Searching for heroines (II): Psyche


In the previous post, I gave you one model of how heroines might be similar to, but also different from, heroes. Here is another model for the archetypes of femininity and heroism. It is the story of Psyche.

Right away, the heroine’s very name might get our attention. Psyche is of course what we call mind or (as in the Greek meaning) soul. Clearly, the story of Psyche promises to be about more than intrigue, sex, love, fear and overcoming (although it certainly has all those in plenty). There is something universal and large hiding in the story. Your task is to find it.

Before I tell the story in brief and analyze it, here is the context for newcomers to this blog: This post is part of a series exploring heroes and heroism. The premise is the monomyth theory, according to which all of humanity shares certain archetypes of storytelling that appear again and again in every culture and age. After I featured several male heroes, the question arose: What is female heroism?

This post, like the previous one, is based on a lecture course by Grant Voth, who in turn borrows from research by Meredith Powers and others.

To make the heroic pattern more explicit, I’ll break the story into “chapters” with “titles” taken from some of the archetypes as Joseph Campbell described them. (Here is the list.)

The call to adventure

Psyche is the youngest of three daughters of a king, and the most beautiful woman of her time, so beautiful that she rivals even the goddess Aphrodite.

Aphrodite naturally becomes jealous and wants to punish Psyche. So she tells her son, Eros (known to the Romans as either Cupid, desire, or Amor, love), to shoot one of his little arrows into Psyche so that she might, perversely, fall in love with the nastiest and ugliest creature alive.

When Psyche’s father, the king, asks the Oracle of Apollo about Psyche’s future, he receives a dreadful reply (which I took from here):

On some high crag, O king, set forth the maid,

In all the pomp of funeral robes arrayed.

Hope for no bridegroom born of mortal seed,

But fierce and wild and of the dragon breed.

He swoops all-conquering, born on airy wing,

With fire and sword he makes his harvesting;

Trembles before him Jove, whom the gods do dread,

And quakes the darksome river of the dead.

Psyche’s marriage, in other words, is to be a funeral; love is to be death; and the groom makes even hell tremble!

The threshold

Psyche and her parents submit to the oracle’s command in sorrow, and Psyche is brought in a funeral procession to the mountain top. But instead of plunging to her death, she is wafted by gentle winds to a valley where she falls asleep.

When she wakes up, she finds herself in a beautiful palace, where voices invite her to dine and bathe. This looks more like paradise than hell.

At night, in total darkness, her groom comes to Psyche’s bed to consummate the marriage. Psyche cannot see him and he leaves before dawn.

This happens night after night. Psyche quite enjoys the love-making, but she has no idea with whom she is making love.

After a while, her two sisters come looking for her. Psyche’s husband, whoever he is, does not want Psyche to see them. When he finally relents, he makes Psyche promise never to let her sisters talk her into trying to find out who he is.

The sisters (also archetypes: picture the step sisters in Cindarella, for instance) arrive and are impressed by the splendor of Psyche’s palace. They themselves are in bad marriages with husbands who are much older and no fun. They envy Psyche.

Psyche makes up a story that her husband is away all day hunting.

The sisters leave. The next time they visit — Psyche is pregnant by now — they try harder to find out who Psyche’s husband might be. Psyche, who has forgotten her previous story, tells them that he is a rich merchant, away on business.

The sisters realize that Psyche is lying. Still envious, they want to spoil her fun. They remind her of the oracle and tell of alleged rumors that her husband is really a terrible serpent who will eat both Psyche and whatever child creature she will bear.

They persuade Psyche, who is suddenly full of doubt and fear, to bring a knife to bed for self-protection and also an oil lamp so that, when her husband falls asleep after love-making, she might shine a light on him and see who he is.

Entering the “belly of the whale” (ie, the danger zone)

The next night, after Psyche and her husband make love and he falls asleep, Psyche lights the oil lamp. This is the first heroic moment: It is an act of choosing knowledge and self-awareness, a daring shedding of light into the dark places of the unconscious, whether the heroine is ready or not.

To Psyche’s great surprise, she beholds not a monster but the most handsome man she can imagine, the god Eros. She immediately falls in love. Wanting to make her love eternal, she deliberately pricks herself on one of his arrows.

But as she does so, a drop of oil falls from her lamp and wakes Eros. Eros must now tell his story.

He tells Psyche how his mother, Aphrodite, issued her cruel order, how he came to execute the command, and how he, upon seeing her, fell in love with Psyche, deciding to take her as his own wife.

But he thereby subverted his mother’s wishes, which is very, very dangerous. And now the truth is known. Devastated, Eros abandons Psyche.

Eros returns to his mother and confesses all to her. (Archetypes are a Jungian thing, but the Freudians among you might have fun analyzing the relationship between Eros and Aphrodite.)

Aphrodite is livid. She wants revenge. She wants to punish “that whore”, Psyche.

Initiation and trials

Psyche at first tries to kill herself, then decides, like the hero(ine) she is now becoming, to rise to the challenge and seek out her enemy, Aphrodite, in order either to placate her or to die in the attempt.

What Psyche wants, of course, is her husband. (As the soul forever wants to be reunited with love?) Psyche is thus on a love quest.

Aphrodite, however, wants to humiliate Psyche, to make her fail by giving her seemingly impossible tasks. (These seem to be very close analogs to the labors of Hercules, so if there ever was any doubt, we are definitely in a hero story.)

Psyche must, for instance:

  • sort a pile of mixed seeds (= the Augean stables? Certainly reminds me of Cindarella again!), which she does with the help of ants;
  • fetch wool from a lethal sheep (Hercules’ Nemean lion?), which she does with the help of a reed growing by the river;
  • fill a vial of water from a spring that is guarded by dragons and runs into Styx (Hercules’ Hydra?), which she does with the help of Zeus’ eagle; and
  • go to the underworld, Hades, to bring back in a box a bit of Persephone’s immortal beauty, which she does with the help of a tower that tells her how to get to Hades and back.

She is now in exalted company indeed. Hercules, Theseus, Odysseus, Aeneas, Orpheus — only the greatest heroes get to go to Hades and back, to die and be reborn in a more aware state, to cross the ultimate boundary in both directions.

She’s been warned not to open Persephone’s box. But (compare Orpheus) curiosity overcomes her, and she does open it. She falls into a deep coma and seems dead (≈Sleeping Beauty?).

Her lover and husband, Eros, finds her and pricks her with an arrow. This wakes Psyche. Eros now pleads with Zeus to let them be reunited.

Zeus sympathizes. He gives Psyche ambrosia, thus making her immortal (as he also made Hercules immortal).

The return and the boon

Psyche has now become one of the family, as it were. She has been accepted. Aphrodite, too, must embrace her as part of the family. And thus, there is finally the proper wedding and a feast.

Psyche soon gives birth. The baby is Voluptas, either joy or pleasure.

The harmony of the new, or newly reunited, family and the gift of joy and pleasure is Psyche’s boon, her gift to mankind. She has thus completed her heroic quest, quite as a male hero might have done.

The feminine twist

But we might observe two subtle differences between Psyche’s apotheosis and those of the male heroes we have been comparing her to:

1) Psyche has not killed anybody! It was not expected of her, not a prerequisite of her heroism.

The only two people in the story who die are her sisters (and they kill themselves, after coming to the mountain top again, greedy to revisit their sister’s palace, then plunging down, only to discover that this time no gentle wind wants to catch them).

2) The goal of Psyche’s quest was not individual triumph but family reunion and group harmony.


A Freudian might see this entire tale as a “family romance”, as the story of a young woman coming of age and overcoming her repression about sex and intimacy until her mate is no longer bestial and loathsome but lovable and desirable.

But the monomyth theory, which dates back to Jung and regards archetypes as “collective dreams”, sees in Psyche’s story universals:

  • the human journey toward self-awareness,
  • our yearning to unify sex and love, body and soul, individual and family,
  • our striving for harmony.

Viewed this way, Psyche plays the same heroic role that Arjuna plays in the Bhagavad Gita (recall that Arjuna really stands for the noble part of our own soul, in battle with our sordid instincts).

