Archetypes: Defined and Explained with Examples
What are Archetypes?
After reading a couple of recent hubs, I thought there might be an audience for understanding archetypes, with a simple definition, an explanation, and a few examples.
You might not think you care what archetypes are unless you realize how important they are in our everyday lives. They are everywhere:
- in our myths
- in our fairytales
- in our heroes
- in our art
- in our literature
- in our music
- and, yes, even in our movies
There are the same or similar archetypes in all cultures: Hindu, Norse, American Indian, Chinese, etc. Wherever you go, there they are. Most of us, however, don't recognize them even when our lives are being taken over by them.
So, now for the definition. What are archetypes? They are patterns of energy in the collective unconscious. Remember, my background is Jungian psychology, so my vocabulary will be mostly Jungian. We all have an individual unconscious, as well as a conscious, mind; but also we are all engulfed in what Jung calls the collective unconscious. The collective unconscious is to humans what the ocean is to fish. We all swim in it all the time, just as we breathe the air of our atmosphere here on earth and just as fish swim in the water. We are so immersed in it that we frequently don't know it is there. But it is, and in it are all the energy patterns that Life uses to move us along in our evolution. These energy patterns are called archetypes.
What are some examples of archetypes?
There are far too many exmples of archetypes for me to include them all, but just to give you an idea, using the names of the Greek or Roman gods and goddesses: there is Zeus, the great patriarch; Hera, the jealous wife; Mars, the god of war; Hermes, the trickster, the messenger of the gods, and the one who brings us our dreams; Hades, god of the underworld; Demeter, the great mother, etc.
The example I want to use involves Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love and beauty; Eros, her son and god of relationship; and Psyche, who loved Eros and eventually became his wife. This is as example that almost all humans can relate to because at one time or another we have all been engulfed in this triangle of archetypes. We call it "falling in love." Without going into the details of the story, which you can read in any book of Greek and Roman Mythology or in Robert Johnson's SHE, I simply want to point out that this is one of the energy patterns that Life uses to move us along in our evolution. How would we ever grow up, without falling in love and having our hearts broken? How could we possibly ever come to understand "the other" (what Jung calls the contra-sexual self) without being bound so tightly to the loved one that we sometimes cannot free ourselves, no matter how valiantly we struggle.
This is the drama (with a happy ending) that Psyche, half human and half deity, plays out in getting to know her love, Eros. It is the same drama that Shakespeare engages us in in his play "Romeo and Juliet,' (with not so happy an ending). The same archetypes are at work in every romantic movie we go to see; only the names (and a few of the details) are changed.
So, how do archetypes affect our lives?
What's important about all this for our lives? Well, it seems to me, that if we are familiar with the energy patterns of the archetypes, which we can get by reading about them and discussing them with others, the better we will be able to handle the energy when it "strikes" us.
And strike is the pivotal word. When we are struck by one of these energy patterns, whether it is by falling in love as in Eros and Psyche or whether it is by Mars, the god of war, when we get angry, we are completely consumed for a time. We no longer know who we are as separate from the archetype. Ask anybody who is in the throes of the Aphrodite, Eros, Psyche energy. Or someone who strikes out in anger (Mars), killing those who might be in his path. Or Dionysus on one of his drunken sprees.
We are not ourselves when the archetype takes us over, as it does all of us many times in our lives. But if we survive it, if we live to tell the tale and make some sense of it, then we "integrate" (Jung's word) that energy into our lives then we have conscious access to it when we need it. It is by integrating as many of the archetypes as come our way, and often we have no choice which ones these are, that we become "whole" human beings. Integrating the god-like energy into the physical life in a human body, bringing the divine into the world is what we are here for. With a little understanding before hand, our struggles might be less daunting and more successful