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27-08-2015, 18:30

The power of paired opposites

In his letter to Frau Michaelis Jung makes reference to her views on the significance of red and white. These colours were of profound importance in Egypt. Red was the colour associated with the north, whilst white was the colour of the south. The two were always maintained in opposition and always paired: the red and white crowns, the red and white houses for their respective centres of government. Jung may not have appreciated fully the potent symbolism that red and white would have conveyed to an Egyptian but it is very much to be doubted if that symbolism would have encompassed light and blood. On another occasion Jung was to come nearer to the Egyptian idea of the two colours when he referred to the alchemical notion of red and white as ‘the Royal Pair’, opposites perpetually destined to unite.


One result of his African journey was the observation that the cult of Horus was that of the ‘newly risen divine light’,9 the first light at dawn, the glimmer on the eastern horizon. This is the worship of Horus in the Horizon, Harakhte, though its significance in Egypt was probably greater in later times than it had been earlier. In the New Kingdom, for example, it was believed that the Sphinx represented Harmachis, another manifestation of Horus in the Horizon, and it was worshipped as such. Jung observed the remarkable phenomenon of the Nile baboons which seem to wait for the first rays of the sun and then rise and greet its glory. This moment is brilliantly captured in the great temple of Abu Simbel where a line of cynocephalus baboons is depicted on a frieze at the top of the temple’s facade. The baboons sit on their haunches, their paws raised, applauding the sun’s rays as they strike them when the temple is bathed in the first light of dawn. The allegorical significance of the baboons’ action is not in the least diminished by the knowledge that their response is primarily physiological, for the animals are in fact wakening themselves and boosting their circulation, torpid after the night’s sleep. Jung identified the phenomenon with the worship of Horus, an entirely accurate observation.

The moment when the dawn spreads up the eastern sky is a magical one in Egypt, to this day. The whole world falls silent, all created things seem poised and motionless, the very air, no matter how balmy, is palpable. The light on the eastern horizon is strange, milky white, tinged with saffron and pale violet, spreading its radiance rapidly, intensifying in colour as it does so. Then, with the impact of a shout breaking the silence, the sun surges up from the horizon, swinging rapidly into the sky to begin his progress in daily triumph. It is a moment which Nielsen brilliantly captures in his ‘Helios’ overture, though his sun is Aegean.

The sensitivity of the Egyptians to the world around them and their capacity for synthesizing disparate phenomena into a single poetic image are nowhere better demonstrated than in this celebration of the sun returning to the world. The Egyptians were fascinated by the band of light which appears on the eastern horizon to herald the reappearance of the sun each day. They expressed this moment as the god returning after surviving the perils of the night, when he travelled in his divine bark through the underworld. It was remarkably acute of Jung to have realized how significant a moment this was.


The moment immediately before the dawn was of special importance in many of the rituals which were associated with the ‘heliacal’ rising of the great constellations. As the light on the horizon intensifies a constellation can be seen for a few moments, before it disappears in the light of the newly risen sun. To the ancients this was an especially charged event. The constellations which appeared in this way included Sirius, the most important of all the heavenly bodies to the Egyptians for it was associated by them with the renewal of the year, and those other constellations which were identified as heliacally dominant in the cycle of the Precession of the Equinoxes.

Like many others who came before and after him, Jung was inclined to regard the divinities of ancient Egypt as representations of celestial or astronomical phenomena. In this he was perhaps more liberal than most in his acceptance of what have come to be regarded as the more speculative, even arcane areas of scholarship. He was much interested in the greatest demonstration of celestial mechanics, the Precession of the Equinoxes, revealed by the appearance of one of the twelve Zodiacal constellations on the eastern horizon immediately before the sun’s appearance at dawn.10

Jung was convinced of the influence of the Precession on the course of human affairs, a view which is coming increasingly, if still guardedly, to be accepted by some historians of science.11 The entire cycle of the Precession is said to represent a Great, or Platonic, year. This is an idea which seems to have had a special meaning and significance to him for he returns to it on several occasions. In speaking of the uncertainties of his own day he often attributes real or anticipated calamities to the fact that the world was passing from the sign of Pisces to that of Aquarius, a transition bringing changes which he considered as calamitous as those which heralded the transition from Taurus to Aries, sometime around 2000 BC, after the Old Kingdom ended.12 Jung saw these periods, when the universe is conceived as moving from one sign to another in the Universal Zodiac (just as the solar zodiac moves from one ‘house’ to the next) at intervals of approximately 2,160 years, as times of particular distress and melancholy, when cataclysmic events are likely to beset mankind. Jung described these periods as ‘transitions between the aeons’.13

