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Jungian archetypes

Jungian archetypes

Carl Jung understood archetypes as universal, archaic patterns and images that derive from the collective unconscious and are the psychic counterpart of instinct.[1] They are inherited potentials which are actualized when they enter consciousness as images or manifest in behavior on interaction with the outside world.[2] They are autonomous and hidden forms which are transformed once they enter consciousness and are given particular expression by individuals and their cultures. In Jungian psychology, archetypes are highly developed elements of the collective unconscious. The existence of archetypes can only be inferred indirectly from stories, art, myths, religions, or dreams.

In theory, Jungian archetypes refer to unclear underlying forms or the archetypes-as-such from which emerge images and motifs such as the mother, the child, the trickster, and the flood among others. History, culture and personal context shape these manifest representations thereby giving them their specific content. These images and motifs are more precisely called archetypal images. However it is common for the term archetype to be used interchangeably to refer to both archetypes-as-such and archetypal images.[2]


Jung rejected the tabula rasa theory of human psychological development, believing instead that evolutionary pressures have individual predestinations manifested in archetypes.[3] Jung first used the term primordial images to refer to what he would later term "archetypes". Jung's idea of archetypes was based on Immanuel Kant's categories, Plato's Ideas, and Arthur Schopenhauer's prototypes.[4] For Jung, "the archetype is the introspectively recognizable form of a priori psychic orderedness".[5] "These images must be thought of as lacking in solid content, hence as unconscious. They only acquire solidity, influence, and eventual consciousness in the encounter with empirical facts."[6]

The archetypes form a dynamic substratum common to all humanity, upon the foundation of which each individual builds his own experience of life, colouring them with his unique culture, personality and life events. Thus, while archetypes themselves may be conceived as a relative few innate nebulous forms, from these may arise innumerable images, symbols and patterns of behavior. While the emerging images and forms are apprehended consciously, the archetypes which inform them are elementary structures which are unconscious and impossible to apprehend.

Jung was fond of comparing the form of the archetype to the axial system of a crystal, which preforms the crystalline structure of the mother liquid, although it has no material existence of its own. This first appears according to the specific way in which the ions and molecules aggregate. The archetype in itself is empty and purely formal: a possibility of representation which is given a priori. The representations themselves are not inherited, only the forms, and in that respect they correspond to the instincts. The existence of the instincts can no more be proved than the existence of the archetypes, so long as they do not manifest themselves concretely.[7]

Early development

The intuition that there was more to the psyche than individual experience possibly began in Jung's childhood. The very first dream he could remember was that of an underground phallic god. Later in life his research on psychotic patients in Burgholzli Hospital and his own self-analysis later supported his early intuition about the existence of universal psychic structures that underlie all human experience and behavior. Jung first referred to these as "primordial images" – a term he borrowed from Jacob Burckhardt. Later in 1917 Jung called them "dominants of the collective unconscious."

It was not until 1919 that he first used the term "archetypes"[8] in an essay titled "Instinct and the Unconscious". The first element in Greek 'arche' signifies 'beginning, origin, cause, primal source principle', but it also signifies 'position of a leader, supreme rule and government' (in other words a kind of 'dominant'): the second element 'type' means 'blow and what is produced by a blow, the imprint of a coin ...form, image, prototype, model, order, and norm', ...in the figurative, modern sense, 'pattern underlying form, primordial form'.[9]

Later development

In later years Jung revised and broadened the concept of archetypes even further, conceiving of them as psycho-physical patterns existing in the universe, given specific expression by human consciousness and culture. Jung proposed that the archetype had a dual nature: it exists both in the psyche and in the world at large. He called this non-psychic aspect of the archetype the "psychoid" archetype.

Jung drew an analogy between the psyche and light on the electromagnetic spectrum. The center of the visible light spectrum (i.e., yellow) corresponds to consciousness, which grades into unconsciousnessness at the red and blue ends. Red corresponds to basic unconscious urges, and the invisible infra-red end of the near visual spectrum corresponds to the influence of biological instinct, which merges with its chemical and physical conditions. The blue end of the spectrum represents spiritual ideas; and the archetypes, exerting their influence from beyond the visible, correspond to the invisible realm of ultra-violet.[10] Jung suggested that not only do the archetypal structures govern the behavior of all living organisms, but that they were contiguous with structures controlling the behavior of inorganic matter as well.

The archetype was not merely a psychic entity, but more fundamentally, a bridge to matter in general.[10] Jung used the term unus mundus to describe the unitary reality which he believed underlay all manifest phenomena. He conceived archetypes to be the mediators of the unus mundus, organizing not only ideas in the psyche, but also the fundamental principles of matter and energy in the physical world.

It was this psychoid aspect of the archetype that so impressed Nobel laureate physicist Wolfgang Pauli. Embracing Jung's concept, Pauli believed that the archetype provided a link between physical events and the mind of the scientist who studied them. In doing so he echoed the position adopted by German astronomer Johannes Kepler. Thus the archetypes that ordered our perceptions and ideas are themselves the product of an objective order that transcends both the human mind and the external world.[2]


Jung described archetypal events: birth, death, separation from parents, initiation, marriage, the union of opposites; archetypal figures: great mother, father, child, devil, god, wise old man, wise old woman, the trickster, the hero; and archetypal motifs: the apocalypse, the deluge, the creation. Although the number of archetypes is limitless, there are a few particularly notable, recurring archetypal images, "the chief among them being" (according to Jung) "the shadow, the wise old man, the child, the mother ... and her counterpart, the maiden, and lastly the anima in man and the animus in woman".[11] Alternatively he would speak of "the emergence of certain definite archetypes ... the shadow, the animal, the wise old man, the anima, the animus, the mother, the child".[12]

The Self designates the whole range of psychic phenomena in man. It expresses the unity of the personality as a whole.

The shadow is a representation of the personal unconscious as a whole and usually embodies the compensating values to those held by the conscious personality. Thus, the shadow often represents one's dark side, those aspects of oneself that exist, but which one does not acknowledge or with which one does not identify.[13]

The anima archetype appears in men and is his primordial image of woman. It represents the man's sexual expectation of women, but also is a symbol of a man's possibilities, his contrasexual tendencies. The animus archetype is the analogous image of the masculine that occurs in women.

Any attempt to give an exhaustive list of the archetypes, however, would be a largely futile exercise since the archetypes tend to combine with each other and interchange qualities making it difficult to decide where one archetype stops and another begins. For example, qualities of the shadow archetype may be prominent in an archetypal image of the anima or animus. One archetype may also appear in various distinct forms, thus raising the question whether four or five distinct archetypes should be said to be present or merely four or five forms of a single archetype.[13]

Conceptual difficulties

Popular and new-age uses have often condensed the concept of archetypes into an enumeration of archetypal figures such as the hero, the goddess, the wise man and so on. Such enumeration falls short of apprehending the fluid core concept. Strictly speaking, archetypal figures such as the hero, the goddess and the wise man are not archetypes, but archetypal images which have crystallized out of the archetypes-as-such: as Jung put it, "definite mythological images of motifs ... are nothing more than conscious representations; it would be absurd to assume that such variable representations could be inherited", as opposed to their deeper, instinctual sources – "the 'archaic remnants', which I call 'archetypes' or 'primordial images'".[14]

However, the precise relationships between images such as, for example, "the fish" and its archetype were not adequately explained by Jung. Here the image of the fish is not strictly speaking an archetype. The "archetype of the fish" points to the ubiquitous existence of an innate "fish archetype" which gives rise to the fish image. In clarifying the contentious statement that fish archetypes are universal, Anthony Stevens explains that the archetype-as-such is at once an innate predisposition to form such an image and a preparation to encounter and respond appropriately to the creature per se. This would explain the existence of snake and spider phobias, for example, in people living in urban environments where they have never encountered either creature.[2]

The confusion about the essential quality of archetypes can partly be attributed to Jung's own evolving ideas about them in his writings and his interchangeable use of the term "archetype" and "primordial image". Jung was also intent on retaining the raw and vital quality of archetypes as spontaneous outpourings of the unconscious and not to give their specific individual and cultural expressions a dry, rigorous, intellectually formulated meaning.[15]

