The best things in life, so agrees every man of mettle, are those that cost: that have been paid in toil, that have been dear in silver, sweat, blood, time, brains & broken hearts. Ask Christ on the cross, Alexander in his saddle, Admiral Nelson belowdecks or anyone that ever threw money at pink sheets: the spoils of war and love come wound-resplendent, inseparable from the pain of costly dealings. There is an endemic belief in the modern world, however, that adversity and difficult circumstances are, by necessity, exclusively tragic in nature. Even mundane obstacles are considered in a vacuum; the loss of a job, the conclusion of a romantic relationship, an injury: these are situations that must be skirted around, are to be endured and winced through rather than metabolised as part of a greater initiatory process. Speaking generally, there is no consideration for the actual influence that these situations might have over an individual, his internal state, his behaviour, or consequently the hero’s journey that they might be contextualised within.
Cross-culturally, mythology teaches us to consider hardship in a very different way. The motif of the hero is inseparable from the motif of the ordeal. In reality, it is impossible for the hero to rise to any higher station without the experience of significant trial. When tragedy is considered as tragedy-for-tragedy’s-sake, as opposed to an opportunity for self-alchemy, the ascension of the heroic type is simply not feasible. Man gazes upon the heroic figures that populate myth with the same transfixment that sent the eyes of our earliest ancestors skywards to study the stars, we look back into the annals of para-history and archetype to the liminal places so like the heavens where men of legendary calibre dwell still— but will we elect to be spectators? Will we speculate, with our lives divorced from the principles of the figures we revere, scarcely ever attempting to understand, let alone emulate, the spirit that informed the marrow of Troy? Do we wish to embody the principles that empassion us, or sit, cross-legged, like boys on the floor of a world ripe for our taking, leafing through binders of baseball cards labelled “Sigurd” and “Musashi”?
To attempt to make sense of the exceptional, to digest the legendary in its myriad forms at its leanest extent, it is only necessary to consider the element of initiatory tribulation as one of the three primary dimensions of the Cycle of Sigel (which can occur many times over the course of the hero’s life). Consider the shape of the Anglo-Saxon rune sigel ᛋ (the sun, perhaps a sail, also victory), whose three strokes each represent a distinct stage:
- Beginning from the bottom right side of the glyph, the initial phase is known as The Hero Seed: bogged down by the mundane rigours of ordinary reality, the germinating hero is compelled by some external force to begin the slow journey northward into the mysticism of the self, and through this inner transcendence, ascend to a higher ideal. This phase can be represented symbolically by the rune ēðel ᛟ (the estate, the home) – this is a foundational phase that is decidedly closed off to the possibility and potentiality of the non-ordinary experience, made visually apparent in the crossed strokes of the glyph.
- At the intersection of this stroke with the second one, the hero begins to experience the second phase of his journey: The Fall, or the summary ordeal that can be understood as a catalyst for literal or figurative rebirth. This is Gandalf’s death at Khazad-dûm, or the dishonouring of Achilles at the hand of Agamemnon. Note that this stroke of the glyph not only doubles back on the progress made in the initial phase of the journey, but also moves the hero laterally away from his former path, thereby severing his connection with the previous mode of thinking. This phase is mirrored in the value of the rune nyd ᚾ (need, distress) – this represents the redemptive and requisitory nature of the purifying fall from the ordinary into the final phase. The transverse stroke of this rune shows well the obstacular nature of the tribulation in what many heroes have assumed would be a linear way.
- The third stroke of sigel represents The Ascent. The hero, now reborn and fundamentally altered, continues northward on a path that is identical in orientation to the initial one undertaken in the first phase, but influenced to such an extreme extent by his tribulations, that the first and third phases are better seen as being simply parallel to one another rather than continuous elements of one experience. This final phase can, under certain circumstances, become the catalyst for the hero’s return to the first phrase to complete the process anew, as Cú Chulainn’s slaying of the hound that became his namesake was a catalyst for his ascension-and-further-growth. This phase can likewise exist as an element of finality at the end of a hero’s life, as Bēowulf’s ill-fated battle with the dragon. This third phase is represented best by the manuscript variant of the rune gēr ᛄ (years, harvest), the very shape of which shows the continuation of the destined path surrounded by the “champion’s glow”, or lón láith.
With the substance of the Cycle of Sigel being understood, the most minute and most crucial element of the heroic process can be understood and internalised by extension. With the acknowledgement that each stroke of the rune forms an indelible and functional portion of the hero’s development, trial must be endured with the judiciousness of a cæsar, with the careful battle-serenity of Indra locked in struggle with the serpent Vṛtra.
The next piece in this series will discuss, in detail, the first stroke of the cycle in significant detail. Where, how, and by what measure does the hero begin? What is foundational to that which is transcendent?
Nyd byþ nearu on breostan;
ƿeorþeþ hi þeah oft niþa bearnum
to helpe and to hæle gehƿæþre,
gif hi his hlystaþ æror.
Trouble is oppressive to the heart;
yet often it proves a source of help and salvation
to the children of men, to everyone who heeds it betimes.
Anglo-Saxon rune poem, “nyd”.