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Archetypal Psychology and Dreamwork

Richard Catlett Wilkerson

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  Wilkerson, Richard Catlett (2003 Aug). Archetypal Psychology and Dreamwork. Electric Dreams  10(8).


Archetypal Psychology and Dreamwork
Richard Catlett Wilkerson


[All footnotes without an author refer to James Hillman.]

Welcome to the topsy-turvey world of Archetypal Psychology! At first the ride through this post-Jungian school of thought may feel like you are in a Fellini film or playing a game of Shoots and Ladders, but eventually the seriousness by which they take the imagination and the depth they give to the dream and other images is perhaps better characterized by a Bergman film, full of pregnant pauses and unexpected glances that bring our attention to the overtones and undertones of the moment and lead us deeper into the image.

Archetypal psychology separated itself as a distinct school from Jungian psychology in the early 1970’s. As its founder and most prolific writer, James Hillman, says of archetypal psychology, it is an attempt to “connect to the wider culture of Western Imagination beyond the consulting room” (Archetypal Psychology, 1) That is, archetypal psychology has roots in personal analysis, but extends its applications to art, architecture, literature and other cultural products. The archetype, so crucial to Jungian psychology, is released from being an archetype ~in~ us and seen more as an adjective than a noun, an encounter that finds its expression in all aspects of life. It is recognized as being prior and more fundamental to life than any individual psyche.

Archetypes, seen in Jungian psychology as the structures that underpin the psyche, take on another role in Archetypal psychology where they are seen as “structures in process” (Re-Visioning Psychology, 148).

The term ‘archetypes’ typically refers to psychological patterns that appear thought human experience and can be seen in the motifs of age-old myths, legends, and fairy tales found in every culture through the history of the human species. Archetypes, the symbolic forms of the unconscious, can also be seen in the imagery of the dream. Examples of archetypes are “the wise old man/woman” ‘the tree of life,’ ’the journey,’ and ’home.’ ”( Aizenstat,1995, 95)

But in archetypal psychology this definition is expanded beyond  one’s personal relationship with these structuring powers to include the non-personal imaginal realm. “Our broader view of Depth Psychology includes the psychic realities of all phenomena, emphasizing the part of the Depth Psychology tradition that honors psyche in the world. “ (Aizenstat , 1995, 95)

When we talk about the appearance of archetypes as people in dreams or in imaginative spaces, then the ~persons~ of archetypes emerge, the phantasmagoria, the mythical figures, the daimones, and gods. When discussed in terms of symptoms and affect, they are discussed as the styles of suffering (paranoid, borderline, phobic). When discussed as ideas, they express the intellectual psyche. That is, they express themselves as ideas important to soul. “ A God is a manner of existence, an attitude toward existence, and a set of ideas.” (Re-Visioning, 103) Each perspective comes with a whole pantheon of deities, sub-deities, nymphs, wrights, angels, demons, symbols, landscapes, plants, activities and modes of behavior. This is perhaps a clumsy way to refer to what happens, but to date is also the most elegant. When your daughter falls in love with a guy who is a disaster, it becomes clear that the whole pantheon of the god of love has become activated, along with all that this entails. The ability of these powers to possess and direct our behavior, to cause us suffering, but also to give us meaning, would be inadequately expressed as anything less than the possession by a god. We rarely have ideas of importance, they have us.

What really makes archetypal psychology different than Jungian analysis of individuals and culture? There are many levels to this answer, some of which are quite complex, but basically there is a shift in the attitude of the psyche being in us to us being in the psyche. Some would argue that Jung made this shift himself (When we are awake we say we had a dream, but when we are dreaming we know the dream has us). However, the archetypal school draws these elements out in a particular way that brings into question a wide variety of Jungian concepts, including the Self, the Heroic ego, representations, symbols and many other ideas.

Key concepts: soul, archetype, imagination, psyche

Andrew Samuels (Jung and the Post-Jungians, 1985) notes that a survey of the main tenets of archetypal psychology need to include the primary concept of archetype, its area of interest as the image, and its vehicle as mythology that opens instead of grounds and a world view of pluralism and polytheism. However, it is the re-visioning of the concept of the ~soul~ that directs archetypal psychology.

