“Furthermore, we have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have one before us, the labyrinth is fully known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where 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.”

Joseph Campbell

The Orkney Islands

These words were on my mind as I felt the plane lift off the runway heading towards Scotland to follow the bagpipes.  I am not an easy traveller as some who have no fear of flying, missing train schedules, or unexpected detours.   I want a plan with timetables and reservation numbers to confirm that there will be food and shelter at the other end of the journey.  In other words, I want security every step of the way.  There is safety in believing that somehow I remain fully in control of my circumstances and surroundings.

That is not the hero journey.  To travel that road, security and comfort must be set aside for something grander to occur.  The important thing, I reminded myself, is that I have taken a first step.

 

The Orkney Islands

The Hero Journey

Defining The Hero

“A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.”

Joseph Campbell

Lindos,  Rhodes

Hercules, Perseus, Theseus – these were the myths for which I searched the libraries as a 10-year-old.  Magnificent heroes, blessed with superhuman strength and unfaltering courage, forged their destinies through journeys fraught with danger and treachery.  As time passed, I chose new stories to take their place.  Ones that were more in line with what I considered credible and more suitable for my reality.  While I still enjoyed the hero myths, I lost that singular childhood enthusiasm.  When I grew older, I became less sure of their relevance in my life. Indeed, the word “mythology” has the implication that what has been written is so fantastic that it simply cannot be true. That being the case, what significance can be given to these narratives?  The real question is, do we still need heroes?

The heroic story is not only limited to Greek mythology; rather there are common elements through all mythologies that speak to the need for a hero, a model, someone who can be emulated, someone who makes us proud to be human.  Their journeys are more about overcoming an internal conflict than achieving an external victory.  The quest pattern begins with a journey over land or sea into the unknown.  The hero confronts danger to bring back a person, object or knowledge. Gilgamesh  overcame despair and grief in his pursuit of the meaning of life. Jason led the Argonauts on an expedition in search of the Golden Fleece to secure his kingship. Hercules performed twelve labours and achieved immortality.

Our modern world still holds these same qualities is high regard.  We pursue a “Golden Fleece”, the symbol of authority, to establish our position within society.   We identify with Gilgamesh  in our search for the meaning of life.  We live in a finite existence, yet we recognize the possibility of the infinite, of immortality.

We need hero myths to remind us we are on a personal quest that celebrates the life that has been granted.  Joseph Campbell once said, “We’re not on our journey to save the world but to save ourselves. But in doing that you save the world. The influence of a vital person vitalizes.”  

We travel the path of heroes.

 

 

 

Gilgamesh, where are you hurrying to? You will never find that life for which you are looking. When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping.”

Anonymous, The Epic of Gilgamesh

 Gilgamesh

Myths are not simple stories. Nor are they easy.  Not surprising, for they are the signature of civilization, entrenched in our cultural experience, past and present.  Their influence resonates in our languages, religions, and customs to this very day, even within our supposedly sophisticated society.   A slender thread of mythology weaves itself into our books, music, videos and movies.  Humanity seeks to know, to understand, to believe in something that gives meaning.  In that sense, our generation is no different from the ancient Sumerians who lived in the southern part of the alluvial basin formed by the Tigris and the Euphrates.

Gilgamesh holds the honour of being the oldest literature and the first hero narrative. Although said to be an Assyrian tale which is recorded as five independent poems in approximately 2100 BCE, many scholars believe that the account was passed via Sumerian oral traditions.

Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, was wise, and discerned many mysteries and secret things.    He was created by the gods, who gave him a perfect body which was two-thirds god and one-third man. Shamash, the splendid sun gave him beauty; Adad the storm god, bestowed courage.  Even with these magnificent gifts, Gilgamesh oppressed his people until they cried out to their gods for deliverance.  The gods answered their prayers by creating an equal to Gilgamesh.  The stage is set for the hero’s quest.

The Gilgamesh myth is remarkable for its intellectual purpose.  Gilgamesh must overcome despair and grief in his pursuit of the meaning of life.  Only then can he achieve enduring fame.

“As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man.”
Anonymous, The Epic of Gilgamesh

Tablet One – Gilgamesh