We never see the actual archetypes around us. What we see are, in a sense, incarnations of the archetypes. The archetypes all exists in our psyche, in the collective unconscious, as patterns outside of our control, influencing us in ways outside of our awareness. What we see externally are not the archetypes, but projections of them. Something that fits the pattern of an archetype. That almost seems like a duplicate of something deep in our unconscious. An image in the mirror.
To understand and to create meaning in an empty space (quite literally in some cases) we project unto it. We create patterns, project a connection, and assume we understand more than we do. It’s a very human thing that we do all the time, and archetypes aren’t excluded from this type of projection. To understand the world around us, or even to understand a process in ourselves, we project (or as Jung would phrase it, a projection happens to us) aspects of the collective unconscious and certain relevant archetypes unto something external, to make sense of what goes on inside us. To understand a psychologically transforming process.
Perhaps the most well-known way we project certain archetypes is in the stories of mythology. There are several books written through a Jungian lens where the mythological stories and personalities of the gods and goddesses themselves are dissected to explain essential and timeless aspects of humanity and our psyche. The power in the mythological stories from ancient Greece doesn’t lie in whether they are literally true or not. It lies in their figurative meaning. In how they describe the nature of humanity. Through a projection of our psyche, we have stories of mythology from around the world, describing aspects of what we can only see through the shadow it casts on the world: the archetypes of the collective unconscious.
When we think about alchemy, who among us doesn’t think of the philosopher’s stone (lapis philosopharum), something to turn base metals into gold, or even grant immortality. That is a part of alchemy. Alchemy was an attempt to purify and change the nature of materials. Turning iron into gold has become a sort of caricature of what alchemy was (in fact, chemistry originated from alchemy), but it is an actual aspect of it. But what does folklore chemistry have to do with our psychology?
A lot, if we ask Jung. He wrote an entire book on the topic, called “Psychology and alchemy” (very interesting, I definitely recommend it if you find this article the least bit interesting). In it, he discusses the concept and field of alchemy, and how it relates to our psyche. At first glance, it may sound like a strange union. The predecessor to chemistry together with the science of human nature. But like I described above, we have a tendency to project the inner workings of our psyche to the external world. Alchemy, very often, became such a vessel. The philosophers’ stone, for example, isn’t merely a mythological object able to transform and purify material objects. It’s also something that can be found within us, a place where we can turn something common and seemingly worthless into gold. Mercury, the material of transformation, is also the Roman name of Hermes, the god that travels between Olympus and Hades, freely communicating with any god or goddess, both of consciousness and of the unconscious.
For a very long time, likely since the dawn of humanity, we’ve looked up towards the black sky, wondering what it is, and what lies beyond it. The sky is vast, awe-inspiring, and impressive. ANd it’s filled with what we don’t understand. Like a clockwork, stars and planets move along certain paths, creating an intricate, complex, and ever-changing pattern. In “Psychology and alchemy”, Jung mentions astrology as well. Just as with alchemy, although reaching further to two oppsing sides. When it comes to astrology, humanity has long gazed both outwards and inwards. Towards the sky and its mystery, and inside, at the mystery that our unconscious provides. The contrast between the two is huge, yet it’s seemingly easy to draw a connection, sometimes even a meaningful one, between them. All over the world, people have made sense of the patterns of the stars, and either found or made a connection between their movements and our personalities and the events here on earth. We’ve taken the vast and mysterious space and the stars in it, and placed the movings of our psyche and unconscious on it, pairing it with the movement and placement of planets.
The use of tarot cards is an attempt to, with the help of cards, tell the past, present, or future of someone. Using archetypal images packed with symbolism, the cards hold much more meaning than someone would suspect at first glance, not through themselves, but through tugging a line to our unconscious. “A picture is worth more than a thousand words” holds true here, but is even more potent considering the richness of symbols; they’re much more verbose than a picture. Because of this, connections are drawn to our collective unconscious and the symbols are given life in their connection and representation of certain archetypes, and a “prediction” or explanation using the cards is born.
