What are Symbols?
Carl Jung developed theories around the existence of archetypes in the human unconscious. These archetypes are actually forms of psychic energy, and they need to be ‘clothed’ in order for us to see and understand them in our conscious mind. It is through the medium of symbols that we are able to clothe these archetypes and bring them into consciousness. They are manifest into objective, visible reality, but they also contain hidden and profound meaning. Jung and many others theorise that psychic existence can only be recognised through content capable of consciousness, and this is where the language of symbolism comes in. We all share collective, inborn understanding in our unconscious, evidenced by sacred symbolism and shared myths and stories, which are the ways we can tap into this collective understanding. The evidence for this shared symbolism and archetypal forms dates back to the dawn of man. We also have the capacity for personal symbolising, images manifest in our dreams, fantasies and image- making and an exploration of this alongside the archetypes and collective unconscious can teach us much about our impulses and true self. Squaring the circle is symbolic of the integration of our personal unconscious into consciousness. The perfect wholeness of the circle is brought into the visible concreteness of the square.
Jung’s collective unconscious
Jung departed from Freud in relation to the nature of the unconscious. Freud believed that the unconscious is nothing more than a gathering place for forgotten and repressed contents, and that these were of an exclusively personal nature. Jung thought there was this layer of unconscious, one’s personal unconscious, but that there is also a deeper layer, not derived from personal experience, but which is inborn. He called this the collective unconscious and believed it to be universal, not individual. If psychic existence can only be recognised through content capable of consciousness, then in the collective unconscious these are the archetypes, and through symbolism we make them manifest. Clare Cooper, in The House as a Symbol of Self writes “ patient’s dreams and fantasies, primitive mythology and folktales, revealed to Jung universal patterns not accounted for by individual
unconscious”. In terms of evidencing these ideas, it is worth remembering that Jung analysed over 80,000 dreams in his professional career, as well as involving himself in decades of research into ancient texts, sacred symbolism and alchemy. Joseph Henderson, in Man and His Symbols, describes Jung’s collective unconscious as “that part of the psyche which retains and transmits the common psychological inheritance of mankind”
How do we find our Symbols?
As Dumitrana states, symbolism permeates every aspect of life. We have the objective and predictable symbols of mathematics, linguistics and logic. But also symbols of people and the world, manifest through representation, metaphor and the imaginary, and present throughout psychology, the arts, literature, history, geography, and theology. The development of symbols is ubiquitous across different ages and locations of mankind, from French cave painting to Eastern mysticism, from Cinderella to African shamanism. Although there are cultural references that differentiate symbols, there is also
clear evidence of a collective unconscious in the universality of symbols across civilizations and continents. Harry Prochaska quoted in the article ‘Empirical Study of the Association between Symbols and their Meanings’ (Journal of Analytical Psychology 1991) : “cultural expressions must transcend the boundaries of their own culture to become genuine archetypal symbols, which are recognisable as such in other times and in other places”. The same article looks at the example of the serpent as a symbol of healing, which is found both in the entwined serpents of Hermes’ staff, and in the entwined naga serpents in Indian healing yoga. There is little doubt that man has lost the importance of this shared symbolic language in our modern world, whereas primitive cultures were deeply connected to it. The evidence is there, and primitive man saw himself as indivisible from the cosmos. A pueblo Indian chief said to Jung, when he was travelling through New Mexico “after all, we are a people who live on the roof of the world; we are the sons of the Father Sun, and with our religion we daily help our father to go across the sky”. Man needs to reconnect to his place in relationship with nature.
We can begin to rediscover this connection to nature and our place in it by exploring ancient sacred symbolism. The mythologized processes of nature – summer, winter, the moon’s phases, for example, are symbolic expressions of the inner, unconscious drama of the psyche. Symbols project this on to nature and unite us with our true self. There are a number of ways in which we can seek archetypal imagery and our instinctual nature. Primitive tribal folklore brings the archetypes into consciousness through formulae and tradition. This becomes both sacred and dangerous - lore can claim supreme authority, and forms the basis of modern religion, which has lost its archetypal roots and has become a conscious system of defence and control. Myths and fairy tales give visible form to psychic phenomena that reveal the nature of the soul. Dreams and visions also contain manifestations of the archetypes, but are the least understandable, more individual and naïve forms of symbolism. The importance of all of these is their capacity to bring to consciousness our own personal unconscious drama, and help us to understand our true self. We have a personal journey to make into our own unconscious to reveal the symbols and stories that matter to us.
Creativity is also a key component to getting in touch with personal symbolic content, as it can bypass some of our more rational, linguistic processes and reach deeper into the unconscious. Irvin Yalom, the American Psychiatrist wrote, “ Mind thinks in images but, to communicate with another, must transform image into thought and then thought into language. That march, from image to thought to language, is treacherous. Casualties occur: the rich, fleecy texture of image, its extraordinary plasticity and flexibility, its private nostalgic emotional hues – all are lost when image is crammed into language.” (from Love’s Executioner).
Why does this Matter?
Even if, as contemporary thinkers, we share some scepticism with scientists, there is no doubt from the evidence that something important is happening here and that we have lost our links to it. It is also true that contemporary scientific exploration and modern physics are beginning to reveal a scientific basis for sacred symbolism, rooted in the geometry and patterns of nature and life. Jung collaborated with Nobel Laureate Physicist Wolfgang Pauli – both were fascinated by the interface of matter with psyche, and both were searching for the source of the universe and the nature of existence. The geometric patterns link us inextricably with nature, and perhaps explain why such varied and unconnected civilisations used the same symbols and patterns to describe the world, explaining cave paintings across Europe that reveal the same symbolism, even though the different groups had no contact with each other. Patterns are well known and repeated, without being passed on physically or through oral traditions. This provides strong evidence for the existence of what Jung calls the collective unconscious. Jung’s work with psychosis led him to connect images from disturbed patients with precedents in mythology, philosophy and alchemy. His famous example is a psychotic patient who asked Jung to take part in a ritual with him, which involved gazing at the sun. He then described a tube coming out of the sun, from which the winds came. Jung later discovered a mithraic text from the Alexandrian school of mysticism, which contained a similar ritual, and the description of a tube coming from the sun that was the origin of the wind. There was no way that the patient could have known this obscure text - he had connected to the ancient symbols in his altered reality. We have lost our connections to this, and it would seem that this loss is at the heart of man’s loss of connection to meaningful life and to the rhythms, songs and symbols of nature. The aim of the Square the Circle book and workshop series is to seek to find a way back to our connectedness with universal symbols and archetypes, by paying attention to our dreams and re-reading the old stories. We can also begin to develop our own personal symbolic language that becomes a communication with our psyche, our shadow and our memories. We cannot, by definition, use the rational, conscious part of our brain to do this. Creativity will help to shift to a more right brain, free associative, intuitive interaction. Flaubert writes in Madame Bovary: “Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars”. Get the book and resources here, and book a workshop place here.