Jungian journeys

Carl Gustav Jung had many interesting ideas, some of them a bit way out for me, but others quite intriguing. As a psychologist he was interested in people’s personal journeys and their striving for emotional progress.

He borrowed a couple of concepts from ancient Greek mythology.

The Nekyia

One was the Nekyia, also known as the night journey on the ocean, a powerful metaphor.

Jung adopted the Nekyia as a symbol of the journey of the psyche to find emotional maturity or enlightenment. The good thing about the myth of the Nekyia is that the hero goes through challenges and trials during his night journey, but he returns to the light and emerges as a better person. So overall it is a positive experience.

Nekyia: rancorous Ajax, Persephone supervising...

Nekyia: rancorous Ajax, Persephone supervising Sisyphus pushing his rock in the Underworld.

The Katabasis

The Katabasis was altogether a heavier trip. The Katabasis was a descent into the Underworld from which there was generally no return. The first and most famous example was in Homer’s Odyssey, where Odysseus descends into the Underworld.

In the Odyssey, Odysseus recounts his trip to the Land of the Lotus Eaters, his battle with Polyphemus the Cyclops, his love affair with the witch-goddess Circe, his temptation by the deadly Sirens, his journey into Hades to consult the prophet Tiresias, and his fight with the sea monster Scylla. It is a journey from which he returns, and has a “happy ending”, as he is reunited with his faithful wife Penelope.

Another example which has always interested me is the journey of Orpheus. The Greek gods were capricious, uncaring and lacking in empathy for human suffering. They amused themselves by playing with people’s fate. Orpheus and Euridyce were very much in love. The gods took Euridyce – when the god Aristaeus tried to rape her, she fled to escape his advances. While fleeing she was bitten by a poisonous snake, died within hours and descended to the Underworld. Orpheus was totally grief-stricken, so much so that the gods took pity on him and said he could go and join her. So Orpheus gave up his life and descended into the Underworld. When he arrived, he played such beautiful music that the gods allowed him to fetch Eurydice back to Earth. Another version is that Pluto and Persephone said “your love is so great that we will allow you to go to Eurydice and lead her back to Earth, to resume your life together – but there is one condition: when you find her, you must not look at her.” Orpheus journeyed through the Underworld and found Eurydice, and started to guide her back up to Earth, but so great was his love that he couldn’t help himself – he turned and looked at her. So the gods had set him up. All deals were off.

The parade is named after Orpheus, a figure fr...

Orpheus leads Eurydice out of the Underworld.

Anne Wroe, in Why Orpheus Haunts Us (below) says:

Mention the name Orpheus to almost anyone, and they will immediately say: “In the Underworld”—a phrase that is shorthand for a whole life of singing, and mystery, and love, and loss. It also suggests the dark. And it is right that it should, for Orpheus’s name, most scholars think, means darkness, the state of being orphaned or exiled, separation from light. Orpheus’s journey to the Underworld has been taken as a metaphor for many things, but at its most fundamental it is the journey of the seed in the earth: from light into dark, and up to light again.

Few return from the descent into the Underworld.

Jung used the Nekyia and the Katabasis interchangeably, but they are really quite different.

Dante’s Inferno

Probably the second-best known journey into Hell is the one taken in Dante’s 16th century allegory The Inferno. Dante, a lost soul, is guided by the ancient Roman poet Virgil and, after suffering, eventually makes his way towards the light. The opening lines are among the most beautiful and evocative lines of poetry ever written:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita

mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,

ché la diritta via era smarrita.

(Midway through the path of life

I found myself in a dark forest

where the right way was lost).

Dante passes through the gate of Hell, which bears an inscription, the ninth (and final) line of which is the famous phrase “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate“, or “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”. In his journey Dante passes many horrific scenes before eventually emerging.

Gustave Doré's illustration to Dante's Inferno...

