The Hero’s Journey – Symbols on The Path

By Harry Young


Adapted from a talk given by Harry Young at Liverpool William Quan Judge Branch, Saturday 7th September 1996, and an article published in Sunrise April/May 1999.

“Darkness alone filled the boundless all, for father, mother and son were once more one, and the son had not awakened yet for the new wheel, and his pilgrimage thereon.”

– Stanzas of Dzyan, The Secret Doctrine, 1:40

The subject of heroes and myth is something I’ve been immersed in for a good few years now, but there was something said on the radio recently which out of the blue set me off on a completely new train of thought – “So many people are adrift in the present without any sort of historical anchor”. It occurred to me that myths can act as that anchor. And it is evident that the mythological hero is the focal point that we naturally zoom in on. This may be because I think we’ve probably all dreamt of being a hero in some shape or form at one time or another, or we relate to or empathise with the hero and his exploits. It seems to me that this dream isn’t new because it spans generations. So many people today, not just children and teenagers, want to be, or be seen as heroes, admire or relate to the hero in some way. The media is also obsessed by heroes and heroic images. Possibly in the same way that many ancient cultures were, as they centred their stories and myths around heroes and their deeds. Today’s storytelling media – literature and film, television, theatre and radio among others – things that are so intrusive in our daily lives, are exciting in the way they present themselves, but do they have much to say that is really new about their fictional heroes? because they have borrowed the underlying character traits of the hero from the classics of myth and religion. Many filmmakers use the seminal work of mythologist Joseph Campbell and the symbolism of the Archetypal Hero as the main substance of their films; the Star Wars series, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Top Gun, The Matrix and many of the Disney feature animations being the most prominent examples of the last quarter century. It’s this ancient, Archetypal Hero; his genesis, his Journey, and his purpose and unspoken message that I want to explore.

Myths are essentially stories. Most of us are aware that the profoundest teachings lie within the simplest story. Indeed, the Greek word mythos originally meant simply ”word” or ”story that conceals a hidden truth”. We all like a good story, and for many reasons. They entertain, they reveal, they shock, some are good fun, some are tragic, but some stories – the myths – awaken something inside us. They awaken questions; why do they exist? what are they telling us? who exactly are these superhuman heroes with almost unlimited powers of compassion, strength, courage and wisdom?

The myths themselves tell us how Man came to learn of them. Every culture has a myth that tell us that the gods once walked with men on this Earth and awakened in us the truths behind the myths. These gods were given names such as Quetzalcoatl, Isis/Osiris, Prometheus, and Raven Father, and they took many different forms e.g. Serpents and birds. What they did during their time here on Earth was to teach Man the sciences, the arts, philosophy, agriculture, the true nature of man and the universe, and everything we needed to know to fulfil our destiny as humans. In addition to this they awakened self awareness and freewill in Man. This is referred to in myth as the gift of fire and as a result of this gift we were able to start forging our own destinies, being responsible for our own thoughts and actions.

In the Greek myth, Prometheus stole fire from the gods in Olympus and gave it to humanity. Zeus, the King of the Gods, retaliated against Prometheus by creating the first woman, Pandora. Pandora was sent into the world of men with a jar which when opened released pain and suffering on mankind, although Hope remained in the jar. What this symbolic story represents is said to be a, not the, starting point of our long human journey, although it is one of the most beautiful and important events in our experience.

There are many correlations between the Greek and Christian and Indian interpretations of this event, or chain of events. Satan the serpent, also known as Lucifer, meaning Lightbringer, descends from heaven, or the realm of spirit, into the realm of matter represented by the Earth and tempts the first woman Eve, which means “Life-Giver”, with knowledge which would make as like with God – self-conscious and able to discriminate good from evil. Looking at this symbolism, the Biblical Lucifer’s deeds mirror those of the Sanskrit Manasaputras which means Sons of Mind, another name for which is Agnishwattas which translates to “sweetened or purified by fire”. Fire is symbolic of spirit and self-consciousness as well as being the most divine of the Elements. The serpent or dragon is therefore not a tempter, but is widely accepted as a symbol of Eternity and Wisdom, and according to H.P. Blavatsky in The Secret Doctrine, is symbolic of the Initiates of the Ancient Wisdom. Mingle these powerful symbols and we have the well-known symbol of the fire-breathing dragon – spirit and self-consciousness co-existing with eternal wisdom – a symbol which we will meet later on.

