Symbols, archetypes & motifs symbols Three categories: Archetypal


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Symbols Three categories:

Archetypal – The first symbols of humankind that have replicated themselves in stories throughout the ages across all cultures. They appear in the stories of groups from cavemen to 21st century authors. The term “archetype” was coined by Karl Jung who used them as the basis of “collective unconscious” theory.
Cultural – As cultural groups use archetypal symbols to represent their values, fears, beliefs, and expectations, these objects take on meaning specific to that group. For example, the cross is an ancient archetypal symbol. When cultural groups adopt it, the meanings become both universal and specific. For most cultures the cross holds spiritual significance; hence its archetypal meaning. For Christians the cross takes on specific representation of Christ’s crucifixion.
Nuance – These objects take on symbolic meaning in the work in which they appear. Modern writers often create their own symbols by repeatedly using the object in meaningful ways. For example, Golding used the conch shell to represent order and governmental control.


Hero (Epic, Classical, Romantic, Realistic, Anti-Hero) Outcast, Scapegoat, Trickster, Platonic Ideal, Monster, Temptress, Star-crossed lovers, Clown/jester, Prophet

Story Patterns:

Rite of Passage/Initiation, Creation, Fall, Expulsion, Death & Rebirth, Journey, Quest


(Archetypal symbols have duel nature and are often objects that we find in nature)

Water, Fire, Wind, Earth, All colors, Snakes, Birds/Flight, Trees, Gold, Iron, Silver, Sun, Moon, Cross, Seasons

Why study myth & symbols?

1. They enrich our encounters with art & literature as we discover the layers of meaning they hold.

2. We understand the values of cultures different from our own and at the same time discover the universality of the human experience.

You can familiarize yourself with many of the devices authors use to create meaning including symbols, motifs, and archetypes. All of these have become generally accepted as part of the Western canon of literature. Whether consciously or subconsciously, we are ingrained with certain recurring figures that affect the meanings of literature and life. As a “literate” person, you must learn to recognize these tools and determine what purpose they serve. But remember, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Listed below are some symbols and their meanings. This is not intended as an all-inclusive list, but as a sampling of some of the interpretations of a few common symbols. Let if form the beginning of your own personal list of symbols.

One – unity; individual importance

Two – balance; yin/yang

Three – trinity

Four – order; symmetry

Six – man; harmony, balance

Seven – completion; entirety

Eight – universal order; new beginnings

Nine – harmony; divine perfection

Ten – spiritual achievement

Twelve – universal fulfillment;

Thirteen – death, unlucky

Forty - spiritual order

White - purity

Black – evil, death

Gray - ambiguity

Purple - royalty

Blue - serenity

Green – nature, new life

Red – danger, energy, passion

Yellow – happiness

Vegetations / trees:

Apple – temptation cypress – death

Grapes – abundance oak – strength

Peach – marriage olive – peace

Cherry – immorality palm – protection

Fig – fertility willow – forsaken love

Plum – independent cedar – incorruptible

Acorn – potential yew – resurrection

Poppy – sleep aspen – lamentation

Lily – purity

Rose – love

Daisy – innocence

Animals and Creatures:

Dog – loyalty cat – malevolence

Cow – motherhood bull – fertility

Pig – unclean, greed donkey – stupidity

Ram – virility sheep – blindness

Snake – satanic crocodile/alligator – death

Turtle – perseverance fish – Jesus

Seahorse – good luck whale – power

Conch shell – power of sound snail – renewal

Rooster – morning peacock – royalty

Ostrich – coward cuckoo – adultery

Dove – peace swan – grace

Stork – birth butterfly – change, rebirth

Ant – industrious

Shapes & Seasons:

Circle – cycle of life, never ending

Triangle – trinity

Crown – royalty, nobility

Sun – happiness, light, masculine

Moon – light within darkness, cyclical, feminine

Star – divine presence

Rain – life

Clouds & mist – concealment

Fog – unreality

Rainbow – peace, harmony, future promise

Elements – earth, air, fire, water

Seasons: Spring – birth, life

Summer – growth, ripening

Fall – maturity

Winter – death


A motif is a recurrent device, image, object, phrase, word, incident, situation, or action that is used to unify a work.

A leimotif is a motif, which is specific to a particular work such as the idea of “Big Brother” in 1984 by George Orwell or the phrase “Catch 22” from the Joseph Heller novel of the same name. As some of these become familiar to more and more people, they actually become symbols.

