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Ensouling the Hero

“The goal of life is to make your heartbeat match the beat of the universe, to match your nature with Nature.”

—Joseph Campbell

The Hero’s Journey has become a pervasive reference point for our modern culture. It contains many helpful psychic pictures that we learn to attune to and empower our own images through which we navigate our life’s path. It speaks to our departure from the known and the challenges we face on the spiraling of discovery that, when engaged with an acute spirit of synergy, forges us into seasoned journeyers that have learned to embody a skillful and enthusiastic approach to adversity and contradiction. This is immensely valuable to the individual. But even more important, it is a critical ingredient to the health of the collective which is meant to be nourished by the Hero’s Return. The problem we face today is that this final step of the Hero’s Journey, the Return, is devalued to the point where it is all but absent.

When Western culture took a shadowy turn and hunted down the wise people of the land, torturing, burning, and otherwise eradicating them, it set in motion the dissolution of the culture of elders. The culture of elders were the keepers of the paths of initiation, the ardent defenders of living in alignment with both self and others, with certainty and maturity. As the presence of initiated elders vanished, we began being raised in only a caricature of what a genuinely soulful culture could make us into. Over time this has fixated us on the self and made the collective entirely secondary at best and tertiary or irrelevant otherwise.

The Return of the Hero

Yet all is not lost. If we can learn to turn the grit beat into us from our heroic paths towards making a stand for the return of wisdom, though we who live today may not see the outcome, we can contribute to the rebirth of the Hero’s Return. The trick is that such heroic deeds may not seem very heroic in the short term, for they involve a slow reclaiming of psychic territory that has been turned into the wasteland of outcast connectivity. Those who sincerely engage in such spelunking of the shadows will know that it is only here the real hero is made. The glamour of the self-made entrepreneurial do-gooder with a Hollywood physique/charisma and that culturally relevant sparkle in their eye will be seen through as the soul-denying distraction that it is, magnetic though it may still be. The heroic image sold to us in endless self-improvement paradigms can fall away to reveal the soul path of the hero. It is the path where we learn to be defeated.

One of the most famous heroic myths is the tale of Heracles, or as he is more often called in our post-Romanized world, Hercules. The tale of Heracles is touted as the heroic journey par excellence. Taken at face value, it speaks of the rise of the warrior’s spirit to defy a spiteful Goddess, against all odds, conquer every trial and foe in sight, and in the end, rise in the ultimate glory of being transformed into a God. It seems to set down the parable path for those who would deny the oppressor and claim their right to self-rule. It does well to inspire such personal revolution, to be sure. Still, it is also only told on such a surface level as to seem to preach only a radical dismissal of all but personal salvation. As James Hillman has pointed out, it teaches that we must beat our world dream into submission and has become symbolic of what he has called the “Hercules Syndrome.” As such, it is a ready reference point for those who would ensoul the world as the clear indicator of how not to go about it.

However, below the surface of the tale of Heracles is a much more interesting set of psychic images that have been missed. Cooking in the myth via the perspective of the Mythic Mind and allowing the alchemy of time and saturation to work it over in the psyche reveals an entirely different tale than the one most everyone takes it to be.

Reclaiming the Soul of Heracles

Heracles, due to the infidelity of his father, Zeus, is despised by his stepmother Hera. Hera takes her revenge on Heracles, who is innocent (as the child), and magically causes him to kill his family in cold blood. It is common to call this occurrence the “madness of Heracles,” but it is far more accurate to call it the “madness of Hera.” Yet this does not make Hera the villain. It only points out that Heracles is not. Getting to this will take a bit more tale-telling and steeping in the mythic stew of dreaming.

It then follows that after this terrible event, Heracles sets about accomplishing the “12 labors” bestowed upon him as a redemption. They say he had to redeem the blood on his hands to set things right with the gods. Yet anyone who has experienced such a tragic loss that this tale is symbolic of, the loss of those who are closest to us, especially when due to causes out of our control (as in “divine” causes), knows that there is far more to the concept of “survivor’s guilt” than the simple term seems to imply. The path after such loss is an attempt at redemption. Not a redemption for causing the loss itself, though such thematic feelings permeate us at times, but a redemption of our sense of being worthy to still be alive. All survivors face this path of redemption, where they must reclaim their validity as one who still lives and breaths though others have fallen.

The labors of Heracles are told as encounters of a warrior overcoming various monstrous foes and malign situations. Yet this is no longer the tale of a hero conquering the world but of a man facing the impossibility of redemption in the darkness of grief that has no equal. This is a story of a man facing the depths of his sorrow and grappling with the shadows within it. Each labor can be found to hold such clues when taken in with the light of the soul. To defeat the invulnerable Nemean Lion, a perfect symbol of the grief-fueled monstrous rage that overpowers a soul in loss, Heracles learns to face it with his body, wrestling it into submission when no other weapon would help. The path of ensouling almost always begins with a deep listening into the body through which we re-learn to hear its ever-present wisdom and strength.

The many-headed Lernaean Hydra is an apt image for the endless arising of the serpentine strikes that wrack the soul-lost with a sense of futility in the struggle. When Heracles learns to ask for assistance, allying with his nephew (receiving help from a more innocent perspective), another beast, a giant crab, sets upon him to drag him into the depths from which it emerged. His victory in this wild dance of turmoil comes when Athena, or the wisdom of culture, gifts him a golden sword that can slay the immortal part of the beast and deliver him from the struggle. Athena as “culture” is a way of cultivating mind or soul, and we all sometimes need to find our golden sword, some form of guidance as to what to cultivate and what to weed out, to overcome entropic situations which otherwise perpetuate themselves.

Each of the 12 labors of Heracles can be seen in this light of the soul’s path of redemption and reveal psychic images that can bring us both victory and solace in our own labors. All of the adventures of our hero can be taken in as such. In truth, it is not so simple as saying that the story of Heracles is not about a hero but instead about a soul unfolding. It is more specifically about our learning to see the soul in every story, even the hero’s, so we begin welcoming them all home. And it needs not only to speak to those of us who have lost our specific loved ones. Our loss of the elder culture, our paths of initiation, and our connection to the thriving earth and village have been lost by all of us. These aspects of soul culture are also “loved ones” whose loss has left us to face a path of reclaiming our soul validity.

The Glory of Hera

In the end, Heracles rises to become enthroned as a god in the stars. Yet he only becomes so when he is ultimately defeated by the very poison, the Hydra’s poison, which he used to defeat numerous others. His tale is a tale of using thorns to remove other thorns until we see that the only way beyond is to allow the poison to run its course. When it does, the part of us that dies is the part that was on the hero’s journey. What remains is a divine being that is welcomed back into the celestial collective of constellations as both a unique individual and a valuable part of the harmonious whole.

They say that Heracle’s name (“Glory of Hera”) is ironic, but it is not. In the Mythic Mind, all characters in the story tell the tale of the dreamer dreaming of them. Heracles is the story of Hera, the Glory of Hera. A divine principle at odds with itself must incarnate to unfold the soul’s journey and find redemption through the path of mortality into divinity. It is the ancient tales of Psyche and Persephone as well, though each has their unique voices and dreaming. It is the tale of the absolute, as the finite, walking the labyrinth of becoming.