Lecture 2, Dreams and Visions of St. Niklaus Van Der Flue by Marie-Louise Von Franz
Jung Institute May 15, 1957
Last time I spoke at the beginning of my lecture of the history of the worship of an
outstanding mana personality, pointing out that since very ancient times those who
have attained a certain amount of individuality and personality have acquired such
authority as to be worshipped during their lifetime by the surrounding people and that after their death a cult has centered round their tombs.
I also pointed out that there was an idea that such outstanding personages in some way incarnate something divine to an unusual extent.
I said that the cult of saints seemed to have much the same psychological motif.
We then began to interpret the four symbolical motifs which appeared at the beginning of St. Niklaus’ life and noted a certain sequence of development.
First we discussed the star as a symbol of the pre-conscious and post-conscious
individual personality, the old idea that the soul of man begins with a star in the sky and after death becomes a star again, and then came to the motif of the stone, the next symbol our saint saw in his mother’s womb.
We noted that in German pre-Christian religions there is the cult of the stones on graves, since it was believed that the souls of the dead lived in these stones and that up to the 11th century Bishops had to forbid people to worship stones in grave-yards.
In Germany and Scandinavian countries such stones were called Bautar stones.
This stone worship continued to the 18th and 19th century.
German people used to build their kitchen stoves of one big stone, which also served as the domestic altar to which the head of the family brought sacrifices, in the belief that it contained the souls of dead ancestors, for though there were priests yet the head of the family held the function of a priest.
Such stones were supposed to have been thrown down from heaven by a god.
Meteors were especially believed to have a mysterious quality and, if found, were worshipped particularly which shows a direct connection between star and stone, as the latter was thought to be a fallen star.
St. Niklaus himself interpreted the stone as the continuity and steadfastness of his own being. In an Indian marriage ceremony, a young man has to stand upon a stone to attain strength of character, another instance of the idea of the stone as representing the strength of the personality.
That a hero is born of a stone and again becomes a stone is a North American-Indian motif of the Iroquois tribe which has the myth of the twins Acorn Sprout and Feuerstein, the former being good and the latter demonic, and the two constantly fight.
Both are creators – one of evil and one of good.
In a neighboring tribe of the Wichita they have as a savior the Great South Star, which is connected with the sun.
This Great South Star has a son called the Young Feuerstein, the latter being positive and the former negative.
In medieval alchemy there is the same connection between the symbols, and the Mercury of the alchemists is both a star and the stone.
I refer you to Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy.
The stone has become an image for immortality because of its durability. Heroes were said, to transform themselves before their death into stones, thus acquiring concrete immortality.
The alchemists compared the philosopher’s stone with the glorified body; they said that by making the philosopher’s stone they made the glorified body which outlasts death.
We can say that the stone carries the qualities of the star, but is nearer the earth.
According to many alchemist:, the philosopher’s stone contains a spirit which dwells in it – a pneuma or a soul – and this soul substance, called the medicina catholica, was compared with water or oil or the elixir of life; probably the underlying idea being that the minerals look like stones with the metal veins in them.
By heating the stone in the stove the metal suddenly appears, and into this actual fact was projected the idea that it was possible to extract from certain stones the soul of the stone, the metallic water, the mysterious essence of the soul of the stone.
A Greek text says: “Go to the shores of the Nile where you will find the stone which has a ‘pneuma’ and this is the whole mystery.”
This metallic substance in the stone the alchemists projected into the unconscious, and in a way, you can say that this is comparable to what we do.
If you think of our concept of the unconscious, it is a border-line concept, for we simply describe by this term a real though invisible fact, for it can be said that the reality of the unconscious is a concluded reality, not demonstrable directly.
You can say that it is what produces dreams, that it is that “X” which arranges the meaningful order of the dream.
With a certain technique of interpretation we can bring out of the dream a meaningful connection, so we conclude that there must be something which produces the dream.
We have, like the alchemist, a certain amount of fact and extract therefrom a concept which we call the psyche.
By a great mental effort of concentration and with a capacity for symbolic interpretation it is possible to extract from dreams a very living and meaningful experience.
In alchemy this was projected into the chemical extraction of the liquid metal out of the stone for, as Jung has tried to prove by many alchemical quotations, they projected their unconscious into matter.
