ARCHETYPAL IMAGES: the soul’s language

May 11, 2023

Thomas Singer, a man with a white beard and wearing a beanie and a red jacket, is shown next to the logo for The Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism.

Thomas Singer, M.D., Jungian Analyst and president of The Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism joins us to decipher Archetypal Images and explain the essential role of A.R.A.S. in collecting and curating them.

Archetypes and Archetypal Images – The Essence and Differentiation

If we envision archetypes as cosmic blueprints, then archetypal images are the tangible expressions that emerge from this transcendental plan. They are the houses built upon the foundation of archetypes, manifesting in a multitude of forms while remaining interconnected through their shared universal design. Separating archetypes and their imagery clarifies how one gives rise to the other yet remains distinct.

Archetypes are the fundamental structures of the collective unconscious, representing universal patterns and themes that reside deep within the human psyche. These transcend individual experiences and cultural variations, embodying core aspects of the human condition. They are the primordial forces that shape our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

While archetypes exist in the abstract realm of the collective unconscious, archetypal images emerge in our conscious awareness. These images are symbolic representations that give form and substance to the underlying archetypes. They arise through dreams, myths, fairy tales, and cultural narratives, weaving together a visual language that links psyche to self. They are concrete and tangible manifestations that adapt and change with cultural contexts.

Etymology and History of Archetypal Theory

Like a hidden current flowing beneath the surface, the notion of archetypes resurfaces repeatedly throughout history, tracing a lineage that connects ancient wisdom to contemporary understanding. From Plato’s theory of Forms to CG Jung’s pioneering work on the collective unconscious, we find a thread of knowledge. This philosophical narrative weaves together the story of archetypal theory and human consciousness.

In the ancient world, philosophy grappled with the nature of universal forms and transcendent ideas. Plato postulated the existence of transcendental ideals, which he called arkhetypos, meaning “first-molded,” that served as the ultimate reality behind the imperfect manifestations of the physical realm. He contended that these archetypal forms represented the pure essence of concepts such as beauty, justice, and love, serving as the templates from which all things in the material world derive their existence.

In the early 20th century, the Swiss psychiatrist CG Jung linked the archetypes of the collective unconscious to the deepest layer of the human psyche. His exploration was deeply influenced by mythology, folklore, religious traditions, and the experiences of his patients. Examining these cultural and personal expressions, he identified recurring images, symbols, and motifs pointing to universal patterns. He recognized archetypes as primordial psychic structures that shape our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, profoundly influencing our individual and collective experiences.

Differentiating Archetypal from Iconic images

Archetypal images carry a resonance that surpasses individual and cultural boundaries. They evoke a sense of familiarity, triggering deep recognition within us. Their timeless numinous quality resonates across cultures and generations. For example, the image of the wise old man or the nurturing mother elicits an archaic response that taps into our collective unconscious and stirs profound resonance.

Iconic images reflect cultural dominants related to a specific time and place. For example, the Artist Andy Worhol painted a series of iconic Campbell soup cans that ancient peoples would not recognize and are unlikely to be understood far in the future. Likewise, images of rotary dial telephones, once used in advertising, have become unrecognizable to current teenagers. With the propagation of Internet media, we are now flooded with almost meaningless images that flare and fade as quickly as matches.

Strategies for Identifying Archetypal Imagery

One strategy for identifying archetypal imagery is to look for recurring symbolic patterns with deep cultural or psychological significance across time. These often present in myths, fairy tales, and religious texts and resurface in modern culture through art. For example, the Wise Old Man archetype typifies wisdom, experience, and guidance. His image often presents as a sage or mentor offering insights and guidance to those who seek his counsel. We see this in the stories of King Solomon from the 5th century BCE and now as Professor Dumbledore in the modern Harry Potter books. The nurturing mother archetype carries life-giving aspects of the feminine, like unconditional love, compassion, and the power of creation. The myths of Demeter from 700 BCE describe her as the fructifying spirit of summer who grief over the loss of her daughter blights the earth. Catelyn Stark demonstrates the same protective devotion to her children in the modern Game of Thrones TV series. Even Captain Jack Sparrow from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” could trace his wit, charm, and deceit to escape dangerous situations and manipulate others back to the Norse god Loki 1200 CE.

