The Ambiguity of Archetypes and Symbols.
Why creating movements based on archetypes as facts doesn’t lead to truth.
As human beings, we like our models and our categories and the way we associate one thing with another.
One could say this is Apollonian/ordering/pattern finding/rational.
We also like our dualities so on the flip side we have:
These are psycho-analytic models of human consciousness based off of mythological symbols.
But why does this archetypal model matter?
Without consciousness there would, practically speaking, be no world, for the world exists as such only in so far as it is consciously reflected and considered by a psyche. Consciousness is a precondition of being.
— Jung, the Undiscovered Self.
Beyond the fact that Jung believed (and I’m with him on this) that archetypes affect our everyday lives, our health, stability, communities, and nations; these models are also at the core of many modern philosophies and movements.
Archetypes are being talked about in workshops all over the world. They’re at the heart of many “Inner Goddess” movements, literature, music, cinema.
They’re being used to construct a new female identity in many feminist movements as well as a male identity amongst men’s movements and in conservative movements such as Jordan Peterson’s fight against “postmodernism.”
The difficulty here is that archetypes are often presented as fixed facts. We have the Mother and Father archetypes, the Witch archetypes, the Divine Child archetypes that grow up into Kings or Lovers depending on who you’re talking to.
Like all models, life isn’t that simple.
Jung cautioned against ever simplifying archetypes down to a point where we thought we understood them because they defy understanding.
The desire to define things is perfectly human, Apollonian if you will, but it misses the truth of the matter wherein archetypes are both universal and yet subjectively experienced.
Archetypes are models. They are never perfectly understood.
Not for a moment dare we succumb to the illusion that an archetype can be finally explained and disposed of. Even the best attempts at explanation are only more or less successful translations into another metaphorical language. (Indeed, language itself is only an image.)
— Carl Jung. Collected Works, Vol. 9
Talk of an archetype outside of a person’s personal experience is only talk of a model and a model is only an average of experiences, not the sum whole.
If we treat archetypes like the taxonomy of evolving Pokemon we miss the big. . . and little pictures.
Mainly the uniqueness of each human experience, the shifting nature of our unconscious, and the evolving nature of collective narratives.
In Jung’s model, the attempt to clarify and describe is a movement toward perfection. The perfection of understanding.
On the opposite side of this polarity is wholeness. Acknowledging that there are parts of self that can not yet be understood or “perfected” but are in fact very real.
As archetypes and symbols shift and change they bleed into our understanding of other categories.
Jung associates the drive to perfection with the masculine principle. It is linked with male consciousness, the Sun, Apollo, rationality, the Logos, the Animus, and is listed as an ordering principle.
The drive to wholeness according to Jung is feminine, associated with the female psyche, the Anima, the lunar principle, Dionysius, intuition, feeling, Eros, matter and chaos.
It should be noted that chaos here isn’t a bad thing, change comes from chaos. Perfection is stagnate if it doesn’t have something to perfect.
Chaos is infertile if it can’t be ordered.
These observations are common sense (minus their gender identification). When we look at the world and see it through this model we can recognize that the world needs structure and chaos.
Just to exist we need atoms that are able to move, have the hunger to complete their valence shell, and at the same time have enough force and order to maintain their structure.
Archetypal symbols aren’t universal.
Archetypes can change whilst the individual remains quite unconscious of their movements. . . A new situation occurs as a constellation produced by the archetype, a new inspiration emerges, and something else is discovered and becomes a part of reality. . .
The abundance of possibilities eludes our comprehension.
— Carl Jung, Jung-Ostrowski
Where difficulties arise in archetypal theories are their confused associations and holding too closely to a prescribed model.
For instance, in the relations of:
Perfection drive=masculine, Sun, Apollonian, rationality, Logos, order.
Wholeness drive=feminine, lunar, Dionysian, intuition, feeling, Eros, matter, chaos.
Eros and Logos are both male figures as are Apollo and Dionysius.
Jung used mythology and the symbol systems of astrology, alchemy, Gnosticism, as well as his own personal experience of psychosis and the dreams of clients to feel and analyze his way into these models and their associations.
However, as deep and broad as Jung’s understanding of the symbolic world and its many currents is it is limited by the scope of his society’s access to symbolic content.
For instance, most of human history, mythology, and symbolic writing is written by men.
While Jung worked with female clients many of his theories are born from analysis of the history of the world’s symbol systems which have rarely taken into account female viewpoints.
Further, he was limited by the scholarship of the time.
A majority of solar deities are actually women.
Like any other archetype, the mother archetype appears under an almost infinite variety of aspects.
— Carl Jung, Four Archetypes
Anthropology was still a relatively new practice in the 20th century and didn’t have access to many of the world’s cultures.
