The Hero as Soul Image: aims and instincts

In Symbols of Transformation, Carl Jung says that the hero myth “symbolizes the ideas, forms, and forces which grip and mold the soul.” (para. 259) The hero is an image or form of the living soul, expressing trials and tribulations as encountered upon the path of soul. While we often think of the hero in terms of idealized images of triumph and even of immortality, getting at the soul of the hero takes a more subtle insight. Such insight includes an understanding of the subtle realms of psychic life: perceptions that extend beyond idealized images, perceptions of the movements in the life of the soul.

At the time that Jung wrote Symbols of Transformation, Freud and Jung were engaged in a stormy debate regarding the nature of psychic life, each seeing the psyche from a different perspective. Their two perspectives formed two basic viewpoints on psychic life: the egoic and the transpersonal. This schism played out in their perspectives on myth interpretation, and particularly their interpretation of the Oedipus myth. Freud’s understanding was focused on the development of the ego, reflecting ego development taking place within the first half of life. Jung’s psychology was focused on archetypal elements, and his reading of the myths focused on the movement beyond ego, into transpersonal and archetypal motifs. Jung often took the perspective that the transpersonal aspects of psychic life were collective and biological, arising from evolutionary determinants. My aim is to read Jung’s writings from a spiritual perspective, understanding that archetypal images express the telos of the soul– the aims and instincts of the soul.

Taking into account both Freud and Jung’s perspectives on the hero allows us to gain a broader perspective on the soul. Through their combined work we may find that there are two modes or movements of the soul: one of transcendence (from transcendere, “to go beyond”) and the other of immanence (from Latin immanere “to dwell in, remain in”). Freud’s ego psychology delineates the soul in a path of transcendence: of going beyond. Jung’s psychology elucidates the soul’s path of return, of dwelling or remaining within– of immanence. Read from this perspective, Jung’s psychology is more than a psychology, it is an opening through which we may discern a sacred teaching, which we may call immanence. Such a sacred teaching is not easy to convey via words, for the insight aims at that which is beyond words to convey. The realization of immanence takes us beyond the objective realms of language into a subjective realization, a realization of a divinity which ‘dwells within’ psychic life. Read from this perspective, Carl Jung’s investigation into the archetypes offers breadcrumbs on the path of soul. Such insights offer guidance not so much on ego development, to which modern psychology aims, but on the deepest aims and instincts of psychic life, of the soul.

To be ready for Carl Jung’s spiritual teachings, one must be psychically prepared. Preparation for such spiritual realization is not easily assessed. Suffice to say that one must have reached a certain level of ego development, or ‘ego adaptation’ as Jung is fond of saying. From a more spiritual perspective we could say that we are prepared for the realization of immanence when the soul has realized the nature of transcendence.

Transcendence forms a turning point for the soul: a pivotal moment of awareness in which we discover ourselves as ‘transcendent’ to ‘something,’ With this realization a new horizon of ‘something’ opens, where once there seemed to be ‘nothing.’ This horizon is subtle, elusive to the conscious mind, never easy to grasp. Such subtle understanding is simply not available to a soul still oriented toward a transcendent ideal. First we must reach that precarious turning point between transcendence and immanence. A turning point is rarely experienced in ease. Such a turning point is a perilous moment of transition and liminality. I believe that we may be at such a turning point in the development of collective consciousness.

Otto Rank said: “The hero should always be interpreted merely as a collective ego” (1914). If the hero is a collective ego, then a mono-myth expresses the ideas, forms, and forces which grip and mold the collective soul. In this case the forces and forms we are speaking of are the very movements of the soul, and in particular the transcendent aims of the soul.

It is possible that these transcendent aims emerged some time between two and three thousand years ago. Rank notes that at that time “the prominent civilized nations (Babylonians, Egyptians, Hebrews, Hindus, Persians, Greeks, Romans) began to glorify their national heroes.” Rank notes that we cannot determine the precise origins of these psychical images. They could have arisen from “definite peoples (the Babylonians) and migrate[d] through oral tradition.” Otherwise they could reflect a “uniform disposition of the human mind and the manner of its manifestation.” What we can say is that the emergence of such images into the collective mind frame correspond to the changes in the social body itself. Human beings entered into a quest to ‘become heroic,’ lasting several thousand years.

Like Jung, Rank saw that there was an intimate relationship between dream and myth. Myths are dreams of the masses of the people, expressing the libidinal aims of the collective social body. The hero is the leading figure in our collective dream. Jung says, “the finest of all symbols of the libido is the human figure, conceived as a demon or hero.” The hero is an image of the ‘creative force’ that is within man (immanent) and also extends beyond man (transcendent).

