Back to the Future: Moving From Hercules to Hermes

By Doug Tyler, Ph.D. Jungian Analyst

Consciously exploring our lives more deeply and meaningfully is an idea all of us who share an interest in Jung value. But our agreement around this idea makes the process no easier. So perhaps we can turn to the ancients and their familiar stories and images to help us address the movement of living and muddling through of our lives – a process we now more elegantly call individuation.  Jung demonstrated his unique path in The Red Book, and the unconscious was at times rather aggressive in its unequivocal treatment of him. He described his encounter with the unconscious as moving from “the spirit of the times” to “the spirit of the depths.”

Following this lead, we also can access an image of what the spirit of our times looks like and another image to help us move into the “spirit of the depths.” A most prominent characterization of our time is the myth of the hero – a vital psychic process needed to establish our place in the world. The hero is a constant companion in conversations, the media, and in our daily lives. It is the primary myth that constellates the first half of life, whereby we grow into adulthood and make decisions regarding work, family, and life. No doubt Jung possessed a strong heroic attitude to confront the unconscious as he did. And this is just the reason to develop a strong standpoint in the world – to then possess the strength to pursue the depths.

One enduring image representing such heroic effort is a familiar one for all of us – that of Heracles (more commonly known to us as the Roman Hercules). Perhaps you have even seen the most recent cinematic iteration of this archetypal image. He is fully powerful, fully strong and focused, and fully heroic. We all carry our version of herculean strength and effort, for it is archetypal in nature – common to all. For us to 543040702_c20146452dsuccessfully participate in the conscious and extroverted world, we must activate this energy beginning at a relatively young age. You might ask what this looks like in yourself. Perhaps it appears as pushing forward and conquering some aspect of life; or perhaps it materializes as defending who you are to yourself and others. Certainly there is no shortage of resources to assist this latent archetypal calling. Parents and family exhort us in our quest (if even to satiate their unfulfilled desires), and our education system challenges us to take in what it deems valuable and draw out what is within us. Society bathes us with images of success and offers the necessary ingredients to accomplish such. Books, movies, sports, games, etc. all implore us to build an ego that can both live in the world and simultaneously withstand the various shadow assaults we encounter. All of this requires herculean energy – exemplified in Hercules’ 12 heroic labors noted in the classical Roman story. Our lives are inundated with herculean imagery, and no doubt this tale is a guide for us in our formative life quests.

But the herculean effort required to develop our participation in the “spirit of the times,” as necessary as this is, can take us only so far. This power is primarily of this upper ego world, not the underworld (although Hercules did enter the underworld in the 12th labor –with help). But into the underworld (unconscious) we must go if individuation is honored. For this we need another image upon which to rely – one requiring “powers” different from but inclusive of the hero. Hermes (or Mercurius, whose invaluable spirit Jung describes in CW 13) is such an image – a divine being for whom the Greeks assigned varied powers. His rational and serious older brother Apollo dubbed him “Prince of Thieves;” he became a messenger of the gods and for humans as well as a guide for souls to the underworld. The author of the classical Hymn to Hermes describes him as, “…the very crafty, super-subtle Hermes: thief, cattle rustler, carrier of dreams, secret agent, prowler…” We know him as a trickster, the god of boundaries and crossroads, and, importantly, he is associated with the night (unlike Apollo, the god of truth and solar consciousness, etc.). So what can we learn from this ancient psychic image?

Even though Hermes was a god to the Greeks and an archetypal image to us, his character suggests less a spirit of heroic accomplishments through power and more a spirit of relationship with the journey, our process – including death. Hermes embodies a peripatetic character – always moving. He seeks no particular end point, only moving toward. As Karl Kerenyi, Jung’s associate, wonderfully points out, Hermes is not akin to the later Christian God of repentance and salvation where one turns for cleansing of their sins; he is the god, the psychic energy, of becoming. For this reason, it is of little surprise that he is known as the patron saint of Analytical Psychology. He symbolizes the individuation process. img_hermesBut we must not complacently imagine Hermes as a conceptual being. He represents a living archetypal process – full of surprises, trickery, crossroads, and thievery.

