Hero worship

Abstract: Our civilization is under the spell of an illusion of heroism causing a collective hubris and fixation on principles, to the detriment of the personal values of the heart. As portrayed in myth, the hero must be allowed to die.

Keywords: sun-hero, suicide bomber, terrorism, Icarus, hubris, individuation, apocalypse, Carl Jung.


Western civilization suffers from an obsession with the hero archetype, causing a collective hubris. It is depicted in the myths of Icarus and Bellerophon, and in the fairytale of the death of the sun-hero. An Icarian heroism permeates our whole culture. It implies an obsession with daylight consciousness and its values, which causes the irrational burgeoning life of the unconscious to be burnt off. The scourging sun melts away the wings of Icarus so that he comes crashing down, and a lightning from Zeus makes Bellerophon suffer the same fate. Faster and faster, higher and higher, expansion at all cost, and a relentless search after career, money, and status. Hardly anybody can listen to the faint voice of the unconscious, anymore, but become obsessed with the Icarian premises of career, social adjustment, political correctness, and scientific rigour.

Triumphant Achilles by Franz von Matsch
Detail from Triumphant Achilles by Franz von Matsch (cut version of Wikipedia image, public domain)

The dragon-killer in the Nibelungen saga, Siegfried, represents an archaic side of the psyche and belongs to the Nietzschean fantasies that reside in the unconscious. He is the hero whom all extraverted men want to emulate. They all want to be famous, brandishing their sword in the sun, so that everybody, especially the women, can see how splendid they are.

In myth, the sun-hero always suffers a violent death, as do Icarus and Bellerophon. It depends on a secret identity between the sun-hero and the chaos-dragon. The latter is the mother of the hero, from which the hero derives his energy. In Egyptian myth, the sun replenishes his strength during the nightly journey in the underworld, and rises as a newborn from the darkness of chaos. During the nightly journey the dragon Apophis is defeated, but the sun god Ra is also doomed to suffer demise in red blood at the western horizon.

Heroic possession

The heroic obsession has made an inroad in the Muslim world. The suicide bomber symbolically attacks the chaos dragon, but he also kills himself in this act, in conformity with the dramaturgy of the hero archetype. Western societies accomodate suicide bombers who are intent on killing the "dragon" who is their own mother, who generously has fed and raised them, namely society, as such. These people are possessed by the sun-hero archetype, because they are lacking in the capacity of a strong consciousness, to be able to harbour such ideas in consciousness, instead of living them out.

Muslim young men blow themselves away in their "heroic" fight against "draconic evil", whether it's USA or a competing Muslim denomination. They want to achieve glory at all cost, so who or what happens to be chosen as "dragon" is of little consequence. The gist is that they have a sincere wish to become glorious dragon-killers.

There was even an attempt to build a whole civilization on this heroic theme, namely the Third Reich. The German backstabbing myth involves the Jew, representing chaos, who stabs the heroic German soldier in the back. (See propaganda image here.) According to this myth the WWI army had remained "undefeated in the field", only the revolution at home was to blame for Germany's defeat.

Accordingly, in the Nibelungen saga, the sun-hero Siegfried was stabbed in the back by Hagen. This image is what underlies the backstabbing myth. But it is a projection of an archetype: the hero, in defeating the dragon, is himself dealt a deadly wound. When the dragon is defeated the hero's own fate is sealed. Germany, who lived the sun-hero myth and attacked the forces of chaos in the form of the "inferior races", also doomed itself to destruction. So Siegfried is his own shadow, his own "Ugliest Man".

The heroic possession causes destruction to the Muslim world, the Muslim religion, and in increasing measure to the Western world. They have in mind to kill the chaotic forces of the unconscious, and aim to remove any sign of the spontaneous from religious or daily life. The politically correct elite in Western countries have much in common with this programme. They are fixated on principles of consciousness: any signs of burgeoning life originating in the heart and the unconscious soil, must be rooted out from society. For instance, one of the foremost hubristic moral principles is that mankind must be maximated on this earth, and the world's poor must be sustained at all costs, without regard to environmental costs.

Life must be adjusted to political correctness and the conventions of tidiness. Likewise, the ideal of the political Islamist is a tidy society according to perfect rules, under the antibiotic rays of a scorching sun, which allows no room for spontaneous life. Many in the Western world live according to The Principles, and the Islamists have already found the definitive truth in the quran. Such people won't allow room for the unconscious, representative of the chaos dragon. So radical Islamism is today unconsciously involved in the self-destructive dynamic of the sun-hero.

Extraversion and worldliness

Carl Jung was at least as controversial as the Freudians in exposing the Nietzschean fantasies residing in the unconscious, i.e. the Aryan hero Siegfried, et al. It remains intolerable to this day, as Siegfried, the sun-hero, represents an archaic side of the psyche. To become like him, and take part in his shining glory, is today an ideal. It sometimes acquires ludicrous proportions, when the human dimension is lost. It is what drives Brad Pitt when he plays Achilles in the film Troy. This is what drives Julian Assange, and Berlusconi, too. They all claim to be idealists, i.e. that they have artistic or moral incentives, but this is merely a screen. They are all possessed by the Nietzschean hero archetype. Look how obsessed extraverted Americans are of him, in all their heroic Hollywood productions. It has cultic dimensions.

Carl Jung, for his part, tells of how he "killed" Siegfried in an ambush, as part of a dream. If he didn't understand the dream, he would have to shoot himself, a voice said. So he had to kill his worldly, ambitious, power side. (See book excerpt.) An introvert can certainly, like Hagen in the Nibelungen saga, kill Siegfried, but an extravert cannot. It is experienced as a crime beyond comparison, and such a thing is unthinkable to an extravert. Therefore, to claim that there exist such archaic ideas and obsessions in everybody, is a greater insult to the extravert's sentiments than to say that we are all driven by sexuality, on Freudian lines.

The hero's journey is viewed as the pattern for individuation in our culture. But the myth always involves the death of the hero, something which tends to be forgotten. The hero must die but life must go on, so the hero is not the perfect model for individuation, if we don't want to follow the example of suicidal Sturm und Drang romantics, or Islamic suicide bombers. An unconscious identification with the hero archetype is likely to lead to catastrophe as the archetype poisons the soul with an expansive spirit. This fulfills a purpose in that it fuels the flight from unconscious dependency, but the hero is surreptitiously dependent on the Mother, anyway, as he is doomed to fall prey to her in the end.

Erich Neumann (The Origins and History of Consciousness) dwells long upon the topic of the tragic hero, which he names the "struggler" type. However, I personally think that all heroes are strugglers, only that the tragic fate of Adonis, Narcissus, et al., stand out as more plain versions. The death of the hero really implies that he must be abandoned as a role model as heroic expansionism leads to catastrophe. Our Icarian culture flies on infirm wings, as the latest financial crisis bears witness to. Heroism has had an impact on the Jungian psychoanalytic movement, too. Joseph Campbell seems to view the hero's journey as a blueprint for individuation. This evaluation is not entirely fair as he relies heavily on myth, and not on his own concepts. But, true to American heroism, he popularized the concept of life as the "hero's journey". Edward Edinger is clearly heroic in his worldview (see my critique here). The Freudians recognize Oedipus, but think that it is merely an infantile pattern, while Oedipal heroism permeates our whole culture.

The hero's death

Heroic identification has a buoyant capacity, but there is no need for it if consciousness has developed in strength and is rooted in 'terra firma'. The hero archetype fulfills a purpose in the juvenile and immature personality who strives to free himself of psychological dependency. In the Arab world, and in the Third World, generally, people have existed in collective identification. Many aren't even aware of time, but remain in "circular time", which is an archaic time perception. On account of ongoing changes in the world, Internet, et al., the unconscious lifestyle is undermined.

How can the psyche cope with these developments? There is an unconscious incitement to develop an autonomous ego. The hero archetype emerges like a sun from the unconscious, and young men identify with it. Overwhelmed by its numinous intensity, consciousness is too weak to relate to it, with the consequence that the individual is incapable of diverting the heroic energy into personal improvement. Like Don Quijote he attacks any "windmill" that can be identified as the dragon, and blows himself away. What could be the beginning of individuation, turns negative due to the workings of archetypal identification.

The hero's journey is not simply a blueprint for individuation. It signifies the rise of consciousness, but if the conscious increase is to be maintained the hero archetype must die and sink back into the unconscious. The result is that the conscious increase, which the heroic archetype brought with itself, can remain in the conscious sphere, and strike down its roots there. The personality has reached a higher plateau of consciousness.

