Archetypes: Behind the Warrior-Hero's Mask
Developing your inner warrior
Approach tapping into the warrior archetype like an actor getting ready to play a movie role. All the world is a stage, as Shakespeare once wrote. Everyone is "faking it" in some way, no matter what they do. Yet, once you open your mind to telling your own story about yourself a funny thing starts to happen-- over time it becomes easier and easier to believe in it. Once your story becomes real to you, other people will begin to believe in it too.
The truth is that all of the archetypes exist inside of you. Some may be more prevalent than others in your personality, but they are all there. But bringing them out requires effort. Stepping into archetypal roles requires a specific type of imagination. Playing pretend with archetypes involves the use of a particular kind of mental muscle.
I bring all of this up because the warrior is difficult for some people to come to grips with. It is one of the most important archetypes there is, but it's also a role that some people feel entirely uncomfortable with.
For example, not everyone is comfortable handling a weapon. A gun, for example, has the power to kill someone instantly. You may not feel that you're capable of using it. But you are. If you had to use one to defend yourself and survive, you could. All of the archetypes are lurking somewhere in all of us, including the warrior.
My personal warrior experience
I was a bookish kid growing up. I never thought of myself as a warrior in any way. I played with Legos. I went out into the woods and read Tolkien.
If I had any fun with toy soldiers, it was when I snagged my mother's lighter and slipped behind my backyard fence with my brother and some kids who lived down the street. We'd tortue the old G.I. Joe figurines that our friends no longer had any interest in by holding their helpless bodies above the flame.
I'm not the type of person who believes that I will be greeted by virgins when I die. When I was around twelve or thirteen years of age I remember asking my mother something like:
"Why would anyone die for their country? What good is that? If a country is being invaded, why not just move somewhere else?"
Even back in those days I took for granted the idea that once you die, that's it. It was an intuition that has stuck with me over the years. If I'm not loving what I'm doing I feel like I'm wasting time. It's not an outlook on life that lends itself to serving a greater good.
But when I was 22 years old and living out of my car, signing up for the military seemed like a good idea. I had been traveling around, visiting my friends that I had met over the Internet through my clownish Jester-fueled persona that I invented, called "Believo."
But the fun times were coming to an end. I was running out of money. Joining the Navy seemed like a good way to keep the adventures going.
Those who knew me thought I was completely insane. My friends couldn't imagine me in a military uniform.
But my choice made sense to me. I saw it as a way to keep the road trip going and as a way to keep expanding my mind. Though I didn't realize it at the time, I had been playing an "individualistic rebel" type of role. To put it in terms of archetypes, I had been wearing the Seeker mask. Joining the military meant that I'd be forced to put the Seeker and the Jester archetypes away to some extent and open a new chapter in my life. I'd be in a situation that demanded a certain amount of conformity. I'd be forced to think of things in new ways, visit places that I've never been and interact with entirely new kinds of people.
Full disclosure: I wasn't a warrior all the time. I bent and often broke the rules and wound up getting in trouble more than a few times. But I did learn something during the time that I was in the military.
I think that on a subconscious level, I felt that I needed to understand the Warrior perspective. After completing five years of military service, I came out feeling like an overgrown tree that had been pruned. I felt more in tune with the basics of life and less distracted by things that don't matter. Also, long hours standing watch topside on a nuclear submarine or doing other monotonous, mind-erasing tasks had given me a certain amount of discipline that I lacked before.
Unlocking your inner warrior: where to start?
You don't have to go on an odyssey every time you set out to learn more about an archetype. If you want to get to know the warrior, you don't have to run off and join the military. Here are some other approaches:
- Study warrior oriented cultures, like the ancient Spartans
- Learn how to shoot a weapon (firearm, bow and arrow, etc.)
- Study native american war paint techniques
- Collect and study images of various mythical war gods
- Read classic literature about war, like The Things They Carried, For Whom the Bell Tolls or Slaughterhouse-Five
The power of imagination
Let's come back to the image of an actor, preparing for a new role.
After reading a script an actor might try to have some direct experiences related to the role of the character he'll be playing, but not necessarily. Researching a role often involves surrounding yourself with stories and facts. In On Writing Stephen King says that he often makes things up using his imagination when the plot of his story brings him outside the realm of his personal experience.
The research options I listed above didn't seem "real" to me at the time when I felt like I needed to play the Warrior. Back then, I was obsessed with an idea that I had to be authentic in everything that I did. I was always challenging myself to have real experiences and daring myself to do things, which is why I felt the need to sign my name on the line and join the military for real. I felt that I needed that, and in retrospect I think I was right. My lack of respect for the Warrior archetype was my biggest weakness at the time.
Imagination will take you a long way, but if you feel that you are far away from a true understanding of the Warrior then maybe the military or a related type of career is the best choice. Becoming a volunteer fireman, for example, will probably work if you want to come to grips with the Warrior archetype.
Sparta: a warrior culture
The ancient Greeks were the founders of western civilization. When getting to know the Warrior, ancient Sparta is a good place to begin. Few cultures were as warrior oriented as the ancient Spartans.
The ancient Spartans were human attack dogs.
Imagine being raised to go to war. Imagine an entire culture built specifically to breed warriors.
Baby Spartans were dunked in wine to see if they were strong. If they died, they were discarded. Even if the baby survived, it had to pass another test. Infants were brought before government officials for inspection. If they seemed puny or deformed, they were put to death.
