In the previous post, I gave you one model of how heroines might be similar to, but also different from, heroes. Here is another model for the archetypes of femininity and heroism. It is the story of Psyche.
Right away, the heroine’s very name might get our attention. Psyche is of course what we call mind or (as in the Greek meaning) soul. Clearly, the story of Psyche promises to be about more than intrigue, sex, love, fear and overcoming (although it certainly has all those in plenty). There is something universal and large hiding in the story. Your task is to find it.
Before I tell the story in brief and analyze it, here is the context for newcomers to this blog: This post is part of a series exploring heroes and heroism. The premise is the monomyth theory, according to which all of humanity shares certain archetypes of storytelling that appear again and again in every culture and age. After I featured several male heroes, the question arose: What is female heroism?
This post, like the previous one, is based on a lecture course by Grant Voth, who in turn borrows from research by Meredith Powers and others.
To make the heroic pattern more explicit, I’ll break the story into “chapters” with “titles” taken from some of the archetypes as Joseph Campbell described them. (Here is the list.)
The call to adventure
Psyche is the youngest of three daughters of a king, and the most beautiful woman of her time, so beautiful that she rivals even the goddess Aphrodite.
Aphrodite naturally becomes jealous and wants to punish Psyche. So she tells her son, Eros (known to the Romans as either Cupid, desire, or Amor, love), to shoot one of his little arrows into Psyche so that she might, perversely, fall in love with the nastiest and ugliest creature alive.
When Psyche’s father, the king, asks the Oracle of Apollo about Psyche’s future, he receives a dreadful reply (which I took from here):
On some high crag, O king, set forth the maid,
In all the pomp of funeral robes arrayed.
Hope for no bridegroom born of mortal seed,
But fierce and wild and of the dragon breed.
He swoops all-conquering, born on airy wing,
With fire and sword he makes his harvesting;
Trembles before him Jove, whom the gods do dread,
And quakes the darksome river of the dead.
Psyche’s marriage, in other words, is to be a funeral; love is to be death; and the groom makes even hell tremble!
Psyche and her parents submit to the oracle’s command in sorrow, and Psyche is brought in a funeral procession to the mountain top. But instead of plunging to her death, she is wafted by gentle winds to a valley where she falls asleep.
When she wakes up, she finds herself in a beautiful palace, where voices invite her to dine and bathe. This looks more like paradise than hell.
At night, in total darkness, her groom comes to Psyche’s bed to consummate the marriage. Psyche cannot see him and he leaves before dawn.
This happens night after night. Psyche quite enjoys the love-making, but she has no idea with whom she is making love.
After a while, her two sisters come looking for her. Psyche’s husband, whoever he is, does not want Psyche to see them. When he finally relents, he makes Psyche promise never to let her sisters talk her into trying to find out who he is.
The sisters (also archetypes: picture the step sisters in Cindarella, for instance) arrive and are impressed by the splendor of Psyche’s palace. They themselves are in bad marriages with husbands who are much older and no fun. They envy Psyche.
Psyche makes up a story that her husband is away all day hunting.
The sisters leave. The next time they visit — Psyche is pregnant by now — they try harder to find out who Psyche’s husband might be. Psyche, who has forgotten her previous story, tells them that he is a rich merchant, away on business.
The sisters realize that Psyche is lying. Still envious, they want to spoil her fun. They remind her of the oracle and tell of alleged rumors that her husband is really a terrible serpent who will eat both Psyche and whatever child creature she will bear.
They persuade Psyche, who is suddenly full of doubt and fear, to bring a knife to bed for self-protection and also an oil lamp so that, when her husband falls asleep after love-making, she might shine a light on him and see who he is.
Entering the “belly of the whale” (ie, the danger zone)
The next night, after Psyche and her husband make love and he falls asleep, Psyche lights the oil lamp. This is the first heroic moment: It is an act of choosing knowledge and self-awareness, a daring shedding of light into the dark places of the unconscious, whether the heroine is ready or not.
To Psyche’s great surprise, she beholds not a monster but the most handsome man she can imagine, the god Eros. She immediately falls in love. Wanting to make her love eternal, she deliberately pricks herself on one of his arrows.
