enemies to fight:

  1. Human tyrants
  2. Super-human creatures or “outgrown gods” left over from previous stages of the universal round. Recall that in the formative stages of the Universe, the world is closer to Spirit and gradually deteriorates and becomes closer to the material. The creatures with magical powers gradually get uglier and more evil, and the hero has to rid the land of them, for their time has passed and maintenance of the Universe must pass into the hands of humans.

Campbell writes that these enemies are symbolic of stagnation, which goes against the nature of the Universe.

For the mythological hero is the champion not of things become but of things becoming; the dragon to be slain by him is precisely the monster of the status quo: Holdfast, the keeper of the past.

The hero is different from his community because they’re satisfied in allowing the ego-driven Holdfast to abuse his power (whether it be dragon or tyrannical king). He chooses to go against what’s comfortable and move all of humanity forward by keeping the creative and destructive energies of the Universe flowing. For this is what change is, the destruction of old things and the creation of new ones.

Holdfast, the tyrant/dragon, is the Fool in the worst sense of the archetype. He’s delusional because he assumes his power comes from himself (Ego) and not from a higher source. The hero sees the truth and can thus trick him and bring him down with his sword of truth. There is, of course, an important psychological and social message here. Those who cling to the status quo become Holdfasts and are destined to be brought down in some way.

On a personal level, I can talk about the damage that Holdfasts do to themselves and to others. My father suffered from psychological problems that made him extremely rigid. Change was threatening to him because he didn’t adjust to it well, so any change threatened to bring down his entire world. It was only when I left my family and got exposed to different worldviews that the strangeness of some of his beliefs and behaviors struck me. I could finally see that he was willing to sacrifice a clear vision of reality in order to maintain a distorted worldview that kept him in control and made him feel safe.

On a social level, Campbell points out how powerful the “slaying the dragon” scenario is as archetype.

This formula, indeed, of the shining hero going against the dragon has been the great device of self-justification for all crusades.

So dragon-slaying can be easily misused and must be based on truth that takes all values into account. For instance, those who believe murder is evil can hardly reconcile that belief with the “right” to kill those who don’t follow their views.

We would do well to remember both the moment of maturity for the hero and the fate of Holdfast in our daily lives and as we read myths. Constant change is a reality, and trying to fight it or deny it leads to detrimental consequences for ourselves and those around us. If we dedicate ourselves to moving courageously with the energy of change, we become warriors of truth, like the mature hero. We contribute our part to the evolution of humanity, for personal change, social change, and cosmic change are all connected.