Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious: by C. G. Jung

Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious: by C. G. Jung

A Synopsis

 by Shane Eynon, PhD (Centre for Applied Jungian Studies and the Philadelphia Association of Jungian Analysts)

Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious is Part 1 of Volume 9 in The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, a series of books published by Princeton University Press in the U.S. and Routledge & Kegan Paul in the U.K.

Three essays establish Jung’s theory. They are followed by essays on specific archetypes and a section relating them to the process of individuation. The volume includes numerous full-color illustrations.

The Journal of Analytical Psychology calls this volume:

“An eloquent witness to Jung’s greatness of mind and heart. His idea of the archetype involves profound attitudes towards man’s existence and intimates values through which very many people have found a new significance in their lives.”


Part I

Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious

“The hypothesis of a collective unconscious belongs to the class of ideas that people at first find strange but soon come to possess and use as familiar conceptions. This has been the case with the concept of the unconscious in general. After the philosophical idea of the unconscious, in the form presented chiefly by Carus and von Hartmann, had gone down under the overwhelming wave of materialism and empiricism, leaving hardly a ripple behind it, it gradually reappeared in the scientific domain of medical psychology.

2 At first the concept of the unconscious was limited to denoting the state of repressed or forgotten contents. Even with Freud, who makes the unconscious—at least metaphorically— take the stage as the acting subject, it is really nothing but the gathering place of forgotten and repressed contents, and has a functional significance thanks only to these. For Freud, accordingly, the unconscious is of an exclusively personal nature,2 although he was aware of its archaic and mythological thought-forms….

Psychic existence can be recognized only by the presence of contents that are capable of consciousness. We can therefore speak of an unconscious only in so far as we are able to demonstrate its contents. The contents of the personal unconscious are chiefly the feeling-toned complexes, as they are called; they constitute the personal and private side of psychic life. The contents of the collective unconscious, on the other hand, are known as archetypes.” CG Jung, 1969

Here we see Jung laying out the foundations of his most controversial theories regarding the human psyche. The premise of his theory starts with the personal unconscious, which is similar to Freud. In every human, our minds have the innate capacity to take experiences and bundle them together according to templates of associated experiences. In this way, our memories are sifted and stored according to similarities along with the emotional weight of those memories. Jung called these bundled memories ‘complexes’ and this concept of memory storage has been proven to be the correct conceptualization based on modern neuroscience research (see LeDoux, J. (2003) Synaptic Self (How Our Brains Become Who We Are), Penguin Putnam, Paperback). Current psychotherapy interventions, such as Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) use the de-potentiating of the emotional charge of complexes to improve trauma symptoms (see Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy, Third Edition: Basic Principles, Protocols, and Procedures, 2017).

The Complex Theory forms a theoretical foundation for the Collective Unconscious. Jung hypothesized that the central and most pivotal entry into the complex was through the visual system (Jung, 1969). This was due to his extensive clinical experience and of the study, research, and collection of dream material. Jung found that dreams were, at their core, a series of emotion-laden images. These images were structured in a dream sequence to symbolize a form, or type, of language of the unconscious. This in and of itself is a theoretical leap. Jung felt confident that he may be theoretically on the right track due to the ubiquitous and universal nature of the many dream images across time and cultures (Jung, 1969). Jung would go on to piece together a correlation between the ancient images of mythology and religion with individual dream motifs he heard from patients. This correlation would strike Jung as impossible to account for through learning along. Many of his patients had never been exposed to the images produced from dreams that matched images from mythology and world religions, so this phenomenon could not be accounted for simply based on suggestion or past exposure. The argument Jung makes here is a bit tenuous and that forms some of the criticisms as he further develops his theoretical argument.

Jung would call dream images that are highly similar to those found in world mythology and religion “Archetypes” from the Greek and early Christian philosophical traditions (Jung, 1969).  In short, the Greek and other philosophical traditions had labeled the Archetype as a pre-existent thought-form that structured the world and undergirded reality as we know it. Using a crude modern metaphor, the Archetypes are the software running the hardware of a computer.

