The Archetypal Journey of Diana, Princess of Wales

by Mara Liberman

One by one the flowers, presents and messages were left in front of the royal palaces of London, until the parks were covered in this dense and soft layer of pure sentiment. Three million people accompanied the princess's funeral, the world was moved as if it had lost some one very close. Newspapers were inundated with news, articles and analysis. Diana's beautiful, solar face, golden and expressive, and her beautiful smile were everywhere. What happened?

We witnessed a surprising and special moment in which something deeply touched the collective unconscious, opening a channel that mobilised the individual psyche of numerous individuals. In general, only someone very special is capable of opening up archetypal processes like this. Perhaps the princess loved by the people, managed to become a myth as a result of being so touchingly human. If this is the case, perhaps we are faced with the last heroine of the century.


Hero, in Greek, means basically "one who was born to serve". And the hero as archetype, potential structure of the collective unconscious, emerges when a man or woman manages to overcome his/her personal, local or historical limits and reach a dimension where paradigms are broken and only original answers are possible. These people speak with eloquence of elements in society that are disintegrating, but also of forces (perhaps mainly) that come into being enabling the society to be reborn. Thus, the hero is a representative of psychic forces that challenge stagnation and access the vital centres of the individuation process in our unconscious. For good or worse, heroes are the messengers of what is new. Let us see what Diana, the non- warrior, who could quite easily have remained a fabricated Cinderella myth, did to enable this archetype to emerge.

Birth of a Hero

Heroes have difficult or strange beginnings and Diana, typically, was rejected for being born a girl, and was brought up with very little contact with her family, with her mother abandoning her when she was only six years old. Diana was in touch with solitude from a very early age, and acquired a centre of insecurity that was to accompany her for the rest of her life. During his funeral speech, Count Spencer remembered his sister:

Diana, despite all the status, glamour and applause, remained an incredibly insecure person, almost infantile in her desire to do good in order to free herself from the feelings of worthlessness, of which the eating disorders were only a symptom.

These basic problems gave Diana's life a greater dimension than a self-denial model could have given. In the end, the hero does not tell us of something divine or saintly, but of human integration in all its dimensions and limitations. And Diana, with all her failures and imperfections, bulimia and depression, always remained profoundly and visibly human; far more than being a Cinderella of the media, she found a meaning by trying to escape from the role of victim to search for herself.

The great theme of her life also came from her infancy, the search, the frustration and the possibility of love, which was both her great vulnerability and force.

Yes, there were both: the lady brought from childhood a deep potential for strength along with her frailties. Maybe it was the aloness itself that did it, enabling her to take refuge in her own resources when everything else failed her, or by maybe making her value her dreams more than anything else. We do not love Diana out of pity, which would never touch us in this way. . And strength alone keeps its distance, allowing only admiration, not tenderness.

It is probably the very mixture of force and vulnerability that does it, the truly human effort to reconcile opposites that brings out collective emotions.

Tony Blair, Britain's Prime Minister, captured this fundamental aspect of the princess, quoting from Corinthians, 1 - 13, at her funeral:

Even though I bestow all my goods for the poor, and though I give my body to be burned if I don't have love, I am nothing.

Separation and Initiation of the Hero

Our heroine was not the typical female warrior type, which Jean Shinoda Bolen calls 'virgin goddesses', like Athena and Artemis, (Diana to the Romans), the ones that archetypically inspire strong, self sufficient women, capable of facing obstacles and isolating themselves in order to fight for specific causes. Diana was more fragile, charming, seducing and manipulating in her willingness to please others, perhaps a Persephone in development, accepting all the projections of how a princess should be, when, very young, she married the distant, icy, but for her, desirable Charles.

Persephone was mythically the daughter of Demeter, goddess of harvests, and was abducted by Hades, Lord of the Underworld. Jean Shinoda Bolen, in her book, "Goddesses in Everywoman" made an interesting analysis of women whose personalities are shaped by this archetype. The most common characteristics are those of vulnerability, need, and the use of seduction in the search to be loved. And with time, these women tread new paths with the force of their incredible intuition.

In her fairy tale wedding with all its pomp and carriage, Diana was, without knowing, reediting the myth of Persephone; abducted and confined in an apparently marvellous golden world, which to her became equivalent to the shadowy and gloomy journeys of Hades, her personal hell - because there was no love there, nor the possibility for her to be herself.

We always ask what happens after the prince and princess get married and the answer is always "they lived happily ever after".

For Diana it was radically different from the standard story, this was the initiation phase in which she would either succumb and remain the eternal victim, a role suited to her personality or something internally would change enabling her to transcend her limits and those imposed by the Court.

During this phase, since she couldn't be happy, she began to face some of her personal ghosts fed by the indifference and infidelity of Charles and the rejection of her new family, which reminded her of her childhood. She had to cope with bulimia and a fascination for death, which always accompanied her, and with depression and great deception.

These were perhaps the worst dragons she faced, even more powerful for being internal. She almost gave in to them, but faced them showing the world her great desire for love and actively loving. Her work with rejected people acquired a very special dimension and her genuine personality was apparent behind the smile that was constantly being filmed and photographed. Her generosity, courage and the honesty with which she touched lepers, embraced aids sufferers and victims of land mines and even dying people with her warmth, speaks of a true and deep rescue process for her pain.

Being intensely loved by the population, although never by the monarchy, she began to learn the value of her own smile, gentleness and spontaneity, and slowly acquired self confidence and consequently the right to search for her own way. Always "abducted" by lovers or situations which finally betrayed her, she stubbornly continued trying to be Diana.

The Hero's Conquests: Some More Dragons Appear in Our Story

Persephone type women take time to come out of the shadows to construct a defined and more assertive identity, leaving their roles as princesses swallowed up by the system, to build their own lives. For Diana too this process was slow and not easy.

Queen Elizabeth, the messenger of traditions, conservatism and conformity to rigid rules, could have undermined Diana. For some time this was the case, but today it is clear that she was not so successful. Elizabeth presented the model from the past, in which everything was repressed and hidden behind concrete and symbolic walls, demonstrating that everything was fine: the most that was possible was to suppress the pain by horse riding or gardening. To the indignation and horror of the Court, Diana insisted on revealing and exposing her feelings and wearing her heart on her sleeve, showing emotions where none were expected.

She was severely criticised for this attitude and for not being intellectually skilled, but she proved with her charisma and instinct, that she possessed great wisdom through her intuition and feelings, overshadowing her mother in law and husband. As a result, Diana presented a very different model from the highly valued cerebral, cold one, which was the only standard of good taste in high-class European society.

Let us return to Corinthians:

Even though I have the gift of prophecy
Know all mysteries and all knowledge
If I don't have love I am nothing
Since our knowledge is limited.

At her funeral, the effect Diana caused from being more of a person that a princess was evident when the English, a race so repressed and cold, were able to cry openly. For centuries, insensitivity was valued as a sign of strength, to the extent that not only the expression of feelings but also the feelings themselves were asphyxiated. Now it is the opposite, the English are demanding that the royal family have move empathy and warmth ("We want to see your suffering"). Queen Elizabeth was seen as the "ice witch" and Diana had her revenge when, breaking the protocol, the Queen had to succumb to pressure and make a statement declaring her sadness, and hang the flag at half-mast, as a sign of mourning. This was very symbolic, since, if the world was in mourning for Diana, the Queen also had to be for the effect the Princess had caused on her kingdom. Certainly, the house of Windsor is not going to come to an end, the "heroic" effect of Diana is subtler than this, but it has been forced, at least temporarily, to adapt itself to a new style.

Ironically, Diana demonstrated that after her divorce and destitute of the title of Her Royal Highness, she was the greatest ambassador that England could have had, conquering every country she visited. And she was close to overcoming another taboo - her marriage to Dodi al - Fayed would have resulted in links with the orient and made her future father in law - Mohamad - Fayed, the owner of Harrod's, a symbol that is so English, to whom British citizenship had always been denied, the step grandfather of the future king.

Another "devouring monster" in Diana's life was her turbulent relationship with the media. Diana always used the press as a resource for her more seductive and manipulative side and in exchange was used, until her death, by journalists. This was her Chimera-type endless battle, an ambivalent combat, the result of which remains obscure to the end. But dealing with the press enabled the princess to become a great communicator, and made her fights public. In secrecy and with the low profile demanded by the Court, Diana would not have had the effect that she managed to have, neither as a victim nor as a personality.

The Hero Prepares the Arrival of the Real King

Throughout the initiation period of Diana's journey there were some interesting definitions. The strong and stuffy Elizabeth remained the Queen of the past. Diana managed to successfully conquer her own personal style and identity, to establish herself as the people's princess, transcending titles and to "continue to create her own special magic" she became the real queen, the Queen of Hearts.

Charles did not do well in the test either: he demonstrated he was mediocre, indifferent, a prince of conventions, but with no vitality. Thus, even if he assumes the throne it's possible that he will never be a real king; a product of an icy culture and an out of date and mummified system, he has not managed to surpass his own limits, to understand and reflect the new feelings of a population in transition. A people who have lost there arrogance as the owners of the largest empire in the world, but who have shown a willingness to change their values to suit their lives.

Diana, a warm, spontaneous, feeling mother, exposed her sons to the sight of normal children and problems outside the castle walls. She educated her sons her way, showing again unsuspected strength, and paved the way to enable William, young and charismatic, anchored on the good side of his cultural heritage, to transverse the distance between the Royal family and his people, enabling him in the future, if willing, to be a real king, a king of fire and not of ice, and certainly not of paper.

Death and Return of the Hero

"After managing to occupy a position of honour, the hero's end is usually tragic and may come early. His greatest glory will be reserved 'post-mortem'" (Junito de Souza Brandao) Is it possible that Diana's journey was complete when her last "carriage", out of control and driven by an incapable driver and persecuted by wolves, crashed in Souls Tunnel, in Paris or Hades? Possibly not. We only know that her journey touched deep and brought something new, spontaneous and a deep permission to feel and express oneself, challenging deep repressions.

Dying young greatly increased her effect in several ways: millions of people sent contributions to causes she supported and made the debate over press ethics almost fierce. But other things were still not done, in myth or fact.

The standard pattern of the hero archetipical legend has not been completed; after the initiation phase and journey there was no return. The return of the hero symbolic or concrete, to his origin, is a circle that brings the possibility of making his deeds known and upon completion reveals the journey's fuller meaning.

In synchrony, this return was given to Diana when she was buried on an island in a lake in the land where she was born, [Althorn]. Again we can see the archetypal dimension in the end of this story, which is strongly connected to popular imagery; comparisons between Diana and King Arthur were made, since he was also supposed to have been buried on an island; the mythical Avalon.

Some people have already identified Diana with the Lady of the Lake, the mysterious lady whom, at the beginning and end of the Arthurian cycle was the guardian of the magic sword, Excalibur.

But it appears that Diana, the charming "revolutionary" who was never a warrior, will be more the guardian of the sheath that protects and contains the sword, in the same way that the feminine principle enfolds and enhances the true masculine and the way how feeling and intuition should always appear simultaneously with incisive thinking.

It may be that Diana comes nowhere close to being a heroine of the Arthurian cycle and these connections made by the population only indicate that her short life and death with Dodi enabled her to surpass the eternal representation of solitude in her life, to become a symbol of union. Another bet for a happy ending? Wishful thinking? But everyone, who now wishes the best for Diana, may be wishing the fruition of emotion within themselves, the connection between heart-mind in their lives.

It was worth it, princess.

© Mara Liberman 1998.
Mara Liberman is a Psychologist and Jungian Analyst in Brazil and can be reached at: