What is an Archetype?

First you might ask the question… what is an archetype?

That’s a good question.

Misunderstanding of the word, and its being used for different purposes have made the meaning hard to pin down.  I’m using the word as Carl Jung meant it to be.  There are certain basic stories or meanings that appear in stories and dreams.  These are consistent for different individuals regardless of a person’s culture or their life experience.   This is an underlying similarity, and the outer form in which an archetype appears is not the most important part.  In other words, its what the symbol or story refers to rather than how it refers to it, that is the archetype.

A womb is an example of an archetype.  But what it represents could also be represented by a cocoon, a cave, the farmer’s soil or any number of things.  The womb archetype isn’t about a womb, rather it is the force of that which contains and nurtures something before it emerges into the world.

If you were to have a dream about being in a womb you might be dreaming about returning to this place of becoming, or the place of potentiality.

You could also have a dream about being suspended in darkness and it could mean the exact same thing.  In other words, it is what the womb represents rather than the womb itself that is the archetype.  It is the archetype of “the force of that which contains and nurtures something before it emerges into the world and/or the place of potentiality.”  It’s just easier to call it “womb archetype” for short…

If you are going to understand an archetype you can go much deeper if you don’t get stuck on outer form of what you are studying.  You begin with the outer form and then dig into it, to see/discover the true archetype.  Once you “get” that archetype you will be able to connect with the energy that is behind it.  That energy is transformative.


An Archetype Example

Let’s go over another example before we move on to creation archetypes.

In many stories, an individual or hero going on an adventure is guided by someone or something.  We’ll call this archetype “the guide.”

In most cases, the example that springs to mind is some older wiser man or woman who shows the adventurer what way to go, or teaches him or her some skill or knowledge necessary to complete the journey, or the task at hand.  But a guide is not always human.

Sometimes the guide can be a bird that flies in to show the way, or to point out what is hidden.  Sometimes the guide can be the wind whispering the truth.  In myths where people go out into the desert, sometimes it is the desert itself that is the guide.

In other words, the outer form of this archetype can be: the wise old man/woman, the desert, the wind, a bird…  What is the true archetype behind the guide?

Man Lotus Pose SilhouetteThe guide is the wisdom of the universe speaking to you.  This wisdom can be found within, but until the hero or adventurer finds the voice within him or herself, the voice must come from outside in the form of a guide.  From a shamanic point a view, everything is alive and has wisdom.  This archetype represents the wisdom that is inherent in all things.

If you think on this, which outer form or visual representation of the guide archetype gives you the sense of what I’ve just described?  Is it the wise old woman?  Is it the wind?  Perhaps the wind is less personal and would better connect you with the archetype?  Again the outer form is not important, so you only need to find the one that best helps you connect to the archetype.  If a particular form doesn’t make sense to you, find one that does.


Creation Archetypes

Most mythologies have a creation story of some kind.  As humans we find meaning in stories which tell us where we come from, how the universe was made, and how it will end.

These stories can give us our place in the world.  There is also a deepening of a spiritual dimension within us when we find a creation story which we can connect to.  The world around us becomes imbued with the hand of creation.  Rather than living in isolation, we are connected to the creation around us through the stories that give our world meaning.

Creation stories connect us with creation archetypes.  The way I break down the creation archetypes fall into three categories: that which is uncreated, the creation process itself, and that which is created or the created world.

The first archetype, that which is uncreated comes before the world is made.  This is often a world of darkness, a fog, a void, or something that is undifferentiated in some way.  This archetype has no time and no forms.  It shows up in different ways, but the key is that there are no-things and this no-thing-ness is represented by something like a vast ocean or a void. In Norse Mythology this was Ginnungagap, a void of nothingness.  In Egyptian mythology this was a watery chaos called Nu.


The Process of Creating the World

The next step in creation is the world coming into being and the ordering of that world.  This often starts with two something’s.  In Norse Mythology the void Ginnungagap has fire and ice on each side, which are then combined to begin to create the world.  In Genesis God divides light from darkness.  In the Egyptian mythology Atum realizes “I am” and therefore there is self and not self.  In other words the creation processes begins by differentiation or making differences in that which was undifferentiated.

This stage continues with a further ordering of the world.  In the oldest known creation myth Enuma Elish, the goddess’s body is divided up to form the universe, the ground and the sky.  This is not the only myth to do so; this way of creating is also found in Norse myth and a Japanese myth of the goddess Ukemochi.

If the god or goddess’s body was used to make the world, then everything in that universe is made of god.  This is somewhat different from God’s style of creation in Genesis and the Book of John.  When he divides and orders the world by naming things and seeing them come into existence.  In other words, the world is not made of him.  However, this mode of world building does fit with the archetype of the ordering of creation.

