Dreams, Religion, Literature, and more In Carl Jung’s Man and His Symbols

There are great similarities between religions and mythologies since most mythologies have at some point been religions. Greek mythology is called so because it is no longer considered a religion by most.  These two terms are employed almost synonymously in this book. Similarly, fairy tales seem to hover between myths and literature. If literature shares some commonalities with mythology, then other narrative forms such as films and perhaps even dreams should be brought into this continuum. This argument sounds like a slippery slope argument that connects religions, mythologies, literature, films, arts and dreams. But this argument is essentially what underlines Jungian psychology.

The numerous letters of appreciations from the general audience of Jung’s BBC interview , Face to Face (1959), succeeded in impressing on him the prospects of writing a book summarising his psychological ideas to the non-specialist public. Finally, he had a dream one night and it convinced him to initiate this. Based on what he had dreamed, he insisted that this book should be a collection of chapters written by multiple Jungian scholars edited by him. John Freeman, the interviewer of the BBC program, was tasked with ensuring that every paragraph and sentence was heavily edited to ensure accessibility. Man and His Symbols is thus the perfect introductory book to Jungian Psychology.

Archetypes and Individuation

Jungian psychology or analytical psychology is a theory constructed for a psychotherapeutic procedure. Its purpose is to harvest the therapeutic potentialities of the unconscious. According to Jungian psychology, an individual is comprised of the ego (the conscious), the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious. The collective unconscious connects religions, mythologies, literature, films and dreams by manifesting as archetypes. Archetypes are patterns or symbols that are common in mythologies or religions. Jung believed every individual is capable of retaining and reproducing these archetypes because we inherit them in the part of our unconscious that is collective.

The collective unconscious manifests itself through archetypes when the conscious loosens its control, for example, when one is dreaming or in the process of creative production such as writing a novel or movie script. Some of the most common archetypes are the hero, the shadow/dragon, and rebirth. By focusing on the hero archetype, which translates to the main protagonist in literature or film and the dreamer in dreams, Jung enabled a spiritualistic interpretation of the content in these media. The dragon or shadow symbolises the hero’s suppressed or problematic qualities that they are not aware of. By slaying the dragon, the hero overcomes his shadow and is reborn (i.e. ‘changed’). Dreams whisper to us, in the language of archetypes, our personal qualities or flaws, unbeknown to us, that need to be overcome in order for us become a better version of ourselves.


I went into Man and His Symbols begging to be convinced of the legitimacy of dream analysis. It failed to do so in the end. Nevertheless, there are very few theories on dream analysis that have some academic recognition and Jungian psychology is the most prominent one.

Jung’s argument is a psychological theory that is only partially scientific. For example, the collective unconscious is said to be produced by an evolution of the psyche, drawing comparisons to the biological evolution. It sounds suspiciously similar to Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar which proposes that structural possibilities of language are genetically inherited. However, Universal Grammar is at least supported by generative grammar, a theory of language structure predicated on logic and mathematics. Jungian psychology lacks such scientific rigorousness. This book contains examples of numerous dreams with extensive analyses, most of which were rather convincing. However, there are no systemic analyses of dreams at a statistically significant quantity.

Jungian scholars including Jung are very conscious of the incompleteness of Jungian psychology.  Marie-Louise von Franz, in the last chapter titled “Conclusion: Science and the Unconscious”, refer to the Jungian concepts as “heuristic hypotheses” that function as a guide for further exploration of the unconscious. She reasons that its pragmatic function as a starting point is the reason why Jungian concepts are on a basis “as wide as possible” without being too vague. After all, Jungian psychology is designed to be a psychological talk-therapy. Its theoretical justification comes after its pragmatic effectivity.

Religion and Mythology

It is unsurprising then that the most important precondition for dream analysis to work is belief in its effectiveness. In this regard, Jungian psychology, which draws extensively from mythologies and religions, struck me as akin to religion. This partially scientific and spiritualistic argument matches his avocation for a balance between the conscious and the unconscious, or between the hero (self) and the shadow. Jung lamented the loss of spirituality (the unconscious) as a result of the rising dominance of rationality and science (the conscious) in human thinking since the Enlightenment. Although the faith of many has not wavered, natural sciences and comparative religion have cast doubt in the belief of some. His semi-scientific approach, which associates the human unconscious with religion, can be regarded as an attempt to bridge the gap between science and religion.

