The real meaning of the motif of the dying god

Princess Cottongrass
Princess Cottongrass, by John Bauer
(images are public domain)

Abstract: Narcissus, and other tales, have been abundantly used in concretistic types of psychological interpretation. The article shows that they ought to be viewed in abstract terms as portraying processes in the individual and collective psyche. The examined stories depict the mystery of incarnation, symbolic of the emancipative function of conscious realization. The gender of the god is discussed, and it is argued that the dominance of the masculine divinity depends on natural processes of conscious enhancement.

Keywords: archetype, Princess Cottongrass, Coyote Blue, Narcissus, Unicorn, Christ, Lucifer, Oedipus.


Freud viewed dreams as disguised wish-fulfillments. It isn’t workable as a general dream theory, since it isn’t universally applicable. According to a modern view, corroborated by neuroscientific research (cf. Solms, 2004), dreams aren’t hiding anything — rather, what you see is what you get. Myths and dreams would better be interpreted in terms of archetypes, that is, more in the way of abstractions. It’s easy to understand why. For instance, should we argue that an image signifies the male genitals (typically Freud), then we have effectually trashed the dream. Instead we might argue that it is ‘phallic’ in tone, which is to reason in a more tentative and tactful way. Thus, we haven’t shut the door to the dream, but may continue relating to the image. We aren’t ready with it, yet. It’s a symbol, which cannot be deciphered like a code. Symbols are difficult and multi-faceted. They elude the linear intellect, as they represent a form of non-discursive thinking. If a content is said to be “disguised”, hidden behind the dream image, then the dream is effectually devaluated. It’s tantamount to trashing the dream image. As such, it has no value, since it is regarded as a mere screen.

One would better keep to the dream image, circulate around it, even extend it. It represents a positive attitude toward dreams and mythical content, but not a depreciatory. The “disguised content” theory harms the relation to the unconscious. That’s why we ought to stop thinking in terms of disguised content, which is a harmful method by which a dream is immediately understood in concretistic terms. By example, should you dream about a giraffe, then the dream means a giraffe. The meaning hinges on the symbolic quality of the dream content. Although it is a wild animal, living on the dark continent, and has a long neck, it does not imply a cloaked genital content. It is better to say that the dream image has a certain phallic quality to it. That’s what the dream wants to say: an entity exists, which is not a male organ, yet is certainly phallic in some sense. It doesn’t necessarily point at sexuality, but it could in some sense be coupled with instinctuality. Alternatively, it could mean the Eros principle. After all, the phallic aspect is only one aspect of the giraffe dream. Dreams are wholenesses and are also able to point at spiritual content. There are, of course, cases where dreams appear almost like wish-fulfillments. M-L von Franz says in “The Interpretation of Fairy Tales”:
In many so-called Jungian attempts at interpretation, one can see a regression to a very personalistic approach. The interpreters judge the hero or heroine to be a normal human ego and his misfortunes to be an image of his neurosis. Because it is natural for a person listening to a fairy tale to identify with the main character, this kind of interpretation is understandable. But such interpreters ignore what Max Lühti found to be essential for magical fairy tales, namely, that in contrast to the heroes of adventurous sagas, the heroes or heroines of fairy tales are abstractions — that is, in our language, archetypes. Therefore, their fates are not neurotic complications, but rather are expressions of the difficulties and dangers given to us by nature. In a personalistic interpretation, the very healing element of an archetypal narrative is nullified. (1996, p.viii)
She is referring here to a regression to a Freudian personalistic view. The Narcissus myth, as such, has no bearing on the pathology of narcissism. However, it is important to point out that the myth is suitable as a metaphor when discussing narcissism. But we cannot make scientific conclusions drawing on the myth. We may only use it as an illustration. For instance, say a person is enveloped in his own misfortunes of the past. In that case one can draw on the saying that “it is no use crying over spilt milk”. But one couldn’t write a psychological article and draw on the qualities of milk and make scientific inferences from that. We shouldn’t discuss homogenized milk versus pasteurized milk and, from this, make inferences as to patient pathology. In that case we are putting the cart before the horse. But this type of error is committed again and again in psychoanalytical interpretation.

The Swedish fairytale of Princess Cottongrass has become slightly famous in psychoanalytic circles, being cited in journal articles and books. True to tradition, it is undergoing “pathologization” by the various authors. The following is Schwartz-Salant summary of it, building on Kjellin’s adaptation of the original folk story. Cottongrass makes a more authentic impression than the Narcissus story. Judging from elements in the fairytale, and its naive accuracy, it is quite possible that Cottongrass has emerged independently of the Narcissus story. It has elements in it that are lacking in Narcissus.
Leap the Elk
Leap the Elk and Little Princess Cottongrass

Princess Cottongrass was full of love: “I am young and warm. I have warmth enough for everyone and I want to share the good I have.” She wishes to leave Dream Castle, where she lives with her mother and father.

She sees an elk, Long Leg Leap, and asks him to take her out into the world. He cautions her of the difficulties, but she insists and, on his back, rides away from Dream Castle. Long Leg Leap cautions her not to let go of his horns and not to speak to a band of elves that will attempt to confuse her. But as they are asking her numerous questions, her crown starts to slip away and she lets go with one hand to grab it. That is enough for the elves to snatch away her crown. The elk warns her again, and tells her that she was lucky that time. At night he watches over her as she sleeps, but he is seized by a longing to do battle and a desire not to be alone anymore.

Princess sleeping The next day, with the princess on his back, he races into the forest, but manages to restrain himself and slow down. Again he cautions her not to let go of his horns, this time when a witch questions her. But as her dress begins to slip away, she reaches for it and the witch grabs it. He tells her how lucky she is; if she had let go with both hands she would have had to go with the witch.

All along, the elk is getting wilder and wanting to run and mate without restraint. He manages to control himself, with difficulty, and soon carries the princess to his very special place, a pool. He cautions her not to allow the heart she wears around her neck to fall off, but sure enough, she looks into the pool, and the gold heart her mother has given to her falls into the water’s depths and she cannot retrieve it. She insists upon staying at the pool, even though he asks her to leave. She is enchanted now, and stays, gazing into the water, searching for her heart.

Many years have passed. Still Princess Cottongrass sits and looks wonderingly into the water for her heart. She is no longer a little girl. Instead, a slender plant, crowned with white cotton, stands leaning over the edge of the pool. (See also fig.1. This is Schwartz-Salant’s summary (1982) of the story in Great Swedish Fairytales (1974). Images (reduced) by John Bauer, as published in the same book.)
The archetypal fairytale character

Indeed, we are here dealing with an unconscious archetype, i.e. it’s more of a generic pattern. Whereas the orthodox Freudian would view Cottongrass in sexual terms, the modern psychoanalyst would discuss it in terms of narcissism. Others might connect it with the death drive, etc. There is no end to the plethoric expressions of modern psychoanalysis. People use these stories to shed light on their own standpoint, that is, fairytales are used as metaphors. There is nothing wrong in this, provided that it is remembered that they do not represent mother nature’s own diagnosis of neurosis. Their applicability as metaphors derives from their generic quality, i.e. their archetypal language. It is time to bring this to a conclusion. The following is my understanding of the underlying meaning of these stories.

Princess Cottongrass portrays an unconscious content that has reached a high level of excitation, i.e. it’s laden with energy. She has received a golden heart and is brimming with love. Correspondingly, in Bohr’s atom model, an electron that acquires an energy quantum, will reach a new excitation level and jump up to an higher orbit. Thus, the princess leaves the Dream Castle, which is the unconscious world of dreams, in a journey toward conscious realization. When an unconscious content is laden with energy it is capable of breaking the surface of consciousness.

Comparatively, Narcissus is warned by the seer Tiresias that he must not become conscious, as this will cause his death. This is exactly what occurs to both these figures: they pass the threshold of consciousness when they become fixed to the image in the water. In this moment, they become self-conscious. This represents the moment of their death, as they are then integrated with consciousness. Both fairytale characters are fixed to the ground as plants, that strike down their roots in the soil. They have lost their autonomy and no longer exist in the Dream Castle and its surrounding woodland. They have died and passed the border to the other side, namely the conscious world.

The princess successively loses her regal insignia, her crown and her dress. In the process of becoming conscious, she gradually loses her divine stature as autonomous archetype. By the time she reaches consciousness she has been reduced to a simple, yet stable content. As a plant, it can be observed at any time during the day, because it stays in place, just like any other content that the ego accesses. Both she and Narcissus are white flowers, which is the colour of daylight consciousness. As plants, they lean over the water, able to see their own reflection, which is symbolic of the conscious condition. To be conscious is to be able to see oneself. At that very moment one falls into reality, and leaves the Dream Castle.