The creation process can also be one of giving things names.  When this is the way of creating the world, the naming process gives something an identity.  That name contains the entirety of what this being or this group of beings is to be.  Almost as if a body is created through speaking the creation’s name:  Owl.  Tiger.  Tree.

For humans, speech was a very powerful act of creation. Certain words were considered sacred and unspeakable.  Words could have the power to change the world.  In this type of creation, those who can speak have the same power as the creator.  They have an innate capacity to remake the world, because they have the capacity to form speech.


The Created World

At this point we have a created world and this is our third archetype.  We can see many differences on the surface of things, but we no longer realized that underneath everything what we see was made of the same stuff.  The origins or the beginning point is hidden behind a surface that makes things seem very different from one another.  In this set of archetypes, the truth is that behind the surface everything is interconnected because it came from the same stuff.  Behind the surface is something infinite.

This archetype is frequently represented by the web of life, and also the weaving of the wyrdd.

In the web of life, everything is interconnected by the long thread that makes up the web.  The same is true of the Norse myth’s wyrdd.  The three wyrdd or fates (Norns) are often understood as being tied to concepts of time and destiny.  However, the Norns also represent the creation archetype through the weaving process.  They take what is undifferentiated and by spinning create an infinite thread.  That thread is then woven into a fabric that creates the world.  The thread that runs through you also runs through me.

What the stories of this archetype are meant to convey is that there is no real difference between you and anything you interact with.  You are made of the same infinite thread woven here and there, and you are the same.  The place where you are on in the fabric shares the same threads that another person does, and touches other parts of the fabric in ways you cannot comprehend.

This is a deeper belonging than being born into a family, or belonging to a clan, or a village.  From this view you are always interacting with objects and beings for which you are deeply connected.

Humans have a deep need to feel they belong.  Isolation produces neuroses and stress the body.  When people feel interconnection this brings emotional well being.

In the cases where a creation story gives you a true experience of connection to the world around you, you feel that the world is embracing you rather than pushing you away.  This is a consciousness that many spiritual practices are trying to produce within their acolytes.  Some of the ways this is referred to include: unitive consciousness, Christ consciousness, Universal Mind, and immanence.

“The One remains, the many change and pass;

Heaven’s light for ever shines, Earth’s shadows fly;

Life, like a dome of many-colored glass,

Stains the white radiance of eternity.”

Percy Bysshe Shelley

An example of this archetype


Destruction Archetypes, Beginning Again

Rereading this article, I realized that destruction archetypes could be considered one of the creation archetypes.  We often think of destruction of as the opposite of creation.  However, the destruction process is essential to fostering truly new life.

When an environment gets to burdened by existing creations, it can become almost impossible to reorder what exists to make something new.  For the third creation archetype, the existing world, any change has to take into account the existing rules and requirements of everything that has already been created. The inertia or resistance of the actualized world will resist most attempts to reorder things.

In a destruction myth, everything we knew or relied upon is lost. Sometimes because the current form of the creation is no longer able to function or has reached some critical point of error.  This could be due to the immorality of the people, the inability of groups to stop fighting one another, or a significant problem in the natural environment.

The destruction process returns the state of things to the first creation archetype, to that of a void, a fog, or that of barren ground.  However, the ground is not barren, rather, the state that it is returned to is highly fertile.  The first creation archetype is one of unlimited potential.  As destructive as forest fires are, they return the soil to a state of fertility, as does the lava of a volcanic eruption.  A Destruction Archetype is one of preparing the ground for new life.

You might find this archetype coming up when you are undergoing a big change, or going through a difficult time.  You might dream about floods, or fires.  You might see landscapes that have gone through a destruction process.

Tarot Card - The TowerA good example of this archetype is the tarot card: The Tower.

Many people think that the tarot is a fortune telling tool.  However, the cards also contain illustrations of major human archetypes.  In the case of The Tower, people are ejected from the heights they had achieved.  The tower that they built their life upon is burning, and being struck down by lightening**.  In the tarot card shown here, the crown is also being dislodged.  In other words, status, the building of earthly wealth and earthly achievements are turned on their head.  In this experience you can find yourself going all the way to the bottom and beginning again.

While it may not be possible to believe it when your going through this experience, these types of disasters can be transformational.  They have the potential to move you into a new state of being, where everything is possible, and you are not bound by what might have kept you restricted in the past.

The energy that was tied up in the structures and strictures are freed and made available for you to use in new ways.  In the tarot sequence, The Tower card is directly followed by a card called The Star, an archetype that is meant to represent raw energy, inspiration, and new hope.

**Its not a coincidence that the tower is struck down by lightening.  Lightening is the symbol of the divine sending enlightened wisdom from the heavens to penetrate the earth.


Lauren Torres – Lansing, IL
Copyright © 2011 [Lauren Torres]. All rights reserved
Do not reproduce with out express written permission.

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