"What is stirred in us is that faraway background, those immemorial patterns of the human mind, which we have not acquired but have inherited from the dim ages of the past." Carl Gustav Jung
To embrace a vision that can span many scales at once, we must turn from the tools of scientist to the gifts of the poet and artist – the ability to think in archetype.
The Greek roots of the word archetype are arkhe (“first” or “original”) and typos (“model” or “type”). In myths and folktales, anthropomorphic gods and goddesses acted as archetypes for the dimensions of human behavior. Gods and goddesses were universal prototypes for the broad range of human experience and they still loom large in our collective memory. In the early 20th century, Carl Gustav Jung presented the notion that these archetypes represented “landmarks” of the psyche and the collective unconsciousness – to look behind these humanized landmarks Jung reached back almost 2500 years to Plato’s ideal forms - the five geometric solids.
Plato’s early references to “ideal forms” were the geometric solids of Pythagoras – simple shapes, all with perfect symmetry. Yet Pythagoras, the Western world’s Father of philosophy, of math and music, received his understanding of these archetypal forms from the East – from Asia, Mesopotamia, Egypt - and brought this knowledge back to Greece and Italy where he set the foundations of modern Philosophy.
To historian of myth Mircea Eliade, architect Keith Critchlow and anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss, our pan cultural architectures reflect the universal logic that is found in ancient archetypes. From the rippling architectures of human behavior to the shape of our built environment we carry forth these ancient symmetries, often without knowing it. We speak together in the language of archetype - reviving, rebuilding, recasting our rhythmic heritage, over and over again. Like Indra’s jeweled net, where everything is both self-similar and the mirror reflection of everything else, humans have always paid subliminal homage to the natural archetypes of ideal form.
Thinking about a scale independent view, can we look to the natural world for such an “ideal form” that could span the spectrum of scale in what Lewis Thomas described 35 years ago as “biomythology”? If we live in a universe of signs and natural symbols, is there a landmark image that recurs on every scale, from the nano to the astro? A ballast that can help us move seamlessly through the micro dimension to the macro dimension?
There is. Surprisingly, it is a form that is as simple as it is mysterious, as common as it is universal, a shape that is natural, ancient, symmetric – a form that is at once eloquent, iconic, and timeless. Just from our human scale, the scale of the naked eye, this form would have to be…
- a form so normal and ubiquitous that we are walking on it every waking hour
- something on the largest scale that we look out at every day or night
- something small enough to hold in our palms or roll between our fingers
- a form that even a baby could play with
- an object we could make with leather, bamboo clay, stone, metal or glass
- an edible delicacy that we can pop into our mouths or peel and eat, that grows on trees, bushes and vines
- a natural object that can be as tiny as a grain of sand or as large as a planet
- a living organism
- something with an inside and an outside that we can build, walk inside of, marvel at or use as a tool
Inevitably, the first form we are all too familiar with is so common and obvious that we think we already know everything there is to know about it. Perhaps that is why we haven’t looked at it closely enough as the universal archetype, the Mother of all signs.
It is time we remind ourselves of the power of the archetypal sphere.