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Heroes and Jungians

Author(s): Mark Levon Byrne

Source: The San Francisco Jung Institute Library Journal, Vol. 18, No. 3 (Winter 2000), pp. 1337
Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. on behalf of The C.G. Jung Institute of San Francisco
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Heroes and Jungians

By Mark Levon Byrne
The hero has played a seminal role in the history of
Jungian psychology, as elsewhere in Western culture. In this
paper I will explore the importance of the hero in both of
these contexts, paying particular attention to his relationship
to masculinity and death. Taking as my starting point the
importance of the attempt to overcome death in hero myths,
I will argue that this has led, in European cultures, to heroics
constituting a one-sided initiation into manhood, when they
are not balanced by the experience of symbolic death; that
Jungians have sometimes perpetuated and sometimes subverted this pattern of masculinity characteristic of the West;
and that current attempts by feminists and mens movement
writers to kill off the hero as an aggressive, immature and
anachronistic figure are misguided (and unlikely to succeed)
unless they deal with the importance of symbolic death in
the making of men.
At this point an explanation is called for. Why talk only
about the hero in relation to men? Surely, if the hero has
archetypal resonances, he will be of relevance to women
as well. And what about female heroes in myth and history
(Semele, Boedicea, Joan of Arc, Florence Nightingale), and
the heroic struggles of feminists to right the wrongs of a
patriarchal culture that has drawn mythological strength from
tales of derring-do and brute force by generations of male
heroes, from Hercules to Rambo? Certainly, this is all true,
and a number of women writers, Jungians among them, have
taken it upon themselves both to reinterpret myth and history
to focus more on female figures they consider to be heroes,

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and to rewrite hero myths in order to make them more appropriate to womens psychology and spirituality. (For a summary, see William Doty, Myths of Masculinity, New York, Crossroad, 1993, pp. 198200.)
But here, I begin with the fact that most heroes of myth
and history have been male. Instead of dismissing this as a
patriarchal conspiracy, an exploration of the masculinity of
the traditional hero reveals much that is of interest about
European or Western cultures, and especially about their
mythologizing of masculinity. This foregrounding of the
heros masculinity is in contrast to most of the Jungian writers
to be discussed, who tend to press the hero into service in
their models of psychological development without giving
adequate consideration to whether he represents an appropriate role model or archetypal image for females.
From Achilles of the Trojan War to Schwarzkopf of the
Gulf War, the West has long worshipped figures who embody
the heroic impulse to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield,
as Tennyson put it. While other cultures tell myths of godmen whose journeys and exploits helped to fashion the world
we know today, nowhere have they achieved the same
prominence or longevity as in Greece and the West. As
Mircea Eliade argues,
Figures comparable to the Greek heroes are also found
in other religions. But it is only in Greece that the religious structure of the hero received so perfect an expression; it is only in Greece that the heroes enjoyed a
considerable religious prestige, nourished imagination
and reflection, and inspired literary and artistic creativity. (History of Religious Ideas, vol. 1. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1985, p. 289)

There are, of course, figures in the literatures of other traditions (like Rama of the Ramayana, or Monkey of Journey
to the West) who embark on long quests or have adventurefilled lives. Nevertheless, Eliades point is valid for European
mythologies more broadly. Nowhere else does literature
saga, epic, tragedy, the novel, and biographyrevolve to the
same extent around the figure of an individual, usually male
and often of godlike proportions, who is on a quest of some
kind. This figure became so paradigmatic that since the late

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seventeenth century English dictionaries have given as a

major definition of hero, the most important male person in
a story, play, poem, etc. Europe exported its heroism along
with beads and syphilis, so that one finds heroic literature
in other languages, and even indigenous peoples have come
to see their own lives in terms of heroic struggles against
oppression (e.g., James Miller. Koori: A Will to Win: The
Heroic Resistance, Survival and Triumph of Black Australia.
New York and Sydney, Angus & Roberton, 1985). Parallels
and influences there may be in other cultures, but the hero
remains a quintessentially Western mythic figure.
However, at the end of the twentieth century, weary of
war and demagoguery, ashamed of the Wests rape of
nature, suspicious even of chivalry, our culture appears to
be turning against the hero. Heroic is now often a derogatory epithet, meaning grandiose, belligerent, impractical.
The hero of the will . . . has been disappearing from drama
and fiction, and political history, too announces James
Hillman hopefully. (The Great Mother, Her Son, Her Hero
& the Puer, in Patricia Berry, ed. Fathers & Mothers. Dallas,
Spring Publications, 1990, p. 191) Some feminists and mens
movement writers attack the hero as an overgrown bully,
even a rapist and warmonger. (See, for instance, Robin
Morgan, The Demon Lover: On the Sexuality of Terrorism,
Chapter 2, New York, W. W. Norton, 1989; or Allan Chinen,
Beyond the Hero: Classic Stories of Men in Search of Soul,
New York, Tarcher/Putnam, 1993, p. 8.) The hero and his
baggage have become burdens that many would shed.
Australian academic and writer Andrew Reimer returns from
a trip to his Central European homeland, where grandiose
heroic myths do much to pollute the cultural environment,
complaining of the heroic commemoration of robbers, bandits and murderers in bronze, stone and paint. (Robert
Drewe, The Kelly Myth Refined, Review of Our Sunshine,
The Sydney Morning Herald, Nov. 23, 1991.)
Perhaps we are witnessing the end-time of a heroic
culture, and can look and work towards the rise of more
democratic, less aggressive and nongendered metamyths. If
this is true, the demise of the hero would be an event of
profound mythological significance, well worthy of eulogizing.
However, the evidence is equivocal. After all, Thomas
Carlyle noted back in 1841 that in these days Hero-worship

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. . . professes to have gone out, and finally ceased. (Sartor

