Playing the Indian Card

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Hero Crosses the Threshold



Andromeda: Poynter


In his analysis of the hero cycle, Joseph Campbell sees in most such legends a dramatic point at which the hero “crosses the first threshold” into the magical world or spiritual realm (or, in Campbell’s terms, the Jungian unconscious):

With the personifications of his destiny to guide and aid him, the hero goes forward in his adventure until he comes to the “threshold guardian” at the entrance to the zone of magnified power. Such custodians bound the world in the four directions—also up and down—standing for the limits of the hero’s present sphere, or life horizon. Beyond them is darkness, the unknown, and danger; just as beyond the parental watch is danger to the infant and beyond the protection of his society danger to the member of the tribe.i

Beyond the physical world, in other words, is the metaphysical.

This may not be of special psychological significance. It may not be speaking to us of depression or depressed states specifically. It may be just a necessary plot device. The author must suggest to the reader or listener somehow that the physical world is being left behind, and a different world, the spiritual, being entered.

What more obvious than a door, or some similar “threshold” image?



The appearance of some uncanny creature, a rabbit running by with a pocket watch, say, or a cloven-hoofed faun at the back of the wardrobe, simply alerts listeners that we are in a literary and no longer a literal place.

Campbell says, however that this guardian figure is also often fierce and frightening. Campbell writes:

...the approaches and entrances to temples are flanked and defended by colossal gargoyles: dragons, lions, devil-slayers with drawn swords, resentful dwarfs, winged bulls. These are the threshold guardians to ward away all incapable of encountering the higher silences within. They are preliminary embodiments of the dangerous aspect of the presence, corresponding to the mythological ogres that bound the conventional world, or to the two rows of teeth of the whale.ii

It is less obvious that this should be so. Alice’s white rabbit, after all, or her looking glass over the mantel, are threshold images, but carry no tone of menace. The difference may be that Carroll’s Alice stories are not hero quests; they are only travellers’ descriptions of Wonderland. The terror on the threshold may be a special feature of the hero’s experience. And so may tell us something about depression.

Let’s take a step back, and consider the proto-hero as abused child. There must, we can assume, be psychological ties of some sort binding the abused child to the family situation, to the parent, and to the abusive situation with which they grew up. No bully gets far if their victim can run away. You have to immobilize the victim before you can properly beat them, after all. You cannot simply expect the damsel to lie there on the railroad track. Any self-respecting narcissist must ensure that there are cords to bind as a matter of course. 

Andromeda: Dore


And of course there are: family ties.

Slipping out of these ties may be the initial and defining heroic act; what separates the heroic from the disabled depressive.

Perhaps the particular images used for these thresholds and threshold guardians can give us some further clues to this process.

For Perseus, the threshold guardians are the three Grey Sisters, the Graeae. Aeschylus writes:

The daughters of Phorkys dwell, ancient maids, three in number, shaped like swans, possessing one eye amongst them and a single tooth; neither does the sun with his beams look down upon them, nor ever the nightly moon. And near them are their three winged sisters, the snake-haired Gorgons, loathed of mankind, whom no one of mortal kind shall look upon and still draw breath. Such is the peril that I bid you to guard against.iii

They live at the ends of the earth—suggesting, as Campbell says, the gateway between the physical and what is beyond. They have only one eye and one tooth among them—suggesting the point beyond which the physical senses fade. They live in darkness, at the margin of the visible. 

Graeae: Burne-Jones


They do not seem formidable; but their traditional names hint otherwise: Deino, “the terrible,” Enyo, “the warlike” and Persis, “the destoyer.”iv They may, too, be only an aspect of their “sisters,” who are “near them,” the Gorgons, who are more terrible.

Rather than heroic combat, Perseus is faced here with something like a riddle, an intellectual challenge: how to get the eye from the Graeae. He faces a second riddle in battling their sisters: how to fight Medusa when he cannot look at her.

Oedipus too faces a fierce female figure, at what seems to be, at least as Sophocles frames the tale, the outset of his hero quest; the sphinx. She has the head and breasts of a woman, but wings and a lion’s body; she devours people.v According to Pausanias, she especially loved to devour Theban children.vi Oedipus, like Perseus, faces an intellectual challenge from her: the famous riddle. He solves the puzzle, and she dissolves herself. Or dissolves into the main narrative of the play.

Rama, too, faces a fierce female figure, at the outset of his hero-quest proper: Surpanakha. She appears to him and Lakshmana as a “supremely beautiful damsel,” but she is a shape-shifter. She wants to couple with either brother, but then kill the other, along with Rama’s wife Sita.

Rama Spurns Surpanakha: Goble


And here too, the two heroes face a logical problem. If one rejects her, she simply moves to the other. If they accept her, she will kill Sita, Rama’s wife; and the other brother. Lakshmana seems to solve the immediate dilemma by cutting off her nose and ears, obliging her to withdraw; perhaps a reference, like the Graeae’s shared tooth and eye, to leaving the realm of the senses. Surpanakha retreats, dissolving into the main narrative of the epic.vii

A series of older women: surely Freud would see these as an image of the mother. And perhaps, this once, he is right. In any case, a threatening but generally beautiful female figure suggests a mixed message, at least for a male hero. One expects love, attraction; yet this figure wants to destroy. It might be a fitting image for an abusive parent: one expects love, one gets malice.

Jason crosses an almost literal threshold, and one that is again frightful, when he sails through the clashing rocks of the Symplegades. And he too must solve a riddle: how to time the passage precisely between their outward and inward movements. He also, before this, encounters a sinister female image: the island of Lemnos, where the women have killed all the men.



