Archetypes and Imaginal Dialogue: An Arts-Based Inquiry (Chapter 2)

Chapter 2: Review of the Literature

            The term “archetype” is used casually in many settings, often in contradictory and confusing ways. This review of the literature considers different perspectives regarding the origin of archetypes and various conceptual models used for describing them.

Knowing/Loving Archetypes

           According to Jung (1969), the concept of the archetype is “an indispensable correlate of the idea of the collective unconscious” (p. 42). The collective unconscious is different than the personal unconscious in that it is deeper, universal, and identical in all individuals; it “is not a personal acquisition but is inborn” (Jung, 1969, p. 3). Jung (1969) described the collective unconscious as “wide as the world and open to all of the world” (p. 22) and its contents as archetypes, which are “definite forms in the psyche which seem to be present always and everywhere” (p. 42). Archetypes can be communicated and shared through tradition, language, myth, and cultural transmission. Jung (1969) emphasized that they can also emerge spontaneously from the unconscious, at any time, in any context, and without any outside influence.

          It is important to note that while the archetype is unconscious content, it “is altered by becoming conscious and by being perceived, and it takes its colour from the individual consciousness in which it happens to appear” (Jung, 1969, p. 5). According to Jung (1969), the archetype “has an invariable nucleus of meaning – but always only in principle, never as regards its concrete manifestation” (p. 80). Any attempt to bring archetypes into sharp focus “is immediately punished by the intangible core of meaning losing its luminosity. No archetype can be reduced to a single formula. It is a vessel which we can never empty, and never fill” (Jung, 1969, p. 179).

            Jung’s notion of the a priori archetype-as-such is based on the belief that there are innate, primordial elements of the psyche that are autonomous and independent of individual experience (Goodwyn, 2010).  Archetypes are a form of inherited meaning and through their universal occurrence, they also help to “unite humankind through symbols that provide individuals with wisdom about the past and predispose people to experience the world as their ancestors did” (Enns, 1994, p. 127).

           Archetypes “are at once familiar and foreign—which is yet another paradox illustrating the fact that unconscious material can neither be easily resolved nor completely mastered. One can relate to this familiar content; yet, at the same time, it remains opaque and enigmatic” (Leclerc, 2006, p. 131). Further obscuring clarity around archetypes is the debate about their innate quality: are they genetically inherited or are they mental models acquired through learning (Faber & Mayer, 2009)?  Merchant (2009) also poses a set of challenging questions:  “are archetypes innate psychic structures which organize psychological life or is ‘archetype’ a categorizing word used to describe clusters of similar complexes? Do such things as innate archetypes actually exist?” (p. 340).

          According to Goodwyn (2010), there is “a large body of empirical research that supports the notion that there is quite a bit of innate structure to the mind that directs behaviour, affect, perception, judgment, motivation, and cognition—enough to pause before throwing out Jung’s idea that archetypes could have an innate, a priori origin” (p. 510). Furthermore, viewing archetypes as inherent systems of neural circuitry does not necessarily mean that “there are no spiritual contents or experiences mediating the archetypes or that there is no sublime dimension to reality” (Laughlin & Tiberia, 2012, p. 140). This perspective allows for the possibility that archetypes can develop through life experience and be expressed “in emerging consciousness as images and ideas” (p. 138). These expressions can vary depending on the physical and sociocultural environment. Experience with the archetypes will lead to an eventual coalescence of associations related to the archetype. Subsequently, “thoughts, memories, emotions, imagery, and reactions may all become clustered about the developing archetype. Hence, the roles of the physical and sociocultural environment are primary in the development of complexes, and thus the entire psyche (the sum total of all archetypes and complexes, whether conscious or unconscious) as a whole is the product of both genetic inheritance and enculturation” (Laughlin & Tiberia, 2012, p. 130).

            Roesler (2012), however, emphasizes that archetypes can no longer be seen as genetically inherited: “it must be concluded that there is still no firm scientific foundation for the claim that complex symbolic patterns (as for example the myth of the hero) can be transmitted in a way that every human individual has access to them…. We will have to acknowledge that the transmission of archetypes can only be theorized by means of culture and socialization” (Roesler, 2012, p. 223-224). The numinous quality often associated with archetypes comes from them being “affectively loaded” as unconscious factors (p. 225).  Merchant (2009) explains that affectivity, and the associated archetypal imagery, can arise in people from their personal life experience: “…archetypal imagery is always constellated through personal experience with the operative cause being emotionality. This is because the schema (archetype) on which the imagery is based has been developmentally produced in the first place from out of the intense affectivity of pre-verbal infant experience and the current affectivity in adult life is activating it” (p. 344). Merchant (2012) compares archetypes to “organizing principles” (p. 55) and “developmentally derived structures forged out of the intense affective experiences of early infancy” (p. 58) and uses the metaphor of a mould or vessel “into which specific individual experience can be poured” (p. 55). Within this perspective, an individual’s particular culture will also have an influence how an archetypal configuration is expressed.

