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What Is an Archetype?

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  Teri Lapping  —  Grammar Tips
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We use the word “archetype” in our daily language to refer to a prototype or a perfect model for something. 

For example, we might say: “She is the archetype of a successful teacher.” 

Archetypes exist at the micro as well as the macro level. This word holds a respectable place in the world of psychology as well as in our literary traditions. 

The concept of an archetype first appeared in the realm of philosophy, when Plato introduced the belief that everything has an ideal form, an archetype, on which the essence of all real things is based. 

Let’s delve a bit deeper.

Defining an “Archetype”

The word “archetype” is a noun and derives from the Greek word “archein” (“to begin” or “to rule”) plus “typos” (“type").
An archetype can be an image, a story, a symbol, or a character that repeats itself universally and is understood by people across many cultures. 

Common archetypal patterns coexist across time and space, and were found to exist in Europe, Asia, Africa, and other countries even before there were ways to communicate across the globe.

As well as referring to common aspects of the greater world, archetypes refer to internal representations that are part of each individual mind.

Archetypes in Psychology
The psychologist C.G. Jung believed that archetypes promote psychological development and self-realization.  He saw archetypes as inherited concepts or ideas that exist in the unconscious mind of a person, a race, or a culture and are the result of the experiences that humanity has accumulated and passed down. 

Jung believed that archetypes exist in our minds as perfect representations of roles that people play historically and across cultures. 

For example, the archetypal “Mother” figure contains the female essence: compassion and dependability; and the archetypal “Old man” is wise and learned. 

In Jung’s theory, he focused on these main archetypes: the Self, the Anima, the Persona, and the Shadow, and he believed that we emotionally relate and learn from experiencing the emotions that these archetypes evoke. 

Jung believed that archetypes also appear as universal symbols in dreams, where we recognize them and are often able to define their character, their purpose, the meaning of their symbolism, and the connection they might have with situations in our waking life. 

Archetypes in Literature

Archetypes take the form of certain characters or symbols in stories and mythology, with recognizable roles and familiar traits. When reading these stories, individuals will often have emotional reactions to these archetypes, connecting to them on a subconscious level. 

The use of archetypes in literature enables us to identify with one another through our recognition and sense of affinity with common archetypal characters. 

Examples of Common Archetypal Characters

The Hero:
The archetypical “Hero” is usually honest, courageous, and believes that the goodness in the world is worth defending. A “Hero” must often go on an adventure to overcome the forces of evil and save the world. The “Hero” can also be seen as a part of the “Leader” archetype.

Some examples of the “Hero” archetype include Homer’s Odysseus, who is on an archetypical “Quest,” overcoming archetypical “Villians” to return and restore goodness and justice to Ithaca, his home. 
Disney’s Simba is also an archetypal “Hero,” combatting “Villains” to return to his home, restore justice and order, and reunite with his archetypal “Love” Nala.

The “Hero” archetype can be seen as representing the universal need to explore oneself, to confront one’s fears, and to be brave when facing one’s challenges. 

The Lover:

The archetypical “Lover” is usually passionate, committed, emotional, and believes that love is the ultimate positive force in the world. This can be love of a person, a concept, or an object.  A “Lover” will search far and wide to find love, will lose love, and will typically have to perform great sacrifices to show his or her worthiness to regain love. 

Examples of the “Lover” archetype include Disney’s Ariel, who sacrifices her voice to become human, and Edward Cullen, the main vampire in the Twilight series, who has been searching for love for centuries, and finally finds the perfect partner in the mortal, Bella. 

The “Lover” archetype can be seen as representing the universal need for intimacy and for commitment to another or to a situation. 

The Mentor:

The archetype of the “Mentor” usually protects the hero against evil by providing guidance and wisdom, showing that knowledge can be power, and that everyone needs support and advice.
The “Mentor” seeks the truth and is often portrayed as a teacher, a researcher, or an expert. 

For example, Homer’s Odysseus, our archetypical “Hero” receives help from the famous “Mentor” Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom. The “Mentor” Obi Wan Kenobi helps the “Hero” Luke Skywalker in the movie, Star Wars IV. In Disney’s Hercules, the “Mentor” Phil wisely gives advice to the “Hero” Hercules.

The “Mentor” archetype can be seen as representing the universal search for truth and the need for guidance from someone wiser.

Other commonly identified archetypes include the Villain, the Evil Stepmother, the Wise Man, the Scholar, the Ruler, the Innocent, the Magician, the Mother, the Father, and more.  

Final Thoughts

Archetypes might prove to be that common thread that can connect all cultures, upon which we can build empathy, understanding, and a universal language. 

If we actively strive to identify the archetypes that appear in our daily life, we might discover a surprising channel for creating comradery with our fellow man. 

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