Finally, Psyche is clearly a very powerful archetype. Variants of her seem to appear in countless stories through the ages. I leave you with the familiar image of just one: Beauty and the Beast.

Searching for heroines (I): Hester Prynne

What exactly is a female hero — ie, a heroine? In this post and the next, I’ll put forward two possible models.

Today: The model of Hester Prynne (above, with her baby Pearl) and Demeter (below).

Even though one is a character in 19th-century American fiction and the other a Greek goddess, you may, by the end of this post, agree that they tap into the same archetype of female heroism.


So far in this series exploring heroism, we breezed through all sorts of mythical and timeless heroes, both Western (Greek) and Eastern (Indian). The presumption has been that they are all different and yet all the same, because they tap into archetypes of human storytelling (this is called the Monomyth theory).

But along the way we repeatedly slammed into the “problem” of women. Is there a female version of heroism?

(We’re not, by the way, just talking about an individual being brave, or admirable, or good. You can be all of those things and yet not be a hero.)

I engaged the topic with an opening salvo on Joan of Arc, but the prodigious debate that ensued in the comments taught me, and I think all of us, that we were in an intellectual cul-de-sac. We need an entirely different way of approaching the topic of feminine heroism. We cannot just graft male archetypes onto female protagonists to declare them heroines.

Female as opposed to male heroism

Implicitly, the monomyth relies on male archetypes of heroism:

  1. A young man proves himself to be unusual in some way, usually by passing a test by, or for, or against, his father. (For example, Theseus moves the boulder to find the sword left there by his father, King Aegeus.)
  2. The lad then receives a call to adventure, and follows it.
  3. He leaves society in an act of autonomy and individualism, crossing thresholds (for Theseus, the dangers along the road to Athens) to emphasize this separation.
  4. He meets women along the way, but they are probably temptresses, femme fatales or helpmates (Ariadne, for Theseus).
  5. He finally succeeds in his quest (in Theseus’ case, killing the Minotaur, liberating Athens), and
  6. returns to society, bringing it a boon (Athenian democracy).

(Now you might be able to see why I looked into the story of Joan of Arc, even though she was a historical rather than mythical character: her journey hewed closely to these male archetypes.)

A female version would look quite different. Meredith Powers apparently explored this in her book, The Heroine in Western Literature. I haven’t read it, but I listened to some lectures on mythology by Grant Voth, which he bases on Powers’ book.

Here, according to Powers and Voth, are the differences:

  1. Instead of some tense situation between father and son which marks the son as hero, it is now the deep connection between mother and child, and probably mother and daughter, which marks the mother, not the daughter, as the heroine.
  2. The ‘call to adventure‘ takes a totally different form than for men. It is probably some oppressive inflexibility in patriarchal society that threatens the mother/daughter dyad.
  3. In answering the call, the heroine does not leave society in an act of (male) individualism, but stays within it. As Powers puts it: “alone, apart, she accepts herself as a living critic” of her society.
  4. The heroine then form new bonds of solidarity with other women and
  5. also gives a boon to society in the process, a civilizing gift of a communitarian nature that is good for the group.

Example 1: Demeter and Persephone

Demeter was not, of course, a heroine but a goddess, but for Powers she establishes the archetype. Demeter (the Romans called her Ceres, whence our word cereal), was the goddess of grain and agriculture. She was the sister of Zeus, Hades and Poseidon, and the mother of Persephone.


The love between mother and daughter is our archetypal starting point. So what is the call to adventure?

It comes in the form of a deal between her brothers, Hades and Zeus, whereby Hades is allowed to abduct Persephone and take her as his wife in the underworld. This is classic patriarchy: Zeus is the mightiest of the gods as well as Persephone’s father; Hades is Persephone’s uncle.

Demeter is beside herself with maternal grief and for one year becomes barren — meaning that the crops fail. Her brother Zeus realizes that he has destabilized Olympian society and tries to placate her.

But Demeter does not accept the abduction. Nor, however, does she confront or attack Zeus or Hades in a test of power. Nor does she exile herself from the Olympian family. She stays within it.

As she does so, she wins the solidarity of other women, including her (and Zeus’ and Hades’) grandmother, Gaia, and mother, Rhea. Together they sway the men to soften their stance.

Finally, they reach a compromise. Persephone is to spend half of each year with her mother and half with her husband. The first half becomes spring and summer, the second becomes autumn and winter.

Thus Demeter gives her boon to the world: It is called agriculture, and introduces the rhythms of fertility, where every death (Persephone’s departure) leads to a rebirth. Everybody is better off.

Example 2: Hester Prynne

Those of you who are American and have read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic The Scarlet Letter, probably already see how its heroine (for that is what she is!), Hester Prynne, is really a Puritan Demeter.

Hester bears a child, named Pearl, out of wedlock in 17th-century Boston. This makes her an adulteress, so she must wear a prominent and scarlet letter A to bear the public shame.

Here, too, the archetypal love between mother and daughter is our starting point. And again, the call to adventure arrives from an inflexibility of patriarchal society: the community demands to know who Pearl’s father is. Hester goes to prison, then stands for hours on a scaffold in Boston. But she accepts the call to adventure: she does not divulge the father.

Again, Hester is, in Powers’s phrase, “alone, apart, a living critic of society.” She embroiders the Scarlet A as though to emphasize it. She does not leave Bostonian society (although she will later go to Europe before coming back). Nor does she attack it.

Instead, she reaffirms the act that created her daughter and the relationships around it.

And she changes society in the process. Years later, she returns to Boston with her boon. She does charitable work. Society now respects and admires her. Everybody is better off.

The wrong heroine: Joan of Arc

What does Joan of Arc — Jeanne d’Arc in French — say about our notions of heroism?

I’ve been pondering this for a while. So far in this thread on heroism, all the heroes have been male (and mythological). So the question of feminine heroism, raised but not satisfactorily addressed, has become more urgent.

So I read Larissa Juliet Taylor’s biography of Joan: The Virgin Warrior: The Life and Death of Joan of Arc.

Taylor takes the dry — quite dry! — historian’s approach to Joan, and that was the approach I wanted for my purpose. Who was the actual woman, rather than the “saint” and statue that we have made of her. (Yes, in 1920 she officially became a saint.)

So here is I) the background, II) her story, and then III) my interpretation:

I) Historical background

Click for attribution

Joan lived her short life — she was executed at 19 — in the 15th century, during what we retroactively call the Hundred Years’ War between England and France.

The most important thing to understand about this time is that nations or countries as we understand them did not yet exist. Instead, there were kingdoms and dynasties, shifting constantly depending on which royal married and procreated with which other royal.

“England” was ruled by French-speaking Norman royalty which, to complicate matters, frequently married royals from “France”, which were in turn more or less descended from Frankish (Germanic) royalty. (I venture to say that the common people neither understood nor cared who ruled them.)

As Joan was growing up, the English king claimed also to be King of France and held most of northern France, including Paris. He was allied with Burgundy, another originally Germanic kingdom that we today consider “French”.

Another contender to the throne, Charles Valois, considered himself dauphin but was considered wimpy and weak. The map above shows the lands under his control as “France”. This portrait of him, I believe, says it all:

Charles VII

II) Joan

Joan was born into a family neither poor nor rich — we would say “middle class” — in the Anglo-Burgundian part.

She was different from the other girls. She didn’t go dancing with them, and seems to have been a bit of a killjoy. She was constantly praying, and obsessed with the Virgin.

Starting at the age of 13, as she later claimed, she began hearing “voices.” The voices told her to go “to France.” She decided that the voices belonged to angels or saints.

Also around this age, she vowed to remain a virgin for the rest of her life. No reason given. She just did. This later became part of her mystique: She became La Pucelle (The Maid), which implied not only virginity but nobility and purity and innocence.

She became what we could call deranged. If she were alive today, she might be a suicide bomber. Guided by her voices, she wrote a famous “letter to the English”. In it, this teenage girl informed them that she would have mercy on them (!) if they did exactly as told, but that

you will not hold the realm of France from God, the King of Heaven, son of Holy Mary, for it will be held by King Charles, the true heir, because God, the King of Heaven wants it to be so, and this has been revealed by the Maid.