But as she does so, a drop of oil falls from her lamp and wakes Eros. Eros must now tell his story.
He tells Psyche how his mother, Aphrodite, issued her cruel order, how he came to execute the command, and how he, upon seeing her, fell in love with Psyche, deciding to take her as his own wife.
But he thereby subverted his mother’s wishes, which is very, very dangerous. And now the truth is known. Devastated, Eros abandons Psyche.
Eros returns to his mother and confesses all to her. (Archetypes are a Jungian thing, but the Freudians among you might have fun analyzing the relationship between Eros and Aphrodite.)
Aphrodite is livid. She wants revenge. She wants to punish “that whore”, Psyche.
Initiation and trials
Psyche at first tries to kill herself, then decides, like the hero(ine) she is now becoming, to rise to the challenge and seek out her enemy, Aphrodite, in order either to placate her or to die in the attempt.
What Psyche wants, of course, is her husband. (As the soul forever wants to be reunited with love?) Psyche is thus on a love quest.
Aphrodite, however, wants to humiliate Psyche, to make her fail by giving her seemingly impossible tasks. (These seem to be very close analogs to the labors of Hercules, so if there ever was any doubt, we are definitely in a hero story.)
Psyche must, for instance:
- sort a pile of mixed seeds (= the Augean stables? Certainly reminds me of Cindarella again!), which she does with the help of ants;
- fetch wool from a lethal sheep (Hercules’ Nemean lion?), which she does with the help of a reed growing by the river;
- fill a vial of water from a spring that is guarded by dragons and runs into Styx (Hercules’ Hydra?), which she does with the help of Zeus’ eagle; and
- go to the underworld, Hades, to bring back in a box a bit of Persephone’s immortal beauty, which she does with the help of a tower that tells her how to get to Hades and back.
She is now in exalted company indeed. Hercules, Theseus, Odysseus, Aeneas, Orpheus — only the greatest heroes get to go to Hades and back, to die and be reborn in a more aware state, to cross the ultimate boundary in both directions.
She’s been warned not to open Persephone’s box. But (compare Orpheus) curiosity overcomes her, and she does open it. She falls into a deep coma and seems dead (≈Sleeping Beauty?).
Her lover and husband, Eros, finds her and pricks her with an arrow. This wakes Psyche. Eros now pleads with Zeus to let them be reunited.
Zeus sympathizes. He gives Psyche ambrosia, thus making her immortal (as he also made Hercules immortal).
The return and the boon
Psyche has now become one of the family, as it were. She has been accepted. Aphrodite, too, must embrace her as part of the family. And thus, there is finally the proper wedding and a feast.
Psyche soon gives birth. The baby is Voluptas, either joy or pleasure.
The harmony of the new, or newly reunited, family and the gift of joy and pleasure is Psyche’s boon, her gift to mankind. She has thus completed her heroic quest, quite as a male hero might have done.
The feminine twist
But we might observe two subtle differences between Psyche’s apotheosis and those of the male heroes we have been comparing her to:
1) Psyche has not killed anybody! It was not expected of her, not a prerequisite of her heroism.
The only two people in the story who die are her sisters (and they kill themselves, after coming to the mountain top again, greedy to revisit their sister’s palace, then plunging down, only to discover that this time no gentle wind wants to catch them).
2) The goal of Psyche’s quest was not individual triumph but family reunion and group harmony.
A Freudian might see this entire tale as a “family romance”, as the story of a young woman coming of age and overcoming her repression about sex and intimacy until her mate is no longer bestial and loathsome but lovable and desirable.
But the monomyth theory, which dates back to Jung and regards archetypes as “collective dreams”, sees in Psyche’s story universals:
- the human journey toward self-awareness,
- our yearning to unify sex and love, body and soul, individual and family,
- our striving for harmony.
Viewed this way, Psyche plays the same heroic role that Arjuna plays in the Bhagavad Gita (recall that Arjuna really stands for the noble part of our own soul, in battle with our sordid instincts).
Finally, Psyche is clearly a very powerful archetype. Variants of her seem to appear in countless stories through the ages. I leave you with the familiar image of just one: Beauty and the Beast.