In Symbols of Transformation, Jung provides many archetypal images of libido; we see images of the fire, sun, phallus. In animal terms: the lion, the eagle and the ram. Each of these symbols represents the creative, libidinal instinct of psychic life as revealed in myth and art. Jung says that the hero myth represents “the longing of the unconscious, of its unquenched and unquenchable desire for the light of consciousness” (para. 299). The hero is likened to the sun: “the myth of the hero is a solar myth” (para. 299). Jung provides a metaphor so that we see the heroic movement of the soul in astral images. Jung says:

“The finest of all symbols of the libido is the human figure, conceived as a demon or hero. Here the symbolism leaves the objective, material realm of astral and meteorological images and takes on human form, changing into a figure who passes from joy to sorrow, from sorrow to joy, and, like the sun, now stands high at the zenith and now is plunged into darkest night, only to rise again in new splendor as the sun, by its own motion and in accordance with its own inner law, climbs from morn till noon, crosses the meridian and goes its downward way towards evening, leaving its radiance behind it, and finally plunges into all-enveloping night, so man sets his course by immutable laws and, his journey over, sinks into darkness, to rise again in his children and begin the cycle anew” (Jung, para 251).

The sun transcends the earthly realms from which it is arises, reaching up toward the heavenly skies. Like the sun the hero transcends earthly life, seeking the zenith in heavenly realms. Here we can see a relationship between father sun and mother earth. The first movement of the soul is associated with a mythological ascent toward the zenith of the heavenly father sun and the second movement a return to the mother earth as ocean. The father sun transcends the earthly, ‘going beyond’, up toward the heavenly zenith. Then, once psychic life has archived its solar aims it begins its second movement: inward, immanence. This movement is a return, a rebirth, often associated with images of the mother, the sea, the deep earth, the night, the cave.

To better understand this we can go back to the basic drives of psychic life as postulated by Sigmund Freud. Freud saw that the energy inherent to psychic life, the creative force or libido, always seeks an object. Freud postulated that libido has four aspects: pressure, source, aim and an object (1905). With this insight, the question of psychoanalysis became: What is the true object of libido? The aim of the libido varies with different theories. For the Freudians, the object is always a pleasure fulfilling object. Post-Freudians often speak of ‘object-relations’ indicating that ‘libido is primarily object-seeking… rather than pleasure seeking’ (Fairbairn, 1941).

For Jung the object of psychic life is an archetypal object. Jung saw that on a biological level libido (as the creative force) seeks a physical object, while on a psychical level libido seeks an archetypal object. Such archetypal objects form the horizons of psychic life.

Instinct exists within the deepest archetypal layers of psychic life, as the urge, the pressure, the instinct of the soul. Creative force seeks an object. But this begs the question: what is the archetypal object of psychic life? In the Origins of the Hero, Jung offers an answer. He says: “the symbolism is plain:

“sun = phallus, moon = vessel (uterus)”

It is with this heiroglyphic equation that we may begin to understand the secrets which Jung has left behind in the tombs of his scholarly work. In the solar myth the hero is likened to the Sun, which aims toward the zenith, and then plunges into the depths of the night sea. In the Origin of the Hero (CW5), Jung points out in an earlier passage that the sea is an “analogy of the womb.” Here we leave the realm of astral images and descend back into the somatic, the body of life. The answers to our most profound questions are found in images of bodily life: the creative force, the libido, seeks an object and the object is the womb. While in bodily life this is the most simple of all things, in the life of the soul— in archetypal life— it is most profound.

When we look at the hero myth from this perspective we see that the hero is one side of the equation: the active, the seeking force. The other side of the equation is the object which the ‘creative force’ seeks. Yet it is quite difficult to articulate this ‘object’ because it is the very object of psychic life: mysterious, unknown, hidden, womb-like. We can never quite know this object, yet it is the teleological aim of psychic life. In this way it is sublime. Kant spoke of the sublime:

“The feeling of the sublime is, therefore, at once a feeling of displeasure, arising from the inadequacy of imagination in the aesthetic estimation of magnitude to attain to its estimation by reason, and a simultaneously awakened pleasure, arising from this very judgement of the inadequacy of the greatest faculty of sense being in accord with ideas of reason, so far as the effort to attain to these is for us a law” (1964).

While the creative force is the raw fact of the phenomenology of being, the urge of being, the sublime object is the aim of such libidinal desire, and yet always out of reach, always beyond the adequacy of imagination to represent. Reason cannot get at it, imagination fails to fully grasp it, and yet we are urged ever closer to it: to join with it in a sort of cosmic union.

