Archetypes & Mythic Imagination
Written by: Michelle Belanger
Many of us identify strongly with a particular god or goddess, a mythic hero, or perhaps a character out of a book. All of these things appeal to us because we resonate with the archetype which they represent. Archetypes are basically the core players who show up in our myths and our stories, wearing different costumes and sporting different names depending on the culture that gives them expression. In the strictest Jungian sense an archetype is:
an inherited idea or mode of thought which is derived from the experience of the race and is present in the unconscious of the individual.
Put into simpler terms, the Jungian archetype is a symbol which we access through the mythic imagination. It represents an abstract idea or concept and it is often personified. All of our experiences, all our dreams and stories come together in this shared unconscious realm and coalesce into symbols. Archetypes are the characters that people the mythic imagination, and in a lot of ways they embody fundamental aspects that every human encounters within himself at one point or another.
Some common and immediately recognizable archetypes include the Old Wise Woman and her counterpart, the Hermit. There is the Hero, the Trickster, and the Dark Half (which Jung dubbed "the Shadow"), the Divine Son, the Mother, and sundry others. Many of these archetypes appear and reappear throughout world mythology; they are our gods, our heroes, and our hated villains. They are present in our literature, in our movies, in our art, and even in our dreams.
The archetypes speak to us on the level of myth and symbol. Thus, the dialogue they hold with us goes much deeper than words. The Trickster is still the Trickster, regardless of whether he is called Loki or Raven, Coyote or Hanuman. Across language and across cultures, his message is the same: don't be afraid to look at old things in new ways; don't take the rules so seriously that you allow yourself to be trapped by them.
All gods and goddesses are merely different facets of one of the universal archetypes. This is not to say that their divinity is lacking or invalid. Rather, the archetype is the knowable symbol through which the unknowable deity manifests. Storm gods the world over are alike in fundamental ways. Zeus, Thor, Baal, and Yahweh are all virile with potent tempers. Each is a personification of how early humans viewed the storm: inimical, awe-inspiring, and driven by a passionate sentience.
A good corollary for the relation between archetype and divinity can be found in the Hebrew Kabbala. In this system, divinity is so vast, so unknowable, that one cannot even utter its name. Yet that vastly unknowable deity makes itself manifest through smaller and smaller emanations. These emanations, or aspects of the divinity, filter down through the cosmos like light filtering through clouds. The closer they get to humanity, the more limited and human they become, but also, the more limited and human they become, the easier it is for us to contain and comprehend them.
Archetypes are the equivalent of these emanations. They embody some aspect of the limitless divine in a finite persona that we can relate to. When we give an archetype a name, such as Odin, Brigit, Mary, Mithras, we then draw it down even further, bringing it closer to our human level so that we may comprehend its nature with our human minds. The ultimate comprehension is identification, when the lines between the knower and that which is known blur and merge.
Such anthropomorphic gods and goddesses are necessarily limited and human in aspect; that is how we can identify with them. People do not relate to Jesus simply because he was the Son of God. People relate to him because he was compassionate, he ate and drank with his friends, and he had moments of weakness and doubt. In short, he was human. Devout Christians are expected to be like Jesus, to identify themselves with him everyday. In Christian mysticism, this goes beyond merely living like Jesus to achieving a perfect union with the Christ within. The goal of Christianity it to become the Christ.
This is a very important yet difficult concept. Archetypes do not simply express the divinity around us. Archetypes really come from inside of us, expressing the divinity that each of us carries within our soul. Within or without, archetypes are the bridges between human and the divine, putting the infinite into a shape and symbol that our finite minds can comprehend.
Our internal language is the language of symbol, and this internal symbol-system is unique to each and every individual. As each of our symbol-systems vary widely, so too do the faces of divinity that we can relate to vary widely. Thus, while Loki may appeal to one person as the best expression of the divinity within himself, Hathor may appeal to another and Jesus Christ to yet another. In some cases, one single archetype will not suffice to embody the complexity of that individual's spirit, and thus many gods and goddesses are called upon to do the job. In some cases, the archetype does not even take the form of a recognizable god, but can be a personality drawn from myth or from literature - anything that strongly resonates with the characteristics that individual person relates to in their self and in the divine.
What forms they take or how many each person relates to does not matter. The names and the faces might change, but the truth beyond the godform is still the same. This internal god is what empowers an individual and gives him access to abilities commonly attributed to the divine: it allows him to see the hidden aspects of reality, to change the world with just his will, to reach upward, beyond his ordinary human limitations to the awareness of the divine. When someone is in touch with their particular archetype, this is union in a mystical sense. It is an apotheosis, and it is this connection that people strive toward in all mystical practices and religious rites.
Many people seek to project their archetype outside of themselves, and thus make it into a God to be worshipped, a God that is prayed to, appeased, and supplicated. But this does not have to be the case. The divinity within is the same as the divinity without. And in many ways, it is much more empowering to accept the god that lies within. We are all divine, and if we understand enough of ourselves and the universe around us, then we can harness that divinity through our particular archetype and transcend the limits of ordinary existence. Our archetype is merely the face we wear when we are informed and empowered by the divinity, which is really a part of us.
Thou art God, thou art Goddess. The same light is shining everywhere. The only difference is the filter we let it shine through.