[An ASKLEPIA FOUNDATION Book]
THE DREAM JOURNEY AS HEROIC QUEST
ABSTRACT: There is a parallel between the phases of the heroic quest
and the process of personal transformation encountered in therapy.
Experiential therapies, such as dream journeys, provide permission to immerse
oneself in the imagery of the deep subconscious psyche. Each dream
journey is based on the archetype of the hero's departure and return.
It is a metaphor for the growth and maturation of the ego in its spiritual
By the creative process we mean the capacity to find new and unexpected
connections, to voyage freely over the seas, to happen on America as we
seek new routes to India, to find new relationships in time and space,
and thus new meanings.
Whether our work is art or science or the daily work of society, it
is only the form in which we explore our experience which is different;
the need to explore remains the same. What science has to teach us
here is not its techniques but its spirit: the irresistible need to explore.
The real voyage of discovvery consists not in seeking new landscapes
but in having new eyes.
Come along on a journey deep into the center -- deep into the core of
all being. You are in a space of shifting and roiling colors.
They are boiling around you. You are in a place of undefined and
pure energy "stuff" that exists beyond space and time. In fact, time
itself is merely one of the colors that is mixing and boiling.
The colors are more or less uniformly, but not quite uniformly distributed
in space. And yet where the colors come together, they begin to create
something new. They begin to create images. They begin to create
structures and forms. And these structures and forms begin to attract
around the "mother" energy (matrix) which takes on the shape of the structure
or form. This structure is your new self image -- your rejuvinated
How you arrive at this place is through the dream journey, whether it is
done through active imagination in therapy, or lived out in real-life challenges.
Sometimes finding that chaotic place means "hitting bottom." Others
would call it "finding myself." Whatever we call it, this dimension
is open to explorers and those impressed into the service of the psyche.
It is an adventure--the path of your life.
DREAM JOURNEY AS HEROIC QUEST
The mythic dimension of the dream journey, like any voyage of discovery,
is a variation on the classic heroic quest. Joseph Campbell has popularized
this mytheme, outlining its principle phases. Jung called this inner
adventure "the night sea journey," wherein one learns to navigate
in the profoundly deep waters of the collective layers of the psyche.
The purpose and value of the entire journey is to relate the hero or heroine
(which is actually the person's ego) with the primal, paradoxical forces
of the transpersonal world. The ego learns that while it may be the
center of the personality, it is not the center of the whole being.
On the inner quest, the ego learns first-hand about its relative position
within the vast dominion of the psyche. A dream journey uses mind,
in the broader sense, to enter that domain, to find healing states of consciousness
that manifest, for example, through the placebo effect.
The deep layers of the psyche have been described in mythic terms throughout
the ages. They are the realms not only of transpersonal divinity,
but also of the chthonic or earthy gods who have a dark nature. Therefore,
the journey is as often associated with a descent into the depths as with
a soaring to mystical heights.
Many of the identifications in dream journeys are earthy--the fertile promise
of decay, the penetrating heat of a volcano's core, the depths of
a turbulent whirlpool, etc. Other images of the profound nature of the
inner depths are symbolized by such natural metaphors as a deep ocean,
or a cave, or the underworld of the dead.
In ancient times there were many sanctuary caves used for spiritual purposes.
Sometimes the openings were small and aspirants were pulled in feet first
to symbolize a reversal of the birth process. An old alchemical maxim
suggests the aspirant "visit the interior of the earth," for there one
could find the philosopher's stone, symbol of wholeness and healing.
Water within the deep cave symbolizes the waters of life which spring forth
bubbling with new life-giving properties.
Aesculapius [Roman god of healing] , even though he was the son of the
god of light, Apollo, has a dark, chthonic side. That is why he was
associated with springs and groves of trees. There is a close connection
between the water of life, the tree of life, and the renewal of life, as
symbolized by the serpent shedding its old skin. All yield a rejuvenating
In the ancient Greek myths, Asklepios is associated with the Eleusinian
cult of Demeter, the Earth Mother and her daughter Persephone, queen of
the underworld. Reflecting the mother/daughter identity, Demeter
and Persephone are really one in the same: "my mother/my self."
In the ancient incubation rituals, it was Mother Earth who sends dreams.
In some mythic sources, Persephone is identified with Coronis, mother of
Asklepios. In the Egyptian version of the dream healing cult, Serapis
(Asklepios) is identified with Osiris, lord of the underworld and husband
The ancient doctrine of the soul speaks of visions with the quality of
a "great dream." These visions, revolving around the symbolism of
disintegration and reintegration, bear all the marks of an initiation into
the mysteries of death and rebirth, which is the hero's quest.
In the dreamhealing cult, Asklepios was often imaged as a newborn infant
in swaddling clothes. In this form he was identical with the incubant
seeking healing. The incubants were frequently fed infant food such
as milk, honey, and cheese.
Because incubation deals with the soul, it confers healing not only of
physical ailments, but also of bad fate or destiny. The dream or
vision itself is the cure. It is only a slight perturbation, but
it has the power to change everything.
Another form of "healing" came through imaginal reunion with the ancestors.
Reunion has the connotation of "making whole." Practically, it may
involve a journey down to the genetic levels of awareness, or it may imply
giving one's less-remote ancestors a voice through the therapeutic process.
One dreamhealing client, a recovering alcoholic, focused a great deal of
her efforts at personal integration around giving her ancestors a voice.
She wanted to finally be able to express all the unspoken dreams of her
female ancestors, in particular. She gave vent to their fears, frustrations,
and grief through many generations of dysfunctionality and compulsive behavior.
She gave her mission a broader cultural value, also. Because she
works in the recovery field, she is publishing papers on the spiritual
significance of giving ancestors a voice, so others may benefit from her
trailbreaking effort. These ancestors dwell deep within, in the realm
of the dead, the underworld.
Dream incubation is a mystery. One is summoned to initiation by dreams,
then reborn or healed, after a visit to the underworld. It is especially
valuable to do this work around mid-life when the ego has the opportunity
to develop a deeper relationship with the religious function.
One may be bidden by the god to sleep in a sacred precinct, but that alone
does not assure a cure. Courage is an expressed requirement, for
Asklepios has vowed he will not cure the cowardly who fear the treatments,
such as a cold bath. The underlying meaning is that one must undergo
the initiatory ordeals in order to receive the boon of healing. For
example, that innocuous bath is more likely a symbolic "drowning."
THE HEROIC CYCLE OF DEPARTURE AND RETURN
Many people are familiar with Joseph Campbell's THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND
FACES, which describes the basics of the hero's cyclic journey. It
begins with the call to adventure, which is not always answered voluntarily.
Many of us are reluctant to go where none have gone before.
This reflects the state of an individual who is summoned to therapy by
dreams and symptoms. The pressing problem provides the incentive
or drive to get the process in motion. Some heed the call from the
subconscious, others try to repress or ignore it.
Some "heroes" are actually abducted into the journey, somewhat like what
happens in a chemical dependency intervention and detoxification.
Even in the beginning of the journey, s/he encounters helpers and opponents
along the way. The hero enters the kingdom of darkness either alive
or dead (or in the living death of addiction), and journeys through a world
of unfamiliar and threatening forces.
Once the threshold of adventure is crossed, the game is afoot. It
may involve symbolic dragon-slaying, crucifixion, or dismemberment.
Dragon-slaying may mean breaking free of old negative, critical parent
tapes, that play over-and-over in your mind, inhibiting you and creating
guilt. Crucifixion may mean being pulled in opposite directions between
equally compelling, but exclusive, choices. Dismemberment may be
a metaphor for psychic fragmentation.
There may be imagery of apocalypse and natural disaster as the ego glimpses
its immanent doom. This ego-death is a requirement for opening to
the broader realm of transpersonal reality. For Freud, being the
hero meant slaying the father, like Oedipus. To Jung, the heroic
battle meant slaying the "dragon" for deliverance from the mother.
In psyche's "union of opposites," both interpretations are "right."
These images are relevant to addiction in its broader symbolic meaning.
We also become addicted to our rigid patterns of behavior and response--addicted
to particular, limited, conditioned emotional patterns. In other
words regressive tendencies, our childish self [NOT child-like, or inner
child], which was randomly programmed in our earliest years.
Addiction can be seen as a regressive decent back into the maternal womb
and the original bliss of unconsciousness. It is incestuous in nature.
Slaying the dragon here means escaping that regressive tendency.
Although most-frequently pictured as a snake or dog, Asklepios was also
worshipped as a dragon on the island of Cos as late as the fourteenth century
The homeopathic principle of like-curing-like means that the poison is
also the remedy. In HEALING AND WHOLENESS, John Sanford recounts how Athena
gave Asklepios the dual-natured blood of Medusa: that from the left side
killed, that from the right healed. In dealing with addiction (chemical
or otherwise), this means divine intercession, building relationship with
the Higher Power, curing the alienation which led toward self-defeating
or self-destructive behavior.