So there.

In 1429, aged 17, she set out to meet the dauphin Charles — ie, she left the “English” part of France and traveled to the “French” part, specifically a chateau on the Loire where Charles was staying. Already, she had short hair and wore only male clothing, as she would from then on.

When she arrived at the chateau, Charles’ advisers reacted as we might: They thought she was loony. They questioned her for a while. Joan told them that she was on a mission

  1. to lift the English siege of Orléans, an important town at the time, and
  2. to lead Charles to Reims (in English-controlled territory) to be crowned king of all France.

So the counsellors admitted her to see Charles. Charles also thought she was mad, or at least suspicious. But she was offering to make him king, and he had no other plan.

So Charles sent Joan to another town for a month for a thorough “theological validation.” This was their equivalent of psychoanalysis — the churchmen being the shrinks. Joan conducted herself well. Even her claims to virginity survived, ahem, examination.

So Charles saw her off to Orléans and put her in charge of some troops. Joan put on shining armor and set off. In the picture above, she is entering Orléans.

She sent another letter to the English:

… King of England, … if [the English forces] do not obey, I will have them all killed. If they obey, I will show mercy. I am sent here by God, the King of Heaven, to kick you out of all of France….

She perplexed but also fascinated every man there, both “French” and “English”.

She had one mode only: Charge!

She did not know doubt.

So she told the defenders to charge, and charge they did. In confused fighting, with Joan even getting wounded by an arrow, the tide turned and the English retreated from Orléans.

Suddenly, everybody either feared (if “English”) or adored (if “French”) the Maid.

Joan now led a laddish camp life. She was one of the guys. She got most angry whenever female “camp followers” came near her boys. She personally attacked the ladies with her sword to keep her soldiers pure.

Apparently feeling invincible, Joan led Charles’ forces to several more victories. Then it was time to bring Charles to Reims for his coronation. And thus the dauphin became Charles XII, King of France.

Charles, however, distrusted Joan more than ever. She seemed just plain deranged to him. Furthermore, Charles now had to begin the adult and mature business of negotiating with Burgundy and England to settle this mess in a civilized way. Joan, however, was constantly going on about her voices from the angels. She appeared not to understand the geopolitical context she was in. Which would be understandable: she was a teenager.

Joan, knowing only her one mode (Charge!), kept charging until she fell off her horse and was captured. In 1430 she was brought to Rouen, English-held Normandy, and put on “trial”.

The English did not prosecute or judge Joan. Instead, it was the French and Burgundian churchmen. Yes, they were aware that the power of the land, England, considered Joan a political problem. But their main bugbear seems to have been more Freudian-patriarchal. Joan threatened … something.

The obvious problem was to find something to accuse her of. What had she actually done?

The trial notes show the church, if not all religion, as silly, petty, ridiculous, irrational, vindictive and dumb. The inquisitors asked questions that were stupid, and Joan made fools of them.

The charges, when read, compensated for vagueness with length. Joan was to be tried

as a witch, enchantress, false prophet, a caller-up of evil spirits, as superstitious, implicated in and given to magic arts … [She was] scandalous, seditious, perturbing and obstructing the peace … [and she] indecently put on the ill-fitting dress and state of men-at-arms…

Sounds like everything I like to do in my spare time. 😉

Up on the scaffold she went, and onto the stake. They burned her. She died of smoke inhalation before she burned, but it was a cruel spectacle nonetheless, and nobody enjoyed it.

Her legend was born in the decades and centuries after her death.

She became, to different people at different times:

  • a martyr
  • a saint
  • a patriot and symbol of France.

Indeed, her retroactive importance is largely that she helped to bring about this concept of “France”.

So, was she a heroine?

III) Interpretation

Hua Mulan

Joan seems to belong to a small category of heroines who choose to remain virgins, dress up as boys and then fight with the boys.

China’s Joan, for example, might be Hua Mulan (pictured). Greece’s Joan might be Atalanta; Rome’s might be Camilla (who fought and died in the Italian wars against Aeneas).

