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The Heroine’s Journey within the collective and yourself

“Women do have a quest at this time in our culture. It is the quest to fully embrace their feminine nature, learning how to value themselves as women and heal the deep wound of the feminine.”

These words by Maureen Murdock are her answer to Joseph Campbell’s statement that, mythologically, women don’t need a journey because they themselves are the goal. To be fair to Campbell, his evidence for this was the thousands of myths placing men and masculine heroes at the center, all reaching for union with the feminine principle. But Murdock knew there was deeper research to be done, and she followed this quest for herself in her book The Heroine’s Journey: Woman’s Quest for Wholeness.

And though we have so much brilliant scholarship and study like Murdock’s, we still feel confused about what the archetypal heroine is. We still see her either dressed up as the masculine hero, asserting herself as a warrior while wearing a sexy leather jumpsuit, or as the docile princess, dreaming of a man to carry her outside her palace walls. We can’t really imagine a heroic feminine figure whose strength is more than might and whose longing is something other than love. 

But the discovery of this archetype within ourselves and within the world is what the heroine’s journey is all about, and a quest we all should embark upon both inwardly and collectively.

At its core, the heroine’s journey is about the reclamation of the authentic feminine principle and autonomous selfhood. Like Campbell’s hero’s journey, it moves through stages of initiation, descent, and resurrection, but with the key difference of being oriented toward the inner journey, rather than the outer.

Here is Murdock’s stages of the journey:

Let’s take a look at a famous heroine, Dorothy of The Wizard of Oz. Her journey seems to revolve around claiming her feeling center—the part of her that recognizes and honors her own values and inner experience.

She begins with her separation from the feminine, living on a farm where there is no strong mother figure to guide her development. She gets swept away into the magical land of Oz where she gathers masculine allies and prepares to “fight” the Wicked Witch of the West who wants to take her ruby slippers—the magical boon that represents her feminine autonomy and power. She grows in intellect, compassion, and courage (what her male companions lack), and makes her descent into the lair of the dark goddess. Here she feels weak and afraid, and calls for Aunty Em, her mother-figure who dismissed her feeling side at the start of the story. Finally Dorothy is freed by her companions and uses the skills they’ve helped instill in her to defeat the witch, melting her with water, the symbol of that feeling side. In the end Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion are all made whole, and Dorothy is allowed to keep the slippers that give her the power to choose her reality and save herself. She returns home at last deeply in touch with her feeling center, knowing how good it is to be home.

While Dorothy does not slay dragons or captain a fleet of ships, she moves through an inner journey where she learns essential truths about herself and about her particular power. But you may be thinking at this point that Dorothy’s story doesn’t seem to be directly tied to her identity as a woman, and you’d be absolutely right. Because the work of redeeming the feminine principle is not all about meeting goddesses and confronting evil step-mothers. It’s about discovering and integrating the collective complexes around the feminine we all carry. It’s about meeting the archetypes of the feminine that have been repressed within society as a whole.

I want to go back in time a little bit and look at the heroine’s journeys most of us have grown up with—fairy tales. These stories tend to include important themes that Jungian thinker Kayleen Asbo outlined:

  1. Betrayal / Abandonment
  2. Descent to the Underworld
  3. Flight to Nature
  4. Encounter with the Shadow
  5. Deep Sleep / Amnesia
  6. Struggle to Speak / Dismemberment
  7. Healing the Wounded Masculine
  8. Integration of the Opposites

These themes all point back to the thread Murdock uncovered of the separation from the feminine and the effort of redeeming it. In the story of Snow White, the heroine flees into nature to escape the wicked queen and connect to the benevolent feminine principle; in the story of the Wild Swans, a princess spends years in utter silence sewing shirts to save her cursed brothers and heal the wounded masculine; in the story of the handless maiden, a girl is maimed in a trick by the devil but remains pious and loving, and eventually restored when she’s reunited with her husband, the king, and they see each other truly at last.

All of these stories point to the experience of attack (for their socially correct feminine qualities) and redemption (by their authentic feminine qualities). The heroine is despised, cursed, and maimed for her beauty, grace, and love, but she is spared, celebrated, and restored by her honesty, perseverance, and deep sense of care.

What this points us toward is the collective heroine’s journey, the redemption of the authentic feminine principle in the world. As Marie Louise von Franz writes in her fantastic book, The Feminine in Fairy Tales, “As the conscious religious views of Western Europe in the past two thousand years have not given enough expression of the feminine principle, we can expect to find an especially rich crop of archetypal feminine figures in fairy tales giving expression to the neglected feminine principle.”

One of the key stories von Franz uses to explore this neglected feminine principle is the story of Briar Rose. We all know Sleeping Beauty, but it can be difficult to find the heroine in the tale. Briar Rose is a young princess who is cursed by a vengeful fairy to spend eternity asleep, and so for most of the tale she is lost in a deep slumber and must await saving rather than save herself. 

As Asbo points out, here we see the heroine go into a deep sleep, an amnesia. She forgets her essential nature and a wall of thorns traps her in this infinite sleep until someone can come to wake her. But her story is not only for the individual, it’s aimed at the collective. She is the sleeping inner heroine, whom we must all cut through the thorns of criticism and misunderstanding to awaken. Our task is to discover the heroine within ourselves that is asleep, and learn her authentic nature.

If this study of the heroine’s journey and fairy tales intrigues you, make sure to check out my upcoming seminar with Alyssa Polizzi, Waking the Feminine: a Study of Marie Louise von Franz’s The Feminine in Fairy Tales. Let’s go deeper, my friend.

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