Skip to content

From the Notebooks

While returning to Europe with Sigmund Freud from a conference in the United States in 1909, Carl Jung had the most-famous nocturnal dream of the twentieth century. He dreamed he was in a medieval house. He went down into a vaulted Gothic room, then into the house's cellar, which he thought was the bottom. But he peeped into a hole in the floor, and saw worn and dusty stairs leading further down, which he followed. He came into another cellar, an ancient structure, perhaps Roman. He peeped into a hole in the floor of that room, and saw another cellar, which was filled with prehistoric pottery, bones, and skulls. He thought he had made a great discovery, but then he woke up.

From this dream sprang his theory of the collective unconscious.

According to Jung's theory of the collective unconscious, creedal images slowly develop within a society that are unconscious (unaware and habitual) and collective (common to the group sharing the creed). Hence the term, “collective unconscious.” In addition to the collective unconscious, each person has his own personal unconscious images, which form in a person depending on his experiences in life.

From the theory of the collective unconscious, Jung formed his theory of archetypes. According to Jung, the images that gather in the unconscious–both personal images and images that are shared with others as part of the collective unconscious–are called archetypes. The archetypes are the first cause, the source of truth for each individual, the points of reference by which a person charts his life and makes his fundamental decisions about his existence.

Each individual charts his life by the archetypes as the truths they embody are naturally released from “the shadow”–the vault in which the archetypes are stored. The archetypes are released from the shadow through dreams or they are expressed in the form of myths. The role of myths in a healthy society was crucial to Jung. According to Jung, each society develops a set of myths from the collective unconscious–a common set of myths derive from the archetypes shared by the members of society. These myths, because they are based on the archetypes, the source of truth, are crucial to society because they give its members a measure of truth by which to conduct their lives. If the myths no longer match the archetypal content, the myths become moribund, useless. And if they are persistently respected, the moribund myths can cause neurosis because the thwarted release of archetypal myths from the shadow is the cause of neurosis.