The Ecphorizer

The Final Hero Myth
Polly Pitkin Ryan

Issue #57 (May 1986)


Carl Gustav Jung, a student of Freud, developed his own independent lines of enquiry into the role of myths in the life cycles of whole civilizations, as well as individuals. Myths, it appears, are not just bedtime stories for the kids. They are an integral part of human nature, symbols that influence the choices we make, the way we conduct our lives, the way we accept [quoteright'/>or reject the actions of our leaders. In our time there are no epic poets to preserve the myths of our culture, but that doesn't mean we don't have them. The occasional novel, comic strip, or movie that triggers a landslide of devotees does so because some free-floating emotions were focused and made visible, understandable, embodied in a myth. New energy was released and directed. Cowboy movies were once securely grounded in American mythology, as Star Wars stories are now.

Similar myths recur in different societies, and go through the same metamorphoses in different cultures, in parallel with the growing awareness in those cultures of strengths and pitfalls encountered as its members cope with the tasks of life. According to Jung, the history of various different civilizations shows four recognizably similar stages in their myth of The Hero, a figure who embodies the personal qualities which that civilization perceives as the most powerful, most admired, most desirable.

The earliest stage is the Trickster, a figure whose physical appetites dominate his behavior. At the outset he assumes the form of an animal and moves from one mischievous exploit to another. The Fool of medieval society could affront the king with impunity, because he was a symbol of a power beyond a king, the power of the people. As the society evolves, the Trickster changes. At the end of his rogue's progress he begins to appear as a grown man, a sort of Robin Hood — still the Trickster, but with an emerging social conscience.

As the society goes on, the Hero is advanced to the next stage, a more responsible version, as founder of human culture and ritual, starting again as an animal, but restraining the instinctual and infantile urges found in the Trickster.

In the third stage the Hero appears in the form familiar to us in the epic poems of Homer and Virgil, in the myths of Siegfried and Beowulf, a superman who still needs gods and other magical creatures, with their gifts of magical equipment, to ensure his victory over evil forces.

The fourth stage of the Hero myth has not yet appeared in our Western culture, but pay attention.

The final Hero myth, which Jung identified in other societies, presents a dual figure, the Twins, one introvert and one extravert, symbolizing reflection and action. When these twins act together they are all-powerful, but in the early stages it is a struggle to get them together. When they finally succeed in merging their skills they become totally invincible, destroying all the monsters and bending Nature to any purpose they desire.

But when all enemies are vanquished, all obstacles are overcome, in sheer exuberance they turn to vandalism. This part reads like a return to the Trickster, only this time with absolute power. In their wild behavior, these Twins destroy "one of the four supports of the earth," and for this they must die. In various mythologies they are either killed in a ritual sacrifice as punishment for their hubris — their arrogant pride — or they frighten themselves into a life of permanent restraint.

In reading this I was struck by the parallel of the Twins in our own time. By combining reflection and action — science and production — our twinned hero, Technology, has conquered the forces of Nature, and is now engaged in vandalizing the ecosystems on which all life depends. Will Technology destroy "one of the four supports of the earth?" Will we sacrifice our industrial-military civilization as punishment for its hubris? Or will Technology be frightened into permanent restraint?

According to the script of the final Hero myth, a really close call seems inevitable before the fear will be universal enough to sink in. We need another Homer or a Virgil — or the modern equivalent, a new Star Trek serial — to bring this final Hero myth into our cultural awareness, before it is too late to change the ending. 

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Polly Pitkin Ryan




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