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The Primordial Image: Archetypes

Author: Vikki Bramshaw
Posted: December 20th. 2009
Times Viewed: 3,219

There seems to be a certain amount of conflict in the Pagan community when it comes to the use of the concept of ‘Archetypes’ within Paganism, Wicca and Witchcraft. This is perhaps due to varying theological views -- in particular the differences between Polytheism and Pantheism -- but perhaps also due to a certain degree of ‘misinformation’ about what an ‘Archetype’ actually is.

I briefly discuss Archetypes in relation to Deity in my book, Craft of the Wise, but as I have recently started a Psychotherapy course, I decided that it would be rewarding to explore these terms further, and expand the subject. [Note: I am by no means an expert on psychology, but I hope this article will offer a little towards the understanding of the subject in relation to the Craft.]

A ’standard description’ of an archetype (as a concept) is: ‘Archetypes are deep enduring patterns of thought and behavior laid down in the human psyche, which remain powerful over long periods of time and transcend cultures and generations. Archetypes form the basis of instinctive patters of behavior that all of humankind shares in common.’

Most people know the common Archetypes (the ‘fundamental personalities’) : such as The Mother, The Hero, The Tyrant, The Lovers, The Child, and so on. But like many other terms which have been adopted by modern western spiritual paths (such as the concept of ‘Karma’) the Archetype is a much more expansive subject than it is usually given credit for.

On considering what the term Archetype can really offer when it is applied to Wicca and Initiatory Craft, we need to first look at what the pioneering psychologist Carl Jung really meant when he coined the term, ‘Archetype’. When Jung first came up with the concept, he named what we now call the ‘Archetype’ the Primordial Image, a phrase that he first used in his essay, ‘Instinct and the Unconscious’.

When he started his ‘modern quest for the soul’, Jung turned to classical mythology to explain his insights - because he realized that the stories within the mythology explained his concept quite nicely as reflections of the human experience – together with other ‘gateways to the unconscious’ such as dreams, rituals, and the use of art and symbols. In this way, he identified the power of mythology as (what could be described as) both a ‘key’ and a ‘mirror’ for the journey of the soul.

Jung also had a personal interest in Alchemy and Astrology and believed that the ultimate aim of the individual was to fulfill our inner potential and that through personal transformation one might journey to meet the Self (the true and ‘whole’ identity) and the Divine. Paradoxically, this journey to meet the Self often meant growing out of one certain Archetypal role, and perhaps growing into another - and ultimately discovering the true identity.

It might also be important to define where Jung thought these Archetypes originated. Jung speculated that the ‘Archetype’ came from the collective unconscious, and that Archetypes represent behaviors and dispositions before they manifest as earthly existences.

Some practitioners of the Craft equate the Collective Unconscious with the Astral Plane – described as the Conceptual and Formative level of the Magical Personality, or, the Bridge between the physical and the spiritual worlds. It can perhaps also be equated with the Transcendent Intuition of Briah in Qabalah.

Carl Jung was also one of the first modern psychologists to state that the human psyche ‘is, by nature, religious, ’ and throughout his life Jung strived towards a spiritual purpose beyond material gain. The original ancient Greek meaning of the word ‘psyche’ is “breathe of life” or “soul spirit”, so it’s already obvious that something much bigger is at work here. This concept seems conducive with cosmology, and manifestation: our minds and souls receiving messages and instructions from higher planes of existence.

The Archetypes are also associated with the Major Arcana in the Tarot deck (which are also reflected in the Qabalah) such as The Hermit, The Emperor, and The Lovers; ‘personality types’, which we can all relate to. In fact, the Tarot is a good example of how the Archetypes can be both psychological and mystical. The Tarot is read both intuitively (opening the psychic senses to pick up messages from the Divine) but also from a psychological angle (i.e. how the chosen cards relate to phases and initiatory processes within our lives) .

Jung also used the term Archetype to explain patterns of ‘key events’ (or perhaps what we in the Craft might call ‘initiations’ or ‘ordeal rites’) such as birth, childhood, marriage, and preparation for death (which are summed up very nicely by the ‘Fools Journey’ of the Tarot) as well as explaining patterns of ‘Motifs’, such as those used in mythology like the apocalypse (the end of the world) and the deluge (the great flood) and so on. These are key themes which we find in both ancient mythology and on our cinema screens today.

So what is the confusion here with Wicca? There have been many influential works over the last 15 or so years that have discussed Archetypes in relation to Wiccan practice. For instance, Vivianne Crowley’s book, Wicca discusses Archetypes in detail, but this time as ‘aspects’ of the Gods.

Vivianne was certainly in a position to discuss the subject of psychology, as she was a trained Jungian psychologist and a university lecturer in Psychology of Religion. However reading over her work again whilst researching for this essay, I realized that I didn’t quite see eye to eye with her when it came to the Gods; as her particular style of Wicca seems to explain the Gods away simply as ‘aspects of our own Psyches’. This may not be what she actually meant, but this is how it comes across and it certainly seemed there was no place in this way of thinking for a Polytheist.

However that aside, she does explain a few things nicely in relation to the role of the Archetype manifesting in the magical personality (you, as Priest/ess) – (note: not a God/dess manifesting – an Archetype manifesting!) – and how perhaps ritual might aid this particular psychological journey. This, I think, is the true use of Archetypes in ritual and magic.

She explains in this context that the Archetypes are ’symbolic forces’, which appear in a dream, or a vision, part of us, yet separate. That we are externalizing our unconscious, and that Wicca enables us to connect with ’sub-personalities’, in order to enrich our own lives: all terms that were used by psychologist Carl Jung.

