archetype celebrity Collective unconscious Hero hubris James Hillman Joseph Campbell mythology Old Testament sheldon kopp Tiger Woods

21st Century Idol Worship

Many of you are familiar with the Old Testament description of the ancient Hebrews who, even after being delivered from Egyptian bondage, who observed the ten plagues visiting the house of the Egyptians, who with G-d’s help crossed the Red Sea, still built and worshiped the Golden Calf while Moses was receiving the Ten Commandments from Yahweh. Most of us recall the scene from the Cecil B. DeMille’s movie, The Ten Commandments, during which Charlton Heston as Moses becomes so angered that he drops the tablets on the idol worshiping, dancing Hebrews. Those tablets and the Old Testament in both Exodus and Deuteronomy prohibit the worship of idols, but just like the Hebrews, we persist in elevating mere mortals to the status of idols and expecting more from them than just being human.

There are many examples of our idol worship – sports figures, politicians, musicians, and actors, etc. Many in these fields achieve a saint-like status, perhaps receiving more adoration than more established religious deities. However, in actuality, these people remain mortal human beings. While many of these celebrities have accomplished great things,why do we consider their accomplishments as super-human? What is it about our psyche that causes us to worship and and then sometimes hate celebrities?

Carl Jung wrote that the deepest and least accessible level of the psyche is the Collective Unconscious. It is the repository for the experiences of the human and pre-human species and passed from one generation to the other, or as Jung puts it. “…the residues of ancestral life” (Jung, 1953, p. 77) Among the recurring themes of the Collective Unconscious, common to all human cultures, is the archetype of the Hero. As Joseph Campbell writes in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, our concept of the hero derives from two ancient myths, sacrifice from hunter-gatherer societies, and the eternal return which arose with the development of agriculture. The hero then, makes a great sacrifice, descending into the underworld to battle dark unconscious forces, fulfilling his quest, but then returning the to the world, transformed in some way. We are all attuned to the hero’s journey, projecting ourselves into the this role. In our celebrities, sports figures, rock stars, film actors, we see our own hero myth played out. Our worship of those deified in our society is in actuality more akin to projective identification.

There is an important danger that comes with the worship of our heroes. They may become inflated, too elevated with success, the heroic transformation going awry. This can lead to enantiodromia where the hero is rendered into his or her opposite, from god into demon. This is all too common for the heroes of our time, from the suicide of Kurt Cobain to the destructive lifestyle of Lindsay Lohan, the psychological pressure of the hero worship of adoring fans can force our idols over to the dark side (BTW, the Star Wars saga is a good example of what we are talking about here). The most recent example of this phenomena is the discovery of Tiger Woods’ sexual hedonism and his subsequent demonization. When those we worship fall from grace, they fall hard. Suffering from the sin of hubris, our heroes fall like Icarus from Greek mythology when they fly too close to the sun. The inevitable result is destruction in the cold and lonely sea.

Being trapped in the hero myth is not only dangerous to celebrities, but to each of us. As psychologist James Hillman says in the book Inter Views we can become trapped into the heroic view point, leading to a sort of psychological fundementalism;

Fundamentalism serves the hero myth. It gives you fundamental principles – words, truths, directions. It builds a strong ego. It is American psychology. No Hermes, no Dionysus, no Aphrodite in it at all. Utterly monotheistic because there is only one meaning, one reading of the text…whatever else…you have lost the fact that you are a bundle of many levels, people, noises, impulses, trends, personalities, possibilities…” p. 82

We can become trapped in our own hubris, regardless of what we project on to our celebrity heroes. Our own heroism can cause us to become mono-dimensional, losing the creativity associated with the natural dimensionality of our personalities. Rather than projecting our disappointment and rage outward to celebrities, we sometimes need to kill our own heroic tendencies. This is perhaps the meaning in the image of Moses smashing the tablets over the Golden Calf – we must destroy our own heroism before we can properly worship. This is also the message of Sheldon Kopps book, If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him!. We need to beware of the hero. There is no need to split into Luke Sky Walker and Darth Vader – we can accept both the light and dark side of the force within ourselves and in doing so perhaps have more realistic expectations of those we admire.


Apollodorus, (Hard R., Translator). (2008). The Library of Greek Mythology (Oxford World’s Classics). New York, NY: Oxford University Press, USA.

Campbell, J. (2008). The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Bollingen Series). Novato, CA: New World Library.

DeMille, C.B.

Hillman, J. (1991). Inter Views: Conversations With Laura Pozzo on Psychotherapy, Biography, Love, Soul, Dreams, Work, Imagination, and the State of the Culture. New York, NY: Spring Publications.

Jewish Publication Society of America. (2000). Hebrew-English Tanakh Student Edition. Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society of America.

Jung, C.G., (1953).  Two Essays on Analytical Psychology (Collected Works of C.G. Jung Vol.7). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Kopp, S.B. (1976). If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him! The Pilgrimage of Psychotherapy Patients. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

By Bizarre Behavior & Culture Bound Syndromes

Dr. Kevin Volkan is a psychologist, writer, and educator with over twenty years of clinical, corporate, and academic experience. He is Professor of Psychology at California State University Channel Islands (CSUCI) and is on the graduate medical Faculty in the Community Memorial Health System. Dr. Volkan was one of the founding faculty at CSUCI which is the 23rd campus in California State University system where he teaches a course on atypical psychopathologies titled Bizarre Behaviors and Culture-Bound Syndromes. This course explores the outer range of extreme human behavior including paraphilias and was the inspiration for this blog. Consonant with his interest in deviant psychopathologies he also teaches clinical psychology and a course on the psychology of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. Dr. Volkan has been a Silberman Seminar Fellow at The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC in 2010 and 2014. Before coming to CSUCI, Dr. Volkan was a faculty member at Harvard Medical School where he researched ways to measure medical student and physician performance, and the psychological origins of medical error. While at Harvard, Dr. Volkan also taught for the prestigious Harvard-Macy Institute, a joint program run by the Harvard Business, Education, and Medical schools. In this program he taught medical students and physicians from Harvard as well as from all over the world. Dr. Volkan’s background in psychology is varied and he maintains an active interest in several psychological approaches to understanding human nature – including socio-biological, psychoanalytic, psychometric, and cognitive-behavioral. He has had a long-standing interest in the psychology of compulsive drug use (which has similarities to the psychology of paraphilias), and has published a book on the subject. Dr. Volkan worked as a clinical psychologist for many years. This experience included serving as staff psychologist and Vice Chair of psychology at Agnews State Hospital in San Jose. During his tenure at Agnews, Dr. Volkan worked with patients who demonstrated many severe behavioral problems, including profoundly autistic, psychotic, self-injurious, and developmentally disabled individuals. Dr. Volkan was awarded the Sustained Superior Accomplishment Award from the State of California for his clinical work. In addition to his hospital work, Dr. Volkan also maintained a private practice in psychology in the San Francisco Bay Area. He served as a psychologist for the California Victim Witness program, seeing patients who were victims of crime and/or abuse. Dr. Volkan’s clients included a diverse population of people representing a wide variety of socioeconomic strata and psychological distress. Dr. Volkan received a BA in Biology from the University of California, an MA in Psychology from Sonoma State University, an EdD in Educational Psychology from Northern Illinois University, a PhD in Clinical Psychology from The Center for Psychological Studies, and a MPH in Public Health from Harvard University. In his spare time he practices martial arts and plays guitar in a rock band.

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