I Need a Hero

Kings, queens, circles, quaternities, nuts, spheres, eggs; symbols of wholeness. Here, I think and write regularly about female archetypes, but without a king and a queen (the Divine Couple), we don’t have an archetype of wholeness when we’re discussing archetypal figures. Even Aragorn needed his Arwyn.

In depth psychology, we talk often and at length about the hero’s quest, also known as the vision quest, the monomyth, or simply the Quest, which leads to wholeness. The Quest is universal and you can find it, or parts of it, in any great story. Joseph Campbell, the eminent mythologist, explained that, “In these stories, the adventure that the hero is ready for is the one he gets. The adventure is symbolically a manifestation of his character” (Campbell 158). Different quests for different heroes, in other words: but everyone is a hero in his or her own tale.

The pattern of the monomyth or quest is that the hero:

  1. leaves the world he’s in.
  2. goes into a depth, a distance, or into a height, where —
  3. he comes to what was missing in his consciousness and in the world he left behind
  4. he either stays with what was missing, or he returns with it to the world he left behind.

The Quest Myth has four distinguishable aspects in literature, according to literary theorist and critic Northrop Frye: (1) the agent or conflict itself, (2) the pathos, or death; (3) the sparagmos, disappearance of the hero, and tearing to pieces of the hero (eucharist); and (4) the anagnoisis, the reappearance and recognition of the hero. Along the way, characters appear who either help or thwart the hero in his quest. Patterns occur in which there is

  1. The initiation of a trial or conflict; an older or royal woman; a departure and entry: a meeting with the Shadow archetype.
  2. The Advent of the Hero: revelation of the anima and animus; appearance of the Mother archetype
  3. Next, some preliminary adventures occur, which include older men using magic: the wise old man archetype, the Father archetype
  4. The outcome of the quest or journey peaks in a conflict between Hero and Foe, leading to death (abandonment of Child), a descent into the underworld, and then
  5. The resurrection or exaltation of the hero, and his return: archetypes of the Self, the Divine Couple

The myth of Orpheus is an excellent example of the monomyth, so I’ll re-tell it here to help you recognize the pattern if these archetypal theories are new to you.

Once upon a time, Oagrus, the King of Thrace, married Calliope, the Muse; the two had a son, whom they named Orpheus. Apollo gave Orpheus the gift of a lyre, which Orpheus learned to play from the other muses (having a mother who is a muse comes in handy). Naturally gifted at music, Orpheus became the world’s best musician. He eventually met and fell in love with a maiden named Eurydice. Sadly, soon after their marriage, Eurydice was bitten by a viper, died, and descended into Hades, the place of the dead.

Brokenhearted, Orpheus followed Eurydice to the underworld and requested permission to take his wife back to the land of the living. Hades, Lord of the Underworld, agreed under the condition that Orpheus fulfill several duties. If successful, he could take Eurydice back to the world of the living provided he did not look back until they stood in the light of day.

Ever the hero, Orpheus fulfilled every task, fought every foe, and proved himself to be an all-around hero; however, once attaining the light of the living, Orpheus turned to look back. We don’t know exactly why he looked back–maybe Eurydice called his name, maybe he wanted one last look at the underworld, maybe he was looking to see whether his wife was safe. We only know that he looked back, and lost Eurydice forever: she was bound to return to the underworld.

After returning to the land of the living alone, Orpheus resumed his throne in Thrace, where Dionysos arrived shortly afterward to extend his cult. Loyal to Apollo, Orpheus refused to honor Dionysos and publicly proclaimed his loyalty to Apollo. In a fit of rage, Dionysos had his maenades tear Orpheus into pieces and threw the head of Orpheus into the river. The head of Orpheus, singing all the way, floated out to sea. It was eventually recovered, along with his lyre. The head of Orpheus was rather ironically placed in a grotto sacred to Dionysos, and the lyre in the temple of Apollo. Evidently annoyed by the singing, Apollo silenced the head of Orpheus. The Muses took the lyre from Apollo’s temple and transformed it into a heavenly constellation.


Based on the fundamentals of monomyth typology, one can see that Orpheus represents the whole individual, representing the essential elements of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. Orpheus left the predictable world in which he lived and descended into the underworld. In symbolic terms, he was willing to go downward, underneath, into the unconscious, and confront the entire psyche without being overwhelmed by the psyche or by his own daring. Richard Hughes defines heroism beautifully as, “the unblinking meeting of one’s whole self and the capacity to be aware of, expressive of, and transformed by that meeting” (112).

In psychological terms, one might say that the hero explores the outer landscape, liberating something from the prison of the unknown; the artist explores the inner landscape and brings back images of what he has found there. Orpheus represents separation, descent, discovery, and return; the combination of his actions and his music make him a heroic artist.

Somewhere in the last day or so I read someone’s blog, and the author commented about going down Alice’s rabbit-hole. I like the imagery Lewis Carroll gave us in Alice in Wonderland, because the act of Alice going down the rabbit hole is very much a picture of the individual’s quest. One must go down the rabbit-hole and perceive that one is completely alone, perhaps even isolated from God or whatever one holds holy. The person has to be able to stand alone in order to be whole, just as God stands alone (I AM THAT I AM). When we go down into that lonely place and return alone but changed, we are like the heroic Orpheus. This is a metaphor for living whole.


Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Bollingen Series 17. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.

Hughes, Richard E. The Lively Image: Four Myths in Literature. New York: Little, Brown, and Co., 1975.

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5 responses to “I Need a Hero”

  1. Eve Avatar

    RG… I doubt anything could make you look like a silly babbler! Well… except calling yourself one! ;o)

    I often refer to the quest in mundane life, or will here, so I thought I try to condense the theory into something that would work here. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Understanding the monomyth has really helped me while I watch movies or read.

  2. renaissanceguy Avatar

    Great, Eve. A truly remarkable post. It makes me look like a silly babbler. Keep up the good work.

  3. Lee's River Avatar

    Wow. Any day, Eve! (yeah – ain’t blogging somethin’ else?)

  4. Eve Avatar

    Lee… Lee, Lee, Lee! May I come to visit you in France? Seriously, I think you may be my long-lost sister.

    You wrote “Siberian shamans.” You wrote “patterns of dislocation.”

    I thank God for blogging, because I get to meet people like you!

  5. Lee's River Avatar

    Wow. Gorgeous post, Eve.For some reason, I’m particularly taken by the hero’s quest motif in the tales of Siberian shamans – and how closely some of the details relate to patterns of dislocation I’ve observed in people suffering from schizophrenia. The Jungian archetype, if you will.
    And Joseph Campbell never ceases to nourish. Thank you very much.

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