Heroic Journey and Archetypes

Many of you may know I’m teaching a senior elective called Hero With a Thousand Faces modeled after the work of Joseph Campbell.  We have completed The Iliad and are wrapping up our discussion of that epic.  Interestingly, though Achilles is often called the hero of that epic, I asked students to analyze it to determine who the hero is, in their estimation.  I think a case can be made for Hector and possibly Odysseus as greater heroes than Achilles.  I mentioned in class that Hector was one of the Nine Worthies: “historic” examplars of medieval chivalric ideals.  These were the Nine: Hector, Alexander the Great, and Julius Caesar (pagans); King Arthur, Godfrey de Bouillon, and Charlemagne (Christian); and Joshua, David, and Judas Maccabeus (Jewish).  We talked about why medieval people might have found Hector more admirable than Achilles.  It’s interesting that in several places in the epic, he denies mercy to soldiers who beg it — including Hector — which was a sign of very poor behavior in a knight indeed.

We are preparing to study Star Wars, as this month is full of Jewish holidays that will inhibit our ability to study a book, and I created a chart based on Campbell’s heroic journey and archetypes that some of you might find useful if you intend to study the monomyth.

I have been presenting a book that treats the monomyth each Friday because my students’ final project will be to read a book or watch a movie of their own choice that is NOT one we have studied and discussed together and analyze the heroic journey and archtypes within.  If you are looking for a heroic reading list, you might want to check out the books I’ve mentioned:

Some upcoming books I intend to discuss include:

Of course, I’ve talked about Harry Potter throughout.  I will add to the list as I think of others.

11 thoughts on “Heroic Journey and Archetypes”

  1. If you are using Medieval criteria, do you point out that Jesus is depicted as a hero in some famous poems, like Dream of the Rood? I suppose some students might make the case that the culture that created the Nine Worthies is influenced by its own Christian worldview, and so picked Hector over Achilles.

  2. Actually, we talk about how Campbell describes Jesus as one among many heroes around whom a religion emerged (Moses and Buddha, too), but I don't get into the medieval poetry as much — it's a survey class. And yes, we talk about why Hector over Achilles according to a Christian worldview, though my students are Jewish and that gets complicated.

  3. Hi Dana,

    As usual, great stuff. One of the things that gets talked about in my Greek mythology classes is that Achilles's invulnerability (excepting the heel, of course) can be seen as a disqualifier for braverry/hero, and raises the question of his being a bully.

    Do you discuss any of the (North) American legends and folktales from a monomyth perspective, such as Boone, Crockett, Jesse James, John Henry, Pecos Bill, or Paul Bunyan?

    If you run into another tight month for print, either _Lord of the Rings_ or _Matrix_ could also be used as a demonstration.

  4. Thanks, PP. I am actually going to show The Matrix, and we will read The Hobbit. I really thought long and hard about whether to do The Hobbit or LotR, and I ultimately decided in favor of the former because it is a more compact story. I only have a semester-long course, and I had to make a tough decision based on the amount of time I have. I actually think LotR is a better crafted story in terms of the monomyth. I actually hadn't thought of using Old West legends or folktales, but that's a good idea, and it would be something we could do in a class period. "Paul Bunyan" or "Pecos Bill" would be great.

    You make a good point about Achilles' heel. He also spends a lot of The Iliad sulking. I jokingly said in class he was the kid who took his ball and went home.

  5. Homer's depiction in the Odyssey of Achilles' rejection of heroic values after death in favor of being a "regular" person (dirt farmer) is another view that would argue against him as hero. Wouldn't we expect the hero to accept his or her role/fate? Sounds like a great course. I suppose you don't have time to bring in trickster heroes; maybe another course for that.

  6. We did talk about that. Achilles chooses to fight only after Patroclus is killed. He knows in making this choice that he will die because two fates have been predicted for him: to die in battle against Troy and have his name live forever or two live a long life and be forgotten. Then, when Odysseus meets Achilles in Hades and greets him as a hero whose name will live forever, Achilles tells Odysseus he would trade that for the life of the meanest slave on earth if it meant he could be alive. It's really touching.

    With so much out of their control — the gods move the characters around like chess pieces or action figures! — it's no wonder to me that the characters occasionally rail against their fate or their treatment (not that it does any good), so I don't fault him for that, but Hector does seem to accept his fate better. For instance, when he is the only Trojan outside the walls, he stands and fights rather than trying to get inside the walls because he feels bad for coming up with the disastrous plan that caused the deaths of so many Trojans. Of course, he seeks Achilles' mercy and tries to exact a promise that if Achilles kills him that his body be returned to Troy for proper burial. Instead Priam have to watch as Achilles and the Achaeans desecrate Homer's corpse. Yet another argument against Achilles being a hero.

    Yes, I have to say I'm really, really enjoying teaching this class. I think the students are enjoying it as well. I am looking forward to getting into more of the literature and film. Trickster heroes might be fun if we can find some short stories. The Native American Coyote is fun. I wish we had time for Reynard the Fox, but I'm thinking getting into that would take up large amounts of time. Brer Rabbit might be fun. Since looking at archetypes is one of our course goals, we should do something with at least one or two tricksters, but it would probably need to be short.

  7. I love the tricksters. In addition to Loki from the norse, there is Anansi from African mythology. An interesting variation on the monomyth can be found in Neil Gaiman's _American Gods_, which includes walk-ons by well described but generally unnamed "modern" American deities representing things like technology and capitalism. A semi-spin-off of this is _Anansi Boys_ which deals with Anansi and his sons.

    Have you read _Don't Know Much About Mythology_? It only came out in the past couple years, and it's intended as a cross between myth-trivia and a survey-level course, but it's really good and divided by themes (creation, flood, etc.) rather than ethnicity. The author makes a great point about Native American Coyote and African Rabbit (who immigrated here as Br'er Rabbit) as trickster gods, and equates them to the Warner Bros. characters Wile E. Coyote and Bugs Bunny.

    One could argue that the Weasley twins represent tricksters as well, I suppose.

  8. Haven't read these new pieces. But to bring it all full circle back to the ancients, Odysseus is generally seen as a trickster, as well as Esau in the OT. You've got enough ammunition to teach on these topics for a long time, in a lot of ways. Maybe I should go back to teaching…hmm.

  9. I've printed your archetype chart and plan to use it (eternally gratefully) during our Epic unit in the winter.

    Thank you x infinity – your website is going to be my new favorite place; I want to be you when I grow up 😀

  10. A serious problem I see here is that you are judging Achilles by crtieria of later ages. He is an archetypla archaic hero, for an age that values martial prowess above all else. Others of the sort are Ajax, the Greater. Most of this type die at Ilium; it is the end of their era. And geat fighters who are also cunning, such Odysseus become the archetypla heroes of the later Greek periods. The code of chivalry is as foreign to the Archaic and Classical Greek ideal of heroism as is Bushido, and to judge the ancients by our even more modern standards is, while potentialy interesting for the comparitive aspects, completely to miss the hallmarks of their archetypal heroism

    1. I disagree that it is a serious problem. Certainly historical perspective is one important aspect of reading a text, but texts are only living if they can also say something new to the reader. We still read these texts because they say important things to us, not only because they are a window into the past.

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