The animistic archetypal nature of the unconscious

Abstract: The concept of the archetype in modern psychology has its roots in animistic mythological thinking, which is still part and parcel of our unconscious psychology. Platonism and Jungian psychology are indebted to animism. The unconscious constantly produces animistic motives. The archetype is an expression of the animistic economy of the unconscious. This explains the great success of the archetypal notion in understanding the unconscious. It is justified regardless of the nature of the archetype, and its ontological (metaphysical) status is therefore not an urgent issue. It is suggested that the archetype resides as an entity of mind in the unconscious psyche, which is the objective psyche. Such a layer of psyche is suggestive of a divine unconscious realm, where autonomous processes of volition and ideation are slowly brewing. The Platonic paradigm can trigger a polytheistic regression, exemplified by naive New Age notions. The trinitarian tradition of mysticism could provide a way out for gone astray Jungians and New Agers. The path known as ‘via negativa’ involves a withdrawal from the world and gearing down. It provides the necessary complement that makes individuation complete.

Keywords: archetype, ontology, animism, individuation, Plato, Carl Jung, contemplation, complementation.


The question of the nature of the archetype is often raised. My argument is that archetypal thinking, as such, has its roots in the unconscious. Regardless of the metaphysical status of the archetype, the archetypal way of thought proceeds naturally in the unconscious. It is an innate form of symbolic cognition that is predicated on our psychic economy. This means that the notorious problem of the ontological nature of the archetype is relativized. It becomes a less urgent issue. It relates to the time-honoured philosophical issue of form contra substance. Whereas the modern scientific paradigm has its roots in the thinking of Aristotle, modern psychology, with its archetypal notion, is indebted to Plato. Aristotle argued that what we see around us contains both matter and form (hule and eidos). Thus, the form is not transcendental to the worldly object, which is what Plato had argued. Today we know that a tree’s form is programmed into its genes, and in this sense the form of the tree exists within its every cell. Likewise, the extraordinary qualities of water depend on the characteristics of the water molecule. Evidently, Aristotle was formally correct in his contention that the objects carry their form within themselves.

But the Platonic worldview has today renewed its prominence. Plato’s philosophy has animistic roots, I believe. His doctrine of pre-existence resembles the animistic notion. It is portrayed as a time when the soul lived among the Forms and learned to know of them by experiencing them directly. Plato’s philosophy of Forms has its roots in old-fashioned animistic notions of spiritual ancestors or gods. The Forms are autonomous. In a sense they are living entities of their own, although not self-conscious in the way of Olympian gods. They are abstracted in Plato, but it’s incorrect to interpret them as ‘forms’ in the sense of moulds, or as abstract ideals.

Psychology viewed in the light of animism

Arguably, C.G. Jung could be thought of as the modern-day heir of animistic philosophy and its offshoots, namely Platonic and Neoplatonic philosophy. I hold that the whole discussion about ‘archetypes’ boils down to the animistic conception, which is a mythological worldview that is still present and alive in our own unconscious. We are still thinking, at least unconsciously, along animistic lines. If we remain unconscious of our innate animism, we will inevitably fall prey to archaic thinking. On the other hand, as we adopt the archetypal notion, it allows us to apply our innate animism in a conscious and controlled way. Regardless of the metaphysical foundation of the ‘archetype’, it is rooted in the unconscious as an archaic way of thought. This is good enough justification for the archetype, whether it’s philosophically naive or not.

It has been argued that historical animism, building on mythological thinking, ought to be viewed as a philosophy in its own right. Despite its naive expression it deserves recognition as a full-fledged worldview. According to animistic cultures (there are some still on earth) each thing has a divine prototype. Thus, the Parrot says: »I am the forefather of all parrots, all have descended from me. I was the first of all beings. I was before all«. (The Leopard and the Anaconda say the same, so they are not quite in agreement). These myths are not simply a generative account of the species, rather they are creation myths. According to animism there was once a ‘mythic reality’, a spiritual age when heaven and earth had not yet separated. To the degree that each individual parrot takes part in the mythic reality of his divine ancestor his life will be fulfilled and his powers maximized. This is true also of humans. Different human tribes tend to have their own ancestor, such as the Parrot. When being asked how they can be descendants from the Parrot when they are in fact humans, they are confounded by white man’s ignorance. It’s obvious to them that they are parrots, while being humans all the same. We keep misunderstanding these notions in material terms and argue that they don’t make sense: “You don’t look like a parrot so you can’t have the Parrot as an ancestor”. The animists realize that we are quite simpleminded and have no notion of the spirit.

Animistic philosophy is focused on spiritual nature, that is, the ‘inner meaning’ of things and beings, which they try to fulfil during their existence on earth. So when the leopard “imitates the prototype” this is not so much in the material sense, but rather how eminently he fulfils the inner meaning of his existence. The leopard becomes more real when he partakes in the spirit. The closer he approximates the Form of the leopard, the more will he be able to fulfil his inner meaning. Typical for animist religion is the notion of how people in a long gone era lived in harmony with the gods. This is reminiscent of the Golden Age in Hellenic religion.

Arguably, mythology represents an artifact of animistic thinking, still present in the unconscious. Animistic thinking can be viewed as a way of looking at existence, i.e., a kind of religio-philosophical worldview. It reasons along archetypal lines, that is, spiritual entities can take earthly (conscious) shape. This is what underlies the manifestation of all new beings in the conscious realm. What’s the difference compared with the modern archetypal notion? Animistic thought represents a metaphysical view of reality whereas archetypal thought is formulated against the backdrop of the psyche (conscious and unconscious). In animism the gods exist in a proximate transcendental (supernatural) reality, e.g. the ‘dream-time’ of Australian Aborigines. When they plunge down to earthly reality, it also implies that their existence as divine beings beyond time is terminated. Comparatively, the archetype resides in the unconscious. A heightened excitation level can have as consequence that the archetype breaches the border of consciousness, an event that leads to its integration with the ego. When an unconscious content becomes conscious, it means that it has been energized by consciousness, laden with conscious energy. Thus, it is rooted in the soil of the conscious world, and it perishes as a transcendental and autonomous being.

Examples from mythology

Modern psychology interprets the course of events differently, and with much greater scientific coherence, but the story is similar in structure. The Narcissus story is a case in point. Narcissus is a god, son of the river god, who roams freely in the wood (the unconscious), were he is hunting with his friends. He suddenly awakes to self-consciousness when he becomes aware of his own shining beauty, signifying the heightened excitation level of the archetype (cmp. the story of Lucifer). As a consequence he passes the limit of consciousness. On account of the assimilative property of ego consciousness the ego appropriates it as a conscious function. Thus it is rooted in consciousness as part of “me”. From the perspective of the archetype, this implies deflation, dismemberment, and death. That’s why ancient religion always speaks about the dismemberment and sacrifice of the gods, which gave rise to everything that exists in the earthly realm. In case of Narcissus, he turns into the white Narcissus flower at the edge of the black mere. This relates the image of a conscious ego function close to the edge of the dark unconscious. A splendid and free-roaming divine entity has been depreciated and become “ego”. Perhaps it manifests as a grand realization, an idea that the ego thinks it has produced wholly by itself. On the other hand, from the perspective of consciousness, the archetype has turned into something “real”, which is better.

Actaeon suffered a similar fate as Narcissus. He, too, was a hunter in the forest, where he stumbled across Artemis (Diana) who was having a bath. No man can experience the naked beauty of Artemis and live. Enraged, Artemis turned him into a stag and, not knowing their own owner, Actaeon’s own dogs tore him to pieces. The divine beauty of Artemis is what catches the awareness of Actaeon, the archetype. In this case, what causes the heightened excitation level is a transfer of energy from a more powerful archetype, Artemis, that roams the deeper regions of the forest. This occurrence, the transfer of energy between archetypes, is a common motif in fairytales. The hero typically receives magical powers from helpful creatures. Actaeon, like Narcissus, became aware (conscious) and thus died as a god. This also accounts for the event when the stag entered into creation.

Arguably, the animistic interpretation of these events is plausible, provided that we translate it to modern psychological language in archetypal terms. In a sense, conscious realization is a world-creating event. In mythology and ancient religion, new creation on earth always entails the death of a god, i.e. the death of something very valuable and wonderful. This is true also of Narcissus and Actaeon.

The solar phallus

As regards the innateness of the archetype and the metaphysical reality of the psyche, I hold the view that the Jungian metaphysical grounding is uncalled-for. It works anyway. The archetype of the unconscious behaves as if it were an autonomous entity. This is all we need to know. On account of this, the psyche must be regarded as real. Until further notice, reality must be accepted in the way it presents itself. Thus, there is no need to build a metaphysical philosophy surrounding the psyche in order to magnify it as a reality in itself. Jung develops a strong metaphysical argument, which is uncalled-for. The genetic grounding of the archetype is not really in dispute. Genetic heredity, in the weak sense, can hardly be disputed, since we are in every way conditioned by our genetic constitution. However, Jung wished to explain how the archetype manifested independently in individuals, without regard to outer influences. The unconscious archetype, as such, is defined as an inherent predisposition of the archetypal image. Jung has often returned to the case of the “solar phallus man” who was an inmate at the Burghölzli Mental Hospital in Zürich (cf. Jung, 1976, p.101ff & p.157f). He believed that the sun had a phallus, responsible for the creation of the wind. Similar notions occur in mythology. Jung exemplifies with the Mithraic liturgy.

sunset with solar phallus He seems to think that this case is a convincing example of archetypal heredity, but it is not very compelling. After all, everybody has seen the solar phallus.
Currituck sunset (Edupic).