Typically in the West, we encounter the concept of the soul in spiritual terms, but the archetypal school sees it more in its direction of depth, not the rising heights of spirit.

Hillman borrows the term “soul-making” from the Romantics. As Keats says in a letter to his brother “Call the world if you please, ‘The vale of Soul-making,’ Then you will find out the use of the world…” (April 21, 1819 Letter to George and Georgiana Keats)
“From this perspective,” say Hillman “the human adventure is a wandering through the vale of the world for the sake of making soul.” (Re-Visioning, ix) Since our life is already psychological, it behooves us to find the connection between this psyche/soul and the world, and a place for soul in this world. Just noticing is not enough, some encountering is needed. “…it is not enough to evoke soul and sing its praises. The job of psychology is to offer a way and find a place for soul within its own field. For this we need basic psychological ideas. “ (Re-Visioning, ix)

But what is the soul? “By soul I mean, first of all, a perspective rather than a substance, a viewpoint toward things rather than a thing itself.” (Re-Visioning, x) Wherever there is an encounter, there is a something that comes between the encounter and me. Soul-making is opening up this middle ground between. “In another attempt upon the idea of soul I suggested that the word refers to that unknown component which makes meaning possible, turns events into experience, is communicated in love, and has a religious concern.” (Re-Visioning, x).

Three modes of soul then emerge:
1. Soul as the deepening of events into experience.
2. The soul has a relation with death, and hence love and spirituality.
3. The imaginative possibility of our nature. Reflective speculation, dream, imagery and fantasy. Imagination, depth, symbolic, metaphorical realm.

“Image is psyche” said Carl Jung (Re-Visioning, 23) and this is a strange thing to hear at first. Usually we think of our psyche as a receptacle full of images at times, cleared at other times. But here, psyche ~is~ image. There is no consciousness that is not already and first an image, a perspective. We can’t bracket out our fantasies, because the whole notion of bracketing out is itself a fantasy.

Jung says that by image we “do not mean the psychic reflection of an external object, but a concept derived from poetic usage, names a figure of fancy or fantasy image” CW6 743 (From Berry, 1982, 57)

This places the image in a middle zone between, with matter/concrete below it and spirit/abstract/ideal above it. Its no wonder the Greeks call the butterfly “Psyche” as it hovers between heaven and earth. As Casey notes, this middle zone, call it psyche, imaginal or soul, also connects the ideal with the material. It is the imaginal that grounds spirit and the imaginal that lifts it into the abstract. (Casey, 1991).

In archetypal psychology, the image is primary. The image doesn’t (primarily) represent something else. Thus dream images, as with all images, are not symbols, are not analogies, are not signs, are representations. The image is therefore not just visual, though it may at times take on visuals. Rather it is image in the sense that I might say “Let me give you an image of what happened last night at dinner.” It is a sensibility rather than a sense, and it has a degree of autonomy from my psyche.

If these imaginal beings are not in my psyche, where are they? Scholar Henry Corbin contributes a concept from Islamic mysticism, the mundus imaginalis, which is an imaginal realm between the subjective and objective. This realm is filled with imaginal beings, who may take the shape of our own complexes in our dreams. We see, for example, our mother in our dream, but its not our literal mother. Rather it is an imaginal being that has taken on the look and act of our personal mother, attracted, we might say, by our mother complex. (Corbin, 1969)

Corbin’s placing of archetypal realities in the middle zone of reality reveals the archetype as accessible to imagination first. First when it presents itself as image and so the whole procedure of archetypal psychology becomes imaginative, its tools rhetorical and poetic, its reasoning beyond logic and it goal other than social adaptation or traditional mental health. In terms of therapeutic work, the goal is to restore the person to imaginal realities long since repressed by the culture. That is, the aim is the development of a sense of soul as the middle ground of reality, and the method of therapy is the cultivation of imagination. (Archetypal Psychology)

This imaginal realm plays itself out in culture as well as our dreams. We can see the state of our souls in the buildings and architecture of our cities, in the parks and choices of cars, in the way we inhabit and decorate our houses. (City as Dwelling, 1980) “Inner” is a way of seeing these events more than something literally inside us or them. The depth that we bring to an event has more to do with the way we encounter it than something inherent held inside. To the degree that the world is just a means to some other end, it will seem sterile and mechanical. To the degree “ we give it meaning, it will reveal to us its significance”. (Avens, 1984). Soul, the deepening of events into experiences.

