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What Are Archetypal Symbols?

By Cynde Gregory
Updated May 23, 2024
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The psychiatrist Carl Jung, born in the 19th century and hugely influential on the twin fields of psychology and psychiatry in the 20th century, believed that metaphorical images he called archetypes manifest in all cultures with very nearly the same meanings. Archetypal symbols that represent the most basic of human desires and fears can be found in oral storytelling, written tales, and visual works of art. While these symbols may be identified and celebrated by works of art, they originate in the human psyche and are frequent visitors to dreams.

Once they have been identified, archetypal symbols can be artistically manipulated. They sprout from the unconscious, so they are drenched in a sense of mystery and profound meaning. Archetypal images and symbols may contribute to and even infiltrate cultural expressions, but they are not cultural artifacts themselves because they precede any particular manifestation of culture.

Among the most primal of archetypal symbols are the mother, trickster, and rebirth. Images of the mother are found not only in maternal figures such as Mother Mary or Mother Theresa but in the idea of Gaia, or Mother Earth. The mother archetype is the source and origin of life, the nurturer, and the font of acceptance and love.

The trickster, on the other hand, manifests as a playful but wicked coyote in many Native American tales, a character who fools those who can’t match his quick mind and quicker actions. Another trickster figure is Shakespeare’s own Puck, who manipulates love and despair for his own selfish pleasure. Even the devil himself is a manifestation of the trickster.

Rebirth is a Jungian archetype that has dozens of symbolic representations. Christians will recognize it in Christ’s resurrection when he returned from the dead the third day following his murder. Rebirth as a central metaphor is far more ancient than the story of Jesus, however. Early humans recognized and glorified the circle life and death and rebirth of crops that reseeded themselves and created new life year after year. Indeed, even a woman’s ability to recreate herself by making and housing a child in her womb until the moment of its birth, symbolically her own rebirth, is participating in this archetypal symbol.

The universal meanings that are expressed by archetypal symbols are understood outside of language, though they are often manifested through the written or spoken word. Masks are often wonderfully symbolic, from the familiar masks of joy and sorrow that the world of theater has taken as its own metaphor to primitive masks representing gods and demons. The universality of archetypes can be seen in how similar drawings of monsters, winged creatures, and even mothers and fathers are, although the children who created these drawings might come from cultures around the world.

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