Jung on Myths and Mythologems

Sue Mehrtens is the author of this and all the other blog essays on this site. The opinions expressed in these essays are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of other Jungian Center faculty or Board members.  Honesty, as well as professional courtesy, require that you give proper attribution to the author if you post this essay elsewhere.

 Jung on Myths and Mythologems


“One can be perfectly scientific about mythology, for it is just as good a natural product as plants, animals, or chemical elements.”[1]


“For myths are miracle tales and treat of all those things which, very often, are also objects of belief.”[2]


“Myths and fairytales give expression to unconscious processes, and their retelling causes these processes to come alive again and be recollected, thereby reestablishing the connection between conscious and unconscious.”[3]


“Mythologems are the aforementioned “portions of the world” which belong to the structural elements of the psyche. They are constants whose expression is everywhere and at all times the same.”[4]


“Whatever the structure of the unconscious may be, one thing is certain: it contains an indefinite number of motifs or patterns of an archaic character, in principle identical with the root ideas of mythology and similar thought-forms.”[5]


“… a mythologem is a single, fundamental element, or motif, of any myth.”[6]


One of the most common components of Jung’s writings, and a major part of his work with his patients, dealt with myths. In the Index to his Collected Works, there are four columns of citations referring to myths,[7] and myths were a key element in Jung’s process of amplifying his patients’ dreams.[8] In this essay we will examine this important topic in five parts: how Jung defined “myth” and “mythologem,” how he handled the question (often posed to him) of where myths come from, the ways in which myths are valuable, the features Jung saw in myths, and lastly, we will note some of the motifs that Jung found repeatedly in his own and his patients’ dreams.


Definitions of “Myth” and “Mythologem”


A dictionary defines “myth” as “an invented story.”[9] Common usage in our culture equates “myth” with a false belief or something not true. Jung had a very different attitude: He saw myths as “original revelations of the pre-conscious psyche,”[10] “the most mature product of … humanity,”[11] and “not a conscious invention at all.”[12] In addition to being “a natural product” of our psyche, Jung felt that myths are “manifestations of unconscious impulses,”[13] “miracle tales”[14] that express “a universal disposition in man.”[15] Jungian analyst James Hollis uses the word “myth” three ways: as a psychodynamic image; to refer to a personal scenario (e.g. as in a dream), and as a tribal value system.[16]

“Mythologems” are “myth motifs,”[17] “which belong to the structural elements of the psyche.”[18] As such “they are constants whose expression is everywhere and at all times the same.”[19] All religions are ultimately based on ancient mythologems,[20] according to Jung, and these are not limited to collectives: we as individuals also produce mythologems in our “individual dreams, fantasies, visions and delusional ideas.”[21] For example,

“The archetypal father imago serves as a mythologem for the task of agency, namely the degree to which we can feel our own worth and psychological gravitas.”[22]

These “mythological motifs”[23] are also components of archetypes, and as such they are “spontaneous phenomena which are not subject to our will.”[24] Fairy tales and legends are replete with these motifs. Examples will be given in the final part of this essay.


Sources of Myths


Jung was often asked where myths and archetypes come from. He felt that “myths never were and never are made consciously, they arise from man’s unconscious.”[25] It seemed to him “that their origin can only be explained by assuming them to be deposits of the constantly repeated experiences of humanity.”[26]

The etymology of “myth” may bear out Jung’s assumption: the Greek mythos means “story,”[27] and Jung thought that

“Myths go back to primitive story-tellers and their dreams, to men moved by the stirrings of their fantasies, who were not very different from poets and philosophers in later times. Primitive story-tellers never worried about the origin of their fantasies; it was only much later that people began to wonder where the story came from.”[28]

Myths are “not thought up, but present themselves as images or chains of ideas that force their way out of the unconscious.”[29]  Myths, and the symbols in them, were “not invented but happened.”[30] A myth “comes into existence of its own accord,”[31] much as our dreams “are spontaneous phenomena which are not subject to our will,…”.[32]

From his decades of travels to foreign cultures[33] and his immersion in comparative religion and literature, Jung knew that myths and mythologems “are not invented so much as discovered;”[34] and the wealth of motifs that show up in our dreams “are typical forms that appear spontaneously all over the world, independently of tradition,…” [35]  Jung and his followers (especially Marie-Louise von Franz)[36] spent years collecting fairy tales and legends from a wide array of cultures. Why all this effort? Because while we tend to dismiss fairy tales as the stuff of children, Jung and his students recognize the value that a knowledge of mythology has for analysts and for us as lay persons seeking to understand and amplify our dreams.


How Myths are Valuable


Jung and his followers recognize myths are valuable for their explanatory, restorative, transformational, compensatory, therapeutic, spiritual and personal potentials. Jung saw the “vital importance of myths”[37] in their ability to explain ‘to the bewildered human being what was going on in his unconscious and why he was held fast.”[38] I remember, in the early years of my analysis, when the analyst would relate my current personal grief or dilemma to an ancient myth or legend, I would feel a curious sense of relief–that somehow it helped. It was comforting to realize that my situation was not unique but common and survivable. The myth had put my circumstance in a wider context which gave me hope. Just the telling of the story helped to free me from the confusion Jung recognized as a frequent mark of those “in the soup”[39] of psychic transformation.

This “transformation” that myths can foster is not simple change: The proverbial toothpaste can never go back in the tube with transformation. Hearing my analyst recount a myth and relate it to my dream or outer-life situation set in motion a process of growth that grew out of the inherent dynamism in the myth’s contents.[40] Over time subsequent dreams would reflect my having gleaned a bit more consciousness.

When I began my analysis I was terribly one-sided in my rational, logical, animus-ridden college professor identity. Not surprisingly, then, many dreams threw up “more or less subjective myths”[41] which served to “compensate the one-sidedness of [my] individual consciousness.”[42] My analyst explained that the psyche strives for balance, much as our physical system works constantly to maintain the proper balance of electrolytes, blood-urea levels and other markers of proper health.

Fragmentation also marked my condition when I showed up at my analyst’s door the first time. I was, as Jung described it “cut off from [my] psychic origins by neurotic dissociation.”[43] I was neurotic and also isolated: with my life falling apart all around me, neither I nor my friends understood what was happening to me, and I felt like a freak. What to do? Sitting a puddle of tears, the last thing I would have thought helpful was what my analyst did: tell me a fairy story, offer a myth or legend which gave “expression to unconscious processes.”[44] The telling caused “these processes to come alive again and be recollected, thereby reestablishing the connection between conscious and unconscious.”[45] In some way (which seemed to me to be magical) the story restored hope, made me feel better–not so isolated, not a freak, which came from knowing that thousands of people before me had a similar despair or challenge. Given the Law of Correspondence (“as within, so without”)[46] the re-linking of my conscious awareness with the unconscious activity within led to an outer restoration: I was able to explain to my friends a bit more coherently what was going on with me, and my sense of isolation lessened.

Besides explaining, transforming, and restoring the link with the unconscious, myths have “psychotherapeutic value.”[47] Jung was explicit that myths have

“a ‘saving,’ i.e. therapeutic significance, since it [the myth] gives adequate expression to the dynamism underlying the individual entanglement. The myth is not to be causally explained as the consequence of a personal [life issue] but should be understood teleologically, as an attempt of the unconscious itself to rescue consciousness from the danger of regression.”[48]

In this statement, Jung is expressing a key feature of his brand of psychology: teleology.[49] The psyche–our soul–has a goal, an aim, something it strives for. Healing is one goal, to be sure, and there are others, broader and deeper than simple physical relief. Psychological wholeness, “a sense of harmony and meaning”[50] that comes from a “personal experience of the numinous”[51]–these are other things the Self strives for.

Mythologems have “numinous power,”[52] and reading or listening to a myth offers us the “possibility of spiritual transformation.”[53] James Hollis feels that Jung’s stress on the value of myths provides us with “a way for the modern [person] to appreciate the spiritual.”[54]

Jung came to his awareness of the value of myth from his own experience working with patients. Early in his career a patient’s situation reminded Jung of a myth, which he suspected was meaningful.[55] But Jung felt he was unlikely to get the meaning

“if I lived outside it in the haze of my own speculations. I was driven to ask myself in all seriousness: ‘What is the myth you are living?’ I found no answer to this question, and had to admit that I was not living with a myth, or even in a myth, but rather in an uncertain cloud of theoretical possibilities which I was beginning to regard with increasing distrust. I did not know that I was living a myth, and even if I had known it, I would not have known what sort of myth was ordering my life without my knowledge. So, in the most natural way, I took it upon myself to get to know “my” myth, and I regarded this as the task of tasks, for – so I told myself – how could I, when treating my patients, make due allowance for the personal factor, for my personal equation, which is yet so necessary for a knowledge of the other person, if I was unconscious of it? I simply had to know what unconscious or pre-conscious myth was forming me, from what rhizome I sprang.”[56]

This passage reveals Jung’s integrity and authenticity: He was not about to ask of his patient something he was not prepared to do himself. If he asked about the meaning of a myth, he would have to interrogate himself. So he did. The reference here to “rhizome” reflects Jung’s belief in the importance of roots, and of each person having a sense of his/her roots.[57] By wrestling with the question “What is my myth?” Jung came to understand how myths can be central to our feeling of belonging and “coming to a new sense of self”[58] and our personal heritage as a human being.


Some Features of Myths


From the previous paragraphs, it is clear that myths have a range of qualities. They represent psychological facts and psychic phenomena,[59] with creativity,[60] vitality,[61] freshness[62] and a numinous power[63] that goes over our heads, pointing to realities that transcend consciousness.[64] Being “independent of ego control,”[65] myths have the “power to evoke energic response within us”[66] due to their “tremendous affectivity.”[67] This is why, when I listened to my analyst retelling a myth, I had a strongly felt reaction. My intellect was out of its depth and was helpless: I could not figure out what was wrong or what was really going on, but my body and feelings responded in positive, healing ways.

Myths “seek to translate natural secrets [what is in the unconscious] into the language of consciousness,”[68] and, in doing so, they help to bring “us into relationship with our depths.”[69] Myths “fabulate,”[70] that is, they act like fables, asserting “the unusual, the extraordinary, the impossible,”[71] all the while “adapting to the changing spirit of the times.”[72]

Jung knew, from his personal experience and his work with his patients, that myths can “impress, influence and fascinate us.”[73] Why? Because they are “colored by particularly strong feeling-tones”[74] that give them “tremendous affectivity.”[75] With their symbols,[76] larger-than-life characters,[77] archetypes,[78] imaginative material,[79] numinous and subjective experiences,[80] myths help us address psychological questions[81] and resolve neurotic disturbances,[82] as illustrated in my experiences in analysis described above.


Some of the Key Motifs in Myths


Defining “mythologems” as “mythological motifs”[83] presents us with the experts’ terminology, but for the average reader I think it is more helpful to convey the meaning by examples. Myth motifs can show up as archetypes, e.g.

“the anima, animus, wise old man, witch, shadow, earth-mother, etc., and the organizing dominants, the Self, the circle, and the quaternity, i.e. the four functions or aspects of the Self or of consciousness.”[84]

Note here that Jung regards shapes, like the circle, and numbers, like four, as motifs that figure widely in our psychological heritage, as well as in art, design and architecture.

Jung also cites a lot of myth motifs in his alchemical studies. For example, he noted that

“The idea of the coniunctio served on the one hand to shed light on the mystery of chemical combination, while on the other it became the symbol of the unio mystica, since, as a mythologem, it expresses the archetype of the union of opposites.”[85]

All the archetypes of change–the solutio, coagulatio, calcinatio and sublimatio–are mythologems that the ancient and medieval alchemists worked with. We live these also, although few people are aware now of doing so.[86]

Other myth motifs are familiar from popular culture, e.g. the hero,[87] werewolves,[88] demons, magicians, dragons,[89] snakes and serpents,[90] magic talismans,[91] monsters,[92] and treasures (often guarded by a dragon). When a Hollywood movie becomes a “blockbuster” few viewers realize that its characters and themes are thousands of years old.

Some motifs relate to our religious or classical heritage, e.g. the Lucifer legend and the Garden of Eden,[93] or Jonah and the whale[94]–the monster who swallows the hero, and the katabsis, or the descent into the depths,[95] which a whole host of heroes experienced, e.g. Orpheus, Odysseus, Aeneas, Jesus, Dante.[96] The betrayal of the hero by a friend is another common myth motif: “the Judas legend,”[97] replayed in the myths of “Siegfried and Hagan, Baldur and Loki, … Caesar and Brutus”[98]–each of these extremely old, repeating an event that happened over and over in history.

More immediately relevant in our daily lives are myth motifs like the father,[99] mother,[100] child,[101] playboy,[102] Gaia (Mother Earth[103]–often in the news now, as climate change becomes newsworthy). All of these are “psychic forms which, like the instincts, are common to all mankind, and their presence can be proved wherever the relevant literary records have been preserved.”[104]




Jung took the time to investigate hundreds of literary records because he understood how important myths and their motifs were for his work with his patients, and, more generally, how vital myths and mythologies are to us in daily living. Far from being “an invented thing,” as our modern dictionaries suggest, or something that is not true, as common parlance would have it, myths have value, applicability and relevance for our daily lives, in fostering our health and growth, while deepening our sense of meaning and purpose.




Hollis, James (2004), Mythologems: Incarnations of the Invisible World. Toronto: Inner City Press.

Jung, C.G. (1960), “The Psychogenesis of Mental Disease,” Collected Works, 3. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1961), “Freud and Psychoanalysis,” Collected Works, 4. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1956) “Symbols of Transformation,” Collected Works, 5, 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1966), “Two Essays on Analytical Psychology,” CW 7. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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

________ (1959), ”The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious,” CW 9i. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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

________ (1969), “Psychology and Religion: West and East,” CW 11. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1967), “Alchemical Studies,” CW 13. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1954), “The Practice of Psychotherapy,” CW 16, 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1976), ”The Symbolic Life,” CW 18. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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

Liddell & Scott (1978), An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Three Initiates (1912), The Kybalion. Chicago: Yogi Philosophic Society.

von Franz, Marie-Louise (1972), Problems of the Feminine in Fairytales. Dallas TX: Spring Publications.

________ (1974), Shadow and Evil in Fairy Tales. Dallas TX: Spring Publications.

________ (1977), Individuation in Fairy Tales. Dallas TX: Spring Publications.

________ (1980), The Psychological Meaning of Redemption Motifs in Fairytales. Toronto: Inner City Press.

________ (1997), Archetypal Patterns in Fairy Tales. Toronto: Inner City Press.

________ (1999), The Cat: A Tale of Feminine Redemption. Toronto: Inner City Press.

________ (2002), Animus and Anima in Fairy Tales. Toronto: Inner City Press.





[1] Collected Works 13 ¶195. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW.

[2] CW 9ii ¶66.

[3] Ibid. ¶280.

[4] CW 16 ¶207.

[5] CW 11 ¶781.

[6] Hollis (2004), 7.

[7] CW 20, 469-471.

[8] CW 16 ¶96.

[9] World Book Encyclopedia Dictionary, II, 1283.

[10] CW 9i ¶261.

[11] CW 5 ¶29.

[12] CW 8 ¶71.

[13] CW 4 ¶477.

[14] CW 9ii ¶66.

[15] Ibid. ¶278.

[16] Hollis (2004), 10.

[17] CW 13 ¶352.

[18] CW 16 ¶207.

[19] CW 16 ¶207.

[20] Ibid. ¶251.

[21] CW 8 ¶554.

[22] Hollis (2004), 119.

[23] CW 8 ¶325.

[24] CW 11 ¶557.

[25] CW 4 ¶477.

[26] CW 7 ¶109.

[27] Liddell & Scott (1978), 521.

[28] CW 18 ¶568.

[29] CW 8 ¶71.

[30] CW 18 ¶568.

[31] CW 16 ¶836.

[32] CW 11 ¶557.

[33] Jung made trips to Africa, India, six trips to the U.S., as well as traveling all over Europe.

[34] CW 3 ¶565.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Cf. von Franz (1972), (1974), (1977), (1980), (1997), (1999), and (2002), for examples of von Franz’s deep immersion in the world of fairy tales.

[37] CWS 5 ¶466.

[38] Ibid.

[39] This is the phrase my analyst often used to describe the process of analysis.

[40] CW 5 ¶669.

[41] CW 11 ¶698.

[42] Ibid.

[43] CW 9i ¶302.

[44] CW 9ii ¶280.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Three Initiates (1912), 28-29.

[47] CW 11 ¶287.

[48] CW 4 ¶738.

[49] Teleology is the study of telos, the ends of things, the goal or aim. Jung believed that any psychic disturbance had some purpose: the soul wanted to heal and the pathology could offer insight into how to do so, if the therapist was alert to it and recognized the purposiveness of what was going on.

[50] Hollis (2004), 16.

[51] Ibid, 19.

[52] CW 11 ¶178.

[53] Hollis (2004), 143.

[54] Ibid. 146.

[55] CW 5, “Foreword to the fourth Swiss edition,” xxiv-xxv.

[56] Ibid.

[57] CW 16 ¶251.

[58] Hollis (2004), 64-65.

[59] CW 18 ¶783.

[60] CW 4 ¶745.

[61] CW 9ii ¶67.

[62] CW 9i ¶318.

[63] CW 11 ¶178.

[64]  CW 16 ¶474.

[65] Hollis (2004), 12.

[66] Ibid., 10.

[67] CW 7 ¶150.

[68] CW 13 ¶395.

[69] Hollis (2004), 20.

[70] CW 18 ¶1362.

[71] Ibid.

[72] Ibid. ¶1665.

[73] CW 16 ¶847.

[74] Ibid.

[75] CW 7 ¶150.

[76] CW 18 ¶568.

[77] Hollis (2004), 20.

[78] CW 9i ¶137.

[79] CW 5 ¶669.

[80] Ibid., 223.

[81] CW 18 ¶786.

[82] CW 9i ¶302.

[83] CW 8 ¶554.

[84] CW 5 ¶611.

[85] CW 16 ¶354.

[86] For numerous examples of how we are living alchemy now, see my recent book Living Alchemy, available on our Jungian Center store, in both book and e-book format.

[87] CW 4 ¶738.

[88] CW 7 ¶150.

[89] Ibid. & ¶261.

[90] CW 8 ¶326.

[91] CW 7 ¶261.

[92] CW 9ii ¶67.

[93] CW 11 ¶291.

[94] CW 18 ¶1362.

[95] Hollis (2004), 72.

[96] Ibid., 70.

[97] CW 5 ¶42.

[98] Ibid.

[99] CW 4 ¶738.

[100] Ibid.

[101] CW 9i ¶259.

[102] Hollis (2004), 63-64.

[103] CW 5 ¶611.

[104] CW 8 ¶254.

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