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The Annual Catabasis by James Hollis, Ph.D.

Sunday, December 08, 2019 12:32 AM | Anonymous

I shudder each late autumn as I reflect on the hardships our distant ancestors bore as the sun plummets into the underworld, an annual catabasis which must have been, if not terrifying, at best problematic for their survival. Given that we are that animal that desires to know, to make up stories that help us relate to the inexplicable and sometimes monstrous forces around us, their primal imagination conjured up all sorts of cosmic animals that had eaten the sun, or malevolent gods that had abducted it from warming our crops and our person.

But I particularly think on my visit to Newgrange, about an hour's drive north of Dublin, Eire. A number of years ago, what were thought to simply be hills were revealed to be burial chambers. (Aerial photography is helping find many more such sites). Today, rightly controlled by the government to protect its fragile state, one can go down into the recesses of one of those domes. (From afar, they almost look like football stadia). One descends about twenty meters into a cavern in which one light bulb now hangs. The guide informs that this structure was built c. 5000 years ago, which makes it older than the pyramids, and much older than Stonehenge. When she turned off that one bulb, we knew what dark dark was really like. We were one with those whose bodies had once been placed there, in the underworld.

Further, we are shown what is called a latch-key slot in the ceiling about the size of a shoebox. In the late days of December, for a matter of minutes each dark day, the slot is aligned with the sun now at its furthest perigee from our sight. Stunningly, the room is briefly illumined by that light. There in the dark cavern, in the darkest time of the year in the Northern hemisphere, the light appears. What are we to make of that elaborate construction which so clearly was tied to a solstice ("sun standing still") ritual?

In the depths of that sacred space I had three thoughts which came to me in this order. First, I marveled at the engineering acumen that had cantalevered those stones to create that space. And I hoped that their skill would persist for another few centuries, given that I and others were under those stones. Second, I was moved by their astronomical sophistication which could so accurately calculate the movement of the stars and planets which they could only see by the naked eye. Thirdly, I realized, and was moved by recognizing that I was in the presence of the Great Mother archetype of which Jung spoke.

An archetype is recognized through its incarnation in a form available to consciousness but not created by individual consciousness. It is a timeless, patterning process whose contents vary greatly, but whose form is universal. The Great Mother is a personification of the forces of the birth, death, rebirth process through which individuals, and cultures, move.

So there, in that Irish cavern I bore witness to the archetypal idea that even in death, even in the darkest hours, a scintilla of light is present, the germ of rebirth, renewal, and the great cycle catalyzed into rotation back to the fullness of summer. Any person, any culture who has a sense of participation in this great cycle feels a deeper psycho-social connection to a transpersonal energy. And any culture, such as ours, which has cut itself free of the cycle will suffer dread with aging and mortality, will feel rootless, adrift, and live a stranger on this earth.

There in that dismal cavern, I felt linked through the archetypal imagination common to all humanity, linked to those distant predecessors and mindful that we are all summoned to reconnect with those forces which lie outside our powers, and in which we daily swim. We can thank those ancestors for their labor which now informs our age, and Jung for describing the archetypal field of energy which allows us to stand in relationship to that which is larger than we. Immortal sap runs through the world tree, and while we are very mortal, perhaps we profit to remember our connection to the larger is obtained through the archetypal imagination which courses within each of us.

James Hollis, Ph.D.

Jungian Analyst


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The Jung Society of Washington is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization, a nonprofit educational institution. Our IRS form 990 is available upon request. Although many of the Jung Society's programs involve analytical psychology and allied subjects, these offerings are intended, and should be viewed, as a source of information and education, and not as therapy. The Jung Society does not offer psychoanalytical or other mental health services.
Images of mandalas throughout this site were created by Carl Jung's patients between the years 1926 and 1945.
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