The Hero with a Thousand Faces


The Hero with a Thousand FacesPrinceton: Princeton University Press, Bollingen Series, XVII, 1973

The Hero with a Thousand Faces is one of Joseph Campbell’s best books. It contains much of the other books, but when it comes to presenting the material, this book really is well-edited. The headers are comprehensive and the book in its overall makeup addresses not only scholars but also a young and always-young audience as it has a significant contact with present-day reality.

We are now once again in the midst of a Hero Cult, and Campbell has to be credited with the merit to have shown the negative sides of this patriarchy-related phenomenon and its many undesirable consequences. Contrary to the proponents of the cult of hero modeling, Campbell makes it all clear that, by following this idea, you miss your soul entirely. In the meantime, he is not the only one who is saying that. We are going to see further down in the review of Care of the Soul (1994) by Thomas Moore, that there are more authors now being alert to warn us about the dangers of hero modeling, and perfectionism, as these are symptoms of both individual and cultural narcissism.

Campbell can be said to be in contradiction with the hero cult, while this may sound like a paradox. Well, the paradox finds its solution in the simple fact that Campbell, in accordance with the oldest of traditions, defines the hero in a different manner than current popular culture. While this may not be obvious on first sight, this and my other reviews of Campbell’s books will peel this truth out for everybody to see.

The answer is probably that to be a hero in today’s hero culture, you have to abnegate self, so as to bring about private victory and eventually public victory, to use popular terms. However, it has to be seen that the creator of these terms, Stephen R. Covey, was not advocating modeling. Other leadership trainers however do. In Covey’s definition of a leader, soul has certainly a firm and well-deserved place.

A responsible leadership trainer cannot overlook the immense quantity of junk productions, especially popular video games, where the hero is depicted as an abusive type of totally masculine—and often equally totally brainless—type of persecutor, and ruthless killer. The film ‘The Terminator’ also is an indicator for this kind of redefinition of the hero. But this kind of hero is the ‘false hero’ not the true hero as the old sagas and fairy tales have featured him. Joseph Campbell steps into that old tradition and explains and describes it with all his rich and mature vocabulary, and his vivid imagination.

In this book, he takes an archetype-based approach for presenting a wealth of material from mythology and the folk lore of olden times and of all times, a lore that defines the hero as a basic novelty, a unique brew of characteristics and a specific energy that brings forth its mark upon the world, whatever stands in the way, and thereby produces and changes culture. The archetypal journey of the hero is laid out in the chapter headings, Departure (I-1), Initiation (I-2), Return (I-3), Keys (I-4), Emanations (II-1), Virgin Birth (II-2), Transformations (II-3), Dissolutions (II-4).

Campbell defines the hero as a being in transformation, and thus open for change, flexibly intelligent, and ready to leave behind the old serpent skins. But what really distinguishes the hero from the ordinary man is that he follows but his star, to paraphrase Dante, and that he models only his or her own self, yet by doing so, and here is the other paradox, sets the personal mission on the public stage and makes out of it what the Romans called res publica.

Thus, the hero is defined by the fact of overcoming not only personal limitations but also selfish orientation, having set the stage for a transpersonal outcome of his or her particular mission. To bring about transpersonal realization, not abnegation of self is needed, but affirmation of self, not ‘victory’ over selfish needs, but listening to these needs through a constant focus inside and an open ear for our inner child, the main creative energy in us.

Campbell puts the rebirth of the hero in our focus, which others call second birth and that aligns us with our spiritual family, and often alienates us from the blood family, the pedigree, the illusion of ‘home sweet home,’ and the eternal codependence within the nuclear family that smashes the child’s striving for autonomy and self-reliance by manipulating children’s emotional life in the name of ‘the child’s own best.’ Campbell writes:

The hero … is the man or woman who has been able to battle past his personal and local historical limitations to the generally valid, normally human forms. … The hero has died as a modern man; but as eternal man—perfected, unspecific, universal man—he has been reborn./19-20

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell puts a particular stress on using introversion and introspection as tools for gaining self-knowledge and strength, the unique force that animates the hero, his creative energy:

Willed introversion, in fact, is one of the classic implements of creative genius and can be employed as a deliberate device. It drives the psychic energies into depth and activates the lost continent of unconscious infantile and archetypical images./64

Campbell sees the uniqueness and the power of the hero not only in specific talents, personal strength, or a certain alignment with universal laws, but also in the release of a specific energy that, using cross-cultural insights and comparisons, he identifies as the life force that animates all sentient beings.

The human paradox is that the specific realization of spiritual energy is brought about not by abnegation of self and focus on ideals, but in the contrary through a deliberate and long-term focus on one’s own unique energy.

This energy, again paradoxically, strongest is visible not in our good deeds, but in our bad ones, which are those attributed to our shadow. It is our shadow, our inner daimon as Socrates called it, that most originally expresses the essence of our being, and it’s by dialoguing with this instance, and not by repressing it, that we realize our full spiritual nature. And saying this, I am in alignment with the writings of Hermes Trismegistos and the Eleusinian mysteries.

Campbell’s message is important for understanding what the true hero is and what the false hero is, and as a consequence to eventually see that what is thriving today in popular culture is not heroism, but false heroism. It is not by striving to be superhuman but by accepting to being only human that we become fully human.

Thus, it’s by accepting our simple yet so wonderfully colorful humanity that we realize the spiritual man and woman in us. For this to happen, we have to focus on our inner world, not on outer sense-givers. And most importantly we have to avoid those who come with instant concepts for self-realization and their endless quick fixes. The soul abhors quick fixes, and instant solutions, and it prefers the convoluted and slow liberation from our inner maze.

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