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.

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