To express and communicate the eternal truths the gods had awakened in the mind of man tales, or myths, were fashioned with meanings on many levels – evolution, astronomy, geology, anthropology, cosmology – which were designed to relay encoded information through the memory tool of symbol, association and even entertainment which serves as a method of attracting and sustaining interest.

Theosophy suggests that all myths exist as pre-existent archetypal forms which also appear in our dreams, which, according to H. P. Blavatsky, are the distorted reflections and memories of our activities within our spiritual nature during deep sleep. So it seems then that the search to crack the code of the mythical symbols must be an inner search. When we come to describe our dreams to others and compare our myths with those of other cultures the people or characters, places and events may differ but we share the same symbols and themes because we all have access to this inner realm of archetypal images from which our dreams and our myths are formed. What H. P. Blavatsky called “the mysterious dream foundation of our collective consciousness” – The Secret Doctrine, 2:293.

As different cultures emerged a huge variety of myths appeared. For every force in nature each culture created a different personality, and this is how the vast pantheons of gods, goddesses, heroes, and tricksters appeared. As the gods are personifications of the forces of nature this infers that as embryo gods ourselves the mythical gods are also portrayals of aspects of the human condition – our mental and psychic states, our emotions, our spiritual faculties – an idea which mirrors the Hermetic axiom “as above, so below”. To paraphrase H. P. Blavatsky from The Secret Doctrine (2:203fn) all these characters are no less than personified and anthropomorphised philosophical and occult aspects of Truth. In Fountain-Source of Occultism (p.150) G de Purucker says similarly:

“The gods of all ancient mythologies were looked upon as the powers of nature plus consciousness…the gods shown to be the divine causes of existence, the fountains of self-consciousness and enlightened will – guardians of the cosmic law and order. They were the causes of cycles of nature herself, the exemplification of order an time periods.”

The Archetypal Hero is the distilled essence of all the world’s heroes. Although his mythical Journey is symbolic and allegorical on many levels one of its primary functions is to recount the journey that we as humans must take through all the passages of human life to the limit of our evolution. Taking the work of Joseph Campbell as a model we can divide the hero’s journey into three phases – the Separation, the Initiation, and the Return: the Separation of the hero from his homeland; the Initiation, where, having entered another reality, he battles against demons and tricksters; and the Return, where, on completion of the quest, the hero returns to his homeland bearing a trophy or elixir which benefits his people. Like a Shakespearian play this format and message can be set against any backdrop, or any challenge or life-experience without compromising the key sub-plot.

This entire journey of three stages can and has been many times compressed into a short story using symbols to form the narrative. For example, the Buddha. His father was King Suddhodana and his mother was called Maya. He was born in the Lumbini Gardens in Nepal, and took the family name of Gautama. As a boy he led a comfortable life but was confined to the Royal palace as his father didn’t want to subject him to the hardship and suffering that the peasants outside in the city lived through every day. He lived amongst his Father’s subjects, but in ignorance of their sufferings and experiences. But one day the young Prince was driving from the palace when he saw sickness and death in the streets and he asked his charioteer what it was because he had never seen it before. His charioteer told him that this was suffering and that it came to all men. He knew then he had to find a way to cure the suffering. So Gautama left the palace, his father, mother, and wife and went to find the answer. After many years of trying various extreme methods of refining his character to attune to the Truth, by subduing lust, strengthening his will, conquering fear, exercising his mind, and meditating for six years, he finally sat down beneath a Bo Tree and assumed the lotus position. Mara, the Evil One, approached him with his armies and proclaimed the earth Gautama sat upon to be his own. But Gautama merely touched the ground beneath him claiming it to be his by right, and Mother Earth concurred. Mara hurled at Gautama all the forces of darkness, every temptation and every vicious attack possible on the human nature, but he resisted every attack, and Mara finally bowed down to the future Buddha. On this victory Gautama became Enlightened, having full insight into the nature of all life and suffering, while a storm raged around him but he remained still, protected by the King of Serpents. He meditated on the delights of Truth but doubted whether or nor he could communicate the Truth to others but decided eventually to return to the cities and his family to try to teach Mankind the Way to Enlightenment.

