Heroes are always something of a myth. This is mostly because it's hard to find as grand and glorious people as the heroes we read about in fairytales or Greek mythology. People we meet every day tend to fall a thousand times short of mythology's hero mark.
Yet oddly enough, it is the quest of Everyman to be a myth precisely because it is the job of Everyman to be a hero. We are not to be myths or heroes because heroes are things of fancy and fantasy, like Heracles or Pinocchio, but rather because great heroes are always traveling to the Underworld to bring back the dead.
Dear reader, since there is nothing new under the sun, everything I have to say about heroes has been said by storytellers for eons, only in different ways. So join me on a short trip to Hell to see what I mean.
When we speak about ourselves as conservative Catholics, the danger for most people is to think we are desperately grasping on to old outdated ideas, clutching them tightly to our chests like many dusty, torn papers. Many people think that we grasp at ashes and that we are afraid of the new, bright, and breaking dawn of progress, as if the ashes will save us. Well, to be clear, we are going to Hades to grasp at the ashes, but it is in order to bring about the dawn, not to avoid it. The sun doesn't rise on an already bright world; there is first bitter, opaque darkness.
Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, the imminent clinical psychologist, professor of psychology and mythology, and recently popular public thinker, released a very powerful video in which he interviewed an Eastern Orthodox icon carver, Jonathan Pageau. The two discussed the power of ancient art forms in keeping culture alive and vibrant, but their discussion quickly escalated into a exposition of finding the patterns in life that make us who we are as humans.
They discuss how we can see these archetypal forms in the stories of mythology which manifest to us the age-old wisdom in seeing the processes that make us good, successful, and truly wonderful creatures.
Pageau says that seeing patterns is the real beauty of art. It is at the same time the fundamental idea of conservatism, which is especially important to American Catholics to evaluate. Alexander Dugin, a well known writer, political theorist, and philosopher, said of conservatism in his book The Rise of the Fourth Political Theory that “the conservative protects and defends not the past but the constant, the perennial, that which essentially always remains identical to itself” (8).
The conservative greatly values the past and its treasure troves of wisdom because it reveals the constants in life. You can look at the progress of history and see lineage, continuity, succession, and recurrences of success or failure. This stems from what Plato referred to as his Forms and also incorporates the Aristotelian ideas of finding truth through observing the natural world and its happenings.
By examining the evidence in the past, even in art and culture, patterns reemerge through our collective conscience. They reveal themselves very often in our fantasy because we create narratives to show things that we could previously not quite explain. Peterson would say that they are very much a part of our evolutionary biology.
Our portrayal of scaly serpentine reptiles in art and myth as cunning, wise, and deceitfully dangerous is a result of our primitive ancestors and their healthy fear of snakes. It is something we have always known for our survival before we even had thoughts on its higher meaning for our happiness.
In Dr. Peterson’s video, his recurring theme is that culture, that thing which greatly distinguishes us as humans and allows us to grow with the aid of the beautiful, organic development of the past, must be constantly revived. There is not just the necessity of looking back at it. Culture must be dug up as if we are digging into the center of the earth. Culture is a matrix. It is the breeding ground for good and well developed people because it has built up a societal structure which suits our nature with all its downfalls and disparities, as well as all its beauty and creativity in a moral, religious, and familial setting.
When Dr. Peterson and the icon carver, Jonathan Pageau, spoke of the beauty and necessity of having traditional art forms, they were speaking of how digging up the past is the way to search through the chaos and find the true, stable patterns that help us grow. Pageau says that modern art, especially Post-Modern, departs from fundamental principles of construction or rules for development, and does not satisfy the needs for formed beauty in his opinion. Traditional art forms, specifically sacred iconography, allowed Pageau to find the patterns and express them in his work.
