Mythological Dreams


According to Jung, the unconscious spontaneously produces images that are mythological in nature, meaning that they are symbolic, universal, and address the nature of the cosmos, and our place in it. Mythologems, or mythological motifs, are a kind of pre-existing psychic natural resource, present at least in potential in the deep layers of the psyche of every person. These mythological images are the raw materials from which the grand narratives that we know of as myth are formed.

Myths are products of the unconscious and reveal its workings. Jung wrote that “myths are original revelations of the preconscious psyche, involuntary statements about unconscious psychic happenings.”[i] Jung believed that myths and dreams spring from a common source – that they both draw from to the same aquifer of universal images. “The whole world of myth of fable is an outgrowth of unconscious fantasy just like the dream.”[ii] Jung believed that the motifs found in dreams and myths were so similar that they were nearly identical.

Dreams, being statements of the unconscious, play no small part in the therapy….The indubitable occurrence of archetypal motifs in dreams make a thorough knowledge of the spiritual history of man indispensable for anyone seriously attempting to understand the real meaning of dreams. The likeness between certain dream motifs and mythologems is so striking that they may be regarded not merely as similar but even identical. This recognition not only raises the dream to a higher level and places it in the wider context of the mythologem, but, at the same time, the problems posed by mythology are brought into connection with the psychic life of the individual.[iii]

Joseph Campbell adds some nuance to Jung’s assertion that myth and dream originate from the same source. He contends that myths are produced with the help of consciousness, and contain not merely upwelling of instinctual wisdom, but the distillation of generations of lived knowledge.

If we are to grasp the full value of the materials, we must note that myths are not exactly comparable to dream. Their figures originate from the same sources – the unconscious wells of fantasy – and their grammar is the same, but they are not the spontaneous products of sleep. On the contrary, their patterns serve as a powerful picture language for the communication of traditional wisdom. This is true already of the so-called primitive folk mythologies. The trance-susceptible shaman and the initiated antelope-priest are not unsophisticated in the wisdom of the world, not unskilled in the principles of communication by analogy. The metaphors by which they live, and through which they operate, have been brooded upon, searched, and discussed for centuries – even millenniums; they have served whole societies, furthermore, as the mainstays of thought and life. The culture patterns have been shaped to them. The youth have been educated, and the aged rendered wise, through the study, experience, and understanding of their effective initiatory forms. For they touch and actually bring into play the vital energies of the whole human psyche. They link the unconscious to the fields of practical action.[iv]

The grand mythic narratives, therefore, have been forged by culture. Myths tell us how to live and contain the distilled wisdom of the ancestors. Mythological stories, then, always tell us something important about the collective. They instruct the individual about how he or she ought to orient toward the wider culture. It may be that, at decisive moments in personal individuation, our individual choices intersect with larger collective currents. At these times, our personal story becomes part of the larger myth unfolding in the life of society around us. It is likely that mythological dreams appear at just such junctures.

As Jung points out, our dreams often include images that could have come from myths or fairy tales. There are big symbols such as snakes or trees, and these are accompanied by big feelings. Or our dreams have supernatural creatures or occurrences. Animals talk. There are witches or vampires. Then we know we are in the realm of the mythic. When mythological dreams appear, it may be that these are there to link our personal story to collective events, to place our personal drama decisively in a historical context. If we are indeed connected to the entirety of human experience through the underground rhizome of the collective unconscious, and influence flows both ways, then receiving a dream from this level of the psyche alerts us that we are in the flow of a collective psychic happening.

Consider the following dream:

It was a sunny day, and I was carrying a little girl dressed in a long white gown to be baptized. The path to the church led up a steep hill. But I was holding the child safely and securely in my arms. All of a sudden, I found myself at the brink of a crevasse. I had just enough time to set the child down on the other side before I plunged into the abyss.[v]

The image of the little girl alerts us that we are potentially in mythological territory. The child is a profound symbol of futurity, of that which is both fragile and yet destined to survive us. Jung says that the child is a symbol that new thing that appears spontaneously as a result of the union of opposites just at that time when we feel most stuck and desolate.

The “child” is born out of the womb of the unconscious, begotten out of the depths of human nature, or rather out of living Nature herself. It is a personification of vital forces quite outside the limited range of our conscious mind; of ways and possibilities of which our one-sided conscious mind knows nothing; a wholeness which embraces the very depths of Nature. It represents the strongest, the most ineluctable urge in every being, namely the urge to realize itself.[vi]

The transpersonal content symbolized by the little girl is being carried by the dream ego toward a ritual experience of rebirth and consecration. The dream is reassuring that this content will survive beyond the destruction of the conscious personality. As a symbol, the child can stand for that which was there before consciousness, and that which will remain after consciousness ceases to be.

The child…is thus both beginning and end, an initial and a terminal creature. The initial creature existed before man wan, and the terminal creature will be when man is not. Psychologically speaking, this means that the “child” symbolizes the pre-conscious and the post-conscious essence of man. His pre-conscious essence is the unconscious state of earliest childhood; his post-conscious essence is an anticipation by analogy of life after death.[vii]

Just as our actual children will survive us and go on to carry a part of our essence into the infinite future, the symbolic child carries transpersonal values into the future beyond our personal, temporally limited engagement with them. (The image of the child is used to suggest just such a content at the end of the film 2001 A Space Odyssey.)


In fact, this dream was dreamt by Sophie Scholl on the night before her execution. According to the biography written by her sister, Scholl interpreted the dream to her cell mate thus:

“The child represents our idea, which will triumph in spite of all obstacles. We are allowed to be its trailblazers, but we must die before it is realized.”[viii]

Such a dream reveals to us the mythic substrate on which our personal drama unfolds. Mythological dreams may also perhaps reflect the currents of history and world events which flow beneath us at all times, but which we may not be capable of detecting without the benefit of hindsight.

Mythological dreams are usually Big Dreams, dreams that affect us powerfully, and stay with us for years. Mythological dreams encourage us to fulfill our personal destiny, so that we can take up our unique role in the life of the collective. They seem to appear at nodal points in our life, often prefiguring decisive moments when we face a choice whether to move in the direction of our mysteriously pre-ordained unfolding.

[i] “The Psychology of the Child Archetype,” The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, CW 9i, par. 261.
[ii] “Principles of Practical Psychotherapy,” The Practice of Psychotherapy, CW 16, par. 17.
[iii] “Foreword to White’s ‘God and the Unconscious,’” Psychology and Religion: West and East, CW 11, par. 450.
[iv] Jospeh Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, pp. 256-257.
[v] Beradt, C. (1968). The Third Reich of dreams. With an essay by Bruno Bettelheim. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, pp. 107-108.
[vi] “The Psychology of the Child Archetype,” The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, CW 9i, par. 289.
[vii] “The Psychology of the Child Archetype,” The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, CW 9i, par. 299.
[viii] Beradt, C. (1968). The Third Reich of dreams. With an essay by Bruno Bettelheim. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, p. 108.


Lisa Marchiano, LCSW is a certified Jungian analyst in private practice in Philadelphia. She blogs at and is the co-creator of This Jungian Life podcast. She can be reached through



What Goes on Down Below: The Collective Unconscious

I first started reading Jung in a New York library on East 79th Street back when library stacks were open. My library visits in those long-ago years were surreptitious affairs: a half hour stolen between work and home, or a weekend hour nicked from grocery shopping and kids. I felt like I was sneaking into an alchemist’s laboratory, tantalized by important truths I couldn’t fully understand. Although it eluded me, the concept of the collective—or objective—unconscious was particularly fascinating.

Dr. Seuss, In McElligot’s Pool, brings this concept charmingly closer to both understanding and experience.  A young boy, Marco, fishes in a small—very small—pool. A farmer looks on and says,

Young man…
You’re sort of a fool!
You’ll never catch fish
In McElligot’s Pool!
The pool is too small.
And, you might as well know it,
When people have junk
Here’s the place that they throw it.
You might catch a boot
Or you might catch a can.
You might catch a bottle,
But listen, young man…
If you sat fifty years
With your worms and your wishes,
You’d grow a long beard
Long before you’d catch fishes!

Hmm…answered Marco,
It may be you’re right.
I’ve been here three hours
Without one single bite,
There might be no fish…
But again,
Well, there might!
‘Cause you never can tell
What goes on down below!
This pool might be bigger
Than you or I know!

This MIGHT be a pool, like I’ve read of in books,
Connected to one of those underground brooks!
An underground river that starts here and flows
Right under the pasture! And then…well, who knows?
….This might be a river,
Now mightn’t it be,

Our nascent depth psychologist, unlike the ego-bound farmer who thinks he knows what’s what, intuits a lot more going on underground. His little pool, like the psyche, is connected to a river, and the river flows to the sea. Furthermore, these waters are full of life, imaged as ever more fantastical fish–a delightful illustration of the collective unconscious as a wellspring of creative life. For Marco, the oceanic unconscious offers huge possibilities indeed:

I’ll catch whales!
Yes, a whole herd of whales!
All spouting their spouts
And all thrashing their tails!

He concludes:

Oh, the sea is so full of a number of fish,
If a fellow is patient, he might get his wish!
And that’s why I think
That I’m not such a fool
When I sit here and fish
In McElligot’s Pool!

Marco was right, though the treasures of the psychic deeps are even more wonder-full than the fish he so exuberantly imagines. Our individual psyches are connected to one another in a mysterious subterranean way, an idea that set Jung apart from other psychologies (along with his closely related theory of archetypes).

Like Marco, we can go fishing, a fitting image for psychotherapy. The process often starts with an exploration of the seemingly unpromising junk-filled pool of the personal unconscious. These are experiences we’ve repressed, suppressed, or simply forgotten–the dismaying feelings and memories represented by the old boots and tin cans of McElligot’s pool, close enough to the surface of consciousness to be readily hooked. But ego’s fishing line of intention also reaches deeper, and can be counted on to catch ideas, images and inspiration, especially through dreams.

Beneath the personal unconscious lies a level of the unconscious connected to group and regional history, represented by the underground brook. It is evidenced in religious and cultural traditions established over generations and absorbed by individuals. The symbolic life of groups is expressed in deeply felt resonance to particular rituals, holidays, or music, a collective level of psyche we experience as part of our identity: Japanese, Jewish, or a jazz fan with New Orleans roots.
Marco’s underground river, like psyche, eventually flows to the sea, symbolic of a deep and mysterious level of the unconscious common to all humankind. Jung said, “Just as the human body shows a common anatomy over and above all racial differences, so, too the human psyche possesses a common substratum transcending all differences in culture and consciousness. I have called this substratum the collective unconscious.” Or as Marco puts it,

You never can tell what goes on down below!
This pool might be bigger than you or I know!

