The Language of the Unconscious, II: Archetypes

My last post discussed how the unconscious speaks to an individual through symbols. This post describes how the unconscious speaks to the individual through archetypes, personifications of unconscious material that present themselves to a person.


For Jung, archetypes represent “riverbeds along which the current of psychic life has always flowed.”[1] He defined archetypes as pre-existent, ancient inherited thought-patterns that form in the unconscious, that a person experiences as autonomous, personified forms in the conscious.[2] An archetype is neither a “name, word, or concept,” [3] nor a “purely intellectual concepts” that offer something “finished and complete.”[4] Instead, an archetype is a figure charged with psychic and numinous energy, a living aspect of an individual’s psyche that cannot be removed, and which displays only “naked fullness, which seems inapprehensible by the intellect.”[5] Archetypes have both agency, which causes them to appear as a subjective being that has goals and consciousness, and pattern, which allows us to discern archetypes as objects of consciousness.[6] Because of their dynamic nature, archetypes serve as vehicles for the individuation process and for wholeness,[7] and, according to Jung are the most valuable aspects of the psyche.[8]


In and of themselves, archetypes are neutral and devoid of meaning. An archetype only acquires positive or negative meaning when the archetype contacts the conscious mind, which judges the archetype’s appearance and content.[9] Because an archetype’s meaning comes through an individual’s life experience and perception of the archetype itself, a multitude of archetypes exist, one for each of humanity’s varied life experiences.[10] When a situation arises and it corresponds to an archetype within the psyche, the archetype activates and the individual behaves with an instinctual compulsiveness that either depicts “reason and will” or denotes a psychological conflict (i.e., a neurosis).[11] Archetypes also acquire meaning through an individual’s cultural surroundings, which, for example, upholds specific figures and endows them with certain meanings for the collective. Interpreting archetypes requires examining the life of the individual to whom the archetype belongs,[12] thus archetypes reflect the uniqueness of the individual human psyche in which they reside.[13]


Not every archetype is active at every moment, but this does not mean that archetypes disappear when not in use. Instead, archetypes lie fallow within the psyche, like dried riverbeds according to Jung, through which water has flowed for centuries and which can fill again at any given time.[14] The longer this water has flowed, the more likely it is that the water will eventually return, thus, the deeper the archetype dwells within the psyche and the more likely is it to resurface.[15] As autonomous psychic products, we experience archetypes as we would a portrait in a gallery, as an image of a person whose “name […] biography [and] existence […] is unknown, but we assume nevertheless that the picture portrays a once living subject.”[16] This autonomy explains the ability of archetypes to engage in a dialectical relationship between conscious and unconscious.[17]


Archetypes appear at moments of “violent collision between two opposite points of view,”[18] when the psyche is imbalanced, and when consciousness requires assistance from the unconscious. Of course, we are not always immediately receptive to their appearance and our consciousness struggles with the need to assimilate the unconscious material (represented by an archetype) into consciousness. Thus, the closer we get to the unconscious material present within the archetype, the stronger our urge to avoid it.[19] Archetypes are most powerful “where consciousness is weakest and most restricted and where fantasy can overrun the facts of the outer world.”[20] When dominant, archetypes compel our psyche into wholeness, regardless of our conscious resistance.[21] Integration of such an aggressive intruder into the consciousness requires “a real coming to terms” with archetypes through a dramatic process of dialogue expressed in or associated with dreams, symbols, or myths.[22] Archetypes clear away obstructions from the psyche to rescue the individual from isolation and restore psychological wholeness.[23] Assimilation of unconscious material introduced by archetypes is not instantaneous, this psychic transition takes time and is overseen by the archetypes themselves.[24] In their work to guide or direct consciousness toward a renewal of psychic wholeness, archetypes serve a transformative function in the psyche.[25]


