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The Philosopher’s Stone

Kristaps Bergfelds – Philosopher’s stone via Flickr

The Philosopher’s Stone is an idea described in medieval and ancient alchemical texts. The concept is variously linked to the quest for heaven, immortality, vitality, and also to turning base metals into silver or gold.

According to C. G. Jung’s analytical psychology, the Philosopher’s Stone is a symbol of the inner self, said to exist within the entire self.

As the above photo demonstrates, the idea of the Philosopher’s Stone has a wide range of applications. Here, we see a young woman apparently reflecting on something deep or of special significance.

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Psychoid – Not another Norman Bates movie!

Carl Gustav Jung

Carl Gustav Jung (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The word psychoid sounds a bit like a sequel to the famous Norman Bates film, or maybe another video game about killing for points. But it’s neither of those things.

According to Carl Jung’s analytical psychology, the psychoid  is the transcendental aspect of an archetype. In contrast to the archetypal images, which we can perceive and talk about, the psychoid can never reach consciousness. We can, however, form a concept about it, as Jung did.

Jung introduced the idea of the psychoid to try to account for the duality of matter and energyHe also wanted to distinguish between the symbol and the true essence of the thing symbolized.

This kind of thinking is nothing new. For centuries philosophers and theologians have differentiated between God, the unknowable, and God with perceptible qualities. Like Jung, some philosophers and theologians say we can never fully know the absolute; however, most would agree that we can discuss it using abstract concepts.

Other thinkers tend to link experience with ultimate reality, perhaps overlooking the idea of psychological and cultural filters that might color our perception of the apparently absolute.¹

Jung, himself, had studied Kant who also makes a distinction between that which is unknowable via the senses (noumenon) and that which can be apprehended through the senses (phenomenon).

¹ A detailed yet accessible discussion of the personal in relation to the absolute can be found in John Passmore, A Hundred Years of Philosophy, 2nd ed. 1966, pp. 48-94. To say that different thinkers make this distinction in no way implies that all of their distinctions are identical. Usually we find subtle or obvious differences, which some New Age and pop psychology pundits tend to overlook.

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Robin – archetypal apprentice or unspoken lover?

Batman with his sidekick Robin. Painting by Al...

Batman with his sidekick Robin. Painting by Alex Ross, based on the cover of Batman #9 by Jack Burnley (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Also known as “The Boy Wonder,” Robin is Batman‘s sidekick. He arguably represents the younger half of an archetypal master-apprentice or teacher-disciple relationship.

At least, that’s a Jungian interpretation. It has also been suggested that the relationship between Batman and Robin has homosexual overtones, especially in the TV show. Carl Jung tended to see homosexuality as a developmental problem, so I’m not sure how he’d depict this particular relationship within his archetypal theory.¹

¹ Jung’s ideas can be too vague and conjectural at times for my liking. To his credit, Jung, himself, admits that he is simply making a modern myth. He doesn’t claim to have the final word. Those interested in his views about homosexuality might find some ideas here.

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Surya (Asian deity/deities)

Konark Sun Temple Panoramic View via Wikipedia

One of the main identities of Surya is an Indian sun god associated with fantastic temples, like that found at Konark.

Like most mythic beings, Surya appears in different contexts. The deity variously exhibits divine, semi-divine and aristocratic attributes, according to the tradition in which it has evolved. This variety poses a problem to archetypal theorists who tend to simply complex mythic histories by interpreting them in vague, watered-down “general principles”—e.g. Great Mother, The Wizard, The Wise Old Man.¹

Surya or the Sun God, Konark.

Surya or the Sun God, Konark. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Upon closer inspection much of the data forced into conceptual boxes by archetypal theorists is far more inconsistent and variable than they claim. Mythic and religious data is linked to politics, economics, geography, and war. With war we find that the aggressive movement of populations usually results in the conquest and subjugation of peoples, whose gods may be replaced, adapted or tolerated by the conquerors, who themselves almost always introduce something new to the cultural and religious landscape.

In defending their archetypal position, theorists like Joseph Campbell and C. G. Jung assert that they’ve distilled the underlying essence or commonality among various cultural expressions of an archetype. To distinguish a cultural manifestation from the archetype, proper, they use the term archetypal image. Archetypal images of a given archetype vary, but the underlying archetype behind its imagery is (supposedly) one and the same.

