Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Hero Ideal

Excerpt from Erel Shalit's Enemy, Cripple & Beggar: Shadows in the Hero's Path

The Hero Ideal

We often confuse hero with hero-ideal. The hero-ideal is a persona-representation, an outer shell, the knight’s armor parading on the stage of collective consciousness, a public image in the world of customs, values and ideals. The hero-ideal is an idea or image that an individual, a society or a sub-group may place at the center of its admiration. When a hero becomes a hero-ideal, the process of aging has begun, and, as von Franz says, “myths lose their spirit, and just like aging kings, they must die.”25 The same is true for the hero: returning home, the mission is fulfilled, and at the peak of vitality, triumph and idealization, the process of stiffening has begun, possibly coming to an end in the form of the old, worn and dying ruler who refuses to step down.

Just like the term ego-ideal refers to the ego’s attachment to the persona, its desired appearance, the hero-ideal refers not to the heroic process, but the hero’s appearance.

We find the hero in myth and tale, bidding farewell as he leaves home, traveling on rough roads and sailing stormy seas, as he encounters hardships and struggles with dragons and monsters, and finally finds and releases the treasure from its imprisonment in the shadow—be it the princess in captivity, the grail, the fire of the gods or the diamond in the cave, the new idea or the new dispensation.

That is, the hero has taken upon himself an undertaking, and returns home with something new or hitherto dormant, thereby rejuvenating the individual psyche or society. Accordingly, Greek hero-myths “are concerned with the origins of cities, families, and tribes,” as Kerényi points out.26 In the psyche, new tracks, new paths of thinking replace old patterns. For example, a woman in her early fifties, who strictly followed her parents’ advice to “keep your job whatever, be sure to get a pension,” had remained in her secretarial position, in spite of feeling that she “dies every day of boredom.”

After many years of hesitant attempts and painstaking deliberations, she had the following dream: “I live in a fortress with a high, decaying wall around. I dig beneath the wall in order to clean up things. Surprisingly, the wall doesn’t fall, but its shape changes; it becomes more open and green, with birds.” Following the dream she resigned from her job, and found a way to earn a modest living and a rich life from her awakening creativity.

In society, the hero may be the messenger of hope who lights the torch of democracy. Sometimes it is amazing how, at the right moment in history, the heroism of a nation, spurting forth through layers of oppression, creates dramatic changes and overthrows worn-out regimes.

We may wonder if the Bolsheviks of 1917 and the militants of Islamic Jihad are heroes in this sense. In some places they have overthrown dubious regimes and brought issues that resided at some depth in the shadow to the foreground. Was there anything heroic about the Nazis, unleashing the violent animal forces of paganism and anti-Semitism from the lion’s den in the shadow, letting them loose at the city center, at the center of concourse? We know that, initially, it attracted Jung’s fascination.

The mere process of bringing material from the shadow to the surface and taking power does not anoint the hero or crown a king. Destruction of morality and humanity does not turn the rebel or the militant in the world into a hero. Psychologically, there is no rejuvenating heroism in projecting the shadow onto the Other—as does the fanatic, the fundamentalist and the terrorist. Neither suicide or homicide, nor genocide or sociocide—the destruction of the “evil other’s” vulnerable social fabric by spreading terror at crossroads and city squares, on buses and ice-cream parlors—imply renewal of the ego, but merely make use of ego functions to concretize destructive projections onto the other.

The simple hero-ideal that we often adhere to and refer to as ‘hero,’ is usually two-dimensional and shadow-less. In the early days of Zionism, for instance, the hero was personified by the pioneer who redeemed a barren myth, recovering the archetype of Mother by digging into her harsh and unfruitful earth in the Land of the Fathers. I have elsewhere elaborated how in this process the mythical was brought into the realm of concrete ego-reality—which is the task of the hero. The common ground shared by psyche and matter, soul and the desert landscape, is evident in Israel’s Proclamation of Independence: The night before independence, the paragraph saying pioneers “made deserts bloom” (lehafriach schmamot), was changed by a single letter, so that the text came to read lehafriach neshamot, that is, “make souls [or spirits] blossom.” Redemption of the soul was as much part of the Zionist hero-myth as the revivification of the harsh earth.27

But as soon as the hero began to appear as a poster-image, a persona-hero, his head raised from the ground, looking up and ahead with a visionary gaze, then the reality of hardships and despair was disposed of in the shadow. And so the shadow raised its voice in the so-called Theatre of Doubt, which spoke about the loneliness, despair and estrangement.28

Erel Shalit's
Enemy, Cripple, & Beggar: Shadows in the Hero's Path and his previously published book The Complex: Path of Transformation from Archetype to Ego can be purchased at or by phoning Fisher King Press directly at 1-831-238-7799

25 Marie-Louise von Franz, Interpretation of Fairy Tales.
26 Carl Kerényi, The Heroes of the Greeks, p. 12.
27 Erel Shalit, The Hero and His Shadow: Psychopolitical Aspects of Myth and Reality in Israel, p. 45ff.
28 Ibid., p. 35f.

Copyright © 2008 Erel Shalit - For permission to reprint see Fisher King Press

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