There is no way, however, to predict whether an archetype is harmful or destructive upon first encounter.[26] Jung does not perceive this ambiguity as a negative feature of archetypes. Rather he sees this as the psyche’s way of avoiding hasty judgments and as its willingness to allow archetypes the chance to develop.[27] An archetype’s purpose is to strengthen consciousness by providing insight; therefore, any perceived negative aspects would not compel an individual to travel a destructive path.[28] Archetypes are paradoxical in character, and a negatively perceived archetype may actually have a positive influence and purpose.[29] The process of becoming conscious alters the perception of the archetype such that, by the time of unconscious material is integrated, an archetype first perceived as evil may be deemed helpful to consciousness.[30]


When an archetype activates, it emerges with a numinous quality[31] derived from its origin in the self, the central authority of the psyche that endows archetypal material with “a supernormal degree of luminosity” and causes conscious contents to darken and become unconscious.[32] When approaching the archetype we must take this numinous quality seriously, as stripping archetypes of their numinous character removes their life and dynamism.[33] Although the archetype bears a numinous quality, Jung acknowledges that he is dealing “with anthropomorphic ideas and not with actual gods and angels.”[34]


Examples of archetypal images are:

  1. The Shadow: the personification of inferior or undesirable characteristics an individual refuses to acknowledge about her- or himself.[35]
  2. The Wise Old Man: who appears as a “magician, doctor, priest, teacher, professor, grandfather, or any other person possessing authority.”[36]
  3. The Hero: “who is semi-divine by nature”[37] and appears when consciousness needs aid to complete a task it cannot do on its own.[38]
  4. The Anima or Animus: the personification of an individual’s inferior functions who descends to the deepest part of the unconscious to overcome the shadow archetype. This archetype presents itself to a man as the anima, and to a woman as the animus.[39]
  5. Mercurius: the personification of the transforming substance of the psyche,[40] or the individuation process, who represents the mystical experience within the psyche.[41]
  6. Religious Figures: personifications representing “ideas, forms, and forces which grip and mould the soul.”[42]
  7. Cultural Archetypes: common personifications from one’s particular cultural worldview, and sometimes from cultures other than one’s own.
  8. The Quest: the “most pervasive and profound” archetype that depicts the “personal quest or odyssey into unknown and often threatening territory.”[43]
  9. Exile or Voyage of Discovery: experienced as expulsion from or leaving a home or familiar place and entering into an unknown and possibly dangerous place.
  10. Mythological or Folk Images: sometimes of a superstitious nature, such as witches or magicians.
  11. Architectural and Natural Archetypes: such as buildings, cities, and gardens.
  12. Animals: which represent lower aspects of an individual’s psychology.[44]


As significant aspects of the psyche that function to reestablish psychic wholeness, symbols and archetypes are integral to the process of individuation and provide a way for the unconscious to confront difficulties experienced in the conscious.

Both symbols and archetypes:

  • are spontaneous,
  • emerge from a confrontation or a conflict of opposites,
  • indicate the unknown,
  • originate in the psyche,
  • are autonomous psychic factors that operate without our realization or understanding,
  • express intuitive ideas,
  • display numinous characteristics,
  • restore balance and wholeness,
  • acquire a variety of meanings from person to person,
  • are intuitive images and ideas comprehensible by an individual with an active psychic life,
  • aid the adaptation of necessary unconscious material into the consciousness, which is required for a healthy and balanced psyche, and
  • are manifestations of the circumstances and experiences of the individual in which they appear.


According to Jung, we then are our own “huntsman […] sacrifice [and] sacrificial knife.”[45] Although we might not immediately understand dreams and products of active imagination, this does not indicate that they are impenetrable and without meaning.[46] To interpret the content of either a dream or active imagination, we must take the material as it is and not as a mask for something else,[47] therefore, Jung concentrated his attention on the form and content present in dreams and active imagination.[48]


To understand the process analysis of symbols and archetypes making up dreams and active imagination, my next post will turn to Jung’s theory of dream interpretation, which Jung also used to interpret content presented in examples of active imagination.


Next time: Interpreting symbols and archetypes using dream interpretation.


[1] C. G. Jung, Collected Works: Symbols of Transformation, trans. R. F. C. Hull, Vol. 5 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), par. 37.

