The Heroine's Journey

Updated: Jul 17


Vasilisa the Beautiful

"There is a potential heroine in every woman." - "Goddeses in Everywoman" Jean Shinoda Bolen

Myths, fairy tales and stories have since the time immemorial been part of the human endeavours. Through these pursuits humans have found a way to express that which sat deeply in their psyche by using symbols and images that could be recognised by those around them. These stories also often use archetypes - the ancient and primordial mental images inherited from ancestors, present in the collective. Many of the highly, globally popular stories, including the famous series of Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, incorporate archetypes. Hero's journey is the journey of the individualisation. It is a journey from the collective consciousness to individualised consciousness, awareness or enlightenment. When humans operate on the level of the collective consciousness, they are in a way, at the mercy of their culture - their ethics, their values, their ideals are defined by their cultural and social inheritance. Such a person rarely questions or reconsiders these as they appear natural. Being individualistic, then, ironically, does not mean individualisation, because if it is the culture that serves us individualism as ultimate value, and we accept it on that notion only, we are still operating within the collective values. Hero's journey and heroine's journey are similar in many ways, however, there are delicate differences in what a woman has to go through in order to become an individualised person.

The Powerless Maiden

When heroine is introduced to the story, she is often joyous, happy and glad to be in her home, surrounded by her family. She is full of enthusiasm, desire for experience and naivety. The beautiful era, however, in which she is loved and admired by everyone ends when the life shows her its ugliness for the first time. In the famous story of Cinderella, this begins with a death of her mother, introduction of the stepmother into her life, and finally her father's death, and her stepmother's tyrannical authority. Vasilisa the Beautiful faces a similar challenge when her mother dies, and her father marries a tyrannical woman. Both Cinderella and Vasilisa however, inherit something from their mothers - Cinderella gives her mother a promise to remain kind and to cultivate her faith and Vasilisa gets a wooden doll that would help her if she were in need of help. Whether there is the death of mother described in the story or not - the heroines often do not have a mother to comfort and guide them or if they do she is overly protective like in case of Rapunzel. The heroine eventually must embark on her own path, symbolising her, often difficult, separation from the mother. In the Greek myth, this separation from mother is seen in the myth of Persephone and Demeter. In another Greek myth, that of Psyche, the mother is not mentioned, but Psyche also does not have a voice in her own life. Her father is worried about her remaining unmarried, Apollo gives his oracle, and Eros, hiding his true identity behind the mask of the monster takes her to his mansion. In the fairy tale of Rumpelstiltskin, the heroine is put in the situation after her father lies to the king about her alchemical powers of turning spin straw into gold. Whatever the greater context is - the heroine during this time is victim of her circumstances. She barely has a voice and does not stand up for herself. She is lost, scared and completely disempowered.

The Domestic Confinement and Tasks to Complete

"Psyche Discovering the Sleeping Cupid", Joseph Goupy (1689 - 1769), English

After the heroine finds herself at the mercy of the people around her - she finds herself in the era that can be described as domestic confinement. Whether it is a tower in which an overly protective mother places her or the mansion of her lover - she is there often not because she chose but because her circumstances brought her. The heroine, during this stage, also has to either serve as a maid, clean and cook like Cinderella, or she is given tasks, many of them being scary and, difficult and the consequence of not performing them perfectly is death. The heroine in Rumpelstiltskin must spin the straw into gold for three days, Vasilisa must perform tasks for Baba Yaga and Psyche, after bringing lamp to Cupid's face and seing his true identity, is given four tasks by the Aphrodite. The heroines, however, often get magical help - Cinderella is helped by her animal friends, the Rumpelstiltskin heroine is helped by an imp-like creature, Vasilisa by her doll and Psyche gets different kinds of help for each task. Sometimes, like in the story of Rumpelstiltskin, the heroine must make a trade with a Trickster archetype, in order to be helped. In the film "Pan's Labyrinth", directed by Guillermo del Torro, we can see this interaction between the heroine and the Trickster, embodied by Pan. Trickster also often gives her riddles she must creatively solve. Heroines must look for the creative ways, relying on their intuition rather their reason, to solve tasks or riddles. An archetype that repeats in Vasilisa and Psyche is the task of separating the seed. The poppy must be separated from the grain, rotten corn from the sound corn. This symbolic moment is usually at the beginning of the transition period and often among the first tasks. This experience symbolises the moment in which heroine must sort her own emotions that come up at the beginning of the journey. When first given tasks, the heroines react with despair - for how could she do the impossible? But then they begin, without thinking too much, to sort the seed, and that is when the magic happens.

"Psyche in the Underworld", Eugene-Ernest Hillemacher (1818 - 1887), French

The myth of Psyche is particularly detailed on the tasks as it was written down as a novel by Apuleius and it explains in great detail each part of the task. These details are significant as they symbolise the specific lessons heroine must learn in order to become individualised. We shall explore each of them.