Actualization and complexes

Archetypes seek actualization within the context of an individual's environment and determine the degree of individuation. Jung also used the terms "evocation" and "constellation" to explain the process of actualization. Thus for example, the mother archetype is actualized in the mind of the child by the evoking of innate anticipations of the maternal archetype when the child is in the proximity of a maternal figure who corresponds closely enough to its archetypal template. This mother archetype is built into the personal unconscious of the child as a mother complex. Complexes are functional units of the personal unconscious, in the same way that archetypes are units for the collective unconscious.

Stages of life

Archetypes are innate universal pre-conscious psychic dispositions that form the substrate from which the basic themes of human life emerge. The archetypes are components of the collective unconscious and serve to organize, direct and inform human thought and behaviour. Archetypes hold control of the human life cycle.

As we mature the archetypal plan unfolds through a programmed sequence which Jung called the stages of life. Each stage of life is mediated through a new set of archetypal imperatives which seek fulfillment in action. These may include being parented, initiation, courtship, marriage and preparation for death.[16]

"The archetype is a tendency to form such representations of a motif – representations that can vary a great deal in detail without losing their basic pattern ... They are indeed an instinctive trend".[17] Thus, "the archetype of initiation is strongly activated to provide a meaningful transition ... with a 'rite of passage' from one stage of life to the next":[18][19] such stages may include being parented, initiation, courtship, marriage and preparation for death.[20]

General developments

Claude Lévi-Strauss was an advocate of structuralism in anthropology. In his approach to the structure and meaning of myth, Levi-Strauss concluded that present phenomena are transformations of earlier structures or infrastructures: 'the structure of primitive thoughts is present in our minds'.

The concept of "social instincts" proposed by Charles Darwin, the "faculties" of Henri Bergson and the isomorphs of gestalt psychologist Wolfgang Kohler are also arguably related to archetypes.

In his work in psycholinguistics, Noam Chomsky describes an unvarying pattern of language acquisition in children and termed it the language acquisition device. He refers to 'universals' and a distinction is drawn between 'formal' and 'substantive' universals similar to that between archetype as such (structure) and archetypal image.

Jean Piaget writes of 'schemata' which are innate and underpin perceptuo-motor activity and the acquisition of knowledge, and are able to draw the perceived environment into their orbit. They resemble archetypes by virtue of their innateness, their activity and their need for environmental correspondence.

Ethology and attachment theory

In Biological theory and the concept of archetypes, Michael Fordham considered that innate release mechanisms in animals may be applicable to humans, especially in infancy. The stimuli which produce instinctive behaviour are selected from a wide field by an innate perceptual system and the behaviour is 'released'. Fordham drew a parallel between some of Lorenz's ethological observations on the hierarchical behaviour of wolves and the functioning of archetypes in infancy.[21]

Stevens (1982) suggests that ethology and analytical psychology are both disciplines trying to comprehend universal phenomena. Ethology shows us that each species is equipped with unique behavioural capacities that are adapted to its environment and 'even allowing for our greater adaptive flexibility, we are no exception. Archetypes are the neuropsychic centres responsible for co-ordinating the behavioural and psychic repertoire of our species'. Following Bowlby, Stevens points out that genetically programmed behaviour is taking place in the psychological relationship between mother and newborn. The baby's helplessness, its immense repertoire of sign stimuli and approach behaviour, triggers a maternal response. And the smell, sound and shape of mother triggers, for instance, a feeding response.[21]


Stevens suggests that DNA itself can be inspected for the location and transmission of archetypes. As they are co-terminous with natural life they should be expected wherever life is found. He suggests that DNA is the replicable archetype of the species.[21]

Stein points out that all the various terms used to delineate the messengers – 'templates, genes, enzymes, hormones, catalysts, pheromones, social hormones' – are concepts similar to archetypes. He mentions archetypal figures which represent messengers such as Hermes, Prometheus or Christ. Continuing to base his arguments on a consideration of biological defence systems he says that it must operate in a whole range of specific circumstances, its agents must be able to go everywhere, the distribution of the agents must not upset the somatic status quo, and, in predisposed persons, the agents will attack the self.[21]


Melanie Klein: Melanie Klein's idea of unconscious phantasy is closely related to Jung's archetype, as both are composed of image and affect and are a priori patternings of psyche whose contents are built from experience.[21]

Jacques Lacan: Lacan went beyond the proposition that the unconscious is a structure that lies beneath the conscious world; the unconscious itself is structured, like a language. This would suggest parallels with Jung. Further, Lacan's Symbolic and Imaginary orders may be aligned with Jung's archetypal theory and personal unconscious respectively. The Symbolic order patterns the contents of the Imaginary in the same way that archetypal structures predispose humans towards certain sorts of experience. If we take the example of parents, archetypal structures and the Symbolic order predispose our recognition of, and relation to them.[21] Lacan's concept of the Real approaches Jung's elaboration of the psychoid unconscious, which may be seen as true but cannot be directly known. Lacan posited that the unconscious is organised in an intricate network governed by association, above all 'metaphoric associations'. The existence of the network is shown by analysis of the unconscious products: dreams, symptoms, and so on.[21]

Wilfred Bion: According to Bion, thoughts precede a thinking capacity. Thoughts in a small infant are indistinguishable from sensory data or unorganised emotion. Bion uses the term proto-thoughts for these early phenomena. Because of their connection to sensory data, proto-thoughts are concrete and self-contained (thoughts-in-themselves), not yet capable of symbolic representations or object relations. The thoughts then function as preconceptions – predisposing psychosomatic entities similar to archetypes. Support for this connection comes from the Kleinian analyst Money-Kyrle's observation that Bion's notion of preconceptions is the direct descendant of Plato's Ideas.[21]

Sigmund Freud: In the Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1916-1917) Freud wrote: "There can be no doubt that the source [of the fantasies] lie in the instincts; but it still has to be explained why the same fantasies with the same content are created on every occasion. I am prepared with an answer that I know will seem daring to you. I believe that...primal fantasies, and no doubt a few others as well, are a phylogenetic endowment". His suggestion that primal fantasies are a residue of specific memories of prehistoric experiences have been construed as being aligned with the idea of archetypes. Laplanehe and Pontalis point out that all the so-called primal fantasies relate to the origins and that "like collective myths they claim to provide a representation of and a 'solution' to whatever constitutes an enigma for the child".[21]

Robert Langs: More recently, adaptive psychotherapist and psychoanalyst Robert Langs has used archetypal theory as a way of understanding the functioning of what he calls the "deep unconscious system".[22] Langs' use of archetypes particularly pertains to issues associated with death anxiety, which Langs takes to be the root of psychic conflict. Like Jung, Langs thinks of archetypes as species-wide, deep unconscious factors.[23]


Rossi (1977) suggests that the function and characteristic between left and right cerebral hemispheres may enable us to locate the archetypes in the right cerebral hemisphere. He cites research indicating that left hemispherical functioning is primarily verbal and associational, and that of the right primarily visuospatial and apperceptive. Thus the left hemisphere is equipped as a critical, analytical, information processor while the right hemisphere operates in a 'gestalt' mode. This means that the right hemisphere is better at getting a picture of a whole from a fragment, is better at working with confused material, is more irrational than the left, and more closely connected to bodily processes. Once expressed in the form of words, concepts and language of the ego's left hemispheric realm, however, they become only representations that 'take their colour' from the individual consciousness. Inner figures such as shadow, anima and animus would be archetypal processes having source in the right hemisphere.[21]

Henry (1977) alluded to Maclean's model of the tripartite brain suggesting that the reptilian brain is an older part of the brain and may contain not only drives but archetypal structures as well. The suggestion is that there was a time when emotional behaviour and cognition were less developed and the older brain predominated. There is an obvious parallel with Jung's idea of the archetypes 'crystallising out' over time.[21]

