The Mythos of the Hero-King
Updated: Apr 21, 2021
Artist: Sterrett, Virginia Frances, 1900's, US. (Ariadne & Theseus)
In the Mythic world we are surrounded by the forces of chaos (Giants, Titans,) and cosmos (the Gods). What lies outside of the village or city, the large forests, steep cliffs, or oceans are in the domains of chaos. The Greek demi-God Herakles has to travel to the underworld, or to lands where large monsters reside; where he has to capture or kill a beast that stalks on the edges of the village. By killing the beasts that is surrounding the world (or village), the mythological hero makes order out of chaos. Thor faces the midgard serpent out in the grey waves, far off in the horizon. The journey of the hero is to an edge world, he travels where nobody has dared to go, to places where death and darkness reside. He is on a quest fighting for survival, but not only for himself, but for his people and community. Here is a distinction of what makes a “true” hero: a lesser hero fights for his own desires and wants, whilst the true hero fights for that which is larger than himself and the community that is being threatened by chaotic forces.
The Jungian Psychologist James Hillman relates the hero myth with subduing nature, that it springs from to the clearance of the land and the progression of agriculture, his quote: “Herkules kills the animals and clears the stables,” the myth of the American West and “how it was won” could not be more lucid example of the hero myth subduing the wild, where man travels across the edge of the sea, to the great unknown, clears the wild through his own self-will, resulting in the victory of the plough, giving way to civilisation. In the Norse creation myth, Odin (Spirit), has to harness the power of the giants to create the worlds, a similar image to how once, we ourselves, had to harness the bull to plough our fields.
Although this myth and act has served us materially, we still know that Hydras and Titans return: today they are looking at us through our excessive consumption, pandemics, overpopulation, climate change and resource depletion. All which now require another hero to emerge, someone who is willing to step aside from society again in order to find a new “Herculean club,” to defend the modern age.
The pattern is this: the hero makes a move away from his home, away from the people he loves, and decides to take on the quest. As the hero is willing to sacrifice himself for the cause, he is often sanctified and deified to the village. The independent, free man riding on his horse (the John Wayne mythos) still carries a strong mythic symbol in the US with a psychological impact that reverberates today in capitalist society, but this hero is the self-made man; he is not a community man. There is no banquet laid out for him at the end of his journey; the independent man rides into the sunset alone.
A homecoming hero results in the overthrowing of the old as he takes the seat of the King. The hero’s quest ends, in mythological terms, of him becoming semi-divine or rising to the God-head, in the myths of Jesus Christ or Buddha, both re-instate a new civilisation on their return from the dead and enlightenment. One experience they all face is a great “call to action,” usually an impossible mission with impossible odds which results in an arduous journey where they face their mortality and limitations, once they return from this “chaotic death world” they bring new knowledge and a new symbol.
The origin of this story is enacted by the sun everyday, as the sun rises in the east after a long passage through the dark. The sun returns to us a blessing and a gift each dawn. The sunrise is the expression of light conquering the dark. Light conquering the dark are the runic words of every hero’s weapon, because the hero fulfils the same function as the sun but in a human form - the sun is our first hero. All heroes are solar in origin.
In the ancient world it was never a certainty that the sun would return after the dark descended and in many cultures the sun was always greeted with a gesture and ritual of thankfulness each morning. The story of the sun’s journey is a seasonal agricultural journey. The light returns and the plants grow again, but with each winter a new hero cycle begins - each era demands a new Herkules. Hero’s are made of “cometh the hour, cometh the man” they work in the world of the present but also evolve with the zodiacs of their time.
The homecoming of the hero can be just as difficult as the outward journey. The hero stand to face the old King, and the old customs who have not yet recognised his newly found wisdom. This return journey is re-enacted each time young men return from their own personal travails and initiations, when through their experiences they have “earned” their right to become adults and now they can be part of the adult world. We see this in the DIY youth initiations of sex, drugs and rock'n roll.
