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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.