The Uroboros: A Write Up of a Chapter Read in 'The Origins and History of Consciousness' by Erich Neumann
I have embarked upon the writing of Erich Neumann, a student of Carl Jung's, specifically his book 'The Origins and History of Consciousness'. As someone with no formal education in psychology at all it's quite the daunting read. As such I have decided to do a write up on each segment I read in order to cement and fortify what it is that I am learning. I of course will not be going into the level of detail and explanation that Neumann does, and it's likely that I won't necessarily have a full grasp on what it is that I am reading. So should any psychology students be reading this, I offer my apologies in advanced for what may end up being a complete butchering and misrepresentation of Neumann's ideas.
The book draws upon a range of mythology the world over to argue that individual consciousness plays out the same archetypal stages of development as human consciousness on the whole.
The book consists of two parts, as follows:
Part I: The Mythological Stages in the Evolution of Consciousness
A: The Creation Myth
- The Uroboros
- The Great Mother
- The Separation of the World Parents: The Principle of Opposites
B: The Hero Myth
- The Birth of the Hero
- The Slaying of the Mother
- The Slaying of the Father
C: The Transformation Myth
- The Captive and the Treasure
- Transformation, or Osiris
Part II: The Psychological Stages in the Development of Personality
A: The Original Unity
B: The Separation of the Systems
C: The Balance and Crisis of Consciousness
D: Centroversion and the Stages of Life
Today I'll be covering The Uroboros.
In this chapter Neumann asserts that ego consciousness and it's emergence in our species is depicted throughout history as our ancestors' creation stories. They themselves are an attempt to explain the phenomenon of self-awareness and from whence we came, a question that every human faces as they arrive upon the threshold of self-consciousness. The nature of this demands a mythological explanation; this is due, in part, to the precursory state of the ego being precisely that, prior to the ego, and therefore having no standard unit of measurement for the object of conceptual contemplation to grasp firmly onto. Hence a symbol or symbolic story always stands firmly at the beginning. This is why the question is both regarding the origin of the world, and the origin of man and the ego.
These myths are symbolic with the fruition of the ego, because before it's emergence there was no differentiation between the individual and the world they inhabited. We were animals acting primarily on instincts with only glimpses of the infantile ego coming to pass, safe in the maternal womb of the uroboros. And so in trying to explain our awakening, we explained the creation of the world as a whole. Specifically starting with the creation of light, this is because light is needed in order to illuminate and allow perception of the world, and subsequently, ourselves in distinction to it.
The uroboros is a circular symbol depicting a snake, sometimes a dragon, devouring it's own tail. It is a symbol of wholeness or infinity, being both without beginning and without end simultaneously. It is perfectness in the pre-world, outside of time. It is the container where opposites, masculine and feminine (the World Parents), co-exist as one and have not yet been flung apart by the light of consciousness. It represents the unconscious primordial existence from which the seed of the ego germinates and sprouts. Symbols derived from basic shapes are presented due to the paradoxical nature that comes from deploying philosophical language as a descriptive lexicon. Where as infinite unity and un-imagined wholeness can be grasped and understood fully at a glance from the perfection and unity that is depicted by a circle or sphere for example.
Prior to the manifestation of ego consciousness of the species is parallel to the undeveloped seed of ego manifest in the unborn child. Both exist in a time and place that precedes their own comprehension. Both are unable to have experiences of their own and the psyche resides in a slumber of unconscious paradise that it will only later come to recognise as "it's own" "prenatal" past. Before the emergence of consciousness and before the emergence of man from the womb, both exist in a prehistoric state of eternity, rather than time and likewise they exist not in space but infinity.
There is an emphasis on the feminine and womb like quality of the uroboros before emergence from it. The answer to the question of origin must always be womb or uterus as every newborn creature of mankind is born of a womb. It must repeatedly be stated however, that these are symbolic images of the place from whence we came, not a focal point of one part of a body. Womb and uterus in this context mean many things at once, a plurality of cosmic regions or worlds. The archetypal mother is not a mother.
