An archetype is an image or a figure that is hardwired into every human psyche regardless of culture or race. Examples of archetypes include basic character types such as the Wise Old Man or the Trickster.

Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung (1875– 1961) introduced the idea that archetypes are instinctive thought-patterns or innate prototypes of ideas. In Jungian psychology, archetypal imagery is used as a therapeutic tool. In the context of storytelling and mythology, archetypes are unavoidable, universal elements of each story or myth.

Archetypes are easily confused with symbols. When archetypes are reduced to symbols, they become stereotypes. Symbols have a concrete message in that they stand for something specific. The American flag, for example, is a symbol representing the United States of America; gold, given as a reward in fairy tales, symbolizes inner wealth.

Stereotypes are locked into a single view of an image or concept, acting as a stricture that limits interpretation. Tombstones and witches are stereotypical Halloween images; however, when images, associations, and emotions that are normally associated with tombstones or witches are included in these concepts, they can become archetypal terms. The witch archetype might include good witches, evil witches, healers, the three witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, witches from The Wizard of Oz, innocent women burned as witches, and even a mother or another woman with witchlike qualities.

The hero archetype involves certain behaviour—exploration, facing challenges, and independent achievement—as well as images— Samson, Hercules, Abraham Lincoln. Archetypal heroes in fairy tales are an amalgamation of valiant behaviour and distinctive character traits. Heroes, for example, are persistent, trust their instincts, and do not expect assistance in return for their efforts from the animals and people they help on their journey. Consequently, heroes succeed.

In literature studies, archetype is often used as a synonym for model or prototype. It derives from the Greek archee, which means original. An example of an archetype in this context is the hero in Stephen Crane’s novel The Red Badge of Courage (1895), who is an archetype of a soldier. Philosophers may use the term archetype to categorize abstract concepts such as evil or strength.

Written by : Ruth Stotter


Storytelling: an encyclopedia of mythology and folklore – Edited by : Josepha Sherman – © 2008 by M.E. Sharpe, Inc.
See also: Jung, Carl Gustav.

  • Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Trans. Annette Levers. New
    York: Hill and Wang, 1972.
  • Jung, Carl. “The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious.” In Collected Works of C.G. Jung. 2nd ed.
    Trans. R.F.C. Hull. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981.