Erich Neumann:
"The Origins and History of Consciousness" (Princeton Univ Press, 1954)

(Copyright © 2011 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
This is a book that requires a lot of patience. Its language and approach is as unscientific as a soap opera, except that its conclusions are stated as absolute truth.

Even the subject of the book is not clear: is he talking about how consciousness develops in the newborn's brain (in which case why does he quote ancient Egyptian and Hindu scriptures instead of neurologists?) or is he talking about how consciousness has been represented in mythology across the world (in which case why doesn't he catalog the evidence in chronological order instead of jumping from Egypt to India to Palestine to Greece in an apparently random chronology?) Probably neither. This is just gibberish for people who are afraid of serious scientists and serious historians.

Following Carl Jung, Neumann thinks that there is an archetypal mother in what Jung called "the collective unconscious" (not defined anywhere, so you can make what you like of it). Neumann did not study Biology, because he thinks that this archetype is passed from one generation to another (the old discredited Lamarckian model - quote "the child is... the living carrier of ancestral experience"). Neumann convincingly shows that the primordial mother is a feature in many ancient cultures (don't ask him to show that this statement is true in "every" ancient culture because science is not what he does: he just shows, or thinks that he has shown, that it might be true for 1% of all the cultures that ever existed and then asks you to believe that it's true for 100%).

There are moments when one has to roll her or his eyes: "The evolution of consciousness as a form of creative evolution is the peculiar achievement of Western man". I hereby resign from the category of Western men, being ashamed that this statement also applies to me.

Now a preamble is required for those not familiar with Jung. Ego and self mean different things in Freud, Klein, Winnicott, Erikson, Jacobson, Hartmann, Fordham, Kohut, Jung, etc. Each of these highly unscientific psychologists (i will refrain from calling them straightforward charlatans because occasionally they did say something interesting) avoided definitions, and the only way that their fans have to explain the difference between ego and self is to write lengthy essays that nobody understands (one Freud fan will not agree with another Freud fan). Since Neumann was a pupil of Jung, let's stick to Jung's ideas. It sounds like Jung used "self" to refer to the whole of one's psyche, both conscious and unconscious (don't ask Jung fans what is the difference between self and psyche because you get hours and hours of gibberish), whereas Ego was another word for individual consciousness (the conscious part of one's psyche). The ego separates from the self early in childhood and that's the beginning of conscious life. Jung wrote: "So far as we know, consciousness is always Ego-consciousness". I didn't write it, he wrote it.

More interesting is Neumann's opinion (let's call them what they are) that consciousness has progressively absorbed more and more of the "unconscious content", a convoluted way to say that modern humans are more aware of their genetically-determined behavior than previous humans (although it cannot be Lamarckian inheritance that has enabled this process). Neumann thinks that the "ego" used to be unconscious at the time of the creation myths (a contradiction in terms, which probably means that whatever content the ego now has used to be unconscious) and only during the "hero" cycle "the ego, consciousness and the human world become conscious of themselves". Statements like this border on ridiculous: consciousness becomes conscious? What was consciousness before? Unconscious? Excuse the hysterical laughter. But let's be generous and translate this ridiculous statement into "self-consciousness emerges when hero myths appear". Unfortunately, Neumann does not specify which is the cause and which is the effect: is it the hero myth that causes the emergence of self-consciousness, or is it self-consciousness that causes the hero myth to appear?

Back to the unconscious stage (which Neumann tends to call "cycle" but doesn't quite explain why it would be a cycle instead of a linear progression as his own text makes us believe), Neumann gives a visual representation for this stage and that's the uroboros, the snake that eats itself. Five seconds later it has become the "great hermaphrodite" that contains both the opposites: masculine and feminine. This is now "the primal creative element" and it is autarchic (so it is not clear why it needed to evolve into anything else, unless of course you have studied Darwinian evolution which Neumann hasn't). This stage corresponds to the various creation myths (good luck finding any similarities between Eastern and Western ones, but Neumann is capable of anything). In this pre-conscious stage hunger and food are the prime movers (based on a sketchy analysis of a couple of Egyptian and Hindu scriptures and ignoring thousands of other sentences contained in those scriptures). At this stage (that he also describes as a "matriarchate"), self-consciousness is still undeveloped and still embedded in the environment. Collective ideas and decisions prevail over individual thinking. The individual unconscious is at the mercy of the collective unconscious. The individual only functions as part of a group.

In the next stage (now it's a stage, not a cycle) "the uroboros dominates over the ego". This is the stage of the "Great Mother". The world view of the individual changes (in fact, each "stage" corresponds to a change in the individual's worldview). The individual is dropped into the real world, and it's not a happy moment. The uroboros now feels like a lost paradise. This is the stage in which self-consciousness begins to form, but it only consists of fleeting moments of awareness. This is the beginning of a battle between ego and unconscious. In mythology this stage witnesses the emancipation of the son from the mother, and the son even becomes a killer. The unity of the uroboros breaks down. The world begins to appear not as a unified process but as a game of opposites: male and female, you and I, inside and outside, etc. More importantly: subject and object. The ego frees itself from the environment and from the group, which (mythologically speaking) also means that the individual frees himself from the uroboros, the Great Mother and the unconscious, all of them symbols of when there was no self-consciousness. In society the men who are more often visited by conscious moments are worshipped by the others as superior (medicine men and prophets). This is also the age of rising patriarchate. Here Neumann emphasizes that self-consciousness is predominantly masculine, whereas the unconscious is predominantly feminine.

The masculine ego now becomes the "hero" as it struggles to get rid of the unconscious. At the same time he is now the "son" whose uroboros has split into a pair of opposite parents, against which he rebels. The son begins to fight the dragon, and this to Neumann "means incest with the mother". Here Neumann parts with Freud, who thought that the dragon symbolized the father barring the way to having sex with the mother. Instead Neumann thinks that fighting the dragon is a way to fight the power of the mother. (Did anyone truly apply these ridiculous theories?)

Along the way of this marginally interesting speculation we are treated to absolute truths like "Jung demonstrated that the hero's incest implements the rebirth" (an incest that Neumann detects in harmless actions such as entering a cave, descending to the underworld or being swallowed, which are not exactly "demonstrations" to me but simply signs of a wild and slightly unbalanced imagination) or "human sacrifice prolonged the king's strength" (no evidence provided). There also seems to be a strong Christian influence on Neumann's ideas, for example when he argues that "the fertility goddess is both mother and goddess".

Back to the dragon. Neumann thinks that the dragon myth is ultimately about freeing a captive and obtaining a treasure. Through elaborate symbolism, he reaches the conclusion that the dragon myth is about development of personality. It looks like the dragon myth or development of personality has both an introverted and extroverted effect (outward adaptation and inward adaptation). The extroverted hero is the political leader. The introverted hero is the creator of culture. They both aim to change the world: one through external struggle, and one through internal struggle. Union with the liberated captive leads both types of heroes to find the treasure. The dragon fight also has a third effect: centroversion, a transformation of personality. Centroversion is a general property of organic matter, not just of psychology. Neumann views it as a general tendency towards integration, whether in the amoeba or in the human organs, an unconscious, automatic tendency towards a self-regulating and evolving system.

At this stage the patriarchal era is in full bloom. Neumann thinks that this transition from matriarchal to patriarchal society "is a universal and necessary phenomenon in the history of mankind". This is a new stage of human consciousness, in which focus shifts from the ego to the self. It is difficult to understand the shift in consciousness from the ego (the only part of the psyche that is conscious) towards the self. Other sentences seem to imply that the ego becomes aware of the unconscious part of the self.

