An archetype is a universal symbol, which other more specific symbols are based on. The word archetype has its root in ancient Greek and roughly translates as an “original pattern.” Archetypes are understood differently from the point of view of different disciplines. In psychology, archetypes are understood to be models of the personality, whereas in philosophy archetypes are the ideal forms of more specific objects.
The study of archetypes in psychology was really set in motion by Carl Jung (1875-1961). Whereas the study of archetypes in philosophy is thousands of years old – for Plato, for example, there is an ideal form of a stone, from which more specific and tangible stones arise. Due to the work of Jung and those who followed in his footsteps, such as the famous mythologist Joseph Campbell (1904-1987), it is clear that archetypes are essential elements of folklore, myth, stories and the world’s most famous examples of literature.
Carl Gustav Jung is in the ranks of Sigmund Freud as one of the most famous thinkers of the 20th century. He was a Swiss-born psychiatrist, who famously developed the concepts of extroversion and introversion and would end up having some very unique interests, particularly in religion, myth, mysticism, religion and alchemy. For Jung, archetypes originate from the collective unconscious. The collective unconscious is distinct from the personal unconscious, which is each individual’s own collection of experiences which they are unaware of. The collective unconscious, on the other hand, contains the archetypes and these archetypes are shared by all people. Furthermore, the collective unconscious does not develop but is something which is inherited. So when each of us is born, we are infused with these universal images which we are not immediately aware of (see Jung’s Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious.)
There is also support for this idea from Freud, who said that within each person’s mind there are archaic remnants or mental forms whose existence cannot be explained by that particular individual’s life experiences. The forms are innate and shared by everyone. According to Jung, the archetypes represent important motifs of our experience as we evolved over time. That is why they evoke a strong emotional response and feature in myths from all over the world.
There are many Jungian archetypes, as they are called. Jung seemed to have some main archetypes, which he describes in his book Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self. The archetypes include the Self, which each individual might think is just their personality. However, for Jung, the self is the unification of the conscious and unconscious life of the individual. The self is created through a process called individuation, in which all the aspects of the personality are integrated into a unified whole. For Jung, the self as an archetype is best represented by the mandala. The word mandala in Sanskrit means “circle” and they are symbols which are significant in Hindu and Buddhist rituals and spiritual practices, such as meditation. The psychologist David Fontana remarks in his book, Meditating with Mandalas, that the mandala’s symbolic nature can give an individual access to deeper levels of their unconscious, which will ease the process of individuation.
Another of Jung’s famous archetypes is the Shadow. The shadow represents our most basic, primitive instincts, the life and sex drives. If the shadow was to reside anywhere in the brain, it would be in our limbic system, which is the emotional centre of our brain. The limbic system generates emotions such as anger, lust, jealousy and fear. The shadow is composed of repressed ideas, weaknesses, desires and instincts. The shadow is the dark side of our mind. As such, it can be dangerous – if we deny parts of our shadow, such as weaknesses we have, Jung said we might project these weaknesses onto others, distorting our view of ourselves and others. According to Jung’s analysis of dreams, the shadow is usually symbolised by monstrous characters such as demons. For a more thorough and detailed description of Jung’s concept of the shadow, see the following article from Psychology Today.
The Anima is a feminine image in the male mind and the Animus is a masculine image in the female mind. According to Jung, being able to combine our feminine and masculine natures, rather than letting one dominate, leads to wholeness. The last of Jung’s main archetypes is the Persona, a term which is derived from the Latin word for “mask.” The persona represents all of the different social masks that we put on. This means that each individual’s persona may contain a work mask, a family mask, a friend mask, a romantic mask etc.
There are of course many more archetypes, some of which are more recognisable and feature heavily in stories around the world. In his book Man and His Symbols, Jung goes through some of them and what they stand for: the Father (authority), the Mother (comfort), the Child (innocence), the Wise Old Man or Woman (guidance), the Hero (champion), the Maiden (desire) and the Trickster (trouble-maker). You can immediately think of examples in books and films which contain these archetypes. Yoda from Star Wars as the Wise Old Man, Satan in Genesis as the Trickster, Rapunzel as the Maiden, Zeus as the Father etc.
The mythologist Joseph Campbell, following in the tradition of Jung, would become famous for looking at the different myths, folklore, stories and religions from around the world and picking out the fundamental, universal elements to them. In his highly influential book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Campbell discusses the journey of the archetypal hero. According to Campbell, all those famous stories involving heroes, such as the labours of Hercules or the life of the Buddha, share a basic structure. Campbell called this structure the monomyth and in short, it involves a call to adventure, a road of trials, the boon (or discovery), a return to the ordinary world and, finally, the application of the boon. This structure is clever because Campbell is able to apply it to history’s most famous stories, such as Homer’s The Odyssey and the life of Christ as depicted in the Gospels.
Campbell seems to justify Jung’s idea that archetypes are something that we can easily identify with and which evoke a strong emotional response from us because they symbolise our evolutionary experiences. The hero’s journey represents the primitive struggle of our ancestors in entering an unknown world of danger, but overcoming the danger and bringing back to the tribe or group some discovery or treasure that will benefit everyone.
Campbell’s idea of the monomyth has been very influential in the world of cinema – George Lucas credited Campbell with providing a lot of the inspiration for his Star Wars films. The producers of the Matrix trilogy and Disney films such as Aladdin, The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast admit that The Hero with a Thousand Faces helped to structure the plot to these films. The most successful books and films do appear to commit to many of Jung’s archetypes and Campbell’s monomyth (Lord of the Rings comes to mind) which attests to the power of these universal symbols.