James Joyce called it the monomyth. Mythologist Joseph Campbell popularized the term in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which I read in my 20s and loved. Campbell’s premise is simple: Every culture has its Hero Myths, and every hero pursues a quest that is as symbolic as it is significant.
Over the years, I’ve lived my own version of the hero’s tale, with its journeys and challenges, magical companions and evil sorcerers, and I even met my own handsome prince. Along the way, I discovered a deeper meaning to the hero’s story, one I’d describe as a spiritual or theological dimension to the narrative of one’s life. And so, in my mid-50s, I did my doctoral research on three early medieval heroes’ tales in the form of the lives of three Celtic Christian saints.
A Pattern Through the Ages
Scholars in the 19th and early 20th centuries identified a storytelling genre they called the Heroic Biographical Pattern. Alfred Nutt first applied it to the heroes of myth and folklore in 1881; in 1909, Otto Rank extended the pattern to include biblical figures, including Jesus. In its most basic form, the myth follows this pattern: A miraculous birth and childhood is followed by a departure from home in search of one’s destiny; the hero faces a series of challenges, threats and obstacles, then achieves salvation, sovereignty or, sometimes, marriage. Folk heroes may perform all sorts of prodigious feats — slay the monster, win the maiden, rule the kingdom — and are often unseated by the next generation’s hero. Christian heroes (e.g., monks, bishops and saints), on the other hand, never win the maiden, rarely rule anything larger than a monastery or a diocese, and instead of facing defeat at the end of their lives, their deaths are seen as a glorious entrance into heaven. Folk heroes and saints, however, share a family resemblance, most noticeably in their birth and childhood stories, and in the fabulous nature of their magical or miraculous accomplishments.
Scholars of hagiography, the technical term for the lives of saints, have long debated the value of these narratives. Historians considered them poorly executed attempts at biography and dismissed them as the product of weak minds and poor writing. Folklore scholars considered them consciously constructed folk tales invented by the monks as a form of entertainment. Neither assessment offers a satisfying account of the texts’ content and popularity, so I delved into their composition and structure in search of an underlying pattern or deeper purpose. What I found was a collection of deeply religious narratives that weren’t the personal accomplishments of an individual saint but fresh retellings of the One Story: specifically the Christ Story, the Eternal Heroic Story, the Human Story, set in the context of the author’s time and place.
The Gospel stories in the New Testament present four versions of the One Story — as told by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — each of which depicts Jesus of Nazareth in the role of the Eternal Hero. Miraculously conceived of a virgin mother, raised in rural Galilee but destined to make his reputation in Jerusalem, Jesus is said to have begun his public ministry by leaving home and wrestling Satan in the wilderness, defeating the devil and his temptations to earthly power. Upon returning to his people, he began to heal and to preach a message of love for one’s neighbor, a message as politically unpopular then as it is today. As local opposition grew, he went to confront its source in Jerusalem. His fiercest battle was on Golgotha on Good Friday, when the Roman governor Pontius Pilate decreed his death. His greatest victory came two* days after his execution, when his friends felt his unconquerable presence among them.
Samson of Dol
Each saint whose pseudo biographical narratives I studied embodied elements of the One Story, and no two were alike. Samson of Dol, a Welsh monk who became a bishop in Brittany, was born to a barren mother, left home to study at the most famous school in Wales, performed miraculous healings, and defeated vicious serpents ravaging the countryside.
Within Samson’s narrative I discovered that the serpent battles marked the culmination of three significant initiations in Samson’s life. The first time, he’d just healed his own father and collected his first group of followers, and he killed a serpent while traveling home. The second time, an angel told him he’d be both a bishop and a pilgrim (an unusual combination), and while journeying through Cornwall, he defeated the second serpent. Finally, after a lengthy showdown with the king and queen of Frankia, the king groveled before Samson and begged him to dispatch yet another serpent.
While the tale itself is thrilling, its deeper significance lies with the symbolic resonances of various elements within the narrative. For example, Samson’s first journey is made in the company of a nameless young man who loses his nerve when they fall under attack and must be healed before they can complete their errand. As a nameless, faceless character, the young man has virtually no narrative significance. But as a symbolic presence he becomes a doppelganger for Samson, a personification of his youthful fears which must be stabbed, healed and integrated into Samson’s psyche so that he may complete his quest.
Miraculous births, youthful exploits, healing miracles, collecting disciples, defeating all challengers — these are the hallmarks of the Hero’s Tale. Samson’s version incorporates serpents, reminiscent of the serpent in the Garden of Eden; quotations from the Psalms, and references to honey, a lion and poison, which are all elements found in the biblical story of Samson. The writer has crafted a complex iteration of the Hero’s Tale, suited to his seventh-century audience at the monastery in Brittany founded by Samson 150 years earlier. Imbued with biblical elements, the story of Samson tells its readers little about the saint’s personal life, but much about the calling of a Christian to a life of courage and saintly heroism.
Cuthbert of Lindisfarne and Brigit of Kildare
The One Story also appeared in the tales of Cuthbert of Lindisfarne and Brigit of Kildare. Cuthbert’s narrative presents him as an ascetic figure in the mold of the Desert Fathers, isolated from his fellow monks for nearly a decade before becoming a bishop who poured himself out in the service of his people for a brief two years before his death.
Brigit is portrayed as the founder of the community at Kildare, a location presented as a Garden of Eden, a City of Refuge and the New Jerusalem. Long considered a pagan goddess, Brigit’s Life, written by a monk of Kildare, is actually a religious portrait of the holy woman and her holy city. The Heroic Biographical Pattern is less emphasized with Brigit, but the narrative retains many of the essential elements.
Modern readers can be misled in the same ways earlier scholars were, disappointed that these aren’t historical biographies or dismissive of them as pointless fantasies. To do either would be to miss their underlying message. Regardless of the journeys one may undertake, the snakes in the grass lurking along the way, or the friends walking alongside, to invoke the saints’ spirits is to take on the persona of a Christian hero, armed with prayer and devotion and truth. And in the One Story, nothing can conquer the hero.
* The story says three days when it was chronologically a two-day time period, evidence of a symbolic overlay in the narrative.