Often motifs are evident in movies. The old “Jaws” movies used music as a motif – every time the “Jaws” theme music resounded in the background and then increased in volume and pace, you knew something treacherous lurked beneath the waves. A movie which uses the motif of a phrase is the James Bond series in which the name “Bond, James Bond” is often repeated.

In Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, the recurring phrase “We got a future,” is used as a motif to express George and Lennie’s hopes for the future. In Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, mist is a motif that clouds Pip’s vision on several occasions. In Henry David Thoreau’s Walden the pond serves as a motif, especially when it reflects the changing of the seasons.
Remember that a MOTIF OCCURS SEVERAL TIMES WITHIN IA WORK whereas a symbol may occur only once.
Archetypes are somewhat more difficult to understand than symbols and motifs. The concept of archetypes was developed by Karl Jung who said that we all have a “collect unconscious” consisting of plots, character types, and patterns common to any culture. Embedded in our past experiences, certain images and patterns we expect to recur. And they often do in our literature. For example, the most common archetypal character is that of the hero. He/she usually must endure some sort of ritual or test, go on a journey, perform a task, and save the day. This hero/heroine, prevalent in fiction and nonfiction, represents a major archetype because we expect him/her to act like a hero. Any deviation from what is expected is unacceptable.

Initiation – an individual understands his/her responsibility; often a rite of passage into adulthood

Transcendence – sometimes the initiate undergoes an ordeal and assumes a new role as an adult
Task – an extraordinary feat, which must be accomplished to save the day
Quest – the search for someone or something needed to save the day
Journey – the difficulties the hero must undergo to accomplish the task, usually involves traveling
Ritual – an official ceremony; may be part of the initiation or rite of passage

Fall – loss of innocence or a fall from grace, which often includes expulsion from paradise

Death – like in the cycles of nature, or an actual spiritual death, equated with the season of winter
Rebirth – again like nature, renewal, equated with spring and summer, morning
Sacred marriage – the joining, often of opposites, which restores peace
Battle between good & evil – self explanatory, we want good to win
Natural world opposed to mechanical world – usually nature is good, technology evil
Innate wisdom versus educated stupidity – some characters, though ignorant, exhibit a natural wisdom; Others, though educated, have no “street smarts” and make poor decisions.
Un-healable wounds – may be psychological or physical
Magic weapon – usually bestowed by a mentor to the hero
Supernatural intervention – the gods help or hurt the hero
Light versus dark – light represents hope and illumination; dark indicates hopelessness and the unknown. Light shines from heaven to indicate goodness; characters are often drawn into evil darkness
Heaven verses hell – supreme beings and mythological gods live in the skies; evil forces, including Satan, come from the underworld
Haven versus wilderness – havens are places of comfort and safety; wilderness includes any place of danger
Water versus desert – water is a symbol of life and birth; deserts indicate lack of life or desolation

(Jesus is tempted in the desert)

Fire versus ice – fire depicts knowledge and life; ice represents ignorance and death

(Frankenstein’s monster begins life with fire – lightning, and disappears in the ice)

Hero – usually raised form a rather lowly birth to become a leader or king after facing many trials
Young person from the provinces – taken from home and returns with a new perspective

(Tarzan, Dorothy, Alice)

Initiates – innocents who trains for the quest

Mentors – teachers or counselors for the initiates

Benevolent guide – usually an older person who gives the hero wise counsel
Shaman – protector of rituals and traditions
Parent-child conflict – generational tension
Companions – loyal to hero at all cost
Loyal retainer – a true and loyal friend often a servant
Friendly beast – helps hero
Trickster – a wise fool, a rascal, troublemaker
Devil figure – purely evil
Evil figure with ultimately good heart – redeems himself by end of story
Scapegoat – sacrificed animal or human who takes on the sins and punishment of others
Outcast – is banished from society
Star crossed lovers – fate is against them, may end up dead
Earth mother - provides life and nourishment
Temptress – beautiful woman who brings the destruction of the hero
Platonic ideal – the woman on a pedestal who inspires the hero, but with whom the hero has no physical relationship
Unfaithful wife – a married woman involved in illicit affairs
Damsel in distress – maiden who must be rescued by the hero

Creatures – monsters that threaten the hero

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