by Ashley Cowie
Myths and heroes, angels and demons, monsters and nightmares all come from our collective unconscious. Parapsychology, alchemy and occult religious concepts can contribute to our understanding of the collective unconscious. These apparently fringe ideas are the bedrock to the scientific models of Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961), the Swiss psychiatrist who founded analytical psychology and he single-handedly changed the way you and I think, about thought. This article explores the underlying Jungian psychological archetypes within world myths recounting the inter-dimensional and other worldly voyages undertaken by heroes.
Carl Jung’s groundbreaking theories on the mechanics of human thinking and consciousness had a significant influence on not only psychiatry, but on archeology, anthropology, literature, philosophy and theological studies in the early 20th century. Jung was an early supporter of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and they shared similar interests in the concept of an ‘unconscious’ mind.
When the International Psychoanalytical Association formed in 1910, in Vienna, Freud requested that .Jung became president, a sentiment that was to be short lived.
In 1912, while on a lecture tour of America, Jung publicly criticized Freud’s theory regarding sexuality suggesting that libido was ‘not only’ sexual energy, but instead, that it was a generalised ‘psychic energy’ which motivated the individual in a number of important ways including spiritually, intellectually, and creatively. This key difference in view led to an irrevocable split between the two men the following year and Jung went on to develop his own version of psychoanalytic theory.
Believing that human consciousness undergoes an ‘individualisation’ process, a path to self-knowledge and wholeness, like Freud, Jung regarded the psyche (mind) as being composed of separate but interacting systems. The three controlling functions were the consciousness/ego, the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious:
- Consciousness/Ego: represents the conscious mind as it comprises the thoughts, memories, and emotions a person is aware of – now. It is also responsible for feelings of identity, personality and continuity.
- Personal Unconscious – contains temporality forgotten information and well as repressed memories. Jung (1933) outlined an important feature of the personal unconscious called ‘complexes’, collections of thoughts, feelings, attitudes and memories that focus on a single concept. Jung believed personal unconscious was ‘much nearer the surface’ than Freud suggested and Jungian therapy is therefore less concerned with identifying repressed childhood experiences, than is Freud’s.
- Collective Unconscious: This is a level of unconscious is shared with other members of the human species, comprising latent memories from our ancestral and evolutionary past; fear of the dark, snakes, spiders and other things that can kill us. However, more important than isolated tendencies are those aspects of the collective unconscious that have developed into separate ‘sub-systems’ of the personality which Jung called ‘ancestral memories’ and images ‘archetypes’.
YOU ARE NOT AS INDIVIDUAL AS YOU THINK
According to Jung (1947) ‘Archetypes’ are mental images and thoughts which have universal meanings across different cultures and show up in dreams, literature, myths art and religion. Believed to be expressions of the ‘collective’ unconscious, the core ideas and concepts of myths are related to the human species as a whole. This model of how the mind worked explained why myths in societies at the opposite ends of the earth can be strikingly similar in their structure and content. Jungian Archetypes are universal symbols/categories such as: the Great Mother, the Wise Old Man, the Shadow, the Tower, Water, the Tree of Life, and many more, which are common to human psychological conditions/formats observed everywhere.
A good example of an archetype is seen in the structure of the Greek Olympian gods, who were expressions of the different stages of life within the archetypical family; Apollo was the young man on the cusp of manhood and independence, while Zeus, the patriarch, was the archetype of the wise old man. A similar divine hierarchy is found in Scandinavian lore in the story of Odin – the Wise Old Man of the North. Subcategorising or reducing the ‘Apollo Archetype’ even further, Jung defined it as personifying ‘the aspect of the personality that seeks ‘clear definitions’ and is drawn to ‘master a skill’, values ‘order’ and ‘harmony’, and prefers to look at the surface, as opposed to ‘beneath’ appearances.
WOULD THE REAL YOU PLEASE STAND UP
According to Jung we have various aspects to our unconscious minds, each one adding to our perception of reality, and effecting how we navigate it. The Persona (or mask), according to Jung, is the conformity archetype – the outward or public face we present to the world that effectively conceals our ‘real self’. Another key aspect of Jungian psychology was Anima and Animus – the mirror image of our biological sex, that is, the unconscious feminine side in males and the masculine tendencies in women, gained by virtue of centuries of living together. Next is the Shadow – the animal side of our personality – the source of both our creative and destructive energies. Finally, there is the hidden Self – which provides a sense of unity in experience and for Jung the ultimate aim of every individual is to achieve a state of ‘selfhood’, similar to self-actualisation.