Another myth that uses different symbols to highlight other aspects of the hero’s journey is that of Herakles, or Hercules. He was half man-half god: his divine father was Zeus and his mother was the mortal Alcmene. After his birth Zeus’ wife Hera became jealous of him and sent two serpents to kill him in his crib but he killed them. Throughout his youth he had many teachers who taught him war tactics, combat, philosophy, agriculture, the Arts and Sciences, and Law. When he was a young man he contemplated his life and was soon visited by two women named Pleasure and Virtue. Pleasure offered herself to him as a life of ease but instead he chose Virtue – a life of struggle but with the promise of glory at the end of it. So with Virtue as his choice of path he set about seeking a worthy cause. Hercules married but Hera resented his happiness so she sent him mad and he killed his wife and children. On regaining his sanity Hercules asked the Oracle at Delphi how he could atone for his sins. He was told to go and serve King Eurystheus of Tiryns for twelve years and if he carried out twelve tasks successfully he would be forgiven and have a peaceful soul once more. Eurystheus gave Hercules Twelve Labours which involved immense feats of courage, strength, ingenuity and wisdom. Hercules completed all Twelve Labours, and in doing so redeemed his soul and became worthy of a place in Olympus with the gods. When the time came for Hercules to die he climbed upon his funeral pyre which was already lit and was burned alive. Soon “the thunderbolts [of Zeus] had consumed Hercules mortal part. He no longer bore any resemblance to Alcmene but, like a snake that has cast its slough, appeared in all the majesty of his divine father. A cloud received him from his companions’ sight as, amid peals of thunder, Zeus bore him up to heaven in his four-horse chariot” (The Greek Myths Vol 2, p.203, Robert Graves, Penguin, 1955). Hera and Hercules were then reconciled during a rebirth ceremony which completed Hercules reunion with his Divine Father and Mother.

Before his adventure begins the hero hears his calling. The calling is an inner impulse which drives him into the unknown. A good example of this is seen in the Greek mythology when, after his father’s kingdom is ravaged by his uncle Pelias, Jason accepts the task of seeking the Golden Fleece which will enable him to save the kingdom, succeed his father and reclaim his rightful position on the throne. This is a classic calling scenario, the hero seems always to be of royal lineage signifying his divine origin: the Egyptian Horus reclaims his rightful place on the throne of his murdered father Osiris; the murderer being Set – Osiris’ brother and Horus’ uncle; and the family relationships central to the battle in the Bhagavad-Gita also follow this symbolism. There are many more. The antagonist, the thieving blind uncle, represents the physical body and its desires that temporarily have power on this plane and challenge the aspirant to free his nature from the hold of materialism. And so the hero’s calling points to the birth of the human self to the difficult task of enhancing his higher spiritual nature, which is the kingdom of his Father, and this also awakens in him a more acute awareness of the suffering of his fellow men.