Let us first consider Hermes as messenger of the gods. In this guise he delivers the will of the gods, images from the Self we would say, through our dreams, fantasies, and active imagination. And those out-of-the-blue slips or “mistakes” in our daily thoughts and interactions – like waking dreams that deftly bypass the ego’s sentries – are Hermes’ doing. I imagine most of us are guilty of taking ourselves too seriously at times, which brings some unintended response to reflect our folly in such high-minded pursuit. Hermes is the culprit, the trickster, delivering our lesson. In our current language Hermes is, in part, the movement of the Self, ferrying images from the unconscious into consciousness as he moves seamlessly between these two worlds. Dreams are brought to us, fantasies surprisingly appear, and we are left with the choice to invite our new “guests” into the ego’s space or rebuff them at the threshold. If we invite them in we then have a guide in Hermes as well. He is the psychopomp, the guide of souls into the underworld; he knows the way. At this point we are holding the opposites of what we know and possess along with discoveries from the unconscious. Mind you, this is no ordinary journey as surprises and bumps in the night lie ahead. But we can now move ahead, albeit most often not as we plan. When Jung speaks of the transcendent function, he is referring to this Hermetic/Mercurial spirit which births a new image, a new discovery out of opposites consciously held. The messenger conveys the message and the guide steers the course. Perhaps you have been in a situation where you suddenly know what is coming next – a comment, an idea, an image, a phone call, etc. Hermes is in your midst – delivering without detection.

To my thinking, this is where we psychologically cross from the Herculean over to the Hermetic realm. We can call this transition the point of initiation – the transformative space wherein we sacrifice the ego’s control of the intended trip and come into relationship with the soul’s journey. For transformation to occur something is sacrificed, and this most typically is our attachment to our ego’s desires. Hermes is the deliverer and guide into discovering who we are beyond whom we have learned to be. Initiation requires a ritual to carry us across a boundary into this new territory (of our being). Analysis is an example of such a ritual – where two souls move into a shared space to discover and assimilate the abiding images of and in the unconscious. Such a ritual space serves as an in-between vessel where we hold and experience both “worlds.”

I wish to not idealize nor romanticize this process. Because we discover meaningfulness in our lives within such sacred space does not mean we easily nor blindly accept what we experience. Jung was quite clear about this as he demonstrated in active imagination the need for the ego to be solidly moored in one’s being. And here we see a value of herculean energy – the strength of a developed self with which to meet the unconscious. However, at this point we must also sacrifice our adoration of this herculean attitude and use it instead to come into relationship with the Otherworld of soul. Much like the archetypal nature of our intimate relationships, this one too is fraught with all kinds of ups and downs. And this now brings us to a rather perplexing quality in Hermes: the “Prince of Thieves” who operates in the darkness.

Thievery among the ancient gods was laughed at and enjoyed. But for us mortals it is quite a serious matter all together because thievery threatens personal and collective order. As we know, Hermes’ power to move swiftly between worlds via his golden winged sandals includes his relationships to humans as well as the gods. He is a divine being (i.e., archetypal reality) and yet a divine thief. The Greek scholar Kerenyi again helps us as he describes this aspect of Hermes’ nature: “through him every find, which in itself belongs to the Gods and not to man, becomes a theft that is put to better use.” So we see here that what is stolen (or brought to us by the Self) is intended for our gain. The theft and delivery is a gift of the gods. This divine theft is beyond the ego’s moral obligation not to steal from one another. In our daily lives we are punished for such behavior. But for our purposes here, being in the realm of the active psyche, we are asked to relate to and assimilate such thievery. The origin of this notion is found in the ancient culture. When one would approach a crossroads, he would find a monument to Hermes (a Herm or Herma) upon which offerings were laid to aid travelers. It would please Hermes when one stole or partook of the offerings to the god, thus caring for oneself and sustaining his journey. In this motif we see the need for an offering to the god – or, for us, the conscious offering of honoring and trusting the psyche for what it holds and then offers back to us. In this manner receiving a “theft” as a gift now creates a pair of opposites (what is known to us and what is given by the Self), which is held in tension in order for us to become (via experiencing our respective journeys).

So, the hero, imaged as herculean energy, initiates and guides the ego’s journey. And by offering sustained attention to one’s individuation process, this energy can transform into Hermetic energy, initiating and guiding the soul’s journey.

Blest be the traveler.



