Examining the Archetype of Spirit

Examining the Archetype of Spirit

Bald-headed Old Man, by Rembrandt

What we colloquially call the human “spirit,” is among the archetypes of the unconscious. Jung says the spirit archetype usually appears in dreams as a “wise old man,” who gives “decisive convictions, prohibitions, and wise counsels” (Jung 214). This motif also shows up “in dreams in the guise of magician, doctor, priest, teacher, professor, grandfather, or any other person possessing authority” (Jung 216). Sometimes, he appears simply as “an authoritative voice which passes final judgments” (Jung 215). He can appear as a ghost of a deceased one, or even as a “grotesque gnomelike figure or talking animal” (ibid.). These spirit-figures are not always morally good. Jung says they often show “signs of duplicity, if not of outright malice” (ibid.).

Spirit has been associated, in human myths and fairytales, with light, reason, intellect, moral rectitude, and good advice. The idea of a mentor has its origin in Greek mythology. Mentor was the son of Heracles and Asopis. When Mentor was an old man, Odysseus, his friend, placed him in charge of his son, Telemachus. Odysseus was leaving for the Trojan War. He needed the wise old man to watch over, offer sound advice, and be a father figure to Telemachus in his absence. Athena disguised herself as Mentor to offer her own divine counsel to the boy. In The Odyssey, Athena, appearing as Mentor, convinced Telemachus to stand up to his mother’s suitors, and go abroad in search of his father. Thus, we use the word, mentor, today to designate someone who offers wise counsel in trying times. This is a major characteristic of spirit. 

There are many sides to the image of the archetype of spirit; this is but one. Spirit is itself an aspect of Soul. My idea of Soul encompasses consciousness, unconsciousness, and body. Spirit is one of many archetypes.

The archetype of spirit in the shape of a man, hob­goblin, or animal always appears in a situation where insight, understanding, good advice, determination, planning, etc., are needed but cannot be mustered on one’s own resources. The archetype compensates this state of spiritual deficiency by con­tents designed to fill the gap (Jung 216).

Jung goes on to discuss the spirit motif in fairytales. Again, the wise old man appears when there is a “hopeless and desperate situation” (Jung 217) afoot. Apparently, the old man provides a “profound reflection or a lucky idea” (ibid.) that extricates the hero from the dire straits they find themselves in. Jung adds that the wise old man often asks questions, such as, “who? why? whence? and whither? for the purpose of inducing self-reflection and mobilizing the moral forces” (Jung 220) that are required to propel the hero on to victory and success.  

There is also the negative side to the spirit archetype:

Just as all archetypes have a positive, favourable, bright side that points upwards, so also they have one that points down­wards, partly negative and unfavourable, partly chthonic, but for the rest merely neutral. To this the spirit archetype is no exception (Jung 226).

One aspect of the negative side of spirit seeks to eclipse earthly life for an otherworldly Utopia. Western culture is primarily a spirit-seeking society, even though many would deny this. We have been obsessed with spirit for a long time. Spirit is ubiquitous in our culture. It is the driving force behind many Western standbys, like capitalism, technology, industry, religion, and even many mystical and new age teachings. Anytime you hear someone talking about “transcendence”, you can bet spirit is in operation. Spirit is overemphasized at the expense of Soul. Many have forgotten about Soul, since it is much messier and less glamorous. We would rather soar in the heavens than slog through the morasses and quagmires of Soul. This is what occurs when one archetype is emphasized over all others. An aggrandized archetype can take control of one’s entire life, possessing one and causing one to obsess over that particular archetypal motif. This has occurred with the overinflated ego, the same as with the overemphasized spirit. We need spirit, of a surety, but not at the expense of other aspects of Soul.


Work Cited

Jung, C.G. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (Collected Works 9,1). Trans. R.F.C. Hull. New York: Princeton, 1958.

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