Mind, Spirituality, and Symbolic Language

I would like to apologize for my admittedly Eurocentric views; I have limited knowledge of non-Western languages (and even many of their mythologies) and this lack is very much reflected in my research.

“I have failed in my foremost task – to open people’s eyes [to the fact] that man has a soul, that there is a buried treasure in the field, and that our religion and philosophy are in a lamentable state.” Carl Jung, in a letter just before his death in 1961

I had a conversation earlier today with an atheist. He denied the existence of God (specifically the Christian God), because (I assume) he was raised Christian and in part resents his literalist, fundamentalist parents. His views are, I think, unintentionally distorted. Do not get me wrong – I am not on his parents’ side either. You see, their understanding is (probably) incorrect too. There is no side to take; they both suffer from the same misunderstanding.


[Athena is born from Zeus’ head]

It seems a foolish belief because it really is – Zeus gets a migraine after swallowing one of his innumerable concubines in fly-form, a Titan comes to fix it with an axe (how else?), and out pops Athena (pictured above). Odin hangs upside-down from a tree limb for nine nights and from this test of endurance invents the runic alphabet. Hermes, the messenger god, prankster, magician, and our guide through the underworld, lends Perseus his magic sandals so he may fly to defeat Medusa, a woman with snakes for hair. An angry god rains hellfire upon a city for not acting “godly” or “righteously,” and Moses lifts a snake up on a staff in a desert to cure his people of poison. Ridiculous, right? Well… yes and no.


[Moses lifts the serpent on the staff]


[Hermes stares deeply at his caduceus]

In constructing a “big picture” of symbolic literature, I will take you through many philosophies and theories, moving from belief in allegory, to the nature of “symbolic” language, and finally to unconscious repressions and archetypal symbols. Ultimately I will argue that language can be (and is in many stories) a fourfold act, and that repressed desires of the psyche pour from the unconscious, into the conscious mind, and onto the page as symbolic narrative. These narratives become our literature – mostly religion, mythology, and a bit of philosophy – and our ritual. The first step in understanding this process lies in a deepened perspective of the symbolic and allegorical possibilities of language.

Language is a system of signs that point to images or ideas. Let us call signs the signifier(s) and the images or ideas the signified or images.  As I type these words (signifiers) I am meaning for you to call upon the ideas and images in my mind (signified), and not the words themselves nor the material cause of their construction (my moving fingers on the keys).

In Book I of his On Christian Doctrine, Saint Augustine outlines the “signifier” and “signified” aspects of language, but then he explains that there is a third entity in the mix. Signs may signify an image or object (a “thing” in the following translation), but that object in turn often signifies something else:

All doctrine concerns either things or signs, but things are learned by signs. Strictly speaking, I have here called a “thing” that which is not used to signify something else, like wood, stone, cattle, and so on; but not that wood concerning which we read that Moses cast it into bitter waters that their bitterness might be dispelled, nor that stone which Jacob placed at his head, nor that beast which Abraham sacrificed in place of his son. For these are things in such a way that they are also signs of other things. (translated by D.W. Robertson)

So on the one hand, we have a sign (“ox”) which points to an actual ox, but that ox also points to something else. This may be obvious to many of my readers, especially if the reader has any kind of background in literature. Indeed, when Plato’s Socrates in Book VII of The Republic refers to the man in the cave, the shadows cast on the wall by the fire, and the blinding light of the sun, the reader is to understand these things as signs also. That is, the images may – and do – act as signs/signifiers themselves.

Now let me speak briefly about philology. (See my first blog for a more detailed and expanded version of this idea.) Philology is the study of language change and language differences – historical linguistics. It is generally accepted – by philosophers as diverse as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Jeremy Bentham (an early positivist), Owen Barfield, and others – that signs for concepts that are ethereal, spiritual, psychological or otherwise unseen began first to refer to something material and perceptible (in the Proto Indo-European family, strictly speaking, as that is the only language with which, quite regrettably, I am familiar). Right and wrong (from OE) originally mean “straight” and “crooked,” respectively. Express (from Latin) means “to squeeze” (press) “out” (ex-). Dubious (Latin) means “vacillating two ways” and comes from the same root as the English words “two” and “doubt,” and transgress means “the crossing of a line.” And, finally, to add something spiritual in nature, spirit (L.) means (or meant) “wind” or “breath” (hence respire and inspire). Though these are only six examples, I hope they will suffice in showing the material nature of seemingly immaterial ideas. In our basic language used for ethics, argument, spirituality, and psychology, we can see the third aspect beyond signs and their images. Words such as these (in the PIE family) note some imagined or unseen aspect of our mind, or the “spirit world.”  This aspect I will call the meaning, and I will define meaning as “the imperceptible concept and/or associations which an image may convey.” I have established so far three layers of language: the sign, the image, and the meaningThe meaning is now (seemingly) the signified concept to which some signs (like the six examples above) refer. However, we are merely omitting the symbol (the image) that once mediated the sign and meaning

I will turn to Jungian psychology (and Freudian, in a lesser way) now to introduce a fourth layer of language and to sufficiently complicate matters further. Jung theorized, and maintained after literally dozens of years of personal and professional psychological exploration, that unconscious desires take the form of archetypal or symbolic narratives. This is the fourth aspect of symbolic language. This layer of language is very elusive, so I apologize if the following appears cryptic or is difficult to understand.

