The Physical and Spiritual Story Archetypes in Action

by James Bonnet

At the dawn of World War II and the catastrophic assault of Europe by Adolph Hitler and his Nazi German blitzkrieg, the Duke of York, who had a severe stuttering problem, would soon become King George VI of England, due to his older brother’s sudden abdication. Because of the coming war, the new king was expected to make inspiring speeches to help boost the morale of the beleaguered British people. After his many frustrating attempts and failures with other voice coaches, and against his wishes, the Duke’s wife, and soon-to-be Queen Elizabeth, seeks the assistance of a controversial Australian speech therapist living in London to help cure the future king’s very obstinate stuttering problem.

In the previous two story course articles, I talked about the love interests who help lure the hero and antihero (the conscious archetypes) into their adventures, the tricksters who goad them forward when they get stuck, and the threshold guardians who test their readiness and resolve. Now we’ll talk about the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual archetypes, who confront and surround the conscious archetypes and act as antagonists, mentors, helpers or guides.

Carl Jung called the primordial, instinctual archetypes of the lower self: the Terrible Mother and the Terrible Father. To me they are the negative, physical archetypes. Anatomically, this is the R-complex, the reptile brain that controls the lower, physical, animal side of our nature – the source of our most basic instincts, appetites and drives. They are associated with the three lower Chakras, the ones that control hunger, sex, aggression, and the will to power.

In great stories, the metaphors that describe these basic, instinctual energies take a variety of human and animal forms, depending on which aspects of the lower primordial, physical self they are personifying. And like the conscious archetypes, they can be either masculine or feminine, positive or negative. The ancient Greeks, who clearly understood that the gods of their myths were metaphors illuminating unconscious processes, personified our natural physical appetites as Eros, Aphrodite, Pluto, or Dionysus — the gods of amorous love, material wealth, good food and wine. And the negative, aggressive impulses of the lower self that urge us to seek revenge, seize territory, kill, or go to war are personified by Ares and Artemis, or in the Hindu pantheon, by the gods Shiva and Kali.

Geoffrey Rush, the Australian speech therapist in The King’s Speech, the story I alluded to at the beginning of this article, plays a positive physical mentor who is trying to help the Duke of York and future king (Colin Firth) overcome his very serious stuttering problem. In Silver Linings Playbook, Pat’s friend, Danny (Chris Tucker,) who periodically escapes from the mental institution to link up with Pat (Bradley Cooper), is also a physical teacher of sorts when he teaches Pat and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) some really cool dance moves. In The Hunger Games, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) is another positive physical mentor teaching Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) critically needed survival skills.

In Captain Phillips, the pirate chief, who goads and instructs the actual pirates from a remote location in another boat, is a negative physical commander. In Zero Dark Thirty, Dan (Jason Clarke) is a lower self motivated instructor teaching Maya (Jessica Chastain) the CIA’s most effective torture techniques. In the movie, Flight, John Goodman, the drug dealer, gives Whip (Denzel Washington) who’s about to face a legal inquiry into the crash of the airliner he piloted, a few blasts of cocaine to sober him up.

In real life, the positive, higher self motivated physical mentor might be a medical doctor who is trying to motivate and guide us toward a physical well-being by overcoming a disease or other physical problem. Or, if we are world-class Olympic swimmers, it might be a higher self motivated swimming coach who can guide us to a championship form. Psychologically, these are the thoughts and impulses that  motivate and influence us to accomplish the same results on our own. In real life, we experience these archetypes when we play these roles. The negative physical archetypes might be represented by lower self motivated drug dealers who are trying to corrupt us; or track and field coaches who encourage us to take steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs. Psychologically, these are the negative energies that can overwhelm us and take away our control. They are also the negative energies that inspire lust, hatred, anger and greed, acts of aggression, acts of violence and all of the other deadly sins that have been with us since the earliest stages of our evolution.  In real life, when people are completely taken over by these dark forces they become serious villains, drug lords and tyrants. Hitler is still, by far, the best example. But Stalin, Pol Pott, and Ide Amin are right up there, as are the myriad serial killers and psychopaths that plague our real lives.

All of the above mentioned personifications and manifestations of the physical archetypes are primarily concerned with problems, and other matters, that affect our primordial, physical selves. And, in a great story, this is what those archetypes are designed to reveal.

