Spiritual and Psychological Descent into the Underworld

After Dr. Ken Rooney’s seminar about Elden Ring, I researched the hero’s journey, otherwise known as the monomyth. The following piece contains thoughts regarding the monomyth and its possible implications for modern Western society. The monomyth is an epic journey resulting in the protagonist’s complete transformation. Throughout history, the monomyth has appeared in many forms, for instance, the suffering of Jesus Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Crucifixion of Jesus in the Book of Mark, and the temptation of Christ in the Book of Matthew. Hercules ventures into the underworld in Greek mythology and faces the Chthonic monsters—Beowulf voyages into Grendel’s mother’s lair, where he faces a myriad of supernatural beings. In Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo and Frodo Baggins encounter many malevolent creatures as they venture across Middle-earth. The Wachowski sisters’ movie franchise, The Matrix, depicts the rise of Neo, an omnipotent Christ-like figure in an alienated technological age. Even though the examples stated portray the heroic quest differently, each tale describes a voyage into unchartered and hostile territory to gain wisdom and rescue society from its destruction. 

Illustration from 19th century (Hercules)

The monomyth involves the protagonist’s separation from society; the hero embarks on a physical and psychic voyage into the unknown. The protagonist encounters a world where everything he has previously learned and understands about himself no longer serves any purpose. He must begin to create a new self that can withstand mental and physical suffering. Before the ordeal begins, the hero’s self-perception and perception of life’s complexities remain dictated by their limited knowledge. The hero is initially free from intense personal turmoil; they appear as a naive child standing before the jaws of hell— one cannot remain ignorant forever—the hero’s willingness to enter a challenging, complex, and hostile environment results in their liberation from the constraints of the material world and the pitfalls of complacency. According to Loevinger, “Individuals grow when they become exposed to interpersonal environments that are more complex than the current environment” (Hartman 11). The hero’s quest challenges the familiarity of the material world and the inherent human desire to chase pleasure and a life of ease. Separation from our concrete reality creates an intense connection with the wider cosmos and its symbolic order. The archetypal pattern of light versus darkness permeates the physical and spiritual realms. According to Hartman, the “human urge to imagine stories is ultimately centered” (7) around the metanarrative of good versus evil. Humans have acknowledged the existence of a cosmic war from the moment storytelling began; the concept remains embedded within the collective consciousness. The monomyth is a symbolic representation of this ancient conflict—its subject matter is transcultural. 

The individual accepts their state of powerlessness and performs an act of self-sacrifice, displaying a willingness to be torn asunder by an evil force, a sadistic monster—this monstrous being exists either in the physical world or within the hero’s troubled psyche—his shadow side reveals itself. The chthonic beast waits patiently to consume another person. The beast forces an individual from innocence or ignorance to strength, courage, and wisdom. The monster functions to accelerate the process of a person becoming heroic and powerful. The psychic warrior offers his flesh and consciousness to the behemoth, hoping to acquire knowledge and strength that he can share with his community. Byrne regards the hero as the “sacrificer and the sacrificed” (32); the hero knowingly enters the belly of the whale, a psychological and physical abyss. The hero’s bravery and resilience demonstrate that true knowledge is not acquired instantaneously; it requires patience and the ability to discard one’s selfish ambitions. 

The monomyth depicts a courageous individual’s separation from their community; this detachment from society appears to be a highly individualistic endeavour; however, the monomyth is a “highly social” process where the “hero moves into the unknown only to return with the message that redeems his society” (Philips 13). The hero’s community learns that the devouring of a human’s physical, psychological and spiritual self does not result in death or permanent madness. Society derives meaning from the hero’s torment—a light shines in the darkest depths of despair. The next section of this piece considers the monomyth from a modern, western perspective. 

The political class manufactures politicians who fail to create meaningful change. Our heroes are merely characters in a book, faces on a screen. It is a primordial human desire to expect a heroic entity to heal a fractured civilization. We hope for a powerful being to reshape our contorted existence and to guide our society into the light. Unfortunately, tyrants, demagogues, and bad actors have used this innate human need against the masses since the dawn of civilization. People survive on the illusion of hope the establishment and its political representatives gifted to them. It is a cycle of enslavement built on the promise of hope, a false hope that blinds humankind and inhibits our species from realizing its true potential. We are consciously walking into oblivion, filled with anger and despair, unable to alter the course of civilization, unable to become heroes. 

Western society thrives on instant gratification and the pursuit of pleasure, wealth, and comfort. The power of conformity reduces the possibility of citizens becoming original, creative, and courageous individuals. According to Hoffman, “there is little mythic potential in a culture primarily focused on profit margins and alluring advertisements” (1). Modern society depends on secularism and materialism; the monomyth’s spiritual nature allows an individual to escape the consumerist culture and reconnect with an ancient universal theme. Something powerful and beautiful may exist beyond the current state of moral devolution, war, and hostility. The primaeval cycle of destruction remains unbroken; we have forever delayed our collective ascent from hell, our communal anabasis. From a modern Western perspective, a spiritual/psychological Katabasis allows individuals to discard the persona and beliefs that society has forced upon them. Years of conditioning by institutions can be erased, and a person may retune their psyche.

WORKS CITED

Byrne, Mark Levon. “Heroes and Jungians.” The San Francisco Jung Institute Library Journal, vol. 18, no. 3, 2000, p. 32. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.1525/jung.1.2000.18.3.13. Accessed 20 Jan. 2024.

Hartman, David, and Diane Zimberoff. “The hero’s journey of self-transformation: Models of higher development from mythology.” Journal of Heart-Centered Therapies, vol,12, no.2, 2009, pp.7-11 https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/document?repid=rep1&type=pdf&doi=9d20aaaed144a0ff7e27540962f7daeb4df19486 Accessed 20. Jan. 2024

Hoffman, Sarah, “The Hero’s Journey: A Postmodern Incarnation of the Monomyth”, 2012, p.1, University of Southern Mississippi https://aquila.usm.edu/honors_theses/39 Accessed 20 Jan. 2024. 

Phillips, Steven R. “The Monomyth and Literary Criticism.” College Literature, vol. 2, no. 1, 1975, p. 13. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25111054. Accessed 20 Jan. 2024.