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Initiation, the Guardian, and Jung’s Red Book by Krisztián Kalász


This article examines the link between C.G. Jung’s experiences recorded in The Red Book to that of an initiatory process found in the study of Western esotericism, and the serious confrontation that the opus brings up for the initiate. It is a sincere attempt at bringing a new perspective on what Jung struggled to illuminate in his observations. One of Jung’s grandsons, Ulrich Hoerni, acknowledges in the preface of The Red Book, that this work provoked much reflection to what kind of audience it is actually directed towards. It is the contention of this writer that The Red Book is a visually rich and sharp yet clear to understand firsthand account that essentially illustrates an esoteric process alchemists have spoken of as initiation.

Keywords: Carl Jung, The Red Book, Western esotericism, initiation.

In November of 1913, Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung began selfexperimenting and recording an inner dialogue with what he called “figures” (Shamdasani & Hillman, 2011). In October of 2009, Jung’s revised version of these transcripts (and added reflections) were published in the English language under the title of The Red Book (Original title called Liber Novus in Latin, meaning, “New Book”) (Jung, 2009). One may read a much more detailed account, if interested in the historical background (Casement, 2010; Frantz, 2010; Lachman, 2012, pp. 213223; Owens & Hoeller, 2014; Shamdasani & Beebe, 2010).

Much attention (and surely more to come) has been generated attempting to explain what actually happened to this man during this period. Respectfully but also realistically, there are too many to individually name and quote here, but one can refer to a comprehensive investigation of the various biographers in Shamdasani’s Jung Stripped Bare (2005). In summary, we can identify two main opposing opinions1: one claims Jung suffered from “madness” or psychosis. As an example, Freud bluntly wrote: “Jung is cra-zy” (Falzeder, Brabant, & GiampieriDeutsch, p. 440). The second, polar opposite opinion appears to be a form of idealization of Jung.

Not surprisingly, the majority of reflections about The Red Book conform to psychological conceptu-alizations. Some Jungians, scholars and amateur researchers have written comparative comments that venture beyond the discipline of psychology to possibly shed light upon the meaning of the book and it is this broad-er investigation that I am interested in.2

Shamanic initiation rituals have been put forth in paralleling Jung’s inner experiences and Jungian psychotherapy processes (Smith, 2007). One interpretive guide of The Red Book said that the experiences are “akin to a dream, ” (Drob, 2012). Wolfgang Giegerich approaches this work by telling us firstly what it is not. He writes, “The Red Book is not science, not art, but also not Dichtung (a poetic work), nor of course philosophy” (2010, p. 364; 2013, p. 276), continually, “It is not a historical study or a book about ancient mythology and the religious speculation of the Gnostics, nor their resumption or revival” (2010, p. 375; 2013, p. 287). Jung’s Liber Novus, Walter Boechat maintains, was developed “to work on his [Jung’s] inner demons and build a new path for himself” (2014/2017, Ch. 4. Par 3).

In a conference held at the C.G. Jung Institute of San Francisco in 2010, some members in the group of distinguished scholars did propose several alternative caveats that go beyond the purely psychological ex-planation. One of the presenters, BouYong Rhi, writes, “In several passages in The Red Book, I saw Jung’s ego undergo a similarly intense suffering [as that of Siberian and Central Asian shaman candidates] – his ini-tiation process” (Kirsch and Hogenson, 2011, p. 59).

A similarly intriguing insight may also be taken from a series of conferences held under the name of Eranos3 in the 20th century, for our purposes, specifically quoted in 1936, when primary organizer and close associate of Jung, Olga Fröbe references initiation within this venue of intellectual thought:

Thanks to analytical psychology we have a method or a system of signposts, which enables us to bring our inner experiences into our conscious awareness. This is the same path of initiation that human be-ings have trod since time immemorial, led by psychotherapists who have existed in all eras. (p. 103) (Italics added for emphasis)

While Hans Thomas Hakl, authoritative historian of the Eranos gatherings, specifically notes that Fröbe’s comment may not apply to the essence of what Eranos was (2014, p. 102), it is nevertheless important to mention because of its implications. In the least, in the mind of Eranos’ primary organizer, analytical psychol-ogy (the journey of the “patient”) seems to mirror an initiatory path. Interestingly, this apparent link is written about in the literature of Western esotericism when Jung’s prominent role in this tradition is investigated:

Jung’s first postFreudian work, Transformations and Symbols of the Libido (19111912) drew on mythological images to comment on and interpret the fantasies of a young schizophrenic, called Miss Miller. The idea was sketched out there that psychological evolution is structured as a process of initia-tion, which may succeed or fail (Hanegraaff, 2006, p. 649).

If one is to take to heart the above, one is compelled to investigate the literature of other scholarly dis-ciplines with that of the experiences transcribed in Liber Novus. One must note here, that it was Jung (highlighting the main draw of the meetings of Eranos), who called for interdisciplinary approach as a prereq-uisite for having a real understanding of the world (Hakl, 2014, p. 110).

