The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung said that the gods and goddesses of myth are “archetypal” symbols. Jung spent a great deal of time developing his theories concerning archetypes, and many psychologists since Jung have further developed this concept. By now there is even a branch of psychology that is called Archetypal Psychology.
What, then, is an archetypal symbol?
First of all, a symbol is anything that stands for something else. A flag, for example, is a symbol of the country it represents. A symbol is a sort of “shorthand” signifying and evoking thought or feeling about something vastly more complex than the symbol itself.
An archetypal symbol, additionally, is a symbol that has been in use for a very long time and is common not just to one culture in one time and place, but rather is universal, is embedded, as it were, in the human condition.
Jung reintroduced the word archetype into modern usage; he took the word from ancient Greece, where it meant “the original pattern or model after which a thing is made.” Plato spoke of archetypes as universal “primordial ideas.”
Jung, like Plato, used the word archetype as a name for “patterns” of potential psychological functioning that are intrinsic to the human psyche. He said that we “come in” with certain psychological tendencies, whether we are born in Ohio or Africa.
Just as we inherit instincts, Jung said that we also inherit psychological patterns, and he called these patterns archetypes.
Once, when my children were young, I went with one of them and her classmates to the San Diego Zoo. An employee of the zoo, whose job it was to walk around with the children and teach them things about the animals, spoke to the children about instincts. She pointed to a little bird walking around the grounds that she called a “pea foul.”
She said that there was a curious thing about pea foul. Apparently, from the moment of birth, without any instruction or training, any pea foul on the face of the earth will, when a certain kind of shadow falls on it from above, freeze in its tracks. The woman said that this behavior could be explained as an instinct inherited from countless generations of pea foul who had had to deal with hawks, eagles and other predatory birds who cast a certain shadow when they fly over.
When a certain shadow comes over the pea foul, the shadow triggers an instinctive reaction that says, in effect, “Freeze! Don’t move. Blend in with everything else down here, so that that hawk might not see you and so might not swoop down here and eat you!” This behavior has worked so well and has served the pea foul population for so long that it has become automatic, has become instinctive.
This description of an instinct delighted me and reminded me of how an archetype works.
But notice! Both instinct and archetype are potential patterns of behavior. Although every member of the pea foul species has the “freeze” pattern of behavior built in, it is a potential behavior. The pea foul may walk around for days, months, maybe for a lifetime, and never have such a shadow fall across it and hence never have the “freeze” instinct triggered. But the pattern, the potentiality, is always present, waiting to be triggered. Likewise, certain psychological patterns, archetypal patterns, are also there in every member of the human species, waiting to be triggered by certain stimuli.
Now, here is another curious thing about the pea foul, and about instinct and archetype. Not every shadow that falls across the pea foul is a bird of prey.
For example, a shadow may be a hawk-shaped kite, flown by some happy-go-lucky child who has no intention of harming a pea foul. Nonetheless, the pea foul will freeze in place, just the same, when such a kite’s shadow is overhead. So the instinct, and the archetypal pattern, can be triggered, we might say, appropriately or inappropriately.
I am also reminded of a documentary film I saw once of a duck, I think it was, that was the object of an experiment concerning bonding between parent and offspring. Baby ducklings can, soon after hatching, pick out their own mothers even in a crowd of ducks. How does this happen, wondered scientists? The theory was that there is an immediate bonding as soon as the duckling hatches. A curious scientist decided to hatch a duckling artificially and to have the duckling initially see no other living creature except the human experimenter to see if the duck would bond with the human as its parent. The film I saw showed a duck that had been hatched in such conditions. In the film, the duck was seen following the human experimenter around the house, up and down stairs, etc., just as though the human was the duck’s mother. The duck had instinctively bonded with the human, however inappropriate this bonding was for the duck’s own welfare. The experimenter was no doubt kind to the duck. But just imagine what confusion that poor duck would have about its identity, or what a difficulty it would have when it decided to mate, or raise baby ducks of its own. The instinctive pattern was misappropriated, with possibly disastrous results for the duck in question.
We have often seen misappropriation of instincts and archetypal energies. The most notable is perhaps Hitler’s use of archetypal symbols and religious motifs to empower his Nazi regime. The swastika symbol, for example, was not invented by the Nazis.
It is an ancient symbol, found on prehistoric artifacts and cave paintings.
It was a motif familiar to Africans and Native Americans as to many other cultures long before Hitler. It was woven into baskets, painted on rock walls, carved into antler horns, and engraved in coins.
The swastika’s balanced proportions, its depiction of the four elemental directions in motion, conjured in the human psyche a sense of dynamic harmony and balance.
In its ancient archetypal form, it was a symbol that evoked a sense of rightness, of well-being, of mutual interdependence, of connectedness, of harmony, and of the cyclical and dynamic nature of reality. The Sanskrit root of the word swastika actually means “well-being.”
But then, Hitler came along, and he effectively tapped into these powerful archetypal roots; he used the swastika as a symbol of the Third Reich.
Somce then, this ancient symbol has been skewed for many of us. We are robbed of its ancient meaning. When we see the swastika, we think not of well-being, or of mutual interdependence or dynamic balance, but of gas chambers and genocide.
