Archetypes reflect universal, primitive, and elemental patterns whose effective embodiment in a literary work evokes a profound response from the reader. They manifest as narrative designs, character types, images identifiable in a wide variety of works of literature, myths, dreams, and ritualized modes of social behavior. Anthropologist J. G. Frazer, in his work The Golden Bough, suggests that an archetype represents elemental patterns of myth and ritual recurring in legends and ceremonies of diverse cultures. Carl Jung sees archetypes as “primordial images” or “psychic residue” of repeated types of experiences in the lives of our ancient ancestors that present themselves in the “collective unconscious” of the human race and give rise to myth, religion, dream, fantasy, and literature.
These patterns often recur as underlying patterns or motifs in literature:
- Death / rebirth — grounded in the cycle of seasons and organic circle of human life (Christ, phoenix)
- Journey underground (Odysseus, Aeneas, Gilgamesh)
- Heavenly ascent (Mary)
- Search for the father (Telemachus)
- Promethean rebel-hero
- Image and role of women as Eve (femme fatale) or a Madonna (earth goddess)
Archetypal Approach to the Genre of Epic
The cyclical form of the classical epic is based on the natural cycle, which has two main rhythms: the life and death of the individual, and the slower social rhythm that brings cities and empires to their rise and fall (individual — national). The total action in the background of the Iliad moves from the cities of Greece, through a ten-year siege of Troy, back to Greece again. The total action of the Odyssey is a specialized example of the same thing, moving from Ithaca back to Ithaca. The Aeneid moves the household gods of Priam from Troy to New Troy (Rome). The foreground action begins at a point described in the Odyssey as “somewhere” (in medias res convention of the epic) — actually it is far more carefully chosen. The Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid begin at a kind of nadir of the total cyclical action — the Iliad: at a moment of despair in the Greek camp; the Odyssey: with Odysseus and Penelope farthest from one another, both wooed by importunate suitors; the Aeneid: with its hero shipwrecked on the shores of Carthage, citadel of Juno and enemy of Rome. From there, the action moves both backward and forward enough to indicate the general shape of the historical cycle.
The appearance of an ambivalent female archetype appears in the epic, sometimes benevolent or sinister: Penelope, Calypso, Circe, Dido, Duessa, Eve, Beatrice, Helen, etc.