Ok, so what is an Archetype, really?

Dragons. North America loves them, the Chinese encourage them to stomp around on new year’s. Dragons are also present in Indian and Greek mythology. In fact to this day, Dragons continue to devour unfortunate villagers and princesses and kings alike the world over.

Here is an etching of a typical dragon:


So what gives? How did so many cultures with little or no historical connection produce basically the same fire-breathing, scaly beast? Before we get into why that is, here is a quick and dirty history of the “discovery” of Archetypes:

A long, long time ago, around 1900, Carl Jung found mythological images from disparate cultures showing up in his patient’s dreams. It would be as if you went to bed one night and dreamed of the Egyptian sun god Ra.

This guy:

RA02     But you’re not Egyptian.  You’ve never been to Egypt. You have probably failed more than one exam on middle eastern history.

It doesn’t make any sense.

So dragons. One basic angle is that Dragons represent a unification or harmony of earth, wind, fire and water. The math holds out pretty well—fire breathing, wings, feet (earth) and scales (fish, water, swimmy things). Incidentally, the sun god Ra was also representative of the four elements. Maybe that’s why the Egyptians don’t have dragons. Who knows.

Here is a more important question:  Why express the four elements in such a unified form in the first place—why say or picture “dragon” instead of simply “earth, fire, water and air”? Surely it has more to do with some mythological shorthand. Clearly, more is going on.

To clarify this issue (or perhaps confuse it) let’s switch archetypes for the moment to discuss Aphrodite and Adonis.

These two folks:


I bring them up because the notion of beauty is something everyone seems to be grappling with on one level or another. In short, dragons are cool, but sex is even cooler. Anyway, most of us hold an image of the ideal woman or man in our mind’s eye, an image which finds its roots deep in our unconscious. You might not know it, but your ideal spouse may have long hands like your mother, or curly hair like your father. Or perhaps the reverse is true and you unconsciously avoid anyone who even remotely resembles your parents. Or perhaps due to your own internal struggles with power and control you favor taller women or shorter men, or fatter men or women with green eyes. Why green eyes? Because your ideal woman, the Aphrodite of your unconscious, for whatever reason, has green eyes.

You think green eyes are awesome.

Here’s a side note:  When someone has met the “one”, their “dream girl” or “dream man” these are the folks they are really talking about. Adonis and Aphrodite are present in the first two or three months of any decent relationship. At that point, after the “honeymoon” period, many begin to realize they are dating a human being, a realization which usually disappoints everyone in the room. In short, many marriages fail due to the fact that our significant other does not mirror this inner god or goddess.

Still, in a perfect world, we come to realize that there is no “one” and that each relationship takes work as we project anew our inner ideal onto our significant other.

This ethereal couple illuminates the connective tissue which traverses our conscious and unconscious world, between who we think we see and who we actually see–ourselves. Or at least, aspects of ourselves. It is our unconscious world which drives us to do many things in life, from getting the perfect job to building the perfect house. However, the world of the unconscious is broader than the individual. Jung posited that there is also a subjective or “collective” unconscious. For just as you harbor ideals and projections, so does the culture in which you reside. The collective expresses its image of the Aphrodite and Adonis in movies, billboards, and in Vogue magazine, all with enormous help from Photoshop. And yes, and thank god, these ideals are constantly shifting. Look at Shakespeare with his sonnets singing the praises of spiky black hair and pale skin (which, come to think of it, is still popular in a few circles).

It is also important to note that the beauty archetype goes far beyond the physical, as these projections involve behavior as well–idealized in everything from chivalry to a teen playing with her hair. What it comes down to, basically, is that we manifest in the physical world what we want unconsciously experience in our inner world. We do it individually, we do it collectively.

So what about dragons then? And why should the unconscious or inner experience of the four elements be so popular?

First, the concept of earth, wind, fire and water is easier to digest as a single image. Think of a chess piece—it represents a complex arrangement of possible moves on a 64 square board.

Here is the entire crew:


Each one of these guys (and gals) signify a series of complex potential moves. A rook moves in a plus or cross pattern, a bishop in an X pattern, the queen is a combination of these two and moves in a star pattern. Instead of trying to muddle through all of that, we simply have a piece do the work for us. In a nutshell, the pieces make it easier to comprehend and manage highly complex patterns.  This is part of what archetypes do.

Secondly, the world is a dangerous place. I would hazard to guess that if a young prince or villager could slay a dragon he would have a fine time navigating his way in the world. That is, the tale processes our collective fears about living and making it in the world. The world is getting to be a tougher and tougher place. It is no wonder that dragons have grown so trendy.

Incidentally (and this is pretty cool) the fact that the “winning” prince or son (or daughter, of course) is often the third in a line of failures touches on the idea of “before completion”. That is, four is complete and represents wholeness, while three isn’t quite there. When he slays the dragon (or gets the gold, or outwits the devil or solves the riddle and so on), he has reached a state of four. He is complete and can make his way in the world as an adult. But more than simply “making it”, there is a deeper level still. Dragons symbolize our struggle towards consciousness. If we slay the dragon, we have transcended all that is physical in the world and have graduated to a higher plane.

(note: this gets a lot more complicated but I am trying to keep it basic. For more on dragons see just about anything written by Jung or Edinger. There are also many different types of dragons and their related meanings—winged serpents verses land based dragons doing strange things like biting their own tail and so on)

Circling back to the idea of beauty, our desire for the ideal man or woman also severs as a basic model for our steps towards completion. That is, an individual’s desire to sleep with his or her inner god or goddess is metaphoric of a desire to go within—to perhaps connect with his own inner feminine or more generally with his unconscious. To connect with the realm of the unconscious is connect with the Self, and is to experience wholeness in its grandest form.  

Still, what good is an archetype? What can it do for us really? Just look at the emaciated figures in fashion. That cannot possibly be healthy.  As we consciously and unconsciously grapple with the archetypes we become more conscious of what we are doing and where we are going. This may, for example, explain the healthy popularity of the so-called “plus” sized model. Our collective archetypal dialogue is really doing some good here.

So that’s what archetypes are about. As we tell stories, shift perspectives and discuss our dreams we are both consciously and unconsciously conducting serious and productive discussions on the nature beauty, living in the world, and our relationship to our deeper selves—all on a mass scale.

And I think it’s fabulous.