There is something very important we need to understand about ourselves if we are to be psychologically literate: Our ego may think it is the whole story, but it is not. It is merely that aspect of our psyche with which we consciously identify.
If the entire psyche were to be compared to a mystery novel, complete with plot, characters, and events, the ego would be the detective who can never know all the facts because he cannot inhabit the minds of the other characters or be everywhere at once to see all that happens behind the scenes. The information to which the detective does not have access is like our unconscious self which operates independently of our conscious ego. All the detective (or ego) can do is observe and follow the clues our unconscious self leaves behind. The clues are things we don’t understand about ourselves: all our contradictory urges, compulsive behaviors, thoughtless words and confusing emotions. Luckily, they are very easy to find for they show up constantly in waking life and dreams.
Our unconscious self has two levels: personal and collective. Our personal unconscious is the sea of forgotten or untapped material unique to us. The collective unconscious, which is farther from our ego’s awareness, is the core of pre-formed patterns inherited by every human. The physical patterns are our instincts; their psychological counterparts are called archetypes. We all inherit the same patterns, but, like the outlined shapes in coloring books, everyone fills them in differently because of different genetic inheritance and life experiences.
Throughout history humans have personified the contents of the collective unconscious and projected them onto gods and goddesses. For the Greeks, Dionysus and Aphrodite represented the instinct for sex and the passions of love and jealousy; Persephone stood for the instinct for reflection, particularly the depressions that plunge us into the dark abyss of suffering; and Athena and Ares exemplified the aggressive, warlike aspects of our instinct for activity.
Since the ancients had no understanding of psychology, their deities were given both credit and blame for peoples’ powerful urges and unhealthy behavior. Thus, when a man was overcome with war-like rage he could say with a clear conscience and utter belief in his innocence, “Ares must have wanted that man dead or else he would not have made me kill him.” Or, “Aphrodite told Eros to pierce my heart with love for that woman I stole from her husband.” People truly believed these things.
Projecting the archetypes onto deities enabled the ancients to escape overwhelming feelings of guilt and kept them unconscious of the almost unbearable knowledge of their own capacity for evil. But wait: Are we any different? Doesn’t belief in God still free us from the burden of having to take responsibility for our actions? Consider this: if our country or religion makes war against another country or religion, don’t many of us justify it by believing God is on our side and wants us to correct and punish those terrible, evil people?
Why should we try to solve the mystery of archetypes? Because, for good or for ill, we all contain the demonic and divine powers represented by archetypes. Healthily balanced and empowered archetypal energies bring out the very best in human nature and have the potential to guide individuals, nations, and religions to peace, love, wisdom, and healthy new life. But this can only happen when enough egos recognize the archetypes as their roommates, and not external enemies or gods.