According to Jungian psychologists, archetypal patterns in myths, albeit they are expressed through the voyages and tribulations overcome by mythical characters, are encoded systems and methods within the human brain. Thus, Jungian psychology offers etiological explanations for most of these similarities pointing to the annual cycle of the sun, moon and seasons – nature’s cycles of death and rebirth. This is evident in the myth of the Egyptian god Osiris which involved his death, mourning and seasonal rebirth – every year, and this same pattern of events appeared in the myths of the Babylonian god c, Persephone, the Christian Jesus, the Norse Odin and many others.
This ‘death-rebirth’ archetype, Jung maintained, was ‘encoded in the human mind before birth’ and was a ‘symbolic expression of a process taking place not in the world but in the mind’. To Jungians, this archetype is the ‘rebirth of the ego in the unconscious’ after a temporary death of the ego – a concept found repeatedly in myths, for example, the Greek god Zeus was a reborn reincarnation of a slain god – Zagreus.
Based on his interpretation of ‘synchronicity’ and ‘extra-sensory’ perception, Jung stepped over the sceptics line in arguing that ‘psychic activity transcended the brain’ and he went so far as to suggest that parapsychology, alchemy and occult religious concepts contributed to our understanding of the collective unconscious. In alchemy, Jung found that references to plain water and saltwater corresponded to his concepts of the collective unconscious. According to Jung ‘the psyche mediates between the primal force of the collective unconscious’ and the experience of consciousness, or dream states. Therefore, symbols may require interpretation before they can be understood as archetypes. Jung writes:
We have only to disregard the dependence of dream language on environment and substitute ‘eagle’ for ‘aeroplane’ – ‘dragon’ for ‘automobile’ or ‘snake-bite’ for ‘injection’ and so forth, in order to arrive at the more universal and more fundamental language of mythology. This give us access to the primordial images that underlie all thinking and have a considerable influence even on our scientific ideas.
Ultimately, although Jung referred to the collective unconscious as an empirical concept, based on evidence, sceptics claim that its ‘elusive’ nature barriers traditional experimental research, June Singer reminds us:
the ‘collective unconscious’ lies beyond the conceptual limitations of individual human consciousness, and thus cannot possibly be encompassed by them. We cannot, therefore, make controlled experiments to prove the existence of the collective unconscious, for the psyche of man, holistically conceived, cannot be brought under laboratory conditions without doing violence to its nature. […] In this respect, psychology may be compared to astronomy, the phenomena of which also cannot be enclosed within a controlled setting. The heavenly bodies must be observed where they exist in the natural universe, under their own conditions, rather than under conditions we might propose to set for them.
TO BOLDLY GO
A famous Jungian archetype is the ‘monomyth’ better known as the ‘hero’s journey’. In comparative mythology this is the common template of a lone-hero leaving the safety of home and embarking on a dangerous adventure and after a decisive crisis, the hero wins a victory and then comes home changed, transformed or enlightened. The study of ‘hero-myth’ narratives began long before Jung was born when in 1871 anthropologist Edward Taylor first observed common patterns in plots of ‘hero’s journeys’ in world myths. The early 20th century saw a multitude of works on the ‘hero-myth’, for example, Otto Rank’s ‘Freudian psychoanalytic’ approach to myths and Lord Raglan’s unification of myths and rituals. The hero archetype was further popularised by mythologist Joseph Campbell in his 1949 work The Hero with a Thousand Faces in which he described the basic mythological narrative pattern of the hero’s journey as follows:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
Campbell and other scholars like Erich Neumann describe the stories of Moses, Christ and Gautama Buddha in terms of the monomyth while Otto Rank and Lord Raglan described hero narratives in terms of Freudian psychoanalysis and ritualistic senses. Critics argue, however, that the hero’s journey is only a part of the monomyth; the other part is a ‘different form, or color’, of the hero’s journey and that the concept is ‘too broad’ or ‘general’ to be of useful in comparative mythology.
In many world myths heroes travel to others realities in dreams and while experiencing altered states of consciousness. In early 20th century literature The Dream Cycle stories by American author H. P. Lovecraft played with Jungian ideas and questioned the very nature of reality itself, asking if the dream-world was as valid a ‘reality’ as the waking world?