After the conflict, trials, tests, and ordeals, the hero gains his reward,
which is a new sense of enlarged mystical and mythical reality. The
hero discovers the "New World." It transcends the boundaries of normal
space, time, and mortality. According to Erich Neumann, in "Mystical
...What makes the battle perilous, and thus establishes the ego as heroic,
is the descent into the depth of the unconscious, the encounter with the
nonego. ...It is characteristic of the creative process that in it the
ego cannot cling to its position in consciousness, but must expose itself
to encounter with the nonego. ...This encounter, wherever it may
occur, we designate as mystical.
Ultimately, it matters little if one mythically "slays" the mother or the
father. The imagery of both the personal and transpersonal parental
figures are met within. The hero comes to awareness that both are
contained within, and they become harmonized on a new level so the person
develops a more androgynous quality.
This androgyny is different from gender confusion, or unisex. Androgyny
is one of the qualifying characteristics of the shaman, who is an exemplary
culture hero. The merging of masculine and feminine energies within
is symbolized as the sacred marriage, or hieros gamos.
To become a mystic, the hero must cease identifying with either the light
or the dark exclusively, and re-own the unlived positive and negative aspects
of self. This creates atonement, or at-one-ment.
So after a period of seemingly endless wandering, overcoming obstacles
sometimes by divine intervention, and gaining the treasure which is difficult
to find and hard to hold onto, the hero (or heroine) returns to ordinary
life with the wisdom and renewed vision of the sage. The healing
comes during the expansion of consciousness, which means freedom, illumination,
The hero re-emerges, is resurrected from the kingdom of the dead, the transpersonal
domain, and brings along the elixir of life. The hero expands consciousness
both regressively and progressively, uniting history and futurity to live
out a unique destiny.
However, the dangers along the way, both entering the depths and returning
with the treasure to normal life are very real. Therefore, a guide
who is familiar with the way is a good helper to have along. A dream
guide or therapist can lead you into new territory with assurance, since
they have travelled there many times before.
In every dream journey we recreate the hero's quest. We have the
opportunity to respond to the call or to wander aimlessly, to show our
courage or falter, to make allies or succumb to opponents, to plumb the
depths, to secure the boon, and make a successful return, integrating the
wisdom we find into our daily life.
THE OVERACHIEVING HEROIC EGO
There is little doubt that the hero carries a double-edged sword in his
superachieving nature. Like any other tool, it depends largely how
it is used whether it is creative or destructive. Western man has
paid a very high price for identification with the hero, including lack
of feeling awareness, fear of intimacy, and authority issues.
The cost for men of living up to the old heroic ideal has recently spawned
the men's movement, which even transcends the role of the so-called sensitive
man for an authentic masculinity that embraces, integrates, and transcends
the opposites. The defensive compensations can be let go, reducing
the tension between grandiosity and true greatness of the self within.
Mature masculinity is not abusive, domineering or grandiose, but generative,
creative and empowering of self and others.
Women have encountered the same loss of feminine values entering the workplace.
The overachieving superwoman, seeking to have it all, is an over-reactionary
caricature of the hero, also. And society has willingly pushed her
into this until many men and women have become equally driven by this inner
archetype. Maybe the philosopher, Geothe instigated this drive to
be superhuman into our culture--but it is a restatement of myths like Hercules
The problem seems to come in when this urge or drive for questing and self
development is turned outward into the world of daily life. This
probably is not inappropriate in the stages of career-building and family
rearing, but the emptiness that surfaces in mid-life shows its shortcoming.
When the drive is turned inward to the quest for self transformation, it
assumes its rightful place in the psyche and functions in a balanced, noble
Many Jungians, such as Marion Woodman and James Hillman, feel that the
myth of the heroic dragon-slaying hero has moved into overkill. Yes,
we must struggle to win our consciousness from the regressive pull of the
Great Mother's world. We cannot escape our spiritual destiny by unconsciously
sinking back into her oblivion with our drug of choice. The Great
Work was the ancient name for transformative pursuits. It requires
active conscious effort--work.
But, this transformative urge, taken to excess and misplaced has resulted
in the technological rape of the planet, nearly killing Mother Earth.
We have "conquered" our horizontal world, rather than the vertical dimension
of spirit. Theodore Roszak has covered this topic extensively in
his works on Eco-Psychology, such as SONG OF THE EARTH. In our misplaced
spiritual zeal, we have exploited and ravaged the earth, with our ravenous
hunger for resources. The missonary zeal of Colonialism repressed
femininine values and cultures.
This tendency of the hero within toward overachievement -- too much, too
soon --is one reason why it is prudent to go slowly in dream healing.
For some clients one or two sessions a month are quite sufficient, since
they require time to digest and integrate.
