Author Topic: The innate nature of archetypal mythological thinking  (Read 3001 times)


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The innate nature of archetypal mythological thinking
« on: November 29, 2011, 07:18:38 AM »
The question of the nature of the archetype is often raised. I am going to argue that archetypal thinking, as such, has its roots in the unconscious. Regardless of the metaphysical status of the archetype, the archetypal way of thought goes on naturally in the unconscious, and it is an innate way of symbolic cognition that is predicated on our psychic economy. This means that the notorious problem of the metaphysical nature of the archetype is relativized, and hence the issue is less urgent. 

It relates to the time-honoured philosophical issue of form contra substance. Whereas the modern scientific paradigm has its roots in the thinking of Aristotle, modern psychology, with its archetypal notion, is indebted to Plato. Aristotle argued that what we see around us contains both matter and form (hule and eidos). This means that the form is not transcendental to the worldly object, what Plato argued. Today we know that a tree's form is programmed into its genes, and in this sense the form of the tree exists within its every cell. Likewise, the wonderful nature of water depends on the characteristics of the water molecule. Hence Aristotle was right in his contention that the objects carry their form within themselves.

But Plato's worldview has today renewed its prominence. Plato's philosophy has animistic roots, I believe. His doctrine of pre-existence resembles the animistic notion as this was a time when the soul lived among the Forms and learned to know of them by seeing them directly. Plato's Forms derive from the old animistic notions of spiritual ancestors or gods. They are autonomous and in a sense they are living entities of their own, although not necessarily self-conscious like some Olympian gods. They are abstracted in Plato, but probably it's incorrect to interpret them as 'forms' in the sense of moulds, or as abstract ideals. Arguably, C.G. Jung could be thought of as the modern-day heir of animistic philosophy and its offshoot, Platonic philosophy.

I think that the whole discussion about 'archetypes' boils down to the animistic conception, which is a mythological worldview that is still present and alive in our own unconscious. We are still thinking, at least unconsciously, along animistic lines. If we remain unconscious of our innate animism, then we will inevitably fall prey to archaic thinking. However, if we integrate the archetypal notion, it will allow us to apply the animistic notion in a conscious and controlled way. Regardless of the metaphysical foundation of the 'archetype', it is rooted in the unconscious as an archaic way of thought. This is good enough justification for the archetype, whether it's philosophically naive or not.

Some have argued that historical animism, building on mythological thinking, could be thought of as a philosophy which deserves great respect despite its naive expression. According to animistic cultures (there are some still on earth) each thing has a divine prototype. The Parrot says: »I am the forefather of all parrots, all have descended from me. I was the first of all beings. I was before all«. (The Leopard and the Anaconda say the same, so they are not quite in agreement). It's not simply a generative account of the species, but these are creation myths.

According to animism there was once a 'mythic reality', when heaven and earth had not yet separated. To the degree that each individual parrot takes part in this mythic reality of his divine ancestor his life will be fulfilled and his powers maximized. This is true also of humans. Different human tribes often have their own ancestor, such as the Parrot, for instance. When you ask these people how they can be descendants from the Parrot when they are in fact humans, they are confounded by your ignorance because it's obvious to them that they are parrots while being humans all the while. We keep misunderstanding these notions in material terms and say that they don't make sense. We say: "You don't look like a parrot so you can't have the Parrot as an ancestor". The animists realize that we have no notion of the spirit so they think we are quite simpleminded.

Animistic philosophy is interested in spiritual nature, that is, the 'inner meaning' of things, which they try to fulfil during their existence on earth. So when the leopard "imitates the prototype" this is not so much in the material sense, but how eminently he fulfils the inner meaning of his existence. The leopard becomes more real when he partakes in the spirit. The closer he approximates the Form of the leopard, the more will he be able to fulfil his inner meaning.

Typical for animist religion is the notion of how people in a long gone era lived together with the gods, in harmony. This is so in Greek religion, too, in the so called Golden Age. Arguably, mythology represents an artifact of animistic thinking, still present in the unconscious. Animistic thinking can be viewed as a way of looking at existence, i.e. a kind of philosophy. It reasons along archetypal lines, i.e. spiritual entities that take earthly (conscious) shape. This is what underlies the realization of all new beings in the conscious realm.

What's the difference compared with the modern archetypal notion? Animistic thought represents a metaphysical view of reality whereas archetypal thought is formulated against the backdrop of the psyche (conscious and unconscious). In animism the gods exist in a transcendental reality, e.g. the 'dream-time' of Australian Aborigines. They plunge down to earthly reality, which also implies that their existence as divine beings beyond time is terminated. Comparatively, the archetype resides in the *unconscious*. A heightened excitation level implies that the archetype can breach the border of consciousness, an event that leads to its integration with the ego. Thus it is rooted in the soil of the conscious world and has also lost its transcendental freedom.