It is generally agreed by historians who have considered the question that knowledge of the Precession does not extend back into the third millennium, but was first defined in Hellenistic times by Hipparchus of Bithynia. Hipparchus drew on somewhat earlier records, compiled a century and a half before his lifetime. But this may not be the full extent of the matter for it is clear that empirical observation of celestial phenomena can predict the Precession over a more limited time-scale than its 25,920 year sequence would appear to require. The observable constellations appear to retrogress by one degree of arc in seventy-two years; thus in only two or three lifetimes, or with longer recorded observations retained for example by a temple community, a discernible shift of a constellation or star marked against a natural feature, such as a hilltop or a stand of trees, would become evident. The quality of ancient Egyptian observation of natural phenomena is unquestionable and the deduction of the effects of the Precession would have been well within their capabilities. It should be remembered that travellers to Egypt in the later centuries of her history frequently recorded the pride of the temple communities in the integrity of the records which they kept, expressly from ancient times.


To Jung the recurrence of symbols associated with certain of the constellations in the several epochs of human history, during which the great civilizations of antiquity emerged and first flourished, was compelling. This recurrence indicated that the choice of a given image as the archetype of the aeon which was identified as the dominating constellation in the dawn sky and which was reflected in the art, architecture and cults of the period, is not merely accidental or the outpouring of excited imaginations. The Twins, the Bull, the Ram, the Fish all figure in the catalogue of ancient symbolism during the epochs conventionally attributed to them, extending roughly from the seventh millennium to the end of antiquity (and, in the case of Pisces, on to the present epoch); all were important to Jung and indicative of their choice as significant forms amongst the societies which were directly ancestral to our own. Each of the constellations with which they were identified rose heliacally in the dawn light, at the vernal equinox, at approximately two thousand year intervals from t.6500bc to the end of the ancient world.

The evidence that the most refined astronomical observation was practiced in Egypt in the mid-third millennium BC (and probably even before that) is clear from the precision with which the pyramids at Giza are aligned to the cardinal points, a precision which could only have been achieved by their alignment to the stars14 and, as was demonstrated earlier, has an immensely long history in Egypt. This fact alone makes Jung’s belief in the Egyptians’ knowledge of the Precession a good deal less speculative than it once might have seemed.


Jung’s understanding of the most important single aspect of the culture which arose in the Nile Valley, the kingship, led him to view the development of early Egypt as being determined by those profound levels of consciousness to which the individual psyche may have access but is probably itself unable to recognize or define. The exceptional quality of the Egyptian psychic experience, the rapid development of its institutions, rituals, hierarchies and canons of belief and organization which is a consequence of the outflowing of the archetypes, makes it possible to identify something very like an emerging ‘self’, in archaic Egyptian society.

To compare the processes at work in the earliest phases of the Egyptian state which were manifested in the arts and social forms that flourished there, with the condition that Jung defined as ‘individuation’ will demonstrate this point.15 Egypt’s development as a complex society is analogous to the experience of the individual growing to self-awareness and the emergence of what was to become the first fully articulated nation-state in human history, for the state, like the king, may be considered to be the ‘self’ of the extended group. It is precisely this moving towards a fully realized apprehension of statehood that allows the comparison to be made with the progression of the self to the realization of its own discrete identity.

The concept of individuation describes the progress towards maturity experienced by the self, in the course of which the self acquires awareness of its own individuality, its own separate existence, distinct from its fellows. This process is clearly comparable with the transition to self-awareness which the Nile Valley culture seems to have undergone, particularly in the period from the end of the fourth millennium to the last part of the third.

