“My thesis, then, is as follows: In addition to our immediate consciousness, which is of a thoroughly personal nature and which we believe to be the only empirical psyche (even if we tack on the personal unconscious as an appendix), there exists a second psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals. This collective unconscious does not develop individually but is inherited. It consists of pre-existent forms, the archetypes, which can only become conscious secondarily and which give definitive form to certain psychic contents.”
Carl Jung, The Concept of the Collective Unconscious
This week we are going to begin our exploration of western religious ideas by examining Egyptology. I hope to show in these explorations that there is more going on with these mythologies than just dry and dusty ancient history. The esoteric subjects may seem irrelevant to our lives as they unfold in the modern world. I will argue, like Carl Jung in Psychology and Alchemy, that the modern mind continues to harbor a type of resonance with the symbol systems of the past.
Jung found in an analysis of the dreams of Wolfgang Pauli a plethora of alchemical symbols and motifs that were personally relevant to Pauli at the time and, as the series of dreams documented in Psychology and Alchemy shows, even helping him comprehend and assimilate important truths about that which is numinous and beyond ego limitations.
Most cultures have recognized that dreams can be messages or harbingers from that which is greater than us. Jung’s psychotherapy continued that tradition; respecting it enough to develop dream analysis into a practical therapeutic tool to guide both doctor and patient in the treatment of the pains and terrors of the mind. In the process of developing this tool Jungian studies made a unique contribution to the scientific study of dreams in their contention that some of them can be contextualized through their relationship with fairy tales, mythologies, and religious tales and symbolism systems. Of course the Native American shaman interpreting a ‘big dream’ contextualized it within the spiritual tradition he or she was familiar with as well; Jung’s insight is hardly unique.
However, his hypothesis about dream content went a step further, an important step that invites us to reassess what we think we know about how the human mind works. Jung believed that dreams reflected a detailed knowledge of intricate symbol systems and esoteric motifs far in excess of what is known by the conscious mind. Wolfgang Pauli, for example, while exposed to chemistry in his training as a world class physicist had not studied its alchemical roots in medieval manuscripts full of coffins, kings and queens, ravens and all the rest. Still, Pauli’s dream content included all these things.
I am inclined to assent to some form of this odd Jungian hypothesis. In the same way that our evolutionary development which Evo-Devo studies finds a kind of recapitulation of critical stages of life’s overall evolution in our physiology, our minds structure themselves using archetypal building blocks dimly recognizable as stories and symbol systems, motifs and plots of the great civilizations of the past. In some fashion the spirit of our ancestors lives on within us, a gift of their struggles and tears on which we build our own ever evolving understanding.
That there is an element of weirdness in the human experience of mind could be part of what peoples have tried to capture in the ideas of clairvoyance, soul travel, rebirth and reincarnation, or the gifts of the Holy Spirit. How are we to interpret the fact that people at times know things they cannot know, speak languages they cannot speak and display all kinds of similar uncanny goings on? The idiot savant and the epileptic possessed by seizures, to mention two of the more extreme examples, have always been a challenge for societies to explain. The mother that suddenly knows their child has died on the battlefield is another, less dramatic but perhaps more meaningful commonplace. Part of what we are learning as a species in our ongoing evolution of our understanding includes becoming more skillful around dealing with our mind’s, shall we call them, archaeological layers.
This collective unconscious can be understood as something as mundane as the sum total of all conscious and unconscious contents of all the minds of all sentient beings alive at this moment or something as un-mundane and remarkable as a phenomenon like the shared Aboriginal dream time. The term collective unconscious captures reasonably well a set of facts about the universally shared aspects of our minds, namely that they are rooted in our biological bodies with cognitive and emotional imperatives to survive and reproduce within a social environment in which cooperation, empathy and compassion can be found. Put bluntly: mind’s thinking seems to have form without a material basis yet as neuroscience makes clear is nonetheless in some fashion rooted in biology and biology is rooted in “matter” which in turn is rooted in quantum mechanics. This whole architecture provides numerous structural commonalities to individual human minds. These commonalities are organizing and guiding each mind’s unique expression of unique spirit, unique personalities which science understands as unique DNA expressions meeting environments, environments that simultaneously extend from the minuscule biochemical locks and keys (or vibrational harmonies) all the way through to behaviors we can recognize as the extended phenotype. It is as if we as individuals were dealing in the currency of DNA memories embodied in the evolutionary history of the biosphere as it is expressing itself here and now. Some of those memories present their information as particular cognitive and emotional contents of potentially conscious experience which carry an element of the numinous, that is, they carry an echo of the origins of being in deep time and deep space.
These may not be ideas we are familiar with from mainstream educations but they are not unreasonable nor are they inherently unscientific.
The contention I will be making for the next few essays is that there is still a mental environment of the dreaming, collective psyche reverberating with Egyptian symbols and sensitivities. This realm is touched by some alive today when they are affected by certain types of events that were first captured in a web of a meaningful story at the dawn of Western civilization.
Egypt is known for having built the largest mausoleums in history. The pyramids stand as a massive, mute testimony to our desire for immortality; they exist to provide their Pharaoh inhabitants with eternal life. Their images of an afterlife are not all that different than those that continue to play a role in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The afterlife for the Egyptians, as well as these “modern” faiths, were imagined as the holy city, and the divine garden. The pyramids were aligned with the starry sky just so and their ratios and dimensions were also just so to embody a god-like knowledge. Anywhere in our modern world where teachings about sacred geometry continue can find their roots right here. Oswald Spengler in Decline of the West points out Egyptian architecture is characterized by long, straight hallways and by an art which is fiercely two dimensional. The Western traditions still reverberate with the strength of the idea of the “straight and narrow.” While we might think this is just the way people think about spirituality, Spengler points out how different the ideas of the Taoists were. For the Taoists the image of the path or the way of spirituality was that of the meandering growths of nature. We also do not find among the Taoists the same resistance to death that characterized the great achievements of the Egyptian civilization.
Much could be made of the fact that the dawn of human history in the west reveals such an obsession with cheating death. The work of Ernest Becker as it has been developed in terror management theory is one example worth mentioning. In hundreds of psychological studies these researchers have found that being reminded of our mortality tends to influence our decision making and ethical interpretations of our experiences in a very particular way. Reminded subliminally of their mortality most people become more conservative, less empathetic towards strangers and more dogmatic about the rightness of one’s in-group and they proscribe harsher punishment for criminals. The theory is not without its critiques. On the Role of Death in Life by Solomon, Greenberg and Pyszczynski is a good source for the current state of the art concerning this theory by believers.
Another author worth mentioning in this context is Alan Harrington who wrote a most unusual book, The Immortalist. By examining the tales of myth and religion, poets and scientists his contention is that death has always been the real meaning behind our devils and hells and that the great hope our species has nurtured all these long millennia is that someday we might become immortals in fact. The book begins with one of the most radical proposals I have ever encountered: “Death is an imposition on the human race, and no longer acceptable.” The Singularity and cryogenics folks could relate. I mention it as one of those works that turns everything sideways. Such works are valuable aids in keeping cognitively agile.
As different as the works of Becker and Harrington are, they each share the idea that there is nothing more psychologically fundamental than our awareness of our own death. In this they are like the latest in a long line of thinkers which can trace their way all the way back to the society that built the pyramids and left an indelible impression on the religions and philosophies of the West ever since.
Of course there is more to ancient Egypt than these mausoleums. In 2,400 BCE the “holy family” consisted of Osiris, Isis, Horus, Set and Nephthys. This first family is said to be the offspring of Geb, the earth father and Nut, the mother of the starry sky. In the cultus that grew around the stories of this primal family numerous motifs were developed that remain important to Western religious traditions down to our own day. We will take a look at a few of those next week.