One of Carl Jung’s most compelling and unique contributions to the understanding of human psychology was his idea of the collective unconscious and the archetypes within it. It was through this insight that Jung made the ancient and archaic relevant to the world of today. The collective psychological experiences of humanity were suddenly seen as impacting and shaping the way every human being saw the world.
In order to understand archetypes we must understand the nature and function of the collective unconscious. According to Jung, the collective unconscious is not like the personal unconscious as first introduced by psychoanalysis. It is detached from the personal unconscious because it belongs to the human species as a whole. It is inherited, just as physical aspects of our bodies are inherited. Because of this, a human being does not enter the world as a blank slate but rather with the innate and inherited tendencies of the collective unconscious. These tendencies are what Jung termed “archetypes.”
The word “archetype” can be defined as a model, a prototype, something which serves as a pattern for other things. Jung’s usage of the term meant much the same thing. He envisioned archetypes as enduring patterns and models within the collective unconscious which act as a matrix through which the world is experienced. It is helpful to liken archetypes to instincts. Instincts result in the “fight or flight” reaction in response to startling stimuli just as archetypes of the feminine and masculine help us to organize and divide the world. Both of these processes happen at an unconscious level, the difference being that Jung saw instincts as physical and archetypes as psychological/psychical.
There are many archetypes, perhaps even in infinite number of them. However, there are a few that seem to stand out for encompassing much of our experience and for their presence in almost all cultures throughout the world. Two of these are the already mentioned masculine and feminine images. The archetype of the hero is also one that is common to almost all people. Though everyone might have slightly different image of what makes a hero, it is generally embodied in the person who struggles, fights, and wins against adversity.
The most important archetype in Jung’s psychology was what he termed “the self.” The self is the ideal form of a person. It is the whole and complete personality, the integration of a person’s conscious and unconscious life. Jung thought that most people could not properly relate to the self because their weak and fragmented egos could not handle it. For this reason, the archetype of the self is usually seen as something other than oneself. It is projected into the world in the forms of gods and saviors. These god and savior figures represent the whole, complete, and perfect image of the self.
There are many forms which archetypes can take. Close friends, warriors, politicians, or brilliant scientists can all be images of the hero to different people. The self is not necessarily only projected onto gods and saviors, but onto anyone who is perceived to be a whole and integrated person, such as a strong leader. Though the images of archetypes may vary in the real world, what they have in common is that they are all influenced, shaped, and filtered by the dynamic, archetypal patterns found in the collective unconscious of humanity.