Heracles was an overachiever. Not content with rising to the challenge of his twelve labours, which included chasing a magical deer and scrumping from an orchard guarded by a many-headed dragon, he took up heroic deeds between tasks. On his way back to Tiryns after slaughtering the hydra, he took a coastal route that led him to a young woman, chained naked to a rock by the sea. No doubt keeping his eyes disinterestedly on the sky or at his feet, he asked the beautiful prisoner what she was up to.
“I am Hesione,” said she, “daughter of Laomedon, who refused to pay the two labourers who built his walls and tended his flock. Laomedon, the only one foolish enough not to pay gods their wage.”
“Gods?” asked Heracles, who knew a thing or two about deities.
“The workers were Poseidon and Apollo, sentenced to labour for their attempt to topple great Zeus. Treated so poorly, Poseidon has unleashed a beast from the deep, a sea-monster that ravages our region. It will not cease until I have been sacrificed to its hunger.”
With the gallantry of a proven hero and the determination of one who has no “off” button, Heracles freed her from the chains and struck a deal with her father: He would slay the beast in return for Hesione’s hand in marriage. The deal agreed, Heracles returned to the cliffs above the sea, waiting for the creature to rise up. When it exploded out of the waters and lunged at the great hero, Heracles leapt down its throat and into its belly. He hacked at the innards and defeated the beast from the inside out, emerging from the carcass victorious and, no doubt, grateful for the cleansing swim back to shore.
Heracles is the ideal for one who has accepted the call and then deliberately and willingly enters into the adventure. Saying Yes to life is not the same as enacting that acceptance; Heracles makes the deal, but it is nothing more than notional until he engages the beast in battle. There are two components to this stage of the Hero’s Journey, to entering the Belly of the Beast:
First, our hero must literally enact the choice to accept the call.
Then, our hero must give herself over entirely to the cause.
Heracles knows that he cannot hesitate, cannot cut corners or cheat when no one is watching. He must allow himself to be subsumed into his role as hero. He must be consumed.
“Go back?” he thought. “No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!”
~ Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit
In an early episode of The Hobbit, the band of dwarves, hobbit, and magician are camping in a crevice along a mountain path. They fall asleep here for a short while, but when Bilbo Baggins wakes:
“A crack had opened at the back of the cave, and was already a wide passage ... Out jumped the goblins, big goblins, great ugly-looking goblins, lots of goblins, before you could say rocks and blocks ... and they were all grabbed and carried through the crack, before you could say tinder and flint.”
Bilbo and his friends are swallowed into the belly of the goblin cave, and it is deep down in here where our hobbit-hero will die and be reborn. When Bilbo is abandoned in the pit of the mountain, his initial reaction is to be expected of anyone not used to a life of adventure: He sits down and gives himself up to “complete miserableness”, wishing he were at home and frying bacon rather than lost in the damp, dark bowels of the goblin caves. Those who are not prepared to attempt to be a hero, who do not believe themselves capable of heroism, will find their journey ends here. They are eaten up and gone forever, or spat out and flee immediately back to their Ordinary World. Heroes, meanwhile, forge a different path.
Bilbo discovers the sword he had tucked inside his breeches and forgotten. Drawing it out, he realises it is an elvish blade, glowing dimly in the distant presence of goblins. Emboldened by the weapon he earned in a previous part of his journey, Bilbo sets off on his descent into the cave. He has chosen not to remain in that terrible place, chosen not to sit still, chosen essentially to accept the Call to Adventure, and he is enacting this choice with the movement of his hirsute feet. Deciding to brave his own emancipation is vital, as we saw in the previous essay in which our hero must accept the call, but it amounts to nothing but speculation until it is acted on. So Bilbo continues his brave progress deeper into the darkness and the depth of the mountain until he reaches the place where Gollum lives.
Gollum is a shadow of Bilbo manifesting the darkest reality of Bilbo’s desire, which once kept him in the Shire and could, if not fought, return him there now. Bilbo watches Gollum with pity and horror as he glimpses the truth of this cave-dweller’s life: “... endless unmarked days without light or hope of betterment, hard stone, cold fish, sneaking and whispering.” Bilbo may have seemed as if he enjoyed his uneventful life of repetition, in which he faced no challenges or personal growth, keeping himself small and quiet and out of the way of adventure, but the proof of its insufficiency was in his innately restless feet. The longing for “dark lands under strange moons” was dormant in him like a stream beneath a frozen crust; it thawed to the song of the dwarves. It would forever call unless he followed, perhaps to extinguish its flame, perhaps to be engulfed by it. Bilbo Baggins is not your ordinary hobbit, and an ordinary hobbit’s life would end up being no life for him at all – no more than Gollum’s life down here in his cave could be called living.
