Humanity's Heroes

By Harry Young

Though descriptions are many, and details may differ, there is a core of truth that does not change within every myth. The fantastic nature of the events that run throughout myths has led many people to deny the possibility of their having actually occurred or having any relevance to their everyday lives, preferring instead to class them as fictional tales with no basis of physical truth. However, as one delves deeper into the symbology and allegory of myth and the hero's quest, one sees beyond the illusions created by literalism. Truths of a deeper significance emerge that contain vital pointers to the way we can live our lives today.

We may start by asking, what is the origin of myth? Actually there is no origin, for the truths contained in myth are as old as we are, being an intrinsic part of the universe itself. Mythic images and symbols stand for that which is ultimately mysterious and unknowable, yet light the way for questing souls. Ages ago, we are told, higher beings vital to our evolution rekindled these truths in the minds of early humanity. Evocative tales fashioned by our ancestors were designed to relay encoded information through the memory-tool of symbol, association and, to a degree, entertainment -- the latter serving as a method of attracting and sustaining interest.

As different cultures emerged, so a variety of characters appeared, hence the many names for the king of the gods, the many heroes, and the multitude of tricksters. Although names differ, there is an underlying unity commented on by H. P. Blavatsky in The Secret Doctrine:

The imagination of the masses, disorderly and ill-regulated as it may be, could never have conceived and fabricated ex nihilo so many monstrous figures, such a wealth of extraordinary tales, had it not had, to serve it as a central nucleus, those floating reminiscences, obscure and vague, which unite the broken links of the chain of time to form with them the mysterious dream foundation of our collective consciousness. -- 2:293

These "extraordinary tales" paradoxically appeal to both lower and higher facets of our nature. The material self is attracted by the image of the classical hero -- raw courage, keen intellect, discipline, and overall power -- yet is brought slowly to appreciate the spiritual value of treading the path of the hero. Meanwhile, from past experience the spiritual self knows and sees the truth therein and draws strength from it.

Let us take an overview of the mythic hero's adventure. What is a hero? Descriptions vary: a man of distinguished bravery or superhuman powers, a demigod. His journey is usually divided into three phases: the separation of the hero from this world; the initiation where, having entered another reality, he battles usurpers; and the return to this world on completion of the quest, bearing a trophy or an elixir which nourishes mankind in its eternal quest.

From a state of relative harmony the hero hears his calling. This may take any form, from an inner impulse which drives him into the unknown, to a physical happening from which he takes his lead. The latter is seen in Greek mythology when, after his father's kingdom is ravaged by Pelias, Jason accepts the task of seeking the Golden Fleece which will enable him to reclaim his rightful position on the throne. The event which heralds the calling tends to be one which is surrounded by tragedy or despair, which spurs the hero into action. He is never pushed into acceptance, for he knows it is his duty and he feels the urge to accept the task. Moreover, the calling is never a fortuitous event, although it may seem such, as nothing occurs by chance. Rather, it is precisely placed in a sequence of events, the significance of which may be ascertained only further on in the journey.

Following the calling and the subsequent tutoring by his mentor -- usually an old man of experience who has a boon to give the young protege, such as an amulet or words of wisdom -- the hero is ready to cross the great barrier into the unknown where the fantastic adventure awaits.

As soon as he sets off, the hero begins to encounter problems, and it is here that he meets that endearing character -- the trickster. The trickster's role is that of a catalyst. When least expected, he entices the hero into danger in order that he may put his courage, wisdom, and resolve to the test, overcome the trial, and move further on towards his goal. At first the tricksters seem mischievous, roguish creatures, but they can be secretly beneficent. This ambiguity is evident in the Oceanic Maui, who in one tale forces himself inside the goddess Hine-Nui-Te-Po as she sleeps, an action he believes will enable him to conquer death. But she awakens and kills him, and as a result of his action man can never be immortal. In another instance Maui traps the sun and slows it down, thus lengthening the day and giving the Polynesians more time to cook their food.

The hero naturally is unsure of the tricksters' intentions. They wear many guises, but manifest mostly as animals, adopting their particular traits to achieve certain ends. Animal types vary geographically and culturally, although frequent appearances of ravens, spiders, and hares are found worldwide.

In Greek mythology especially, the trickster is often introduced in the drama by a divine entity, Zeus perhaps -- the eternal Father with whom the hero must seek atonement by virtue of self-discipline, selflessness, and courage. Physical trials, and moral and mental dilemmas, are placed in his path. Think of the Harpies, the creatures with bodies and wings of birds and heads of hags, that were sent as punishment by the gods to plague King Phineus of Thrace, following his cruelty and misuse of his gift of clairvoyance. Jason and the Argonauts must defeat the Harpies before Phineus imparts valuable information which leads them on to Colchis and the Golden Fleece.

Stripped of the personified image, the trickster is a karmic effect of causes set in motion and therefore an aspect of the hero's consciousness. But intuition and wisdom are needed to bridge the gap between the higher and lower parts of the individual's nature. If he tries to avoid his divine destiny, the hero struggles for a foothold, scrabbling to get back on the path, only to find the trickster or a trap it has set awaiting him.

Defeating the trickster is imperative. Sidetracking is not an option, for the challenges it sets come from within and therefore cannot be escaped. However, the solution also comes from within and is always present as a guide which acts as a fountain of truth from which the hero draws strength.

After the transmutation of all tricksters and before the hero reaches his goal, he must confront the parental figures: union with the Mother and atonement with the Father. The Mother figure appears in many guises, and mythologist Joseph Campbell outlines the typical traits:

Woman, in the picture language of mythology, represents the totality of what can be known. The hero is the one who comes to know. As he progresses in the slow initiation which is life, the form of the goddess undergoes for him a series of transfigurations: she can never be greater than himself, though she can always promise more than he is yet capable of comprehending. She lures, she guides, she bids him burst his fetters. And if he can match her import, the two, the knower and the known, will be released from every limitation. -- The Hero with a Thousand Faces, p. 116

Following this reconciliation, the hero must achieve atonement (at-one-ment) with the Father figure. In myth the treasure is always guarded by a dragon or monster bigger and more powerful than any trickster, and the preceding trials have prepared the hero for this final confrontation, for without the fearlessness previously displayed -- which is now at a premium, as are experience and wisdom -- he would not be ready.

Rustem slays the dragon. From Firdausi's Book of Kings (Shah Nameh)

The Father without is the Father within, and in myth it may be the dragon. Blavatsky outlines this symbolism in The Secret Doctrine:

the "War in Heaven" is shown, in one of its significations, to have meant and referred to those terrible struggles in store for the candidate for adeptship, between himself and his (by magic) personified human passions, when the inner enlightened man had to either slay them or fail. In the former case he became the "Dragon Slayer," as having happily overcome all the temptations; and a "Son of the Serpent" and a Serpent himself, having cast off his old skin and being born in a new body, becoming a Son of Wisdom and Immortality in Eternity. -- 2:380

The key to the atonement is utter selflessness, and total submission to trust and faith in the all-powerful compassion of the Father within.

The hero is then rewarded for his efforts with a trophy of inestimable value, for example the Golden Fleece, the Holy Grail, or the Sleeping Princess. The choice is then whether to keep the boon for personal use or to use it to benefit others, and it is here that the concept of the two buddhic paths comes in.

On reaching the threshold of nirvana, the aspirant must make the decision to become either a pratyeka buddha (the Sanskrit pratyeka means "for one alone") or a bodhisattva ("one whose essence is wisdom"). This decision, however, is based on a choice made by him lifetimes, if not aeons, ago to follow a particular path and is a karmic reflection of the path he has trodden. The pratyeka buddha turns his back on humanity and passes into unspeakable bliss -- nirvana. One who takes the nobler path of the bodhisattva, however, renounces nirvanic bliss to return and help humanity along the path that he himself has successfully traversed.

When comparing the journey of the archetypal hero with the path of the bodhisattva, we see many correlations. Both initiate their own adventures, both overcome physical and mental trials of pain and suffering, conquer their fears with unswerving determination, and renounce the goal in order to help those in need -- all in the name of compassion, the driving force.

The compassionate nature of the bodhisattva is well known outside Buddhism; however, compassion is not always the first quality thought of when considering the hero, the Romancer or the Warrior possibly being the attributes that first spring to mind. But along the path the ideal hero is always compassionate, never thinking of his own wants, mindful only of others' needs, and if he has to deviate from his track for a while to attend to the plight of the needy, he will do so. Remember the Argonauts taking time to lay traps for the Harpies that taunted Phineus, and for their trouble they were rewarded with valuable advice. These temporary "breaks" are not detrimental to the progress of the quest: the trials are synonymous with the quest and are imperative to ultimate success as they provide natural opportunities to test the hero in every conceivable way, adding little by little to the richness of his experience.

There are many levels of duality connected with the hero myth. Indeed, it is all-pervading. Fundamentally it is the conflict between good and evil, these polarities having myriad manifestations. It represents the struggle within each of us to come closer to truth. We, as the hero or potential bodhisattva, are on the path to what is wholly good, forever striving towards truth and liberation for all. This is the forward course of evolution. Conversely, evil stands in our way and appears as the symbolic monster which forever hinders us in our search.

If we go deeper still, we find that each manifestation is a symbol in itself. Man encodes and decodes information in memory by using symbols, and a certain myth (or myth in general) can be looked upon as a necklace that fits all, the beads of which are symbols strung together by the unbreakable thread of truth. The decoding and understanding of myth and of the hero quest in particular using theosophic keys can be invaluable by providing a way into the ethos of the path of the bodhisattva.

We identify with the hero because we recognize in the eternal qualities that shine from him messages from our higher self, and in trying to emulate the archetypal hero's selfless deeds and virtues we are obeying the calling from our inner god which guides us through evolution.

  • (From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1999. Copyright © 1999 by Theosophical University Press.)

  • World Spiritual Traditions Menu