Hitler tapped into many other archetypal energies to rally people to his cause. His use of stirring music, of certain strong colors, his display of uniforms and banners, his orchestration of public appearances, all show an intuitive use on his part of archetypal symbols to appeal to deeply embedded human response mechanisms. And Germans, possibly the most rational, intellectual and philosophically adept culture in the Western world at the time, nonetheless fell for Hitler’s magic, hook, line and sinker. To this day, when one talks to some Germans who lived in Germany during Hitler’s reign, you see the slightly glazed look of someone who has been under the spell of archetypal forces, so that such a German will say something like “Well, one must admit that in the beginning Hitler was good for Germany…”
The power that archetypal energies have over us is extraordinary. These archetypal patterns have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years for the preservation of the species. They are not set aside lightly. When they are activated, they do carry with them great force, great power.
And so, as Carl Jung said, when they are triggered or activated in us, they are like gods and goddesses within us, they have that much power over our ordinary state of consciousness.
And as we have seen in the case of the scientist with the confused duck, and in the case of the pea foul frozen in fear beneath a friendly paper kite, and in the case of the people who blindly followed Hitler, archetypal energies can be unleashed inappropriately and sometimes disastrously if they are not properly understood.
In the ancient world, most of the powerful teachings were oral, handed down, for example, from shaman to shaman on a person to person basis, only when it was clear that an initiate was ready to understand and not to misuse the power that was placed in his or her hands.
For this reason, Native Americans deeply resent the attempt to write down and publish their sacred teachings. The Hopi of the U.S. desert southwest have worked most stringently to keep their sacred teachings secret from the people who invaded their territory. The Hopi say that these people, who so rapidly went about destroying the natural environment, could not be trusted with mystical teachings and ceremonies that held great power.
However, the power of the archetypal patterns, when not skewed or misused, can aid all of us in the difficult and mysterious endeavor of living our lives. Such aid is not to be set aside lightly. By understanding more about the workings of archetypes, we are more likely not to be taken over by them, not to be “possessed” by them, as people once said.
Jung said, “That people should succumb to these eternal images is entirely normal, in fact it is what these images are for. They are meant to attract, to convince, to fascinate, and to overpower. They are created out of the primal stuff of revelation and reflect the ever unique experience of divinity.” It is the divine aspect of the archetype, rather than the “devil” that “made me do it” aspect, that we must access.
Archetypal experiences are life-altering encounters with vital energies. They are not cognitive or planned for or purchased. Such experiences come from deep archetypal sources that can affect us in many complicated ways.
Joseph Campbell, a master teacher in regard to comparative mythology, was fond of George Lucas, the creator of the Star Wars movies, and spoke of how Lucas had used archetypal motifs in his depiction of Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, Yoda, etc.
All of us who delighted in the Star Wars series were touched by this modern rendition of the old, old story of good against evil, the power of the “force” within you, the saving ability of the little bear-like natural creatures, etc. Lucas consciously and, I would say, conscientiously, followed the tradition of the sacred story tellers, who generation after generation, keep alive the power and meaning of archetypal symbols by weaving them, as Lucas did, into a current version. Lucas wove into the Star Wars movies many, many of the clearly expounded archetypal patterns that Campbell detailed for us in his books and that a study of comparative mythology makes clear.
Much more can be said about archetypes, and I will be adding more shortly. Please feel free to comment on what I have shared here, so that we may unfold the rich meaning of this topic together.
Quotations from Carl Jung:
“An archetype is like an old watercourse along which the water of life has flowed for centuries, digging a deep channel for itself. The longer it has flowed in this channel the more likely it is that sooner or later the water will return to its old bed.” From Civilization in Transition, Paragraph 395, The Collected Works of C.G. Jung
“The hypothesis of a collective unconscious belongs to the class of ideas that people at first find strange but soon come to possess and use as familiar conceptions. This has been the case with the concept of the unconscious in general…A more or less superficial layer of the unconscious is undoubtedly personal. I call it the personal unconscious. But this personal unconscious rests upon a deeper layer, which does not derive from personal experience and is not a personal acquisition but is inborn. This deeper layer I call the collective unconscious. I have chosen the term ‘collective’ because this part of the unconscious is not individual but universal; in contrast to the personal psyche, it has contents and modes of behavior that are more or less the same everywhere and in all individuals. It is, in other words, identical in all men and thus constitutes a common psychic substrate of a suprapersonal nature which is present in every one of us…The contents of the collective unconscious are known as archetypes…So far as the collective unconscious contents are concerned we are dealing with archaic or—I would say—primordial types, that is, with universal images that have existed since the remotest times…” From The Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious, The Collected Works of C.G .Jung
“Not for a moment dare we succumb to the illusion that an archetype can be finally explained and disposed of…The most we can do is to dream the myth onwards and give it a modern dress.” From The Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious, Paragraph 271, The Collected Works of C.G. Jung
“Do we ever understand what we think? We only understand that kind of thinking which is a mere equation, from which nothing comes out but what we have put in. That is the working of the intellect. But besides that there is a thinking in primordial images, in symbols which are older than the historical man, which are inborn in him from the earliest times, and, eternally living, outlasting all generations, still make up the groundwork of the human psyche. It is only possible to live the fullest life when we are in harmony with these symbols; wisdom is a return to them.” “Stages of Life,” in The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche,” Paragraph 794, The Collected Works of C.G. Jung