113 thoughts on “Searching for heroines (II): Psyche”
Let me just say – as Man of Roma lol – that the tale of Eros and Psyche is one of the Latin prose writer Apuleius’ digressions within his novel, the Metamorphoses.
Actually scholars don’t know whether Apuleius based this particular tale on a Greek earlier tale. The Metamorphoses was written if I’m not wrong at the time of the emperor Marcus Aurelius.
[Rome being a universal empire, Apuleius was a Berber from North Africa possibly]
I read the Metamorphoses recently and I liked it quite a lot.
This particular tale is so beautiful and deep as you observe, and it certainly is one of the artistic apexes of the novel, together with the novel ending, when the main character after all the woes he had suffered finally asks for Isis’ help (Isis as Regina Coeli and Great Mother) and worships her (the prayer to Isis is for example a gem: one can read it *here*).
Thank you, MoR. Yes, indeed, Apuleius. Apparently that’s why academics debate whether the story is a “myth” or a “legend” or a “folk tale”.
What I know of Psyche is from my reading by CS Lewis. He takes that tale and spins his own version of it. I really enjoyed it. Great post!
Thanks, Country Wife. Somehow I did not even know about the CS Lewis “variant”. Will get myself reading…
I enjoyed C.S. Lewis version, Till We Have Faces, as well. He puts a decidedly Christian spin on it, though, with Psyche’s looking upon her lover’s face as a form of disobedience. Her tasks are the means by which she earns back her husband’s love, as I recall, as well as gaining greater maturity.
This is my first visit to your blog, Andreas. I’ll be back!
Aha, that sounds like an un-Greek spin indeed.
Glad to have you here, Frankie.
I love your posts on serching for heroines! I had never read about her story before. Look forward to reading more!
Thanks, Laradunning, and welcome.
This is one great interpretation on Psyche! I really like the way you peel the nuance of the story and remind us how it relates with our archetype of heroines.
A really interesting post. I had never considered her story. A really interesting idea – have you read CS Lewis?
I really liked the link to Sleeping Beauty. You make this really accessible.
Thanks so much.
Hi, Anna. Several people here are pointing out the CS Lewis connection. Amazingly — I blush — I wasn’t aware of it till now. Thanks.
Thanks, Parwatisingari. Love the Indian mythology on your site.
Great Post! Thanks for sharing these stories. Congratulations on being freshly pressed.
I’ve been fascinated by classic Greek mythology for some time now. I recall only briefly the story of Psyche – but it’s always interesting when a female is given strong substance in the mythos. Don’t forget…in Greek mythology, it’s Heracles…Hercules is the Roman hero…
Yes, Heracles. I used the names interchangeably.
All the peoples of the ancient Mediterranean had their own name for him — the Phoencians and Carthaginians blended him into their hero-god Melchart, for instance. But he’s always the same hero.
thanks for visiting.
I’ve read a variety of versions of the story. Your synopsis is a very good one and I love your analysis. Reading it was a bright spot in a dull morning.
Hoping the day is getting less dull. thanks for stopping by, urbannight
I’ve approaching this from the point of view of how loss of these feminine heroines is responsible for the anomie of society. I’ve linked to this page hope you don’t mind.
I need to go throught the rest of the series.
Sounds like a big thesis, Walt. Good luck
Loved this! I’m new to your blog, but shall definitely be back.
Thanks. See you again, then.
Good post. Also rife with synchronicity, since I’m in the middle of re-reading Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces at the moment.
I do broadly endorse the monomyth concept, though would shy away from interpreting it within a wholly Jungian “collective unconscious” transcendental way. I prefer to think of these stories reflecting the deep psychological conflicts humanity has always faced. By making them allegorical, understanding and insight can develop, and actions can be taken.
Nice to see others also talking about these matters. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!
(Interesting: another commenter above also saw anomie, “lawlessness”, in this story.)
As much as i find the monomyth concept fascinating, btw, I did find Campbell’s book really hard work.
It has been years since I have read these mythologies and did not remember Psyche’s tale at all. Some aspects remind me more of Snow White whose beauty rivals that of her stepmother’s and therefore must be put to death. I wonder if the oracle was ‘given’ the omen that would finish off a rival. Oh, so much to think about. Great post and congrats on being freshly pressed.
