Like a tired wanderer who had sought nothing in the world apart from her, shall I come closer to my soul. I shall learn that my soul finally lies behind everything, and if I cross the world, I am ultimately doing this to find my soul. – CG Jung, The Red Book
What is an Archetype?
The word "Archetype" comes from the Greek terms "arkhe" and "tupos" ("primitive" and "model") and was used in Greek to indicate an "original pattern from which copies are made." Now, various Greek philosophers had their various ideas of what an Archetype was, but the common thread is that an Archetype is not a thing. It is a pattern.
If you ask me to show you an Archetype, there is no physical thing I can point at. All we can examine is a pattern that keeps showing up over and over again.
This thread continues to the modern theory of Archetypes. For Jung, subconscious Archetypes were a way to explain why the same stories, symbols, and characters arose in human cultures separated by vast distances of time and space.
For example, the book of Genesis contains a story of a world-wide flood that covered the whole earth and wiped out all life – save for the lives of Noah and his family (and a floating menagerie of animals). A similar story appears in the literature of Sumeria and many other Near East cultures.
It might not surprise us that the World Flood story got shared around the Near East. It's a great story - it's got divine Judgement, a thrilling escape, and adorable animals. Perhaps the author of Genesis ripped the story off from the Sumerians, or perhaps they both ripped off some third source.
What is less easy to understand is why similar stories popped up among the Ojibwe in North America and the Temuan of Malaysia, and indeed, in the dreams and delusions of contemporary psychiatric patients. The further afield from the Near East we move, the less clear the lines of transmission become.
Why does essentially the same story show up over and over again, even between cultures with no contact? How did the same story make it all around the world at a time when most people never left their village? Three possible answers have been suggested:
1). All of these sources are describing the same historical event.The "historical event" thesis fails to adequately explain how the story spread to cultures without mutual contact (although some do argue for a literal world-covering flood), and why it still reoccurs in contemporary dreams and delusions. The "random coincidence" is technically possible, but fails to explain anything. As a result, the idea of a psychological explanation has gained the most traction.
2). These cultures developed Flood myths independently for no real reason.
3). These stories arise from a principle of human psychology.
Which brings us back to Archetypes. The term "Archetype" is used to describe the subconscious principle that causes the same stories to show up over and over again. We look at the subconscious as the source of these Archetypes because the human mind is the one thing that links all these cultures and people together.
That's the nutshell version of where the theory of Archetypes comes from, but I'm really only scratching the surface. Here's some books to start you off if you want to dig deeper:
Psychology of the Unconscious - CG Jung
The Hero With a Thousand Faces - Joseph Campbell
The Golden Bough - James George Frazer
The Seven Basic Plots - Christopher Booker
And if you want a good example of how the "Racial Memory of Actual Events" theory works out, check out this video series:
Next time, we'll look more closely at Archetypes themselves and Jung's model of the mind.
Next: [AVW 003] Archetypes and the Subconscious