The Dream Argument was the postulation of French philosopher, mathematician, and scientist René Descartes (1596-1650) who suggested the act of dreaming provided ‘preliminary evidence that the senses we trust to distinguish reality from illusion should not be ‘fully trusted’. Therefore, any state that is dependent on our senses should at the very least be carefully examined and rigorously tested to determine whether it is in fact reality. Jung developed Descarte’s early musings regarding the function of dreams in reality.
MULTI-DIMENSIONAL MYTHOLOGICAL JOURNEYS
Comparative mythologies, legends, religious books, modern fantasy and sci-fi writers tell of brave protagonists undertaking dangerous journeys in; other worlds, alternative co-existing realities, parallel universes and multiverses. The term ‘other world’ comes from orbis alius or ‘Celtic Otherworld’, a term first coined by Lucan in his description of the ‘druidic doctrine of metempsychosis’ (transmigration of the soul). Religious, mythological, metaphysical and philosophical concepts such as a realms of supernatural beings and of the dead are found in cultures throughout the world and in the oldest myths people and spirits most often travelled between different worlds along sacred-axis such as trees, poles, rivers, ropes or mountains.
Olympus, Hades, Heaven, Hell, Gan Eden and Valhalla all exist in ‘alternative’ space-time continuums from the familiar material reality we inhabit. Norse cosmology was structured around Yggdrasil (world tree) – an immense tree that connects the ‘nine’ perceived worlds, or levels of reality, and similarly, a ‘Tree of Life’ is fundamental in mystical Jewish Kabbalah. Both of these systems of geometry are universal models which can be interpreted relating to events in this world and in others, within, and externally.
Celtic Immrams or ‘voyage” stories, for example, The Voyage of Saint Brendan and of Bran, were written because day-to-day Celtic life was greatly dependent on the bounty of the sea and this is why ‘other worlds’ are so often portrayed as “islands over the west sea”. St. Brendan the ‘Navigator’, the ‘Voyager’ or the ‘Bold’ was an early Irish monastic saint renowned for his legendary quest to the ‘Isle of the Blessed’. Stories of saints and other heroes voyaging to magical unexplored places are early references to the pioneers of the unconscious mind.
Famously, Plato’s Atlantis was another mythical island in the west but there were less well known ‘other worlds’ which appeared on medieval era Irish sea charts. Rumoured to have been located ‘beyond the mists’ in the Atlantic Ocean, and regarded as “an alternative to the comparatively boring paradise of Christian heaven” Cockaigne was a mythical island, like heaven, where everyone got whatever they wanted. Unlike heaven, idleness was the general rule broken only when the desire for sexual exploration struck. Rivers of wine flowed through the fertile lands upon which the “houses and streets were made of pastries”.
Cockaigne was a mythical land of plenty and this particular painting has also been cited as illustrating the ‘Freudian oral stage of psychosexual development’ depicting a paradise of oral pleasure, demonstrating how human beings achieve oral pleasure and stimulation from eating and simply having things in the mouth.
THE TIDELINE BETWEEN FACT AND FICTION
The original ‘other worlds’ described in the oldest myths were ‘terrestrial’ places like mountains, caves and lakes inhabited by beasts, dragons and malevolent spirits, for example, the Norse hero Beowulf fought and defeated the witch/monster Grendel in a cave. When myths where generated and moulded at the dawn of humanity, peasant farmers having never strayed far from their villages weren’t quite sure if monsters lived in hills an hour away, or if distant bridges did actually hide hungry ogres. Myths evolved with increasing geographical expansion which meant dangerous other worldly locations had to be pushed farther and farther away. Eventually, they were reachable not by a gruelling three-day hike into an uncharted mountain range, but by voyages across dangerous seas populated with sea-monsters, in ships, as evident in such novels as Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.
In writing, the old ‘other worlds’ often overlapped with aspects of this ‘real’ world we live in. Most often these realms can only be reached by certain people, at certain times following specific events or rituals, with special artefacts or devices, such as the mirror in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass . These magical items and events were generally left behind until the end of the story until the protagonists return.
The origins of extra and inter-dimensional thinking, so far as historical evidence shows, began with Plato, the Classical Greek philosopher who’ reflected extensively’ on parallel realities and worlds within worlds. The resulting ‘codes of creation’ presented in Platonism defined the upper reality as ‘perfect’ while the lower, earthly reality, was seen as a ‘flawed’ reflection of it. This concept was also central in ancient Hindu mythology as described in the Puranas which expressed an ‘infinite’ number of universes, each with its own hierarchy of gods. In Persian literature The Adventures of Bulukiya tells the tale of the ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ describing Bulukiya learning of alternative universes that are ‘familiar but different’ to his own.
