The importance of Archetypes

What is important to you? Typical surveys of peoples’ values across the world identify family, friends, work, leisure activity and to a lesser and variable degree, religion and politics. Each of these areas of life are significantly shaped by archetypes. We have already mentioned the example of Anna who works as a GP (healer) and fulfils archetypal roles such a wife, lover, mother, friend, healer, athlete and daughter; archetypes shape the life she leads and values. Also, when Anna comes home from work she might listen to a singer, read a detective novel (the criminal, the detective and the lawyer) or watch a romantic comedy (the lover) on TV – each of these have a social biological core with strong cultural overlays on the archetypes. Like most of us then, Anna’s life is lived within archetypal patterns which form a foundation to the way she relates, works and spends her leisure time.

Archetypes are vital because none of us invents life from scratch, each of us adapts the archetypal patterns of life that well up from our instincts and surround us in our learned culture. In fact we often find fulfilment in shaping the inherited archetypes. We may give our lives over to being an innovative artist who uses social media to speak clearly into our culture or being a doctor using epigenetics to overcome old diseases such as cancer or we may want to simply correct the cold way our father raised us through a warmer style of our own fathering. To be human is to individualise and colour our expression of common archetypes. Even when we think aspirationally, we mostly think of it in archetypal terms such as being the best business-woman, athlete or mother that we can possibly be. Ironically even when we rebel from time to time against cultural constraints we find strength and purpose from the shadow archetypes of the mistress or drug-pusher, revolutionary or hippie.

Animals have archetypal roles too. For instance within a bee hive there is the queen, drones, hive cleaners, nurses and harvesters. These archetypes are part of each bees DNA which is expressed both in their biology and their instinctual behaviours. Bees have little choice in how they express their biological archetypes. But we do! Worker bees do not demand the eight hour day, higher pay or strive for a promotion or meaningful work, but we do. The gift of consciousness allows us to modify our relationships with the archetypes.  We can also pass on different expressions of archetypes from generation to generation through culture in ways that the bees cannot – human mothering can undergo fashions such as disciplinarian, free parenting or attachment mothering. Interestingly it is often these cultural and individual expressions of fundamental archetypes which hold a great deal of energy for us and define our identity and values. What may define Anna’s personality and style is the spin she puts on mothering, seeking to be her daughter’s friend, her commitment to being a healer who combines mind and body philosophies at her clinic and the importance she places on shopping with her friends as a fun bonding experience.

For humans, archetypes are not only transmitted by DNA and instinct but also culture through the process of socialisation. This socialisation is carried on by example, by social pressure to conform and by social organisation. Institutions in particular excel at moulding us to fit into an archetype. One of our early experiences of this is school and the pressure we all encounter to conform to the archetype of a student. From Kindergarten for the next 16 or so years until we finish at university we receive archetypal formation in what is means in our culture to be a good student. Without that archetypal formation few of us would stick out the arduous years of learning, so we submit to passive listening, sitting still, learning skills we can see little point to, completing essays and doing exams and homework. There can be a dark side to this process as well as a positive one as young people are put under great pressure to conform and achieve and those who do not naturally take to sitting passively and absorbing information have a harder time. This is evidenced by the number of young people in the West taking medication for ADHD disorder to be able to cope with modern schooling. But there is always more than one way to express an archetype. A Student learning in a Montessori school, emphasizing the freedom of choosing what to learn, or a student in a Steiner school with its emphasis on early sensory based learning or the student in a Harkness school, with students around an oval table discussing subjects in depth with the teacher, are different expressions of the archetype. A realisation that there are different ways of expressing an archetype can free up the pressure to conform. Humans have a tendency to think our contemporary way of archetypal being is the only or best way. But archetypes are organising patterns which throw up a variety of ways of being a healer, a soldier or a student. The goal is to find the unique ways in which you express and shape the archetypal patterns you live.

If you stop a woman in the street and ask her whether archetypes are important to her, she is most likely to first ask what an archetype is and even if she has heard the term reply that she rarely thinks about archetypes. But if you were to ask her whether mothering was important to her, firstly her own relationship with her mother or her own potential or lived experience of being a mother she is likely to reply that it profoundly shapes her life. And here we have a modern anomaly, the intellectual frameworks we use to understand our lives is out of kilter with what actually shapes them. What happens when we become aware of the role archetypes play in our sense of self, our spiritualties, ideologies and relationships? This is what we will explore in more detail in further writing.

We began with a working definition of archetypes as organising patterns and the more I think about and study archetypes the more I realize how much of our lives they do in fact organise. But this is not a simple process, for humans are engaged in a very complex relationship with these fundamental patterns of life – finding new ways of expressing them, shaping them, relating to them and creating cultural archetypes as history rolls on. It is perhaps this unique relationship with the archetypes which flows into our art, ideologies and spiritualties which shapes what it means for us to be human.