Literary Archetypes

'The Circle of Power,' by Claire Elek

The following is a list of archetypes that occur in the literatures of different cultures across time and space. Whether these are evident in the ostensible literatures of extraterrestrial cultures is yet to be seen, but for the time being we can agree that these are symbols all humans can recognize, whether aged nine or ninety.

I have adapted the list from materials given to me during various workshops for Pre-AP instruction in the Eighth Grade. Some of this might just seem like “common sense,” but again, that’s the point of archetypes: somehow, these are symbols that we have always known.


Character Archetypes

(a) the hero: some scholars argue that this archetype is so well defined that the life of the protagonist can be clearly divided into a series of well-marked adventures that have some importance to a particular society or culture.

Generally, there is something strange about the hero’s birth: his mother may be a virgin, someone may have tried killing him at birth, etc. The childhood is usually equally uncommon: the hero might, for instance, be taken away from his parents and raised by a foster family. Eventually, the hero matures to manhood and then embarks on a series of adventures, conquers wild beasts or human enemies, and in the end marries a queen and becomes king. At the end of his life, he meets a mysterious death; his body is usually not buried, but he instead has a more holy sepulcher or resting place.

(b) the young man from the provinces: this hero is spirited away as a young man and raised by strangers. He later returns to his home and heritage where he is a stranger who can see new problems and solutions.

(c) mentors: these individuals serve as teachers or counselors to the initiates (see above). Sometimes these characters function as role models, and they often serve as father or mother figures.

(d) mentor-pupil relationship: the mentor teaches by example the skills necessary to survive the quest

(e) hunting or group companions: loyal companions willing to face any number of perils in order to be together.

(f) loyal retainers: these individuals are somewhat like servants to the hero who are heroic themselves. Their duty is to protect the hero and reflect the nobility of the hero.

(g) friendly beast: this shows that nature is on the side of the hero.

(h) the Christ figure: this individual—generally a main character, though not necessarily the chief protagonist—sacrifices him- or herself to achieve a greater good (i.e., the safety of others, the redemption of another character, etc.).

(i) the devil figure: evil incarnate, this character offers worldly goods, fame, or even knowledge to the protagonist in exchange for the possession of that character’s soul.

(j) the outcast: a figure who is banished from a social group for some crime (real or imagined) against his fellow man. The outcast in usually destined to become a type of wanderer, drifting from place to place.

(k) woman figures:

  1. the earth-mother: this character is symbolic of fruition, abundance, and fertility. She traditionally offers spiritual and emotional nourishment to those with whom she comes in contact.
  1. the temptress: characterized by sensuous beauty, this woman is one to who the hero is physically attracted to and who ultimately brings about his death or downfall.
  1. the platonic ideal: this woman is a source of inspiration and a spiritual ideal, for whom the hero (or even author) has an intellectual rather than a physical attraction.
  1. the faithful wife: another source of inspiration and another spiritual ideal, this character is a woman who is utterly faithful (physically, emotionally, and mentally) to the hero and to whom the hero is physically attracted.
  1. the unfaithful wife: a woman married to (or romantically involved with) a man she sees as dull or distant and who is attracted to more interesting and virile men.
  1. the star-crossed lovers: two characters that are engaged in a love affair that is fated to end tragically for one or both due to the disapproval of society, their friends, family, or some tragic situation.

(l) the creature of nightmare: a monster that is usually summoned from the deepest, darkest part of the human psyche to threaten the lives of the hero/heroine. Often it is a perversion or desecration of the human body.


 Images/Symbolic Archetypes

(a) light vs. dark: light usually suggests hope, renewal, or enlightenment; dark implies the unknown, ignorance, or despair.

(b) water vs. desert: because water is necessary to life and growth, it usually appears as a symbol of birth or rebirth. Water is used in baptismal services, which solemnizes spiritual births. Similarly, the appearance of rain in a work of literature can suggest a character’s spiritual rebirth.

(c) heaven vs. hell:  Man has traditionally associated parts of the universe not accessible to him with the dwelling places of the primordial forces that govern his world (i.e., God or the gods). The skies and mountain tops house gods; the bowels of the earth contain diabolic forces that inhabit this universe.

(d) innate wisdom vs. educated stupidity: some characters exhibit wisdom and understanding of situations instinctively as opposed to those who are supposedly in charge. Loyal retainers often exhibit this wisdom as they accompany the hero(es) on the journey.

(e) haven vs. wilderness: places of safety contrast sharply against the dangerous wilderness. Heroes are often sheltered for a time to regain health and resources.

(f) fire vs. ice: fire represents knowledge, light, life, rebirth; while ice (like deserts) represents ignorance, darkness, sterility, and death.

(g) mazes or labyrinths: these symbolize the inner journey through the confusing and conflicting pathways of the mind until the seeker reaches the center and discovers the realities of his/her own nature.