When Things Turn Dark

A Book Review by Stephen Foster, Ph.D., Jungian Analyst

Forget heroin. Just try giving up irony, that deep-down need to mean two things at once, to be in two places at once, not to be there for the catastrophe of a fixed meaning.  Patrick Melrose (the hero of Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose Novels)

When things turn dark I like to reach for The Patrick Melrose Novels written by Edward St. Aubyn.[1] I relate to Patrick’s sense of displacement, homelessness and betrayal. His longing to escape into lonely oblivion is balanced by his need for relationship; the tension between these poles is very Jungian. He is caught between worlds and cultures, which makes him an outsider grappling with life and trying to understand why he has been so affected by the actions of others.

If you have not read these novels, I invite you to enjoy this unique view of the English privileged classes. This is not Upstairs, Downstairs or Downton Abbey. We learn about the cruel acts of Patrick’s father: the rape that fathered Patrick and the paternal pedophilic incest that perverts the course of Patrick’s life forever. Patrick’s father is a product of a class system that silently condones such acts, as if they are normal practice or brutal bonding rituals. These violations crush the young boy’s psyche and set up the sense of abandonment and powerlessness that haunts Patrick his entire life.

Like many wounded children, Patrick escapes as best he can and watches his life from the sidelines. The darkness that surrounds him is a reflection of life in this modern age for those of us who are unable to find the right formula to deal with that aging parent, that partner who no longer fulfills our need in relationship or the realization that our so-called friends have been manipulating our world to suit themselves. And yet, Patrick’s affluent upbringing by self-involved parents was not rich enough to provide the tools to deal with all the situations life presents him. After a traumatic day he watches his parents with their friends bantering at dinner from half way down the stairs. He is sobbing quietly, and frozen. This position is symbolic; he hopes to be saved by his wire-monkey mother, but fears being visited by his perpetrating father. The resulting desolation sets him on a path to escape using drugs, and alcohol.

Because I grew up in England during the same time The Patrick Melrose Novels are set, I might relate to Patrick’s exploits more than Americans. Yet, symbolically his story reflects many of the Archetypal patterns I see in America, even today. It’s not that everyone finds themselves in some of the physical situations as Patrick, but they are allegories; he is searching for ways to fix broken aspects of his life. We all have our own tales of searching for the next “fix,” whatever that might be for each of us.

Have you ever found yourself deeply lost in a foreign country, in a neighborhood that is ethnically different or on streets that only the desperate and lost find themselves? For Patrick it was when searching for relief in New York following the death of his father. Lost and in pain, it was a compassionate African American man with kind eyes who tried to help him. But, like Perceval, he did not even realize he had lost his moment—until later. In trying to return to the castle, Patrick returns to the man who thought he was an egg, and experiences the tastes and smells of his past, but he cannot find the Grail. Patrick is lost in a foreign city; he is lost in his own inner world and his relationship with the Self has been severed. Patrick is required to retrieve and carry his dead father’s ashes back to England; a physical act that matches the psychological weight he has been carrying over the years. In trying to escape his father’s friends he is required to confront his father’s shadow, and behind this shadow is where he hides his shame. Discovering his inadequate desperation and impotent rage is Patrick’s “jumping off point.”

It is strange how things sometimes fall apart of their own accord, only to re-form at a higher level. Our egos feel powerless to stop the process. We watch Patrick as we might watch a child playing with a toy; we watch him break it, and in trying to hold all of the broken parts together we see more parts inexplicably fall off. Later in life this dynamic plays out with breaks in relationships with friends, family and colleagues. We somehow know we can never get the parts back together. When we look around for help as children, we often find the same parental void that Patrick finds, and the same lack of modeling that leaves his relationships broken and unfixable. Is this why we come to analysis—to find some inner understanding that might prevent future breaks? Of course! And in the deeper moments, when a dream provides clarity, the unconscious fills the void with meaning or creates a tension that pries apart the veil behind which meaning peers out.

