Archetypes – Introduction

600px-Goddess_IMG_5043When I say the word “Mother” it will produce a reaction within you. This is not only because of your significant relationship with your own mother who birthed you and brought you up but, if you’re a woman, then the word will also tap into your maternal instinct. If you are a father it may also trigger some deep feelings you have about the mother of your children. Not only will you have feelings associated with mothering, you will also probably have ideas about how mothering should be and about the adequacy of your own experience of mothering. Furthermore mothering is instinctual – no one teaches a cat to mother and humans likewise have maternal instincts even if these are influenced by upbringing. Nor is mothering restricted to humans – it exists as a structure of life around us. Apart from your personal mother there may be mother figures that a whole society relates to. Mother Theresa would be one such figure – although this nun had no biological children she took the position of mother to many she met in need and to the sisters in her order. Some female politicians are seen as mother figures to their society – Indira Gandhi of India was seen in this light. Britain had Margaret Thatcher who represented the strong mother figure who ruled the home.

The figure of mother is an example of what we call archetypes, that is first or basic types. They are organising patterns towards which we have strong emotional and intellectual attachment. The ideas and instincts associated with these figures exist as a fundamental part of our minds. For something to qualify as an archetype it has to be universal – it has to have significance in every society at every time as we would expect something basic to human psychic structure to always make an appearance. Although the idea of archetypes have been present in Western thought since Greek times, in the last century they have been promoted by the Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung, who explained them in this way:

“My thesis, then is as follows: In addition to our immediate consciousness, which is of a thoroughly personal nature and which we believe to be the only empirical psyche (even if we tack on the personal unconscious as an appendix), there exists a second psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals. This collective unconscious does not develop individually but it is inherited. It consists of pre-existent forms, the archetypes, which can only become conscious secondarily and which give definite form to certain psychic contents.”

Some other archetypes that have been identified are father, priest, warrior, rogue, lover and husband and wife. When we turn to the world of religion we can notice that these same figures turn up again and again. The mother archetype is represented in ancient religions of Greece (Demeter), Egypt (Isis) and in the present day faith of Catholicism (Mary, Mother of God), Hinduism, (Kali) and in Judaism (Sophia). She is also undergoing a renewal in the New Age faiths as interest and devotion is centred around the figure of the “Goddess”. Other important archetypes to be found in the religious world are Father (Zeus, Thor, Yahweh), Lord, King, Monk, Priest, Mystic. The appearance of these archetypes in all religions is further evidence that they form a part of the structure of our minds.

Because the archetypes form part of the structure of the way our minds are organised, they play a very significant role in spirituality. However we are not always conscious of their role – by their very nature archetypes exist unconsciously for us, a theme we will explore elsewhere on this site. For instance, Christians worship God in the form of the archetypes, Father, (sacrificial) Son and Spirit while being largely unconscious of their archetypal nature. However there is great spiritual and personal value in making these archetypal foundations of spirituality conscious.

Going deeper: