The Psychology of the Fool

The fool is one of the most relatable, intriguing and recurring figures in the world. There have been fools who have caused surprise and laughter since time immemorial. We worship folly by seeing it in people and in the world and by willingly displaying it in ourselves. It is one of the timeless archetypes, which we all inherit at birth.


Death and The Fool c. 1500 – Mary Evans Picture Library

Many of us suffer from the absence of the fool in our lives. Frenetic and upright, we take ourselves too seriously, trying so hard to conform to a world which promotes workaholism, efficiency, and productivity that we might as well be cogs in a machine. As William Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” Forgetting that playfulness is a basic human need, we wonder why we so easily become bored and exhausted, losing all capacity for spontaneity, authenticity, and passion.

The antidote to this would be to give the fool archetype some space in our lives. To be in balance, and not become excessively foolish and irresponsible, we need to develop the archetype of the sage, who despite being wise, recognises the limits of his knowledge, and can laugh at himself every now and then. Archetypes are not part of a mechanical system, but pieces of life itself – images that are integrally connected to the living individual by the bridge of the emotions.

The character of the fool is complex, and various characteristics have been attributed to the fool: that he is dull-witted, inarticulate, unable to conform to the conventional standards of behaviour; and that he has a natural simplicity and innocence of heart.

The derivation of the word “fool” is the Latin “follis”, meaning a pair of bellows expelling empty air; extended to people, it implies an empty-headed person, with insubstantial thoughts. At the same time, bellows furnish the oxygen needed for combustion in much the same way that the fool “fires us up”.

In Praise of Folly

Cover of a 1728 French edition, L’Éloge de la Folie – Erasmus

In 1511, the Dutch scholar Erasmus published In Praise of Folly,which became hugely popular and is a profoundly penetrating examination of the fool in Western literature. Folly introduces herself, and since nobody ever praises Folly, she begins by praising herself, arguing that life would be dull without her.

Folly criticises everyone, and Erasmus’ close friends warned him of the possible dangers of attacking the church. However, even religious figures found the work amusing.

Friendship and marriage contain a certain amount of folly, because we tend to overlook the defects of our friends and loved ones, and consider them “small vices” in comparison to other people. Intellectuals are foolish in their pursuit of knowledge, spending years going to the library, doing research, thinking that what they are doing is tremendously important, so that a few other intellectuals over of a century will read their book and think very highly of it.

Folly compares philosophers to theatre critics who unmask the characters onstage and ruin the actors’ performance. They are boring and annoying. Philosophers don’t seem to understand how the illusions that help make life bearable are useful even if they distort reality.

The fool seems to be infinitely freer and happier than those who are burdened by wisdom. They are the life of the party. Fools always speak the truth because they lack the wisdom to craft lies and seek to manipulate others.

In essence, there is nothing that can make life happier than the joy that accompanies laughter and play. Folly is not merely universal, but necessary and even desirable to humanity, to be a person is nothing other than to play the fool, and to acknowledge this very fact is the highest form of wisdom.

The Wise Fool

The Hermit – Mikhail Nesterov

The fool represents a nostalgic return to a simpler way of life, a wisdom that comes not from the mind but from the heart. Sometimes the down-to-earth and simpleminded, in their purity of heart, can penetrate to profounder truths than those encumbered with learning and convention, in the same way we sometimes sense a more resonant truth in popular proverbs than in rational exposition. Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky writes:

“The wisest of all, in my opinion, is he who can, if only once a month, call himself a fool — a faculty unheard of nowadays.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Bobok

In literature, wise characters sometimes depict insanity and madmen express wisdom. The oxymoron, “wise fool”, is a literal paradox where the character who is identified as a fool comes to be regarded as the beholder of wisdom. People sometimes accuse wise people of insanity in order to “conceal” their unwanted wisdom either fearing the harsh words on many controversial topics or simply to punish them for speaking boldly.

The archetypal wise fool is Socrates. Not only was his educational method based on exposing the folly of the supposedly wise, but he himself claimed that his own wisdom was derived from an awareness of his ignorance. Knowledge of ignorance is itself a kind of knowledge. As Shakespeare writes:

“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”

William Shakespeare, As You Like It

The Fool as Truth-Teller

The Fool – Jan Pietersz. Saenredam

There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true. When there’s an uncomfortable truth that needs to be spoken, and those in power are afraid to speak about it, it is usually the fool who steps in. There is something heroic about this. It is the fool who speaks a truth nobody else dares to utter, and this brings instant relief, because people know it has to be said.

Generally speaking, we can distinguish between two types of fools: the natural fool, who lacks social awareness and occasionally utters the truth being unaware of social conventions, and the professional fool, whose job it is to make harsh truths more palatable by disguising them with humour and wit. One follows his heart, the other his mind. The greatest fools are often times cleverer than the people who laugh at them.

The fool is fearless in speaking the truth. In fact, the great secret of the successful fool is that he is no fool at all. As the great English visionary artist William Blake writes:

“If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.”

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Fool, Clown and Trickster

Stańczyk – Jan Matejko

The fool, the clown, and the trickster share similar traits. They are sources of humour, inevitably eliciting laughter, serving as catalysts for comic catharsis. However, they also express a duality: folly and non-folly, order and disorder. What may seem like a joke, can in fact be a warning. Danish theologian and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard writes:

“A fire broke out backstage in a theatre. The clown came out to warn the public; they thought it was a joke and applauded. He repeated it; the acclaim was even greater. I think that’s just how the world will come to an end: to general applause from wits who believe it’s a joke.”

Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or

Professional fools can bring a sense of awareness to what is going on in the world, and where we are headed. Many of them, however, come from a place of tragedy. The contradictory association between comedy and mental disorders (such as depression and anxiety) is known as the sad clown paradox, where comedy can act as a defence mechanism to remove supressed feelings of rage and aggression.

People may respond with laughter at the clown, yet harbour feelings of pity, fear or repulsion – evoking ambivalent reactions. Some people, in fact, suffer from coulrophobia – the overwhelming fear of clowns. In this day and age, clowns are a constant source of horror in books and movies. Perhaps this is because the modern clown’s role is always the same: to entertain others by being the subject of laughter, and he is not always successful at it. The clown has to sacrifice his well-being by always having to put on the same face, and play the same character. This one-sidedness can take its toll mentally, and the clown slowly becomes enveloped by his shadow, the dark side of his personality. The evil clown archetype is best portrayed in The Joker, one of the most recognisable villain characters in popular culture.

In medieval theatre, clowns would not only make spectators laugh, but sometimes also snatch them off with them into a Hellmouth, the entrance of hell envisaged as the gaping mouth of a monster, which scared the audiences. Thus, their light and dark sides were balanced.

The fool and the trickster have a few psychological differences as well. Generally speaking, the fool is presented as an innocent or naïve figure, who wouldn’t hurt a fly, while the trickster is intentionally deceptive, and seeks to trick others and laugh at them. The trickster loves engaging in what the Germans call schadenfreude (literally “harm-joy”), in which one obtains pleasure from learning or witnessing the misfortunes, failures, or humiliation of another person. A trickster may console others when they fail, and hide that internally he feels joy.

When there is an opportunity to play a trick on another person, the trickster immediately seizes the opportunity. The fool, however, is not interested in laughing at a person, but rather laughing with the person, or laugh at himself. To laugh at oneself helps to break the ice, because it not only removes one’s own persona, but also the audience’s social mask, allowing for genuine behaviour. This courageous feat throws one in a vulnerable state, which allows others to open up and receive a message more profoundly,

While the fool likes to entertain others, and is usually the butt of a joke, the trickster, on the other hand, seeks primarily to entertain himself, even if it is at the expense of others.

The fool is able to have a sense of humour even in difficult situations, which radiates hope in others. In a tense atmosphere, the person who is hurt takes the risk to make a joke, even if it means making a fool of himself, not just to set himself at ease, but also to bring relief to others. When a person acts like a fool through some kind of outward action, it is immediately apparent to the audience. With the trickster, it is more ambiguous, he plays like a fool in order for people to fall into his trap. The trickster tricks others who never expect to be tricked.

The Medieval Court Jester

A jester shown with a marotte in a 1540 woodcut – Heinrich Vogtherr the Younger

In medieval times, the court jester’s job was to entertain the aristocracy in a wide variety of ways: music, storytelling, satire, comedy, or juggling and acrobatics. It was believed that keeping a fool in the premises warded off the evil eye. This is no antiquated superstition; it represents a psychological truth of enduring value. It is usually a good idea to place the fool out front where we can keep an eye on him. We must make room for the renegade factor in ourselves and admit him to our inner court, where he can bring us fresh ideas and new energy. Without the fool’s blunt observations and playfulness, our inner landscape might become a sterile wasteland.

During the Middle Ages, the Feast of Fools would be celebrated by the lower clergy on New Year’s Day. To ensure society against unexpected uprisings of latent destructive urges, all conventions were temporarily suspended. The natural order of things was turned upside down, sacred rituals were parodied in obscene fashion, church authorities were ridiculed, and all underdogs were allowed to give vent to year-long repressions of hostility, lust and rebellion. These blasphemous celebrations were eventually driven underground by the church.

The fool also had an important role in the royal court and was given permission by the king to speak the truth. Both an insider and outsider, the fool occupied a peculiar place at court as the one person able to ridicule the very person he served, in humour only, of course! Anyone who dares to challenge others, or the status quo, is considered a fool by those who are too afraid to be speak out, and would never risk their reputation by being authentic.

To make his special privileges known, the fool imitated the king’s crown and sceptre with a cap ‘n’ bells and a bauble, or fool’s sceptre. In the manner of a ventriloquist’s doll, the miniature head of the bauble could say things that the jester might not want to say himself.

Because of their close relation to the king, jesters were free from punishment and allowed to speak without fear. Nevertheless, some of them went too far, and were beheaded.

Fools represent values which are rejected by the group, because they oppose social norms and rules. They are seen as incompetent, frequently ostracised for their rebelliousness, and are thus social misfits. However, every group must have such a figure, because they are agents of change, and the liveliness of culture require that there be space for figures whose function is to uncover and disrupt the very things that cultures are based on.

Court jesters usually had some sort of physical deformity. They came from poor families and were financial burdens, but because of their unusual bodies, they were used as natural fools to create amusement. Deformities were looked upon as a special mark of the Lord; so, dwarfs, hunchbacks, and the like, were often chosen to be fools in royal houses. Dwarfs were particularly valued and resided in many royal courts, being frequently delivered as gifts to fellow royal members. They stood next to the king, who would then appear much larger, enhancing his powerful position.

These maimed ones proved to be human beings of unusual depth and wisdom. Excluded by their physical handicaps from the activities and interests of the average person, through their loneliness and suffering these people were forced to discover resources within themselves.

The Shakespearean Fool

A Fool in the Service of the Devil and a Virtuous Man – Hans Schäufelein (German, ca. 1480–ca. 1540)

In Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear, the king’s relationship with the fool is one of friendship and dependency. When the king is left with his knights, he is a terribly lonely figure and keeps asking where the fool is. The king wants the fool to accompany him everywhere, acting as his alter ego. The fool can be expected to reverse relationships between those dominant and those subservient, as he is placed in the paradoxical position of virtual outlawry combined with utter dependence on the support of the social group to which he belongs. Shakespearean fools, just like the fools and jesters of the time, use their wits to outdo people of higher social standing, but their characteristics are exaggerated for theatrical effect.

Parsifal: The Quest for The Holy Grail

The Miracle of the Grail, from the Lohengrin Saga, Salon – Wilhelm Hauschild

The myth of Parsifal, an old Arthurian legend, describes the journey that a boy must undertake to become a man. He is known as Parsifal (young fool) and lives alone with his mother. After seeing knights pass by him, he is marvelled and decides to leave his mother in order to become a knight himself, and goes through many trials that initiate him into manhood.

In the story, the Grail Castle is in serious trouble, The Fisher King, the king of the castle, has been wounded. His wounds are so severe that he cannot live, yet he is incapable of dying. He is rendered infertile and his kingdom is barren. This expresses how the psychological wound manifests itself in problems in the external world.

Every adolescent receives his Fisher King wound. It is the graduation from naïve consciousness into self-consciousness. It is painful to watch an adolescent grow up and realise that the world is not just joy and happiness. However, his first contact with a wound, is what later will be redemption in life.

Every night there is a solemn ceremony in the Grail Castle. One of the maidens holds the Holy Grail, filled with wine, and each person that drinks from it is granted their deepest wish. The Fisher King, however, does not participate and is suffering alone. No further outward effort is possible, if our inward capacity is wounded. It is perhaps the deepest form of suffering, to be right in front of beauty, happiness, and holiness, but unable to partake in any of it.

The court fool had prophesised long ago that the Fisher King would be healed when an innocent fool arrived in the court and asked a specific question.

One day, Parsifal finds a man in a boat fishing on a lake; it was the Fisher King. He asked if there was any place to stay the night, to which the Fisher King gave him the directions to the Grail Castle.

Parsifal attends the ceremony, but the Fisher King is groaning in agony alone. The young fool, who refused to remove the homespun garment made by his mother, remembers her advice not to ask too many questions (symbolising a mother complex). He forgets what he was taught by the Godfather figure who trained him, and does not talk to the Fisher King. The following day, he leaves the castle. As he turns around, the castle was nowhere to be seen.

It took Parsifal 20 long and painful years to find the Grail Castle again. The original myth ends here. The inner castle is always there, but appears invisible to our eyes, unless we see the world with new eyes.

Many of the continued stories say that after Parsifal revisited the Grail Castle, he asked the Fisher King, “whom does the Grail serve?”. Immediately, he was healed, and peace and happiness reigned over the land. The Grail is the centre of meaning in human life, and the meaning of life is to serve the Grail or higher self.

Jungian analyst Robert A. Johnson writes:

“A man must consent to look to a foolish, innocent, adolescent part of himself for his cure. The inner fool is the only one who can touch his Fisher King wound.”

Robert A. Johnson, He: Understanding Masculine Psychology

Don Quixote

The famous windmill scene in Don Quixote – Gustave Doré

In Don Quixote, which is often considered as the first modern novel, Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes portrays a man who is driven “mad” after reading many books of chivalry. He decides to become a knight-errant under the name of Don Quixote. He rides on his weak horse, and goes on to defend the innocent, and defeat the wicked, only to do exactly the opposite. All this he does in the name of a peasant woman, whom he idealises as a princess, but remains unseen in the novel.

The term quixotic refers to a person who is apt to be deluded, unable to distinguish reality from imagination, and pursues lofty and romantic ideals that are impractical. In a famous scene, the hero has an imaginary fight with windmills, which he believes are giants. This is the origin of the idiom “tilting at windmills”, attacking imaginary enemies.

Don Quixote recruits Sancho Panza as his sidekick and squire, a down-to-earth peasant who is puzzled by his master’s grandiose fantasies, but being promised great wealth, follows him riding a donkey. Sancho’s realism contrasts to his master’s idealism.

Don Quixote’s good intentions, however, end up doing harm to those he meets, since he is largely unable to see the world as it really is. He is not only seen as a fool, but a complete madman. Despite his insanity, he is witty and at times, seemingly sane; so long as he avoids the topic of chivalry. This may be a warning that even the most intelligent people can fall victim to their own foolishness.

At the end, Don Quixote becomes sick and falls asleep, and later awakes from a dream, awakening from his madness too. He realises that he has wasted his life, and is just crazy. The atmosphere of the novel turns from comedy to tragedy, and the people who looked at him with scorn, can’t help but feel pity for him. They insist that he is wrong and that he really is a knight. What was before viewed as insanity is now considered sanity. After his life-giving illusions are dissipated, he dies. He dies from an overdose of reality. This brings in the question: is it better to know the truth and be unhappy, or live in a fool’s paradise?

Dostoevsky’s The Idiot

Illustration of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot – Ilya Glazunov

In his novel, The Idiot, Dostoevsky explores this question to some extent. He portrays the ideal man, “a positively beautiful individual” in a morally corrupted and decayed world. The protagonist, Prince Myshkin, returns to Russia after spending time in a Swiss sanatorium receiving treatment for epilepsy and “idiocy” (until the 20th century an actual medical term for neurological disorders). Starting with the train ride to St. Petersburg he is thrown headfirst into the corruptness of society. The character appears different from other virtuous fools in fiction by emphasising innocence rather than comicality. Dostoevsky writes:

“First of all, this prince is an idiot, and, secondly, he is a fool – knows nothing of the world, and has no place in it.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot

Myshkin’s open-heartedness, innocence and lack of social experience, is an instrument of satire, standing in sharp contrast to the corrupted, cold, money-hungry, manipulative and egocentric society he finds himself in. The prince is frank, open, and unable to hide his true feelings behind a persona in order to impress others. He says what is on his mind, regardless of the social setting. This leads people to call him an “idiot”, even though he has deep insights about human nature and what it means to be a true Christian.

The antithesis of Myshkin is Ippolít, a young atheist and nihilist in the final stages of tuberculosis and near death. He loses his will to live and rebels against society, nature, and God, and famously states:

“It is better to be unhappy and know the worst, than to be happy in a fool’s paradise.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot

Prince Myshkin, on the other hand, does not understand why someone would choose to be unhappy. Instead of philosophising, the prince spends a considerable time with sinners, serving as their moral and spiritual guide. It is the small acts of kindness that truly matter in the world. Redemption is a key theme in the novel, to save the soul from the state of sinfulness through humility, and compassion. In the most popular line of the book, Dostoevsky writes:

“The prince assures us that beauty will save the world!”

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot

The Fool as Hero

The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm 1916 – Publisher New York Doubleday, New York Public Library

In many fairy tales we see three brothers, the youngest being a simpleton whom everybody laughs at; but it is always this fool who becomes the hero in the story. He is the foolhardy brother who rushes in where angels fear to tread – and by doing so wins the hand of the princess and her kingdom. The fool seems to possess magical powers, and has Lady Luck on his side. His spontaneous approach to life combines wisdom, madness, and folly. When he mixes these ingredients in the right proportions, the results are miraculous, but when there is one-sidedness, everything can end up in a sticky mess.

Ivan The Fool

Ivan The Fool 1916 – Michael Sevier

One of the most beloved figures in Russian folklore is Ivan the Fool. The Russian writer Leo Tolstoy wrote a story titled Ivan the Fool, alluding to this figure. In the story, Ivan is the youngest and third son in a peasant family. He is taken advantage of because of his naivety, kindness, and capacity to easily forgive others, even at his own expense. His brothers are tempted by money and military power; however, Ivan lives a simple way of life. He lives in a farm, taking care of his old father and mute sister, and works in the fields. When the two brothers run out of money, they insist on getting their share of their father’s wealth. The father objects, because it is Ivan and his sister who have helped him. Ivan, however, agrees to his brother’s demands.

The Old Devil, seeing Ivan’s generosity and lack of conflict between the brothers, sends a little devil to each brother to start a feud. The two devils succeed in tempting the two brothers with greed and power, and they get into trouble. Ivan, who is stricken with illness by the devil, only works harder and overcomes all obstacles. The three little devils get together in order to defeat Ivan, but they all fail. As Ivan finds each devil one by one, they beg for their life and tell him that they’ll grant him any wish if he spares their life. And so, Ivan is granted a wish and innocently utters, “God bless you”, which makes them vanish. He can make gold out of leaves and soldiers out of straw, and decides to give the gold coins to the village peasants and conjure up soldiers to sing and dance.

Finally, the Old Devil loses his patience and goes to Ivan, but is also defeated. While Ivan relies on his heart and believes in legends and mythical beliefs, the brothers focus on their minds and practicality. Ivan ends up marrying the Czar’s daughter. The man who has nothing receives everything. The fool becomes the hero.

The Fool’s Journey (Tarot)

The Fool from the Rider-Waite Tarot Deck

In Tarot, the fool is commonly depicted as a man holding a white rose symbolising innocence and purity, and a small bundle of possessions in the other. He is willing to sacrifice everything for the trip. He walks merrily looking up at the sky, living in a fool’s paradise, absorbed in all the great adventures that await him, at his heels, a dog tries to draw his attention, because he is about to fall off a cliff.

Tarot derives from the 15th century Italian illustrated playing cards known as trionfi, inspired by theatrical festivals and used for entertainment. They were later called tarocchi from which tarot is derived, and whose root – taroch – translates to “foolishness”. Therefore, Tarot is also called the Fool’s Journey.  In the 18th century, the occult practice of cartomancy started to rise to prominence, and mystics referred to the seventy-eight cards as “arcana”. The first twenty-two being the Major Arcana, and the remaining fifty-six the Minor Arcana.

The fool has the number zero, and in most decks is the first of the twenty-two Major Arcana cards, the last of which is The World. In the last card there is a large laurel wreath symbolising wholeness, in which the fool (who is androgynous) becomes the cosmic dancer and the Anima Mundi (World Soul). However, just as the journey towards wholeness ends, it begins anew, for it is a lifelong process.

The fool is both the beginning and the end of the journey. He is heroic because he jumps off the place of comfort into the place of the unknown. The Fool’s Journey is similar to the monomyth of the Hero’s Journey, in which the hero has a call to adventure and must leave the safety and comfort of the Ordinary World and enter into the unknown and difficult territory of the Special World. Here he must defeat his dragon (worst fear, event, person or memory long avoided), and gather the gold, the “treasure hard to attain”. The journey is a psychological and spiritual death and rebirth, in which an old aspect of oneself dies, giving birth to a new and more capable self. Finally, the hero must return to his people in the Ordinary World and share the gift acquired in the Special World with others, something with the power to heal, whether it is wisdom, love, or simply the experience of surviving the Special World.

The fool is a wanderer, energetic, ubiquitous and immortal. He is the most powerful of all the Tarot trumps. The fool is always in a process of becoming, and is considered as the initiation into the great mystery of life and the Major Arcana can be viewed as pictures representing the typical experiences encountered along the age-old path to self-realisation, or what Swiss psychiatrist and psychologist Carl Jung called individuation.

Tarot cards can be used for amplification, a Jungian method which allows one to clarify obscure dreams, visions, drawings, or other fantasy material by “turning up the volume” of the images, through the comparative study of mythology, religion, alchemy, fairy tales, and art.

The Number Zero in The Fool

Image from Clavis Artis

It is appropriate that the fool has the number zero. The power of zero is inherent in its circular form which is symbolised by infinity. The ancient Egyptian symbol of the ouroboros or tail-devourer represents the concept of endless return and eternity, associated with the maxim, “One is All, and All is One.” It is the pleroma, the fullness of being where past, present and future exist simultaneously. As many sages have pointed out, “God is an infinite sphere, the centre of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere.”

A circle with a dot at its centre is the universal sign for the sun, source of all warmth, light, and power. This hieroglyph also stands for the World Egg, from whose fertile centre all creation arose and continues to arise, and is related to Paradise, that blissful state of unconscious nature which humanity experienced before falling into the reality of consciousness. It is the primeval womb where we all lived once upon a time outside space and time. The nostalgia we feel for our childhood reflects this great longing to be contained once more in the perfect circle, the original state of wholeness, where the union of opposites is attained.

In Jungian psychology, the dot is the ego, the centre of consciousness, and the circle is the Self, the centre of the entire psyche, which embraces both consciousness and the unconscious. Jung writes:

“It is not I who create myself, rather I happen to myself.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 11: Psychology and Religion

Symbolic Transformations of The Fool in Tarot

Jolly Joker playing Flute (Modern)

The imagery of the fool, who lives on today in our playing cards disguised as the Joker, has gone through many symbolic transformations, alternating between beggar, madman, and fool.

The Visconti-Sforza Tarot which date from the 15th century, are believed to be the oldest surviving cards, though no complete deck has survived. Here, the fool is depicted as a beggar or vagabond wearing ragged clothes and stockings without shoes, he carries a stick and has feathers in his hair, which may relate to the notion of the wild man. In the Sola Busca Tarot created by an unknown artist in the late 15th century, the fool has a feathered headdress and plays a bagpipe, while in the German Hofämterspiel of the 15th century, the fool (Narr) also plays a bagpipe, but is barefooted, wears a robe and bells on his hood, reminiscent of the court jester.

In the Mantegna Tarocchi from the same century, the fool is portrayed as a semi-naked old man leaning on a staff, with the word “misero” (beggar) inscribed. In this card, we see an animal trying to grab his attention. The fool is in such close contact with his instinctual side that he does not need to look where he is going in the literal sense; his animal nature guides his steps. In an old French Tarot card, the fool appears blindfolded, further emphasising his ability to act by insight rather than eyesight, using intuitive wisdom instead of conventional logic. In an old Swiss card, the fool has a full jester outfit and holds a wand.

In subsequent card decks, such as in the Tarot of Marseilles popular during the 17th and 18th centuries, the fool wears a jester hat, carries a bundle of belongings on a stick over his back, and is chased by an animal who has torn his pants, or is happily following a butterfly. Finally, we have the popular image of the fool who is about to fall off a cliff used in the Rider-Waite Tarot deck published in 1909 by the Rider Company, illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith and based on the instructions of British poet and mystic Arthur Edward Waite, both of whom were members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

Symbolic Transformations of The Fool in Tarot – Eternalised

The Fool: Precursor to Transformation

The Wisdom of Fools – Workshop of Hendrik Goltzius after Karel van Mander I (Dutch, 17th century)

Psychologically, the archetype of the fool is the precursor to transformation, representing a new beginning. Nothing would start without the fool.

“Inventors and geniuses have almost always been looked on as no better than fools at the beginning of their career, and very frequently at the end of it also.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot

Shoshin is a Zen Buddhist concept meaning beginner’s mind, which is opposed to closed-mindedness and thinking oneself as an expert. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s, there are few. Open mindedness can lead to the cultivation of silence, which provides the necessary space for the mysterious experience of the numinous. If you can’t listen to what someone next to you is saying, you are not going to hear the voice of silence. The potential of our five senses is vast, but they are limited by our lack of their refinement.

Jung writes:

“The soul demands your folly; not your wisdom.”

Carl Jung, The Red Book

To embark on a journey of self-discovery is traditionally considered foolish. We are supposed to follow a linear path: education, work, marriage, and so on. When a person deviates from this path, he is seen as a fool whose adventures will amount to nothing but poverty and misery.

The first step is usually the hardest and the most important. As the Chinese proverb goes, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” The fool thinks of all the wonderful adventures that lie ahead, and is less worried about making mistakes. He thinks on his feet, is energetic, and urges us to live life to the fullest, while the person who thinks too much is over-cautious and remains stagnant.

It is the fear of uncertainty that scares many of us, to the point of paralysis. In order not to suffer from anticipation, we’d rather experience failure and sacrifice success. This state of rumination and overthinking creates anxiety, and one suffers more in imagination than in reality. Failure, however, can open new doors that one never imagined or expected to be open. What we think of abstractly as absolute failure may in fact lead to unimaginable success. As the alchemists say, “in filth it will be found.” What you need most is to be found where you least wish to look.

The fool usually has no idea what he is getting into by starting a new journey, and does not see all the trials he has to overcome, which may have prevented him from going on a journey in the first place. The fool lives in the moment, and sees reality as it is. He is not afraid of change and exploring unknown and new territory, despite being told of its dangers. No matter how many times he stumbles, the fool keeps going. No great person has ever not committed a mistake. In the end, it is the journey that matters, not the end.

“We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.”

T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

The Dark Side of The Fool

Jester – Igor Maykov

While the fool has many positive aspects, he can also be so stubborn that he does not take a moment to step back and reflect, to look where he is headed, so he falls off a cliff. The fool stands on the edge.

Sometimes our inner intuitive voice of protection becomes judgmental and self-perpetuating. The voice that tells you: “Be careful, you will make a fool of yourself”, “that is a dumb question, everyone is going to laugh at you, and judge you”, “you sound ridiculous.” This is the voice of conformity and the dark side of the fool. It is the voice that causes you to dumb down and play it safe, to be content with superficial pleasures and safety, and strive for other people’s acceptance to the detriment of your true desires. This happens when we are unconscious of the fool within us, which leads to jealousy, resentment, shame, and other neuroses.

In his relationship to the journey towards individuation, the fool demonstrates both the initiative and the resistance inherent in his nature. He is closely tied to the archetype of eternal youth which we all possess after growing up from childhood. It can bring the energy, beauty and creativity of childhood into adult life, or thwart self-realisation and doom us to both unrealistic adolescent fantasies and experiencing life as a prison.

The Fool and the Child Archetype

Playing at Giants – Francisco de Goya

The fool is closely related to the child archetype. Children have less of a persona, and follow their instinct rather than what others tell them to do (the Freudian superego). The child has half entered the rational world, and the madman has half escaped from it – for these two are in some measure released from the remorseless pressure of daily events, the ceaseless impact of the external senses, which burden the rest of mankind. The fool is light-hearted, and optimistic, and does not take things too seriously. Friedrich Nietzsche writes:

“Man’s maturity: to have regained the seriousness that he had as a child at play.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

The Fool: The Inferior Function

Los enters the Door of Death (Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion) – William Blake

Jungian analyst Marie-Louise von Franz equates the fool with the inferior function, Jung’s term for the most undeveloped aspect of the psyche, related to the four basic psychological functions: thinking, feeling, sensation and intuition. For example, the inferior function of a predominantly thinking type would be feeling. However, the fool concerns something more than the inferior function, for the fool is an archetypal religious figure. von Franz writes:

“He implies a part of the human personality, or even of humanity, which remained behind and therefore still has the original wholeness of nature. He symbolises a specific, mainly religious, function. But in mythology, as soon as the fool appears as the fourth in a group of four people, we have a certain right to assume that he mirrors the general behaviour of an inferior function.”

Marie-Louise von Franz, Lecture’s on Jung’s Typology

The fool hero represents the despised part of the personality, the ridiculous and unadapted part, but he also is the bridge to the unconscious, and therefore holds the secret key to the unconscious totality of an individual. The fool connects two worlds – the everyday world where we live most of the time, and the world of imagination. He is the gate to the great treasure, bringing a renewal of life. It is the inferior function which leads to the healing of our Fisher King wound.

The Holy Fool

A God’s Fool Sitting On the Snow – Vasily Surikov

The holy fool is one who is willing to risk ridicule, scorn and rejection to follow the path of truth and love no matter what the naysayers have to say. He possesses an integrity displayed in the courage to be himself in all circumstances, not needing to be defined by the responses of others, or become conformist out of fear. He is free of judging others by values usually used, and is fully present to another human being.

The holy fool is unstoppable, and is thus the most threatening to the authorities and powers that control and rule the world. Each person is worthy of God’s love, and therefore each person has the potential to grow in the full life of the spirit.

