Teaching Archetypes; Or, Backdoor Natural Law Theory and “Myth Become Fact”


I’m in the middle of a mythology unit with my kids and we’re learning about archetypes–recurring character and event patterns that show up in stories from all different cultures, times and places.

For instance, the orphan-turned-hero archetype: the young boy in the Native American Blackfeet myth we read, Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins, Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Jane Eyre, , even Luke Skywalker if you admit that Anakin is kind of dead, practically speaking.

And of course, Lil’ Orphan Annie.

Or the mentor figure who must die/disappear so the hero can become a hero: Gandalf, Dumbledore, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Glenda the Good Witch.

So sad.

Or the flood myth archetype: Noah and the Ark, Utnapishtim in The Epic of Gilgamesh, Deucalion and Pyrrha in the Greek story, and stories in practically every culture on this planet.

Or the hero’s journey archetype. Here’s a fun video we watched in class about that:

Or, perhaps more provocatively, the dying and rising godlike hero: the Egyptian Osiris, Babylonian Tammuz, Greek Persephone, Hercules going to the Underworld and bringing Theseus back, Odysseus, Aeneas… and Gandalf the Grey coming back from the dead as Gandalf the White, and Aragorn passing through Dunharrow.

And, of course, Jesus.

Whoah. Yes, it’s true. Jesus fulfills archetypes big time.

One of the essential questions we are considering in this unit is What do Archetypes Suggest About Human Nature?

Well, what they suggest about human nature is that such a thing actually exists– and that human beings all over the world are caught up in the same search for meaning and often come to surprisingly similar answers.

Archetypes suggest there may be eternal truths about human beings. The stories we tell are similar because we are all similar. Among these standards are moral standards that all cultures recognize but some cultures realize more fully than others do.

And there you go: Backdoor Natural Law Theory. Sort of.

Next up on the unit plan: Is Christianity just another myth?

I mean, it is pretty similar to a lot of other myths. Sometimes uncannily so. There’s the whole scapegoat archetype thing going on. And isn’t Jesus basically like the half-god, half-human heroes of old? And doesn’t that prove that Christianity just adopted other mythologies and so basically our God is just an updated Zeus, or something?

We’ll have some interesting discussions, for sure. But to guide us, we will be reading excerpts from C. S. Lewis’ “Myth Become Fact.”

Now as myth transcends thought, incarnation transcends myth. The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the dying god, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens-at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle. (Lewis, “Myth Become Fact”)

This is going to be a bit mind-boggling for some of my kids, but I think it’s worth a try.

5 thoughts on “Teaching Archetypes; Or, Backdoor Natural Law Theory and “Myth Become Fact”

  1. Whoa, I love that you’re attempting this with your students! I think sometimes as teachers we, and they, underestimate what they can do, so I love that you’re doing this and believe they can do it (at least mostly 🙂 ). Good luck!

  2. It’s certainly not a new idea with C.S. Lewis; however, Lewis is simply articulating early Christian philosophy and theology in the work you mention and also in Mere Christianity into a more modern understanding. The ideas that your wishing to instill in the classroom are ideas that are almost as old as Christianity itself. St. Justin Martyr in the 2nd century A.D. writes in his “Second Apology of Justin Martyr 13”:

    “Next to God we worship and love the Word, born of the eternal God who is beyond our understanding, because he became man for us to heal us of our ills by sharing them himself. And it is thanks to this same Word who had been placed in them that pagan writers were able to perceive the truth, if in a confused way. Still it is one thing to possess a seed in proportion to one’s capacity and quite another possess the reality itself.” *

    Of course, in simple language, there are absolute truths, which pagans and others happen to stumble on.

    I hope you are successful with your lesson plan.

    *Source: Marcellino D’Ambrosio When The Church Was Young: Voices of the Early Fathers (Cincinnati: Franciscan Media. 2014,) 52.

  3. Another thought on your next lesson plan, The source that I quoted directly challenges the notion that Jesus fits an archetype of pagan deities. The consensus has been that Christianity has adapted their practices from pagans. The consensus is beginning to change, there is a significant amount of primary sources from early Christian writers– like St. Justin Martyr– that indicate that early Christians resented all pagan practices. St. Ignatius of Antioch at just the turn of 2nd century A.D. already had expressed interest in his writing with the incarnation of Christ.

    In regards to archetypes, as my undergraduate work was on Classical Rome, Pagan deities were representations of more human nature such as adultery, prostitution, and fornication and the goal of human worship were to prevent these actions from the Gods.

    Even the most recent scholarship on the Christmas date, from Oxford University’s C. Philipi Nothaft indicate that it was derived from Christian interest alone. http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=8779419&fileId=S0009640712001941

    For example, The December 25th date can be obtained entirely from nativity story in the Gospel of Luke.

    A lot of the information is based on work pretty new, within the last ten years, thought you could benefit from it, if you were interested.

    1. Thanks for the source! Yes, Christianity was not adapting or modifying pagan practices. But it’s a common misconception that ought to be addressed.

      There are similarities, of course. One could argue those similarities prove Christianity false–but one could just as easily (and, I think, more convincingly) argue that those similarities prove it true. That’s one of Lewis’ main points in “Myth Become Fact.”

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