Notes Psychology

The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Part II, Chapter 3: The Transformations of the Hero)

Part Two: The Cosmogonic Cycle


Chapter 3: Transformations of the Hero

1. The Primordial Hero and the Human

This chapter is about how the cosmogonic cycle is carried out by mortal heroes rather than gods and stories about children, who are predestined to become the heroes of their culture and the founders of new cities. These heroes experience an unusually speedy development from childhood into adulthood.

One story is of Shen Nung, who was eight feet seven inches tall. He had a human body but the head of a bull. He was miraculously conceived through the intervention of a dragon. His mother was ashamed of what she had given birth to, so he placed her infant on a mountainside where wild beasts protected and fed it. When she found out, the mother quickly returned her child home. Shen Nung learned about dozens of plants in a single day, and invented a pharmacopoeia that is still in use. He also invented the plough and the idea of bartering. And when he was 168 years old, he joined the immortals.

There are many stories that recall a time when a superhuman figure intervened to bring about the foundations of civilization. But when later in this cycle, mere mortals carried on the work. This point of the cosmogonic cycle yields “an emperor in human form who shall stand for all generations to come as the model of man the king.”

2. Childhood of the Human Hero

Many myths don’t portray the hero as a regular man who managed to break free from the limitations of his group, but rather, they present the hero as a someone endowed with extraordinary powers rom a very young age. The hero’s life seems to be a series of marvels, with the “great central adventure at its culmination.”

Herohood is then, predestined, rather than achieved. And this creates two viewpoints by which to view the hero. The first is to see the hero as someone to emulate, since he was self-made. Jesus, can be seen someone who was able, through meditation and a particular lifestyle, to gain wisdom. The second view states that the hero is “rather a symbol to be contemplated than an example to be literally followed.” In that sense, we should meditate on the divinity that is present within us all. Instead of the lesson being “Do thus and be good,” it is “Know this and be God.”

Campbell tells us that the extent to which the hero is able to affect society depends on the amount of time the hero spends in obscurity. He recalls two stories to illustrate this point. The first is about Charlemagne (742-814), who was persecuted by his elder brothers when he was a child. He took off to Saracen Spain. And there he took the name of “Mainet,” and served the king. He converted the king’s daughter to Christianity and he secretly planned to marry her. Later, Charlemagne, now a royal youth went back to France and overthrew those who persecuted him. He became the new king and ruled a hundred years, surrounded by twelve of his peers. He had long hair and white beard, and one day when he helped a snake, it returned the favor.

“The reptile bestowed on him a charm that involved him in a love affair with a woman already dead. This amulet fell into a well at Aix: that is why Aix became the emperor’s favorite residence. After his long wars against the Saracens, Saxons, Slavs, and Northmen, the ageless emperor died; but he sleeps only, to awake in the hour of his country’s need. During the later Middle Ages, he once arose from the dead to participate in a crusade.”

The second woman tells of an absurd story of a woman who gave birth to a water jar. The jar was called “Water Jar Boy” because only after talking to him for a long time, his family found out he was a boy. This motif is about how the child of destiny must face a long period of obscurity. This is when he finds himself in disgrace or in grave danger. He is either thrown inward into his own depths, or outward into the unknown. In both cases, he will touch an unexplored darkness.

Here, he will interact with helpful and evil forces. The myths acknowledge that an extraordinary capacity is needed to survive such experiences, at a young age.

“The infancies abound in anecdotes of precocious strength, cleverness, and wisdom. Herakles strangled a serpent sent against his cradle by the goddess Hera. Maui of Polynesia snared and slowed the sun—to give his mother time to cook her meals. Abraham, as we have seen, arrived at the knowledge of the One God. Jesus confounded the wise men. The baby Buddha had been left one day beneath the shade of a tree; his nurses suddenly noted that the shadow had not moved all afternoon and that the child was sitting fixed in a yogic trance.”

3. The Hero as Warrior

The mythological hero is the champion of change, he is the enemy of the status quo. The hero emerges from obscurity, but his enemy is in power. Often, the enemy is a proud tyrant, and that will be his undoing. He takes the form of the clown, as he mistakes shadow for substance. His destiny is to be tricked. The hero, who appears from the darkness, comes with the knowledge that will bring the end of the tyrant.

“Blood Clot Boy” or Kutoyus, was a child who grew to manhood in one day. He killed the murderous son-in-law of his foster parents, and then fought the ogres in his countryside. He executed a tribe of cruel bears, except for one that pleaded for her life since she was pregnant. If he hadn’t done this, the world would have no bears. He then killed a tribe of snakes, and again left one alive for the same reason. He then embarked on a dangerous road, and then a windstorm struck him and carried him the mouth of a great fish. When he got there, he saw a lot of people, both dead and alive. He told them, “Ah, there must be a heart somewhere here. We will have a dance.”

Next he painted his face, and stuck a white rock knife to his head, and danced up and down in joy. While dancing, the knife on his head struck the heart. He then cut the heart down, and then he cut the ribs of the fish, and let everyone out. Another time, Blood Clot said he had to travel. But people warned him about a woman who kept challenging people to wrestle with her. He went on anyway. As he embarked on his journey, he saw a woman who called him to come over. But he refused. She kept repeating her request, until on the fourth time, he finally agreed, but he told her to wait for a little longer because he was tired. As he rested, he saw many knives sticking up from the ground that were hidden by straw. He figured out how the woman killed so many people. The woman asked him to stand where he had seen the knives, but he refused. He insisted they first play before he begins. And as they played, he caught hold of the woman quickly and threw her on the knives and cut her in two.

Blood Clot traveled again, but this time, he reached a camp where he saw some old women. The old omen told hi that he would eventually see a woman with a swing if he continued down his path, but that he should be careful to not ride with her. He finally reached the place the old women were talking about. He saw a swing on the bank of a swift stream. And a woman was swinging on it. He watched her for a while and saw that she killed people by getting them to swing then dropping them on the water. Knowing what she was up to, he went up to the woman and said,

‘You have a swing here; let me see you swing,’ he said. ‘No,’ said the woman, ‘I want to see you swing.’ ‘Well,’ said Blood Clot, ‘but you must swing first.’ ‘Well,’ said the woman, ‘now I shall swing. Watch me. Then I shall see you do it.’ So the woman swung out over the stream. As she did this, he saw how it worked. Then he said to the woman, ‘You swing again while I am getting ready’; but as the woman swung out this time, he cut the vine and let her drop into the water. This happened on Cut Bank Creek.’

4. The Hero as Lover

The hegemony wrested from the enemy, the freedom won from the malice of the monster, the life energy released from the toils of the tyrant Holdfast—is symbolized as a woman. She is the maiden of the innumerable dragon slayings, the bride abducted from the jealous father, the virgin rescued from the unholy lover.

She is the “other portion” of the hero himself—for “each is both”: if his stature is that of world monarch she is the world, and if he is a warrior she is fame. She is the image of his destiny which he is to release from the prison of enveloping circumstance. But where he is ignorant of his destiny, or deluded by false considerations, no effort on his part will overcome the obstacles.

Cuchulainn’s story demonstrates this. He was a young man who made other, older men insecure, because they feared that their wives would want to be with him. So they decided to encourage him to find a maiden.

He knew of one and went to her. Emer lifted up her lovely face and recognized Cuchulainn, and she said: “May you be safe from every harm!” When Emer’s father (Forgal the Willy) knew that Cuchulainn had spoken to his daughter, he presented him with a series of impossible tasks including defeating dangerous enemies and getting a warrior-woman Scathach, and then force her to give him instruction in her “arts of supernatural valor.”

Cuchulainn went forth on his adventure and after winning his first series of battles and going through various obstacles on the road – as well as receiving help in the form of a wheel and an apple from a young girl who helped him make it through a sticky ground that was difficult to pass. Cuchulainn finally made it to the warrior woman’s home, where he found her daughter imprisoned.

The daughter revealed to Cuchulainn what he must do to get her mother to reveal to him the secrets that he wanted. She told him to place his sword between her breasts when she was giving instructions to her children beneath a tree, and demand what he wanted. He managed to get what he wanted; marriage to her daughter with paying a bride-fee, sex with her, and knowledge of his future. He stayed there for a while and eventually returned. Forgal the Willy still refused to give his daughter to Cuchulainn but the latter took her anyway.

“The most eloquent and deep-driving of the traits in this colorful adventure of Cuchulainn is that of the unique, invisible path, which was opened to the hero with the rolling of the wheel and the apple. This is to be read as symbolic and instructive of the miracle of destiny. To a man not led astray from himself by sentiments stemming from the surfaces of what he sees, but courageously responding to the dynamics of his own nature—to a man who is, as Nietzsche phrases it, “a wheel rolling of itself”— difficulties melt and the unpredictable highway opens as he goes.”

5. The Hero as Emperor and Tyrant

The supreme hero succeeds in manifesting, through a deeper wisdom, his teachings on society through representation. There are two patterns that appear. The symbol of the first is the virtuous sword, of the second, the scepter of dominion, or the book of the law. The characteristic adventure of the first is the winning of the bride— the bride is life. The adventure of the second is the going to the father—the father is the invisible unknown.

