Marie-Louise von Franz: Niklaus Von Flüe And Saint Perpetua: A Psychological Interpretation of Their Visions

Chapter 6

The Liestal Vision

53 Erny Rorer reports1 that Brother Klaus once recounted the following episode in this way:

54 ”One day, he [Brother Klaus] decided to leave his country, to leave his wife, his children, and all he had behind him, to live in a foreign land.

So he set off and when he was close to Liechtstall (Liestal), it seemed to him that this place, and everything in it, had turned red.

He was so frightened that he immediately went up to a solitary farmhouse to talk to the farmer there.

He told him of his intention to leave, but the farmer did not approve and told Brother Klaus to return home and to serve God amongst his own people for God would prefer that; and he told Klaus he should find his peace in this way for he was a Swiss citizen who would not necessarily be liked by foreigners.

So Brother Klaus left the farmer’s house the same evening and went into a field.

He lay down near a fence and, while asleep, he had a vision of a shining light coming from Heaven which opened up his abdomen, which he felt so painfully as if he had been cut open with a knife.

He understood that he should return to the Ranft, which he immediately did:’2

But he did not return to his family home; instead, he went to an alp, the Klisterli, in upper Melchtal. Erny Rorer reports, 3 “and when he reached home, he stayed in Melchtal for eight days, living in thick thorn bushes and wild undergrowth, and when people realized this, many went to him and caused him great distress:’

55 Woelflin reports4 that Klaus’s brother went to Klaus and tried to convince him to stop starving himself.

Klaus then decided to return to the Ranft and, with the help of some friends, to build himself a small retreat-on 16 October 1467, in the year he was to turn fifty.


It is often asserted that Brother Klaus had intended to go to the ‘Friends of God’ ( Gottesfreunden) in Alsace but, as Blanke correctly emphasizes, this is not clearly stated in any of the original source books.5

In my view, it seems more probable that he was gripped by a desire to leave without any destination in mind.

In any case, this is what Wotan sometimes incites in those whom he meets.

Cysat, from Lucerne, 6 tells of a story from the sixteenth century, for example, in which a farmer’s son from Entlebuch quarrels with his father over money and, suddenly, on the so-called Branegk, meets up with a funny “elegant” warrior (who is Wotan).

The warrior asks him what the trouble is and offers him money and the opportunity to team up with him.

The youth is then gripped by a sudden urge to strike out on his own.

He has “nothing in his mind except to leave and be gone:’  He did not stop until he reached Einsiedeln, where

some people from Unterwald recognized him on the street and talked him into returning home.

But he had to spend a few days in Einsiedeln to come to his senses again and-as it is said-“to find himself’ I believe that Brother Klaus had a similar experience: He simply felt he had to go, to leave everything behind without any

definite idea about where he was going-an outer projection of the longing to be free and the wish to experience the classical “ghost ride” of the medicine man.

When he then suddenly sees the whole town of Liestal and its environs bathed in red, he is deeply afraid.

Thus, we must first look at the negative implications of the colour red to interpret this motif correctly.

Red is most often associated with fire and blood7 and thus refers to emotionality and passionate

feeling. 8

In ancient Egypt, red was thought to be the colour of “evil passion;’ of the god Seth.

A world bathed in red suggests war and bloodshed.

The Germanic Valkyries prophesy a battle in the following verse:9

Blood rains from the cloudy web On the broad loom of slaughter.

The web of man grey as armor Is now being woven; the Valkyries Will cross it with a crimson weft.10

5s Red paint and red threads are used in many places for black magic. 11

In this context, red is also the colour of death.

Artemidor says12 that crimson colours are “sympathetic” towards death.

And in ancient Greece, the dead were wrapped in crimson cloth before being buried, and the sarcophagi were painted vermilion.13

In many primitive tribes, even corpses were coloured red.14

The war dress of many peoples was also red to clearly indicate their warlike nature.15

But in its positive aspects, red stands for the colour of life.