In a sense, the cards can be seen as windows into the depth and richness of the collective unconscious, being a concrete picture to project the very abstract and intangible internal reality unto. Both alchemy and astrology are very abstract concepts, with less of a concrete application. Tarot cards can work as a bridge, where someone has a hard time applying the abstract reality of them. The cards are concrete, and concretizations of something abstract. Just like memory can be hung up on concrete rooms and objects through the creation of a memory palace to help to remember something; a speech or a random collection of objects, the cards with their images and symbols can be a concrete, physical and visual way of drawing something else from the depth of our psyche. Instead of pulling memories, it pulls archetypes.
Does that mean alchemy, astrology, and tarot cards all are true?
Yes. No? It depends on what you mean by true. No, as far as science has taken us, we cannot use a stone to create gold out of iron. Personally, there are plenty of things in my birth chart that doesn’t fit with my personality, and tarot cards are drawn at random, after all. But that is a somewhat shallow attempt to prove them true. It’s a view of truth that is completely literal. Of course, we cannot turn iron into gold – just hearing the suggestion is absurd. It might’ve worked in Harry Potter, but not in the real world. On the other hand, the philosophers’ stone as an internal object, something inside us that we, through thought and contemplation can reach, that can create gold and wonder out of the seemingly weakest parts of our personality, or find the gold in another person? Yes, that is real.
Our unconscious is as real as our conscious, our ego. How the nature of the unconscious looks depends on who you ask. Even Freud and Jung, working closely together for a short while, had vastly different ideas about its components and origin. Jung talks about the collective unconscious: a reality “living” in each person, collective just like our human DNA, found in everyone around the globe. Real patterns. Real archetypes.
Those archetypes are projected unto the physical world. Our inner workings, our internal journey, are projected on what we can find around us; to understand it and to process it. Is alchemy, astrology, and tarot cards true? Yes. Just like mythology, or fairytales like Beauty and the Beast, they express something deeply human. Something that, while not literally true, may teach us more about reality than something limited by our need for technical, literal truth.
Something that is worth noting, after discussing the truth around alchemy, astrology, and tarot cards, is synchronicity. In short, synchronicity is a meaningful coincidence. When Jung described synchronicity, he brought up an example of a patient he was with, that had a dream about an Egyptian scarab. I don’t remember the details of the story, but the patient didn’t believe dreams would tell her any meaningful information about her life, so she dismissed Jung’s interpretations of it. When it seemed like nothing more could be done to convince her, they both heard a sound from the window. Opening the window, Jung saw, and showed to the woman, a beetle closely resembling an Egyptian scarab, that had flown into the window. Although the event was completely accidental, it was meaningful, and showed the woman the meaning of her dream.
Synchronicity could be applied to both astrology and tarot cards. While not really applicable in terms of alchemy, the two other areas could, theoretically, be true in terms of synchronicity. That, while there is no technical, causal relationship between the constellation of planets and stars with our personality and events on earth, it could be a case of synchronicity. A meaningful coincidence. Just as there could be a meaningful coincidence between the cards we draw and the current events of someone’s life.
How can they be used, and what do they teach us?
Astrology is consistently dismissed as jumbo-mumbo, I don’t think I’ve even heard alchemy being discussed beyond an old, outdated attempt at “science”, and tarot cards mostly seem to follow the same fate and reputation as astrology. Yet I hold, because of what I’ve written above, that they can be useful – even seen as true depending on your lens and definition of the word. When I read through “Psychology and alchemy”, I didn’t just learn a bunch of history about an old, outdated attempt at science. It wasn’t even just described as a symbol to understand our psyche. No, what Jung talked about was transformation. How mercury (Hermes) takes one material and turns it into another. Reading through my birth chart, even if I don’t see a literal truth in astrology, has been interesting. It’s a language, and a very powerful tool for introspection. I seem to have some memory of how Jung allegedly said that if he got stuck with a patient, he would read their birth chart. I don’t know if it’s true, and if it is, I don’t know what his reasons for it were. But, even without assuming a literal truth in astrology, I can see a point in doing this. Astrology, likely because of how ancient and universal the idea is, has a vast library of tools for looking inwards in a much more archetypal manner than a lot of modern psychology would. And tarot cards, possibly the (in my humble opinion) the most useful of the three. They are highly symbolic, and a concrete “application” of the archetypes. A way to pull out what’s otherwise buried in the depth of our unconscious. And even if the person using them would be “wrong” about how something symbolically applies to the person, it will, just as astrology, make someone introspect. Think about the answers to the questions they attempted to have answered through tarot. They are both, together with alchemy, great tools for introspection.
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