IRA PROGOFF: The Idea of Eranos
IN I953, when my first book on the psychology of C. G. Jung had been written and I was continuing my studies with him at Kusnacht near Zurich, a telephone call came to me one day from Ascona, which is in the southern part of Switzerland.
The caller was Frau Olga Froebe-Kapteyn, whom I knew by reputation as the founder and director of the Eranos Tagung (which means meeting or conference).
I knew of her also as an editor, specifically as the editor of a series of imposing volumes published annually since 1933
under the title of the Eranos Jahrbucher (yearbooks).
These books had come to my attention in the course of my research into Jung’s writings because of the fact that many of his most important ideas had first been developed in the course of the two-hour addresses he had delivered at the Eranos meetings and had been enlarged when they were published in the Eranos Jahrbucher.
I had observed that each time Jung spoke at Eranos it seemed to become the occasion for his breaking new ground in his own thinking.
Certainly the thought occurred to me that perhaps the atmosphere of Eranos had something to do with it.
I had noticed in reading the Eranos Yearbooks (which were published as full-length hard-covered books with lectures printed in German, French, and English) that numerous other authors of major significance were represented in their pages: Heinrich Zimmer, Karl Kerenyi, Mircea Eliade, D. T. Suzuki, L. L. Whyte, Herbert Read, and Martin Buber among many others.
The range of these authors interested me but also surprised me, for I had inferred from Jung’s regular appearance there over many years that the Eranos Tagung was essentially
a Jungian gathering.
The scope of these authors indicated, however, that I had made a wrong assumption.
The Eranos Tagung was obviously not a Jungian conclave.
What, then, was it?
I was most pleased to discover that the reason for Frau Froebe’s telephone call was to invite me to visit her at her estate where the Eranos meeting takes place.
This would be my opportunity to find out what Eranos really
When I arrived there I was greeted by Mrs. Froebe, an amiable,
white-haired lady then in her early seventies.
She had an easy, open manner, and we found that we communicated easily.
I soon realized that behind her mild manner there was an intense vision.
She was a woman who had been seized by an idea, and she was dedicating this last portion of her life to the fulfillment of her vision.
We talked of it over tea that day and at dinner, and then it was arranged that, though I had to return to Zurich, I would come again to Eranos as her guest to study and write there and attend the conference in August.
It was this second visit, which lasted for several weeks, that enabled me to understand the background and the goal of what had become the annual Eranos Conference.
Mrs. Froebe described to me how it had come about.
The roots of it were in her personal life.
In the years just after the first World War, following the early death of her husband, she had come to live on the banks of Lake Maggiore a mile south of the then small resort town of Ascona. Her father had given her a house and much undeveloped land at a particularly beautiful point on the lake ringed by mountains. At that difficult time in her life, she decided to live there in solitude with a servant until she could come to terms with
Thus the years that followed were a period of withdrawal during
which she studied and meditated, investigated the field of depth
psychology, and searched in many directions for a new meaning to her life.
Out of this period of brooding, an idea came to Olga Froebe that
transformed her life.
It was more of a vision in which she saw herself and the land on which she was living as being identified with each other and as becoming a center to which many people would come.
Perhaps it was the intensity of the aloneness in which she had been living that led her psyche to compensate by fantasying a situation that would be socially significant.
Or perhaps it was that the personal debacle in the earlier part of her life cleared the path for a more fundamental image to emerge from the depth of her psyche.
In any case, this intimation of a work for her to do led her to move out of her dark period with a first step that was nothing more than an unknowing thrust into the future.
Not knowing why and without any specific indication of what use it might have, she had a meeting house built on her property. It was very attractive, but it had no immediate purpose. Presently the idea came of inviting a group of eminent scholars and thinkers to participate in a summer meeting to be called in mid-August when Ascona is at its height as a resort.
Each speaker would deliver an original paper in exchange
for Mrs. Froebe’s hospitality during the conference.
