The Hero as Soul Image: aims and instincts

In Symbols of Transformation, Carl Jung says that the hero myth “symbolizes the ideas, forms, and forces which grip and mold the soul.” (para. 259) The hero is an image or form of the living soul, expressing trials and tribulations as encountered upon the path of soul. While we often think of the hero in terms of idealized images of triumph and even of immortality, getting at the soul of the hero takes a more subtle insight. Such insight includes an understanding of the subtle realms of psychic life: perceptions that extend beyond idealized images, perceptions of the movements in the life of the soul.

At the time that Jung wrote Symbols of Transformation, Freud and Jung were engaged in a stormy debate regarding the nature of psychic life, each seeing the psyche from a different perspective. Their two perspectives formed two basic viewpoints on psychic life: the egoic and the transpersonal. This schism played out in their perspectives on myth interpretation, and particularly their interpretation of the Oedipus myth. Freud’s understanding was focused on the development of the ego, reflecting ego development taking place within the first half of life. Jung’s psychology was focused on archetypal elements, and his reading of the myths focused on the movement beyond ego, into transpersonal and archetypal motifs. Jung often took the perspective that the transpersonal aspects of psychic life were collective and biological, arising from evolutionary determinants. My aim is to read Jung’s writings from a spiritual perspective, understanding that archetypal images express the telos of the soul– the aims and instincts of the soul.

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The Self and the Mystic Buddha

Buddha, Eastern Tibet, Kham region, 18th century . US public domain via wikimedia
Buddha, Eastern Tibet, Kham region, 18th century . US public domain via wikimedia

In the image above, we see an 18th century painting of the Buddha. Although Buddhism denies the existence of the Self, from the perspective of depth psychology the Buddha is an archetypal image of the Self.

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Siddhartha & Mara: meeting the shadows at the door to the unconscious

First illustration of Fire Lance and a Grenade, 10th Century, Dunhuang. From the book “The Genius of China”, Robert Temple. US Public Domain via Wikimedia

In the image above, we see Buddha obtaining enlightenment. Dark shadow figures assail Buddha from the upper right hand corner, while attractive female figures seduce Buddha from the lower right-hand corner.

The image itself suggests enlightenment. The Buddha holds his left hand in his lap, palm facing upwards. Fingers from his right hand touch the earth. This posture is called the Bhumisparsha mudra, as the earth touching or the earth-witness gesture. This gesture implies that the earth (or eternal) is the witness to enlightenment.

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Beyond ego adaptation

“The ego is the subject of all successful attempts at adaptation so far as these are achieved by the will.”  –Carl Jung, CW 9ii, para 11

For Carl Jung, the Ego plays an important, but limited part, in the psychic economy. The Ego serves an adaptive function, providing a reference point within the field of consciousness. If adaptation to one’s environment is successful then the Ego will serve the will, acting as a reference point between the inner and outer worlds.

The Freudians have come up with some rather interesting ways to talk about the nature of the ego based on Freud’s structural model of the psyche. Eric Santner speaks of the “Ego and the Ibid” as a way to point out the role of identification in Ego consciousness. He says:

“What I mean by this bit of punning [on the ‘Ego and the Ibid] is that the libidinal component of one’s attachment to the predicates securing one’s symbolic identity must … be thought of as being ‘ibidinal’.” (2001 p.51)

Santner is punning on the term ‘libidinal’ by saying that we are not only libidinal but ‘ibidinal’. The term libidinal describes the psychic and emotional energy associated with instinctual drives. The term ‘ibidinal’ hints at the way in which the ego is invested in ‘the predicates securing one’s symbolic identity’.

According to this view, much of the ego’s libidinal investment is toward securing a symbolic identity. The ego identifies with the dominant ideologies and knows itself and others through its placement within the symbolic system– as through a citation, an ibid’. Santner says,

“a symbolic investiture not only endows the subject with new predicates; it also calls for the largely unconscious ‘citation’ of the authority guaranteeing, legitimating one’s rightful enjoyment of those predicates (that is at least in part what it means to ‘internalize’ a new symbolic identity).” (2001, p.51)

Our ego is an ‘ibidinal’ ego to the extent that our enjoyment is obtained through our symbolic investiture, and the authority guaranteed by such investiture. The use of citation acts as a  placeholder within a preconceived symbolic system, providing a sense of order, hierarchies, transcendent aims. Symbolic investiture in these hierarchies is believed to guarantee some sort of authority or legitimacy which is identified with the enjoyment of privilege insofar as one has realized these transcendence aims.