Thanks. Yes, I find bits of the tale in all of the Grimm (now Disney) tales…
I love this analysis. The story of Psyche is so interesting and you make it more so. I wonder what you make of her looking inside of Persephone’s box. Do any male heroes come this close to victory in a quest only to derail themselves? And is curiosity supposed to be a feminine fatal flaw?
Either way, thank you so much for giving me something to think about this Monday! Wonderful post!
Oh no, it’s not a feminine flaw in mythology, it’s a human flaw. I mentioned Orpheus, for instance (he lost his beloved wife to death because he turned around to check that she was really behind him).
This turning-around-although-you’ve-been-warned is all over mythology.
So is box opening. As in Pandora.
It’s probably a metaphor for choosing to peek into our unconscious….
I loved the post and your points as to Psyche’s heroism. I’m sharing this with my daughter who loves Greek mythology.
What a facinating blog and such an interestig read. I was riveted by the story- so many interesting stories to explore on your site- I’m going to enjoy discovering them all…
Thanks. Good to have you here…
I have always found myself with a soft spot for the true heroines in stories exploring love, marriage and intimacy: Psyche, Beauty/Belle (for Disney), and Penelope (Odysseus’s wife).
You shall be the first blog I subscribe to. 🙂
Oh I love Penelope. Welcome, Ivy
i really loved the way you disected Psyche’s character and her representation. i really enjoyed your post! 🙂
Maraming salamat, ishabelle.
My MA thesis was a source study of Lewis’s _Till We Have Faces_, examining the major 20th century critical views of Apuleius and reapplying them to Lewis. For example, most critics agree that Plato’s Phaedrus is one of the inspirations for the story of Cupid and Psyche–Lewis apparently knew this, as there are allusions to _Phaedrus_ in _Till We Have Faces_ that sidestep Apuelius (and, in his scholarly book _The Discarded Image_, Lewis mentions Apuelius as a Platonist). One of the themes of the Phaedrus, besides love, is the inherent deception of text, and that is one of the themes of _Till We Have Faces_.
I also did a lot of work on Erich Neumann’s reading of the tale, which you’re apparently channeling here in some way. Neumann was an early student of Jung who first applied Jungian analysis to literature, and his book on Eros et Psyche (he opts for Eros over Cupid) is not only one of the three major books on the topic in the 20th Century but also one of the seminal works of Jungian literary criticism.
Yes, Neumann is one of the sources that Voth mentions in his lectures (ie, the ones I link to in the post).
And Lewis seems to be where a lot of the comments are pointing, so i will make myself smart.
Fascinating link to the Phaedrus. I’ve read it and saw something else in the text (and isnt’ that ironic, given that it is about the inadequacy of … text!), so now I have to revisit it from this perspective. Plato’s dialogues do that to you: gotta keep coming back to get something out of them.
Stop by again, GodsGadfly.
Don´t know whether it ever got translated but my favourite Psyche is the one of Louis Couperus, who published his book (title: ‘Psyche’) in 1900.
Of course this does not help those who don´t read Dutch, but just wanted to share.. This analysis brought me back a few years when I first got to know the splendor of the forementioned book.
Thanks! Enjoyed it.
Dank u wel, Maarten. I found it on Google Books.
I really enjoyed this post. I’ve adored mythology of all types for a long time but unfortunately don’t have as much time as I’d like to really explore them. Psyche is one of my favorite tales, however, and this coverage of the story was impressive and informative. Thanks for a really great read! : )
I’m going to have to keep up with this series. Excellent and interesting post! We rarely studied the women of mythology in school, so I’m interested in this take as what ever else you come up with on the subject of women and heroism.
actually, I think I might have exhausted myself on the topic of feminine heroism now… But the series will go on, I’m sure.
Excellent post. Loved your feminine twist. Eager to read more of your posts.
I adore your blog – glad I found it on freshly pressed! Love the old greek and roman mythology, I could read these stories all day.
Great to have you here, clairela
Very interesting read…thought provoking. Thanks for sharing….
