Carl Jung Depth Psychology Facebook Group

The Way of the Dream by Marie-Louise von Franz

Dreams of Our Culture

The Ladder to Heaven

Dr. von Franz, let’s further explore the symbolic approach to dream interpretation by looking at some biblical dreams. Perhaps you will explain as we go along how these symbols can be read today in just the same way as they were by those ancient peoples.

First, a dream that determined the course of Judaic history, the dream of Jacob’s ladder:

And Jacob dreamed that there was a ladder reaching from the earth up to heaven. And the angels of the Lord were ascending and descending on it. The Lord stood above the ladder and said, “The land on which you lie I will give to you and your descendants, and by your descendants shall all the families of the earth bless themselves. Behold, I am with you, and will keep you wherever you go. “

Jacob’s dream is one of the examples often cited by theologians to justify taking dreams seriously. There are others in the Bible which were taken as proof that God sends dreams. These theologians even speak of God-sent dreams.

Now, as the sun is setting, Jacob gets near to a place called Haran. It is dark and he lies down and puts a stone as a pillow under his head. That specific place is mentioned again at the end of the text; Jacob says that it is truly the house of God.

This is one of the oldest beliefs of mankind, that in the landscape there are certain places where one has either communication with the upper deities or with the lower deities. For instance, a dark chasm or a hole in the ground was generally looked at by primitive tribes as the entrance to the underworld where one communicates with the gods below. It’s the place where the dead disappear, or the souls of the children come up, and so on. And then other places, especially mountaintops, are places where there is a special communication with the gods above. Think of Moses and Sinai, for instance. On the mountaintops you are closer, so to speak, to the upper gods. That’s why Zeus lives on Mount Olympus. In Greece all gods and goddesses lived on high mountains, they live in other special places.

Now, Jacob didn’t know that this was a sacred place. He concluded that from his dream. He said, “This must be a sacred place I am in because the dream has come to me. ”

That touches a mystery which we haven’t yet solved; namely1 we project our soul into a landscape. There is a complete soul geography in the world. Every nation and every civilization has such a geography. They have a place where one communicates with the gods above, a place where one communicates with the gods below, a place where there are good spirits, and a place where there are evil spirits. It is as if original man’s unconscious psyche were spread all over the landscape. Certain places even cause us to shudder.

The Romans still believed that there was a spirit to a place. They called it the genius loci. When, for instance, they built a house or they made a garden, they always placed a little statue of a phallic symbol there to signify the spirit of the place: “May the spirit of the place be benevolent to me.” And even today, if you go through a landscape with an open heart, you will notice that there are places you feel good and you feel uneasy and would like to leave. You don’t know why.

The same thing exists in a house. Even domestic animals have favorite places where they lie, and others where they won’t go even if you think they are suitable. One can rationalize and say it is because there is a cold draft or something like that, but that isn’t always so. There are times when there is no rational reason. The animals just feel psychically comfortable in certain places and not in others. And we are just the same. We have our favorite comers, and we are angry if someone else sits there. We are exactly like dogs. So Jacob hit upon such a spot, a sacred place where, speaking psychologically, his soul could open in a dream to a divine influence. He put a stone under his head and went to sleep.

Now, the stone is one of mankind’s oldest symbols of the sacred. From the study of existing original tribes and archeological excavations, we know that original man probably worshiped stones. Certain stones were felt to contain sacred powers. For instance, still today the Australian aborigine believes that the spirits· of the ancestor gods live in certain stones, and if a woman passes by these stones she can conceive a child. A child comes into her womb from these stones. The same was true for the Germans. They thought that the souls of newborn children came out of the tombstones on the graves of their ancestors. These ancestors would jump from the stones into the women’s wombs and impregnate them. So the stone is a place where human life originates. It is very similar to the star; the eternal, everlasting substance of the human being was projected into the stone.