Following the calling the hero is prepared for his adventure by a mentor, usually an old man or woman of great wisdom who benefits the hero with amulets and knowledge. Only then is the hero ready to cross the barrier into the unknown adventure. In Greek myth Cheiron the Centaur King trained Achilles and Jason and many other heroes, while Ariadne gave the gift of a skein of thread which enabled Theseus to escape the labyrinth of the Minotaur – which we may know as the labyrinth if life itself. The Native North Americans speak of Spider Woman who acts as an ever-present protective influence over the Twin-Warriors of the Navajo who journey to the house of their father, the Sun. She gives them a charm of a hoop with two life-feathers from an eagle attached which preserves life and thwarts enemies. These helpers appear throughout the heroes journey and may represent the powers that lie within the human heart that can be called upon during an hour of need, and their gifts signify the amulets of pure, unselfish motive, courage, wisdom, and intuition.

Beyond the barrier the hero begins to encounter problems because it’s here that he meets the tricksters. These mythical creatures are a double-edged sword in that on one side they are the bane of humanity, always destroying and thwarting and seducing and conniving, but conversely and paradoxically they can also be great saviours and teachers.

The tricksters herald change and appear when least expected, tempting the hero into danger in order that he might put his courage, wisdom and resolve to the test, overcome the trial and move further on towards the goal with another weakness conquered.

In myth tricksters have many guises and can appear as gods, demons, monsters or giants, animals, or men. Stripped of its personified image, the trickster is the manifestation of our desires, personal demons and the trials we face each day. The tension caused by the appearance of the trickster reveals a bridge between our lower and higher selves and invites the lower nature to feel the influence of the higher, and in this way we evolve, slowly rising up the inner path towards the god within us. There’s a West African myth which illustrates an aspect of this well. It tells of the Trickster Eshu informing the High God that robbers plan to raid his yam garden. That night Eshu steals the High God’s sandals, puts them on and raids the garden himself and reports the theft the next morning saying that the thief can be identified by the footprints he has left in the muddy garden. Everyone is checked but no-one’s feet fit the prints. Eshu then suggests that maybe it was the High God himself that stole his own yams. The High God denies the accusation but of course his feet match the prints. Completely outraged, the High God then accuses Eshu of trickery and announces his own disappearance from the world to the sky, but before he disappears he orders Eshu to visit the sky each night to report on the world’s activities that day, and so Eshu became the messenger between humanity and the High God – the intermediary or bridge between the Lower and Higher selves of Man.

I think this myth is wonderful because of Eshu’s cheekiness and daring, and also because it suggests so much. For example, does the High God’s disappearance from the world reflect the gods’ withdrawal from Earthly incarnation back to the realm of Spirit once the mind of Man was awakened? Or could it also signify our sleep process? H. P. Blavatsky wrote that the lower nature is paralysed during sleep allowing the human soul to commune with the Spirit. But whatever its meaning this myth does obviously suggest, like the Norse myth of Bifrost the rainbow bridge and the Hebrew rainbow symbol, that there is exists within, an unbreakable eternal bridge or link, between men and the gods.

Defeating the trickster is imperative. The challenges it sets come from within and therefore cannot be escaped. However, the solution also comes from within and is always present as a guide which acts as a fountain of Truth from which the hero draws his strength.

After the destruction of all the tricksters that cross his path and before he reaches his ultimate goal, the hero must be reconciled with the symbolic parental figures – the Mother and the Father. The Mother figure is seen as the mythical Goddess or sometimes a Princess or Fair Maiden who, amongst other things, represents material Nature, and beckons the hero as her knower and master. She can be Good and Evil, beautiful and ugly. She comforts, nourishes and supports the hero on his journey, always offering hope and encouragement. But she is also the fruit of temptation for the hero if he has a lust and desire for earthly power or pleasures. Mother Nature in the form of the Goddess does offer help to the hero but she can only point the way to his Enlightenment of Truth. Only the Father can reveal it. Theosophically speaking the Mother and Father represent the highest two principles which comprise the human nature; Atman, the masculine summit of human perfection, pure unalloyed consciousness, and Buddhi, the feminine, transformed aspect of Atman, which when attuned to by the human brain brings to life, understanding.

