Jung on Imagination and the Imaginal Realm

“The imaginatio is to be understood here as the real and literal power to create images (Einbildskraft = imagination) – the classical usage of the word in contrast to phantasia, which means a mere “conceit,” “idea,” or “hunch” in the sense of insubstantial thought.”[1]

“Imagination is the star in man, the celestial or supercelestial body.” … The imaginatio, or the act of imagining, is thus a physical activity that can be fitted into the cycle of material changes, that brings these about and is brought about by them in its turn…. Imagination is therefore a concentrated extract of the life forces, both physical and psychic. “[2]

“…there was no either/or for that age, but there did exist an intermediate realm between mind and matter, i.e. a psychic realm of subtle bodies whose characteristic is to manifest themselves in a mental as well as a material form.”[3]

This essay is the result of a synchronicity–a confluence of two desires: I wanted to write an essay (as I usually do each month for our web site) and I also hoped to understand the nature of the “imaginal realm,”[4] the term Biblical scholars[5] use to explain Mary Magdalene’s report of seeing the resurrected Jesus.[6] Was this just Mary’s imagination, like Peter implied when she reported her experience to the disciples?[7] Or was something more going on?

Explications of the Gospel of Mary speak of her experience occurring in the “imaginal realm.”[8] What does this mean? Having no idea where to find out more about this “realm,” I decided to let the idea “cook” while I set to work on an essay, meaning that I turned to Jung’s oeuvre for ideas.

I knew Jung thought highly of imagination–the index of his Collected Works has 45 citations to the word[9]–but there is no mention of “imaginal realm.” At least, I thought, I would get some sort of essay out of an immersion in these references, when, deep in the alchemical works,[10] I hit pay dirt. That Jung understood the concept, was able to resonate to the medieval alchemists’ discussion of it, and relay the idea to modern readers is due to the qualities of thought and temperament that Jung brought to his work as a psychiatrist and scientist. We must note what these qualities are, if we hope to understand how and why Jung knew about the imaginal realm.

Key Features of Jung’s Philosophy

Jung did not share the reductive materialism of Freud and Adler.[11] He did not  reduce symbols to signs,[12] nor did he consider intangibles like soul, psyche and religion as “illusions.”[13] He saw humans as beings having both a physical (body) and psychic (mind, psyche) nature, and his psychology drew on the range of human intangible qualities like fidelity,[14] creativity,[15] story-telling[16] and vision-building.[17] We must remember that Jung recognized the reality and worth of non-material things and was comfortable exploring in the realms of myth and mystery.[18]

Jung also did not share our Western tendency to think in “either/or” ways. He preferred to “hold the tension of opposites”[19] by thinking “both/and,” refusing to exclude the possibility of a middle way, or some as-yet-unknown “third thing”[20] that would resolve the tension. With this frame of mind, Jung would anticipate the emergent “transcendent function,”[21] which might bring about the coniunctio,[22] a reconciliation of the opposites.

Another key feature was Jung’s temperament: he was empirical and grounded.[23] All through his long career he called himself an empiricist and scientist.[24] He had little patience with wooly-headed ideas or “conceits,”[25] and all his discoveries were derived from his personal observations in his work with his patients. On those occasions when he encountered something surprising, he would dig into research to find out if others before him had had or heard of something similar.[26] He was faithful to the rigors of scholarship, also, in documenting with great diligence all the sources and authorities[27] that corroborated his own experiences or those he saw in his clinical practice.

This penchant for corroboration sometimes took Jung into foreign intellectual territory, e.g. Buddhist philosophy, the empiricism of which Jung found appealing. In a letter to a Swiss pastor, Jung wrote at some length about “postmortal psychic states,” as delineated in

“…Buddhist philosophy [which] has coined the concept of Sambhoga-Kaya for this psychic existence, namely the world of subtle forms which are to Nirmana-Kaya as the breath-body (subtle body) is to the material body. The breath-world is thought of as an intermediate state between Nirmana-Kaya and Dharma-Kaya. In Dharma-Kaya, which symbolizes the highest state, the separation of forms is dissolved into absolute unity and formlessness.”[28]

One wonders just how much a Protestant minister resonated with this disquisition on the various levels of non-material existence, but this letter shows how Jung sought confirmation of his ideas from all types of sources.

Jung had intellectual courage: he stuck to his truths and beliefs even when these got him hung with all sorts of labels[29] (e.g. “mystic,” “heretic” etc.) for his refusal to conform to the soulless materialism[30] of academia and the crass consumerism of the modern world.[31] With his independence of mind he pursued for the last thirty years of his life[32] a deep immersion in alchemy–a subject most people (including some of his friends)[33] regarded as pure mumbo jumbo.

Jung’s Valuation of Imagination

Besides his keen intuition, curiosity, multi-lingual abilities and razor-sharp intelligence,[34] Jung brought great powers of vision and imagination to his work, both with patients and with the scholarship that explained and elaborated his psychology and clinical practice. His encounters with some visitors left them convinced Jung was a mind-reader:[35] psychic gifts ran in his family.[36]

In his work with patients he encouraged their fantasies–not the “insubstantial”[37] type of “unprofitable, futile, morbid and unsatisfying fantasies”[38] of “sterile nature,”[39]–but those which fostered “the maternally creative side of the masculine mind,”[40] and those which encouraged his patient’s “inner dialogue.”[41] He knew the healing work he and his patients were about had to be “done with the true imaginatio,”[42] the “act of imagining,”[43] a “physical activity that can be fitted into the cycle of material changes,…”,[44] and, like his alchemist predecessors, Jung sought to foster change in his patients “through the power of imagination.”[45]

Jung’s Appreciation of the Alchemist’s Perspective

With his respect for ancient traditions and sources, his fluency in Latin, Greek,[46] mythology and paleography, his skill in handling symbols, his curiosity and his openness to non-material realities, Jung was well equipped to explore the arcana of alchemy. Some of our students at the Jungian Center pose the same questions Jung’s own associates raised: Why get into such an odd subject? Why buy and borrow very costly incunabula[47] and pore over them for years on end? Because the dozens of alchemists’ reports of their experiences working through the various operations in pursuit of the “gold” gave Jung precious insights into the structure and workings of the collective unconscious.[48]

Because the alchemists were solitaries,[49] working alone or with the sometime aid of their soror mystica[50] (aka “wife”), their accounts were uniquely personal, revealing to Jung how each individual grappled with the psyche in his own way, and, with dozens of such reports, many corroborating his own experiences or those of his patients, Jung gradually developed a sense of how the psyche worked. Because the materials were mainly archetypal,[51] the reports had a timelessness that allowed Jung to spot parallels between what the 15th-century man dealt with and the psychic work of Jung’s current patients and his own experiences as well..

As solitaries, the alchemists lived in a measure of isolation few modern people can experience, and Jung knew that such loneliness had a benefit:[52] the

“rigorous solitude, together with his preoccupation with the endless obscurities of the work, was sufficient to activate the unconscious and, through the power of imagination, to bring into being things that apparently were not there before.” [53]

The ability to envision and hold visions led the alchemists to unpack the unconscious, revealing “categories of the imagination”[54]–“perception, apperception, memory, imagination, will, affectivity, feeling, reflection, judgment, etc., all in subliminal form.”[55]

Solitude was accompanied by secrecy[56] in the lives of the medieval alchemists, and this need for circumspection was another way the alchemist had to rely on his own resources, inner more than outer, in his quest for that special something–the aqua permanens[57] or lapis philosophorum[58]–which would allow him to transmute the dregs of his current state into the glory of enlightenment. Jung recognized the parallel in his work of assisting patients to overcome resistances to becoming more conscious and whole.

Jung appreciated the worldview of these medieval adepts. Their world was infused with spirit, in their belief in the anima mundi.[59] They worked not for “gold” in the sense of material wealth, but for the “gold” of spiritual enlightenment.[60] They had an empirical orientation, deriving their ideas from their laboratory experiments, and they were comfortable dealing with the “‘subtle body’, semi-spiritual in nature,”[61] that existed as “a hybrid phenomenon, as it were, half spiritual, half physical”[62] when “the imagination was given free play in the observation and investigation of the products of the unconscious.”[63]

This “subtle body” was “hybrid” in the sense that it existed in the “between” space which our modern minds fail to recognize. We think of something as “real” when it is tangible, made of matter–what can be weighed, measured and subjected to scientific tests. Given our pervasive materialism, most people dismiss as “fake” or “unreal” what is not material. But Jung knew the alchemists had it right: the alchemists show us that we can function on not just one or two but three levels. We can act and perceive on the material, the spiritual, and the level between them.[64] Ever the empiricist, Jung would not have us take his word for this. He would ask us to experience the level we access through imagination: the imaginal realm.

How We Might Experience the Imaginal Realm


Jung’s years of immersion in alchemy supported his therapeutic work with his patients, and he drew on the alchemists’ method of working in the intermediate realm in developing his process of active imagination. We can use this same technique to extend the insights from our dreams, and to hone our imagination. Jung would remind us that “The debt we owe to the play of imagination is incalculable….It must not be forgotten that it is just in the imagination that a man’s highest value may lie.”[65] And we can leverage this value when we experience the imaginal realm.


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Barnstone, Willis & Marvin Meyer (2009), The Gnostic Bible, rev. ed. Boston: Shambhala Publications.

Bertrand, Seren & Azra Bertrand (2020), Magdalene Mysteries. Rochester VT: Bear & Company.

Butcher, John (2011), Sacred Partnership: Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Berkeley CA: the apocryphile press.

Jung, C.G. (1957), Psychiatric Studies. Collected Works, 1. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1956), Symbols of Transformation. Collected Works, 5. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1971), Psychological Types. Collected Works, 6. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1966), Two Essays on Analytical Psychology. Collected Works, 7. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1960), The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche. Collected Works, 8. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1959), Aion. Collected Works, 9ii. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (19 69), Psychology and Religion, West and East. Collected Works, 11. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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­­­________ (1954), The Development of Personality. Collected Works, 17. Princeton: Princeton UniversityPress.

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________ (1979), General Index to the Collected Works of C.G. Jung, 20, complied by Barbara Forryan & Janet Glover. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1965), Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York: Vintage Books.

________ (1977), Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters, eds. William McGuire and R.F.C. Hull. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1975), Letters, ed. Gerhard Adler & Aniela Jaffé. 2 vols. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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________ (2004), The Gospel of Philip. Rochester VT: Inner Traditions.

________ (2006), The Sacred Embrace of Jesus and Mary. Rochester VT: Inner Traditions

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[1] Collected Works 12 ¶219. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW.

[2] Ibid. ¶394.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Leloup (2002), 153.

[5] E.g. Jean-Yves Leloup (2002), 153; Elaine Pagels (1979), 11; James Robinson (1978), 521; Willis Barnstone and Marvin Meyer (2009), 497.

[6] John 20: 10-18.

[7] The Gospel of Mary, p. 17, ll. 15-20.

[8] Leloup (2002), 153.

[9] CW 20, p. 346.

[10] Jung’s alchemical works are CW 9ii,12,13,14 & 16; I found the key passage in  CW 12¶394.

[11] CW 15 ¶46; cf. CW 6 ¶93.

[12] CW 5 ¶180.

[13] CW 15 ¶67.

[14] CW 17 ¶296. Jung preferred to use the Greek pistis for “fidelity.”

[15] CW 15 ¶140.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., ¶s139, 141.

[18] CW 12 ¶13. For more on Jung’s appreciation of mystery, see “Loving the Mystery” essay archived on the Jungian Center web site.

[19] CW 5 ¶460.

[20] The tertium; CW 6 ¶66.

[21] CW 18 ¶1554. For more on this, see “Jung on the Transcendent Function” essay archived on the Jungian Center web site.

[22] CW 16 ¶354.

[23] CW 18 ¶1502.

[24] CW 11 ¶461.

[25] CW 12 ¶219.

[26] Jung (1965), 56.

[27] A cursory glance through the 18 volumes of Jung’s Collected Works will reveal all his citations to other authorities–a major part of the scholar’s process.

[28] “Letter to Pastor Fritz Pfäfflin,” 10 January 1939; Letters, I, 257.

[29] For a full list of these, plus a discussion of why others applied these labels to him, see “All the Labels” essay archived on the Jungian Center web site.

[30] CW 18 ¶1345.

[31] Ibid. ¶1401.

[32] The sinologist Richard Wilhelm introduced Jung to alchemy in calling his attention to the Chinese Taoist alchemical text The  Secret of the Golden Flower.

[33]  E.g. Toni Wolff, whom Jung “threw over” (von Franz’s phrase) for Marie-Louise von Franz, whose skill in Latin and Greek would prove useful in his pursuits in alchemy. His wife Emma noted that Jung used people whose ideas and skills he found useful; Bair (2003), 262, 371.

[34] His father taught him Latin at age 6; he was also fluent in his native German, French, and English; Jung (1965), 17.

[35] E.g. Renée Brand; Jung (1977), 162.

[36] Jung’s doctoral dissertation (CW 1) was a study involving psychic abilities and his cousin was a central figure in this study; Bair (2003), 62-64. His mother’s “#2 personality” was also highly intuitive.

[37] CW 12 ¶219.

[38] CW 16 ¶98.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

[41] CW 12 ¶390.

[42] Ibid., ¶393.

[43] Ibid. ¶394.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid.

[46] While Jung was thoroughly fluent in Latin, his command of Greek was not so solid, and he relied on von Franz for translations of the texts in Greek; Bair (2003), 369.

[47] “Incunabula” (Latin: “cradle”) are books published before 1500, the most famous of which are the Gutenberg Bibles; these are extremely rare and expensive books, a few of which Jung bought (thanks to Emma’s money), many of which he also borrowed from collectors, e.g. Manly P. Hall.

[48] CW 13 ¶253.

[49] Ibid. ¶220.

[50] CW 16 ¶421.For an illustration of the alchemist and his helper/wife, see CW 12, Fig. 269.

[51] CW 12 ¶175.

[52] CW 13 ¶220.

[53] Ibid.

[54] CW 8 ¶254.

[55] Ibid. ¶362.

[56] CW 14 ¶312.

[57] Latin for “water always remaining” or “permanent water,” one of many phrases for the arcane substance or universal solvent; CW 12 ¶99note; cf. CW 13 ¶160.

[58] Latin for the “philospher’s stone,” a term with numerous meanings in the alchemical texts; there are over 400 citations to it in CW 20.

[59] Latin for “spirit of the world,” or “world soul;” Jung discusses its uses in alchemy in CW 9ii ¶246.

[60] CW 14 ¶307.

[61] CW 12 ¶394.

[62] Ibid.

[63] CW 13 ¶393.

[64] CW 12 ¶394.

[65] CW 6 ¶93.