“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”—Dorothy Gale
In the interest of not getting sued, I should make it known at the outset that much of this article is based on the works of Carl Jung and Patrick Harpur, both far deeper thinkers than your humble narrator, although some of the ideas are my own. I’ll try to make it clear exactly whose insane interpretation of reality I’m referring to as we go since I don’t wish to misrepresent any of my own delusions as being theirs. As a rule of thumb, please consider what follows to be either my own thoughts on the matter or my possible misrepresentation of their work unless otherwise indicated…or obvious.
The term “daimon” comes to us from the ancient Greeks, but what these beings were and what their purported function was varied between philosophers. By some, they were considered to be, more or less, what we think of as angels and demons – either sympathetic or hostile towards humanity. Others considered them to be those who brought good fortune to the deserving. Still others maintained that one of them was assigned to each of us at birth, making them an ancient Greek version of guardian angels, all of which is well and good, but not really relevant for our purposes. I just thought that I should at least clarify the origin of the term before we go on. What does matter is the nature of their alleged existence – not entirely physical, not completely spiritual, but somewhere in between and capable of interacting with either reality. This does separate them from the standard concept of angels and demons, both of which are almost universally considered to be completely spiritual beings.
Plato (and the Neoplatonists) believed that there was an intermediate realm between the spiritual and the physical universe that they called the World Soul (Anima Mundi), which connected all living things. While it’s difficult to conceive of the soul of the world as being an actual place, they nevertheless also considered it to be the home of the daimons, who were, ipso facto, a kind of nature spirit who acted as mediators between the gods and man. More importantly, these daimons were able to occasionally transport people from our reality into theirs, which means that we must also be able to exist, at least in part, on both of these levels as well. We will have much more to say on this subject at the appropriate time.
Moving ahead a few thousand years to the early 20th century, the concept of the World Soul and its resident daimons really began to take shape in relatively modern times with Jung’s theories of archetypes and the collective unconscious, even if no one realized it at the time. Entire volumes have been written just about specific aspects of each of these two ideas, but out of necessity I won’t be able to do anything but give you the basic gist of what these terms encompass. You’re welcome.
Fortunately, the basic concept of the collective unconscious is fairly easy to explain since the name pretty much sums it up. It is the unconscious part of the mind which is shared by all beings of the same species and contains all of the memories and experiences of every individual who has ever lived. Jung believed that this was where instincts came from, which would explain such things as why chicks raised completely indoors that have never encountered (or been around another chicken that has encountered) a hawk are still afraid of the shadow cast by a cardboard cutout of a hawk. Until some geneticist isolates the “be afraid of hawks” gene, I think that this is as good an explanation as any.*
In addition to instincts, the collective unconscious is also the source of the archetypes. Jung deduced the existence of archetype when he realized that the myths, legends and fables of cultures from all over the world contained certain universal figures, events and motifs. He decided that this couldn’t be an accident and that these universal aspects must come from somewhere, and that place had to be a collective unconscious.
While there is no official list of archetypes, some of the ones that Jung came across most often were the Hero, the Wise Old Man, the Father, the Shadow, the Codependent Millennial, the Lovers, the Scapegoat, the Devil, etc. The most common is the Hero since virtually every story has one. Some people even go so far as to consider practically every character in every story ever written to be one kind of archetype or another. I think that these people are taking it a little too far, but I suppose that you could shoehorn just about anyone into an archetypal category if you tried hard enough.†
One surprisingly good example of archetypes that most of you will be familiar with is the Star Wars saga. In this story, the Hero archetype (Luke Skywalker) goes on the equally archetypal Hero’s Journey. This is often not a choice that the Hero makes but a destiny which he is obligated by conscience to follow. On his quest, he will have to overcome temptation by facing his Shadow (the “dark side” of our nature that we usually deny) and defeat great evil (the Devil, i.e. the emperor) before his story is complete. Along the way, he encounters the Wise Old Man (Obi-Wan Kenobi), the Fallen Hero (Darth Vader, who was once the Hero but fell prey to his Shadow, was Redeemed in the end, and was also Luke’s Father, making him an embarrassment of riches as far as archetypes go) and even the Fool (Jar Jar Binks). There are several other themes and characters that I could elaborate on, but you get the idea.
And lest you think that this is all coincidence or that I’m grasping for timely and recognizable metaphors, keep in mind that George Lucas was a good friend of mythologist Joseph Campbell, who was himself greatly influenced by Jung. All of these archetypal characters and motifs came almost ready-made for Lucas to snatch out of the domain of myth and plug into the world of science fiction, and look how well it worked out for him. You just can’t go wrong when you follow that archetype blueprint because it is, by definition, universal.
Another major archetype is that of the Mother, and it’s one that has had some real impact on Western culture. In the early days of Christianity, Mary was of no more significance to Catholicism than she is to Protestants today. It wasn’t until they were trying to spread their religion across Europe that Mary became important. The pagans were hesitant to accept any new faith that didn’t include their benevolent Mother Goddess. That was a deal-breaker, and so Mary became her replacement more as a marketing strategy than as an article of faith. Even in predominantly Protestant America, we still have a vague concept of Mother Nature, who basically became the goddess of the Wiccans in the 1900s and is now known by so many names that it’s hard to keep track – Trixie being the notable exception, which is probably an unfortunate oversight. Encounters with the Mother Goddess are usually accompanied by at least some Trickster-ish phenomena. And this, of course, brings us to my favorite archetype and the one most relevant to our discussion: the Trickster.
Tricksters are outliers. They don’t fit in with mainstream society and, in mythology, they don’t fit in with the gods either, even though some of them are gods. Tricksters don’t conform to anyone’s idea of normal values or behavior. They enjoy defying authority and using trickery to get what they want, or sometimes just to screw with people for the hell of it.(Probably the best known literary example of this was the character Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the fact that he was a fairy is no coincidence.) While they are generally rogues at heart, they can also be givers of gifts, such as when Prometheus defied the gods and gave fire to humans. They are also frequently shapeshifters, an ability which they make use of to confound their target and enhance their trickery. While always mischievous, their objectives and motivations are often more complicated.
They are sometimes portrayed as being amoral, but another interpretation is that their morals are simply not those of mainstream society. In their worst aspect, they are sociopaths who are willing to do whatever it takes to get what they want. At their best, they are not constrained by societal norms and may believe that the means justify the end, or that ethics are situational and that the right thing to do is not always what is morally conventional (see Huck Finn). They are sometimes fools, but in other cases they are very, very clever. In some instances, they can be both/and, putting them into yet another archetypal category: that of the Wise Fool. One example of this is Jack the Giant Slayer, who foolishly trades a cow for a handful of beans, but is later able to use his cunning to outwit and rob the evil giant. That’s not a great example, but at least it’s one that everybody is familiar with.
But Tricksters aren’t just a bunch of d-bags who go around screwing with people or giving them gifts of knowledge just to piss off the gods. Their real purpose is to shake up the status quo – to allow us to progress by forcing us out of our comfort zones in which we will grow stagnant unless we are challenged. This might come in the form of a new insight or way of looking at a problem, but it might be something more drastic: something that challenges our very concept of the world in which we live. The former case is much more common and less dramatic, but not necessarily less significant. Those who have had a “eureka!” experience when a previously unseen solution just “comes to us” may not think of it as being anything out of the ordinary, but where did this new idea that just seems to pop into our head come from? Materialists will say that it comes from nowhere but the brain, but some of those who have had such an experience know that it seems to have appeared from out of nowhere, as if someone suddenly stuck it fully formed into our consciousness.
The brain is an impressive organ, and so the materialists may be right, but can we say that for certain? Even the most learned of neuroscientists can’t tell us where ideas and sudden insights and inspiration come from. There is no identifiable “working on the solution behind the scenes” area of the brain (epiphanal cortex). The whole topic reeks of scientifically meaningless hobgoblins like the collective unconscious, or something along those lines. But I digress.
Ultimately, Tricksters are boundary crossers (or boundary blurrers), both figuratively and literally. As the messenger of the gods, Hermes could move easily between their world and ours. He was also the inventor of lying and the god of thieves, both of which are definitely Trickster-like attributes. However, many of his antics were at the expense of the gods and for the benefit of humanity, i.e., he defied authority to help the little guy. They may also advance us individually by challenging our very concept of reality whether we like it or not, as in the case of Adele and the malfunctioning Man in Black.