There is an abundance of psychological reflection in the later novels. Patrick’s friend from his using days has trained as a Freudian psychoanalyst and in his conversations with Patrick he helps Patrick reflect on his predicament from the inside of Patrick’s experience. The psychoanalyst found his way through his own addiction using the Jungian tools of holding the tension between his conscious desire for recovery and his unconscious fantasies of escape. This tension has activated his transcendent function to give him the refined skills of self-reflection, clear observation, and the thing I find lacking in so many people these days: reflective compassion for others. He and Patrick are sittings in the garden late in the evening after a party at Patrick’s house. They are talking about the affair Patrick is about to embark on with a family friend who is staying the weekend with Patrick’s family. Without judgment the analyst tenderly opens Patrick to the broader meaning of his actions, and holds the moment psychologically; he imagines the affair like a gem in mid-air, turning it over and over to inspect each facet, and the affect on Patrick and his family. He does not prevent Patrick from forging ahead, wraithlike, onto the path that leads to the slow death of Patrick’s marriage. Psychologically, this shows that failure is a way of life; it is not sad that we fail, it is sad that we fail to see that it presents us with an opportunity to provide the kind eyes of reflective caring compassion to the person who needs it the most.

Patrick’s struggle to “recover” reflects our own striving to understand the reasons for the betrayals in our lives; to find meaning in the mean and cruel acts of others and a release from our attachment to a certain outcome in uncertain times. And in the end, like Patrick we still have to get up in the morning wondering how to pay the bills when the inheritance we felt was ours has been given away to the Shaman, or spent by the second family of our estranged parent. The reality is that these things were actually never ours; they were simply the wishful thinking of a child who has the fantasy that things would be different.

Patrick’s life is complex, and the description of how it unfolds is engrossing. These books are perfect for a rainy day.

[1] For readers who are unfamiliar with this series, there are five novels that make up the body of work: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother’s Milk and At Last. In these books St. Aubyn chronicles Patrick’s life from birth to middle age, with sharp wit and poignant observation. Published in the U.S.A by Picador, New York, NY, a Registered Trademark of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Snakes as Symbols of Transformation by Deborah Bryon Ph.D., Jungian Analyst

References to snakes and serpents as a universal symbol of transformation are found throughout mythology across the world. As a student of Jung, I have found references in his writings to snakes which have also enriched my understanding of this powerful image. Jung has stated that the image of a “serpent in a cave is a common image associated with baptism or beginning[1].” The cave or Underworld represents a layer of the unconscious where there is no discrimination; male and female are no longer distinguishable. Snakes exist in the primordial realm of creation.

In Greek mythology, Asklepios, the god of physicians for healing, wisdom and prophecy is represented by the serpent.[2] In Asia, Kundalini is the snake fire that burns and cleanses the chakras in the body. Nathan Schwartz-Salant described these kinds of snake symbols as Dionysian, involving the lower anthropos, chakras or energy centers in the subtle body and etheric field.

What continues to be most meaningful to me about the snake – beyond providing me entry into my own shadow and dismemberment process – has been the deepening of my “felt” connection to Peruvian cosmology. In Peruvian Shamanism, Uhupacha, the Underworld, is ruled by Amaru the great snake. It is the womb of the Great Mother, Pachamama, and the place of manifestation. This is the primordial realm where a complete “union of opposites” exists.


[1] (C.G. Jung, CW Vol 18 (1989), p.116)

[2](C.G. Jung, CW, Vol 18).

Creative Instinct and Individuation by Nora Swan-Foster, Art Therapist and Jungian Analyst


Nora Swan-Foster © 2011

The Swiss Jungian Analyst Elizabeth Ruf said the following in her lecture on “Patterns of Sacrifice and Initiation”:

“The creative challenge of our time is to take our own path of individuation under our feet because if we do not no one will do it for us and we will be forever undone. To live one’s own life is to take these first steps of creativity.”

Jung declared creativity one of the five instincts. When our daily life lacks the space to consciously attend to our creative instinct, we wither and dry out. We feel brittle, breakable, and often times more vulnerable. We may wonder why we are melancholic.  Without the creative instinct having a channel of expression, our daily life loses its purposefulness.

Finding our way back into relationship with our creativity looks different to everyone, yet it is essential nourishment for our soul.  Sometimes the path is through cooking or cleaning, arranging some flowers or taking the dead leaves off our houseplants. Other times we come home to ourselves through using art materials, singing in the shower, recording our dreams, or listening to music. Nature is a constant reflection of our creative instinct. When we are in nature, we see ourselves in constant flux and transformation.

As winter approaches, rituals that honor the movement of the creative instinct fertilize our soul and honor the transformations that have occurred in our life or that are yet unknown to us. Sacrifices most certainly will need to be made; we may feel utterly alone in the darkest hours, but when we release and offer sacrifices we make investments to our soul and fertilize our individuation journey. Each day we are asked to find time to maintain the quiet readiness for the next movement in life. The movement becomes known when we take up our individuation path with the steps of creativity as if they were our first steps in life.