Jung theorized the collective unconscious from his dreams and cross-cultural studies of myth, fairy tales, and symbols. He discovered universal human patterns that appeared, with variations, worldwide. We recognize the king, the crone and the quest, for example, because these motifs live in us with all their pitfalls and promise. They are the common psychic patterns, analogous to DNA, that define what it is to be human.

“The collective unconscious contains the whole spiritual heritage of mankind’s evolution, born anew in the brain structure of every individual.” It connects us to knowing beyond our individual selves, and compensates creatively for the limitations of consciousness. Dr. Seuss lets children and those who read to them know through Marco about the collective unconscious. Its life is abundant, encouraging us to look ahead toward growth and wholeness.

NOTE: I thank Jungian Analyst Lisa Marchiano for the idea of McElligot’s Pool as an image of the collective unconscious, and for her generosity in allowing me to use it.


Deborah Stewart is a certified Jungian Analyst living in Cape Cod. She is a co-creator of the podcast This Jungian Life and a faculty member of the Philadelphia Jung Institute. She can be reached through her website at

When Politics Invades the Personal: Towards a New Mandate for Psychoanalysis in the Trump Era

             attic beams

 James arrives at his session, bleary-eyed, having stayed up very late to hear the results of the 2016 presidential election. He doesn’t speak, but instead begins playing a recording of Judy Collins singing. As the song ends, he quietly repeats the refrain:

The weight of the world, too heavy to lift
So much to lose, so much to miss
It doesn’t seem fair that an innocent boy
Should have to carry the weight of the world

He says, “I am a seventy-year-old man, and feel like an innocent boy totally unprepared to handle the weight that the world now thrusts on my shoulders.” After a very long pause he continues, “Trump has said that he would demand that all Muslims be registered, citing as precedent the internment of Japanese Americans, both citizens and aliens, for national security, or rather” — James scoffs — “because of national hysteria and prejudice.”

His words take on the haunting rhythm of the song he has just played, as he yearns for a time when there can be room for diversity. James has begun to define a new anxiety. It has penetrated his heart and now penetrates the therapeutic space. He has the renewed sense that who he is (who anyone is) no longer has value.

Annick, another patient who is a writer, also feels a new kind of anxiety.  She reports that Trump has penetrated her dream life, and therefore infiltrated her psyche and her creativity. This “master of surprises,” and “internal terrorist” appears in her dream as an “evil magician, sly and catalytic.” In one dream, she is working on the final stages of writing an essay, and waiting for an important “package of words” to arrive. Rather than getting the package via FedEx, as she was expecting, Trump intervenes — arrayed in a colorful robe like a modern-day Merlin. He holds her package hostage and transforms it from a catalyst for her imagination into a briefcase of burdensome and tedious paper work that will keep her from completing her essay, consigning her to years of endless and “dogged slogging.”

Both James and Annick’s experiences of despair reflect their deepest terrors — especially their fear of losing their capacity to express themselves fully and realize their aspirations. But their stories — along with those of many more of my patients — stand out because they reflect the devastating and profound impact of our new political context. They show us not only the fault lines of their individual lives, but also how the new political environment in which we live has torn the fabric of our collective psychology. Their ability to speak of their suffering enlarges my understanding of what psychotherapy and psychoanalysis must now consider one of its most important tasks. Something new has nudged its way into the center of their psyches, and — for those who identify with a diverse and democratic America — something elemental and seemingly uncontrollable is making itself felt inside the inner sanctum of the therapy office.

The president-elect’s overt racism and sexism, his homophobic and xenophobic comments and his grand cry to “make America great again” have unleashed enormous fear in those who don’t support him. Donald Trump has demonstrated the capacity to invade the private world of each and every one of my patients, making inroads into the inner recesses of their lives. Many are able to resist the intrusion, but almost all experience his political style as an assault on their personal agency, their connection to their creative unconscious, and their ability to enjoy the generative and free interaction of emotions and ideas — all of which have previously informed their work and relationships.

Above all, news coverage of Trump’s incessant tweets constantly interrupts our thoughts. Never before have we had a political figure with so much need to make himself the center of all conversation. I think of this style as “manipulative power speak”; he bombards us every day in order to re-configure our version of reality and align it more closely with his. He brands everything he touches with his name, he disregards social and political norms, and he insists that nothing can stand in his way.

Many of my patients connect these intrusions with feelings of personal abuse. The ones who are most deeply affected reassure themselves by touching their stomachs or their hearts, or wrapping their arms around themselves as if to protect against assault. And like an intimate abuser, Trump keeps us hooked by occasionally giving us hope that he might respect our identity and dignity, or behave in “normal” ways. Then he resumes his rampage and rains down insult and threat without regard to consequences. His behavior is thus unpredictable and menacing. Even when we think he is wrong, he is still “right.”

The impact of the Trump phenomenon forces psychological professionals to think again about how our analytic work rests within the larger vessel that is society at large. Severe disruptions and transitions of values and emphasis in socio-political processes call attention to a force outside the analytic dyad that nonetheless has the power to alter the work done between analyst and patient within it. This force cries out to be defined and understood as having an impact that interacts explosively with other realms of analytic concepts. The necessity of articulating our changed context casts patient and analyst out of the safe space of the “analytic container” and into the larger world, where both are unprotected by the carefully constructed analytic logos that has traditionally provided security and clear guidance.