In order, then, for the heroic archetype to be effective, it must die. The mythologem of the hero's death is not only present in the Passion of Christ, but is very typical for the heroic tale. Identification with the hero has the tragic consequence that the heroic mythologem is copied to the bitter end, which results in untimely death. As physical death definitely puts an end to individuation, the hero mythologem cannot easily be equated with the ego and its journey toward maturity and independence. This equation is too simplistic. The hero is better viewed as an archetype, and not as a personal ego. (See also The real meaning of the motif of the dying god.)

It is high time to abandon heroism, because it also takes a toll on social relations, and it becomes difficult to communicate if some people are expected to carry the heroic mantle, and others are expected to cringe to the hero. Freud and Jung are subject to hero worship in a way which takes on ludicrous dimensions. People read Jung's autobiography time and again, and now the Red Book, a form of diary of his unconscious life, attains surprisingly high sales figures. (See also Can psychology replace the spiritual path?)

What's that all about? I suspect that many people expect to find a blueprint for individuation in Jung's personal journey. The hero is projected on Jung despite the fact that he himself expects people, as adults, to stop following role models, as this an attitude that belongs in the juvenile period. Living according to a role model can have a secondary damaging effect in that the person identifying with the hero figure is unable to find the path that is suitable for himself, while he tries to emulate the master. Jung complains much about the problem of 'Imitatio Christi', when people during history have tried to live the life of Christ instead of following a path of their own. It can't be a much better idea to do the 'Imitatio Jungi'.

People should be rooted in their own soil instead of living according to a pattern copied from an hero figure. Look at the forlorn existences roaming about in Hollywood trying to become film stars. I watched a TV show about them, and certain of them appeared like empty shells. To be "famous" is really the red herring of modern life, it diverts the attention from the inner soil, the 'prima materia' in which true individual life can grow. I maintain that hero worship, including unconscious hero identification, causes damage to individuation, corrupts relations, impairs the development of consciousness, and ultimately puts our whole civilization in jeopardy.


My argument is that our whole culture is heroic in type. It is expansive, irrepressible, effervecent, unconstrained, unruly, and titanic. The Western population suffers from a cultural megalomania — they believe in the glorious future of our civilization, and that we are soon going to conquer outer space. People have forgotten about the demands of the unconscious, and the Earth-Mother, and instead put their trust in technology and science. Christian religion tried to put a curb on the expansive spirit with the message of an imminent catastrophe, the apocalypse. Since the time of Jesus, a dark cloud has brooded over the heads of people. A catastrophe has been looming, when Icarus's wings are going to fall off, heroic mankind will plunge into the sea, and the Last Judgment invoked.

I think that the apocalyptic consciousness, on the personal level, serves the purpose of compensating for the tendency of taking to the air, like Icarus. The "pillars" of our civilization, that is, Jesus, Plato, and Paul, advocate a frugal lifestyle. They are antagonistic toward a "Western" (esp. American) lifestyle of career, material wealth, and success. In agreement with this, they all had an apocalyptic consciousness: the kingdom of God is nigh at hand, and the Second Coming is nigh. In Plato's case, he had a vision of the destruction of Atlantis, and the subversion of Athens. He also presented the first anti-hero: Socrates. Another ancient master who advocated an unassuming lifestyle, and detested all forms of expansionism, was Chuang-tzu.

Since the Age of Enlightenment our apocalyptic compensatory consciousness has abated. As a result, mankind today is flying too high. Compensations are still occurring in people's dreams, when different versions of the Icarian fall take place, such as large buildings collapsing. Such images probably work to transform the expansive energy to something unfeigned and profound in the personal life. In painting, the "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus" has been very popular, fulfilling a compensatory purpose. Apocalyptic notions fulfill a function as long as expansive heroism is overestimated in public consciousness. Apocalyptic compensations will abate when people abandon heroism. Arguably, a restoration of the above "pillars of our civilization" can accomplish this.

Landscape with the fall of Icarus
"Landscape with the fall of Icarus", by painter Joos de Momper the Younger (1564-1635). National museum, Stockholm (reduced version of Wikipedia image, public domain).

The hero identification fulfils a function in human life, but at some point it's time to abandon the Icarian madness of flying higher and higher, faster and faster. This is important also on the personal level, if the individual is to reconnect with the Earth-Mother. The Earth contains nourishment for the soul, in simple things, the earthly contents of the unconscious.

© Mats Winther (February 2011)


See also:

Winther, M. (2006) 'Terrorism' (here).

   ————     (2007) 'Dependency in the analytic relationship' (here).

   ————     (2009) 'The real meaning of the motif of the dying god' (here).