You told this story in a most beautiful way. Thank you for all the time you’ve put into it.
btw congratulations, aussi.
Thanks, Geraldine. Fortunately, not that much time (if you’re a classics geek, the “work” was done years, if not decades, ago). 😉
I look around and remember a classic moment in Jaws: I think you’re going to need a bigger boat. 🙂
That’s funny. Yup.
But remember, Jenny, you’re almost like a co-captain on this little boat, especially on this particular side trip.
So: Was this the sassy lass of heroism you been waiting for (in this thread, I mean)? Or does she fall short, too?
Why don’t you pick up this thread on your blog and take it where I can’t. You’re better qualified, with all that Russian literature in your head.
I took a course called “Myths of the World” last year and I forgot how truly fascinating mythology is. This post may be the awakening, or at least remembrance, needed to get back on track. I find Jungian analysis quite interesting.
Well, if I was able to rekindle a love of mythology in you, then this was a successful post indeed. Thanks, Mental Secretary!
What a great blog! I’m so glad it was on freshly pressed. I could spend days reading but will parse it out to make it last (and also I need to keep my day job).
Oh yes, please do keep the day job. Hope to see you back here in the coffee breaks. 😉
I love that myth, and if anyone has seen the scultpure you show of cupid and psyche in the Louvre, they position it so that at some point during the day, the natural light hits it and it almost glows..it is beautiful
I’ve seen it there once, many years ago, but it was pouring outside, so no natural light, alas. I like how you perceived the beauty of it.
the Story of Psyche and Cupid is one of my most loved stories in Greek Mythology..
Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!! 🙂
I took a course called “Myths of the World” last year and I forgot how truly fascinating mythology is
I love this tale!
This is the first Greek myth I learned in high school, but it was told in a teen’s version.
Retelling Psyche and Eros’ story in this fashion is excellent!
I”m new to your blog but I think I’ll be a fan..
clear as mud… privacy and the web, correct? never know who is out there, uh out here.
can a dog do this, “woof woof woof”? 😉
i never use my son’s name and will reveal my location through email only.
it’s scary what can be found with only a name.
congratulation on being freshly squeezed. i had to look the term up.
at first i thought it meant your book had been published.
Yup, privacy and the web. Keep protecting your son.
glad to have you stopping by here again from time to time, dafna.
I really do love C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces version of the story.
The greek mythology reflects the phylosophy of life of the ancient Greeks. We know it’s heroes influenced a lot of later literature and folk art. What more interesting is to know where these stories came from to the Greek mythology, whether these heroes were born natively in this civilization changing over the centuries, or migrated from somewhere else, maybe earlier civilizations
A bit of both, apparently (though I’m no expert): For example, Aphrodite, Dionysus and Helios seem to have been “imports” from Mesopotamia/Egypt. Tales like those of Hercules/Heracles/Melquart were probably blends of various Mediterranean traditions….
isn’t Greek mythology fun? 😀
I love mythology and enjoy it all the more when the onion is peeled, like you have done here. Will be reading your other posts in this series as well.
I saw the painting L’Amour et Psyche at the Louvre and was struck by it. Didn’t have the time to figure out what it was (with everything being in French). Appreciate it all the more now that I know the back story.
Art = story, story = art
I read the blog and thought I might get some more information and analysis from this very blog.
Like Man of Roma said, Lucius Apuleius popularized (and maybe invented) this story in his great Milesian tale, “The Golden Ass”. The Eros-Psyche myth is a stand alone piece of that picaresque epic, however it is also subtly relates to the overarching theme–a critique of the abuses heaped on Roman society by increasingly avaricious and capricious nobles. Apuleius felt that nobles were degrading society to a point where it was becoming inoperative: as laboring people were reduced to beast-like passivity, the masters of society simultaneously became insatiable monsters. The Eros-Psyche myth and “The Golden Ass” both end with divine transfiguration, but I’m not sure Apuleius was so optimistic (and the crises of the third century bore out his misapprehensions).
