What archetype are you living out? You will be embodying one, whacky as it might sound. Probably more than one, and you’ll outgrow it and grow into a new one, like a snake shedding its skin. We all do. We recognise archetypes in other people, but it’s harder to recognise our own. When we use phrases like: ‘she’s a born mother’; ‘he’s a soldier’; ‘she’s an angel’; ‘he’s a joker’; ‘she’s so innocent’; ‘he’s my knight in shining armour’; ‘she’s such a doormat’ (and they go on and on) we are speaking fluent archetype. Carl Jung described archetypes as universal patterns, which somehow enter our consciousness through tradition, fables, images or even inherited patterns, and then manifest in how we behave and interact with the outside world. In Jungian psychology, we tiptoe towards archetypes, shine an indirect light on them through story, art, myths, religion, or dreams.
Last night I went to the ballet, Cinderella, and it was bursting – as full as a spoilt child’s Christmas stocking – with archetypes. It is the archetypal rags-to-riches story: Cinderella strikes out, owning at least three archetypes: orphan/outcast, innocent, and damsel in distress. She’s ostracized by her horrific step-family: the mother (witch/devil/villain archetype); and the ugly-sisters (monster/tormentor archetypes) who take on an almost comic role. But, like all monster archetypes, they are mindless bullies, and (when one manages to get past being afraid of them), they are quite pathetic creatures.
The Fairy Godmother (hero archetype) saves the day, raising Cinderella from a life of penury, floor scrubbing and mistreatment by her step-mother and sisters, with that most famous of lines: ‘you shall go to the ball’. You’ll notice Cinderella has no role in saving herself; she is no warrior archetype , she’s a dyed-in-the wool damsel in distress, portrayed as entirely vulnerable with no say in her decisions: ‘walk over me,’ she cries, ‘I’m an easy target,’ – until her prince comes. Need I go on? His saviour/knight archetype is less than subtle.
In last night’s version of Cinderella, neither of the ugly sisters cut her toes off to make the shoe fit. In the original Grimms’ version (Grimm by name and grim by nature) they did; toes were chopped, but no amount of re-modeling would make the shoe fit. It either fits or it doesn’t, and we move through life shape-shifting from one archetype to the next.
I might sound cynical about Cinderella, but I am not. I loved every plié and pirouette of it. And whilst watching it gave me an archetypal hit, we don’t need to read fairy stories, go to the ballet, or watch the new Mary Poppins film to spot the archetypes played out before our eyes. Weren’t we transfixed this year by the dashing prince who, at last, found his sweet, lash-fluttering bride, borne on a horse drawn carriage to walk up the aisle to fanfare and trumpets? And what next? For, even those born with a silver spoon will have their ups and downs, and all archetypal events are counter-balanced.
Most of the archetypal figures are obvious: mother, father, hero, princess, devil, warrior, leader, healer, sage, innocent-child, jester, trickster; as are the archetypal events: birth, death, growing up, marriage, loss, death. Even the archetypal motifs: the apocalypse, the deluge, the creation – might be described on a grand scale but they are no less terrifying or edifying when they’re played out in our lives in miniature.
At Christmas, in our family, we play the Rizla game. You know those little papers for rolling cigarettes? The game consists of writing the name of a famous person or fictional character onto the cigarette paper (say: Dr. Who, Nanny McPhee, Conor McGregor, that kind of thing). Write the name, lick the paper and stick it to the person next to you. Each person gets a turn in asking one question to work out the name they have been given. Replies are restricted to: ‘yes’ or ‘no’. A ‘yes’ answer allows you to ask again; a ‘no’ answer and it moves to the next person until someone guesses correctly. This year, I’ve decided to put a new twist on it: the Rizla game becomes the archetype game. Instead of famous people, choose what shoe fits, and write down the archetype you think they are. Now, how could that possibly end in disaster?