It is now up to us as psychoanalysts and psychotherapists to admit to the same vulnerability and loss of security that many of our patients are sharing with us during therapy. We must try to understand the powerful impact of the new political-social context on our work, and on the individuals in our practices. This involves a willingness to admit that the world in which we live has irrevocably changed for patient and analyst alike.

At the same time, the analyst must not get lost in the quicksand of the changing context, but always hold a stance — and a space — that allows for reflection. We must ensure that our patients do not unwittingly become absorbed in and “adjusted” to this intrusive and destructive social environment, but instead encourage them to grapple consciously with the “Trump within,” unseating his influence on internal psychological processes. Helping our patients reflect on the socio-political context in relation to their internal context will ensure that they don’t unconsciously succumb to this new kind of terrorism, one that works seditiously by negating their creative power and undermining their ability to think, live and act autonomously.

Joan Golden-Alexis is a Jungian analyst practicing in New York City
The names and identities of the patients described in the following have been changed to protect their anonymity. In addition, signed consents to use their material have been obtained.

I Lift My Lamp Beside the Golden Door


Since we live in Brooklyn, I have crossed the Brooklyn Bridge countless times, but even when I have to crane my neck Brooklyn-bound from Manhattan, I look for Lady Liberty. She moves me every time with her blazing testimony to the truth of the human spirit. In difficult times—after 9-11, Hurricane Sandy, or current waves of human emigration—I like to see her steadfastly lighting the way.

The goddess Libertas, widely worshiped in Rome and symbolic of emancipation from slavery, has appeared in various forms throughout history, most majestically as The Statue of Liberty. Libertas seems always to have been represented as feminine, for the promise of liberation is new life, ever the gift of the maternal matrix, wellspring of birth and transformation. We recognize the power of a new beginning and its potential to redeem all in us that has been forsaken, oppressed, or denied.

Liberation is an image of what Jung called individuation, the process of discovering your innate potential and becoming wholly who you were meant to be. Individuation, “the central concept of my psychology,” is a process by which “the psyche is transformed or developed by the relationship of the ego to the contents of the unconscious.” Symbols spark individuation, for only a symbol has the numinous power to unite conscious and unconscious and awaken us to a new reality. Like the Statue of Liberty.

Conceived and built in France as a gesture of friendship between nations, Lady Liberty inspired people from her inception. More than 100,000 French people contributed funds to create the 30-story copper lady. When Congress refused to allocate the funds necessary to build the massive foundation for the 225-ton statue, 120,000 Americans gave money. A symbol mobilized thousands to give Lady Liberty a home in New York harbor. Artists donated paintings, children sent small change, and Emma Lazarus wrote her famous poem, which concludes:

                       Give me your tired, your poor,

                        Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

                        The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

                        Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me:

                        I lift my lamp beside the golden door.


Lady Liberty represents more than freedom from injustice and oppression in the external world. She represents liberation in the inner world, as we set sail from restrictive beliefs, imposed roles, and one-sided attitudes. Like immigrants packed miserably in steerage for weeks, suffering and sacrifice often precede the discovery of new life. But if we embark on the journey of individuation, Lady Liberty will ever lift her lamp beside the golden door of wholeness.

Deborah Stewart, LCSW is a Jungian analyst in private practice in Brooklyn, NY.

On Active Imagination

red eyed frogOne of the most surprising and vivid experiences of my life occurred because of my Jungian studies. Our Philadelphia seminar was studying active imagination, and our reading included a letter from Jung to “Mr. O”:

“The point is that you start with any image, for instance just with that yellow mass in your dream. Contemplate it and carefully observe how the picture begins to unfold or to change. Don’t try to make it into something, just do nothing but observe what its spontaneous changes are. Any mental picture you contemplate in this way will sooner or later change through a spontaneous association that causes a slight alteration of the picture. You must carefully avoid impatient jumping from one subject to another. Hold fast to the one image you have chosen and wait until it changes by itself. Note all these changes and eventually step into the picture yourself, and if it is a speaking figure at all then say what you have to say to that figure and listen to what he or she has to say….therewith you gradually create the unity of conscious and unconscious without which there is no individuation at all.”*

With a mixture of skepticism, curiosity and hope, I went outside, sat down in a lawn chair, and focused on a nearby river-fed pool where watercress grows. In my image, the pool was about four feet in diameter, with the black-green cress growing thickly around the edges. Suddenly two bright red eyes gleamed up at me from the upper right quadrant of the pool, just in front of the watercress, and I saw the gestalt: the pool was a face, with curly cress locks and two eyes, which then blinked shut, as the frog to whom they belonged sank beneath the surface. I knelt down and found myself brushing leafy locks from the water maiden’s face as a mother would brush hair from the face of her sleeping child. And then I simply leaned into the pool, dived down, and found myself swimming underwater behind the ruby-eyed frog.

My vision went on to an encounter that was alive and surprising. Although I had had intention to actively imagine, “I” did not control the process and could never have created such a magical gift—one that ended with an introduction to a lost part of myself I could then begin consciously to reclaim. I understood what Jungian analyst Edith Wallace meant when she said that to be understood, Jung must be experienced.