It is not the question of confusing "gods" for archetypes. Modern psychology interprets the course of events differently, but the story is similar in structure. The Narcissus story is a case in point. Narcissus is a god, son of the river god, who roams freely in the wood (the unconscious), were he is hunting with his friends. He suddenly awakes to self-consciousness when he becomes aware of his own shining beauty, signifying the heightened excitation level of the archetype (cmp. the story of Lucifer). As a result he passes the limit of consciousness. On account of the assimilative property of ego consciousness the ego appropriates it as a conscious function. Thus it is rooted in consciousness as part of "me". From the perspective of the archetype, this implies a depreciation, dismemberment, and death. That's why ancient religion always speaks about the dismemberment and sacrifice of the gods, what gave rise to everything that exists in the earthly realm. In case of Narcissus, he turns into the white Narcissus flower at the edge of the black mere. This relates the image of a conscious ego function close to the edge of the dark unconscious. A splendid and free-roaming divine entity has been depreciated and become "ego". On the other hand, the archetype has turned into something "real".

Actaeon suffered a similar fate as Narcissus. He too was a hunter in the forest, where he stumbled across Artemis (Diana) when she was naked and having a bath. No man can experience the beauty of Artemis and live. Enraged, Artemis turned him into a stag and, not knowing their own owner, Actaeon's own dogs tore him to pieces. The divine beauty of Artemis is what catches the awareness of Actaeon, the archetype. In this case, what causes the heightened excitation level is a transfer of energy from another archetype that exists deeper into the forest. This occurrence, the transfer of energy between archetypes, is a common motif in fairytales, when the hero receives magical powers from helpful creatures. Actaeon, like Narcissus, became aware (conscious) and thus dies as a god. But this was also how the stag entered into creation. 

Evidently, the animistic interpretation of the events is believable, provided that we translate it to modern psychological language in archetypal terms. In a sense, conscious realization is a world-creating event. In mythology and ancient religion, new creation on earth always entails the death of a god, i.e. the death of something very valuable and wonderful. This is true also of Narcissus and Actaeon.

Mats Winther


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Re: The innate nature of archetypal mythological thinking
« Reply #1 on: November 30, 2011, 05:53:13 AM »
I have extended the discussion. The following somewhat sketchy article is the result.

Animism and the archetypal nature of the unconscious

Abstract: The concept of the archetype in modern psychology is
inherited from animistic mythological thinking, which is still part
and parcel of our unconscious psychology. Platonism and Jungian
psychology are indebted to animism. The unconscious constantly
produces animistic motives. This explains the great success of the
archetypal notion in understanding the unconscious. The archetypal
notion is justified regardless of the nature of the archetype, and its
ontology is therefore not an urgent issue. The archetype is an
expression of the animistic economy of the unconscious. The Platonic
paradigm can trigger an animistic regression, exemplified by naive New
Age notions. The trinitarian tradition of mysticism presents a way out
for gone astray Jungians and New Agers. The path known as 'via
negativa', which involves withdrawal and gearing down, provides the
necessary complement that makes individuation complete.

Keywords: archetype, ontology, animism, individuation, Plato,
Carl Jung, contemplation.

Read the article here:

Mats Winther


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Re: The innate nature of archetypal mythological thinking
« Reply #2 on: January 27, 2012, 06:14:41 PM »
I see archetypes as the product of a self-conscious intuitive with a strong thinking function.  Archetypes are like unconscious qualia, or forms, that compliment the notion of sensory qualia (like color, sound, etc...), the building bricks of sensory perception as mental content apart from their outer referents.  The thinking function comes in to create the term, archetypes, and to claim a cognitive space for archetypes/form as a meaningful term in and of itself in spite of perfect form never having a sensory manifestation in the world (outside of mathematical depictions perhaps).

Personalities that favor intuition over sensation will likely find an unconscious appeal for form over matter.  So while the intuitive Plato posits a metaphysical realm of archetypes, the sensory Aristotle tucks form away within matter with matter serving a perhaps unconsciously pre-eminent position.  The feeling function could be brought in here to say that Plato values form over matter because the feeling function supports, in this way, the Typological hierarchy.

For me this unconscious appeal is simply personal preference or bias...a necessary but objectively arbitrary fact of the personality.  As such it negates objective value to the comparison of form vs matter.  So differences in this regard between Plato and Aristotle reduce to a question on a Typological exam...which do you prefer form or matter?

Probably the matter/energy dichotomy is closely related.  It was a happy day for intuitionists when Einstein revealed that all matter can be measured in terms of energy.  Now we could conceive of all the matter in the Universe as a kind of interchangable substance and science fiction could invent semi-plausible beings of pure energy as some kind of spiritually advanced form of life (a modern dream of animism?).  But this is all a fantasy of intuition and other less accessible perspectives from physics could probably put the lie to such complex organizations of pure energy.

So the result for me is that form vs matter is a dichotomy that is simultaneously as much a product of the brain as it is an observation of reality.  The two are juxtaposed through the development of language and culture atop some sort of simple brain dichotomy that drives us into a preferential use of intuition vs sensation.  The dichotomy does not reflect an underlying metaphysical truth that needs explained, explained away or even resolved.  Animism is simply the materialist's complementary shadow and vice versa, an inescapable teeter totter of concept that keeps us from falling into a static (its all just ____), and therefore, finally unconscious relationship to the world.  Our consciousness is energically propped up by these polarized "significant ambivalences".