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_00The earliest indication we have of the negotiations with the unconscious is in various forms of early religion and mythology. Originally perceived as an external realm or domain of spirits, the unconscious was often referred to as the otherworld. The use of the mythopoetic worldview and symbolic form in these early negotiations becomes clear when examining shamanism, ancient Egyptian religion, Greek philosophy, and the prevailing western religious attitudes and practices all the way up to medieval Christianity.


Shamanism is an ancient and broad tradition, seen by some as the earliest form of religion, with varied cultural expressions around the globe and throughout history, right up to today. The practice of shamanism was first observed in Siberia, and the term shaman stems from the Siberian Tungisic s’aman (Smith 11).  Initially used only to describe the practices of the shaman in Siberia, the term is often used to also describe similar practices in cultures around the world. The historian Mircea Eliade describes shamanism in broad strokes when he says that it is a “technique of ecstasy” (4), which involves entering into a state of ecstasy, or trance, to effect healing. The simplest way to define shamanism, then, is to start by saying that a shaman is a healer, primarily of illnesses of a psychospiritual or psychosomatic origin (Smith 11).

_01Depending on the theory of the soul within a given culture, illnesses occurs when the human soul becomes fragmented and pieces of the soul are lost, stolen, or simply wander away, or when the soul has been invaded by a malevolent spirit sent by sorcery (Ellenberger 40). The nature of illness suggests, at a high level, the methods employed by the shaman to perform the function of healing. In an altered state of consciousness, or trance, the shaman journeys to the otherworld and, with the aid of helping spirits, heals by retrieving the lost soul or by dispelling the malignant spirits (Ellenberger 7).  In native North American cultures, the human is believed to have more than one soul or soul clusters – typically in the forms of a free soul and a body soul. The body soul is responsible for bodily functions, while the free soul represents the entire person and is most active during dreams or trance. It is this free soul that can become lost or detach itself from the body and wander away. This type of soul loss can result in death if the shaman does not retrieve the lost part of the soul before it crosses into the land of the dead (Smith 33–34).

Shamanism is foundational to the exploration of the concept of the unconscious, both by ancient religion and in contemporary psychology. The three-storied cosmology of the shaman is now spoken of as the levels of the psyche in Jungian terms, the mapping of which is accomplished through the symbols of mythology. The spirits – very real to the shaman, both in the healing and initiation journeys – can now be seen as symbols of the structures and processes of the psyche, known to the Jungian as archetypes. This is not to say that the archetypes are only a clinical description of numinous beings, but that they are a way of describing and relating to the mystery of the unconscious, which the shaman finds in the ‘otherworld,’ the realm of gods and spirits. The gods and spirits are more specifically expressed in shamanism as personal gods, and the archetypes express the essence of the same mystery. Even with the divergence of language from one of spirit in shamanism, to one mostly of science in psychology, the mystery of the phenomena which is engaged remains.

Ancient Egypt

This cosmological structure and personification into gods is seen in the ancient Egyptian concept of Ba and Ka. Ba “connects upward to the world of fancy and dream,” while Ka “connects downward” to the underworld (Claxton 58). Ba is thus most easily described as being conscious awareness, which is light while Ka can be seen as the unconscious, which is dark and unknown. Ka was recognized as the most basic life force, and thus we see an early indication of a psychology of the unconscious and the effect it can have on consciousness and life.


This early form of psychology is reflected in the journey of the Egyptian sun god, Ra. Each day, Ra would travel from the realm of day (Ba), into the underworld of night (Ka), and be rejuvenated in the lake of Nun, which is described by Claxton as being “both the ‘Lake of Life,’ reinspiring the virtuous, and the ‘Lake of Fire,’ the prototype of Hell, in which the wicked are forever punished” (27). This cosmology has obvious similarities to the three storied cosmology of the shaman – the middle, the lower, and the upper worlds, with the journey of the shaman between them in this case being Ra himself. The lake of Nun, having both benevolent and malevolent properties indicates the unknown aspects of the otherworld, supporting the idea that the concepts of shamanism are a precursor to more sophisticated expressions of religion – with a significant evolution: the nature of wellness or illness is not determined by spirits alone, but by the virtuousness or wickedness of the person. Thus, the symbol of Ra becomes a symbol of self as it traverses life and engages the inner cosmology of conscious awareness and the unconscious.

It is through this mythical approach that the Egyptians were able to effectively engage the world, and more importantly, their humanness. Through the use of imagery and symbols, a body of mythology arose that allowed them to make sense of the unconscious and explain such phenomena as death or dreaming. This mythology was adequate for them to engage both the inner and outer worlds, and in many ways anticipated the theories of the psychologists to come much later (Claxton 28). While expressed in differing cultural symbols, the approach to the inner and outer worlds through myth is common to ancient religion. While Hades, for example, is not the Greek equivalent of Ka, the ability of the Greeks to condense into their symbols explanatory narratives for many diverse explanations was the same mythopoetic abilities used by shamans and the Egyptians to explain their psychology. As Claxton explains: “layers of meaning comfortably coexisted and intermingled: real terrain was imbued with symbolic meaning (as it still is today for many indigenous peoples), while mythic figures and events were more than mere fictions” (31).

The Greek Psyche and Ancient Philosophy

The idea of psyche began to be more clearly defined by the Greeks as one part of the human organism. The psyche was seen as that part that resonated with the gods and, similar to the Egyptian Ka, was the life force of the human (the Greek psyche means animating force). While maintaining the mythic worldview to a large degree, the ancient Greeks also began to approach the question of the unconscious from a philosophical perspective as soul, which was not only the animating force, but also the receptor of the will of the gods, and a source of experience and knowledge. This first became apparent in Homer, who linked the messages of the gods to the phrenes – bodily functions – and not to the mind, illustrating their idea of a loose collection of organs. Over time, the idea of soul took on more concrete forms, separate from the body and consciousness, and being the eternal life force, was able to access other realms, such as through death and dreams (Claxton 61-68).

_03This blossoming concept of soul, combined with social factors and contact with other cultures and explanations of the unconscious (in the form of religion) led to a “progressive implosion of antiquated and overelaborated mythology into a single divine being” (Claxton 46). This was the age which Jaspers referred to as the axial age. Interestingly, though this age can be seen as the beginning of monotheism, it was more the beginning of a shift in behavior – instead of rituals and sacrifice, virtue and ethics were brought to the forefront, perhaps as an echo of the Egyptian Lake of Nun which brought rewards to the virtuous and punishment to the wicked. It was no longer an affair of appeasement of the gods or of being receptors of their will; it was now a matter of morals and action. As the identification and participation within a natural world of immanence waned, the religious life changed to virtuous striving for the afterlife in an otherworld (Bellah 102). Instead of the unconscious representing a realm of gods and spirits that was accessible now, the focus shifted to virtue in order to achieve a place in heaven at some later, unknown time. The immanence of God receded, and the natural world, once related to through symbols, moved farther away until ultimately, the psychology that was once immanent in mythology became one of penance. This new religious attitude marked the western experience at least through the Middle Ages, and in many ways continues in the present day. The move away from the immanent and mythic nature of ancient religions did not remove the phenomena of the unconscious from the realm of human experience though, and attempts to understand, explain, and engage the full spectrum of human existence continued on in philosophy and literature.

Around 500 BCE, the shift in religion was also expressed by the changing of the goals of knowledge from desire for control (of nature and others) to morals and virtue. In alignment with the new and growing religious quest for salvation, the care for soul became the primary motivator of knowledge. The method to reach the divine was no longer one of sacrifice or ritual, but of reason: “the way that the soul knows good, and God, is through cogitation and reflection, and the ‘mind’ is that aspect of the soul which provides the tools for this inquiry” (Claxton 78). Plato describes the basis of this method, which ultimately led to a ‘psychology’ of reason and soul:

The region of which I speak is the abode of the reality with which true knowledge is concerned, a reality without color or shape, intangible but utterly real, apprehensible only by intellect which is the pilot of the soul.

(Phaedrus 247c-d)

This ‘region’ of idealized form allowed for the abstraction of a complex and mysterious universe, and the application of reason to not only understand it, but to experience God: “reason recruits Will, and the more clearly one’s reason has helped one to see the Good, through the smoke and between the mirrors of Appearances, the more powerful one’s Will will be” (Claxton 79-80).

Plato compared the soul to a charioteer and his team of horses, one white and one dark. The horses represent the choices one can make with the intellect – moral and virtuous or selfish and lustful. He is describing a three-fold aspect of psychology – the person is the charioteer being pulled along by the two sides of soul. In this simple metaphor, there is no room for the unconscious – all is known and understood, it is only a matter of will in choosing between right and wrong. This sole reliance upon reason in pursuit of the virtuous life took on ascetic qualities with the Epicureans and Stoics, in which the mind was purged of any and all passion, cleansed of any imperfections, and therefore left no room for the unconscious (Claxton 80-83).


This loss of the unconscious aspect of the human was partly corrected in Plato’s later writings, such as The Republic and Timaeus, when he distinguished between the conscious awareness of the light and dark aspects of soul, and the unknown agency of the soul that would emerge unhindered when able, such as when dreaming. Aristotle and his students specifically “made space in their studies for the irrational” (Claxton 83), and had a different understanding of soul, one which was essentially biological and immanent to human existence. It was not so much a life giving force which pulled the human along, but was present in all of the processes of living, from the lowest needs, such as eating, through the experience of the senses, and on to the highest level of reason, which only humans were able to reach. Aristotle was also interested in the more subtle aspects of the mental life, such as memory, and as such was less of a moralist, choosing between right and wrong, and more of an observer, observing what actually occurs. While Plato saw dreams as the playground of the darker side of soul, Aristotle, remaining true to his biological view of the soul, saw them as mental residuals of sensory impressions which can become distorted, accounting for the often odd nature of dreams. Aristotle also saw dreams as a method of integrating these impressions into the psyche for the purpose of formulating responses to life’s events (Claxton 123).

Other Greek philosophers offered theories on the soul. Anticipating Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious, Pythagoras felt that the soul was not only an individual entity, attached specifically to a person (though it was embed within that person), but had a wider and cosmic reach; it was “part of a godly soul that permeated the universe.” Ultimately, Pythagoras instituted the idea of an immortal soul, capable of reincarnation, and was responsible for the separation of soul from body, making it more real and spiritual, which led some to a disdain for the material world, instead focusing on the higher reality of the soul . Heraclitus saw soul as a vapor which was the formative element out of which everything was made. This dynamic and ethereal view, which contrasted sharply with Plato’s idea of forms, had soul in a constant state of movement and change, and allowed for the acknowledgement of its depth and mystery (Claxton 75-76). The ideas of Pythagoras and Heraclitus offer a view of the soul which, in many ways, has persisted until today, and finds similar expressions not only in religion, but also in analytical psychology.

The Medieval View of the Unconscious

_05A shift to a new form of relating to the unconscious began in the midst of the age of penance in the middle ages, albeit mostly in a way that was clearly aligned with the teachings of the church. Plotinus, for example, continued the idea of the unconscious by holding that the “absence of conscious perception is no proof of the absence of mental activity,” and used the analogy of the angle of a mirror to explain why some things of the soul were conscious (known) and others were not. Augustine felt that God was a form of ‘therapist’ for the soul, and can be seen as the first to formulate the modern idea of the unconscious when he said that the mind had the ability to hide itself. Augustine also wrote on the unconscious in regards to memory, equating the act of memory to the more or less successful attempts of an archivist to retrieve things from the depths of the archive. A combination of the ideas of the unconscious memory, the prevailing medieval ‘repentance psychology,’ and the attempts to live virtuously are found in the writings of St. Ambrose of Milan and Origen, who held that sins and the feelings of the conscience are written in the ‘book of the heart,’ secret to all but God (Claxton 90-93). Eventually though, a stronger sense of personal responsibility for the secret life of the unconscious began to grow. For example, the Cistercian abbot Isaac of Stella felt that introspection was of high importance in order to understand not only what one has done but why one has done it, of course remaining in the Christian context of salvation and striving for heaven. So although the religious landscape had changed dramatically, the forces of the unconscious were still at work, and the attempts of people to come to terms with it continued.

Works Cited

Bellah, Robert N., and Stephen C. Rowe. “Religious Evolution.” Living beyond Crisis: Essays on Discovery and Being in the World. New York: Pilgrim, 1980. 91-117. Print.

Claxton, Guy. The Wayward Mind: An Intimate History of the Unconscious. London: Little, Brown, 2005. Print.

Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2004. Print.

Ellenberger, Henri F. The Discovery of the Unconscious: The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry. New York: Basic, 1970. Print.

Smith, C. Michael. Jung and Shamanism in Dialogue: Retrieving the Soul, Retrieving the Sacred. New York: Paulist, 2007. Print.