The Therapeutic Relationship and Archetypal Imagery

The therapeutic relationship becomes a fertile ground for the constellation of archetypal imagery, a stage where the drama of the unconscious can be played out, examined, and understood. Informed by the cannon of archetypal themes and images, Jungian analysts seek to identify the universal patterns that emerge in analysands dreams and fantasies. Interpreting those influences can evoke objectivity that supports the analysand to depersonalize psychic content and join the analyst in calm curiosity that can free them from the grip of debilitating complexes.

The interaction between analyst and analysand becomes a fertile ground for the manifestation of archetypal dynamics, often referred to as the analytic third. During sessions, archetypal images often present in the analyst’s imagination that help clarify the unconscious forces affecting the analysand. Skillful recognition and exploration of these dynamics deepen the transformational process. Archetypal imagery often evokes profound emotions, offer new perspectives, and activates the innate capacities within the client’s psyche.

Jung’s discovery of the alchemical Rosarium Woodcuts, created in the early 16th century,  and his subsequent analysis of their symbolism helped him establish universal stages of psychological transformation. As a result, this set of archetypal images became an indispensable tool to track, interpret and facilitate changes in the individual psyche during analysis.

Archetypal Imagery in Culture and Commerce

With their magnetic allure, Archetypal images have found their way into the heart of culture and commerce, shaping narratives and influencing behavior. There is a fascinating interplay between these domains, offering insightful examples of archetypal images at work in the world. By aligning their brand narratives with archetypal themes, companies evoke emotions and tap into the collective unconscious, forging a powerful bond with consumers. For example, the Nike “Just Do It” campaign embodies the Hero archetype, inspiring individuals to overcome obstacles and achieve greatness.

Filmmakers and authors utilize archetypal figures and motifs to create narratives that resonate with universal human experiences. The Hero’s Journey, as explored by Joseph Campbell, is a prime example of how archetypal patterns unfold in storytelling, captivating audiences and touching their souls. Films like Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings employ archetypal imagery to transport viewers into mythic realms and evoke powerful emotions.

Archetypal imagery lies at the core of religious and spiritual traditions. Abiding figures such as Jesus, Buddha, or the Great Goddess embody archetypal qualities that speak to the collective longing for transcendence, meaning, and connection. These images hold immense symbolic power and inspire devotion and spiritual transformation.

Political leaders often tap into archetypal narratives to mobilize and unite their followers. For example, leaders may embody the archetype of the Wise King or the Revolutionary, invoking a sense of vision, wisdom, or transformative change. By aligning themselves with archetypal figures, political leaders shape the collective narrative and influence societal values and aspirations for good or ill.

The world of popular culture is replete with archetypal imagery. Celebrities often become icons, embodying archetypal qualities that resonate with their fans. Whether it’s the Rebel, the Femme Fatale, or the Wise Fool, these figures capture the collective imagination, shaping trends and influencing behavior.

Archetypal imagery in culture and commerce can have both positive and negative implications. While it can inspire and uplift, it can also manipulate and exploit. It is vital for individuals to cultivate discernment and critical awareness, recognizing when archetypal imagery is being skillfully employed for authentic connection and when it is being used for manipulative purposes.

Expanding Therapeutic Metaphors

Archetypal imagery provides a language through which we can identify, express, and explore an archaic level of complex emotions and experiences. Some of these ideas have proved useful enough they are even commonplace. “Pandora’s box” refers to a source of unexpected troubles or complications; this phrase originates from the myth of Pandora, who opened a forbidden box and unleashed all the evils into the world. “Siren’s call,” inspired by the mythical mermaids who lured sailors to their doom with their enchanting voices, now extends to any seductive temptation or irresistible allure that can lead to danger or destruction. “Promethean knowledge”: Stemming from the titan Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods to give to humanity, now refers to any groundbreaking knowledge or advancements that come with significant risks or consequences. These expressions remind us of the enduring influence of ancient myths and legends on our language and culture, weaving their archetypal ideas into our everyday conversations.

