5 Things You Need to Know About Archetypes

depth psychology Dec 01, 2020

The word “archetype” is hard to define, and therefore very easy to misunderstand. There is no authority over these things, no ownership. Archetypes are one of the few things in this world that are still wild — feral remnants from our ancient past that have molted and shape-shifted their way into our highly domesticated culture.

Beyond deepening your understanding of what archetypes are, I hope you come away with some new perspectives on some very old ideas.

1) Archetypes are Timeless

Once upon a time, our ancestors looked upon the glimmering tapestry of nature and felt that the world was speaking to them.

A hidden pattern amidst stars. The ominous outline of a distant mountain. The snake-like course of a river weaving its way through verdant jungle. The life-giving, yet deadly expanse of the sea. These all became gods and mythological beings full of personality and meaning.

No matter your genetic heritage, this is an anthropological fact.

For animistic cultures – which at one point all cultures were – everything had a spirit dwelling within, complete with its own agency, its own mythical significance, its own god.

Jungian psychology represents a movement, neither backwards nor forwards, but simply towards this animistic way of viewing the world and the psyche.

The word “archetype” comes from the Greek, archai, meaning the basic elements out of which all experience is made. Carl Jung crystallized this term to refer to what he observed as universal patterns of experience or styles of being that manifest themselves through nature and culture.

Jung gathered these insights from an intimate study of mythology, symbolism, and alchemy, as well as from a 13-year period of intense psychic exploration and introversion he christened as his “confrontation with the unconscious.” Such an encounter is not for the faint of heart.

Behaviors, emotions, thoughts, and dreams can all contain archetypal elements. So too can the natural world: the sacred mountain, the world tree, the magically terrifying forest, are all images present in countless mythologies and religions from around the world. Joseph Campbell, among others, based his life work on such symbols.

As human culture developed, so too did our “collective unconscious,” the deep well of shared images and symbols that Jung believed contained the sum total of human experience. This is the land where the archetypes dwell. Tread lightly.

2) Archetypes are Amoral

Like any other force of nature, archetypes do not operate within a moral framework. Morality is a human invention created to manage our societies. Archetypes, at their core, are not.

Even though some archetypal characters, such as the King or Queen, may reflect societal ideals like justice, order, and wealth, they do so only because our civilization has agreed so. Archetypes do not contain a morality unto themselves. They are vessels for whatever we collectively agree to fill them with.  

The trickster, for instance, is one of the most culturally significant and pervasive archetypes throughout world mythology. Trickster makes notable appearances in Greece (Prometheus & Hermes,) North America (Coyote & Raven,) West Africa (Eshu & Legba,) and Scandinavia (Loki,) among others.

Often through bumbling curiosity or unbridled selfishness, trickster sets into motion events beyond his control. Yet often times, usually through a series of misadventures, trickster ends up gifting people something which undeniably improves their existence. Fire, for instance.

Trickster stories remind us of the mercurial, inhuman nature of all archetypes, which is important to remember because:

3) Archetypes are like rivers. They can nourish you, or they can drown you

As Joseph Campbell famously said, “The psychotic drowns in the same water in which the mystic swims with delight.”  

Just like a sacred mountain, an archetype is just as content burying you in an avalanche as it is enlightening you on its transcendental peak. Like any force of nature, an archetype simply does what it does. How we choose to relate with it is what will determine how it might effect our life. 

The god Dionysus would just as happily crush us into wine than delight us with his ecstasy. From an archetypal perspective, we can see many of the people living on the streets as not only dancing with, but being danced on by this god, trampled under his calloused feet.

One could say that destitution is an everyday reminder of the archetypal underworld, as well as that of the starving, unjust kingdom, a common image in many folks tales. Homeless people are often living in the literal shadows cast by glistening office towers.

The archetype of the tyrant, or the shadow king, is readily visible on the world stage for anyone with eyes to see it.

4) Archetypes Live Within You

Perhaps the most important thing to remember out of all of this.  

When I first began studying depth psychology, I imagined archetypes as cosmic, impersonal entities living “out there”. They seemed mystical, ethereal, and unreal. How could I possibly have the strength of Hercules, the nobility of Arthur, and the destructive greed of a dragon within me, all at once?

Well, I do. And so do you. The good, the bad, and the ugly. Some of these are in the spotlight, and some are in the shadow, a deeply important Jungian concept that actually holds the key to self-growth. 

Jung famously said, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will continue to direct your life and you will call it fate.”

Here Jung is speaking of two important concepts: the shadow, mentioned above, and “complexes,” the psychological pathways carved out by our unique childhood wounds and stories. Complexes are the psychic river channels through which archetypes flow.

Complexes are usually formed by wounding of one form or another.

But here’s the secret: It is through our wounds and complexes that we can come to know what archetypes might be coloring our lives, and therefore where our deepest gifts and power dwells.

What unique corners of your soul do your deepest wounds touch? We each have wounds associated with our mother and our father, some worse than others. We each have wounds related to the opposite sex.

Sometimes, these wounds can be torn open by nothing more than a sideways glance from a lover, or a misdirected comment from a family member. We all experience this in some way, because we all have wounds.  

Have you ever met a person without a wound? They feel hollow and plastic, like walking barefoot on astroturf, or like spending the day inside a department store. But they too are wounded, despite their aversion to face that part of themselves, or their firm belief that they are, in fact, perfect.

To experience initiation is to experience wounding in some way. Yet in being broken, we are paradoxically made whole. We cannot become psychologically complete beings unless we experience the wounding and healing that initiation imparts.

Dr. Martin Shaw, mythological teacher and storyteller, encourages us to ask ourselves, “at which temples are we worshiping?” Where is your attention consistently going? Money? Family? Love? Jealousy? By following your attention back to these various “temples,” you can eventually distinguish the face of the “god” or archetype you are in devotion to, consciously or not.   

5) We Need Archetypes

In times such as these, we need archetypes now more than ever. For young people especially, everywhere you turn there is a quest to follow, a cause to rally behind, a monster to face - be it climate change or unjust social systems. Simply fighting for what you believe in is an archetypal act that contains tremendous energy.

Who are your role models, living or dead, real or fictional? Why do they speak to you? The people and characters we look to for guidance are in fact embodying an archetype that we wish to embody in ourselves.

The idea with a role model is not to become them, but to become like them. They are embodying some archetypal energy that attracts us, inspires us, and provides us direction like the ancient star maps our ancestors gazed on, once upon a time.

Because archetypes form the building blocks of our collective unconscious, they also form the building blocks of our shared cultural stories and beliefs. When we experience severe breakdowns in culture and climate, such as now, what is needed is an archetypal response from the deep psyche, or soul.

We already have all the technology we need to fix these problems. And yet they continue anyway. Let that sink in a moment.

Finally, it is important to member that, mythologically speaking, this has all happened before.

This is not a means of escaping the dire straits we are in. Rather, it offers a way of perceiving our current circumstances from a renewed mythological, and soulful lens.

What we need is an archetypal and mythical approach to our current situation because I believe it is one of the few things that can keep us afloat as sea levels rise. Myth and archetype can comprise a psychic raft made out of whale bones and coyote skins, with sails sewn of blues music and sage smoke.

Stories and myths are the last things that humans have held onto in desperate times.

And they will continue to be, if it comes to that.

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