Archetypes are one of the key ideas in the Jungian lexicon. In fact, they are integral to most of the other big ideas (e.g., complexes, collective unconscious, dreams, etc.) in his psychology. However, they remain a concept that is ambiguous and ill-defined. When people ask me what archetypes are, I usually answer with the following canned response: “An archetype is a basic pattern of psychic functioning that has a quasi-universal quality and can found in the world’s religions, myths, and fairy tales.” After I provide what I think it is a fairly comprehensive definition, and usually to the satisfaction of the inquisitor I might add, I inwardly think to myself: “What really is an archetype?”
Archetypes are difficult to define without first providing examples of what they are. For that reason, I used a depiction of Batman for the title image of this blog. Batman after all could be viewed as a depiction of the archetype of the hero, or perhaps the anti-hero. It is important to point out that Jung (1921/1921) originally referred to archetypes as primordial images. Elsewhere, he used the terms categories of the imagination (Hubert and Mauss) and elementary ideas (Bastian). Jung eventually provided a more succinct definition for archetype: “it was manifestly not a question of inherited ideas , but of an inborn disposition to produce parallel thought-formations, or rather of identical psychic structures common to all men, which I later called the archetypes of the collective unconscious” (1912/1959, CW5, para. 224).
Thus, one could say that Jung’s understanding and formulation of the archetype concept evolved throughout his long career. Interestingly, an early dream (1909) seems to have shed some light on the relationship between archetypes and the collective unconscious. Jung described the dream in his autobiography:
I was in a house I did not know, which had two stories. It was “my house.” I found myself in the upper story, where there was a kind of salon furnished with fine old pieces in rococo style. On the walls hung a number of precious old paintings. I wondered that this should be my house, and thought, “Not bad.” But then it occurred to me that I did not know what the lower floor looked like. Descending the stairs, I reached the ground floor. There everything was much older, and I realized that this part of the house must date from about the fifteenth or sixteenth century. The furnishings were medieval; the floors were of red brick. Everywhere it was rather dark. I went from one room to another, thinking, “Now I really must explore the whole house.” I came upon a heavy door, and opened it. Beyond it, I discovered a stone stairway that led down into the cellar. Descending again, I found myself in a beautifully vaulted room which looked exceedingly ancient. Examining the walls, I discovered layers of brick among the ordinary stone blocks, and chips of brick in the mortar. As soon as I saw this I knew that the walls dated from Roman times. My interest by now was intense. I looked more closely at the floor. It was of stone slabs, and in one of these I discovered a ring. When I pulled it, the stone slab lifted, and again I saw a stairway of narrow stone steps leading down into the depths. These, too, I descended, and entered a low cave cut into the rock. Thick dust lay on the floor, and in the dust were scattered bones and broken pottery, like remains of a primitive culture. I discovered two human skulls, obviously very old and half disintegrated. Then I awoke. (1963/1989, pp. 158-159)
Although the dream better describes Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious it implies that not only does the psyche possess a deep structure, but also contains deposits, not unlike how the strata of the earth contains various natural and unnatural relics (rocks, minerals, soils, fossils, treasures, caskets, etc.). The archetypes populate the collective unconscious and because of their relative universality we can discern a common pattern within all human experience. These patterns of experience are the archetypes. It is also important to note that Jung, informed by his neo-Kantian epistemology, reasoned that there were two aspects of an archetype: the archetype per se and the archetypal image. The archetype per se accords with the philosopher Immanuel Kant’s notion of the noumenon or “thing-in-itself” whereas the archetypal image presents itself to the senses in the form of a psychic image. For some the noumenal aspect of the archetype concept is viewed as epistemologically problematic. For instance, James Hillman, the founder of Archetypal Psychology, avoided speaking about the archetype per se and focused solely on the archetypal image because it is arguably all any one can know—the image.
Although I have barely scratched the surface of any comprehensive explanation of what an archetype is, I would leave it at this: archetypes are universal categories of experiences that have developed over time and have both psychic and biological (i.e., instinct) components. One need only briefly survey the gods found in world’s myths and religions to recognize common features in their function and appearance.
Jung, C.G. (1959). Symbols of Transformation. In V.S. De Laszlo (Ed.), The basic writings of C.G. Jung (Vol. 5, pp. 3-36). New York, NY: Random House Inc. (Original work published 1912)
Jung, C.G. (1963). Memories, dreams, reflections. Aniela Jaffe. (ed.) Richard and Clara Winston. (Trans.) New York: NY: Vintage Book.
Jung, C. G. (1971). Psychological types. In H. Read, M. Fordham, G. Adler & W. McGuire (Eds.), The collected works of C.G. Jung (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.) (2nd ed., Vol. 6). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1921)