A Tale of Two Heroines & The Acorn Theory

In his bestseller, The Souls Code in Search of Character and Calling (Random House, 1996), psychologist James Hillman makes a compelling argument for what he calls the ‘acorn theory’ – the idea that our lives are formed by a preexisting image or blueprint, similar to how the destiny of a mighty oak tree is contained in a tiny acorn.

In an interesting interview, Hillman explains how his book reintroduces something more sophisticated – and more helpful – than that age-old argument of free will versus predestination. That something is the ancient Greek idea of fate, or moira, which means ‘portion’. According to Hillman, although fate does rule a portion of your life, there’s more to life than fate. Although the acorn is destined to become an oak and not a maple, much of what determines how that oak tree will grow or even if it grows at all, is due to things over which we have some control.

The role of Soul

Hillman suggests at least for humans, character is fate. When taking measure of our character, we must forget all we know about psychological theories. They are not cosmic road maps. They are devised from human observations, which in turn are affected by human nature, which is precisely what those theories are trying to explain in the first place.

Hillman suggests instead we should approach our task poetically using Plato’s The Myth of Er as our guide. It’s all about daimon and soul. Although this may sound ‘new age’, it’s older than the proverbial hills. 

Hillman reminds us although mainstream Western society would have us believe otherwise, life was never meant to be an ego-fuelled race to the finish-line. Instead, it’s a challenge to reconnect with our calling or destiny, which has been determined before we were born. Providing many interesting case studies, Hillman demonstrates how although we might dodge our destiny or calling for a while or even ignore it in part, each of us are here on earth for a specific reason. Until we figure out that reason, we’re out in left field, which can be a very lonely place to be.

Hillman also reminds us that daimon or soul is always with us during our earthly incarnation. We’re not alone in this cold, harsh world. Sounds great! But here’s the pinch. If we choose to accept Hillman’s challenge to reconnect with our calling, our destiny, we must jettison one of our most treasured western motifs, that of the self-made hero/heroine.

Hillman reminds us that we can still be the heroine of our story, albeit of a different kind than we’ve been led to think.

This new type of heroine must be openly curious about herself and her place in the world. She must not allow herself to be conveniently wedged into a statistically significant psychological slot or genre-inspired character arc. Instead, she must tune in to her intuition and be prepared to act on what it has to say. Note, tuning in and acting is not quite the same as trusting. A hunch about, for example, which horse will win a race, can easily be wrong as it is right. But as this heroine looks back at the events of her life through this imaginal lens, chances are good she will see method to what at the time those events occurred, might well have seemed madness.

How might this work in practice?

Old Style Heroine

The old-style heroine Cat Black in my work-in-process novel, Trading with Neptune, is indifferent to daimon/soul. It’s not that she eschews the metaphysical. She is, after all, addicted to John Donne, a metaphysical poet from the English Renaissance. It’s more that in swallowing the modern Western society ‘party line’, she has neither time nor inclination to seriously pay attention to what daimon or soul has to tell her.

Cat believes she must know what she wants else she’ll have no hope of getting it. She also understands that in modern Western society, unless she’s a winner, she’s a loser. So she latches on to the first thing that seriously captures her fancy and sets out – all-guns blazing – to get it. When she encounters resistance, she turns to her best friend, who is a psychologist, to understand what’s wrong with her and how best to fix it. Focused on fulfilling her duty of self-improvement, Cat fails to wonder if perhaps the road blocks she encounters were not the result of something she did or did not do but instead of something altogether different.

Worse, Cat is so intent on becoming the traditional heroine of her own life story and (after sorting those inconvenient road blocks) living happily ever after, she fails to consider what being happy really means for her. When at last Cat has got past those road blocks and has within her grasp that which could make her truly happy, she ruins it. At some level she well knows that although Western society remains fascinated with the ideal of self-made heroes/heroines, it cannot tolerate what it deems to be show-offs and eventually finds a way to shoot them down. Perhaps she unconsciously figures it’s better if she shoots herself in the proverbial foot rather than allowing someone else to do it. Equally, she might not even realise what really happened and instead console herself with beliefs about how cruel is the world.

Interestingly, as Hillman points out, daimon is concerned with what’s good for daimon and not what we consider good for us. What soul or daimon needs to do its job, souls uses. This includes accidents and other misfortunes such as road blocks and perverse societal attitudes. This suggests that whether or not she realises it, Cat’s story arc is precisely what her daimon or soul had chosen.

Unfortunately having not come to appreciate this possibility, Cat continues to blame herself for what she perceives as her failures. This makes her even more unhappy. As Hillman also points out, in Western society we are told if we don’t succeed in our ventures, we’ve no one else to blame but ourselves. Sadly, like so many of us today, Cat believes this is the gospel truth.

For those of you interested in Cat’s astrological makeup, she was born with her daimon in the 2nd decan of Gemini.

New Style Heroine

By contrast, the new style heroine Cherry Clinton in my work-in-process novel, Hawks House, ultimately does come to embrace daimon/soul albeit at first blush this may not be obvious.

Like Cat, Cherry starts her story in zealous pursuit of uncovering her family fortune rumoured to have been stashed in European bank accounts decades back. But unlike Cat, even at the start of her journey, Cherry is not 100% convinced this is her destiny and so resolves to keep an open mind. Luckily for Cherry, she has developed a better relationship with her conscience, or daimon, which speaks to her (through the ghost of her mother) on a regular basis. As Hillman makes clear, if we are to fully embrace daimon, we must remain in contact with the wisdom of our ancestors, which in Cherry’s case is not always an entirely pleasant experience.

Unlike Cat, Cherry comes to appreciate the obstacles in her path are there for good reason. They are not simply the result of what she has or has not done. She also appreciates the harder she pushes at life, the more life pushes back. At the apogee of her character arc, Cherry decides to stop pushing altogether and instead, go with the flow.

Not surprisingly, her flow takes her not smashing through the obstacles she’s encountered but instead, around them. The grass may not always be greener on the other side but it is guaranteed to be different. Cherry understands it’s now her task not only to adapt to the new environment in which she finds herself but also figure out how to appreciate it for what it is. In doing so, she stops seeking the fortunes created by others and instead creates her own.  

For those of you interested in the Cherry’s astrological makeup – she was born with her daimon in first decan of Sagittarius.

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