And so things get turned around in archetypal psychology. Reality is seen as various perspectives, or in other words , as so much imagination. Imagination takes on a new status of existing, and becomes reality. All our ways of seeing are imaginal, even our attempts to see without and beyond imagination. (Avens , 1980). It is a psychology that starts on the notion of a poetic basis of mind rather than the brain, language, developmental theory, social organization or behaviorism. Rather it starts with imagination.

Hillman traces the ancestral line of archetypal psychology leading back from Carl Jung “through Freud, Dilthly, Coleridge, Schelling, Vico, Ficino, Plotinus, and Plato to Heraclitus—and with even more branches which have yet to be traced. Heraclitus lies near the roots of this ancestral tree of thought, since he was the earliest to take psyche as his archetypal first principle, to imagine soul in terms of flux and to speak of its depth without measure.” (Re-Visioning, xi)

From Heraclitus “You could not discover the limits of the soul (psyche) , even if you traveled every road to do so; such is the depth (bathum) of its meaning (logos)” (Revisioning xi)

Like soul, the word ‘archetype’ is also difficult to define. Archetype becomes more of a metaphor than a thing. Envisioning the basic structure of the soul in an archetypal way shifts all discussion of it and all basic questions of psychology to the realm of the imagination. Hillman maintains, with Jung, that archetypes are the deepest patterns of the psychic functioning. They govern our perspectives, our genres in literature, our symptoms in psychopathology, our rituals and relations in anthropology. But more important for archetypal psychology is not the abstract structuring qualities of the archetype, but their “emotionally possessive effect”, the way they take over consciousness and bewitch it. Note for example the daughter in who falls in love with a man who will ruin her, but is totally blind to this though everyone else can see it. Or the boss who has gained power and become taken over with power and can no longer hear anyone else and has become blind to all who work below her/him. Or the person driven to suicide, finding no other path, though if convinced by others to wait a day, finds his whole mood changed.
And so, we see the archetype first in behavior (possession) we can see the archetype in images (dreams, myths) and finally in a style of consciousness or attitude, as in the heroic style of consciousness of independence, strength, conquest and single-mindedness.
One almost always hears archetypal psychologists speak in terms or archetypal rather than archetype. This emphasizes both the intensity of the encounter as well as the plurality. That is, that archetypes are not singled out for study, but impact us in multifaceted ways, and do so in a manner that overwhelms the ego.

What does this all mean for dreamwork? At first, it may seem unclear. One famous dreamworker who reviewed Hillman’s Dreams and the Underworld said of the book “the book talks about why we shouldn’t do dreamwork, then gives examples of how to do it.”

And yet the process is really quite simple. Stick with the image. Instead of elaborating, associating, interpreting, second guessing, finding links to your life, just stick with the image. Just like meeting something or someone you have never met before, though they may be wearing the clothes and face of those familiar to you. And just like a friend, we don’t get to know them more deeply by interpreting them, but by grasping them as a whole image, a whole being.

When the images are intolerable, this simple rule of sticking with the image is more difficult. Even friendly images can be difficult to stick with. Thus some theoretical background and context to the work as a whole may be helpful in teaching us what to do and not do with our nocturnal guests.


As previously discussed, in archetypal psychology the human is not the only being with a soul, and the soul we have is multiple. That is, there are other things than our ego, our subject in the subject/object split, that are allowed to be ensouled. This doesn’t mean that every object is now seen as being alive and having an independent consciousness. This would be what is called a spiritualist fallacy, applying the project of soul in an abstract manner of grids over all of reality. Instead, the rock may or may not be currently inhabited. The building’s soul may be revealing itself one moment and not the next. And people with egos may act quite soulless. We find out though giving the other meaning, and waiting to see if it reveals its significance. We wait, we listen, we make time and room for otherness.
At first this seems completely contrary to modern therapy and the notion of re-owning one’s projections. Typically the path of contemporary ego integration is for the client to bring all these imaginations that are out there on others into one’s consciousness and be responsible for these creations. We see this in the Gestalt dreamwork of looking at every piece of the dream as oneself, as well as the dreamwork where every piece of the dream brings with it a message or presentation that is related to our ego’s future self development.
Rather personifying is taken by archetypal psychology to be “the spontaneous experiencing, envisioning and speaking of the configurations of existence as psychic presences” (Re-Visioning, 12)

