Hero’s Journey and Relationships

Rilke once wrote, “For one human being to love another; that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.” And while the poet loved his solitude and “terrible angels,” he took on the work of love with great passion, perhaps most notably with the psychoanalyst and writer, Lou Andreas Salome.


Salome had a strong effect on many men of her time; and was probably what we’d today call a sapio-sexual. Nietzsche was utterly smitten with her, but his three proposals of marriage were rebuffed. The philosopher, in response, experienced a deep crisis, which after a phase of being debilitated, emerged and wrote his most powerful works. Perhaps, for Nietzsche, Salome was what writer Elizabeth Gilbert meant by the phrase soul mate, “A true soul mate is probably the most important person you’ll ever meet, because they tear down your walls and smack you awake. But to live with a soul mate forever? Nah. Too painful. Soul mates, they come into your life just to reveal another layer of yourself to you, and then leave. A soul mates purpose is to shake you up, tear apart your ego a little bit, show you your obstacles and addictions, break your heart open so new light can get in, make you so desperate and out of control that you have to transform your life…”

Certainly, Gilbert’s definition is far from universal. There is a great deal of discussion in the literature of romance and relationships regarding “the one,” or the “soulmate.” Many authors decry it as a harmful notion – while you’re waiting for that unique individual you miss the relationship that is right in front of you – the real blood and sweat person. The idea might just defy reasonable math, as one project [https://vimeo.com/111384864] demonstrates the logical fallacy – that depending upon where you live; your likelihood of finding that person will be reduced to irrational numbers.

Whether the notion of soul mate has validity or not; the juicy tidbit here is that the idea has such a strong hold on us. Is there one person out there for me? Do I hold out for a relationship that fulfills me on more levels – or do I accept a sort of self-imposed arranged marriage? Where’s the guidebook which we can scrub for the answers?

The Odyssey remains the greatest archetype of the hero’s journey of Western literature. It can also be read as blueprint of relationship archetypes. If we look to it for the idea of “the one,” it’s the wife of Odysseus, Penelope. She’s the mother from whom we break from in order to go about our hero’s journey – but then she is the one to whom we endeavor to return. As an archetype; don’t think that it’s the same flesh and blood individual; it’s a type.

There are other archetypes in the Odyssey, particularly those embodied in Calypso and Circe; both who play helper roles in Odysseus’s journey. They, more than Penelope, fit Gilbert’s definition and shake things up. Calypso provides the relationship that is nurturing and healing for Odysseus. But in some way (and Homer doesn’t go into detail) the relationship isn’t satisfying enough: Odysseus ruminates on Penelope more and more and longs to return to her. The gods intervene, and tell Calypso that she needs to release Odysseus, which she ultimately does; helping him to build a raft and sending him on his way.


Odysseus and Calypso. Red-figure vase. Clay. Paris, Louvre Museum

Like Calypso, the sorceress and demigoddess Circe also keeps Odysseus from his journey. First, she transforms his crew into animals; invoking a carnality of such a degree men metamorphise into animals. Odysseus would experience the same fate, but is forewarned, and through divine intervention knows to consume a prophylactic. Instead of becoming another barnyard inhabitant he becomes his host’s lover. As in the story of Calypso, the affair must end for the journey to continue. Circe is to remain, however, a woman that Odysseus feels strongly about, and in some later stories, returns to play an important role in the Odysseus story.

[footnote? In the Telegony, a now-lost epic poem that takes up where the Odyssey concludes, our hero’s journey continues. Circe returns to the story to, at the very least, bury Odysseus after he is accidentally killed by his son, Telegonus. [note; telegony is also the word used to describe the notion that a woman’s offspring can be affected by previous lovers – a belief that was once commonly given credence!]]

In the book Love’s Executioner a case study by the author, psychoanalyst Irvin D. Yalum, suggests another take on the whole soul mate belief; that perhaps, in wanting that “special person,” it means that we ourselves wish to be special.

“Specialness is the belief that one is invulnerable, inviolable – beyond the ordinary laws of human biology and destiny. At some point in life, each of us will face some crisis: it may be serious illness, career failure, or divorce (…) and challenges the common assumption that life will always be an eternal upward spiral.

Perhaps this is at the root of why the notion of that unique, special relationship has such a hold on the collective imagination; we each want to be unique and special. And in being so, somehow escape the inevitability of mortality. The soul mate paradigm is clear-cut; if we have such a relationship, we know it and power through whatever challenges it provides. A non-soul-mate paradigm is going to be messy. We’re not going to be sure what to do.

Lou Andreas Salome embraced the messy. Her marriage, itself, was celibate. She had multiple love affairs that lasted often for years. She might have been what has been adopted lately as “solo poly.” She did not subscribe to the notion of a single relationship and seemed to be open about it.

In the world of “solo poly,” practitioners refer to “escalator relationships,” meaning those relationships that take on the normal sequence of development: date, meet parents, move in together, get married, have children, etc. Salome certainly disdained that script.

Perhaps both Salome’s biography, as well as the Odyssey point to the different types of relationships we have – and “the one,” or “soulmate” are only one of the types. We might even encounter “the one” several times in our lives. We may also encounter many Circes and Calypsos. Or, we may find that at any given time, one person plays many roles for us. It’s messy; it’s uncertain. Even the best of guidebooks fail us.

Anaïs Nin talks about Lou Salome:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *