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The Post-Heroic Journey
An antidote to the all-conquering Hero
I’ve been writing about, lecturing on, and speaking on other people’s podcasts about, the post-heroic journey – an antidote to the overrated and now outdated Hero’s Journey – for around a decade now.1 But the various ideas I’ve been working with are scattered among a variety of books, articles, video and audio files, so I wanted to put them all together in some kind of coherent form, and to make this article, on a subject I’m very passionate about, freely available to all.
The beginning: the Hero’s Journey
The phrase ‘Hero’s Journey’ was coined by American mythologist Joseph Campbell, in his 1949 book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell suggested that the world’s most important mythological stories share a common framework: they all involve a hero (yes, a man), who happens to be a person of exceptional gifts – which may or may not be recognised by his close circle or society. He, or someone he loves, or the world in which he lives, suffers from a deficiency which is usually represented by a vivid image or symbol (in a fairy tale, for example, it might be a missing ring of power, or a bucket of water from the well at the world’s end). He must then set out on a great adventure to find the missing treasure and return with it to the world he originally left.
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Campbell’s notion of the Hero’s Journey has been profoundly influential (especially among writers of contemporary ‘blockbuster’ fiction and in Hollywood ...) and has many fine and fascinating qualities – but it has also been subject to many criticisms:
There is no question but that Campbell was intensely selective in the myths he chose to write about; one could argue, rather cynically perhaps, that he only chose to write about the myths which he believed could be squeezed into his monomythic heroic structure.
From my perspective as a qualified scholar of Celtic myth and folklore (as well as Greek) it is clear that Campbell didn’t fully understand the culture and worldview out of which these stories emerged. It’s entirely possible that the same could be said for other traditions with which I’m not so familiar. This means that he often chooses to interpret the stories in ways that are not compatible with the prevailing worldview, or that he misses the point of them in significant ways. This is the danger, of course, of comparative mythology: you never really delve deeply enough into any one culture to be sure that its ideas really do transfer across cultures. But myth springs directly from the land, and from people’s relationship with the world they inhabit – including the other-than-human world. Myth is local. To universalise it is a very risky business.
Campbell’s model has also been criticised for the assumption that trying to squeeze the world’s myths into one single, universal, monomythical narrative is a useful and valuable exercise. But really, why is it? Why would we want to do this? It’s one thing to look for archetypal characters, motifs, symbols and images that seem to recur in widely different cultures and to speculate about why this might have occurred – and whether they do in fact represent the same things across those very different cultures. It’s another thing entirely to reduce everything to a single formula, and to focus on a single archetype – the Hero – out of the many diverse archetypes that are active in these stories. I’ve written on many occasions about my frustration that we ignore other really interesting masculine archetypes for a narrow focus on and obsession with just one: the Hero.
The contemporary Western iteration of the Hero archetype is profoundly individualistic, and the journey of the Hero is consequently presented as linear (there is a means to a single end and then the story is over), all-conquering (off with the dragons’ heads ...) and world-saving. It has evolved out of the intensely individualistic, human-centric cultural mythology that still has us firmly in its grip, and that certainly defined the Western, and especially the American, culture that Campbell was a part of during the first half of the twentieth century when he was working on his monomyth. The Hero’s Journey derives from our cultural worship of the Hero defined as the exceptional individual who rises above all others.
The heroic, in traditional Western culture – take the Greek myths and the Norse sagas as examples – tends to be obsessively focused on war and killing, and to modern psychological sensibilities, borders on the actively psychopathic. Campbell glossed over a lot of that, in favour of more acceptable traits, such as altruism and a desire to make the world a better place. (But for whom? – mostly, for humans.)
The Hero is almost always possessed of traits that fall into the category of the typically masculine – rational, goal-oriented, intellectual, hierarchical – and is almost always devoid of the traits that are considered to be feminine in nature – such as emotion, empathy and intuition.
It doesn’t have anything much to do with women at all, actually. Much more of that below.
Let’s pick up on some of these issues.
The Heroine’s Journey
(Image: Ruben Ireland)
The Hero’s Journey, as I pointed out in my 2016 book If Women Rose Rooted, has little to offer women. It does not reflect the full reality of women’s lives, either inner or outer. In it, women appear either as the Temptress, there to test the Hero and try to lead him off-course, or in the guise of the Great Goddess, who represents the ‘unconditional love’ which must be won by the Hero to give him the courage to go on with his quest. Or they might function as a ‘muse’ for the poor uninspired man. In other words, at their very best, women can be no more than the destination: we represent the static, essential qualities that the active, all-conquering Hero is searching for; we’re considered only in the context of what we represent for the male Hero. In other places, Campbell declares that the function of women is ‘to bring forth life and nourishment’. Okay ... In addition, there are aspects of Campbell’s discourse around women in mythology – his casual acceptance of rape and forced marriage, for example – which can only be viewed as actively misogynistic. In her 1990 book The Heroine’s Journey, Maureen Murdock, one of his female students, reported that Campbell told her: ‘Women don’t need to make the journey. In the whole mythological journey, the woman is there. All she has to do is realize that she’s the place that people are trying to get to.’ In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in the chapter ‘The Meeting with the Goddess’, Campbell writes: ‘Woman, in the picture language of mythology, represents the totality of what can be known. The hero is the one who comes to know.’
