Carl Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist, is known as the founder of analytical psychology. His theories stated that mankind shared, inherited, and passed on common symbols, which he called archetypes, and that these archetypes were part of a ‘collective unconscious,’ shared by all human beings. He believed that archetypes transcended various customs and societies, claiming that they were communal wells from which dreams, emotions, and stories sprang forth. When studying the many myths and symbols from multiple cultures and time periods, one will notice patterns emerge.
Similar character types or story templates recur again and again in various forms, such as in oral stories, or tales carved on temple walls or tablets, or hieroglyphics found in ancient scrolls and parchments. Examples for characters are the Hero, or the Trickster, or the Goddess. Story types include the Quest, or the Journey, often to another world, such as heaven or hell. Multiple archetypes exist, and Jung believed men in all cultures and times merely rearranged them in stories and legends.
When looking at the mythologies contemporary society creates everyday, in the form of films and novels or television shows and comic books, one can clearly see archetypes present, manifesting themselves on the page or the screen or even in advertisements. Jung believed that Archetypes were the DNA of the unconscious, and that the key to understanding man lay in understanding the Archetypes he created to populate his mind and stories. And if archetypes comprise the unconscious, then they must be present in all aspects of conscious thought and action, speech, our ideas about ideas, history, and especially works of art.
This paper will discuss Jungian Archetypes in the recent film 300, and how these archetypes relate to the Media, history, and the portrayal of current events. In examining the characters and events in the film, we discover how archetypes and the collective unconscious currently manifest themselves in mainstream culture, and how this reflects modern society. 300 is a film adaptation of a graphic novel based on the famous historical encounter between Spartans and Persians, called the Battle of Thermopylae.
In the film, the Spartan King Leonidas leads a group of three hundred warriors against an army of more than a million Persians. Though based on a historical event, the battle and its characters have long since been romanticized many times throughout history. The ancient Greek historian, Herodotus, first told the tale, and many poems and ballads and retellings have come about since then. In transforming this historical event into a fictional piece, all the storytellers injected the legend with various archetypes and pieces of the collective unconscious.
This explains why the story is so popular, and why people continue to take pleasure in hearing the story and sharing it. These symbols take many shapes and forms in conforming to the many archetypical characters and events available from the many tales, myths, and stories from various cultures throughout history. What follows now is a brief summary outlining the overall story and the various archetypes contained within the film. After that we will examine each archetype in detail, relating the characters and events to similar archetypes in history and society.
Lastly, we will inspect the filmmakers’ intent in portraying the archetypes in the film, and how they contrast with current societal symbols in the media and current events. In the film, the Persian Army, led by their King Xerxes, threatens to enslave the world. The only man who stands up to him is the king of Sparta, Leonidas. Although forbidden by the Oracle to raise an army and fight, he takes a small group of three hundred men to defend Greece from the coming army. King Leonidas embodies the Hero archetype.
He sacrifices himself for his people and dies for his ideals in undertaking a Quest to fight the oncoming Persian army, which represents the Shadow, or the dark side of Man. The queen represents the Anima, or the female side of consciousness, the partner of the Animus represented by Leonidas. The Child archetype is represented by Leonidas’ son. The imagery in the film also corresponds to Jung’s archetypes. Light and dark tones populate the screens. There is a marked difference between the well toned bodies of the warriors and the grotesque, misshapen monsters of the Persian army.
Another aspect of the Shadow is the deformed Spartan warrior, Ephialtes, who represents the suppressed qualities of the Spartan society. Also symbolic is Xerxes, the giant Persian king who views himself as a god, and personifies the Villain Archetype. Leonidas represents the Hero and the Outsider. He embarks on a Quest to save his people, his wife, and his son, rebelling against orders from the Oracle in order to defend Sparta. The Hero is probably the most common archetype in all of history.
All myths and legends from multiple cultures almost always have the Hero as the main character. The New Testament has Jesus as a Hero archetype, sacrificing himself to save the world from sin. The Iliad and the Odyssey both have heroes in Achilles and Odysseus, and nearly every fairytale of bedtime story has a hero in the form of a child or a young man/woman who embarks on a Quest or a Journey. Advertisements as well employ the Hero archetype in commercials and billboards, creating a story taken from the collective unconscious, to appeal to a target audience.
The Shadow, Jung says, is the repressed part of the conscious self, the elements lurking beneath the surface of personality that cannot be expressed because of a multitude of reasons, mainly cultural or societal, or religious. Sexuality can be seen as the Shadow of Medieval Christian teachings, for example. The Persian Army represents man’s desire to enslave and conquer. This aspect of man’s persona has revealed itself throughout history, as evidenced in the concept of colonization, or the many wars man has waged through the years, in the name of God or Country.