(Neumann points out here that this is where Freud's fundamental misunderstanding of his observation that anything hollow is feminine stems from. His observation was correct, but his conclusion that it was due to representation of female genitalia was incorrect. This is because that is only one very small part of the archetype that is the primordial mother).
The emphasis on the feminine here seems to be because in the sanctuary of the unconscious all is provided by the nurturing qualities that come from the acting out of only instinctual motivators, before there is any separation between man and world. It is the safety provided by mother nature doting on her child with pleasure, comfort, nourishment, and forgiveness (an experience of early man and child alike that shall never again be realised in adult life).
The infantile ego early in it's assertion of itself is weak and feels it's own existence as a heavy and oppressive burden to bear. It desires the pleasure of drowsiness and slumber; of unconsciousness. Love nor pleasure are active and it seeks to dissolve and be absorbed back into the nurturing womb of the mother in an act of uroboros incest, in some respects this is akin to what happens at the moment of death.
The paternal quality of the uoboros acts as the prime mover, that which thrusts forth with procreative action and allows for the opposites to unravel and fly apart and evolve into time. It allows the ego consciousness to start the ongoing fight with the unconscious, manifest independently, and crawl out from the slumber of the womb. This is often one of the more bizarre images in mythology, precisely due to the fact that it is difficult to both express and grasp the creative beginning, from nothing, as a symbol. Where the causation and the conceiver are one, without duality. What results is the image of immediate genesis from the semen. An example being in Egyptian theology where Atum takes his phallus in hand in order to arouse pleasure, from which a brother and sister are produced to immediate effect; Shu and Tefnut.
This later appears as a more spiritual endeavour as man wrestled for greater control of words as language further evolved and we see new variation in Egyptian and Indian theology where Atmun and Vishnu speak themselves into being with divine utterances. This is echoed in the first few lines of Genesis where God speaks creation and man into being, creating order from chaos with the power that spoken word beholds.
Food too is an archetype represented by the uroboros and many mythological symbolism's. It is the most primal and foremost action that the ego recognises as an external experience no longer necessitated by the maternal womb, in which no input or output is required, and one is utterly self reliant. Once again, both early man and child alike are now in a stage of their psyche evolution where they are either to eat, or be eaten by the world. Here too they experience the opposites that were united in the womb of the uroboros. To eat is to produce waste, and no longer does the waste nourish, and the nourishment become waste that shall once again re-nourish, as is the case as the snake devours it's own tail. It is from here that the infantile ego shall leave the symbol of the uroboros and establish itself as an independent entity within creation. Not to be returned to again until man, and the individual psyche reaches adulthood, when he is no longer preoccupied with adaptation, when the universal principle of opposites no longer predominates, and when devouring or being devoured by the world is no longer of prime importance. The goal of life now becomes to separate and detach oneself from the world. Just as the uroboros during the infantile ego stage denotes the inability and refusal to be born into the world, in the second and mature stage of the ego it speaks of the necessity to free oneself from the world and come again to rely solely on oneself. Here it represents the roundness of the psyche, the wholeness of life, and perfection once again regained.
The circle is complete.
Oh fuck. That was quite the task. A task that I feel I should once again reiterate that I have probably got wrong in at least some ways. Still, if something is worth doing, it's worth doing wrong.
Neumann provides a lot of detail and analysis of these "basic" principles, complete with illustrations, several theological examples, context in regard to modern standards and misrepresentations, and a hell of a lot of citations. I daren't to include the same level of depth here due to:
- not wanting to essentially plagiarise the book itself,
- and also because I could barely comprehend what it is that I have written, and to delve further into these idea's would serve to further complicate an already mindbogglingly complicated set of ideas.
Should any students of psychology or someone intimate with Neumann's ideas happen to be reading this, and possibly reeling back in horror at the complete misunderstanding and misrepresentation of what it is he was describing, please do drop a comment below and tell me of my transgressions and how I can correct them. I'm always open to learning and constructive criticism!