Archetypes: What They Are and Why You Should Care

Patterns in nature help us predict what is likely to happen and give us a sense of assurance of what will always happen. Water will always run downhill, gravity will keep us from floating away, water evaporation will form clouds, and rain eventually will fall.

  • The word “archetype” was coined by C.G. Jung to refer to any eternal character, process, image, or narrative pattern that shows up in all times and places in art, literature, human dreams and fantasies, and human creations.
  • Archetypes are present in all members of our species, perhaps through our DNA or through the collective unconscious. We can see traces of them in art, literature, and our own attitudes and behavior, as well as in the mores of groups and in the culture at large.

On the personal level, you might hypothesize that a friend who is being wonderfully helpful may be expressing the virtues of the Caregiver archetype. That may help you know what to expect in your future interactions with that person, since he or she may consistently live out a Caregiver narrative, gaining a sense of satisfaction from giving. However, because most people will possess more than one active archetype, you might notice that your friend also is studious, which looks, on the surface at least, like an expression of the Sage archetype. Thus, your friend may not want to help you out if it interferes with her or his studies.

One or more archetypes may be related to your core identity, while others can shift over time. Some archetypes may not be so positive, such as in the archetypal relationship between a Victim and Oppressor. Those you will be introduced to in the 12 Archetype System were selected because they help us in the task of being fully realized and mature human beings. For example, the Warrior helps us to say no, to fight for ourselves, and to have boundaries; the Caregiver, to be generous and nurturing and, overall, a nice, caring person; and the Sage, to possess a continuing desire to learn and grow. Each also has a downside that we can learn to avoid: the Warrior may be ruthless; the Caregiver can be a suffering martyr; the Sage can be a dogmatist or ideologue.

Whatever archetypes are active in you and in others provide the lenses through which you and they interpret the world, and hence determine what is noticed and what gets filtered out. For instance, when a Caregiver is active in you, you may enter a room and immediately scan for who seems uncomfortable, lost, or otherwise in need of something. If the Jester is active, you might look for potential for fun, or if the Warrior is active, for chances to debate or compete, and also whether any kind of danger needs to be faced.

From the observable aspects of what you or others are doing, it is possible for the conscious mind to figure out what archetype might be motivating someone. Recognizing the behaviors and attitudes that are typical for that archetype allows you to predict the story lines that a person or group in which that archetype is dominant is likely to experience. In your own life, once you notice what archetypes are present, you can try to live the version of that story that has a happy ending, rather than one that ends badly.

Archetypes, then, are universal human ways of being that are deeper than culture (but reflect cultural mindsets in their diverse images and narratives), and that are as important to you today as they were to the ancients who personified them as gods and goddesses. Through understanding the archetypal stories that shape our values, character, culture, and capacities—and those of other people and groups—we, as individuals and organizations, can realize our unique potential and experience greater success and fulfillment.

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