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


165 The present essay originated in Professor C.G. Jung’s seminar at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH), being the outcome of a report on a book which contained the visions of St. Perpetua.

These visions made such an impression on me that I attempted their psychological interpretation.

166 One might well question both the sense of applying a modern form of psychological interpretation to this series of visions and the extent to which it is justifiable from the historical point of view.

For such a method cannot fail to reveal connections which lie neither within Perpetua’s own spiritual range nor within that of her time.

167 Perpetua actually interpreted her own visions, as the text shows.

For instance, to her, the dragon of the first vision was the devil, whose aim it was to deter her from going the way of her martyrdom, while the shepherd who gave her the sweet-tasting food represented Christ.

Her interpretations were accepted by the nascent Church of her day, and also later. Even today, their message remains compatible with Church teachings and meaningful for many.

168 Nevertheless, it seems to me that an attempt at an interpretation based on the scientific hypotheses of C.G. Jung’s school of analytical psychology might throw light on some new and perhaps important factors.

169 The divine hypostases in the Christian conception of the world are accepted as absolute metaphysical reality in the dogma.

They did not reveal themselves in some place outside the human sphere (which would be a contradiction in itself, inasmuch as revelation implies the human being who receives the message); thus, we must conclude that these realities were experienced as a living totality that is, by the human soul (the psyche).

In fact, it was only in this way that such realities were able to become the formulated content of a creed-thanks to the testimony of human beings.

It was the record in the Gospels and the witness of St. Paul that built up the image of Christ as we know it.

170 At the same time, it was above all the experiences of single individuals in visions and dreams (like those of St. Perpetua) which confirmed the collective faith-that is to say, the conviction that God had really become man in Christ.

These individual experiences gave real foundation to the doctrine.

Dreams and visions are statements made by the human soul in a realm where consciousness and its conceptions are excluded.

If we consider these spontaneous unconscious statements of the soul, we are able to perceive the Christian conception of the world originating in them as a phenomenon in itself.

We can leave aside all that a philosophical knowledge, derived from the already existing cultures of antiquity, contributed to it, as well as all that was added by the theological interpretations and the theoretical and political deliberations of the ecclesiastical councils.

It is true that these additions were creative acts of human consciousness which gave meaning and reality to the soul’s

spontaneous statements, but at the same time these additions caught and imprisoned the statements of the soul in a formulation which was dependent on the historical situation, and consequently transitory.

Therefore, we are justified, I think, in attempting a new and wider formulation of the same phenomena from a modern

psychological standpoint, though we are fully aware that this new interpretation must also be transitory.

173 Viewed from this perspective, it would be inadmissible to look upon the dragon of Perpetua’s first vision simply and solely as the dogmatic figure of the devil.

According to our scientific working hypothesis, we must take the dragon simply as it appears-that is to say, as a dream-image of a dragon and, inasmuch as it occurs frequently in myths and dreams, as the archetype of the dragon.

174 In this case, the interpretation has to be reached through

amplification, that is, by recalling similar images of dragons for comparison, a method which may not allow us to define the psychic meaning of the image by means of an abstract concept but will enable us to describe it in a way which at least throws light upon the underlying energic processes.

175 For instance, the a priori interpretation of the dragon as the devil excludes every positive element in this figure, while the psychological way of considering it reveals quite unmistakably a positive as well as a negative aspect-a duality in the image of the dragon which throws a completely new light on the whole vision.

176 Naturally, the same argument applies to all the images and motifs appearing in the visions.

As most of these are archetypal-which means that there exists a practically inexhaustible store of comparative material-I have confined myself principally to material from Perpetua’s time and have endeavored to show how these images appeared to people of that era in their conscious minds, and even more in spontaneous manifestations of the unconscious which welled up quite regardless of the consciously held creed.

177 This may perhaps lead to a new understanding of that significant epoch, inasmuch as the unprejudiced eye will then be able to perceive the birth of the Christian faith at its very source: in the soul of the human being at that time. ~Marie-Louise von Franz, Niklaus von Flue and St. Perpeua A Psychological Interpretation of Their Visions, 129-131