Category Archives: Archetypes

Dream gateways – how the gods get in

I was talking last week about the faceless ones in my dreams, figures who had no individual characteristics but represented the pure power of the archetype. Other words for these pure powers might be energies, or spirits.

When peoples throughout the ages have sought to engage with these spirits, they have given them faces and names. Different traditions choose different faces and names, according to their culture, to represent the same essential qualities.

So, for example, in Ancient Greece Demeter was the goddess of harvest, but in Ancient Egypt this essence of harvest/mother/nature was called Isis.

After my first encounters with the faceless ones, I began to dream about gods and goddesses. Often, their names were unfamiliar to me in waking life, so it felt as if I was dipping a deeper stream. This experience will be familiar to a lot of dreamers, of words we have no conscious knowledge of coming to us for the first time in dreams.

One night I dreamt that Thoth was in my study. I had a vague notion that Thoth sounded like some kind of devil, so it spooked me. But when I looked him up, I found he was, amongst other things, the Ancient Egyptian god of scribes. The universal spirit of writing, in the shape of Thoth, had taken up residence in my writing room. Sweet!

A week later, by a happy synchronicity, I found a figurine of Thoth in a seaside nick-nacks shop, amongst the beach mats and sunglasses. I brought him home and now, if I ever feel disheartened or directionless as a writer, he inspires me with the pure power of writing.

Have you ever dreamt about gods, goddesses or other religious symbols?

Dreaming the faceless ones

I first discovered the concept of archetypes in the early seventies, when I was starting to try and understand my dreams. At that time, there were few books about symbols, and most of them were not very accessible to the general reader.

My symbols dictionary gave ‘archetype’ meanings for some symbols, which I found completely puzzling. Why did some symbols have two definitions, and which one should I apply to my individual dream?

Because my dictionary only offered archetypal meanings for certain symbols, I thought some symbols were archetypes and some were not; it was only a decade later that I began to understand the archetypal as a layer of meaning behind everything. Just as behind every object in waking life there are layers of personal symbolic significance, so beyond that there are layers of group/cultural/universal meaning.

Jung said you could not understand archetypes in a theoretical way; they were ‘pieces of life itself’, which you could only understand through direct experience. My first experience of archetypes was in my dreams.

I thought of them as the faceless ones, because they seemed to have no individual identity, they were generic – an old man, an old woman, a baby; a doctor, a teacher, a guide. These dream figures had a different quality about them – I felt drawn to them because of their mystery.

I gradually understood that these faceless figures represented the pure spirit of , say, wisdom or adventure, healing or learning. Meeting them showed me how the archetypes worked in more ordinary dream figures – if I dreamt about a friend who was a doctor, for example, he would be appearing both as himself, as what he personally represents to me and also as the universal figure of the healer.

The faceless ones gave me experience of archetypal energies at work in my dreams, and this layer of meaning brought deeper resonance to every dream experience, and every part of daily life.

The encounter with the archetypes is a spiritual experience, and I’ll be exploring that idea in my post next week.

Create great plots by harnessing the power of myth

In our culture, because we have broken our conscious connection with myth, we tend to see our lives as separate and unique.

But every individual life follows paths and patterns which are universal. Each life story is built on a template of all human stories.

Through mythology, we can connect with the essence of our own life experience, and walk with greater consciousness the mythic pathways where we all are one.

Being aware of the archetypal dimension of experience can be particularly useful for writers. You can use mythic templates quite deliberately to help you construct stories which will have resonance with your readers.

I like to use the Hero’s Journey, the master-myth explored at length in Joseph Campbell’s book, ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’

In this story

  • the hero hears the call to adventure, which he at first refuses
  • something helps him to engage with the adventure and he sets out into the unfamiliar world
  • he meets allies and enemies
  • he’s tested
  • he has to muster all his inner resources to face his supreme ordeal
  • he finally claims his reward and takes it back to his community

This is a master myth because it isn’t limited to one area of human experience, such as becoming a mother or making the transition between middle and older age.

The Hero’s Journey explored through mythology and in the lives of women and writers – it is capable of endless applications

The Hero’s Journey describes every challenge we may have to face, however small or large; from the daily challenge of getting out of bed or learning something new to a greater challenge such as finding a new job or coming to terms with the death of a loved one.

Life continuously presents us with challenges, which we at first refuse, because we don’t want the effort and disruption of change. If we refuse, we get a nudge. We may seek the help and support of friends or strangers, books or teachers, and we may encounter unhelpful people who stand in the way.

Every time we engage with a challenge, we win a reward – new strength, new insight, new effectiveness in our world, which we can then ‘bring home’ and incorporate in our life.

You can use mythic templates in a deliberate way to construct strong stories, but simply being aware of the universal dimension in your characters’ stories will give them depth and new dimensions. As Dorothea Brande says, ninety percent of writing happens unconsciously, with us often finding things in our writing we did not consciously put there.

If you want to explore the Hero’s Journey in more depth, I’d recommend ‘The Writer’s Journey’ by Christopher Vogler, where he looks at various Hollywood blockbusters as versions of the hero myth.

August is all about archetypes here in the House of Dreams – next week, I’ll be telling you how I first encountered the archetypes in my dreams

How to take your writing to the next level

What is the difference between a good story and a great one? Why do some characters stay with you for a couple of weeks or months, and others for a lifetime?

It’s all about archetypes.

Your characters are first and foremost individual people with their own personal histories, hopes and personalities, but beyond that they are also part of something bigger – a family, a country, a culture, each of which will also have its own history, values and aspirations.

At the deepest level of collective consciousness, we share a common humanity. People in every time and place know what it is to feel anger, pride, distress, delight; we all have archetypal relationships, such as those between children and parents,siblings, lovers, enemies and friends.

Great stories tap into these archetypal layers. Their characters have a larger-than-life feel, because they embody more than their own personal story, and yet they feel completely convincing because we recognise in them something universal in ourselves.

Shakespeare’s characters have this archetypal quality. King Lear is more than a foolish old King at the end of his reign – his story resonates on deeper levels, as a story of political power, every when and where; on the deepest levels it’s a story of family dynamics and the process of growing older.

Lear’s daughters, likewise, show us different aspects of the universal experience of shifting power within the family, when children grow up and become effective in the world just as their parents begin to lose their effectiveness.

King Lear is like the very embodiment of an old man’s folly; in the same way, Lady Macbeth seems to embody the pure spirit of ambition and Othello the spirit of jealousy.

You can find an in-depth exploration into what gives fiction universal appeal in Donald Maass’s wonderful book, ‘Writing the Breakout Novel,’ which is addressed to experienced writers who may not yet have achieved great sales.

My well-thumbed copy of Maass’s thought-provoking book

Among other things, Maass invites us to consider our characters as part of their social and historical moment, not in a secondary way, but keeping this archetypal dimension in the forefront of our mind.

What makes a breakout novel memorable are conflicts that are deep, credible, complex and universal enough so a great number of readers can relate – Donald Maass

I’ll finish with a more recent example that springs to mind – the phenomenal success of ‘Friends.’ On the individual level, we’ve got six main characters each with their own life experiences.

Massive mega-hit, ‘Friends’

On the cultural level, the series hit at the moment when young people no longer stayed in the family home until they were married and ready to make a home of their own, but could enjoy a transitional time of sharing with a pseudo ‘family’ of their own contemporaries.

On a universal level, ‘Friends’ is a story of every person’s first steps into the adult world, now and back through the ages; when parents no longer provide, and we have to find out who we are and how we can cope without them.

August is going to be ‘archetypes month’ here in the House of Dreams, so sign up for email reminders if you don’t want to miss anything!