The second task Psyche must perform is that she must get the golden fleece. However, the rams on which the golden fleece grows are aggressive and violent, and she would easily be trampled by them if she were to try to get it from them. Once again, falling into despair and fear, she is helped by the reed who tells her to wait for the night, for the sun is what gives energy and power to the rams. The reed tells her to hide by it, under the tree and tells her: "as soone as their great fury is past, thou maist goe among the thickets and bushes under the wood side and gather the lockes their golden Fleeces, which thou shalt finde hanging up on the briers". Psyche easily gathers the fleece and brings it to Aphrodite. The powerful symbolism in this part of her journey is that Psyche must learn how to be competent and to find her competence in a creative and unique way. What she finds is the unique feminine power, which is different than the purely aggressive and forward moving power of the masculine. She waits for the feminine darkness to come in order to complete her task and most importantly, in her power, she does not trample the masculine symbolised by the rams and sun - she finds in her own wisdom, a different kind of power that allows her to gather the fleece. Being empowered without being oppressive or in opposition to the masculine, finding creative and intuitive solutions to problems are the symbolic lessons of this stage.

"Psyche Gahtering the Fleece of the Rams of the Sun", Charles Joseph Natoire (1700 - 1777), French

The third task Psyche must complete is to fetch the water from the black river. When she came to the river Stix, she saw it was impossible to get the water - there were huge rocks around the river and dragons who guarded it. Apuleius describes the scary view of the river with these words: "the waters seemed to themselves likewise saying,: "Away, away, what wilt thou doe? Flie, flie, or else thou wilt be slaine"." Psyche once again fell into despair, she burst into tears, hopeless about completing the task. Then, the great eagle of Zeus comes to her assistance and fills the cup with water for her. The eagle is a symbol of someone with an "eagle's view", someone who can see the truth detached from their emotions and impulses. That this eagle is the gift of supreme deity in Greco-Roman mythology is no accident as well. At this stage, the heroine earns the first taste of the transcendent, conscious, divine perspective. She learns how to see things from a higher perspective and as a whole, instead of being someone who cannot see the forest for the trees. Being able to be aware of herself, of her emotions and thoughts and giving them form is the lesson heroine learns here. "The essential quality of this stream is that it cannot be contained. Psyche then, as a feminine vessel, is ordered to contain the stream, to give form and rest to what is formless and flowing" - "Amor and Psyche", Erich Neuman

"Eagle Brings Cup to Psyche", Benjamin West (1738 - 1820), Anglo-American

The final task Psyche is given is to go to the Underworld and bring Persephone's ointment from there. The tower helps her by telling her of the easiest way to get there and also helps her by telling her that she will be offered help three times, but that each time she must refuse. And the final advice was that once she gets the beauty ointment box, not to open it at any cost. Psyche says "No", every time she is offered help, but consumed with the love for Eros and wanting him back, she opens the box and falls asleep. Eros, who was earlier offended by her disobedience for bringing the lamp and seeing his face, despite it being the first act of conscious, rather than instincive love, runs to her and brings her to gods for their marriage. In the final part of the journey, the heroine who began as maiden without a voice, finds a way to say "No" and to stand her ground. We see the similar story in Cinderella, when by going to the ball and showing herself to the prince at the end, she shows the first act of disobedience to her stepmother and acts on her own will and desire.

Rediscovery of the Mother & Transformation into a Queen or Goddess

"Juno and Argus", Peter Paul Rubens (1577 - 1640), Flemish

For many heroines, before they take onto the final stage, and that is the transformation into a queen or a goddess - they have the experience of the rediscovery of the mother. For Cinderella, the fairy godmother appears as a new maternal figure, the one who helps her and holds her hand into her transformation - the one who gives her the means for her to shine and to step into her power. Vasilisa becomes an assistant to a maker of cloth in which she once again finds the positive female influence in her life. Only after that do the Prince Charming in Cinderella's case and Tsar in Vasilisa's, come to marry them and make them a Queen or a Tsarevna. The process of rediscovery of the mother is the symbolic process of learning how to trust people again, since the heroines often go through a significant amount of trauma at the hands of their closest ones, and it is not rare that it comes from a maternal figure. The new mother may also be the real mother the heroine finds after she escapes the "witch mother" or even the prince's mother. If the mother element is absent from the heroine's journey, then, like Psyche, she has to go through a slightly different path of learning the feminine power and wisdom. The result however, is always the same - the powerless maidens become queens and goddesses. It is Love that offers the heroine an opportunity for enlightenment, and she by following this "call to love", as a contrast to the hero's journey of "call to adventure" comes to see her apotheosis or transformation into a queen. This love does not have to be simply romantic love, it can be love towards God, wisdom, exploration, knowledge, but her journey is always inwards. The hero of course also most conquer himself but heroine faces the dilemma of being a victim at every stage. Every time she is in the situation, where like psyche, she cannot move forward or move back, she is given an option to be a victim or heroine of her journey. At the end of the story, they come to be fully individualised, compassionate and devoted to love, but empowered, enlightened and aware.

Links: "Goddeses in Everywoman", Jean Shionda Bolen "Amor and Psyche", Erich Neumann "The Golden Ass", Apuleius Support Orphic Inscendence Become a Patron

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