During the transformations stage of the cosmogonic cycle, the life of the world reaches the apex of its manifestation. Life grows, continues, and begins to dissolve. The universe is at its furthest point from the unmanifest source which birthed it, and towards the end of this stage, it begins to turn back towards the divine realm. Where the emanation of the world is first moved by the purely spiritual force of the unmanifest, and the early stages of life are governed by the gods in all their guises and the mythic creatures which come after them, in transformations, the agents of the cycle become the heroes in human form. The heroes are many, diverse and they walk different paths. They journey to renew the influx of spiritual energy into the world, and in so doing, gradually turn the cosmogonic cycle toward its destiny.
The Hero as Warrior
Campbell explains that the era of the hero “in human form” arises “only when villages and cities have expanded over the land.” But this is a world not far removed from the last vestiges of the mythological age, “many monsters remaining from primeval times still lurk in the outlying regions.” These are the dragons, giants, ogres, minotaurs and giant snakes of the past, and they must be “cleared away.” Campbell is also quick to point out that along with these monsters, “tyrants of human breed … [who] are the cause of widespread misery” must also be overcome. These are the hero-warrior’s tasks: “the elementary deeds of the hero are those of the clearing of the field.”
There is also a clear sense of the hero’s roll in supporting the advance of the cosmogonic cycle: “the sword edge of the hero-warrior flashes with the energy of the creative Source: before it fall the shells of the Outworn.” The hero-warrior symbolizes the absolute restless flowing of time itself, and the necessity of this constant progression. The “monster” the hero-warrior must face is the one who attempts to hold on, who wishes for time to stop, for the inevitable changes time creates to cease: “the dragon to be slain by him is precisely the monster of the status quo: Holdfast, the keeper of the past. … he is enemy, dragon, tyrant, because he turns his own advantage the authority of his position. He is Holdfast not because he keeps the past but because he keeps.” This keeping and holding on blocks the flow of source into the universe and must be freed up in order to allow and renew life.
The hero-warrior explicitly champions the progression of the universe, he “is the champion not of things become but of things becoming.” This hero reminds us that all things are changing, nothing can be held, and that the very life of the world relies on this. The hero-warrior slays the monsters of a past age and tyrants who hoard wealth and well-being. What is most important, however, is not that the hero overcomes a monster or a tyrant, but rather, the true “hero-deed is a continuous shattering of the crystallizations of the moment. The cycle rolls: mythology focuses on the growing-point.” The hero pushes his community to let go of the past, and even their attachment to the present, and into the future. This task is a renewal of life because “transformation, fluidity, not stubborn ponderosity, is the characteristic of the living God.”
Still, in these stories, while the point of the quest is to shatter the “crystallizations of the moment” and focus the world on becoming, the adventures of the hero-warrior tend to be externally focused and physical: the hero-warrior is the sword swinger, the knight, who slays the monster or tyrant in battle.
The Hero as Lover
This hero type is often, though not always, a kind of second stage for the hero-warrior. In this case, after defeating the enemy and releasing what he was trying to store up, “the life energy released from the toils of the tyrant Holdfast,” the hero-lover’s reward is a bride. In these stories, the woman symbolizes the “life energy” which is released when the monster/tyrant is defeated. “She is the maiden of the innumerable dragon slayings, the bride abducted from the jealous father, the virgin rescued from the unholy lover.” In joining with his new bride, the hero-lover restores the world through completion: “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.”
It is important to remember, that we are dealing here with the language of myth, and not a political statement about gender. In myth, the male principle (not person) is that of specific, directed, outward action; the female principle is the energy of life itself, creation, the transformation of energy into form. A tale like Sleeping Beauty – in which a Princess lies helpless and unconscious in a spell deep within a castle, and a valiant Prince fights through the castle’s obstacles in order to kiss her and wake her from her sleep – may seem terribly sexist when seen through the eyes of modern gender politics, where a man rescues a helpless woman, but to read it this way is to miss the story completely. It is not meant to be read as if the female reader stands in for the sleeping Princess, and a male reader for the gallant Prince: the Prince and the Princess are aspects of the same Self, regardless of gender, the reader is both. Mythologically, a story like Sleeping Beauty is about the awakening of one’s spiritual awareness into the conscious mind – the Princess as the sleeping, buried soul, the false, failing Princes as the failed triumphs and boasts of the ego, and the true, successful, hero-lover Prince as the pure intention of the conscious mind: the ego putting itself to death, thereby clearing the way for the re-emergence of the spirit into conscious, waking life. In stories of the hero-warrior where he then becomes the hero-lover, it is symbolic of reconnecting to the divine source, reconnecting to a source which is beyond either male or female, and beyond even the totality of both. As the lover, the hero regains his missing half, his “other portion”, his bride, and the two lovers become identified as one, not only with each other, but with the mystic realm (the hero’s real “other portion” – the bride’s too). The hero-lover is only presented as “incomplete” without his bride in so far as he is separated from the spiritual realm, his marriage to her is thus symbolic of his reconnection with this realm, the ultimate source of wholeness which transcends the duality of male and female.
Another popular version of the hero-lover type, are the stories in which the hero is put through many impossible tests in order to win the hand of a Princess. This does not necessarily follow the quest of a hero-warrior and often stands alone. This version does, however, mirror the hero-warrior quest. The hero-lover is presented with a list of near-impossible tasks which are “difficult beyond measure,” the purpose of which is not only to test the hero, but to represent the “absolute refusal, on the part of the parent ogre, to permit life to go its way.” Like the Holdfast monsters and tyrants of the hero-warrior, the hero-lover encounters the problem of the natural outward flow of life being blocked, and here again we find the bride as symbolic of the very energy of life which must be freed. But there is nothing to fear. Life cannot be stopped, and “when a fit candidate appears, no task in the world is beyond his skill. Unpredicted helpers, miracles of time and space, further his project; destiny itself (the maiden) lends a hand and betrays a weak spot in the paternal system. Barriers, fetters, chasms, fronts of every kind dissolve before the authoritative presence of the hero.” The hero-lover is at last united with his beloved, and their union is the microcosmic mirror of the ultimate Oneness of the spiritual source of the world. The hero-lover has much in common with Meeting the Goddess, an archetypal variant of The Hero’s Journey.
The Hero as Emperor and as Tyrant
This hero type often correlates with the Atonement with the Father variant in The Hero’s Journey. The hero-emperor tends to be virgin-born, and his quest begins as he seeks the identity of his father. Within the story, this may be the search for a physical father, but ultimately the question of who is the hero’s father “touches the problem of man and the invisible.” There is an important shift with this hero type, the hero-warrior and the hero-lover have adventures which stay very much grounded in the material world, though they are in relation with the mystic, and these adventures “merely [continue] the dynamics of the cosmogonic round.” With the entrance into the cycle of the hero-emperor, we meet our first example of “the supreme hero … he who reopens the eye – so that through all the comings and goings, delights and agonies of the world panorama, the One Presence will be seen again.” The stories of the hero-emperor are not simply “of action but of significant representation.” The hero-emperor may still encounter monsters and other heroic tasks that need to be fulfilled before he can reach his Father – a symbolic representation of the unmanifest, mystic energy which first gave rise to the world – but the ultimate meaning of the story lies in the hero-emperor’s atonement with his Father.
The two are reunited, and the hero “blessed by the father returns to represent the father among men.” Not only is the hero-emperor the Father’s “earthly reflection,” in stories with this hero-type, the hero becomes a ruler, or teacher, in his own society where “his word is law” because it is infused with the spiritual life-force of the mystic realm. The hero-emperor is “centred in the source, he makes visible the repose and harmony of the central place. He is a reflection of the World Axis from which the concentric circles spread – the World Mountain, the World Tree … To see him is to perceive the meaning of existence. From his presence boons go out; his word is the wind of life.” The hero-emperor is the just and powerful word of law in his community because he is supported by his Father, “the invisible unknown,” and reflects this power into the world.
However, as the cosmogonic round continues forward the hero-emperor’s rightful rule must pass with it. As the hero is but a mortal man, eventually his “perspective flattens to include only the human term of the equation,” and his recollection of the source is lost, “the experience of supernal powers immediately fails. The upholding idea of the community is lost. Force is all that binds it.” The hero-emperor becomes the hero-tyrant, clinging to his kingdom with force, without being centred as “the World Axis.” The emperor has become “the usurper from whom the world is now to be saved.” The saviour comes to us in the form of the next hero type.
