The Journey into the Unconscious — Carl Jung and Shamanism, Part 1
“The main teaching in cultures where spirits visit frequently and the world is itself a bridge — such as those of Haiti, West Africa, Melanesia, and the circumpolar peoples we group together as Eskimos — focuses upon knowing the distinct nature and name of the different visitors, their rank, their powers, their spheres of action. But that permeability existed long ago in another kingdom of consciousness”.
This is the next in a long series discussing Carl Jung’s ‘confrontation with the unconscious’. (For what has preceded please see this list.) In the introduction to this section I suggested that there is a link between Jung and shamanism going back through his own depth psychology, mediaeval alchemy, Gnosticism, Greek pre-Socratic philosophers like Parmenides, shamanism and perhaps more. Since writing that, I’ve discovered the quote above from James Hillman in The Soul’s Code, where he seems to be talking about the shamanic experience, and suggesting that such practice no longer exists. (Thanks to David Price on Medium for making me aware of the quote.)
Jung’s experience, as documented in his Red Book, suggests that this practice is alive and well, despite what Hillman suggests. In the next few articles I’ll be exploring the links between Jung and shamanism in more detail. This is important because it shows that his inner journey and the Depth Psychology which emerged from it is a genuine tradition going back many thousands of years, and that this ancient tradition of shamanism still has great healing potential in modern times.
My primary source is Shamanism and the Psychology of C. G. Jung: The Great Circle by Robert E. Ryan¹. In the introduction I quoted the jacket notes. Here I’ll discuss his first chapter where he begins on that theme:
- “Many of the answers to what ails the modern human psyche lie ready within the depths of the human mind and that, in fact, they were previously the common property of archaic man”
- “It may be that many of our contemporary efforts in the field of psychology are, at least in part, a retracing of patterns of experience well understood in the distant past and still surviving in the world’s scattered and too often ignored shamanic cultures”.
- “We are comparing one of the oldest and most misunderstood and religious systems of mankind with one of its newest attempts to probe the depths of the mind — one which is often equally misunderstood… I am convinced that the structural and functional similarities between these two phenomena are striking and significant”.
- “The patterns of experience and transformation traced by both shamanism and depth psychology appear to be fundamental to our psychological well-being and the health of the human body. Moreover, each enlists forces and patterns of symbolism which lie at the very base of all human religious experience”.
Ryan goes on to describe the history of shamanism. Many people now associate it with Native American medicine men, but it seems to go back over 30,000 years to the Upper Paleolithic era, and may go even further back into prehistory.
The noted scholar Mircea Eliade has described shamanism as “the most archaic and widely distributed occult tradition”. Ryan says that “such durative power and widespread appeal argue strongly that it must strike a deep accord with the human psyche and encode something fundamental to human experience. Yet the basic elements of this experience have proven to be elusive for the modern Western rational intelligence, and consequently one of our oldest, most fundamental and meaningful traditions has until recently most often been ignored or misunderstood and disparaged”.
Less was known about shamanism during Jung’s period, although he had some first-hand experiences of shamanic communities, and “references to the shaman or medicine man are scattered throughout his writings. He read Eliade’s seminal book on shamanism, declared the shaman to be an early and archetypal manifestation of what he called the ‘mana personality’, and recognized that the shaman’s practices generally paralleled the process of psychological development which he termed ‘individuation’ ”.
Ryan goes on to explain why shamanism figures less prominently in Jung’s writings than alchemy, Gnosticism, Eastern religion, and Christian symbolism, saying that “Western consciousness had long repressed certain age-old realities of the psyche”. However, it may be said “that in his work Jung had been led unconsciously along that secret way which formed the shaman’s path for centuries or, perhaps, millennia past”.
He says that “the shaman’s world survives in ancient myth and traditional lore, important sources of guidance for Jung. In his time Jung was a prime mover in attempting to awaken the modern mind to the integrating effects for the psyche of these archaic embodiments of image and symbol and to the deep wisdom of the past which they contained. He insisted that ‘It would be a ridiculous and unwarranted presumption of our part if we imagined that we were more energetic or more intelligent than the men of the past — our material knowledge has increased, but not our intelligence’². ‘We have merely succeeded in forgetting that an indissoluble link binds us to the men of antiquity’, he asserted, a link we can re-establish ‘by penetrating into the blocked subterranean passages of our own psyches’³. Modern man stands apart from his predecessors in his reliance upon critical reason. However, from a certain standpoint, as Jung recognized, ‘The more critical reason dominates, the more impoverished life becomes; but the more of the unconscious, and the more of myth we are capable of making conscious, the more of life we integrate’⁴ ”.
Ryan comments that “what is perhaps most interesting about this eclectic Swiss psychologist, the son of a pastor pursuing a life of science, is that he lends the witness of empirical investigation to what was hitherto primarily religious speculation or philosophical theory”. He later says that “to fathom the modern mind we must attempt to understand the mind of the past and the highly developed systems of mythology which characterized older cultures. Such an understanding could be integral to man’s psychic wholeness and the salvation of his soul… These ‘mighty (primordial) images’ form a universal foundation for human experience capable of supporting and unifying the fragmented human soul and reconnecting it with its source — a source toward which the revitalized soul readily tends but with which the atrophied soul of modern man has lost touch. In fact, for Jung, modern man was in search of his soul. And it was Jung’s great task and accomplishment to retrieve and revitalize the sick soul of modernity and reconnect it with this universal foundation, and in so doing he was simultaneously to retrieve a wisdom with a pedigree which reaches back to the horizons of historical time. For retrieving and revitalizing the sick soul is also the shaman’s age-old task. Like Jung, he is the master of using primordial images to penetrate ‘into the blocked subterranean passages of our own psyches’… He unleashes innate structures of psychodynamic transformation which both revitalize our health and illuminate the larger mind. As we shall see he likewise integrates the conscious mind with its unconscious substratum as well as with the greater harmony with nature and cosmos latent within the deeper layers of the psyche. For the shaman the symbol, with its universal power and significance, becomes the portal to an enduring realm beyond time and change which informs the human mind”.
Ryan continues: “This is an endeavour which may be of significance as we hurl forward into the new millennium impelled by our faith in linear change and progress. For it may be that this onrush of progress and change is, in fact, played against an eternal backdrop of ever-recurrent form and structure within the human psyche… Here the deeper aspects of our reality assume the shape of the great circle… And as we proceed to understand the manner in which these age-old structures of consciousness described in this great circle have been for millennia past and are still conducive not only to psychotherapy and health but also to the actual experience of a significant religious illumination, we may intuit that just behind them may lie our closest glimpse of Eternity”.
More to follow.
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1. Vega, 2002
2. Collected Works, volume 5, paragraph 23
3. ibid., Introduction, paragraph 1
4. Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Vintage, 1989, p302