The heroes of myth and the monsters of nightmare all emerge from our collective unconscious which “can be better understood through the study of parapsychology, alchemy and occult religious concepts.” These apparently fringe ideas were suggested by Dr. Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) the Swiss psychiatrist who founded analytical psychology and single-handedly changed the way you and I think, about thought. This article explores the underlying Jungian psychological archetypes within world mythology, focusing on the inter-dimensional voyages undertaken by the heroes of folklore.
Carl Jung's groundbreaking theories on the mechanics of human thought significantly influenced not only psychiatry, but also early 20th century archeology, anthropology, literature, philosophy and theological studies. Jung was an early supporter of Dr. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and they shared similar interests in the concept of an 'unconscious' mind and when in 1910 in Vienna the International Psychoanalytical Association was founded Freud requested that Jung was appointed president; a kind hearted sentiment that was to be short lived.
In 1912, while on a lecture tour of America, Jung publicly criticized Freud’s theories regarding sexuality and he suggested that libido was “not only” sexual energy, but instead, that it was a “generalized psychic energy” which motivated the individual in a number of important ways including spiritually, intellectually and creatively. This key difference in perception led to an irrevocable split between the two scientists and the following year and Jung began developing his own psychoanalytic theory.
Believing that human consciousness undergoes an 'individualization' process, a path to self-knowledge and wholeness, like Freud, Jung regarded the psyche (mind) as being composed of interacting systems and his three controlling functions were the consciousness/ego, the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious:
Consciousness/Ego: is the conscious mind as it comprises the thoughts, memories, and emotions we are aware of in the moment; 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” which are collections of thoughts, feelings, attitudes and memories that focus on a single concept. To Jung, the personal unconscious was much nearer the surface than Freud suggested and Jungian therapy is therefore less concerned with identifying repressed childhood experiences.
Collective Unconscious: an aspect of unconsciousness 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 “archetypes”.
ARE ANY OF US REALLY INDIVIDUAL?
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 and this model of how the mind worked explained why myths in societies at opposite ends of the earth can be strikingly similar. Jungian archetypes are universal symbols or 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 observed everywhere. Greek Olympian gods expressed different stages of life within the archetypical family; Apollo was the young man on the cusp of adulthood and independence while Zeus, the patriarch, was the wise old man, and similar divine hierarchy appears in Scandinavian lore in the story of Odin - the Wise Old Man of the North. Subcategorizing or reducing the Apollo archetype even further Jung defined it as personifying “the aspect of the personality that seeks clear definitions” and to “mastering skills” valuing “order and harmony” beneath surface appearances.
WOULD THE REAL YOU PLEASE STAND UP
According to Jung our unconscious minds have various aspects adding to our perception of reality and 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 are the Anima and Animus - the reflections of our biological sex, that is, the Anima is the unconscious feminine side in males and the Animus is responsible for masculine tendencies in women, gained by virtue of centuries of living together. The Shadow archetype is the animalistic aspect of our personality from where both our creative and destructive energies are centered and somewhere amidst all these mechanics 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 or self-actualization.
According to Jungian psychologists archetypal patterns in myths, albeit they are expressed through the voyages and tribulations overcome by mythical characters, are encoded systems within the human brain and this is why 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 Persephone, the Christian Jesus and the Norse Odin.
This ‘death-rebirth’ archetype according to Jung 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”. This archetype is the rebirth of the ego in the unconscious after a temporary death of the ego: a concept portrayed by the Greek god Zeus who was a reincarnation of the slain god Zagreus.
Based on his interpretation of synchronicity and extra-sensory perception Jung stepped over the skeptical line and argued 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. For example, within alchemy Jung found references to plain water and saltwater corresponded to his concepts of the collective unconscious and 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. In Psychology and Religion Volume 11: West and East Jung wrote:
We have only to disregard the dependence of dream language on environment and substitute eagle for airplane, 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 gives 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, skeptics claim that its elusive nature barriers traditional experimental research and American analytical psychologist 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 WHERE MONSTERS DWELL
In comparative mythology a common template is the lone hero leaving the safety of home to embark on a dangerous adventure and after a decisive crisis the hero is victorious returning home changed, transformed or enlightened. The study of hero in mythical 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 popularized 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 or ‘monomyth’ 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.” Joseph Campbell described the story 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 of Campbell argue that the hero's journey is only a part of the monomyth and that the other part is a different form, or color, of the hero's journey and that the concept is too broad to be applied in comparative mythology.
In many world myths heroes travel to other realities in dreams and in the early 20th century The Dream Cycle stories by American author H. P. Lovecraft questioned the very nature of reality itself by asking if the dream-world was as valid a reality as the wake world? This long standing dream argument was the earlier 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.
