After all the coursework for my Masters program at Pacifica Graduate Institute, I'm not sure if any one of my classmates (including myself) could have offered a reasonable definition of archetypes. This is not the fault of the school, simply that this is a tricky thing to really get! But God bless her, Marie-Louise von Franz offered a wonderful definition of archetypes in her unbelievably good book (a collection of her writings), Psyche & Matter (1988).
Jung's great discovery lay in not seeing the complex as something purely pathological, as the psychiatry of his time was inclined to do and as Freudian psychology did as well. Rather he assumed the existence of normal complexes. In other words, our psychic system is composed of various complexes, of which the ego complex is only one among various others, and this is normal. Every human being has complexes, and these are not in themselves the cause of psychological illness--only under certain circumstances. They are part of the normal psychic makeup. These normal complexes that everyone has are what Jung called archetypes. The archetypes are more or less the inborn normal complexes that we all have. (p. 5)This definition is succinct, but incomplete without her very rich example of how archetypes manifest throughout different cultures. How the same feeling, the same human experience, is translated in psyche depending on the culture and social situation in which one is immersed.
Archetypes are in themselves completely unobservable structures; only when they are stimulated by some inner or outer state of need. . .do they, at crucial moments, produce an archetypal image, an archetypal fantasy, a though, an intuition, or an emotion. These can be recognized as archetypal, because they are similar in all cultures and among all peoples. . . .There is no doubt that the archetypal structures are inherited; this is not, however, the case with the images. . . .When an inborn archetypal structure passes into the manifest form of an archetypal fantasy or image, the psyche makes use of impressions from the external surroundings for its means of expression; therefore, the individual images are not entirely identical but only similar in structure. For example, an African child, when an image of something overwhelmingly terrifying needs to take shape in him, will perhaps fantasize about a crocodile or a lion, and a European child in the same situation will imagine a truck that is barreling toward him, threatening to run him over. Only the structure of something overpoweringly threatening will be the same in this case. The image is of course enriched by impressions from the external world. (pp. 6-7)Okay, so that's a lot of quote, but hopefully it's clear. It has given me a lot to chew-on as I continue to understand the concept. As I read this book, I'm sure I'll be posting more about what I discover. I had borrowed it from the library but bought it online after reading the first fifteen pages. I cannot believe how good it is. The essays explore everything around the relationship between psyche and matter, including discussions on quantum physics, colors, numbers, and mathematical diagrams, themes that continue to be underexplored within depth psychology. M.-L. von Franz was a genius, I can't wait to learn more.