At any rate, the story is a favorite of artists to a degree that rivals (or surpasses) the level of interest they show in tales of various other heroes mentioned in your other discourses on the subject. There is a gallery link and a link to a translation of “the Golden Ass” at the bottom of my post on the subject (http://ferrebeekeeper.wordpress.com/2010/05/11/psyche-entering-cupid%E2%80%99s-garden/) . [Sorry to be so self-aggrandizing]
Thanks for linking to Waterhouse’s art.
This angle about capricous and abusive nobles is one I don’t find in the Psyche tale. Probably elsewhere in the Golden Ass, right?
Love the term lethal sheep for lion. Here in NYC, we sometimes refer to pigeons as flying rats.
Can’t wait for your posts on Amnesia, Aphasia, and Diplopia.
Do I not recall YOU promising posts on those very topics?
I may write one on false memory syndrome.
Just a note. Be very careful on how you deal with false memory syndrome. I “did one” and had to flee the state. (NC) the issue lies not with the “false memory syndrome” but to the people who cause. the witch hunts were not “hysteria” they were orchestrated. Where the inquisitors show up, the witches are found.
I hear Andreas’s next heroine trip will be on Paranoia.
Finally, I get a table.
Gorgeous visuals, spectacular story, 54 bloggers like this post, anonymous lover who happens to be a GOD (and has the good manners to disappear at dawn), and victory over mother-in-law, and I’m supposed to find fault?
I notice that nobody is complaining. As the Russians say: What am I, a redhead? (Sensitivity has not yet arrived in Russia.)
But somebody has to be contrary, and Mr. Crotchety is waiting to arrive fashionably late. So.
It’s beautiful. Beautiful. Beautiful. And I agree that this is the myth that holds our imagination.
The goal of Psyche’s quest was not individual triumph but family reunion and group harmony?
Sure. Plus a little bit of individual triumph over mother-in-law.
I need to be more direct:
Women, are you all so flattered by this theory about the feminine twist on heroism that you do not fear (just the tiniest bit) that, under this theory, seeking/enjoying individual triumph is now somehow unfeminine?
Maybe it is.
Thank god you’ve weighed in. All this affirmation and agreement above threw me off balance — I’m not used to it. 😉
I’d be curious, some time, to read a post by you on this particular question (“What is female heroism?”). I feel I’ve made a pretty good effort, starting with Joan. But I’ve now exhausted myself.
“…seeking/enjoying individual triumph is now somehow unfeminine?…”
Evolutionary biology might have a perspective on this (the “is”, not the “ought”):
In tournament species (where males fight to establish a hierarchy, and the alpha gets to mate, whereas the others don’t), the emphasis may be on individual triumph for males only. Among the females, the emphasis may be on group solidarity.
Homo Sapiens has aspects of pair-bonding species and tournament species, but we have evidence (genetic imprinting, male/female dimorphism…) that we were mostly a tournament species. Ergo….
(I plan to do a series on all this soon.)
I confess: this is/ought thing festers, but a mere 18 months later, I have a response. Today, from a reliable source:
Oh, SNAP, Andreas! What’s “is” and what’s “ought” now?
Way to hang in there, Sprezzatura. What’s more impressive: Schoenwerth’s newly discovered tales or your tenacity?
That said, this find is indeed fascinating. I’d like to get my hands on those stories. 19th century Grimm-ness with 21st century gender neutrality….
Congratulations on being featured on Freshly Pressed, Andreas.
Long overdue and richly deserved.
Great essay! The myth of Cupid and Psyche was my favorite bedtime story growing up! You’re right. If you analyze the story, it’s really all about self-discovery.
I don’t know where Cheri read about your book being published, Andreas. My congratulations then! I’ll surely buy it and read it.
Oh no, no, no. You misunderstood.
She was referring to this post “getting bumped” onto the WordPress homepage.
My book will be published next year, although I don’t have the title or date yet. I will shout loudly about it when I have that information!
Venus is profoundly vain and abusive in that tale. But I suppose that could be an allegory of love rather than power…
Not just in that tale, actually. She, Hera, Athene and all the rest of them (save, perhaps, Hestia and Demeter) often play the role of bitch. Think of the golden apple (“to the fairest”) Paris threw to them, starting the Trojan War ….