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. 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 conceptual tree connecting the nine perceived worlds and similarly the Tree of Life is fundamental in mystical Jewish Kabbalah and both universal models can be interpreted as relating to events occurring in this world and in others; both within us and externally.
Celtic Immrams are ancient voyage stories, for example, the voyages of Saint Brendan and of Bran, which were written because day-to-day Celtic life was greatly dependent on the bounty of the sea and this is why Celtic other worlds are so often portrayed as islands over the west sea. St. Brendan the Navigator an early Irish monastic saint renowned for his legendary quest to the “Isle of the Blessed” in the west and stories of saints and other heroes voyaging to magical unexplored places are early references to 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. Rumored 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 where everyone got whatever they wanted. Unlike the Christian heaven, idleness was the general rule broken only when the desire for sexual exploration struck and 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 the opposite 16th century painting has 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.
WALKING THE TIMELINE BETWEEN FACT AND FICTION
The other worlds described in the oldest myths were most often terrestrial 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 first moulded at the dawn of humanity peasant farmers having never strayed far from their villages really weren’t quite sure if monsters lived in hills an hour away, or if distant bridges did indeed actually hide hungry ogres and trolls. Myths evolved with increasing geographical expansion which meant dangerous other worldly locations had to be pushed farther and farther away and eventually they were reachable not by a three-day hikes into an uncharted mountain ranges, but by voyages across dangerous seas populated with sea-monsters in ships, an idea portrayed in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver's Travels.
In writing, other worlds sometimes overlapped with aspects of the real world but most often these realms could only be reached by certain people at specific times following events or rituals, with special artifacts or devices, such as the mirror in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass and these magical items were generally left behind until the end of the story when the protagonists returned. The origins of extra and inter-dimensional thinking, so far as historical evidence shows, began with Plato, the 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 its flawed reflection; a concept central in ancient Hindu mythology and described in the Puranas which express 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 corrupted laws of nature allow for magical phenomena and distortions of the laws of motion and gravity, for example, Thor’s Hammer could not be lifted by anyone but he and the sword in the stone of Arthurian lore was irremovable by anyone but the rightful king. Alternative universal laws were brilliantly explored in the enchanting novel Raft by Stephen Baxter where in an 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 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: the tornado which sucks you up and drops you in Oz and when mermaids offered sailers 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 in Celtic territories Neolithic burial cairns were believed to be portals to mythical land of the Sidhe.
These parallel worlds and alternative universes are generally quested by protagonists on their own, and the mergence of realities theme was more recently portrayed when ‘Agents’ seized Neo at the beginning of Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s - The Matrix - in which the creations of a simulated digital reality were merged with our own. In other cases characters explicitly leave this universe which is often then portrayed as a subset of a multiverse. In science fiction the term ‘dimensions’ most often refers to additional coordinate axes beyond the three spatial axes with which we are familiar and by venturing along these extra axes, which are not normally perceivable, heroes reached otherwise invisible places in their minds. Another mythological motif was in how time was presented as flowing and characters returning to this reality from quests and adventures in others often found time had passed slowly or quickly for either themselves or those left behind. In Scottish and Irish folklore people get seduced and trapped in the land of the Fairies and when they return to this world, sometimes only a day has past, but conversely, Tam Lin and Peter the Piper of Windy Ha’ both fell asleep at fairy mounds and woke up seven years later.
In 1895, H. G. Wells wrote The Time Machine presenting time as a dimension, like space, in which humans could travel given the correct equipment and technology and Doctor Who described time as “spatial dimensions” in which he travels back and forth. In Mostly Harmless Douglas Adams uses the metaphysical aspects of ‘probability’ as another axis of reality, brilliantly adding to the four classical dimensions of space and time. While Wells and Adams’ complex mythological universal models were fictional many similarities exist between their many-worlds and models of modern quantum physics.
Ancient mythological realms of reality are reflected in the modern quantum-mechanical hypothesis of parallel universes which are described as “universes that are separated from each other by a single quantum event”. Modern ideas such as 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 observations with imaginary realms.
Gone are the days of a hero setting out with a staff and bags of bravery to fight magical monsters in remote island caves, for today’s heroes have hyperspace buttons at their fingertips providing faster-than-light access to parallel universes. Modern renditions of Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero's journey’ have greatly lost their archetypal content and tools like hyperspace in movies such as Star Wars, Star Trek and Star Gate are narrative devices for shortcutting to fresh plot lines mid-story. This slick plot-device, hyperspace, which bonds weird worlds separated by chasms of time and space ‘instantaneously’ leaves no mental space or time for the viewer to really learn anything of the human conditions which the old oral myths once departed in every word.
But it has to be said, if I was offered a sailing ship with a treasure map and the promise of fighting dragons, or to cruise between time and space helping war torn galaxies in a ship similar to the Millennium Falcon, this hero is right beside Chewy every time!