The Archetypes, when applied to the human psyche, are analogous to the blueprint for an experience that a human being will likely encounter during a lifetime. This is very similar to the Fixed Action Patterns that are studied in animals by the field of ethology (see Alcock, J. (1998) Animal Behavior: An Evolutionary Approach (6th edition), Chapter 5. Sinauer Associates, Inc. Sunderland, Massachusetts. ISBN 0-87893-009-4 and Kenyon, P. “Ethological Experiments”. University of Plymouth.). The theory that archetypes could exist innately within the psyche requires the further development, that of a repository and transmission of their functions within the psyche of every human. This logically led Jung to develop a theory of the Collective Unconscious, in which innate formulations of particular relational and environmental challenges that are likely to occur during a human being’s lifetime are in a sense contained within the psyche at birth. Therefore, for Jung, under the personal unconscious of each individual there is a collective level of the unconscious. The image, as they appear in dreams, forms the common language for the unconscious. The complex aggregates memories and experiences around an archetypal core that is innate to the structure and function of the psyche.

Anima: Jung gives as overview of his first archetype of the collective unconscious, the anima. Today, modern readers of Jungian thought have certain ideas about the anima and what it means. However, as Jung lays out his idea of the anima, it has a much different quality than the character we come across on the internet webpages. Jung takes us on a deeply scholarly overview of the concept of the anima across religions and the mythological from across eons and world cultures. Jung’s analysis is that the anima is a psychological archetype of the feminine and that which pulls the psyche down into its roots as opposed to the masculine which pulls up into the clouds of thought.


Part II:

Psychological Aspects of the Mother Archetype: Jung takes us on a hard won clinical examination of the impact of the Mother Complex on an individual’s psychology. Again, we see that the Complex and Archetype go hand-in-hand. The archetypes cannot be grasped without the complex. In essence, the complex forms the flesh over the skeleton of each archetype. The point is made that inner relationships mirror outer relationships and that as the unconscious relationships are worked through, the outer relationships are altered.


Part III:

Concerning Rebirth: Here Jung shows us an example of the archetype as a common situation experienced in life. This type of situational example sometimes gets glossed over in writing about archetypes, but Jung gives us a good argument that common life struggles, not just relationships, are often archetypal. Philosophically, this is very interesting. Taking Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious, he is explicitly saying that common ancestral struggles are innate to the psyche for recognition in each individual life. Rebirth is the common experience of having to ‘start over’ after a phase of life or calamity.


Part IV:

The Psychology of the Child Archetype: “As to the psychology of our theme I must point out that every statement going beyond the purely phenomenal aspects of an archetype lays itself open to the criticism we have expressed above. Not for a moment dare we succumb to the illusion that an archetype can be finally explained and disposed of. Even the best attempts at explanation are only more or less successful translations into another metaphorical language. (Indeed, language itself is only an image.) The most we can do is to dream the myth onwards and give it a modern dress. And whatever explanation or interpretation does to it, we do to our own souls as well, with corresponding results for our own well-being. The archetype—let us never forget this—is a psychic organ present in all of us. A bad explanation means a correspondingly bad attitude to this organ, which may thus be injured. But the ultimate sufferer is the bad interpreter himself. Hence the “explanation” should always be such that the functional significance of the archetype remains unimpaired, so that an adequate and meaningful connection between the conscious mind and the archetypes is assured. For the archetype is an element of our psychic structure and thus a vital and necessary component in our psychic economy. It represents or personifies certain instinctive data of the dark, primitive psyche, the real but invisible roots of consciousness. Of what elementary importance the connection with these roots is, we see from the preoccupation of the primitive mentality with certain “magic” factors, which are nothing less than what we would call archetypes.” Jung, 1969.

