Say It With Tarot

Everything you want to know about Tarot--especially for contemplation, self-empowerment, personal growth and creativity--from Tarot expert, author and deck co-creator Janet Boyer.

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Archetypes - The Stories We Live By

It can be difficult to discover personal meaning and purpose when we don't zoom out to get a big picture of the patterns and symbols in our life. One way we can discover the patterns and purposes of our life is by discerning prevalent Archetypes and symbols.

What is an archetype? An archetype is a template or original pattern from which copies are made. Psychologist Carl Jung, author Joseph Campbell, storyteller/author Clarissa Pinkola Estes, psychologist Jean Shinonda-Bolen and others are among those that have brought the concept of Archetypes into our consciousness. 

To break it down in practical, every day terms, Archetypes are patterns that are universally recognized. We see Archetypes in myths, fairy tales, literature, and movies. Think about your own life. Which types of movies do you like? Do you consistently cast yourself in the Hero role? The Underdog or Victim? The Detective? What about the Warrior, Princess, or Femme Fatale? 

Do any of the "characters" you play interact consistently with others? Do you find that you clash with Victims, for example, and wish they'd stop whining? Do you want to kick them? Are you a Bully? (Coward?) Do you seek to rescue them? (Rescuer) Empower them? (Liberator) Ignore them?

Many Archetypes "dance" with one another. Advocates are often paired with Victims, Knights with Damsels, Students with Teachers, Mother/Father with Child, etc. These Archetypal dramas play out repeatedly, whether we are conscious of it or not. The benefit of becoming conscious of these energies is that we find ourselves entering an awareness of what animates us and the kind of relationships we are drawn to.

"Animation" is usually an emotional reaction of either enthusiastic affinity or extreme distaste. When we are able to identify these energies, we can step back and begin to see the forest for the trees. That is, we can see the patterns in our life and in others, instead of viewing everything so personally. In recognizing these patterns, we become more conscious, and when we become more conscious, we then have choice.

There is no choice without awareness.

This is why many Archetypal dramas in relationships have identifiable repeating patterns, even with different partners: there is no awareness of what energies we our using, our motivations, or the Archetypal dynamics of our relationships to others and the world. 

Archetypes are neither good or bad, despite the reputation of some. Each one can strengthen, protect, and help fulfill our soul's curriculum we designed before incarnation.  For example, the Prostitute archetype sounds quite negative. Yet, when we are aware of this particular pattern, we become empowered--refusing to "sell out" for survival or security. 

There are light and shadow connected to every archetype. However, they do not correlate to good/bad or positive/negative. Rather, the "light" areas of an archetype are the ones we recognized and readily embrace. The "shadow" areas of an archetype are the ones we project onto others. This projection can either be in the form of adulation or hero-worship or in the form of demonization and judgment.

To project an archetypal pattern to another is, in some way, not to “own” it. Carl Jung believed that archetypes reside in the collective unconscious, which is why they are universally recognized and contained, to a greater or lesser degree, within the psyche of every person. Jung asserted that when an individual over-identifies with an archetype--to the point of almost becoming "possessed" by a pattern--psychosis results.

Another way we can see our life symbolically is to examine symbols that surround us. What animals, trees, or objects do you identify with? List as many qualities you can about them. Are there any correlations to your life, personality, or interactions with others? What are you good at? What is your bliss? If you could turn into a character or Archetype, which would it be? What do you collect? Do certain symbols crop up in your dreams? 

Disciplines such as astrology, Tarot, and personality models all contain archetypal patterns. For example, in Celtic astrology, archetypal patterns are correlated with tree spirits and their personalities. In Chinese astrology, archetypal patterns are correlated with 12 different animals who display certain hallmark traits. The Major Arcana of the Tarot features 22 developmental archetypal patterns such as Fool, Magician, Empress, and Hermit.

In the Enneagram, there are 9 Types which manifest specific archetypal patterns. A Type 7 often manifests the Hedonist and Renaissance Person pattern, while a Type 9 often manifests the Peacemaker or Diplomat archetype. In the Ansir system, the 14 Style "Bosses" are named for their archetypal behaviors, with monikers such as Visionary, Empath, and Healer. David Keirsey has categorized humanity into four temperaments which contain four variants each. For example, The Idealist temperament (NF) includes Champions, Healers, Counselors, and Teachers.

Guidance and information is all around you in the form of Archetypal energy patterns and symbols. Insight is transmitting like a radio signal on a specific frequency. Learning to see ourselves and our lives symbolically sharpens our ability to see these patterns, and injects greater meaning and purpose into our lives. It also helps us discover areas where we are "asleep", and in waking up to the parts we and others are playing in this drama called life, we become more flexible and skilled at making conscious choices for our highest good.