Carl Jung understood that the sublime aspect of psychic life is always veiled in feminine images: it is the very thing, das ding, which hides up the cosmic mother’s skirt. These sublime images represent the hidden, the unobtainable horizon, the sublime object of desire. For Jung this is best represented as the ‘realm of the mothers.’ In fact, Jung ends the chapter on the hero with an extended quotation from Goethe’s Faust, speaking of the realm of the mothers:

Here, take this key.
The key will smell the right place from all others:
Follow it down, it leads you to the Mothers.
Then to the depths- I could as well say height: It’s all the same. From the Existent fleeing, Take the free world of forms for your delight, Rejoice in things that long have ceased from being. The busy brood will weave like coiling cloud,
But swing your key to keep away the crowd!
A fiery tripod warns you to beware,
This is the nethermost place where now you are. You shall behold the Mothers by its light, Some of them sit, some walk, some stand upright, Just as they please. Formation, transformation, Eternal Mind’s eternal recreation.
Thronged round with images of things to be, They see you not, shadows are all they see. Then pluck up heart, the danger here is great, Approach the tripod, do not hesitate, And touch it with the key (emphasis added).

Jung says that “heroes are usually wanderers, and wandering is a symbol of longing, of the restless urge which never finds its object of nostalgia for the lost mother” (para 299, emphasis added). The dynamic play between the cosmic mind and its mother ‘object’ is the ‘Eternal Mind’s eternal recreation.’ He adds:

“The ‘realm of the Mothers’ has not a few connections with the womb (CW5, para 182).”

Again and Again in Jung’s writing we spiral around the primal relations of psychic life: light and dark, sun and moon, phallus and womb. Wholeness is realized in the both the dynamic relationality and divine unity of such opposing forces. Carl Jung saw this dynamic relationality in the hero myth as well. The creative force exists always in relation to its object: the sea, the night, the great womb of being. The hero is the image of the libidinal, instinctual, seeking, passionate aspect of psychic life as it knows wholeness through union with a sublime otherness. Such a phenomenological reading of mythology reveals a primordial pulsation in a dynamic play between the known and unknown, between revealed and hidden, between the primordial father and mother of psychic life.

There are many permutations on the hero myth, telling of the trials, tribulations, tragedies of the hero. If we condense the hero myth, however, and take it as a psychic fact, another view  emerges. The hero myth reveals a primal relationality within psychic life. The creative force is heroic in so far as it completes its journey, finds its object, partakes in creative union, expressing the primal pulsation of life. This is the diastole and systole of psychic life, the expansion and absorption, transcendence and immanence.

By partaking in the rhythm of the flow we may realize the telos of psychic life, the aims of psychic life. τελος, a Greek word meaning ‘consummated goal.’ Here the consummation is both psychic union and divine union, the hieros gamos of being.  Such divine union occurs not only at the end of life, at the end of a heroic journey, but in every moment of life– as the union of the conscious and unconscious, container and contained. Not as a collapse into a rigid sense of oneness, but as a realization of the primordial relationality of being.

This is the potential for wholeness found not only in the individual but in the collective social body as well. I believe that the social body has realized a state of collective transcendence. Over the last few thousand years we, the ‘collective ego’, have been in a process of transcending the mother– as earth, as ocean, as womb of life. In doing so we have split off from the totality of life. To find wholeness we, collectively and individually, must establish a connection, a reconnection to ‘lost Mother.’

With this shift, psychic life is no longer focused on ‘going beyond,’ but instead on discovering that which ‘lies within.’ As we shift from transcendence to immanence the collective imagination may begin to shift and reform– the Mother may open as a new horizon within psychic life. Here I am not speaking of the emergence of classic images of the ancient mother. Nor am I speaking of a return or regress to our Mother of origin. Instead, I am speaking of the emergence of something which is currently unrepresentable– beyond the ability of our current language to represent in verbal terms. Such knowledge always arises first in images, as seeds of new life, as represented through the minds of artists, poets and madmen. And then blossoms into words, bearing fruit in the actions of the social body.

For those trapped in the false transcendence of the ego, the emergence of the mother into consciousness may appear in negative form only. She appears as the abyss, the void, the terrible mother– the womb as vacuity. For those with a connection to the Self— for the heart speaks the language of love— the experience is not one of emptiness alone, but of fullness also, of the emergence of multiplicity, of interwoven interrelationality between the father’s loving awareness and the mother’s compassionate embrace. It is here that the soul realizes its aim, and is reborn of/in divine union.

