In the prologue of Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Jung introduced his autobiography as a telling of his personal myth (1961/1989, p. 3). “I can only make direct statements, ‘only tell stories.’ Whether or not the stories are ‘true’ is not the problem. The only question is whether what I tell is my fable, my truth” (p. 3). Jung’s profound interest in myth persisted throughout his long life. Jung began to study mythology in earnest in 1909 to understand the symbolism contained in latent psychosis (1961/1989, p. 131). Around the same time, Jung read the Friedrich Creuzer’s Symbolik und Mytholigie der alten Volker, which further deepened his interest in myth. Creuzer’s book stimulated Jung’s imagination: “In the course of reading I came across Friedrich Creuzer’s Symbolik und Mytholigie der alten Volker—and that fired me” (1961/1989, p. 162). Elsewhere, Jung (1989/2012) wrote “I came upon a German book called Mythology and Symbolism. I went through the three or four volumes at top speed, reading like mad, in fact, until I became as bewildered as ever, I had been in the clinic” (p. 24).
In 1911, Jung wrote Symbols of Transformation (Wandlungen und Symbole der Libido), an extensive survey of mythology which was principally based on the creative fantasies of an American woman named Frank Miller. Jung was deeply interested in the mythological themes that appeared in Miller’s fantasies. He proposed that her fantasies originated from an endogenous layer of her mind that was inherited. Jung believed that he could demonstrate a phylogenetic origin to her fantasies by comparing them to myths found in the world’s traditions and cultures. The term phylogenesis, suggests that certain psychic contents are common to the entire species rather than just the individual. Jung tried to situate Ms. Miller’s personal psyche within a larger transpersonal framework that he would later call the collective unconscious. Jung ultimately saw mythological expressions as psychic statements that originate from the collective unconscious.
At this early time in Jung’s career, he referred to the mythologems that comprise the world’s mythologies as primordial images. This term would later be supplanted by the term archetype. Myths could be viewed as the conscious manifestation of the archetype per se, the visible part of the ordering principles that shape and structure human experience. Like archetypes, myths structure the narrative of our lives, our dreams, fantasies, hopes, and aspirations. Jung (1989/2012) also suggested that in Miller’s fantasies he was actually analyzing his own fantasy function (p. 29), which prompted him to pay close attention to the mythological content present not only in his dreams but his also his childhood memories. Therefore, we might say that Ms. Miller’s fantasies activated Jung’s own myth-making function. This immersion in mythology heralded Jung’s so-called confrontation with the unconscious.
A central premise of Symbols of Transformation is that myths, and their attendant symbolism, are libido analogues: symbolic manifestations of psychic energy. Jung embraced a broader view of libido than Freud’s psychosexual approach. Jung effectively stripped the libido concept of Freud’s exclusive sexual interpretation of the concept. For Jung, libido or psychic energy, as he would later call it, could not be reduced solely to one instinct (e.g., sexuality) but should be viewed in light of a range of physiological, biological, and psychological factors. Jung’s conception of libido could best be described as an excess of life energy that flows into a wide variety of activities to include the formation of myths. Jung (1912/1956) aptly expressed this point in contradistinction to Freud’s psychosexual definition:
We would be better advised, therefore, when speaking of libido, to understand it as an energy-value which is able to communicate itself to any field of activity whatsoever, be it power, hunger, hatred, sexuality, or religion, without ever being itself a specific instinct. (CW5, para. 197)
Thus, for Jung a sexual interpretation of the libido may be suitable in some cases, but could not explain the countless arrangements of libido configurations—culture, art, spirituality, religion, etc.—found in phenomena in general. Jung’s more inclusive viewpoint of libido as outlined in Symbols of Transformation would inevitably lead to his professional break with Freud. Jung (1961/1989) further described his concept of libido in his autobiography:
I conceived libido as a psychic analogue of physical energy, hence, as a more or less quantitative concept, which therefore should not be defined in qualitative terms. My idea was to escape from the then prevailing concretism of the libido theory—in other words, I wished no longer to speak of instincts of hunger, aggression, and sex, but to regard all these phenomena as expressions of psychic energy. (p. 208)