She sent out her invitations for the summer of 1933 and, to her surprise, they were accepted by such notable figures as C. G. Jung, Heinrich Zimmer, Friedrich Heiler, and Ernesto Buonaiuti. The following year Martin Buber joined the list of speakers, and the joint presence of C. G. Jung and Martin Buber made the second meeting of Eranos an event of significance.
It was Professor Rudolph Otto, the famous historian of religion and the author of the classic study,
The Idea of the Holy, who contributed the name of the conference.
He suggested the term Eranos in its ancient Greek sense as a banquet to which each of the participants brings his own contribution.
This described well the underlying conception behind the conference.
It was indeed to be an eight-day feast in which speakers who were acknowledged as major authorities in their fields of specialization would focus their knowledge upon a single subject, thus illuminating it from their diverse vantage points. The goal was to bring the highest intellectual competence to bear upon questions of spiritual importance.
In the first meetings, attention was directed toward establishing a common ground on which the religious philosophies of the Orient and Western civilization could meet.
Specialists on Hinduism and Taoism like Heinrich Zimmer and Erwin Rouselle were thus invited to speak together with scholars of Christian contemplative procedures like Friedrich Heiler and Ernesto Buonaiuti.
These studies of the various religious traditions were then set side by side with the leading edge of depth psychology.
This was the primary role that Jung played at the meetings.
He presented a point of view that made it possible to discuss
the psychological equivalence of oriental religious insights and the experiences of modern persons.
Jung’s subject at the first Eranos conference in i933 was an empirical study of the process of individuation.
In the two succeeding years he went further into questions of archetypal symbolism and then, in 1936 and 1937, he launched his extensive studies of the psychological aspects of alchemical symbolism.
These were later translated into English in his book, The Integration of the Personality, and formed the basis of what was later extended into two of his major works, Psychology and Alchemy and Mysterium Conjunctionis.
The 1938 session of Eranos saw a change in subject matter with the beginning of an intention to deal each year with a maior archetypal theme in religion and civilization.
That year the subject was “The Great Mother,” and at the following meeting in August of the fateful year 1939, the Eranos speakers discussed “The Symbolism of Rebirth.”
The years of World War II saw curtailed programs at Eranos, but the meetings and publications were carried on nonetheless.
It was felt that the conferences were a symbolic gesture of continuity with the past of European culture, and that this was an important role to be enacted within the protective borders of Switzerland.
At those meetings the discussions centered on various aspects of the Gnostic mysteries.
It was as though the attention of the speakers was deliberately called to the fact that there is always evil as well as good in the world and that one main task of man in his life is to redeem the evil and transform it.
This was one aspect of the spiritual significance of the war and its attendant horrors that surrounded the meetings of those years.
The Eranos conference of August, i945, was the occasion for a
The war in Europe was over, and it was also C. G. Jung’s seventieth birthday. In addition to the regular lectures, a commemorative volume dedicated to Jung was published that year in which the conception of universal, or archetypal, patterns in psychology and culture was discussed at length.
Eranos as a conference was in no sense committed to the specific constructs in Jung’s theory of archetypes, but in a general sense the idea of archetypes had a central position in the
conception of human life that projected itself in the Eranos meetings as a whole.
This involved the recognition of a ground of universality in
human experience and in the striving toward meeting that occurs in the diverse times and cultural forms of human history.
After the war years the subjects of the meetings were simple and
elemental. Spirit, Nature, the Human Being, Myth, Ritual, Time, Energy were some of the themes.
Steadily during those years a format for the meetings evolved, and this pattern has tended to be followed, flexibly and with spontaneous variations, in programming the conferences up to the present time.
Each year, among the nine or ten lecturers who are invited to speak, biology, physics, or the history of science have at least one representative, as do depth psychology, art history, and literary criticism.
The history of religions and anthropology have been represented by such speakers as Mircea Eliade, Erwin Goodenough, R. C. Zaehner, and Joseph Campbell.
Occasionally a theologian has spoken, as when Paul Tillich appeared, and there are always several specialists speaking from the vantage point of various traditions in religion and mythology; e.g., Corbin on Islam, Scholem on Judaism, Quispel on the
Gnostics, Suzuki on Zen, Tucci on Tibet, Wilhelm on Taoism, and Kerenyi on the ancient Greeks.
Taken together, the cumulative effect of the papers delivered by the Eranos speakers is to give the audience a sense of both the universality of the subject under discussion and its particularity in each situation of cultural existence.
When the lectures are collected and published in the annual Eranos volume, their multi-faceted approach to the study of man comprises an intellectual contribution of permanent value.
Over the years, as thirty-four volumes have been published from 1933 through
I965, the collected Eranos publications have become a major library of the humanities, an evolving encyclopedia of symbolism as an expression of the human spirit.
Each year a new volume is added, publication being in the language in which the original lecture has been given, English, French, or German. Five volumes of the earlier lectures have been edited by Joseph Campbell and translated into English*; and arrangements
are under way to secure prompt translation and full English publication immediately following each of the meetings in the future.
Olga Froebe died in i962, but her death was not unexpected and she had prepared for it with the perpetuation of Eranos in mind.
An Eranos Foundation was established with the eminent biologist and long time
Eranos lecturer Adolf Portmann as its president.
This foundation has maintained the grounds and resources of Eranos and has continued the annual meetings in the spirit and style in which Mrs. Froebe had established
An auxiliary foundation called The Friends of Eranos has also been established, and it is devoted to securing the financial support that will insure the continuance of the Eranos meetings for many years to come.
At the Eranos conferences one feels an atmosphere to be present that contributes something additional to the contents of the lectures.
This is part of the mystique of the place itself.
On Lake Maggiore, in the midst of the mountains, the grounds on which Eranos has been held have become a consecrated place.
During the years when he was speaking there, C. G. Jung carved a granite stone with the inscription, in Latin, “To the unknown genius of this place.”
It seems, indeed, that the geographic outer place of meeting adds an important complementary aspect to the inner place of spiritual meeting where the speakers
come together at annual conferences.
There is something in the atmosphere of Eranos that brings about an
experience of much larger scope than mere intellectual understanding.
The goal of the meetings is, indeed, to bring about more than an understanding, but a knowing through direct experience.
This is one reason that a main characteristic of Eranos lectures is that they do not intellectualize and do not theorize, but involve the listener directly in the reality that underlies a particular symbolic conception of life.
The goal of an Eranos meeting is a cumulative movement into the depths, from lecture to lecture through the conference, seeking to bring forth new experiences of meaning through the continuing juxtaposition of the primordial and the modern, the individual
and the universal, the scientific and the mythological.
Through the dialectic of these encounters, the power of symbolic awareness becomes
increasingly a fact, and this is one of the great and growing contributions the Eranos meetings are making to the enlargement of Western consciousness.
The overtone of this, which is the heart of the creative conception that underlies the Idea of Eranos, has been increasingly meaningful to me ever since my first meeting with Olga Froebe.
I stated it this way in 1963 at the conclusion of the first address I delivered at Eranos:
“In our time the particular need is for a doorway of initiation, a way of entry to the larger dimension of experience.
Because of the poverty of symbols in our time, people require a doorway that can serve as an entrance for them to the new image of reality of which their intimations tell them. The need is for no particular kind of door, but for the openness of doorways; and living symbols can be such doorways.
Our time profoundly requires such living symbols, places that stand for the no place of the soul, and can be as present and as available for us as [the symbol of] Jerusalem was for Meister Eckhart.
The new image requires symbols, things, and places that point far beyond themselves. And I think you will agree with me that one such living symbol.., is unfolding here at Eranos in the midst of us.”* ~Ira Progoff, The Idea of Eranos, Page 307-312