Between Hermes and Mnemosyne: Jung and Warburg

In the part of Homeric Hymn to Hermes, in which Hermes and Apollo exchange gifts, Hermes sings about the origins of the gods:

“And the first of the gods that he commemorated with his song was Mnemosyne, Mother of Muses, for the son of Maia was a follower of hers.”

In his Hermes, Guide of Souls, Karl Kerenyi equates the goddess Mnemosyne with the source. He writes:

“She is memory as the cosmic ground of self-recalling which, like an eternal spring, never ceases flowing.”

Kerenyi adds that Mnemosyne is Hermes’ daimon of fate; for he has no choice but to carry memory “as inherited knowledge of all primordial sources of being.”

Dant Gabriel Rossetti, “Mnemosyne”

One such son of Hermes, possessed by ancestral memory, was C.G. Jung, another – Aby Warburg. The latter – Jewish German art historian, born in 1866 (nine years before Jung) – had a lot in common with the Swiss psychiatrist, though the two never met. As the war was approaching, both him and Jung had dreams of the continent engulfed in blood. (1) As Schama puts it,

“Beneath the smooth marble façade of classicism, there was, Warburg had discovered early in his career, a primal energy, periodically suppressed and controlled by rational discourse, but always capable of boiling up from its deep sources and engulfing civilization.”

The scholar, argued Warburg towards the end of his life, must go beyond logic towards magic, in order to confront the symbol and its pulsating, primal and pagan underpinnings. Symbols are never rational. In the case of Warburg, and possibly also in the case of Jung, this bold assertion was preceded by a period of psychotic depression.  Warburg spent five years in a clinic for the mentally ill on Lake Constance in Switzerland, not too far from the birthplace of Jung.

But before his time in the clinic, Warburg had made a journey to New Mexico desert in order to observe and experience the work of symbols among Hopi Indians. Such a journey was not a usual practice for the theoretically-oriented scholars of that era. Warburg was especially interested in “the snake dances, in which the Indians, each August, threw live snakes at serpentine images of lightning to ensure the harvest rains.” (2)

In 1923, after a few years of being incarcerated in the Swiss clinic, he delivered a lecture on the Hopi rituals and thus declared his return to sanity. He said during the lecture that both primitivism and modernity share the same symbolic bedrock. He also asserted that all cultures are connected through “the archive of memory.” As Schama concludes,

“By declaring the permanence, the timelessness, of delirium, Warburg won his release from the asylum.”

Giorgio de Chirico, “Eternity of the Moment”

In 1927, two years before his passing, Warburg started to compose an atlas of pictures which he called Mnemosyne. It was a collection of images that were thought to demonstrate the endurance of symbolic forms since antiquity until our times. Today Warburg institutes carry on his unfinished work. What Schama marvels at, is the atlas’s “eloquence of peculiarity.” He compares it to “a … mosaic of discrete pieces of our nature from which a coherent image might emerge.” Because God is hidden in the details, as Warburg famously said.

a panel from the Mnemosyne Atlas

Link to Warburg Institute in London:


(1) Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory

(2) Ibid.


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