Resartus. London, Dent, 1908, p. 249) In spite of the disdain
of intellectuals, Hollywood continues to churn out action
heroes for worldwide consumption, and in sport and political
life, too, the quest goes on for heroes who will endure longer
than Andy Warhols fifteen minutes of fame. That the hero
appears to be unwilling to roll over and die suggests that he
represents an important part of our cultural heritage, whether
we like it or not. Moreover, the death of the hero is often his
apotheosis and the making of his cult, so in proclaiming his
death we may be paying him the highest honor.
If we accept that the hero is a figure of particular relevance to the West, then the obvious question is, why?
Before answering this question, though, another begs: what
is, or makes, a hero? The English word hero comes from the
Greek heros, defender or protector, and possibly from the
Proto-Indo-European root *ser-, to protect. In Hesiod the
hero is a demigod, the offspring of a god and a mortal
woman, emphasizing his role as a transitional figure between
the time of the gods and that of mortals, and as a mediator
between the divine and human realms. In Homer the divine
element is largely irrelevant, and the hero is a man of
strength or courage or one who was especially venerated for
his wisdom . . . [or] the prince of an illustrious family like
Odysseus or Menelaus. (F. Guirand. Greek Mythology, in
New Larousse Encyclopaedia of Mythology. London, Paul
Hamlyn, 1968, p. 93) Homer thus began a process of demythologizing that continues to this day, when the hero is most
often regarded as an exemplary human being with few, if
any, divine attributes.
The question of what constitutes a hero is especially
problematic when we consider the patterns scholars have
discerned among hero narratives. Johann von Hahn, Otto
Rank and Lord Raglan could all be accused of selecting only
those myths and legends which fit their preconceived patterns. In spite of this problem, as well as internal inconsistencies and differences in the patterns isolated by these
three scholars (and to a lesser extent folklorist Vladimir
Propp and Joseph Campbell), folklorist Alan Dundes is able
to conclude that an empirically demonstrable hero biography pattern for (Indo) European (and Semitic) heroes exists.
(The Hero Pattern and the Life of Jesus, in Robert Segal,

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ed. In Quest of the Hero. Princeton, Princeton University

Press, 1990, p. 187)
In short, the pattern applies most strongly to Greek and
other Indo-European mythologies, then to Semitic heroes,
and less often outside these cultural milieus. The themes
most prevalent include the following: a prophecy that the
hero will cause the death of his father, abandonment or
attempted murder at birth, raising by peasants or animals,
a journey to a far-off land, battle with a monster, return to
the heros homeland, marriage to a princess and crowning
as king, sometimes after usurping the father. Obviously
many of these themes do not apply to numerous modern
heroes, but the pattern remains in our mythic and historical
background; and as Dundes shows, they can often be applied with remarkable success in the cases even of historical
figures whose biographies have become heroized, such as
What does our penchant for heroes tell us about Western culture? One way of answering this question is to explore
the historical origins of hero myths. Three possible sources
stand out. First, Walter Burkert (in Heracles and the Master
of Animals, Structure and History in Greek Mythology and
Ritual, Chapter 3. Berkeley, University of California Press,
1979) sees Heracles (Hercules) as a descendant of the
Paleolithic animal guardian, the mythic figure who mediates
relations between hunters and animals, providing game
when the hunters have performed the appropriate rituals, but
withholding them when taboos have been broken. According
to Burkert, the guardian of animals in prehistoric hunting
cultures became in ancient Greece a monster the hero must
vanquish in the interests of civilization. The hero assimilates
the power of the slain animal-monster by eating or wearing
part of it, thereby becoming godlike himself (Heracles is
invincible wearing the pelt of the Nemean lion), while the
animal as god recedes into the background.
The oldest extant hero myth, the Babylonian Epic of
Gilgamesh, represents a likely midpoint of this transition.
The king-hero Gilgamesh is physically similar to his adversary-cum-friend Enkidu, who has attributes of an animal
guardian. But the hero-king is slightly taller, and eventually
beats his opponent in a wrestling match. Moreover, when
one of them must die for having twice insulted Ishtar, it is

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not surprisingly the animal-like Enkidu who is sacrificed so

the hero of the city can live.
Most other European heroes also have animal attributes, associations or accoutrements. However, European
heroes are also, and perhaps predominantly, warriors: men
for whom a moment of glory before succumbing in battle is
far preferable to a long but uneventful life at home. In The
Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image (London, Viking
Arkana/Penguin, 1991), Anne Baring and Jules Cashford
argue that hero myths arose in response to technological
changesespecially the domestication of horses and the
invention of the chariot and metallic weaponswhich contributed to the evolution of large-scale warfare in the Near
East in the third millennium BCE: the new myth of the Iron
Age is that of the solar hero god who confronts and kills the
devouring dragon of darkness and chaos. (p. 174)
But the association of the hero with warfare may go back
even further, to the semi-nomadic herding culture of the
Proto-Indo-Europeans, who are said to have moved south
and west from the steppes of Central Asia between the fifth
and first millennia BCE. In Georges Dumezils now widely
accepted theory of the tripartite structure of Indo-European
societies and mythologies (the first and highest stratum or
function being that of the sacred, the second warfare, and
the third and lowest fertility), hero myths are associated
primarily with the second function. Warrior heroes like
Cuchuliann, Siegfried, and Achilles are the mythic equivalents of bands like the Celtic fiana and the Germanic
Mannerbunde. These are groups of young warriors led by
a chief or king . . . distinct from the other strata of society
(i.e., the priests and cultivators) who existed as wild men
for a time between youth and manhood proper. (C. Scott
Littleton. The New Comparative Mythology: An Anthropological Assessment of the Theories of Georges Dumezil. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1980, p. 146) Such brotherhoods or male secret societies are found elsewhere, but
in Europe they were institutionalized, eventually forming the
basis of standing armies. The hero becomes the ideal of
manhood by defending the society against its enemies, to the
extent that a god of the second, warrior function like Odin
(Thor in Scandinavia) becomes the supreme deity, reflecting
the warlike nature of most European cultures.

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A third theory about the origins of the hero is worth

noting. Philip Slater (The Glory of Hera: Greek Mythology
and the Greek Family. Boston, Beacon Press, 1981) argues
that the dominance of hero myths in ancient Greece may be
the product of narcissistic mother-son relationships. Large
age differences between husbands and wives contributed to
strongly Oedipal mother-son bonds, which (in the absence
of strong father-son relationships) sons attempted to break
out of by rejecting their mothers. Dundes sees a similar
pattern existing throughout the Mediterranean world today,
while Slater sees this pattern extending even to modern
middle-class America (and by extension to elsewhere in the
West). According to this theory, the hero is he who must
initiate himself into manhood because there is not enough
father to help him in this process, and the closer mum is,
the more aggressive must be the separation from her.
There are, of course, numerous types of heroes.
Hillman lists the messianic hero, culture hero, suffering
martyr, trickster for starters (The Great Mother; Her Son,
Her Hero, & the Puer, p. 203, n. 2). To this list might be
added the wanderer and the conqueror, not to mention the
antiheroes common in modern literature and film (Dustin
Hoffmans character in The Accidental Hero is a good example). William Doty goes so far as to use a typology that
contains over thirty items or types. (Myths of Masculinity.
New York, Crossroad, 1993, p. 196)
Given this variety, as well as the numerous cultures that
feature hero myths, no single theory could possibly explain
their origins and hegemony in European mythologies. Here
I want to follow one line of inquiry: the relationship of hero
myths to male rites of passage. For instance, Joseph
Campbell describes his monomyth in The Hero with a
Thousand Faces (London, Abacus/Sphere Books, 1975) as
a magnification of the formula [represented] in the rites
of passage: separationinitiationreturn. A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region
of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes
back from this mysterious adventure with the power to
bestow boons on his fellow man. (p. 31)

Campbells universal hero is thus a mythic equivalent of the

novice in a traditional rite of passage; his departure, adven-

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tures and return representing the novices separation, liminal

experience, and reincorporation into society, respectively.
Although there are serious problems with Campbells
monomyth, there are well-documented links between hero
myths and legends and male rites of passage in a range of
cultures. (See especially Eliade, Birth & Rebirth: The Religious Meanings of Initiation in Human Culture, Chapters 4
and 5. London, Harvill Press, 1958.) However, they differ in
important ways from other, non-heroic rites of passage. In
most traditional cultures a boy must undergo an experience
of symbolic death and rebirth in order to become a man.
Heroic feats of strength, courage and endurance are often
involved, but seldom without coming close to death, whether
symbolic or literal, at the hands of male elders, assisted by
ancestors, animal spirits or gods. Death here involves
being confined to a dark cave, hut or tunnel; scarring, circumcision, or whipping; being told to kill a wild animal or
take a head; being killed by the great father; being
covered in ashes or forced to sleep in a burial ground; and
so on. In this way the boy dies to childhood, breaks his bonds
with the mother (with whom, in these cultures, he may have
spent most of his life to date) and is born into the world of
adultsand especially of men.
Beginning perhaps with the Proto-Indo-Europeans,
however, Western cultures developed rites and related
myths in which the experience of surrendering to symbolic
death is less important in the making of men than the attempt
to overcome death. For instance, the triple trial which
numerous European heroes must pass in order to win the
treasure hard to attain (one trial relating to the sacred,
another to warfare, and the third to fertility) consists in each
case of testsfor instance, of virtue, courage, and intelligenceto be passed, rather than experiences to be surrendered to, suffered, or endured. The Indo-European triple
trialthe ancestor of many European hero myths, including
those of Odysseus, Jason, Bellerophon, Cuchulainn and
othersis a test of manhood that is passed more by the
overcoming of death than by surrender to it.
For instance, in contrasting myths about Greek heroes
such as Bellerophon, Perseus and Jason, who conquer devouring monsters, with other mythic figures like Attis and

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Adonis, who are devoured by them, Jean-Joseph Goux

recognizes that Greek heroic myths emphasize the active
aspect [of conquest], and tend to suppress or confine to a
lower level the phase of devouring by a monster, or else to
consider it as a stage from which the hero escapes . . .
(Oedipus, Philosopher. Stanford, Stanford University Press,
1993, p. 47)
This pattern is reflected in the modern Wests continued
worship of heroicsone becomes a man largely by beating
other men, whether in war or sport, academia or business,
and in the competition for the most desirable partners and
real estateand in our obsession with the conquest of
death: the mountain climber who conquers dumb nature; the
medical scientist fighting AIDS or cancer; the fireman who
rescues children from a burning house.
This heroic mythology is implicit in such modern commentators as the Freudian Ernest Becker, who sees heroics
as a necessary, even ennobling defense against the omnipresent threat of death. (The Denial of Death. New York,
Free Press, 1973) It is reflected, too, in Jungs first major
work, Wandlungen und Symbole der Libido (Transformations
and Symbols of the Libido, 1911-12; revised by Jung in 1950
and published in English in 1956 as Symbols of Transformation, Volume 5 of the Collected Works [Princeton, Princeton
University Press, 1956]), in which he made the hero the
tutelary figure of the quest for psychological maturitywhile
also, as we will see, subverting this pattern.
Sonu Shamdasani calls the case on which Transformations was based the great Ur-case of Jungian psychology.
(A Woman Called Frank, Spring, Vol. 50, 1990, p. 30) Its
significance has been recognized of late by the reprinting of
Beatrice Hinkles original 1916 translation (Psychology of the
Unconscious. Princeton, Princeton University Press/
Bollingen Series 20, 1992), as well as extended studies by
John Kerr (A Most Dangerous Method: The Story of Freud,
Jung and Sabina Spielrein. New York, Vintage Books/Random House, 1994); Richard Noll (The Jung Cult: Origins of
a Charismatic Movement. Princeton, Princeton University
Press, 1994); Edward Edinger (Transformations of Libido: A

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Seminar on C. G. Jungs Symbols of Transformation. Los

