The Branding of the Soul

The Branding of the Soul

Boats on the Neva River (1947), by Nadezhda Pavlovna Shteinmiller (1915–1991)

Your body bears a very distinctive mark or brand that exemplifies your purpose, your reason for existing, your fate. What the English language refers to as “character” is an attempt to capture this reality in word form. The word, character, has the following etymological origin:

mid-14c., carecter, “symbol marked or branded on the body;” mid-15c., “symbol or drawing used in sorcery,” from Old French caratere “feature, character” (13c., Modern French caractère), from Latin character, from Greek kharakter “engraved mark,” also “symbol or imprint on the soul,” also “instrument for marking,” from kharassein “to engrave,” from kharax “pointed stake,” from PIE root *gher- “to scrape, scratch.” Meaning extended in ancient times by metaphor to “a defining quality” (Online Etymological Dictionary).

Heraclitus said that one’s character is one’s fate or destiny. Our character is our entelechy. The indelible brand that marks each and every one of us is our soul. According to Aristotle, “the soul is the form of the body.” James Hillman, in his book, The Force of Character, writes concerning this:

The soul forms the body, yet it is itself without body and therefore cannot be located in an organ, a cell, or a gene, any more than the form of the sock can be located in the wool (Hillman, 10).

A unique individual consists of unique qualities, which are one’s character. These qualities are displayed in one’s person, one’s life in the body. The soul reveals itself in one’s life through one’s qualities, one’s characteristics. Hillman says, “These qualities are the soul in action, patterning our movements and revealing the soul’s formative power, which influences and even instigates our behavior” (Hillman, 11).  These patterns in our life, our characteristics, can lead us to know more about the soul and its workings in and through us.

The characteristics one exhibits in life compose one’s character, one’s branding of the soul. Each brand is totally unique, but there are patterns and groupings of these traits whereby we can gain greater knowledge of the soul. These patterns are called myths. The Greek myths are very powerful guidelines when attempting to understand what is occurring in us.

Hillman writes of viewing the soul “as an active intelligence, forming and plotting each person’s fate” (ibid.). 

The plots that entangle our souls and draw forth our characters are the great myths. That is why we need a sense of myth and knowledge of different myths to gain insight into our epic struggles, our misalliances, and our tragedies. Myths show the imaginative structure inside our messes, and our human characters can locate themselves against the background of the characters of myth (ibid.).

Notice, also, in the etymology above that one’s character is a “symbol marked or branded on the body.” We who explore the caverns and grottoes of the soul know full well the power of symbols. The body is the carrier of these traits, these metaphors that display soul in our day-to-day lives. We are living symbols. Our characteristics are akin to body art that reveal our destinies and the purposes of our souls. Self-knowledge absolutely requires paying attention to the body.

Hillman, James. The Force of Character. New York: Random House, 1999.

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