When the return is antagonistic to the hero he has to use his new won wisdom to overcome the King or the people that stand in his way. Sadly, this homecoming can be destructive, we see this with the integration of soldiers or those who have had strong psychological or religious experiences which their society is openly hostile towards, those who have experienced an attraction to the same sex which they can't openly share, and much more. Looking at this from the mythic view, if the hero’s return is antagonistic, the hero then becomes an outlaw, a pirate, someone who is cast out. He has received the wisdom, he has done his quest, but the “gifts” he received or found, is not accepted back into the village, instead his knowledge becomes a burden, his gifts are not wanted. When generations are too far apart, the parents may not recognise their children’s initiations into adulthood and they will not see, nor behold the gifts they have attained. It will all be a blur of tattoos, noisy music and philosophies they don’t understand. Here the greatest danger lies when the parental adult declines to offer the feast of a homecoming and instead judges their teenager harshly. This can lead to an early depression and an over-bearing dependency on their peers, who are not elders.
The myths insist on the importance of a homecoming, and the importance of the wedding or a great feast where the family is invited. Most fairytales end in weddings, as the hero who is finally back from his adventures, meets his “bride” and is re-united with his village, now he is finally at home and he is whole again - the wedding ring on his finger closes the quest and binds him to his homeland, binds him to the life of the householder.
From the heroic adventures of Odysseus, we are quickly subject to the heroes one key attribute: his Metis (skill and craft). He succeeds in overcoming his obstacles through behaviours that correspond to a “trickster” figure. Trickster figures, such as Hermes, are morally ambiguous in their nature, they do not live by the courtly laws of Apollo or Zeus and come often in conflict with big questions of “moral virtue.” Similarly to what youth culture does today. For example, when Odysseus life is in danger, rather than using his strength to overcome his enemies, which we see in the figure of Herakles, Odysseus has to use his wits. Through his travels, which is also a “mercurial” activity, he has to learn to navigate in a world which is not black and white, instead he navigates in the multi-coloured world, the metis world, and for this he has to be adaptable. He needs to improvise brilliantly in the spur of the moment. A prime example being when he hides his men in the cave of Polyphemus, and outwits the monster by offering him wine and blinding him with an olive shaft when he is the most vulnerable and is asleep. This is not the open battle we would expect from a morally strong chivalric hero.
In the hero of Akhilles we have the opposite values, here the world is less metis and more black and white, we see the passion of a young warrior with a strong sense of chivalric code from the warrior class. We behold the hero qualities of a warrior who is ready to fight to the end to uphold his honour. One interesting point: Akhilles is forced to wear a woman’s clothing at the court of Lycomedes. In the Viking Myths, in order for Thor to one day gain his mighty hammer, he too has to first dress up as a bride to one of the giants. Perhaps one has to learn humility and explore the anima and femininity before taking up weapons and heralded banners? The Celts have a saying: “never give a man a sword who can't dance.”
Odysseus returns to face the old world and through cunning succeeds and is revealed as a “true” hero and transforms from soldier to the King of the Land, and takes his rightful bride. Please note, his bride is not a spear-bride, nor is she “taken as possession” - she chooses him only once he has overcome his obstacles.
Once the hero has re-instated himself (through difficult hindrances) as a victor, he is hailed as a King or Divinity and as someone who has restored the cosmos from chaos. Tolkien’s "Return of the King” is a beautiful example of this ancient mythical narrative.
Young people today who are not celebrated and feasted for their experiences will become uninitiated forces. If they have been denied their feast from the elders they may choose acts that stand in open conflict with society, they may want to burn the village to the ground, rather than build and create. When a culture is indifferent to the coming-of-age teenager, a deep wound is cut. They are thrown into the world of being rebels without causes. Unconsciously rebelling against the lack of elders to receive them.
A mythical hero is a regenerative force for the community, the sun returning in the spring is a reflection and origin of this myth. When the sun finally rises out of the darkness, his bride; the earth, choses to witness him and she responds bringing new growth and fresh shoots.
© Andreas Kornevall