Print this page

Spiritual concepts

Heroes in story, myth and legend

Campbell Joseph in his books Masks of the God: Creative Mythology and also The hero with a Thousand faces has identified that the hero sagas not only follow a pattern, but have existed and still exist in myths going back into prehistory and up to the present day. Some examples:

-       Beowulf
-       The Knights of the Round Table
-       Star wars and the Jedi knights
-       The Alchemist [Paulo Coehlo] and his boy hero
-       Lord of the rings [Frodo and Bilbo]
-       Harry Potter
-       Parsifal [wagner opera]
-       Akira Kurosawa film heroes
-       The Matrix – film
-       Indiana Jones and the last Crusade
-       Jason and the Argonauts with the Golden Fleece
-       Homer - the odyssey and Odysseus
-       Orpheus in the underworld
-       Hercules/Heracles
-       Excalibur – film by John Boorman
-       Many Norse myths particularly concerning Odin
-       Prieddeu Annwn from the mabinogian
-       The Pilgrim in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s progress
-       Theseus – who is the Athenian equivalent to Hercules
-       Sargon of Akkad – the legend that surrounds his rise to king
-       Gilgamesh
-       Marduk
-       Perseus
-       Krishna

Hercules - The story of Hercules and his 50 labours, is similar in some respects to Pilgrim’s progress.  Heracles/Hercules is offered an easy path of vice and the difficult path of virtue and he chooses virtue.  Thus the hero myth tends to include allegories of rightful behaviour.

Gilgamesh - The Epic of Gilgamesh, by contrast, is an epic poem from Ancient Iraq and is among the earliest known works of literary writing. Scholars believe that it originated as a series of Sumerian legends and poems about the mythological hero-king Gilgamesh.  The story revolves around the relationship between Gilgamesh, who has become distracted and disheartened by his rule, and a friend, Enkidu,  who undertakes dangerous quests with Gilgamesh. This pattern of the fool/helper/hermit occurs in many legends.  In the Lord of the Rings it is Gandalf, in King Arthur it is Merlin.  Much of the epic focuses on Gilgamesh's thoughts of loss following Enkidu's death. It’s main theme is the path immortality. A large portion of the poem illustrates Gilgamesh's search for and failure to gain immortality after Enkidu's death.

Arthur and the Knights - Legends such as Arthur and the knights of the round table are hero stories.  Quest knights tackle ‘inner journeys’ overcoming or succumbing to struggles and difficulties, tests and dangers, and so on.  In performing their quests they also confront themselves.  Arthur is the ‘quest giver’.  His castle is symbolic of all castles and palaces, Avalon an island on  a lake is his resting place, the implications being that the palace holds the spiritual allies and guides and helpers in the quest, whereas Avalon is a place to die – paradise.

Marduk– The legendary story of Marduk is told in the Enûma Elish.   It tells the story of Marduk's birth, heroic deeds and of how he became  the ruler of the gods.  The story contains a huge amount of symbolism.  Marduk volunters to ‘fight’ in battle.  To prepare for battle, he makes a bow and fletches arrows [arrow symbolism], uses a mace [sceptre symbolism], throws lightning before him [lightning symbolism], fills his body with flame [flame symbolism], and makes a net to encircle Tiamat within it [net symbolism], gathers the four winds [wind symbolism]so that no part of her could escape, creates seven new winds such as the whirlwind and tornado, and raises up his mightiest weapon, the rain-flood [rain/water symbolism]. Then he sets out for battle, mounting his storm-chariot drawn by four horses with poison in their mouths. In his lips he holds a spell and in one hand he grasps a herb to counter poison.

Perseus – Perseus’s mythical challenge given him by Polydectes was to ‘bring back the head of Medusa’, one of the Gorgons, whose very expression turned people to stone. For such a heroic quest, a divine helper would be necessary, and for a long time Perseus wandered aimlessly, without hope of ever finding the Gorgons or of being able to accomplish his mission.  Then the gods Hermes, Athena, and Hades came to his rescue. Hermes gave him an  adamantine curved sword, Athena gave him a highly-polished bronze shield, and Hades gave an helmet of invisibility. They told him to go to the island of the golden apples to the west. By viewing Medusa's reflection in his polished shield, he could safely approach and cut off her head; from her neck sprang Pegasus and Chrysaor. The other two Gorgons pursued Perseus, but under his helmet of invisibility he escaped.  We see here the symbolism of the sword and shield in particular being repeated.

Observations

For iPad/iPhone users: tap letter twice to get list of items.