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Archetypal Mythological Approaches to Literature


Myth is ubiquitous in time as well as place: it is a dynamic factor everywhere in human society; transcending time, uniting the past (traditional modes of belief) with the present (current values) and reaching toward the future (spiritual and cultural aspirations). They are collective and communal belonging to the people. Myths reflect the unconscious desires, anxieties and fears of peoples; a palpable projection of a people's hopes, values and aspirations, representing their deepest instinctual existence.  They attempt to express the tribe's awareness of the meaning of life and its place in the universe.

 In sum, to quote Professor Schorer, “it is the essential substructure of all human activity”

Although every people has its own distinctive mythology which may be reflected in legend, folklore, and ideology—although, in other words, myths take their specific shapes from the cultural environments in which they grow—myth is, in the general sense, universal. Furthermore, similar motifs or themes may be found among many different mythologies, and certain images that recur in the myths of peoples widely separated in time and place tend to have a common meaning or, more accurately, tend to elicit comparable psychological responses and to serve similar cultural functions. Such motifs and images are called “archetypes.”

Stated simply, archetypes are “universal symbols.” As Professor Wheel Wright explains in Metaphor and Reality (Indiana, 1962), such symbols are those which carry the same or very similar meanings for a large portion, if not all, of mankind. It is a discoverable fact that certain symbols, such as the sky father and earth mother, light, blood, up-down, the axis of a wheel, and others, recur again and again in cultures so remote from one another in space and time that there is no likelihood of any historical influence and causal connection among them.

Primitive societies had an obsession with fertility.  Any drought, famine or pestilence was seen as a punishment from superior beings. The safety and welfare of the tribe depended on the health and life of a semi-divine or demi-god ruler.  A healthy vigorous and  virile king ensures natural and human productivity. A sick, maimed or impotent king brings blight and disease  to the land and the people.  To avert this danger, the man -god must be killed as soon as he shows symptoms of decline or failure and his power transferred to a vigorous successor.  Kings eventually sought to have a substitute figure or animal to die in their place.

Some Maya, Inca and Aztec tribes sacrificed virgins to appease the gods each night just to ensure that the sun would rise.  

Other examples of archetypes and the symbolic meanings with which they tend to be universally associated are listed below:IMAGES

1. Water: the mystery of creation; birth-death-resurrection; purification and redemption; fertility and growth. According to Carl Jung, water is also the commonest symbol for the unconscious.

a. The Sea: the Mother of all Life; spiritual mystery, and infinity;    death and rebirth; timelessness and eternity; the unconscious.

b.     Rivers: also death and rebirth (baptism); the flowing of time into eternity; transitional phases of the life cycle; incarnations of deities. 

2. Sun (fire and sky are closely related): creative energy;

consciousness (thinking, enlightenment, wisdom, spiritual vision); father principle (moon and earth tend to be associated with female or mother principle); passage of time and life.

a. Rising Sun: birth; creation; enlightenment.

b. Setting Sun: death.

3. Colors:

a. Black (darkness): chaos (mystery, the unknown); death; the unconscious; evil; melancholy.

b. Red: blood, sacrifice; violent passion; disorder.

c. Green: growth; sensation; hope.

4. Circle (sphere, egg): wholeness; unity;

God as Infinite; life in primordial form; union of consciousness and the unconscious— for example, the yang-yin of Chinese art and philosophy, which combines in the circle the yang (male) element (consciousness, life, light, and heat) with the yin (female) element (the un conscious, death, darkness, and cold). 

5. The Archetypal Woman (including the Jungian anima):

a. The Great Mother, Good Mother, Earth Mother: as sociated with birth, warmth, protection, fertility, growth, abundance; the unconscious.

b. The Terrible Mother: the witch, sorceress, siren—associated with fear, danger, and death.

c. The Soul-Mate: the princess or “beautiful lady”—in carnation of inspiration and spiritual fulfillment.

6. Wind (and breath): inspiration; conception; soul or spirit.

7. Ship: microcosm; mankind’s voyage through space and time.

8. Garden: paradise; innocence; unspoiled beauty (especially feminine) ; fertility.

9. Desert: spiritual aridity; death; nihilism or hopelessness.

These examples are by no means exhaustive, but represent some of the more common archetypal images that the reader is likely to encounter in literature. He should also realize that the images we have listed do not necessarily function as archetypes every time they appear in a literary work; the discreet critic interprets them as such only if the total context of the work logically supports an archetypal reading.


1. Creation: this is perhaps the most fundamental of all archetypal motifs; virtually every mythology is built on some account of how the Cosmos, Nature, and Man were brought into existence by some supernatural Being or Beings.

2. Immortality: another fundamental archetype, generally taking one of two basic narrative forms:

a. Escape from Time: the “Return to Paradise,” the state of perfect, timeless bliss enjoyed by man before his tragic Fall into corruption and mortality.

b. Mystical Submersion into Cyclical Time: the theme of endless death and regeneration—man achieves a kind of immortality by submitting to the vast, mysterious rhythm of Nature’s eternal cycle, particularly the cycle of the seasons.

3. Hero Archetypes (archetypes of transformation and redemption)

a) The Quest: the Hero (Savior or Deliverer) undertakes some long journey during which he must perform impossible ( tasks, battle with monsters, solve unanswerable riddles, and overcome insurmountable obstacles in order to save the \ kingdom and perhaps marry the princess.

(b. Initiation: the Hero undergoes a series of excruciating ordeals in passing from ignorance and immaturity to social and spiritual adulthood, that is, in achieving maturity and becoming a full-fledged member of his social group. The initiation most commonly consists of three stages or phases:

(1) separation, (2) transformation, and (3) return. Like the Quest, this is a variation of the Death-and-Rebirth archetype.

c. The Sacrificial Scapegoat: the Hero, with whom the welfare of the tribe or nation is identified, must die in order to atone for the people’s sins and restore the land to fruitfulness.  Eventually Heroes used a substitute figure, often a goat, to transfer the corruption of the tribe and carry it off into the wilderness.  The sacred sacrificial animal cleans, atones and purifies necessary for spiritual natural rebirth and rejuvenation.

Finally, in addition to appearing as images and motifs, archetypes may be found in even more complex combinations as genres or types of literature which conform with the major phases of the seasonal cycle. In Fables of Identity (Harcourt, 1963), Northrop Frye provides the following table of archetypal phases with their correspondent literary types. (The reader may wish to consult Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism for an extended explanation of these categories.)

1. The dawn, spring and birth phase. Myths of the birth of the hero, of revival and resurrection, of creation and (be cause the four phases are a cycle) of the defeat of the powers of darkness, winter and death. Subordinate characters: the father and the mother. The archetype of romance and of most dithyrambic and rhapsodic poetry.

2. The zenith, summer, and marriage or triumph phase. Myths of apotheosis, of the sacred marriage, and of entering into Paradise. Subordinate characters: the companion and the bride. The archetype of com and idyll.

3. The sunset, autumn and death phase. Myths of fall, of the dying god, of violent death and sacrifice and of the isolation of the hero. Subordinate characters: the traitor and the siren. The archetype of tragedy and elegy.

4. The darkness, winter and dissolution phase. Myths of the triumph of these powers; myths of floods and the return of chaos, of the defeat of the hero. . . . Subordinate characters: the ogre and the witch. The archetype of satire.  

Professor Frye’s contribution takes us into the mythological approach to literary analysis. As our discussion of mythology has shown, the task of the myth critic is a special one. Unlike the traditional critic, who relies heavily on history and the biography of the writer, the myth critic is interested more in prehistory and the biographies of the gods. Unlike the formalistic critic, who concentrates upon the shape and symmetry of the work itself, the myth critic probes for the inner spirit which gives that form its vitality, its enduring appeal. And, unlike the Freudian critic, who is apt to see the hawk-chicken phenomenon cited in our introduction as symbolic of some form of sexual neurosis (perhaps the hawk is a father-image, and the coop a womb symbol), the myth critic assumes a broader perspective (he will seek to discover the prototypal hawk in whose image the model was carved and will look beyond our chicken to the primordial egg itself).

Yet, despite the special importance of the myth critic’s contribution, this approach is, for several reasons, relatively new and poorly understood. In the first place, only during the present century have the proper interpretive tools become available through the development of such disciplines as anthropology, psychology, and cultural history. Second, many scholars and teachers of literature have remained sceptical of myth criticism because of its tendencies toward the cult and the occult. 

A Handbook of Critical Approaches, Wilfred Guerin, Earle G. Labor, Lee Morgan, John R. Willingham.  Harper Row, 1966. 

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