Meet Joe Campbell
Insights into the ideas of a mythologist
(more about Joseph Campbell)

Idea #6: Archetypes

Drawing heavily on the work of psychologist Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell found that the fastest way to understand a myth (or, we could say, a movie, or any good story) is to identify the archetypes in it, and how they relate to each other.

What exactly is an archetype?

That's a tough one to pin down. Let's look at some examples before we try a definition.

If I said that in many stories we encounter the figure of a "wise old man," I suspect you would know exactly what I mean.

Merlin, Gandalf, and Albus Dumbledore are clear examples. But these are all wizards. How about Obi-Wan Kenobi? "Doc" in West Side Story? Adam Schiff, the D.A. in "Law & Order"? Or, in history, Benjamin Franklin, or Mahatma Gandhi?

They all play the role of "wise old man" in their stories or cultures.

So "wise old man" is a role, a prototype--an archetype.

An archetype is a pattern, a model, that can be manifested in numberless ways.

There are lots of other archetypes: The Child, The Hero, The Great Mother, The Trickster.

Things can be archetypal, too: Water carries ideas of Spirit and Unconscious; Fire can be Life or Intellect; and so on.

Jung outlined five key archetypes that make up the psyche:

  • The Self (what we think or when I think of "me")
  • The Shadow (the unaccepted, hidden part of "me")
  • The Anima (a man's "feminine side," reflecting the Self)
  • The Animus (a woman's "masculine side"), and
  • The Persona (the part of my Self I'm willing to show the world)

Just looking at these, we can see how, say, two lovers in a story fulfill the role of Anima and Animus for each other. Or how Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's Shadow. And so on.

(My recent article on The Wizard of Oz also explores the use of archetypes in the film.)

In the next post, we'll look at the importance of comparing myths in Campbell's work, and we'll see how crucial the concept of archetype is in the process.

Next time: Comparative Mythology.

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