Angeles, C. G. Jung Bookstore, 1994); and Shamdasani
himself (op. cit.).
Transformations is ostensibly the psychoanalytic interpretation of a series of four hypnagogic fantasies recorded
by Miss Frank Miller, a young American woman who traveled
and studied in Europe in the 1890s. Jung argued that Miller
was heading for psychosis because she was unable to
separate from her parental imagos. In reality, he used the
Miller fantasies as a springboard for an exploration of his own
psycheas he reportedly later admitted to Barbara Hannah:
. . . it took him a few years to see that the book . . . could
be taken as himself, as a picture of his own psychic condition. (Jung: His Life and Work: A Biographical Memoir. New
York, G. P. Putnams Sons, 1976, p. 110) He reportedly
admitted in his 1925 seminars that in Miss Miller I was
analyzing my own fantasy function, which because so repressed, like hers was semi-morbid. (Notes on the Seminar
in Analytical Psychology, Zurich, 1925, quoted in
Shamdasani, p. 28)
However, Jungs goal in Transformations was much
larger than the psychoanalysis of an individual psyche,
whether his own or Millers. He used the Miller fantasies as
the springboard for lengthy explorations of myths, other
narratives and iconography related above all to sun heroes
and their battles with dragons, sea monsters and the like.
Postulating the existence of two streams of libido, one regressive and one progressive, he took such hero-monster
battles to symbolize the struggle between these two aspects
of the libido. One of the prime examples of this struggle he
referred to was the iconography of Mithraism, the centerpiece of which was a tauroctony: Mithrass slaying of a bull.
(Symbols of Transformation, p. 302) This and other hero
myths and images he interpreted as evidence of an ancient
need to sacrifice one aspect of the libido in order to liberate
another. Jung proposed that events such as the Mithraic
tauroctony have been passed down through the millennia, as
evidence of the cultural as well as individual need to sacrifice
the regressive libido symbolized by the bull. Millers problem,
according to his diagnosis, was that she was unwilling to
sacrifice her regressive libido (which manifested in her fan-

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tasies in heroic idealizations of the father imago in particular)

and thereby move into the adult world.
The idea that the sine qua non of psychic development
is the heroic struggle to free oneself from the parental imagoes (or archetypes, as Jung would later refer to them) was
picked up by Jungs classical successors, especially Esther
Harding, Erich Neumann, Marie-Louise von Franz, and Joseph Henderson. In Psychic Energy: Its Source and its
Transformation (Princeton, Princeton University Press/
Bollingen Series 10, 1973), Harding even invented her own
creation myth in support of this theory. Not surprisingly, it
involved a hero-dragon encounter, with the latter representing lust, avarice, anger, power, egotism, the desire for ecstasy . . . all those personifications of the nonpersonal
forces in the depths of the human psyche that nourish and
aid or devour and destroy mans feeble and naked consciousness. (p. 239) In her creation myth, the hero is he who
overcomes the dragons threatening humans as they struggle
to build civilization out of the wilderness. The psychological
significance of this primeval battle is to enlarge the sphere
of mans conscious control over the slothful aspect of his
unconscious. (p. 259)
Neumanns hero myth was much more sophisticated,
since he related it to the entire history of humanity. Following
the dictum ontogeny follows phylogeny, he explains that
individual ego consciousness has to pass through the same
archetypal stages which determined the evolution of consciousness in the life of humanity. (The Origins and History
of Consciousness. London, Routledge and Kegan Paul,
1954, p. xvi) But he actually reversed the equation, making
the evolution of human consciousness through history follow
his idea of how individual consciousness develops.
Here the hero equals the nascent ego as it struggles to
defend and assert itself:
. . . the mythological stages in the evolution of consciousness begin with the stage when the ego is contained in the unconscious, and lead up to a situation in
which the ego not only becomes aware of its own
position and defends it heroically, but also becomes

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capable of broadening and relativizing its experiences

through the changes effected by its own activity. (Ibid.,
p. 5)

Neumanns work has been well critiqued by Fordham,

Geigerich, Hillman and Samuels. (Andrew Samuels. Jung
and the Post-Jungians. London, Routledge, 1985, pp. 7079)
Here I would only point out his fealty to Jungs hero myth in
Transformations, with the associations hero-ego-consciousness-civilization and uroboros-unconscious-mother-chaos,
and his conception of psychological development as a
struggle between these two realms through what he calls the
uroboric, matriarchal and patriarchal phases of development,
whereafter the heroic ego is capable of breaking away from
the despotic rule of the unconscious. ( Ibid., p. 73, summarizing Neumann)
Eschewing both the invention of idiosyncratic creation
myths and grand theories of the evolution of consciousness,
von Franzs contribution to the classical Jungian hero myth
was to expound on the psychology of the puer aeternus or
eternal youth as a failed hero. In Puer Aeternus (Boston,
Sigo Press, 1981), she uses the story of The Little Prince
to psychoanalyze its author, Antoine de Saint-Exupry, as a
puer type who flew high (he was a pilot in World War II) and
died young (lost over the Mediterranean in 1944) because,
essentially, he had not been able to separate from his
mother. According to von Franz, the whole situation is contained in the drawing from childhood with which SaintExupry begins the book, in which an elephant is swallowed
inside a boa constrictor. The boa she saw as symbolic of the
regressive aspect of the unconscious and a pull toward
death. The boa is the monster of the night-sea journey, but
here, in contrast to most other mythological parallels, the
swallowed hero does not come out of it again. (Ibid., p. 14)
Likewise, when the little prince of the novels title asks
a snake in the desert to kill him so he can go back to his
own planet (rather than accepting life on earth, with its
obligations and divided loyalties), von Franz saw this as
evidence of Saint-Exuprys own death-wish, which he acted
out shortly after finishing The Little Prince, presumably by
crashing into the Mediterranean.
While not as widely known as Harding, Neumann or von

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Franz, Joseph Henderson made a lasting contribution to the

