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Archetypal Characters for the 21st Century by Mary O’Gara, Ph.D.

Joseph Campbell condensed the great myths of history into the Hero’s Journey, which the world met dramatically as Luke Skywalker’s journey to greatness in “Star Wars”.   The hero, an ordinary person at the beginning of the story, becomes the savior of his particular world after going on a journey complete with mentors and gatekeepers, challenges that force him to face his personal fears, and a final triumph that saves his world or his people.   On a smaller scale, we may meet the hero as a detective protecting a city from criminals or a parent saving one family from an overwhelming challenge.   Always the journey story is replete with suspense.   Will he or won’t he rise to the challenge?   And how on earth does a person like me become a hero?

The Feminine Journey, although closely related to the Hero’s Journey, is the journey of personal empowerment.   Our heroine (who, like the hero, may be either male or female) begins with a life that serves everyone’s purpose but her own, throws of the shackles of “shoulds” and “good enough”, and with the held of gatekeepers and mentors discovers and empowers her own self.   Her story is related to Campbell’s journey, but its inspiration is a single great myth, the journey of Inanna into Hell to rescue her daughter.   Sometimes she wins; sometimes she doesn’t.   The questions are less about winning or losing than about courage and, ultimately, personal empowerment and the ability to make ones own choices.

In the modern world, women save their world or at least their family and their companies, as heroes, and men take the formerly feminine journey to empowerment.   So where are the models for a society or culture peopled by humans who are both masculine and feminine within themselves and in their actions in the outer world?

Those models, and the journeys that accompany them, are on the Tree of Life (Kabbalah) of the Judeo-Christian tradition and the Celtic Tree for the Celtic tradition.   Both trees are living traditions,  peopled with characters that live and breathe and change with our world. Both embody two journey stories: the story of the creation of the world, which is also the model or directions for human creativity, and the story of the path of return, which is the model for human spiritual growth and master of self or one’s craft.

On the Tree of Life, feminine means form and masculine means force or perhaps an idea moving out into the world.   Masculine also means electric, and feminine, magnetic.   The masculine pushes out and the feminine draws in.   What sets the Tree apart from other mythology is that both masculine and feminine spheres or centers (or characters) live on the form side of the tree and on the force side of the tree.   And the real power is in the center, where centers or characters rise above the pairs of opposites to become strong and whole.

On the Kabbalah Tree, for example, the left side of the tree is about bringing things into form and is feminine, but the strongest masculine character actually resides there at Gevurah.   Think of Aries, the god of war, bringing force (masculine) into form (feminine).   And at Netzach, the center of eternal desire, we find Venus and Aphrodite, embodying the idea (masculine) of beauty without necessarily attaining it in real life (feminine form).   In today’s world we might have the bullying head of a drug cartel at Gevurah and his trophy wife or girlfriend at Netzach.  Both the bully and the lone soldier holding a mountain pass as his platoon retreats come from Gevurah, for example, as does any other strong and disciplined character.   The gentle teacher and Florence Nightingale can be found at Chesed.

With a little practice, you’ll begin to recognize characters from the Tree in your own relationships as well as on television or in the movies.    You’ll notice the disciplinarian teacher at Gevurah, the gentle one teaching important principles at Chesed, or the one who inspires children from Netzach.   You might recognize a scholar at Hod or a great scientist at Gevurah or even at D’Aath, the invisible sphere that pierces the veils to the unknown.

It all sounds horriby complicated, but there are simple reference guides to make it easy to find the stories for our times and their characters on the Tree.   If you write Celtic stories, start with “The Merlin Tarot” by R.J. Stewart.   For Christian stories or most contemporary and historical fiction, start with “The Elements of Qabalah” by Will Parfitt or “Introduction to Cabala” by Z’ev ben Shimon Halevi.

The two Trees are like great filing cabinets.   You can diagram any situation or event on the Tree.   The Kabbalah Society website  includes articles showing how money, business and even the modern justice system are outlined by the Tree of Life.

Why should you care about the diagrams?

You may be a great plotter, and this will simply be one more way for you to plot.  But for the rest of us, the Tree’s a lifesaver.    I’m a puzzler.  Complicated plots make my head spin, but I love characters and their relationships with each other.   Even I can put my characters on the Tree and see the tensions and balances among them, notice the lessons each will have to learn to connect with the other, and know what I’m missing.   Imbalance leads to chaos, by the way, and the main character has to right the balance to save the world.

The Kabbalistic Tree is the collection and model of the core myths and stories behind the entire Judeo-Christian belief system that shaped the modern Western world.   Stories based on its mythic structure resonate with modern readers because they’re drawn from our own lives, our personal mythologies and cultural legends.  We love characters who are both good and bad, and the good and bad sides of any one character share the same spot on the tree.  Think of the seven great virtues–and the corresponding vices.   Or the leadership styles of the Old Testament patriarchs.    Both the bully and the lone soldier holding a mountain pass as his platoon retreats come from Gevurah, for example, as does any other strong and disciplined character.   The gentle teacher and Florence Nightingale can be found at Chesed.

The ten centers or spheres on the tree each represent a different level of creativity or personal development.   From one perspective, all of them live within each of us (as do all archetypes).   From another, we can see them as characters in the world around us, complete with the functions that belong to the characters.   Twenty-two lines connect the spheres, each representing whatever lesson or knowledge it takes to link those two people.   Today, we see those 22 lines as the tarot trumps (or the planets and signs of astrology).   We place the cards of the minor arcana and the court cards of tarot on the spheres of the tree.    With those links, understanding of the myths and their purposes becomes accessible for all of us.  If tarot interests you, one of the great books about tarot and the Tree is “Qabalistic Tarot” by Robert Wang.   Wang also wrote “The Jungian Tarot and its Archetypal Imagery”, another fine source of Western story.

If you write paranormal stories, you’ll find angels, archangels, guides, demons and all the creatures of imagination placed somewhere on the tree.  But it’s hard to over-generalize the uses of the Tree for modern stories.   Everything that’s part of modern life, or of the legends behind our modern culture, has a place on the Tree.   And from that place it has natural oppositions and balances, relationships of all varieties and subtle differences with every other person or event in our world.

Above all, it’s a simplified model of our world.   Find the “files” you want for your story and dig in to the wealth of “clippings” and “inspirations” inside the folders.   If you use it for nothing more than the starting point of story, it’s a great creative device.   And at the same time, it’s a model for personal mastery as a creative and for a balanced creative life.    What other one-page diagram offers so much?

On October 12th, Mary will introduce an all-new workshop on “The Eleven Core Characters of Western Culture”. During the workshop, Mary will introduce each of the 11 spheres on the Tree of Life with its characters and their vices and virtues.   The workshop is designed to make it easy for writers to use the Tree of Life for story inspiration and to shape stories and character relationships.   In addition to the basic material that makes the Tree easy to use, Mary will provide vital resources and links to help students continue to learn about this fascinating story tool after the workshop ends.



Mary-at-NapolisMary O’Gara is an award-winning writer and a creativity coach–and a frequent instructor for Savvy Authors.  Mary was introduced to kabbalah in 1988 and has been studying kabbalah both spiritually and as a resource for stories and characters since that time.   Her doctoral studies included in-depth studies of the language and symbolism of kabbalah, and she wrote her doctoral paper on the four elements of kabbalah.   Her understanding of the four worlds or elements of kabbalah has shaped earlier workshops for Savvy Authors on the creative mind, the stages of creative development, and the feminine journey.