The word “archetype” is defined by Webster as “original pattern or model.” Jung took this Platonic concept, refined it and applied it to depth psychology — specifically to his theories about the “collective unconscious.”
Jungian archetypes presuppose that all people — even across cultures — share a common landscape of attributes, have a similar relationship to all the primal qualities of human energy and expression. Individuals may manifest these qualities in different proportions, but the energy or attitude of every archetype is contained within every human being to some degree, however imperceptible it may seem. Obviously, some individuals will be more predisposed towards certain qualities than others.
Jung positioned the collective unconscious as a psychic reservoir of accumulated knowledge, culture and conditioning that informs us, indeed defines us, as a species.
“There but for the grace of God go I,” muttered one of the saints. There certainly is something reassuring in knowing that we all contain the same stuff — the same instincts, desires, needs, impulses. Looked at positively, this means we all share in the same great potentials; only the proportions of elements are distributed differently.
Archetypes can be viewed as expressions of the different qualities of consciousness or energy which inform human experience. For instance, when we think of “queen” as an archetype, we can think in terms of “queen energy” — the expression of the feminine in a sovereign position — rather than focusing on any specific historical personage. According to a Jungian understanding of archetypes, queen energy is one element of every individual’s psyche.
The Queen could be referring to an individual’s sovereignty — perhaps with regard to a completely personal realm or to some social context (like the nurturing mother, for instance). Factor in the four ‘suits’ of a system like Tarot and archetypes become even more highly defined. Queen of Swords (Spades) energy might point to the quality of highly developed discernment while Queen of Cups (Hearts) could be about unconditional love and the pouring out of blessings.
Jung explained that archetypes have a shadow side as well as a positive side. Modern Jungians have pointed out, for instance, that sovereign energy out of balance can manifest as a tyrant (positive shadow pole) or a weakling (negative shadow pole).
The gods of the ancients — mythological personalities manifesting some powerful quality or characteristic — were personifications of archetypes, often appearing in dreams. Their power over the human psyche was enormous. The fact that human beings created a mythology which anthropomorphized archetypal human qualities does not diminish the effective power those archetypes had over people.
Jung was one of the first to closely examine the phenomenon of projection. He came to realize that the archetypal qualities that humans project onto heroes and gods were the powerful sources of energy emanating from within the human psyche itself. Through his experiments in psychotherapy, he confirmed that awakened archetypes become sources of useful power which can be channeled through an individual personality and expressed in creative ways. When we gaze upon an archetypal quality projected outward, it almost automatically stimulates the part of ourself that it exemplifies. When one appreciates the Hero, for instance, she or he is naturally drawn to heroism.
On the other hand, Jung also acknowledged the tremendous destructive power of archetypal energies when they are operating out of awareness, out of control. He outlined the relationship between the kind of inner chaos that can result and psychological problems of all types.
Let an archetype take over and trouble will invariably follow. We call this “losing it” or “going over the top.” It happens, but it can only happen when we are not aware of the archetype operating. Awareness is the key to channeling archetypal energy skillfully. When we can recognize an awakening archetype, the presence of some energetic quality within us wanting to express, we have a chance to guide it and ride it in a direction we choose.
Jung realized that if archetypal forces within the psyche were not recognized, respected and dealt with skillfully, an individual’s wholeness, if not his life, would be in danger. This realization was one basis of his psychotherapeutic strategy. For deeper information on Jungian archetypes, see Carl Jung’s collected works, nicely abridged in The Portable Jung brilliantly edited by Joseph Campbell.
It’s no accident that Jung studied both the I Ching and Tarot — humanity’s most respected and time-honored “archetype systems.” An archetype system is a complete and balanced set of archetypal images. The I-Ching offers 64 calligraphic images with associated text — 64 primary archetypes which represent 64 different types of situations or attitudes related to the social world of politics, business dealings and love affairs. Similarly, the Tarot deck contains 78 cards, each one an archetype.