If any reader receives the impression that somehow I set out to devalue the importance of the field of psychology, then my approach here failed to convey the whole picture. In fact, originally, I envisioned the field of psychology benefitting from hearing what other researchers (from other disciplines than psychology) found in investigating this prominent figure of the 20th century. For Jungians (and other biographers), one may refer to the following quote as to how this article could also be of interest:

After the publication of Jung’s Red Book, future biographies may finally start to be based on the most important primary material. . . .this conclusion simultaneously underscores the fact that a great deal of primary research by many hands remains to be done. Such research has the potential to transform cur-rently received opinions about Jung to an extent which is hard to envisage. (Shamdasani, 2004)

Lastly, a fact to consider in addition to the previous comment is one that was recently written by Walter Boechat. I chose to include the entire quote here because of its wide implications. We may be forced to reevaluate our assumptions that this widely recognized historical figure should be regarded today as “wellknown,” as in, end of discussion, no more research required: “Research into Jung’s unpublished work shows that the twenty volumes published within his Collective Works do not include all of his writings. In fact, the volumes of his unpublished work is practically double that of the work that has been published to date” (2014/2017, Ch. 1, Par. 4). To put this into context, if one were to study any particular person, and one only had half of the information about that person, how sincerely sure would one be to possibly make a final conclusion of who this individual is?

Western Esotericism4

The study of Western esotericism did not suddenly without any historical roots spring up as a phenom-ena notably in the eighteenth century; one can read authors that belong in this esoteric stream as far back as the Hellenistic culture of late antiquity (Hanegraaff, 2013, p. 18). Nevertheless, it is commonly agreed upon that this umbrella term is a modern scholarly construct (Hanegraaff, 2013, p. 2).

It is my opinion that Jung’s recorded experiences in The Red Book are best explained holistically, es-pecially when taking into account the study of Western esotericism and its illustration of the elements and structure of an initiation process. While it is beyond the scope of this article, I do not outright dismiss that Jung struggled with madness; I rather propose a new dialogue that entertains the notion that The Red Book ’s com-municative value, structurally, may be found outside our current theoretical field of psychology5. As Wouter Hanegraaff, of History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents and related publications at the University of Amsterdam, reminds us,

In the same vein were his private journals written during these years (the “Black Book” and the “Red Book”, 19131916), to which he consigned his inner experience, notably the dialogue with his “inner master” whom he christened Philemon. These texts from the first period of Jung’s work constituted the esoteric facet of his thought, of which the clinical and hermeneutic works were therefore the exoteri-cism (2006, p. 649).

In fact, one has difficulty denying the intimate relationship that the study of Western esotericism and psycholo-gy originally held. Hanegraaff makes the following observation, “Jung’s clinical work appealed ever more ex-plicitly to notions borrowed from esoteric traditions” (2006, p. 649).

Regrettably, when examining the trends of the 20th century, one seems to find a splitting of research disciplines which resulted in academic specialization (Hanegraaff, 2013, p. 12). To quickly identify what hap-pened, let us approach Jung from his place in history; I quote the following,

[E]xperimental psychology of Charcot, Clournoy and others, and finally to Carl Gustav Jung and his school. In all these developments, psychology was inextricably entwined with study of ‘the occult’: it is only during the twentieth century, with the rise of psychoanalysis and behaviourism, that academic psychology distanced itself from its deep historical involvement with Western esotericism. (Hanegraaff, 2013, p. 38)

In academic circles, as highlighted by Henrik Bogdin, “Western Esotericism and rituals of initiation is . . . An unexplored field of research” (2012, p. 25). This gives some evidence to the currently minimal, if any, scholarly research initiatives of why The Red Book has not been compared in depth to either the tradition of Hermeticism or, 19th or 20th century esoteric groups or authors, on initiation.

Initiation Basics

Historically, many definitions of initiation have been proposed (Snoek, 1946/1987), and to fully and properly explore such vast topic one must dedicate more pages than this article would allow. For this reason, I will define the term “initiation” to focus our attention, firstly, from the Greek word teleutan, that is, “to die, in some way to put to death, or cause to die” (Chevalier & Gheerbrant, 1969/1996, p. 540). However, death in this context is not meant to be defined as “the end” but a form of transformation and/or metamorphosis where “one state ends, there begins another.” Similarly, the theme of death in ancient ritual acts of the yearly selfrenewing of the earth, with the coming and departure of solar light resulting in the night (a form of death) has been synonymous with rites of initiation, divine order, selfrenewing concepts, and resurrection (Kristensen, 1955, 1992). Imagery of death, found for instance in the literature of alchemy, was closely tied with transfor-mation and the journey characteristic of an initiate coming in “knowledge of” the mysteries by the experiences he or she was having. Some of our earliest examples of this historically are “puberty rituals” (Snoek, 1946/1987, p. 179). The term “transformation,” Jungians are familiar with as it refers to initiation (Moore, 2001, p. 78). In the study of Western esotericism, one finds a commonality between the wellknown Jungian term “individuation” and “initiation,” in the words of Hanegraaff; “This process, which Jung styled ‘individuation ’ or ‘selfbecoming ’ (Selbstwerdung), is a modern equivalent of the initiatic path, and Jung himself called it mystical’” (2006, p. 682).

