Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


How to Identify Archetypes in Dreams

Archetypes usually have an alien, unfamiliar quality about them.

Kelly Bulkeley
Source: Kelly Bulkeley

When Carl Jung discussed the value of dreams, he emphasized the importance of archetypes.

Archetypes are the deepest forms and patterns of the psyche. They express primal modes of thought inherent in the evolutionary structure of the human brain.

Jung said the archetypes arise from the most basic levels of the collective unconscious and connect us to the instinctual energies shared by every member of our species.

How can you tell if one of your dreams contains an archetype? Here are four signs to keep in mind.

  1. Emotional intensity. The presence of an archetype often causes a strong emotional reaction, either positive or negative, perhaps out of proportion to what seems to be happening on the surface of the dream. Whenever you have a dream with an extremely vivid emotional reaction, look carefully at the exact situation and context in which you felt it. Somewhere in that scene is an archetype.
  2. Strangeness. Because they come from the depths of the collective unconscious, archetypes tend to have an alien, unfamiliar quality about them. They may feel eerie, uncanny, or not of this world. If you have a dream about something that has absolutely no relation to anything in your waking life, that may indicate the presence of an archetype.
  3. Mythic characters. Many archetypes take the form of mythic characters who appear in various impersonal guises. These characters can act in surprisingly powerful, independent, and intelligent ways. They may even take an unsettling interest in you. When your dream includes a character who is totally unfamiliar from waking life, yet very clear and distinct in its dream presence, there’s a good chance it’s an archetype.
  4. Synchronicity. A synchronicity is a weird coincidence that has no apparent explanation in normal physics, yet is connected at the level of psychological meaning. Jung developed this concept with the help of Wolfgang Pauli, a Nobel prize-winning pioneer in quantum physics. Synchronicities often occur when archetypes are activated, adding extra symbolic emphasis to their emotional truths and spiritual insights.

If you have experienced a dream with these qualities, it's worth your time and energy to explore it in more detail. To begin, simply record the dream in a journal. Add any diagrams, pictures, or drawings that seem relevant, and write whatever comes to mind in relation to the dream. Do this a few times, coming at the same dream from different angles and frames of mind. Welcome the dream into your ongoing awareness, and experiment with various ways of connecting its energies with your waking life.

You can keep going with this process for quite a while, as new dimensions of unconscious meaning open up over time. There's no need to analyze or define the dream, and no need to categorize its contents. There will be opportunities for that later. For now, simply do your best to be a good host to this special visitor from your own psychic depths.

When you least expect it, you may find it has a gift for you.

More from Kelly Bulkeley Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today