Some ways we may error in approaching an image.
1. Allegory. Allegory tends to provide a “lesson” and the personification of gods and goddesses become simply illustrations of a principle. “Ah, yes, this flower in the dream is the allegory of the rose and means thus and such.” Or worse, it picks up the positive side of an image or principle or myth and shoves off the pathological side, which may be the part of the image that hold the depth. “Allegory,” write Hillman “is a defensive reaction of the rational mind against the full power of the soul’s irrational personifying propensity” (Re-Visioning, 8).
2. Using words as signifieds. Just as one can impose a pre-existing theory on a dream, one can also toss word-meanings at the image. Consider that there are two approaches to the use of words, signifying and evoking. In the first, the word is a sign, which we have learned points to a particular concept. Couch, tree, cow. In modern language we have operationally defined concepts of reason and we have words of belief. Between these two there isn’t much room to maneuver, and yet, this space in-between is exactly the place of soul and imagination. Words in the between realm don’t signify something other than themselves, but evoke and themselves become part of the event. This is also the realm of poetry. We can never tell beforehand if the evoked will appear. It doesn’t signify a stable concept.
3. Personification vs. personifying. The attribution of personified objects outside the person has survived the death of God in contemporary society in the forms of pathology and anthropology. We either talk about people falsely attributing human characteristics to objects (anthropomorphizing) or we talk about primitive people and animism, the attribution of living souls to inanimate objects. To avoid this name-calling which assumes we take something inside and project it outside, archetypal psychology uses the word personifying, which assumes the existence of souls ~prior~ to our reflecting upon them.

What’s the point of all this poetic soul-making and personifying? Hillman reminds us that the Greeks and Romans used to have psychic powers that they worshiped, Insolence, Night, Ugliness, Timing, Hope, Mercy, Forgetfulness… and when neglected, people fell sick, which is also what Jung never tired of saying. The point, Hillman points out, is not to start up a new series of cults, but to see this activity as cultural personifying. Finding these images in our hearts and dreams and culture returns abstract thoughts and dead matter to human shapes.

This leads us to a mythopoetic world view. In this view, myths are not stories but personifications that draw one into contact with depth. The mythic consciousness is able to engage a world that is animated with soul. “where imagination reigns, personifying happens.” (Re-Visoning, 17) or as Jung put it “Image is psyche, the psyche consists essentially of images… a picturing of vital activates” (CW 13 #58)

One of the consequences of this view is that we too, are imaginal being.

Naming with images and metaphors has an advantage over naming with concepts, for personified namings never mere dead tools. (Re-Visioning, 32)

Hillman notes that personifying, whether it is done pathologically or intentionally, functions to “save the diversity and autonomy of the psyche from domination by any single power, whether this domination be by a figure of archetypal awe in one’s surroundings or by one’s own egomania. ‘ (Re-Visioning, 32)

In some dreams, the various styles of presence are mirrored in a scene. “these styles are embodied in persons who are embroiled with each other. “ (Re-Visioning, 32)

These personalities at night “ infuse themselves into the attitudes that dominate our daily lives. “ (Re-Visioning, 32-33)

Dreams, then, for archetypal psychology hold a special place as they can present an encounter that the waking ego may be unable to access with all its waking defenses intact (in waking, they can still overwhelm us, but we call them “symptoms.”) That is, while dreaming we are aware of our status as one of many autonomous, imaginal beings.

Thus archetypal psychology allows the image to work on us. There may not even be a conclusion or goal. Imagination doesn’t have to achieve or commit to create. In fact, it works better through falling apart, coming to pieces, separating rather than unifying, diversifying rather than integrating, multiplying instead of hierarchical-izing.