But there is an obvious problem with such hermaphroditic or asexual heroines: Their heroism seems in large part to require denial of their femininity. That would suggest that heroism really is a male thing and the girls can play with the boys only if they pretend to be boys. I don’t like that at all.

Contrast that with a variation on her theme: the hyper-sexual warrior woman.

Here, for instance, is Brunhilde of Norse myth, with considerable Va Va Voom:

Then, of course, there are the Amazons, who not only fought but slept with male heroes, including Theseus and Hercules.

These women are seductive and fertile as well as brave and strong, and thus the direct primal equivalent of their male counterparts. As heroines they celebrate their sex rather than hide it. In fact, the Amazon queen, Hippolyta, seems to have been the model for Wonder Woman:

So Joan does not do it. She was a clueless teenager fired by inappropriate certitude (which describes pretty much every teenager) who never had the chance to grow into a whole person and become a genuine heroine.

But there are plenty of those out there, and The Hannibal Blog intends to find them

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Heroines and “literary Darwinism”


Helen and Paris


Ask people to name a woman in the Iliad, the story of the Trojan War, and they will name Helen, the cause of that war, who was known for her beauty.

Ask people to name a man, and they will not name Paris, also known for his beauty but otherwise considered a pansy even though Helen eloped with him. Instead, they will name Achilles (or Hector, Odysseus etc), who were heroes.

So: beauty for women; strength for men (see Hercules). Right?

I began contemplating this when Solid Gold commented under a recent post in my thread on heroes and heroism that

the real question is whether a woman can be a hero.

I think that question deserves books. But I thought I’d share a tidbit from an article about storytelling (another big thread on The Hannibal Blog) that attempts an answer. (Thanks to Jag Bhalla for the link.)

It cites research by a professor of English at Washington & Jefferson College named Jonathan Gottschall, who is apparently one of the scholars known informally as “literary Darwinists.” (The ideas of that great thinker seem to be infinitely extensible.)




As far as I can tell, these literary Darwinists have corroborated the thesis of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell that all humans in all cultures and ages tend to re-tell fundamentally the same archetypal stories. But whereas Jung and Campbell used psychological logic, the literary Darwinists are using the (Darwinian) logic of relative reproductive success.

And so Gottschall analyzed “90 folktale collections, each consisting of 50 to 100 stories,” ranging from industrial nations to hunter-gatherer tribes, and found overwhelmingly similar gender depictions:

  • strong male protagonists (aka “heroes”) and
  • beautiful female protagonists.

We couldn’t even find one culture that had more emphasis on male beauty,

Gottschall is quoted.

In all, the stories had had three times more male than female main characters and six times more references to female beauty than to male beauty.


That difference in gender stereotypes, [Gottschall] suggests, may reflect the classic Darwinian emphasis on reproductive health in women, signified by youth and beauty, and on the desirable male ability to provide for a family, signaled by physical power and success.

Let me try to make this Darwinian logic more explicit:

  1. Let’s say you have two hypothetical tribes, each reflecting its values through the stories it tells.
  2. Tribe A values male beauty and female strength whereas Tribe B values male strength and female beauty.
  3. We might assume that, over time, Tribe B not only reproduces more than Tribe A, but even that it does so at the expense of Tribe A (resources, conflict, etc).
  4. Ergo, we, who are by necessity descendants of Tribe B, live to retell its stories, the B stories.


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New thread: Heroes and heroism


I’m announcing a new “thread” on The Hannibal Blog: Heroes.

I’ve already written lots about heroes, of course:

And I’ve discussed how the hero or heroine is an archetype at the heart of almost any story, and thus crucial to storytelling. (This is why the new thread will overlap a lot with that on storytelling.)

Why a new thread on heroes?

Because I think there is a lot to say about them. As always with my threads, I have no idea where we will end up, but I’m quite curious to find out. I have a vague sense that I will discover quite a bit, from you more than from myself, as we get deeper into the thread.