Karl Marx was one of the first western philosophers to analyze the necessarily repressive nature of society and its institutions. He explained that the individual must consciously repress certain desires in order to function within society – the family, the tribe, the city, the nation – and its institutions. Sigmund Freud, the coked-up maniac and progenitor of psychoanalysis, first suggested the existence of the unconscious. The unconscious, he said, is an aspect of the mind which is created to store these repressed desires. In turn, these repressed desires appear in our dreams in symbolic (though sometimes candid) forms. Hence we get narratives like Oedipus Rex, in which the repressed desire to have sexual relations with the mother and kill or harm the father comes out in symbolic narrative, resonating deeply with its audience. (Because we all repress this desire, right? [See footnote 1])

Carl Jung, who was deeply influenced by Freud, proposed a fundamentally different model of the unconscious mind. For Jung, the unconscious mind exists a priori to the conscious mind. Indeed, the unconscious gives birth to or contains a seed of consciousness that is separate from itself. As the person grows, consciousness grows.

He also began a string of psychoanalysis called depth psychology and posited the existence of archetypes. Through my many years of research into depth psychology, I’ve been served dozens of definitions of the term archetype. Very loosely, archetypes are universally observable symbolic patterns which derive from instinctual ways of living. Archetypes have also been compared to Plato’s “ideal Forms.” Bill Whitcomb in The Magician’s Reflection defines archetype as 1) “patterns that reflect our instinctual knowledge of successful and unsuccessful ways of living…[that] have no inherent form but are given form by our consciousness as we encounter them” and 2) “the original patterns or models from which others of the same kind are derived.” Edward F. Edinger says that some archetypal energies “transcend the ego and are experienced as numinous.” The archetype is also variously defined as “an idea, mode of thought, or ‘god form’ that has crystallized from the inherited experiences of the species, the ‘collective unconscious’” and as the “original astral form or the ‘mold’ of a phenomenon.”

To give a better definition and greater weight to the notion of “archetype” I must now endeavor more deeply into Jungian psychoanalysis to the realm of individuation. Individuation is a confusing (and at first glance seemingly contradictory) term. In short, individuation is a conscious awareness of the maturation process, integration of personality, and development of the Self. The Self is the final product of the individuation process – the unity of the psyche, the union of opposites. It is fundamental to note that the individuation process does not occur unless the person in question is aware of the processes of the unconscious. That is, one must be actively observing unconscious activity (i.e. dream symbolism) and analyzing the archetypes that come forth from this activity. In the final few stages of the individuation process (Jung, I believe, outlined seven, though please don’t quote me on that) a reintegration of consciousness occurs. That is, the barriers of the ego are broken and more aspects of us and our lives are able to integrate into our sense of Self.

Though the individual goes through the process him- or herself, the individuation process occurs at the cultural level as well; the family, tribe, city, or nation and its institutions encourage a certain level of personality development, of individuation, of ego-consciousness expansion.

As infants we are undifferentiated from our mothers, and our ego-consciousness is almost undifferentiated from our unconscious: our waking life is ruled by our unconscious impulses and the ego-consciousness is very slight. As the conscious mind grows and the ego-consciousness expands, it naturally must repress unconscious desires, pushing them out of awareness. Many unconscious desires are repressed (as Freud and Marx promulgated) because of the conscious mind’s own desires to participate in society (as it is indeed beneficial for the ego to do so in most cases).

In this way, society’s institutions prevent the natural continuation of the individuation process. The individuation process, repressed by the conscious mind, rises into consciousness in various symbolic narratives, particularly in dreams but also in our waking lives. This, Jung says, is where much of our mythology and literature arises. The incorporation of these symbols – through literature, religion, ritual, etc. – in our lives provides us a relationship with our unconscious.

These archetypes arise in forms such as the Earth Mother (Isis, Mary), Messiah (Christ, Mithras), Tyrant (Claudius, Set), Shadow (Grendel), the Axis Mundi (Yggdrasil, Tree of Life, Jacob’s Ladder) and in narratives such as the Journey, Games, the Fall, Marriage, Sacrifice, and Rebirth.

So does Zeus exist? Does God exist? Did Moses exist? Beowulf? King Arthur?

These questions are ultimately in vain and ignore the symbolic value of mythology, religion, ritual, etc.

The fundamentalists’ (and in turn their atheist or anti-theist counterparts’) conception of God is distorted. This conception, I think, resonates with many because of the archetypal appeal of the One.

There exists a conception of God which is healthier and that provides a relationship with the unconscious. This God is still unknowable, still the creator, still both everything and nothing. Let us reformulate and re-conceive the notion of God though to draw toward a healthy relationship with our unconscious mind.

Coda: Hermes, or Mercury, is our guide in the individuation process. First we must do away with the troll mind and incorporate the messenger of the gods into our understanding. Though he is sometimes a trickster, leading us astray because of the finicky and elusive nature of language, Mercury guides us through the four aspects of language I have highlighted here: the sign, the image, the meaning, and the archetype or spiritual aspect. These, by the way, correspond to Earth, Water, Air, and Fire. Blake, in his theory of the structure of the human imagination, named in a similar fashion four aspects: Ulro, Generation, Beulah, and Eden.


[Harry awakens the serpent in Philosopher’s Stone]


[the troll grips Harry in Philosopher’s Stone]


[Harry and Ron eventually defeat the troll and befriend Hermione (female equivalent of Hermes)]


[1] Unfortunately for Freud, but fortunately for the rest of us (and Sophocles), we don’t have these desires. Evolutionary biologists have, within the last 20 years, proven that there is a mechanism in our brain that deters us (most of us) from desiring sexual relations with those by whom we are raised and with whom we grew up. This, obviously, is a general principle, and there are always exceptions to the rule. Additionally, Steven Pinker writes: “The idea that boys want to sleep with their mothers strikes most men as the silliest thing they have ever heard. Obviously, it did not seem so to Freud, who wrote that as a boy he once had an erotic reaction to watching his mother dressing. But Freud had a wet-nurse, and may not have experienced the early intimacy that would have tipped off his perceptual system that Mrs. Freud was his mother.”