Collin County Community College

Humanities 1301

Introduction to the Humanities

Forum 1:  Epic, Myth & Archetype


The following paragraphs describe several of the archetypal characters that can occur in a story, whether that story is from the distant past or it's currently playing on the movie screens of your local cineplex. I've tried to give examples of each archetype, using either the epic stories mentioned in your textbook (and also found at the links that I've provided on the main forum assignment page) or using widely known stories that I'm hoping many of you will be familiar with.


The outsider archetype also takes the form of the rebel, the outlaw, the revolutionary, or the misfit. This is the character which, by virtue of what he or she is or thinks, is an outsider to the community. The character often displays an attitude of radical freedom, a feeling of powerlessness, or anger over perceived injustice. This frequently results in behavior that can be viewed by the community as outrageous or rebellious. The classic Italian folk tale about the puppet named Pinocchio presents the outsider archetype in the form of the misfit. Another example might be the character often played by Clint Eastwood in his early Western movies. In that case, the outlaw archetype is often combined with the rescuer, or hero, archetype.

The archetypal character that I'm calling the innocent represents something beyond simply "one who isn't guilty." The innocent is one whose purity has not (or at least not yet) been compromised by knowledge of the world and it's evils. Thus, the innocent can take the form of the child, the naive youth, the saint, or the mystic. This character usually carries the symbolism of optimism, simplicity, goodness, or faith. An example of this archetype might be Beatrice, one of Dante's guides in the Divine Comedy. Another example, much more recent and probably more familiar to most of you, would be Dorothy from the movie The Wizard of Oz. (Note that Dorothy also represents another archetype -- the explorer. Just like Odysseus, she's in search of a way home.)
The ruler archetype also appears as the leader, the commander, the boss, or the manager. The ruler strives to be in control of the circumstances, assumes responsibility, and/or shows leadership. The objective of the ruler archetype is usually order, harmony, and control. Gilgamesh is an instance of the ruler archetype. So is Priam, from the Iliad, even though he's an older, more defeated version of the ruler.
The trickster archetype can also be called (or appear as) the jester, the clown, the comedian, or the fool (in the Shakespearean sense of the fool). The trickster is one who relies on his or her wits and is willing to cross boundaries, break taboos, or say the unmentionable. Typically, this transgression of barriers is executed using humor, sarcasm, or irony, all of which are heavily dependent on language and its openness to multiple or ambiguous meanings. Odysseus is a trickster character: in the Odyssey, he relies on his wits and cleverness to get him out of one tight spot after another; and, in the Iliad, it was he who proposed the idea of the Trojan Horse, the ruse by which the Greeks were able to defeat the Trojans. A contemporary example of the trickster archetype would be Axel Foley, the character played by Eddie Murphy in the Beverly Hills Cop movies.
The magician archetype can also appear as the healer/shaman, the sorceror, the visionary, or the innovator. This is the character who has much knowledge of the physical world, and knows how to use it to forge solutions to problems. (This knowledge will sometimes be portrayed as magical in the sense of fantastical, but it can also be magical in the same sense that electricity or magnetism are magical -- natural forces that are unseen and sometimes difficult to understand.) The magician also will frequently act on hunches or intuitions. The sorceror king Soumaoro from the tale of Sundiata is an example of the magician archetype, but so is Faust from the poem by Goethe.
The sage archetype can also appear as the oracle, the teacher or mentor, or the expert. This character is usually portrayed as knowledgeable and/or understanding, the source of wisdom or the guardian of truth. Frequently the sage will appear as an old man or old woman, whose years symbolize his or her wisdom. Utnapishtim, from the Epic of Gilgamesh, is an example of the sage archetype: Gilgamesh seeks him out to learn the secret of immortality, and Utnapishtim instead tries to teach him a different kind of wisdom. The figure of Virgil as used by Dante in the Divine Comedy can also be seen as a sage.
The protector archetype can take the form of the caregiver, the helper, the altruist, or the parent figure. The protector usually displays the qualities of compassion, generosity, and/or protectiveness. This archetype appears to have a need to meet the needs of others. You could probably consider Beowulf as an example of the protector archetype, at the same time that he is also an instance of the warrior. The protector also frequently appears in stories in the guise of a mother figure or a father figure, each of which can also be thought of as archetypal characters in themselves.