This is utter nonsense, and I profoundly disagree. Women absolutely do need to make the journey; we do not, however, need to make the same journey which the Hero makes. Our journey is different; our stories are all our own. It’s more than time we told our own stories, outlined our journeys for ourselves. We don’t need a Hero to tell us who to be, and to define – and so inevitably confine – our role in any story, especially not our own. And so, in If Women Rose Rooted, I described what I called an ‘Eco-Heroine’s Journey’. It was, I suggested:
... a path to understanding how deeply enmeshed we are in the web of life on this planet. In many ways, it is an antidote to the swashbuckling action-adventure that is the Hero’s Journey, with its rather grandiose focus on saving the world. … This path forces us first to examine ourselves and the world we live in, to face up to all that is broken and dysfunctional in it and in our own lives. Then it calls us to change – first ourselves, and then the world around us. It leads us back to our own sense of grounded belonging to this Earth, and asks us what we have to offer to the places and communities in which we live. Finally, it requires us to step into our own power and take back our ancient, native role as its guardians and protectors. To rise up rooted, like trees.
Folklorist Maria Tatar, in her very fine 2021 book The Heroine with 1001 Faces, has this to add:
Heroines are on quests, and the goals they set include knowledge, justice, and social connection. What drives them? Nothing more than the same spirit of inquiry and care that led Eve to take a bite of the apple, Pandora to open the jar, and Bluebeard’s wife to unlock the door to the forbidden chamber.
Part of the problem we now face is that women are so often pushed into making a Hero’s Journey rather than a Heroine’s Journey, because the only ways of being in the world that the overculture appreciates and respects are male. (Again, I wrote about this at more length in If Women Rose Rooted.) This isn’t helped by the replacement of men in the role of Hero in Hollywood movies, by women in the role of Hero who act almost exactly like the men. And so, profoundly missing the point.
The time of the Hero is over
The Eco-Heroine’s Journey I proposed in If Women Rose Rooted was what I have called a ‘post-heroic journey’: a journey which recognises that the time of the Hero is over – or that it certainly needs to be, and fast. Many of the messes we seem to have got ourselves into as humans arise out of the cultural mythology which tells us that the archetype of the Hero is the most valuable and desirable of all.
The Hero, for example, personifies the pursuit of glory, always wanting more, always in the service of ‘progress’. In the face of the challenges facing us today, in which that constant pursuit of ‘more’ has brought us to our knees, and the planet to a state of crisis, I’d say that’s not a particularly great model to be going along with.
To be a Hero isn’t about being the best we can be; it’s about wanting to be better than everyone else. The most popular books and movies today are profoundly Heroic in nature: swashbuckling, swaggering, solitary protagonist – male or (increasingly) female – conquers all, or saves the world. And when common-or-garden human heroes aren’t enough for us any more, then there are always the superheroes to help us out. Vampires, of course, are the new superhero, and teenagers all over the world who long to be more special, more magical than everyone else, are falling for them like flies. Because let’s face it: everyone wants to be Harry Potter. No-one – but no-one – wants to be a Muggle. This attitude is derived from the intensely individualistic, narcissistic, human-centric cultural mythology that has us firmly in its grip.
The beauty of the post-heroic journey, in contrast, is that it is universal, inclusive, community-driven. Campbell declared, in the context of writing about the Hero’s Journey, that: ‘Not the animal world, not the plant world, not the miracle of the spheres, but man himself is now the crucial mystery.’ Again, I’m forced to profoundly disagree: in our endless self-obsession we have clearly lost sight of the real ‘crucial mystery’ – which is not man, and is not humankind – but rather an understanding of our place in the wider web of life on this beautiful and mysterious Earth. That is the goal of the post-heroic journey, whichever gender you might happen to identify with. It’s a goal on which our future, and the future of the planet, depends.
The post-heroic: stories for different times
(Image: John Bauer)
What, then, would a post-heroic myth look like? What stories would we tell if we thought that living a good and meaningful was about learning to live more deeply, more beautifully, in the world that we now have? What are the key characteristics of a post-heroic story?
Post-heroic stories aren’t focused on individual glory; they’re focused on community, and relationality. On diversity. It’s not about slaying the dragon, but about harnessing his special skills – making him part of the team. It’s about understanding, and valuing, the black, feathery, croaking wisdom of a crow. It’s about living with a half-empty stomach so you can feed some of your porridge to the hungry mice – who, if you are lucky, will help you to sort the wheat from the chaff. Post-heroic stories aren’t about winning the hand of the simpering, golden-haired princess: they’re about kissing the boar-toothed, blue-faced hag.