In dreamwork, this requires moving towards and staying with the intolerable, (Aizenstat, 2003) , the unusual, the alien. The images “must be alien even while familiar, strangers even if lovers, uncanny although we rely on them.” (Re-Visioning, 41)

The myth of Eros and Psyche is taken seriously. It is through love one can see the person in the imaginary and the imaginal layer that pervades all we see. “every symptom or habit, fining place for it within the heart of imagination, finding mythical person who is its supportive ground.” (Re-Visioning, 44)


Why on earth would pathologizing be of use to archetypal psychology, or anyone for that matter? To find that part of psyche which is most hidden and alien to ego consciousness, there is no better place than in the sick, suffering, abnormal and fantastic symptoms. What Hillman means by the term is ”the psyche’s autonomous ability to create illness, morbidity, disorder, abnormality, and suffering in any aspect of the its behavior and to experience and imagine life through this deformed and afflicted perspective. “ (Re-Visioning, 57) Through the pathologizing activities of the soul, archetypal psychology develops a psychological necessity. Once this necessity if found, then pathologizing isn’t right or wrong, but more finds its place in the whole as necessary. That is, we begin to learn how it is speaking and what it is saying. Part of this is seeing the pathological as primary and inherent in all psychic events rather than speaking of “abnormal psychology” which splits the psyche into artificial parts, health and illness, sin and redemption.

There are three ways that we often avoid allowing space for the pathological psyche.

The first is by careful naming and labeling, as mentioned above. This accurate sketch of symptoms, their onset, their course, the expected outcome, all expose a secret power dynamic to make them sensible and deny their irascible essence.

The second way of avoiding the psyche’s true pathology is by shifting the insanity from the individual to the society, but in the end maintains the division. The importance of phenomenological/existential schools in exposing the insanity of culture and offering us authentic choices and alternatives is surely to be acknowledged, but as a full view of psyche they just becomes one-sided and nihilistic.

The third way to avoid pathology is with sugary humanism, which tries to stay above it all, focusing on the higher virtues of mankind, its health, hope, self-transcendent warmth and love and courage. But by turning away from the psyche’s pathologizing, they turn away from its full richness and depth.

As a larger picture, we can look at the Neo-platonic model to see how there is often a struggle and confusion between spirit and soul mentioned above in the placement of psyche/soul ~between~ spirit and concrete matter. However, in our culture both are often folded into spirit and spirit dominates in the realm of the abstract and ideal. That is, we turn psychopathology into a material thing to be cured by medicine or a spiritual thing to be worshiped or ennobled. When does it get its own realm?

How does one go with pathology then? Hillman suggests we expand Jung’s phrase “dreaming the dream onward” to include “pathologizing the myth onward.” This means trying to find a way to stick with the mess. This means finding imaginal methods and allowing the madness to teach us the method. “We do not decrease their value by considering them as signs of medical sickness or inflate their value by considering them as signs of spiritual suffering. They are ways of the psyche and ways of finding soul.” (Re-Visioning, 75)

In dreamwork, for example, the way to stay with an image is first to not set its value in terms of literal nature. So often the twisted, turned, bent and out of shape scenes are seen as problems while idyllic scenes are taken as sign of our equilibrium and health. The more nature the more positive, the more distorted, the more negative. “By employing the dream as model of psychic actuality, and by conceiving a theory of personality based upon the dream, we are imagining the psyche’s basic structure to be an inscape of personified images. The full consequences of this structure imply that the psyche presents its own imaginal dimensions, operates freely without words, and is constituted of multiple personalities.” (Re-Visioning, 33)

Psychologizing or Seeing Through

Psychologizing is seen as the soul’s root and native activity. The first activity is reflection. This is not a passive reflection, but seeing reflection in all activity and behavior. Though not all ideas are necessarily worthy of soul making, Hillman writes “By psychological ideas, I mean those that engender the soul’s reflection upon its nature, structure, and purpose. “ (Re-Visioning, 117) As a general guide, the process is one of de-literalizing, of moving into the metaphorical, of gathering up the overtones and after tones that get cut off when we speak literally.