We can therefore say that if St. Niklaus next saw the holy oil, that there is a very logical sequence, for after the stone comes the “soul of the stone”, a kind of oily liquid which must probably be a symbol of the same thing in a new form.
The alchemists often called, what they described as the soul in matter, an oily kind of water, or some fatty substance.
Some Australian tribes believe that the fat in the kidneys is the seat of the soul.
Of a man in a state of depression, they would say that someone had stolen the fat of his kidneys. In the middle of the kidneys there is a very white fat in the dark flesh, and they thought this mysterious fat hold the soul and could be melted out like the metal out of the stone and was the carrier of the mysterious life process.
They projected the unconscious into it, just as the metal out of the stone was connected with the soul.
The Church speaks of the “holy oil”, the chrism. Christ is the “anointed one” and the
chrism is used in the extreme unction given to dying people, at the first communion of
children, and at the consecration of a priest.
The early Church Fathers interpreted it as the dynamic manifestation of the Holy Ghost.
They had the idea that just as Christ was transformed into the host, so the holy oil contained the dynamic power of the Holy Ghost and that there was transmuted, in a concrete form, the blessing of the Holy Ghost.
This probably goes back to pre-Christian ritual and the Egyptian habit of smearing fat on the statues of gods in order to keep them alive.
Statues were washed and anointed daily in the belief that this imparted a holy life substance and preserved their divine power.
The Christian Church adopted this idea in the chrism.
We have now the interesting sequence of the star in the sky, the stone on earth, and the oil – which is something man can use.
The oil is a typical Catholic symbol, while the others are more remote and pagan; there is a slow approach to the realm of consciousness.
We should ask ourselves what the symbol of the oil means psychologically? What is the specific aspect of the holy oil which imparts vitality and the experience of the Holy Ghost?
The star represents the individual personality; the stone represents steadfastness and experience of immortality within one individual.
The oil is less individual.
It can be given to others, there is a different nuance, and it seems to have a collective connotation.
I would say that it probably has to do with the emanation of the individuated personality – the impact of a man who has become a personality.
You have the feeling that such a person spreads vitality and hope in his surroundings.
If you are connected with your own unconscious in a harmonizing way you have a subjective feeling of being alive in a meaningful sense, you have this maximum of vitality and feel near the inner source.
This is connected with a belief based on the experience that one’s own individual life has a meaning, one which has to manifest and fulfill itself.
An atmosphere is thus created which is infectious in the positive sense of the word, just as the psychotic state is infectious in a negative way, and the hope and belief in life imparted by such a personality is a contributory factor in treatment.
This can be observed in primitive medicine men.
By approaching such a personality people acquired hope and felt they were getting nearer to the meaning of their own life.
That such an experience is represented by a substance such as oil has its very deep roots in the magic beliefs of mankind of the most primitive kind and also touches on one of our greatest problems and enigmas, the problem of what we like to call the unconscious psyche and how it is connected with matter.
We know that this is so in some way, and therefore these outstanding personalities are very often connected with symbols which have a very concrete meaning.
If St. Niklaus had come to you and asked what it meant that he had seen these three symbols in his mother’s womb, what would you have said?
It is one thing to know the mythological connotations and the approximate meaning of the symbols, and another thing to connect them with someone’s unconscious.
You would have had to talk his language.
I would have said that he had to follow his own inner religious experience.
One could go even further and say that the oil, the unction of the anointed one, shows he Christ-like development of the personality and that he has to undergo this process.
Certain individuals have to be filled with the Holy Ghost and do bigger deeds than Christ himself and in St. Niklaus’ inner fate he would have to suffer the process by which he would re-experience the fate of Christ in his own person.
The three symbols announce very clearly the constellation of the process of individuation.
St. Niklaus was imbued with the idea that he had a specific vocation, just as in the old tradition of medicine men and saints.
The three symbols are connected with a fourth which has to do with his earliest childhood memories, namely that three days after his birth, at his baptism; he saw standing beside the stone at the altar an unknown old man.
According to his own report, as he recognized his mother and the midwife and everybody else present, he made a note of this unknown old man.
Psychologically, it is obvious that this figure represents the archetype of the wise old man, a personification of the spirit, and, mythologically, a form in which God likes to appear on earth.
In fairy tales God is often represented as wandering round the earth as the wise old man and people recognize him at last.
Professor Blanke wrote a private letter to Professor Jung about the meaning of the old man and published the latter’s answer in his book. Jung states that the old man is the archetype of the spirit.
In Christian tradition that would correspond to the Ancient of Days, the Godhead. Jung continues: you can also say that he is the personification of the grain of salt given to the child, in which the wisdom of God is present.
If we accept this, we can say that the motif of the old man connects with the other three symbols, but that it now appears in human form.
But I would not like to say more about this figure for he reappears in further dreams and amplifies himself.
I would only like to point out a mythological analogy in a fairy tale called The Loyal
Ferdinand and the Disloyal Ferdinand, a typical story of two friends of whom the good one is rewarded and the other punished.
A father was so poor that he could not find a godfather for his little boy but discovered a poor, unknown old man and asked him to be godfather.
The old man does not turn up until they are in the church when he suddenly appears and says that the boy must be called Ferdinand the Loyal One.
He cannot give a present but instead gives the child a key and says that when he is fourteen years old he will discover in the field a castle which the key will fit and there he will find his birthday present.
He then disappears.
The boy often looks for the castle; but does not find it until he is fourteen.
In it he discovers a beautiful white horse which can talk and which tells him to ride it.
The youth then enters the service of the king and becomes a great hero and all his deeds are performed with the help of the speaking horse.
In the end he deposes the old king and marries the princess and, on the advice of the white horse, rides round three times in a circle when the horse changes into a beautiful prince, who also marries, so that there is a marriage quaternio.
In other variations the white horse in the end reveals that he is the equivalent of the old man and has guided the hero through life.
In yet another version, at the end it is revealed that the horse is God himself.
Here we have the motif of an unknown old man at a child’s baptism who turns out to be God Himself.
The shocking idea that God can turn himself into a white horse reminds one of the heathen idea that the Germanic god Wotan has an eight-legged white horse, Sleipnir, and he not only has the horse but he is this white horse.
Thus the motif of the tale obviously goes back to heathen Germanic representation which survived and which points to Wotan.
You will notice that I tend to give the Germanic background to the motifs but I trust you will see as we progress how these connections really fit into our life story.
St. Niklaus later had a vision of a horse and not of a castle but of a tower, so that there is a close analogy with the boy in the above story.
In the fairy tale when the boy is fourteen years old he suddenly sees a castle and in it he discovers the divine white horse.
At the same age St. Niklaus saw the tower. As a boy St. Niklaus was very pious.
We would now characterize him as an introvert.
He used to evade other boys and, according to his biographers, he practiced good deeds, fasted on Fridays, and later extended his fast to four days a week and, from his early childhood during the forty days of Lent only ate a little bread and some dried pears.
He has been criticized by some for what has been called his masochistic tendencies, but he himself affirmed that he was obeying God.
A neighboring peasant, Erny an der Holden, reports that Klaus told him that at the age of sixteen he had a vision of a very high and beautiful tower in the place where he later had his hermitage and chapel, and that from that time on he had decided to lead a solitary life.
In old dialect the word “einig” means to be “alone”, there is also the connotation of a single person, the person who should live a singled out existence, which is what Klaus did, and his tendency to introversion seems not to be in contrast to unconscious tendencies.
In Christian symbolism the tower is a symbol of God. Lavaud points out that in Psalm 61, David says that God is his shelter and strong tower.
The famous song of the Reformation was “God is my Tower”. In Proverbs XVIII, 10, it is said “The name of the Lord is a strong tower: the righteous runneth into it and is safe”.
Lavaud also connects the tower with the tower of Babel through which the people on earth were separated, while St. Niklaus’ mission was to ensure that the Swiss people did not fall apart.
In Luke XIV, 26, Christ says: “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and
mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple,” and later: “Whosoever does not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple.
For which of you intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it.”
The idea of counting the cost, as interpreted by Lavaud, is that obviously the symbol of the tower means that if you want to follow Christ you cannot have the penny and the cake, but must give up certain other aspects of life such as the participation mystique with the family.
A sacrifice is required.
The tower therefore stands for the Christian life which is very costly.
We know that the process of individuation requires the breaking away from identity with the family and infantile dependence on family ties.
The tower is also said to be an allegory of the Church and of the Virgin Mary, it is a feminine maternal symbol.
St. Niklaus’ mother was a very pious woman, some members of her family had become hermits, and one of Niklaus’ uncles had become a “Wood Brother” and had built a little hermitage in the middle of the woods.
St. Niklaus had been there and had seen him and the lonely life he led and possibly this had influenced him.
The mother’s brother is very often a personification of the mother’s animus and therefore we might say that probably a certain pious and severe attitude of the mother’s animus had a tremendous influence on the son’s life.
Altogether he shows the characteristics of a typical mother’s son.
Summing up, it can be said that the symbol of the tower has a double aspect and is very ambiguous for on the one side it is a defense mechanism and built to keep away enemies and stands, psychologically, for any introvert mechanism.
The introvert fears and is continually overwhelmed by the outer world and has the tendency to keep away from too many impressions which might weigh upon his soul, but this kind of attitude can easily become a prison for so much defense mechanism is put up that it becomes impossible to get out of one’s own defenses – a neurotic situation in which the tower becomes an inner prison and an impenetrable isolation.
Animus possessed women often dream that they are imprisoned in a tower, they have imprisoned themselves in this neurotic defense mechanism and cannot get out of it.
Particularly, as long as you are afraid of the Self you feel as though you were imprisoned in it, for then you have the unfortunate subjective feeling that you are inescapably tied to yourself and you feel shut in.
The theme often appears in initial dreams in which people are imprisoned in their own isolation.
In this case there is too much narrowing of the personality.
But on the other side, Jung interprets the motif of the tower as a symbol of the Self, for the tower is also a protecting wall, a holy temenos.
It is an inner mechanism of the individual who wishes to protect his own inner growth.
We need to cut ourselves off from our surroundings in order to concentrate on inner growth.
The beginning process of individuation is often where you start to make a difference between yourself and your surroundings, thus protecting your inner personality so that it can develop undisturbed, though one feels cut out from participation mystique with one’s surroundings.
St. Niklaus himself takes the tower to mean his lonely life and experiences it as a guiding symbol.
The aim of his life was to be like a tower himself and for this he had to restrict himself and sacrifice a certain amount of contacts.
It is amazing that he had such a vision at the age of puberty when there is generally a certain expansion towards the outer world and sexuality and what it means in the love life.
But just at the moment when normally nature tends towards expansion Niklaus has the vision of complete restriction and isolation as if a specific fate debarred him from following the usual development in life and emphasized, in a positive way, his isolation and loneliness.
I do not want to anticipate what follows, but what is the reason for this?
It must be connected in a way with the stability of his personality.
As you will see later, he evidently had tremendous temperament and was a highly emotional person; he had wilder and stronger emotions than the average and was perhaps even threatened by a schizophrenic explosion.
Jung believes, as you know, that schizophrenia is due to an affect explosion which acquires such strength that it destroys part of the personality.
St. Niklaus was obviously threatened by such a possibility and this great amount of emotion could have exploded his personality which may explain the vision of the tower at this time.
At the age of thirty St. Niklaus had no idea of becoming a saint.
He married a woman of a relatively good bourgeois family called Dorothy Wyss and his married life lasted for the next twenty years.
He was fifty when he began his life as a hermit and at that time had a family of ten children, the youngest of who was still a baby.
Thus at first he led the normal life of a peasant, and carried out all the usual small duties of village life and was even offered the position of “Landamman” (District Governor), but this he refused. He had also served as a soldier, had carried the banner, and eventually obtained a somewhat higher rank than that of a Captain.
He took part in some engagements in the war with Thurgau and also fought against Zurich at Thalwil on the Lake of Zurich. He hated war, but was a brave soldier.
He always did his best to save the churches as well as the women and children.
He was efficient in all his undertakings and was honoured and respected for his military and political abilities and the way he performed his duty in his outer life.
