Complementation in Fairytales

~ The Golden Blackbird ~

Evert Lundquist: The sandpit, 1955
“The sandpit”. Evert Lundquist (1955).

Abstract: The relation between consciousness and the unconscious is characterized by reciprocity. The unconscious does not provide a continual flow of invigorating content for the enrichment of the conscious mind. Psychology’s focus on the principle of integration has the consequence that unconscious products, such as fairytale and myth, is sometimes misinterpreted. The article demonstrates how a certain fairytale, The Golden Blackbird, can be interpreted following the opposite principle of complementation, signifying a flow in the unconscious direction.

Keywords: integration, complementation, fairy tale, myth, redemption, Jungian, M-L von Franz,

As a source of naive and untarnished unconscious contents, fairytales are invaluable. In order to interpret them correctly, we must avoid projecting our preconceived notion on the unconscious themes, something which Marie-Louise von Franz underscores:

In spite of having very human characteristics, then, these fairytale heroes are not quite human. That is because they are not only types of human beings but archetypes, and therefore cannot be compared directly with the human ego. You cannot take the hero as one man, or the heroine as one woman.
  When people have sniffed a little whiff of Jungian psychology, they may be worse than if they knew nothing, for they take a fairytale and a few of the Jungian concepts and pin these on to the figures, e.g., the ego, the anima, the Self. This is worse than no interpretation for it is unscientific, not objective, infantile, and even dishonest, because in order to be able to pin Jungian concepts onto such a being, you are obliged to twist the story. For instance, supposing one is naively caught in an error and pins the quality of the shadow onto one of the fairytale figures, and then finds that it does not work all the way through. Such people will say that then they must have been wrong in the beginning, or that they did not understand quite well themselves, or that there was a mistake in the whole fairytale! Or else they will skip the awkward part with a general statement and skate around it with various ideas to make their concepts fit. If you are careful, you will see that these concepts of Jungian psychology cannot without restriction be used for the interpretation of fairytales. When I discovered this myself I suddenly realized that it must be so because a fairytale is not produced by the psyche of the individual and is not individual material. (von Franz, 1980, pp.10-11)

I take the critique a bit further and argue that also the Jungian theme of integration [1] must be questioned. It is too one-sided. What really takes place is an exchange between consciousness and the unconscious in the way of complementation. [2] Fairytales do not depict a one-sided movement from the unconscious to the conscious sphere. It works both ways. A classic theme in fairytales is the ailing king whose kingdom is redeemed by the Dummling hero, as exemplified by The Golden Blackbird. The story can be read on this link (here), where I also provide an interpretation according to the orthodox Jungian method.

In theory, the king and his kingdom represents the divine principle incarnated, or the Self as revealed in the temporal sphere (cf. von Franz, 1995, ch.2). I suggest an alternative way of looking at the fairytale. The king really portrays the divine principle depleted, or the Self as impotent ruler of the unconscious. The king is demanding satisfaction for the sacrifice that has been bestowed upon the conscious world, and that’s why the golden blackbird must be brought from the temporal realm to to the royal court. Yet, it soon turns out that the blackbird is only a stage in the hero’s quest, for there is an even greater prize to achieve, namely the Porcelain Maiden. After the son’s return, the sun-god again shines with great splendour. The unconscious principle has recuperated. This method of interpretation represents an alternative to the conventional view that the unconscious is a horn of plenty whose only function is to provide for the conscious sphere by making manifest a new worldly revelation of the Self.

The Jungian premise of integration is central to von Franz, who has often interpreted this very fairytale theme. In von Franz’s understanding, the ailing king and his kingdom symbolizes the conscious yet obsolete ideal of self; our dried out stereotypes of collective consciousness, including the way in which they come to expression in antiquated religion. The golden blackbird is locked up in a base cage, where he is in a dormant state, stiff and rigid as if he were dead. The movement from the shoddy cage to the golden cage, including its transfer to the castle, would seem to signify a progression from a dormant condition in the unconscious to a redeemed state in the conscious sunlit world.

However, the redemption of the golden blackbird really corresponds to a movement of complementation. The archetype is restored to its rightful grandeur in the collective unconscious. In the process, it must be released from its captivity in the conscious and material world. It lies dormant as an integrated principle of consciousness, because it has been downgraded to become a mere mechanical bird, as it were. The king’s youngest son makes the same journey as Orpheus: he travels to the dreary worldly realm, representing Hades, and brings back the Porcelain Maiden to the heavenly kingdom. Thus, it is essentially a Gnostic myth. The Porcelain Maiden corresponds to the Gnostic Sophia who, ever since her fall, has been confined in the material realm. The queenless king reminisces the long-lost Porcelain Maiden, just as Jahve reminisces Lady Wisdom from the early days of creation (Proverbs).

The king sends his two eldest sons to retrieve the golden blackbird. However, it only results in their fall, too. They are kept hostage in the inn, after having spent their money on merry festivity. The hero soon finds out that the golden blackbird must remain in its old cage and be brought back to the heavenly castle in its dormant stage. It’s as if a process of ripening must take place in the divine realm, reminiscent of the incubation of Dionysos in the thigh of Zeus. [3] The Porcelain Maiden is not ready for marriage either. She is so wicked that she scratches everyone that approaches her.

The redeemer, who was once a royal prince, has been recovered from the reeds in the lake. Sullied with the mud of terrestrial existence he is no longer to be recognized. He must continue his work of redemption as a lowly stable boy. The process of complementation slowly takes him back to his rightly stature, and when he is united with the Porcelain Maiden the process is complete. Yet, von Franz prefers to interpret the stable and the kitchen areas as the unconscious (the “stomach” region), and understands the rise of the stable or kitchen boy as a process of integration. It’s logically questionable, because the royal court cannot be equated with consciousness. Yet, von Franz attempts to remedy this inconsistency by recourse to the notion that the Self is conscious and unconscious united.

As a matter of fact, it is a myth of divine redemption. It is not a myth of the redemption of consciousness, on Jungian lines. Rather, it depicts a movement in the other direction, namely the replenishment of the collective unconscious, which has been depleted and grown stale. The return of the feminine element signifies the return of vigour and lifeblood to the divine realm. God, the heavenly king, again acquires autonomy. However, the son is soon to be elected the new king. This universal fairytale theme brings to mind the events in Matthew 28:18, where the Son of God ascends the mountain and says: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me”.

It’s a complicated myth, and some of its elements remain to be understood. Yet, if interpreted in terms of integration, the result is reductionistic. It builds on the idea that the unconscious is capable of furnishing the pristine content that rejuvenates collective consciousness, taking shape as a new ideal of Self. Allegedly, the drama heralds a fresh revelation of the unconscious, and it will give birth to a revitalized paradigm of consciousness. On this view, the unconscious continues to pour out life-giving material afresh, ready-made archetypes for the good of humanity.

When the unconscious is perceived as an inexhaustible cornucopia, it must be regarded a mother-myth. As a consequence, a mother complex constellates, reminiscent of the adoration of the church as mother. The reductionism inherent in this method of interpretation is evident since it does not contribute to our enlightenment. The recovery of the kingdom is understood as the rehabilitation of the conscious world by means of a continued integration of the unconscious. It is a process stifled by the routinization and stagnation of the conscious faculty in conjunction with the conscious institutions, such as antiquated religion.

The ailing kingdom is understood as the stagnated collective realm of consciousness contingent upon an outmoded ideal of Self, dominated by an obsolete Weltanschauung that is lacking a living connection to the unconscious. It is a well-known Jungian theme plastered on the fairytale. Thus, the fairytale has nothing new to relate, because there is no hint as to the nature of the newfangled revelation. Moreover, it’s difficult to explain the various elements, such as the autonomous archetype of the youngest son, who is a resident of the ailing kingdom.

Yet, if the fairytale is read through the lens of complementation it has a very important message to convey. The story involves a virgin sacrifice: the worldly realm gives up something of immense value and returns it to the heavenly sphere. It’s evident that it represents the Gnostic and alchemical myth, which runs like an underground stream through history. If the kingdom is the ailing unconscious, and the riches that are recovered derive not from the unconscious, but from the worldly realm, then it awakens us to the insight that we must contribute to the redemption of the divine principle. A sacrifice of the conscious principle must take place. It will lead to the reconstitution of the divine goddess.

Moreover, the “obverse” perspective of complementation allows us to better understand the fairytale. For instance, the elderly sons are finally executed by the king. We know that the demise of the archetype coincides with conscious integration (cf. Winther, 2009, here). Analogously, the elderly sons are captivated by the worldly temptations, and they are unable to continue on their quest. Thus, they have precipitated their own downfall. How else can the death of an archetype, or a god, be understood? It must be understood in terms of integration. This tragic fate is evaded by the hero, and he accomplishes its very opposite. He is victorious in accomplishing his own return, but also the return of the Porcelain Maiden.

It looks as if an exchange has taken place. Complementation is here achieved at the price of the downfall to consciousness of the two elderly sons. Twoness, since it denotes partitioning, is associated with conscious realization. Arguably, for the process to be successful, consciousness must go along. That’s why a specific increase of consciousness must occur, namely the realization of the principle of complementation, in whatever form. The older brothers squander their heritage in the form of money — a recurrent theme in fairytales (money is gold, a spiritual substance). It is alternatively portrayed as the forfeit of royal regalia or beautiful clothes, etc. It signifies the loss of divine stature — as when an angel turns into mere human form when being committed to the worldly realm. Stained with sin, he now has to wear the simple clothes of mortals. In comparative religion, the declination of the deity is contingent upon his/her accumulation of sin. Indra and Shiva must come down to earth to expiate their sin, and it’s the responsibility of the worshipper to bring about their redemption (cf. Winther, 2014b, here).

In the fairytale, the hero’s achievement depends on his own sacrifice. It means that he takes upon himself the sins of the others, including his brothers. Thus, their divine stature is restored (temporarily), providing them with a ticket back to the royal court. Yet, since the hero has taken the sin of his fellow beings upon his shoulders, he is himself confined in the worldly realm, which is why he dons the clothes of a lowly Breton. Thus, the hero finds himself in the same situation as the lowly man from Nazareth. Yet, it is within his powers to bring about his own resurrection. With the aid of the little hare, he makes his return to the father.

The redemptive work of the Christ could be understood in this sense, too. He removes the divine sin from the feminine spirit of the world, a sacrificial act that will accomplish her return to the divine abode. Yet, in the divine drama of complementation there occurs a limited increase of consciousness, following upon the death of the two sons. It seems that, since they are older, they are closer to consciousness and more prone to fall. Thus, a new guiding principle of consciousness takes shape in manner of an indemnification, because consciousness must support the new order.

Comparatively, the Dummling hero, as the youngest son, is remarkably naive. He is so unconscious that he never loses the connection to the divine Father, yet he also messes things up. He is also naive enough to take counsel from the divine animal. The sayings of Jesus have this mark of naiveté, too, as when he expects people to take after the birds, who live by the day and never think about their livelihood for tomorrow.

After the hero’s return, the king restores his health and the wasteland is again fertile. The unconscious principle has recuperated. In this type of fairytale, a wholeness is typically achieved that involves the masculine and feminine elements, often in the form of a quaternity. Yet, the goal is really the restoration of completeness in the Godhead (psych. ‘Self’), including the recovery of its autonomy, such as occurs in the Book of Job. The attainment of completeness in the conscious realm has nothing to do with it. In fact, what is required is the depletion of consciousness and a toning down of the ego’s expansive demand.

M-L von Franz’s fairytale interpretations are, on the whole, highly competent. Yet, certain elements of them ought to be revised according to the principle of complementation. They contain much more of Gnostic redemption and rather less of Christian incarnation than we would expect. It has to do with the fact that the fairytales represent an undercurrent of our culture. They blaspheme against our conscious mores and they are, in essence, scandalous. Von Franz emphasizes this in her interpretation of the witch as the dark aspect of mother nature.


© Mats Winther, 2014.


1. Integration. Integration is the process whereby the unconscious is assimilated to the conscious personality. In theory, it leads to a development of personality that makes it more complete and more in tune with instinct as well as the spiritual aspects of personality. Repression often has neurotic consequences. Integration of unconscious complexes may therefore have a healing effect. In Jungian psychology, the process of integration is central to the concept of individuation, which is the developmental path of personality throughout life.

2. Complementation. The term is used in other sciences in the sense of creating a complement; an addition, a reimbursement, etc. An economist could say: “Agreements were signed to stimulate economic complementation between members.” In genetics, complementation denotes a process whereby a normal offspring is produced by the addition of a normal gene that dominates the recessive mutated gene(s). So it’s a spontaneous healing process. In mathematics complementation is the operation of determining the complement of a mathematical set. Given a set A, the complement of A is the set of all element in the universal set U, but not in A. Basic colour theory uses the notions complementation, contrast, and vibrancy. Complementation describes how colours should be combined to look better. Since we don’t see the colours individually in a picture, but experience their relational effect, complementation serves to create a visually appealing wholeness.
  Complementation in the psychological sense is analogous to the above. In the sense of colour theory, the colour of the unconscious acquires a better vibrancy. The unconscious, which has been exhausted, is being reimbursed in this way. It serves the purpose of obtaining “restitution”, from the perspective of the unconscious. In the history of religion, it comes to expression as sacrificial ritual, which serves to furnish the gods with divine lifeblood. In psychological terms, complementation leads to the “reconfiguration” of the unconscious archetype, similar to the rebirth of the deity in Greek mythology. Complementation is connected with reclusiveness on part of the conscious ego. For a better understanding of this concept, see my writings elsewhere, such as ‘Critique of Individuation’ (here).

3. The primordial sacrifice of Dionysos. As a result of seeing his own reflection in the mirror (signifying conscious awareness), Dionysos was torn apart by the Titans. When Zeus found that the Titans had devoured his son, he incinerated the evil giants by striking them with a lightning-bolt. The ashes became the raw material of the world. However, the divine spirit was also scattered in the world, because the ashes of the Titans contained the fragments of Dionysos. It is formally the same myth as occurs in Gnosticism, lurianic Kabbalah, and alchemy. Dionysos resembles the alchemical Mercurius, since they both lie embedded in matter. They slowly undergo incubation and resurrect. Both are ambivalent deities who may invoke madness. Dionysos was called the “twice-born”, because Zeus sewed the remnants of Dionysos (his heart, according to some) into his thigh, which served as a womb. The process of incubation, leading to the resurrection of the god, is an apt symbol of complementation.


I have argued that the conscious world, from the point of view of the unconscious archetype, equals the dreary material realm, loosely equatable with Hades. It is not quite the world of humans, who occupy an “intermediate realm”. However, it symbolically depicts how the god (i.e., the archetype) experiences its existence after its fall, that is, its integration with the conscious world. This is how the fettered Prometheus feels about his situation. Since there is no ‘subject’ in the unconscious, similar to an ego, it seems to be a naive concept. Nevertheless, we must reckon with a point of view of the unconscious mind, as well. The unconscious relates another perspective than the ego’s narrow perspective, in order to promote a healthy psychic life. This is the view that the unconscious relates, in dreams and mythological material. It’s as if it’s prepared to do sacrifice, i.e., become integrated with consciousness. However, the process mustn’t go too far. The unconscious must retain its autonomy, symbolically expressed as the vitality and freedom of the gods.

The Underworld, as pictured in the mythologies of the Greek, Maya, Japanese, etc., is a gloomy and dark place. The Elysian fields is a later development. It represents an alternative afterlife for the heroes, especially. In Celtic mythology the heroes were received by the gods into a blissful paradise of eternal summer, called the Islands of the Blessed. In Arthurian legend it is called Avalon. The afterlife in Egyptian mythology, presided over by Osiris, is paradisal, too. Osiris could not be brought back to the heavenly world, which is why he took on the role as king of the netherworld. The reason for this is that his reassembly was not complete. His phallus could not be recovered.

Thus, it seems that subsistence in afterlife is somewhat deficient. Osiris arose from his mangled state to a new life, albeit debilitated. Arguably, it was achieved thanks to human worship, as Osiris played a very important role in ancient Egypt. The god who has died can rise again, provided that he acquires a place in cultic worship. If he is worshipped he may remain in Elysion, otherwise he has to stay in the gloomy Underworld.

In the mythologies of the world, the divine pantheon is partitioned into deities of heaven and earth, where the earth-deities are often feminine. Alternatively, the god has been emasculated (as Osiris) or lost a leg, like Tezcatlipoca. (The Aztec earth-god Tezcatlipoca could not gain entrance to the heavenly realm behind the pole star.) People saw that the divine principle was present in the earth itself, as it produced crops. After all, life spontaneously emerges out of matter, which is why the Mayan earth-goddess Ix Chel was a god of child birth. It seems that the heavenly deities are forever longing to reunite with the earthly deities. Ix Chel and her consort Itzamna managed to reunite in the heavens after Ix Chel’s suicide.

The story of Orpheus and Eurydice occurs in various versions around the world. It is clearly a very central archetype, considering its popularity in art, music, film, etc. In Japanese mythology, Izanagi endeavours to retrieve Izanami from the netherworld. However, he could not accomplish this because she had eaten the food of the Underworld. (This is reminiscent of the fate of Persephone, who had to spend three months out of every year in Hades because she had eaten three seeds of a pomegranate.) Izanagi lit up a fire, thus betraying his promise not to look at Izanami. He beheld her in her monstrous and hellish state and had to flee for his life from the netherworld. Apparently, the chthonic deity appears either as a benign lunar goddess or as a witch.

In my view, Orpheus represents the sorrowful archetype of the unconscious, whose lyre can always be heard, provided that we attune our senses and leave behind all the worldly preoccupations. I think that he is ever working to salvage Eurydice. However, it seems that it can never be achieved to the full, that is, the goddess cannot become wholly autonomous and self-sufficient again. The goddess who has died must be supported by a divine music, performed by human worshippers and spontaneously by the unconscious. It allows her a decent existence. Persephone may return to life in the springtime, but must go back to Hades when winter comes. I think the myth relates a picture of earthly existence. We must always strive to recover the feminine deity, by playing the lyre of Orpheus.

It is the sorrowful song of the gods that can be heard when we visit nature in a contemplative mood. In The Golden Blackbird, the feminine deity is recovered. However, for her to remain in that state, and to prevent her from reverting to her fallen condition, it is required of us to worship her. The reason why Persephone can remain alive in the summertime is because people are prone to make worship to nature during that time. In wintertime, they go about their business and forget about the goddess.

Thus, I am in favour of an interpretation that accords with my ideas about complementation, namely the restoration of healthy unconsciousness in the spiritual sense. It is a dampened consciousness — a moon-consciousness. Accordingly, after her resurrection, Ix Chel became a moon-goddess.

Interestingly, Dionysos was the son of Persephone, which means that he was originally a god of the Underworld. Heraclitus says that, “Hades and Dionysus, for whom they go mad and rage, are one and the same.” Dionysos becomes a heavenly god only after his second birth from the thigh of Zeus. Archaeologists have recently uncovered the entrance to the Underworld, called the Plutonium (here). Pluto’s Gate was an important shrine in ancient antiquity, located in Hierapolis. It was here that Orpheus began his journey.


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  --------         (1992). The Golden Ass of Apuleius – The Liberation of the Feminine in Man. Shambala.

  --------         (1993). The Feminine in Fairy Tales. Shambhala.

  --------         (1995). Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales. Shambala.

  --------         (1996). The Interpretation of Fairy Tales. Shambala.

  --------         (1997). Archetypal Patterns in Fairy Tales. Inner City Books.

  --------         (1999). The Cat – A Tale of Feminine Redemption. Inner City Books.

  --------         (2002). Animus and Anima in Fairy Tales. Inner City Books.

Winther, M. (2004). ‘The Golden Blackbird’. (here)

  --------    (2009). ‘The real meaning of the motif of the dying god’. (here)

  --------    (2013). ‘The Spiritual Method – Complementation as Spiritual Writing’. (here)

  --------    (2014). ‘Critique of Individuation’. (here)

  --------    (2014b). ‘Complementation in Psychology’. (here)