It reflects the “mana” of a being and it also means immortality and the power to heal.16

In Brother Klaus’s experience in Liestal, red appears on the outside in his projection of this colour onto the world.

This means that the theme “world” ( that is, crowds of people [“town”] and foreign lands) is, so to speak, loaded with destructive emotion.

Accordingly, we could guess that Brother Klaus must have had a deeply passionate nature which could burst out negatively _when it came into contact with the outer world and that this was one of the reasons why his unconscious forced him into complete seclusion.

There is possibly another clue that would support my guess: Hans Salat (1535/37) reports in his biography that once, when Klaus was participating in an assembly of the court and council of his parish, a man spoke out harshly against the law, and Klaus saw “flames in terrifying shapes” coming out of the man’s mouth.17

As a result, he decided to avoid all worldly prestige and power, “for both are so difficult to deal with in a serious and irreproachable manner:’18


Although this vision is certainly true on an objective level,19 Brother Klaus’s highly sensitive reaction to “world” -oriented emotionality permits us to assume that the latter would have been dangerous for him if he had been allowed his too intense a temperament to flow out into the world.

This could have resulted in Klaus feeling, for example, constant indignation about the wrongdoings of those around him, which would have made him feel restless and would have “eaten him up” inwardly.

People who have such a passionate nature seem to be especially threatened by dissociation, which can be triggered by inner or outer events.

The ability to have control over one’s passion is also expected of the shamans of the north.

For example, the Yakuts require their shamans to be serious and tactful but, above all, they may not show arrogance or hot-headedness.

“One must feel an inner strength in him that does not frighten, yet is conscious of its power:’20

Simultaneously, almost everywhere in the world, shamans are thought to be connected to blacksmiths and to have mastery over fire. 21

Their ”mana” is often described as ((burning;’ and they have a creative inner fire22 along with a lack of sensitivity to outer heat or cold.

The blaze which Brother Klaus saw with such shock in the wrongdoer  could, therefore, have made such a great impression upon him

because it symbolised his own negative opposite, along with a destructive developmental potentiality within himself (his shadow), which could only be avoided by his renunciation of all worldly power.

By withdrawing from the world, he instinctively found the healing countermeasure, namely, locking himself up to be alone with himself, or rather, with his inner confrontation with all that was ((red;’ which, at that time, threatened him in the outer world.

Indeed, if applied to the outer world, red corresponds to fire that destroys.

But if applied to the inner world, red corresponds to the ignis noster of the alchemists, about which a text, the famous Turba Philosophorum, says,23

((Out of those composites which have been transformed into red spirit the principium mundi is derived” ( the

earliest beginning, or the basic principle, this is the ark of the world).24

After internalising ((red;’ a new way of life begins for Brother Klaus, too, namely, his life as a recluse in the woods.

But in the Liestal episode, red is still visible externally and makes him too fearful to go any further afield into the world.

60 In his desperate situation, he goes to the owner of a solitary farm and asks his advice, and this man tells him he would do better to serve God at home, for Swiss Confederates are not too popular abroad.

As a child would, Brother Klaus willingly obeys this advice.

This is one of his most curious and perhaps most admirable qualities, namely, that in critical moments of danger, he could submit to reality with great simplicity.

Much later, when he has his terrifying vision of God, he saves himself by simply throwing himself on the

ground, and in this Liestal vision, he submits to the advice of an unknown, simple farmer.

Aware of his own confusion and that he was too far from his instincts to be able to judge the situation he

found himself in, Klaus correctly consults the farmer as if he were an oracle and accepts his advice without any argument.

In such moments, Klaus appears to have a divine quality which the alchemists called res simplex25 and homo simplicissimus,26 that is, the capacity for complete simplicity and spontaneity of action out of one’s inner wholeness.

A similar homo simplex shines through in certain koans of Zen Buddhism.27

It appears to be a manifestation of the divine in man, as it were, or as Jung says,28 “an answer of Nature,

who has succeeded in conveying her reaction direct to the conscious mind:’

61 In a parallel report about this episode, H. Woelflin and H. Salat29 say that Klaus was drawn back to the Ranft as if he were being pulled by a rope.

This motif is significant, as rope often plays a role in the initiation rites and practices of the shamans of the circumpolar peoples, 30 but also in many other cultural areas.

Thus, on the graves of the kings of Tibet a rope is depicted to signify that the king did not die but has ascended to heaven. 31

Certain priests were able to assist the dead in climbing up to heaven on ropes32 and were thus called “the owners of heavenly ropes:’

On the other hand, certain gods were thought to be “binding”33 so that a rope can also be a symbol of a definitive spiritual commitment to a godhead.

Generally speaking, the cord seems to represent a suprapersonal, objective, meaningful connection to “the Beyond” ( the collective unconscious).

34 In its instinctive aspect, it symbolises, so to speak, the “feeling of being at home;’ but in its spiritual aspect,35 it symbolises a binding and indissoluble connection to the elements of the unconscious.36

62 The dream of the following night seems to confirm that the farmer’s and Brother Klaus’s decision was right, for, in the dream, a light appears in the sky and, like a knife, it opens Brother Klaus’s belly.

This “light” or “glow” in the sky is most likely connected to the star which the saint saw while still in the womb and which now comes down, as it were, to him personally.

The principium individuationis which touches each individual ego, touches, in this instance, the belly, the seat of desire and of deeper spiritual emotions. 37

It is a sudden enlightenment which strikes Klaus, not as a thought, but rather within the depths of his animal personality.

As Jung says,38 “Light means an ‘illumination’; it is an illuminating idea that ‘irrupts:”

Within Brother Klaus, it is a substantial psychic energetic tension which apparently corresponds to a very important unconscious content.

Later, this content becomes manifest in his profound primal experience of God, which he has before he dies.

But in this phase of Klaus’s life, the light cannot be defined more exactly.

It “touches” him only emotionally and brings about his definitive withdrawal from the world.

The process of individuation, that is to say, the Self, which up until now has seemed to be projected

entirely onto the outer world, 39 grips Klaus and results in his realisation that he should go home to the Ranft.

Here, too, it reminds us of the experiences of enlightenment of certain Zen Buddhists about which a master (Shih-shuang) once said,40 “Transform your body and your spirit into a bit of inanimate nature, like a stone, or a piece of wood.

When you are completely turned inwards so that all signs of life disappear, then suddenly a plenitude of light will enter you, like a light out of the deepest darkness.

Then the Self, free of all sophistry, will be revealed, the original face of your own being, then the marvellous landscape of your original home will be unveiled.

There is only one direct way which is open and without hindrance and you can enter upon it as soon as you have given everything away:’ I find the return of Brother Klaus to his home to be symbolically important in the sense of a turning towards the “landscape of your original home:’ a turning inwards to his own true self.

63 The “illumination” in his vision has, at the same time, the character of an extremely painful wound.

The closest parallels to this are again to be found in northern shamanism, as well as in the initiation rites of medicine men of many primitive peoples.

As Mircea Eliade41 points out, most often the choosing of a shaman is preceded by an inner crisis in the chosen one, and often the gods indicate their choice by striking a shaman-to-be by lightning, or by having a meteorite(!) land near a novice.42

Almost always, however, the rites of initiation consist of a dismemberment or the cutting of some part of the novice’s body43 whereby, in the majority of cases,

individual inner organs are “renewed:’ With some Australian Aborigines, too, the initiation of a medicine man consists of, amongst other things, a medicine man opening up the stomach of the initiate and placing small stones which have magical powers inside it,44 or the medicine man throws an invisible spear at the

novice which splits open his neck.45

64 During his initiation, the Siberian shaman receives his “tutelary spirit;’ which, among other things, is called his “lightning:’ or his “enlightenment;’ for, as they say,46 the angakok (tutelary spirit) consists of “a mysterious light which the shaman suddenly feels in his body, inside his head, within the brain … a luminous fire which enables him to see in the dark, both literally and metaphorically speaking, for he can now, even with closed eyes, see through darkness and perceive things and coming events which are hidden from others; thus they look into the future and into the secrets of others:’ That the motif of dismemberment or wounding repeatedly appears in so many initiation rites means, psychologically speaking, that there is a lesion or wounding of the natural unconscious ego which the Self bears down upon like a heavy weight (the motif of St. Christopher).

