What is an Archetype?

During his lifetime, Carl Jung, often called the father of modern psychology, put forward his theory about archetypes. He described them as universal patterns of behaviour that reside in the realm of the human collective unconscious.

Jung proposed that people go through life drawing from a repertoire of instinctive, archetypal roles. Archetypes have become a familiar term since experts such as Joseph Campbell, Carol Pearson, Clarissa Pinkola Estes and Caroline Myss have written about them. Each archetype is like a collection of thoughts that have combined to form an idea, and an ideal, and this is what people draw on to shape the roles that they play.

What is an archetype?
Archetypes are universal stories – roles that people play.

Since ancient times, every human being has added their ideas and thoughts to what it means to be a mother for example, or a warrior, a servant, a healer, a hero, and the many other roles that people play. If each person has put their thoughts and ideas about those roles in to this collective pool, then this suggests that each archetype is subject to transformation and the evolutionary process. 

Two hundred years ago, if the word hero was used, it was usually within the context of war or the capacity to lead and conquer foreign lands. These days, the word hero has been used to describe Olympic gold medal winners or cancer survivors. Today’s idea of what it means to be a mother or father is undergoing a process of transformation. Mothers and fathers are known as parents. Gender is less important than it was in the nineteenth century. This is evident with the increase in working mothers, stay at home fathers, and single fathers and mothers. Contemporary society is now demanding that mothers and fathers learn to play each other’s roles in order to fill that position whenever the need arises. Archetypes continue to grow, since they are affected by the ever-changing social, environmental, economic and political climates.

As archetypal patterns evolve, this also suggests that archetypes have the potential to hold a vast amount of collective wisdom that has been gathered throughout the ages. Having been in development over eons of time, they are now well and truly established, and yet, are constantly evolving forms. Therefore, it would make sense to say that archetypal information is not likely to go out date. It seems to move with the times. Archetypes can provide contemporary information supported by ancient wisdom.

Imagine that an archetype is a universal computer program. To put that image within the context of human life suggests that it is a universally programmed way of behaving. You may or may not be aware of that programming. As you become aware of these universal programs, you begin to understand how they influence your day to day living. Think of archetypes as neutral forces. They remain this way until you activate them with your conscious or unconscious choices. The choices that you make, and what motivates you will determine how well you understand and utilise these patterns and their potential benefits.

Archetypes are universal stories and stories can be read. Every story has a challenge and archetypes are no different. You could say that archetypes represent your life lessons, since each one has its own strengths and weaknesses. When both your strengths and weaknesses are in equal proportion, the balance of energies will neutralise their impact. This is why some archetypes are a force in your life and others are not.

If each person is influenced by archetypes, then how many archetypes have such an impact on your learning and personal development? Various contemporary authors and experts in the field, such as Caroline Myss (2001) have noted that each person reveals at least twelve major archetypal patterns of behaviour. Within this collection of twelve archetypes, Myss (2001) suggests that everyone has four basic patterns. They are the child, victim, prostitute, and saboteur. The other eight archetypes that complete the twelve are for you to determine individually.

How do you determine which archetypes represent your life challenges? What makes it so challenging is that everyone in some way, can identify with almost every archetype. Yet, even if that is the case, your relationships to these archetypes vary. Some are major and others are minor.

To identify your archetypes, you need to look for the major patterns and influences, your strongest personality characteristics and physical behaviour patterns, and where and how often you express their strengths or weaknesses, because that is what best describes the archetypes that form your major life lessons. Your archetypes are the life patterns that repeat themselves in a fulfilling and positive manner, or in a way that draws you back to a continual state of unease or pain.  

Pain is designed to bring you to your knees. Pain is a crisis, and a crisis is painful. Both will coax, push, bully and beg you to ask: Am I doing something wrong, that I find myself in this situation time after time? Is there something I need to learn from these experiences, and if so, what is it? The answers are in your Archetypes.

Challenges are easier to manage when you know your archetypes. When you’re aware of your personal strengths and weaknesses, you generate more options and have more choice. Once you know your archetypes, rather than overreact to situations or events, you can respond with wisdom instead.

Myss, C 2001, Sacred Contracts: Awakening Your Divine Potential, Random House, New York

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