The perfection of archetypes

I turned 39 last week, and I received a book called The Storytelling Animal from a dear friend of mine. In it, the author attempts to explain why humans are so drawn to story and how stories shape us. I’m only partway through the book – it’s one that feels like it works best in small chunks, at least so far – and I’m really enjoying it so far. There was a paragraph in the Foreword that’s stuck with me since the moment I read it.

And long before any of these primates thought of writing Hamlet or Harlequins or Harry Potter stories – long before these primates could envision writing at all – they thronged around hearth fires trading wild lies about brave tricksters and young lovers, sad chiefs and wise crones, the origin of the sun and the stars, the nature of gods and spirits, and all the rest of it.

Now I don’t know about you, but I’ll read 200 pages of almost anything after a setup like that. It is safe to say that the friend who gave me this book knows me very, very well.

At any rate, this line in particular got me to thinking about myth in general, and more specifically the way we use myth in our personal work. Our Methods page talks about this a little bit, of course, but today I’m drawn to a more personal question: Why do story and myth work so well for me in this work?

There are, of course, many reasons. At the end, though, I think it comes down to the characters. To put it simply, mythic characters are perfect.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean that these characters are necessarily perfect in the sense of being successful, or virtuous, or particularly good. What they are, though, is perfect in the sense of being exactly what they are. A perfect incarnation of the archetype that they represent. If I can delve back into the mists of my Philosophy degree for a moment, they might be the Platonic ideal of their archetype.

Consider Icarus, the naive and foolish son of Daedalus who ignored his father’s warnings and flew too close to the sun, falling inevitably to his death. He knew better, not only because of Daedalus’ admonitions but because it’s pretty obvious that too much heat would melt the wax that his wings were constructed out of, and yet he still flew higher than he should have and paid the price for his hubris. He certainly doesn’t make perfect choices, but I would submit that Icarus might be a perfect representation of youthful exuberance and the arrogance that comes with it.

Consider, too, Persephone who is also Kore, wife of Hades and daughter of Demeter, who embodies cycles and change by living those cycles every year. She lives in the world Above for six months, and the earth provides us with what we need to survive, and she lives in the Underworld for the dark half of the year, ruling as its Queen and serving the place where we will all eventually descend. She is, to me, a perfect example of doing the work that is before her, and of following a call to what comes next.

So what’s the point of this perfection? That is, how does it actually help me? Ultimately, I think it’s this: Perfect representations (or near-perfect ones) are safe to project myself onto. By working with a personification of an archetype, I can also work with a very small, specific slice of my own personality. Working with Icarus gives me an opportunity to work with the part of me that is an innocent, arrogant adolescent, falling in love with newfound power and freedom. Working with Persephone allows me to access the part of myself that feels like it is between two competing worlds, seeking to find my own path even as I am surrounded by strong, and potentially competing, voices and personalities. In the context of personal work, and specifically in ritual, this can be incredibly powerful. I don’t see myself as becoming Icarus or Persephone or (note the plug for an upcoming Expanding Inward event!) Orpheus, but for that period of time, I have an opportunity to explore deeply the aspect of my self that is expressed perfectly by those characters. And therein lies another difference between me and these characters. They are fixed, and I am changeable. The power and freedom that I have as an imperfect human is that I can improve. I can learn from their example, and tend the part of me that is expressed by their stories.

The gift that these characters give me is the gift that no real person can – it is the gift of being only one thing. Their stories are complex, but the characters themselves can often be described in just a few words. How often have I wanted that from the people around me, for them to fill one role, one function, and to never change? Mind you, I don’t actually want that from my loved ones. But from my mythic characters? It may not be such a good thing for Icarus, but it sure is useful for me.

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4 thoughts on “The perfection of archetypes

  1. Paulita August 21, 2013

    Hear, hear! Great post, Jason.

  2. Sherrid Wells August 21, 2013

    I rarely think about what I love about stories, and yet I understand totally what you are saying. We are very complex creatures. We are in part every story ever told and by concentrating on that one archetype in that one story we can understand a small part of ourselves.

    I believe a very important aspect of life is to learn about ourselves as I think we are the ultimate mystery and if people concentrated more on understanding the various aspects of themselves they can no longer concentrate on condemning, hating or questioning others. To realize that life made me MY ultimate mystery is not hubris… it is humbling to know that I can never truly ‘know’ others around me because I will never understand myself completely. But stories allow my to explore a small aspect of that mystery.

    I think I will purchase the book you mentioned. It sounds like a wonderful read of self exploration and contemplation. Thank you for your thoughts and your stimulation of my own, Sherrid

    • Jason Frey August 22, 2013

      I think you make a really good point about self-reflection, Sherrid. Sometimes, I find that when I really fail to be compassionate toward others, it’s because their behavior is hitting awfully close to home, to one of those unexamined pieces of my own self that I haven’t looked at or worked with closely enough. And now that I think of it, I guess that’s part of the point that I’m driving at. Whether I like it or not, I probably *will* project those unexamined aspects of my self onto someone else when I’m doing my work. It’s probably safer for everyone involved if I project them onto an archetype rather than someone I encounter on my commute. 🙂

      The book is really interesting. I’m not sure I buy the science the author is relying on (in large part because much of it is new to me and I want to learn more about it), but it’s definitely a thought-provoking read so far. Hope you enjoy it!


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