The dream of Gilgamesh47 from the epic of the same name is a nice parallel to this, for in the dream, Gilgamesh, the sun hero, predicts his fateful meeting with Enkidu, the mortal “real” human being.

Gilgamesh dreams that the stars in the sky are like a host of warriors and one of them falls down on him.48

Later, he dreams that a mountain falls down on him.49

As Dr. R. Kluger-Scharf said in her interpretation of this, So the dream shows the moment in which Gilgamesh begins to get caught up in the individuation process.

As in Brother Klaus’s prenatal visions, here, too, the motif of the star and the rock or stone are connected to each other.

The visions of the Egyptian alchemist Zosimos of Panopolis (third century A.D.) also provide us with an example of such a wounding of the ego. 51

In the most important part of his vision, 52 Zosimos sees a priest standing at an altar in the form of a shallow bowl who says, “I am Ion, 53 priest of the innermost hidden sanctuaries, and I am undergoing terrible punishment.

For early in the morning, someone came running in great haste, and overpowered me and cut me into pieces with the sword … ”

Whereupon Zosimos sees with his own eyes how the priest transforms into a spirit through great suffering.

This motif symbolises the alchemical separatio and resembles many parallels in primitive rites.

As C.G. Jung has stated, such primitive, cruel rites of dismemberment serve the purpose of transforming the initiate into a new and more efficacious person.

Indeed, seen in this light, the initiation takes on the aspect of a healing-it is not a torment, as Zosimos maintains in his interpretation of his vision, but rather it is “the ‘hylical man: Such a one is dark, and sunk in materiality.

He is essentially unconscious and therefore in need of transformation and enlightenment.

For this purpose his body must be taken apart and dissolved into its constituents, a process known in alchemy as divisio, separatio and solutio, and in later treatises as discrimination and self-knowledge [in which] every step forward along the path of      individuation is achieved only at the cost of suffering:’54

This is why, when we come into conscious contact with the individuation process, we experience it as being painful, even deadly.

65 More precisely, however, it is not the ego but the Self which seems at first to be wounded ( Christ, Wotan, Ion, the mercurial dragon, etc.), and it is only when the Self is realised in a human being that the latter begins to share in the suffering.55

Individuation is, as Jung says,56 “an heroic and often tragic task, the most difficult of all, it involves suffering, a passion of the ego:57 the ordinary, empirical man we once were is burdened with the fate of losing himself in a

greater dimension and being robbed of his fancied freedom of will.

He suffers, so to speak, from the violence done to him by the Self.58

The analogous passion of Christ signifies God’s suffering on account of the injustice of the world and the darkness of man.

The human and the divine suffering set up a relationship of complementarity with compensating effects.

Through the Christ-symbol, man can get to know the real meaning of his suffering: He is on the way towards

realizing his wholeness.

As a result of the integration of conscious and unconscious, his ego enters the ”divine” realm, where it

participates in “God’s suffering:’

The cause of the suffering is in both cases the same, namely “incarnation;’ which on the human level

appears as ‘individuation:”

This is why, in the Acts of John, Christ says, ‘As you dance, ponder what I do, for yours is this human

suffering which I will to suffer: “59

66 Thus, behind the image of God lies a process of transformation in which man begins to participate-in so far as he approaches God.

Brother Klaus was, as we know, a deeply religious person with an instinctive relatedness to God, and such a person must have, as Jung says, “an intensive relationship to God which lays him open to an invasion far transcending anything personal:’ But at the same time, he must have been born with “an unusual extension of

consciousness:’60 ~Marie-Louise von Franz, Niklaus von Flue and St. Perpeua A Psychological Interpretation of Their Visions. Page 39-50