To my mind that’s like saying all cities are “the same” because they share core elements such as people, a downtown, suburbs, roads, utilities, government and housing. Anyone who has compared a developing to a developed city will find it a gross simplification to say that all cities are “the same.” And so it is, I would argue, with those archetypal theorists who claim that all myths and religions are “the same.” It’s an unwarranted simplification often made with good intentions, out of political correctness, or perhaps through lack of experience.

Joseph Campbell

Joseph Campbell (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

See the following for the tremendous variety found in the Surya character, according to Asian tradition and scripture:

¹In the Star Wars mythos Obi Wan Kenobi arguably plays a dual role of the Wizard and the Wise Old Man. Filmmaker George Lucas actually consulted the mythographer Joseph Campbell to facilitate the idea that Star Wars would tell a modern story with timeless, mythic appeal. So, in fairness, we could say that the success of Star Wars throws a vote in favor of the archetypal theorists and their tendency to generalize. However, many films use so-called archetypal ideas and bomb at the box office. So that’s clearly not enough for the making of a blockbuster.

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The idea of the Self

Sophie – Who Am I?

The human self, being the basis of personal identity, has been variously understood.

Some theorists say the self is the agency that says “I.” According to this view, the self is the conceptual, reflective part of ourselves that apparently remains unchanged from the first instance when, to as long as a person can think about, the idea of “I.”

In most developmental psychological systems, this is the ego, not to be confused with egotism or egoism. Theorists subscribing to this view may or may also believe in a transcendental, unchanging core to selfhood.

Alternately, some suggest that individuals possess multiple selves. Here the self is viewed as “the personality or organization of traits.”¹ In the wider arena of psychological and New Age theory, the idea of multiple selves may or may not involve the belief in an eternal, unchanging aspect (or aspects) of the self.

The Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing spoke of a true and false self in his book The Divided Self. As reported by some of his so-called “schizoid” patients, the true self is “deeper” than the false self.²

Jasinthan Yoganathan Who am I ? “One of the best questions i have asked myself!”

From the standpoint of Western Philosophy, the question of self belongs to ontology (the study of being) and phenomenology (the study of experience). However, ontology and phenomenology are arguably influenced by cosmology (theories about the character of the universe) and ethics (questions about right and wrong). Sadly, some thinkers fail to integrate these different branches, offering at best partial theories about the self (which in the wrong hands can probably do more harm than good).

Sigmund Freud‘s theory about the self is limited to two main factors—nature (instinctual drives of sex, aggression, love and death) and society (parents, significant others and social institutions). Freud viewed God and notions of an afterlife as illusions created to satisfy unconscious psychological desires and wishes. And this limiting worldview had a significant impact on his outlook.

Freud’s brightest student, Carl Jung, advanced psychoanalytic theory by suggesting the possibility of archetypal aspects of the self. Archetypes in Jungian theory are often misunderstood. While they do have a transcendental component, according to Jung they are also grounded in the body. So archetypes represent aspects of the self believed to exist beyond and yet inherent to the body. Through their representation in activities like dreaming, art and architecture, they manifest in the mundane world as archetypal images.³ For Jung, even the self is an archetype—an archetype of wholeness.

Víctor Nuño Indifference or hope | Indiferencia o esperanza “Is it so easy to distinguish one from the other? Where’s the limit between them?”

In many interpretations of Biblical Christianity the true, essential self is not of this world but created to enjoy an otherworldly, everlasting heaven:

If any one would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake will save it (Matthew 16:24-25).

For Hindus, those in agreement with the philosopher/sage Sankara tend understand the true self (atman) as identical with an invisible, underlying aspect of creation (brahman). Once liberated, the self loses all sense of individuality.

But Hinduism isn’t quite that simple. Ramanuja‘s school of Visistadvaita presents another Hindu perspective where the true self is said to ultimately retain some sense of individuality, even as it finally comes to rest for all eternity in the godhead.

Most schools of Buddhism claim that there is no self. For Buddhists, the whole concept of individuality is just an illusion that we apparently must overcome en route to enlightenment. This includes the notion of the conceptual “I” and, perhaps, more radically, the idea of an eternal or everlasting self. For Buddhists, both are illusory.

A branch of New Age believers say we have numerous slightly different selves coexisting in parallel or multiple universes, all unified by an “oversoul” existing above, beyond and yet within those multiple realities. A good example of this point of view can be found in the Seth Books by Jane Roberts.

William III painted in the 1690s by Godfried Schalcken via Wikipedia

In a witty and regal vein, King William III (William of Orange) was among those who have pondered the nature of the self.

As I walk’d by my self
And talk’d to my self,
My self said unto me,
Look to thy self,
Take care of thy self,
For nobody cares for Thee.
I answered my self,
And said to my self,
In the self-same Repartee,
Look to thy self
Or not look to thy self,
The self-same thing will be.

¹ J. P. Chaplin, Dictionary of Psychology, Bantam 1985, p. 414.

² See R. D. Laing, The Divided Self.

³ Some may not see dreams as part of the mundane world. But when we remember them, they become part of our daytime reality.

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The Brazen Serpent, by Benjamin West; among th...

The Brazen Serpent, by Benjamin West; among the overthrown, an unmistakable reference to the Laocoön (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The serpent symbol is found in most mythological and religious traditions around the world—past, present, and most likely future.

Similarities in meaning exist as do important differences.

In Jewish and Christian accounts of Eden, the serpent is the “most subtle” of all creatures that tempts Eve into disobeying God’s command to not eat of the tree of knowledge. Eve then seduces Adam into eating and mankind is expelled from the Garden of Eden and cursed to forever suffer and work.

Cultural studies professors often use this to “prove” that the biblical Garden of Eden story in particular, and the Genesis account in general, are responsible for just about everything bad today, from mankind’s desire to conquer nature (toxic pollution), to man’s domination over women (sexism and gender inequality), to the lack of animal rights and the inhumane treatment of animals. But the biblical account isn’t quite so simple as saying that the serpent always represents evil.

It’s true that God sent “fiery” snakes to punish the Israelites for complaining in the wilderness. But God also instructed Moses to fashion a bronze serpent to heal the afflicted.

In the Book of Numbers, while Moses was in the wilderness, he mounted a serpent of bronze on a pole that functioned as a cure against the bite of the “seraphim”, the “burning ones” (Numbers 21:4-9). The phrase in Num.21:9, “a serpent of bronze,” is a wordplay as “serpent” (nehash) and “bronze” (nehoshet) are closely related in Hebrew, nehash nehoshet

And a vision in Isaiah 6 tells of a fiery, winged serpents that flank God’s throne, symbolizing God’s divine glory and omnipotence.²

The Biblical Leviathan was a great sea serpent, “the dragon that is in the sea” (Isaiah 27:1).

In India, the kundalini (Skt: coiled like a snake) represents serpent power which is awakened by carefully opening a series of chakras (body/psyche points of power).

India also has a naga cult with widespread devotees who worship a demi-god cobra with a human face.

Ancient Egyptian culture had the erect cobra symbolizing the utmost power and authority of the Pharaoh and the gods.³

The snake is also regarded as a healer in some Native American traditions.


Serpent devouring a man (Detail from Aztec calendar)

In Mexican mythological art, a giant serpent is often depicted as swallowing a human being, usually head-first. This has interesting psychological connotations, especially for depth psychology. The serpent could be seen as a portal or the powers of the unconscious which can “swallow” the ego, leading to a new kind of awareness and outlook.

Australian aboriginal myths also talk of the serpent “swallowing up people and animals.”4

These mythic images of swallowing might bear a symbolic relation to the Biblical notion that “God is no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34). Again, interpreted psychologically to mean that inferior aspects of the human personality must be symbolically devoured, purged or sent to hell for the superior aspect of the self to be realized and eventually flourish.

The logo for contemporary western medicine is a snake coiled around a pole, a symbol derived from ancient Greece, as evident in engravings of Aesculapius, c. 100 BCE, where a serpent is coiled around his staff. This symbol is often mistakenly linked to the Greek Caduceus, displayed in myth as a two serpents wound around a staff, sometimes with wings.

Artwork by Cherie Landa (’15) – Jungian examples often are simple circles, perhaps to conform to Jung’s model of the self. But this is an interesting variation.

The psychiatrist Carl Jung was interested in the Ouroboric serpent, a symbol derived from Gnosticism in which the snake forms a circle by biting its own tail. For Jung this is a mandala, symbolizing his understanding of the self and wholeness.

The above only scratches the surface of serpent symbolism, a topic too diverse to treat adequately here. Nevertheless, J. E. Cirlot suggests that one commonality present among many serpent symbols is the representation of psychic energy. And Philip Gardiner and others say that snake symbolism as a whole is dualistic, containing elements of salvation and destruction. We should point out, however, that this dualism does not necessarily mean that both positive and negative aspects are present at the same time, or that they are of equal power—a point that some New Age, neoGnostics seem to overlook.

¹ and Eerdman’s Bible Dictionary (1987), pp. 926-7.

²  Eerdman’s Bible Dictionary (2000), p. 1188. This is a curious parallel to the serpents that surround some Hindu deities.

³ Ibid.

4 Mythology: An Illustrated Encyclopedia ed. Richard Cavendish, 2003, Time Warner Books, p. 211.

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Siva (or Shiva)

Shiva: true2source

Siva or Shiva (Skt: kind, friendly) is a major Hindu god who, according to the dominant theory, evolved out of the mythology of the conquering Aryans in the Indian sub-continent.¹

A bit of a latecomer, Siva nevertheless replaced the earlier Vedic storm god Rudra by becoming part the Hindu Trimurti of Brahma, Visnu and Siva.

In popular folk mythology, Brahma is said to have created the universe, Visnu preserves it and Siva, through his cosmic dance, destroys it. But this is only a general outline, for Siva first created Brahma and Visnu. And instead of merely destroying, Siva also regulates the universe.

In an incident with the Pine Forest Sages, Siva breaks the reclusive sages’ excessive meditation by literally seducing their wives. By sexually enticing their wives, Siva intentionally angers the Sages, disrupts their meditation and diffuses their excessive spiritual power. Otherwise, the tapas (Skt: heat, or spiritual force) generated by the sages’ prolonged and intense concentration would have disrupted the cosmic balance.² So in a sense, we see Siva behaving as something of a trickster.

The Other Side of Siva: Taran Rampersad

The Other Side of Siva: Taran Rampersad

However, Siva is not only a trickster.

With his third eye, depicted vertically on his forehead, he emits deadly rays of fire, not unlike the ‘phasers’ of Star Trek or the energy beams generated by Marvel’s Tony Stark / Iron Man. Siva’s death ray incinerates demonic opponents residing in highly volatile spiritual realms.

But, for Hindus, Siva’s third eye has a more passive aspect, symbolizing the locus of spiritual “seeing” and peace. Siva’s third eye is sometimes, perhaps inaccurately, equated with Jesus’ teaching, “Let thine eye be single” (Matthew 6:22, Luke 11:34).

Siva is often depicted in temple carvings ityaphallically (with erect phallus). His linga (Skt: phallus) symbolizes his control over his divine creative power, just as in Hinduism the female yoni (Skt: vagina) represents the cosmic source or life-giving aspects of the divinity.

Siva also rides the sacred bull, Nandi. And he has a blue throat from partially ingesting poison, which otherwise would have destroyed the universe.

His wife is Parvati and he’s said to reside at Mt. Kailasa in the Himalayas.

Siva Thandavam: Velachery Balu / Balasubramanian G Velu

Siva Thandavam: Velachery Balu / Balasubramanian G Velu

In Hindu devotional cults and Western popular spiritualism, Siva is, perhaps uncritically, identified with supposedly “active male” energy that must be united with the Shakti – “passive female” energy – to effect a union of these complementary cosmic energies within an given individual or couple—that is, balancing the Shiva-Shakti.

To some, this way of thinking is nothing more than archetypal stereotypes, rank with sexist connotations.³ To others, it represents sublime truths accessibly only to those spiritually “advanced” enough to appreciate them. And to others, the entire Hindu pantheon is suspect as some kind of devilish manifestation.4

¹ The fact that the Aryan invasion theory has been disputed and continues to be debated complicates the picture, as with most mythological and religious issues.

² Most of my academic understanding of the Siva myths comes from the outstanding Indologist, Wendy Doniger. See

³ Professor Naomi Goldenberg has critiqued what she sees as archetypal sexism in work of C. G. Jung.

Naomi R. Goldenberg, after reviewing Jung’s idea of archetypes as disembodied Platonic forms and on the damage done to women by the mind-body dichotomy, suggests that “feminist theory radically depart from the Jungian archetype [and] from all systems of thought that posit transcendent, superhuman deities.” See


English: Sculpture of Shiva in copper alloy fr...

Sculpture of Shiva in copper alloy from India (Tamil Nadu). Dimensions: 30 x 22 1/2 x 7 in. Circa 950-1000. Chola dynasty IXe -XIIIe c. (Wikipedia)


Photo – Ari Moore via Flickr




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