Faust speaks with the earth spirit, Faust spricht mit dem Erdgeist, Margret Hofheinz-Döring, Öl, 1969. Creative Commons via wikimedia.
Faust speaks with the earth spirit, Faust spricht mit dem Erdgeist, Margret Hofheinz-Döring, Öl, 1969. Creative Commons via wikimedia.



  1. Carl Jung, Cw 5, Symbols of Transformation (in US Pubic Domain, first published 1912)
  2. Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgement (1790)
  3. Otto Rank, Myth of the Birth of the Hero (1914)

14 thoughts on “The Hero as Soul Image: aims and instincts

  1. Wonderful Jenna – thank you. I couldn’t read your observations fast enough, they were so inspiring and, in my experience, accurate. I will read it more slowly next time but wanted to thank you spontaneously. It’s not often that Jung is brought to such life.

    1. Thank you Elizabeth for reaching out, responding, to my post. I feel good knowing you enjoyed it.

  2. I read your blog for a longer time now and love it. And this entry is great! Is it okay for you if I reblog it?

    1. Alexis,
      Thank you for reading the blog and for your comment.
      Yes, please do re-blog the post.

  3. Thank you for this outstanding piece, Jenna. Your discussion of transcendence and immanence as the two movements of the soul has provided me with the important connecting link I needed to see the big picture of Jungian theory!

    I’m sure you’re familiar with the Hindu myth called the Devi Mahatmya, but I’ll summarize it here for those who aren’t, because it so clearly illustrates your point:

    A buffalo-headed yogi has become a monster whom none of the gods can overthrow. So the gods stand in a circle, send their energies back to where they came from, and a great black cloud appears. Out of it comes Durga, the goddess with eighteen arms. In each hand is a symbol of one of the gods. With the combined power of these symbols, she alone is able to defeat the monster.

    In this story, masculine power is a specific form of the life energy that is feminine. As Joseph Campbell says in Pathways to Bliss, the feminine is the source of the energy and the masculine is its specification in any particular direction. She is the energy out of which creation arises, he is every visible manifestation of that energy. She is the whole; he is each individual part.

    This intuition from many spiritual traditions is probably why the feminine has long been associated with the dark sea of the unconscious, and the masculine with the ego consciousness which emerges from this maternal matrix. It also explains the two kinds of myths—masculine myths of ascent and feminine of descent—and so on!

    And one last association, I end my newest book, Healing the Sacred Divide, with a new creation myth that envisions God as the universal energy of unfolding and Goddess as the energy of enfolding: again, transcendence and immanence!

    I’m so delighted with my new insight! Once again, thank you for providing it!

    Sending blessings on your wonderful work,


    1. Jeanie,
      Thank you for your thoughtful comment and for sharing an intriguing story. Your book ‘Healing the Sacred Divide’ sounds wonderful. Blessings on your work as well…

  4. The right words at the right time, thank you for being a part of my journey. Perhaps you can shed some quick light on something. I’ve been pondering over the last several days of the Ego’s expression of the hero in women. As a male the spontaneous thoughts follow the movie stereotypes of a hero, sometimes going into parental, per Beebe’s 8 Function Archetype model. How does this manifest typically in women? More of a rescuer than warrior? Just pondering, thanks for any input. Japhy

    1. Japhy,
      Thank you for your comment.
      The transcendent form of hero myth is often masculine in form: the male hero wins victory and claims his bride. Rank would say that this represents the boys desire to defeat the father opposer and win the love of his mother. The immanent from of the hero myth is represented by the phallus and womb, in symbolic terms these are archetypal aspects of being, and in analytic terms they represent the ego and the unconscious.

  5. This depth that you illustrate marvelously correlates nicely with my impressions of the identification of the story of a hero. The corresponding archetype that is activated isn’t different at the core, perhaps a slight twist with of a father, mother ect per the story but is something we share collectively. This story of a recent hero is an example, it constellates the same archetype that we are solicited with in our blockbuster movies

    1. Japhy,

      Thank you for sharing the lovely and heroic story of John Shear. It is wondrous how such a story can bring tears to the eyes and open the heart. The feelings this story evokes illustrate the truth value of the hero narratives: the potential goodness of the human being, the ethics of the heart. Mr. Shear’s heroic act of care gave meaning to his 90+ years of life.

      As I read Jung’s Symbols of Transformation something wonderful is occurring in my dreams: call it heart dreaming. I find myself becoming more and more tender in my dreams, with both myself and others. I am realizing how deeply the heart, soul, and hero are entwined. Thank you for further illustrating the realization.

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