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Carl Jung Symbolism of “Water” in the West and East

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Children’s Dreams: Notes from the Seminar Given in 1936-1940 (Philemon Foundation Series)

The waters of the rivers Styx and Acheron carry the dead to the other side, from the upper world to the underworld.

The dead haunt fathomless lakes, such as the Mumel lake or the legendary Pilatus lake. According to Virgil, the entrance to the realm of the dead is at the Lago d’Averno.

Poets and fairy tales tell of the dangers of the depths; the Lorelei draws ships into the vortices of the river Rhine, “half drew she him, half sank he down.”

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The water is also the place of transformation: Proteus, the water god, turns into a lion, a snake, a tree; Thetis, the Nereid, transforms herself into a bird and a tree while courting Peleus.

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As far as the situation of the dreamer at that moment is concerned, it seems as if only the negative aspects of the water would have to be taken into account; for just as she fled from the snake in her vision, she here is afraid of the water and nearly drowns in it.

At the moment it has, just like the snake, a frightening and nearly destructive influence.

If we focus our interest on the possibilities of a later solution of the problem, however, we will have to consider also some positive aspects of the water, above all its changeability and healing power.

In Zimmer’s book Maya we find the following passage referring to this: “The waters are the Gegenwelt [counterworld] to the dry sphere of the waking day, into which the eye looks outward; in them the hidden nature of things is mirrored to the inner view. . . . Down into the water means down into knowledge.

The ageless waters, taking all forms of nature, circulating as its life, know everything, they have been present since the beginning and conserve everything in their liveliness—nothing is forgotten.

Thus Vishnu speaks to the holy Naranda: Immerse yourself in water, and you will know about my Maya.”

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In another place he writes:

The waters of life are the womb of all forms of the world, as well as their grave in which they are reborn, they circulate in and build, they carry and dissolve every form, they are the palpable element of the all divine Maya, whose nature the saints and seers tentatively try to grasp. They hold the secret of this Maya as the force of their own, versatile nature, and do not yield it, but let it be tasted when someone opens up to them. How the world comes into being, every hour, outside as world gestalt in the flow of coming into being and happening, coming to the fore, as gestalt of the inner world, from the dark ness of the unconsciousness into the light of consciousness—all this
can be experienced, but how could it be fathomed?

Zimmer also quotes the wondrous motif of someone who immerses himself in water and emerges into a new life, sinking from life dream to life dream in doing so:

The Brahmin Sutapas went into the sacred waters in Benares. The Brahmin turned into a girl of a Chandala family that dwelled near the sacred bathing place at the mouth of the Koka. The girl was beautiful, grew up, and was married to an unsightly man. She bore him two sons, who were both blind, and later a daughter, who was deaf. Her husband was poor. The young, naive woman went to the river, and there she always sat and cried. Once, however, when she had gone to the river to fetch water with her jug, she went down in the water to bathe—and out of the water reemerged that Brahmin Supata, the pious, agile ascetic. The Chandala came to look for his wife and wept for her; the Brahmin comforted him and taught him also to dive into the metamorphosed waters; he had barely dived into the water when he was freed of all stigma, thanks to the magical power of the sacred bathing place. On a carriage of the gods he went heavenward before the eyes of the Brahmin, light as the moon. The Brahmin, however, full of sorrow, also went into the waters of the Koka, and ascended into the highest heaven, only to come to earth again and live in a middle-class family. Being ill and suffering, he recalled his former life, went again into the waters of the Koka to ascend into heaven, to be reborn again, and to tell this story as Prince Kamadamana.

The cleansing, healing power of the water is also known in Christianity, as the baptismal water that washes away original sin and admits the baptized child into the Church, the Corpus Christi.

The Jews also baptized, and admitted the proselytes into the community.

The Gospel of John quotes Christ’s words to Nicodemus:

“Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again [of water and the spirit], he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

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Above all, however, we would like to refer to the Revelation of John:

“And he shewed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal . . . on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month” (22:1–2).

So far the water, into which our dreamer fell, showed only negative aspects for her.

The possibility is open, however, that what she fears will change and bring her salvation.

Between the Bauschänzli and the quay bridge she suddenly falls into the water in an upright position.

We see from this that she crossed the bridge on the right side.

Could this suggest that she has always been conscious of her difficulties and of her failure?

Or that her failure lies in the field of outer reality?

It is striking that she falls into the water “in an upright position,” which she expressly mentions.

This can be interpreted in two ways:

it can mean that, despite everything, she “keeps her head held high,” or that the heavy weight that pulls her down is not in her head, but rather in the instinctual sphere.

I do not know if we may interpret that circumstance—her falling into the water in an upright position—in this way.

“Slowly I am sinking deeper and deeper.”

This might symbolize a slowly progressing process of being flooded by the unconscious.

“I nearly drown” has a parallel in the story about the vision of the snake:

“I no longer dare move in the bed, because even when awake, everywhere in the room I see the glowing eyes of the snake that wants to bite me.”

Her light consciousness of the day is flooded and disturbed by the frightening snake image from the unconscious, so she is deprived of her freedom of movement.

Here, she nearly drowns—the capabilities of her senses are minimized by the unconscious content entering in her ears, nose, and mouth.

She is prevented from seeing, hearing, and speaking, and can hardly breathe at all.

So she is in an extremely reduced state; there is hardly any possibility left to contact the outer world, life.

Psychologically speaking, this could indicate a nearly autistic state, or a very great introversion, which severely restricts
the possibilities of her moving or expressing herself. ~Carl Jung, Children’s Dreams Seminar, Pages 268-272.


  1. Charon and the River Styx
  2. The Song of Lorelei
  3. The Waters of Proteus
  4. The Waters of Vishnu
  5. Nicodemus “Except Ye be Born of Water and Spirit