According to Jung, the unconscious spontaneously produces images that are mythological in nature, meaning that they are symbolic, universal, and address the nature of the cosmos, and our place in it. Mythologems, or mythological motifs, are a kind of pre-existing psychic natural resource, present at least in potential in the deep layers of the psyche of every person. These mythological images are the raw materials from which the grand narratives that we know of as myth are formed.
Myths are products of the unconscious and reveal its workings. Jung wrote that “myths are original revelations of the preconscious psyche, involuntary statements about unconscious psychic happenings.”[i] Jung believed that myths and dreams spring from a common source – that they both draw from to the same aquifer of universal images. “The whole world of myth of fable is an outgrowth of unconscious fantasy just like the dream.”[ii] Jung believed that the motifs found in dreams and myths were so similar that they were nearly identical.
Dreams, being statements of the unconscious, play no small part in the therapy….The indubitable occurrence of archetypal motifs in dreams make a thorough knowledge of the spiritual history of man indispensable for anyone seriously attempting to understand the real meaning of dreams. The likeness between certain dream motifs and mythologems is so striking that they may be regarded not merely as similar but even identical. This recognition not only raises the dream to a higher level and places it in the wider context of the mythologem, but, at the same time, the problems posed by mythology are brought into connection with the psychic life of the individual.[iii]
Joseph Campbell adds some nuance to Jung’s assertion that myth and dream originate from the same source. He contends that myths are produced with the help of consciousness, and contain not merely upwelling of instinctual wisdom, but the distillation of generations of lived knowledge.
If we are to grasp the full value of the materials, we must note that myths are not exactly comparable to dream. Their figures originate from the same sources – the unconscious wells of fantasy – and their grammar is the same, but they are not the spontaneous products of sleep. On the contrary, their patterns serve as a powerful picture language for the communication of traditional wisdom. This is true already of the so-called primitive folk mythologies. The trance-susceptible shaman and the initiated antelope-priest are not unsophisticated in the wisdom of the world, not unskilled in the principles of communication by analogy. The metaphors by which they live, and through which they operate, have been brooded upon, searched, and discussed for centuries – even millenniums; they have served whole societies, furthermore, as the mainstays of thought and life. The culture patterns have been shaped to them. The youth have been educated, and the aged rendered wise, through the study, experience, and understanding of their effective initiatory forms. For they touch and actually bring into play the vital energies of the whole human psyche. They link the unconscious to the fields of practical action.[iv]
The grand mythic narratives, therefore, have been forged by culture. Myths tell us how to live and contain the distilled wisdom of the ancestors. Mythological stories, then, always tell us something important about the collective. They instruct the individual about how he or she ought to orient toward the wider culture. It may be that, at decisive moments in personal individuation, our individual choices intersect with larger collective currents. At these times, our personal story becomes part of the larger myth unfolding in the life of society around us. It is likely that mythological dreams appear at just such junctures.
As Jung points out, our dreams often include images that could have come from myths or fairy tales. There are big symbols such as snakes or trees, and these are accompanied by big feelings. Or our dreams have supernatural creatures or occurrences. Animals talk. There are witches or vampires. Then we know we are in the realm of the mythic. When mythological dreams appear, it may be that these are there to link our personal story to collective events, to place our personal drama decisively in a historical context. If we are indeed connected to the entirety of human experience through the underground rhizome of the collective unconscious, and influence flows both ways, then receiving a dream from this level of the psyche alerts us that we are in the flow of a collective psychic happening.
Consider the following dream:
It was a sunny day, and I was carrying a little girl dressed in a long white gown to be baptized. The path to the church led up a steep hill. But I was holding the child safely and securely in my arms. All of a sudden, I found myself at the brink of a crevasse. I had just enough time to set the child down on the other side before I plunged into the abyss.[v]
The image of the little girl alerts us that we are potentially in mythological territory. The child is a profound symbol of futurity, of that which is both fragile and yet destined to survive us. Jung says that the child is a symbol that new thing that appears spontaneously as a result of the union of opposites just at that time when we feel most stuck and desolate.
The “child” is born out of the womb of the unconscious, begotten out of the depths of human nature, or rather out of living Nature herself. It is a personification of vital forces quite outside the limited range of our conscious mind; of ways and possibilities of which our one-sided conscious mind knows nothing; a wholeness which embraces the very depths of Nature. It represents the strongest, the most ineluctable urge in every being, namely the urge to realize itself.[vi]
The transpersonal content symbolized by the little girl is being carried by the dream ego toward a ritual experience of rebirth and consecration. The dream is reassuring that this content will survive beyond the destruction of the conscious personality. As a symbol, the child can stand for that which was there before consciousness, and that which will remain after consciousness ceases to be.
The child…is thus both beginning and end, an initial and a terminal creature. The initial creature existed before man wan, and the terminal creature will be when man is not. Psychologically speaking, this means that the “child” symbolizes the pre-conscious and the post-conscious essence of man. His pre-conscious essence is the unconscious state of earliest childhood; his post-conscious essence is an anticipation by analogy of life after death.[vii]
Just as our actual children will survive us and go on to carry a part of our essence into the infinite future, the symbolic child carries transpersonal values into the future beyond our personal, temporally limited engagement with them. (The image of the child is used to suggest just such a content at the end of the film 2001 A Space Odyssey.)
In fact, this dream was dreamt by Sophie Scholl on the night before her execution. According to the biography written by her sister, Scholl interpreted the dream to her cell mate thus:
“The child represents our idea, which will triumph in spite of all obstacles. We are allowed to be its trailblazers, but we must die before it is realized.”[viii]
Such a dream reveals to us the mythic substrate on which our personal drama unfolds. Mythological dreams may also perhaps reflect the currents of history and world events which flow beneath us at all times, but which we may not be capable of detecting without the benefit of hindsight.
Mythological dreams are usually Big Dreams, dreams that affect us powerfully, and stay with us for years. Mythological dreams encourage us to fulfill our personal destiny, so that we can take up our unique role in the life of the collective. They seem to appear at nodal points in our life, often prefiguring decisive moments when we face a choice whether to move in the direction of our mysteriously pre-ordained unfolding.
[i] “The Psychology of the Child Archetype,” The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, CW 9i, par. 261.
[ii] “Principles of Practical Psychotherapy,” The Practice of Psychotherapy, CW 16, par. 17.
[iii] “Foreword to White’s ‘God and the Unconscious,’” Psychology and Religion: West and East, CW 11, par. 450.
[iv] Jospeh Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, pp. 256-257.
[v] Beradt, C. (1968). The Third Reich of dreams. With an essay by Bruno Bettelheim. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, pp. 107-108.
[vi] “The Psychology of the Child Archetype,” The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, CW 9i, par. 289.
[vii] “The Psychology of the Child Archetype,” The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, CW 9i, par. 299.
[viii] Beradt, C. (1968). The Third Reich of dreams. With an essay by Bruno Bettelheim. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, p. 108.