It is also important to point out that Jung did not completely reject Freud’s interpretation of libido, but merely felt that Freud’s standpoint was too narrow. In Jung’s view, Freud applied too rigid a formulation to libido and failed to consider a multiplicity of drives and instincts into which libido could flow. During its development instinct is split into multiple modes of application, which can be put to use in various activities. Jung effectively made myth a province of psychology through his neovitalistic conception of libido because it could be viewed as a culturally conditioned representation of psychic energy: symbols of the libido. Regarding the connection between psychology and myth, Jung (1912/1956) added:
Modern psychology has the distinct advantage of having opened a field of psychic phenomena which are themselves the matrix of all mythology— I mean dreams, visions, fantasies, and delusional ideas. Here the psychologist not only finds numerous points of correspondence with myth-motifs, but also has an invaluable opportunity to observe how such contents arise and to analyse their function in a living organism. (CW5. para. 611)
In Jung’s (1958/1978) view, a “myth is essentially a product of the unconscious archetype and is therefore a symbol which requires psychological interpretation” (CW10, para. 625).
Jung also indicated that during this timeframe—in 1911 Jung was 36 years old—he was rapidly approaching the second half of his life, a period that often coincides with a change in the personality. Jung (1912/1956) suggested that after he wrote Symbols of Transformation he arrived at an understanding of “what it means to live with a myth, and what it means to live without one” (CW5, p. xxv). In 1912, Jung asked himself what myth he was living and he proceeded to have an internal dialogue with himself.
Now you possess a key to mythology and are free to unlock all the gates of the unconscious psyche.” But then something whispered within me, “Why open all the gates?” And promptly the question arose of what, after all, I had accomplished. I had explained the mythos of peoples of the past; I had written a book about the hero, the myth in which man has always lived. But in what myth does man live nowadays? In the Christian myth, the answer might be, “Do you live in it?” I asked myself. To be honest, the answer was no. For me, it is not what I live by.” “Then do we no longer have any myth?” “No, evidently we no longer have any myth.” (1961/1989, p. 171)
Thus, Jung realized that he no longer lived within the Christian myth and his introspection culminated with a final question: “But then what is your myth—the myth in which you do live?” (p. 171). So with no satisfactory answer, he resolved to explore his own myth. Therefore, it is not at all difficult to see how myth crept into the The Red Book, as well as Jung’s emerging psychology. That Jung would find himself digging deeper into his own psychology, that is to say, his own myth, would seem like the next logical step after the completion of Symbols of Transformation and his break with Freud.
In The Red Book, Jung constructs an entire cosmological system amalgamated from a variety of mythological, religious, and philosophical sources. The Red Book reads like Jung’s own mythological account in which the protagonist explores his psychic topology of the unconscious and navigates amongst a panoply of images. The Red Book could be viewed as a natural progression of Jung’s search for his own myth. What emerges is an individual cosmology, which I have alluded to elsewhere. Thus, The Red Book could be viewed as Jung’s response to what he saw as the inadequacies of the hero myth, which he explored at length in Symbols of Transformation.
On December 19, 1913, Jung had a peculiar dream where he and an unidentified youth slayed the Germanic hero figure Siegfried (2009, p. 241), which was followed by a downpour of rain. (1961/1989, p. 180). Siegfried’s death prefigured Jung’s own figurative descent into the eternal womb of the unconscious, which is alluded to in Symbols of Transformation. “The hero is the ideal masculine type: leaving the mother, the source of life, behind him, he is driven by an unconscious desire to find her again, to return to her womb” (Jung, 1912/1956, CW5, para. 611). Jung suggested that the death of the hero activates unconscious contents which lead to the renewal of the god-image, a psychological problem he attempts to work out throughout the remainder of The Red Book and beyond.
Jung further opined that Siegfried’s death represented the killing of the heroic ideal within himself. Yet, the death of Siegfried also had a collective meaning that should be considered. One could say that Siegfried aptly symbolized the heroic ideal of the Germanic spirit, which on the eve of the outbreak of the First World War was evidently constellated. Jung’s fantasy of killing Siegfried then seems prescient to the outbreak of the First World War. In 1916, Germany erected a series of forts and tank defenses that was ironically named the Siegfried Line. Viewed psychologically, Jung felt that the hero had to be sacrificed to turn his libido toward the inferior function which was unconscious. (1989/2012, p. 53). Jung added that
The hero, as I told you, is the symbol of the greatest value recognized by us. Christ has been our hero when we accept the principles of his life as our own principles. Or Herakles or Mithras becomes my hero when I am determined to be as disciplined as they were. So it appeared as if Siegfried were my hero. (1989/2012, p. 62)
One could say that it was necessary for Jung to sacrifice his superior function in order to attain the right psychological attitude necessary to transform the god-image within himself. “This identity and my heroic idealism had to be abandoned, for there are higher things that the ego’s will, and to these one must bow” (Jung, 1961/1989, p. 181). In a sense, Jung was not entirely abandoning a heroic attitude. Self-sacrifice, after all, suggests a noble and even heroic quality. Thus, one could say that Jung was not so much against a heroic attitude in general but the kind that blindly emulates an ideal which inevitably leads to wars and needless suffering. The hero that Jung felt had to die was one that could no longer symbolically contain the energies of the unconscious and required a transformation of the libido. Thus, the death of the hero represented a sort of initiation right for Jung which he had to undergo prior to descending into deeper layers of his unconscious mind. On this point, Jung (2009) recounted the following to Aniella Jaffe: “We want to continue living with a new God, a hero beyond Christ” (p. 242, n. 123). Jung (2009) implies that there is a definite relationship between the death of the hero and the new god-image in The Red Book:
I must say that the God could not come into being before the hero had been slain. The hero as we understand him has become an enemy of the God, since the hero is perfection. The Gods envy the perfection of man, because perfection has no need of the Gods. But since no one is perfect, we need the Gods. The Gods love perfection because it is the total way of life. But the Gods are not with him who wishes to be perfect, because he is an imitation of perfection. (p. 245)
Jung (2009) further added: “The hero must fall for the sake of our redemption, since he is the model and demands imitation” (p. 245). Thus, one of the principal themes The Red Book promotes is the importance that people find and live their own myth rather than ape the prototypical hero myth found in the Western tradition.
In The Red Book, Jung intimates the direction his future work will tread: the task of transforming the god-image in humankind through the myth-making function of the human psyche. One could say that Jung principally wanted people to find their own myth and discover for themselves the reality of the objective psyche. Consequently, The Red Book could be viewed as the foundation of a new cosmogonic myth in our time which amounts to an emergent picture of humankind’s relationship to the eternal or what Jung calls the spirit of the depths. Jung recognized that the West, with its emphasis on scientific materialism, had relegated myth to the province of superstitious thinking and exaggerated tall tales. With its emphasis on mythology, The Red Book attempts to compensate for what Jung views as the one-sidedness of secular materialism and positivistic science.
Creuzer, G. F. (1810). Symbolik und Mythologie der alten Volker. Leipzig, Germany: Heyer & Leske.
Jung, C. G. (1967). Symbols of Transformation. (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.). In H. Read et al. (Eds.), The collected works of C. G. Jung (2nd ed., Vol. 5, pp. 3-440). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1912)
Jung, C. G. (1989). Memories, dreams, reflections. Aniela Jaffé (Ed.) (R. & C. Winston, Trans.). New York: NY: Vintage Book. (Original work published 1961)
Jung, C. G. (2009). The Red Book: Liber novus. Sonu Shamdasani (Ed.). Philemon Series. New York, NY: Norton.
Jung, C. G. (2012). Introduction to Jungian psychology: Notes on the seminar on analytical psychology given in 1925. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1989)