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What’s an Archetype?

An archetype, in its most general sense, is a recurring symbol, character, theme, or motif that appears in literature, mythology, folklore, religion, and other forms of storytelling across different cultures and time periods. These archetypal elements represent universal and timeless symbols or patterns that resonate with fundamental aspects of the human experience. They are, we think, deeply ingrained in the collective human consciousness and are shared across diverse societies. They are symbolic representations that embody common human emotions, experiences, and themes and serve as a sort of narrative shorthand to show who or what someone is without having to explain in depth. Archetypes can be found in various forms, including characters, symbols, and themes.

Examples of Character Archetypes

1. The Hero: Perhaps the most well-known archetype. Almost every story has one, in one form or another. The Hero represents the individual who embarks on a transformative journey (which isn’t necessarily a “journey” so much as an overarching challenge), faces obstacles, and ultimately achieves personal growth and triumph.

2. The Mentor: The Mentor archetype is a wise and experienced figure who guides and imparts knowledge to the protagonist.

3. The Villain: The Villain archetype embodies evil, conflict, and opposition to the hero’s goals.

4. The Mother: The Mother archetype represents nurturing, protection, and fertility. It can be seen in figures like Mother Earth in various creation myths and Demeter or Gaia in Greek mythology.

5. The Trickster: The Trickster archetype is mischievous, unpredictable, and often challenges societal norms. Loki in Norse mythology and the character of Puck in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” exemplify this archetype.

6. The Journey: The Journey archetype signifies personal growth and transformation through physical or metaphorical journeys. It can be found in myths like the hero’s quest in “The Odyssey” or the search for the golden fleece in “Argonautika”.

There are many more and these types aren’t mutually exclusive. The Mentor can also be a Trickster, for example. Nor do the roles have to stay the same through a story. Archetypes hold great significance because they tap into the universal aspects of human nature and experience. They transcend cultural and linguistic barriers, allowing people from different backgrounds to recognize and relate to these symbolic elements in stories.

Essentially, what they are is a lens, a way to understand a character or event in the story’s context. Archetypes provide a foundation for the analysis of literature, mythology, and storytelling. They offer a framework for understanding the roles of characters, the development of narratives, and the exploration of themes and motifs in a wide range of cultural expressions.

Relying on them too much can lead to presumptions and flawed analyses. They are tools for understanding, but they’re modern tools, based off of modern(ish) psychological theories. Myth and folklore usually don’t develop along such set character lines; they’re just things that have been observed as recurring. Don’t get me wrong; they ARE helpful. But they’re only part of what you need to understand a narrative. They are not always followed exactly, and its possible that simply won’t apply to a story, no matter how much we want them to.

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