Jungian mythologizing of the hero through his contribution
to Man and his Symbols, the book conceived as an attempt
to popularize Jungs ideas. (His ideas were further elaborated in Thresholds of Initiation [Middletown, CT, Wesleyan
University Press, 1979/1967].) In arguing that ancient
mythemes continue to manifest in the modern Western
psyche, Henderson conflated hero and trickster motifs in
what seems to me too simplistic a way. His correspondences
were based on what he saw as a definite progression from
the most primitive to the most sophisticated concept of the
hero (p. 103) in the Winnebago hero cycles published by
Paul Radin. In Hendersons hands this became the basis for
a heroic model of psychological development. Here he followed Jung himself, who, in his essay in Radins book The
Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology (New York,
Shocken Books, 1956), argued on the basis of a perceived
evolution of consciousness in the Winnebago trickster cycle
that the trickster represents a primitive, preheroic form of
consciousness. However, the arrangement of tales in
Radins book, which indicated to him that the Winnebago
were defintely wrestling with the complex problem of individuation (Ibid., p. 318), is not common. Radin admits that
this arrangement is not common either to trickster tales
among the Winnebago or elsewhere in North America. (Ibid.,
p. 125) In any case, the phenomenology of the trickster is
far too variegated and complex to be reducible to the role
of proto-hero. (See Robert Pelton, The Trickster in West
Africa [Berkeley, University of California Press, 1980], and
my unpublished Ph.D. thesis, A Dance in Death: The Hero
and Male Initiation in Jungian Mythology, Sydney, University
of Sydney, 1996, pp. 20315.) Thus, Hendersons central
thesis, that the image of the hero evolves in a manner that
reflects each stage of the evolution of the human personality
(Ancient Myths and Modern Man, p. 103) and that the same
pattern occurs both in the historic myths and in the herodreams of contemporary man (Ibid., p. 107), cannot be
Nevertheless, Henderson makes an interesting and
psychologically important distinction between the hero who
strives for success, and the novice for initiation who is

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called upon to give up willful ambition and all desire and to

submit to the ordeal. (Ibid., p. 124) In other words, when the
hero of the will dies, then a truer initiation can begin. One
must have a strongheroicego before letting go of it, but
for the process of individuation, the letting go is as important
as the having of ego strength.
These four authors have been immensely influential
within the Jungian world, and their model of male psychological developmentwhich begins with the immature figures of the puer and trickster, and is followed by the egooriented hero, who is eventually himself sacrificed to allow
more mature archetypal figures to emerge, especially the
anima and eventually the Selfcontinues to be referred to,
even taken as received truth. There is no denying its compelling simplicity, and any man who has had difficulty in
growing up will see himself reflected in a most unflattering
light in von Franzs book in particular. That is, there is no
doubt that being a herofighting for survival, making a mark
in the world, defending oneself and othersis an important
part of becoming a man, and that males who cannot do this
(whether because they are mother- or father-dominated)
remain in some way stunted, lost, frustrated.
However, each of these authors treats the hero-monster
encounter as paradigmatic for long periods of the lives of
both males and females, whereas the myths and other
narratives they rely on for support relate primarily to the
passage from boyhood to manhood. But in terms of the logic
of male initiation outlined earlier, even in these terms it is
inadequate, as it emphasizes the attempt to overcome death
(represented by the dragon-mother-unconscious) at the
expense of the experience of symbolic death. In the classical
Jungian model, this other pole of male initiation enters only
in the midlife crisis, when the heroic ego is sacrificed to allow
contact to be re-established with the maternal unconscious.
There is another theme in Transformations which comes
close to contradicting the heroic one, thereby opening up a
rather different picture of male psychological development.
In part two Jung speaks of the Aztec hero Chiwantopel (killed
by a snake in Millers final fantasy) as an infantile figure who

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must be sacrificed, symbolizing the authors giving up the

connections with the mother, relinquishing all the ties and
limitations which the psyche has taken over from childhood
into adult life. (Symbols of Transformation, pp. 303304) I
therefore take it as a wise counsel, he announces in the final
chapter, which the unconscious gives our author, to let her
hero die, for he was really not much more than the personification of a regressive and infantile reverie. (Ibid., p. 414)
This after Jung had earlier warned the reader of the dangers
posed by Millers apparent failure to heroically conquer her
incestuous longings. Kerr argues that Jungs apparent turnaround leaves Miss Miller in the lurch; one cannot decide
whether she faces . . . psychosis or a new ethical insight.
(Beyond the Pleasure Principle and Back Again: Freud,
Jung and Sabina Spielrein, in Paul E. Stepansky, ed. Freud:
Appraisals and Reappraisals. Contributions to Freud Studies, Vol. 3. Hillsdale, New Jersey, The Analytic Press, 1988,
p. 46)
There are other passages in the book which point to an
ambivalence on Jungs part toward the hero. For instance,
in the first chapter he notes that All of us carry, in a hidden
recess of our heart, a deadly wish towards the hero. (Psychology of the Unconscious [translation by Beatrice Hinkle
of Wandlungen und Symbole der Libido]. London, Dodd,
Mead, 1916, p. 20) More importantly, he also acknowledges
that the heroic mode of separating from the mother never
really works in any case, as the longing for this lost world
continues . . . for whoever sunders himself from the mother
longs to get back to the mother. (Symbols of Transformation, p. 236) The hero surfaces occasionally in his later
works, too, and always respect is mixed with caution. As
Samuels et al put it, when discussing the hero motif, Jung
was at pains to point out dangers (A Critical Dictionary of
Jungian Analysis. London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986,
p. 66), especially identification with the archetype and projections of it onto powerful public figures such as Jung himself. Anyone who has read Memories, Dreams, Reflections
will also be aware of the appearance of hero figures in Jungs
own dreams and fantasies just after Transformations was
published (and around the time of his break with Freud),
especially in his dream of killing the Germanic hero

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Siegfried, which he interpreted as meaning that . . . my

heroic idealism had to be abandoned, for there are higher
things than the egos will, and to these one must bow. (Ibid.,
p. 181)
This alternative view has fuelled Hillmans largely negative reaction to the hero. His attacks on the hero began with
Suicide and the Soul (Dallas, Spring Publications, 1976/
1964), in which he proclaimed that The enemy of death is
the hero standing for light and air and sky, a Sun God, the
principle of consciousness. (p. 119) His main critique of the
classical Jungian position came with The Great Mother, Her
Son, Her Hero, and the Puer, in which he cursed the hero
as the son of the great mother while lauding the puer
aeternus as the spirit of youth in search of its senex complement. The other reference worthy of note is in The Dream
and the Underworld (New York, Harper and Row, 1979)
where he attacked the idea of a heroic ego and argued that
modern psychology is heroic in its defense against death and
the soul.
One might easily dismiss the hero against whom Hillman
has battled for so long as a foil for the promulgation of his
own views; or as a reaction formation of his own heroic
energy in breaking away from Jungian orthodoxy and setting
up his own schooljust as Jung himself had invoked the
hero in his first major work at the time of his separation from
Freud. In a like manner the classical Jungians invoked the
hero as the tutelary figure of psychological development at
the same time as they took on the mammoth task of turning
Jungs often spontaneous insights and turgid writings into a
coherent psychological system.
However, Hillmans critique of the classical Jungian
hero myth is not so easily dismissed. It has in fact been
instrumental in shifting the focus for the making of men away
from separation from the mother and towards the puer-senex
tandem, a theme picked up (and largely concretized in family
dynamics) by mens movement writers such as Robert Bly.
There are several dimensions to Hillmans critique, including his attack on the idea of a heroic ego and his attempt
to implicate the hero in the (to him) psychological crime of
developmentalism. Here I must confine myself to the aspect
of his critique that bears directly on our theme of the heros