A story is told of a boy who asks to see his father. But his mother didn’t want him to go. Regardless, the boy insisted. The next morning, he left to the the spring Waiyu powidi, Horse mesa point. He was coming close to that spring, he saw somebody walking a little way from the spring. He went up to him. It was a man.

He asked the boy, ‘Where are you going?’—’I am going to see my father,’ he said. ‘Who is your father?’ said the man. ‘Well, my father is living in this spring.’— ‘You will never find your father.’—’Well, I want to go into the spring, he is living inside it.’—’Who is your father?’ said the man again. ‘Well, I think you are my father,’ said the boy. ‘How do you know I am your father?’ said the man. ‘Well, I know you are my father.’ Then the man just looked at him, to scare him. The boy kept saying, ‘You are my father.’ Pretty soon the man said, ‘Yes, I am your father. I came out of that spring to meet you,’ and he put his arm around the boy’s neck. His father was very glad his boy had come, and he took him down inside the spring.”

The hero’s goal is to discover the unknown the father, and the symbolism is that of tests. In the previous example, the test involved persistent questions and an intimidating stare. And in the earlier story of the wife that gave birth to a clam, the sons were tested with the bamboo knife. The father often takes the form of the dangerous ogre. But the hero that earns the blessing of the father returns to represent the father among men.

6. The Hero as World Redeemer

There are two scenarios that occur the hero makes when returning from the house of the father. The first involves the hero returning as emissary. And the second is when the hero gains the knowledge that “I and the father are one.”

7. The Hero as Saint

The final hero type remains: the saint or ascetic, the world renouncer.

“Endowed with a pure understanding, restraining the self with firmness, turning away from sound and other objects, and abandoning love and hatred; dwelling in solitude, eating but little, controlling the speech, body, and mind, ever engaged in meditation and concentration, and cultivating freedom from passion; forsaking conceit and power, pride and lust, wrath and possessions, tranquil in heart, and free from ego—he becomes worthy of becoming one with the imperishable.”

The pattern the hero follows here is that of going to the unmanifest rather than the manifest father. “The ultimate claim of the unseen is here intended. The ego is burnt out. Like a dead leaf in a breeze, the body continues to move about the earth, but the soul has dissolved already in the ocean of bliss.”

When Oedipus found out that the woman he married was his mother and the man he killed was his father, he plucked his eyes out and wandered over the earth in penance. Freud stipulated that we are all slaying our father and marrying our mother, but we do so unconsciously: “the roundabout symbolic ways of doing this and the rationalizations of the consequent compulsive activity constitute our individual lives and common civilization.”

Once we realize the origin of the world’s real impulses, the flesh would appear to us as an “ocean of self violation.” Pope Gregory the Great, after being born of incest and living in incest, he fled to a rock in the sea in disgust and did penance for his life.

8. The Departure of the Hero

The final act in the biography of the hero is that of the death or departure. Here, the hero is not terrified from death.

‘While sitting under the oak of Mamre, Abraham perceived a flashing of light and a smell of sweet odor, and turning around he saw Death coming toward him in great glory and beauty. And Death said unto Abraham: ‘Think not, Abraham, that this beauty is mine, or that I come thus to every man. Nay, but if any one is righteous like thee, I thus take a crown and come to him, but if he is a sinner, I come in great corruption, and out of their sins I make a crown for my head, and I shake them with great fear, so that they are dismayed.’ Abraham said to him, ‘And art thou, indeed, he that is called Death?’


He answered, and said, ‘I am the bitter name,’ but Abraham answered, ‘I will not go with thee.’ And Abraham said to Death, ‘Show us thy corruption.’ And Death revealed his corruption, showing two heads, the one had the face of a serpent, the other head was like a sword. All the servants of Abraham, looking at the fierce mien of Death, died, but Abraham prayed to the Lord, and he raised them up. As the looks of Death were not able to cause Abraham’s soul to depart from him, God removed the soul of Abraham as in a dream, and the archangel Michael took it up into heaven.


After great praise and glory had been given to the Lord by the angels who brought Abraham’s soul, and after Abraham bowed down to worship, then came the voice of God, saying thus: ‘Take My friend Abraham into Paradise, where are the tabernacles of My righteous ones and the abodes of My saints Isaac and Jacob in his bosom, where there is no trouble, nor grief, nor sighing, but peace and rejoicing and life unending.’


"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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