The Archetype of Apocalypse in Culture and Dreams: A Jungian Perspective

“We are living in what the Greeks called the kairos, the right moment for a metamorphosis of the gods, of the fundamental principles and symbols. This peculiarity of our time, which is certainly not of our conscious choosing is the expression of the unconscious man within us who is changing” 

(Jung, The Undiscovered Self)

“Something new is trying to enter the consciousness of modern man in order to radically transform it, sinister and uncanny though it may be, meaninglessness is like a guest who knocks at our door asking for shelter…”

                                                                                      (Wolfgang Giegerich Soul Violence) typo

Why are visions of the end of the world so prevalent in our popular culture today? And why have apocalyptic themes been replicated in so many different forms across millennia; spanning art, religion, science, philosophy and our global media environments?  Do you ever have dreams with apocalyptic themes; hurricanes, tornados, tidal waves, earthquakes, floods, bombs, planets crashing towards earth (cosmophobia)?

Such dreams or inner dramas call out for our conscious attention. They provide a window deeper into our souls, and awaken awareness of the archetypal realm. Mythological themes and dream images, as well as real outward events amplify and express pieces of our human experience both personally and collectively. The theme of the Apocalypse is not a modern construct but rather is both ancient and universal. It reaches out and touches all of us. Bidden or unbidden, it presents itself in our human condition in the form of ecological dangers, wars, disease and starvation. Such themes may haunt us while we sleep as we plunge deeper into the unconscious often hoping to put the stresses of the day behind us.

As a Jungian analyst, one is often privileged in hearing the sound of apocalyptic murmurings coming from the unconscious via dream material.  Apocalyptic dreams may present when an individual is struggling to make necessary psychological changes in their lives, both inner and outer.  Strangely and surprisingly, they may signify healing efforts when the psyche is trying to assimilate trauma.  So while apocalyptic material from the unconscious may often feel scary and unwanted, it brings with it a message that contains the potential for transformation. This is quite a different perspective from a pessimistic catastrophic “end of the world” or doomsday outlook.

                       What is the meaning of the archetype of apocalypse?

Seen through a Jungian lens, the concept of the apocalypse is an archetypal construct.  An archetype is a pattern, a kind of primordial psychic ordering of images. Archetypes have a collective or generalized quality and contain dynamic energy. When archetypal energy is evoked or activated in the world, it is often autonomous.  Archetypes reveal themselves through experience and are expressed through images.  As Jung informs us, archetypes are spontaneous phenomena.  Archetypes possess their own purposefulness as both subject and object, they are universal images.

In general the term apocalypse means revelation. Apokalpsis is a Greek word with the root kalypto meaning to cover or to hide, the prefix is the preposition apo which means away from. Apokalypsis means to take the covering away from – perhaps from what has been secret, revealing what has been invisible.  From this perspective, we can consider that apocalyptic events and or psychic material may be revealing some new piece of our humanity be it personal or collective. Something new may be trying to emerge.

Jungian analyst Edward Edinger in his book Archetype of the Apocalypse, speculates that apocalyptic imagery can signify disaster only if the ego is alienated from or antagonistic towards the realities that the Self is bringing this material into consciousness.  Hence, one interpretation is that when our egos are unable or unwilling to embrace the messages coming from the guiding forces of the Self, the result can express itself symbolically in the form of apocalyptic end of world imagery.

The Self according to Jung is first an archetype and it represents the archetype of wholeness, a centerpoint of the psyche. The Self as seen through a Jungian lens has an ordering principle, and a transpersonal power that transcends the ego. It may be symbolized through images of the circle or mandala.  A recent popular film Melancholia by Lars Von Trier presents us with themes that may echo what both Jung and Edinger are telling us. Films can be considered a type of collective associative dreaming.

                    What role does a sense of meaning play in our lives?

Jung believed that man could not survive without a sense of meaningfulness about our lives. His psychology is essentially about finding meaning to address the alarm and anxiety he felt modern humanity was facing. Perhaps we are living in a time when the sense of the world hanging on a thin thread is piercing into our consciousness.  Jung believed in the redemptive role that we as humans play with the universe. In essence, when we change ourselves, we change the world.

The void in cosmic meaning is the deepest reason but not the only reason why the apocalypse meme is replicating around the world. Removed from nature and the cosmos, humans seem to possess an existential and insatiable thirst for visions of doom…  (Barry Vaker, The End of the World Again)

As we hopefully choose to consciously attend to the apocalyptic musings in our world both inner and outer, we hold in our hands the potential to effect change and transformation both personally and collectively. If we turn our attention away due to fear, anxiety, distrust and disinterest, we may be aligning with destructive anti-life forces rather than transformational forces. Destruction and transformation sit side by side. Our attitude and our unflinching awareness to both face uncertainty and to seek meaning may hold a key to how it all turns out.


Ronnie Landau, MA is a certified Jungian Psychoanalyst and is a senior training analyst with the Inter-Regional Society of Jungian Analysts and the Philadelphia Association of Jungian Analysts where she received her certification. She is the past President of PAJA and past Director of Training. She is also the past Secretary on the Executive Board of the Inter-Regional Society of Jungian Analysts. Ms. Landau has taught and lectured on dream theory throughout the United States. She has also taught Transference-Countertransference dynamics in analysis throughout the US as well as Zurich, Switzerland along with “The Holocaust: Through a Jungian Perspective.” She is the author of The Queen of Sheba and Her Hairy Legs, The Exile and Redemption of the Erotic Feminine in Western Monotheism and Jungian Process.

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