“One of the essential features of the child motif is its futurity. The child is potential future. Hence the occurrence of the child motif in the psychology of the individual signifies as a rule an anticipation of future developments, even though at first sight it may seem like a retrospective configuration. Life is a flux, a flowing into the future, and not a stoppage or a backwash. It is therefore not surprising that so many of the mythological saviours are child gods. This agrees exactly with our experience of the psychology of the individual, which shows that the “child” paves the way for a future change of personality. In the individuation process, it anticipates the figure that comes from the synthesis of conscious and unconscious elements in the personality. It is therefore a symbol which unites the opposites; a mediator, bringer of healing, that is, one who makes whole.” Jung, 1969

The Psychological Aspects of the Kore: For women, the Kore image speak to “the supraordinate personality or self” (para 314). If the Kore image appears, it may tell us something about the “the wholeness” of the unconscious psyche . In particular, the Kore image can tell us something about the undeveloped part of the personality. If the maiden image is incapable of maturation, then we may be seeing a hindrance in the individuation process. In this regard, Jung says: “Maidens are always doomed to die, because their exclusive domination of the feminine psyche hinders the individuation process, that is, the maturation of personality” (para. 355). The inability to grow and mature is commonly expressed in a mythological manner. If one is too attached to feminine innocence, then life is bound to push for transformation and change. In such cases we see the Kore being exposed to dangers.

As a matter of practical observation, the Kore often appears in woman as an unknown young girl, not infrequently as Gretchen or the unmarried mother. Another frequent modulation is the dancer, who is often formed by borrowings from classical knowledge, in which case the “maiden” appears as the corybant, maenad, or nymph. An occasional variant is the nixie or water-sprite, who betrays her superhuman nature by her fishtail. Sometimes the Kore- and mother-figures slither down altogether to the animal kingdom, the favourite representatives then being the cat or the snake or the bear, or else some black monster of the underworld like the crocodile, or other salamander-like, saurian creatures. The maiden’s helplessness exposes her to all sorts of dangers, for instance of being devoured by reptiles or ritually slaughtered like a beast of sacrifice. Often there are bloody, cruel, and even obscene orgies to which the innocent child falls victim. Sometimes it is a true nekyia, a descent into Hades and a quest for the “treasure hard to attain,” occasionally connected with orgiastic sexual rites or offerings of menstrual blood to the moon. Oddly enough, the various tortures and obscenities are carried out by an “Earth Mother….  The figures corresponding to Demeter and Hecate are supraordinate, not to say over-life-size “Mothers” ranging from the Pieta type to the Baubo type. The unconscious, which acts as a counterbalance to woman’s conventional innocuousness, proves to be highly inventive in this latter respect. I can recall only very few cases where Demeter’s own noble figure in its pure form breaks through as an image rising spontaneously from the unconscious. I remember a case, in fact, where a maiden-goddess appears clad all in purest white, but carrying a black monkey in her arms. The Earth Mother is always chthonic and is occasionally related to the moon, either through the blood-sacrifice already mentioned, or through a child-sacrifice, or else because she is adorned with a sickle moon.”, Jung, 1969


Part V

The Phenomenology of the Spirit in Fairytales: Jung here makes the case that spirit, as seen through dream material, is analogous with the archetype. Spirits and Gods are the personification of archetypes, psychologically speaking, as inhabitants of the unconscious that are then projected outward. We can see this projection clearly in an analysis of fairytales. This is a radical idea and one that squarely places the spiritual and religious within the domain of psychological study.

The Psychology of the Trickster-Figure: “Since all mythical figures correspond to inner psychic experiences and originally sprang from them, it is not surprising to find certain phenomena in the field of parapsychology which remind us of the trickster. These are the phenomena connected with poltergeists, and they occur at all times and places in the ambiance of pre-adolescent children. The malicious tricks played by the poltergeist are as well-known as the low level of his intelligence and the fatuity of his “communications.” Ability to change his shape seems also to be one of his characteristics, as there are not a few reports of his appearance in animal form. Since he has on occasion described himself as a soul in hell, the motif of subjective suffering would seem not to be lacking either. His universality is co-extensive, so to speak, with that of shamanism, to which, as we know, the whole phenomenology of spiritualism belongs. There is something of the trickster in the character of the shaman and medicine-man, for he, too, often plays malicious jokes on people, only to fall victim in his turn to the vengeance of those whom he has injured. For this reason, his profession sometimes puts him in peril of his life. Besides that, the shamanistic techniques in themselves often cause the medicine-man a good deal of discomfort, if not actual pain. At all events the “making of a medicine-man” involves, in many parts of the world, so much agony of body and soul that permanent psychic injuries may result. His “approximation to the saviour” is an obvious consequence of this, in confirmation of the mythological truth that the wounded healer is the agent of healing, and that the sufferer takes away suffering.” Jung, 1969

