Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious, 2. Archetype in a Sentence

I often find dictionary definitions of complex vocabulary fundamentally unsatisfying for their ambiguity, so while they probably describe a word’s meaning with technical accuracy they don’t necessarily capture the essence of a word. Besides, there are words and there are words. Unbearable and intolerable have roughly the same meaning, but a native speaker of English instinctively preferences the former when the desired adjective is prefaced by an emotive topic, for example. Defining Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious in any meaningful way is similar to having this issue with the added inconvenience of being a foreigner who doesn’t speak a word of English; by definition, this would make our analogy very difficult indeed.

With our linguistic analogy it almost always helps to see the offending word written in a sentence, enveloped within familiar vocabulary to contextualise a detached, though helpful, dictionary definition. And so it is that archetypes are best described and understood “in a sentence”, so to speak.

An archetype is an elusive representation, so it follows that the best way to contextualise one is through myth which, generally, is a story and stories are representations of, well, archetypes. The circular reasoning here is a little awkward, but the absurdities of the previous sentence reach the essence of our difficulty in describing what an archetype is with anything like the concision of a dictionary definition. However, myth is a good starting point, and the most helpful given that almost every human alive is cognisant in some way of mythological stories.

Loki, a character in Norse mythology, is an excellent case study in archetypes, and the proclivity of people to misuse the character in describing archetypes is only of further assistance to the cause.

What is Loki’s role in the sagas of Norse myth? The trickster, of course. This is obvious, but there is danger in committing the understandable error of assuming that ‘the trickster’ is an archetype in itself, or that the conscious manifestation of that character’s behaviour is the ultimate psychological force at play.

In the Norse stories Loki is playing tricks on his heavenly brethren, but they aren’t benign, harmless jokes like gluing Thor’s hammer to the floor; they’re very serious acts which cause serious problems, even death, and, crucially, chaos. Chaos is a prominent factor here, and more in keeping with what we might consider archetypal – yet, the true revelation eludes us here still. Because chaos is what happens as a result of Loki’s actions, but what motivates the conscious provision of chaos? What drives a being, whether God or Man, to be singularly driven by the desire to sow disorder and disaster? Moreover, what is the only way we could describe an individual who seeks to do harm for apparently no reason?

Malevolence. Evil. With this identification we may arrive at the true nature of the “Loki Archetype”, and this can be tested against another common facet of archetypes: ubiquity. And it is suddenly obvious that this type is repeated again and again and again across Western cultural forms. Where the Norse myth describes Loki, Egyptian myth tells the story of Set and Christianity shows the Devil. The way in which their motives manifest in the world as told through myth may differ widely, but it is obvious that there is continuity in the crucial aspect of the myth in the character’s malevolence.

This is still, surely, a nutshell definition of archetypes. It offers a basic understanding, but a full, proper definition could be an entire book, one whose ability to be written eludes my present competence. And I should also add, finally, that I write these partially to help crystallise my own understanding of this topic.

One thought on “Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious, 2. Archetype in a Sentence

  1. Pingback: Reading Digest: Christmas Edition – smashing clownworld

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