The unconscious psyche is bound to take what it sees and forge it according to our animistic predisposition. The result surfaces as dreams and fantasies. The sun is a phallic force that penetrates the waters of mother Earth and impregnates her. Fantasies of this type can occur independently in individuals, without recourse to an innate predisposition for a particular solar phallus archetype. What is innate is the animistic process of thinking, and the way in which fantasies continue to develop in the unconscious as archetypal complexes. Jung’s patient said that if the head moves from side to side, the sun’s phallus moves with it. This is a fact of nature. When one’s visual point of view changes, the streak of light follows suit. The archetype, unencumbered by abstruse metaphysics, is a very useful notion. The hermeneutics connected with it is powerful and has improved our understanding of the psyche. But the archetype, as such, is untenable. It is high time to discard the metaphysics underlying the archetypal notion.

The respective backsides of materialism and animism

The Platonic and the Aristotelian paradigms are vexed with their own specific problems. The scientific Aristotelian paradigm has given rise to trite materialism. It has a deadening effect on the soul and leads to instinctual atrophy in the individual. Wassily Kandinsky says in “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”:

This all-important spark of inner life today is at present only a spark. Our minds, which are even now only just awakening after years of materialism, are infected with the despair of unbelief, of lack of purpose and ideal. The nightmare of materialism, which has turned the life of the universe into an evil, useless game, is not yet past; it holds the awakening soul still in its grip. Only a feeble light glimmers like a tiny star in a vast gulf of darkness. This feeble light is but a presentiment, and the soul, when it sees it, trembles in doubt whether the light is not a dream, and the gulf of darkness reality. This doubt, and the still harsh tyranny of the materialistic philosophy, divide our soul sharply from that of the Primitives. Our soul rings cracked when we seek to play upon it, as does a costly vase, long buried in the earth, which is found to have a flaw when it is dug up once more. For this reason, the Primitive phase, through which we are now passing, with its temporary similarity of form, can only be of short duration. (ch.1)

The archetypal Platonic perspective has an underside, too. It opens the door to the what Kandinsky terms the Primitive phase, a regressive movement in the animistic direction, as exemplified by Hillman’s Archetypal Psychology. According to this argument, the Jungian paradigm itself develops into a “game playing” (ritual) activity. Accordingly, its adherents are kept busy like little mice in a labyrinth. Obviously, many succeed in playing the role of Jungian scholars. Many an amateur is involved in games that are reminiscent of the New Age movement. It smacks of pagan naivete, not unlike the idolization of Harry Potter. Jung’s notion of “active imagination” is easily corrupted by the aesthetic person. Thus, it becomes a product of fantasy and takes off in the tangential direction.

Arguably, we are always involved in the playing of games. Board game players are calculating “variations”, and they learn “opening variants”. Musicians are also creating “variations”. We are very much enticed by this jumble of variations. The share market is a kind of game, and so is the whole competitive market system. Technology has amplified the principle of play, and people go astray in the endless forest of variations. It’s as if the Wheel of Samsara revolves faster and faster. The trickster archetype grows in dimensions to become a devil. The consequence is that individuation risks coming to a halt. In that technology facilitates play, individuation becomes quenched in a jumble of variations that keep the individual busy. Apparently, when people have time and energy to spare, they start playing games. But it has a neurotic backside. The Russian chess master Mikhail Chigorin, at old age, is said to have burnt his chess set, realizing how much valuable life had been wasted on it. Arguably, there is a contradiction between individuation and the gaming motif. The latter can arrest individuation. Today, the game playing element is so over-whelming that many people are bound to suffer the same fate as Chigorin. Evidently, we need to gear down. We are caught in a double-bind, as it were, torn between Plato and Aristotle.

Penitence and the trinitarian path

I think a remedy can be found in the inclusion of the introverted trinitarian spirit. In Christian theology, the living humans are in need of redemption from the Holy Spirit, which is a central truth in Christianity. But in ancient religion it is the human priest/priestess who is responsible for the redemption of the spirits of the dead. In traditional Indian religion the gods are redeemed by humans, too. Salvation is reversed: men try to save the gods. Indra and Shiva must come down to earth to expiate their sin. This is a function of the shaman that is today forgotten. To give life back to the gods and spirits—that is the redemptive work carried out by the shamanic individual. We focus on giving conscious life to humans and on conquering conscious life for ourselves. In keeping with the theme of sacrifice, we should also do the obverse and give life back to the gods, which they once conferred on us and humanity, at the time when creation became manifest. It is a payback, of sorts. Theologians and historians of religion have always mulled over the atonement sacrifice of Christ, but it finds its explanation as a requital. According to the ancient conception (e.g. Aztec theology), “life-blood” must be returned to the gods. The Passion of the Christ represents the mystery of individuation. “We are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). The Christ is abandoned by God and crucified. To experience “Christ-identity” is anything but gratifying, as it represents a relative privation of the ego. From ‘The Spiritual Ascent’ by Gerard Zerbolt of Zutphen (1367-1398):

COMPUNCTION is born of fear in manifold ways...compunction cometh when he doth diligently consider his own defects, the passions of his soul and the noxious desires that are still in him, and even though they rule him not yet do shake and vex him; and when he doth remember, with cries and lamentation, how little is the progress he hath made in casting out these evils. (Ch.XVII)

This is the ‘imitatio’ which M-L von Franz objects to. However, her standpoint would imply the rejection of an archetype central to individuation. If we are prepared to “integrate” the riches that the unconscious archetypes have bestowed upon us, then we must also be prepared to make sacrifice of our conscious life, to avail the archetypes. Accordingly, we decide to make sacrifice of our time and energy, since it is now payback time. This is the theme of what I term the introverted trinitarian tradition, namely the contemplative praxis, an important undercurrent of history.


The definition of the word ‘individuation’ implies a process of “othering”, that is, to differentiate out of group identity. To see the “Other” is necessary for a true relationship to develop; so it not anti-social. Webster’s Dictionary defines individuation:

(1) : the development of the individual from the universal.
(2) : the determination of the individual in the general.
 b : the process by which individuals in society become differentiated from one another.

We are averse to being existentially alone, disconnected from everything else in the universe. Individuation is experienced as a painful process whereas the playing of games is self-gratifying, even addictive. I hold that individuation is a necessary prerequisite for attaining that divine form of unconsciousness which is the mystical union with God (‘Unio Mystica’). Individuation implies that consciousness is extended, as you more and more stand out from collective unconsciousness through disidentification, thus gaining a perspective. It requires that one abandons the “ideology of sameness” that today permeates society. Yet, at a point in time one must allow oneself to sink back into the darkness of God. Unpolluted by collective identification and unconsciousness one may descend into that other form of unconsciousness—the dark night of the soul—as into a bath. Thus, the disidentified and differentiated individual once again becomes one with God.

Jung often cited Empedocles (490-430 BC) who said that “God is a circle whose centre is everywhere, whose circumference is nowhere.” It means that the centre of God is the differentiated individual. So a human being can only attain wholeness by becoming an individual, i.e. differentiating himself out of unconscious wholeness and collective identity. But a person who is enveloped in the playing of games upholds an unconscious attitude and cannot attain a liberated consciousness and true individuality. It is remarkable how much time people spend in the playing of games. For instance, married couples tend to devote much time and energy to the matter of food, the planning of next dinner, going to the supermarket, etc. This continual search after paltry gratification is uncharacteristic of manliness. It’s suggestive of a little mouse running around in a labyrinth, searching after tidbits. How can one solve this problem, this obsession with playing games? The following is an excerpt from “A Serious Call to A Devout and Holy Life” by William Law (1729).

»The happiness of a life wholly devoted to God farther proved, from the vanity, the sensuality, and the ridiculous poor enjoyments, which they are forced to take up with who live according to their own humours. This represented in various characters.«

WE MAY STILL see more of the happiness of a life devoted unto God, by considering the poor contrivances for happiness, and the contemptible ways of life, which they are thrown into, who are not under the directions of a strict piety, but seeking after happiness by other methods.

If one looks at their lives, who live by no rule but their own humours and fancies; if one sees but what it is which they call joy, and greatness, and happiness; if one sees how they rejoice, and repent, change and fly from one delusion to another; one shall find great reason to rejoice, that God hath appointed a strait and narrow way, that leadeth unto life; and that we are not left to the folly of our own minds, or forced to take up such shadows of joy and happiness, as the weakness and folly of the world has invented. I say invented; because those things which make up the joy and happiness of the world are mere inventions, which have no foundation in nature and reason, are no way the proper good or happiness of man, no way perfect either in his body, or his mind, or carry him to his true end.

