Marjorie is 92. She is on the church council, and does the flowers and coffee rota. She is a counsellor at a Christian centre for pregnant women with few resources, and gets around town on her bike. She still lives in the terraced house she moved into shortly after she married 65 years ago, and twice a year goes on a holiday somewhere in Europe. Once a week she visits her former neighbour Dorothy in a care home, and they talk about old times, or rather she does. Dorothy, who is eight years younger than Marjorie, doesn’t really know who she is.
We can divide archetypes into two categories – mythological and societal. In the first post about the power of the archetype, we talked about the warrior/tyrant and priestess/witch archetypes, which have their origins in mythology. In this post we will discuss societal archetypes, images fed to us by our peers and by the media in modern times, but which are just as influential in the way we perceive the world and, more importantly, ourselves.
The societal archetype of the Elder can be subdivided into two further groups : the frail and demented elder, and the wise and vigorous one. The former is the denizen of assisted living facilities, stricken by Alzheimer’s, wheelchair-bound, a shadow of their former selves. It is the spectre of old age we all fear, and we are surrounded by evidence of its power. If members of our own family correspond to this image, we approach our later years with dread. The latter archetype can be found running voluntary associations in cities, teaching in educational institutes or in rural areas striding up the mountain with a gnarled baton – hundreds of these individuals are to be seen in the Alps for example.
There is a third category of archetype however, one we rarely hear about these days: that of the Immortal. It is a relatively rare archetype, usually appearing only in fairy tales or mystical legends. Examples are the founders of most religions, Babaji the deathless Indian avatar, vampires and the Count of St Germain or “immortal count”, who is said to appear during times of crisis, always looking around 45 years old.
The Immortal never dies, retaining both mental and physical vigour indefinitely. Sometimes he/she is a shape shifter, being able to adopt the appearance of a wise elder or beautiful youth as the circumstances require. Until now firmly rooted in the mythological category, occasionally someone will nudge the symbol of the Immortal into the societal category by suggesting that one day man will live forever. Techniques such as cryogenics, nanotechnology and organ replacement often accompany this narrative. It is only loosely rooted in the collective consciousness, and usually conjures up emotions of derision, or disdain of its narcissistic connotations. It is therefore immediately rejected. The other reason why this archetype only makes a rare appearance in our minds is because it is generally believed to be fictional. Few people would question this conclusion: the archetype of the Immortal is a fantasy – it does not exist in reality, whereas the mythical and societal archetypes clearly do. Anyone can point to examples of people with the traits of witches, tyrants, warriors, Alzheimer’s victims and older people still sharp as a knife. But there is no evidence of anyone ever having lived forever, and if the Count of St Germain were to appear today on the news and make that claim, the usual reactions of derision and disdain would immediately surface.
We need to coax the archetype of the Immortal out of the mists of fantasy. This is not an invitation to lunacy, it is a carefully calculated attempt to exorcise the archetype of the frail and demented old man or woman. By espousing the image of the Immortal, we extract from our subconscious the idea that life can be no longer than the three score years and ten mentioned in the Psalms and suggest to it instead the longevity of the patriarchs of Genesis.
Do we have proof the Immortals belong in the real-life category? No, none at all. This is not the point. The question is, what image do we wish to imprint upon our subconscious, which stores information and produces it to manifest events and states when confronted with triggers such as age or retirement?
So, what is it to be? The batty old curmudgeon who doesn’t know what day it is, or the ageless wise and physically active individual who has preserved and enhanced their physical and mental appeal?
If embracing the Immortal doesn’t work, we will have lost nothing except our fear. But it might.
Just a hunch.