“Obviously we do not know how the ego arose in man. We have certain myths showing how ancient man thought about this problem, and we can observe the phenomenon in very young children today. Just as the individual child must undergo training and discipline, so too the primitive nature of man had to be housebroken and domesticated, restrained and adapted, if he was to advance in culture and in ability to control his environment.” Esther Harding, Psychic Energy, p. 197.
Since we learned to talk, humans have told stories around the campfire about the inner life of the psyche and the mysterious archetypal energies which indwell it. We call these stories myths. With borrowed images from nature that instinctively aroused strong emotions like fear, awe, passion, wonder, greed, hope and gratitude, myths presented characters, settings, plots and themes that attempted to answer humanity’s most universal and fundamental questions: Why are we here? Who made us? Why do we act the way we do? How can we stay safe? What are we supposed to do and be?
Most of these images—like the sun, the moon, mountains, trees, bears, snakes, unusual stones, springs of fresh water, thunder and lightning—still have emotional power over us. Early humans would not have understood what their fascination with these images said about them. Nonetheless, they resonated so deeply that the stories are still being told.
“Myths are concerned with origins, the fear of death, and the hope for the overcoming of death in another world.” A.S. Byatt, Introduction to Maria Tatar’s “The Annotated Brothers Grimm,” p. xix.
Let us imagine how the Bible’s account of our origins came about. A storyteller wonders where the first parents came from and imagines them being created by a superhuman Father God. Fondly recalling his/her own early carefree days when every need was met by doting parents (Epoch I of self-awareness), our storyteller memorializes this idyllic time in the image of the Garden of Eden, a paradise where humans and animals co-exist in harmony…. as long as everyone obeys Father God.
Early humans would have understood this rule completely. Life was hard, and children who strayed away from camp would be in peril. Parental obedience was essential to their survival.
Other images also called to mind their instinctual need for safety. For example, a gigantic tree could be climbed when danger threatened, and its thick canopy of leaves provided cover from rain. So it made sense to situate a Tree of Life in the center of the Garden. Sometimes tribal rituals were performed around special trees to show gratitude for their protection. So far, so good.
“The further development of the individual can be brought about only by means of symbols which represent something far in advance of himself and whose intellectual meanings cannot yet be grasped entirely.” ~Carl Jung, CW 4, Para 680.
As humans gained more control over their environments, travel and communication with other tribes exposed them to other myths with different images and new symbolic meaning. Whose stories were right and whose were wrong? Which god-images and rituals were good and which were evil? Dualistic thinking had entered the picture.
This advanced the plot further. Enter the forbidden fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Enter Eve who is fascinated by the luscious ripe fruit, symbolizing the psyche’s readiness for a new level of self-awareness. Enter an evil snake who represents a powerful temptation to challenge the status quo. Enter a new problem: seeing and having to choose between opposites. Enter the consequences: after Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the garden, the dire implications of the problem of opposites for the future of humanity was anticipated with the symbolism of Eve giving birth to twin boys, one of whom killed the other.
The symbols speak for themselves. Disobeying the Father God by eating the fruit marked a revolutionary advance in the psyche. What Eve would not have known, and her storyteller probably barely intuited, was that in departing from the collective mentality, she became the mother of Epoch II Ego Consciousness.
“When the ego begins to develop and gains some autonomy—some power, over against the might of nature, to determine and control itself and its environment—it gradually acquires a feeling of being a separate entity. The individual learns to differentiate between the I and the not-I, with an ever increasing emphasis of the value of the I. That is, he becomes aware of being a self. This awareness is accompanied by an intoxicating sense of selfhood, an inner expansion of the I. Unchecked, this will produce an inflation…
“In the outer world the ego seeks to dominate its environment and to subject all things, persons, and conditions alike to its interest. In the inner world, as many psychic contents as possible are brought under its control, and those which cannot be dominated are suppressed.In this way a threshold is built up between the conscious and the unconscious part of the psyche.” Harding, p. 241.
I’ll have more to say about this second phase of self-awareness next time. Meanwhile, keep in mind that the story isn’t over and “happily ever after” is nowhere in sight. If we are to reach our fullest potential we will need to agonize over more conflicts and ask new questions like, What new thoughts, impulses and images are arising in me? Where are they coming from? Who or what do I try to dominate? Which aspects of my inner world do I try to suppress?
Image Credits: Google Images: Garden of Eden, Lucas Cranach. Quote Image courtesy of Lewis Lafontaine.
The Wilbur Award is given by the Religion Communicators Council for excellence in communicating religious faith and values in the public arena and for encouraging understanding among faith groups on a national level.