Myths as Symbols and Archetypes

Stonehenge, England

Myths express what happened in the past and what will happen in the future, told in the present. They bridge time between the past and today.

Myth as a Form of Symbolic Expression

There are several modern ways to approach myths. Myths explain enigmatic phenomena and the universe and provide a spiritual dimension where sacred history encounters the supernatural or unexplained. Myth helps people accept life with serenity rather than with horror. In this way, myths perform an interpretive function in society, allowing a sacred place in society for people to ask “Why?” The response to the question is from a source of divine information contained in a myth.

Myths are symbolic expressions for people to interpret, similar to music, drama, and poetry. This aesthetic dimension of myth also incorporates creative energy, dreams, and emotions. Some dreams are believed to prophesy foretelling the future, while other dreams provide clarification of past events. Myths are a symbolic construction of the world and create rather than explain phenomena. The opposite of myths being interpreted as a symbolic expression is the hyper-rational perspective, which states that myths are literal misinformation and symbolic nonsense.

Myth as a Form of PsychologyFreud and Jung

Another popular way myth is interpreted is through psychoanalysis, based on the works of Sigmund Freud (1886-1939). Proposed by Freud and further developed by Carl Jung (1875-1961), this approach views myths as a projection of the subconscious through “wish-fulfillment.” Once dreams have been properly interpreted, they can be recognized in the conscious. In other words, myths originate in the unconscious but are consciously created. Freud proposed that there is an independent, trans-historical psyche in every person and that people of the same nation, ethnicity, or group share common fears and hopes that are expressed in their worldviews and myths. People create the same materials because all people share the same cognitive abilities. Similarly, Jung believed that there is a tendency for all people to form the same mythic symbols or archetypes.

Carl Jung argues that religion preserves myth, and myth sustains religion. For example, Christianity has failed because myths have not been made relevant to the modern world through symbolic reinterpretation. As a result, Christian myths have been pitted against science, making belief in Christian doctrine problematic for most people. For instance, the literal reading of the Gospels renders them incompatible with history, although if read symbolically, Christ serves as a model and mythical hero.


Archetypes can be applied cross-culturally and have a universal quality because every person has experienced hunger, thirst, heat, cold, and fear. Archetypes are basic metaphors, patterns, paradigms, images, and concepts exerting influence on intellectual and emotional behavior. Thus, archetypes are universal and independent of tradition, including an individual’s past experiences. For psychoanalysis, gods are archetypal image that contains human experience. An example in Christian myth is the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge; in Norse mythology, there is Yggdrasil. Other archetypal images include those of the afterlife, popular in the Middle East and Europe, including caverns, boats, bridges, and tunnels.

There are two main criticisms against the use of interpreting archetypal images in myths. The first is that archetypal symbols are static; that is, they represent the personality, not the behaviors that myths narrate. Secondly, Jung related myth to the individual, ignoring that myth is a social phenomenon that addresses social structures and functions. One myth may have more than one archetype; however, more than one myth is necessary to identify with on an individual level. For Jung, myth served as a way to link people to their unconsciousness, though over time, an individual’s myths change in response to changing circumstances in society. When individuals’ dreams are studied, personal mythology emerges, and it allows people to know themselves in a world of disorder.

Further Reading

Adolf Bastian – A German Ethnologist.

Freud (1900) The Interpretation of Dreams.

Jung (1932) Modern Man in Search of a Soul.

Snyder (1996) Myth Conceptions: Joseph Campbell and the New Age.

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