Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Hiawatha and the Hero's Journey

During the eating disorders course with Deanne Jade, she talked about fostering the inner warrior in ourselves and the people we help.  She mentioned the story of Hiawatha, and its idea of the young warrior going through an initiation.  While I didn't really like The Song of Hiawatha, because it's an American Romantic poem rather than having anything to do with Native American culture or beliefs, the idea reminded me a lot of ideas around the Hero's Journey, which is an oft-mentioned metaphor for the Majors of the Tarot.

What struck me most, though, was the idea that this initiation involves going out into the dark forest, learning about yourself and the world and how to deal with both, and then bringing that learning back and rejoining the community of the tribe.  While the journey through the Majors is often compared to the Hero's Journey, this is generally seen in terms of personal development.  There is a lot of talk of spirituality and transcendence, but little or no mention of how this knowledge benefits everyone else in your community.

Looking to tarot books on the subject, the idea of the Hero's Journey was mentioned by Rachel Pollack in "78 Degrees of Wisdom" back in the 1970's.  It is also found in Sallie Nichols' "Jung and Tarot", and most obviously in Hajo Banzhaf's "Tarot and the Journey of the Hero".  However, all of these focus on the growth of the self, on coming to terms with one's own shadow and transcending it, on individuation, as Jung put it.

Thinking about and looking at cards from the end of the journey through the Majors, though, I feel there is a sense of affinity with others, of others being involved in what it means to be a fully developed and complete person.  For example, if we think of older versions of the Sun, before the Rider Waite Smith child on a horse, traditionally this card showed two children.  We see this, to name but a few, in the Marseilles, the Thoth, and more contemporarily in the Initiatory Tarot of the Golden Dawn shown above.

In some more modern versions, like the Pagan Tarot, we see someone enjoying the sun, but on a beach with other people.  So, after the trials of the "dark night of the soul" which have been overcome in the Moon card, we return to the light, and to company, community and belonging.  No longer out on our own, we come back to a sense of shared joy in life.

When I think of depression, this is also very much the case.  When someone is depressed, they generally don't feel very sociable, but once they come out of that, they are ready to rejoin activities with friends, family and the world at large.  And studies have shown that when they do, they come back not only stronger, but with a better ability to empathise with others.

What, then, of the rest of the journey to the end of the Majors?  Well, in the next card, Judgment, the majority of decks show a number of people, or a family group, being called by an angel.  Even in decks where the emphasis is different, such as the Pagan Tarot, there is still a sense of the link with a wider community, both in our own time and through the ages!  The idea, perhaps, of assessing everything that has gone before, in your own life and in history, and seeing where you can now move forward, with new knowledge and purpose.

Then, the final card of the Major Arcana, the World.  What could be more inclusive, more indicative of joining with others, of developing a perspective that embraces not just yourself and your community, but the rest of the earth in its entirety?  Many traditional decks have this card showing a person standing within a mandorla, with saints representing the four elements around them.  Certainly some of this symbolism suggests a wider picture than that of the individual.  Some modern decks make this association clearer by relabelling this card Gaia, or by showing a picture of the earth from space (eg. the Ancestral Path Tarot).  The Pagan Tarot shows this through a couple united, and circled by the elements.  While this is more indicative of family and small community, there is still the aspect of connection with the whole of nature and the ecosystem through the elements and the associated elemental beings.

All this is not to criticise the goal of self-development.  In fact, this remains fundamental to the Hero's Journey.  It is simply an acknowledgment that this initiation does not merely affect the person who undergoes it, but instead enriches the whole planet.  This fits nicely with a lot of the ideas going around at the moment, such as the 13 Grandmothers, and the sense that we all contribute to the world and thus should do so with positive intent.

Images from the Initiatory Tarot of the Golden Dawn and the Pagan Tarot.


  1. I think the SME (subject matter expert) on the hero's journey has to be the guy behind http://www.clickok.co.uk/index4.html

  2. Hi Dave,

    Thanks, that's an interesting site. My point, though, is less about the so-called monomyth as a writing tool and way of making money, and more about what it is to work towards self-development and lead a fulfilling life.

  3. Chloe, wonderful article. I do agree that the journey of the Major Arcana effects us as a community.

    Before our time, people worked together to achieve greatness. If the time comes that the population unites, we shall see a new world to live in.

  4. Thanks, Cher. Let's hope we can pull together as a global community.