Literary criticism

Archetypal literary criticism argues that archetypes determine the form and function of literary works, and therefore, that a text's meaning is shaped by cultural and psychological myths. Archetypes are the unknowable basic forms personified or concretized in recurring images, symbols, or patterns which may include motifs such as the quest or the heavenly ascent, recognizable character types such as the trickster or the hero, symbols such as the apple or snake, or images such as crucifixion (as in King Kong, or Bride of Frankenstein) are all already laden with meaning when employed in a particular work.[21]


Archetypal psychology was developed by James Hillman in the second half of the 20th century. Hillman trained at the Jung Institute and was its Director after graduation. Archetypal psychology is in the Jungian tradition and most directly related to analytical psychology and psychodynamic theory, yet departs radically. Archetypal psychology relativizes and deliteralizes the ego and focuses on the psyche, or soul, itself and the archai, the deepest patterns of psychic functioning, "the fundamental fantasies that animate all life".[24] Archetypal psychology is a polytheistic psychology, in that it attempts to recognize the myriad fantasies and myths, gods, goddesses, demigods, mortals and animals – that shape and are shaped by our psychological lives. The ego is but one psychological fantasy within an assemblage of fantasies.

The main influence on the development of archetypal psychology is Jung's analytical psychology. It is strongly influenced by Classical Greek, Renaissance, and Romantic ideas and thought. Influential artists, poets, philosophers, alchemists, and psychologists include: Nietzsche, Henry Corbin, Keats, Shelley, Petrarch, and Paracelsus. Though all different in their theories and psychologies, they appear to be unified by their common concern for the psyche – the soul. Many archetypes have been used in treatment of psychological illnesses. Jung's first research was done with schizophrenics. A current example is teaching young men or boys archetypes through using picture books to help with the development.[25] In addition nurses treat patients through the use of archetypes.[18] Archetype therapy offers a wide range of uses if applied correctly, and it is still being expanded in Jungian schools today. With the list of archetypes being endless the healing possibilities are vast.


Archetypal pedagogy was developed by Clifford Mayes. Mayes' work also aims at promoting what he calls archetypal reflectivity in teachers; this is a means of encouraging teachers to examine and work with psychodynamic issues, images, and assumptions as those factors affect their pedagogical practices. More recently the Pearson-Marr Archetype Indicator (PMAI), based on Jung's theories of both archetypes and personality types, has been used for pedagogical applications (not unlike the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator).

Archetypes abound in contemporary films and literature as they have in creative works of the past, being unconscious projections of the collective unconscious that serve to embody central societal and developmental struggles in a media that entertain as well as instruct. Films are a contemporary form of mythmaking, reflecting our response to ourselves and the mysteries and wonders of our existence.[26] A study conducted by Faber and Mayer (2009) showed that individual archetypes in rich media sources can be reliably identified by people.[27]

A contemporary definition is given by O'Brien (2017) as follows: "Archetypes are universal organizing themes or patterns that appear regardless of space, time, or person. Appearing in all existential realms and at all levels of systematic recursion, they are organized as themes in the unus mundus, which Jung (1970 Vol. 14. Mysterium coniunctionis. (1970), p. 505) described as “the potential world outside of time,” and are detectable through synchronicities".[28]

Contemporary cinema is a rich source of archetypal images, most commonly evidenced for instance in the hero archetype: the one who saves the day and is young and inexperienced, like Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, or older and cynical, like Rick Blaine in Casablanca. The mentor archetype is a common character in all types of films. They can appear and disappear as needed, usually helping the hero in the beginning, and then letting them do the hard part on their own. The mentor helps train, prepare, encourage and guide the hero. They are obvious in some films: Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid, Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings, Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and later Yoda in the original Star Wars trilogy.