Edmund Husserl discusses the ego in a manner that gives breadth and depth to this understanding. He says “conscious life is the absolute flow which temporalizes itself in a constant striving”. We could say that the ego temporalizes itself in a striving toward identification within a symbolic system.

Our ‘ibidinal’ striving provides a sense of meaning and purpose against the back drop of the ‘absolute flow’ of sensations. We seek predicates that determine our identity and trust in ‘the authority guaranteeing, legitimating one’s rightful enjoyment of those predicates’. The problem is that the idea of enjoyment is never really fulfilled. There is always a lack between the identification and true subjective experience of the self.

Santner explains,

“because that authority is itself in some sense ‘magical’, that is, unsubstantiated, without ultimate foundation in a final ground qua substantive reason, this ‘ibidity’ is, in the final analysis, a citation of lack, and so never settled once and for all.” (2001, p.51)

Any enjoyment through participation in symbolic investitures of legitimacy is an enjoyment which lacks a true foundation. It is an enjoyment via an authority that is ‘in some sense magical’. Though this ‘magic’ attempts to quell the intensity of the ‘absolute flow’ by temporalizing experience and granting some sort of semi-permanent symbolic investiture it always fails because the “ibidity is, in the final analysis, a citation of lack”. Because the authority is a socially constructed authority it always lacks a foundation within the ‘absolute flow’ of experience.

The problem is that we have become so reliant upon our identifications that we have little idea of who we are without citing a reference. You see this everywhere in social media, everyone is referring to some citation as their basis for existence. Life is defined through a series of citation, in which we are all citing someone else who is citing someone else. The question becomes who is really capable of feeling and experiencing life for themselves, beyond and before citation.

Most of us flee from the intensity and numinosity of our human experience. We take cover in the safe structures of legitimacy. We find protection from the flow of life behind investiture and replace our capacity for imagination with that of citation.

Carl Jung takes us Beyond Adaption

To read Carl Jung is to open to the horizon of life which extends beyond adaption. An underlying theme within Jung’s writing is that, to know our true Self, we not only have to develop an Ego, ‘successful adaptation’, we also have to move beyond the Ego’s reliance upon fixated images of adaption. This is where Carl Jung’s theories really shine– when an individual has made a secure ‘attachment to the predicates securing one’s symbolic identity’ and is desiring to move beyond ‘symbolic identity’. Carl Jung is there to meet such an individual.

A deeper reading of Carl Jung work offers an unexpected hero’s journey: a journey not toward the triumph of the ego, but toward the truth of the Self. This journey is not an ‘ibidianal’ investment in the idea of the hero as ‘symbolic investiture’ via the ‘citation of the authority’. Instead it is a path that takes us beyond identification and legitimization.

Carl Jung provides a path and process for moving into the depths and breadths of the Self. This process shifts the libidinal investiture away from the ‘ibidinal’ towards the true Self which lies beyond symbolic investitures.

Because the Self exists beyond ‘symbolic investiture’, it can never quite be defined. Instead we can explore the Self through imaginative exploration of the ur-symbols and archetypes as they form the breadth and depth of being. In doing so we become more capable of an intrinsic enjoyment arising from the process of exploration and discovery. This process seeks to known the nature of the Self, as true hero. With this enjoyment we may become less in need of identification and legitimation, releasing our reliance upon the ‘authority guaranteeing, legitimating one’s rightful enjoyment.’

Exploring the nature of the Self, we find ourselves endeavoring into the transpersonal boundaries of the psyche. This is the spiritual dimension of the psyche. Within the spiritual dimensions we find that time is not so much clock time, but instead sacred time. We find that the world is mapped not so much the four directions of north, south, east, and west, but instead by upper worlds and lower worlds, heavens and hells. We discover shadow realms filled with archetypal spectral images, which call out to be transformed through our acknowledgement. Most of all it is here, in these spiritual realms, that we have the potential to discover the true nature of the Self.


  1. Santner, Eric L. (2001) On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life: Reflections on Freud and Rosenzweig. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Self beyond self

Buddha, resisting the demons of Mara, Description. Welcome Trust Creative Commons.
Buddha, resisting the demons of Mara, Welcome Trust Creative Commons.

In the image above we see Buddha resisting the demons of Mara. The demons are said to represent those forces which prevent him us attaining enlightenment. In the image the angels watch from above.

In the Samyutta Nikaya, there is a story of a Buddhist contemplative named Vajira who has an encounter with Mara. In the story Mara, Evil, is vanquished through Vajira’s insights into the nature of enlightenment. The story is as follows:

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