Why Mythology Is Essential to Understanding Dreams

In Modern Man in Search of a Soul, Carl Jung advocates that therapists study mythology and religion to understand the forces within a patient’s dreams:

I need not try to prove that my dream interpretation is correct, which would be a somewhat hopeless undertaking, but must simply help the patient to find what it is that activates him—I was almost betrayed into saying what is actual.

It is of especial importance for me to know as much as possible about primitive psychology, mythology, archæology and comparative religion, for the reason that these fields afford me priceless analogies with which I can enrich the associations of my patients. Working together, we are then able to find the apparently irrelevant full of meaning and vastly increase the effectiveness of the dream.

I even make an effort to second the patient in his fantasies. Truth to tell, I have a very high opinion of fantasy. To me, it is actually the maternally creative side of the masculine spirit. When all is said and done, we are never proof against fantasy. It is true that there are worthless, inadequate, morbid and unsatisfying fantasies whose sterile nature will be quickly recognized by every person endowed with commonsense; but this of course proves nothing against the value of creative imagination. All the works of man have their origin in creative fantasy. What right have we then to depreciate imagination? In the ordinary course of things, fantasy does not easily go astray; it is too deep for that, and too closely bound up with the tap-root of human and animal instinct. In surprising ways it always rights itself again. The creative activity of the imagination frees man from his bondage to the "nothing but" and liberates in him the spirit of play. As Schiller says, man is completely human only when he is playing.

My aim is to bring about a psychic state in which my patient begins to experiment with his own nature—a state of fluidity, change and growth, in which there is no longer anything eternally fixed and hopelessly petrified. It is of course only by stating its general principles that I can present my technique here. In handling a dream or a fantasy I make it a rule never to go beyond the meaning which has an effect upon the patient; I merely strive in each case to make this meaning as conscious to him as possible, so that he can also become aware of its supra-personal connections. This is important, for when something quite universal happens to a man and he supposes it to be an experience peculiar to himself, then his attitude is obviously wrong, that is, too personal, and it tends to exclude him from human society. We require not only a present-day, personal consciousness, but also a supra-personal consciousness which is open to the sense of historical continuity. However far-fetched it may sound, experience shows that many neuroses are caused by the fact that people blind themselves to their own religious promptings because of a childish passion for rational enlightenment. The psychologist of today ought to realize once and for all that we are no longer dealing with questions of dogma and creed. A religious attitude is an element in psychic life whose importance can hardly be overrated. And it is precisely for the religious outlook that the sense of historical continuity is indispensable.

To return to the question of my technique, I ask myself to what extent I am indebted to Freud. In any case I learned it from Freud's method of free association, and I regard my technique as a further development of this method.

As long as I help the patient to discover the effective elements in his dream, and as long as I try to show him the general meaning of his symbols, he is still, psychologically speaking, in a state of childhood. For the time being he depends on his dreams and is always asking himself whether the subsequent dream will give him new light or not.