For instance, when Jung draws on images or mythos for solar deities they are almost always masculine. (I say almost always because I haven’t read 100% of his work but I haven’t seen a reference to a solar goddess.)
In a modern review of solar deities around the world 32 solar deities were gods, while 41 were goddesses.
Eight of those goddesses were deities of the dawn which would reduce this number to 33.
Dawn deities seem to be all female and may require their own classification. However, at least four of the male solar deities are Egyptian deities concerned with the morning Sun, the evening Sun, the sunset, and light rays of the Sun.
Altogether six male deities are associated with different times of day, which would bring the male deities down to 26 if these are removed.
No matter how we calculate it there are more female solar deities than male.
I believe in citing work when possible so I’ll break down how I came to these numbers.
It started with a google search and the Wikipedia article on a list of solar deities. (Not the best scholarship but I’m not working on a dissertation of solar deities.)
I removed deities that are simply related to the sky or daylight, concentrating solely on solar deities.
I also removed modern reconstructed deities as these are theoretical.
I then counted.
In all cases, there are more female solar deities.
Why does this matter?
Because people are basing their ideologies and models off of poor data. If the Sun is represented by females in mythology as often as it is represented by males then our symbol associations are skewed.
We think we are seeing a relationship between the symbol of the masculine and the Sun.
We then link these with rationality, logic, and order.
Often times we treat these associations as facts of the psyche.
However, these “facts” aren’t supported by the data. Instead, we are seeing our projection onto the symbol of our unconscious associations.
When we look at the stories we are familiar with it then supports our cognitive bias, linking masculinity or femininity to the traits we already associate them with.
Not going to lie, this blew my mind.
I love mythos, Jungian psychology, and astrology. In the latter two, the Sun is always associated with the masculine. I am also much more familiar with the masculine tales.
I knew there were female solar deities but the suspicion that they may outnumber the male just popped up for me today.
The more I explore movements like Jordan Peterson’s and their relationship symbolic psychology and the patriarchy, the more I’ve been wanting to get clear data on these symbolic associations.
One could argue that Jung was really interested in the Western mind. So we should narrow our search of gods to the European deities so as to better understand the culture and psyche of Europeans.
(After all, many of the people having these conversations are descendants of Europeans.)
In which case we have 11 Sun goddesses (four of the dawn) and 10 Sun gods.
Which suggests that the European consciousness associated the Sun with femininity just as much as it did with masculinity.
Clearly, today, that’s not the case.
Archetypes go through phases.
The most we can do is dream the myth onwards and give it a modern dress. And whatever explanation or interpretation does to it, we do to our own souls as well, with corresponding results for our own well-being.
— Collected Works, Vol. 9, Part I
The solar archetype today is most often associated with the masculine.
Perhaps, because in the Christian mythos the Sun is associated with Christ. One of two masculine figures in the Trinity along with the ambiguous figure of the Holy Spirit.
Catholics have Mother Mary and a host of saints but thanks to Luther Protestants lack a connection to a holy feminine archetype.
Technically, as members of the Church, Christians are the bride of Christ. Making Christians the feminine component of the Christian quaternity.
That level of gender-bending may make some modern Christians uncomfortable.
Our interpretations of archetypes are inherently subjective.
Philosophical criticism has helped me to see that every psychology — my own included — has the character of a subjective confession . . .
Even when I am dealing with empirical data I am necessarily speaking about myself.
— Carl Jung, CW 4
Where does this apply today?
At its most basic level, it cautions us against too easily assigning archetypes in therapy or as explanations of people’s mental experiences.
It also challenges both the men’s and women’s movements based on their particular narratives of a “male” or “female” model.
For instance, much of the “Goddess movement” is working on reclaiming their connection to fertility and life cultivation.
As such, they often identify with “lunar properties.” However, they could just as easily use Solar properties according to the data of solar deities.
Further, with the ambiguity between the solar and lunar symbols and their gender identities the properties of fertility and life cultivation belong to all.
They are not exclusive to the female identity.
Similarly, research on female deities displays a wide variety of destructive female deities just as there are a wide variety of destructive male deities.
So which trait is associated with which gender?
It seems to depend on who is doing the association and what they are looking for.
The subjectivity of archetypes and their symbols makes an archetypal identity subjective as well.
This is where Peterson’s archetypal male identity (and any sort of archetypal based identity) loses its stability.
While he pays lip service to the masculine and feminine principles being accessible to all, he has established his following by discussing the differences amongst the sexes according to a more conservative model.
Particularly focusing on the masculine and a positive interpretation of the patriarchy.
In his discussion of the modern state of the world’s psyche, he challenges the “relativity” of postmodernism by trying to firmly establish a fixed system of symbols.
Symbols that support a new look at a positive patriarchy and male identity.
Something for men to stand on.
Doubtlessly, society can use a positive male identity as well as a system of meaningful symbols.
Many of the world’s ills come from a lack of culture and symbolic understanding in the West. By eliminating so much of our established culture we have eliminated many of the things that give us meaning.
We don’t have anything with which to understand or communicate our deep inner experiences.
This is true and needs to be addressed.
Where the problem comes in is when we try to treat archetypes and their associations as objective facts and say “masculinity and its associated symbols equates to x, y, z psychologically.”
At the end of the day, this is a subjective experience.
The subjective nature of symbols makes them a poor foundation for movements.
The archetype — let us never forget this — is a psychic organ present in all of us. A bad explanation means a correspondingly bad attitude toward this organ, which may thus be injured. But the ultimate sufferer is the bad interpreter himself.
— Collected Works, Vol. 9, Part I
When a movement tries to fix an archetype to a particular symbol or fixed identity, it becomes dangerous because it skews our understanding of ourselves and the world.
The problem with trying to establish an authoritative interpretation of symbols and archetypes while creating a movement’s narrative is that symbols are ambiguous.
We can discuss them and share our experiences of them and there are certainly many correlations that can be broken down into simplified models, but at the end of the day they defy description.
For example, many men’s groups and men in general have had great success working with the archetypal models of Douglas Gillette and Robert L. Moore.
Illustrated in “King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine.”
The model works for many of these men in tapping into an inner masculine identity.
However, the model isn’t for everyone. The narrative created there doesn’t apply to every man experiencing their inner masculine, and the model itself isn’t unique to men.
An organizing principle (King) can be useful in any psyche, so can the ability to set healthy boundaries and take action (Warrior), channel our know-how and energy (Magician), and experience the world (Lover).
If it works, it works, if it doesn’t, switch up your model.
The difficulty with putting too much faith in models is that they’re not meant to represent the totality of existence.
As mentioned before this is a rather Apollonian drive. . . or perhaps an Ameratsu-ian drive?
This, however, denies the Dionysian wholeness of reality.
There is always something that breaks the model.
Any theory based on experience is necessarily statistical; that is to say, it formulates an ideal average which abolishes all exceptions at either end of the scale and replaces them by an abstract mean. This mean is quite valid though it need not necessarily occur in reality. . . While reflecting an indisputable aspect of reality, it can falsify the actual truth in a most misleading way.
— Jung, the Undiscovered Self.
At best, descriptions of archetypes are averages, observations made by processing multiple experiences.
They’re models, and models are overly simplified and bound to be wrong at some level.
This is shown Kurt Godel’s incompleteness theorems. They demonstrate the impossibility of creating a perfected set of axioms to describe all mathematical models.
Since many statements can be broken down into logical proofs and thus mathematical statements Godel’s proof challenges models beyond mathematics.
His first incompleteness theorem essentially states that no system of axioms whose theorems can be listed is capable of proving all the truths of the system represented.
In essence, to truly understand a system we have to have an outside perspective as it can not be fully understood from premises derived from within the system.
The second theorem shows that the system cannot demonstrate its own consistency.
When we look at these together it amounts to the observation that any understanding of a system is, in fact, a model based on an axiom (premise).
At some point, a premise has to be assumed so you have something to stand on and build up from.
Not only did Jung observe that Archetypes shift and change and are unique in their relationship to the individual but an analysis of any model system shows that they can’t capture the whole of the system.
The mind cannot capture the entirety of itself.
Neither will it capture the entirety of its symbols and archetypes.
Which leaves a lot more freedom than the “perfection” drive is comfortable with.
Demonstrating the need to be comfortable with wholeness, recognizing we can’t clarify every point or understand it all and that any model we have will fail to describe the entirety of a system.
Associate the Sun with Apollo if it helps you. Associate Apollo with the masculine if it helps you. Associate the masculine with your need to understand, to clarify, to categorize, and define if it helps you.
But realize that is not the complete reality of the world that you work in.
Someone else will associate understanding, clarity, and the ability to define and categorize with Athena, or Binah, and it’s just as real, just as true to them as your model is to you.
Call to action.
I’d like to challenge you to keep an open mind when it comes to your beliefs and categorizing of those beliefs and experiences.
If you find yourself relying heavily on a model of “the way things are.” Look into alternative models, see where someone else could interpret things differently.
Keep your eyes open and your mind nimble.
You don’t have to throw away your beliefs. It’s important to know what you believe but to treat those beliefs as the only “facts” around leaves you blind to the wholeness of reality.