Archetypes: What are They?

I’ve written briefly in the past about archetypes, but it appears that it’s time for me to explain a little more about them and how they work in everyday life–particularly, how they appeal to me in my life. One of the commentators on a recent thread asked about the anima, the female part of the male, so to speak. With a view to writing about the anima next, bear with me as I first lay a brief foundation in archetypes that I haven’t laid elsewhere.

Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung first proposed the theory of archetypes. Like his mentor, Sigmund Freud, Jung believed that all people possess an unconscious mind containing personal forgotten and repressed contents which Jung called complexes. Unlike Freud, however, Jung believed that the personal unconscious acted as a superficial layer of a much larger and deeper layer of the unconscious “which does not derive from personal experience and is not a personal acquisition but is inborn” (Jung, Archetypes 3). Jung called this deeper layer the collective unconscious, and its contents he called archetypes.

Jung traced the use of the term archetype to Philo Judaeus, who used the term with reference to the Imago Dei (God-image) in man, and to several other classical sources, noting that archetypal contents are transmitted through tribal lore, myth, fairy tales, and esoteric teaching (Jung, Archetypes 4). Archetypal contents are also found in dreams; Jung believed that the existence of typical mythologems in dream contents indicated that myth-forming structural elements must be present in the unconscious psyche and common to all people. The personal archetype functions to express a particular aspect of a person’s psyche; when a collective archetype appears, it often corrects the imbalance of an age. For instance, the recent focus on magic and fantasy in all sorts of fiction indicates that we have suffered for too long with the scientific model and are longing for something transcendent to lend balance.


The complexes work together with an archetype thus: complexes are feeling-toned ideas that accumulate over the years around certain images or ideas such as mother, father, money, power, orphan, and so on. These images have an archetypal core. There is an archetype of mother, an archetype of father, and (I think) an archetype of orphan. We carry collective archetypes arising from human conceptions of these images that have survived over the centuries, and we also carry personal images or archetypes that are peculiar to us. The personal archetype is developed over time, and complexes usually attach to them as barnacles to a ship. Where the archetype goes, the complex goes until and unless we do something about the attachment.

When a complex is activated, we know so because strong emotions are present and are often expressed, whether the feeling is love, joy, hate, rage, sadness, fear, suspicion, or any other strong emotion. An emotional reaction means, in Jungian theory, that a complex has been constellated.

“We cannot get rid of our complexes,” writes Daryl Sharp, “because they are deeply rooted in our personal history. Complexes are part and parcel of who we are. The most we can do is become aware of how we are influenced by them and how they interfere with our conscious intentions. As long as we are unconscious of our complexes, we are prone to being overwhelmed or driven by them. When we understand them, they lose their power to affect us. They do not disappear, but over time their grip may loosen” (40).

Complexes are not necessarily bad, particularly if we’re aware of them. They can make life interesting and energetic. However, we’ve all had the experience of being bushwhacked by strong emotions and even of making asses of ourselves as a result; this is the unhappy result of being too unconscious of the effect of our personal history. I think understanding and awareness go a long way to helping us develop from being slaves to our complexes to being responsible owners of them.

In some conditions such as schizophrenia or during a psychotic break, a complex emancipates itself from conscious control to such an extent that it becomes visible and audible. They can appear in visions and speak in voices like regular people. Jung believed that this was not in itself pathological; he recommended that his clients experiencing psychosis engage in dialogue with their manifesting complexes and archetypal characters and believed that medicating schizophrenic patients into oblivion was a psychiatric error. As he took his clients seriously and showed respect for all the manifestations of their inner contents, he found his patients improved. This is one of the aspects of Jung’s early work with psychotic patients that I most admire: he refused to treat them as crazy people and, instead, treated them as what they were, people.

In Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), students are taught to consciously emancipate their complexes by visualizing them and talking with them. Depth psychologists believe that it’s healthy to give one’s complexes “a voice, a face, a personality,” because then “they are less likely to take over when you’re not looking” (Sharp 40).

We like to think we are masters in our own house, but clearly we are not. We are renters at best. Psychologically we live in a boarding house of saints and knaves, nobles and villains, run by a landlord who for all we know is indifferent to the lot. We fancy we can do what we want, but when it comes to a showdown our will is hampered by fellow boarders with a mind of their own (Sharp 40).

Regardless of what we intend consciously, our complexes and the archetypes they attach to live their own lives in the underground of our unconscious while we go about our daily business. People whose inner lives manifest and interfere with their conscious lives are often diagnosed and said to have mental illness. Certainly, they are suffering; but I believe that many times, people who are semi-comatose spiritually, going through life unconsciously, are much more ill and in danger than their diagnosable counterparts.

This statement may seem shocking, but when one considers how other segments of society are rewarded for manifesting and constellating their complexes and archetypes, one has to reconsider. For example, script writers, actors, playwrites, artists, poets, and fiction writers all dramatize their mental contents, often allow their inner personalities to take the driver’s wheel, so to speak, and are considered talented and even gifted for being able to do so. We are anavoidably drawn to the person who readily manifests a real self, even if in a fragmented way. Or perhaps especially if in a fragmented way, for this is the way these selves manifest: in bits and pieces, showing this part or that part, something like a kaleidoscopic picture of personality.

Sharp writes that even if writers deny that their work has psychological meaning, “in fact you can read their mind when you study the characters they create” (41).

Jung saw complexes as islands of consciousness split off from the ego-mainland. This is a useful metaphor. When you’re emotional, caught in a complex, you’re cut off from rational ego resources; the complex rules the personality for as long as you stay on the island. When the storm dies down you swim ashore and lick your wounds, wondering what on earth got into you (Sharp 41).

A Primer on the Archetypes

Among these inner bits of self, or these islands outlying the ego, are various archetypes and personalities. One of the most often seen and useful of these is the persona.The persona is the face we show to the world; it is best symbolized by clothing. It is useful as we put it between ourselves and the world and use it to make a smooth path for us socially. For instance, one wears an evening gown to a formal affair; and a bathing suit to the swimming pool. The bathing suit would be inappropriate to the formal affair, and vice-versa. So, the persona functions for us when we use it to clothe our selves with the veneer of social responsibility and good manners. If we choose not to allow the persona to assist us in this way, we are deemed uncouth and ill-mannered.

On the other hand, a person may so identify with her persona that she, in effect, becomes it. Certainly, the outside world rewards those who seem persona-based and nearly begs us to identify with it. People who single-mindedly play one role in life are usually rewarded for it; however, this very single-minded cardboard cutout of a person often becomes a trap. Think about the preachers who fall into sexual scandals, or the typecast actor who is repeatedly cast as a comic in spite of having enough depth to pull of a dramatic role. Those who have no hidden self are probably over-identified with their personas.

The shadow is the Mr. Hyde part of Dr. Jekyll and Mr, Hyde. The shadow is the trickster, the dark side, the side that puts its foot in its mouth, the part that opposes and compensates the conscious ego side of the personality. If we are compulsive about being neat and mannerly, he picks his nose at the table. He appears in our dreams. If male, our shadow is a male figure in dreams; if female, our shadow is female. She’s the figure we dream about and loathe, unable to imagine that she’s part of us.

The more identified a person is with the bright-as-a-penny image of their persona, the more dark and fearful the aspect of the shadow will be. Conversely, the person who has developed enough to own her flaws is more likely to perceive a shadow that is as much as companion as anything else. The shadow requires conscientious attention to one’s moods, fantasies, and dreams, and a long process of dialogue. The shadow is the other side of the ego coin, so to speak, and as such one cannot function without the other. As Daryl Sharp writes, “they can either collaborate or tear each other apart” (47). This is why scriptures and ancient myths and tales are full of stories of figures such as Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah. What they teach us is that whatever is divided and opposed is also destructive. This is the danger of externalizing the shadow and projecting it onto other people or groups.

Other archetypes (by no means an exhaustive list) include the Child, the Divine Couple, the orphan, the Wise Old Man or the Wise Old Woman, and archetypal images of wholeness such as the circle, the quaternity, the mandala, and so on.

Recommended Reading


Jung, C. G. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.

Sharp, Daryl. Jungian Psychology Unplugged: My Life as an Elephant. Toronto, Canada: Inner City Books, 1998.

19 responses to “Archetypes: What are They?”

  1. Recommended reading on Jung and archetypes « The Hannibal Blog Avatar

    […] visit The Third Eve for primers on Jung’s model of the psyche and his ideas about archetypes. Then compare that with the influence that the so-called monomyth theory has had on […]

  2. Once Upon a Time: The Quest | 2 « The Third Eve Avatar

    […] archetypal journey of analytical psychology parallels the Quest of romance literature. The first step in the […]

  3. Eve Avatar

    Smiler, at this point I’m going to have to admit to my dirty little secret: I think we’re ALL Jungians in one way or another. Jung gave us words and theories for what we knew all along; we just didn’t know how to bring the stuff of our myths and folk tales into the modern era, and he and Joseph Campbell taught us how to do just that.

    Those folks who are perfectly perfect their whole lives either blow at some point (mid-life crisis, anyone?) or they simply succumb to the lives of quiet desperation Thoreau wrote about.

    Me, I’m going to be loudly desperate at the very least.

  4. Smiler Avatar

    I haven’t been keeping up and I see I’ve been missing some very interesting stuff! I love this post Eve, because you express so many things I’ve always felt and knew to be true. For example

    “People whose inner lives manifest and interfere with their conscious lives are often diagnosed and said to have mental illness. Certainly, they are suffering; but I believe that many times, people who are semi-comatose spiritually, going through life unconsciously, are much more ill and in danger than their diagnosable counterparts.”

    I’ve always maintained this, and furthermore, I’ve always maintained (in more simplistic terms) that it’s not the individuals who seem crazy or neurotic on the outside that worry me, it’s those who do everything to maintain a face of cool and aloof self-control.

    Once again, I’m realizing I’ve been a Jungian all along without even knowing it!

  5. The Animus « The Third Eve Avatar

    […] the battlefield and tearing your hair out; by asking yourself–not your partner–what complex in you was activated, and to what end. The proper question is not, “Why is she doing that to […]

  6. The Anima « The Third Eve Avatar

    […] Reading List ← Archetypes: What are They? […]

  7. Eve Avatar

    Alida, hello! Shall I send you some Tylenol Extra Strength for that brain hurt? ;o)

  8. Alida Avatar

    I’ve been so fortunate to find your blog. After reading your Bad Boys post, I’ve been slowly making my way through all your posts. It’s been so long since I’ve studied Jung, you’ve certainly reawaken a passion I had almost forgotten. I have to admit sometimes you make my brain hurt…in a good way.

  9. Lamberakis Avatar

    Wait a minute! Did Eve put a tiny smiley face at the end of one of the rules at the top of her front page? Cute! She’s full of surprises, our girl.

  10. Eve Avatar

    Curtis, I’m going to have to look up Fowler’s stages of faith in order to comment on them! But thank you for bringing it up, as I look forward to discussing them later.

    Reading over them, my first reaction is excitement, because this is probably one of the most succinct descriptions I’ve seen of spiritual development. It’s what I’ve experienced personally, and there’s a lot I could write about that–not the least of which is what I would say about how developing more faith in the Fowler sense also alienates one from other Christians, for one sees not only the unity within the Christian church, but the unity among humanity. About the latter, I have definite thoughts and also unformed substance-type thoughts, waiting for me to make something out of their chaos.

    While I ponder creed and chaos, maybe you could comment on what you think of them in relation to depth psychology. :o)

  11. Eve Avatar

    RG, yes, all of it leads me toward God. I think God is completely, ultimately irresistible! “Where can I flee from Thy presence?”

    “…neither height, nor depth [psychology], nor any other created thing can separate me from the love of God.”

    The depths of my soul and its many facets seem as vast as the universe or as God, therefore it all drives me toward Him and makes me love Him more. But it’s funny you would ask this question, because I’ve thought lately about my experiences with psychology over time. When I first started in grad school, I remember fearing that I might lose my faith. Then, in a way, I did for awhile, and science replaced what superstition I had carried (while real relationship with God remained steadfast throughout).

    Then, as I worked as a therapist I began to see a pattern in my client work. As different as they all were, they all either became better or not depending on their degree of openness to spiritual experience. I continued in my schooling and began to read the works of eminent psychiatrists and psychologists when they were old; most came to a firm belief that a human being could not be psychologically sound without a spiritual life and relation to God.

    About this time I saw that all roads do indeed lead to Rome–to the City of God so to speak–and that the best I could do was to direct clients to become conscious. I found that most didn’t want to plumb the depths of themselves, or the universe, much less approach God. They wanted something else.

    Anyway, yes, it leads me to God, RG. And thank you for asking, because I don’t write often enough about that.

  12. Lamberakis Avatar

    Where do you see “planned,” rg? And where a single point of origin?


  13. curtismchale Avatar

    I have enjoyed the psych topics, I am a BA psych student. I was wondering though if you have addressed Fowler’s stages of faith? They have really had me interested lately in realtion to church and I would love another perspective on them.

    Thanks for another post. I am always amazed at the time it must take to write as long as you do and as often.

  14. renaissanceguy Avatar

    Oh, Eve, thanks for writing on this topic. I know too little about it. I’m not totally ignorant, but I need to learn more.

    Will you post a bit more on the connection to mythology, which I do know more about and enjoy learning about so much?

    I have a deep question. Does the universality of archetypes point you toward God? It does me, but I guess it doesn’t for everyone. To me it all just seems so planned, and it seems to point to a single point of origin for us humans.

  15. Lamberakis Avatar

    Well, recognizing it goes a long way for me. It’s rather a destructive complex. I wouldn’t know how to run into the arms of it inwardly, other than the wild “daydreaming” I do instead of letting myself get carried away with the freaking thing. The last time it activated I chose not to act it out. Is that what you mean by not externalizing it? It felt unsatisfying, and then it began to ebb away and I was able to see how I didn’t have to let it take hold of me.

    I’ll give it some more noodle and see what I can see. :o)

  16. Eve Avatar

    Lamb, instead of shaking free of it, have you ever tried to recognize it and run into the arms of it inwardly, rather than externalizing it?

    That sounds oh-so-Jungian (as if it might be easy to do); in actuality it would be rather difficult. But at least you have momentum!

  17. Eve Avatar

    Cerebralmum, I like how you described archetypes as providing a language for understanding. This is true for me, too. I can also identify with the inaction… many times (probably most, if I think about it) when I am frozen in a state, it’s because I must fear that being conscious will be only destructive. This, even though I know how constructive it always is to see and know truth.

    I like to imagine, though, that I get better at it and more willing to be less frozen.

    There are other times of course, when being frozen is seasonal–a sort of hibernation or whatever it is that flower bulbs are doing all winter long.

  18. Lamberakis Avatar

    I really admire that about Jung, too: the way he takes people seriously and gives them full dignity without trying to pathologize them. Jung is among my “ten great people I’d love to have a conversation with” list.

    On the complex-being-activated thing, as I was reading it I thought to a certain complex of mine. I’ve survived three or four cycles of it now (I’m in my 30s) and I can look back and see how each time it begins with wildly-out-control emotions (in this case, romantic-sexual infatuation) which set off a cycle in which I feel in the grips of a poweful force-driven, as you put it. The feeling is almost as of going forward in a trance or automatically. Luckily, as I get older the cycle is easier to recognize and shake free of, or at least manage.

    That’s my testimony tonight.

  19. cerebralmum Avatar

    I’m glad you’ve been writing about this. Archetypes provided a language through which my understanding of myself grew, and then I stopped speaking it. It’s time for me to start soul -searching again.

    When I was younger, however, those complexes which had a grip on me drove my actions. Now, I have an awful sense that those which are invisible to me are driving my inaction. I wonder if the kind of archaeology of self I need to do now is not so much harder because of that.

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