A very tentative outline of future posts in this thread might run as follows:


First, the classical heroes of antiquity:

  • Hercules
  • Theseus
  • Perseus
  • Jason
  • Achilles
  • Odysseus
  • Aeneas

Then, some non-Western heroes, including my favorite:

  • Arjuna

(For the yogis among you, did you know that the Sanskrit word for hero is vira, as in the yoga poses virasana and virabhadrasana? It is related to Latin vir, man, and thus virile, virtue…)

Then some fictional heroes and heroines from our folk-tales, our movies, modern literature. Then some real-life heroes. And eventually, some anti-heroes, who are really modern heroes. (Albert Camus’ Meursault in The Stranger jumps to mind.)

Feel free to nominate heroes in the comments that you’d like to have discussed.

I’m interested in what makes these various heroes and heroines heroic, what makes them timeless. Why did some heroes enter our collective unconscious, and others not?

About threads

For those of you who are new to The Hannibal Blog, a thread is simply a mini-series of blog posts, not necessarily sequential or coherent, united by a common tag or category on the right. By clicking on the tag of a thread you get a list of all the posts in it, in reverse order.

And threads never really end. So all the previous threads–such as those on the great thinkers, storytelling, Socrates, Hellenism, Carthage, stuff, America, freedom, et cetera–will go on.

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The monomyth inside Heidi


Quite a while ago in my ongoing thread on storytelling, I told you about a fascinating theory that all stories (or at least all good and lasting stories) are really at some deep level the same story, because that is how we humans seem to be wired. This meta-story is the so-called monomyth. The idea goes back to Carl Jung’s ideas about archetypes but was made popular by Joseph Campbell.

Well, I was just reading Heidi to my daughter, in the original (Swiss) German. Don’t think that you can ever get too old for good children’s stories. We both had moist eyes at the end, but mine were moister.

What struck me is that Johanna Spyri’s great and simple and timeless tale is really, you guessed it, another version of the monomyth. So indulge me, please, as I “translate” the plot and characters of Heidi into the nomenclature of the monomyth. (Archetypes are in italics.) Here goes:

  • Heidi is, obviously, the hero–ie, heroine. She is a different hero than, say, Achilles or Odysseus, of course. She is an orphan, and thus the archetype of the vulnerable part in each of us. Her less-than-warm aunt wants to get rid of her and drags her up an Alp to the hut where Heidi’s cranky grandfather, or Öhi, lives.
  • We stay with our hero just long enough to become part of the scene and characters so that we never want Heidi (or ourselves) to have to leave. Heidi befriends Peter and they have fun herding the goats. Heidi thaws Öhi’s heart and he falls in love with her. Heidi brightens the darkness of a blind woman nearby whom she calls grandmother. Even the goats are besotted. Oh please, we readers want to scream, let nothing ever change!
  • But the monomyth kicks in: There is a call to adventure, which Heidi, like many heroes, tries to refuse. But go she must. A rich family in Frankfurt has a sweet daughter in a wheelchair who needs a companion. Heidi’s nasty aunt, smelling money, has already sealed the deal.
  • As our hearts break along with everybody’s else’s (even the little orphan goat’s), Heidi sets off and crosses several thresholds. These are physical, such as the descent from her Alp, the arrival in Frankfurt and the crossing of her new home’s threshold. Thresholds are reminders of liminality. We are on edge.
  • Heidi has now, willy nilly, accepted her call to adventure. She meets other archetypes. There is Fräulein Rottenmeier, the annoying (and annoyed) spinster who looks after Heidi’s charge, and who seems to be the anima, ie the dangerous woman who must be overcome. Heidi meets her new friend Clara, her ally. She meets Clara’s father, the understanding, powerful and sympathetic Wise Old Man.
  • Heidi overcomes adversity and trials. To everybody’s surprise, she learns to read, thus obtaining a boon to society (in addition to the boon of her presence). She is lonely and so homesick that she sleepwalks at night.
  • With the help of the Wise Old Man (Clara’s father, once he understands that Heidi sleepwalks out of sadness), Heidi returns from her quest. She passes the thresholds (and her liminal state) again, in the other direction.
  • She arrives home, and brings the boon of her quest back, thus completing the monomythical definition of a hero. She makes life worth living again for Öhi, for grandmother (to whom is now able to read books aloud!), for Peter and the goats. Oh, and for us.

Simple, universal, powerful: great story-telling!

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