To be a fool for Christ’s sake derives from the writings of Saint Paul, who claims that God has made foolish the wisdom of this world. He says of unbelievers that, “professing themselves to be wise, they become fools.” Foolishness for Christ consists in a rejection of worldly possessions in favour of a religious and ascetic life, even if it may result in humiliation and mockery from the crowd. The fool is the precursor to the saviour.

“Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise.”

1 Corinthians 3:18

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The Psychology of The Fool

The fool is one of the most relatable, intriguing and recurring figures in the world. There have been fools who have caused surprise and laughter since time immemorial. We worship folly by seeing it in people and in the world and by willingly displaying it in ourselves. It is one of the timeless archetypes, which we all inherit at birth.

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The Psychology of Nightmares

Nightmares. We all have them. But what exactly do they mean? Why do we have bad dreams? Is there any psychological meaning behind them? Nightmares are the source of much of the horror we see in stories, myths, movies and games. They are an encounter with the dark side of the unconscious, which often includes facing some of the most painful aspects of who we are. And one does not know what that part of oneself is, until one confronts it.


Untitled – Zdzisław Beksiński

Nightmares are different from other dreams, both in quantity and in quality. They are relatively infrequent for most dreamers, but their intensity and vividness cause such distress that unlike most dreams, we have difficulty forgetting about them. They arouse fear, anxiety, agony, embarrassment, melancholy, or great displeasure. The word nightmare is also used figuratively to describe any difficult or terrifying situation. Some nightmares are so memorable that they colour the experience of our lives for years, or, in fact, stay with us for a lifetime.

Many psychiatrists have focused on the pathology of nightmares, which are generally considered negative psychological events that torment us and disrupt our sleep, caused by a variety of external and internal factors such as stressful life situations or traumatic memories. The focus is on mitigating their frequency or completely eliminating them through medication. However, the problem is that the emphasis is put on the pathological causes of nightmares, and there is no concern about the purpose of them.

Nightmares occur for a reason. If one focuses on pathology rather than on the symbolic meaning of a nightmare, a valuable opportunity is lost. Nightmares are the most substantial and vitally important dreams, and are of therapeutic value. They wake us up with a cry, as if all our repressed content forms a bubble which expands until it bursts one night, and we experience a nightmare. This built-up of tension in the unconscious can potentially be expressed in prior dreams, there is something that wants to be brought into consciousness.

After waking up from a bad dream, we are forced to acknowledge our unconscious conflicts, but tend to forget about them, and carry on with our daily lives, unaware of the psychological damage we do to ourselves.

Nightmares are the shock therapy nature uses on us when we are too unaware of some psychological danger. They shock us out of deep unconscious sleepiness about some dangerous situation. As if the unconscious says, “Look here, this problem is urgent!” The psyche tells us to “wake up” and face what we have neglected. The majority of nightmares represent opportunities for personal healing through much-needed emotional release.

Dream-Motifs in Nightmares

Book of Urizen Object 21 – William Blake

There are typical dream-motifs related to nightmares or anxiety dreams such as falling down, showing up late or unprepared for a presentation or an exam, missing a flight or forgetting about one’s luggage, going about with insufficient clothing, losing one’s teeth, feeling trapped, unable to move or make any noise, injury or illness, encountering frightening monsters or natural disasters, etc. These motifs are very common but by no means sufficient to confirm the existence of any system in the organisation of a dream.

Lilith: The First Nightmare

Burney Relief / Queen of the Night

One of the first nightmares can be traced back to Lilith, whose name is Hebrew for “night monster” or “night hag”. According to Jewish legend, Adam, before he knew Eve, had a demon-wife called Lilith. She disobeyed Adam, believing that as they were both created from “dust”, she was his equal. Lilith was banished from the Garden of Eden and in revenge changed into a nightmare or lamia (nocturnal spectre). She became known as a dangerous and promiscuous demoness of the night. A legend of later origin maintains that the snake in the Garden of Eden was Lilith, associating her with the devil. Following Adam and Eve’s encounter with the Tree and the Serpent, Adam refrained from, among other things, sexual intercourse as a form of penance. During this time, Lilith had intercourse with Adam, giving birth to a horde of demons that flit about the world. Thus began Lilith’s reign.

Stories of Lilith can be traced back to ancient Mesopotamia, such as in the poem The Epic of Gilgamesh, in which there isn’t just one such figure, but various of such female demons who haunt pregnant women, kidnap new-born infants, and engage in wild intercourse with men after pinning them down. Lilith is the origin of the succubus, an evil female spirit thought to have sexual intercourse with sleeping men. The incubus is the masculine counterpart.

The Origin & Folklore of Nightmare

Nightmare – Nicolai Abildgaard

The word mare in “night-mare” comes not from a female horse, but is rather an Anglo-Saxon term for a goblin, old hag, fiend or demon that sits on people’s chests causing them to have bad dreams. In Old Norse it is known as mara. The prefix “night” was added to emphasise that these creatures visited at night. In Danish and Norwegian, nightmare can be translated as “mare-ride”, while in Swedish it is “mare-dream”.

This phenomenon has been reported from antiquity to modernity across the world. Today it is known as sleep paralysis, which is different from a nightmare insofar as it occurs while still being conscious, but unable to move or speak. This can happen as you are waking up or falling asleep. People experience auditory and visual hallucinations, and feel intense terror and anxiety. The person sees threatening entities, and feel pressure on their chests, making it difficult to breathe, causing suffocation.

In the Norse Ynglinga saga from the 13th century, King Vanlandi was a great warrior who travelled far over the land. He promised his wife to come back after three winters, but he came not for ten winters. His wife hired a sorceress to cast a spell to have him come back or be killed. The king longed to go back with his wife, but his friends and advisers forbade it, saying it was the product of witchcraft. Then he became sleepy and said that the mara was treading on him. When the men held the king’s head it “trod on his legs” so that they were almost broken; then the men seized his feet, and the mara pressed down on the king’s head, until he died.

In Germany, this malicious entity is most often called an alp, a word that is etymologically related to elf. In folklore, alps and mares enter into one’s room in the night to induce a nightmare on the dreamer. Even though windows and doors may be tightly closed and locked, they can still get in through the smallest holes (such as a key hole), which they seek out with special pleasure.

In many stories, a man is ridden by a mara every night, and is tormented by it. One morning he decides to drill a hole through the door, plug shut all the cracks, and make a stick that fit exactly into the hole in the door. He knew that maras could get in through even a very small hole, but not out again if all the openings were plugged shut. Then he asked a good friend to sleep with him and that when he moans, that he should put the stick in the hole, because he wanted to capture the mara. In the morning, there was a beautiful naked woman in the room. The man, however, did not know that if you catch a mara, you cannot get rid of her, and so he had to marry her. They had children and lived together quite happily. One day the man told her about the hole she came in from and removed the stick. She immediately flew out through the hole and was never seen again.

There are also several nightmare charms, prayers, or spells used to ward off mares. The use of symbols for protection in sleep are a common thread seen throughout history.

In Japanese mythology, the baku or dream-eater is a spirit which is said to devour nightmares. It is depicted as a chimera, a mythological beast comprised of a variety of parts from other animals. After waking up from a nightmare, the person would summon baku for protection by crying: “Devour, O Baku! Devour my evil dream!” One would also summon it prior to falling asleep at night to avoid nightmares. However, the person had to be cautious, should a baku remain hungry after consuming unwanted nightmares, it would continue to devour a person’s hopes and dreams as well. Thus, the person would live an empty and meaningless life.

Non-REM Sleep (Night Terrors)

Jacob’s Dream – Any de Vois

When we sleep, our brain goes through natural cycles of activity. These are: non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) sleep and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. When we first fall asleep, we experience the first stages of non-REM sleep.

In stage 1 we are in a state of relaxed wakefulness, and start to drift off. People who wake up from this stage often believe that they have been fully awake. It is common to experience hypnic jerks, which resemble the “jump” experienced by a person when startled, sometimes accompanied by a falling sensation. In stage 2, our heart rate decreases, and body temperature drops. We experience light sleep. Stage 3 is known as deep sleep, and it is the most common stage in which one experiences parasomnias, sleep disorders that include sleepwalking and night terrors, among others.

Night terrors are different from nightmares, the latter occurs during REM sleep. Night terrors are episodes of waking up terrified and often screaming, crying, punching, or attempting to flee. The person can experience a rapid heartbeat, heavy breathing, profuse sweating, and incomprehensible speech. More severely, the person may strike others, damage nearby belongings or even run into walls and furniture. The content of the episode is very difficult if not impossible to remember.

REM Sleep (Nightmares)

A Eunuch’s Dream – Jean Lecomte du Nouÿ

After around 70 to 90 minutes, one experiences the first cycle of REM sleep, which occurs when a person moves from deep sleep to lighter sleep. We experience 4 to 6 cycles of REM sleep per night on average, which increase in length as the night progresses. Here, brain activity increases, and the brain paralyses the body so that the mind can dream safely, otherwise the sleeping person would physically walk, move, and act according to the impulses in the dream state. It is during REM sleep when most dreaming and nightmares occur.

The amount of REM sleep decreases as we grow up, typically occupying only 20-25% of total sleep in adults, or about 90 to 120 minutes of a night’s sleep. One way of understanding why children experience more nightmares is because they are closer to the unconscious than adults, as the capacity for rational thought is not fully developed. Children experience monsters in the closest or under the bed, because it is a reality for them.

Nightmare in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment

Raskolnikov, Crime and Punishment Illustrations – D. Shmarinov.

A well-known nightmare in literature occurs in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The hero Raskolnikov, who is unable to pay for his studies, goes through mental anguish and moral dilemmas. His name appropriately derives from the Russian word for schism or split. Raskolnikov contemplates robbing and murdering Alyona Ivanova, an avaricious and abusive pawnbroker. He decides to “rehearse” the murder, and with a sinking heart and nervous tremor goes to visit the pawnbroker, where he pawns an old watch for a few rubles. Afterwards, he goes to the tavern and meets Marmeladov, a likeable drunk who proceeds to describe the details of his hopeless situation. On helping the drunk man home, the former student witnesses a little boy who has just been beaten by Marmeladov’s wife, who suffers from tuberculosis.

The next day, Raskolnikov receives a lengthy guilt-inducing letter from his long-suffering, self-sacrificing mother. In order to support him in his university studies, his sister has agreed to marry an odious man whom she does not love in hopes that he will assist her brother. Tortured by the letter, Raskolnikov seeks relief in a tavern where he consumes some vodka. On his way home, he becomes drowsy, and finds a place to lie down, immediately falling asleep, and has a dream.

He is a child of about seven walking with his father. There seems to be some festivity going on, peasants are singing and are drunk. A large, heavy cart stands outside the tavern. The little mare is weak and unable to pull the cart. At the invitation of the owner, drunken men pile into the cart, laughing at the owner’s claim that the feeble animal can pull the cart. The owner shouts in reply “I’ll make her gallop!” and begins flogging the mare who, tugging with all her might, can barely move the cart. When others join in to beat her, the child, crying and upset, rushes to the horse to try to stop the cruelty. No one listens.

The brutality escalates when the mare begins feebly kicking in protest. The owner keeps attacking the animal and is furious he cannot kill her. When someone in the crowd shouts “Fetch an axe to kill her! Finish her off!”, the angry and drunken peasants join in, and beat the mare to death. The child runs to the dead mare, puts his arms around and kisses her bleeding head. His father grabs him and carries him out of the crowd. The boy sobs “Father! Why did they kill the poor horse!” “They are drunk… They are brutal… it’s not our business!” the father replies. Sobbing and choking the little boy puts his arms around his father.

Raskolnikov wakes up terrified, gasping for breath, his hair soaked with sweat. “Good God” he cries out, “can it be, can it be, that I shall really take an axe, that I shall strike her on the head, split her skull open?” He renounces the accursed nightmare and experiences relief. After hours of anguish, however, Raskolnikov proceeds to murder the pawnbroker.

It is Dostoevsky’s genius of representation that the nightmare feels real and psychologically convincing. If we imagine that Raskolnikov finds his way to the consulting room. We would meet an agitated young man who is in acute psychic distress and is obsessed with thoughts of murder. Given his situation, it is not surprising that he would have a nightmare. There are certainly external “causes”. He is stressed physically – he has not been sleeping well, has had little to eat, and has been drinking alcohol. He is under a good deal of strain because of his financial situation and the alarming news of his sister’s impending marriage. Raskolnikov’s unresolved psychological issues are being replayed and are impacting on his current life situation.

Fever Dreams and Franz Kafka

The Metamorphosis illustrated by Rich Johnson

Fever dreams are experienced when one has a fever. These are more vivid, bizarre, and negative than regular dreams – with themes such as spatial distortion, threats and dangers, and illness.

Franz Kafka’s work perfectly illustrates a fever dream atmosphere. In his novel The Trial, the protagonist Josef K. wakes up one morning being arrested without having done anything wrong. He is accused of an unspecified and unknown crime. The supervisor himself does not know anything about the case, other than that he was sent by his superiors. K. is notified by telephone that he has been summoned to the court, and has only been given small details of the location, without knowing the time to attend. He has great trouble in finding the court in a maze-like building, and when he finally finds the place in an obscure corner in the attic, he is scolded for arriving late. K. has to undergo a trial and defend himself against an incomprehensibly complex and faceless bureaucratic system that has taken complete control over his life, and accuses him of charges he does not even know about.

In Kafka’s short story The Metamorphosis, the protagonist, Gregor Samsa, wakes up one morning from uneasy dreams transformed in his bed into a monstruous vermin, depicting one of the most profound forms of alienation, a human imprisoned in a non-human body. The contrast between the extraordinary situation of his transformation and the ordinary terms he uses to describe it (an insect trying to get to work), creates a sense of the absurd. His family is horrified and disgusted, though there is still hope that Gregor’s mind remains intact, as his mother calls him her unfortunate son. Psychologically, we all have a horrible monster within that needs our love.

Post-Traumatic Nightmares and Recurring Nightmares

Untitled – Zdzisław Beksiński

While most of us experience spontaneous nightmares that are often more imaginative, many also experience nightmares, recurrent recollections, and flashbacks, due to traumatic experiences. This is especially the case for people suffering from PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). Post-traumatic nightmares are especially painful as the person is reliving a traumatic event, which can be as terrifying as the original event. This psychological scar can worsen and lead to substance abuse and alcoholism. Trauma therapy can support one’s healing process and help resolve some of the everyday challenges such a person faces. Though it may seem paradoxical, encouraging verbalisation and exploration of the trauma can be cathartic. Writing down nightmares is also a version of emotional therapy.

One can also experience recurring nightmares which may or may not be caused by traumatic experiences. These happen particularly in youth, but the recurrence can continue throughout one’s life. They recur because they are trying to integrate something into consciousness which a person lacks. Usually, they stop appearing after one realises what their message is, whether in the dreaming state or in waking life. When our ego attitude changes in response to our dreams, the unconscious responds.

Precognitive Nightmares

Untitled – Zdzisław Beksiński

Perhaps one of the strangest types of dreams are precognitive or prophetic nightmares. People have experienced terrifying visions which later came to happen in reality, as if they had momentarily gained access to a doorway into the future. These are relatively rare, and can only be verified as such when the recognised event has actually happened.

In his work Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle, Swiss psychiatrist and psychologist Carl Jung explores “coincidences” that are connected so meaningfully, that they broke all statistical probabilities. These are called synchronicities or meaningful coincidences, which occur when a content of one’s inner life (dream, vision, mood, etc.) is seen to have a correspondence in the outer life. The inner image has “come true”.

Jung writes of a precognitive vision he experienced:

“I saw yellow waves, swimming rubble and the death of countless thousands… Two weeks passed then the vision returned, still more violent than before, and an inner voice spoke: ‘Look at it, it is completely real, and it will come to pass. You cannot doubt this.’ ”

Carl Jung, The Red Book

Many visions continued after this one, including the seas turning red with blood, and his soul asking him if he will accept war and destruction, showing him images of military weapons, human remains, sunken ships, destroyed states, and so on. Shortly after, the First World War broke out.

Carl Jung and The Meaning of Dreams

Fisherman in a Boat – Adolphe Appian

Jung wrote little on the phenomenon of nightmares. It is possible, however, to interpret nightmares in a Jungian lens from his general theory of dreams. He writes:

“Dreams are impartial, spontaneous products of the unconscious psyche, outside the control of the will. They are pure nature; they show us the unvarnished, natural truth, and are therefore fitted, as nothing else is, to give us back an attitude that accords with our basic human nature when our consciousness has strayed too far from its foundations and run into an impasse.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 10: Civilisation in Transition

A fundamental concept in Jung’s dream theory is the compensatory function of dreams. Dreams reveal the inevitable one-sidedness of our conscious life and focus on those aspects that are not sufficiently within our field of awareness.

Jung writes:

“Every interpretation is a hypothesis, an attempt to read an unknown text. An obscure dream, taken in isolation, can hardly ever be interpreted with any certainty. For this reason, I attach little importance to the interpretation of single dreams. A relative degree of certainty is reached only in the interpretation of a series of dreams, where the later dreams correct the mistakes we have made in handling those that went before.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 16: The Practice of Psychotherapy

Although Jungians attach special significance to the so-called “initial dream” of the patient in therapy, the analyst must be careful not to attach too much importance to isolated dream-images, but also understand prior dreams as well as the dreamer’s conscious attitude, and his or her personal associations.

A dream never says, “you ought” or “this is the truth”. It presents an image in much the same way as nature allows a plant to grow, and it is up to us to draw conclusions. If one has a nightmare, it can mean that one is either too much given to fear or too exempt from it.

Dreams always tell us something we do not know and suggest new ways of dealing with our neurotic impasses. They are not superfluous nor do they like to waste our precious time at rest. This is the psyche’s self-regulatory function, which seeks balance and wholeness. Jung calls this the process of individuation, our progress towards psychological maturation.

“The whole dream-work is essentially subjective, and a dream is a theatre in which the dreamer is himself, the scene, the player, the prompter, the producer, the author, the public, and the critic.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 8: Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche

This is the dream’s interpretation on the subjective level, in which every object in the dream corresponds to an element within the individual’s own psyche. Jung calls this the personal unconscious, contents of personal acquisition that have been repressed or forgotten. This is the home of the complexes, emotionally charged groups of ideas or images, which can be positive or negative. People with negative complexes experience more nightmares. They have a knot of unconscious feelings that can be detected through their behaviour and prevents them from achieving psychic wholeness.

The subjective level can be further amplified with the objective level, which Jung calls the collective unconscious, where archetypes reside, instinctual patterns of behaviour that we are all born with. Not only do personal experiences affect dreams, but also archetypal forces that have a mythological structure, which includes the entire spiritual inheritance of humankind’s evolution. These are felt in what Jung simply called “big dreams”. Usually, these dreams have few personal associations and are accompanied by feelings of numinosity, awe, uncanniness, or horror.  Such as an apocalypse, or a theophany (encounter with a deity).

Because dreams contain images that are not created with conscious intent, they provide self-portraits of the psychic life process and can be used for their objective insights into the psyche’s telos, ultimate purpose, goal or function.

A dream can take months or years to interpret. Or one may never really get to the bottom of its meaning. A turn of the spindle moves a thousand threads, and we can only follow one at a time. Indeed, we cannot always do this, because the coarser visible thread ramifies into numerous filaments which at places escape from sight. The difficulty in interpretating dreams leads many of us to project our own ignorance and think that it is all nonsense and superstition.

The dream, however, is a spontaneous self-portrayal, in symbolic form, of the actual situation in the unconscious, and a symbol is the best possible formulation of a relatively unknown psychic content. It is the work of the psychologist whose erudition in symbolism can help guide the patient to discover his or her true potential.

Though Jung could help others to interpret their dreams, and having interpreted around 80.000 dreams in his life, he too had the humility to admit the difficulty in interpreting his own dreams. He writes:

“I do not understand my own dreams any better than any of you, for they are always somewhat beyond my grasp and I have the same trouble with them as anyone who knows nothing about dream interpretation. Knowledge is no advantage when it is a matter of one’s own dreams.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol 18: The Symbolic Life

The Shadow and Nightmares

Untitled – Peter Birkhäuser

The nightmare has an “intention”, which seems to be to communicate the acute distress of the psyche in a most dramatic form. Some “corrective” is coming into consciousness and is threatening the ego. This new content can appear as an intruder or attacker as in the following dream:

“It is night and I am home alone. I think I can hear a man trying to break into my house and I am panicked. I can hear him try to open the door, but it is locked. Feeling terror throughout my body, I run to hide under the bed. I realise that he has found a window that is unlocked, I wake up panicked.”

Jane White-Lewis, In Defence of Nightmares (The Dream and the Text)

In this nightmare some unknown aspect of the psyche is threatening the person. Nightmares are especially valuable in giving a clear indication of the ego and its capacity to deal with threatening unconscious contents. In the dream, the person encounters what Jung calls the shadow, which contains our repressed contents, and is chiefly present in the personal unconscious. A frequent theme in nightmares is being chased by a sinister figure or monster, which may be compared to the ancient fear of being chased by a predatory animal.

It frequently happens that when one confronts the shadow, hostility turns into amiability, or a beast turns into a human form, with an important and urgent message to convey as psychological insight. Therefore, one should confront one’s fears, whether in the nightmare itself or in waking life.

We are never able to hide from the shadow. It always seems to know where we are. This is because we are running away from an aspect of ourself. Every human being has a dark side, and by ignoring it, we only give it more power to take control of us, like in the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, resulting in psychic dissociation. When we put on a persona that only includes our good side and forget about our negative side, it creates one-sidedness and represses our negative emotions, resulting in neurosis and psychological projection. Thus, we lose the chance of becoming whole. Health comes from following the path that is natural and true to oneself.

Nightmares are typically symbols of neurosis. People who suffer from frequent nightmares may have more psychological conflicts and unresolved issues in their lives.

The Devouring Mother Archetype

Untitled – Peter Birkhäuser

In the archetypal dimension, nightmares are the negative side of the Great Mother archetype, namely, the Terrible or Devouring Mother, which may be the bottom line of all nightmare experience.

Jungian analyst Erich Neumann, writes:

“The symbolism of the Terrible Mother draws its images predominantly from the “inside”; that is to say, the negative elementary character of the Feminine expresses itself in fantastic and chimerical images that do not originate in the outside world. The reason for this is that the Terrible Female is a symbol for the unconscious. And the dark side of the Terrible Mother takes the form of monsters… In the myths and tales of all peoples, ages, and countries – and even in the nightmares of our own nights – witches and vampires, ghouls and spectres, assail us, all terrifyingly alike. The dark half of the black-and-white cosmic egg representing the Archetypal Feminine engenders terrible figures that manifest the black, abysmal side of life and the human psyche. Just as world, life, nature, and soul have been experienced as a generative and nourishing, protecting and warming Femininity, so their opposites are also perceived in the image of the Feminine; death and destruction, danger and distress, hunger and nakedness, appear as helplessness in the presence of the Dark and Terrible Mother.”

Erich Neumann, The Great Mother

Regression for both women and men lead back to the mother’s womb, to helplessness, to nonbeing. However, even here there is the possibility of returning to the surface with new possibilities of life. In a nightmare, a tension exists between a regressive pull back into the womb (the Devouring Mother) and that of a progression towards a greater consciousness and embracing of life (the Great Mother).

It is not easy to find the source of the nightmare, because the unconscious content is, well, unconscious. The content has been repressed and it must be brought into the light of consciousness.

Active Imagination

Philemon. Illustration from the Red Book – Carl Jung

During an intense period of disorientation and inner turmoil, Jung developed a method used for confronting his unconscious contents while being fully awake and conscious during the experience, known as active imagination. He was able to confront his dark night of the soul and gather the treasure hard to attain. The culmination of his experiences is presented in his Red Book. Jung considered active imagination to be the most powerful tool to access unconscious contents. It consists in having a dialogue with different aspects of yourself while being fully awake and conscious, which requires solitude, silence and concentration.

Many times, however, we cannot associate what bothers us with anything specific. Jungian analyst Robert A. Johnson writes:

“When this happens, you can go to the unconscious in your imagination and ask the unseen content to personify itself. You can start your Active Imagination by asking: Where is the obsession? Who is obsessed? Where does this feeling come from? Who is the one inside me who feels this way? What is its image? What does he or she look like?”

Robert A. Johnson, Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth

In therapy, if the analyst is uncomfortable with these troubling images, ignores, avoids, or gives an overly positive interpretation of them, the patient will sense that the analyst cannot deal with this powerful psychic material, and no progress will be made. If, on the other hand, the therapist pays close attention to the affect-laden images of the nightmare, the patient can progress.

Active imagination also allows you to extend a dream by imagining where it left off. You may effectively continue your dream and interact with it by extending it out. This is especially useful when you are abruptly awakened in the middle of dreaming. Dreams and the imagination come from the same source in the unconscious, thus, one is able to “continue the story”, go through the next step the dream is leading toward, and bring the whole issue to a resolution.

Curiously, Jung found that dreaming decreases dramatically when one does active imagination. The issues that would have been presented in dreams are confronted and worked out. As such, dreams become more focused and concentrated and less repetitious. Jung recommended this method for people who are too overwhelmed by intense, disturbing and frequent nightmares.

Lucid Dreaming

Untitled – Zdzisław Beksiński

Another technique of engaging with one’s unconscious contents is lucid dreaming, which occurs when we are dreaming and realise that we are in a dream. The oneironaut is able to travel within a dream and even exert control over the environment, engage with his or her dream characters and ask questions of what their purpose is. This can be used to treat nightmares as well.

Lucid dreaming can occur unintentionally when the dreamer notices something “out of place”. There are, however, ways to increase the chance of lucid dreaming. Having a dream journal is essential, in order to write down or record one’s voice as soon as one wakes up. After doing this consistently for an extended period of time, one may notice certain patterns in the dreams that repeat themselves.

A wake-initiated lucid dream or WILD occurs when you directly enter a dream from waking life. This can be achieved by laying down and not moving your body, while your mind stays awake. After some time, you enter a state of being “half-asleep”, until you step into the dream-image. You can also experience hypnagogic hallucinations, seeing or hearing things that seem real while you are moving from wakefulness to sleep. WILD can be accompanied with mnemonic induction of lucid dreams or MILD, which involves repeating some kind of mantra each time such as “When I am dreaming, I will be aware that I am dreaming.”

Testing reality is another way to increase your chances of lucid dreaming. A reality check helps to remind yourself of the state of things in the real world. In dreams, things such as looking at a text, the time, in the mirror, etc., will appear distorted, blurry, or different each time you look. If you pinch your nose, you are still able to breathe; if you push your fingers against the palm, it goes through. It is helpful to choose your own reality check and stick to it, practising it while awake.

Lucid dreaming can provide you a way to explore your creative boundaries, encounter unknown aspects of yourself, and have an opportunity to befriend your shadow, which is a lifelong process.

A woman with a recurring nightmare of being pursued by a terrifying figure learns about lucid dreaming. As the figure starts following her, she realises that the scene seems familiar and becomes aware that she is dreaming. With great courage, she turns around to face her pursuer and screams at him, “You can’t hurt me!” He stops, looking surprised. For the first time she sees his beautiful, loving eyes. “Hurt you?” he says. “I don’t want to hurt you. I’ve been running after you all this time to tell you that I love you!” With that, he holds out his hands, and as she touches them, he dissolves in her. She awakes filled with energy, feeling great for days. Not only has this helped her to better face unpleasant situations, but also at expressing her feelings when needed, whereas before she would usually avoid or run from such situations.

Nightmares and Artists

Lynx – Peter Birkhäuser

Creative people such as musicians, painters, poets, writers, etc., seem to report nightmares more often than other people. Perhaps this is because they experience a “thin boundary” between the unconscious and the exterior world. Their ego (sense of identity) is in a deeper contact with the unconscious. Therefore, they are more influenced and less heavily defended against the influence of unconscious processes. They experience more psychological distress than non-artists. Jung writes:

“[A] person must pay dearly for the divine gift of the creative fire.”

Carl Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul

This does not mean that creative people are more neurotic. On the contrary, they may be much more psychologically whole than non-artists by engaging in such creative tasks, for they are paying great attention to their unconscious.

“Not the artist alone, but every creative individual whatsoever owes all that is greatest in his life to fantasy.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 6: Psychological Types

The artist has to sacrifice his ego in order to become the mouthpiece of the zeitgeist, he is a vehicle and moulder of the unconscious psychic life of humanity.

“The great work of art is a product of the time, of the whole world in which the artist is living, and of the millions of people who surround him, and of the thousands of currents of thought and the myriad streams of activity which flows around him.”

C.G. Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters

Nightmare Artists: Beksiński and Giger

Necronom IV – H.R. Giger

The works of Polish painter Zdzisław Beksiński and Swiss artist H.R. Giger, were heavily influenced by their nightmares.

Beksiński was a self-taught artist who wanted to paint in such a manner as if he were photographing dreams. His work depicts what seems to be post-apocalyptic or nightmarish landscapes, with decay, death, skeletons, and deformed figures.  He did not draw inspiration from anyone, apart from listening to classical music and simply painting whatever came in his mind. Beksiński was uninterested in interpretating his artworks and refused to provide titles for any of them. He himself was known as a pleasant person.

Giger’s art is referred to as biomechanical, the combination of human anatomy with machines. This is something that characterises our modern age of technology, the world of machines, that are slowly taking over our life, to the extent that many of us cannot live without technology. We have become entangled in it. Much of Giger’s art comes from unconscious conflicts and dreams, a focused self-exploration that led him to his inner dark abyss. By seeking the source of his own nightmares, Giger discovered the paramount psychological importance of the trauma of biological birth. His art shows the cycle of birth, sexuality, and death. Eros and Thanatos, interwoven. There is a deep connection between these three themes, which can allow us to reunite with the source of our being.

These two men share one thing in common: they have become the artistic voice of what the darkness in us is. They went to the dark recesses of the unconscious and settled down there. Their work is an example of what a confrontation with one’s shadow may look like. What we all apparently flee from, is their home. They show us how these dark repressed realms in our minds can become positive works of transformative art. After going through the darkest places, one finally sees the light shine through one’s life again. Fiction, no matter how surreal, is a response to reality. Fiction sometimes overcomes reality.

“[T]here are as many nights as days, and the one is just as long as the other in the year’s course. Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word “happy” would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.”

C.G. Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters

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The Psychology of Nightmares

Nightmares are the most substantial and vitally important dreams, and are of therapeutic value. They wake us up with a cry, as if all our repressed content forms a bubble which expands until it bursts one night, and we experience a nightmare.

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Artwork used in the video