The Hero as World Redeemer
The hero of this type is probably the most familiar. The hero-redeemers are typically positioned as the generation which succeeds the hero-tyrant, with the redeemer very often being his son. They enact very similar quests, reaching the “mansion of the father,” the spiritual source of the world (not the physical, biological father), and return to their community to renew the flow of life. There are, however, “two degrees of initiation” possible. The first degree, that of the hero-emperor/tyrant, “the son returns as emissary” of the father to rule over his corner of the world, the hero whose word is Law. The second degree, that of the hero-redeemer, returns with knowledge: “I and the father are one.” This is the higher illumination, and they are incarnations of the father “in the highest sense” and “their words carry an authority beyond anything pronounced by the heroes of the scepter and the book.” It is the work of the hero-redeemer to wrest the hero-tyrant from, as Campbell puts it, his pretensions. As the emissary of the mystic realm, the hero-tyrant is empowered by the righteousness of the divine, but is not wholly identified with it, a corner of his ego-consciousness remains in tact. Over time, it is this ego consciousness which “[occludes] the source of grace with the shadow of [the hero-tyrant’s] limited personality.” By contrast, having totally identified with the Father, the hero-redeemer is “utterly free of such ego-consciousness” and his very presence “is a direct manifestation of the law.” His mere being refutes the claim to power held by the hero-tyrant.
Just as the hero-warrior enters the stage of the world at a dark time where the dragons and ogres of myth still stalk the earth, the hero-redeemer enters during “the period of desolation as caused by a moral fault on the part of man.” But it’s important to note here that these “moral faults” are not the work of ‘evil’, whether in the world or the heart of man himself, rather, they are working of time itself. As Campbell explains, “from the standpoint of the cosmogonic cycle, a regular alternation of fair and foul is characteristic of the spectacle of time.” This transformation is inherent in life itself: “Just as in the history of the universe, so also in that of nations: emanations leads to dissolution, youth to age, birth to death … The golden age, the reign of the world emperor, alternates, in the pulse of every moment of life, with the waste land, the reign of the tyrant. The god who is the creator becomes the destroyer in the end.” The hero-tyrant has not become evil or corrupt, “the tyrant ogre is no less representative of the father than the earlier world emperor whose position he usurped, or than the brilliant hero (the son) who is to supplant him.” The tyrant and the redeemer are aspects of the same self: “[the hero-tyrant] is the representative of the set-fast, as the hero is the carrier of the changing.” It is simply our perspective in time that makes the hero-tyrant and the hero-redeemer appear at odds. But this is precisely the hero-redeemer’s lesson: “I and the father are one.” The hero-redeemer recognizes his absolute identity with the divine source of the universe, as he recognizes his absolute identity this his earthly father (even when he appears to be on the wrong side of God’s Law).
Yet, importantly, the hero-redeemer avoids his earthly sire’s fate of becoming a tyrant, for he recognizes “the hero of yesterday becomes the tyrant of tomorrow, unless he crucifies himself today” (or, if you prefer, as it’s put in The Dark Knight: “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain”). This is the way the hero-redeemer avoids the mistake of crystallizing time. But this is not a moral judgement against the tyrant, it is recognition: “the son slays the father, but the son and the father are one.” Slaying the father and self-crucifixion is the same act. And they both have the same symbolic meaning: the heroes, in death, return to the mystic, spiritual source. This is nothing more than the outward manifestation of the hero-redeemers revelation, that he is one with this source. The hero-redeemer saves the world by freeing it from his father’s tyranny, as well as his own. He is the revelation of the existence of divine presence in the world, and each individual’s absolute identity with that source.
The Hero as Saint
This is the final hero type. The cycle of heroes has moved from the outward, physical adventures of the hero-warrior and lover, to the intellectual authority of the hero-emperor and -tyrant, and then to the spiritually awakened example of the hero-redeemer. As the universe revolves from the emanation of the visible world towards its dissolution back into source, so too do the heroes evolve towards this dissolution, becoming more and more spiritually focused, less and less attached to the details of life in physical reality. The saint is yet another step towards dissolution, he is what Campbell terms “the world-renouncer.” The hero-saint does not work to overcome monsters, tyrants or attempt to win lovers. Rather, in life he aims to return to the father, to divorce himself as far as possible in life from the physical world and rejoin the mystic realm. The hero-saint is “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 hero-saint approaches the shore “from which there is no return.” He is interested only in “the ultimate claim of the unseen” in this world. He is as close to ego-less as it is possible to be in this world: “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.”
But, as Campbell points out, there are precious few stories about such heroes for “these heroes are beyond the myth.” The hero-saint has reached beyond a state-of-being which can be reached with words. “They have stepped away from the realm of forms … Once the hidden profile has been discovered, myth is the penultimate, silence the ultimate, word. The moment the spirit passes to the hidden, silence alone remains.” The cycle has progressed towards dissolution, and the earth’s heroes have come so close to the edge of the cycle they are almost invisible from the world. They are the last visible apparition of the spiritual realm supporting the world.
As the generations of heroes proceed, we see a gradual dissolution. The hero-warrior is a purely physical champion who eventually gives way to the hero-saint, the purely spiritual. So too does the world itself progress from the purely spiritual realm of the unmanifest to its physical manifestation, and then back to where it began. But the hero has something to say about the ultimate disappearance of the universe. The hero, of any type, enacts the ultimate fate of the world within the course of his own life, either in his departure or his death. Like the universe, he too must return, fully, to the unmanifest. This is only possible through death, where the hero is released from the bonds of the visible world to dissolve back into the realm of his spiritual father. Yet, this is never presented as tragic, for “the hero would be no hero if death held for him any terror.” “The first condition” of herohood, Campbell tells us, “is reconciliation with the grave.”
The purpose of the hero journey itself is to reunite the hero with the divine source of being. At the quest’s peak, he reconnects with this energy in tempered form: to experience the unmanifest without a veil would be to completely lose yourself and dissolve back into its source. The unmanifest is a sun whose full light the ego-consciousness cannot withstand. In the hero journey, the hero contacts the divine energy in mitigated form, enough to unblock its flow into the world once more, but not enough to lose himself for he must return to his community. And yet, breaking through to this connection, however tempered, is enough to foster the hero’s realization that death, as our ego-perspectives see it, does not exist. Death is simply the end of identifying with our small, self-centred, fearful, egotistic personality, and a reemergence into total identification with the unmanifest. Dissolution is not annihilation, it’s expansion. The hero’s death is where “the whole sense of the [hero’s] life is epitomized” for what he cannot fully encounter in his journey, he embraces at his death.
The hero’s death is not something that has gone wrong, it is precisely his destiny, from the moment of his birth – as it is the world’s. The unmanifest realm the hero rejoins at his death is beyond the duality of the visible world, it is not only the realm of divinity, it is where the dissolved individuals of the world become inseparable once again from that divinity. It is in this sense that the ancient Egyptians, after a loved one died, would no longer refer to them by their earthly name, but as Osiris, the god of the afterlife. Those departed literally become divinity itself. This is the true destiny of the world and all those in it, to realize and then become divine. As Campbell explains, this is the very purpose of the hero and the tales of his journey: “the tendency has always been to endow the hero with extraordinary powers from the moment of birth, or even the moment of conception. The whole hero-life is shown to have been a pageant of marvels with a great central adventure as its culmination. This accords with the view that herohood is predestined, rather than simply achieved … the hero is … a symbol to be contemplated [rather] than an example to be literally followed. The divine being is a revelation of the omnipotent Self, which dwells within us all. The contemplation of the life thus should be undertaken as a meditation on one’s own immanent divinity, not as a prelude to precise imitation, the lesson being, not “Do thus and be good,” but “Know this and be God.”” The hero’s life mirrors the life of the world: he is born, lives and expands the horizons of life, and then dissolves into divinity. The cycle of hero types moves the world along the cosmogonic round, towards its own “immanent divinity,” into the next stage of the cosmogonic cycle: Dissolutions.
Have you read The Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson? It’s a planned 10 book fantasy series. Book 3, Oathbringer just released last year. It’s hard to be specific about what I am getting at here without spoilers, but for now I will say that this is the authors love letter to high fantasy. That the series has 10 orders of a group called the Knights Radiant. Each group has 5 oaths and while the oaths are different for each one. They each share the FIRST oath. Life before death. Strength before weakness. Journey before Destination.
I’d love to know what you think of it.
Hi Ben! Thanks for stopping by 🙂 I actually haven’t read any Brandon Sanderson but have heard many great things about him. I’ll bump him up in my reading list.