The spiritual archetypes, which I call the positive or negative spiritual father and mother figures, operate on another, more advanced, level of our existence, which they are also designed to reveal. They are the guiding spirits and hidden wisdom of the higher, unbounded, cosmic self. When the higher self motivated conscious hero is ready for his or her adventure, the energies of the spiritual self are the principal forces trying to bring about that positive change. They are the creative energies that give birth to the psychological impulses that seek to overcome the negative states, complete the passages, and achieve the higher states of being. They inspire us to seize the day, to be creative and virtuous, courageous and just, to make sacrifices and to do great things. They are the source of the power that can make or break our lives, and they want us to be liberated and free – to be at one with our selves, our loved ones, our country, our world, our God and the cosmos. They are the sum and substance of our souls and the guardians of our destiny.

In great stories, as metaphors, these spiritual energies can take many different male and female forms. They can personify all-seeing, all-powerful gods and goddesses like Hera and Zeus, Isis and Osiris, or they can take a mortal form like Obi-wan Kenobi in Star Wars, Gandolf in The Lord of the Rings, Marlon Brando in Superman I,  the wizard and the good witch in The Wizard of Oz, Dumbledore in Harry Potter, Mufasa in The Lion King, and the mother in My Left Foot, who helps nurture the artistic talents of her paraplegic son. They can, in fact, be any positive father or mother figure whose main concerns are spiritual matters – i.e. they inspire and help the hero to reach his or her full potential, traverse the passages, and bring about higher, more desirable states of being. In real life, we experience these archetypes when we play these spiritual roles, when we inspire, challenge, and help others on the path to their true destiny, or when others inspire and guide us to do the same. Priests and gurus make a profession of it. Ideal parents and grandparents do it from a sense of love and duty. Frank Lloyd Wright’s mother, it is reported, put photographs of the world’s great architectural achievements on the walls of his nursery and told him he was going to be the greatest architect that ever lived.  Picasso’s mother told him he would be one of the greatest painters. They were that mother — the guardians of their children’s destinies.

The spiritual father and mother appear negative when their laws are broken and they show their wrath. This is the God in the Old Testament, Caleb’s father in East of Eden, or fire and brimstone preachers. When their charges give in to temptation, go stubbornly in the wrong direction, or are on the brink of real disaster, they withhold their powers, threaten them with hellfire or kick them out of Paradise. These are also the religious extremists, fanatics or zealots who deny the lower self any legitimate expression, insist on the repression of all sexual energy, and will kill in the name of their god.

The spiritual and physical archetypes do not have equal power. The powers controlled by the higher, spiritual self can easily dominate the powers controlled by the lower, physical self, if the conscious hero has been initiated and the higher powers are in force. We see this in Dracula. When the cross (a metaphor of spiritual power) appears, Dracula, despite his incredible physical strength, always shrinks back. In Raiders of the Lost Arc, when the spiritual powers locked in the Arc of the Covenant are suddenly unleashed, an evil army of Nazis is dissolved like melting wax.

The most frequent manifestation in story of the rivalry between the higher and lower, light and dark sides of our nature is the struggle between good and evil. And what this is intended to reveal is a basic struggle that’s happening inside each of us and in every human group all over the world. In John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which is based on the Bible story about Adam and Eve, we see a perfect metaphor of this. A great battle is fought between God and Satan for control of Heaven. Satan loses and is condemned to Hades, the underworld – aka Hell. As part of Satan’s counterattack, he turns himself into a serpent and goes up to the Garden of Eden to corrupt God’s new favorites, Adam and Eve. He tempts them with an apple that can give them some of God’s great power. They break God’s law and are driven out of Paradise.

It’s interesting that Satan turns himself into a serpent because the snake is a perfect metaphor of the lower, primordial self, which is, in fact, the reptile part of our brain, the source of our most basic primitive instincts, appetites and drives.

Be that as it may, the superseded energies of the lower self are relentless. Their dog eat dog, big fish eats little fish M.O. has been the dominant survival mode among living things for over 3 ½ billion years. They never give up trying to regain their former dominance, and forever compete with the higher self for influence over our conscious selves. There hasn’t been a newly revised updated Bible lately, but if there were, it would probably be telling us what the great stories are telling us, that when our species entered warring states, and we began fighting and killing each other on every part of the globe, the lower self took control of the former domain of the higher self and transformed itself into a king and a war god offering glory, oil, gold, handy sexual partners, and choice pieces of real estate to their followers, if they slaughter their enemies, take their possessions, and make the proper sacrifices.

In the next story course article, we will look at two other important dimensions of our existence with: The Mental and Emotional Story Archetypes in Action, then we’ll review what the conscious and creative unconscious archetypes are telling us about ourselves, plus how to create great metaphors of all of these archetypes and transform them into memorable, charismatic characters.