Over time I came to understand that Jung’s psychology and methodology repeatedly seeks to achieve a dialectical, experiential relationship between consciousness and the unconscious. This is the essence of the process of individuation, or wholeness, that is central to Jung’s work. Unlike dreams, reverie, meditation, or fantasy, active imagination allows an intentional, living relationship with the unconscious. Jung says active imagination “…is a way of attaining liberation by one’s own efforts and of finding the courage to be oneself.”

I love the availability of active imagination. Although what arises—or doesn’t—on any particular day is uncertain, the unconscious tends to welcome willingness to engage it, and active imagination provides a connection in waking life to the autonomous, creative inner companion Jung so often referenced. Often, some new aspect of the chosen image or issue will emerge that consciousness can continue to mull over to make meaning—or reflect on with gratitude.

What I know for sure is that when our conscious self and the unconscious engage over time in the mutual play of active imagination, we find ourselves bigger, more alive, and truly companioned.

*You can find this passage and more in Joan Chodorow’s book, On Active Imagination, part of the Encountering Jung series.

Deborah Stewart is a Jungian analyst in private practice in Brooklyn, NY.

The Healing Power of Myth

alchemyIn describing myth, Kwame Scruggs, PhD likes to quote a kindergarten student, who astutely noted that “myths are stories that are false on the outside, but true on the inside.” Scruggs, who received his master’s and doctorate in Mythological Studies from Pacifica University, founded and runs Alchemy, a non-profit based in Akron, Ohio.

“The concept of our program is to create a safe space and a sense of community to assist in the development of urban adolescent males through the telling, discussion, and analysis of myths, stories, and fairy tales told to the beat of an African drum.” In the program, youth start in 6th grade, with 22 weeks of in-school meetings per year until 8th grade.  From 9th-12th grade the youth meet 10 months out of the year, four hours per session.  Scruggs, along with two others co-facilitators lead the youth through a fairy tale or myth, stopping periodically to elicit reactions from the participants, or to ask them to engage the material through questions that invite the young men to reflect on their own lives.

Dr. Scruggs’s work with Alchemy has received considerable attention in recent years. In 2012, the organization was one of 10 recipients presented with the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award from the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, the nation’s highest honor for after-school and out-of-school programs. Scruggs, along with an Alchemy youth, accepted this award at the White House. And last year saw the release of a documentary about Alchemy entitled “Finding the Gold Within,” by award winning director Karina Epperlein.

Scruggs is doing something important and far too unusual, in my opinion – he is taking Jung’s insights out of the consulting room, and into the world, where they can work their transformation magic. Of the 30 young men in the original core group of participants, 28 graduated high school on time, and 26 enrolled in college. Most of us who are passionate about Jungian thought know how beautiful and personally meaningful these ideas are. If we are clinicians, we have likely had the honor of seeing these ideas transform the lives of the individuals with whom we work. Alchemy is putting these ideas to work in the service of social change.

In advance of Dr. Scruggs’s upcoming workshop in Philadelphia at the invitation of PAJA, I got a chance to speak with him briefly. In our conversation, he shared with me a bit about his discovery of myth and its healing power. Scruggs was introduced to Jung during an African-based rites of passage experience in 1993. Through Jung, Scruggs became interested in the work of Joseph Campbell. When he read Michael Meade’s Men and the Water of Life, he knew he had found something of great personal value. At the time, he was counseling high school drop outs. He found that getting them to talk was like pulling teeth. When he shared with them stories such as The Water of Life, the youth engaged and opened up, allowing themselves to become vulnerable.

I asked Dr. Scruggs what about myths make them such effective tools for reflection and healing. “When you tell someone a story,” Scruggs explained, “it removes them from the situation. It gets around a person’s defenses.” One Alchemy student, reflecting on the power of myth, had this to say about how it works: “Because it’s not real but then again it is real. So instead of directly telling us how to become well and get better you kind of do it indirectly which gets into our minds better or in a different way.”

Alchemy’s program of mentoring youth through myth helps the young men to have a relationship with something greater than themselves, develop a sense of purpose, and become the heroes in their own stories. Powerful stuff, indeed. I can’t wait to hear more about it at Dr. Scruggs’s workshop in Philadelphia on October 9.

To buy tickets to this event, please go to

This post was written by Lisa Marchiano, LCSW. Lisa is a Jungian Analyst in private practice in NW Philadelphia and is on the faculty of the Philadelphia Jung Institute.

In Memoriam. Katrina: Water and Sacred Rites


IMG_0976 (1)

I. Introduction

The Negro Speaks of Rivers

I’ve known rivers:

                                    I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the

                                                flow of human blood in human veins.


                                    My soul has grown deep like the rivers.


                                    I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.

                                    I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.

                                    I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.

                                    I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln

                                                went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy

                                                bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

                                                           I’ve known rivers:

                                    Ancient dusky rivers.

                                     My soul has grown deep like the rivers. 1

August 2015 marks ten years since the levees of New Orleans broke, flooding the city with sea water and ecological despair.  For African Americans, it also brought what could not be denied, the recollection of not only the sacredness of water as healing element, but also the painful remembrance of water as cultural symbol of slavery within cultural collective consciousness. Disaster by water was not an unknown nor unbelievable possibility, but the impact of Katrina was more far-reaching than anyone would have anticipated. The spiritual and secular relationship of African Americans with water as symbol, the cultural mores of racism and the collective trauma of environmental disaster were all evidenced from the Katrina floods.  In this interweaving, runs the sacredness of not only rites in terms of spirituality, but also those collective rights that are basic to us as human beings.  These are the collective rights we encounter when as Americans we consider skin color and race.

The effects of slavery and issues of contemporary racism, continue to concern many Americans, particularly African Americans and especially those who live in the southern part of the United States.   But the rites and rituals of West Africa, especially those of the Yoruba people who came to the new world, and were practitioners of  Santeria and Vodun, were believed to  mitigate some of the effects of  slavery.  Centuries later, the sacred rites of Vodun were still alive, as the earth of New Orleans was covered by the sea.

The flooding of New Orleans captured America’s attention partly because of the encompassing nature of the environmental disaster.  Weather reports prepared residents for one of the projected biggest storms of American history, and they were still wrong.  It was far worse.  This is not only because of the deaths and loss of homes, jobs, and the practical rituals that represented the essence of life.  It was also the loss of faith for African Americans in the very fact of being Americans.  The government agencies that were supposed to take care of the citizens of New Orleans had failed them: from the levee building Corp of Engineers to the Oval Office.  The proof of this failure could be seen in the faces of those who took shelter in the Superdome, on the roofs of their homes, and those traveling the roads leading out of New Orleans.

Faith lives in the space doubt has relinquished.  The residents of the city expected and believed in the politics of government to protect and save them in an environmental disaster.  They woke to realize and later acknowledge, with the devastation brought by Katrina and duplicated by man, that this had not happened. An African American collective cultural trauma followed the hurricane, tornadoes and flooding.  It could not be denied that the hurricane of Katrina which begun as a natural disaster, became a man-made one by the time it reached New Orleans.2   Most of the collective misery which followed were then also man-made.  When an occurrence of nature, a hurricane, is allowed to develop into an environmental disaster caused by man, what does it mean for the  psychology of those who are effected by such  disasters?

We are steeped in rites and rituals of the Judeo Christian tradition.  Most of what we learn as American children includes the artifacts of knowledge from this heritage.  New Orleans is still considered to be a Catholic city based on its founding and the early establishment of this religion by the colonial Spaniards and French.  It is a city that eventually embraced the rituals of Catholicism, joined with the early slavery rites of African traditional ancestor and spiritual practices. The sea waters which flowed over the city on the week of August 30th, 2005 might have been considered by some to belong to Yemonja, Yoruba goddess of the sea, the mother and protector of children, The Mother whose children are the Fish. 3

What does it mean on a psychic level to be closely bound to the goddess of the sea in a situation like Katrina?  The Africanist tradition is to look for the blessing, the grace of the waters.  Is there a way of  understanding Katrina’s sea waters as part of  an initiation into a deeper questioning  of African American life and race relations?

Barbara Bush, mother of then president George W. Bush called the victims of Katrina refugees. How did she and others like her come to this belief that African American citizens were refugees as if from a foreign country?  Is this the perception of only non-African Americans or does it also belong to African Americans themselves?

These questions  and others in this writing are important because they ask us to inquire into ideas and opinions regarding economic, social and political differences which exists due to race in America and the interplay of these differences in environmental disasters.  These differences were important factors in pre- and post Katrina

New Orleans.  Racial inequality is frequently the reason given by some as to why the levees were allowed to fall into disrepair, and therefore cause flooding destruction.  Most of the geographical sections of New Orleans negatively affected by flooding were African American.

Flooding and the images of death could not escape our American vision.  We were caught by the stories of storm waters falling and surging past the levees into the homes and lives of the city’s residents. We bore witness:  some of us watching television from our dry, far away homes, others who witnessed it more closely from boats passing lifeless, bloated bodies, and, finally those who were swimming in the same waters as the previously consecrated dead and buried.

It was as if the sacred rites of birth, death and baptism had been desecrated by Katrina.


Sea Charm

Sea charm

                                                            The sea’s own children

                                                            Do not understand.

                                                            They know

                                                            But that the sea is strong

                                                            Like God’s hand.

                                                            They know

                                                            But that sea wind is sweet

                                                            Like God’s breath,

                                                            And that the sea holds

                                                            A wide, deep death.



As the West African Disapora arrived to the water-edged land of what was to become southern Louisiana, they brought with them the culture and spiritual rituals of their ancestors. These spiritual practices especially for the Yoruba of Nigeria, included the wisdom of Ifa.  Gods and goddesses of this religion became the transformed saints of Roman Catholicism in attempts at reconciling the old spiritual beliefs with a survival religion within the context of  slavery. Yemoja, was honored as the Yoruba goddess of  the seas and maternity.

One of the symbols of African American spirituality following  Africanist sacred water rites  has been that of baptism.  The belief in immersion baptism has survived its passage from the waters of the Osun River in Nigeria when it was believed that this immersion allowed divine spirits to enter the human body.  This in turn created the idea of spiritual salvation proceeding from birth rituals using water in the New World.

However, even before this adult experience of re-birth, Africanist individuals had for centuries undergone the sacred birth rites of  passage.   John S. Mbiti tells us of the birth ritual of the Wolof people of  Senegal and Gambia.   The birth day of a child, family and neighbors gather and perform rites using blessed water for protecting mother and child.


Before suckling, the child is made to drink a charm made from washing off a Koranic verse which has been written on a wooden slate. Then a goat is killed on the day of birth….A fire is kept burning night and day in the house where birth has taken place.  Beside this fire stands an iron rod which is used for pressing seeds out of cotton wool, and a pot with pieces of a water plant (rat) which have been boiled.  The woman drinks the water from this pot. 4


A part of the ritual includes placing the rat plant with other tree leaves at the door of the birth house.  These same leaves are put at the entrance of the compound.  Every aspect of the birthing is a part of the rites performed.  The knife used to cut the umbilical card is placed under the pillow of the child.  During the immediate period following the birth, the new mother and child remain indoors.  Even if she goes outside, she must bring the knife with her as protection for her newborn child against spirits who might cause harm.  Plant leaves are left in place of the borrowed knife.

The children are named one week after their birth.  Parents and family gather to participate in the rites and rituals by sacred water.  It is most often mixed with plant leaves or roots to create a tonic specific to the protection and wisdom of the mother and child as with the rat plant.  Every aspect of the new life of the child is marked with rites which have been passed on for generations.  These birth and naming rites are sacred as each name has meaning based on many possibilities:  the day of the week, noted child’s personality or a grandparent whom the child resembles in affect.


On the appointed day, the child’s mother extinguishes the fire and sweeps the house, takes a bath and the baby is washed with the medicinal water.   These are symbolic acts marking the end of one phase of life, and the beginning of a new one….In the centre of the compound a mat is spread where an old woman, usually the midwife, sits with the child on her lap. The child is shaved, starting on the right side.  Nearby stands a clay bowl with red and white kola nuts, cotton and millet.  The red kola nuts symbolize long life, and the white ones symbolize good luck.  An elderly person rubs hands over the child’s head, prays and spits in its ears to implant the name in the baby’s head.  After that the name is then  announced loudly to the crowd, and prayers are offered for long life and prosperity.  The child and mother are hidden away, if it is the      first born, in case someone with an evil eye should see them. 5

It seems important to show a lineage of sacred rites and rituals which were practiced amongst Africanist people before their arrival as slaves to America.  The history of  racism in America has insisted until recent times, on disavowing many valued Africanist cultures(customs) which preceded colonial slavery. These cultures included rites not only of birthing but also marriage and death. All of the important human passages were marked by rites and these most often included the use of water.

Amongst the Batoro of  Uganda, there is a marital ritual which speaks to not only new life but also death as a transformative experience. The following quote, once again from John Mbiti is an indication of this symbol of marriage in an Africanist tradition from a central African country. It is a rite performed after the wedding day.


The following morning the guests who had been invited to the party return to their own homes.  The bride and her husband wash themselves in very cold water which has been placed in the courtyard enclosure and which is guarded by the bride’s sister. When they come to this water they undress themselves,  and each splashes the other with water.  This is the rite of binding themselves to each other and of cleansing themselves from the former state of unmarried life.  Symbolically these ritual ablutions  are partly the death of the former life of unproductivity, and partly

The resurrection of the new life of procreation.6

The “river cults” as they were identified by non-Africanists, participated in sacred water rituals in order to obtain the healing and psychic energy of  a named or followed god or ancestor. The immersion into water by Africanist people was to induce the visit of the gods.  This taking over of  ego consciousness caused the excitement which we can note in present day spiritual and religious rituals.  They include ‘speaking in tongue’ and the rhythmic dance of being taken over by the spirit.  African American religious practice is noted for its expectation of a baptism, oftentimes full-body, which mimics the collective spiritual practices of Africanist groups.  In Myth of the Negro Past, Melvin Herskovits says, “ Among the Ashanti, pilgrimages to Lake Bosumtwe and other sacred bodies of water regularly occur.   It is on such occasions that the spirit of the river or lake or sea manifest itself, by “entering the head” of the devotees and causing him to fling himself, possessed, into the water.”

The water of the ocean, lakes and streams were designated as sacred.  Oftentimes spiritual healers made pilgrimages to these locations in order to obtain such water for performing rituals.  The importance of such rituals can by seen by Herskovits’s noting the following:


In the process of conquest which accompanied the spread of the Dahomean kingdom…. the intransigence of the priests of the river cult  was so marked that more than any other group of holy men, they were sold into slavery to rid the conquerors of troublesome leaders.  In all those parts of the New World where African religious beliefs have persisted, moreover, the river cult or, in broader terms, the cult of water spirits, holds an important place.


It was these same holy men who traveled to South America, the Caribbean and eventually the southern United States.  Their influence can be seen in current Vodou and Santeria practices.  One of the most sacred rites of Santeria is discussed by  Migene Gonzalez-Wippler in Santeria The Religion. In the chapter describing Santeria Gonzalez-Wippler says of the sacred water:


The omiero is the sacred liquid used by the santero during initiation.

It is prepared in large receptacles where a certain number of the plants  sacred to each orisha  are crushed in fresh water….After the ritual crushing of the leaves, the resulting liquid, tinted green with the plants’ chlorophyll, is gathered together and mixed with other sacred ingredients, among which are rainwater, holy water, and some of the some of the blood of the sacrificial animals.  The omiero is used for many ritual purposes….


