Tuesday, April 19, 2016

[AVW 002] Archetypes - Patterns that Keep Showing Up

Previous: [AVW001] Tropes Vs. Archetypes

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.

2). These cultures developed Flood myths independently for no real reason.

3). These stories arise from a principle of human psychology.
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.

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


  1. The historical case is weak simply because history started with Sumerians writing things down. There have been no such floods in recorded history.
    But the oral tradition predates this by an unknown, but very large, amount.
    If we use the development of the bow and arrow as a proxy for language (because the sheer number of skills and abstract concepts necessary to make them strongly implies language), then mankind had language well before the most recent ice age. During that ice age, there were floods so massive that our minds can't really even begin to comprehend them.
    After the Bonneville Flood and Missoula Floods, it is not at all surprising that the myths of the American Pacific Northwest strongly feature floods covering the earth and wiping out most of their tribes. Because that did, in fact, happen.
    Similar events occurred near the Great Lakes region, and filled the Mississippi river peneplain with a towering wall of water.
    The events surrounding the Caspian and Black seas in the Near East were even larger.
    Those events affecting the Orient were similar in magnitude, but smaller in total volume.
    (Unfortunately, the Pleistocene prehistory of the Southern Hemisphere is very nearly unknown to me, but there were several events there as well.)

    While I agree that "The Great Flood" is an archetype, the myth also has basis in fact.

    I'm still wading through this series. You've done an excellent job with it. Bravo!
    I do think there's a place for strong women characters, but my conception of the ideal shares no points in common with that of the rabid feminists. (I'd pick Rose Sayer from The African Queen and Mattie Ross from True Grit as my exemplars of the ideal.)

    1. More than simply a myth about a World Flood, these stories tend to share a lot of other things in common. IE, the flood being a punishment from the gods, one man/woman/family being spared.

      So it is not simply the setting of a great flood, but the moral content/context that gets repeated.

      To put it another way, perhaps all cultures are describing the same historical event (most recent ice age). But in that case, we have all of these disparate cultures ascribing the same meaning/interpretation to this period of flooding. That in itself is kind of amazing!