Archetypes are visual symbols or energetic imprints that exist in our psyches. They are dynamic, living forms of energy that come through us and shape who we are and what roles we will play out in our lives. Archetypes are elemental forces, recurring personality patterns which play a vital role in the creation of the world and the human mind itself. The ancients called them elemental spirits.
Carl Swiss, a brilliant Austrian psychologist, coined the phrase from the Greek word archetypos, meaning "first of its kind." He defined archetypes as unconscious psychic structures, core images that represent psychological dynamics. When these cosmic patterns enter the conscious mind, they do so in the form of images and figures. Jung found these images in the dreams of diverse individuals, in mythology, and in art from around the world. For this reason, Jung and others have concluded that archetypes are collective, a part of everyone's psyche, and therefore universal.
Due to this, Jung theorized that humans have a "collective unconscious", and in this collective unconscious are "deposits of the constantly repeated experiences of humanity.... a kind of readiness to reproduce over and over again the same or similar mythical ideas...." Humans do not have separate, personal unconscious minds, Jung believed. Instead, he offered that we share a single Universal Unconscious Mind, rooted in the Unconscious just as a tree is rooted in the ground. And indeed, the basic images and figures underlying the gods and traditional stories of diverse peoples are often strikingly similar. Jung found the archetypal patterns and images in every culture and in every time period of human history. We gain access to archetypes through the myths of the human species. We find them in our dreams. He postulated that the existence of the Universal Unconscious accounted for this.
Awareness of archetypes dates back at least to the time of Plato, who called them Forms. They include such universal forms, or patterns, as the Mother, Child, Trickster, Judge, Mystic, Artist, King, Clown, Mediator, Soldier, Teacher, Hero, Heroine, Beggar, Seductress, and Servant, to name but a few.
It is often easier to see an archetype operating in the life of another rather then in our own. For instance, you may have heard someone say: "Oh. She's the quintessential Mother." Or, "He was just born to be an artist" Or "This person is such a Peter Pan. They'll just never grow up." Or "He's such a Don Juan!" These are all references recognizing an archetype at work in someone's life.
There are four archetypes that are universal archetypes related to survival, and every human being has them. They are: the Child, Victim, Prostitute, and Saboteur. They represent the issues, fears, and vulnerabilities that cause us to give away our power in the world. We all have these because they are vital to our growth and functioning as adults. The Saboteur, for instance, warns you when you are in a situation in which you tend to sabotage your own best interests. All four of these archetypes influence how we relate to material power, how we respond to authority, and how we make choices. They make you conscious of your vulnerabilities and your fear of being victimized. They allow you to see how you sabotage your creative opportunities or abort your dreams, and in the future they will become your allies and help you to manifest opportunities and fulfill your dreams. They will become your guardians, and will preserve your integrity, refusing to allow you to negotiate your power away under any circumstances.
I like to think of archetypal energy patterns as a sort of living blueprint existing in a huge well or cosmic storehouse. Depending upon what issues we have come into this life to work through, our souls call in or allow that particular archetypal energy to enter our auric field and play itself out in our lives. Its energy moves through us. They are potentials for creation and are actualized when they enter our consciousness as images. Although archetypes are impersonal patterns of influence that are both ancient and universal, they become personalized when they are a part of your own, unique life journey. So, although there is a universal "Mother" archetype, how that archetype will manifest depends upon what lessons an individual has to learn, their level of consciousness, and how they interact with that energy. There is the "good mother" and "the bad mother", the "neglectful mother", "the over-possessive mother", etc. Like "The Force" in Star Wars, how one uses the energy of the Universe is up to that individual.
What seems to make a motif archetypal is the reaction that it triggers in people. People rarely react in a neutral way to genuinely archetypal figures. They tend to evoke irresistible attraction or instinctive repulsion - or, perhaps, a combination of the two.
To understand how archetypes work in your life, it is best to think of them as intimate companions. Archetypes take an active role as guardians and inner allies, alerting you when you are in danger of falling into destructive, unconscious, or "shadow" behavior. Every archetype has its shadow side. This is the potential of experiencing the unconscious side of our unique personalities. The Shadow is the personification of that part of human, psychic possibility that we deny in ourselves and project onto others. The Shadow is the easiest of the archetypes for most persons to experience. We tend to see it in "others." That is to say, we project our dark side onto others and thus interpret them as "enemies" or as "exotic" presences that fascinate.
We see the Shadow everywhere in popular culture. He is Batman or Lex Luthor. She is Spider Woman or Cat Woman. We see it in popular prejudice as well. We "imagine" that the Black Man is our enemy; that Communists are devils. We accept people uncritically if we perceive them as "Fair Haired." Of course, Satan is the great Shadow image of popular religion, usually Christian oriented. So, wars are righteously but erroneously waged "in the name of God" against countries perceived to be Satanic or "not saved" in fundamentalist terms. What is actually happening, however, is that we are throwing our own psychological and inner demons off onto someone other, when the war we truly need to be facing and waging is within ourselves and our own wounded psyches.
The goal of personality integration, of our life's journey, is to integrate the rejected side of our being into our total experience and to take responsibility for it. As we move deeper into the dark side of our personality, personal identity begins to dissolve into "latent dispositions" common to all men. This "Other Side" may be manifested in a wealth of images. The image of "wilderness" is fundamental. Remember that Hanzel and Gretel were led "into the woods" and were trapped. Knights discover dragons, ogres, and thieves in the woods. Robin Hood is at home in the wild. The image may be that of the mob and its underworld. There is always "the concrete jungle." Dragons sail the sea, "the watery wilderness." Jesus and John the Baptist met God "in the wilderness," as did Israel at Sinai.
Archetypes, when understood and explored, show you how your experiences and relationships are filled with opportunities for personal transformation. They can help you to get out of stagnant loops or energy patterns that keep you stuck. They provide the foundation for your personality, drives, feelings, beliefs, motivations, and actions. When they are recognized and clarified, you can use their powerful energies to support and guide you in your life journey. Thus, once you learn to recognize your patterns by discovering which archetypes are operating in your psyche, you are then able to use these powerful, universal energies for your Highest Good. It's a fascinating journey of discovery, and will give you countless insights into why your life and relationships take shape as they do. It will also show you what you came into this lifetime to learn - what your own contract is this time around. It will show you your life purpose, and what challenges you have set up for yourself to overcome.
You play with the the dynamic, living energy of the Cosmos, and learn to master it.