[2] C. G. Jung, Collected Works: Civilization in Transition, trans. R. F. C. Hull, 2nd ed., Vol. 10 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), par. 395.

[3] C. G. Jung, Collected Works: The Symbolic Life: Miscellaneous Writings, trans. R. F. C. Hull, Vol. 18 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), par. 589.

[4] Jung, CW 10:395.

[5] Jung, CW 10:395.

[6] Edward F. Edinger, Archetype of the Apocalypse: A Jungian Study of the Book of Revelation (Chicago: Open Court, 1999), 2.

[7] C. G. Jung, Collected Works: Psychology and Religion, West and East, trans. R. F. C. Hull, 2nd ed., Vol. 11 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), par. 281.

[8] C. G. Jung, Collected Works: The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, trans. R. F. C. Hull, 2nd ed., Vol. 9.1 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), par.160.

[9] See C. G. Jung, Collected Works: The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature, trans. by R. F. C. Hull, Vol. 15 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966), par. 160.

[10] Jung, CW 9.1:99.

[11] Jung, CW 9.1:99.

[12] C. G. Jung, “Approaching the Unconscious,” in Man and His Symbols, ed. C. G. Jung (New York: Dell, 1968), 87.

[13] C. G. Jung, Collected Works: The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche, trans. R. F. C. Hull, 2nd ed., Vol. 8 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), par. 554.

[14] Jung, CW 10:395.

[15] Jung, CW 10:395.

[16] Jung, CW 18:1589.

[17] Jung, CW 18:1504.

[18]C. G. Jung, Collected Works: Mysterium Coniunctionis: An Inquiry into the Separation and Synthesis of Psychic Opposites in Alchemy, trans. R. F. C. Hull, 2nd ed., Vol. 14 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), par. 146.

[19] Jung, CW 8:410-5.

[20] Jung, CW 9.1:137.

[21] C. G. Jung, Collected Works: Aion: Researchs into the Phenomenology of the Self, trans. R. F. C. Hull, 2nd ed., Vol. 9.2 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), par. 124.

[22] Jung, CW 9.1:85.

[23] Jung, CW 9.1:316.

[24] Joseph L. Henderson, “Ancient Myths and Modern Man,” in Man and His Symbols, by C. G. Jung, ed. C. G. Jung, (New York: Dell, 1968), 2.

[25] Jung, CW 9.1:80; Murray Stein, Jung’s Map of the Soul (Chicago: Open Court, 2009), 100.

[26] Jung, CW 10:474.

[27] Jung, CW 10:474.

[28] Jung, CW 10:474.; See also Jung, CW 8:406.

[29] Mary Ann Mattoon, Jung and the Human Psyche: An Understandable Introduction (New York: Routledge, 2005), 38.

[30] Jung, CW 9.1:6.

[31] Jung, CW 8:841.

[32] Jung, CW 18:595-6.

[33] Jung, CW 18:1504.

[34] Jung, CW 9.1:513.

[35] Jung, CW 9.1:398.

[36] Jung, CW, 8:558.

[37] Henderson, “Ancient Myths and Modern Man,”114.

[38] Jung, CW 18:187.

[39] C. G. Jung, Collected Works: Psychology and Alchemy, trans. R. F. C. Hull, Vol. 12 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), par. 172.

[40] C. G. Jung, Collected Works: Alchemical Studies, trans. R. F. C. Hull. Vol. 13 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976) par. 284.

[41] Jung, CW 5:178.

[42] Thomas F. Rogers, Myth and Symbol in Soviet Fiction: Images of the Savior Hero, Great Mother, Anima, and Child in Selected Novels and Films (San Francisco: Edwin Mellen Press, 1992), 6.

[43] Jung, CW 18:412.

[44] Jung, CW 5:446.

[45] Jung, CW 8: 447; CW 18:432.

[46] C. G. Jung, Collected Works: Psychiatric Studies, trans. R. F. C. Hull, 2nd ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, Vol. 1, 1970) par. 136.

[47] Jung, “Approaching the Unconscious,” 11-12.


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