Obviously, then, both Narcissus and Cottongrass are generic models in that we can’t exactly know what characterizes the content that is being established and rooted in consciousness. It’s a mysterious process that is being portrayed. It could be the realization of sexuality, or it could be consciousness of the anima. Cottongrass can also be seen as a ”dream” leaving the Dream Castle, reaching consciousness, there to be remembered as a fine gift, a beautiful flower. Indeed, Narcissus could be viewed as a minuscule version of the Christ. He is a son of a god (the river god Cephissus) who enters worldly reality, thus experiencing death, as it were, fastened to the stem of the narcissus flower, much like Jesus was fastened to the trunk of the tree. According to medieval legend, the Christ, before the conception, is an unruly unicorn running rampant in the woodlands, comparable with Narcissus the huntsman.

The fairytale viewed as mystery

The elk symbolizes the benign aspect of instinctual unconscious nature, which helps unconscious energy to be integrated with consciousness. Whereas other archetypes oppose the journey of realization and tries to seize the princess (the witch, the elves), the elk is cooperative and helpful, owing to his age-old wisdom. This, it seems, is contrary to his own wild and impulsive nature (he wants to run off and joust with other elks, and to mate).

What is here portrayed is really a great mystery. How come unconscious instinctual nature cooperates to its own demise, namely its gradual integration with consciousness? We don’t know why the elk does this. The Lucifer myth is the cosmogonic version of the same motif. Lucifer is the most beautiful and shining of the angels: he has attained a great “excitation level”, and this is what causes his fall. John Milton, in Paradise Lost, describes his descent:
And now a stripling Cherub he appears,
Not of the prime, yet such as in his face
Youth smiled celestial, and to every limb
Suitable grace diffused; so well he feigned.
Under a coronet his flowing hair
In curls on either cheek played; wings he wore
Of many a coloured plume sprinkled with gold,
His habit fit for speed succinct, and held
Before his decent steps a silver wand.
He drew not nigh unheard; the Angel bright,
Ere he drew nigh, his radiant visage turned…
(Milton, III: 636-646)
It’s essentially the same motif of pride and vanity as in Narcissus. In a similar manner as Princess Cottongrass, he is deprived of his princely and divine attributes, and incarnates as the Serpent. The divine being takes on conscious form, and brings a whole horde of angels with him. In the Book of Enoch (2nd and 1st centuries BC) the fall of the angels brings immense knowledge to mankind. Men become conscious of many secrets, and many new craftmanships, etc. This seems to portray a stage in history when a crisis occurred due to a massive incursion of unconscious content, followed by a rapid increase in man’s conscious powers. According to Enoch, men became “giants”, then. The giants, with their great capacities, fell to the lure of power and committed many “iniquities.”

When this process occurs at the modest level of Cottongrass, it is much better. But we don’t know why the serpent in the bible wanted men to become self-conscious. The snake, and the elk, are creatures of instinct. Apparently, our instinctual nature is favourable to the journey toward consciousness, although we lose much of our dependency on instinct. I contend that this approximates the real meaning of Cottongrass. The great mysteries of the biblical Fall of Man, and the Fall of Lucifer, are the more grand versions. They are metaphysical and religious, since gods and angels are involved. But Narcissus and Cottongrass are more psychological, as they speak of the same phenomenon as occurring on a more humble human level. What earlier occurred on the collective level, as in the Book of Enoch, may now occur on the individual level. So one may see these stories as paradigmatic of depth psychology. It’s no wonder why psychoanalysts love them so dearly.

Interestingly, in Milton’s version, Eve becomes fixated on her own reflection in the water. Although she is saved by the voice, this event forecasts her fall from grace:
As I bent down to look, just opposite,
A shape within the watery gleam appeared,
Bending to look on me. I started back,
It started back; but pleased I soon returned,
Pleased it returned as soon with answering looks
Of sympathy and love; there I had fixed
Mine eyes till now, and pined with vain desire,
Had not a voice thus warned me: “What thou seest,
What thou seest, fair creature, is thyself…”
(Milton, IV: 460-468)

Narcissus and Echo

Narcissus, an exceptionally beautiful boy, was the son of the blue Nymph Liriope of Thespia. Concerned about the welfare of such a beautiful child, Liriope consulted the prophet Tiresias regarding her son’s future. Tiresias told the nymph that Narcissus would live to a ripe old age, “if he didn’t come to know himself.”

Narcissus Every youth and girl in the town was in love with him, but he haughtily spurned them all. One day when Narcissus was out hunting stags, Echo stealthily followed the handsome youth through the woods, longing to address him but unable to speak first. When Narcissus finally heard footsteps and shouted “Who’s there?”, Echo answered “Who’s there?” And so it went, until finally Echo showed herself and rushed to embrace the lovely youth. He pulled away from the nymph and vainly told her to leave him alone. Narcissus left Echo heartbroken and she spent the rest of her life in lonely glens, pining away for the love she never knew, until only her voice remained.

Nemesis heard this prayer and sent Narcissus his punishment. He came across a deep pool in a forest, from which he took a drink. As he did, he saw his reflection for the first time in his life and fell in love with the beautiful boy he was looking at. Eventually, after pining away for a while, his life force drained out of him and the narcissus flower grew where he died. It is said that Narcissus still keeps gazing on his image in the waters of the river Styx. (Ovid) (Detail from painting by J.W. Waterhouse: Echo and Narcissus.)
The unicorn

Unicorn and VirginThere is an ancient myth, popular as early as the Babylonian era, about the single combat between the unicorn and the lion. A legend of ancient Babylon maintained that the sun was a lion who constantly pursued the unicorn moon about the sky. The lion finally manages to win the combat by positioning himself before a tree. When the unicorn comes dashing the lion suddenly jumps aside and the unicorn pierces the tree with its horn — and is stuck! (cf. Shepard, 2009). The reason why the battle theme was so popular in the Old Orient is, I believe, because this was a time when man emerged out from a naive consciousness into a “sun-consciousness”. The battle of the lion and the unicorn was a notorious motif in Sumerian, Assyrian, and Babylonian times. There is also a unicorn battle in one of Grimm’s fairytales, presented below. (Detail from painting by Domenichino: Virgin and Unicorn.)
The Valiant Little Tailor (excerpt)

…He took a rope and an axe with him, went forth into the forest, and again bade those who were sent with him to wait outside. He had not long to seek. The unicorn soon came towards him, and rushed directly on the tailor, as if it would gore him with its horn without more ado. ‘Softly, softly; it can’t be done as quickly as that,’ said he, and stood still and waited until the animal was quite close, and then sprang nimbly behind the tree. The unicorn ran against the tree with all its strength, and stuck its horn so fast in the trunk that it had not the strength enough to draw it out again, and thus it was caught. ‘Now, I have got the bird,’ said the tailor, and came out from behind the tree and put the rope round its neck, and then with his axe he hewed the horn out of the tree, and when all was ready he led the beast away and took it to the king… (excerpt from story in Grimm’s Fairytales)
The analogy here is the motif of fixation: the dream creature is fixated to the tree, whereas the Princess Cottongrass and Narcissus are fixated on the image in the water. When an archetype becomes fixated, it loses its divine autonomy and falls down into reality. To an archetypal creature like the unicorn, this amounts to a degradation. The process of realization is experienced as expiration and death. In many a myth, this is how death came to appear in the world. Also in the biblical story, death made its entrance at the fall of Adam and Eve, who were at that very moment degraded from divine archetypal existence to human existence.

According to myth, an archetype can accept its own death willingly, as an act of redemption. The foremost example is the Christ. By the incursion into material reality the divine being, existent before the world, gives himself up to death, and takes shape as a mere mortal, namely Jesus of Nazareth. The power that drives him is love, a motif that reappears in Princess Cottongrass, whose heart was brimming with love, a good that she wanted to share. According to tradition, Jesus had the form of a unicorn before the conception. This is the reason why the unicorn, symbolic of the unconscious archetype before its arrival in the world, is often seen resting in the Virgin’s lap (above). This is referred to as the virgin-capture, when a virgin is used as a decoy for the unicorn (cf. Shepard, 2009, ch.VIII). The unicorn is viewed as a prefiguration of Christ, since both became fixated on a tree. Notable is that Christ was also transfixed by Longinus’s lance.