So the hero must look beyond the veils of physical Nature to find the treasure. To do this he must search within himself. Hence the Oracle at Delphi’s words: “Man know thyself”, because in this inner universe lies the Truth and the hero’s spiritual essence which is so often referred to as his Father.

In myth the treasure is always guarded by a dragon or monster bigger and more powerful than the Goddess or any trickster. The dragon or serpent is very often the outer symbolic form for the Father figure from which the hero was separated at birth or during childhood. Without his spiritual experience, which is now at a premium, as is his fearlessness and wisdom, he would not be ready for the awesome moment when he comes face to face with his real spiritual self, his inner god.

More often than not the dragon or serpent which guards the treasure is a fire-breathing dragon. As we have already seen fire in myth is symbolic of spirit and self-consciousness, and the serpent or dragon isn’t an evil tempter but is a symbol of Eternity and Wisdom. All these symbols together create the well known motif of the fire-breathing dragon – Spirit and self-consciousness co-existing with Eternal Wisdom. This is a composite symbol and so some myths may not use all the motifs contained within the fire-breathing dragon symbol, but use only certain aspects. H. P. Blavatsky partly explains this symbolism in The Secret Doctrine and in so doing gives a wonderful synopsis of the hero’s quest. She says:

“…the “War in Heaven” is shown, in one of its significations, to have meant and referred to those terrible struggles in store for the candidate for adeptship, between himself and his (by magic) personified human passions, when the inner enlightened man had to either slay them or fail. In the former case he became the “Dragon-Slayer,” as having happily overcome all the temptations; and a “Son of the Serpent” and a Serpent himself, having cast off his old skin and being born in a new body, becoming a Son of Wisdom and Immortality in Eternity.”

– 2:380

Jason’s quarry, the Golden Fleece, is guarded by a dragon, the Buddha upon his Enlightenment under the Bo tree is protected by the King of Serpents, Hercules had to defeat the dragon Ladon which was coiled around the Goddess Hera’s golden apple tree in his Eleventh Labour.

It might seem as if the hero’s journey is over now that the family reunion is complete, but there’s one final stage or aspect which is probably the most important yet. Once the mythical hero is welcomed back home like the Prodigal Son to his Father’s house, he is rewarded because of his courage and endurance with a trophy of inestimable value for example, the Golden Fleece, the Hammer of the Gods, or the Sleeping Princess, which he must choose to keep for personal use or to use it to benefit others. Two Paths are then open to him which are described in Buddhist teachings as that of the Bodhisattva and Pratyeka.

These teachings say that a man, at a certain stage on the Path, makes the decision to become either a Pratyeka-Buddha or a Bodhisattva. The Pratyeka-Buddha leaves the world of men and its suffering forever when he passes over the threshold of Nirvana. The aspirant who takes the path of the Bodhisattva however, renounces Nirvana with all its joys and turns back to help humanity along the difficult path that he himself has just walked and conquered, but not only that, he continues to participate in the rapturous experience that he has discovered is the simple act of Living. There are very, very few heroes or figures in myth and religion who refuse the call to help Mankind, but there are some who exist. The overwhelming essence of the Archetypal Hero is however driven by compassion. He battles through his trials with the sole intention of helping those in need. Now it may be said that this is the end of the hero’s journey – he’s defeated the tricksters, slain the dragon and won the treasure. But this only marks the beginning of a new chapter in the hero’s journey as one of the companions of the gods as he helps them in their work to help humanity.

Each hero’s story then, from beginning to end, is a condensed version of the journey that we, as humans, must take from the beginning to the end of our evolution. So where are we now on our Hero’s Journey ? Well, it seems to me that we are in our Initiation stage where we have entered this strange land of physical forms with its tricksters and danger. We are separated, consciously at any rate, from our Divine Father and Mother – Spirit and all of Nature – while our Uncle – the physical body and its desires – has assumed control over us, although we do still receive help and guidance from our Divine parents more than we think. How then are we to proceed if we are heroes seemingly alone undergoing a perilous, but important and glorious, Journey ? Speaking for myself, I don’t have a Hydra or Cerberus at the bottom of my garden that I can go and slay when I feel like it. So how should we as heroes act ? How should we live our daily lives ?

