According to our working definition, archetypes are organising patterns and it is therefore helpful to look at the characteristics of patterns to understand how archetypes function.
Patterns can form in different media and therefore to some degree take on the characteristics of that media. I am a guitarist and am learning an arrangement of Dire Straits, Why Worry Now. This tune, this musical pattern, will sound slightly different depending on the particular guitar it is played on, depending on the tone of the wood and the shape of the guitar and the type of strings used. This is similar to how the archetype of the mother is expressed, it plays itself out in the lives of billions of mothers across different species and in the case of human mothers across different cultures and individuals. However in the midst of this variety we can usually tell the same tune is being played and our brains, evolved over millions of years for pattern recognition, can distinguish the same tune played on different instruments. Furthermore the arrangement of Why Worry Now I am learning has variation from the original – it plays with the standard tune which appeals to our love of variety. Patterns then contain variety and also have the capacity to cross mediums. This is very important to our understanding of archetypes which can also cross different media and contain a certain amount of variety. Returning to the archetype of the mother, we can notice both the commonalities and the differences of how it is expressed across species, in a mother cat and in human mothers. A mother cat like a human mother is fiercely protective of her young and expresses her nurture in feeding her offspring. Yet we can notice commonalities and differences in the expression of the mother archetype within our own species across different cultures and diverse times.
We can view the commonalities of an archetype across individuals and communities as the core of the archetype which is formed by its function. We have already noticed that archetypes generally have a purpose. Here I am going to draw upon the recent field of philosophy of information. Archetypes are information “for something”, they are information for a purpose. In his book, Information: A Very Short Introduction, Luciano Floridi points out that DNA is also Information for something (chapter 6), it is instructional as it guides how the organism develops and functions. In the case of humans, it contains the instructions for forming ears and blood, brains and hair colour. Archetypes are likewise best described as “information for”. Let’s return to our early example of the Greek pot – the template is information for the shape of the replicas, the mother archetype is a template for female reproduction and the hunter archetype is the template for an organism’s carnivorous food gathering. Each of these archetypes is shaped by the purpose they fulfil for the organism.
The function also gives archetypes their stability. The mother archetype remains as long as it fulfils its function; as long as it is integral to the process of biological reproduction. Evolution obviously throws up different variations of the mother archetype but these will only survive as long as they lead to successful reproduction, in other words, an archetype’s functionality prevents too much variation. Any variation which does not lead to successful mothering will not be passed on to the next generation. As well as stability, an archetype needs reproductability to endure. The mother archetype only endures if it can be passed on from one generation to the next. Obviously this is substantially through our DNA but it is also passed on in culture as the mother cat learns mothering from her own mother. Here we have to be careful to embrace the complexity of this transmission lest we get caught up in the old nature vs nurture debate – the answer seems to be that nature uses whatever is at its disposal to replicate vital patterns, including DNA and culture.
We also need to distinguish the archetype from any particular expression of it. When we talk about the archetype we are talking about the organising pattern rather than any one particular instance or expression of that pattern. No one cat is the archetype of the cat. It is in the nature of the archetype as organising pattern to express itself in a variety of examples and therefore there must, by definition, be differences which can vary from cookie cutter similarity to a wide diversity. This wide diversity is particularly evident in the field of biology where evolution thrives on this combination of stability and mutation which optimises adaption to the environment.
Archetypes can also have fuzzy edges, boundaries are not always clear cut, raising the question of when does one pattern morph into another? This is particularly the case in biology. Within the family of cats, lions and tigers are stable patterns which gradually evolve over time. However ligers (a cross between a male lion and a female tiger) have been bred and they share characteristics of both species; like tigers they enjoy swimming, like lions they are sociable animals. It would be a mistake though to assume that because an archetype might have indistinct edges to its pattern that it is to be abandoned. As someone who teaches about archetypes I often get asked the question, “How many archetypes are there?” Which is like asking how many patterns are there? A great, great many course theoretically, but functionally there are a basic set of archetypes which govern our survival and shape our everyday lives. If you think about the everyday life of a woman who works as a GP (let’s call her Anna), her daily life is mostly shaped by archetypes such a wife, lover, mother, friend, healer, athlete, daughter. This would be true of most of us.
As organising patterns, it is also important to note that archetypes can exist in potential form as well as in an embodied form. We are perhaps familiar from high school science with the idea of potential energy. A prime example is a pendulum whose energy shifts from potential at the top of its arc when it stops moving to kinetic at the bottom when it is in full swing. So too an archetype is a pattern which can exist in potential or activated form. Jung was good at identifying this potential aspect archetypes describing them once as a “preconscious psychic disposition.” (CW 9 152). The mother archetype can exist in a young woman as a kind of potential until activated in adulthood. The potential may come out in play as a young girl with her dolls, be activated in adulthood as a longing for a child, find expression when she gives birth to her first child and even be reactivated later in life when she becomes a devoted grandmother.