The fall of Adam is viewed as catastrophic, since it meant the destruction of a pristine and unspoilt condition, which is our unconscious wholeness. The analogous process, which is the voluntary fall of Christ (the second Adam), is a redemptive act. Mankind, in his fallen state, can only be redeemed by a process of conscious realization and the continued demise of archetypes, which is the reason why the Christ’s death symbolizes redemption. What was originally regarded a great sin to a human being, namely to become conscious, is now become a virtue in the sinful condition. What was before regarded a rebellion against God, in the fall of Lucifer, is now a redemptive act in Christ’s incarnation. The appearance of Jesus marks a turning point in history, when unconscious subordination under religious authority is no longer viewed as an ideal.

Coyote Blue

The motif of the demise of the god is quite old. Coyote is a cultural hero among North-American Indians. He was responsible for the theft of fire, which he, thanks to deceit, managed to deliver to the humans (cf. Compton, 1971, ‘The Coyote’). Coyote lost his beautiful blue colour when he collided head-on with a tree stump, fell down and became soiled by dirt.

Coyote Blue
How the Bluebird Got its Color (Pima, Arizona)

A long time ago, the bluebird was a very ugly color. But Bluebird knew of a lake where no river flowed in or out, and he bathed in this four times every morning for four mornings. Every morning he sang a magic song:

“There’s a blue water. It lies there. I went in. I am all blue.”

On the fourth morning Bluebird shed all his feathers and came out of the lake just in his skin. But the next morning when he came out of the lake he was covered with blue feathers.

Now all this while Coyote had been watching Bluebird. He wanted to jump in and get him to eat, but he was afraid of the water. But on that last morning Coyote said,

“How is it you have lost all your ugly color, and now you are blue and gay and beautiful? You are more beautiful than anything that flies in the air. I want to be blue, too.” Now Coyote at that time was a bright green.

“I only went in four times on four mornings,” said Bluebird. He taught Coyote the magic song, and he went in four times, and the fifth time he came out as blue as the little bird.

Then Coyote was very, very proud because he was a blue coyote. He was so proud that as he walked along he looked around on every side to see if anybody was looking at him now that he was a blue coyote and so beautiful. He looked to see if his shadow was blue, too. But Coyote was so busy watching to see if others were noticing him that he did not watch the trail. By and by he ran into a stump so hard that it threw him down in the dirt and he was covered with dust all over. You may know this is true because even to-day coyotes are the color of dirt. (Judson, 1912)
The motif of beauty and pride is central also here. It is what causes his downfall. The archetype has reached a high excitation level and is running at high speed. He commits the same mistake as the unicorn, running headlong into a trunk or stump. Thus, he comes to an immediate halt and falls down into the dust. This is symbolic of the process of incarnation, or in psychological terms, realization. The god has been covered with earth and become a humble little prairie wolf. Note that Coyote losing his beautiful blue coat is analogous with the theme in Princess Cottongrass, where she is bereaved of her royal garments. In this process, the divinities become reduced.


What about the Oedipus tale, then? Oedipus is not formally associated with the dying gods, but there are significant similarities. He is a hero that suffers demise.
The Oedipus myth

Oedipus and the SphinxOedipus, in Greek mythology, king of Thebes, the son of Laius and Jocasta, king and queen of Thebes. Laius was warned by an oracle that he would be killed by his own son. Determined to avert his fate, he bound together the feet of his newborn child and left him to die on a lonely mountain. The infant was rescued by a shepherd, however, and given to Polybus, king of Corinth, who named the child Oedipus (“Swollen-foot”) and raised him as his own son. The boy did not know that he was adopted, and when an oracle proclaimed that he would kill his father, he left Corinth. In the course of his wanderings he met and killed Laius, believing that the king and his followers were a band of robbers, and thus unwittingly fulfilled the prophecy.

Lonely and homeless, Oedipus arrived at Thebes, which was beset by a dreadful monster called the Sphinx. The frightful creature frequented the roads to the city, killing and devouring all travelers who could not answer the riddle that she put to them. When Oedipus successfully solved her riddle, the Sphinx killed herself. Believing that King Laius had been slain by unknown robbers, and grateful to Oedipus for ridding them of the Sphinx, the Thebans rewarded Oedipus by making him their king and giving him Queen Jocasta as his wife. For many years the couple lived in happiness, not knowing that they were really mother and son.

