The heroic journey as a metaphor can be likened to the jungian process of individuation. Both are heroic in their intent, and filled with unexpected challenges. Undertaking a jungian analysis process is such a journey.
He is no hero who never met the dragon, or who, if he once saw it, declared afterwards that he saw nothing. Equally, only one who has risked the fight with the dragon and is not overcome by it wins the hoard, the “treasure hard to attain.” – Carl Jung, CW 14, par. 756
Traditionally, in folklore and myth, it is a hero’s task to do something out of the ordinary. Overcoming dragons certainly fits the bill. But when you think about it metaphorically, we are all potentially heroes, for we all have our inner demons, a.k.a. dragons.
On a personal, everyday level, meeting the dragon corresponds to becoming aware that our emotional reactions are determined by unconscious factors, namely complexes with a will of their own. Fighting the dragon involves coming to terms with these complexes, part and parcel of which is the ongoing effort to understand why we act or react the way we do.
For those who have a mind for this way of seeing things, dreams, and often outer life too, take on the flavour of a myth or a fairy tale. There are wicked witches (negative mother) and fairy godmothers (positive mother); wizards and elves, demons and wise old men (aspects of the father); helpful animals (instincts) to guide one through the forest (daily life). There are crystal balls (intuition) and rolling skeins of thread (markers on the way); magic hats and cloaks (attitudes); thorns and needles that prick (projections); fearsome giants (complexes) that knock you off your feet (personal standpoint); princesses (eros, feminine energy) held captive in towers (logos ideals), and handsome princes (positive masculine energy) scaling mountains (self-knowledge) to rescue them.
As a matter of fact, I have seldom come across a motif in a dream that could not also be found in a myth, legend or fairy tale. This is one of the best-kept secrets of psychological development: others have been through the same tortuous trials. And many have survived.
A sword-fight in a dream may reflect the cut-and-thrust of an encounter with your boss, your lover, your mother; the thorn hedge surrounding a sleeping beauty is a prickly animus who keeps you at bay; the ravishing pixie who lures you to bed may be a false bride, a femme fatale; the secretary guarding the photocopier is a witch in high heels; an outworn conscious attitude is a sickly old king; an absent queen reflects lack of feeling; a quarrelsome royal couple is a conflict between masculine and feminine, ego and anima/animus, you and your mate; nightmares of burglars breaking in suggest shadow sides of oneself demanding recognition; and on and on.
Like the Dummling or youngest brother in many fairy tales, it is appropriate to be naive about the unconscious and what it holds. This actually works in one’s favour, since accomplishing some of the tasks required of us is only possible if we suspend a rational way of looking at things. The Dummling represents an aspect of the individual psyche that has not been coerced by collective pressures. We all had it at first, and still do, buried under the accretions of daily life: a virgin innocence unhobbled by hard knocks; fresh, spontaneous and not yet fixed in rigid patterns; a time when the border between fantasy and reality was permeable. That openness to the unknown is an important element in the struggle to discover our own individual truth.
The treasure “hard to attain” is variously symbolised in myth and fairy tale as a ring or golden egg, white feather, coat of many colours, fountain of youth, elixir of life, and so on. Psychologically these all come to the same thing: oneself—the acceptance of one’s true feelings and talents, one’s uniqueness. This pursuit, by many other names, is a time-honoured tradition. It differs greatly in detail, but the pattern is well known.
Patterns within the Heroic Journey
Symbolically, the heroic journey is a cycle, following this pattern*:
1/ A Call to Adventure, with various Helpers to accompany the future Hero
2/ The Crisis – a battle with the dragon, a threshold crossing, abduction, night-sea journey, crucifixion, whale’s belly, brother-battle
3/ Further tests, other Helpers
4/ A Victory – the sacred marriage, elixir theft, father atonement
5/ Flight back to the place of origin
6/ The tests of re-entry and re-integration – threshold struggles
7/ Potential new Call to Adventure
Among other things, it involves a dangerous trial of some kind, psychologically analogous, writes Jung, to “the attempt to free ego-consciousness from the deadly grip of the unconscious.” (Symbols of Transformation, CW 5, par. 539) It is a motif represented by imprisonment, crucifixion, dismemberment, abduction—the kind of experience weathered by sun-gods and other heroes since time immemorial: Gilgamesh, Osiris, Christ, Dante, Odysseus, Aeneas, Pinocchio, and Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. In the language of the mystics it is called the dark night of the soul. In everyday life, we know it as a feeling of deep despair and a desire to hide under the covers.