Consciousness was originally a sense organ. The ego was originally only an organ of the unconscious. Consciousness is actually a product of the unconscious via the process of centroversion. As the ego emerges thanks to the natural and unstoppable process of centroversion, the ego and the unconscious clash. At this stage the Great Mother turns from friendly to hostile ("terrible and devouring"). It is this conflict that sets humans apart from other animals. A parallel phenomenon due to centroversion on a different plane takes place in society, where the individual begins to stand on his own and not only as an organ of society. The evolution of consciousness away from the unconscious and towards greater independence leads to the stage of the hero. Through narcissistic and phallic stages, the hero conquers fear. The evolution from unconscious to consciousness is also a process of growth of the libido.

It is only towards the end that Neumann reintroduces the term "Western consciousness", not just "consciousness". It is Western man who moves "towards the emancipation of man from nature", the historical equivalent of emancipation of consciousness from the unconscious. It is Western man who turns the hero archetype into a revolutionary force.

Eventually you start getting the idea. Neumann is talking about three things at the same time, jumping from one realm to the other ones and using either one to explain the other ones: the development of myth over the millennia; the development of individual personality within society over the millennia; and the development of individual psychology over an individual's lifetime. In his words: "we have traced the development of this ego complex in mythology". The relation between ego and unconscious changes over the years of an individual's life and this same relation and the way it changes are reflected in archetypical figures of mythology: the uroboros, the Great Mother, the dragon (more or less corresponding to the early child, the adolescent and the hero, and to prehistory, early history and modern Western world). He uses a huge archive of world mythology to justify his ideas about human psychological growth, instead of using scientific data to justify his ideas about the human brain (in fact, he never talks about what brain process would account for his theories). The other problem is that he picks myths across the world that parallel what he considers the psychological development of the child, but he never proves that their chronological sequence parallels the chronological sequence of states of mind in the child. In other words, he finds a myth corresponding to each mental stage of the child but does not show any evidence that this myth followed the myth corresponding to the previous mental stage.

So the message to take from Neumann's wildly creative speculations is that possibly the history of mythology across the millennia recapitulates both an individual's psychological growth from childhood to adulthood and the evolution of the role of individuals within society.

The problem with this book is that, either because Neumann lived at a time when science didn't know much about these subjects or because Neumann refused to study them before talking about them, its theories are shaped in absolute ignorance of neurobiology (quote: "the nervous system is a product of the unconscious"), cellular biology, genetics, Darwinism, not to mention elementary physics and chemistry. Worse: for someone who discusses myths, there is little history, anthropology and archeology.

On the contrary, Carlo Vitale writes:

Neumann's main achievement in this book is the connection between the ancient myths and the development of human psychology in historical terms. The fact that these myths have had a cultural impact in human development and have been passed on throughout history is ample proof of their validity, scientific and otherwise.

He grouped the vast array of complex myths under the theme of a main one, the Egyptian. And to a vast extent he was able to provide links and support for his theory of conscious development. The Egyptian myth cycle revolves around the Osirian transformation, with its final conclusion of Horus and Osiris becoming one (I and the Fathe are One, that should bring memories of Christianity). But this unification of the Ego and Self, is not complete without the integration of the Anima and the Shadow. All of this takes place simultaneously in the great battle between Horus and Set.

I believe that the reason Neumann concluded that Western thought was the basis for the evolutionary outcome of human consciousness, was for the same reason that Jung, in his final days concluded the same, namely , Alchemy. As you know the the history of alchemy can be traced back to ancient Egypt and was revived in the middle ages, via the Muslim's conquests throughout Europe and especially in Italy during the Renaissance.

The study of Alchemy provided a strong basis for western development of Artistic and Scientific thought process that we are still working on today. Both Jung and Neumann recognised this and incorporated it in their study and application of psychology.

Jung's provides and extensive write up on Alchemy and Psychology in one of his latest books, "Mysterium Coniunctionis". In this book Jung concludes that in depth study of Alchemy provides scientific proof to the western psychological thought process and its impact on the world we are living in today.

TM, ®, Copyright © 2011 Piero Scaruffi