The late Nelson Mandela might become an archetypal image for “The Saint” or “The Wise Old Man”, much like Mahatma Gandhi has been idealized by those inspired by his larger than life example – Image via Tumblr

Archetype is a term used by the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung to indicate the psychological contents of an alleged collective unconscious. For Jung the archetypes are inherited patterns encoded in the body, universally shared by mankind.¹

Jung often likens the archetypes to ancient deities, saying that the word “archetype” is a scientific-sounding update for a very old idea. Not unlike the gods and goddesses of ancient times, archetypes apparently have a psychic life of their own. And when ego consciousness encounters the archetype, the individual experiences a sense of the numinous.

According to Jung, the encounter with the numinous may be psychologically constructive or destructive, healing or disorienting. The effect of the numinous on the conscious ego depends on two things:

  1. The psychological stability and maturity of the individual
  2. The character and intensity of the numinosity, itself

The experience of the numinous is often facilitated by a meaningful visual symbol (e.g. a mandala) or ecstatic activity (e.g. chanting, music-listening or dancing). Jungian writers and literary critics, alike, often say that the symbol “mediates” archetypal energy. So when the archetype enters into consciousness, it takes the form of numinosity.

For Jung, the self is also an archetype, one of wholeness.

The Lutheran theologian Rudolf Otto also used the term numinous in 1923 – “Omen has given us ‘ominous’, and there is no reason why from numen we should not similarly form a word ‘numinous.'” But contrary to popular belief, Otto did not coin the term. Acc. to OED, “numinous” was used as far back as 1647 by Nathaniel Ward (Image via Wikipedia)

In contrast to experiencial manifestations of the archetype, which take the form of numinosity, visible manifestations of the archetypes appear as archetypal images. Jung distinguishes these recognizable images from the archetype proper, which Jung says can never be fully known. Jung calls the unknowable aspect of the archetype the pscyhoid aspect. This distinction between the unknowable archetype and its recognizable image is often overlooked in casual commentaries about Jung. Wikipedia notes:

These images and motifs are more precisely called archetypal images. However it is common for the term archetype to be used interchangeably to refer to both archetypes-as-such and archetypal images

The idea of the archetype has been championed by Jungians and some literary writers as “the answer” to all of the complexities and difference found in world religions. In fact, many Jungians tend to blur real differences by gelling everything into Jung’s handy model. But the idea of the archetype has also been roundly critiqued.³

Jung himself was a complex, confusing and honest thinker. At times he would say that archetypal energies differed. Other times he would lump different religions and symbols together as if they were the same. Jung also writes in his letters than not many people realize he had a Christian bias. He even admitted to being contradictory at times.

Despite the complexity and confusion within Jung’s work, some of his followers have simplified his work into something palatable for the masses. As always, dumbing things down has its pros and cons. On the one hand it can help everyday people to benefit from some of Jung’s more useful ideas. On the other hand, it can leave Jung open to a kind of unjust demonization by fundamentalists and rigid religious thinkers.4

 Related Posts » Hero, Mandala, Otto (Rudolf), Psychoid, Trickster

¹ Jung was a highly educated fellow and probably got the idea to use the word “archetype” from Plato »



4 See for instance “Carl Gustav Jung: Enemy of the Church” by Dr Pravin Thevathasan » And a partially misinformed critique of Jung can be found in “CARL JUNG: PSYCHOLOGIST OR SORCERER?” by Marsha West » By way of contrast, Fr. Victor White entered into a respectful dialogue with Jung. The two agreed on some points while disagreeing on others. This seems the more sensible, mature and constructive way to go. See »



  1. Are the proper archetypes not fully known because they are transcendent? For instance, how is the archetype of the “wise old man,” “trickster,” etc. transcendent?


  2. I’ll just post the paragraph

    I believe there was a further reason that the later Jung invoked the Kantian framework so often when he discussed archetypes. If I can try to sum up a complex situation briefly, it would seem that Jung unwittingly conflated the issue of archetypal multivalence with the issue of whether archetypes could be directly knowable. On the one hand, Jung recognized and often stressed the fact that archetypes are always observed and experienced in a diverse multiplicity of possible concrete embodiments, so that the full essence and meaning of the archetype must be regarded as fundamentally transcending its many particular manifestations. On the other hand, however, he often conflated this crucial insight with the quite separate epistemological issue of whether archetypes can be directly experienced and known as principles that transcend the human psyche, or whether they can only be indirectly inferred by observing the configurations of psychological phenomena which are structured by archetypes that are ultimately “unknowable” in themselves (noumena). In his understandable attempt to preserve the multivalent indeterminacy of archetypes, transcending every particular embodiment, Jung called upon a Kantian framework of phenomenon and noumenon which seemed to entail the unknowability of the archetypes in themselves, their humanly unreachable essence beyond every diverse manifestation.


  3. Thanks for the link and interesting comments. I purposely left out the history of the term “archetype” in this entry because it’s so varied. Here are two links to that effect that you might find interesting:

    Also, here’s my attempt to grapple with Jung’s notion of the archetype, some 15 years ago. This paper doesn’t really represent my current thinking but it might be helpful in some way:

    My own feeling today is that Jung’s use of the term archetype (and archetypal image) on the whole might be a bit reductive. But one has to be careful when speaking about Jung because he’s more of a holistic than a linear thinker. If one were to say, for instance, that he sometimes seems to uncritically equate the orthodox Christian idea of the Holy Spirit with Hindu ideas about grace, one could find an instance in his Collected Works where he doesn’t.

    He’s very complicated and I think self-consciously writing to thrive in given situations, political contexts, etc. Not to say that he’s a mere opportunist. I believe he was sincere in his quest. But he was quite shrewd as well.


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