The hero in Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey has to get through the road of trials in order to achieve his goal. Sometimes, that goal involves a woman. Marriage is common, but the hero may simply want something she’s got (treasure, healing potion, magical item, etc.). Sometimes she’s beautiful and full of virtue and kindness. Other times, she’s ugly or a royal bitch. According to Campbell, this woman represents “the totality of life.” This includes joy and suffering. Marrying her, getting what she’s got, or conquering her (if she’s destructive) represents one of the biggest challenges we face as human beings: accepting that life is bittersweet.
The Divine Goddess
Campbell begins this section of his discussion with the beautiful maiden, princess, or queen who appears in so many myths and fairy tales.
For she is the incarnation of the promise of perfection, the soul’s assurance that, at the conclusion of the exile in a world of organized inadequacies, the bliss that once was known will be known again….
I see a few concepts in this quote. On a practical level, we can see the beautiful woman at the heart of the Hero’s Journey as the promise of a better life (i.e., a better job, a life without an abusive partner, more financial security, etc.). We wouldn’t undertake the journey if we didn’t truly believe (or at least desperately hope) that things would get better because of it.
There’s also, though, a more profound idea here that links to some spiritual concepts (which he discusses in more detail in the second part of the book, “The Cosmogonic Cycle.”). Spiritually, many believe that we as a human race emerged from a state of perfect bliss (i.e., the concept of the Garden of Eden). Enlightenment involves, among other things, returning to that state of bliss, which is our true nature.
So the beautiful woman represents the assurance that there’s something wonderful beyond the suffering of everyday life. Campbell links this to the concept of the loving, nurturing goddess, the Great Mother who gave birth to the universe, which he discusses in the second part of the book. If we read the Hero’s Journey as a spiritual one, the beautiful woman is reassurance that we’re on the right track to enlightenment. (Given the ugly monsters and difficult trials we have to battle to get to her, we need it!)
The Evil/Ugly Goddess
The goddess, however, isn’t always beauty and virtue. Campbell expands on the mother metaphor to tell about the other side of the mother, the absent or destructive mother (depicted in myths as an evil or ugly woman). That which nurtures us can also destroy us.
The discussion gets a little tiresome when he alludes to psychoanalytic concepts (the book was, after all, published in 1949), but skipping over that, Campbell describes the “bad mother” as the unattainable goddess. In other words, perfect bliss may exist, but we can never reach it; the closer we get to it, the further it moves from our grasp. On a practical level, we all go through periods when we’re working towards a goal where we feel like nothing we do will ever get us there. Spiritually, she represents the doubt of bliss beyond material existence and thus imprisonment in a materialistic view of life.
The unattainable goddess is another illusion of the mind. She’s unattainable only when we’re not wise enough to accept her for all she is. As the symbol of the “totality of life,” the goddess reminds us that things worth having never just fall into our laps, although we may wish they would. When they don’t, it’s easy to lose trust in ourselves and the Universe.
I also read the evil/ugly woman in myths as representing the dark side of life. Beauty and ugliness go hand-in-hand; they’re both part of existence. The beautiful woman may represent the promise of perfection, but the evil woman shows us that we must go through darkness to get that perfection. So we can see the evil/ugly woman as a special kind of block we need to get through with a special purpose, to cleanse ourselves of what prevents us from reaching that final experience of bliss.
Campbell states that myths show what happens when we’re not ready/mature enough to accept this. The hero dies or is otherwise stuck in some horrible state under the evil woman’s spell. Recall in The Odyssey how Circe turned Odysseus’s men into swine. With the help of Hermes (see the article on helpers), he resisted her magic and got her respect. The evil goddess then transformed into the divine goddess who later became a helper in directing Odysseus and his men on the next part of their journey.
We can also see this on a practical level. As we progress on the journey from a bad situation to a better one, we have to go through some rough times. We have to see ugliness within ourselves and the world around us. We run right into our limitations, insecurities, destructive beliefs, injustices, etc. We can easily give up if we cling to some ideal of perfection or the immature wish that it could all be easy. We can only persevere if we accept the ugly side of the journey (and ourselves).
A Lesson in Emotional Balance
Campbell’s word choice in part of the section on the meeting with the goddess will annoy some of us because it’s very male-centric.
… [S]he can never be greater than himself, though she can always promise more than he is yet capable of comprehending.
The hero who can take her as she is, without undue commotion but with the kindness and assurance she requires, is potentially the king, the incarnate god, of her created world.
And when the adventurer, in this context, is not a youth but a maid, she is the one who, by her qualities, her beauty, or her yearning, is fit to become the consort of an immortal.
I’m going to try to strip out the patriarchal wording so that we can get to a meaning here that’s relevant to modern men and women. The goddess represents two sides of the human experience: bliss and suffering. The meeting with the goddess is really about accepting both with equanimity. In other words, both should be accepted as being of equal value.
Campbell talks about dealing with the evil/ugly woman “with gentleness,” which we can read as calm acceptance. When we learn to accept both bliss and suffering as equal experiences, not one better or worse than the other but both as necessary experiences that have the same value, then we get closer to the spiritual and closer to something that can help us deal better with life.
Imagine handling the destruction of a hurricane with the same kind of calm acceptance as handling the birth of our first child. In other words, we don’t get sucked into extremes of emotion either way. This does not mean emotional suppression, and learning the difference is one of our biggest challenges. If we’re calm just because we deny our pain or our joy, we’ll eventually get hit with them in some other way, often destructive.
From what I can gather, the meeting with the goddess is really about learning to maintain emotional balance and deal with reality as it comes, whether it be painful or joyful. On a deeper level, we can see the goddess as the nurturer of our existence who can also hurt us (think the beauty of a rainbow versus the destruction of a hurricane). Even if we’re willing to see the darkness of life, we often hate it and thus avoid it whenever possible. Accepting the goddess in both of her aspects means not hating or avoiding what is also a necessary part of life.