What Good is an Archetype?

Craig Chalquist, PhD

The least of things with a meaning is always worth more in life than the greatest of things without it.
— C. G. Jung

A psychiatric collegue of Jung’s at the Burgholzli clinic in Switzerland saw an inpatient who still goes by the case name “Solar Phallus Man.” This patient had hallucinations of a giant phallic tube extending downward from the sun to blow winds in four directions over the earth. Jung, who happened to own one of the few books in print that described this image in great detail, identified it as a piece of Egyptian mythology. The patient had not owned this book and probably had not read it. This is one of the discoveries that led Jung to his own formulation of a shared, or collective, unconscious.

Jung believed that this shared unconscious could generate the same basic motifs everywhere. A bar maid, he commented, could dream of a precise Wheel of Life figure without having seen one. These universal motifs or patterns he called archetypes, the basic structures that organize human experience while connecting it to the greater-than-human. Archetypes are akin to the natural laws that order the physical universe: invisible but discernible by their effects. These include intensely numinous experiences, cosmic dream images, sacred figures in art and myth, sudden inspirations, and intensely felt emotional and bodily reactions to meaningful encounters like synchronistic events.

Why does this matter? What difference does it make to know when some archetype (Rebirth, Divine Child, Great Mother, King, Resurrection, Death, Divine Marriage) shows up in the vicinity?

  • Universal motifs mean that certain psychic structures are shared by all of us. (Dream and myth work demonstrates this from the inside, and evolutionary psychology from the outside.) We not only have the same bodily basics in common, but aspects of our minds as well, particularly how they organize experience.
  • Constellated (i.e., surfacing) archetypes reveal “in the air” changes in collective currents. Think of 1910, a year when “depth psychology” was coined, liberation movements spread across the world, the NAACP was organized, and Field Theory started in physics and in psychology: archetypally, the Deep Field was beginning to overtake the former Big Machine paradigm. Eros has been dismantling the lesser works of Hephaestos ever since.
  • They also show the understructure of what entire groups are up to, as when the spirit of an age shows up in its art.
  • Constellated archetypes can bring back to us pieces of ourselves, as when a dream about Zeus hints of a need to exercise more authority in daily life.
  • They give the movements of the deep psyche an imagistic face or form….
  • ….And by doing so reveal the “inside story” of an event, an era, a culture.
  • They give Spirit a living image or set of images.
  • They provide guidance for those aspects and transitions of our lives that unfold as though invisibly narrated. 
  • They switch our perspective, from our story being just inside of us to our being inside a larger story. A random tragedy feels different from a rite of passage, especially when connected to what happened to one’s ancestors.
  • They plunge us into literature, history, and other fields of knowledge by forcing us to research them. As Jung pointed out, an archetypal image left unresearched is no more comprehensible than an ancient baptismal font whose history remains unknown.
  • They connect us to an ensouled world drenched in symbols and deep meanings.

See also my Glossary of Jungian Terms.