Definition of an Archetype

ARCHETYPE –The model of a person, personality or behavior from which later examples are developed.

What is an archetype? Well, if you looked in A Handbook to Literature,
you would find three paragraphs about archetypes. It begins… “ This
literary term applies to an image, a descriptive detail, a plot
pattern, or a character type that occurs frequently in literature,
myth, religion, or folklore…” and it goes on.

This term, whose earlier meaning, "original model," or "prototype," has
been enlarged by Jung and by several contemporary literary critics. A
Jungian archetype is a thought pattern that finds worldwide parallels,
either in cultures (for example, the similarity of the ritual of Holy
Communion in Europe with the tecqualo in ancient Mexico) or in
individuals (a child’s concept of a parent as both heroic and tyrannic,
superman and ogre). Jung believed that such archetypal images and ideas
reside in the unconscious level of the mind of every human being and
are inherited from the ancestors of the race. They form the substance
of the collective unconscious. Literary critics such as Northrop Frye
and Maud Bodkin use the term archetype interchangeably with the term
motif, emphasizing that the role of these elements in great works of
literature is to unite readers with otherwise dispersed cultures and

Example of Archetypes Found in Literature

  • The Hero The Hero in Greek mythology and folklore, was originally a demi-god,
    the offspring of a mortal and a deity. Later, hero and heroine came to
    refer to characters that, in the face of danger and adversity or from a
    position of weakness, display courage and the will for self-sacrifice, that is, heroism, for some greater good.
  • The Great Mother,
    either good or terrible. This archetype represents the life giving or
    nurturing characteristics associated with one’s mother. This archetype
    may represent mother earth, or a more personal mother figure.
  • The Father Figure
    –This is the authority figure archetype. Usually, during the hero’s
    quest, there is some conflict with the father figure and, in the end,
    there is some reconciliation or break from that authority.
  • The God or Goddess:
    This archetype usually represents temptation for the hero figure to
    stray from or abandon his/her hero quest in return from physical
    comfort, wealth, power or romance. This figure tests the hero’s
    commitment to his or her quest.
  • The Spiritual Guide/Magic Helper/Wise Old Man This archetype is typically some sort of mentor or wizard who advises the hero.
  • The Trickster is a god, goddess, spirit, man, woman, or anthropomorphic animal who plays pranks or otherwise disobeys normal rules and norms of behaviour.
  • The Companion (Sidekick):
    The companion of the hero can be present from the outset or join the
    hero part way through the adventure. Often the companion is on a hero
    quest of his own, as well as serving as a friend to the main character.
    The companion may or may not have special powers, but he or she usually
    “saves” the hero or redirects him at least once during the journey.
  • The Dragon—or
    Greatest Fear: This archetypal element is crucial to the journey. It
    is, in fact, the reason for the journey. The dragon is not necessarily
    a “real” dragon, but represents whatever the hero fears most and what
    he/she must confront in order to become a hero.
  • The Ultimate Boon:
    The hero seeks this reward. It may appear at first to be some physical
    reward like money, power, etc. Usually, in the end, it is a change or a
    transformation of the hero’s character, which leads to freedom from
    whatever he/she feared most. The reward may also include wealth, power,
  • Dark Lord or Evil Overlord
    – a villain of near-omnipotence in his realm, who seeks to utterly
    dominate that realm with the help of devoted followers and "Legions of
    Doom", and whose very name is usually anathema to the lips of the
  • The Hero-There are two types:
  1. The deliberate hero who is often marked for greatness in some way and
  2. the reluctant hero
    who is thrust into his/her hero quest (i.e. drafted into the army) and
    has some fear or sense of not fitting in the world which pushes him/her
    into a hero quest.

Some Important Archetypes

  • Archetypal women – the Good Mother, the Terrible Mother, and the Soul Mate (such as the Virgin Mary)
  • water – creation, birth-death-resurrection, purification, redemption, fertility, growth
  • garden – paradise (Eden), innocence, fertility
  • desert – spiritual emptiness, death, hopelessness
  • red – blood, sacrifice, passion, disorder
  • green – growth, fertility
  • black – chaos, death, evil
  • serpent – evil, sensuality, mystery, wisdom, destruction
  • seven – perfection
  • shadow, persona, and anima (see **psychological criticism**)
  • hero archetype – The hero is involved in a quest (in which he overcomes obstacles). He experiences initiation (involving a separation, transformation, and return), and finally he serves as a scapegoat, that is, he dies to atone.

Archetypal Approach to Literature

A mythological / archetypal approach to literature assumes that there is a collection of symbols, images, characters, and motifs (i.e. archetypes) that evokes basically the same response in all people. According to the psychologist Carl Jung, mankind possesses a "collective unconscious"
that contains these archetypes and that is common to all of humanity.
Myth critics identify these archetypal patterns and discuss how they
function in the works. They believe that these archetypes are the
source of much of literature’s power. 

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