            While a cultural approach to archetypes acknowledges that the content of the archetypal image can be culturally influenced, a transcendental concept of archetypes suggests that they are linked to supernatural forces with a priori knowledge of their aims(Roesler, 2012). These two approaches contrast with the biological model of archetypes which describes archetypes as “genetically encoded and transmitted and this is the explanation for their universality” (p. 226). Roesler (2012) points out that while all of these approaches were present in Jung’s writing, they are to some extent contradictory; “a concept that is thought to be transcendental and having no place in this world cannot be at the same time a biological entity and part of the genetic code” (p. 228).

          Confusion around archetypes may indeed be due to the various descriptions of the concept found in Jung’s writings. Haule (1999) identified six overlapping and also partially contradictory meanings in Jung’s writings. First, “used as a substantive, archetype refers to the hypothesized ‘source’ of typical images. It is not itself an object of experiences, but is the ultimate form-giving principle in human experience” (p. 257). However, Jung uses “archetype in the second sense to refer to typical images, themselves. Thus, for instance, he writes of the ‘mother archetype,’ the ‘child archetype,’ or the ‘trickster archetype’ in which mythological patterns are cited in order to elucidate the psychology of an individual” (p. 257). Third, archetype is linked with the teleological or goal-seeking component in instinct. In the fourth meaning, the archetype is described as “a dynamic/structural component of the psyche (ego, persona, shadow, anima, animus, self)” (p. 257). Fifth, the term archetypal can “designate a quality of experience, alternatively described as powerful, fascinating, or ‘numinous’” (p. 257). Finally, the sixth meaning of archetype in Jung’s writings found by Haule (1999) relates to a complex, specifically a typical one.

            Knox (2003) identifies four models that are implicit in Jung’s concept of archetypes. First, archetypes are considered as biological entities containing information hardwired in the genes, influencing both the mind and body. Second, archetypes relate to “organizing mental frameworks of an abstract nature, a set of rules or instructions but with no symbolic or representational content, so that they are never directly experienced” (p. 58). Third, and in contradiction to the previous model, archetypes are “core meanings which do contain representational content and which therefore provide a central symbolic significance to our experience” (p. 58). Finally, archetypes can be “metaphysical entities which are eternal and are therefore independent of the body” (p. 58).

          The question of whether an archetype is viewed as an “independent constellation of primordial material inherited from the distant evolutionary past” (Laughlin & Tiberia, 2012, p. 132) or as “developmentally produced during human pre-verbal experience” (Merchant, 2009, p. 341) contributes to an interesting theoretical debate, but it is not a question that can be resolved here. What remains intriguing is how an archetype is experienced. Merchant (2009) points out that because an archetype “resides in the implicit/unconscious layer of the psyche, it will be experienced as if alien, ‘spontaneous’ and probably ‘innate’ and as if unconnected to anything which we can consciously understand” (p. 345). Knox (2003) describes the expressions of an archetype as “representations of dynamic patterns of relationship between self and other” (p. 67[KD1] ) that come from the objects or an inner world, rather than from specific content in an outer reality. Similarly, an archetype can be experienced as embedded in an environment of symbolic, narrative interaction (Hogenson, 2001). Engagement with an archetype can be a dynamic process whereby it continues to be transformed after it is assimilated into consciousness and manifested in various ways such as in dreams, myths and art (Laughlin & Tiberia, 2012). The archetype is not the same as an actual image, “rather the archetype orders and directs psychic material into visible images. It is behind the images as a latent invisibility but can become known to consciousness through the set of images it produces” (Merchant, 2012, p. 54).

            Archetypes can be seen as ways of knowing the world (patterns of intuition), ways of acting in the world (patterns of behavior), ways of feeling in the world (affective states that accompany these patterns), and also as universal images or motifs (Hogenson, 2009). McNiff (2004) emphasizes that if “images and artworks resonate with and enrich our inner experience, we do not have to rely on abstract theories to explain them. Thus the archetypal method is fundamentally aesthetic, and its precision is characterized by an ability to stay with and perceive the particular qualities of each situation” (p. 195).

A Bird and a Tree Say to Him: Friend

            Two archetypal images that keep reappearing in my paintings are the mother and the shaman. Before presenting the images in the next chapter, it is helpful to first discuss briefly how these archetypes are described by Jung and others.