Part VI

Conscious, Unconscious, and Individuation: “The relation between the conscious and the unconscious on the one hand, and the individuation process on the other, are problems that arise almost regularly during the later stages of analytical treatment. By “analytical” I mean a procedure that takes account of the existence of the unconscious. These problems do not arise in a procedure based on suggestion. A few preliminary words may not be out of place in order to explain what is meant by “individuation.” I use the term “individuation” to denote the process by which a person becomes a psychological “in-dividual,” that is, a separate, indivisible unity or “whole.” It is generally assumed that consciousness is the whole of the psychological individual. But knowledge of the phenomena that can only be explained on the hypothesis of unconscious psychic processes makes it doubtful whether the ego and its contents are in fact identical with the “whole.” If unconscious processes exist at all, they must surely belong to the totality of the individual, even though they are not components of the conscious ego. If they were part of the ego they would necessarily be conscious, because everything that is directly related to the ego is conscious. Consciousness can even be equated with the relation between the ego and the psychic contents.”


A Study in the Process of Individuation: Jung starts this chapter with a quote: Tao’s working of things is vague and obscure. Obscure! Oh vague! In it are images. Vague! Oh obscure! In it are things. Profound! Oh dark indeed. In it is seed. Its seed is very truth. In it is trustworthiness. From the earliest Beginning until today Its name is not lacking By which to fathom the Beginning of all things. How do I know it is the Beginning of all things? Through it! LAO-TZU, Tao Teh Ching, ch. 21.

Here Jung takes us on an examination or case study of the individuation process in an individual analysand. He shows us the process unfold over a series of images he presents that capture the process as it culminates in a series of mandala figures.


Concerning Mandala Symbolism: Jung presents a detailed and very laborious analysis of mandala figures from across cultures to support his contention that the mandala. “This paper is a groping attempt to make the inner processes of the mandala more intelligible. They are, as it were, selfdelineations of dimly sensed changes going on in the background, which are perceived by the “reversed eye” and rendered visible with pencil and brush, just as they are, uncomprehended and unknown. The pictures represent a kind of ideogram of unconscious contents. I have naturally used this method on myself too and can affirm that one can paint very complicated pictures without having the least idea of their real meaning. While painting them, the picture seems to develop out of itself and often in opposition to one’s conscious intentions. It is interesting to observe how the execution of the picture frequently thwarts one’s expectations in the most surprising way. The same thing can be observed, sometimes even more clearly, when writing down the products of active imagination.” Jung, 1969


Commentary: In many respects this book is a masterpiece of Jungian theory and perhaps the ultimate flower of Jung’s efforts as they apply to clinical practice and psychological theory. However, Jung is difficult to read. His presentation of ideas can seem at once fragmentary and full of depth. The effort required to read Jung can cause misunderstandings if emphasis is placed incorrectly or the whole corpus is not held together in the mind of his readers. This requires the reader to sew together a tapestry of coherent thought for Jung. You almost get the impression that Jung would be overcome with extremely powerful ideas that he laid out in painstaking detail, only later realize that when put together, the writing is rather difficult to parse and hands together loosely. Yet, we are fortunate indeed that Jung was such a prolific writer. It would have been helpful if Jung had produced a meta-commentary of his theories and ideas, but as it is, the Collected Works are just that, a collection of smaller papers put together by others. It is helpful for readers of Jung to have a copy of Memory, Dreams, Reflections close at hand for reference when reading the Collected Works.




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Comments (2)

  • Sabina Reply

    Dear Stephen, could you please tell me in which Jung’s work could I find his definition of a Maiden, mother and old wise man/woman? Thanks for any help.

    November 5, 2019 at 3:14 am
  • Paracelsus, Nature Spirits and Faeries – deadbutdreaming Reply

    […] it would seem as if what is being manifested in these encounters is from a collective experience. Carl Jung’s theory of a Collective Unconscious is a starting point for understanding that perhaps these numinous encounters with supernatural […]

    November 18, 2019 at 2:49 am

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