Dragon-slaying must be understood as a symbolic process of transformation,
then the feminine is not torn asunder from matter. We are not really
free of the mother when we worship her in concrete materialism, consumerism,
compulsive behavior, and spiritual materialism. As we learn to truly
honor the feminine and find balance within our own personalities, we learn
to stop repressing it and allow it fully into consciousness.
This is one way of nurturing the growth of your own soul and creativity.
The soul is the embodiment of spirit, the receiver of spirit. It is the
split between matter and spirit that is the sickness of our modern society.
We heal this split by taking a stand against our compulsive appetites,
and power drive, according to the Jungians.
The psychological goal of the hero is to train the ego to function at the
threshold of the conscious and subconscious worlds effectively. As
hero, your first feat is to clarify your psychological difficulties, clear
the blocks, voyage to the edge of your own known world, and win the treasure
of direct experience and assimilation of the archetypal images. Interaction
with these same images was the goal of the mystic arts like magic and alchemy.
It takes place in dreamhealing automatically.
We learn the difference between our dream-ego and waking-ego [two different
complexes]. Both experience emotions and subjective choice.
Both feel like "me," but the dream-ego compensates the waking ego with
its inner view. Both are subject to distorting their perceptions
Dream life is an ongoing dialogue between the ego and the unconscious mind.
The dream ego, especially in a "waking dream" or dream journey, does have
a real-time "impact on the complexes of the unconscious and can alter
their structural arrangement," according to James A. Hall.
The waking ego has these complexes for its foundation. When they
change, this is reflected in the waking-ego, especially as alterations
in mood. Dreamhealing is therefore a direct alteration of the waking
ego itself. The Self acts through the dream directly on the ego.
This process is not without its dangers, at least in the early stages.
It creates crises and dangers (such as abreaction) which have the potential
of destroying the personality as it has been in the past. When the
hero descends into the underworld (unconscious), he must discard the defenses
of conscious development, such as intellect.
He gains a mythical type of awareness which allows him to directly experience
the paradoxical aspect of the inner world without going insane. For
example, he comes to understand, first hand, that he contains both his
parental images as well as the primordial archetypal parental archetypes.
This leads to a true understanding of androgynous nature, which is one
form of wholeness as projected by the transcendent function. It is
a way of uniting opposites within oneself, rather than overcoming them
The goal of the hero's quest is a higher synthesis of the ego, with access
to both conscious and unconscious. Maturing through the hero means
you learn to transform your conflicts into a nobler and more stable personality
with deep roots in the sources of life.
As hero, you are involved in a paradoxical process of ordering, which is
precisely why you may be susceptible to breakdown and wounding. You
are assaulted by the forces of chaos, entropy, and disorder. It is
a paradoxical truth that acts of ordering can result in potential weakening
of the ego. As hero, you learn to withstand the effects of the disorder
which your creative efforts manifest.
You'll have to battle your own personal and historical limitations to obtain
the vision of the well-springs of human existence. Then, your second
task, of returning to normal life as a transformed example of the way begins.
In the initial stage, you assimilate, then you disseminate.
If a would-be hero does not submit to all the initiatory tests and steals
the treasures, the powers of the unconscious are mobilized to blast him
from within and without. This can be imagined as crucifixion or eternal
torment. And how many of us have our crosses to bear!
One face of the hero is the martyr who must learn how to give up.
However, a self-centered ego can become centered in transpersonal reality.
Then one may emerge as a culture hero or heroine in their own small way
by making a truly unique contribution to life on the planet.
Your inner hero-self may at first refuse the call to adventure. The
rough, unfamiliar terrain, the crossroads, and the gauntlet of initiatory
barriers mirror the ordeals of the inner quest. But over time you
come to realize that you can overcome your infantile sentimentalities and
resentments. You may realize that the good and bad are contained in the
law (masculine) and image (feminine) of the nature of being.
The agony of breaking through your personal limitation is the very process
that leads to spiritual growth. To complete your task, however, you
must return with the treasure to your mundane life, with an increased sense
of integration, no longer merely ego-oriented.
You may seek a path of spiritual or religious devotion in order to continue
the deepening process begun in therapy. The mystic communes directly
with the divine, or Higher Power. Spirituality bears on your integrity,
how you conduct yourself in all areas of existence, outer and inner.
IRON JOHN, Robert Bly
FIRE IN THE BELLY, Sam Keen
THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES, Joseph Campbell
THE POWER OF MYTH, Joseph Campbell
THE SYMBOLIC QUEST, Edward Whitmont
PERSONAL MYTHOLOGY, David Feinstein and Stanley Krippner
Joseph Campbell Homepage
File Created: 6/19/00 Last Updated: 7/24/00