When between thirty-five and forty years old, in the midst of his life as a married man, St. Niklaus began to suffer from fits of depression and inner restlessness and it was during this time that he had most of the visions we know of.
Unfortunately, their sequence is not clearly established in the reports, but there are two types: some are concerned with the question of becoming a hermit and others with the general problems of his time.
The first type of vision, which has a more personal aspect, I will take first.
About his depressions, St. Niklaus himself says that God had submitted him to a terrible temptation which tormented him day and night and made him restless and that his heart was so troubled and the depression so great that sometimes even the company of his dear wife and children was tiresome to him.
During this time he had experiences of the devil, who began to attack him, but the Virgin Mary comforted him and he seems to have passed from one state to the other.
He describes one of these attacks as follows: He had gone to the Melchtal to cut the thorns in the meadow and the devil threw him down a slope with such force that he was badly hurt and fainted
when picked up. His son, who had picked him up, said that when he recovered from the faint his father said that the devil had got him.
In this same period he told someone from a neighboring village that the devil had come to him riding on a beautiful horse and as well-dressed as a nobleman, and had told him that he should behave like other people and give up his asceticism for in that way he would not win eternal life.
It is obvious that at the time he must have been split and in conflict with himself and the devil seems to have advised him that he should not go on in this foolish and rather ambitious and pious attitude, but should behave like “normal” people and not wish to be especially pious.
When this nobleman appears on a horse and tells him to behave like other people, the vision does not say that he was the devil, that was his conscious interpretation, and is to me rather suspect, but also interesting since later three noblemen came in a vision and this time he thought they were the Holy Trinity.
It is rather arbitrary to say one thing at one time and something different another time, but this is typical for Christian consciousness.
Ignatius of Loyola did the same thing.
He thought he had had a divine appearance and then thought it must have been
the devil and thereafter he started the Exercises.
Such arbitrary judgment shows a typically Christian attitude.
We may detach from it and take the vision as a dream of a modern person and ask ourselves what this nobleman means.
For a peasant, who did not belong to the nobility, it could be said that the nobleman represents “noblesse”, the man of higher standards within himself.
Niklaus obviously was of a type to rise above his family rather than sink below it.
In a big family there is always a black sheep, one who drops to a lower level sociologically or morally, but very often there is the opposite: a child with a higher standard and the “white” sheep have as much trouble as the black in their loneliness.
This child may be abnormally intelligent and show all the aspects of good breeding, he may be a throwback to a former ancestor.
In Switzerland if you follow genealogical family histories you will find that the families go up and down in the social scale.
There is much more inter-marriage between the classes without sociological taboos.
St. Niklaus, from what we know from the description of the time, had a very aristocratic personality.
He was an impressive and well built man and gave the impression of someone of outstanding personality.
He was above the average of those among whom he was born.
It is noticeable that when he became a saint many nobly born people gathered round him, as though he were one of them, and a German nobleman built his hut beside him and became his adherent.
Therefore the nobleman of the dream personifies the possibility of his own inner
Then there is the paradox that he tells Niklaus not always to have ambitions to be especially holy, etc.
So it is just the nobleman who pushes him towards the more humble and adapted behavior towards his surroundings.
Psychologically I think we have here the phenomenon of the way in which younger people evaluate themselves.
Having for a long time taught young people between the ages or 16 and 19 in schools, I have observed some who have reached a high level but in the manifestation of their qualities have nothing to present, for they have not yet found their level of action.
They sometimes look down on their teachers as if they were more intelligent, and perhaps rightly, but if anyone says that they have not done anything in life they are humiliated, which arouses revolutionary reactions in them.
There is a disparity between the inner possibilities and the not yet manifested actions.
This is still a problem in a later age for people who have a vocation and have an inner call to achieve something special but have not yet found a chance or the right form for doing it: they swing between over-valuation and arrogance and criticism of their own surroundings and the opposite.
I am always inclined to take this as a symptom that the person has not yet found his or her field of action in which to show what they are and are not.
When you reach that then you touch your own limits and say I am as small as this and as big as that, and acquire a feeling for the attitude which is adequate to the situation.
It is a difficult stage because people are suspected of megalomania for they say: “I will show the world what I am!”
Though that is suspect, one has sometimes all the same the feeling that there is something to it.