Then a terrible plague descended on the land, and the oracle proclaimed that Laius’s murderer must be punished. Oedipus soon discovered that he had unknowingly killed his father. In grief and despair at her incestuous life, Jocasta killed herself, and when Oedipus realized that she was dead and that their children were accursed, he put out his eyes and resigned the throne. He lived in Thebes for several years, but was finally banished. Accompanied by his daughter Antigone, he wandered for many years. He finally arrived at Colonus, a shrine near Athens sacred to the powerful goddesses called the Eumenides. At this shrine for supplicants Oedipus died, after the god Apollo had promised him that the place of his death would remain sacred and would bring great benefit to the city of Athens, which had given shelter to the wanderer. (from Funk & Wagnall’s Encyclopedia)
Oedipus follows the notorious fairytale pattern of the disowned child, representing the Self archetype, [1] who later obtains the kingdom. But, in becoming king and guiding principle of (collective) consciousness, the archetype loses its autonomy and is deprived of its inner light, i.e. its eyesight. Oedipus, who in his youth was thoroughly emancipated from mother dependency, again finds himself caught in the embrace of the mother. What does this mean? The conscious establishment of the archetypal spirit of Oedipus also means, paradoxically, that the archetype falls prey to the mother from whom it was initially disengaged. Analogously, Princess Cottongrass, full of heroism and ambition, left her mother in the Dream Castle, but ends up stripped of her regalia and bound to Mother Earth.

The immediate breaking free from the mother-tree is a typical theme. It represents the emancipation of the archetype. The archetype, before it was charged with energy, was part of a matrix of archetypes called the collective unconscious, whose symbolical value is motherly. The energetic aspect is always underscored. Princess Cottongrass is full of energy. That is why she is jettisoned from the Dream Castle like a meteor.

The hero toddler is amazingly resourceful. Shortly after Hercules’ birth Hera sent two great serpents to destroy him. Hercules, although still a baby, strangled the snakes. On the day of his birth Hermes stole the cattle of his brother, the sun god Apollo, obscuring their trail by making the herd walk backward. These hero infants tend to be independent of mother and they undauntedly confront the dangers of the world.

Oedipus is somewhat similar, although he is more human. He manages to survive death as an infant. I hold that, first and foremost, we must think of Oedipus as an archetype that emerges from the deeper layers of the unconscious, and becomes a free agent, but then again ends up fettered to the earth in the marriage to his mother. Obviously, then, the Oedipus myth lacks a strong connection with the Oedipus complex, that is, we cannot draw the conclusion that boys have an urge to actually kill their fathers. However, the myth is ideal to use metaphorically, as an illustration of the complex.

The Oedipal spirit could be exemplified by a new paradigm of collective consciousness, being resisted by father Laius, representing the old paradigm. The king represents that idea of the Self, the regulating centre of the psyche, that has become a representation of the collective attitude. In rising to glory, the once expansive and powerful spirit, which is the archetype, becomes reduced to mater-iality. It loses its autonomy of spirit, becomes carnal and earthly-minded. The archetype, represented by Oedipus, puts out his own eyes. Thus, the spirit is in the process of losing its own inner light. Oedipus grew out of the collective unconscious, where it was initially merely a twig on the mother-tree. The archetype again became dependent on the mother when it fell into conscious material reality. It is the other side of the mother-principle. He went from one extreme to the other.

Freudian psychology exemplifies this finely. It emerged as a lively and charismatic spirit, harbouring an ambition of world dominion. But it became wholly integrated with material consciousness and thus reduced to carnality. In this it fell prey to the Mother and became mother-bound again. The once proud spirit can today only contribute with mechanical interpretations that reduce everything to carnality by way of ‘genitalization’, whereby everything is understood as a sexual organ. Freudian psychology lost connection with its own inner spirit, which is the archetype from whence it emerged, and thus it has thoroughly regressed to mother-dependency, which is equal to being caught up in materiality and an unconscious lifestyle.

So in Oedipus we again find the pattern of the archetype that rises to eminence after having attained autonomy (independency of the mother) and great energetic excitation. But in its vainglory, the new idea that broke into the conscious field also strove after world dominion, without having recourse to other fatherly principles. The overextension, i.e. the attempt to apply it on everything, is a megalomaniacal effect of archetypal possession. An unrestricted identification with material reality causes the downfall of the archetype which becomes wholly enmeshed in materiality. Classical Freudian psychology is today a sad sight, reminiscent of the blind vagabond Oedipus, who finally came to rest at Colonus. The old king is wandering about the country, with a small following of caretakers, mumbling about penises and vaginae.