Josef Pieper, a highly influential German philosopher of the 20th Century, speaks of a similar idea in Enthusiasm and Divine Revelation called Theia Mania. Theia Mania is a near-possession related to when the ancient oracle at Delphi was overtaken by Apollo and made to speak wisdom and prophecy. Pieper says it is a divine besides-one’s-self where a person leaves off from individuality for a short time and participates in the commonality of all mankind as creatures born out of the Divine. Hence in art we find things true and beautifully connected where there might never have been intention to do so by the artist. The Divine handiwork is discovered because of a greater willingness to let go of self. It is like a celestial Easter egg within the artwork.
Dr. Peterson added that rules (patterns and archetypes) are really the only way to induce true creativity because without them we are not forced to adapt and overcome the formless chaos and the restrictions before us. These old art forms are a way to bring a form out of the chaos.
In a sport like rugby, for example, the intense beauty, but more importantly the struggle to work within rules, creates an environment where we learn to survive and create efficiently or else fail and hopefully learn. The players are forced to dive into the formless chaos of tackles and the defensive line and make some effective attack while following certain guiding rules. This is the great objective of retaining parts of our culture with these laws and patterns that are good for self and society.
Peterson says in his book, 12 Rules for Living: An Antidote to Chaos, “To stand up straight with your shoulders back is to accept the terrible responsibility of life, with eyes wide open. It means deciding to voluntarily transform the chaos of potential into the realities of habitual order” (27). And here is our descent into hell. We are meant to transform chaos, and if we must transform it we must first journey down to the depths and find it in Hades.
Peterson and Pageau discussed the mythology of Osiris and Horus, a cultural pattern manifested in a hero story. Horus, the god of vision and attention, defeats the god of chaos, Set.
Horus then journeys to the Underworld to revive his father, Osiris the Judge and god of Order whom Set had killed and dismembered. Horus gives Osiris one of his eyes and they return and rule Egypt in a golden age of rebirth.
Horus is attention, detail, and an embodiment of seeing the truth in chaos. Bringing back the father, Osiris, is bringing the order out of chaos. Chaos is the potential. It is the place of growth. Digging into hell to find the pieces of our father. It necessitates a departure from our axis of life, which for us as Catholics is the Cross, the Tree of Life.
Peterson also mentioned Pinocchio having to dive into the belly of the monstrous whale, where like Horus, he finds his father.
Essentially, it is the Hero’s Journey as described by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. This journey is an archetype found throughout literature and the oral tradition history, wherever stories are told. The Hero’s Journey starts in a place that is known, like his hometown. There is a call to adventure, supernatural aid, passing of the threshold into the unknown and the challenges that await the hero. Then there is temptation: an abyss where the hero can see no hope or glimmer. Then suddenly, there is revelation and rebirth like the phoenix out of ashes. One might call it a Transfiguration. There is atonement and finally a return to the known, to the axis that is the reason the hero left in the first place.
These patterns are almost perfectly played out in sequence in any good movie or book. If you’ve seen Star Wars (if you haven’t, you’re dead to me, I am sorry), Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings these patterns are clear.
The one example that absolutely cannot be ignored is Christ Himself. The Godhead made His hero’s journey to our godforsaken world. He entered the chaos of the Passion by the call to action that echoed from the angel by the gates of Paradise at the Fall of our First Parents. He rose again.
It is the duty of the just and good son to leap into the recesses of hell and its chaos and find his father. He must bring order to chaos and grow in that chaos. The icon must be carved. The bed and piles of formless sheets must be made. The empty spreadsheet must be filled. The son has to face monsters, manifestations of imminent danger or growth, a question or decision of life. There is a world of variety between the beginning of the adventure and the end. A horrible necessity remains; we must take a little trip to hell.
Everyman must be the hero, the good and just son. The Hero’s Journey is our lives, and we must all make it right beside Horus. Skywalker has many adventures yet to embark on with all the tenacity it takes to speed into the darkness of space. The chaos is there waiting for us and the monsters lurk, seeking whom they may devour. Take one last look at the “known” that surrounds you now. Wade into the chaos. Bring order. Clean your damn room.