It may be easier to talk about these ideas as archetypes, the soul’s relation with death, with body, the world, other souls, love, beauty, sickness, family, ancestors, power, history, time. It is there relationship to psyche that makes them archetypal and keeps them connected with soul. The souls that can’t find and generate ideas become lost, hollow, lacking in imagination. What a radical idea it would be to see a dream a day as its own idea, its own new world perspective, its own school of philosophy. The psyche expresses itself in these ideas. In this sense, psychologizing means seeing through the view presented by the psyche, putting on its eyes and looking through its eyes, as well as seeing from what archetypal fantasy this view is coming from. This turning of ideas back upon themselves is a way we come to know the frames of our consciousness and the prisons of our mind.

“Through psychologizing I change the idea of any literal action at all—political, scientific, personal—into a metaphorical enactment…. I recognize that though my ideas I apprehend and am apprehended by my inmost subjectivity, entering all actions in the role of an idea” (Re-Visioning, 127)

In other words, by placing the scene we are in within the stage of psychological powers (perspectives, gods, archetypes) we create a space for the introduction or re-introduction of the imaginal. When this task is neglected, there is no less fantasy, but the fantasy is dominated by single views. If I am at a board of directors meeting and unable to place my position within a larger imaginal field, I am likely to be caught up in the egoic dramas, the continual power plays, the continual need to be heard. Allowing for a more polytheistic placement, seeing that a wider variety of perspectives and imps and ideas and demons are at play, the board meeting can open up from its monotheistic bottom line or need for progress and take on the larger goals of, say for example, unfolding the complexities of the mission statement of the organization and recognizing the development of relations that can bring in novelty and innovation. This will be as true for the board meeting in the waking world as the board meeting in my dream.

So, in psychologizing, we look for the fantasy that is dominant in a time or space. There is no specific procedure for this. It may be through an historical examination of underlying causes, it may be a semiological analysis, it may be a philosophical debate. It may be through humor or art or love. But again, the process is one of de-literaling. Some mistakes we make in trying to hear metaphor include:

1. Abstract Liternalness. Theology and metaphysical often take as literal the most abstract of concepts. In this way they speak about soul, but are really avoiding soul in talk about redemption, truth, and ideals.
2. Body Liternalness. The body is always concrete, but not literal. The body engages in a wide variety of tasks which are concrete but not just literal, such as eating, dancing, copulating, fighting, running.

Steps in seeing-through
a. Psychologizing. What is going on here? What is this moment in my life and as I bring some reflective time into the moment, what becomes clear? This process may itself be infinitely deep. Once moment of clarity leading to the next darkness.
b. Deus abscounditus: As we begin to acknowledge the full depth of the encounter, we find ourselves guided by that something which always remains unknown, a hidden god. “who appears only in concealment” Re-Visioning, 140) and justifies the whole process.

c. Narration: as we elaborate the phenomena before us, we make a tale of it, and in telling this tale what is before us transforms. All explanations can be considered narratives and placed mythologically.
d. Ideas as tools: The way it all moves is through ideas, and these are then the eyes of the soul, the way it sees.

In conclusion, what kind of general world-view is archetypal psychology offering? Stephen Aizenstat suggests that the move if from the Collective Unconscious to the World Unconscious.. This view includes the psychic reality of all phenomena as they manifest in the world. “The world unconscious is a deeper and wider dimension of the psyche than that of the personal or the collective unconscious. In the realm of the world unconscious, all creatures and things of the world are understood at interrelated and interconnected” (Aizenstat, 1995, 96)
This view deeply acknowledges the imaginal realm in life and attempts to restore it value in our culture. The result is an re-animated world of autonomous beings. But while these beings may not need us, we need them. “Images, like myth, are necessary for the enchantment of the soul, said Plato. There is nothing more ultimate than that—enchantment, eternal delight in coming and going, in ascending and descending on Jacob’s ladder. The Event events, Imagination imagines. “ (Avens, 1984)


If you are interested in how archetypal psychology might enhance your own dreamwork, be sure to take the History of Dreams course offered by Richard Wilkerson at the beginning of each month. The course includes the history of dreamwork from ancient Thrace to Cyberspace, covering all major schools of psychology, and many of the peripheral schools and views. The course also includes dream anthropology, dream science, lucidity, and many other topics and areas in dreaming, including archetypal psychology.



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