The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung said that the gods and goddesses of myth are symbols of archetypal energies in our psyches. Let’s explore what Jung meant by that statement–what symbols are, what archetypal energies are,  and what crucial role mythic images have in our lives.

First, then, what is a symbol?

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.

                                      Persephone 440px-AMI_-_Isis-Persephone

So Jung says that the gods and goddesses of myth are symbols of archetypes.  What then is an archetype?

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 “primordial ideas.”

Jung, like Plato, used the word archetype as a name for patterns of 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 because we are human, humans everywhere have certain identifiable tendencies.  Countless generations of humans, given a set of particular circumstances, have “settled upon” certain patterns of behavior as appropriate, life-protecting responses.

An archetype, then, as defined by Jung, is a particular pattern of human behavior, a pattern that has been in use by humans for a very long time and is common not just to one culture in one time and place, but rather is universal.  Jung said that these “archetypal patterns” are embedded, as it were, in the human condition, in every human psyche.

What are a few examples?  “Mothering” would be one; universally, mothers the world over have certain patterns of behavior in common.

A “lover” would be another; falling in love is  a pattern familir to most of the human race.

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.

I will not go into great detail here about the meaning of the word archetype. (There will be another workshop in this website specifically for that.)

But I would like to elaborate a bit here, drawing from my own experience, to point out some of the complexities that archetypes present in any of our lives.

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, chose to speak 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 those birds fly over.

When that 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.  An archetype is a human psychological behavior that is also, as has been said, inherited from generations of humans who, given particular circumstances, have “settled upon” certain patterns of behavior as an appropriate, life-protecting response to that situation.

Notice, in addition, that 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, but 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 can be triggered, we might say, appropriately or inappropriately.  The same is true for archetypes.

What is an example of an archetype triggered inappropriately?  (Set aside the question, for now, of who gets to decide what is appropriate about any human behavior!)

Let’s take the mother archetype.  Obviously, having a child triggers mothering instincts and archetypes.  But in some cases, a woman may be so taken up by this archetype that she “mothers” everyone around her.  “Please don’t mother me!” her husband might say to her.  Some of the aspects of the mother archetype are perhaps thus activated inappropriately in this woman.  (Understanding what an archetype is and how it works might help the woman understand and sort out her own behavior.)

But the power of the archetypes is strong.  They are engrained in us so deeply because in most circumstances they are life giving.  But they can be triggered inappropriately.  And they can, in fact, take us over, their power is that strong, albeit on an unconscious level of our psyches.  Having the archetype in good order is to our best advantage.  Much of our inner work may be involved in just this endeavor.

There is a scripture that reads, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Some mythologies had it that humans who looked upon the face of a god or goddess may be incinerated on the spot.  Hence, Jung’s reference to the “gods” and “goddesses” of mythology, and how they stand for, are symbols of, powerful internal patterns within us that have great power over us, over our behaviors.

I am 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.

The duck story tells us that instincts can be manipulated in ways that are not appropriate, as was the case with the duck.  The same is true of archetypes.

Deliberate manipulation by others may sometimes trigger and also skew the pattern of archetypal energies that an individual experiences.

What is an example of such a manipulation?

One archetype has been called by Jung and others the archetype of the “king.”  This archetype involves a strong leader who has influence or power over a group of people and uses it in a certain way.  He has responsibility for his “kingdom,” providing protection, order, setting laws, etc.  A good leader is a powerful and beneficial person, doing good to himself and his kingdom.

How could manipulation trigger the “king” archetype in someone, and then skew its manifestation inappropirately?

Imagine, as an example, a politician who is convinced by a particular interest group that he is the perfect candidate for president; he is convined to run for office, to win and acquire power, and to believe then that he has every right to adjust the laws to suit his own or the interest group’s agenda.  The strong force of the archetypal energy propels him into patterns, good and ill, that he might never have tried if he had not been so manipulated or “managed” by his “handlers.”

An individual may also, on his own, consciously or unconsciously, manipulate a situation for his or her own purposes by using symbols that evoke an archetypal reaction in others.  A person can surround himself or herself with symbols and actions that associate him or her with a certain archetype.

Let’s take the “king” archetype again for our example.

A notable example is perhaps Hitler’s use of archetypal symbols and religious motifs to empower his Nazi regime.

The swastika symbol was not invented by the Nazis. It is an ancient symbol, found on prehistoric artifacts and cave paintings and its meaning familiar to generations of individuals in many cultures.