         The mother archetype.  Jung (1969) describes the mother archetype as both loving and terrible, and as appearing under “an almost infinite variety of aspects” (p. 81), including a personal mother or grandmother, any woman with whom a relationship exists, and mothers in a figurative sense, such as goddesses or characters from mythology and fairy tales. The qualities of the mother archetype include: “maternal solicitude and sympathy; the magical authority of the female; the wisdom and spiritual exaltation that transcend reason; any helpful instinct or impulse; all this is benign, all that cherishes and sustains, that fosters growth and fertility” (Jung, 1969, p. 82). The mother archetype can relate to a place of magic transformation and rebirth, as well as to the underworld. On the negative side, the mother archetype may also “connote anything secret, hidden, dark; the abyss, the world of the dead, anything that devours, seduces and poisons, that is terrifying and inescapable like fate” (Jung, 1969, p. 82).

         One model for the mother archetype is Mother Earth or the Great Mother, such Gaia or Demeter in Greek mythology, Mary in Christianity, Kuan Yin in Buddhism, or Durga in Hinduism (O’Mara, 2006).  The mother archetype can also be related to confidence in the authority and “indomitable spirit” (p. 10) of the mother. This toughness can also be present in the attributes of the warrior-mother aspect of the mother archetype (French, 2001). In contrast with the warrior-mother, there are also the qualities of the gentle and pacifist mother archetype. Laughlin & Tiberia (2012) point out that the transformations of the mother archetype are endless and can include the Divine Mother or the Terrible Mother.

         The shaman archetype. The shaman archetype and searching for the shaman can be related to “a metaphor for traveling into the realm of imagination and discovering what is native to the self” (McNiff, 2004, p. 195). Through the presence of the shaman archetype, “the lost soul of ordinary life is restored” (p. 195). The shaman, or the magician, suggests an encounter with wisdom and creativity (Enns, 1994, p. 131). The shaman archetype can also indicate a process of the soul ministering to itself (McNiff, 1992).

         The motif of helpful animals is related to the shaman archetype. “These act like humans, speak a human language, and display a sagacity and a knowledge superior to man’s” (Jung, 1969, p. 231). Within the shamanic context, an animal can be seen as a guide or as a source of empowerment, and as something distinct from ourselves (McNiff, 2004). “It is natural for the shaman, always concerned with the welfare of soul, to appear when the psyche is in need” (McNiff, 1992, p. 19). Because the shaman can take on the sufferings of others, there is a built-in assumption around the ability to self-cure and the presence of a wounded healer dynamic (Merchant, 2012).


Enns, C.Z. (1994). Archetypes and gender: Goddesses, warriors, and psychological

            health. Journal of Counseling & Development, 73, 127-133.

Faber, M.A. & Mayer, J.D. (2009). Resonance to archetypes in media: There’s some

            accounting for taste. Journal of Research in Personality, 43, 307-322.

Goodwyn, E. (2010). Approaching archetypes: Reconsidering innateness. Journal of

            Analytical Psychology, 55, 502–521.

Haule, J.R. (1999). From somnambulism to archetypes: The French roots of Jung’s split

            with Freud. In Jung in contexts: A Reader. Bishop, P. (Ed.). New York:


Hogenson, G.B. (2009). Archetypes as action patterns. Journal of Analytical Psychology,

            54, 325-337.

Jung, C.G. (1969). The archetypes and the collective unconscious. (Second Edition).

            Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Knox, J. (2003). Archetype, attachment, analysis: Jungian psychology and the emergent

            mind. New York: Brunner-Routledge.

Laughlin, C.D. & Tiberia, V.A. (2012). Archetypes: Toward a Jungian anthropology of

            consciousness. Anthropology of Consciousness, 23(2): 127-157.

Leclerc, J. (2006). The unconscious as paradox: Impact on the epistemological stance of

            the art psychotherapist. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 33, 130–134.

McNiff, S. (1992). Art as medicine: Creating a therapy of the imagination. Boston, MA:


McNiff, S. (2004). Art heals: How creativity cures the soul. Boston, MA:


Merchant, J. (2009). A reappraisal of classical archetype theory and its implications for

            theory and practice. Journal of Analytical Psychology, 54(3): 339-358.

O'Mara, P. (2006). A quiet place: Reclaiming a new archetype. Mothering, (November –

            December): 10-11.

Roesler, C. (2012.) Are archetypes transmitted more by culture than biology? Questions

           arising conceptualizations of the archetype. The Journal of Analytical Psychology, 57(2):