The Hero Archetype: Friend or Foe?

by Scott Jeffrey

The Hero begins the journey in the ordinary world.

In truth, he isn’t a hero just yet. First, he must enter a special world that challenges everything he is and believes himself to be through trials, tribulations, and initiations.

The hero often refuses his call to adventure and fails many times along the way. Then, the hero can return home with some of great value, not necessarily materially, but spiritually.

What is this hero archetype? Why is it so popular? What is its purpose? And does it really serve us?

Let’s take a deeper look …

What is the Hero Archetype?

I published a comprehensive list of archetypes here. Out of over 325 archetypes, there’s no question which one is the most pervasive and well-known: the Hero archetype.

The Hero archetype was popularized through the work of Joseph Campbell. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell takes the reader on an epic journey, illuminating the stages of psychological development through the myths and legends of cultures from around the world.

The Hero archetype represents the process of overcoming obstacles to achieve specific goals. In myths, the hero’s objective is often to find a treasure like a golden egg, save a princess, and return with the elixir of life.

All of these are metaphors for a psychological journey to return to one’s true feelings and unique potential—what Carl Jung called the process of individuation.

Jung wrote in Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious:

“The hero’s main feat is to overcome the monster of darkness: it is the long-hoped-for and expected triumph of consciousness over the unconscious.”

Our media celebrates the hero archetype. Every superhero film (Avengers, Justice League), epic adventure (Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Toy Story, Cars), and drama centers about the Hero archetype.

The Hero Archetype is Not What We Think

Interestingly, as popular as the Hero archetype is in popular culture, it’s also misunderstood.

Being a Hero is considered noble—a sign of masculinity (“real man”). A heroic life is a life well-lived.

Yet, the Hero archetype actually represents an advanced form of child (boy) psychology. That is, while it does represent the peak of the adolescent stage of development, the Hero archetype is still immature.

So what happens when a culture praises the Hero archetype? It ensures that men cannot reach full maturity.

hero archetype

The Shadows of the Hero Archetype

While we tend to glorify the Hero, it’s revealing to examine its shadow. The shadow represents the hidden motives and behavioral patterns that tend to lie outside of our awareness.

In King Warrior Magician Lover, Moore and Gillette highlight the shadow aspects of the Hero archetype: the Grandstander Bully and the Coward.

The Grandstander Bully

The Grandstander Bully’s drive is to impress those around him, proclaiming his superiority and his right to dominate others. He believes that “center stage” is his birthright.

Beneath the Bully’s inflation, however, lies cowardice and deeper insecurity.

The Coward

The Coward has a difficult time standing up for himself in physical, emotional, and intellectual confrontations. Under pressure, the boy (or man) possessed by the coward caves in, allowing others to walk all over him.

The Grandstander Bully and the Coward go hand-in-hand. And it is the drives of these shadow Hero archetypes that influence a great deal of human behavior.

The Downfall of the Hero Archetype

Our heroic consciousness is designed to hit a barrier. What is the Hero archetypes great limit?

From Moore and Gillette:

“The Hero’s downfall is that he doesn’t know and is unable to acknowledge his own limitations. A boy or a man under the power of the Shadow Hero cannot really realize that he is a mortal being.

“Denial of death—the ultimate limitation on human life—is his specialty … When we do not face our true limitations, we are inflated, and sooner or later our inflation will be called to account.”

The Hero archetype suffers from an inflation and so prohibits the man from consolidating the quiet, internal power of his true masculinity.

The Purpose of the Hero Archetype

The Hero archetype, however, is in our psyche for a reason.

It plays an important role: to mobilize the boy’s energy, will, and power to break from the Mother at the end of boyhood so he can face the tasks of life.

In many hero myths, the knight enters a cave to fight a dragon. This dragon is a symbol of the Mother archetype that the Hero must overcome to return to his village as a man.

The purpose of the Hero archetype is to push the boy to his limits, to challenge him to dream, to call upon the courage to overcome seemingly impossible obstacles. With the Hero, the boy (or man) can fight large foes, and potentially defeat them.

If there’s something you really want to do, but avoid embracing the adventure, the courage of the Hero archetype can serve you.

Celebrating Heroes

Although we like to watch heroes in films and TV shows, in real life, we don’t celebrate heroes. Instead, we tend to envy them.  Like crabs in a bucket, when someone starts to shine, we attempt to pull them back down.

A lot of times we envy in secrecy—acting celebratory for others but feeling quite the opposite.

Again from Moore and Gillette:

“We need a great rebirth of the heroic in our world. Every sector of human society, wherever that may be on the planet, seems to be slipping into an unconscious chaos.

“Only the heroic consciousness, exerting all its might, will be able to stop this slide toward oblivion. Only a massive rebirth of courage in both men and women will rescue the world. Against enormous odds, the Hero picks up his sword and charges into the heart of the abyss, into the mouth of the dragon, into the castle under the power of an evil spell.”

So the Hero archetype has an important role to play for us both individually and collectively.

The Death of the Hero Archetype

But then, we must let the Hero archetype die.

For those of you who read Carl Jung, in his Red Book, he killed his Hero in his active imagination. Why?

One last time from Moore and Gillette:

“The ‘death’ of the Hero in the life of a boy (or a man) really means that he has finally encountered his limitations. He has met the enemy, and the enemy is himself. He has met his own dark side, his very unheroic side.”

With the death of Hero archetype comes the emergence of true humility. And this humility only comes when we learn our limitations.

The Hero Archetype in Business

The Hero archetype is celebrated in the egocentric, celebrity CEO. I won’t name names here. But they are the high-flyers, building fast companies, driving fast cars, and living the fast life.

The media hails them. And many of us envy them. But then we look to Jim Collin’s research. In Good to Great, Collins introduced the concept of Level 5 Leaders.

Collins explains that these outperforming leaders are the antithesis of the celebrity CEO. Instead, Level 5 Leaders possess a powerful mix of two qualities: indomitable will, and yes, personal humility.

Read Next

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Decoding Maslow’s Human Needs for Psychological Development

What Do You Think?

What are your thoughts on the Hero archetype?

Share your comments and questions below …