Now, with the sacred stone under his: head as a kind of fetish which connected him with the Beyond, Jacob went to sleep as the sun set. The setting of the sun could be interpreted as going to sleep, the blocking out of consciousness. He went deeply into the unconscious, and in that moment he saw a ladder going up to the sky. Jacob’s famous ladder on which angels go up and down symbolizes a continuous connection with the realm of the gods. For instance, shamans in their initiation climb into what they say is the sky, although in reality it’s only a few meters. The tree or ladder or rope which they climb is their connection to that ghost world, the world of the gods.

Also, the medicine men in Tibet and ancient China were called the masters of the cord, because only they could make that connection. Only they could climb up to the sky. In other places it was a tree that they climbed. Each was simply a means to go up, step by step, and make a connection with the divine world. Later in the Renaissance in the seventeenth century, Jacob’s ladder was interpreted symbolically as being the sounds and vowels of human speech, or the different qualities of the world, or the different numbers of the world. The basic idea of different systems of thought was projected onto the ladder. But in all these cases the ladder symbolized a continuous, constant connection with the divine powers of the unconscious. We could say the dream itself is such a ladder. It connects us with the unknown depth of our psyche. Every dream is a rung on a ladder, so to speak.

In that sacred place the Lord predicts Jacob’s future to him. At that time dreams were mostly used as a means of predicting and knowing the future, and the Lord here predicts to Jacob that he and his descendants will spread over the earth and that the Lord will be with them. This confirmation that God is with him gives the fleeing boy the courage to go on. That’s why when he wakes up, he calls this place the House of the Lord, Bethel, and puts a stone there as a mark. That’s an age-old habit of mankind. Stones have always been markers of sacred places, and they still are.

When you use the word God, what do you mean psychologically?

Psychologically, I am using the word to mean anything which over­ whelms us so completely that our genuine reaction is to prostrate ourselves to the floor, to venerate it, to fear it. It’s that which is fascinating or frightening in a sort of blissful rapture. Anything which sweeps a human being completely off his feet. That has always been called God.

Are you using the word gods in the same way?

In the same way, yes. The difference is that polytheistic religions characterize different ways of being overwhelmed. If you are over­ whelmed by terror, then it is Shiva the destroyer; if you are over­ whelmed by bliss, then it is Vishnu. But in all polytheistic religions there are always assurances that really all those many gods are in fact just one.

And in a monotheistic religion, there is a secret polytheism. There are really many gods. For instance, in Christianity we have the Trinity and saints and angels. So that monotheism and polytheism penetrate each other. Sometimes the accent is more on the one who is also many, and sometimes the accent is on the many who are also one .

Do you think the gods are alive and well in suburbia?

Nowadays the gods are just where one doesn’t expect them. They are mostly in addictions: the bottle of alcohol or some other drug. Wotan, the God of Rage; is, for instance, in a terrorist. He is simply dedicated to an overwhelming rage. The rage has him; he has not the rage. Rage is his God. So we have endless number of gods, but, because we don’t venerate them or even look at them, they are mostly nasty. That’s why when someone has his god in a brandy bottle, he must find a relationship to a spiritual god. He must drive out the negative spirit by a positive spirit.

In Jacob’s time, angels were the messengers of God. Obviously back then people believed in angels. What aspect of the unconscious do they personify? Where do we see angels today?

Well, I can tell you what happened to my friend, Miss Hannah. We were driving into town and suddenly she stepped on the brakes so hard that I flew into the window. When I looked up, there was nothing in front of us. At that moment, a child jumped out from behind a parked car and ran right in front of our car. But we had already stopped. I said to Miss Hannah, “How on earth did you do that? The child wasn’t visible when you stopped. It wasn’t yet visible at all. ” And she said, “Something in me told me, ‘Brake at once, brake at once. ‘ I don’t know what that was.” Now, ancient man would have said, “My protecting angel told me that. ” It was as if a benevolent presence had interfered. Miss Hannah had no idea why she braked. She just felt as if a voice in her car was saying, “Brake, brake!” and she did.

You often hear stories of people who miraculously survive an accident. Someone falls off a roof and gets caught up by a tree branch, or has a bad car accident and theoretically should be dead, but is practically unhurt. That experience makes them feel that there was some intentional or meaningful agency at work which helped them or saved their lives. Moreover, the presence was not just a mechanism, because it acted with intelligence. That’s why they feel as if it is a personality helping them, something personal, something protecting and personal.

We have also, naturally, evil angels, who can lead us down the road to destruction. But generally the idea of angels comes from miraculous experiences in which we feel that some intelligent agency beyond us has helped us. We feel a presence. Angels are also related to the idea of the double. Most primitive people believe that humans are split as long as they live on the earth. They believe that they have a greater personality, an invisible double living somewhere in the bush, or invisibly accompanying them from behind. This double appears at certain moments. Today we would say that’s the personification of the unconscious. If they see that double in outer reality, then the primitives say it is a symptom of death. So if a primitive is saved in such a miraculous away from an accident, he would think that his double had done it. The double and the protecting angel have a lot to do with each other.

To experience an angel is to experience that something more intelligent and greater than your ego is alive in you. It sometimes arranges your fate against your own will and may make you do things you do not plan. That is an experience I think everybody has had in their life at some point. Naturally, in higher religions that experience was transformed into the teachings that there are angels, that everybody has a good protecting angel and sometimes also an evil seductive angel. It is the battle of half-personified powers in our unconscious, for which we are not responsible. They were understood as messengers of God. Primitive man thought that God could not look after everything Himself, so the angels are His delegates who look after His creatures.

Many medieval paintings have angels as the messengers of dreams.

They show a protecting angel bringing a dream to a sleeping person.

Yes, the angel was very often understood as being the personified essence of a dream, because, you see, dreams also save our lives. Sometimes we have a warning dream, and if we attend to it we can avoid all sorts of disaster. For instance, I would never take a flight if I had a disastrous dream the night before, because I think that, if the unconscious took the trouble to give me a warning dream, I should attend to it.

We cannot explain this, but our unconscious does know more than we know. It, is as if the unconscious is expanded into  nature.

Jacob accepted the authority of the voice that spoke to him in his dream and thereby his personal destiny was determined. If the inner authority remains unconscious, can it be projected onto a cause or an ideology which will then become the goal of the person’s life?

Yes, you can either project it onto the personality of a spiritual or worldly leader, or it can become an ideology, an ism or a religious conviction, which you then accept as the highest goal and the deter­ mining factor of your life. That is just as possible\e. That’s why wherever you have fanatical beliefs, be it in religion or in ideological systems, you have this projected outer star, so to speak, which you follow.

Can you give some examples of leaders onto whom people have projected the star?

Hitler was a malevolent star whom thousands of Germans followed, and Christ was a beneficent star whom millions followed. Naturally, there are false prophets and true prophets, good leaders and bad leaders. History finally decides.

You have the same situation when somebody elects a guru, or has too great a transference on a psychotherapist. The star, the uniqueness of the personality, is projected and one is fascinated by the person out there instead of following one’s inner authority.

How does this apply to movie stars?

Teenage girls around the world try to dress in the same way as a feminine movie star and try to style their hair in the same way. She is their star, their ideal, the feminine personality they would like to become, and therefore they try to imitate it. It’s the same with male movie stars. Boys imitate them. The “stars” represent the ideal, and as the ideal changes, there are always new stars with a new style which then appeals to a new generation.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing, or just a phenomenon?

I think it neither a good thing nor a bad thing. It depends on what one does with it. For instance, if the British hadn’t projected their star on Churchill during the last world war they probably would not have stood up through the ordeal. Their complete belief in him gave them the courage to face those very dark times. So Churchill, being the star of the British nation, saved the British nation. In that case it had a beneficent effect. ~The Way of the Dream, Page 51-64