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Hero's Journey
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The following is an excerpt from a paper I wrote 20 some years ago while I was in Jungian analytic training. The larger paper is an interpretation of the movie Alien as an archetypal night sea journey of the hero. This excerpt chronicles the evolution of Jung's perspective on the hero's journey and is being posted in honor of the October 7, 2009, publication of Carl Gustav Jung’s The Red Book

The Red Book is Jung's personal journal documenting his own night sea journey, what he called his "confrontation with the unconscious." Jung began The Red Book in 1913 following the devastating break with his friend, colleague, mentor, and father figure, Sigmund Freud. 

The Night Sea Journey

Jung attributes the term "night sea journey" to Frobenius, to whose extensive study of myths Jung refers frequently in The Collected Works. (CW 5:308). The night sea journey is a recurring cross-cultural ancient mythical theme of archetypal origin which reappears, relatively more recently, again and again in the fairy tales and legends of the dragon slaying hero. It also appears again and again in The Collected Works, spanning 42 years of Jung's writing, from Symbols of Transformation, published in 1912 through Mysterium Coniunctionis, published in 1954. Each appearance of the myth of the night sea journey in Jung's writing reflects the unfolding of his psychology.

The protagonist of the myth is often termed "sun hero" with this nomenclature reflecting a basic element of the archetypal core. Quoting Jung from his 1927 paper, "The Structure of the Psyche":

"Every morning a divine hero is born from the sea and mounts the chariot of the sun. In the West a Great Mother awaits him, and he is devoured by her in the evening. In the belly of a dragon he traverses the depths of the midnight sea.  After a frightful combat with the serpent of night he is born again in the morning." (CW 8:326)

Jung describes the hero as a wanderer and says that "wandering is a symbol for longing, of the restless urge which never finds its object, of nostalgia for the lost mother." (CW 5:299) The hero is like the wandering sun and

"...he is first and foremost a self-representation of the longing of the unconscious, of its unquenched and unquenchable desire for the light of consciousness. But consciousness, continually in danger of being led astray by its own light and of becoming a rootless will 'o the wisp, longs for the healing power of nature, for the deep wells of being and for unconscious communion with life in all its countless forms." (CW 5:299)

The night sea journey is the cyclical migration of the hero, the ego, back to the beckoning mother, the unconscious, from which it came. It is the journey to hell and reentry into the womb, the jaws of death, the voracious maw of the Terrible Mother. It is the fight with the whale-dragon and the conquest of the monster from within. To Jung: "it is the longing to attain rebirth through a return to the womb, and to become immortal like the sun." (CW 5:312)  For the hero, illumination is the fleeting reward of each hard fought battle in a never ending campaign.

In his essay "On Psychic Energy", published in 1928, Jung describes the hero on his journey as the "symbolical exponent of the movement of libido."

"Entry into the dragon is the regressive direction, and the journey to the East (the night sea journey) with its attendant events symbolizes the effort to adapt to the conditions of the psychic inner world. The complete swallowing up and disappearance of the hero in the belly of the dragon represents the complete withdrawal of interest from the outer world. The overcoming of the monster from within is the achievement of adaptation to the conditions of the inner world, and the emergence... of the hero from the monster's belly..., which happens at the moment of sunrise, symbolizes the recommencement of progression." (CW 8:68)

Jung clarifies that this regression

"...is not necessarily a retrograde step in the sense of a backwards development or degeneration, but rather represents a necessary phase of development. The individual is, however, not consciously aware that he is developing; he feels himself to be in a compulsive situation that resembles an early infantile state or even an embryonic condition within the womb. It is only if he remains stuck in this condition that we can speak of involution or degeneration." (CW 8:69)

Ego psychologists would call this retrograde "regression in the service of the ego," or in the
vernacular, taking one step backward in order to take two steps forward.

In Psychology and Alchemy, published in 1937, Jung speaks of this journey as the heroic
retrieval of a projected, unconscious content:

"The darkness and depths of the sea symbolize the unconscious state of an invisible content that is projected. Inasmuch as such a content belongs to the total personality, there is always an attraction between conscious mind and projected content. Generally it takes the form of a fascination. This, in the alchemical allegory, is expressed by the King's cry for help from the depths of his unconscious, dissociated state. The conscious mind should respond to this call: one should operari regi, render service to the king, for this would be not only wisdom, but salvation as well. Yet this brings with it the necessity of a descent into the dark world of the unconscious, the ritual..., the perilous adventure of the night sea journey, whose end and aim is the restoration of life, resurrection, and the triumph over death." (CW 12:436)

The journey is "the sleep of incubation", "the ritual death in initiation", (CW 12:171) the alchemical "immersion in the bath." (CW 16:455) In his final opus Mysterium Coniunctionis, published in 1954 in his eightieth year, Jung describes the night sea journey as immersion

"...in the sea of the unconscious for the purpose of heating and incubation.... By this is obviously meant a state of introversion in which the unconscious content is brooded over and digested. During this operation all relations with the outside world are broken off; the feelers of perception and intuition, discrimination and valuation are withdrawn.... but deep inside the psyche the wheels go on turning, performing those cyclic evolutions which bring the mandala of the total personality, the ground-plan of the self, closer to consciousness. But so long as consciousness has not completed the process of integration it is covered by the 'blackest dead sea,' darkened by unconsciousness and oppressed by heat, as was the hero during the night sea journey.  Through the incubation the snake-like content is vapourized, literally 'sublimated,' which amounts to saying that it is recognized and made an object of conscious discrimination." (CW 14:262)

The quest of the hero who ventures into the cave of the dragon or descends into the black sea of night is

"...to find that condition where consciousness and the unconscious are so completely united that he is neither conscious nor unconscious. Whenever the two are too much separated, consciousness seeks to unite them again by going down into the depths where they once were one." (CW 18:263)

This is a search for wholeness, attainment of the pearl of great price, discovered through the transcendent function. From Jung's 1935 Tavistock lectures:

"The descent into the depths will bring healing. It is the way to the total being, the treasure which suffering mankind is forever seeking, which is hidden in the place guarded by terrible dangers. This is the place of primordial unconsciousness and at the same time the place of healing and redemption, because it contains the jewel of wholeness. It is the cave where the dragon of chaos lives and it is also the indestructible city, the magic circle or temenos. the sacred precinct where all the splitoff parts of the personality are united." (CW 18:270)


[The Collected Works citations are typically written noting volume and paragraph.]