Why have some human stories endured for 10,000-15,000 years or more? Why are some Disney movies like Pinocchio and Snow White timeless classics? Why is Star Wars my favorite movie?
I first found Dr. Jordan B Peterson, a university professor and clinical psychologist, about four months ago when he was on Joe Rogan’s podcast. Since that day, I’ve listened to his entire Maps of Meaning lecture series that he taught at a recent semester at the University of Toronto (about 40 hours of lectures), and I’ve read most of the accompanying text with the same title.
Discovering this course was as significant of an educational experience for as any I’ve ever had, including undergrad and grad school, which were expensive while Maps was FREE on YouTube! To me, Peterson’s Maps of Meaning is like the legend that unlocks the archetypal maps that humans have used to try to make sense of the incomprehensibly complex universe we live in.
What follows is my still limited understanding of Peterson’s genius work in his Maps course and his accompanying book. I doubt I have all of the concepts exactly right, but I have put in a lot of time into trying to understand them and I have tried hard to be accurate in this post. My goal is to clarify and memorialize my thoughts on the course while maybe inspiring you to become interested in Peterson’s work.
Why is it important to understand archetypal stories?
We are born into a world of overwhelming complexity. At the same time, we are consciously aware of that our lives will certainly be filled with suffering and will certainly end in catastrophe. It’s not clear how should act in this world. That is, how can we act in a way that justifies our existence and makes our lives meaningful?
We have been wrestling with this question since consciousness dawned in our brains maybe 2 million years ago, and we have figured out some of the answers using the following process. First, we observed people leading successful lives. Then we observed lots and lots of people leading successful lives, and extracted their common actions to create a meta-conceptualization of what a meaningful human life might be like. And that meta-concept became the hero archetype.
Dr. Peterson’s Maps takes a psychological and scientific approach to articulating what archetypical stories can teach modern humans attempting to find meaning in their day to day lives. Peterson is decoding the playbook for how to be successful in the world, and I’d say that’s pretty important.
Key ways to be a hero
Just like the hero is a meta-human, that is, the hero takes on the qualities of a number of successful humans, the meta-hero is the result of asking, “What do all of the best heroes have in common?”
Here are a few common themes and conclusions on how meta-heroes act in their universes from the lecture series:
- The Ideal: The hero looks to the transcendent and orients himself to the highest possible good. He sacrifices his present to create a better future. He makes himself strong in preparation for the challenges that await him. He willingly embraces responsibility, hard work, suffering, and his ultimate catastrophic fate.
- The Word: The hero speaks the truth, and does not lie. The truth is his sword and his shield. By speaking the truth often to others, he refines and clarifies his thoughts so that they become even more truthful, and in the process he inspires others to follow him.
- Your Eyes: The hero pays attention. He stays humble and seeks wisdom and truth. Hubris and pride can blind the hero to his own faults and can lead to his ruin. The hero is not naïve. He keeps his eyes open and pays attention to the people around him, including his enemies.
Explaining common archetypal story elements as described in Maps of Meaning using the original Star Wars Saga
Now that we have an idea of why archetypal stories are important and what hero archetypes are like, I’d like to (attempt to) break down the archetypal elements of my favorite movie, Star Wars, using Dr. Peterson’s Maps of Meaning. Think about some of your favorite movies and stories, and you’ll quickly be able to see how these elements are universal.
The Universe: Star Wars takes place a long long time ago in a galaxy far far away. The galaxy is like a primordial and strange background the precedes the story. It is infinite potential with a natural state of balance. Called Chaos, this mysterious universe begins as the objective world without a subject before it evtually differentiates itself into the component parts of the story below.
The Hero (Positive, for the negative side see “Adversary” below): Luke Skywalker is the hero in Star Wars. He initially inhabits a relatively stable world; call it the Known world, or a world of relative order. This is the hero’s Unbearable Present, because Luke, like all heroes (and all humans?) wants something more. He is curious and longs for adventure. He thinks he wants to rebel against the Empire. This is called his Ideal Future. Remember that iconic image of Luke staring off at the transcendent double sun set, seemingly wishing for something more. Why is that image so iconic?
The Great Mother (Positive and Negative): The Great Mother is an archetypal construct. It is nature, “the unknown… the feminine deity who gives birth to (positive side) and devours all (negative side)”. She manifests herself in stories as The Queen, dark waters like the ocean, the forest, or the night sky.
