The latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and the Beast, stand this afternoon on the corner of Forty-Second Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the light to change. – Joseph Campbell
Broadly put, archetypes are universal constants, original forms and prototypes of characters, ideas and instincts. They’re portraits or blueprints of energy expressed in symbols and attributes that transcend time and place, speaking to us all.
We see their actions and their essences reflected and repeated across the stories and in the languages of all cultures: the hero, the damsel, the trickster, the child, the magician, the king and queen are just a few examples of these basic character patterns. We may not be able to define them cleanly but we tend to know them when we see them. On their surface they serve as a kind of shorthand, and this is largely what makes them a powerful tool both in our personal myth-making and in our art. They are innate presences. We seem to be born knowing them.
Even without touching on the Jungian archetypes (which are a little abstract for our purposes) a full exploration of the archetype falls well outside the scope of today’s prompt. It’s a huge and fascinating subject both from the personal mythology and the poem-making angles, though, and worth researching.
What scenarios, plots, feelings and images come to you when you read the following lines?
* Once upon a time, the youngest brother of three set out to make his fortune.
* At the edge of the village lived a beautiful young woman in a green dress who took in and cared for all the sick and hurt animals.
* The little girl wandered off from her family and became lost in the woods. When she finally sat down, exhausted, a great owl descended from his tree to speak to her.
* The man eventually remarried, to a woman with daughters of her own and a desire to marry them off to wealthy husbands.
* The warrior princess swore that no man would have her who had not bested her in combat.
* The twins soon found themselves at the doorstep of a hideous crone.
* A sea monster came up from out of the deep to threaten the small fishing village. One man rose to the challenge, taking up his sword and shield.
* There was once a goddess of the wilds who ran the mountaintops accompanied only by her dogs and a band of handmaidens, who were all adept with spear and bow.
Chances are good that many people respond to these few words and the power of a universal character type, the archetype, in compatible ways. We anticipate and react similarly because these types are familiar, vital and powerful.
A young man, a king, a warrior, is entombed in this old man’s crippled body. – David Lo Pan
Goddesses, gods, heroes and animals from myth serve as powerful archetypal figures. Think of the “types” represented by Aphrodite, Merlin, Lakshmi, Coyote: the lover, the magician, the bestower of good things, the clever trickster.
There are other sets of blueprints than gods and goddesses. For some, astrology provides useful and recognizable archetypes. Others work with the universal essences represented in oracles and fables because they are designed to speak to our universal self. Events can be archetypal as well – in the universal experience there are stories of creation and the apocalypse; in our lives, birth and death, separation from our parents, joining with a soul mate.
It can be a challenge, at first, to identify the structures and dynamics of the archetypes in our own lives, partly because we tend to always see ourselves as the hero in our own drama. But when we become aware of other, larger patterns in our personal mythology we begin to comprehend ourselves, our life lessons, challenges and abilities in a wider perspective – we relate ourselves to the world, we connect.
We live with our archetypes, but can we live in them? – Poul Anderson
We can also recognize our potentially limiting or self-defeating behaviors in these larger patterns. Each archetype has positive and negative potential. The following examples each contain their own dark side:
* The selfless caregiver (the guilt-tripping martyr)
* The spiritual seeker (the self-centered narcissist)
* The gifted storyteller (the chronic liar)
* The poor orphan (the perpetual victim)
* The destroyer of illusions (the self-destructive cynic)
* The wise old hermit (the bitter, socially isolated man)
There’s an important difference between the archetype and the persona, too – remember that the persona is that filtered, socially acceptable part of ourselves we allow others to see – our actor’s mask. A woman who presents herself to the world as a caring, loving mother shows us the persona of “nurturing mother” when in reality she may be acting from a deeper archetypal pattern of “devouring mother” – the woman who perhaps unintentionally overbears and stifles her children.
Once we recognize a set of negative patterns and behaviors we might then begin to reinvent those aspects of ourselves using the more positive aspects of our archetypes.
* Take a few moments to think of the people in your life not in terms of their individual characteristics, but in terms of the roles they play – supportive or otherwise – in your life. We’ve already touched on one archetype, the adversary, in our April 15 poetry prompt. What are some others? What about the mentor, the sidekick, the seducer?
* Write a poem to yourself, from the point of view of an archetype that appeals to you. What important thing can a queen tell you? A sky-god? A saint? A poet? Do you have a muse?
* Choose any archetype whose qualities you instinctively dislike and let them have their say.
* Alternately, choose an archetype that embodies the things you admire best about yourself. What is the mythic embodiment of your optimism, your courage, your compassion, your intellect? Write a poem of thanks or ask for help.
* If you recognize the presence of some negative archetypal aspect in your life, can you work at reinventing those aspects of yourself in a poem, using some more positive qualities of that archetype?