There are some striking similarities: Joan of Arc was 16 years old, an introverted girl from a modest family. Greta Thunberg is also 16, from a middle-class Swedish family. Both teenagers heard a “voice” of something much greater than themselves. For Joan it was Saint Catherine and Saint Margaret speaking for God. For Greta it is the voice of Science speaking the warming Earth.
Both have a relationship to fire. Alas Joan was burned at the stake by the British for her success in leading the French army against them. Greta speaks of the fires that are ravaging our forests, and the fire needed in the passion of our souls to extinguish the burning of fossil fuels. In both of them, the burning passion for a higher cause.
At her trial Joan refused to sign a confession that she was an agent of the Devil, in exchange for life imprisonment instead of death. Centuries later, British playwright George Bernard Shaw captured her passion in this immortal speech for his play Saint Joan:
JOAN: Give me that writing (she rushes to the table; snatches up the paper, tears it into fragments) Light your fire: do you think I dread it as much as the life of a mole in a cave. My voices were right. Yes, they told me you were fools You promised me my life; but you lied. You think that life is nothing but not being stone dead. It is not bread and water I fear. I can live on bread. When have I asked for more?…But to shut me from the light of the sky and the sight of the fields and flowers, to chain my feet so that I can never again ride with the soldiers nor climb the hills…and by your wanting to take these things away from me, or any human creature, I know that your counsel is of the Devil, and mine is of God.”
As I typed Joan’s words, I saw Greta saying them in my mind, not as a martyr going to the stake, but with her resounding passion for the earth, the freedom of the human soul to live outside the “prison” of global climate destruction. Greta described in an interview what it was like to be on the boat that brought her to New York City: the quiet, the sight of the Milky Way at night, the waves lapping the boat.
The child hero is an archetype our species has revered through the ages, in fairy tales, myths, and legends. Why is this character so important, and why are we so drawn to Greta Thunberg in our modern era?
There are many answers to these questions, and I encourage you to think of your own. For me, I think we are always drawn to innocence. A reminder of a time in our own life that was, ideally, safe, carefree, filled with magic. Combine that with courage, and the ability to literally take on the whole world, and Greta becomes a warrior worthy of any era, but deeply needed in our own.
I spend time every week with people who express a deep depression about the state of our world. They feel helpless and hopeless. The powers-that-be are corrupt and oppressive, and our voices seem to drown out in the dark.
Enter Greta and her millions of youth and adult supporters. The mention of her name often produces a gasp of joy in the hopeless. I doubt that Greta in 2019, and Joan in 1429, thought about this aspect when they began their respective causes, but spreading global inspiration is a powerful anti-depressant. We all need something to champion, to believe in, to give us a sense of purpose. I have enormous gratitude to Greta, for bringing a smile on our faces and a song in our hearts, and allowing us to get beyond our own problems—in Jung’s words, putting our complexes aside, and living from a deeper place in ourselves. From this deeper, more alive place, we can join Greta on the picket lines, call our Congresswoman, meet with friends to plan a community garden, and whatever else the creativity of our souls wants to manifest.