Some of the heroes in myth and religion are more than just brave men. They are the world’s Spiritual Teachers who have undergone most if not all the trials a hero must perform, so they are well qualified to teach. So if we follow their examples and teachings will we not then be living the life that a true hero must live ? H. P. Blavatsky, in The Voice Of The Silence, sums up what the hero’s life is geared around in saying that “to live to benefit mankind is the first step. To practice the six glorious virtues is the second” (p.33). The six glorious virtues to which she refers are the Paramitas.

The Paramitas are a set of instructions which the aspirant or hero must follow if he is to tread the Path successfully. The word itself is Sanskrit and means essentially “the means by which to reach the other shore” – the other shore being the spiritual life attained after crossing the stormy ocean of human life. The crossing of an expanse of water symbolises an obstacle between the hero and the goal, and on crossing it he is purified by the water’s cleansing powers, and so by following the Paramitas which are ; Charity and Love, Harmony (in word and act), Patience, Indifference (to pleasure and pain), Dauntless Energy, Meditation, and Intuitive Wisdom, the hero initiates himself.

By looking at the way the hero adopts this way of being and achieves so much it is easy to see how just one person can make a difference. However, many have found that once a start has been made it doesn’t get any easier further along this Path. In fact life gets harder. The slightest little problem in the day’s events can become a monster to be slain. The tricksters of complacency and pride so often show themselves but a difference and progress can only be made by courage and perseverance. But if we remember the Greek myth, after Pandora poured out all of the evil and disease and despair on the earth, something remained in her jar. It was Hope. So as long as the hero keeps on trying there will always be Hope.

Of course the wonderful thing about these teachings is that they can be applied by everyone. No exclusive method of psychic training or otherwise, which would divorce us from the compassionate duty of encouraging Universal Brotherhood, is actually needed. This is because the path of the hero, the Path of Compassion, is in fact, to paraphrase an objective of the Theosophical Society, a practical and above all, safe investigation of the powers latent in man. The Paramitas, used as a guide to everyday life, may seem mundane and unglamourous on the outside, but to a child a mythical adventure is just a bedtime story. William Quan Judge had this to say on the subject:

“It is in and through the incidents of daily life, in work well done, in duties thoroughly performed, that we today can most readily make progress in the higher life…These are stepping stones to better things. We advance most rapidly when we stop to help other wayfarers. We receive most when we sacrifice most.”

– Echoes of the Orient, 1:98

The Master KH points to this in letter of consolation and advice to A. P. Sinnett:

“Does it seem to you a small thing that the past year has been spent only in your “family duties”? Nay, but what better cause for reward, what better discipline than the daily and hourly performance of duty? Believe me my “pupil”, the man or woman who is placed by Karma in the midst of small plain duties and sacrifices and loving kindnesses, will through these faithfully fulfilled rise to the larger measure of Duty, Sacrifice and Charity to all Humanity.”

– The Mahatma Letters To A.P. Sinnett, p372

With this last thought of small plain duties in mind, the mighty Hercules’ fifth Labour was to clean out King Augeias’ stables of dung! None of us should feel that we’re above any duty.

Many lives are needed for us to journey through if we are to accomplish what the mythical hero does in just one story, or one life. It would be an impossible task otherwise. So we shouldn’t feel that we have to find the meaning of life, reach perfection and save the world all in one lifetime. We will rise to the larger measure of Duty, Sacrifice and Charity to all Humanity, and although this will be done slowly, if we aspire to live the life of a true hero, it will always be upwards and forwards.

We have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the centre of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world”

– Joseph Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, p.25