When Bilbo takes the defining object of Gollum’s twisted life, the ring, and puts it on as Gollum used to, Bilbo Baggins vanishes – but as he tries to make his escape from the goblin’s mountain, his shadow is seen by his pursuers, being all that remains when Bilbo is invisible. The message is clear: When Bilbo behaves like Gollum, when he gives in to the same impulses the other creature is slave to, his identity is gone and his shadow, the most negative aspects of his character, is shown. This is Bilbo’s decisive moment, the first threshold of his adventure after accepting the call: He can relinquish himself to the ring, to his old life, to his disappearance and domination by his shadow, or he can overcome himself and leap into the Belly of the Beast. Faced with the reality of Gollum’s existence, “he trembled. And then quite suddenly in another flash, as if lifted by a new strength and resolve, he leaped. No great leap for a man, but a leap in the dark.”
Bilbo’s choosing to escape the goblins and Gollum amounts to nothing until he braces himself and jumps over Gollum, who is blocking his path, to run for the doorway. Bilbo’s leap out of the cave – out of meek safety and the unrewarding known– is a leap into the wider world – into risk, adventure, and the unknown. He willingly left a cave and entered the Belly of the Beast.
Bilbo’s escape from the mountain is not without cost; in order to squeeze through a narrow opening to the freedom and fresh air of the world outside, Bilbo pushes himself so hard that the buttons of his waistcoat, wedged against the edge of the hole, “burst in all directions. He was through, with a torn coat and waistcoat ...” This threshold of the Hero’s Journey always requires some sacrifice to signify the passing away of what was, like a ballast dropped from the hot air balloon taking you away from the Ordinary World, or an anchor in shallow seas finally lifted. With the rending of his precious waistcoat and loss of its pretty buttons, Bilbo’s rebirth as adventurer is sealed.
When Bilbo later surprises his comrades with his appearance and his not being as dead as was presumed, the dwarves look at him “with quite a new respect”. Bilbo has died – for a moment literally from the dwarves’ point of view, and metaphorically from the more salient perspective of the Hero’s Journey – and has been reborn. With his pocket-handkerchiefs swapped for an elvish sword and the comfort food of home given up for the rations of the road, Bilbo is no longer a mere timid hobbit – he has unearthed the hero within.
Before this reunion with his group, however, Bilbo has a choice to make. Having made his escape from the mountain, he begins to think that he must go back into those awful tunnels, braving the goblins and Gollum, to rescue his friends. This un-hobbit-like behaviour has emerged as the consequence – you might say reward – for his brave leap. He overcame a certain timidity and unleashed a courage he had not suspected he had, and his options have increased. Where before he could only have considered fleeing back to his home, he can now contemplate continuing the journey. The road ahead on his heroic quest opens to him.
“To truly live I must begin anew and be consumed.”
~ Silent Planet, Dying In Circles
Those who achieve the most are also the most committed. They are consumed by their cause. As Walter Lippman wrote in an essay on Amelia Earhart, “The heroes, the saints, the seers, the explorers and the creators ... have been possessed for a time with an extraordinary passion which is unintelligible in ordinary terms.” Earhart is a perfect example of the courage and passion that marks out the hero. She was of the category of character who is not deterred from the journey by the fact that failure at her task might be of the ultimate kind. Vanishing mysteriously over the Pacific Ocean might not have been precisely what she’d have predicted, but Earhart knew there were real dangers inherent in the quest that drove her. All heroes do.
Heroes are never under the illusion that success is certain or that the risks are negligible; the explorer keeps an eye on the horizon for storms, the artist is reminded daily of the emptiness in the belly and the lightness of the wallet, the lover commits to a life with the other knowing that each day might bring tragedy. It is the existence of danger that makes it their imperative to climb the mountain or enter the cave, because if those with the courage to face the task won’t do it, it will never get done. They know that antagonism forges character, that (as Lady Reason tells Christine de Pizan) “it is in the furnace that gold is refined, increasing in value the more it is beaten and fashioned into different shapes”.
