In his classic book The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1st ed. 1947, 2nd ed. 1970), Joseph Campbell described the hero’s journey in world myths as a “monomyth” insofar as the mythic process, symbols, and paths are universal to world cultures and a foundational aspect of primitive and ancient civilizations and cultures.
The hero’s journey begins with the “call to adventure,” the struggle against obstacles and trials, the discovery of the treasure, and the return to share the boon. But across the globe, the myth with its different heroes, settings, thresholds, menaces, boons, and obstacles, reflects the human psyche, the deep plunge into the unconscious, the extracting of courage and fearlessness to pursue self-development, the many obstacles, puzzles, mazes, conundrums encountered, until the breakthrough of the personality into self-discovery and self-actualization.
The hermit is an important figure at the outset of the hero’s journey, represented in folklore and mythology as the wise encouraging guide, the dispenser of protection, counsel, and well-being. The hermit may be presented as the solitary wise one dwelling in a forest or cave, that is, the source of strength in the receded consciousness that represents stability and a reservoir of compassion and wisdom, stern but reassuring. Thus, as the adventure begins,
Whether dream or myth, in these adventures there is an atmosphere of irresistible fascination about the figure that appears suddenly as a guide, marking a new period, a new stage, in the biography. …
The first encounter of the hero-journey is with a protective figure (often a little old crone or old man) who provides the adventurer with amulets against the dragon forces he is about to pass …
The crone or fairy godmother in European fairy tales, the Virgin in Christianity, the African Mother of the Gods, the Native American Spider Woman, the Eastern Cosmic Mother, Dante’s Beatrice, Goethe’s Gretchen -— all manifest supernatural guidance, especially representative of the peace of Paradise and the cosmic womb. Masculine figures of aid and guidance are usually “some little fellow of the wood, some wizard, hermit, shepherd, or smith.” In higher mythologies, the masculine guide is the teacher, and especially the ferryman, such as Hermes or Thoth. [An accessible example, not mentioned by Campbell, is the character of the ferryman in Hesse’s novel Siddhartha.]
But things can go wrong. The individual can refuse the call, can turn away from self-development, can subordinate themselves to routines and forces around them in a stifled psychological morass. As anthropologist Ernst Becker noted (in his book The Birth and Death of Meaning, 2nd ed., 1970):
If you stay on the first or personal level for any length of time you may lead a way of life of an eccentric or a hermit, which few can do; even then it is doubtful whether they can do it without the symbols of allegiance or the solid memories of some of the higher levels [of psychological and spiritual consciousness] laid down in early years. The first level for man is unadulterated narcissism; it is pathological and it invites or is already mental illness.
Becker here clearly demarcates the recluse versus the historical hermit who has attained an ascent from personal to social to world-dwelling or secular to the sacred or spiritual level, what Becker identifies as the hierarchy of self-development, the “levels of power and meaning that an individual can choose to live by.”
Hence the common guidance by the experienced to the aspiring hermit: don’t do it if you are carrying emotional (or other) baggage. The true hermit is not one who has simply remained an a stage of infantile or child-like development or naivety, nor one who has failed at a social or secular stage and remained incapable of integrating the lessons and harm, simply one who fears or shuns the world and social contact. The true hermit must have transcended the stages and levels of self-development to confirm and assert a powerful spiritual purpose. Examples of unsuccessful, even moribund, recluses in this regard are occasionally well-documented, as in Raleigh Trevelyan’s “A Hermit Disclosed” or the contemporary Christopher Knight, the so-called “Maine hermit,” described in Michael Finkel’s biography Stranger in the Woods, who represents not a hermit but a pathological recluse. Note how popular culture erroneously, even fatally, conflates these pathological figures with “hermits.” On the contrary, these recluses represent what Campbell, echoed by Becker, points out as the refusal of the call, but, further, even lack the grace or character of the refusers found in the myths. As Campbell puts it:
The literature of psychoanalysis abounds in examples of such desperate fixations. What they represent is an impotence to put off the infantile ego, with its sphere of emotional relationships and ordeals. One is bound in by the wall of childhood; the father and mother stand as threshold guardians, and the timorous soul, fearful of some punishment, fails to make the passage through the door and come to birth in the world without.
Such is the fate of the weak refuser, creating of the self a victim to be saved. In fairy tales and myths these victims include Daphne, Brunhild, Briar-rose (Sleeping Beauty), Lot’s wife, the Wandering Jew, and Prince Kamar (of the Arabian Nights).
But, as Campbell puts it:
Not all who hesitate are lost. The psyche has many secrets in reserve. And these are not disclosed unless required. So it is that sometimes the predicament following obstinate refusal of the call proves to be the occasion of a providential revelation of some unsuspected principle of release.
And here, precisely, will be found the historical hermits, though Campbell footnotes Otto Rank’s preferred figure of the productive artist as this model. Artist or hermit-poet, hermit-meditator, etc., the figure now transcends even the run-a-day social figure and becomes a new category of hero. Campbell elaborates on the mental process.
Willed introversion, in fact, is one of the classic implements of creative genius and can be employed as a deliberate device. It drives the psychic energies into depth and activates the lost continent of unconscious infantile and archetypal images. The result, of course, may be a disintegration of consciousness more or less complete (neurosis, psychosis: the plight of the spellbound Daphne); but on the other hand, if the personality is able to absorb and integrate the new forces, there will be experienced an almost super-human degree of self-consciousness and masterful control. This is a basic principle of Indian disciplines of yoga. It has been the way, also, of many creative spirits in the West. It cannot be described, quite, as an answer to any specific call. Rather, it is a deliberate, terrific refusal to respond to anything but the deepest, highest, richest answer to the as yet unknown demand of some waiting void within: a kind of total strike, or rejection of the offered terms of life, as a result of which some power of transformation carries the problem to a plane of new magnitudes, where it is suddenly and finally resolved.
Thus the hermit reaches to embrace the capacity of the sage, not as mere world-denier but as aspirant to transcendence and the genius of a self-expression in accord with the hermit’s own tradition, a transcendence that is structured within a psychological balance, utilizing the gifts of art, insight, and compatibility.