The explorer archetype can also come in the form of the seeker or the pilgrim. This character is usually on some kind of quest or in search of something: a way home, self-knowledge, a key to happiness or wisdom, or a "better way," whatever that might be. The narrator/protagonist in Dante's Divine Comedy is a primary example of the explorer archetype. In that case, the archetype takes the form of the seeker of spiritual revelation. Odysseus, from the Odyssey, is also an explorer, on a quest to get home, but as you saw above he also represents another important archetype -- the trickster.
The creator archetype also comes in the form of the artist or the inventor. This archetype is usually recognized by its importance in the generation of life and fertility, or in its creativity, imagination, and deliverance of something new or of enduring value. The creator archetype often acts out of inspiration or even out of dreams or fantasies. Examples of the creator archetype would include any of the gods or goddesses who are described as taking part in the creation of the world in the various creation myths in your textbook. Also, any of the fertility deities -- such as Isis or Inanna or Ceres -- would be ongoing examples of the creator archetype. A different kind of example might be Sundiata or Aeneas, each of whom are said to have created new empires.
The warrior archetype can also take the form of the rescuer, the hero, or the crusader for a cause. This character is usually notable for his or her courage, competence, and sense of self-worth or self-reliance. The warrior archetype (and its variations) is quick to respond to a challenge or to aid those in distress. Because the warrior is willing to commit violence to achieve his or her task, this character exists somewhat outside the mainstream of the community. However, the community is generally willing to accept the warrior's violent capacities, as long as they don't begin to present a problem for the community. Achilles, from the Iliad, is an obvious example of the warrior archetype, as is Roland.
The archetype that I'm calling the intimate can take the form of the best friend, the lover, the spouse, or the connoisseur. This is the character that finds satisfaction and fulfillment through intimacy or a passionate commitment of some kind -- a bonding with someone or something else. While the object of devotion is often another creature (human or animal), it can also be something like food, to whom the gourmand, for instance, is passionately devoted. Examples of the intimate archetype would be Enkidu, who becomes Gilgamesh's fast friend, or Patroclus, bosom friend of Achilles whose death drives Achilles to fight.
The martyr archetype can also appear as the scapegoat or the dying god (who is usually reborn or resurrected in some way). This is the character whose individual sacrifice (whether of life or of something else having great value and importance) purchases something of even greater value to the community as a whole or to the central character of the story. In this sense, Enkidu can be seen as a martyr, since his death serves eventually as an impetus to a greater wisdom for Gilgamesh (and, by implication, for all of humankind). The Egyptian god Osiris can be seen as a martyr in the guise of the dying god. The story of his death, the scattering of his dismembered body in the waters of the Nile, and his reconstitution and resurrection through the efforts of his wife, Isis, symbolically represent the gift of fertility that comes from the waters of the Nile, upon which Egypt has always depended for its survival.
Common Man/Woman
This archetype is the regular Joe or Jane, the guy or gal next door, the working stiff, or the realist. It represents the ordinary person, whose realism, sincerity, empathy, and connection to the group is considered to represent the best qualities of the masses of humanity. This character often seeks to avoid loneliness, since the greatest meaning or fulfillment for this person comes from being embedded within the framework of the community. An example of this archetype might be the character played by Jimmy Stewart in the old movie It's a Wonderful Life. Also, Dante's narrator in the Divine Comedy could be considered an example of this archetype, since Dante presents him as a model for all Christians seeking the path of spiritual revelation.
The animal archetype represents the relationship between humankind and nature or the non-human world. It can come in the form of a creature of the wild, or in the form of a domesticated creature like a horse or a dog. Examples might include the dragon in fairy tales and fantasies, or a character like Lassie, the collie from the old television program.

In case it isn't clear from my descriptions, I should point out that any of the above archetypes can appear in either male or female form. Also, it might be useful for you to keep in mind each of these archetypes has both a lighter side and a darker side. The warrior can be a hero, but can also become a rogue killer. The ruler can be benevolent, but can also be a tyrant. The intimate can be a devoted friend or partner, but can also become obsessive. The sage can become so engrossed in the arcane depths of knowledge that he or she withdraws completely from human intercourse. And the Hindu god Shiva, both creator and destroyer, profoundly reflects the violence that can accompany creation.

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Humanities 1301 -- Forum 1

Humanities 1301 -- Calendar

Humanities 1301 -- Introduction

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