Apart from the association between the unconscious and religion, Jungian psychology also encourages connection in two other relationships. The connection between different religions or mythologies, and the connection between the different media in which the unconscious manifest. His unification of all religions and mythologies support the relativist view that all religions are equal. However, individuation as a tool of interpreting religion and mythology seems like reductionism with a western bias, particularly its pronounced individualism. Many of the religious accuse Jungian psychology of distorting and perverting their religions. The argument given in reply in this book is long but can be summarised unjustifiably by a claim that those who have unwavering belief in their religion would not find it hard to incorporate Jungian psychology into their religion. (pg 250)

This book draws a lot from Christianity, a bit from Islam, Hindu and Buddhism but it borrows a significant amount from aboriginal beliefs. I read the discussion on human sacrifice with a bit of anxiety. Human sacrifice in primitive culture is explained as ritualistic enactment of the rebirth archetype. It symbolizes the loss of certain self-beliefs when someone wins the fight against their shadow. It serves as a reminder against hubris. Circumcision is suggested as a milder form of human sacrifice. Jung believed that the “primitive” people are practicing these rituals without understanding what they symbolism. There is a lot to unpack here.

Firstly, it seems to imply that our intellectualisation of their rituals is superior to their religious rituals. However, it is later stated that they are doing this instinctively because their religion is not being supplanted by rationality. They believe in the spiritual effects of such sacrifice on them so it works. Secondly, Jung seems to be justifying human sacrifice. This book does not elucidate this issue. Perhaps, considering the great emphasis on the conscious and the unconscious, it can be inferred from the rest of the book that primitive cultures need the conscious understanding of archetypes. They need to shift the manifestation from human sacrifice to something less violent without sacrificing the spiritual effects. We need to regain the unconscious just as they need to pay attention to the conscious.

Literature and Films

Not fully convinced by dream analysis, I turn my attention to the application of Jungian psychology in literature and film. Jung often appeals to the creative and instinctual side of human. Throughout this book many examples from books and films are used to illustrate certain points. Heathcliff is explained as an animus of Emily Brontë, a guider of her journey of individuation. Some other literary mentions include Goethe’s Faust, Walt Whitman, Percy Shelly, Ernest Hemmingway, Homer, Shakespeare, Tolstoy and so forth.

There is an implicit suggestion that literature or films could serve as a secular alternative of religion. Another interpretation would be that elements of religious beliefs are still embedded in literature and films despite the secularization of modern entertainment. Jungian psychology provides a good framework of teaching of religion through fiction and films. This is a great way to grapple for the attention of the younger generation.

In fact, Dr. Jordan Peterson, a popular psychologist, who has posted series of lectures on Jungian psychology on Youtube, has been doing something similar. He relates Harry Potter’s journey down the Chamber of Secret, fighting Voldemort and the serpent as again a battle with his shadow or ‘dragon’ in the realm of his personal unconscious. He draws the comparison between the serpent in Harry Potter and the dragon that St. George killed. In his lectures, he draws a few comparisons between Harry Potter and Christianity. He then adds that he was puzzled by the many Christian parents that forbade their children from watching the films.

Final Thoughts

This book is a provocative and perhaps overambitious project to unify religious studies, mythological studies and literary studies. In the last chapter, Dr. Von Franz proceeded to suggest that theoretically, Jungian psychology can be applied and adapted “in every field of human activity”. She then continued to list scholars working with Jungian psychology in other fields.  Examples are James Kirsch’s Jungian analysis of Shakespeare and Michael Tippett’s studies in music.

She also mentions the possibility of Jung’s concept of “creatio continua” or “meaningful coincidences”. This is supposed to be an explanation for border phenomena in evolutionary biology. This concept is also briefly linked to “intuition”. Some people get an intuition before a terrible accident is about to happen such as a relative’s death. This concept seems vital in explaining dream analysis since “intuition” is championed as a tool in it. It could also potentially be used to explain the prioritization and selection of bizarre dreams seemingly common in Jungian Psychology.

Unfortunately it is beyond the scope of this introductory book and most certainly beyond what this article can cover. Other thought provoking ideas that have to be excluded from this essay due to word limit include gender and sexuality in symbolism particularly in the concept of anima and animus, the good and bad aspects of the anima/animus and the shadow, other archetypes involved in the process of individuation such as the trickster. Man and His Symbols is saturated with points for further exploration.

For me personally, the primary achievement of this book is that it made me intrigued to pursue Jungian psychology further. I felt confident delving into his other works. This book provides great coverage of Jung’s ideas in a very accessible manner. I would recommend this book not only to those who are interested in dream analysis but also to those interested in a spiritual analysis of narratives. It also serves well as a self-help book. There are lots of dream analyses that demonstrate what you might be able to do with the few bizarre dreams you have. However, it is very unlike the scientific approach that most current anglo-american psychology theories take. So if that is what you are looking for, this is not a book for you.


By Ed Yong Zhien Bao

your friendly neighbourhood grammar nazi

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