Secondly, I would also assert that the direct nature of an initiatory process involves experiences of what the old masters of alchemy called “revelations.” Anyone, amateur or scholar, after a brief perusal will notice the high frequency of usage of this term in the Hermetic literature. In this historically relevant context then, when they spoke of revelations, these experiences should not be dismissed as superstitious beliefs and nonsen-sical errors (Hanegraaff, 2015), or even something that is part of “occult” practices only. More appropriately, one may regard these experiences as gnosis (salvational knowledge6), as we see that at “[t]he heart of the Her-metic message is precisely its emphasis on the centrality of a salvational and noetic experience ” (Hanegraaff, 2008, p. 133). The vision of prophecy, for example, is a common occurrence when initiation is undertaken. In regards to what was said here as a point of reference, one may pay attention to what Shamdasani tells us: “In retrospect he [Jung] described the Red Book as an attempt to formulate things in terms of revelation” (Jung, 2009, p. 219).

I am willing to venture boldly beyond this comment made by the editor of Liber Novus, and draw our attention to page 246, specifically to the Corrected Draft that Shamdasani kindly included in the English ver-sion, which tells us Jung’ s stream of thought. It reads, “. . . to participate in the underworld ceremonies, which were supposed to instruct me about the God’s intentions and works. Through these rituals I was supposed to be initiated into the mysteries of redemption.”

If one were to look for a truly defining element of initiation in this particular passage one would need to look no further. So, thirdly, initiation proper, to add to our previous two elements of initiation that could serve as potential definitions of the term, deals with redeeming the initiate from their shortcomings as in some-how this person (the initiate) is now in alignment with (or, staying true to The Red Book’s message: hinübergehen, translated “going across” to)7 the greater plan of divine order or God’s plan. Reference to the divine plan aspect of initiation is found in many sections of The Red Book, I will note one example here: “It is therefore prudent to keep alive the severely afflicted so that his force continues to support me. We miss noth-ing more than divine force” (2009, p. 281).

These three elements I reserve for drawing out general initiatory trends in Jung’s Red Book. I admit there can be other aspects of an initiation process that would serve to illustrate my thesis in this article, but I leave those for other researchers who will one day pick up on this stream.

Let us now leave this section dealing with definitions with the following quote to emphasize our goal for this article more clearly, “The definition of words tends to make us preoccupied with words when we should be concerned with the nature of things” (Baird, 1971, p. 10) (Italics added for emphasis).

The Experiential Content

Jung received his fair share of criticism for possibly bringing to public attention the content of his intimate journey; Hillman explains,

“. . . one of the criticisms of the publication [of The Red Book] is, well, these were Jung’s crazy scrib-blings, notebooks, diaries, halfformed thoughts, and that kind of stuff belongs in the drawer and doesn’t belong out in the public, because what belongs in the public is the finished work, where he’s been able to put his mind to it. These are early works that are not really important, not just early works but incomplete works. Now in fact this is an absolutely invalid criticism, because the work is highly articulated, highly mastered and fifteen years of it or more. So that criticism, that this shouldn’t come out because it’s just ordinary scribblings that anybody does in their notebooks, is not valid at all” (Shamdasani and Hillman, 2011, p. 59).

We are to understand from the actual editor Sonu Shamdasani and James Hillman that the written tran-scripts in The Red Book are to be regarded as real events; to emphasize the point, not of fictional tale(s), nor dreams, not of historical figures or from actual periods, nor from dialogue with past philosophers. To quote the exact stream of this point, we are told, “Accurate notation, dates, precision, indicating that something of signif-icance is taking place. There is no attempt to fictionalize it. It’s quite fantastic but it is real” (2011, p. 5).

Intriguingly, one must also point out, that the dynamic of this inner dialogue was not of the usual na-ture of an author, especially like that of a psychologist/psychiatrist, to analyze and be the expert authority of the dialogue itself. If we are to believe Shamdasani, then Jung appears to be the student in this dyadic relation-ship. Let us familiarize ourselves with the direct quote: “If you read the Red Book, Jung allows the figures to work on him. It’s not he who works on the figures. He lets them instruct him” (Shamdasani and Hillman, 2011, p. 165).

This observation seems to be echoed in the comment from BouYong Rhi who says this insight with different terms but seemingly similar meaning: “What Jung wrote in The Red Book was the testimony of his initiation process – a process that was not chosen by his experimentplanning ego, but by his innermost

Self” (Kirsch and Hogenson, 2014, p. 64). Christine Maillard, a presenter at the aforementioned conference at the C.G. Jung Institute of San Francisco, provides us with another layer of perspective of this topic, when she remarks that completing the journey “by having undergo a sort of spedup initiation process” (Kirsch and Ho-genson, 2014, p. 84).

