Archetypes and the collective unconscious

12 Aug 2016 |  for counsellors | by Bill, writer at UK & Ireland Counsellor Directory

Whereas Freud’s unconscious focussed on the biographical – a place where memories of life-experience could be repressed from conscious awareness – Jung’s notion of the unconscious focussed on the biological – that depth-unconscious that we inherit by virtue of being human, which we are born with, which is the same in everyone, and which has never been in awareness. Carl Jung talks about the archetypes of the Anima and the Animus

Jung’s definition

In his 1936 lecture, "The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious" (Collected Works, Vol. 9.i, pars. 87-110) Jung wrote:

"The collective unconscious is a part of the psyche which can be negatively distinguished from a personal unconscious by the fact that it does not, like the latter, owe its existence to personal experience and consequently is not a personal acquisition. While the personal unconscious is made up essentially of contents which have at one time been conscious but which have disappeared from consciousness through having been forgotten or repressed, the contents of the collective unconscious have never been in consciousness, and therefore have never been individually acquired, but owe their existence exclusively to heredity. Whereas the personal unconscious consists for the most part of complexes, the content of the collective unconscious is made up essentially of archetypes."

A common inheritance

A key aspect is that for every person, this part of their unconscious is indistinguishable from that of others. It is, in that sense, impersonal, and gives rise to forms of expression, productions of the psyche, that are immediately recognisable, at a depth-unconscious level, by our fellow-humans.

My thesis, then, is as follows: In addition to our immediate consciousness, which is of a thoroughly personal nature and which we believe to be the only empirical psyche (even if we tack on the personal unconscious as an appendix), there exists a second psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals. This collective unconscious does not develop individually but is inherited. It consists of pre-existent forms, the archetypes, which can only become conscious secondarily and which give definite form to certain psychic contents."


The aspects of the collective unconscious which give rise to symbolic forms, Jung called “archetypes”. Archetypes are not tangible or definable, but are more of the nature of innate dispositions, or behavioural patterns. He saw them as not quite the same as instincts, but as innate or unconscious modes of understanding – how we apprehend the world at a very deep level – which are common to all humanity as our biological inheritance.

The concept of the archetype, which is an indispensable correlate of the idea of the collective unconscious, indicates the existence of definite forms in the psyche which seem to be present always and everywhere. Mythological research calls them "motifs"; in the psychology of primitives they correspond to Levy-Bruh's concept of "representations collectives," and in the field of comparative religion they have been defined by Hubert and Mauss as "categories of the imagination." Adolf Bastian long ago called them "elementary" or primordial thoughts." From these references it should be clear enough that my idea of the archetype - literally a pre-existent form - does not stand alone but is something that is recognized and named in other fields of knowledge.


Jung’s theories on archetypes was informed by his work with schizophrenic patients as a psychiatrist, where he found that there was a resonance between the imagery produced by these patients and that of mythic images, both being productions of the human psyche.

Archetypal images

Archetypes cannot fully be put into words, or directly represented, but manifest in human experience only in a secondary form, through images – symbols and narratives – as can be frequently seem in mythologies, religions and folk tales.

From Carl Jung's "The Structure of the Psyche", 1927:

Just as some kind of analytical technique is needed to understand a dream, so a knowledge of mythology is needed in order to grasp the meaning of a content deriving from the deeper levels of the psyche....

The collective unconscious -- so far as we can say anything about it at all -- appears to consist of mythological motifs or primordial images, for which reason the myths of all nations are its real exponents. In fact, the whole of mythology could be taken as a sort of projection of the collective unconscious.

We can see this most clearly if we look at the heavenly constellations, which original chaotic forms were organized through the projection of images. This explains the influence of the stars as asserted by astrologers. These influences are nothing but unconscious, introspective perceptions of the activity of the collective unconscious. Just as the constellations were projected into the heavens, similar figures were projected into legends and fairy tales or upon historical persons."

So for the therapist to work with the client in an archetypal way, such as can occur with sandplay, some knowledge of mythic symbolism is very valuable. Archetypal images have a powerful resonance with our unconscious minds, and tend to have psychic power as symbols of transformation.

The form of an archetypal image will be culturally inflected, so that when we encounter mythic images from religions and mythologies from cultures which are radically different from our own, or from times long-past, it can be more difficult to recognise the universal aspect – the symbol has become opaque, so to speak.

As you become more familiar with the archetypal aspect of mythic symbolism, expect to more easily recognise them as living symbols again, and to more easily recognise such symbolism when working with the client.

Interpreting symbols

Symbolic imagery has no one single meaning, so to say that a particular archetypal image has a fixed meaning would be unwise. Symbols tend to be richly loaded with meanings and potential meanings, and the exploration of these with clients must respect that – the work of the therapist is best led by the personal meanings of the client, while informed by insights into archetypical meaning.

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