Adolescent Spartans went through an intense training process geared toward producing the perfect soldier. Both women and men went through this training process, but with women there was less of an emphasis on combat. Even marriage was a militaristic event. The bride shaved her head to seal the deal.
The human race wasn't always the dominant force on earth that it is now
The origins of the warrior archetype
Personally, I don't believe that the archetypes exist in some platonic meta-reality behind the sky. I believe that there's an evolutionary reason behind why the archetypes are what they are.
Let's go back to the dawn of human history for a second. We know that early humans lived in small tribes. The members of these tribes had to fulfill certain roles. A leader had to negotiate conflicts. The older, experienced members of the tribe used their wisdom to keep the tribe from repeating past mistakes. Someone had to entertain the tribe during boring times. And someone had to defend the tribe from outside threats. Over generations, these "types" became deeply ingrained in human thought, and that's how the archetypes came to be.
That's my story, anyway, and I'm sticking to it. It's hard to ignore the presence of archetypes everywhere and I think the explanation I just provided makes plenty of sense, considering everything else we know about how the world seems to work.
If we accept this explanation of archetypes, then it's easy to see why the warrior archetype is so important and why the hero in any given story is usually some type of warrior.
In the ancient world, resources were scarce. Tribes of humans banded together to physically overpower competing groups. The groups with the strongest warriors were able to succeed, and those groups whose warriors were vanquished in battle were destroyed.
It was necessary to push strangers out of areas where the soil was fertile or the land was otherwise hospitable. Securing a safe territory meant that a group's women and children would be safe from attack, so that the tribe could survive and thrive.
As humankind grew in numbers, groups continued to rub elbows and compete for resources. Sometimes groups banded together to form kingdoms, and later, nations. But coming together isn't easy. Many of these conflicts erupted in wars, and warriors were called into battle to defend the turf of the group they represented.
"You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair—the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page." - Stephen King, On Writing
If war is waning, is the warrior still relavent?
Today's world is pretty much sorted out, compared to a century ago when nations were still going head-to-head. Most of the time, wars were fought in order to sort out which group would control a given territory or resources.
Even the complex reasons behind why both WWI and WWII occurred can be understood as wars that were essentially about "turf" and "stuff." In contrast, today's world is a world where the lines are, for the most part at least, already drawn. There are still hotly contested religious land like Jerusalem, but overall bloodshed is on the decline.
Thanks to technology, there's more resources to go around than ever before. World cultures are coming together and blending in ways never thought possible. Travel is more possible now than ever before. Also, the rise of communication technologies make it hard for any particular group to demonize another. The threat of nuclear war, too, seems to have had a chilling effect on bloodshed.
Yet even though fewer wars are being fought, the warrior archetype is still compelling as ever. Action movies showcase heroes like Iron Man, a warrior with a powerful suit of armor who is supremely good at fighting and capable of taking on mobs of opponents. Our worship of the warrior extends into the hugely popular professional sports industry.
When the need for an archetype vanishes, it doesn't go away. It's almost as if the more scarce an archetype is, the more valuable it seems. Think of how people reacted with amazement and fascination when it was announced that a team of snipers took out Bin Laden, for example. Society is obsessed with the warrior, perhaps now more than ever before. It's an archetype that everyone should be familiar with and know how to use.
Creative types often look down upon the military (I know because I used to look down on my high school friends who entered the military immediately after graduating) but actually creative people need the warrior more than anyone else. Anytime anyone does something creative, they are subjecting it to criticism. If you don't steel yourself against the opinions of other people, whatever you do will wilt and you'll eventually give up. Today when I sit down to write I am able to put on the Warrior's mask and go all in, guns blazing.
How to use the warrior archetype
Deep familiarity with the warrior perspective makes for better storytelling. The hero's journey is often associated with the warrior. Being able to create realistic warrior characters can do wonders for one's ability to weave a compelling yarn.
Most of the time we think of storytellers as writers or filmmakers, but really everyone is a storyteller. When people are hanging out and doing nothing in particular, they start telling stories. Everyone does it. Good storytellers are seen as intelligent, capable, trustworthy people.
For those seeking to use the warrior archetype in practical, specific ways here are a few applications. You can tap into the archetypal power of the warrior to accomplish any of the following:
- Compete in athletic events
- Triumph over a rival
- Overcome personal problems and adversity
- Accomplish any type of task that requires intense, extended effort
Here's another thing about the warrior archetype that's worth considering: it's one of the most popular archetypes there is. So, adding the Warrior to your personal style will change the way people think about you. The Warrior archetype is a hard role to step into, but once people know that you can wear the Warrior's mask, your social status will be elevated.
Pitfalls of the warrior archetype
The warrior mentality can be severe. Those who are only familiar with the warrior's way of looking at things miss out on the variety that life has to offer. When I was in the military, some of the guys that I worked with were so consumed by the military that everything else in life had no meaning to them. As a result, they developed problems in their personal lives leading to marital strife and other difficulties.
After five years, I had enough of military life and was more than willing to move on. But many people cling to what they learned in the military and are unable to move beyond it, even when they retire after an entire twenty years of service.
The warrior way of looking at things can be ridiculously stiff. An obsession with detail can lead one to mistake a tree for a forest. For example: ironing your clothes makes it seem as though you have the basic aspects of your life under control if you're about to interview for a job, but ironing your underwear is pointless. There's something to be said for hanging loose, and a hyper-vigilant military attitude can never understand that.
There's a reason why completely militant societies like Sparta no longer exist. The challenges of life demand a diverse approach. The Warrior is one of the most important archetypes, but it's not the only card in the deck.