In the premiere episode of the new Netflix series Love (starring Gillian Jacobs), a radio psychologist uses the word ‘archetype’ and the caller then asks him what an archetype is. He stammers and replies “well, I don’t really have the exact definition, but I do know what it means obviously because I just used it. Um . . .” One definition of archetype is as an intrinsic pattern of behavior and motivation in the unconscious of human personality.
Archetypes operate like an internal gravity that determines what we are attracted to or repelled by; what fascinates and compels us; why one person is drawn to something and another person repulsed by it. Pioneering Swiss psychologist C. G. Jung brought that word into common usage as a part of his discovery of the collective unconscious – our shared inner biosphere of inherited dynamic patterns.
“Myths and fairytales of world literature contain definite motifs which crop up everywhere. We meet these same motifs in the fantasies, dream, and delusions of individuals living today.”– C. G. Jung*
Jung noticed in the dreams and fantasies of his patients that the images seemed to be pulled not only from personal experiences but from foreign and even ancient cultures. He first spoke of these as primordial images, considering them to represent the foundational patterns of intelligence within the psyche. Eventually, he named the specific dynamic complexes ‘archetypes,’ from the Greek term whose root terms are archein meaning original and tupos meaning impression or model.
For the Greeks, archetypes constituted the basis of their worldview. For common citizens, as well as for Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle, such ‘original impressions’ were:
“. . . an ordered expression of certain primordial essences or transcendent first principles, variously conceived as Forms, Ideas, universals, changeless absolutes, immortal deities, divine archai. . . . Archetypal principles included mathematical forms of geometry and arithmetic; cosmic principles such as light and dark, male and female, love and hate; and the Ideas of the Good, the Beautiful and the Just, and other absolute moral and aesthetic values. . . . As well as the more personified figures such as Zeus, Prometheus, and Aphrodite. In this perspective, every aspect of existence was patterned and permeated by such fundamentals.” – Richard Tarnas
Archetypes are a part of our nature, a part of who we are. Archetypes link both body and mind, conscious and unconscious. They are many sided–we can know their type without knowing how that type will manifest in a particular case. In practice, it is often only through an archetype’s activity in our lives and the particularly strong feeling tones that it evokes in us that we begin to notice them.
Archetypes entrance us.
Both individually and culturally, an archetype can emerge into the forefront of our imagination and captivate us. When a particular archetype resonates for us, we react strongly to it; it may strike us numb; we may become animated by it, identify with it, or over-react against it and reject it, but when we are in its grip, it will always “impress, influence and fascinate us.“*
For better or worse, we are pulled by our heartstrings and lifted towards a new (or old) direction when the wind of its voice blows upon us. Archetypes enfold us into a participation with them–we become bound, enthralled, overwhelmed or even exalted. An archetypal dynamic takes us on a rollercoaster of possibilities, inflating us, making us feel on top of the world, or deflating us–removing all hope from us.
In the background, looming like a powerful God, our archetypal complexes sit enthroned. When our relationship to that energy is unconscious it becomes compulsive and can turn into obsession. In that case, winning or losing such a person, object, or issue is felt to be a world constituting or destroying reality. We know that an object has enchanted us when we become deflated by its loss. Think of all of the teenage drama over love and the feeling of ‘the world will end if I can’t have this person.’ At such times, we are unconsciously substituting a concrete object for a deeper, more powerful force.
Archetypal fascinations redirect our energy; when unconscious it’s often experienced compulsively and negatively, in shadow form–damning us to the dead-end of trying to literalize regressive fantasies. One may feel out of control when exposed to it, or controlled by it. Yet psychologically, redemption is always possible. Where there is a negative pole there is always a positive pole too–a way out, if we have the strength to grasp it.
“[Archetypes] act like magnetic fields which, though unseen, arrange responses, emotions and actions into specific patterns expressed in the form of symbolic images. If the ego can relate to these archetypal centers of energy through their symbolic expressions, the use of instinctive energy can be consciously guided for [healthy] purposes.” – Ann Belford Ulanov
Overcoming passive captivity in an archetype begins with conscious engagement with it. Turning an archetypal dynamic into its positive form requires making our participation conscious, a process that is begun by an honest recognition of our own fascination. We can look at an archetype, complex, or emotion rather than continue to lay caught in it. Gaining that clarity nearly always means defeat for our ego, for our view of the world, and we may need help to achieve it. Successfully discovered, however, our ego’s loss becomes our soul’s gain.