The Archetype of the Hero-ine

Archetype of the hero/ine – The archetype of the hero/ine has fascinated, taught, even ennobled human beings for thousands of years. It appears as Hercules; Ulysses; Christ; Athena; Krishna; St. Theresa; Mohammed; Mary; Phyllis Wheatley; Boadicea; Superman; Florence Nightingale; a great game hunter; Joan of Arc; Anastasia from Brazil; or any Big Man in your dreams or films, or TV hero such as Captain Kirk or Dr Who.

We are the hero/ine of our own life. We brave great dangers, face monsters, pass through difficult initiations. Fundamental to the whole drama of the hero/ine is the evolution of our own identity from the depths of unconsciousness in the physical process of conception, through to developing self awareness as an adult. From the great ocean of collective culture, language and society we struggle toward the emergence of ourselves as a mature individual. To do this we face death and rebirth several times when we metamorphose from baby to child; from child to adolescent; from adolescent to adult; from adult with youthful body to ageing body. It is such an incredible journey, so heroic, so impossible of achievement, so fraught with dangers and triumphs. It is the greatest story in the world, and each of us live it. Perhaps some of us fall on the way, or get lost in the intricacies and challenges, dangers and pleasures of a certain part of the journey, as stories like the odyssey portray.

We find the story told over and over symbolically in all the ‘holy’ books as the birth of the divine child; the journey of the hero/ine through dangers and trials; the creation of the world – our personal awareness; the birth and life of Moses. All these stories pertain to the difficulties we face and means we use to BE. They are about the art of keeping balance amidst the multitude of forces acting on our human psyche and our body. The hero/ine is the one who dares even though they feel afraid and in pain, who makes the journey despite being encumbered by the chains and parasitic creatures of childhood trauma, of habitual and instinctive fears, of cultural ignorance.

In this journey, the avoidance of fear and pain in our society, where chemical anodynes or tranquillisers are sought to remove any tiny discomfort, is a great tragedy. Not that we need to become masochists, but we miss our own wholeness through fear of our own power to experience deeply, and be enriched by the immensity of our own genesis and history. In other cultures, the ability to meet pain and fear were considered spiritual strengths. They still are. The following example shows one person meeting the sort of fears and uncertainties, the despair and shadows we all face in our journey. It is typical of the journey undertaken by the hero/ine.

As I looked at my present situation, as I was wondering how to come to terms with being a second-class sort of person in a second-class life situation. I started thinking about all the potential and mental possibilities I have touched in the past. How could it be that I had come through so many things, grown beyond myself in so many ways, and yet at the moment I am locked in this apparent decay and decline? Has all the past been an illusion? Have I declined so much that all the power and wonder of my previous life is now lost to me?

Having asked this question I had an insight that I had got into a negative feedback loop. Because I had got stuck in this place, then I feared I was stuck in this place, which produced the certainty I was stuck, which produced the inability to move out. I was feeding back to myself images of failure and feelings of unattractiveness, and all the other negative feelings we all meet during the week. Instead of looking at them and seeing them as passing feelings, I was taking them as impressions of reality and drowning in them. I was accepting them as true and starting to live them. That then confirmed the negatives – and so it goes on.

I tried to find the way out of the loop. The only way out I could find was the realisation that the loop has no end. There is only one thing to do – stop it playing. Grab it and stop the crazy record. To help with this, to help grab the thing and kill it, I obviously would have to realise it as untrue. If I still believe the loop to be playing a truth, then I only strengthen the action. So for its cessation I need to realise that my sense of self is a constantly moving fragile thing that has no stable reality. I am not ANY ONE THING – so how can I be a failure, or a success, or great, or of no account, or any thought or feeling? No one thought or feeling can represent my reality. No feeling, or sense of myself, is anything more than a sense, a feeling, it is not ME. So how could this feeling represent some sort of permanent personal reality?

Although the struggle described above is subtle, it is nevertheless one that takes strength, resources and determination to meet and overcome. Those are the qualities necessary for the heroic experience of life. Those are the qualities we each have at out core, otherwise we would not exist today. As the sperm and ovum you were the great hero/ine of the enormous journey leading to birth. Millions died in the attempt, but you were the winner. You are the survivor of ten million generations of ancestors, struggling, developing new strategies, on the heroic journey from the earliest mammals to your life today.

Jung felt that the hero/ine myth dates to pre-history. To understand this, we must remember that ancient people thought in a much more pictorial way than perhaps we do today. Inner feelings such as fear and sexuality, drives which might push toward actions that were outside of the tribal taboos, were often depicted as spirits or demons. Even today many people use the image of the Devil to depict personal urges that are socially forbidden or repressed for one reason or another. In such ancient communities, everything was public because there were no massive prisons, or hospitals, or homes for the elderly to hide the unfortunate side of life. So primitive people intimately knew what madness and death looked like. They knew what disease did to the body. They could see what happened when a community turned against an individual and stoned, speared or strangled them.

Therefore, to witness an individual stand against a taboo, to walk calmly into death, to be unafraid in the midst of the demon of illness – such people left enormous impressions on those who witnessed it. It showed in the most graphic way that one could live without fear; one could meet death – perhaps even resurrect, either from a serious and incapacitating depression, or as would occasionally be seen, a person arise again from the apparent death of catalepsy or a near death experience. The people who were seen to emerge in those ways were hero/ines.