Theseus too must solve a sort of preliminary riddle to defeat the Minotaur: how to find his way in the labyrinth, deliberately designed to confuse. Here too there seems to be a female threshold guardian, but she is a helpful figure: Ariadne. On the other hand, Theseus has just had to face down a malevolent female figure, Medea, who sought to poison him.

Herakles must solve two puzzles to defeat the foe of his first labour, the Nemean lion, “the cause of many a sorrow to flocks and to men.”viii The lion lives in a cave with two exits; if Herakles corners him within the one, he can pop out the other. Our hero first solves this puzzle, by putting a net over one exit. Then he must puzzle out how to kill a creature that is invulnerable to any weapon.ix He strangles the lion, then wears the invulnerable pelt as his costume: with this first labour, he takes on the mantle of the hero.

The Nemean lion is said by some to be sibling to Oedipus’s sphinx:x that is to say, perhaps, that they represent the same thing.

Another obvious example of a puzzle at the outset of a hero quest is Alexander’s Gordian knot. Untying it is his first task on crossing over into Asia, and untying it predestines him to rule the continent.

Campbell mentions as one threshold image the teeth of the whale, most obviously a reference to the Jonah story in the Old Testament. But in fact, in the Bible passage, the whale’s teeth are not mentioned: “Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” (Jonah, 1: 17, NIV)

Jonah: Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel

The threshold image here seems instead to be the deadly storm on board Jonah’s ship: this looks to the sailors like the hand of God. And it presents again a puzzle to be solved:

Then the sailors said to each other, “Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.” They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah. So they asked him, “Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us?” (Jonah, 2: 7-8, NIV).

Jonah solves the riddle; and in solving it, be acts for the first time heroically. He realizes he is the cause, and urges that they throw him overboard. They do, and the storm ceases. His hero quest begins.

This storm might symbolize in turn some mental or emotional conflict, just as would a riddle: wind is a common and natural image of the spirit, and the two words “soul” or “mind” (nefesh) and “breath” are related in Hebrew as in Latin and Greek. So a storm can aptly blow the mariner into the “green world” of the spirit; as it obviously does in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, or as a tornado in The Wizard of Oz. A wind blows Psyche into the green world in Apuleius’s “Amor and Psyche” legend.

Herakles’s psychotic frenzy, in which he kills his wife and children, leading to his famous labours, may be a more literal form of this spiritual “storm”: a mental or nervous breakdown, in which some inherent mental or emotional puzzle overwhelms us, and demands our total attention.

Medusa: Bocklin

Were it not for the fearsome images surrounding it, such a puzzle might only be a signal that we are entering the mental world: for that is just what happens when we solve a riddle. We turn our attention away from the physical and social world around us, towards purely mental concerns.

But given the fearsome associations—solving the puzzle is usually a matter of life and death for our hero—this may also be a reference to one specific sort of puzzle. Gregory Bateson called it the “double bind.”xi It is the usual way in which a manipulative personality type, a narcissist, will control their victim. He or she will put the abused in a situation in which every possible response is a wrong one; from which, therefore, there is no escape.

And there is such a fundamental double-bind at the core of every abused childhood: how can you turn on your own parent? How can you reject what they say? If you do, you are a bad person. If you do not, however, according to the abusive parent, you are a bad person. Either way, you are a bad person. Any clever narcissist in any relationship, and certainly in the position of a parent, will exploit this: “I hate you. How could you leave me? How dare you contradict me.”

The story of Moses and the Exodus serves to illustrate the routine. The Pharaoh and the Egyptians fear and want to kill the Hebrews (Exodus 1); yet at the same time, they will not allow them to leave (Exodus 5). Pharaoh finally allows them to leave (Exodus 12), then sends an army after them to punish them for leaving (Exodus 14). The dilemma is resolved with the parting of the Red Sea, which may symbolize as image two options, both deadly, pulled apart, and the abused Hebrew children allowed to escape, like Jason between the Symplegades, up the middle. Thus begins the collective hero quest of the Jews.

To become an active hero, perhaps it is necessary, then, to see through this one initial puzzle, symbolized well by two crashing rocks, one of which might be marked “Damned if you do,” the other “Damned if you don’t.” Until you get beyond them, you are paralyzed.

This double bind is also suggested by the entire plot of Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex: Oedipus, seeking to escape the charge of wanting to kill his father and marry his mother, discovers he is condemned by his very attempts to avoid it. A perfect double-bind.

In order to move from the disabling sort of depression to the heroic sort, then, it is first necessary to analyse and see through what is really going on. You must see that you have been put in such a double-bind, in order to escape it. Specifically, whatever the particular details, you must first clearly perceive that your parent or parents, or some other dominating figure, from which you have always naturally assumed a reciprocal love, in fact wishes you ill. You must then take the leap of no longer feeling bound by their perceptions of you or of the world around you. This is indeed an exile, if only a mental exile; but it is obviously facilitated by, and my require, an actual physical removal as well.

This must be a great challenge for any child, should she or he have grown to any age: it is a wise child who knows his own father.


iCampbell, op. cit. p. 77.

iiIbid. p. 92.

iiiAeschylus, Prometheus Bound, ll. 791 ff.

ivApollodorus, Library, 1.10

vApollodorus, Library, 3. 52 - 55.

viPausanias, Description of Greece, 5. 11. 2.

vii Valmiki, Ramayana, Aranya Kanda.

viiiTheocritus, Idylls 25. 132 ff.

ixApollodorus, Library, 2. 74 – 76.

xGraves, op. cit., vol. 1, p. 79. 

xiGregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999; originally published, San Francisco: Chandler Pub. Co., 1972.


No comments: