What is an archetype? And why does it matter? Can understanding about archetypes help us? This is the first in a series of blogs and videos about archetypes, archangels, astrology – and kabbalah.
Watch the video as well!
What is an archetype?
Let me illustrate by showing you some pictures of doors…
All of these doors conform to the archetype of ‘door’. If I asked you to use one word to describe them all, I’m pretty certain you would use the word ‘door’. Whether they are big or small, wooden or metal, they conform to the ‘idea’ of a ‘door’. So we could say an archetype is the ‘idea’ underlying the material ‘form’. We can also consider the ‘purpose’ for which this form has been developed.
Here are some other pictures….
If you were to choose one word to describe all these characters, perhaps it would be ‘soldier’. Whether a Roman centurion, a mediaeval knight or a more modern Western combatant, there is something about these images that suggests a common purpose. If they carry weapons they are out either to kill, or to defend themselves against being killed. Their costume has been designed to protect them against enemies. So we have an ‘idea’ of engagement in conflict.
Plato’s ideal forms
The concept that there are ‘ideal’ forms underlying all ‘material’ forms was explained by the Greek philosopher Plato (c.423 – 347 BCE). According to this theory, for any conceivable object, or property, there is a corresponding ‘form’, an ideal or perfect example . We have in our mind an idealised image of a horse and, when we see one, we know it is a ‘horse’, whatever size or colour. A racehorse is one variation. A Shire horse that pulls a plough looks different in many ways, but it is still a ‘horse’. Even a ‘pony’ or a ‘foal’ is a kind of horse, but we use a new label to qualify a difference. An ideal form is the same as an archetype.
You may well have heard of the Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung (1875–1961). He famously had a falling out with his friend, colleague and mentor, Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), even though Freud had recognised Jung’s brilliance and labelled him as the person who would carry the baton of psychoanalysis forward. You can see from their dates that Jung was nearly young enough to be Freud’s son. They had a fundamental disagreement about the nature of the unconscious mind. Freud tended to see the human subconscious as a dumping ground, a kind of dustbin for neuroses, anxieties, painful memories and repressed desires. Jung came to believe, through his own personal experiences and dreams, that our inner life can be just very personal, but it is also deeply connected to the collective consciousness of humanity, and to what mystics call ‘the ground of being’.
Jung was an explorer of inner space and he suggested this is where the archetypes reside. He was interested in the archetypes that arise in culture as ‘gods’. He believed we are able to conscientiously interact with the archetypes and thereby discover useful perspectives that will shine a light on our motivations. While our motivations are unconscious, they will reveal themselves to us as ‘fateful’ events, or arrive in our lives in the shape of other people, friends or enemies.
Over time, an archetype can arise in a culture because people, either individual authors or as social groups, focus on a character or some other material form, and it grows as a significant icon.
Sherlock Holmes is the ‘archetypal’ private detective. The signals are there in the clothing. If you take his deerstalker hat, magnifying glass and pipe, and put them on a woman, she would be identified as a ‘private detective’. Modern detectives, real and fictional, are more canny – they don’t announce themselves by wearing a special costume!
However, Santa Claus will be identified by his costume. The archetype of the generous spirit of Christmas has changed its appearance over generations. Once he was the Christian Saint Nicholas…
In Victorian times, his costume was green…
This made him look much more like the pre-Christian Green Man, who is associated with growth and abundance…
In old myths and fairy stories we meet fantastical characters like these…
Mermaids, unicorns and centaurs are also ‘archetypal’, but we have no evidence of their ‘reality’ – they only present themselves as ‘imaginal’. But the ‘imaginal’ or ‘dream’ world does have an archetypal reality that can inform us from a deep place – from the ‘underworld’ below our conscious, day-to-day awareness. Why do these creatures arise in the human imagination? Why do they call to us? Because they represent significant possibilities within our psyche, both as individuals and as a collective.
we step unconsciously into archetypal patterns
Just to close with, look at these four men – not fictional at all. Can you see how they all represent an archetype? Perhaps one we might label ‘dictator’?
I’ll be back soon with the next instalment, where I’ll be talking about archetypes and astrology.
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