From this vision it seems to me that St. Niklaus would not have needed the vision of becoming a saint had he not suddenly got into an ambitious pious attitude in which his ego prevented him from becoming an outstanding personality, but made him smaller instead of bigger, which explains the paradox of the nobleman – his really outstanding personality – who tells him to behave like other people.
However, as the unconscious told him something he did not like, he said it was the devil: Later the same nobleman appeared and he said he was God: What he could not accept was naturally the devil.
This motif alone would not be conclusive if we had not another vision of the same kind.
On one occasion when Klaus went to the meadow to cut the grass in the Melchi, his farm on the Alps, on the way he prayed to God asking for the grace of a pious life and suddenly he saw a cloud in the sky and a voice told him to submit to the will of God – that he was a foolish man and should be willing to do what God wanted of him.
Then he asks God to give him grace to follow Him and God says: “You foolish man, do it!”
The only explanation of such an experience seems to be that he and his unconscious have not the same idea of what following the will of God means.
One could say: “What you call being pious does not correspond with what God calls being pious.”
This is a typical problem nowadays among people who still have a living faith.
Many of our analysands are atheists or have a non-religious attitude but in their unconscious there may be a religious attitude.
But there are others who have a conscious but insufficient religious attitude which does not help them because it is not in accordance with their instincts.
If their religion still meant something to them they would not need analysis, but they have a half and half attitude.
They have faith, but it is incomplete, they are split, and then the religious function which is a genuine instinct in the psyche is in contradiction with the conscious belief, which creates a very subtle problem.
Many values are still alive but in spite of this there are a number of complexes for the unconscious wants a different quality of religious attitude.
Sometimes it even goes so far that the analysis ends by proving to people that what they believed is really true, that is, through the inner experience people can suddenly really believe!
St. Niklaus was a pious Catholic in the medieval sense of the word.
The image of God in his unconscious tells him that he should become a pious man, but according to what God thinks, and not according to what his ego thinks.
Naturally he did not know what to make of such an experience.
As a naive person he tried to be pious and then God said: “You foolish man, be pious!”
We can understand that he became split and dissociated! It is not by chance that a voice comes out of a cloud, for the cloud generally holds a divine or mythological figure.
In mythology the nuptials of Zeus were veiled in a cloud; in the Apocalypse it is said: “Behold he cometh with clouds;” St. Luke speaks of “the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory,” etc.
Clouds were also symbolically interpreted as products of the devil who wants to create the mist of the unconscious.
The devil lives in the North and blows clouds out of his mouth all the time. the cloud sometimes brings confusion and at other times hides the divine mystery.
You can say that it represents a content of the unconscious still very much a potentiality and completely indefinite, something in which consciousness cannot yet find its orientation.
If you have ever flown in a small airplane on a summer day, you will have seen fat small clouds.
The first time I flew towards them I thought I was going to hit something and put my hands to my head to protect it, but as soon as you come to them they disperse and you go through the mist.
That has always been a simile to me of how you experience the archetype.
If you speak of the archetype of “the wise old man” or “the terrible mother”, you have a certain idea of what it is but when you begin to think intellectually of what that is psychologically, it becomes like a mist and shapeless.
If you try to pin down the meaning of an archetypal image in an intellectual way you feel lost.
That is why some people have a feeling that Jungian psychology is a way of using mysterious concepts, but this is not our desire.
If we could interpret an archetype more clearly we would do so but we are net able to get further yet.
We can say that the archetypes are in one way defined but we have to collect an amount of material and amplify instead of defining.
Thus the archetype often appears as a cloud.
Much later, St. Niklaus had a tremendous vision of God which nearly made him schizophrenic for a period.
The fact is that the cloud itself is already a manifestation of God, but it has no face yet and no definite shape, it is a veiled content.
The unconscious was very benevolent with him in not yet showing him what was behind they cloud, but protecting him from it.
We can see that he was in a difficult situation when he tried consciously to do the right thing and in spite of it was off the track because he did not know what his unconscious really wanted, and this was probably why he got depressions, for he was not at peace with himself. ~Marie-Louise Von Franz, The Dreams and Visions of St. Niklaus von der Flue, Page 10-18