The Purpose and Origins of A.R.A.S. — The Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism

A.R.A.S. (www.ARAS.org) was initially assembled by Olga Froebe-Kapteyn, who collected illustrations of ancient symbolic artifacts at her estate on Lake Maggiore in southern Switzerland. These images illustrated the annual meetings of the Eranos Society, conducted by Froebe-Kapteyn from 1933, with participation from renowned scholars such as Heinrich Zimmer, Károly Kerényi, Mircea Eliade, C.G. Jung, Erich Neumann, Gilles Quispel, Gershom Scholem, Henry Corbin, Adolf Portmann, Herbert Read, Max Knoll, and Joseph Campbell.

In 1946, Froebe-Kapteyn donated her collection to the Warburg Institute in London, with duplicates given to the C.G. Jung Institute in Zurich and the Bollingen Foundation in New York. Jessie E. Fraser, librarian of the Analytical Psychology Club of New York, expanded the archive beyond its original scope, leading to the creation of the Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism. The collection was acquired by the C.G. Jung Foundation of New York and copies were also kept at the C.G. Jung Institutes in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

ARAS houses images from various historical periods and cultures, reflecting the religious elements crucial to each era. The collection spans from the Paleolithic period, through the Neolithic, to the religious art of ancient India, Asia Minor, and Egypt, and even includes images from small tribal societies. Each image is accompanied by a detailed description, cultural history, and an archetypal commentary, offering a modern psychological interpretation based heavily on Jung’s theory of archetypes.

ARAS provides an encyclopedic collection of symbolism and is a valuable resource for psychotherapists, dream interpreters, researchers, and those interested in understanding archetypal symbolism. However, Henderson acknowledges that interpretation of archetypal symbolism is not finite, but continuously evolves with human imagination and experience.

The organization serves a twofold purpose. Firstly, it aims to collect and preserve a vast array of visual materials that embody archetypal themes and motifs. These materials encompass diverse cultural traditions, spanning ancient civilizations to contemporary art. The extensive collection includes images from mythology, folklore, religious traditions, and indigenous cultures, providing a rich tapestry of archetypal symbolism.

Secondly, A.R.A.S. is dedicated to fostering research and exploration into the realm of archetypal symbolism. The archive serves as a valuable resource for scholars, researchers, and analysts, offering a wealth of visual material for in-depth analysis and interpretation. In addition, it provides a platform for interdisciplinary dialogue, encouraging the integration of archetypal imagery into various fields such as psychology, anthropology, art history, and religious studies.

Established initially as a physical archive with meticulously cataloged images, A.R.A.S. has embraced the digital age, expanding its reach and accessibility. With the advent of the internet, the archive has transitioned into a vast online repository accessible to individuals across the globe. This transformation has allowed A.R.A.S. to transcend geographical boundaries, bringing the study of archetypal symbolism to a broader audience.

Through its online platform, A.R.A.S. showcases its vast collection of images and offers curated exhibits and thematic presentations. These exhibitions provide a curated journey into specific archetypal motifs, guiding visitors through the intricate symbolism embedded within various cultural traditions. It serves as a source of inspiration and education, offering a multidimensional understanding of archetypal imagery.

Thomas Singer, MD, a distinguished Jungian analyst, author, editor and president of A.R.A.S., has played a significant role in expanding the relevance and online presence of the archive. With his deep understanding of archetypal psychology and his passion for its integration into contemporary discourse, Singer has been instrumental in advancing the mission of A.R.A.S. He has fostered collaboration and interdisciplinary dialogue seeking to connect A.R.A.S. with other academic and cultural institutions, inviting scholars, artists, and researchers to engage with the archive’s vast collection. This collaboration has resulted in joint exhibitions, academic symposia, and publications that explore the multifaceted dimensions of archetypal symbolism. By encouraging a cross-pollination of ideas, Singer has expanded the relevance of archetypal imagery beyond the confines of analytical psychology. Recognizing that archetypal themes and motifs continue to permeate modern artistic expressions, films, literature, and popular culture, Singer’s efforts have highlighted these connections, demonstrating the enduring presence of archetypal imagery in our cultural psyche.