The gender of archetypes and deities

Another factor to consider, relating to the realization of the archetype, is the gender of the god undergoing institutionalization. [2] The institutionalization of gods, in religious history, seems also to imply a masculinization. But is it really justifiable to take an essentialistic stance as regards the gender of archetypes, as underlying the concept of divinities? How masculine is the Trinity, really? The holy Spirit has again and again come under suspicion of being feminine. His hidden identity, it has been argued, is Sophia, the spouse of Jahve. Jesus is often portrayed with feminine attributes; beautiful countenance, long hair, dressed in a long gown. He gives himself feminine attributes: “[How] often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!” (Mat 23:37).

But why is the Trinity experienced as masculine? I hold that it works like this. A divinity that is pulled out into stark daylight, placed on a pedestal in a temple, and whose cult becomes institutionalized in dogma and ritual, will more and more come to be regarded as masculine. The very process of formalization implies masculinization. Compare with Diana, the Italian forest goddess. She is a truly feminine goddess because she won’t allow herself to be pinned down. She exists in the moonlight shadows, where nothing is precisely defined. She is experienced in the whispering trees. If somebody catches sight of her in her naked beauty, then that person must die, because she cannot allow herself to be pinned down by the eye of consciousness (cf. Bulfinch, 1998, ‘Diana and Actaeon’).

What would happen if Diana was caught, put on a pedestal, and intellectually defined in theology and dogma? It would go like it always goes with deities. She would acquire more and more masculine attributes, much like Athena who was furnished with a suit of armour and became a war goddess. Due to the fact that she has been dragged out into the daylight, from her lush woodlands, and become institutionalized, she would come to be regarded as masculine. Such a daylight condition is not experienced as feminine. Soon the divine being will have been transformed to intellectual words in a book, and she has then become wholly “philosophized”.

So what would have happened if a “feminine anti-Trinity” had ruled the roost, instead? It would have become masculinized. Only if it remains in the shadows of the wood can it abide as a feminine deity. The conclusion is the following: there is no other choice than to have a masculine godhead in a culture where consciousness has reached a pronounced level of penetrative capacity. Only in ancient cultures where people lived with “half-closed eyes”, as it were, may a feminine divinity roam about. At such a cultural level they would never theologize her, and would refrain from looking directly at her.

In fairytales and in alchemy, the old conception of the Self, associated with daylight collective consciousness, is viewed as masculine: he is the old king. Thus, the concept of the Self, when it is being defined in consciousness by exemplification in books, will become asymmetrically masculine and logos-oriented.


The fixation of the god/goddess signifies either incarnation or realization. From a mytho-religious perspective, it signifies the incarnation of the divine principle in the world, and in the soul of man. What is portrayed in these myths is a mystery, underlying the greatest passion known to mankind, namely the spiritual passion. Notice the many interesting little parallels between the myths. Cottongrass and Jesus are both stripped of their clothes before becoming fixated (also Coyote Blue loses his clothes, in a sense). Both are of royal/divine ancestry and were driven by love. The self-sacrificial act on part of the archetype implies that a great boon is conferred on humankind and the material world. From the perspective of individual psychology, the process of unconscious integration emancipates the individual from dependency on the unconscious, and approximates the personality better to the Self. Wholeness is a state in which consciousness and the unconscious work together in harmony. It has a wholesome effect on the life and health of the individual. Analogously, the process of incarnation serves the purpose of regaining the wholeness which was lost at the Fall of Man.


© Mats Winther (Nov 2009)


Self : the archetype of wholeness and the regulating center of the psyche; a transpersonal power that transcends the ego. “It expresses the unity of the personality as a whole […] The self is not only the centre, but also the whole circumference which embraces both conscious and unconscious; it is the centre of this totality, just as the ego is the centre of consciousness.” (Jung, loc. cit.) […] Like any archetype, the essential nature of the self is unknowable, but its manifestations are the content of myth and legend. “The self appears in dreams, myths, and fairytales in the figure of the ‘supraordinate personality,’ such as a king, hero, prophet, saviour, etc., or in the form of a totality symbol, such as the circle, square, ‘quadratura circuli’, cross, etc.” (Jung, loc. cit.) (Sharp, 1991).

Institutionalization : to incorporate into a structured and often highly formalized system. (Webster’s Dictionary)


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