Their passion often begins with an ineffable spark that cannot be extinguished. Just as we hunger for food because our bodies need sustenance, and we lust after others because we crave sexual satisfaction, and we love because our beings desire intimacy, we also yearn for meaning because humanity cannot thrive in meaningless. Too many of us seek a fairy-tale ending as the substance of our lives, encouraged by consumer culture that promises that the right purchases will allow us to live “happily ever after”. But happiness will only see you through a day; meaning – which is created in the interactions between the self and the other – will get you through a lifetime.
In spite of our world-weary post-modernist sensibilities, sincerity does not seem to be erasable, nor do nihilism and irreverence satisfy us. Individualism as a totalising approach to the world also lacks the fortitude to carry us through our lives beginning to end. We are a social species, and our evolution into self-consciousness does not seem restricted to the self, because the moment an individual exists so too does the category of the collective. The discovery of I is interdependent on knowledge of us; a conception of me requires a sense of we.
Joseph Campbell defined the hero as being a person of “self-achieved submission”. We must discover something to commit our lives to and then give it priority. It is an act of strength to tame the will, a gesture of autonomy to be humbly compliant, a demonstration of nobility to be a ruler in a voluntary position of servitude. This ouroboros or strange loop is the basic shape of heroic submission. Our hero gives herself over to the journey in order to find herself, and having discovered herself, she is now of more use and value to her community. Campbell describes this self-referential feedback loop in The Hero With a Thousand Faces:
“[W]here we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.”
And to what do heroes devote themselves and their lives? To art, to science, to truth, to love, to humanity itself; they are the writers and artists, the teachers and scientists, the seekers and philosophers, the parents and partners, the humanists of every kind. They also devote themselves to their hobbies, to their day jobs, to their obligations of every kind; they commit to whatever game they play, they are there for their friends’ suffering and seek better ways to withstand their own, they put in their hours and find the best in the most menial tasks, they do what they have to and smile while doing it, because they don’t have to smile, and so every moment of joy in a joyless duty is a victory.
In each case, the hero is one who sets out wholeheartedly to achieve what can be accomplished only by those who are so devoted. She goes deeper into the object of her commitment, into the Belly of the Beast, losing and finding herself in the process. She is strengthened by the tests of this journey, shaped by its trials, improved by the endeavour to be good enough to see this through. At every successful stage of the quest, she brings these benefits to the rest of the world. She is a boon to her community, a guide to those who watch her progress, a helping hand to those she meets along the road; and she in turn prospers from the healthy, productive, and growing community that she has helped to improve. She is the writer who inspires with her novel, the explorer who discovers new lands, the scientist who unlocks the mysteries of what plagues us, the parent who raises valuable members of the future community, and the life-partner whose romantic pairing forms crucial bonds around which communities can grow. As Walter Lippman put it:
“The world is a better place to live in because it contains human beings who will give up ease and security and stake their own lives in order to do what they themselves think worth doing.”
Such characters have been conceptualised in our culture for centuries, embodied in figures from the suffering saint to the starving artist. Some of these are newer (the impoverished painter or writer was established in the popular imagination by Henri Murger’s bohemians in his 1851 novel) while others go back through Francis of Assisi and the zāhid Sufi saint Ibrahim ibn Adham to the Buddha and the Hindu siddhas.
In the secular – though no less transcendent – realm, artists have long been seen as saints of culture who struggle and suffer for their art. Their pain has not only acted as a badge of recognition that what they do is as important and is as much “real work” as that of a coalminer, it has carried a moral solemnity with it; for many people, the “purity” of the art and its maker is measured at least in part by how much pain went into its creation. Hemmingway is often credited with saying, “There is nothing to writing – all you do is sit at a typewriter and open a vein.”
However, any cultural cynic will tell you that our age is one of pessimism and that no one believes in values such as truth, purity, or dedication anymore – they rarely, and when they do barely, believe in value itself. I am not convinced of the extremity or the newness of the problem they describe, so I suppose I am cynical of the cynics, but they have some valid concerns. The superficial postmodernism of pop culture, the rise of circumscribed yet influential zealotry, and the fragmentation of society have encouraged tendencies away from the heroic and towards the apathetic nihilism of lazy satire and knee-jerk iconoclasm. In short, we find it difficult to believe in things.
We have witnessed, too often and too close to home, the suffering saint become the suicide bomber. Serious commitment to religion appears to many in the West as dangerously close to fundamentalism, even to other church-goers. Enthusiasm too often resembles Evangelicalism. There are those who are passionately dedicated to truly radical approaches to spirituality and scripture, doing away with dogma and replacing it with reverence, people who (to quote from a song by Silent Planet) “trade [their] certainty for awe”. But being thoughtful and temperate rarely lends these voices the volume to break through the cacophony of heated debate, or the unnuanced brevity of the soundbites favoured by popular media. And sincere, reflective seekers provide a joint target for demagogues in the religious and atheistic camps, and are labelled heretical by both sides for being either too religious or not religious enough.
The starving artist is also now a shameful figure. Instead of being engaged in a noble pursuit of art, they are failures as measured against the requirement to be consistently succeeding and constantly advertising it. Artists cannot go hungry anymore, they have to have seven billion social media followers, a highly publicised book launch, and a Netflix project in development. Vast swathes of audiences want to see the reward and not the endeavour, to be impressed by success and shown what they might have, without having to witness the struggle to earn it.
But I am an optimist and a realist (despite these inclinations often being at odds). The optimist in me sees the continuing influence of archetypal models and heroic ambitions at work in culture, however fleeting or faltering they may be; the realist knows that millennia of a shared human condition won’t be erased by a few generations of fashionable irreverence; both still wonder, though, why such irreverence is the trend. I have a tentative answer: It is becoming increasingly difficult to believe in the future.
Our temporal bandwidths are not encouraged to grow, much of our cultural intake is transient, and notifications, emails, and levelling up on video games make gratification ever more instant, meaning that the present moment occupies more of our attention. In addition, our societal narrative about the future tends to be something like: We’re all fucked. The need for awareness of the harm we are doing to the planet has led to environmental nihilism as much as it has led to the positive change so desperately needed. It is more difficult than ever to believe tomorrow might be better than today.
All of this suggests to me that some of our contemporary heroes will end up being those who reveal to us hope for the future and return us to modes of living that are influenced as much by tomorrow as by today. This is at bottom what heroes have always shown us, including the artists and saints mentioned above, but perhaps these new heroes will make this explicit. In the meantime, the Hero’s Journey itself indicates the value of a wide temporal bandwidth and the necessity of looking forward in time as we move forward in space.
The leap into Belly of the Beast is possibly the most potent of symbols for this, because it is the mythological representation of sacrifice. The psychologist Jordan Peterson has defined sacrifice as meaning “that you give up something of value in the present ... so that you can improve the future”. Being consumed for the cause means sacrificing yourself for the future. A successful sacrifice is always made of something personally valued. When King Minos swapped the fantastic bull he was supposed to offer up to Poseidon for a lesser beast, the god of the sea punished him for not showing due humility before the divine and instead favouring his own greed. This is also why Jesus told his followers that the wealth tossed into the temple treasury by rich men was nothing compared to the pittance offered up by the poor widow for whom those two copper coins were everything.
The greater the value of the sacrifice, the greater the level of commitment to the goal. We know and enact this every day: We give up hours every week to exercise, simultaneously giving up the physical gratification of doing nothing, for the greater future reward of a healthy body; we make sacrifices to attend classes for education and qualifications; when we meet up with a friend who needs our company although we aren’t in the mood; when we quit the security of a day-job on the chance of later success being self-employed. These things might seem trivial, as might the very idea of offering up a part of the present for the hope of tomorrow, but it shouldn’t. We are animals capable of conceptualising the future, able to imagine later times and selves that don’t yet exist, able to make trade-offs between today and tomorrow. This is astounding.
It is also a predicate for meaning. Those disillusioned and depressed individuals who cease to believe in or who no longer care about the future, living instead only for today, have lost their sense of meaning. With this in mind, meaning itself might be defined approximately as a hope for the future enacted in the present.
Returning to our examples of daily sacrifice, which we more commonly call dedication or commitment, we see that not all sacrifices are created equal. Like Cain and Abel and the varying qualities of their sacrifices, there are always those in any classroom who think mere attendance is enough, while others exceed the requirements of a passing grade. There are gym-goers who only put in their allotted time on the treadmill when it suits them, and those who tap into the Herculean and push out those extra reps in spite of other demands on their time. Those who put in the most, achieve the most.
So the question is now: What is the future worth? This itself begs another question: What exactly is the future? If your conception of it is small, localised to the self, it may not make much sense to sacrifice present pleasure for future joy. If your idea of the future expands outwards to encompass humanity as it also radiates further from the present moment, and you are not a solipsist or Randian, or if the future is embodied in your transcendent value – be it art or religion or your children – then the answer to what the future is worth might be everything that I am now. This is the hero’s response. She sacrifices herself, not knowing if she will immolate or transcend, because she lives a life of meaning. She is even prepared to die for that meaning if necessary.
The life and, most dramatically, death of Socrates serve as guides to giving oneself over to a great cause. When the philosopher faced a death sentence for “corrupting the youth” (a common misdirect by those who fear challenge to their Ordinary World), he could have fled. He could have recanted. He was offered opportunity to recommend his own punishment and could have suggested exile. Instead, he wryly recommended a reward for his life’s work, and then accepted the death penalty. This was not suicide, as it is often described – it is self-sacrifice. Socrates accepted his death knowing that to do otherwise would negate his life.
In either case, some version of himself would die: the physical self, leaving his legacy very much alive, or the conceptual self, the Socrates we remember and revere today, the man whose literal existence does not matter. We could learn tomorrow that the toga-clad examiner of life was a literary construct invented by the novelist known as Plato, and the good contained in his words and works would remain. But if Socrates himself forfeited his commitment to Truth, the rest of his life would be the beginning of the death of that good.
Raymond Radiguet put it forcefully in his novel, The Devil in the Flesh, where he writes of the devoted lover, and the sentiment stands even when the “beloved” is not a romantic attachment but whatever the hero has devoted herself to. “Death in the company of the beloved is no death,” he writes. “The painful thing is not to leave life, but to leave whatever gives it meaning.”
Death of this self-sacrificial kind is profoundly life-affirming. Socrates died to preserve the kind of world he believed to be good, which was greater than his own existence. This does not validate all martyrdoms. The terrorist offering up other lives along with his own, the Islamist who hates life and loves death, the white supremacist who values only a section of humanity, they are all horrific versions of Don Quixote, each of them pursuing absurd and self-appointed causes, in the face of good sense, and ultimately achieving nothing of value but being remembered – if at all – as fools. Ye shall know them by their fruits, and by theirs it is obvious that they are not heroes.
Heracles the demi-god eventually dies. As his corporeal body burns on the funeral pyre, his humanity is shed and he transcends into divinity, becoming whole as a god. This is his apotheosis from mortal to god, from duality to unity. He was consumed by Poseidon’s sea-monster to become the hero, consumed by his heroic calling to become more than he would otherwise be, and in finally being consumed by the flames, he rises again in wholeness. To become we must be consumed, and this is never an easy process. As the spoken-word poet Andrea Gibson puts it:
I said to the sun,
“Tell me about the big bang.”
The sun said,
“It hurts to become.”
“To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
~ Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Ulysses
Clearly the Belly of the Beast, the place in which we are consumed, is not the actual stomach of the monster or depths of the cave or dark forest. These are only symbols, signposts that we are prepared to be consumed. The womb into which we actually go, the deep cavern we willingly enter to lose and so find ourselves, is the journey itself. The sea-monster Heracles leaps into, the big fish in which Jonah lives for three days, the goblin lair Bilbo stumbles into – these are emblems of the heroic quest, the value or ideal we commit ourselves to wholeheartedly.
When Jesus gave the fishermen their call to adventure by summoning them to become his disciples, they brought their ships to shore and “they left everything, and followed him”. When Jesus later tells a wealthy man that he lacks one vital thing, he adds that this thing can be found by giving up everything. “Sell all that you have and give to the poor,” the man is told, “and you shall have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me.” This will be taken to its extreme in the Hero’s Journey when heroes give up their own lives, a sacrifice that results in her rebirth and ultimate reward, as we will see in the crucifixion narrative.
There is, however, still a long way to go before our hero reaches The Temple in which she will die and be reborn. There are many tests and temptations that might still cause her to stumble. Having passed through the darkest forest, descended into the deepest cave, been swallowed into the Belly of The Beast and allowed herself to be consumed by the adventure, our hero must now travel along the Road of Trials.
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• The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell (1949)
• The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien (1937)
• Everything Was Sound, Silent Planet (2016)
• ‘Amelia Earhart’ in Today and Tomorrow, Walter Lippman (1937)
• The City of Ladies, Christine de Pizan (1405)
• What Sacrifice Means – Jordan Peterson, Jocko Podcast [YouTube] (2018)
• The Devil in the Flesh, Raymond Radiguet (1923)
• I Sing the Body Electric, Andrea Gibson (2011)
• Ulysses, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1833)