Analysing centaurus, nymphs, and gods: Carl Jung and Friedrich Creuzer

Source: Antigone

Jakub Handszu


Carl Gustav Jung (1875–1961) was a Swiss psychiatrist, but it’s not psychiatry that he’s become famous for. Although some of the concepts that he introduced became part of mainstream psychology (e.g. the complex, or introversion vs extraversion), his greatest influence was on religious and literary studies via his concept of the collective unconscious and its archetypes.

Jung, much like his older colleague (and, for a time, mentor) Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), was fascinated with Classical antiquity, fluent in Greek and Latin, and well acquainted with Graec-Roman literature. What may seem to be of particular interest to Classicists in Jung is, at first glance, only his theory of myths, but a much less known and yet fascinating story to be told is Jung’s relationship with Platonism.

Jung, around the age of 60.

From his youth, Jung engaged with the works of Plato, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and other prominent representatives of Platonism. His major ideas echo back to ancient philosophy, although they are creatively reinterpreted within the framework of his own analytical psychology. However, representatives of the Platonic tradition who influenced Jung’s vision may be found not only in antiquity, but also throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, into the Romantic period.

There is one figure, at once embracing German Romanticism, Classical scholarship, and Neoplatonic philosophy, who attracted Jung’s attention: Friedrich Creuzer (1771–1858).

Undated lithograph 19th-cent. lithograph of Georg Friedrich Creuzer after a portrait by Jakob Wilhelm Roux, whose current location is unknown.

Creuzer studied Classics at the Universities of Marburg and Jena. From 1804 until the end of his career, he was a professor of philology and ancient history at the University of Heidelberg. He edited Plotinus’ Enneads,[1] an edition that includes the Latin translation of Plotinus by Marsilio Ficino (1484–6), as well as a critical apparatus by G.H. Moser. Creuzer’s influence on contemporary German philosophy was considerable; his translation of Plotinus’ treatise On Nature and Contemplation and the One (Enn. 3.8) was read by Friedrich Schelling (1775–1854), among other German thinkers of the time.

Creuzer’s magnum opus was Symbolik und Mythologie der alten Völker, besonders der Griechen (The Symbolism and Mythology of Ancient Peoples, Especially the Greeks, 1810–12), a comprehensive account of Greek and Oriental mythology that also included Creuzer’s theory of symbol, myth and allegory. He emphasised the centrality of the religious dimension of the symbolic experience, moving away from aesthetic considerations about the nature of the symbol that were prevalent during his time.

Title-page to the second, enlarged edition (1819–23) of Creuzer’s Symbolik und Mythologie.

In his Symbolik, Creuzer presents a diffusionist theory of religion, according to which Greek mythology had its origin in Egypt and India, from where migrating priests brought their monotheistic religion. Subsequently, the original religion, whose nature was fundamentally symbolic, gradually expanded into a variety of mythological narratives, and as a result lost its primeval power and vitality. Despite the local factors that played a role in shaping these narratives, behind these myths lay a unified, primeval, symbolic world of experience.

In Jung’s Collected Works, Creuzer’s name appears only twice, in two adjacent paragraphs of the first major work, The Psychology of the Unconscious (1912). In these paragraphs Jung discusses canine symbolism and its connection to death and rebirth. Jung references Creuzer’s conclusion that the gathering of the remains of the dead Osiris (an Egyptian god of fertility and afterlife) may have a deeper significance, because the appearance of the jackal-headed god of funerary rites, Anubis, during the ceremony (presumably a priest in ritual dress), who renders service to the dead god, finds its symbolic complement in the appearance of the astral form of the dog, which is the dog-star Sirius, at the highest point of solstice.

The judgment of the dead in the presence of Osiris: scene from the Papyrus of Hunefer, c.1275 BC (British Museum, London).

However, another reference to Creuzer, a more significant one, appears in Jung’s autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1962; English translation, 1963), which was based on Jung’s conviction that:  “In the end the only events in my life worth telling are those when the imperishable world irrupted into this transitory one. That is why I speak chiefly of inner experiences” (MDR 4). Crucially, he included among them his encounter with Creuzer’s work in 1909:

After I had returned to Zurich I took up a book on Babylonian excavations, and read various works on myths. In the course of this reading I came across Friedrich Creuzer’s Symbolik und Mythologie der alten Völker and that fired me! I read like mad, and worked with feverish interest through a mountain of mythological material, then through the Gnostic writers, and ended in total confusion. I found myself in a state of perplexity similar to the one I had experienced at the clinic when I tried to understand the meaning of psychotic states of mind. It was as if I were in an imaginary madhouse and were beginning to treat and analyze all the centaurs, nymphs, gods, and goddesses in Creuzer’s book as though they were my patients. While thus occupied I could not help but discover the close relationship between ancient mythology and the psychology of primitives, and this led me to an intensive study of the latter.[2]

The Burghölzli is the Psychiatric University Hospital of Zürich, where Jung worked from 1900 to 1909, when he moved into private practice.

Jung engaged with Creuzer’s Symbolik right after his 1909 trip to America,[3] during which his mentor Sigmund Freud refused to confide the details of his dream life and personal life to Jung: Freud wanted to maintain his authority over his student. For Jung this meant the end of their relationship; he decided to break away from his mentor and dive headfirst into the world of mythology, which led to his conception of the ‘collective unconscious’ – or the ‘objective psyche’, as it is sometimes known.

In the first chapter of the Symbolik, Creuzer introduces his theory of the symbol. The symbol is an expression of early man’s immediate experience, from which mythological and artistic forms are derived. Creuzer claimed that the essence of myth could be traced back through meticulous analysis of textual material; this essence represented a unified, primeval idea that lay behind the multiplicity of mythological narratives. This primary symbolic essence could be found within the spiritual nature of mythopoeic man. Creuzer, in the introduction to the Symbolik, demonstrated the essential qualities of the symbol. On ontological grounds he defined it as the embodied/incarnate idea (verkörperte Idee), which manifests itself in tangible form, and points to the Divine.[4]

In 1844, the University of Heidelberg struck a medal, designed by the engraver Ludwig Kachel, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Creuzer’s appointment; this example is held by the Classics department of the University of Tübingen in Germany.

This tangibility of the Idea consists in an immediate vision, perceived as if in a flash, through the appearance of the object, which represents the eternal truth. This particular insight derives from Plato’s Symposium, where Diotima thus describes the final, sudden (ἐξαίφνης) vision of the Idea of Beauty:

When a man has been thus far tutored in the lore of love, passing from view to view of beautiful things, in the right and regular ascent, suddenly he will have revealed to him, as he draws to the close of his dealings in love, a wondrous vision, beautiful in its nature; and this, Socrates, is the final object of all those previous toils. (Symp. 210e, tr. H.N. Fowler)

The notion is developed more fully in Plotinus, who describes this “sensible” experience of the world of Ideas or Forms in the following way:

All things flow, in a way from a single spring, not like one particular breath or one warmth, but as if there was one quality which held and kept intact all the qualities in itself, of sweetness along with fragrance, and was at once the quality of wine and the characters of all tastes, the sights of colours and all the awareness of touch, and all that hearings hear, all tunes and every rhythm. (–30, tr. A.H. Armstrong)

Diotima, as embodied in a portrait of Jadwiga Łuszczewska by Józef Simmler, 1855 (Borys Voznytsky Lviv National Art Gallery, Lviv, Ukraine).

In a famous passage of another treatise, Plotinus compares the Platonic Ideas to Egyptian hieroglyphics (–8):

One must not then suppose that the gods or the ‘exceedingly blessed spectators’ in the higher world contemplate propositions, but all the Forms we speak about are beautiful sacred statues in that world, of the kind which someone imagined to exist in the soul of the wise man, statues not painted, but real. This is why the ancients said that the Ideas were realities and substances. (–5).

Creuzer, in a similar vein, wrote: “the image (das Bildliche) must become the expression of the infinite; the soul wishes to rise to the world of Ideas. There it feels its limitation and longing to break through this barrier, to give birth to the infinite in the finite, in order to see, without a veil, only what is true and exists eternally”.[5] From this movement of the soul between the world of Ideas and the realm of the senses, the essential qualities of the symbol were revealed. These included: instantaneousness; totality; meaningfulness; a sense of necessity; and a sense of a symbol’s unfathomable origin.[6] Furthermore, Creuzer regarded the symbolic experience as a mystical one, which served a religious function for human beings. His definition of the symbol undoubtedly synthesized Platonic and Romantic influences.

Fragment of a wall with hieroglyphs from the tomb of Seti I (reign c.1290–1279 BC) (British Museum, London).

Creuzer’s description of the symbol coincides with Jung’s phenomenology of archetypal experiences, whose numinous nature

can only come about spontaneously…  [A man under the necessity to experience metanoia] attracts the interest of ‘another world’; achievements are expected of him which transcend the empirical realm and its narrow limits. The status of the individual is enhanced, and he acquires a cosmic importance. This numinous transformation is not the result of conscious intention or intellectual conviction, but is brought about by the impact of overwhelming archetypal impressions. (CW 10.720)

For Jung, the experience of numinosum is a vivid sudden insight of everything “falling into place”, accompanied by seeing life in an entirely new perspective. Moreover, in his eyes, a true symbol necessarily bestows meaning and, as he put it, “is alive only as long as it is pregnant with meaning” (CW 6, 816, 817). Importantly, Jung uses this expression twice in his Definitions of psychological terms, which appear in Volume 6 of the Collected Works. There he discusses, similarly to Creuzer in his introduction, the distinction between symbol and allegory. This has a clear Creuzerian echo, as further evidence with Jung’s familiarity with Creuzer’s theoretical introduction to the Symbolik.

The Reunion of the soul and the body: illustration to Robert Blair’s The Grave by William Blake, 1805 (Tate Britain, London).

All this seems significant in the context of Jung’s engagement with Creuzer during a crucial period of his life, when the split with Sigmund Freud was becoming inevitable. What Jung needed at that time was an entirely new perspective; it came to him while he was committed to the study of mythology. Creuzer’s book, we read, “fired” him; he read “like mad” and with “feverish interest”. This overwhelming experience, combined with his need to move into a new direction, was precisely, as Jung put it in his biography, an experience of the “imperishable world irrupted into this transitory one”. Importantly, this experience was revealed to him while he was meticulously analysing textual mythological material; that allowed him to deduce the symbolic essence behind the myths, up to the point that Jung said he was:

in] perplexity similar to the one I had experienced at the clinic when I tried to understand the meaning of psychotic states of mind. It was as if I were in an imaginary madhouse and were beginning to treat and analyze all the centaurs, nymphs, gods, and goddesses in Creuzer’s book as though they were my patients.

Centauromachy: tondo from an Attic red-figure kylix, c.480 BC (Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich, Germany).

One has to think here about Creuzer’s symbolic ontology of the incarnate Platonic Idea, based on which Jung came to treat mythic figures (“centaurs, nymphs, and gods”) as if they were tangible, embodied and alive. From that point of view, we may say that Jung completed Creuzer’s project to uncover the true, primeval symbol that lay behind the veil of myths. In this way, then, Carl Gustav Jung combined his fascination with mythology and his engagement with Platonism, giving in this way a new life to the ancient past.

Jakub Handszu is a PhD student at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, as well as a psychotherapist in training. His areas of research are literary studies, analytical psychology, philosophy and the Classical tradition.


1 G.F. Creuzer, Plotini Opera Omnia, 3 vols, Oxford, 1835.
2 C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (tr. R. & Winston, Pantheon, New York, 1963) 186.
3 Jung’s Bibliothek gives the dates of 1810–21 for the four volumes of Creuzer’s work, which indicates that he possessed some of the volumes from both first and second editions. Importantly, in both of these editions the theoretical considerations of Creuzer on the idea of the symbolic are included in the first chapter.
4 F. Creuzer, Symbolik und Mythologie der alten Völker, I.33,35.
5 Creuzer, Symbolik, 29.
6 Ibid. 33.