In order to discuss this subject matter further, one would need evidence which looks at research from a direct, experiential context. This is one of its aims of the initiatory process called Vision Quest© taught by In-ner Garden Research Foundation. Unbeknownst to us at first, but as we compared notes, we have found this meditative method as having many similarities with that of Jung’s active imagination method8 he was employ-ing now over 100 years ago. More closely, that of it’s archetypal imagery; in the meeting of [and dialoguing with] personified inner figures; in it’s strong, suggestive implications upon the initiate (at times, depicting pre-cognitive insight); in it’s underlying alchemical motif and spirituallydriven breath; as well as, remarkably well, in the overall movement of it’s initiatory patterning. My students (generally, in our context, referring to this group as “initiates”), to their surprise, are in active engagement with similar personified inner figures with motives of their own just like Jung described. I believe the exceptional value of these initiatory experiences stems from the rigours of this method being repeatable by other initiates; measurable, in that insight can be extracted that is universally present with all initiates (who undertaking this process); and practical because the revelatory experiences that are initiated, frequently speak directly to the hangups of the initiate’s mundane life. However, one cannot generally take this with a mere intellectual perspective (Fowden, 1986/1993, p. 112

  • as without the actual exceptional experiences, it will likely sound like fictional tales of an ill mind – call it madness if you will.

 I am a mental health counsellor with 16 years fulltime experience, and if I had not experienced the same journey myself I would quite likely, unintentionally, also revert to disbelief or label it as some kind of mental illness. I call it simply “a journey” because while there appears to be a definite, progressive mental map to what eventually emerges, it is clearly unbeknownst to the initiate himself while engaged. In fact, Jung him-self called it his own mystery play, specifically, labelling it as “mysterium” (2009, p. 245), similarly, “the di-vine mysteries” (2009, p. 275).

It would seem to me that works of alchemy have referred to initiatory processes long before Jung ar-rived on the scene. Hanegraaff goes as far as to say that “[t]here is no doubt that alchemical symbolism can be used for illustrating Jungian psychology” (2014, p. 195). It would appear, that much of his journey started to find a grounding reference when he became fascinated with emblems from alchemical texts (Shamdasani, 2012). Alchemical images spoke to his inner experiences, and validated his journey with the inn er figures he encountered. I make such a comparison because I have seen others, for example, psychologist Jeffrey Raff, ex-press it similarly: “I have continued my exploration of the inner world for over thirty years. And I still find in the symbolic language of alchemy much that is useful in understanding the inner terrain” (2000, Intro., Par. 4). Jung himself remarked, “ The wealth of the soul exists in images” (2009, p. 232); he found it significant that it was alchemical language that explains the “modern unconscious process” (Kirsch and Hogenson, 2014, p. 1). Walter Boechat asserts that, “images appear at times [in The Red Book] when logical explanations or descrip-tions are no longer sufficient” (2014/2017, Ch. 1, Par. 2).

In revelatory experiences, what is seen as unexpected or astonishing is often a common occurrence, although, what was revealed specifically may only be for that person who received it. When we acknowledge that Jung’s journey was initiatory, the content of his experiences are needing no validation from any other per-son. Jung identified this insight himself, when he recorded, “I must say this, not with reference to the opinions of the ancients or this or that authority, but because I have experienced it. It has happened thus in me. And it certainly happened in a way that I neither expected nor wished for” (2009, p. 338). Similarly, we are told, “I must say: no one and nothing can justify what I must proclaim to you. Justification is superfluous to me” (2009, p. 229).

If an initiate learns from what his experiences are teaching or illuminating, then the initiate’s main re-quirement is to stay with what is taking place: “There are no paved ways into the future. We say that it is this way, and it is. We build roads by going on. Our life is the truth that we seek. Only my life is the truth, the truth above all. We create the truth by living it” (Jung, 2009, p. 299).

Shamdasani explains the following that helps us put all this into context: I understand that at a certain point he came to see a larger perspective but it didn’t pull him away from life. It actually gave him a deeper appreciation of life, because it sets it within a perspective. . . . that things fit. That they’re appropriate. It doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a rational order (Shamadasani and Hillman, 2011, p. 179).

This process that is found in the literature of Western esotericism identified as an initiation path holds unique liber-ating power for the initiate because it is something that is squarely in the experience itself. One learns that “an initiation into the Hermetic mystery . . . culminate[s] in the initiates attaining a supreme knowledge and spir-itual understanding that ‘cannot be taught’” (Hanegraaff, 2008, p. 130), one may add, in the traditional sense of the word “learning.”

Enter the Dragon

The remainder of this article will now focus upon one paramount feature of these journeys, that all of the initiates I have supervised encountered, in one form or another. It is not an easy topic to explore because by its very nature it is meant to be hidden, or what the old masters of alchemy called “occult.”

Now, let us say, that the initiate is taking a “ leap of faith,” and willingly commits to begin their initia-tion. Certain guidelines and parameters are set. Specific techniques are given for safety. He engages in the in-ner, investigative dialogue, as has Jung (Hannah, 1997, Ch. 7, Par. 6). After the inner dialogue concludes, all of the session content is typed up. The Initiate’s reflections are added, then sent in for supervision.

It has come to my attention, that seemingly identical obstacles begin to appear in the path of the initiates as they progress. Many of these external obstacles have the common theme of (what many of us would call) great change or crisis. I mean, real, measurable manifestations of life events. Initiates generally report the theme of inner uncertainty. Many examples abide, let us list a few here: from physical symptoms like hair falling out; paralysis from stress; multitude of sudden, spontaneous distractions; states of disorientation; to unmanageabil-ity of life events. I should also add, that such dire difficulties seem to coincide with, when initiation already started – it is a common remark I get. In fact, the more the majority of initiates push forward in their journeys, the more intense the inner tension is. I use the term “majority” because clearly there are a handful [low per-centage] of initiates who do just fine with initiation [selfexperimentation] and carry out simultaneously their professional, recreational and familial responsibilities, notably, as was the case with Jung (Shamdasani, 2005, p. 97).

Those who remain with the initiatory process (who have progressed beyond an early stage of attempt-ing to master investigative dialogue with the inner figures), eventually come face to face with the main figure who has been identified as the very reason for the inner tension or resistance. One can find examples of this in The Red Book; one of many, “This movement follows the serpent, which represents the resistance and the en-mity against this movement” (2009, p. 249). Initiates, consistently report as they also writeup their sessions as has Jung, without any previous autosuggestions, and/or prompting from an external guide, of the encounter with this archetype. While the visual representation of this figure appears and manifests in numerous, spontane-ous and creative ways, it is consistently presented as that of the same, identical character.

Often in the early stages of initiation, described as “black slime,” “slimy, stinky mud,” a “black corpse” (without any distinctive facial features), also referred to as, a “black, burned figure.” One would say, that as the psyche (of the initiate) attempts to make sense of this encounter, initially, such descriptions of an ambiguous black mass would fit best. Jung himself referred to this archetypal figure, in his later writings, and saw it fitting to call it “The Shadow” (Jung, 1938/1966, p. 131). One of Jung’s close collaborators, Olga Fröbe, uses the term deus absconditus, “the dark side of the self” (Hakl, 2014, p. 110). If one is to carefully read the text in Libur Novus, then this figure is also called “The Red One,” an intriguing name to be sure.

As the initiate makes closer contact with this archetypal figure, a more universal form emerges. This archetypal entity comes to the initiate in the following “clothes,” often presenting as a fiery dragon, a “scaly serpent,” a “cold, venomous serpent,” or simply a serpent; some even referred to it as an image of a Cthulhu.

In January of 1916, we are told that Jung identifies an aspect of the human psyche, as “a serpent” (2009,

  1. 207, 280), but he has referred to it also as a “black serpent” (2009, p. 245), and even, “underworld drag-ons” (p. 280). He writes the following definitive outline of this figure, “I found the serpent. . . The serpent is the earthly essence of man of which he is not conscious. Its character changes according to peoples and lands, since it is the mystery that flows to him from the nourishing earthmother” (2009, p. 247). In other words, this archetypal figure in humanity appears to be a guardian of a threshold, that of the boundary that separates the known earthly sphere from the unknown and beyond – call it an inner gate if you will. Without getting into technical terms or giving away the initiatory insight how one needs to overcome this inner mechanism, let me just say, this figure is as cunning as this word itself fully implies. Jung further elaborates by saying, “The ser-pent is an adversary and a symbol of enmity” (2009, p. 247). Specifically, in regards to the games that the ser-pent plays, I have witnessed this cunning approach in the initiatory experiences from one initiate to another, as a universal pattern of behavior, and we are warned in The Red Book similarly, “You should not serve your personal devil. That leads to superfluous pain” (2009, p. 341). Reported by our initiates, its main priority is to keep the status quo alive. In other words, to ensure that any given person remains as they are, unchanged, without needing to evolve, or reach other states of consciousness9.

Jung clearly acknowledges the dangers of the serpent; let us take note of what he writes in one section of The Red Book: “The devil as the adversary is your own other standpoint; he tempts you and sets a stone in your path where you least want it” (2009, p. 261). If what Jung writes here as well as if we take into account our initiates’ reports (that mirror Jung’s conviction) then our next question may be summoned: From where is this archetypal figure born? Jung seems to allude to our question here in the following manner by referring to the devil as “the sum of the darkness of human nature” (2009, p. 322).

We are given more details that I must quote here to show the firsthand account of Jung, our initiate, struggling with his shadow (viz., in the form of a serpent):

. . . Everything tried to deter me from following my life ’s path. . . The torment was great, . . . I unsus-pectingly absorb what I reject. What I accept enters that part of my soul which I do not know; I accept what I do to myself, but reject what is done to me. . . . But the poison of the serpent, whose head you crush, enters you through the wound in your heel; and thus the serpent becomes more dangerous than it was before. Since whatever I reject is nevertheless in my nature. . . I believed that I could destroy it. But it resides in me and has only assumed a passing outer form and stepped toward me. . . I destroyed its form and believed that I was a conqueror.” (2009, p. 279)

An intimate aspect of initiation that I chose to define as akin to a sense of dying most certainly can be witnessed among initiates who are paralyzed by the encounter with this archetypal figure. The struggles in the steps taken in order to achieve initiation, as the revelations progress, can be felt as death to one ’s known identi-ty. So this seemingly threatening element of initiation, illustrates a universal experience where the most natural reaction (of the majority) of initiates is to desperately resist and fight this process of – what would be regarded under any other circumstance as – illumination. Taking a page from clinical psychology, the ego cannot con-trol the process itself, so it is in this sense that I fundamentally mean the theme of death in initiation. The dia-logue in The Red Book seems to describe this general theme also representative of a form of sacrifice, said in this manner, “No one can or should halt sacrifice. Sacrifice is not destructive, sacrifice is the foundation of what is to come ” (2009, p. 230). Shamdasani in his discussion with John Beebe, I believe refers to this struggle as “overcoming one’s heroism” (Shamdasani & Beebe, 2010, p. 417).

I will identify an answer Jung himself received in The Red Book that alludes to what our initiates also came to realize: “[T]he dark one [serpent is] whom you should awaken” (2009, p. 304); continuing with this observation, “the serpent, which represents the resistance and the enmity” (p. 249), bringing this to insight, “To succeed in something, you first need to deal with the resistance” (p. 249). In other words, one must face their shadow. It is sensible to call this figure a guardian of a threshold because only when the initiate confronts (and solves the enigma of this resistance) the serpent figure can he or she now be ready to go beyond this men-tal threshold. If achieved, this is a significant turning point in initiation. I am reminded of the scholarly analy-sis done on some parts of the treatise of the Corpus Hermeticum, in which, the successive levels of initiation brings to the initiate’s awareness the socalled “tormentors” possessing his body which the initiate was not aware of previously (Hanegraaff, 2008, p. 147).

However, the greatest difficulty in acknowledging this aspect of ourselves is, realistically, to question that there is something much more powerful (about ourselves) that we have no access to with our regular mode of thinking. By the nature of this unexamined, mental habit, we believe ourselves presumably to be the genera-tor of our stream of thoughts. This is normal, as humanity would say. But one must pay close attention to what Hillman acknowledges in this regard: “Jung is saying . . . our thoughts derive from these figures, so the task would be uncovering the figures, which seems to be what the Red Book does.” (Shamdasani and Hillman, 2011, p. 1) (Italics added for emphasis). This interpretation by Hillman is made by others (who also personally knew Jung) (see van der Post, 1976, p. 169).

It would take, even if seen as theoretical at first, a major shift in our approach to acknowledging what this insight might fully imply about who we are. For the guardian of the threshold, for this archetypal serpent, this very fact appears to make its existence occult. On page 274 in The Red Book, Jung is told something that alludes to what I wrote here. The paragraph begins, “Did you ever think of the evil in you?” It continues on the same page, “You locked Satan in the abyss for a millennium, and when the millennium has passed, you laughed at him, since he had become a children’s fairy tale.”

For Jung, the realization came about from the nature of the ongoing experiences he was having, that seemed to specifically have “a prophetic voice” about them (2009, p. 339). We are told, as well as was my observation of the initiates I supervise, the following, “And you find that in the first layer of the text, . . . he’s ini-tially genuinely shocked by what the figures say. And then the work of understanding is attempting to come to terms with it” (Shamadasani and Hillman, 2011, p. 20).

Imagine if you will, that if you were to write down your initiatory experiences like Jung, and com-piled them into a manuscript, for the majority of “outside” readers then, not surprisingly, all of it may sound like what Giegerich called “an ‘impossible’ book, because of its internal contradiction” (2010, p. 362). When taking into consideration of the corpus of Hermeticism, “if ‘rational discourse’ represents a lower level [of dialogue] in principle, as frequently repeated by the sources, then one should not be surprised to find that strict logical consistency is not their very first priority” (Hanegraaff, 2008, p. 135). Let us remind ourselves that each inner figure Jung encounters has a voice (and life) of its own. Each has, more importantly, its own inher-ently restricting and vested interest10. Nevertheless, this makes for a dialogue in the transcripts of initiatory sessions that is rich, lively and sharp.

Noteworthy to mention here, before closing, our initiates were assisted by an external guide (who has already completed this initiatory program); those who advanced to higher levels, also made contact with their inner guide (as the tradition of old would have it). Briefly, I must say, this esoteric element in initiation cannot be undermined. Noted as a dictum, “There must be someone who initiates the disciple – he cannot initiate himself” (Bogdan, 2012, p. 12). Jung’s primary initiator seems to be a figure called “Philemon.” According to Hans Thomas Hakl, “’Philemon, ’ [is] Jung’s spiritual guide, whom he claimed had accompanied him since the age of three” (2014, p. 93). Jung did not keep his journeys to himself; reportedly, he shared his sessions with at least one person, Toni Wolff (Hannah, 1997, Ch. 7).

In concluding this article but I realize that in no way exhausting this subject matter, any initiate in our research who has undertaken this initiatory process is confronted with a covert force (within their psyche) whose main task is to keep at all cost, I must add, the initiate’s ignorant state more appealing than any other knowledge. To use an analogy, by definition one would only be able to bring this clever shapeshifting guardian to the forefront if initiation took place. Initiation, the experience of, means to be introduced to or admitted into a living secret that was previously unknown [occult]. Many examples are found in The Red Book that discuss this aspect of the journey, but I will only make note of one here: But if you watch closely, you will see what you have never seen before, namely that things live their life, and that they live off you. . . . Nothing happens in which you are not entangled in a secret manner; for everything has ordered itself around you and plays your innermost (2009, p. 273).

The greatest secret withstanding, that in the act of uncovering it, is experienced as a phenomena akin to dying: the loss of beingincontrol. Because of this real and fundamental issue, many initiates seem to habitual-ly want to turn away – to name here the fightorflight [or freeze] response of physiological reaction to stress. The inner agony is tremendous, perhaps even traumatic. “[N]o sacrifice can be too great for you,” (2009, p. said Jung, but staying with the path of redemption [salvation] seems, at times, too overwhelming. We should therefore not be surprised what emerged for Jung, as Shamdasani notes here, “There he [Jung] is, pick-ing up a transcription that was left off around 1928 or 1930 that itself is picking up fantasies from 1914. He tries to finish it and then leaves off, it’s too much. Then he can’t even summate his epilogue, even that be-comes too much” (Shamdasani and Hillman, 2011, p. 61).

 If the initiate is committed (call it, “an obligation,” [Shamdasani and Beebe, 2010, p. 431]) to his spir-itual evolutionary path, then he will gain invaluable learnings and insights and ultimately, play out the truth of the greater divine plan, as this is the mandate of what we know as initiation. It’s not to say that Jung did not actually continue the unfolding of what initiation has done to him in other creative ways, for example, with his theoretical writings and/ or building of Bollingen Tower. But one would go as far as to say, that a successive initiation process while once lively, but then, when stopped (for whatever reason), does not have the appropriate momentum [force] to be picked up again directly in a lifetime. Such insight may come to explain why the editor wrote: “Liber Novus is an unfinished manuscript” (Jung, 2009, p. 225). One could safely entertain the notion that Jung did what he was obliged to play out in his lifetime, which on its own is a rather tall order for any initiate.



  • Those close to Jung also became aware of this polarization, one in particular, Gersham Scholem, in a letter to Aniela Jaffé, writes, “The intention of this short exposition was not to idealize the image of C.G. Jung, nor to diminish it. Rather the aim was to free it from the two extremes of hate and hero workshop” (Scholem, 1995, p. 94 and p. 118). It appears to be the case, that this com-mon tendency for those close to and involved with Jung belong either in one of the two groups of extremes. This seems to have fol-lowed him throughout his life. I consciously intend on staying away from studying this man from these two extreme perspectives.

 Without intending to bring on controversy, any serious researcher will make reference to the following conversation Shamdasani and Hillman are having in regards to The Red Book, Shamdasani explains, “To me it’s a question of abandoning the notion that psychology is a quest for knowledge, to take up your [Hillman’s] question in another way. And you say if after one hun-dred years they [psychologists] haven’t agreed about anything, well, they aren’t going to and it seems to me a fair enough assump-tion to draw, . . .” (2011, p. 14).

Hillman adds, “We don’t know what the Red Book has already done to what we call psychology” (2011, p. 37). In light of this approach, I am of the opinion that The Red Book cannot be studied from purely one academic discipline. A holistic approach seems to serve better. While Jung maybe categorically (and commercially) placed in the field of psychology, that does not mean he needs to be viewed psychologically to understand his experiences in The Red Book.

Jungian analyst Giegerich proposes something that relates to this endnote dialogue: “As important as the Red Book is for historical “Jung studies,” as psychologists we are well advised to dissociate ourselves from the Red Book and instead base our work on Jung’s published psychology, and critically so at that” (2010, p. 380; 2013, p. 292) (Italics in original). I will leave the readers to make their own conclusions.

 Organized yearly, the Eranos conferences spun seven decades having attracted some of the most prominent intellectuals and scholars of the 20th century, including Jung. For any research about this man, one should have a thorough read and study of Hakl’s Eranos: An Alternative Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century.

The term “esotericism” is defined (by the two leading authorities in the field) as gnosis (Hanegraaff, 2013) and as “a form of thought” (Faivre, 1994). The term “Western” implies that this stream of discipline is of authors generally found in Western cul-ture. While those two roughly defined terms help us superficially, the study of “Western esotericism” is a much more complex term than I could ever here form a worthy explanation for. In the Reference section, one will surely find research that provides a compre-hensive explanation (Hanegraaff, 2010).

Shamdasani (2004) in Jung Stripped Bare makes the following assertion, “In the course of my own study of this period, based on Jung’s Black Books and his Red Book, I have found no evidence which would support such a diagnosis,” referring to Jung’s experiences as either “psychotic” visions or that he suffered from madness. Giegerich also affirms Shamdasani’s observa-tions: “What we have to realize is that the material is not psychotic approach from the outset. Clinical categories and a psychiatric, diagnostic approach are misplaced” (2013, p. 283). I will let their research speak to these general allegations other biographers and authors made claim for.

