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Cultural Archetypes

Updated on May 20, 2015

What is a Cultural Narrative?

Societies are built over long periods of time, so long that individual lives tend to wane in importance in the grand scale of things. Imagine over your lifetime how many skin cells must have been born, lived and died as part of body, all the while they never really get to see that they are a part of a great unit known as you. If you wept for every skin cell that died you would never get anything done.

Yet to each individual skin cell a life of working on this incomprehensibly big body may begin to seem like a bit of a farce, they may begin to think its absurd and meaningless and give up. This is bad for the body, because if many of the skin cells do this the body would begin to disintegrate and die. The body has to keep the skin cells united towards the common goal of being a fit and healthy body.

Society functions in the same way, it has to keep its individuals united toward the common goal of creating the best society possible. A society has to find a way of giving its individuals a sense of identity and purpose.

To do this societies throughout all of time have used stories.

The Power of Story

Recorded history is in symbiosis with the written word, but before recorded history stories still existed. All great cultures have some form of oral tradition at the foundation of their societies. The Hindu's had the Upanishads, the Greeks the Odyessy and even America was built with the words of Jesus in mind a man who never wrote anything down.

These great oral narratives were stories that became the Myth's. They would be a call back to the era when we as humans would have been educated about our tribe around the campfire. Myth's are essentially the narratives of a specific culture. They are an individualised way of interpreting the world that subjective.

We may not find the Greeks myth's relevant to our modern social needs, but the Greeks would have had little care for the doctrine of Christianity.

The Ongoing Creation

These cultural narratives would have been passed down from an older generation to a younger generation, and so on so forth. What is incredibly unique about oral traditions is that from each transition to the younger generation the stories change. Like a massive game of Chinese whispers, each generation alters the story according to their interpretation of the Myths relevance to the current needs of their culture.

This renders these cultural narratives as fluid evolving ideas that evolve along with the culture.

This is most evident by watching the rise and fall in prominence of various characters from mythologies and how they change. The Viking character of Odin began as slightly obscure compared to their original primary God known as Tyr, who was the God of risk taking and vision. As the culture changed from an ocean bound raiding culture (which required a lot of risk taking and vision) to a culture struggling with the incoming doctrine of Roman Christianity. Odin began to become dominant among Viking rulers as the God of inspiration and life, counteracting the negative force Christianity would have on their mythology.

The Evolving Archetype

When we take a closer look at a mythology we see how characters themselves evolve within the mythic structure. No of these characters were ever truly defined but were simply archetypes that different generations of cultures described and developed according to how they felt the character would behave. These myths are in essence generational novels that are being written continuously by a culture, the author of the whole mythology is not some genius individual but many hundreds of story tellers over many life times.

To detail this I will look to the Hindu god Shiva. Shiva is one of the most complex characters ever created as he has existed as a character for almost 4000 years, in fact it is assumed that he is older than this but he just existed under a series of different names.

Shiva came about as early Indian tribes would amalgamate their local gods under a joint banner. In the same way that Christians can worship God by praying to the Father, Son or Holy Spirit, many gods were relevant extensions of Shiva for the early Hindus.

A main name the Shiva went by was known as Rudra, the God of thunderstorms. As the Hindu philosophy crystalized it's concepts of Samsara and Nirvana. Shiva's role became more specific. Samsara is like a state of addiction we all have to life, and Nirvana is the state of having beaten that addiction and become free. To break Samsara one needed to destroy ones illusions and this process was likened to the destructive force of a thunderstorm in destroying villages, leaving room to rebuild better villages. So Shiva adopted Rudra's powers of thunder and became : Shiva the Destroyer.

Shiva has continued evolving and remains a stellar archetype in the contemporary Hindu consciousness.

The Modern Myth?

What relevance does any of this have to me as a Westerner living in a technological society that frankly outright rejects Myths as false. Despite this slightly misguided disrespect for Myths importance, great stories have found their way into our world and in many ways fulfilled the role that cultural narratives imply.

To find these we can look to comics books.

If you imagine comic book characters you are struck by the famous American characters of the 1930's. Superman, Batman and later Spiderman.

Now envision how these characters are older than any of the people currently writing comics about them or making films about them. These characters have become generational archetypes just like Shiva and Odin.

Superman is a masculine messiah archetype, much like King David or Hercules, and as Americas cultural needs have evolved so has superman. In the Al Capone 1930's Superman fought crime. In the War years of the 1940's Superman was a pro war effort campaigner. This evolution has continued to this day.

Another great example is the Joker character in Batman, considering his court jester origins to Jack Nicklesons off the wall maniac and most recently Heath Ledgers unsettlingly lucid psychopath. As each progressive instalment to the mythology is fronted the archetypes are set in motion against the Zeitgeist to see if they sink or swim.

The Artists Role

I bring all this to your attention so that you remember your relevance. These characters are not God given, they are produced by a culture and then set in motion against time. You have to power to perhaps change the entire story of your culture via the power of language, story and characterization.

The Myths are still alive, and always will be as for as long as a culture needs meaning it will need stories. Your participation makes you part of perhaps the greatest story of them all: the story of the human race.


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    • Steafan Fox profile imageAUTHOR

      Steafan Fox 

      3 years ago from Dublin

      Certainly, especially in regards to our modern concept of "the superhero", because they are essentially our myths. The Watchmen is a great example of this. Thanks!

    • Akriti Mattu profile image

      Akriti Mattu 

      3 years ago from Shimla, India

      Studying cultural archetypes is fun and interesting. Some times it explains a lot of things we follow till today. Nice post. Voted up :)


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