Typically, in myth and legend, the hero journeys by ship or braves dark forests, burning deserts, ice fields, etc. He fights a sea monster or dragon, is swallowed, struggles against being bitten or crushed to death, and having arrived inside the belly of the whale, like Jonah, seeks the vital organ and cuts it off, thereby winning release. Eventually the hero must return to his beginnings and bear witness, that is, give something back to his culture (which marks the hero as an individual as opposed to an individualist).
The night sea journey myths are an important subset of these hero tales. They derive from the perceived behaviour of the sun, which, in Jung’s lyrical image, “sails over the sea like an immortal god who every evening is immersed in the maternal waters and is born anew in the morning.” (CW 5, par. 306) The sun going down, analogous to the loss of energy in a depression, is thus the necessary prelude to rebirth. Cleansed in the healing waters, the ego lives again. Or, in another mythological image, it rises from the ashes, like the phoenix.
Psychologically, the whale-dragon-monster is the unconscious, and in particular the parental complexes. The battles and suffering that take place during the night sea journey symbolise the heroic attempt to assimilate unconscious contents instead of being overwhelmed by them. Symbolically, the vital organ that must be severed is the umbilical cord, the regressive tie to the past. The potential result is the release of energy—the sun on a new day—that has hitherto been tied up with the complexes.
Choice or Free will on the Heroic Journey
Few choose the heroic journey. But when something in us demands it we are obliged to strike out on our own, to live out our personal journey whether we will or no.
Analysts cannot save people from the hazards to be faced, nor should they even try. What nature has ordained, let no one interfere with. The heroic journey is an inner imperative that must be allowed to run its course. The most analysts can do is to accompany their charges and alert them to some dangers along the way.
Because individuality and the development of personality are deviations not congenial to the collective, historically only a few have dared the adventure, but these are the ones we now invoke to give us heart. As Jung notes:
[They] are as a rule the legendary heroes of mankind, the very ones who are looked up to, loved, and worshipped, the true sons of God whose names perish not. … Their greatness has never lain in their abject submission to convention, but, on the contrary, in their deliverance from convention. They towered up like mountain peaks above the mass that still clung to its collective fears, its beliefs, laws, and systems, and boldly chose their own way. – The Development of Personality, CW 17, par. 298
Modern transformation of the Hero
From the beginning of recorded time, heroes have been endowed with godlike attributes. Historically, anyone who turned aside from the beaten path was deemed to be either crazy or possessed by a demon, or possibly a god. Some were coddled, just in case; the unlucky ones were hacked to pieces or burned at the stake.
Now we have depth psychology. On a collective level we still have heroes—athletes, actors, politicians and the like—and some of these we treat like gods. But we no longer expect of them anything as elusive and differentiated as personality. Individually, however, we have raised our sights. Thanks to Jung we now know that personality, in any substantial use of the term, depends upon a harmonious mix of ego, persona and shadow, in helpful alliance with anima or animus, our contra-sexual other, plus a working relationship with something greater, like the Self.
Call it God or the Self, or by any other name, without contact with an inner centre we have to depend on will power, which is not enough to save us from ourselves, nor to forge a personality out of a sow’s ear.
© from Daryl Sharp’s Digesting Jung, reproduced with kind permission of the author.
*Extracted from Daryl’s diagram in Digesting Jung, which was adapted from Joseph Campbell’s famous book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, p. 210 (latest edition). This cycle – often expanded to about 12 stages – has become the default template for a great deal of modern story-telling, both in the Hollywood movie industry and some of the writing industry which feeds into the movie industry (both novels and scriptwriting).
Additional note: the work of Joseph Campbell is especially worth delving into for anyone interested in the topic of the Hero (and Myth in particular) – see the website of The Joseph Campbell Foundation for many excellent resources and links.
See also: on the JCF website, an article from January 2019 featuring Joseph Campbell’s original diagram, referenced above: The Role of Story in Crafting New Beginnings for Our Lives