Anatomy of a mythological hero

What makes a true mythological hero? 

That depends not only on how one defines ‘truth’ but also on what one considers to be the primary function of myth. In this essay, I follow the lead of philosophical pragmatist, William James, who considers something as ‘true’ if, at any given time, it functions well as a working hypothesis (Blackburn, 49). I also define myth as a story (true or false) wherein some personality (divine, human, and/or animal) is involved in making something significant happen in a way that not only exerts a powerful hold over adherents but also supports theories meant to help make meaning of our lives (Segal, 3-9).

There is little doubt that Greek mythology continues to intrigue adherents several millennia after creation. I believe this has much to do with the role played by the mythical hero, which, as the OED (n, 1) suggests, is a man of ‘superhuman strength, courage, or ability, especially such a man who is ‘regarded as semi-divine’. In this essay, I will argue that it is the special role of a true mythological hero to inform man as to the nature of his relationship with the divine as well as to provide guidance as to how he might connect with it. I will illustrate my ideas using the psychological theories of CG Jung and three well-known heroic personalities of Greek myth.

Kerenyi (Heroes, 3) suggests that it is the function of the mythological hero to teach men something essential about the ‘glory of the divine’ in their humanity. Whilst gods exist in primordial time, the mythological hero is necessarily ‘of his own time’ and so in him, we find divinity ‘strangely combined with the shadow of mortality.’ Without this strange mix, mythological heroes would no longer be heroes but simply great men. So what does it take for a man to rise to the level of a mythological hero? To answer that question, Kerenyi (Heroes, 2) suggests we look to the psychological archetype of hero. 

Although most associate the concept of archetype with CG Jung, Freud likewise acknowledged the existence of  archetypes, although he knew them as phylogenetic prototypes (Adams, 107). Likewise, both Jung and Freud acknowledged something akin to a hero archetype that itself was intimately connected with myth (Segal, 83). But whilst for Freud heroism revolves around human parental relationships, for Jung it revolves around the relationship between the conscious and the unconscious (Segal, 83). In this respect, Jung echoes Kerenyi by suggesting that the archetype of the hero finds expression in overcoming ‘the monster of darkness’ and distinguishing itself through ‘deeds which point to the conquest of the dark’. Jung (Archetypes, 167) suggests that it is through the accomplishment of such deeds that the hero connects with his divinity – ‘And God said: ‘Let there be light!’

For Jungians, the gods symbolise the father and mother archetypes, representing a man’s relationship between the masculine and feminine sides of his personality respectively (Segal, 94). The problem is, however, that all archetypes remain outside our conscious control until sufficient psychological work has been undertaken to integrate them (Segal, 95). For Jung (Archetypes, 164), this work of integration belongs to the child, the motif of which is pure potentiality. Specifically, Jung notes that sometimes the ‘child’ looks like a child god and sometimes more like a young hero; but whilst the god remains wholly supernatural, the hero archetype represents the ‘human raised to the limit of the supernatural’. In other words, for Jung (Archetypes, 166) the hero archetype represents man’s potential for synthesis of (1) his unconscious divine into (2) his consciousness. Until one has become ‘psychologically house-trained’ such that the contents of the unconscious have become conscious, men are ‘possessed’ by ‘complexes’ which express themselves as ‘hysterical’ women’, ‘true disturbers of the peace’ (Jung, Essentials, 122-123).  In this regard, hysterical suggests ‘a state of mind marked by an ‘exaggerated rapport’ with persons in the immediate environment’ (Purrington, 2020).

How might this work in practice? Consider that Homer’s Iliad starts with an angry dispute between Achilles and Agamemnon over the ownership of a woman. Indeed, the whole plot centres on a war, during which 240 gory battlefield deaths occur in a 52-day period, which was launched in anger to recover a stolen woman. When Achilles, the star ‘hero’ of the Iliad, fails to get what he wants he does not sort it for himself but instead runs for help from his divine mother, Thetis. When finally Achilles overcomes his sulky tantrum and re-joins the fighting, he frenziedly mutilates the body of Hector, the Trojan who killed his best friend, Patroclus. The gods are offended. It strikes me that if a hero is serious about connecting with his divinity, he ought to fight his own battles rather than turning for divine assistance from mummy. Likewise, he ought not to go out of his way to offend the gods. Nonetheless, Achilles is lucky. Because he is a warrior or therapõn, a ritual substitute for the god Ares, in the moment of his death, he  achieves his divinity (Nagy, 842).

