The “hero archetype” is a recurring motif in myths and stories across cultures and generations. It represents the idealized protagonist with whom we empathize and root for. They are an embodiment of goodness and prevail over the shadow archetype, which is the embodiment of darkness and evil.
As a recurring cultural trope, we might all recognize the hero – the superhero who wins the day or the underdog protagonist who prevails against the odds.
As Cambell defines it in The Hero with a Thousand Faces,
“He is the one who appears and points to the magic shining sword that will kill the dragon-terror, tells of the waiting bride and the castle of many treasures, applies healing balm to the almost fatal wounds, and finally dismisses the conqueror, back into the world of normal life, following the great adventure into the enchanted night” (Cambell, 1956)
But this trope also exists within the analytical psychology work of Carl Jung, who proposed that we are born with an innate understanding of this archetype in our ‘collective unconscious.
The Hero Archetype and Jungian Psychology
It’s hard to explore the concept of the hero archetype without giving a nod to Carl Jung. And while this article isn’t specifically from a Jungian perspective, we need to touch on Jung’s work given his enormous influence on the concept of archetypes.
Jung proposed that all humans share a bank of “psychic structures” (Hauke, 2012) deep in our unconsciousness. He claimed that these are not unique to any one person. Rather, these are shared psychic structures which influence our thoughts, behaviors, and worldviews.
These psychic structures are today named Jungian archetypes. And Jung believed we were all born innately knowing them, which is why they are shared across cultures and generations.
Erich Neumann (1954), Jung’s student, used the analogy of human organs to explain that, just as organs develop prior to birth and are the same among all humans, so too are cognitive archetypes. Just as we’re unaware of our organs, we are also unaware of the archetypes living deep in our minds.
Here’s how Jung defined the hero archetype:
“the unversal hero myth, for example, shows the picture of a powerfum man or god-man who vanquishes evil in the form of gragons, serpents, monsters, demons, and enemies of all kinds, and who liberates his people from destruction and death. The narration or ritual repetition of sacred texts and ceremonies and the worship of such a figure with dances, music, hymns, prayers, and sacrifices, grop the audience with numinous emotions and exalt the participants to identification with the hero.” (Jung, 1957)
Note that I find the psychoanalytical theories of Jung, Freud, and Newmann, and their brethren to be bordering on pseudoscientific, more akin to astrology than science (that’ll ruffle some feathers). And while Jung clearly tapped into the rather unremarkable fact that various cultures have created a similar range of stories and myths, I don’t believe they exist preprogrammed in our unconsciousness.
With that, let’s explore the hero archetype as it exists in modern-day society, media, and culture, not as it exists in some dark recesses of a newborn’s brain.
Hero Archetype Examples
The following hero arcs demonstrate how, regularly, the hero goes through a journey that involves a challenge, transformation, assistance from others, return, and sacrifice.
1. Luke Skywalker (from “Star Wars”)
2. Harry Potter (from “Harry Potter” series by J.K. Rowling)
3. Frodo Baggins (from “The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien)
4. Katniss Everdeen (from “The Hunger Games” series by Suzanne Collins)
5. Neo (from “The Matrix” films)
Hero Archetype Traits
Some common traits (Johnson, 2016) of a hero character include:
- Triumph Over Adversity: Heroes often face seemingly insurmountable odds or challenges but manage to overcome them, showcasing their resilience and perseverance.
- Determination: A hero’s resolve to achieve their goal, no matter the obstacles or setbacks, is often unyielding.
- Saves the Day: Heroes often intervene in critical situations to rescue others, halt a disaster, or defeat a villain.
- Makes the World a Better Place: Beyond personal achievements, heroes often work toward broader societal or global improvements, ensuring others benefit from their actions.
- Vulnerability: Despite their strengths, heroes often grapple with internal fears, especially the fear of failing or not being adequate for the task.
- Rising to the Occasion: When circumstances demand it, heroes step up, demonstrating adaptability and a sense of duty.
- Discipline/Focus: Heroes demonstrate a strong commitment to their cause, often undergoing rigorous training or preparation and maintaining their focus even in the face of distractions.
- Ability to Make Tough Choices: Heroes often face moral or tactical dilemmas and must decide the best course of action, even when all options come with a cost.
- Protector: Heroes often take on the role of safeguarding others, whether it’s their loved ones, community, or even an entire realm or world.
- Leadership: Many heroes naturally take on leadership roles, guiding, inspiring, and rallying others to a cause or mission.
- Bravery: One of the foundational traits of a hero, bravery refers to the capacity to face danger, difficulty, or pain without being overcome by fear.
- Call to Adventure: The hero often starts in a place of normalcy but feels compelled to embark on a journey due to some event or summons.
- Reluctance: Initially, the hero might be hesitant or refuse the call due to fear, obligation, or other reasons.
- Supernatural Aid: Early in their journey, the hero often receives help from a mystical or divine source, often in the form of a mentor or talisman.
- Companions: The hero often has sidekicks or allies who assist, advise, or accompany them on their quest.
- Personal Growth and Transformation: Over the course of their journey, the hero matures, gains wisdom, and often undergoes a significant personal transformation.
- Temptation: At some point, the hero might be tempted away from their quest, either by external enticements or internal doubts.
- Abyss or Lowest Point: The hero reaches a point of despair, facing their greatest fears or the possibility of failure, often resulting in a symbolic or literal death.
- Revelation: After the abyss, there’s usually a moment of revelation, insight, or clarity, where the hero gains new strength or understanding.
- Atonement: The hero finds reconciliation with their past, their actions, or with some aspect of themselves, achieving a state of balance.
- Return to the Ordinary World: After accomplishing their quest, the hero often returns to their starting point, but they are fundamentally changed by their journey.
- Moral Integrity: Even with flaws and moments of doubt, the hero typically embodies certain moral qualities like courage, loyalty, and a sense of justice.
Conclusion: The Future of the Hero
This archetype, while apparently longstanding and containing some core traits, can shift and change with cultures (I wonder how our friend Carl Jung would reconcile this).
For example, as it becomes increasingly normalized for men to feel and speak of vulnerabilities, so, too, might our heroes increasingly have emotional vulnerabilities that might endear us to him.
Furthermore, we often go through periods of time when ‘group heroes’ are popular (Hall, 2016), where no one protagonist rules the plot. Like all archetypes, we can play with this motif and build on it, to create new stories and characters that make a nod to heritage while also branching out to a brave new world.
Campbell, J. (1956). The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton University Press.
Hall, C. (2016). The group hero: An archetype whose time has come. In Schafer, S. B. (Ed.). Exploring the collective unconscious in the age of digital media. IGI Global.
Hauke, C. (2012). The unconscious: Personal and collective. In The handbook of Jungian psychology (pp. 54-73). Routledge. (Source)
Johnson, S. (2016). Can We All Be a Hero? Differentiating Your Brand’s Archetype. Retrieved from https://conservancy.umn.edu/bitstream/handle/11299/181492/Johnson_Capstone_FINAL_6-30-2016.pdf?sequence=5
Jung, C. G. (1957). The Undiscovered Self: With Symbols and the Interpretation of Dreams. Princeton University Press.
Neumann, E. (1954). The origins and history of consciousness. Princeton: Princeton University.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]