Where do archetypes come from?

No discussion of archetypes and being would be complete without at least an attempt to explore where archetypes come from. However this discussion must be pre-empted by the observation that the study of archetypes is an existential one. In other words, it starts with the observation of our current existence – we are born into (or “thrown into” as Heidegger liked to describe it) a world replete with archetypal patterns and we begin a journey to make sense of those patterns. We are not given the privilege of having a seat in the restaurant at the beginning of the universe to see it all unfold, we find ourselves born into the middle of the story. Because archetypes are fundamental patterns, asking where they come from is akin to asking questions such as why there is anything at all or why life in the universe developed as it did.

Traditionally, humankind has looked to religion to explain why there are archetypal patterns. Some religions posited a divine mind which was the origin of order, archetype and pattern. When that God created the cosmos those patterns yielded the world as we know it.  But a child may ask us, “Yes, but who made God?” pushing the question of the origin of order even further back.  Scientifically we can now argue that information emerges naturally in the steady states of physical systems that are out of equilibrium (which is what Cesar Hialgo does in his book “Why information grows”). But even this may push us back to ask why this is so. The answer to this ultimate question of why there is order, pattern and archetype in the universe may elude us at the moment. It may well turn out that “to be” means to be ordered and it may be that it is “chaos” rather than order that is out of our reach of our understanding.

There is a smaller, but equally important, question of where the archetypes that most effect our lives come from. The process of evolution has clearly thrown up many of these. The ones most connected with survival and reproduction can be the most obvious: the mother, the father, the hunter the gatherer, the warrior and the healer. Then there are those rooted in our social biology and our need to live in tribes, such as the chieftain. Yet these archetypes evolve as society develops. The chieftain becomes the baron, the king or queen and the emperor as the territory and number of inhabitants expand. Now is there one archetype or five here?  The chieftain has clear parallels within the animal kingdom as evolution throws up ways in which the herd is organised and there are strong parallels with the alphas of a lions’ pride and a gorilla troupe and a tribal chief. Archetypes evolve and develop as circumstances change – they are patterns for something and the archetype needed for ruling a herd is somewhat similar and yet also different to that required of a human king.  Where does the archetype of the king come from? It is a cultural archetype rooted in a social biological history. But in the end that would make it no different from many of the archetypes that shape our lives, patterns with a biological function at their core shaped by a cultural context and need.

Each step in evolution throws up its own archetypes. Consciousness, an enormous evolutionary step for mankind throws up the archetypes of the philosopher and the scientist. The evolution of our capacity for language threw up archetypes such as the orator and the poet. And as humankind began to try to make sense of the universe and our place in it the archetypes of spirituality were thrown up – the seer, the prophet and the monk.