The swastika’s balanced proportions, its depiction of the four elemental directions in motion, conjures in the human psyche a sense of dynamic  harmony and balance. In its ancient form, it was a symbol that evoked a sense of rightness, of well-being, of mutual interdependence, of connectedness, and of the cyclical and dynamic nature of reality. The Sanskrit root of the word swastika actually means “well-being.”

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.

Hitler made the swastika as a symbol of his Third Reich, tapping into  powerful archetypal roots associated with the symbol, to increase his own power.  He manipulated people by triggering certain responses that helped him to assume power and prestige, to embody, however unjustly, the “king” archetype.

But the way that the Third Reich behaved was not in alignment with the ancient meaning of the symbol.  Its meaning was skewed.  When many people today see the swastika, they think not of well-being, or of mutual interdependence or of 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 appeal to deeply embedded human response mechanisms.  The great mass of people were dominated and manipulated through the  use and misuse of symbols and of those latent archetypal patterns that tend toward tribalism.

By understanding more about the workings of archetypes, we are less likely to be taken over by them, to be “possessed” by them; we are less likely to be manipulated by those attempting to trigger certain responses in us.

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.  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.

On the other hand, the power of the archetypal patterns, when  not skewed or misused, can aid us in the difficult and mysterious endeavor of living our lives.  Knowing more about these patterns, learning to recognize them when they are “in good order,” and when they are somehow “out of balance” in our lives is important.  It has been part of the initiation into maturity of most cultures.  Our own culture is sorely lacking in this regard, in my opinion.  And so we are always at risk of falling, unconsciously, into one of these patterns.

Joseph Campbell, professor of comparative mythology, spoke of how George Lucas, the creator of the Star Wars movies,  used archetypal motifs in his depiction of Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, Yoda, etc.  Those of us who delighted in the Star Wars series were touched by this modern rendition of the old, old story of 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 motifs 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 about comparative mythology.

We will deepen our own personal experience and gain much psychological insight if we take time to think  about what the different individual archetypes are and what they may mean to us in our own lives.

A familiar place to turn is to mythology, to the old, old stories once again.  Let us continue this exploration!

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Picture Credits:
Baby Peafowl, Pavo cristatus baby at Binder Park Zoo in Battle Creek, Michigan; Ltshears on Wikipedia; CC 3.0 unported
Bronze Metal Excalibur Sculpture King-Artus ;; Public Domain
Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, Public Domain
Egyptian art, Kathleeen Pirro Arts; Pixabay; Public Domain
Elefantporten_Ny_Carlsberg.jpg; The Elephant Gate (entrance) at Carlsberg Brewery, Copenhagen. Architect: Vilhelm Dahlerup, 1901. Wikipedia Swastica, CC 2.0
Hawk; Public Domain Pictures. net; Public Domain
Hercules and Hydra, Antonio del Pollaiolo on Wikipedia, CC 3.0
Hoplites fighting. Detail from an Attic black-figure hydria, ca. 560 BC–550 BC. Louvre, Paris.  Wikipedia: Greeks, Public domain.
Kite; Myriams-Fotos on Pixabay;Public Domain
lightsaber-duels-with-mark-hamill-as-host;; Public Domain
Mosaic swastika in excavated Byzantine church in Shavei Tzion,Israel; Etan J. Tal on Wikipedia, CC 3.0
Romeo and Juliet, Frank Dicksee (1853–1928); Southampton City Art Gallery; Public domain
Swastikas on the vestments of the effigy of Bishop William Edington (d. 1366) in Winchester Cathedral; Ealdgyth on Wikipedia; CC 3.0
Yoda;; Public domain

Suggested Activities and Questions for Contemplation:

  • For meditation: Is there a difference between “symbolic” and “real?” If so, what is it?
  • For meditation: Have you considered that there are “layers” of consciousness beyond the ordinary state of consciousness?
  • For meditation: Consider the triggers for the archetypes you named in the previous question.
  • For meditation: Can you think of a time when you were “taken over” by an impulse to do a certain thing that turned out to be very beneficial?
  • For meditation: What is the benefit of having archetypal patterns of behavior built into us?
  • For meditation: Do you think Demeter in the myth was a “mother archetype” in good order, or that she was overly identified with or overly protective of her daughter Persephone? Think about that question from the perspective of different characters in the story.
  • For meditation: What is the meaning of the word sacred?
  • For meditation: Consider deeply the difference between cooperating consciously with archetypal impulses, in good order, as opposed to being overtaken, or “possessed,” by an archetype.
  • For meditaton: I am sure you are familiar with the expression “The Devil made me do it!” This is a good example of being “possessed” by an archetype. Can you describe several instances in the myth under consideration where the normal consciousness of one or more of the characters was taken over or possessed by an archetype?

Proceed to Lesson Two