Tricksters figure heavily in the legends, fables and myths of almost every culture, hence their status as archetypes. However, they are especially prevalent in European and Middle Eastern tales of fairies and the jinn respectively, which is significant because multiple researchers of the paranormal have noticed that many of our modern manifestations of strange creatures have much in common with the folklore of these two types of supernatural beings. Both were said to be mischievous shapeshifters that could be anything from benevolent to downright deadly to any humans who encountered them, which is one of the topics that we’ll cover in our next installment.
So that’s it in a fairly large nutshell. Instincts and archetypes suggest the existence of a collective unconscious which contains all of human memory and experience and which connects us all, but there is one more thing that we should talk about. Jung originally considered archetypes to be purely psychic constructs, and the psyche was considered by him to be confined within the brain. It was only later on that he began to think that the psyche might have an existence outside of the body and that the archetypes could, on occasion, manifest themselves in what I laughingly call objective reality. The age of the flying saucer which began in 1947 played a significant role in this re-thinking, by the way. Jung considered the saucers to be manifestations of the collective unconscious, but it became obvious to him that these things were far from being only in the witnesses’ minds. He came to believe that the contents of the collective unconscious could be made objective in some cases, and so UFOs could have an objective reality at times while still being projections of the psyche.
One particular event which demonstrated to Jung how the contents of the collective unconscious were not simply mental constructs but could also manifest in the “real world” was the case of the golden scarab from one of his patient’s dreams. In the dream, the woman had been presented with a piece of jewelry in the shape of a scarab, a type of beetle considered sacred to the ancient Egyptians. As they were discussing the possible meaning of this, Jung heard a tapping at his window and saw that a large bug was flying repeatedly into the glass. Going to the window and opening it, Jung discovered that it was a gold-green colored rose chafer beetle, which was a relatively rare creature to find at that latitude. He caught it in his hands and presented it to the woman, saying “Here is your scarab,” which completely blew her ultra-materialistic mind, which was what Jung believed to be at the root of all of her problems to begin with.
Okay, so the golden scarab isn’t really an archetype, but you see what I’m getting at. And while this story is usually presented as an example of Jung’s theory of synchronicity, synchronicity and archetypes and the collective unconscious are all parts of Jung’s greater whole concept of the psyche, so there. The point is that Jung came to believe that what’s in our minds can take on a more tangible reality all its own (see tulpas).
Obviously, Jung’s collective unconscious could be thought of as being just a rediscovery of Plato’s World Soul. If so, it would seem that Plato’s daimons and Jung’s archetypes could be one and the same, or at least closely related. In Patrick Harpur’s own words,
But the daimons of myth evolved into a sort more suited to these philosophies, whether angels, souls, archons, thrones, or powers – many of which later infiltrated Christianity. Ever-flexible, the daimons changed their shape to suit the times, even becoming abstractions when necessary…but preferring if possible to remain personified. Jung’s cast of archetypal personages – shadow, anima/animus, Great Mother. Wise Old Man – placed him firmly in this tradition.
If this is correct, then Jung’s concept of the collective unconscious being “merely” the sum total of all human memories and experiences was an underestimation. This region also has a reality and a population of its own and is not simply a repository for human memory and experience, although it might not exist without them…or at least it would be far less interesting. In short, we are part of it, and it is part of us.
So that concludes our brief introduction to daimons, Tricksters and archetypes. Tune in next week (or maybe the week after, depending on how it goes) when we will take a look at how and why these things might figure into our modern encounters with things that defy rational explanation and scientific orthodoxy and whether they might be guiding and influencing and screwing with us from behind the scenes.
*In Max Freedom Long’s studies of the Hawaiian kahunas, he was told a similar thing by one of the kahunas he befriended. According to Long, they believed that every animal had a sort of prototype which existed on a higher plane. In this particular example, the chicks would know to be afraid of a hawk because the “prototype” chicken knows to be afraid of hawks.
Although Long didn’t publish his first book on the subject of the kahunas until years after Jung’s theories had been published, his research actually predates Jung’s. Some contend that he merely borrowed ideas from several sources (Jung, Theosophy, the New Thought movement, etc.), synthesized them into one metaphysical system and then claimed that he got it from the kahunas. So it goes.
†I don’t generally think of the Anima/Animus, Shadow and Persona as actual archetypes as much as different aspects of the personality, but most other devotees of Jung, including him, tend to disagree. Please feel free to email me as to why I’m completely wrong about this. I’m always happy to be illuminated by more knowledgeable individuals.