The concept of Anima and Animus revolve around the male and female ‘spirits’ of consciousness. Much like the eastern concepts of ‘yin’ and ‘yang,’ the Animus and Anima represent the masculine and feminine forces of personality and consciousness. In the film the Queen represents the Anima, the counterpart to Leonidas’ Animus. Each completes the other, and this union is mirrored in many cultures in many parts of the world. These archetypes can be identified in stories like Romeo and Juliet or contemporary films revolving around love and unity between male and female characters.
The Child archetype, represented by Leonidas son, stands for purity and innocence. In order to preserve this purity, Leonidas sacrifices himself, battling against the Shadow to ensure the survival of his son and the Spartan way of life. The imagery in the film also portrays aspects of the Collective Unconscious. Parallels between Light and dark, the grotesque and beautiful, few and many, outline the good vs evil undertones of the film. Important to understanding this symbolic imagery is the character of Ephialtes. A Spartan child deformed at birth, he represents the suppressed and censored aspects of Spartan culture.
He represents the Shadow of Sparta, that which is unaccepted and reviled. Refusal to accept him into the Spartan ranks brings about Leonidas’ downfall, as he then allies himself to the Persian king Xerxes, the Villain, who is depicted as a giant, reminding audiences of the giants in fairytales, the ‘evil’ entity the Hero has to overcome in order to triumph. These archetypes are present in the film, and the filmmakers utilize them to ensure that audiences are interested and emotionally invested in the story. But what do the symbols really mean, in the context of modern society?
Can the different characters and events correspond to the archetypes differently? What do they reveal about current society and the ways in which we view history and current events? We can choose to look at each audience member as a Hero, with the viewing of the film as the Journey, a Quest of sorts, with meaning as the goal. The above discussed archetypes are what the story portrays, at face value. But as we look deeper, we can see how the archetypes reflected within audience members and within the story may impart different meanings. The Spartans are portrayed as the Heroes, the protectors of the Free World.
They fight to protect their land against the Invading Persians, and defend their way of life, and prevent their people from being turned into slaves. But when we look at history books, we see that the Spartans at one point enslaved the rest of Greece, after fighting their fellow Greeks, the Athenians, for over thirty years in the Peloponnesian war. In the film they are portrayed as the fiercest warriors in the world, training themselves to fight from birth. The reason they were able to maintain this way of life was because they themselves owned slaves.
They did not have to work in the fields or engage in manual labor of any sort, as they had others to do that for them. So in the film we can view the Heroes as Shadow archetypes as well. Going back to the character of Ephialtes once more, we see how brutal the Spartan culture was. Children seen as unfit for a warrior’s life were killed at birth, and many more children died as they were brought up in the midst of the harsh Spartan lifestyle. So the Child archetype, as represented in the film, was a common casualty in Sparta.
The Animus and Anima sense of unity too, in Ancient Greece, did not exist as we know it. Females were considered inferior beings, according to many Greek Philosophers of that time. There was great inequality between the sexes, as many historians will confirm. The parallels between beautiful and grotesque and light and dark reinforce the good vs evil concept that the filmmakers are trying to push. They want the events to be seen in shades of black and white, with the Spartans being the upholders of democracy and freedom, and the Persians as the evil army seeking to enslave the world, led by their giant king.
Also downplayed in the film is the actual number of combatants in the battle. The film and graphic novel portray the three hundred Spartans fighting alongside a few thousand Greeks from the surrounding regions, versus more than two million members of the Persian army. Modern historians calculate the actual numbers differently, stating that around five thousand men fought alongside the three hundred Spartans and that the actual number of the Persian troops was in the region of one hundred fifty thousand to two hundred thousand men.
How do the above statements tie into how the Media and the archetypes in the film are used to enforce and comment on current events? As we mentioned earlier, Advertisements and commercials utilize archetypes too to appeal to the symbols located in the collective unconscious. So viewers instantly see things in terms of heroes, villains, shadows, quests, journeys, trials, tasks, and so on. The media does the same. In presenting stories, much like humans did in times past, around the fire or in ancient halls, a hero embarks on a task, and faces a villain, and undergoes hardships.
Current day practices are the same. Wars and armed conflicts, alongside ads and billboards often portray concepts and events in terms of good and evil, black and white, beautiful and grotesque. So the viewer, as the Hero, encounters the Media, which represents the shadow and the child, or the mother, or the villain and the trickster, and many other archetypes besides. The Quest for meaning drives the hero onward, and he either succumbs to or overcomes the many challenges of seeing and perceiving that prevent him from accomplishing his goal. Like Leonidas he combats a Villain, sacrificing himself for his ideals.
Or is it the other way around? Maybe the Ideals are sacrificed and the Villain emerges triumphant? Or is the Hero the shadow too? The collective unconscious as manifested today’s world, in today’s mythologies and tales, is present in everything we see and hear. Every act becomes a rite of passage, a journey, whether it is reading a book, talking to another person, or viewing a movie like 300, where the symbols play with our ideas about the outside world, other people, and finally, our very concepts of self.
300. (2007) Directed by Zack Snyder. Montreal, Warner [film:35mm].