In Star Wars, The Great Mother is The Force. The light side of The Force is the positive, nurturing, and creative aspect of the Great Mother. The dark side of the force is the negative embodiment of the Great Mother, destructive and merciless.
The Great Father (Positive and Negative): The Great Father is culture – the wise king (positive) and the tyrant (negative) – he “is order, placed against chaos; civilization erected against nature, with nature’s aid. He is the benevolent force that protects individuals from catastrophic encounters with what is not yet understood; he is the walls that surround the [city]. Conversely, however, the Great Father is the tyrant who forbids the emergence of anything new.” He manifests himself in stories as The King, the city or village, the culture, or stone monuments or mountains.
There are two major representations of The Great Father in Star Wars. The negative manifestation is The Empire, which is tyrannical, oppressive, and represents extreme order. The positive representation is The Jedi Order. Supportive and encouraging, a force for good in the face of a chaotic universe, led by Yoda, the ultimate Wise King.
The Anomaly: Again, the story starts with our hero who exists in the unbearable present and dreams about the ideal future. As the hero begins to orient himself to his dream, something happens called an Anomaly. In Star Wars that anomaly is when the Empire murders Luke’s family. The anomaly plunges the hero into a world of chaos. From here on out, Luke can never go home again, never return to the world that was once known to him.
Luke then begins to clarify his ideal future with the help of his guide, who is like his conscience, Obi Wan. Obi Wan is kind of like Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio (interesting note: Jiminy Cricket is slang for another archetype hero with the initials J.C.) – the still developing conscience that attempts to orient the hero’s compass on his journey. Luke’s new ideal future is to become a Jedi Knight, and to revivify his father.
The Adversary (This is the negative manifestation of hero): The Adversary, consumed by vanity and hubris, is “the embodiment of totalitarianism; the spirit who is characterized by rigid ideological belief, by reliance on the lie as a mode of adaptation, and by the inevitable development of hatred for the self and the world.” The Adversary is Satan, the bitter fallen angel hell-bent on destruction.
Of course, the adversary in Star Wars, maybe the greatest movie adversary of all time, is Darth Vader.
The Dragon of Chaos: Dragons are a human near-universal. Why? Peterson describes dragons as a low resolution representation of the thing we fear that lurks in the unknown. Think about it. We evolved from forest dwelling primates. What should forest dwelling primates fear? They should fear poisonous snakes on the ground, predatory cats in the trees, and birds of prey in the sky. What’s part snake, part cat, and part bird? You guessed it. And why do dragons breathe fire? Well think about it. Fire is a part of nature (chaos) that can be destructive and can also be productive.
There’s one more key part about dragons. They hide treasure. So what does that mean? It means something like “that which you most desire is hidden behind that which you fear the most.” It means that if you are to be a hero who achieves his ideal future then you must willingly go out into the unknown and confront the dragon of chaos.
Oh, and there’s one more thing about heroes. The hero must die at the end. Or, at least, the old version of the hero must die for the new and more glorious hero to be reborn. Gandalf the Grey is killed by the Balrog before he can be reborn as Gandalf the White. Harry Potter is killed by the dragon before the phoenix tears bring him back to life. And Luke Skywalker of Tatooine must die before Luke the Jedi can be born. The idea is that a successful life is cycle of death and rebirth, and that is a powerful idea.
The Dragon of Chaos in Star Wars is the Death Star – the fire breathing planet destroyer that lurks in the chaotic universe of the unknown. To defeat the dragon Luke has to travel to its very center, alone, face and defeat his adversary, and willingly sacrifice his own life. Out of the fiery explosion, the old Luke dies and the Luke who becomes a Jedi is born.
Stories like Star Wars, archetypal stories, especially old and widely beloved stories, have hidden messages coded in them. We should not be so quick to write them off as child’s play. Similarly, we should not be so quick to write off ancient stories, like those in the Bible and other religious texts, as the superstitious works of primative people. Maybe we have passed down archetypal stories across millennia because there are powerful truths coded in them.
Once you know the key to the code, you can learn humankind’s most important lessons. As Dr. Peterson says, you can sort yourself out, clean your room, and make yourself strong and formidable. You can pay attention, and live your life with your eyes open. You can live forthrightly and speak the truth. You can be the hero who ventures willingly into the unknown to confront the dragon of chaos, because its are hiding all the treasure and meaning you seek.
“You are so much more than you think you are.” – Jordan B Peterson
Post Script: I also highly recommend Dr. Peterson’s “Psycogical Significance of Biblical Stories” YouTube lecture series and his Self Authoring program.