Archetypes in myth

“What Would Maisie (or Robin or Psyche ) Do?”

“Archetypes are many things,” Jean Houston writes, “– primal forms, codings of the deep unconscious, constellations of psychic energy, patterns of relationship. Our ancestors saw them in the heavens, prayed to them as Mother Earth, Father Ocean, Sister Wind. They were the great relatives from whom we derived, and they gave us not only our existence, but also prompted our stories, elicited our moral order.”

Many of the stories we love best are indeed prompted by archetypes, characters whose life struggles, choices, suffering, triumphs, illumine our lives. They are, Jean writes, “our connection to the wider reality…. (they) bring to us the inspirations, ideas, supports, strength to engage in our lives/our tasks with greater capabilities.”

Last week, we saw how the story of “The Great Stone Face” by 19th century author Nathaniel Hawthorne illustrates the power of an Archetypal Story to offer guidance for a lifetime. In the 21st century, English writer Jacqueline Winspear saw in her imagination her fictional character, Maisie Dobbs, emerge fully created from a London Underground Station. In the series of books which follow Maisie’s development as ”Psychologist and Investigator”, through the 1920’s and ‘30’s in London, Winspear presents a character so compelling that her readers tell her that Maisie has inspired them with guidance for difficult times in their own lives. That led Winspear to publish What Would Maisie Do? (Harper Perennial, New York, 2019), a Journal with quotes from the stories of Maisie Dobbs followed by blank pages for her readers’ reflections.

Have you one or more archetypal stories, perhaps heard in childhood, whose characters and their choices continue to guide you? You may have forgotten the original tale; yet, you are still influenced by it.

For me and my siblings, the story of Robin Hood with his band of adventurers in England’s Sherwood Forest was archetypal. Each evening at bedtime, our father would weave a fresh tale, made up in the telling, about Robin Hood, Friar Tuck and the merry band who robbed the rich to give to the poor.

When, as an adult, working in women’s spiritualty, I encountered the power of stories, especially very old ones, to illumine lives, I was re-enchanted. The great storyteller from Chicago, John Shea, came to speak at Ottawa’s University of Saint Paul. Afterwards, I approached him to ask, “How is it that stories, especially ancient ones, hold such power to transform us?”

“Three things,” he began. “First, the stories are very old. No one knows where they came from originally. Second, there’s the power in the one who tells the story. Third is the power within the one who hears and understands the tale.”

Later, I would learn more about archetypal stories from Jean Houston. In her book The Search for the Beloved (Tarcher/Putnam, New York, 1987, 1997), Jean tells the ancient Greek Tale of Psyche and Eros. For 21st century women, this tale offers wisdom about the feminine way to approach difficult, seemingly impossible tasks.

Psyche, a mortal woman, has fallen in love with Eros, son of the goddess Aphrodite. In her desire to see the face of her lover, Psyche goes against his insistence that she must never look at him. As he sleeps, she lights a candle to gaze at him.

Psyche in Cupid’s Garden Paining by Waterhouse

At once he disappears. Aphrodite, jealous of her son’s love for a mortal, offers to break the spell that separates the lovers. She imposes three seemingly impossible tasks on Psyche. One of these is that the young woman must gather golden fleece from treacherous rams. Psyche weeps in despair, knowing the rams will surely kill her (as Aphrodite intends).

Reeds growing in the nearby river, symbols of the feminine, advise her. Guided by the moon, rather than the all-revealing light of the sun, Psyche is to approach the rams while they sleep. She is to take their fleece not directly from them but rather from the nearby bushes, where tufts of the golden fleece have been snagged as the rams passed by… Psyche completes this task in the feminine way: following the wisdom of moonlight and indirection.

How It All Works

“Archetypes are organs of Essence, the cosmic blueprints of How It All Works,”  Jean Houston writes elsewhere. “As major organs of the psyche, archetypes give us our essential connections, and without them we would lose the gossamer bridge that joins spirit with nature, mind with body, and self with the metabody of the universe…. Because they contain so much, archetypes bewilder analysis and perhaps can only be known by direct experience.

“Working with myth and archetype, we discover that we are characters in the drama of the Anima Mundi, the Soul of the World. In this discovery we push the boundaries of our own human story and gain the courage to live mythically ourselves and to help heal our world.

Redeem the unread vision of the higher dream

“At this we startle, we shake. The scope of this dream demands that we live out of our true essence, which is always too large for our local contracted consciousness to contain. I find that it requires many mythic adventures of the soul to reloom body and mind. But such is necessary if we are to return to everyday life with knowledge gained in the depths that can be put to use to redeem the unread vision of the higher dream inherent in both self and society.” (Jean Houston on Archetypes)

3 thoughts on “Archetypes in myth”

  1. Anne Kathleen,

    How timely your messages always are.

    Remembering the Storytelling Retreat at Galillee back in the late 90s ….. finding the Archetype of Goldilocks … you gave me such an important message about that story – Goldilocks story doesn’t end – she simply runs off into the woods.

    I love “Lilith” as an archetype ……

    Big Hug my dear friend flowing out your way,



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