Just putting the finishing touches on my essay on The Trojan Women by Euripides, in which I assert that not much has changed from the Trojan Women of yore ( sobbing, lamenting, dealing with psychic upset by crying instead of yelling, and blaming each other instead of the men) and the Women of Troy at USC ( still revered as sex objects, still relegated to their Greek houses, and still out to guard the Tomb of Marriage).
( I have some personal experience about that at USC…)
That’s a funny parallelism, Cheri.
(I used to be tempted to try something like this every time I passed by Ithaca, Syracuse or Troy, NY. Or, of course, Hannibal, MO.)
I wanted to say thank you for helping me be able to understand Hester Prynne and Psyche so much more! I am in the middle of reading C.S. Lewis’ book ‘Til We Have Faces: A Myth Retold.’ It’s a version of Psyche’s story and I couldn’t understand it til I read your blog. Thank you so much!!
Thank you, hatedvsloved. This is ironic, because (as several commenters here have already noticed) I have not even read CS Lewis’ version yet. Must catch up on that.
I am delighted about what I have found here but even more delighted at the unfailing ability of the levers and the machinery of the world to gently turn and re-organize the world, bringing those aspects of it to the forefront that at a particular time help us to know more about things we are curious about. Your blog is one of those things I was presented with today morning….
I have been trying to understand the term Archetype and no one has been able to give me a convincing explanation in their own words on what it means and how different it is from “stereotypes”. Would like to know your understanding of Archetypes.
In my workshops on gender violence, sex and sexuality with street children and the outreach staff in India, we do explore attitudes and also examine folktales, stories and even current cinema and media for stereotypical themes …. What I especially like is the monomyth theory and how I see so many street children I work with narrate their life stories through that framework…their hardships, their running away from home or their abduction, their survival against all odds, and triumphs…One of my activities them is called the “Hero’s Journey” that helps them draw and paint rather than verbalize their journey and well…. these are just boys! Things are so different with runaway children who are girls and what their Hero’s Journey looks like…I am plastered!
Your “series” (from a little over two years ago I guess) is now looming as a “compulsive read” I have to go through…and looking at how every post has a link to one before it and the one before it…I need a permanent holiday of sorts to soak it all in.
Welcome Jamuna, and thanks for being here!
Your work with these kids (only boys?) in India sounds fascinating. I hope you’re collecting those stories somewhere, somehow. Those would make a great book/documentary all by themselves.
I’d be especially interested if you do see the Monomyth repeated in these stories.
Regarding “archetype” versus “stereotype”:
By inclination, I “translate” words back to their roots, and then back again to our usage.
So archetype comes from Greek and means “primitive model”, where primitive is not derogatory but “pristine” or “original”.
Stereotype in Greek meant “firm model”.
Hence our usage: Archetype is an open-ended template ONTO which we build stories. It is a starting point.
Stereotype, to me, is entirely negative, and is a closed-ended (“firm”) template INTO which we reduce stories. It is a finishing point.
That’s what I’d say off the top of my head. Gotta think more about it.
So … OK. My first question for Powers and Voth (who, by the by, I can’t help but picturing as Star-Wars-esque Imperial caricatures: Commander Powers and Darth Voth) is this:
Who are the people that Orpheus, the Buddha, and Jesus (who are all used by Joseph Campbell as exemplars of the monomythic hero) kill? Cuz they be dudes. And, according to their thesis, they should be essentially different from Psyche in their expression of heroism.
And, as an aside, Andreas, you’re retelling omits the fact that it was Psyche who told her sisters to go to the mountaintop because Cupid wanted each (told separately) as wives. Thus, they go to the mountaintop, jump off, and fall to their deaths. So, sigh, she is at least implicated in their deaths, if not guilty of outright murder.
So, either she doesn’t kill, just like some male heroes, or she does kill, just like some male heroes.
Second, I don’t buy for a minute that Psyche’s ultimate goal is group harmony or family reunion, at least not in any way that is essentially different from traditional male heroes. She wants her husband back. I mean, that’s it. She wants her husband back. If that’s an example of “group harmony,” then so is Odysseus’s homecoming. Or Luke Skywalker’s redemption of his father.
