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Psyche and Soma: A Jungian Inquiry into the Symbolic Landscape of Ancient Egypt

ncient Egypt taps into the power of the mind’s eye. With its soaring pyramids, sacred tombs, complex hieroglyphs, ancient temple walls, legends of exotic pharaohs, and colorful pantheon of gods, it is easy to be captivated by the landscape of a culture that fills the imagination with its richness and depth.

Though C.G. Jung traveled extensively in Egypt, he never published a condensed work on his experience and analysis of the culture. However, it seems clear that the breadth and depth of one of the most ancient civilizations on the planet also provides fertile substance for understanding the human psyche. Indeed, there seems to be a “spiritual profundity” about the land, history, and culture of Egypt that goes beyond modern cosmography (Naydler, 1996).

Egypt, with its pervasive myth of Osiris as the resurrected god of the underworld, the use of mummification in elaborate funerary rituals to ensure eternal life, and above all, the powerful Nile that ebbed and flowed as the lifeblood of the land, embodies an archetype of death and rebirth, a profound worldview that was the backbone of ancient Egyptian culture. Surely, the vivid images conjured in a culture centered on “hieroglyphic thinking” are the very same as those of Jung’s collective unconscious, provoking “an imaginative vision that sees through the physical landscape into its interiority” (Naydler, 1996,p. 14).

Egypt is said to be the birthplace of alchemy. The etymological root, al kimia, refers to the “Land of Black Soil”, or the fertile mud of the Nile, that precious life-giving water that flooded the land each year enabling life to continue and thrive (Cavalli, 2002). As a metaphor which Jung himself equated to individuation, the pursuit of alchemists was to find the agua permanens, the living water which represented illumination through the realization of meaning (Harris, 2001). The black mud that remained behind as the raging waters of the Nile receded is a rich analogy for the dark, shifting arena of the unconscious. The goal of alchemy was to bring light to darkness, whether by turning lead into gold or shining the light of consciousness into the human mind.

Jung believed the archetype is a unifying factor between the psyche and the material realm (Ryan, 2002). Death as a precursor to rebirth was a common archetypal motif found in ancient Egypt (Perry, 1976). Marie-Louise von Franz pointed out that, though all cultures hold the hope of life after death, ancient Egypt is the only culture that made it so concrete through mummification (Harris, 2001).

Jung (1967) reiterated the importance of the physical body as an alchemical vessel in the individuation process, believing kundalini yoga to be an analogy for a union of consciousness and life in which the “unconscious becomes conscious in the form of a living process of growth” (p. 79). Harris (2001) insists on an inherent connection between the physical realm and energetic or spiritual process of growth: out of the body develops the spirit.

Conger (1988/2005) describes kundalini as a “serpent of divine life [which] uncoils in the dark pelvis of our unconscious and moves through the lotus centers [of our bodies] connecting the darkness and light, our unconscious and our awakened state” (p. 188). He refers to Heinrich Zimmer as saying, “All the gods are in our body” (p. 188).

Indeed the Egyptians believed this too, referring to the body as being inhabited by gods or neters, a word etymologically related to “nature” and symbolizing the living spirit in all things, the ensoulment of the world (Ellis, 2000). Though body awareness and spiritual awakening have been increasingly separated in western culture, attention to the energetic flow in the body along the spine can lead to “enlightened, embodied being” (Conger, p. 189).

In short, the ancient Egyptians developed a complex map to eternal life which all came down to placing the physical body in the bowels of the dark earth, a tomb designed to incubate the reunification of body and spirit. In alchemy, the prima materia must be subjected to solutio, to undergo dissolution and fundamental change in the blackness of nigredo in order to transform into gold. So, too, it is crucial to engage with the world, to be of the earth, to give over to the place of tension and darkness in order to allow for something to give way to the Self. Jung believed if we do not, we will remain suspended, fixed in time, and individuation cannot occur.

-The above is an excerpt from a 12-page paper. Download the full PDF here

References:

Cavalli, T. F. (2002). Alchemical psychology: Old recipes for living in a new world. New York:
Tarcher/Putnam.

Conger, J. P. (1988/2005). Jung & Reich: The body as shadow. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic
Books.

Ellis, N. (2000). What Egypt Still Has to Teach Us. Obsidian Magazine. Retrieved from
http://www.obsidianmagazine.com/NormandiEllis/index.html

Harris, J. (2001). Jung and yoga: The psyche-body connection. Toronto, Canada: Inner City Books.

Jung, C. G. (1967). Commentary on "The secret of the golden flower". In R. F. C. Hull, M.
Fordham & G. Adler (Eds.), Alchemical Studies. The collected works of C. G. Jung, Volume
10. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Naydler, J. (1996). Temple of the cosmos: The ancient Egyptian experience of the sacred.
Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions.

Perry, J. W. (1976). Roots of renewal in myth and madness. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc


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“No man lives within his own psychic sphere like a snail in its shell, but is connected to his fellow-men by his unconscious humanity”

--Carl Gustav Jung in The Earth Has a Soul, p. 4 & in CW 10, para 408

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