The Shadow, one's darker side, is often associated with the villain of numerous films and books, but can be internal as in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The shapeshifter is the person who misleads the hero, or who changes frequently and can be depicted quite literally, e.g. The T-1000 robot in Terminator II. The Trickster creates disruptions of the status quo, may be childlike, and helps us see the absurdity in situations, provides comic relief, etc. (e.g. Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, Bugs Bunny and Brer Rabbit). The Child, often innocent, could be someone childlike who needs protecting but may be imbued with special powers (e.g. E.T.). The Bad Father is often seen as a dictator type, or evil and cruel, e.g. Darth Vader in Star Wars. The Bad Mother (e.g. Mommie Dearest) is symbolized by evil stepmothers and wicked witches. The Bad Child is exemplified in The Bad Seed and The Omen.

Jungian archetypes are heavily integrated into the plots and personalities of the characters in the Persona series of games. In Persona 1, Persona 2: Innocent Sin, and Persona 2: Eternal Punishment, the character of Philemon is a reference to the wise spirit guide from Jung's The Red Book, and it is revealed that the personas are formed from archetypes from the collective unconsciousness. In Persona 3 and Persona 4, the characters with whom you form relationships, (in the game called "Social Links") which are each based on a particular archetype. They are formally differentiated by different tarot arcana, however the primary basis of the game's characterization originates from archetypes.

In marketing, an archetype is a genre to a brand, based upon symbolism. The idea behind using brand archetypes in marketing is to anchor the brand against an icon already embedded within the conscience and subconscious of humanity. In the minds of both the brand owner and the public, aligning with a brand archetype makes the brand easier to identify. Twelve archetypes have been proposed for use with branding: Sage, Innocent, Explorer, Ruler, Creator, Caregiver, Magician, Hero, Outlaw, Lover, Jester, and Regular Person.[29]


Jung's staunchest critics have accused him of either mystical or metaphysical essentialism. Since archetypes are defined so vaguely and since archetypal images have been observed by many Jungians in a wide and essentially infinite variety of everyday phenomena, they are neither generalizable nor specific in a way that may be researched or demarcated with any kind of rigor. Hence they elude systematic study. Jung and his supporters defended the impossibility of providing rigorous operationalised definitions as a problem peculiar not only to archetypal psychology alone, but also other domains of knowledge that seek to understand complex systems in an integrated manner.

Feminist critiques have focused on aspects of archetypal theory that are seen as being reductionistic and providing a stereotyped view of femininity and masculinity.[30]

Another criticism of archetypes is that seeing myths as universals tends to abstract them from the history of their actual creation, and their cultural context.[31] Some modern critics state that archetypes reduce cultural expressions to generic decontextualized concepts, stripped bare of their unique cultural context, reducing a complex reality into something "simple and easy to grasp".[31] Other critics respond that archetypes do nothing more than to solidify the cultural prejudices of the myths interpreter – namely modern Westerners. Modern scholarship with its emphasis on power and politics have seen archetypes as a colonial device to level the specifics of individual cultures and their stories in the service of grand abstraction.[32]

Others have accused him of a romanticised and prejudicial promotion of 'primitivism' through the medium of archetypal theory. Archetypal theory has been posited as being scientifically unfalsifiable and even questioned as to being a suitable domain of psychological and scientific inquiry. Jung mentions the demarcation between experimental and descriptive psychological study, seeing archetypal psychology as rooted by necessity in the latter camp, grounded as it was (to a degree) in clinical case-work.[33]

Because Jung's viewpoint was essentially subjectivist, he displayed a somewhat Neo-Kantian perspective of a skepticism for knowing things in themselves and a preference of inner experience over empirical data. This skepticism opened Jung up to the charge of countering materialism with another kind of reductionism, one that reduces everything to subjective psychological explanation and woolly quasi-mystical assertions.[34]

Post-Jungian criticism seeks to contextualise, expand and modify Jung's original discourse on archetypes. Michael Fordham is critical of tendencies to relate imagery produced by patients to historical parallels only, e.g. from alchemy, mythology or folklore. A patient who produces archetypal material with striking alchemical parallels runs the risk of becoming more divorced than before from his setting in contemporary life.[21]

See also

  • Archetypal psychology

  • Archetype

  • Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism

  • Joseph Campbell

  • Comparative mythology

  • Evolutionary psychology

  • Narrativium

  • Self-realization


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