Tale Coating

Stories, particularly oral ones, tend to rely heavily on archetypal and easily recognisable characters. Not only do we see archetypes in other people (fictional or real), but so often we aspire to become them ourselves. Sometimes this is in a professional or personal capacity - wanting to live up to our own vision of what the ideal doctor or father should be like. At other times it can be spiritual, reflecting a sense of calling. In this latter capacity it goes to the root of what we aspire to be. Many (perhaps most) religions encourage their devotees to study a sacred story and aspire to emulate one or other of the central figures ~ be that Jesus, Buddha, the Madonna, Guru Nanak etc.
I am not referring to those forms of mental illness where a person comes to believe that they actually are the Messiah (or some other leading light), but only where an individual strives hard to exhibit the same values as their revered figure. Although I do wonder what is stronger - an individual or a story? Will someone who strives hard to be Christ-like in their morals and actions inevitably find themselves also being martyred and rejected by those they seek to save because that is what the story demands and the needs of the tale override the conscious choices of the player?

With the pagan religions the situation is slightly different, inasmuch as there are usually a plethora of stories with no central tale whose protagonist takes precedence. This can lead to the pagan being spoilt for choice as to which character most profoundly inspires them, which perhaps leads many to focus not so much on specific individuals from stories as archetypal patterns - much as is found in a lot of Wiccan groups with the focus on a Lord and Lady rather than culturally specific deities.
Of course, when you buy into a story it's never a story about just one person ~ you take on the primary cast as well. This requires that other people be persuaded to play the necessary roles in the ongoing drama; some may do so voluntarily (indeed, if we make the assumption that the universe operates on a variation of the like-attracts-like premise, then maybe choosing a certain archetype and its accompany plot will cause the corresponding players to be drawn to us), others may find themselves being cast into roles they don't want and may be utterly unsuited to. At a very basic level, if I model myself on an archetypal Great Healer then, by implication, I must have the sick, the lame and the despairing requiring my help - what good is a doctor without patients? I could take up a career that will bring me in contact with many people who are genuinely diseased, or I might simply adopt the attitude of seeing other people as 'damaged goods' in need of my help (whether they want it or not, whether they consider themselves ill or not).
Eric Berne was advancing such ideas years ago, of course, and - being a psychiatrist - focussed mainly on the pathological self-defeating stories (or scripts as he called them). Stories can be positive and make for a very happy life - especially, I suggest, if a person is actually able to take a number of stories into their life and move between them at different stages, rather than fixating upon and endlessly repeating a single script.

A sadly common negative script within the world of paganism is that of the Iconoclast, the outcast who challenges the fossilised order and shakes things up with a new approach. Now, a reasonable argument could be made that, in 21st century Europe, pagans are iconoclastic figures to wider society advocating beliefs and ways of life that sit ill with both the prevailing materialism of secular society and the monotheism of the dominant religions. If you identify with the revolutionary Iconoclast you can achieve a great deal of good by challenging that which is corrupt, stultified and formulaic... however... I think a problem often arises where a person is hung up on this one story and cannot move into any other mode. One can only be a revolutionary if there is something to revolt against, which means someone else has got to be cast in the role of the rigid autocrat or false idol that needs smashing. An Iconoclast may actively search out genuinely oppressive forces and individuals to rail against (which must get a trifle tedious for spouses or friends who're forever having to play second fiddle to the latest crusade) or, when it becomes more problematic, they may start to automatically think every third person they encounter is a golden calf to be overthrown. Many of those calves may feel rather bewildered when they are suddenly cast into the role of villains on the basis of little more than someone else's paranoia.
Implicit in the notion of being an Idol Breaker is the conviction that those worshipping the golden statues are misguided fools (at best) and that one's own alternative vision is far superior. If this is a story being played out in one area of life for a fixed period of time, this may not be a problem ~ particularly if the New Idea offered really is better than the old one that people have clung to. However, when it becomes the only show playing in the mental cinema, night after night, what is the likelihood that every idea that falls out of our heads is a pearl and that anyone who fails to appreciate our every word and notion really is a swine? Sooner or later our ideas are going to be as daft (if not worse) than whatever idea/person/institution we are railing against, and whose own value we have utterly failed to perceive.
There are times in life when it's important to challenge the sacred cows, to say the things that others perhaps do not wish to hear, but there must be more to us than just that or we end up becoming caricatures and bullying others into being the same.

To return to an earlier point, a storyteller who tells the same tale night after night becomes awfully boring, no matter how well they tell the tale. Like the wicked ghosts in the wonderful Amicus pot-boiler 'Vault of Horror', being doomed to endless repetition of a single story must be a form of hell. The secret of the successful storyteller is their capacity to acquire and bring to life new tales, new songs, new poems ~ and I think the same is true of our own psyches. If we can embrace a number of archetypes or scripts, moving between characters at different points in our lives and/or different situations, we are liable to become richer, deeper, happier people who will enjoy the songs of our lives rather than becoming trapped in them and starting to see other people always in a single light (which they may well not belong in).


  1. Rhiannon and the Ancient Mariner were both punished in part by having to keep retelling their stories. Thanks for this Robin, a thoughful and multilayered post. It's an odd business to find you are mooing with confusion when you had no idea you were any kind of cow at all... :-)

  2. I think some of the problem when people strive to be like an idol is that they interpret everything in terms of that idol. For example, if a Christian friend explains to me why Jesus is important in his life, but I refuse to convert to Christianity then my friend may interpret my actions as rejecting them, when all I am doing is rejecting their belief. Of course, this does lead on to the problem that some people so identify with their beliefs that they see any rejection of those beliefs as a rejection of them as an individual.

    For me, the starting point has to be each of us valuing ourself. Then, when people challenge us, we don't feel threatened by that challenge. This, in turn, means we can see another point of view - we can appreciate the attraction of the song of their life even when it isn't a song we choose not to sing.

  3. Common problem in academia too, the inability to separate personal identity from a pet theory (so criticism of the latter gets treated as if it were the former).


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