Post-heroic stories aren’t about always having more, but about understanding when we’ve taken enough. Like the old Irish tale of the great cow of plenty, the Glas Ghaibhleann. A great cow whose milk flow was so abundant that she could feed multitudes, and she travelled the land, giving her creamy milk to anyone who needed it, filling whatever vessel they carried, no matter how large or how small. But when a wicked person tried to take more than her share by placing a sieve under the cow – which enabled her to fill many buckets placed underneath the sieve, because of course the sieve never seemed to be full – the magical cow disappeared forever from the earth, offended by such greed.
Post-heroic stories are less about strength and more about compassion and humility. Like the rich body of old European stories about the quest for the Grail, in which the question the adventuring knight must ask in order to gain the Grail, heal the wound of the Fisher King, and so heal the Wasteland, is a simple, pointed, empathic, ‘What ails thee?’ The answer is beside the point: the post-heroic journey isn’t about finding the answers – it’s about asking the right questions. It's interesting in this context that Campbell and his followers nevertheless characterise the quest for the Grail as a Heroic quest. As a scholar of Arthurian and Grail literature, I believe that this characterisation profoundly misses the point.
Post-heroic journeys are based less on conquering the world, and more on re-enchanting our relationship with it. As I wrote in The Enchanted Life:
... to live an enchanted life is to pick up the pieces of our bruised and battered psyches, and to offer them the nourishment they long for. It is to be challenged, to be awakened, to be gripped and shaken to the core by the extraordinary which lies at the heart of the ordinary. Above all, to live an enchanted life is to fall in love with the world all over again. This is an active choice, a leap of faith which is necessary not just for our own sakes, but for the sake of the wide, wild Earth in whose being and becoming we are so profoundly and beautifully entangled.
I also believe that our journey through the second half of our lives – our journey into elderhood – is profoundly post-heroic – by design. Jung believed that, although the first half of life is more outward focused – perhaps more heroic in nature, as we focus on the needs of the ego and the development of the persona – during the second half of life, we need to turn inwards. This is a search for meaning, for wholeness, for the integration of all aspects of our psyche.
The post-heroic journey to a rich and meaningful elderhood offers us a very different kind of ‘call to adventure’. It’s a call to adventure that calls us to uncover our calling, and the unique gift that we each bring to the world at this time. Unique as we all are in reflecting the infinite variety of the universe, we consequently embody elderhood in unique and infinitely various ways. We each have our own exceptional gifts and singular vision, and now’s the time to uncover them, to fulfil a potential that’s been developing throughout our many years on this beautiful, animate earth: the ultimate revelation of who we truly are and always were meant to be.
In short, then, post-heroic stories are the stories which offer us a more enriching set of values to live by. The stories which remind us that, tucked up safe in the rambling, roundabout lines between once upon a time and happily ever after, lie all the secrets for a meaningful, sustainable life. They show us what it might be like to inhabit a world in which humans are fully enmeshed. In this world, animals always have something to teach us, trees and plants can save or cure us, and wise old men and women are waiting in the dark woods to help us. That sense of awe, of connection, of belonging to a mysterious world which has many depths and layers to explore, is missing in so much of our lives today.
What does all this mean for men?
Over the past few years, I’ve mostly written about women’s journeys, since our voices and our quests have been considerably less prominent in the overarching cultural discourse. But over the past three or four years in particular, I’ve spoken often about the importance of masculine archetypes that have been neglected in favour of the Hero. And they’re so much more interesting. Here are just a very small handful of them, which deserve to be better known and more deeply explored:
The Smith – the keeper of the fire, creative power
The Musician – Orpheus, for example, and other musicians whose ‘quest’ takes place in fairyland, or the Otherworld
The Sage – think of the wild man Myrddin, in the British tradition
The King – the one who honours the bargain with the land. The king’s justice, in the old Irish tradition, is about good judgement, and the ability to see the truth of a situation
The Trickster – the necessary disruptor of the status quo; the changemaker
I could go on ... but hopefully that will give you an idea of other ways of being in the world which are, at least to me, infinitely more interesting – and functional – than the path of the traditional Western hero.
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For example: in my 2018 book The Enchanted Life, in my 2018 TEDx talk on ‘The Mythic Imagination’, on a good number of programs and podcasts including ‘The Knitted Heart’, ‘The Mythic Masculine’, ‘Accidental Gods’ and ‘Thrutopia’, ‘in The Center Post’, a journal of the Rowe Center, and last year in this article on my website: https://hagitude.org/elderhood-the-post-heroic-journey/. The post-heroic journey was also the subject of an entire module of my 2020 ‘This Mythic Life’ online self-study program. As I did in The Enchanted Life, I should give credit to Geoff Mead for introducing me, in 2012, to Allan B Chinen’s work on post-heroic archetypes in his book Beyond the Hero.