Homer’s Odyssey ups the ante for bad behaviour when the ‘hero’, Odysseus, slaughters 108 young men and 12 slave girls more or less, just because he wants to do. This suggests that Homer’s Greek ‘hero’ is little more than a hyper-emotional war lord for whom others are objects to be manipulated at will. Likewise, these heroes are allowed not only to self-righteously demand whatever they want whether or not morally justifiable, but also to behave like petulant children as do their gods (Browne). ‘Hysterical’ women and ‘true disturbers of the peace’, indeed. I would argue that overall, Homer’s heroes have made little headway toward psychologically integrating their divinity into consciousness. Nonetheless they remain heroes, although Odysseus, for reasons too complex to address in this essay, may well not be representative of an ordinary mythic hero (Russo, 254). Jung (Archetypes, 167) confirms their hero status by noting that the hero archetype carries with it an unusual paradox in that although the hero triumphs great perils with ease, ‘something quite insignificant is his undoing’. Witness Achilles; killed by a poison arrow in his heel, his only vulnerability. In some versions of that  story, it was the god, Apollo, the most offended by Achilles’ outrageous behaviour regarding Hector, who guided that arrow. Likewise Odysseus, who once rejected Circe’s offer of immortality, ‘accidently’ dies at the hands of the son he fathered on her.

Arguably, Heracles does better than Homer’s crew. As noted earlier, Jung believed that hero archetype finds expression in overcoming ‘the monster of darkness’.  Certainly in his labours, Heracles triumphed over many monsters and, according to Kerenyi (Heroes, 141), he did so in pursuit of the darkness of death itself. Might it be that in accomplishing these tasks, Heracles was well on his way to becoming ‘psychologically house-trained’ despite that hysterical incident in which in a fit of divinely inspired madness, he massacred his first wife and their children? Jung (Archetypes, 171) seems to suggest that he was. This is because Heracles represents the ‘bondsman’ or ‘thrall’, a position that ‘generally leads up to the real epiphany of the semi-divine hero’. Perhaps this is why, as Jung (Archetypes, 123) points out, Heracles is presented with the opportunity to end his human suffering and ‘step into the consuming fire of the flame of immortality’? Equally, however, this opportunity may only have been the result of having been ‘unwittingly adopted by Hera’ (Jung, Archetypes, 45). Regardless, Heracles is confirmed by Jung (Archetypes, 167), as a true mythological hero because despite having triumphed great perils, like Odysseus and Achilles, he meets his mortal end through something insignificant, in this case a gift from his wife.

In conclusion, my working hypothesis of what makes a true mythological hero or heroine is based on my understanding that a primary function of myth is to help adherents make meaning of their lives. For Jungians, this boils down to becoming ‘psychologically house-trained’, or successfully integrating one’s unconscious divinity into consciousness. For guidance as to how this works, we turn to the exploits of the mythological hero, who in ancient Greek mythology was forced to directly deal with the actual divine. According to Jung, the true mythological hero will have achieved the required psychological house training when he no longer behaves like a hysterical woman. Homer’s heroes, who carry on like hyper-emotional war lords throughout both the Iliad and Odyssey, demonstrate how extremely hard this is to accomplish. Other heroes, like Heracles, may do better but still do not quite get it right.  Nonetheless, they all still remain true mythological heroes because they have distinguished themselves with regards to great ‘deeds which point to the conquest of the dark’ (Jung, Archetypes, 167). In doing so, they have imparted to adherents of the myths something essential about connecting with ‘the glory of the divine’ in their humanity: to wit, for the most part, this is nigh impossible to achieve during lifetime, may not be worth the effort, and all too often, it is left to the luck of the draw.

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Bibliography

Adams, MV (2008). The archetypal school. In P. Young-Eisendrath & T Dawson (Eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Jung (2nd ed., pp. 107- 124). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Blackburn, S (2006). Truth: A Guide for the Perplexed. Penguin. 

Browne, S (2021). Ancient myths and ancient men: Homer, Virgil, and being a hero [Online lecture – ICE, University of Cambridge Virtual Summer Festival] https://www.ice.cam.ac.uk/ancient-myths-and-ancient-men-homer-virgil-and-being-hero (available through 6 September 2021).

Jung, CG (1990). The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (RFC Hull, Trans). Bollingen Series XX, Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1959).

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Kerenyi, C (1997). The Heroes of the Greeks (HL Rose, Trans.). Thames and Hudson. (Original work published 1959). 

Nagy, G (2011). Lyric and Greek Myth. In RD Woodard (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press [Kindle version] Retrieved from Amazon.com

Purrington, Mr. (2020, May 6). Carl Jung on ‘Hysteria’ Lexicon. Carl Jung Depth Psychology. https://carljungdepthpsychologysite.blog/2020/05/06/carl-jung-on-hysteria-lexicon/#.YQfkvi1Q2ek

Russo, J. (2008). A Jungian analysis of Homer’s Odysseus. In P. Young-Eisendrath & T Dawson (Eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Jung (2nd ed., pp. 253-268). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Segal, R. (2015). Myth: A Very short Introduction (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press.

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