The word archetype is derived from the latinisation of the Greek noun, whose adjective form means “first-moulded”, which is a compound of two: “beginning”, “origin”; and “pattern”, “model”, among other things. The word can refer to constantly-recurring symbols in art, literature and mythology, describing the recurrence of a certain character or idea in storytelling.
Patterns are useful: recognising them in our lives, or choosing to identify with them, certainly have their merits. Structure in this way can be reaffirming, or offer guidance when we are lost on the way. The flip side of such structure, however, is that we may begin to impose these patterns on others, and they may begin to code the way we see the world. Then there are those who don’t “fit” into these ascribed patterns. In this way, structure can be deeply harmful.
Consider gendered archetypes: the classic King, Warrior, Magician, Lover, which introduced four to the masculine-identifying among us. From this perspective, the King speaks from inner authority, is a centred participant in creating a world, grounded by a transpersonal devotion to all. The Warrior is courageous, energetic, and loyal, fighting “the good fight”. The Magician, clear-sighted and in possession of great knowledge, reflection, and technical skill, channels energy flows appropriately. And finally, The Lover, gives us access to spirituality, longing, dreaming, passion and abundance. According to this worldview, men and the masculine “should” balance these four archetypes, which are “naturally” within them.
Such gendered archetypes are not exclusive to—nor representative of all—white, Western frameworks: they are present, with varying degrees of fluidity, in other cultures too. Diné (Navajo) mother, grandmother, activist and artist Pat McCabe has spoken about how she sees men as sacred architects of dreams and visions, that the feminine of her kind bring to the world.
While there are very many gendered archetypes that are reinforced without fluidity in a way that reproduces extremely violent hierarchies and normative structures; there are also gendered archetypes that are either come from frameworks that are less definitive, or are excerpted and condensed from their more alive contexts. As renowned mythologist, author and storyteller Michael Meade noted about the classic text: “The story of the Wild Man the way Robert Bly told the German fairy tale has its mythological twists and turns that people just skip, and just try to condense the archetype; I think that’s what happened with King, Warrior, Magician, Lover.”
Poet and writer Sophie Strand shared: “We can’t do away with these archetypes, and I think that’s why I’m always trying to say, you just have to add more, you have to add them into an ecosystem. And I do think the one interesting thing about Iron John that Bly really shows is, it is an ecosystem of characters. Everything [in the story] happens through this tugging, weaving.” In response, filmmaker and author Ian MacKenzie said: “Any myths returned to in a current context… they shape-shift, as they should, as something that’s alive.” Archetypes, found within myths and cultures, are—at least sometimes—taken out of their more alive contexts, especially in our now common practice of extraction and isolation.
What do we do with archetypes? It would do us well to acknowledge that they are never the full picture, and that the ones presented to us, the ones that are remnants of the stories that have been passed down over generations and across cultures and continents, are not all that we have. “Biodiversity is what constitutes a resilient ecosystem,” Sophie Strand offered. “The more animals, the more relationships, the better that ecosystem is at adapting to harm and change in different weather. If you’re going to work with archetypes, put them all together and say, ‘what composite assemblage being, what holobiont does this make?’”
This doesn’t mean that the archetypes we have should be necessarily eradicated, but that they should exist, like in an ecosystem of beings, in conversation with other archetypes. And in nature, sometimes there are invasive species that wreck havoc and devastation in the ecosystems, but more harmful, more dominant species are often balanced by the diversity that exists. This is how we can think about male and masculine archetypes today: recognising that the map that we’ve been given may be outdated, or incomplete—it is up to us to be the cartographers now.
Michael Meade shared: “I would say, you can’t say this for archetypes—there is an endless number of archetypes. The soul produces archetypal energies all the time.” (To which Ian MacKenzie responded: “It’s almost like the soul is a happening that’s constantly happening, instead of a kind of, ‘Oh, I need to impose upon it a structure that therefore kind of locks it in a cage.’”) What does it mean to take seriously the claim that archetypal energies and archetypes are being birthed all the time, from ourselves? Even as they are “from ourselves”, are they necessarily “new”? Are they being “created” by “us”?
Perhaps another way to think about it is that archetypes are both “bone-deep” and “immediate”. They are ancestral futures. This comes from the words and work of social worker and storyteller Jessica Dore, who shared: “I recently watched a series of interviews with master storyteller Dr. Martin Shaw. In one of them he says, ‘Everywhere I look, I see kings gone mad, the world on fire.’ He speaks like this because he sees the world in terms of both the bone-deep and the immediate, that is to say he sees the mythic in the modern.” She continued: “Archetypes are like ancestors in that we carry them in our bones. They are the parts of us that endure through the ages.”
Writing about Martin Shaw’s book Courting the Wild Twin, Gavin Van Horn shared, “The book… reminds us that we don’t make this journey alone. It calls not for greater individual heroism, but for a greater depth of love. Our ideological separation from the land—turning living beings into objects, resources, plunder, underlings—is our exiled twin. Court the land back, Shaw advises.” Martin Shaw would probably invite us to pay attention, to listen out in the aliveness of the world for new-old archetypes. What about the instructions for the archetypes that are written in the land, or between the breaths of our more-than-human kin? As Sophie Strand said too: “I’m more interested in the theriomorphic: like half-man, half-animal; like less Wild Man, more animal man; less lord of the beasts, more beastly lord, characters.”
It’s only in the wild, in our diverse ecosystems, where the dominant voice is one amidst many, and where the human voice can be rendered quiet by its surroundings, that we can hope to find a healthy proliferation of archetypes for masculinity, where we can find the “first-moulded”s, the “original pattern”s.