To explore Jung’s theory of the unconscious I’m going to look at a very ancient symbol, that of the horned or antlered human. This symbol has been expressed by many cultures across the world – we find it in Africa, Asia and Europe in images dating from the very earliest periods of human history. If any symbol could be deemed mythological in nature, as arising from the depths of the human imagination, it is surely this one. One of the most famous examples of this symbol is found on the Gundestrup Cauldron, made during the La Tene period of Celtic art. This remarkable and ancient relic contains panels that depict many mythological scenes, figures and narratives.
The particular symbol I’m going to look at is on an inside facing panel, called interior plate A.
The central figure on this panel is of course the male figure with antlers, sitting down holding a snake in one hand and what’s known as a torc in the other. This is a very important symbol for us when we look at the First Branch of the Mabinogi in particular, and one I look at in more detail in the audio course. For the time being I’m going to focus on the figure itself. So forget about the animals surrounding him and what he’s holding in his hands and lets just look at the antlered figure as he is.
Scholars have interpreted this figure as being a representation of an old Celtic god called Cernunnos, which translates as the ‘horned one’. Its rather obvious why he’s called that, but this also gives us a clue as to what potentially conflicting elements have been harmonised in this symbolic figure. If this mythic symbol is an expression of the unconscious, according to Jung we should be able to perceive within it some conflicting influences that have been brought together in a more or less stable form.
The two potentially conflicting influences I’m referring to are of course the animal and the human. Cernunnos contains both aspects, and is in many ways a blending of the two. Its not that the Cernunnos figure itself is in anyway conflicted, as this is a balanced image containing a harmonious blend of both elements. Yet its not within our normal experience of things to expect such a form: how can a man be both human and animal at the same time? This is the paradox at the heart of this image that disturbs the normal order of things, and does so in a simple yet very eloquent way. But why would these two aspects necessarily be in conflict?
Perhaps one of the simplest interpretations is that the Cernunnos figure represents a harmonising of the civil and wild aspects of human society. Civility is often expressed in a code of conduct that has evolved across many generations, developing into customs and taboos, influencing all spheres of human interaction including religion, art and politics. Fundamental to the idea of a code of conduct is the concept of self control, that the individual is able to bend his or her will to abide by the socially proscribed forms of behaviour.
This is in contrast to wild, unbounded forms of behaviour where the individual does not abide by a code of conduct. Instead it is an essential, visceral and ultimately liberated state that has its own power, attractions and downfalls. Its the state of instinctive urges and reactions, such as experienced in love-making, hunting or fighting. It is the non-rational state of the animal, where behaviour is instinctively attuned to experience.
The Cernunnos figure, if we treat it purely as a symbol in the Jungian sense, could be interpreted as harmonising these two potentially conflicting attitudes. If the conflicting aspects of civility and wildness were brought into harmony in this symbol, we could conclude that Celtic culture of the time had evolved to embrace both aspects of human life as one experience. The great popularity of the horned god symbol could suggest that balancing these two aspects of the self was a theme in Celtic art and religion, a synthesis expressing the ideal state of the human animal.
But this hypothesis depends upon reducing two ultimately complex aspects of life into simple conflicting opposites, and although this is an attractive interpretation, it is dependent upon abstracted simplifications that are inevitably modern in tone. What we understand to be concepts of civility and wildness will inevitably differ to what was the actual lived experience of historical Celts.
Using the idea of paradox as a starting point for the interpretation of the Cernunnos symbol can throw up many perspectives, of which the wild civility paradox is but one. For example, as a Jungian symbol it could also be a harmonising of the conflicting behaviours of killing an animal and yet being in reverence of it. Its easy to see how modern scholars have interpreted the images on the Gundestrup cauldron as having religious connotations; archaeological evidence shows that Cernunnos was worshiped as a deity in Celtic and Romano-Celtic shrines all across Europe.
In view of this religious significance, we can suggest other possible conflicts that have been brought into balance in the Cernunnos symbol.
