Essay: What’s the Difference between a God and an Archetype?
When we talk about gods and archetypes, it’s easy to think of them as though they’re one and the same.
I talk about the Apollo archetype, and about myths of the ancient god Apollo, and I slip into the mindset of conflating the two concepts, treating them like they’re the same thing.
“But wait,” I’ll say to myself, reading a myth about the god Apollo’s many sexual exploits, “I thought that the Apollo archetype was chaste? Just like his twin sister Artemis?”
I’m confusing the myth of the god with the psychological concept of the archetype.
A psychological archetype is a pattern of behavior, usually unconscious, that we live into. The archetypal pattern shows up in day to day choices, emotions, thoughts, and actions. It affects the way we relate to the world, to other people, and to ourselves. It affects the work we enjoy, and how we enjoy living our lives.
If you’ve got a lot of the Apollo archetype at work in your psyche, you might be very focused on logical, pragmatic thought patterns, even going so far as to neglect your emotions, and to think that your ability to use this logic to such a high degree makes you . . . well . . . maybe a little bit better than other people, who can be so irrational at times.
Archetypes don’t only play out on an individual scale. We can see them at work in the stories that play out in the world—in our relationships, and even in the rise and fall of nations.
It’s kind of an amazing phenomenon, actually. C.G. Jung, who pioneered most of our understanding of archetypes, said this was because humanity shares a collective unconsciousness. So just as archetypal motivations are at work in your individual life, they’re also at work in the life of humanity as a whole.
Archetypes are psychological. The study of this kind of psychology is called “depth psychology.” Here’s a description from the C.G. Jung Center:
“Depth Psychology refers to approaches to therapy that are open to the exploration of the subtle, unconscious, and transpersonal aspects of human experience. A depth approach may include therapeutic traditions that explores the unconscious and involves the study and exploration of dreams, complexes, and archetypes.”
Okay. I’m about to define the word “god” here, and that’s a tricky undertaking any day of the week. Let’s just keep in mind that I’m writing in the context of this article, about how the concept of a god relates to the concept of an archetype.
A god is an ancient being worshipped as a deity. Gods belong to mythological systems of thought and have numerous stories told about them that illustrate their powers and characters. (Sometimes, the stories also illustrate events in history, but that’s opening up a whole ‘nother can of worms . . .)
Ancient gods often reflected natural forces, like the sun or the sea. They also reflected the natural forces moving in humanity, and in a single human being, such as sexuality and rage. The gods essentially personified these driving forces, because they are motivations that cannot be extinguished. You can ignore your sexuality, repress it, or let it run rampant—it’s not going anywhere. Sexuality will always be a part of who you are, and it demands attention. That’s why it gets personified as a “god”—in this case, Aphrodite.
Give your sexuality free and healthy expression in your life, and you’re honoring Aphrodite. She will make you a much happier person in return.
Jean Shinoda Bolen explains the relationship between gods and archetypes this way in “Gods in Everyman”:
“As archetypes, the “gods” exist as patterns governing emotions and behavior; they are powerful forces that demand their due, recognized or not. Consciously recognized (though not necessarily named) and honored by the man (or woman) in whom they exist, these gods help the man really be himself, motivating him to lead a deeply meaningful life because what he does is connected to the archetypal layer of his psyche. Dishonored and denied gods nonetheless also have an influence, which is usually disruptive, as they exert an unconscious claim on the man.”
You don’t honor an archetypal god by simply making an offering at a temple and worshipping it. You honor an archetypal god by respecting and working with the god’s influence in your life.
To honor Aphrodite, make love in a healthy way.
To honor Apollo, make something like a business or solve a math problem.
To honor Artemis, spend time in nature and reconnect with your wild self.
Etc., etc., and so forth.
So the gods represent the archetypes in a potent way . . . but the gods are not the archetypes themselves. They are symbols.
This is why we can have the Apollo archetype, which is generally chaste (just like his twin sister Artemis), and myths about the god Apollo getting it on (. . . or trying to).
We get hints of the archetype’s chastity coming through in all the myths about Apollo’s failed love affairs. He pursued his lovers more than he got to actually love them. Sometimes he chased them, sometimes he attacked them, and usually he lost them. He had a little more success with male partners than female . . . but only a little.
Does this mean the archetype is never sexual? No. It just means the sexuality is expressed in a very Apollo way. (That is to say, either sex doesn’t happen at all, or it’s approached as a skill to be mastered, with a very clear goal at the end.)
Both the gods and the archetypes are powerful tools of self-knowledge. I’ll go so far as to call them sacred symbols, in that they are eternal and can give us real insight into what moves the world and what moves ourselves.
The idea is that if we can learn to recognize the archetypes at work, and to honor them more in our lives, we can become more rounded, fulfilled human beings.
On the site Humanistic Paganism, writer John Halstead has an essay called “The Archetypes as Gods: Re-godding the Archetypes.” It includes this beautiful quote:
“We experience the archetypes as gods, because they are beyond our conscious control and because they have the power to transform our lives. A true encounter with the gods is not only an experience of re-enchantment (what Rudolf Otto calls mysterium fascinans), but also an experience which shakes us to our core (which Otto calls mysterium tremendum).
While the gods are part of the human psyche, we should always keep in mind that the Greek term psyche is better translated as ‘soul’ than as ‘mind’.”
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