The Hero’s Journey is one of our oldest myths. It shows how we grow from ignorance to enlightenment through various stages of development, both individually and collectively. It was called a monomyth by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and is often used to structure stories in film and novels. I’ve already explored the Hero’s Journey through the films Thor and Jane Eyre, but here I want to dig a little deeper into the symbolism and how it shapes our consciousness.
Archetypes and Individuation
Archetypes are abstract forms, patterns of emotion, or morphic fields that underpin our collective unconscious. They represent our shared experience as humans and depict behaviours and reactions recognisable across cultures. They appear in our dreams, fantasies, and myths, from where they exude a powerful influence on our lives. Archetypes tap into our psyche at a profound level, and as multidimensional symbols, are not easily accessible to the rational mind.
Since these symbols operate from the unconscious, we tend to project them onto others and situations in our lives, and are often totally unaware of why we behave the way we do. The archetypes work through our unconscious actions, and they only become active when we follow their universal forms.
As individuals we can grow in two different ways. The first is a natural process of growth guided by archetypal forms and social structures. This happens without any conscious control and is the way we grow through childhood. None of us choose to learn to walk or talk – it just happens (not that it’s easy).
The second type of growth is more conscious and deliberate. It’s a process of inner development that still follows archetypal patterns, but requires active engagement from us. C.G. Jung called this the process of individuation.
Individuation is guided by the archetype of the Self – a symbol of psychic wholeness. The Self (big ‘S’) includes everything, while the self (small ‘s’) is the limited personal self. [Follow this link for an explanation of the difference between ego, self and Self.] Individuation involves growing towards wholeness and integration – from identification with the ego to the Self. It’s an expansion of consciousness and self-awareness which brings about a balancing of the opposite sides of the psyche.
This won’t happen unless we make the effort. We must choose to individuate. It’s a process that takes courage and determination – a real hero’s journey.
Tarot and Individuation
So how can we become more conscious of this process of growth and embark on our own hero or heroine’s journey? We need a way to access the symbolism of the unconscious and learn its language. One system that has been used for centuries to do just this, is the Tarot.
“The set of pictures on the Tarot cards [are] distantly descended from the archetypes of transformation.” – C.G. Jung
The Tarot is a metaphorical and symbolic system which can be used to access the wisdom of the collective unconscious. The cards can be used as a focus for meditation and contemplation, leading to the development of self-knowledge and spiritual growth.
Tarot packs consist of 78 cards made up of 22 Major Arcana (or Greater Secrets), and 56 Minor Arcana (or Lesser Secrets). The Minor Arcana are similar to modern playing cards, consisting of sets of Wands (or Batons), Pentacles (or Coins), Swords and Cups. But the Major Arcana are the ones that interest us here. They depict the archetypal hero’s journey using images to show the stages of psychological and spiritual growth we can all travel, if we choose.
Each card shows an archetypal representation of a universal situation, feeling, or behaviour pattern found in the collective unconscious. They are grouped into two stages. The first half of the Major Arcana explores the path of self-development as we grow from child to adult, while the second half turns inward and looks at the journey towards spiritual transcendence and individuation. Although these stages are set out one after another, the hero’s journey doesn’t necessarily proceed in a straight line. The entire process can be experienced at any point in your life and the journey may be undertaken may times. You circle round and round, gradually awakening and growing in self-awareness until you reach maturity and full enlightenment.
Nobody knows where Tarot cards came from originally or who first created them. They appear to have come out of the cultural explosion of the medieval Renaissance, a time when there was a lot of exploration of different philosophies and religions. The cards were probably created in Europe but they incorporate imagery from multiple traditions, including Christian, Gnostic, Islamic, Celtic and Norse. Unsurprisingly, the Roman Catholic Church condemned the Tarot, calling it ‘the Devil’s Bible’ or ‘the Devil’s Picture Book.’
It seems likely that the Tarot was used to teach initiates of occult mystery schools and that the cards were designed to represent the various stages of a system of initiation using a secret symbolic language. In fact the Tarot imagery is very similar to that of alchemy which was used as a way of developing the consciousness of the initiate to lead them into enlightenment.
Each card represents a riddle that must be solved before the initiate can move onto the next stage of the journey. The symbols contained in the cards can awaken the intuition and bring the unconscious to life, leading to an inner illumination which expands the conscious mind.
Over the following weeks we’ll look at each card in turn and explore the process of awakening through the symbolism of the Tarot.
And we begin with: The Fool.