I. “The spirit of the depths is pregnant with ice, fire, and death. You are right to fear the spirit of the depths, as he is full of horror.”
II. “You thought you knew that abyss? Oh you clever people! It is another thing to experience it.”
Carl Jung, The Red Book
Chapter V of The Red Book is entitled Descent into Hell in the Future. It starts ominously, “In the following night, the air was filled with many voices.” This particular chapter has a more visceral tone, marking the watershed between preparation and actually plunging into “a dreadful deep.” It also includes more illustrations than previous chapters, which also marks the transition from intellectual verbal speculation to the realm of primordial images. The spirit of the depths allows Jung to experience the underworld.
Seized by fear, Jung descends into a dark cave along “a gray rock face.” He proceeds still deeper, to a lower cave with black water on the bottom. At that moment he catches a glimpse of the red stone, which he knows he must reach. He also sees a dead body on the surface of the water: “the bloody head of a man on the dark stream.” There is also a black scarab floating there and “a red sun, radiating through the dark water.” The red sun shines in the depths while “a thousand serpents crowd around, veiling the sun.” As the night falls, “thick red blood springs up.”
This passage foreshadows chapter VII – “Murder of the Hero.” Jung later identified the dead man as Siegfried, the dragon slaying hero of the Germanic mythology. In a dream of 1913, described in Memories, Dreams, Reflections Jung shot Siegfried with a rifle. That is how he himself interpreted the dream:
“Siegfried, I thought, represents what the Germans want to achieve, heroically to impose their will, have their own way. ‘Where there is a will there is a way!’ I had wanted to do the same. But now that was no longer possible. The dream showed that the attitude embodied by Siegfried, the hero, no longer suited me. Therefore it had to be killed.“
Jung’s task was to find a new psychological adaptation because identifying with the male hero no longer served his soul. How much can his interpretation of his own dream be trusted has been a subject of debate. Some researchers have pointed out that Jung left the personal element out of the equation. Sabine Spielrein, his early patient and lover, shared a fantasy with him that she would like to bear him a son called Siegfried. Another interpretative angle could be connected with Jung’s premonition of the world war and the German role in it.
The scarab is of course a reference to the Egyptian god Khepri, who transcends “the boundaries of darkness and underworld, [emerging] with the rising sun. His name means “to come into being.” But “Khepri’s blackness also suggests that it is an invisible force that upholds solar energies.” (1) Along with the image of death – the dead hero’s body, scarab is the symbol of rebirth, which will come after the solar ego consciousness descends into the unconscious.
The symbolism of the red stone, the ultimate goal of the alchemical opus standing for the integration of the soul, was analyzed by me here. It seems that Jung’s vision of the underworld condenses the entire alchemical process: from the nigredo to the creation of the red stone. Thus, the soul offers Jung hope that his suffering will bear fruit.
Before he follows the thread of his visions further, Jung makes an invocation to his soul, further rejecting the intellectual judgement in favour of “divine astonishment”:
“Keep it far from me, science that clever knower, bad prison master who binds the soul and imprisons it in a lightless cell. … I want to go down cleansed into your depths with white garments … Let me persist in divine astonishment, so that I am ready to behold your wonders. Let me lay my head on a stone before your door, so that I am prepared to receive your light.”
In the subsequent passage Jung considers the theme of divine madness. He says, “if you enter into the world of the soul, you are like a madman, and a doctor would consider you to be sick.” He defines divine madness as “the overpowering of the spirit of this time through the spirit of the depths.” He also explains that balance is crucial in the sort of soul work that he has been dedicating himself to. He explains that during the preceding twenty-five days he served his soul by night while by day he served the spirit of our time. In this way, he did not descend into utter madness. The footnotes to The Red Book offer here a magnificent quote from Plato’s Phaedrus about madness: “provided it comes as a gift of heaven, [it] is the channel by which we receive the greatest blessings.”
In the following passage Jung explains what the slaying of the hero signifies – the birth of new life out of torment and suffering:
“If the hero in you is slain, then the sun of the depths rises in you, glowing from afar, and from a dreadful place. But all the same, everything that up till now seemed to be dead in you will come to life, and will change into poisonous serpents that will cover the sun, and you will fall into night and confusion. Your blood also will stream from many wounds in this frightful struggle. Your shock and doubt will be great, but from such torment the new life will be born. Birth is blood and torment. Your darkness, which you did not suspect since it was dead, will come to life and you will feel the crush of total evil and the conflicts of life that still now lie buried in the matter of your body.”
Criticism of the hero ideal is deepened in the final section of that chapter, where Jung juxtaposes the “everlasting ascent” of the hero with the concept of “incapacity,” which is as important for the psyche. In his guide to The Red Book Sanford L. Drob emphasizes that it is important that the hero “surrenders a portion of his control to the powers of the underworld.”
(1) The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images, ed. by Ami Ronnberg, ARAS