The hero/ine depicts our own powers of transformation, of courage, of problem solving and the ability to meet and pass through the tribulations of our life. We meet and emerge from self-doubt. We vanquish anger and lovelessness. We discover hope and motivation in the midst of despair and feelings of pointlessness. These monsters, or dragons, these demons that can rob us of the will to live; these dark creatures of our own mind that can literally lead to illness or suicide, the hero/ine meets and conquers. Underneath all these qualities another fact is demonstrated by the hero/ine, either in the external world or in dreams. It is that at the core of our being is an incredible potential that can be drawn upon. The hero-ine demonstrates this. But of course we may simple explain it away by saying the hero-ine was born different, or with greater strength or divinity. This is what Christianity does to the figure of Christ. It therefore takes away the responsibility that might otherwise cause us to wonder why we are not claiming our own potential. For at the core of each of us is the miracle of life itself; and at the core of life stands a sparkling ever shifting mystery.

One of the important factors of the hero/ine image is that although basically the hero/ine is shown to have had a humble birth, and be an ordinary person, they draw upon strengths and have guardian figures or teachers that others do not make use of. Joseph L. Henderson, writing on Ancient Myths and Modern Man in Man and His Symbols, points out that Perseus had Athena; Theseus had Poseidon. This, Henderson points out, represents the wholeness of oneself (ones potential) from which we can draw strength – the conscious personality that we identify as ourselves, expressing as it does only a tiny part of the totality of our possibilities and experience.

This tutelary figure is one of the ways the unconscious depicts the unbelievably rich and unimaginably immense cultural information we have absorbed, along with the innate potential arising from the process of life that carries us miraculously through conception and life in the womb.

There are very real hero/ines who daily enrich our life – Edison with the electric light bulb; Florence Nightingale with her concept of nursing. All of these figures stand over us and are part of our unconscious experience here in our daily life. Because our unconscious tends to portray a function – in this case the synthesis of immense information – as an image or character, the guardian or god figure well expresses the enormity of our unconscious knowledge. See: the sixth and seventh paragraphs under religion and dreams.

Part of the journey of the hero is to find the Golden Fleece, to escape from the belly of the whale, to face the sirens, to confront the Minotaur. All these are representative of real everyday situations that some or all of us are facing now. Particularly they depict the journey from identifying oneself as the ego and body, to finding the real core of who and what we are. This core lies at the deepest level of the unconscious. This is not because it is hidden or buried, but because it is so much a part of everything, so exposed, that only a form of inaction or letting go can reveal it. This is why the story of the pearl of great price is told of it. But between the conscious personality and the Core lie real creatures of fear and pain – our childhood traumas and fears; our cultural and social fears and ignorance; our personal, family and national prejudices, angers and karma. Each night in sleep we drop to our core. But likewise we all fall into the underworld of sleep like the Sleeping Beauty and meet these shadows we have not dared face – the dweller of the threshold. This is why so many people cannot sleep, and must drug themselves. Far better the stance of the daring hero-ine, who dares to face them and find the holy grail of deep peace and connection with their own timeless self. See: guardian of the threshold.

Jung makes a point of saying that if we identify in any way with the hero/ine archetype, we must be careful of the possibility of exaggerated pride – hubris – that sometimes comes with it. Such pride can lead to unrealistic self evaluation and the attempts to accomplish impossible dreams. He mentions a man who felt himself capable almost of flying, and who eventually fell from a mountain. Jung intimates that the man may have in fact stepped into space out of his hubris. The aim is to access your potential while still recognising your personal smallness in the scheme of things.

Lastly, the death of the hero/ine is often an important part of the theme the unconscious portrays in this symbol. One of the main features of the hero/ine is the way they lead us into greater self expression, fuller maturity. But once the maturity is reached, once the new is attained, then one needs to drop the means of achievement and live the new life. The journey to a new land may require attitudes and activities which when we get there are no longer needed. The farmers who travelled West in America needed to drop their nomadic life once they had arrived. See: Archetype of death; Archetype of rebirth; individuation.

Useful Questions and Hints:

Can I recognise that the life process in me is heroic in its constant facing of life’s challenges?

Can I as a person live some of this heroism in my daily life and relationships?

What are the life challenges, inwardly and outwardly, that I face? Can I define them and look at my strategy to deal with them?

Dare I explore a new way of being by using Arm Circling Meditation.


-Lewis Woodford 2014-09-10 21:31:27

I’m curious – are Jung’s archetypes fixed or not? Mircea Eliade said that when old archetypes begin to fail a culture, new archetypes rise to replace them. Is an archetype fixed, relative to it’s time, or does it shift on some sort of scale, as a society changes? For example, the definitions of so many things have been either consciously or unconsciously re-defined for us by the mass-media. I remember after 9/11, a politician announced that everyone who had died, by benefit of being American, were heroes. What about the poor guy in the restroom, who never knew what hit him, who never had a chance to CHOOSE to be heroic – was he a hero? Not to mention the question of whether, in a free-market economy, a potential hero has to have capital to make the CHOICE to act as an actual hero.

    -Tony Crisp 2014-09-15 8:41:34

    Lewis – No, an archetype is constantly added to by new experience. But what Mircea is probably referring to is that one may need to switch or be in the process of creating a new one. For instance the present social unrest in regard to authority figures will alter archetypes.

    Such political statements about hero’s is simply that – a political statement. But many heroic figures never had any capital at all, yet effected great change. Perhaps the capital they did have was a great trust and belief in their own direction. See


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