So wonderful are the properties of this liquid that the santeros often drink     it as a cure for many illnesses, especially stomach complaints.

The collective historical Africanist perspective views water as a sacred element. Gonzalez-Wippler says that water is one of the four essential aspects of Santeria. The others are herbs, seashells (cowries) and stones.  This consideration of water in such an important role in the rituals of the spiritual practice lends credence and a rich vitality to African American religious experiences.  The sacred traditions of rites of passage and rituals of daily life of both East Africa and especially West Africa have clearly survived in the Protestant and Catholic practices of African Americans. This can be seen in baptism immersion rites, spiritual bath practices of Santeria and Vodou, and the use of water as a sacred entity amongst all African American spiritual practitioners for healing.


 Troubled Water


                                                Between us, always, loved one,

                                                There lies this troubled water.

                                                You are my sky, my shining sun

                                                Over troubled water.


                                                I journey far to touch your hand.

                                                The trip is troubled water.

                                                We see yet cannot understand

                                                This fateful troubled water.


                                                Deep hearts, dear, dream of happiness

                                                Balked by troubled water.

                                                Between us always—love, and this—

                                                This sea of troubled water.



            How do we consider increasing our conscious awareness for healing of racial differences when accompanied with natural or environmental disasters?  Can we influence the archetypal and integrate its support in this type of heroic ego endeavor?  The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s brought us to another stage of consciousness.  Segregation in public places ended with the Civil Rights Act of 1965.

Everyone was now able to drink from the same water fountain. However, the resentments and anger over racial differences has lasted until this twenty-first century.  Between blacks and whites still lay a sea of troubled water which can erupt like an underwater volcano, occurring without warning.

James Hillman in his essay “Haiti or the psychology of black” says:


Negro is not nigredo….especially in a racist society we must keep very distinct the epithets that arbitrarily and viciously color human beings on the one hand and, on the other cosmic forces that shape the soul apart from human beings.  What we fear is black magic:  the magical pull of  black attraction, the soul’s desire to descent into darkness….We fear what we most desire and desire what we most fear.12







                                                On the shoals of  Nowhere,

                                                Cast up—my boat,

                                                Bow all broken,

                                                No longer afloat.


                                                On the shoals of  Nowhere,

                                                Wasted—my song—

                                                Yet taken by the sea wind

                                                And blown along.



            We hope that we can prepare for archetypal events that flood us.  We want to believe that we can ride out the negative racial elements of our American lives.

Sometimes we are able to prove to ourselves as a collective that we can surpass our differences and choose what we think will add to the on-going healing of our American racial wound.  This is how I viewed the election of Barack Obama, as a shift in consciousness that made it possible for him to become the first African American president.

The African American Diaspora are not refugees, they never have been in the truest sense of this word.  They were initially brought as slaves.  The other women, children, and men who have followed since, may be refugees, but most are immigrants.  When faced with a physical disaster like Katrina, we are forced to acknowledge the tension between the ego’s needs and those of what appear as overwhelming collective, archetypal challenges, reflected in the environment.  Our egos can be overcome by emotional flooding which eliminates our reasoning ability.  We revert to old patterns

of tribal survival, like the white vigilantes who were defending their property against perceived intruders, all who happened to be African Americans.  At these times, some of us fall into the tribal war rituals of ancestors wherein 21st century tribal differences can include skin color.  It takes an equally powerful energy to counteract impulsive, human actions of personal destruction when confronted with the archetypal losses of an environmental disaster.  Yet, this is our responsibility, to move even deeper beneath fear and hate to that which speaks to consciousness and the inner compass of morality. This keeps us afloat as we reach out to save a fellow human being, not just in that moment of disaster, but as a re-occurring aspect of conscious living.



Fanny Brewster is a Jungian analyst and writer residing in New York City.

She is a graduate of the C.G. Jung Institute of New York and holds a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and a M.F.A. in Creative Writing. She has been twice nominated for the Gradiva Award for her writing.  Dr. Brewster is a faculty member at the C.G. Jung Foundation of New York and Pacifica Graduate Institute.










  1. Langston Hughes, The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (New York: Random            House, 1994), 23.  All poems are from this text, pages, 23, 44, 48 and 577.


  1. A.C. Thompson, “Katrina’s Hidden Race War,” The Nation (2009)


  1. Migene Gonzalez-Wippler, Santeria the Religion: A Legacy of Faith, Rites, and Magic (New York:  Harmony Books, 1989), 57.


  1. John S. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy (Portsmouth, NH:  Heinemann     Educational Books, 1990), 111.


  1. Ibid., 116.


  1. Ibid., 136.


  1. Melville J. Herskovits, The Myth of the Negro Past (Boston: Beacon Press Books,    1958), 233


  1. Ibid., 232.


  1. Elizabeth Abel,Bathroom Doors and Drinking Fountains: Jim Crow’s Racial             Symbolic,” Critical Inquiry (1999), 435-481.


  1. Joe R. Feagin, Melvin P. Sikes, Living with Racism: The Black Middle-Class Experience (Boston:  Beacon Press, 1994), 37-77.


  1. Kathy Russell, Midge Wilson, Ronald Hall, The Politics of Skin Color among African Americans (New York: Doubleday Books, 1992), 17.


  1. James Hillman, “Haiti or the psychology of black,” Spring 61 (1997): 1-15.