As for instance; when a man proposes to be happy in ways of ambition, by raising himself to some imaginary heights above other people, this is truly an invention of happiness, which has no foundation in nature, but is as mere a cheat of our own making, as if a man should intend to make himself happy by climbing up a ladder.

If a woman seeks for happiness from fine colours or spots upon her face, from jewels and rich clothes, this is as merely an invention of happiness, as contrary to nature and reason, as if she should propose to make herself happy by painting a post, and putting the same finery upon it. It is in this respect that I call these joys and happiness of the world mere inventions of happiness, because neither God, nor nature, nor reason, hath appointed them as such; but whatever appears joyful, or great, or happy in them, is entirely created or invented by the blindness and vanity of our own minds.

And it is on these inventions of happiness that I desire you to cast your eye, that you may thence learn, how great a good religion is, which delivers you from such a multitude of follies, and vain pursuits, as are the torment and vexation of minds that wander from their true happiness in God. (ch.XII) (here)


However, also the contemplative tradition has met with difficulties. From to the book “From St. John of the Cross to Us” by J. Arraj:

Fr. Keating had met people who had devoted themselves to the life of prayer, even for many years, and yet did not seem to have ever experienced mystical graces, that is, the kinds of infused prayer that Teresa and John talk about. They might even have spent their lives in contemplative religious communities, and not had the experience of contemplation. In fact, »less than five percent of cloistered contemplatives that I know have the mystical experiences that Teresa or John of the Cross describe. They generally experience the night of sense, and a few experience the night of spirit. Their consolations are few and far between.« (14) We are back to the familiar subject of the night of sense in the wide sense of the term, which is the dilemma that Tomás de Jesús faced so many years before, and it goes like this: »I have given myself to a life dedicated to contemplation, and yet I don’t experience it.« (ch.13) (here)

Arguably, mystical union requires a progression of individuation. As long as the contemplative has not differentiated himself out of collective identity, he cannot sink back into the ocean like the sun. Perhaps this is what fails the contemplatives. They have been indoctrinated with the “ideology of sameness”, whereas individuation demands that the individual sheds the illusion of sameness. I don’t know what it takes to rise out of unconsciousness. Perhaps there must exist an unconscious impetus which is lacking in the average person.

The individuant arising out of unconscious collective identity, moving through conscious differentiation, then to immerse himself in the sea of the unconscious—this is the movement of the sun, which leads to rebirth. This really depicts the progression of the unconscious self, and not necessarily the ego. The “archetype of totality” (the self) is connected with individuation, which is a process that removes the individual from the totality in the sense of collective identification, i.e., the feeling of belonging to the group. Thus, the ego’s progression need not be as dramatic as its ideal, which is the self. Yet, the differentiation of the individual must needs lead to the relative abatement of the ego’s energy in the sea of the self. The “mystical union with God” requires a process of individuation, that is, to rise to the zenith, like the sun, representing a differentiated ego consciousness, which has shred the illusion of sameness.

Psyche and Kosmos

Psyche (Gk. ‘soul’) is volition and ideation, whereas kosmos (Gk. ‘world’) is axiom and essence (or law and ontic nature). A psychic content is willful directionality and ideation (libido and meaning), or else it’s not a psychic content, at all. The attempt to establish the archetype as law and ontic nature (i.e., the nature of the archetype, as such, as ‘archetypus in re’), leads to a genetic interpretation, or to a metaphysic along lines of neutral monism according to which both psyche and kosmos are founded upon the same archetypal universals. Jung himself conceived of the archetypes as “psychoid”, i.e., not exclusively psychic. I don’t see it as essential to the understanding of the phenomenology of the archetype. One could equally well do the opposite, namely reduce kosmos to volition and ideation, on lines of idealistic philosophy (e.g., Schopenhauer, “The World as Will and Representation”). Modern people have a very strong preference for monistic models (as in monotheism). It’s either ‘esse in re’ or ‘esse in anima’. If the archetype is reduced to brain structure (e.g.), it implies that ‘esse in re’ is elevated as first principle. Comparatively, Christian theology has proposed bipartite and tripartite models. Neither the nature of Christ nor the nature of the Godhead are rigorously monistic.

Science has shown that the outer world is highly autonomous. Thus, we can no longer interpret the phenomena of physical existence as founded upon ideas. Kant and his idealistic followers have been refuted. Accordingly, psychology has shown that the psyche is highly autonomous. We no longer think of it as directly dependent upon worldly factors. Such psychological models have failed miserably. The psyche goes on by itself and the kosmos goes on by itself. Of course, they aren’t isolated phenomena. The relation could be described as a mutual conditioning. But the outer world cannot directly enforce any psychic event; nor can the psyche impose its will upon the outer world, along lines of magic.

Accordingly, we have given up the attempt to see the one as predicated on the other. Science has proven that the kosmos is objective, and psychology has proven that the psyche is objective. It means that the constituents of the kosmos are real and autonomous. Likewise, it means that the constituents of the psyche, also known as archetypes, are real and autonomous. Accordingly, the archetype is real and there is no need to define it in terms of ontic substance (having real metaphysical being) and natural laws. Law and ontic nature are characteristics that belong to physical objects. Nor is there any need to define the physical world in terms of psychic ideas, which is the most common position in the history of philosophy, that is, some form of subjectivist idealism. It seems we must avoid letting one reality encroach upon the other. The autonomous nature of the psyche is demonstrated by the continuous conflict that goes on between archetypes having different ideational content and volition. Dreams are produced which seem to point in different directions. Archetypes seem to want different things. However, when laid out on a time-line, the development of personality follows a logical pattern. If a change is going to occur at a point in time, the archetype must begin to affect personality at an early stage, perhaps thirty years before. Thus, it will remain in conflict with other archetypes. Our biology follows natural law, but our psyche doesn’t. I hold that individuation goes on according to an alternating process of complementation and integration.

Complementation would be the unconscious and semi-conscious continual resolution of conflict, the process of completing, and the formulation of opposites as complementary. Complementation allows all the warring elements of the psyche to have a say. The archetypes can all be allowed to slowly mature, even if they gainsay the ruling conscious standpoint, and regardless if they conflict with each other. Thus, they are permitted to bloom at the appropriate point in time. An archetype must be integrated when it is mature for it, otherwise complementation is disrupted. Archetypes are ‘psyche’ and possess a modicum of will-power. Thus, their emergence in the conscious sphere isn’t predictable in the same way that physical events are predictable, nor can we know the ideational content beforehand. Schopenhauer’s notion of Will and Representation is relevant to the archetype, but not to the kosmos. If Schopenhauer thought that All is Will and Representation, we should at least be able to say that the Psyche is Will and Representation. We needn’t try and pin down the psyche on notions of ontic substance and axiomatic law. The conclusion is that ‘esse in re’ and ‘esse in anima’ are equally viable formulas, but none of them good enough. Modern philosophers have a dislike for metaphysical dualism, on lines of Descartes, but there are other alternatives (see my article ‘Complementaris Mundus’, here).

Unconscious polytheism

My argument is that the ontology of the archetype is not an urgent issue. The unconscious constantly produces animistic motives, since this is how our archaic unconscious “thinks”. The archetype is an expression of the animistic economy of the unconscious. This explains the great success of the archetypal notion in understanding the unconscious. The concept of the archetype in modern psychology has its roots in animistic mythological thinking, which remains part and parcel of our unconscious psychology. Platonism and Jungian psychology are indebted to animism. It is justified regardless of the metaphysical nature of the archetype. When the metaphysical status of the psyche is raised to “real” and “autonomous”, a backside is that it gives rise to subjectivism, as in subjective idealism, phenomenologism, and solipsistic narcissism. In Plato’s conception, however, the ‘archetypoi’ reside in a transcendent sphere. Accordingly, Plato’s philosophy has been called ‘objective idealism’ or ‘idealistic realism’. In this way he achieved what he wished, namely to counteract subjectivism and relativism. However, to modern people it appears naive to locate the Ideas in relation to the temporal world. Ideas aren’t located anywhere, as they exist in the mind. So modern philosophy took a turn for subjective idealism. The only thing needed to transform Kant’s idealism into subjective idealism was to remove the transcendental thing-in-itself, corresponding to physis in Plato. This was an easy operation with catastrophic consequences, which Paul Roubiczek has evinced (here).

Plato’s conception is really an adaptation of polytheism. Plato took the Greek gods and turned them into Forms. What is the nature of this place where Ideas reside, and which transcends kosmos? Ideas reside inside a mind, but it’s not the question of the mind of the human subject—it’s the objective mind of God. So Plato is really referring to an impersonal godhead when he discusses the supersensual world. The conclusion is that objective idealism is essentially the same as a theistic conception. However, Plato’s notion can be reinterpreted according to the modern unconscious notion. The archetype does not transcend the world—it transcends consciousness. Conscious and unconscious are relative opposites. It means that conscious transcendence is relative, contrary to metaphysical (absolute) transcendence, which defies reason. The archetype resides in the deepest layers of the unconscious. Also in the deepest layers of the unconscious psyche is volition and ideation, although the process is here much slower and requires much longer time.

At this level of psyche the archetypes are undergoing a slow process of formulation. They are not metaphysical imprints, but products of slow but powerful ideation. Unconscious polytheism bears a resemblance to Schopenhauer’s transcendental Will. In Answer to Job, Carl Jung poses a largely unconscious godhead. An unconscious God is largely unaware of worldly events, which solves the theodicy problem. The conclusion is that the ontic archetype, as such, could be a red herring. In fact, it obtains as an entity of mind in the unconscious psyche, which is the objective psyche.

This is really Carl Jung’s godhead, I believe, although he did not want to emphasize it, because it would make him look unscientific. In speaking of God, who vastly surpasses “me”, the ego is deflated. What adds to the mental illness of today’s collective is the inflationary consequences of a lost relation to God. This represents a divine sphere that is “closer” than its complementary, namely the trinitarian deity. Rather than an alternative theological model of God, it is better viewed as a complement of the transcendent deity. Arguably, it is this aspect of God that comes to expression in the worship of the Virgin, to which the Catholic Church has given green light in the dogma of the assumption of the Virgin Mary (here). Such an unconscious deity, associated with the feminine, seems to correspond to the “worldly self of completeness” in my complementarian model of the self (here).


The gist of my proposal is that the archetype subsists as a “thought-activity” in the unconscious mind, which is suggestive of an unconscious deity. This means that there is no need to define the archetype in terms of physicalist science. There is really no subject that “thinks” the archetype. It is thinking itself, as autonomous volition and ideation is its very nature. To denote this activity, which is ever at work in the unconscious psyche, I have suggested the term “complementation”. It represents both the origin and sustainment of the archetype. It is what brings new archetypes into existence, over the aeons. We do not know what can come out of the unconscious. If it were predictable, then it would not be unconscious and unknowable. Jung solves this dilemma by predicting that the number of archetypes are innumerable, which vouches for unpredictability and unknowability. But it seems too Platonic. It is not to the taste of moderners to postulate the pre-existence of thousand-and-one archetypes. Rather, archetypes are created spontaneously over time, whereas existing archetypes are transformed over time. For more on the complementation notion see my articles The Complementarian Self (here), Critique of Synchronicity (here), and Thanatos (here). The choice of name for this unconscious function (“complementation”) is, of course, provisional.

The subtle body

I have suggested that the alchemical process denoted as ‘circular distillation’ corresponds to the unconscious process of complementation. It deviates from the traditional Jungian understanding (Winther, 2011, here) in that conscious integration is no longer the focal point of individuation. During complementation the unconscious self complements itself, being indirectly aided by consciousness. In theology, resurrection signifies the restitution of the personality, without the presence of the physical body. The new body is referred to as the ‘resurrection body’, the ‘subtle body’, or the ‘glorious body’. It corresponds to the glorious resurrection-body of Christ. It is also known as the ‘diamond body’ in Chinese spiritual literature (here). In this ancient conception, the self serves as a psychic body, i.e. a real metaphysical entity, equally real as the physical body. It is the vehicle which can carry the personality after the expiration of the body. So say the teachings of esoteric Christianity, Taoism, Hermeticism, Kriya Yoga, Tibetan and Tantric Buddhism, Sufism, and Alchemy. The medieval alchemists said that they were creating this body in advance. They were speeding up the processes of nature and thus contributed to the creation of the subtle body, which survives death. Otherwise this process would take aeons, to be concluded at the Day of Resurrection. M-L von Franz says:

The alchemist’s idea of producing the resurrected body and the elixir of immortality by a chemical procedure is derived from the Egyptian enbalming rites and the ceremonies for the dead Osiris. From the very beginning, therefore, the alchemists were preoccupied with the problem of the post-mortal state of the soul, and though the metaphysical validity of their statements is not susceptible of scientific proof they may well be intuitively correct anticipations of the psychological experience of death. At any rate these statements have to do with a reality far removed from life as ordinarily lived and from the sphere of ego-consciousness.
    The conception of the coniunctio as a post-mortal event runs through the whole history of alchemical symbolism and is found also among the Arabic alchemists who were the sources for Aurora. Thus the Turba says that the res (thing, matter) is buried like a man, and then God gives it its soul and spirit back again, and after the decomposition it grows stronger and is purified, just as after the resurrection a man becomes stronger and younger than he was upon earth. And Calid says: “This hidden thing is of the nature of sun and fire, and it is the most precious oil of all hidden things, and the living tincture, and the permanent water, which ever liveth and remaineth, and the vinegar of the philosophers and the penetrative spirit: and it is hidden, tincturing, aggregating, and reviving: it rectifieth and enlighteneth all the dead and causeth them to rise again” (von Franz, Aurora Consurgens, pp.369-70).

In ancient Egypt the resurrection body was called Osiris. According to the papyri, if a person had gone through the process of becoming Osiris, i.e., had become divine by going through the whole ritual of resurrection, he could appear in any shape at any day. He could leave the tomb and walk through shut doors. This is the goal of becoming Osiris, according to the Egyptian prayers for the dead. The alchemists connected this idea with the Philosopher’s Stone as the divine and immortal nucleus in man (cf. von Franz, Alchemy, p.236).

Lucid dreams

It is relevant, in this connection, to discuss the curious phenomenon of “lucid dreams”. I have experienced it myself several times. The dreamer wakes up inside the dream, as it were. He is aware of dreaming, but the dream continues anyway. The experience can be pleasurable, for instance, when consciously soaring like an eagle above the clouds. I doubt that the lucid state has an intrinsic value, as such. It is probably symbolic. This “waking up” inside the dream could symbolize how the subject wakes up in his subtle body. Arguably, the dream points at this possibility, namely that conscious life can continue wholly inside the psychic domain, as if it were a metaphysical reality in its own right. It is reminiscent of a shamanistic worldview. It is yet one more example of how the unconscious entertains animistic and shamanistic notions, but it could also hint at very important truths. Perhaps such dreams point at the necessity to engage in spiritual advancement in order to bring the subtle body into existence and to refine it. Although it is largely an autonomous psychic phenomenon, the process can be accelerated through conscious sacrifice and effort. A characteristic of lucid dreams is that if you decide to “do” something, and start to interact with dream figures, etc., you either wake up or go into a dream proper. So it seems to symbolize a state of “doing nothing while keeping awake”. This is very similar to what St John and the mystics strived after. Thus, lucid dreams could symbolize the essential contemplative activity of mind, which supports the unconscious process of complementation.


The Platonic worldview is relevant to the relation conscious-unconscious, because this is how the unconscious two-million-year-old man is thinking. It is worthwhile to know how archaic man thinks, and avoid fixation on conscious, linear, and scientific thinking. But the Platonic, archetypal, paradigm has introduced the danger of animistic regression. It can be forestalled with the introverted trinitarian concept of personal sacrifice, which implies the power of life is given back to the “gods”. The Jungian spiritual path involves an archetypal succession of integration. But the mystical path demands self-sacrifice, and even self-mortifying practices, rather than one heroic deed after another. The combination of the paradigms provides the solution. To sink into blessed unconsciousness requires that the individual has first conquered consciousness and achieved psychological emancipation. Thus, consciousness sinks into the sea like the sun.

The psyche functions as if it were an autonomous reality on a par with physical reality. It is not required that its ontological status is established in theory. The archetype, as such, needn’t be defined in metaphysical terms. It suffices that the notion is useful and the archetype is experiential. The psychic reality-status depends on the presence of autonomous archetypes that seem to function independently of outer reality. If unconscious archetypes behave as deities from the Hellenic age, then we have no other option than to acknowledge this, regardless of the metaphysical grounding of the theory. Jung’s worldview is monistic, that is, matter and psyche derive from the same underlying reality, the ‘unus mundus’, which is the abode of “psychoid” archetypes. Such a metaphysical edifice is not crucial to the notion of a collective unconscious. The complementarian perspective does not preclude a psychic existence that is ontically parallel with material reality. However, we needn’t make the assumption that they are essentially the same. This avoids the pitfall of materialistic obsession and also the danger of animistic regression. Long-standing philosophical and metaphysical quandaries can be resolved. We may relinquish contorted and warped philosophical systems, such as physicalism and idealism, that define the one in terms of the other.


© Mats Winther, 2011


Arraj, J. (1999). From St. John of the Cross to Us (here)

Law W. (1729). A Serious Call to A Devout and Holy Life. (here)

Jung, C.G. (1976). Symbols of Transformation. Princeton/Bollingen.

von Franz, M-L (2000). Aurora Consurgens. Inner City Books.

    ----------      (1980). Alchemy. Inner City Books.

Winther, M. (2011). ‘The Complementarian Self’ (here).

Zutphen, G. Z. of (13??). The Spiritual Ascent.

See also:

Winther, M. (2013). ‘Complementaris Mundus - a complementarian metaphysic’ (here).

  --------     (2009). ‘The real meaning of the motif of the dying god’ (here).