The Heroic Quest

The heroic search and its accompanying tasks are in one sense the externalization of the process of life, maturation, death, and re-birth, and symbols of religious, social and psychological insights into the human condition. Mythology uses non-scientific and non-logical language and symbols, and as centuries pass, men forget inner meanings and treat the stories as figments of the imagination of misguided history. (Both of these elements may be involved in various tales, but they are not the main points of significance.)

In anthropology the term "rites of passage" is applied to the ceremonies and initiatory tests surrounding the crucial stages of human life-- E.g., birth, puberty, coming of age, death. Differing details from tribe to tribe and country to country do not destroy the underlying basic meaning of the rites which mark not only physical changes but psychological and spiritual ones as well. Quite often the initiate who is becoming an adult is cut off from his early life-- the protected security of childhood-- by physical isolation, is then presented with the tests and rituals which explain the duties and secrets of his new life, and finally re-emerges as a new man, an adult ready to take his place in the group.

In the modern world, particularly in societies deliberately secular and rational, such tests survive as markings of chronological age and legal status-- e.g. old enough to drive, to vote, to marry without parental consent. so sign contracts. Judaism and Christianity have preserved the religious significance of the "coming-of age" in the rites of Bar Mtzvah and Confirmation, both of which entitle the individual to participate in the religious ceremonies as a full member.

Both Freudian and Jungian psychology find the rituals which accompany stages of growth important symbols of the inner development of the human personality. For example, Carl Jung strongly stresses the relationship of dream symbolism to that of myth, and develops the theory of archetypes, products of the collective unconscious which produces similar stories and symbols all over the world.

Whether of not one agrees fully of even partially with this hypothesis, it seems clear that the hero story is the human story written on a large scale. The hero may represent only himself and his individual fate, or he may symbolize a group, nation, or even the entire world. Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces and The Masks of God, believes that the world knows only one basic hero quest -- the monomyth in his term, and strives through this to understand and symbolize the secrets of life and immorality.

C. M. Bowra, in his Heroic Poetry, distinguishes between heroes whose power lies in their words or control of magical forces (the priest-magician of folk-tale hero), and those whose powers are specifically human but much greater that those of ordinary men (the legendary or tragic hero). Not every legendary hero is also a tragic hero, but quite often the heroic search of the legend is also the material of which tragedy is made. Whether some heroic ideal or personal cause motivates the hero, he is willing to act and endure the consequences, even if the result is his death. (It should be noted that death and defeat are not synonymous, and that quite often in myth to lose is to win.)

It has been said that in the modern world the hero is either forgotten of dismissed as out- of- date; but in strange and devious ways the hero and his quest still exist and have meaning for the present and future as well as the past.

Click here for the Five Stages of the Hero Quest.

This document was placed on the web by Professor Thomas J. Sienkewicz for his students in CLAS230 Classical Mythology at Monmouth College, Monmouth, Illinois. It is based upon material he has used in mythology classes for many years, first at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and then at Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois. If you have any questions, you may contact him at