Putting all notions of religion aside for one moment, this concept seems to work; but as soon as you start adding the ingredient of Gods and Goddesses back in as ‘expressions of Archetypes’, it suddenly excludes a large number of the Pagan community (including me!) who do not believe that the Gods are simply ‘unconscious archetypes’!

Perhaps the common misconception is that, “to acknowledge the Archetypes is to not recognize the Gods as individual deities”. This is in fact a fallacy, which appears to me as a direct contrast to Jung’s beliefs. It is also often assumed that the word ‘Archetype’ is used interchangeably to describe ‘an avatar of the Godhead’, or ’stereotype’ – which is also incorrect.

Looking at this mode of thought, it is easy to see how one can come to the conclusion that anyone who works with Archetypes cannot possibly believe that individual deities even exist – perhaps viewing them as ‘Aspects of the All’, at the very most. But in truth, this a bit like saying “because I acknowledge a mother archetype within myself, I don’t believe that my real birth mother exists”!

The subject of psychology and its relationship with Wicca has been hotly debated for many years, and is probably very much down to an individuals’ interpretation of the Godhead. Indeed, there are many books available on the Craft which suggest that the Gods are nothing but avatars of an ‘all-power’ – or even, just ‘aspects of our own psyches’. This seems very much like the opinion that spellcraft and ritual is nothing more than some sort of ‘psychological self help aid’ (which in my opinion, misses the point a bit) .

Whilst ritual and spiritual experiences are intrinsically connected with psychology and the workings of our mind, I would suggest that we should consider that there may be more to magic, ritual, and the Gods, than just this. There seems to be an assumption in modern thought that Divinity should fit into one particular form; it is, after all, human nature to try to ‘pigeon-hole’ things and name them all. We are obsessed with ‘isms’: polytheism, pantheism, animism … as if we can break up the whole universe into tiny pieces, and label each part with a name. Perhaps, this just is not possible; perhaps the divine is multi faceted, and unfathomable.

My own beliefs are complicated, and not everyone will agree with them! I suppose I most closely identify with Pantheism, but I also believe that the Gods are indeed very complete and individual beings. (A few hard Polytheists might hit the ceiling after reading that – so I am sorry if you now have a bump on your head!)

My coven uses a hypothesis called the ‘Triangle of Manifestation’, which is similar to the ‘Tree of Life’ of the Qabalah, and communicates that many deities manifested from one divine source whilst also existing independently. This should not be misinterpreted as meaning that ‘the Gods are simply avatars of the Godhead’.

Personally, I do believe it is possible to work with individual deities as a Pantheist and perhaps even a (Soft!) Polytheist, whilst also acknowledging the presence of Archetypes as messengers, signals, patterns, and aspects of the collective unconscious which manifest within your own personality; a personality which can be enriched by basking in the divine radiance of a (very real) God or Goddess. For those of us who have worked within the Wiccan tradition, we need only look at one of our most prominent pieces of ritual material for this mystery:

‘And thou who think to seek for me, know thy seeking and yearning shall avail thee not unless thou know the mystery; that if that which thou seek thee find not within thee, thou wilt never find it without.’ – Charge of the Goddess

I believe the Gods should be acknowledged as individuals, but we should also be aware of their overwhelming effect within our own lives and within our own psychology by their very presence. Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone say in their recent book, Progressive Witchcraft:

‘From our experiences, we can say without a doubt that the Gods and Goddesses of the ancient world are real. Like human personalities, they can have strange nuances and flaws … the Divine should always be accepted as individuals. You must believe in them as persons in their own right if you are going to connect and work with them. It is not recommended that you work with them as Jungian concepts alone. It simply won’t work. It’s necessary to believe in them.’

So assuming now that the Gods are real, individual entities, how do Archetypes relate to ritual practices, such as Invocation?

In my experience, an Invocation brings both the individual God/dess into your being, whilst also enhancing certain aspects of your personality (hidden or unhidden) by bringing them to the surface, and embracing aspects of the collective unconscious, via what Jungian psychologists would term the Archetypes. This is not the say that the manifestation of the actual individual deity did not occur – but that their presence caused a reaction within you. ( (This is rather like spending lots of time with a close friend or work colleague – particularly your peers - and unconsciously starting to take on their mannerisms!) )

If this assumption is correct, then now we can tackle one of the most controversial aspects of the use of Archetypes in Wicca – the grouping of Gods as ‘representations of Archetypes’.

Assuming that the Gods are indeed real – like you or me – it is then conceivable that several Gods can be grouped as one Archetype, without compromising their individuality – for instance, The Warrior. Several Army Officers can also be grouped as Archetypal Warriors – it doesn’t mean the Army officers are not real!! We could also say that Officer Doe represents the Warrior Archetype, because he received a medal for bravery. This doesn’t make Officer Doe a figment of our imagination.

In addition to the evocation of Archetypes within the person through Invocation of the Gods, it is also the case that working with a deity a certain amount of positive transference can occur– (a psychological term for transferring a relationship from one person to another) . For example, a person who could not communicate well with his or her own mother, might transfer that mother role onto another person – perhaps an older female friend, or superior female work colleague – who they see as fulfilling that role. In the case of Wicca and Initiatory Craft, they may transfer that role onto a particular God or Goddess – who fulfils that particular need.

At its simplest, an Archetype is just another a pattern within the universe. Those patterns are seen within ourselves, and within the Gods. We may share those patterns, by working with Invocation and recognizing that God or Goddess within our lives; much like we share mannerisms with close friends, and unconsciously copy our peers. The effects of working with a deity can cause positive changes in a similar way within our own psychology, activating the primordial unconscious potential, which can be actualized through ritual and working with the Gods.


Vikki Bramshaw

Location: Southampton, England


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