Archetypes

I recently read a beautiful novel called The Lovely War. On the surface it’s a fairly typical story about the strength of love amid the ravages of war. What sets it apart from similar stories is that the chapters are narrated from the varying perspectives of different Greek gods: Aphrodite (Love), Ares (War), Apollo (Creativity and Music), and Hades (Death). Set up in this way, these thematic elements of the story become characters in it — no longer simple forces of nature but personalities in their own right, with beliefs, goals, and plans, and the agency to achieve them.

This is an ancient narrative trick, and is part of why Greek and Roman philosophers took so quickly to allegorical readings of their cultures’ myths and legends. A large pantheon provides ready set of archetypes: stock characters, plots, and tropes that form the basis of a culture’s storytelling and understanding of the world.

Archetypes are a common thread in many of the practices or traditions that I engaged with this year. For example, Astrology has its twelve zodiacal archetypes and the planets, which carry the archetypical characteristics of the gods they’re named after. And, Tarot has four sets of archetypes which interact to tell its stories: the Major Arcana (twenty-one (ish — depending on the deck) cards featuring major life archetypes; the four suits, which carry with them elemental archetypes; the court cards, and numerological archetypes.

I’ve been surprised by how helpful engaging with different sets of archetypes has been for me this year. It’s provided a conceptual vocabulary for describing what I’m experiencing in a given situation. For example, there has been a lot of uncertainty surrounding my workplace the past year. Archetypes such as the Wheel of Fortune and Hanged Man have provided me not only with images through which I can understand and articulate what is happening, but also messages for dealing with those energies well. The Wheel of Fortune has reminded me that the closer to the center of the wheel I am, the less I spin. It’s been a helpful reminder to keep my eyes on the center — to do my job and stay true to my values — so I don’t spin out of control. Or the Hanged Man has reminded me to get out of my own head and look at the circumstances from a different angle.

Within this, I’ve appreciated how broad these archetypes are. An athlete, a soldier, a police officer, and a thug might equally be expressions of a “Martian” archetype. Or, a universal archetype like the Mother can express itself variously as the doting mother, the distant mother, the overbearing mother, and so on. I think this is helpful because it’s a way of recognizing that, while we do all have natural characteristics or social roles we may not be able to change, we can change how we live those tendencies or roles out day-to-day.

In this way, archetypes function like any kind of label: they can be helpful in providing us with different ways of looking at the world, or they can limit us if the archetypes available to us are too few or too confining.

This is probably why I’ve appreciated exploring so many of them this year. It just wasn’t a handful of archetypes, but dozens of them, dozens of different perspectives, all of which interact in meaningful ways. And that was really beautiful to me in reminding me to open my eyes to the vast array of perspectives and possibilities out there in any given situation.

Encountering the archetypes of these spiritual traditions has led me to think about the archetypes of my own tradition. Christianity seems to me to be both more and less archetypical than these other practices. Archetypes are more important in that Christianity has one major archetype through which it views the whole world: the archetype of Christ. At the same time, this focus on one archetype makes us less intent on mapping out ways that can be expressed. There are certainly the Patriarch, Prophet, Priest, and King figures of the Hebrew Bible, and saintly archetypes of ancient and medieval Christianity, such as the Martyr, Mystic, Bishop, Monk, Soldier, Mother, Virgin, (Reformed) Harlot, and Crone. But these are not at the centre of Christian life and expression (nor should they be), and the ones we have don’t express the full breadth of what holy living can look like. This was a frustration for me in my Orthodox days since it seemed there were only a handful of Lives of the Saints that kept on being repeated with slight differences in the details. If we aren’t careful about this, this can easily lead to an imbalanced perspective, such as the early Christian conflation of the idea of martyrdom — living one’s life as a witness — and dying for one’s faith.

Considering that archetypes are a universal feature of human culture and storytelling, we would do well to be more intentional about them, to keep our archetypes where we can see them and to try to develop a set that are more representative of what it is we believe and what we think Christian life can look like, even as we continue to affirm that these archetypes of holiness are all expressions of our tradition’s rightfully dominant archetype, and that they will never exhaust the possibilities of our infinitely creative God and the unruly Holy Spirit that defies convention.

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