~ Joseph R. Lee


“I was walking down a scenic nature trail and felt awed at the sight of ducklings and their mother in a tree. Then a great owl swooped down and snatched the ducklings from their mother, flew to a nearby tree, and started gorging on them while the mother could only stare in horror.”


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The Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism, www.ARAS.org

Thomas Singer, M.D., Jungian Analyst, tsinger42@gmail.com


  1. Sam

    Manhole covers! Very helpful as an introduction to a complex topic. Whenever I got lost, I went back to the manhole covers, too.

  2. Mamie Allegretti

    Hello Joseph, Lisa and Deb,
    This was a very good discussion. This morning I woke up and had kind of an intuition (or maybe a thought about a bigger picture) about archetypes. I haven’t fully thought this out but there may be something to it. Archetypes kind of remind me of cymatics experiments using vibration that were done by Hans Jenny. It also reminds me of Michael Conforti’s work on archetypal patterns. And Emoto’s water experiments and how water is affected by thoughts and emotions. It reminds me also of David Bohm’s “implicate order.” An archetype is kind of like a hidden pattern or energy field that is “waiting” to be formed. But the material form can have many faces. I’m also thinking that maybe an archetype can be experienced in a way other than an image??? I also remember reading in the book Vibrational Medicine by Richard Gerber something to the effect that the vibrational pattern of a lizard (I forget the animal he mentions but it could be any life form, I suppose.) is there before the lizard is actually formed. This would also fit in with the idea of a telos in nature as well. I’m also reading Sanford Drob’s book Kabbalistic Visions and I feel like the Lurianic System which he describes on pages 14-15 is also related. I often think of Goethe’s quote, “Alles vergangliche is nur ein Gleichnis.” If this is so, WHAT are we metaphors for? Of course we can never know! I remember when I was very young, one of the questions I wanted to know the answer to was, “How does the Spirit “fall” in matter? I’m STILL asking that question after many many years! Anyway, I’m just thinking out loud but I’m kind of intuiting that all of these are connected somehow into a larger picture. Also, when you were speaking about the young girl coming as a kind of leader or guiding figure, I immediately thought of Greta Thunberg! Thanks again for a thought provoking discussion. And I just love ARAS and thank them for their work!

  3. Tosia zraikat

    wow! That discussion about manholes really affected me. In my childhood, I had a recurring nightmare of my mother cheerfully descending into a manhole and me sobbing wildly, begging her not to go. Listening to your discussion, I realise how persistent and powerful images of descent into the subterranean have been in my life, not only in dreams but emotionally. The descent is always fearful but compelling, a soul urging that I cannot deny, that inevitably leads to a symbolic dark experience of death, revelation and transformation.

  4. Nader Khaghani

    Archetypes, archetypes, archetypes the stuff and stock of our dreams and inwardness of the unconscious unfolding in time and not in space just as colors do. We painters attempt the synthesis of time and space form and color. Said all that, if I may, I appreciate your insightful and profound archetypal wisdom. Thank you.

  5. Iain Greenwood

    Some species of Ducks nest in trees, the Wood Duck for instance. The association I have is of having to face difficulties and dangers. The ducklings will launch themselves from the nest hole onto the ground. Despite appearing not up to the task they flap their tiny inadequate wings, hit the ground and roll to absorb the impact. They’re relatively safe in the nest but the nest itself may attract predators. We have to take the risk/sacrifice or we will be sacrificed by life itself.

    There might be something in the decision making process for the dreamer. To decide involves killing off other options. The root word of decide is deicide (death). A ruthless decisive decision kills off many other options. It points the forward however and this is the dramatic push into thin air. This might represent a push into adulthood and responsibility.

    Thank you for a great episode. I love the instance of the manhole covers!


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