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What Is a Jungian Archetype?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 23, 2024
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A Jungian archetype is a figure or role based on the concept of archetypes within the collective unconscious, as proposed by psychiatrist Carl Jung, from whom the name is taken. There are a number of different archetypes, and people do not necessarily represent a single one. Most people have or can see all or most of the different archetypes identified by Jung within themselves and in others around them, and assign different archetypes to themselves and others based on interactions and relationships. A Jungian archetype typically has one standard, straightforward meaning, but this meaning can be adjusted and valued in a wide variety of ways depending on individual people.

The basic idea behind a Jungian archetype comes from the work of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, whose work rose to popularity in the early and mid 1900s. One of the foundations of Jung’s work is the idea of the “collective unconscious,” which is basically a wealth of knowledge and concepts that all people have access to in an unconscious way. Within this unconsciousness, the idea of archetypes emerged through studies of different cultural stories and traditions. The foundation of the Jungian archetype is in the types of characters and roles found in myths and legends from thousands of years and greatly differing cultures.

There are four major figures that can act as a Jungian archetype, which are the shadow, the self, the anima and animus. The shadow is the idea of the violent and primitive self that has been separated from humanity through millennia of social evolution and civilization; it is a dark part of mankind and can potentially be brought back into harmony with the self. This “self” represents the higher mind of humanity and the recognition of identity both as an individual and within the greater context of society. The anima is the masculine aspects of humanity, while the animus represents feminine concepts in mankind, and men and women have both an anima and animus.

It is important for anyone studying these archetypes to understand that a person does not represent a single Jungian archetype, but that these four archetypes are found within each person. Other archetypes are then typically assigned by someone to those around him or her. These include archetypes such as the wizard or magician, who represents mystery and knowledge through transformation; the trickster, who represents an agent of change and disorder both dangerous and comical; and the father, who is a figure of authority that may induce fear through power. Since people do not innately represent these figures on their own, most people assign or recognize these roles in others around them.

In literature and other forms of storytelling, characters often represent a more streamlined form of these archetypes. A character representing the Jungian archetype of the wizard or the wise old man can be found in many fairy tales and fantasy literature, such as the character of Gandalf in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or Obi-Wan Kenobi in George Lucas’s original Star Wars films. The archetype of the hero is often represented by someone who is on a heroic quest of rescue or as a champion of good or justice such as Sir Galahad in the Arthurian Legends or even pop culture figures such as Superman.

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