Murray Stein – How to Read The Red Book and Why

How to read The Red Book and why

 Murray Stein, Goldiwil (Thun), Switzerland

 Abstract: The Red Book can be, and is, read in a variety of ways and used for different purposes. Here I propose to view it from the perspectives of three contexts: the personal and biographical one, a literary one and a cultural and religious one. Each of these viewpoints exposes different, but (in each case) important, features and meanings. Composing Liber Novus clearly had great significance for Jung’s own personal individuation process. In studying this work, the reader must keep in mind that Jung had a great many predecessors in view and looking over his shoulder as he composed it. The text reveals that he was in dialogue with a vast number of cultural figures from the near and the far past. It is also a foundational text for Jung’s later works in psychology. And it addresses large cultural and historical issues, looking back at traditions from the standpoint of modernity and forward toward what is to come collectively in the near and distant future. His creation was a work for himself, but also for the culture and for the ages. I try to understand what the title Liber Novus means and suggest that it represents an intention of attaining to a rank beyond being a ‘new book’ for only one man, Carl Gustav Jung, to being a work relevant to humanity as a totality.

Key words: individuation, initiation, God image, New Age, Nietzsche, Orphism, syncretism, Theopoetics


The publication of The Red Book opens up to public scrutiny an important part of C.G. Jung’s inner world as he experienced it during a lengthy period of introspection, self-analysis and inner work between the ages of thirty-eight (1913) and fifty-five (1930). The project began in the midst of a personal midlife crisis and extended through a major European political crisis (i.e., World War I) and a cultural crisis in which European society was turned upside down and radically changed (1913–1930, and beyond). The work, although deeply personal, needs to be read with all of these contexts – personal, literary and cultural – in mind.

In this essay, I would like to pose a two-part question about Jung’s Red Book and suggest the framework for an answer: How was Jung working on his own personal development in creating The Red Book (Liber Novus) and also working for the development of Western culture and humanity as a whole? In other words, how is this both a personal diary of a midlife crisis and the recovery therefrom, and also a text with wider application and meaning?

In his Eranos lecture of 1935,1 we can hear Jung referring indirectly to his own earlier descent into the dark interior world of images that is depicted in the Red Book, his katabasis (‘descent’) and the implied meaning of it:

 Arisleus tells of his adventure with the Rex marinus, in whose kingdom nothing prospers and nothing is begotten. [He hears] the King’s cry for help from the depths of his unconscious, dissociated state. The conscious mind should respond to this call: one should operare regime, render service to the King, for this would be not only wisdom but salvation as well. Yet this brings with it the necessity of a descent into the dark world of the unconscious, the ritual katabasis eis antron (‘descent to the cave’), whose end and aim is the restoration of life, resurrection, and the triumph over death. (Jung 1944, paras. 435–6)

To those in the audience of the Eranos Tagung that year who were ‘in the know’, it would have been obvious that Jung was declaring his personal mission in life –to respond to ‘the King’s cry for help from the depths’ and to make himself into an instrument of wisdom and salvation.2 I would respectfully submit that The Red Book be read with this declaration in mind.

Concentrical contexts

A supremely strange work like The Red Book with its elaborate calligraphy and meticulously executed paintings, its imaginal journeys through mental landscapes of mythic proportion and design, its theological and philosophical speculations, its uncanny connections to the social and political events of the times, and its personal yet also impersonal tone of voice and attitude cannot be intelligently interpreted without awareness of the interconnected contexts that underpin its contents. The Red Book is a uniquely personal work in Jung’s over­all oeuvre, without question. It is also a work, however, that is deeply embedded in literary, cultural and historical contexts that extend out in ever wider circles and reach far beyond the immediate circle of personal issues confronting the author, Carl Gustav Jung, at the time of its composition.

To begin to understand The Red Book one needs to consider carefully and in detail Jung’s own preceding works (especially the immediate predecessor, Symbols and Transformations of Libido [1912/1952]3) and also to look back at it from the distance of his subsequent ones (especially the works on psychology and religion and on alchemy4). In Symbols and Transformations of Libido, we can find many sources for The Red Book’s themes and images in Jung’s analysis of Miss Miller’s fantasies and in the multitude of references to world religions and mythologies. From the subsequent works, we can see whence The Red Book leads (i.e., towards an exploration of individual spiritual and psychological development – the individuation process; the humanization of the divine and the divination of the human; and broad cultural suggestions for the evolution of human consciousness).

The First Circle – the Personal Context

Before looking at the broader contexts, I would like to consider the context of Jung’s personal life at the time he began The Red Book and to review what this work meant for his own individuation process. This is an essential context to keep in mind when reading The Red Book because it grounds the work in the author’s deep existential engagement with himself and his world.

In November 1913, after a hiatus of eleven years,5 Jung restarted making entries in his private journal, the so-called Black Books. ‘My soul, where are you?’ he cries out at the beginning of his journey inward (Jung 2009, p. 232). What, or who, is he looking for, and why? And what precipitated his radical decision to hearken to what he calls in the text ‘the spirit of the depths’, as opposed to ‘the spirit of these times’, which he had been earnestly attending to during the previous decade?

A significant stimulus for this decision was his much studied break with Sigmund Freud: ‘After the parting of the ways with Freud, a period of inner uncertainty began for me, he confesses in Memories, Dreams, Reflections’ (Jung 1963, p. 170). In retrospect, Jung clearly regarded this as the trigger event for his change of course. His first entry in the Black Books after the eleven year hiatus, dated November 12, 1913, followed shortly upon what would be his last meeting with Freud, which took place at the International Psychoanalytic Association (IPA) Congress in Munich (September 7–8, 1913), and it was made only days after Jung tendered his resignation from the position as editor of the psychoanalytic journal, Jahrbuch fu¨ r psychoanalytische und psychopathologische Forschungen (October 27, 1913).6 Between November 12, 1913 and April 19, 1914, he wrote the entries into his diary that would become the basis for Liber Primus and Liber Secundus of The Red Book, and on April 19, 1914 he began the entry for what would become the third section, Scrutinies. On the following day, April 20, 1914, he resigned his position as president of the IPA and cancelled his membership.7 The period between these two resignations from key positions in the IPA constitute his most intensive engagement in active imagination. The remaining important imaginal material contained in The Red Book was produced intermittently until the middle of 1916. After that, he continued working on the commentaries and interpretations of the material generated in active imagination, as well as on the calligraphy and paintings, for more than another decade until he stopped the calligraphic entries abruptly in mid-sentence around 1930.

It cannot be said that Jung’s involvement with Freud and psychoanalysis was the only or even the decisive factor that alienated him from what he calls ‘soul’ in The Red Book, but it is clear that after his break in the personal relationship with Freud he had to regroup his forces and find his way to a new line of psychological thought. The crisis that ensued from this rupture threw him back onto himself and into the cauldron of transformation.

A question is why there was such a prolonged lapse of contact with his soul during the period 1902–1913. Most likely this acute feeling of the soul’s absence came to the fore as he reflected back on his excessively extroverted, busy and often conflict-laden life in these intervening years. He had put his personal journal aside sometime after he became engaged to Emma Rauschenbach in October 1901 and began preparing himself for a new phase of life as a married man. In the latter part of 1902, he showed dissatisfaction with his residency programme at the Burgho¨ lzli Clinic and resigned his position in order to study in Paris (for details of this period, see Bair 2003, pp. 67 ff). After his marriage in 1903 and his return to the Burgho¨ lzli Clinic later the same year, he was occupied with establishing himself in his medical career, engaging in extensive scientific research (the Word Association Studies) and a psychiatric practice, writing papers and books and editing the major psychoanalytic journal, building a house on the lake in Ku¨ snacht (1908–9) and starting a family (four children had been born by the time he took up the Black Books again in 1913), assuming leadership in the new psychoanalytic movement as its first president (elected in 1910), travelling and lecturing widely (several trips to the United States, lecturing in England and throughout Europe, attending the annual IPA Congresses), military service in the Swiss Army, on and on. From his letters to Freud during the years 1907–1913, one gets the impression that he was constantly on the move, always short of time, and extremely burdened with a multitude of responsibilities. This was an extraordinarily expansive period in his life, packed with duties, responsibilities, and opportunities. Then came the perhaps altogether predictable malaise at midlife, discussed later by Jung himself as a typical pivot point in the individuation process.

In Jung’s case, there were many contributing factors that came to a head at this time in his life. By the age of 38, he had become internationally recognized as a psychiatrist and psychological theoretician. He had arrived at the heights of worldly success rapidly, and by all outward appearances he had enjoyed the ascent. But a period of doubt had settled into his mind during the previous several years as he was struggling with Freud, with other personal relationships (see Carotenuto 1982, p. 3–44), with his ground-breaking work, Transformations and Symbols of Libido, and above all with himself.8 Now, as he says at the very beginning of The Red Book, he asked himself: Is this all there is?9 This is a typical successful midlifer’s quandary (see Stein 1983/2003), but it was exacerbated by his turbulent denouement with Freud, which set off a period of exceptionally profound self-doubt and uncertainty.

Nearly exactly one year before Jung took the dramatic turn inward and vocalized his call to the soul, and during the most critical phase in his painful rupture with Freud (see McGuire 1974, pp. 525–40), he had a dream that proved to be a harbinger. In Memories, Dreams, Reflections, he reports:

around Christmas of 1912, I had a dream. In the dream I found myself in a magnificent Italian loggia with pillars, a marble floor, and a marble balustrade. I was sitting on a gold Renaissance chair; in front of me was a table of rare beauty Suddenly a white bird descended, a small sea-gull or a dove. Gracefully, it came to rest on the table, and I signed to the children to be still so that they would not frighten away the pretty white bird. Immediately, the dove was transformed into a little girl, about eight years of age, with golden blonde hair. (Jung 1963, p. 171)

This dream of a delightful and vibrant young figure, part dove and part maiden, took a sinister turn, however, when she disclosed more about her life:

‘Only in the first hours of the night can I transform myself into a human being, while the male dove is busy with the twelve dead’. Then she flew off into the blue air, and I awoke.

I was greatly stirred. What business would a male dove be having with twelve dead people? (ibid., p. 172)

In my view, this curious and ominous dream prepared the way to where Jung was to go a year later when he set out to discover for himself what was going on in the psychic underworld. When he cries out for his soul, he is asking for a return of this figure. She is absent from his consciousness, hidden in the beyond, and linked to the spirits of the dead. Who these dead souls were and what they needed would become clearer in the course of his journey.

The personal context for the creation of The Red Book is, then, an existential crisis that came upon Jung in his thirty-seventh year and extended, though with diminished severity after his forty-second year (1917), until his fifty-third year (1928) when it was resolved in the so-called ‘Liverpool dream’ (ibid., pp. 197–98). This culminating symbolic dream was set, he says, in a public space at the end of a small street like the Totengaesschen (‘Alley of the Dead’) in Basel. It featured a light-emitting magnolia tree rooted on an island in the centre of a pool in the centre of a city square upon which many streets converged –that is, in the centre of a mandala. The sixteen year interval between these two dreams constitutes the period of the creation of the material contained in The Red Book. This was the period when Jung discovered his own unique voice and his true vocation. ‘The years when I was pursuing my inner images were the most important in my life – in them everything essential was decided’, (ibid., 199) he states emphatically in Memories, Dreams, Reflections. It is clear that working on The Red Book had decisive significance in Jung’s transformation from a brilliant and promising young scientist and psychological thinker into the charismatic personality he became in the second half of his life. It is a record of his own dramatic individuation process at midlife.

The Red Book is not ‘a work of art’ as such, but it is artful. It is a work of conscious construction, a carefully crafted vessel for Jung’s psyche that not only contains but gives vivid expression to his inner world.

The second circle – intellectual and literary antecedants

Beyond the personal, there is the broader literary and intellectual context consisting of Jung’s numerous predecessors, such as the towering Nietzsche whose spiritual presence is so ubiquitous in The Red Book.10 One also recognizes Dante’s Divine Comedy, Virgil’s Aeneid, and Homer’s Odyssey in the motif of descent and entry into the ‘cave’,11 which leads to the underworld and there brings the protagonist into contact with symbols of death and rebirth.12 The harsh self-criticism for personality shortcomings as heard in Scrutinies reminds one of St. Augustine’s Confessions. Goethe’s Faust, from which presumably the figure of Philemon is derived, must always be kept in mind since Jung so often used this work as a touchstone. References and quotations from the Bible, both Hebrew and Christian, fill the pages of The Red Book, and numerous allusions to other texts of the world’s religions, ortho- and heterodox, also abound. The universe of reference points in the Red Book is extraordinarily rich and eclectic. All of them are important and should be held in mind while reading the work because they link this modern text to a vast network of antecedents and predecessors. The Red Book is a syncretistic work, weaving together literally scores of widely disparate intellectual and spiritual predecessors.

However, The Red Book is meant to be read as a Liber Novus (the actual title inscribed on the binding) and not as a mere compendium of hoary sources. So we have to ask: In what sense is this a New Book, and what does the author intend to signify with this title?

The third circle – the religious/cultural context

I will now widen the lens to take in the religious and cultural context of the times when Jung was occupied with creating The Red Book. From his writings, lectures, letters and the reports about him, it is abundantly clear that Jung was acutely aware of the state of his cultural milieu in late 19th and early 20th century Europe. When he realized in his early adulthood, and with full consciousness, that Christianity no longer satisfied him as a spiritual resource, he was not alone. He was a member of his generation. Nietzsche’s famous declaration, ‘God is dead’, albeit placed in the mouth of ‘the Madman’,13 created a widespread echo of recognition in the minds of Europeans. It was but the culminating full stopped endpoint of a persistent philosophical and cultural development with roots in the Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century, whose critical rationality was driven further by the defining figures of the Enlightenment in the 18th Century (Kant, Schopenhauer, Goethe among others in German-speaking lands), which joined forces with positivistic science in the 19th Century and led to what is commonly called the ‘scientific worldview’ in the late 19th and early 20th Century. Nietzsche did not invent his image of the cultural and religious state of affairs in Europe; he suffered it like Jung did, and he gave its implications voice in his brilliant aphoristic writings and his melodramatic Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Jung came of age at the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th Century, an era of religious crisis and cultural anxiety, and there was a growing collective angst in the air that things were about to change radically in Western societies. Jung’s visions of oceans of blood overwhelming Europe (Jung 2009, 231), which presaged the First World War and its cultural aftermath in Europe, were symptomatic. His pastor father, he felt, had been spiritually and physically crushed by the intractable conflict between science and religion (see Stein 1985, pp. 78–84). The religious tradition that had framed and supported European culture for more than a millennium was cracking and breaking up, and Jung, along with many others in his generation, dreaded the yawning void opening beneath his feet. Was he up to the task of solving a critical problem that had destroyed his father and that modern culture found increasingly meaningless even to address?

in what myth does man live nowadays? In the Christian myth, the answer might be. ‘Do you live in it?’ I asked myself. To be honest, the answer was no. ‘For me, it is not what I live by’. ‘Then do we no longer have any myth?’ ‘No, evidently we no longer have any myth’. ‘But then what is your myth – the myth in which you do live?’ At this point the dialogue with myself became uncomfortable, and I stopped thinking. I had reached a dead end. (Jung 1963, p. 171)

This states Jung’s private dilemma but also the general religious vacuum of the times in Europe: ‘Evidently we no longer have a myth’. In perplexity and with a tone of resignation, he is restating Nietzsche’s more dramatic and definitive statement: ‘God is dead’. Could this crisis be ameliorated by an Alienist, a modern day doctor of the soul? This was the question Jung would put to himself. Would he respond to ‘the King’s cry for help’?

The cultural context, as was well known and much commented upon by a host of cultural critics of the day,14 had turned into an extremely positivistic, materialistic and secularistic medium with a corresponding decline of persuasive religious influences. Jung slowly came to regard Freudian psychology, moreover, also as a product of this cultural condition rather than a cure for it, and his departure from Freud representated both a rejection of the dominant cultural attitude of the day and a desire to take a direction in search for a radically different alternative. Jung’s decision took him on a spiritual quest in search of a source of meaning for his own life (a ‘personal myth’) and for cultural support, which was not available in the cultural world of the times but could be found by exploring the depths of a lost and long forgotten past, namely the ancient mystery religions, especially the Orphic, and Gnosticism. Later in his life, Jung would turn for such support from kindred spirits to alchemy.

When Jung calls out, ‘My soul, where are you?’ he was speaking for many people, not only for himself. ‘Soul’, a word so heavily freighted with ancient spiritual and religious overtones, had been lost. Psychologically speaking, this is a serious state of affairs, equivalent to major depression. The sense of ultimate meaning and the connection to transcendence have disappeared from consciousness, personal and collective. The land is dry and desolate.15 It was by chance that at the midpoint of Jung’s life ‘the King’s cry for help from the depths of his unconscious, dissociated state’ was heard and received with an unceremonious blast of brute force in the wake of the door-slamming exit from Freud’s house and his own nightmarish visions and dreams. These drove him to search out the realm of the dead (his ‘ritual katabasis eis antron’ – ‘descent to the cave’), where Soul would be found, with wisdom and salvation too.

Liber Novus

Jung named his calligraphic pages, enhanced with paintings and bound in red leather, Liber Novus. With this astonishing title, the work would claim priority over its Biblical predecessor. It was thus set up to displace (usurp?) the authority of the two Biblical Testaments, Old and New, replacing them with a new Liber for a new era of human consciousness about to arrive. The work, Liber Novus, would be proffered to its readers (an offer Jung declined to make in his lifetime) as a text for the start of a new Platonic Aeon, the Aquarian Age.16 In this respect, it stands beside, and indeed surpasses, Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, as a Book for the future of the human spirit. Liber Novus is clearly a visionary work that was meant to guide and teach others,17 despite the fact that Jung chose not to publish it in his lifetime and left no stipulation about its future publication.

The relation of Liber Novus to the New Testament is key. Both claim to be ‘New’ and to surpass the ‘Old’, but can there be two ‘new’ ones? In several passages of The Red Book, Christ’s position as a religious dominant – a position he has occupied for two millennia – is dismissed for modern times. He is informed that he has suffered enough and is now entitled to a decent retirement. The day has come in the evolution of human consciousness, The Red Book teaches, for individuals to take responsibility for their own sins and not keep heaping them upon the Divine Scapegoat and asking him to bear all the sins for the whole world. It is incumbent upon modern persons to take over this job, to find redemption for themselves, individually and in their own way, through the inner process of reconciliation and atonement that Jung would call individuation, a psycho-spiritual path to individual wholeness and personal divinization. This message would reverberate powerfully through Jung’s later writings, coming to its strongest expression in his late religious opus, Answer to Job, where he calls for the ‘Christification of many’. Liber Novus is the dramatic account of Jung’s personal achievement in this regard.19 It can also be a guidebook for those who would do likewise. Liber Novus announces the end of religion as the West has known it and the beginning of a new age of individual spirituality.This is the broad cultural and religious message of The Red Book.

The New Age – An Age of Psychology

In the first centuries of the Common Era, as the Christian consensus was evolving but had not yet received its final dogmatic expression by the Church Councils, syncretism in religious belief and practice was the rule of the day. Near Eastern, Egyptian, Greek (Hellenistic), Roman and a variety of mystery religions co-existed and melded into a religious stream that eventually became sorted and clarified in the Creeds of Christianity. Standing at the beginning of a new Platonic month (a ‘New Age’, the ‘Age of Aquarius’) in the cultural evolution of the West, as Jung clearly saw himself to be in the days of his creation of Liber Novus, syncretism again was a characteristic feature of the religious and spiritual ferment in the culture of the times. In The Red Book this type of syncretistic combination of religious influences is blatantly evident. Nothing is pure this or that. Within this syncretistic confluence, we as readers witness a process of initiation into several ‘mysteries’ and also the birth of a new, or renewed, God image. The ‘King’s cry for help’ is answered. The divine figure, Phanes, who appears eventually in the narrative, is a symbolic manifestation of the psychic core of primordial energy and light. Also Izdubar, Elijah and Philemon are all fiery harbingers of a new consciousness and of a renewed source of spiritual energy. Any one of them might qualify as the central idol of a new religious dispensation, a new cult for the Age, but instead all are subsumed in Jung’s overall opus under the rubric of ‘psyche’ – they are images of psyche, i.e., archetypal forces to be contended with and capable of unleashing nuclear energies within the psychic matrix and carrying it onward toward further development or destroying it and the planet besides. The mind of the psychologist rules in the New Age and displaces the mind of the theologian with its metaphysical pretensions.

The central figure of the Liber Novus is not a singular new God image, but the human ego struggling to understand, becoming transformed, suffering and prevailing. What Jahweh is for the Hebrew Bible and Jesus for the New Testament, the humble, bewildered, courageous ego is for Liber Novus –the central fulcrum around whom all others revolve. This is not to say that the ego is in control of the narrative, but he is a continuous and constant presence throughout the texts, the central protagonist, while others like Soul and Philemon make entries and exits as they will and eventually leave him in profound solitude. Individuation, not salvation in the normal religious sense of the word, is the great theme of Liber Novus. ‘The way is within us, not in Gods, nor in teachings, nor in laws. Within us is the way, the truth and the life’, declares the author (Jung 2009, p. 231). But this attitude has its obvious dangers and pitfalls, namely the inflation of the human ego in exchange for the disappearance of the Divine.

Jung’s struggle in The Red Book with Nietzsche over God

The quest to give God a new lease on life – understanding by this the attempt to forge a way for spirituality to survive within the atheistic prison house of secular, scientific modernity – is taken up in The Red Book a number of times and in several different ways. For Jung it was a question of whether there was another option than the one Nietzsche had proposed, namely in the face of the death of God to elevate the human into higher form, a ‘Superman’ (U¨ bermensch). The critical question for Jung had become: How is one to keep a sense of human proportion and limitation without a Deity in the heavens to measure oneself against? How can modern people avoid falling into the pitfall of hubris? The danger of godless modernity is psychic inflation and grandiosity. In the Age of Myth, the Gods had represented and contained the archetypal powers of the soul. Where does this psychic energy go if these containers no longer exist?

This was a pressing question for Jung as Europe proceeded further into the 20th Century.

One dramatic instance of Jung’s endeavour to find a solution to this psychological dilemma occurs in Liber Novus when the ego figure encounters the mythic Izdubar. Izdubar presents as the image of a Deity from the East journeying to the West in search of scientific knowledge (ibid., chapters 8 –11, pp. 277–88). In this scene, a representative of spirituality and mythological mindedness from the East comes up against modern science and the materialism of the West. What Izdubar finds in the West is poisonous, terribly deleterious to his health, and life-threatening. The confrontation illustrates the lethal effect of scientific rationalism on mythic and religious consciousness. Izdubar has no chance and cannot survive the encounter. Western science in its positivistic form utterly destroys religious and mythopoetic imagination. Out of compassion for the failing Deity, the human protagonist intervenes. He endeavours to save Izdubar’s life by ingeniously declaring him to be only a fantasy and putting him into an egg, then smuggling him past the guardians of correct scientific-mindedness, and finally chanting incantations over the egg and allowing it to regain vigour and magnitude in a reborn form. The symbolism and ritual action in this scene hark back to ancient religious practices, specifically to Orphism which Jung had studied and written about in his work, Transformations and Symbols of the Libido (Jung 1916/1991, p. 131). He now incorporates this learning into his own ritualistic labours for the recovery of Phanes, the light of a new consciousness.

The Orphic theme in The Red Book

According to Orphic theology, as explained by the Swiss scholar, Walter Willi, creation took place as follows:

In the beginning, time created the silver egg of the cosmos. Out of this egg burst Phanes-Dionysus. His name of Phanes unmistakably reveals the root ‘phan’ (‘phainein’, ‘to bring light’; ‘phainesthai’, ‘to shine’), and later the Orphics disputed as to whether the god should be considered in the middle voice, as ‘the Glittering One’, or in the active voice, as ‘the bringer of light’; he was in any case a god of light. For them he was the first god to appear, the firstborn, whence he early became known as Protogonos. He was bisexual and bore within him the seeds of all gods and men. He was also the creator of heaven and earth, of the sun, the stars, and the dwelling of the gods. The sixth orphic hymn, dated to be sure in the Christian era but preserving old elements, represented him in epic hexameters:

O mighty first-begotten, hear my prayer,

Twofold, egg-born, and wandering through the air; Bull-roarer, glorying in thy golden wings,

From whom the race of Gods and mortals springs. Ericapaeus, celebrated power,

Ineffable, occult, all-shining flower.

’Tis thine from darksome mists to purge the sight,

All-spreading splendor, pure and holy light; Hence, Phanes, called the glory of the sky,

On waving pinions through the world you fly.

(Willi 1944/1955, p. 71)

Jung’s Incantations on behalf of Izdubar bear a striking resemblance to the ancient Orphic images. Izdubar is here a version of Phanes, the solar Deity of Orphism. The First Incantation prepares for the new birth of the solar Deity:

Christmas has come. The God is in the egg.

I have prepared a rug for my God, an expensive red rug from the land of morning.

He shall be surrounded by the shimmer of magnificence of his Eastern land.

I am the mother, the simple maiden, who gave birth and did not know how.

I am the careful father, who protected the maiden.

I am the shepherd, who received the message as he guarded his herd at night on the dark fields. Jung 2009, p. 284)

In this chanted poem, we hear echoes of St. Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth in the time of winter solstice when the strength of the sun is at its nadir in the northern hemisphere. The Fourth Incantation broods further on the still pregnant Egg:


light of the middle way, enclosed in the egg,


full of ardor, oppressed.

Fully expectant,

dreamlike, awaiting lost memories.

As heavy as stone, hardened. Molten, transparent,

streaming bright, coiled on itself. ibid.)

The poet is awaiting the birth of light, the rebirth of Izdubar/Phanes, the Sun, the Gleaming One, from the Egg. Then Izdubar/Phanes speaks from the dark and sheltered space within the psychic Egg:

Where am I? How narrow it is here, how dark, how cool – am I in the grave? Where was I? It seemed to me as if I had been outside in the universe – over and under me was an endlessly dark star-glittering sky –

And I was in a passion of unspeakable yearning. Streams of fire broke from my radiating body –

I surged through blazing flames –

I swam in a sea that wrapped me in living fires –Full of light, full of longing, full of eternity –

I was ancient and perpetually renewing myself –Falling from the heights to the depths,

And whirled glowing from the depths to the heights –

Hovering around myself amidst glowing clouds –

As raining embers beating down like the foam of the surf, engulfing Myself in stifling heat –

Embracing and rejecting myself in a boundless game –Where was I? I was completely sun.

And the protagonist, with astonishment, exclaims: (ibid., p. 286)

An inexpressible light breaks from his body, a light that my eyes cannot grasp. I must cover my face and cast my gaze to the ground.

I: ‘You are the sun, the eternal light – most powerful one, forgive me for carrying you.’ (ibid.)

Thus reads the numinous re-creation and rebirth story of an ancient God image, a God of light, the Sun, in this portion of The Red Book named Izdubar. (Later in the text he will appear as Phanes proper.) The Orphic mysteries offered Jung a model for his efforts to re-conceive a God-image and to give birth to a new purchase on spirituality for modern people, albeit in a drastically different form and outside of religious institutions.

Another strong echo of the Orphic mysteries occurs in the chapter titled ‘The Sacrificial Murder’. In this episode, Jung descends to the Netherworld where he comes upon the horrific scene of a dismembered little girl. (Remember the eight year old girl/dove/soul figure in his dream of 1912.) He is instructed by an older female figure, designated as ‘Soul’ in the text, to cut out the girl’s liver and to eat a portion of it. Revolted, he screams his refusal, but in the end he relents and follows Soul’s direction. The following commentary then ensues:

The sacrifice has been accomplished, the divine child, the image of the God’s formation, is slain, and I have eaten from the sacrificial flesh. The child, that is, the image of the God’s formation, not only bore my human craving, but also enclosed all the primordial and elemental powers that the sons of the sun possess as unalienable inheritance. The God needs all this for his genesis. But when he has been created and hastens away into unending space, we need the gold of the sun. We must regenerate ourselves. But, as the creation of a God is a creative act of highest love, the restoration of our human life signifies an act of the Below. This is a great and dark mystery   Through the

sacrificial murder, I redeemed the primordial powers and added them to my soul. Since they became part of a living pattern they are no longer dormant, but awake and active and irradiate my soul with their divine working. Through this it receives a divine attribute. Hence the eating of the sacrificial flesh aided its healing. The ancients have also indicated this to us, in that they taught us to drink the blood and eat the flesh of the savior. The ancients believed that this brought healing to the soul. (ibid., p. 291)

In this reflection on sacrificial murder, we hear both Christian (obviously) and Orphic elements. In Orphic religion, writes Walter Willi, Zeus could enter into his domination of the world only by devouring the primal god Phanes. By this act he assimilated and embodied the whole previous world. The world of Zeus was thus a rebirth. It was the world of Phanes enriched by the action of Zeus himself; it was the presence of all souls and all things, as the profound Neoplatonist Proclus recognized, saying: ‘After he had devoured Phanes, the essential forms of the universe became manifest in Zeus’. (Willi 1944/1955, p. 73)

What Jung has done is to bring the mysteries forward from ancient mythological and theological enactments into the psychological domain of an individual, describing essentially the same mystery within the consciousness of a modern personality. It is a re-enactment of ancient mysteries but in a modern context, which moves the action from a metaphysical to a meta-psychological realm, from ‘out there’ (or ‘up there’, or ‘back then’ or ‘the beyond’) to ‘in here’. We can read The Red Book as an account of a symbolic process of divinization of the human within the privacy of an individual psyche. ‘Through the sacrificial murder, I redeemed the primordial powers and added them to my soul. Since they became part of a living pattern they are no longer dormant, but awake and active and irradiate my soul with their divine working’ (Jung 2009, p. 291). In his later theoretical writings, Jung would enclose Phanes in the definition of the Self, as the dimension of transcendence within the psyche. In the expanded discussions of the Self in the late work Aion, we find the final product of the project that began with placing Izdubar in an egg, declaring him a fantasy, and locating God in the psyche rather than in the realm of the metaphysical. What was lost from the world in the disappearance of the metaphysical God, as announced by Nietzsche, has been recovered for modern consciousness within the psyche. The New Age would be mentalized by the psychological mind rather than the metaphysical mind.

The Red Book is the mythopoetic account of this new emergence of mind and its spirituality in modernity. In no way did Jung advocate turning the course of history back to mythological thinking. He knew the cultural evolution of the past five centuries in the West was irreversible. The question was, and is: how to go forward?

How to read The Red Book? I suggest reading it as a personal experience of the mysteries that underlie many religions, but as engaged on a much more conscious level and with an ego that is aware at all times of its own reality; that does not become fused and identified with the figures that imagination produces; that observes them, interacts with them, and lets them go their way; but that is at the same time transformed by the experience. The ego is on location throughout the experience and never loses its grounding in the reality principle. This sets The Red Book apart from Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, yet places it strangely close to ancient mystery religions such as we find described in The Golden Ass of Apuleius where the protagonist is transformed in a series of initiations.

Why read The Red Book?

For people who are interested in the unfolding of Jung’s thought, The Red Book offers a heretofore unsurpassed view into many of the deeply embedded presuppositions and attitudes in his later work. It opens a window to the original and visionary experiences underlying his psychological theory – for example, the (to many very strange) notions of an objective psyche and a non-egoic centre of the personality, the Self. The Red Book reveals the imagination at work behind the psychological theories of analytical psychology. As the figures and narrative claim psychic reality in the mind, not only metaphorical status, they represent forces beyond the control of the conscious ego and on a par with the Gods of old who were seen to control the lives and individual destinies of humankind. From The Red Book, we learn about Jung’s ontological premises and epistemology. His theories were rooted in personal experience and The Red Book shows us this, and not only tells us about it as did other texts published heretofore.

One can also read The Red Book for its literary merit, especially in the original German. There are many beautiful and moving passages in The Red Book and some that will, I am sure, become a part of our common culture in the future. Also, its many awesome and impressive paintings, as well as the meticulous calligraphic detailing of the text, bring pleasure to the eye and mind. For this reason, the work has been exhibited as ‘a work of art’ in museums.

One can read it as well for inspiration. Insights derived from the narrative can have a highly stimulating effect on a reader’s own psychological and spiritual development. Liber Novus carries our thoughts in new directions and opens our minds to subtle differentiations within a spiritual landscape. In this sense, it may function as a text akin to the Bible, which for so many people has been a source of spiritual insight and inspiration. Readers of Liber Novus might be inspired to go on a similar imaginal journey for themselves, and in this endeavour they can read it for guidance.

Liber Novus may also be taken to represent a seminal contribution to what is today called ‘Theopoetics’, a contemporary style of theology. This type of theological reflection sets forth from a personal account of a spiritual experience, or journey, and perhaps an awakening to the ‘beyond’ and an intuition of a numinous centre of authority and destiny. Theopoetics is rooted in the experience of the individual author rather than based upon received text and doctrine, which is the case in traditional theology. Upon this platform of experience, a theopoetic discourse is elaborated about a perception of ultimate reality, the ‘ground of Being’. If one is given to undertaking a project such as this, The Red Book can serve as a helpful model.


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