Gustave Doré’s illustration to Dante’s Inferno. Plate VIII: Canto III: The gate of Hell. “Abandon all hope ye who enter here” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The dark forest, the place where the dreadful journey starts, rivals the Greek myths for its tales of horror, but unlike the Katabasis, there is a possibility of returning.

The dark night of the soul.

The Christian tradition has another similar tale. St John of the Cross was a 16th century Spanish Carmelite priest who wrote a two-part poem called The dark night of the soul. He later wrote an explanation of the meaning of the poem. He wrote this while he was imprisoned by his Carmelite brothers, who opposed his reformations to the Order. Presumably this was a period of intense suffering for him.

The first part of the poem is about the trials of the body, as life ends. The second part is about the suffering and challenges of the journey that the soul goes on when going through the darkness or night before eventually coming to the light, which represents re-unification with the creator. It is generally seen as a temporary period, even though it can last for years, which brings about growth and maturity when the person eventually emerges.

Some people understand the light or creator as referring to God, but I think it is a powerful metaphor for the striving of the human psyche towards enlightenment or understanding as we journey through life. Many people throughout history have related to the symbolism of the dark night of the soul. I suspect that the darkness and anguish that people identify with resonates for so many people because of their experience of depression. The novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald was a melancholic man who famously said that “In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning”.

Other people throughout history who have experienced the dark night of the soul, or prolonged periods of depression, include Mother Teresa, who apparently suffered for about forty years, and finally emerged from it a few years before her death.

So does this mean that the dark night of the souls is just an old-fashioned way of referring to brain chemistry? Not necessarily. We now know that depression has something to do with brain chemistry, but restricting ourselves to this level will not explain or allow us to process the subjective experience of depression or its inner meaning in  our lives.

I have heard it said that if Freud were alive today he would be a neuroscientist. He started off doing research into the neurology of eels, before seeing human patients clinically. Behavioural psychologists say that Freud is unscientific, but I think this is superficial. Some of Freud’s ideas were speculative and to our modern way of thinking, just wrong. But we can discard a few mistakes and retain the concepts that he contributed. He saw himself and his psychoanalytic theories as being scientific. Bear in mind that he was born in the middle of the nineteenth century and science has come a long way since then. He based his theories of the mind on biology, the notion that we are a seething mass of instincts and drives, and that civilisation is a thin veneer. This was the basis for his falling out with Jung (see my review of A Dangerous Method, under the heading FILMS).

Jung was interested in human aspirations and personal journeys beyond basic biology, including myths, fantasies and symbolism, but Freud rejected this as mysticism, and unscientific. But I believe that people do have aspirations and seek fulfilment of more than their basic instincts.

This idea has been expressed by Women’s Movement. The feminist anthem “Bread and Roses” aspires to “the sharing of life’s glories. bread and roses, bread and roses”. The symbolism is a reference to the Labour Movement, which consisted mainly of men, and whose struggle was for the material basis of life, which in Western culture is symbolised by the staple food “bread”. Early feminists believed that there is something more to life than the basics. This is hard to define – “spiritual” doesn’t quite sound right, because it doesn’t have to be mystical or religious. It’s more like something over and above physical survival that we aspire to. “Yes it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses too.”

For more detail, see my other blog, Mairi’s List:


How can we grasp these “higher” phenomena scientifically? It is very hard without being absurdly reductionist on the one hand, or excessively speculative on the other. Both Freud and Jung had models of the psyche or personality, which were not strictly empirical or testable, but they have been found to be useful clinically as well as in helping people to understand psychodynamics.

English: Group photo in front of Clark Univers...

English: Group photo in front of Clark University Sigmund Freud, G. Stanley Hall, Carl Jung; Back row: Abraham A. Brill, Ernest Jones, Sándor Ferenczi.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You could look at the split between Freud and Jung as being an example of Freud’s need to be a father figure, in control of his followers, and not allowing challenges or independent thinking. Surely a “Freudian” interpretation of this would be that it was a result of Freud’s difficulty with his rather remote and judgemental father, whose influence made Freud pre-occupied throughout his life with the idea of sons challenging their fathers. Ironically, we are only able to have this insight as a result of Freud’s revelation that a person’s personality, mental life and behaviour are strongly and sometimes unconsciously driven by their childhood experiences.