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role as an initiatory figure. This is his reaction (noted above)

to the classical Jungian idea of the hero as the archetypal
figure personifying the urge and the means to separate from
the parental archetypes, while the puer remains a parasite
on the mother, as Jung put it. (Symbols of Transformation,
p. 259) Hillman virtually reverses the equation, seeing the
hero as struggling to break free of the mother because he
is bound so close to her, while the puer is an image of
masculine spirituality seeking union with the archetype of the
father or senex. As he puts it,
contrary to the classical analytical view, we would suggest that the son who succumbs and the hero who
overcomes both take their definition through the relationship with the magna mater, whereas the puer takes
its definition from the senex-puer polarity. The young
dominant of rising consciousness that rules the style of
the ego personality can be determined by the puer (and
senex) or by the son and hero (and Goddess). (The
Great Mother, p. 167)

This shift of emphasis has been crucial in recognizing the

puer as a legitimate presence throughout life, rather than an
age-specific presence to be jettisoned upon turning twentyone. Nevertheless, Hillman overstates his case. For instance, in order to distinguish between the puer and sonlover, anything pathological that might be associated with the
puer (his weakness, passivity, fluidity, and gradual dissolution) (Ibid., pp. 17879) he hives off to the hapless son-lover,
so that the puer can retain his special relationship with the
However, the characteristics that supposedly separate
puer and son-lover (or anti-hero) are purely conceptual, not
based on any substantial mythological or clinical distinctions.
Indeed, the puer figures Hillman refers to are mostly the
same ones that others refer to as son-lovers, dying gods, or
heroes, including Jesus, Dionysus, Attis and Adonis. (See,
for example, Senex and Puer, in Puer Papers, Dallas,
Spring Publications, 1979, p. 31.) The puer has too little
senex, the son-lover or anti-hero has too much mother. It
amounts to the same thing: When the father is absent, we
fall more readily into the arms of the mother. (Ibid., p. 173)
So we neednt be too precious about the puer; he can be
the son either of the father or the mother. Likewise the hero,

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who is related to the senex when he helps to separate from

the mother, and to the mother when heroics become a
compulsive mode of being.
Similarly, in order to distinguish the hero-mother and
puer-senex polarities, Hillman groups the former under the
rubric of matter, and the latter spirit. Whatever the advantages of such distinctions on the level of abstract archetypes,
this is to see spirit as a masculine preserve, and the making
of men a (Gnostic) matter of helping spirit to free itself from
the bounds of the material world. As he puts it, the primary
knot of spirit and matter is personified in the clinging embrace
of erotic conjunction of mother and son. (Great Mother, p.
168) Cultural habits aside, there is no good reason why spirit
should be regarded as masculine, and matter feminine: a
dualism that turns men away from the world of body, home,
and earth just as surely as it robs women of the right to a
spiritual life. (Here I am committing what some would see as
the sin of confusing archetypes with gender, but if our notions
of the masculine and the feminine do not derive from
living, breathing males and females, where do they come
Hillmans anti-heroic animus blinds him to the subtleties
of this archetype. What of the qualities of strength, courage,
perseverance and selflessness associated with the heroes
of antiquity and modernity alike: are they all to be damned
as manifestations of a mother complex? Even in his beloved
Greece we see a panoply of heroic types, from Odyssean
wiliness to Orphean lyricism and Dionysian ecstasy. As I
have already argued, the image of the hero as a deathdefying warrior well reflects a certain trend in the history of
Western civilization. But to reduce an archetype to a psychopathology does not help us to understand why the hero
continues to exert such a powerful hold on our individual and
cultural psyches. As Hillman himself says (of the classical
Jungians largely negative view of the puer), To declare a
complex negative is to freeze it in hell. What can it do; where
can it go? (Ibid., p. 167)
Apart from emphasizing the puer-senex union and attacking the death-denying nature of the heroic ego, in his

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oeuvre Hillman has made a number of moves away from the

classical Jungian hero myth. They include the argument that
as the foundation myth of modern psychology, the myth of
the conquering hero is now outdated and should give way
to that of Eros and Psyche and erotic identity within psychic
relatedness. (The Myth of Analysis: Three Essays in Analytical Psychology. New York, Harper and Row, 1978, p. 60)
In addition, Hillman introduces the idea that the via regia to
the psyche is not the heros way of struggling to overcome
but through feelings of inferiority. (Idem) He lauds the old
blind Oedipus of Sophocles Oedipus at Colonnus for his
weakness, submission and surrender to Theseus, his
puer successor. (Oedipus Revisited, in Karl Kerenyi and
James Hillman. Oedipus Variations. Dallas, Spring Publications, 1990) Hillman attempts (perhaps finally) in Kinds of
Power: A Guide to Its Intelligent Uses (New York, Currency/
Doubleday, 1995) to reach some belated truce with his
heroic daemon. He speaks there of the need to turn heroism
around, inventing new ideas about the old heroics, re-visioning what today is pathbreaking and innovative, what
today are the enemies of accomplishment. (Ibid., pp. 31
The variety of these moves, and the recurrent need to
find new ways to outwit his enemy, suggests that the hero
is as unwilling to let go of Hillman as he is to abandon the
cinemas and headlines of contemporary Western culture.
Nevertheless, most recent writers on the hero are in agreement with him: the hero is aggressive, immature, dangerous,
and must be sacrificed for males to have mature relationships with women, children and each other. (See, for example, Allan Chinen, Beyond the Hero: Classic Stories of
Men in Search of Soul, New York, G. P. Putnams Sons,
1993, p. 1.)
Apart from the question of whether we can, or even
should, attempt a mythic engineering whereby we are told
what myths and mythic figures are good and bad for us, and
the simple fact that the public is largely ignoring such intellectual disdain of the heroic ideal, I wonder whether this antiheroic stance is any more valid or efficacious than the one
it is trying to supplant. If, until recently, men were made in
the West largely by the attempt to conquer death (whether