 Reference is made to Hanegraaff’s Dictionary of Gnosis & Western Esotericism.

The initiate is after what the German text is translated into as “supreme meaning.” On page 230, under the section, “The Way of What is To Come,” we are given a definition for this term: “The supreme meaning is not a meaning and not an absurdity, it is image and force in one, magnificent and force together. . . It is the bridge of going across and fulfilment.”

Clearly, in our case, our experiences also provided inevitable proof, suggesting that Jung’s engagement in The Red Book comes from a method or call it “a technique,” Boechat writes, “The [Red] book is first and foremost a vivid and candid demonstra-tion of the active imagination technique that Jung systematised to enable a creative approach to accessing the images of the uncon-scious” (2014/2017, Ch. 1, Par. 11). Many others (Hannah, 1976/1997; von Franz, 1979/1997; Shamdasani and Beebe, 2010, p. 424) have identified this method in relation to the creation of The Red Book, too many to mention here. Jung has provided definitions of this method (1957/2014, p. 68, 346, 494).

 In Jungian terminology, the literature has referred to this evolution as the “individuation process” (Miller, 2004). In the text of Liber Novus, in one section, Jung is advised, “You have been too unconscious for a long time. Now you must go to a higher level of consciousness” (2009, p. 211). One may see this also as our earlier definition of initiation, “the hermetic corpus assumed a sequential hierarchy of ‘levels of knowledge,’ in which the highest and most profound knowledge (gnōsis) is attained only during ecstatic or ‘altered’ states of consciousness that transcend rationality” (Hanegraaff, 2008, p. 128).

Criticism aimed at the content of The Red Book asks why this dialogue does not contain more of Jung’s childhood and private life, which reportedly then surely negates the idea that this opus is about selfexploration, so goes the argument. In under-standing the nature of the successive levels of initiation, the inner figures in The Red Book each personifying an aspect of Jung’s psyche: cognition [Elijah], emotion [Salome], and the third of the triad aspect (Hannah, 1976/1997, Ch. 7, Par. 12; Shamdasani’s “tripartite nature,” Jung, 2009, p. 207), the rejected repository, we call the Shadow [serpent, large black snake, dragon, The Red Book  One]. (Make note: Firstly, this does not mean the Shadow cannot be camouflaged in other inner figures for the purpose of manipula-tion and concealment, which will often come across as illogical in the overall content. Secondly, the two personified aspects of the psyche, thinking and feeling, may also manifest in other forms early in initiation until a more intimate encounter emerges for the initiate where he can consciously identify the function of these inner figures of his psyche. Thirdly, regrettably, I do not have enough space to fully articulate my point, but there is a fourth player in the transcript, “Philemon.” In the esoteric tradition, there is a com-mon explanation for this figure). Back to our point, if one is thinkingdominant, as is the case generally with male initiates, then the dialogue will mirror this preference with the type of content that manifests in session. If one can rely on Jung’s own assessment of his personality type as thinking (1977, p. 435; 1991, p. 69) then we should not be surprised that we see much mythology, philosophy and other intellectual concepts and rationalizations find their way into the transcripts. Therefore, when such thinkingdominance is present, as is the case with Jung, then private life, childhood content and feelings in particular, to some degree, are repressed (to use a psychological term). He admits (1977, p. 435) in an interview at Küsnacht in March 1959, “I had a definite difficulty with feel-ings.” We also must keep in mind that Jung did not enjoy “exposing his personal life to the public eye” (Jung, 1961, v.).

Take into account Susan Thackrey’s observations, spoken at the aforementioned conference, “Most of the episodes in The Red Book end in revelations of personal and archetypal shadow that were previously unknown to Jung” (Kirsch and Hogenson, 2014, p. 67). To paraphrase this particular endnote, Jung finds himself not just in his thinkingdominant dialogue but also seems to be at the mercy of the cunning trickery of his Shadow.

This goes to show, that Jung’s Red Book is better comprehended by firstly understanding what is the structure of an initia-tion process, and secondly, how it works. Any other way, one will simply be caught up in the labyrinth of Jung’ s rich intellectualism, erratic rationalism, and the illogical content manifesting from the Shadow’s involvement. During initiation, in a strict sense, anything that takes away from the initiate’s direct task at hand, is merely a distraction and will most likely stifle the initiatory momentum.


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Krisztián has dedicated the last 16 years to being a psychotherapist dealing with addictions and mental health issues. He holds a master’s degree in counseling psychology from Adler University in Chicago. He also holds a BA in philosophy and psychology from University of Guelph, Canada. Long before this period, his primary interest has been studying not just Hermetic philosophy but also the actual practice of what we now call Western esotericism. In order to fully understand this practice, he underwent a rigorous initiatory method. Today he supervises this method called VisionQuest(c) in Inner Garden Research Foundation.

Krisztián Kalász krisztian@northwestel.net