Here’s what I think is going on here, and this is one of my main beefs with the monomyth, archetypal theory, and Freudian and Jungian psychology. They come up with these theories before they look at a text, then they apply the theory to the text, looking only for the evidence that backs up their elegant little theories and whitewashing everything else. They are trying from far away from a text to define how we experience that text instead of approaching each text on its own terms.
You illustrate this tendency, too, Andreas:
OK, so you’ve cued our brains already to what is supposed to be important. So now we’re looking only for the things in the story that we already “know,” that already line up with our intuitions, and if we come across any details that challenge our everyday understanding of the world, our reaction will be, “Well, that must not be what’s important, since I don’t understand it, so it can’t be universal.” But, dammit, it’s those details, it’s the challenge, it’s the unknown and things not-experienced-before that open up our minds to new possibilities, new solutions, new and innovative ways of understanding and experiencing the world.
Jamuna Shukla’s question about archetype vs. stereotype touches on this too. Even if archetypes are “starting points,” they are still defining where we start, still constructing road blocks along which the story will travel. They still reduce (in, I would argue, a reductive manner) characters from complex and contradictory humanity to a more specific function in a given story: a sage, a warrior, a maiden, etc. Archetypes define, already, before we read about a character or meet a flesh-and-blood person, what should be important to this person, how this person should act within a given context. They erase minorities in favor of reinforcing the mainstream/traditional. Given that, I tend to think of archetypes as codifications of traditional gender roles and expectations.
Or so say I, with various fist-wavings in their general direction.
Have you read “Shakespeare in the Bush?” You should … heh, I invite you to read “Shakespeare in the Bush.” It’s not terribly long and it’s so, so worth it.
I mean, I get the appeal that people see in the monomyth. I used to tout it myself. Cuz it’s so easy. And such is the nature of Freudian and Jungian readings of things that anything that contradicts an established theory can be turned into a symbol that somehow backs it up. They put all the power into the hands of the analyst, take all the power away from the writer, the culture, and the “lay” person (which, consequently, is I think one of the reasons that the last bastion of Freudian and Jungian theory is the academic liberal arts department, not the psychology department, which abandoned them some time ago). But they cripple our ability to approach a text with an open mind, to immediately engage with the text in front of us, and to ultimately be surprised by things not “dreamt of in [our] philosophy.”
I totally accept your point about, to put it in wonky jargon, confirmation bias. And also that I was guilty of it in that sentence.
Campbell, Jung, Freud etc all violate Popper’s imperative of Falsifiability. Their theories are so stretchy that you can make any story fit (or not fit) them. This is the problem.
And yet, and yet. We’re dealing with stories, not science: mythos instead of logos.
Will make time for Shakespeare in the Bush.
But mythos here is commenting on the real world, right? I think it’s also trying to model the real world. But now we have all these meta-myths that comment on and model the myth. Which takes us two steps away from the world we inhabit.
It’s similar (to me) to the idea of framing. Take politics for instance. We have political parties that pay millions of dollars to pundits and the like to frame things such that said political party comes out on top. Building effective narratives. And the most effective narratives are very often the least accurate in terms of modeling the real world.
The extreme end of this is Orwellian Newspeak, by which ideas are rendered impossible because the necessary vocabulary to express them has been removed. Freud, Jung, and Campbell all created a language and system of symbols that only talk about a few ideas. And I think they inhibit our ability to approach a myth or story and see what is actually there, instead of seeing just the meta-frame and symbols that we’ve been cued to take interest in.
I want to stress that I don’t really have a problem with your retelling of the myth, Andreas; my problem is with Voth and Powers, who are trying to codify a definition of “heroines” that is reductive and ultimately unrepresentative of the diverse ways with which both female and male heroes (feminine and masculine, however defined) approach and solve their problems. The meta-, not the myth….
“… It’s similar (to me) to the idea of framing. Take politics for instance….”
there’s a guy named George Lakoff who goes far with this line of reasoning….
I’ll be going back to Mary Tighe’s ‘Psyche or the Legend of Love’, an influential rendering that has been largely forgotten but which was enormously influential at the time of its appearance in 1805. Cleaves to Campbell’s pattern, as does the life of the author, who died young, tragically, from TB.