In this one instance Jung’s concept of individuation would seem to be specially pertinent to the study of the emergence of a society as highly individual as Egypt in its first flowering. Though it can only be expressed through analogy it is nonetheless revealing; it must however be emphasized that nothing in his writings explicitly permits the extension of Jung’s theories relating to the individual psyche to the emergence of a state organization, whether Egypt’s or any other. Nonetheless, the exceptional quality of the Egyptian experience, which he himself recognized, the rapid development of sophisticated institutions, rituals, hierarchies, and canons of belief, supported by the outflowing of a stream of what can only be recognized as classic Jungian archetypes make it possible to identify something very like an emerging ‘self’ in late predynastic and Early Dynastic Egypt. In considering Jung’s response to Egypt it is illuminating to examine the nature of early Egyptian society in terms of some of the postulates of analytical psychology, which he defined.

It is possible in these terms to speculate about the dynamics which lie below Egypt’s early flowering of art and the creation of the first fully realized artistic tradition allied to emergent nationhood. In doing so it will be well to acknowledge the problems attendant on any attempt to relate the findings of one discipline to the study of another, a procedure which often results in something like an attempt to count apples with pears. In this case, however, it is tempting (and more, it is revealing) to draw a comparison between what appear to be the processes at work in the earliest appearance of the Egyptian state together with the arts which flourished there, and the experience of individuation. It is possible to do this because so much of the actual procedures of development can be traced in early Egypt. It is also a

Witness to the truth that states, even those which manifest such extraordinary characteristics as Egypt in its early centuries, are essentially human constructions.

‘Individuation’ is described by Jung as the maturation process of personality induced by the analysis of the unconscious, is the process whereby the psyche becomes aware of its discrete existence and its relationship to other individuals and entities with which it is required to deal. It describes the progress towards maturity experienced by the self. Individuation makes possible the transition from the collective experience and from the pervasive influence of the collective unconscious to the identification by the individual of distinct and specific responses to his or her environment at all levels. This procedure is comparable with the transition to self-awareness which the population of the Nile Valley underwent, particularly in the period from the middle of the fourth millennium to the last centuries of the third.

The acceptance of these three concepts depends upon the understanding that all humans, of all periods and backgrounds, share a common psychic inheritance. This inheritance will be conditioned by particular circumstances, of environment, education, social pressures and the inculcation of specific systems of belief. Nonetheless, in essence the inheritance of our human past, and that of the period which preceded the attainment of our present state of ‘modern’ humanity, is common to us all no matter in what age we live or where we may pass our lives.


Jung’s contribution to the uncovering of the deeper levels of the human psyche focused in particular on definitions of the collective unconscious, the concept of the archetypes and of individuation. Each of these needs to be examined in an attempt to establish its relevance to what was occurring in late predynastic Egypt, though to attempt to do so briefly (or even succinctly) runs the risk of dealing inadequately with what are extremely complex and many levelled propositions. The definitions proposed by Jung himself provide a starting point: he was aware of the difficulties in gaining acceptance for his propositions. Thus, ‘The hypothesis of a collective unconscious belongs to the class of ideas that people at first find strange but soon come to possess and to use as familiar conceptions’.16

This has been the case with the concept of the unconscious in general. The philosophical idea of the unconscious, in the form chiefly presented by Carus and von Hartmann, had gone down under the overwhelming wave of materialism and empiricism, leaving hardly a ripple behind it, until gradually it reappeared in the domain of medical psychology.

At first the concept of the unconscious was limited to denoting the state of repressed or forgotten concepts:

A more or less superficial layer of the unconscious is undoubtedly personal. I call it the personal unconscious. But this personal unconscious rests upon a deeper layer, which does not derive from personal experience and is not a personal acquisition but is unborn. This deeper layer I call the collective unconscious. I have chosen the term ‘collective’ because this part of the unconscious is not individual but universal: in contrast to the personal psyche, it has contents and modes of behaviour that are more or less the same everywhere and in all individuals. It is, in other words, identical in all men and thus constitutes a common psychic substrate of a supra-personal nature which is present in everyone of us.17


Individuation marks the transition from the collective experience and from the pervasive influence of the collective unconscious to the identification by the individual of specific and distinct responses to his environment, at all levels. The collective unconscious is, according to Jung, to be found at work in all societies and at all ages; its identification was amongst the most profound insights of the century which, as shown in the extract quoted above, Jung saw as constituting ‘a common psychic substrate of a suprapersonal nature which is present in every one of us’.