Hunting would have been an important part of life for the Celtic tribes, and as in many other parts of the world the hunt developed a spiritual significance. We find remnants of the sacred nature of the hunt in surviving European folklore, something covered in detail in the audio course. But in its basic form, this attitude to hunting clearly contains a fundamental paradox.
As we find on inside panel A of the Gundestrup cauldron, the stag, the dominant male deer, was venerated by the Celts. The depiction and positioning of the stag next to Cernunnos gives us many clues as to what was involved in this veneration.
Traditionally, its thought that you can tell a stag’s age by how many tines it has on its antlers. If we count the tines on one of Cernunnos’ antlers we find that he has 6 tines, but the stag to his left has 7, suggesting that the stag is Cernunnos’ elder. We also see that the stag appears to be speaking into Cernunnos’ ear. The elder stag is communicating something to the younger Cernunnos, perhaps giving him wisdom, special knowledge or power. This would also imply that the stag is Cernunnos’ ancestor. This sets the stag up as a figure of veneration: an ancestor, an elder who passes on his wisdom to his descendants.
In venerating Cernunnos, the Celts venerated their relationship with the sacred stag, and perhaps even saw themselves at least partly as stag people. The Celtic tribes of Europe would have had a close relationship with the deer herds that populated the region, their communities having either absorbed or evolved out of the hunter-gatherer culture of the earlier neolithic. The Cernunnos figure represents a tradition that was ancient in its own day.
Cave Painting 17,000 BC; from the Lascaux cave complex
The long relationship between human and deer would have been founded upon the hunting and killing of deer for food and materials, and as with many other such societies, the European predecessors of the Celts would have long come to appreciate their reliance upon such a valuable source of food, clothing and tools. The hunting of deer would have ensured the survival of neolithic families and clans, particularly in hard times, during long winters or when wild crops failed. In many ways the deer could have been considered a symbolic source of life for the tribes: the people lived because the deer gave them life. They were children of the stag in more ways than one.
This sets up a very complex relationship. These early tribes would have been killing that which they also venerated, setting up the initially conflicting influences that we find resolved in the Cernunnos figure. In the Jungian sense at least, Cernunnos stands as a bridge between the human and animal worlds, defining the terms of that relationship and expressing the ultimate paradox that life gives to life through the medium of death.
But once again we must be careful not to assume this theory exhausts all potential meaning. The religious significance of the Cernunnos figure could be said to transcend such a reductive theory, particularly as the Celts very likely considered him a living god as opposed to the unconscious synthesis of powerfully conflicting experiences. Our reasoning doesn’t necessarily reflect historical reality, although it can suggest new avenues of research that could be fruitful.
The Swastika Paradox
Now that we have a working understanding of how a symbol can embody a paradox while maintaining a stable appearance, lets go back and take a brief look at the swastika once again. We’ve seen how this symbol can be interpreted within different contexts, both marga and deshi, but what of the symbol itself? As a basic symbolic image, can we apply the term paradox in an attempt to interpret this very simple image?
One of the core elements of the swastika is the suggestion of rotation, of movement. The right-angle arms suggesting trailing strands drawn out from a turning centre. In that very simple form we could interpret two contrasting conditions, the rotating movement of the arms juxtaposed against the still centre, the axis of the form itself. Like all circle and cross devices the swastika contains both movement and stillness at the same time, and in that way at least can be seen to embody a paradox.
All myths and symbols arise initially in peoples imaginations, and if they are artists they will express them in creative terms more or less understandable to those around them. All of human imaginative life is inherently influenced by the unconscious, that aspect of the psyche that’s outside of our awareness, containing such things as instincts and automatic responses. Many psychologists believe the imagination acts as a medium between the conscious and unconscious mind, and as a result the art we create often gives us glimpses of our deeper, instinctive selves. Our creative urges move in response to these unseen currents of our own psychology.
As a theory* the unconscious was developed by the early psychologists of the 19th and 20th centuries, a group largely identified with Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, although in truth there were many other theorists involved. Through their research, Freud, Jung and many others came to perceive that the unconscious could be understood in mythological terms, although by today some researchers argue that the mythological description of the unconscious could be a convenient projection as opposed to a description of its nature. One way in which the unconscious appears to expresses itself is through primordial human figures and story-like narratives that gravitate around fundamental human experiences such as love, power, cunning, birth, death and self-knowledge. Jung called these deep, unconscious patterns archetypes, and identified some of them, such as the mother, the trickster and the wise old man. Its difficult to say how universal these archetypes are, but its likely that within a given culture there are basic, inherited mythological structures that condition cultural expression.
For example, the tidal movements of the mass media, the memes and trends, fashions and fads can all be interpreted as following the pull of archetypal figures and narratives. To this day, just like countless generations before us, we are fascinated by heroes and villains, the trickery and intrigue of politics and power, the magic of science, religion and art, the otherness and familiarity of nature. These mythological figures and narratives can all be traced back to shared, deep mythical structures. In this way, myths are one of the sources of culture and language, the basic stuff of meaning.
Artists who have a particular sensitivity to these shared myths will often create art that has a significant resonance within their own cultures. The fashion world exemplifies this process better than most aspects of modern culture, with designers reinterpreting old styles and garments within new contexts, finding what is most relevant to the most people. It could be argued that all art and culture has developed as an inherent aspect of our evolution, with the most successful expressions of collective myth being the most enduring and at the same time the most adaptable. Those myths and symbols that manage to retain their influence as they change contexts will surely last longer than those that do not. As reflected in modern consumerism, there is great value in being able to create and express symbols endorsed by popular opinion for successive turns of the cultural wheel. This is exemplified by the modern practice of branding that strives to perpetuate the popularity of a single iconic image for an extended period of time. These modern symbols, although not explicitly set in a mythological context, inevitably draw on the mythic substratum of a culture. Even though they have replaced older mythic symbols, they still exert a similar kind of power and influence.
Its not difficult to find in the concept of an archetype a rational explanation for gods and their powers. Many scholars have explored the idea that myths, even those expressed in a medieval form such as the Four Branches, were originally tales about gods. But it must be born in mind that the modern conception of gods and supernatural agency, particularly in the atheistic cultures of the West, may very well be far removed from how these things were experienced by people in the past. The well established practice of rationalism in modern academia necessarily separates gods and divine powers out from the individual so as to reveal them as cultural fabrications; once they have been separated out as such they naturally dissolve to the touch, converted into nothing more than words and ideas. But to experience such things as core elements of one’s self, as people in the past may have, means these gods could not be separated out from the individual in any meaningful way. We must therefore bare in mind that when we reduce ancient gods and their powers to rational concepts such as the archetype, we don’t automatically discount the power of belief in the creation of culture, for that would skew our own understanding of the historic past regardless of our own position on such things.
What symbols say.
But what exactly is a symbol in this sense? Its impossible to know what the unconscious actually contains; we can’t open up the brain and peer into it as we would a loft in a house. But we can guess at its nature by paying attention to how it influences the conscious mind. By watching the ripples on the surface we can make guesses at how the currents deep bellow are moving. By studying the symbolic images that rise up into conscious awareness, Jung believed that we could interpret the movements of the unconscious. This led him to perceive that one of the basic qualities of the unconscious is its continual attempt to redress psychological balance. He said:
The unconscious, [is] the neutral region of the psyche where everything that is divided and antagonistic in consciousness flows together into groupings and configurations. These, when raised to the light of consciousness, reveal a nature that exhibits the constituents of one side as much as the other; they nevertheless belong to neither but occupy an independent middle position.
(Carl Jung, Psychological Types, p.113)
Jung saw the unconscious as the place where the psyche attempts to regulate the different influences that flow into it. It brings conflicting elements together into what he called groupings and configurations that in turn are expressed in the conscious mind as symbols: images that contain a blending of the original influences. If this theory is correct, then when such symbols are expressed consciously, we should be able to see in them traces of those initially conflicting influences, but presented in a more or less stable state. I’ll explore this idea in the next post.