We take this for granted now.

Freud was the much-adored first baby of a beautiful and doting young mother. His infancy was idyllic, basking in his mother’s attention. His father on the other hand was an older man. This was his second marriage and he already had an adult son from his first marriage.  At this stage in his life he was pre-occupied with his business, which his adult son also worked in. Freud senior pretty much ignored his baby son. When young Sigmund was about three, out of infancy and at the beginning childhood, his father noticed him. Sigmund had done something to displease his father, who famously remarked “the boy will never amount to anything.” Freud spent the rest of his life trying to prove his father wrong (and succeeded!).

Despite his remarkable insight into human psychology, Freud was never able to contemplate that a patient could have problems stemming from the first three years of life. It wasn’t until later that the British psychoanalyst and paediatrician Donald Winnicott, and other object relations theorists, came along came along that problems stemming from infancy were recognised.

My favourite Object Relations quotation, representing a departure from Freudian theory, comes from Ronald Fairbairn, a Scottish analyst, who said “libido is object-seeking”. In translation, what this means is that an infant is not a mess of instincts and drives demanding gratification, but comes into the world as a person whose psychic energy is focused on forming an emotional relationship with his or her caregiver or parent. The baby is a little social mammal born reaching out to someone.

The object-seeking libido

One of the most important contributions of Fairbairn to the psychoanalytic paradigm is proposing an alternative viewpoint regarding the libido. Whereas Freud assumed that the libido is pleasure seeking, Fairbairn thought of the libido as object seeking. That is, he thought that the libido is not primarily aimed at pleasure, but at making relationships with others. The first connections a child makes are with his parents. Through diverse forms of contact between the child and his parents, a bond between them is formed. When the bond is formed, the child becomes strongly attached to his parents. This early relationship shapes the emotional life of the child in such a strong way that it determines the emotional experiences that the child will have later on in life, because the early libidinal objects become the prototypes for all later experience of connection with others. (Source: Wikipedia)

This presents a third perspective, different from Freud and Jung, in which relationships are paramount, rather than Freud’s instincts or Jung’s unconscious symbolism and life’s quest.


Katabasis (Photo credit: Lost in ze north)

Jung had his own dark night of the soul, which lasted about five years, in which he lost interest in his work and research, and spent his time pursuing his own unconscious images. This is sometimes known as a “creative psychosis”, but I must say I find that concept hard to take. Psychosis is not a journey from which people emerge as better people, so mush as an illness which causes immense suffering.

When my father had a massive breakdown after his retirement, he had delusions of financial disaster, Major depression, if it is severe enough, can be psychotic. My friend who was a doctor and came to see him, one cold, dark, rainy night in September 1986, said “this poor man has been in Hell”. My fantasy was that he would go through some kind of transformation, and emerge with more insight, a better person, but this never happened. There was nothing creative about this psychosis. It was just an illness, from which he never recovered. Maybe a Katabasis, not a Nekyia.

Leave a comment


  1. Austin Connito

     /  November 19, 2016

    I like how Jungian Psychology can help pick apart why so many people have similar stories, realizing personal scenarios in a grand mythographic sense while discovering a parallel collectively experienced theme rooted deep within the brain. However, I am looking from the anthropological side, not for personal betterment but spiritual understanding.
    I want to know why so many cultures have chthonic myths. Most of my research leads me to ideas of Mediterranean antiquity. I need to cut past the constant re-telling of the stories’s gross details and collect their subtle spiritual natures. The only people I find that consider the myth holistically are Hollow Earth theorists, and I have no interest in crackpot expeditions to find underground portals or UFO’s inhabiting subterranean cities. I just want to know why Bedouins meditate in caves and why fairies haunt cities inside the hills. Why is the afterlife sometimes in the sky but other times it is below?

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