(h) numbers:

  1. three: the Christian Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Ghost); Divinity; mind, body, spirit; birth, life, death
  2. four: Mankind—four limbs; four elements; four seasons; the ages of man (childhood; youth; middle-age; old age)
  3. six: devil; evil
  4. seven: Divinity (3) + Mankind (4) = relationship between man and God. Seven deadly sins; seven days of the week; seven days to create the world; seven stages of civilization; seven colors of the rainbow

(i) shapes:

  1. triangle: communications between heaven and earth; fire; the number 3; the Holy Trinity (Christianity); aspiration; movement upward; return to origins; light; sight
  2. cross: tree of life; axis of the world; struggle; martyrdom
  3. circle: heaven; intellect; thought; sun; unity; perfection; eternity; oneness; celestial realm; hearing

(j) colors:

  1. white: purity; virility; wisdom
  2. black: evil; death; ignorance
  3. red: blood; life; emotion; passion; anger; excitement
  4. green: earth; fertility; sensation; vegetation; water; nature; growth; envy
  5. brown/gray: loss or lacking; last stages of life; decay
  6. gold: majesty; sun; wealth; truth
  7. silver: moon; wealth

(k) nature:

  1. air/wind: activity; creativity; freedom; movement
  2. an ascent (sloping up): transcendence; inward journey; increasing intensity
  3. a center: thought; unity; timelessness; paradise; infinity; creator
  4. a descent (sloping down): unconscious; potential; animal nature; decay
  5. fire: transformation; love; life; spiritual energy; regeneration; passion
  6. lake: mystery; depth; unconsciousness
  7. river/stream: life force; life cycle
  8. sun: knowledge; the Divine eye; fire; life force; guiding force; splendor; healing; resurrection; ultimate wholness
  9. stars: guidance
  10. mountain: ambition; goals
  11. clouds/mist: mystery; sacred
  12. volcano: evil; shadow
  13. lightning: intuition; inspiration
  14. forest: fear; anxiety

(l) objects:

  1. shadow: dark side of humans; evil; devil
  2. boats/rafts: safe passage
  3. bridge: change; passage to/from more dangerous territory
  4. skeleton: mortality
  5. heart: love; emotions
  6. hourglass: passage of time
  7. the magic weapon:  the extraordinary quality of the hero because no one else can wield the weapon or use it to its fullest potential. It is usually given by a mentor figure

(m) animals:

  1. eagle: sky god; divinity
  2. horse: speed; power; mobility
  3. goat: devil
  4. bear: bravery; strength
  5. lamb: sacrifice; innocence; purity
  6. dove: peace; divinity


Situational/Plot Archetypes

(a) the quest: this motif describes the search someone or some sacred object which when found and brought back will restore fertility to a waste land, the desolation of which is mirrored by a leader’s illness and disability.

(b) the task: to save a kingdom, to win the fair lady, to identify himself so that he may reassume his rightful position, the hero must perform some nearly superhuman deed.

(c) the initiation: these commonly take the form of an initiation into adult life. The adolescent comes into his/her maturity with new awareness and problems along with  new hope for the community

(d) the journey: the journey sends the hero in search of some truth or information necessary to restore fertility to the kingdom. Usually, the hero descends into a real or psychological hell and is forced to discover the darkest truths, quite often concerning his own faults. Once the hero is at his lowest point, he must accept personal responsibility to return to the world of the living. A second use of this pattern is to depict a limited number of travelers on a sea voyage, bus ride, or any other trip for the purpose of isolating them and using them as a symbol for society at large.

(e) the fall: this archetype describes a descent from a higher to a lower state of being. The experience involves a defilement and/or loss of innocence and bliss. The fall is often accompanied by expulsion from a kind of paradise as penalty for disobedience and moral sin.

(f) death and rebirth: the most common of all plot archetypes, this motif grows out of the similarities between the cycle of life and the cycle of nature; hence morning and spring represent birth (or rebirth), life, and youth, and evening and winter represent old age and death.

(g) natural vs. mechanistic world: nature is good while technology and society are often depicted as evil.

(h) good vs. evil: the battle between two primal forces. Good generally triumphs over evil despite great odds.

(i) the unhealable wound: this wound is either physical or psychological and cannot be healed fully. It also indicates a loss of innocence. Wounds such as these often drive the sufferer to desperate measures.

(j) the ritual: the actual ceremonies the initiate (generally the hero) experiences that will mark his rite of passage into another state. The importance of the ritual rites cannot be overstressed as they provide clear signposts for the character’s role in society as well as our own positions in the world.

(k) paradise: regarded as a place of peace, light, and beauty, echoing the primordial perfection of nature. It sometimes represents heaven itself and sometimes a stage on the road towards it. This paradise may be depicted as a garden or, specifically in the Christian tradition, as the “New Jerusalem”.