*It must also be stressed that the theory of the unconscious is by no means uncontroversial: many current researchers tend to remodel the notion of non-conscious processes according to recent developments in neurological science. But this new context of understanding doesn’t change the fact that regardless of their biological correlations and influences, non-conscious phenomena can still be interpreted on both individual and communal levels in terms of mythology.
This autumn I’ll be making available a Welsh Mythology home study audio course which you will be able to download from this website. In preparation I’ve put together this series of blog posts that sets out some useful approaches to interpreting mythological symbols. I’ll be posting every few weeks and please feel free to ask any questions or leave comments bellow.
In keeping with the ancient bardic practice of working in threes, this series of posts defines three aspects of a symbol; these are: depth, paradox and potential. There are many other terms and definitions that we could use, but these three can be useful as we begin to interpret a symbol.
Depth, a spatial metaphor
It can be said that a symbol has depth, but what exactly does that mean? This is a spatial metaphor describing a particular characteristic of symbols: they commonly have a surface, literal meaning that points to the deeper, symbolic meaning. For example, the image of Father Christmas is on the surface just that, an image of a merry looking, bearded man in a red costume.
But the image of Father Christmas is also a symbol expressing all those things associated with Christmas time: giving and receiving gifts; children playing; roast turkey dinners. If we separate some of these associations out we find that they in turn contain further associations. For example, the image of children playing taken alone evokes other connotations such as child-hood, happiness, family.
Here the surface image has a literal meaning that points to further, deeper meanings.
Transcendent and Particular
As well as having a depth of meaningful associations, a symbol can be described in terms of another kind of depth that, from the individual’s perspective at least, appears to transcend their cultural associations. On the one hand there are particular features that refer to the regional, ethnic or personal aspects of a symbol, and on the other hand the transcendent associations that refer to the more profound, universal ideas implied, more often than not linked to those ideas that appear to the individual to be too general to be contained by the conceptual bounds of their specific culture. Rightly or wrongly, transcendent interpretations are aplied by an individual to the whole of humanity, the universe and everything.
In other words, symbols can appear to point past themselves to meanings that are not always explicitly obvious in their surface form. Again, the basic metaphor here is that of depth. The symbol itself inhabits a foreground, beyond which lies a mid ground containing interpretations that correspond to personal and communal culture; beyond that there is a further space, where a symbol appears to point past itself to interpretations that seek to transcend those personal or regional definitions.
I’m beginning a new online course this April called The Taliesin Tradition. It covers almost 1500 years of material, from the earliest Welsh poetry by the historic Taliesin, through to the mythic Taliesin and the poems attributed to him in The Book of Taliesin. We will track the development of the Taliesin myth and how it was used by the medieval bards to inform their own myth making. It will also touch briefly on the Taliesin tradition today and its presence in modern culture.
Its a similar format to the Symbolic Keys, only that I’ve extended the length of the sessions to 2 hours. For more information please visit the course page.
I’m also running a short 4 week version of the course in Tre’r Ddol (next door to Tre Taliesin) and Machynlleth. The course begins March 20th in Machynlleth and March 25th in Tre’r Ddol. Please see the fliers bellow for details:
A slightly extended version of the Symbolic Keys online course will also run beginning Sunday April 20th.
This audio clip is from a Symbolic Keys Skype session alongside an excerpt from the course notes. It covers an initial interpretation of the Cernunos ‘Lord of Animals’ symbol from the Gundestrup Cauldron. This older Celtic symbol is a forerunner to some of the symbols found in the Mabinogi.
When trying to interpret myths and their symbols we usually find ourselves doing so at some distance from the culture that gave birth to them. Surviving texts have very often been long separated from their original social contexts, orphans of a long dead mother tongue. With such a lack of contextual information, often our only guide is our own intuition.
When we do come across motifs and symbols we don’t understand, they don’t necessarily stay meaningless for very long. Our minds are naturally stimulated into interpreting what we see, and ascribing meaning is an instinctive human response. If we stare at it for long enough, a particular symbol will always inevitably slip into one meaningful context or another, be it a simple day dream or a full blown giant leap of understanding. That’s because each one of us carries around inside ourselves a deep pool of reflection from within which we will invariably draw a Rorschach meaning.
Clearly, a purely personal interpretation of a mythological symbol won’t always tell us much about the source culture that gave birth to it, especially if we are greatly removed from that culture. Its reasonable to look for comparators in such cases, similar symbols either from within the source culture itself, or if that’s not available to us then symbols from other similar cultures.
But even these comparisons tend to be selective readings, where we find ourselves inevitably making quite subjective assumptions that we can mistake for objective comparisons. Although great care needs to be taken when interpreting such elusive things as myths and their symbols, it is far better if we can admit to our more subjective responses before we assume them to be common facts. Only after doing so will we be able to see our subjective responses clearly enough to separate them from the actual material itself.
But after separating them out, we should neither neglect to consider these shadowy, internal responses. Interpretation of mythological and symbolic material is sometimes automatic and instinctive; that has some value if handled the right way. If we are correct in regarding at least some myths as collective works of great art, dense and stratified texts with layers of accumulated and condensed meanings, attempting to grasp them without using our own creative intellect would seem to be missing the point.
A useful approach in trying to understand a myth and its symbols is to look at the situation in which they arose. But making assumptions about a myth by re-creating its social context isn’t as straight forward as it sounds, and generally its impossible to do so without leaning somewhat on our own innate common sense regarding what a symbol can and cannot do, what it is and what it isn’t. It is a mistake to think that any old legend can simply be analyzed like an antique box, prodded and tinkered with until it finally pops open to reveal its hidden curiosities, all without any creative engagement by the researchers themselves.
If this is the best that can be done, it will be very difficult to really get to grips with the material: an overly objective, classificatory investigation is usually doomed to be quite boring. To get to grips with the material we need to let it sink in and stir up our own subjective responses. Either we approach myths and their symbols as active, engaging, stimulating cultural artifacts or we simply classify their perceived forms and leave it at that.
A mythological symbol is probably more akin to a living animal than a dead construct, yet there is a danger of assuming that symbols and myths have almost machine-like workings. That is an unfortunate and pervasive influence of some of the natural sciences: depicting the human body as a mechanical thing does not mean that everything it creates, even its ideas, are necessarily mechanical constructs. That is a very difficult position to unknowingly start from if you wish to investigate what is essentially the subjective, generationally condensed and often instinctively created myths of a whole culture of sophisticated, conscious animals.
As well as holding on to the rational, more objective techniques of study that we have refined over the millennia, its important to remember that the interpretation of myth and symbol can require more art than science: a myth, like any work of art, can only ever truly be grasped by the creative imagination. The tendency to narrow the concepts of myth and symbol to simple mechanics of meaning needs to be avoided. Just because a word has a set dictionary definition, does not imply that all vessels of meaning, including symbols, allegories and metaphors have similarly two-dimensional definitions.
Its far too simplistic to see symbol and defined meaning as two sides of the same straight-forward equation. The Saussurean concept is a useful spring-board for developing ideas about language, but symbols tend to be more complex than simple signs pointing to clearly defined signified counterparts. Language – just like myth and symbol – is not a binary code. A complex, long lived symbol will give birth to multiple meanings, and will sometimes evolve beyond its more superficial cultural boundaries. As a result, very often comparative mythology can only ever be a guideline; it may even only serve as a creative primer for a more direct, intuitive interpretation.
Taking an in-depth look at what any mythological symbol means is far more complex than the closed sign / signified duality. A myth and its embedded symbols are quite often multifaceted, containing many dimensions of meaning at the same instant, with significances from the personal to the collective and encompassing much of what lies in between. All of these dimensions need to be brought into view if we are ever to succeed in interpreting a symbol honestly, and come close to discerning some of its history and development.