-- Janet

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Janet Boyer is the author of Back in Time Tarot (Hampton Roads), Tarot in Reverse (Schiffer Publishing) and Naked Tarot: Sassy, Stripped-Down Advice (Dodona Books). She's the co-creator (with her husband, artist Ron Boyer) of the Snowland Deck and Coffee Tarot, and authored both companion books to those decks. A Renaissance Soul, she is also an award-winning cook, mixed media artist, jewelry artisan and journal maker. Next to creating, her favorite thing to do is spend time with her beloved husband, son and 5 cats at her rural home in Pennsylvania. Visit her at


  • John Halstead
    John Halstead Sunday, 11 November 2012

    Technically, for Jung archetypes are not "patterns that are universally recognized [...] in myths, fairy tales, literature, and movies." Those are "symbols" or "signs". The archetypes are the unconscious structures of the psyche that produce the symbols and signs that we recognize in myth and movies. This is an important difference, because many hard polytheists reject Jungian theory because they mistakenly believe it reduces the gods to symbols. This distinction is unfortunately overlook by many Pagans. Symbols are fully knowable, but the archetypes are not. Symbols can be consciously created, archetypes cannot.

  • Janet Boyer
    Janet Boyer Monday, 12 November 2012

    Hi John,

    As I mentioned in my post, others have built upon what Jung postulated (Myss, Shinoda Bolen, Carol Pearson etc.). concerning archetypes. For example, here's how Dr. Jean Shinoda Bolen defines archetypes:

    I see the archetype as a possibility. It’s what can develop in the personality. It is laid down much in the way that one would put a certain amount of, say, salts in a solution. The crystalline structure is inherent, but you don’t see it until there’s enough substance to make it crystallize. Under certain conditions, the inherent pattern will constellate. It’s the same in a human personality: given a certain life energy, a certain pattern, a certain experience, a certain culture, certain archetypes will constellate." (From

    Archetypes are, indeed, universally recognized patterns in literature and myth. When I say "King", no matter what the culture of origin, a idea or model pops into mind. Same with archetypes like "Death" or "Beauty".

    Symbols, though, are not universal and cannot be given a standard meaning. This would be why the color white symbolizes mourning and death in China...whereas black symbolizes the same thing in America. Death is a universally recognized archetype...but the symbols that embody aspects of Death are not.

    Ways archetypes are, in fact, consciously created include acting and storytelling. As we become conscious of how we may be "playing out" certain archetypal patterns, we can then use this awareness to ameliorate unwanted consequences of what was "a rut"...and begin making actual choices about our behavior. Thus, while we may not be able to choose how/when an archetypal pattern is activated within us, through mindfulness, we can begin to "catch" ourselves when we're "hooked"...and then decide how we want to proceed.

    So in terms of gods and goddesses, a woman could display an Athena archetype and its hallmarks. This patterns is unlike a Hestia archetype or an Aphrodite archetype. Now, whether such psychological approaches to life "reduce" gods and goddesses to mere symbols is up for debate, certainly. I'm not a hard polytheist nor a pagan theologian, so that area of inquiry is beyond my scope of interest and field of experience. :)

  • John Halstead
    John Halstead Tuesday, 13 November 2012

    Actually, most Pagan and New Age authors who draw on Jung, do not build on his ideas, but rather present a stripped down version of Jungian theory, a kind of Jung-lite. Jungian archetypes cannot be consciously created. The conflation of archetypes with symbols (or in Jungian parlance "signs") is problematic because it strips the archetype of its numinosity. See Naomi Goldenberg's book, Changing of the Gods: Feminism and the End of Traditional Religions (1979), especially the section entitled "Thou Shalt Not Create Archetypes". []. See also David Waldron's discussion of Jungian Paganism in his book Sign of the Witch: Modernity and the Pagan Revival (2008), in which he explains that
    "Jung clearly differentiates between symbols and archetypes embedded in culture and consciously constructed forms [...] According to Jung, consciously constructed images are allegories and signs that give reference to psychological archetypes deeply buried in the unconscious mind. They do not represent the archetypes themselves and are thus not [archetypal] as such. Allegories and signs have a conscious and known meaning whereas [an archetype] must always and necessarily be an unknown quantity. If a symbol can be totally explained or rationalized within the confines of the conscious mind, then it ceases exercise the power of [an archetype] and becomes an allegoric reference. From Jung's perspective, [archetypes] represent those unquantifiable aspects of the unconscious that have a numinous quality, creating meaning for the individual or the collective. They play an illuminating role, revealing the hidden aspects of the psyche. However, when a symbol becomes a consciously apprehended and constructed image, it ceases to be [an archetype] and, although it may masquerade as [an archetype], it becomes a representation of the personal. Therefore it ceases to be a union of opposites and becomes a collaborator in the suppression of the shadow."

  • Janet Boyer
    Janet Boyer Monday, 19 November 2012

    Thanks for further sharing your perspective, John!

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