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literally or symbolically), in this post-feminist age we are in

danger of rejecting this model in favor of a caring, sharing
and smooth passage into manhood in which the confrontation with death plays little part.
The classical Jungian solution to the one-sidedness of
traditional Western masculinity is to have recourse to the
theory of two halves of life that Jung first expounded in
Transformations. He invoked the analogy of the course of the
sun to explain this theory: like the sun, the libido also wills
its own descent, its own involution. During the first half of life
it strives for growth; during the second half, softly at first and
then ever more perceptibly, it points toward an altered goal.
(Symbols of Transformation, p. 438) The first half is to be
devoted to the heroic tasks associated with making ones
way in the world; then, at midlife, a metanoia, a mental
transformation, not infrequently occurs (Ibid., p. xxvi) and
one is forced to sacrifice the heroic ego in order to establish
a relationship between the ego and the unconscious. (Ibid.,
p. 301) This was, of course, Jungs own experience at the
time of writing Transformations, and during his confrontation
with the unconscious that followed its publication in 1911
12 and his subsequent severing of relations with Freud.
In terms of the logic of male initiation, the mythologizing
of Jungs experience (by Neumann in particular) might eventually produce whole men, as heroics in the first half of life
are balanced by an experience of symbolic death in midlife
and a subsequent feminizing of consciousness. However, it
does this at the expense of a midlife crisis that can be
extremely destructive to both the man-hero and those around
him, while legitimizing the existence of a generation of boymen between adolescence and midlife, whose initiation is
incomplete because they have not yet undergone an experience of symbolic death. (This is apart from the fact that, as
Bly recognized, many men today grow up in largely feminized
environments. Thus, completing the process of becoming a
man means not sacrificing the hero to find the anima but the
reverse, liberating a source of archetypal masculinity
whether it be termed animus, hero, warrior or whatever
from feminine attachment.)
As well as separating the two poles of male initiation into
two halves of life, in Transformations Jung hints at another
way of making men when he talks about the identity of the

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hero and his enemy. For instance, he interprets the slaying

of the bull by the gods Zagreus and Mithras as a selfsacrifice, as the bull is identical with the god. (Ibid., p. 427)
This is a painful process, as the hero-god is torn in two
directions and feels the death of part of himself:
His inner participation in the sacrificial act is perfectly
expressed in the anguished and ecstatic countenance
of the bull-slaying Mithras. He slays it willingly and unwillingly at once . . . The conflict tells us that the hero
is both the sacrificer and the sacrificed. (Ibid., pp. 427

Heroics are often a defense against such experiences of

symbolic death; but if the tension of oppositesbetween the
desire to go forward and to regresscan be held, then a
transformation of consciousness might take place. As Jung
put it, every psychological extreme secretly contains its own
opposite or stands in some sort of intimate and essential
relation to it. Indeed, it is from this tension that it derives its
peculiar dynamism. (Ibid., p. 375) It is often when a forward
movement is made that a backward longing is also felt. The
hero constellates the dragon and vice versa, and it is only
by experiencing both sides of the equation, letting the tension between them work on ones psyche and produce its
own solution, that the matter resolves itself. As he wrote in
The Transcendent Function, first drafted in 1916, the confrontation of the two positions generates a tension charged
with energy and creates a living, third thing. (The Structure
and Dynamics of the Psyche: Collected Works, Vol. 8.
Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1969, p. 90)
Jungs concept of the self would later provide a more
formalized context or container for resolving such tensions
of opposites, as he explains in a passage added to Symbols
of Transformation:
The cross, or whatever other heavy burden the hero
carries, is himself, or rather the self, his wholeness,
which is both God and animalnot merely the empirical
man, but the totality of his being, which is rooted in his
animal nature and reaches out beyond the merely human toward the divine. His wholeness implies a tremendous tension of opposites paradoxically at one with
themselves, as in the cross, their most perfect symbol.
(p. 303)

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To fight and yet be devoured by the monster is the cross the

hero must bear, only after which (following the alchemical
dictum that what is to be united must first be separated)
do symbols of wholeness, unity, the self, and the coniunctio
oppositorum or union of opposites such as the cross and the
heiros gamos or sacred marriage make psychological sense.
This is not a matter merely of deciding to give up something:
to be made whole, one must first be torn apart.
The presence of two attitudes to the hero in Transformations is one reason why Kerr branded it totally unreadable . . . a catastrophe. (A Most Dangerous Method, p. 328)
Similarly, and in spite of the largely favorable reviews that
greeted the book on its original release (Sonu Shamdasani,
personal communication), Richard Noll called it unintelligible (The Jung Cult, p. 110), and Peter Homans a record
of Jungs own fantasies, not an interpretation of the myths
and symbols of the past. (Jung in Context: Modernity and
the Making of a Psychology. Chicago, University of Chicago
Press, 1979, p. 66) However, it can also be read as an
attempt to articulate a psychotherapy in which holding the
tension of opposites is thought to be a potentially creative
and healing (if difficult and often painful) process. At the time
of writing Transformations Jung was being torn apart by his
own conflicts, which he saw reflected in both hero myths and
the Miller fantasies. I am suggesting that the process that
Jung was engaged in, which he would later articulate more
clearly in the concepts of the transcendent function and the
self, is analogous to the ritual context in traditional rites of
passage. There, the novice feels the pull of childhood versus
manhood, or life versus death, which his prior learning and
experience cannot have prepared him for, and he is forced
to respond from depths of his being he did not know existed.
The attainment of manhood is thus less the learning of roles
or overcoming of obstacles than it is a healing crisis, a
catharsis without which manhood is mere play-acting.
It is for this reason that current attempts to kill off the
hero are inadequate, for they would grow boys into men
without pain and aggression. It is as if, having recognized the
shortcomings of a largely heroic initiation into manhood, we
have decided to jettison even this way of making men.
Perhaps this is only natural when the alternative requires

