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A central concept in the theory of personality developed by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung.

Archetypes are primordial images and symbols found in the collective unconscious, which—in contrast to the personal unconscious—gathers together and passes on the experiences of previous generations, preserving traces of humanity's evolutionary development over time.

Carl Jung began to evolve his theory of archetypes around 1910 while working with patients at the Burghölzli Mental Hospital. Noting the presence of universal symbols from religion and mythology in the dreams and fantasies of uneducated patients, who would have had no conscious way of learning them, he concluded that these images belonged to a part of the unconscious not derived from personal experience. Jung proposed that universal images and ideas can be passed from generation to generation like biological traits, and he formulated the concept of the collective unconscious, whose contents become conscious when called forth by appropriate experiences in one's life. In formulating his ideas about archetypes, Jung supplemented his clinical observations with a comprehensive study of myths and symbols that later included investigations into the religions and mythologies of preliterate peoples in Africa and the southwestern United States.

Jungian archetypes are like prototypes or molds that each person fills in differently depending on his or her individual experience. For example, although the term "mother" has certain universal connotations that come to mind for most people, the details of this archetype will be different for everyone. For Jung, archetypes were more than a theoretical construct—his interest in them was primarily therapeutic. He claimed that his patients improved when they understood the ways in which their difficulties were related to archetypes. There is no limit to the number of possible archetypes: they are as varied as human experience itself. Many take the form of persons, such as the hero, the child, the trickster, the demon, and the earth mother. Others are expressed as forces of nature (sun, moon, wind, fire) or animals. They may also occur as situations, events (birth, rebirth, death), or places.

Jung considered four archetypes, in particular, important enough to form separate systems within the personality. These include the persona, the anima and animus, the shadow, and the self. The persona is a person's public image, the self he or she shows to others ("persona" is derived from the Latin word for mask). The persona is necessary for survival, as everyone must play certain roles, both socially and professionally, to get along in society. However, management of the persona can cause emotional difficulties. A common problem occurs when a person comes to identify too strongly with the persona that he or she has created, a condition that Jung called inflation. Victims of this problem are often highly successful, accomplished people who have become so preoccupied with projecting a certain image—often for professional advancement—that their lives become empty and alienated.

The anima and animus are the opposite of the persona—they represent a person's innermost self. They are also distinguished by gender: the anima is a man's feminine side, and the animus is a woman's masculine side. Jung theorized that in order for persons of both sexes to understand and respond to each other, each sex had to incorporate and be able to express elements of the other, a belief that foreshadowed both the feminist and men's movements in the United States by over half a century. The shadow is associated with a person's animal instincts, the "dark side" that is outside the control of the conscious personality. However, it is also potentially a source of spontaneity, creativity, and insight. In contrast to the anima and animus, the shadow is involved in one's relationships to persons of the same sex. Perhaps the most important archetype is that of the Self, which organizes and unites the entire personality. However, rather than combining all the other archetypes or aspects of personality, the Self has a dynamic all its own, which governs both inner harmony and harmony with the external world. It is closely related to the ability of human beings to reach their highest potential, a process that Jung called individuation, which he considered every person's ultimate goal.

Further Reading

Hall, Calvin S. and Vernon J. Nordby. A Primer of Jungian Psychology. New York: Mentor, 1973.

Hopcke, Robert. A Guided Tour of the Collected Works of C. G. Jung. Shambhala; distributed in the U.S. by Random House, 1989.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaPsychological Dictionary: Abacus to Courage