Carl Jung has provided an alibi for countless bad ideas and shallow spiritual endeavours. He propounded concepts such as his notions of archetypes and symbols, or the collective unconscious, over nearly six decades. He refined and altered them as his understanding broadened, but they remain, by their nature, elusive and mutable. As a result, they can offer illuminating insight into existing or new spiritual traditions – or provide generous camouflage.
The two terms, archetype and symbol, are frequently confused, and sorting them out is helpful for aspiring Qabalistic magicians. Just to clarify, here’s Jung on archetypes, from The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, pg. 79:
“Again and again I encounter the mistaken notion that an archetype is determined in regard to its content, in other words it is a kind of unconscious idea (if such an expression be admissible). It is necessary to point out once more that archetypes are not determined as regards their content, but only as regards their form and then only to a very limited degree. A primordial image is determined as to its content only when it has become conscious and is therefore filled out with the material of conscious experience. Its form however … might perhaps be compared to the axial system of a crystal, which, as it were, preforms the crystalline structure in the mother liquid, although it has no material existence of its own …The archetype in itself is empty and purely formal, nothing but a facultas praeformandi, a possibility of representation which is given a priori.”
This definition, for my money, sits in a transitional zone between what I understand of Atziluth (or Origins) and Briah (or Creation). The closer Jung comes to cutting back on his ideas, the closer he comes to the Atziluthic conception. I do find the crystal metaphor helpful, since there is no established force in physical nature comparable to ‘crystallinity’ beyond the lineaments of the molecules in the crystal. Yet it’s not hard to imagine that even these are, in some manner beyond exact description, conforming to a primordial idea that precedes and preforms them. When this concept is applied to occurrences in the psyche, it becomes easier to swallow, since there is no potential argument likely to come up with materialistic scientists.
Archetypes can include figures such as the Fierce Mother, the All-Father or the Mercurial Spirit (to cite just three obvious examples). Under the first category we could list Kali, Sekhmet, the Black Tara, Thelema’s Babalon perhaps, or the subject of an earlier post, Nephthys. The All-Father is the grand-dad of the gods: Atum, Ra, Zeus, Brahma, the Abrahamic God, and so on. The Mercurial Spirit can be Mercury himself, or Thoth, or Odin in his less-aggressive form, and often includes Trickster figures. But each of these deifications of an archetypal principle is a transitional step between the ‘pure’ archetype and its actual manifestation in a specific cultural and historical context.
There’s a wrinkle in the notion of archetypes that needs to be considered carefully here. That is, they’re not only individual divine ‘figures’ but also include situations or patterns of general manifestation. There is the hero’s quest, as well as its frequent corollary, the plight of she (or some object, like the Grail) for whom the hero quests. The damsel in distress is traditionally depicted as helpless in the dragon or evil king’s lair. But if we look at the stories, we usually find she has some quality of attractiveness or ‘purity’ (in male-speak, a sublimated synonym for “She’s hot”) that incites the hero to his quest.
Another archetypal pattern might be the insoluble situation, the rock-and-a-hard-place scenario. Such situations do resolve in time, but through the emergence or intervention of some ‘third thing’ that is not active in the initial set-up, even if it is present in some latent fashion. And we could add death-and-rebirth situations, such the mysteries have presented for millennia, or the notion of equilibrated forces that produce the ideal kingdom or state, at least for a season. The Arthurian myths centre in part around this notion. Young Arthur seizes the sword, symbol of Air and of his maturing power of discrimination from the anvil (Earth and unconsciousness), and goes on to create his kingdom of Camelot. This flourishes, then fails with the breakdown of relations between the King and his Queen, Guinevere: the Grail, viewed increasingly as something ethereal, becomes disconnected from the masculine energy, and loses its own potency, as does the King himself.
Symbols, by contrast with archetypes, are both more accessible and, frustratingly, more elusive. They are pre-verbal, words being a further development that brings content into the definable parameters of the World of Assiah, or Manifestation.
In the occult or mystical context, a symbol is complete unto itself, while linking perhaps to many other symbols. That is, it is a representation of a reality or an aspect of a reality that is simultaneously based in archetypal roots, perhaps originating from several archetypes or archetypal patterns. It is, in terms of the perspective of our conscious selves, a visiting or outside entity, yet it also relates to parts of our own nature. No magical vision, no astral journey, is separate from the psyche of the traveller, yet the further we go into such visions, the more autonomous the symbols seem to be.
This is heady and paradoxical stuff, particularly if our idea of symbols comes from school English lessons where we were told to “explain what the symbol of a pear-tree means in this poem.” Symbols are not meant to be explained, but allowed to reveal themselves. Yes, analysis after the fact is important, but as any aspiring magician learns, the key thing, the wonderful thing, is when the symbol that arises has sufficient punch or presence to mean something on its own terms.
There comes a point, finally, where the magician realises that the essence of his symbols is separate from his personal nature, however much their external aspects might reflect his own character. The whole idea of whether this is “all in my head” or reaches beyond it to a world with its own existential veracity, then comes into play, eventually being seen as an over-analysed irrelevance. And at that point, the magician finds he has entered into a range of experience altogether different to what might have come up previously.
For Jung, this experience initiated a lifelong alchemical quest that, at least in his last years, seems to have been attained or resolved. For each of the rest of us, the quest begins anew, as we seek and find our own symbols. Ultimately, what we discover, symbol-set by symbol-set, is the archetype that underlies all of them. That archetype is the mythic pattern of our own life – part of the archetype of the Self, in Jungian terms, but still unique to each person. And that archetype crystallises around the central axis of the True Will that to live we seek, then seek to live.