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strong male guidance for the processan effective male

womb wherein a boy can die and a man be bornand we
live in a time when the fatherwhether personal, social or
spiritualis largely absent. According to Hillman, absence
is essential to fathering, since the fathers absence sets the
son on a quest to discover his own capacity for fathering
(Oedipus Revisited, pp. 11618); but it is equally true that
(to paraphrase Hillman) when the father is absent, we fall
more readily into heroism. Indeed, while in more traditional
cultures male initiation rites bring youths under the thumb of
the male elders, ours is a culture which has constantly
reinvigorated itself through the opposition of father and
sonin myth, as the son, cast out at a young age as a threat,
returns to usurp his fathers place at the end of his quest;
and in life, through (often Oedipal) rivalries that make sons
determined to do or be better than their dads.
Rather than slaying the hero, we might work towards
providing a more effective context (a male womb in the
language of rites of passage; a container in that of psychotherapy) within which boys can undergo experiences of symbolic death. This would not only valorize their apparently
anti-social and destructive behavior during adolescence, but
also lessen the need for heroic expressions of independence
of the mother in particular. David Tacey suggests that much
risk-taking behavior among adolescent males represents a
largely unconscious recognition of the need to undergo an
experience of death and rebirth; but in the absence of effective, shared cultural myths and rituals relating to such
rites of passage, they are left to do it themselves, individually
or in peer groupsoften with tragically literal results. (The
Rites and Wrongs of Passage: Drugs, Gangs, Suicides,
Gurus, Psychotherapy in Australia, Vol. 1, no. 4, Aug. 1995,
pp. 512) Neither of us are in favor of synthetic, neo-primitive
rites of passage; rather, I would agree with Hillman and Bly
that the presence of appropriate male guidance provides the
best context or container for holding a tension of opposites
in adolescence or thereafter. However, to separate from the
mother (and the father) one must first have bonded effectively; so much therapy begins with creating a safe, nourishing maternal womb before we can venture into a second,
male womb for rebirth.

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The wound and the eye are one and the same, writes
Hillman. ( Re-Visioning Psychology. New York,
HarperCollins, 1992, p. 107) If the hero has become so
central to the mythology of the West as to be archetypal for
this culture at least, then rather than laud him uncritically or
dump him for his excesses, we might ask whether his hegemony reflects a particular wound in our cultural psyche.
This wound would relate to the rupturing of the archetypal
father-son or senex-puer relationship, in a culture which
values change above tradition, aggression over passivity,
and youth over wisdom.
The healing of our heroic wound would require the
evolution of a male womb strong enough to hold the experience of symbolic death, so that heroics become part of
the process of initiation, not the whole of it. The emergence
of mens groups is one step in this direction. However, there
will always be a legitimate place for heroics: especially in
adolescence, to provide the ego strength to help separate
from the mother and father; but appropriate, too, in any
situation in which qualities like courage, defiance, perseverance, and sacrifice are called for.
Perhaps we can speak of two kinds of heroes. The first
is immature, driven by the need to assert his individual needs
and desires in the world. It is often only after we have experienced some basic ego gratification (at whatever age) and
are able to sacrifice it that another kind of hero emerges; one
who is willing and able to sacrifice himself for the greater
good. This selflessness is what we admire in contemporary
leaders like Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama: people who
have, not coincidentally, often been through a death and
rebirth experiencea defeat for the heroic egoby being
exiled or imprisoned, and who have come out the other side
not bitter or triumphant but humbled and strengthened. It is
the contrast between these two kinds of heroes that causes
Robert Segal to criticize Campbells heroic monomyth in The
Hero with a Thousand Faces: A Jungian hero would return
home humbled rather than elevated, wary rather than brash,
the saved rather than the saviour. (Introduction to In Quest
of the Hero, p. xxi)
What distinguishes these two kinds of heroes is their
attitude to death: the former defends against it, while the
latter has in some way surrendered to it and is more alive
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as a consequence. So while the cultivation of a more effective male womb is one factor that would help the West move
beyond (rather than simply reject) its hero complex, another
salve for this wound might be a re-visioning of our attitudes
to death. We need to explore modes of relating to death other
than as a curse to be propitiated by medicines and prayers.
Thanks to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and others, this, too, is
gradually happening.
But our dependence upon the hero may also be a result
of the death of God. When God seems to be, if not dead
then at least otiosis, absent from a world that has lately given
us Hiroshima and Auschwitz, Rwanda and Kosovo, then
perhaps the hero carries upon his shoulders the burden of
our longing for a connection to the divine, to a world and a
life greater than our own. No surprise, then, that we worship
the starsthe celestial divinitiesof television, pop/rock
music, sport, and especially cinema, who exist larger than
life in our imaginations as well as in the dark of the silver
screen. No wonder they disappoint us, for people elevated
to the status of a demigod on the basis of physical prowess,
beauty or (occasionally) acting ability rarely provide us with
the wisdom and moral leadership we expect of gods. No
wonder, too, that in spite of the disdain of intellectuals and
the rapidity with which we discover they have feet of clay,
we keep throwing up new heroes for popular consumption.
If we cannot invent gods any more than we can kill off
heroes, where does this leave us? Look closer and we find
that the hero connects us with death even through his attempts to transcend it. As Hillman reminds us, in ancient
Greece he was a chthonic figure, known only in his tumulus
or burial mound. (The Dream and the Underworld, p. 110;
see also Burkert, Greek Religion, London, Basil Blackwell,
1985, pp. 20308.) Longing, aching to transcend the human
condition, he reminds us powerfully of our mortality, our ties
to this earth, to this life and this place. Through our memoria
to fallen heroes in stone, bronze and celluloid, we give to
death names, faces, dates, costumes, habits and haunts.
Through their sufferings we can see Kali and Frau Holle,
Hades and Baba Juga and the other death-dealers behind
the macho masks worn by the Rambos and Schwarzkopfs
of this world. Through them we may be torn apartand remembered.
Mark Levon Byrnes Death and the Hero: Masculinity and Mythology

in Jungian Psychology will be published in the Sydney Studies in Religion

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