Mythological alternative realities are often presented as a series of planes or levels of existence, where the laws of nature differ, allowing magical phenomena and a corruption of the “Laws of Motion”. For example, in Norse mythical realities ‘Thor’s Hammer’ could not be lifted by anyone but he, and the ‘Sword in the Stone’ in Arthurian legends was irremovable by anyone but the rightful king. Alternative universal laws were brilliantly explored in the enchanting novel Raft, by Stephen Baxter, where in his alternative reality the “gravitational constant was much larger than in our universe”.
Some authors present a single parallel universe, or ‘one’ alternative material reality, and its co-existence with our every-day reality is a writing device serving as a vessel for bringing protagonists from the author’s imaginations into their fantasy’s realities, such as we see in The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis and in the The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. These single alternative realities often invade our own, for example, when the giants descended in Jack and the Beanstalk, or in the tornado which sucks you up and drops you in Oz and when mermaids offered the promise of treasures in magical subaquatic worlds. Portals and gateways to these other worlds were associated with landscape features such as pointed mountains, deep caves and Neolithic burial cairns which were believed to portals to the mythical land of the Shidh in Celtic folklore.
These parallel worlds and alternative universes are generally quested by protagonists who are forced to confront the negative effects of the other world, on their own, for example, this concept is expressed in almost everything written by H. P. Lovecraft and in Warhammer 40K miniature role-play and computer games. This mergence of ‘another’ reality with our own, was more recently portrayed when the Agents seized Neo at the beginning of Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s – The Matrix where creations in a simulated digital reality were merged with ‘this’ one.
In other cases, writers have their characters explicitly leave ‘this’ universe, which is portrayed as a subset of a multiverse. In science fiction ‘dimensions’ refer to additional coordinate axes ‘beyond’ the three spatial axes with which we are familiar. By travelling along these extra axes, which are not normally perceptible, the hero can reach worlds that are otherwise unreachable and invisible to most. Another mythological motif is how time was presented as flowing. Characters returning from quests and adventures into certain realities might find time had passed slowly or quickly, for either themselves or those left behind. This archetype is found in Scottish and Irish folklore where people get seduced and trapped in the land of the Fairies for seven year blocks of time. When they return to this world, sometimes only a day has past, but conversely, King Herla visited Fairyland and returned three centuries later.
In 1895 H. G. Wells wrote The Time Machine, presenting ‘time’ as a dimension, like space, in which humans could travel given right equipment and technology. Doctor Who took time travel to the next level and describing new ‘spatial dimensions’ in which the doctor travels, to parallel universes. Douglas Adams in Mostly Harmless uses the metaphysical aspects of ‘probability’ as another axis of reality, brilliantly adding to the four classical dimensions of space and time. Adams’ complex mythological-universal model was very similar to the modern ‘many-worlds’ interpretation of quantum physics.
Ancient mythological realms of reality are reflected in the modern quantum-mechanical hypothesis of parallel universes; ‘universes that are separated from each other by a single quantum event’. Modern ideas such as the Big Bang theory have been fused with ancient mythological archetypes in modern science fiction writings and a blazon of multiverses now exists unashamedly blending scientific facts with imaginary fiction.
Gone are the days of a hero setting out with only a staff and bags of bravery to fight magical monsters in remote island caves. Todays heroes have ‘Hyperspace’ button at their fingertips providing ‘faster-than-light’ parallel universes. Modern accounts of the ‘hero’s journey’ have greatly lost their classic ‘archetypal’ genes. Hyperspace, and similar click-of-the finger inter dimensional experiences which underpin travel and voyages in movies such as Star Wars, Star Trek and Star Gate are not so much ‘mythological archetypes’ as they are ‘neat narrative tools’ for shortcutting to fresh plot lines, mid-story. This slick plot-device, hyperspace, which bonds weird worlds separated by vast differences in time and and space, instantaneously, leaves no ‘space or time’ for the viewer to really learn anything of the human condition, which the oral myths once departed.
But it has to be said, if I was offered a sailing ship and a map and the promise of fighting dragons, or to cruise between Galaxies in the Millennium Falcon , this hero is with Chewy every time!
Copyright 2017 by Ashley CowiePresented with permission
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