Psyche as Energy by Nora Swan-Foster

“The idea of energy is not that of a substance moved in space; it is a concept abstracted from relations of movement” (Jung, CW8, p. 4).

What I have always enjoyed about C.G. Jung is his creative integrative thinking. He was ahead of his time in many of his intuitive ideas, many of which continue to influence and enrich our understanding of the human psyche. We might overlook that Jung’s view on the psyche had important roots in theories of energy based in biology and physics; these concepts illuminated and supported his notions throughout his life work. He used the word “energy” not as a mechanistic idea, but as a metaphor and from these scientific principles he developed key concepts that make up analytical psychology. Differentiating himself from Freud by expanding beyond the drive theory and sexual instinct as the fundamental instinct, Jung named four other essential instinctual energies (creativity, action, hunger, and reflection), which he saw influencing the psyche. Because libidinal energy was no longer simply associated with the sexual drive theory, the term libidinal energy was initially interchangeable with psychic energy. Psychic energy is a foundational concept in analytical psychology that plays a role with understanding such things as complexes, symbols, the Self, and individuation.

Psychic energy is a dynamic force in our psyche that provides will and purpose and the potential for transformation. Because the psyche is “not quite a closed system,” the energy is able to move progressively and regressively between the unconscious and the conscious psyche. Inherent in the word energy is movement; there is an energy gradient moving from higher to lower or lower to higher while the speed and quality of this energy is also psychologically valued. The gradient, or flow, is “measured” by affect levels expressed through our body and emotions. Early on, Jung saw the evidence of psychic energy when it overwhelmed the ego with complexes during Word Association Tests. Not only do we have reactions through feelings and thoughts, but he noticed that complexes expressed themselves through somatic symptoms such has painful pauses, twitches, blushing or agitation.

When the psychic energy is progressive, there is an abundance of interest and creative zest mixed with a purposeful engagement with life; we successfully adapt our life to the world and we experience a sense of agency. An image for this is having ample money (symbolic for energy) to spend freely, allowing us to move confidently in the world. The energy regresses when we come up against something difficult to accept (a debt), which impedes the flow of energy, sending it into the unconscious. At this point a vast amount of energy may simply “disappear,” from consciousness and from the ego, resulting in lost interest in life, lethargy, doubt, ambivalence, and perhaps even depression. Although progression is more acceptable to the ego, the regression supports the development of consciousness and a renewal of energy. Jung said that regression was a “necessary stage of development” (CW8, p 37), supporting ones individuation from the collective and moving one towards wholeness. We go through many periods of regressed energy throughout our life.

When psychic energy regresses, autonomous complexes are constellated. The energy the ego used for adaptation in the world is now forming around an archetypal core, which is at the center of all complexes. When the complex in the unconscious is infused with enough energy it pierces into consciousness. The complex makes itself known through physical or emotional outbursts, somatic expressions, new creative ideas or passions. Complexes are like energy bundles; they are both inevitable and autonomous. In fact, complexes can often possess us or “have us” as Jung said, rather than us having complexes. Jung also described being “constellated” by a complex through the image of being “caught in a mousetrap.” Suddenly the complex takes over and we are literally caught in an autonomous psychobiological experience that can disorient us and leave us feeling exhausted.

So, when complexes are constellated and influence the ego a polarity of energy between the conscious and the unconscious is created. The ego consciousness attitude has one set of values and goals while the unconscious has its own agenda and energetic purpose. At this point we may feel such things as paralysis, conflict, overwhelm, disorientation or psychic pain from the tension of opposites and the rising complex; we long for the pleasurable ease we had prior to realizing that we forgot to pay our debt, for instance. While we suffer in the tension between the unconscious and conscious energies, the transcendent function may be fueled with energy, like a rocket that is fueled, to carry into consciousness some new understanding through an impactful experience. Jung conceptualized the transcendent function as a function that has a metaphorical structure that holds the psychic energy gathering in the unconscious. Now the psychic energy is switching directions and moving progressively towards consciousness once again. The transcendent function will transform the state of the psyche through the arrival of a transcendent symbol.  (Part II: Psyche as Image)

(Image of A Roman Spring in Bath, UK)