Myth, Mandala and the Collective Unconscious

David Griffard,  Spring 1975

In a comparative analysis of Greek with Phoenician, Babylonian, and other Indo-European mythologies, Littleton describes various parallels to a general theme, the kingship-of-heaven.

"In each instance a single pattern of events is present: an existing generation of gods was preceded by two (and in some cases three) earlier generations of supernatural beings, each succeeding generation being presided over by a 'king of heaven' who has usurped (or at least assumed) the power of his predecessor.  Moreover there is generally a fourth figure a monster of some sort who, acting on behalf of the deposed 'king' presents a challenge to the final heavenly ruler and must be overcome before the latter can assert full and perpetual authority."(1)

Traced through the Greek tradition, the line of succession is characterized by the overthrow of a reigning king and father of the gods by a son whom the father has previously exiled or sought to destroy.  In the first generation, Kronos, encouraged by his mother, leads siblings in revolt against his father, Ouranos.  Kronos emasculates Ouranos, drives him from heaven, and becomes king-of-heaven himself.  Kronos then is father to the next generation of gods, one of whom, Zeus, eventually succeeds him in much the same manner and for similar motives.  Zeus, having overthrown Kronos, must later battle and overcome the monster, Typhon, before the kingdom is secured.(2)

According to Velikovsky's theory of cosmic catastrophism, such mythical motifs are records of cosmic violence and change occurring in ancient times whose original meaning has been lost.  Properly interpreted they tell of explosions, collisions, orbital shifts, and other activity among the bodies of the solar system, some of which had catastrophic effects on the earth.  In Worlds in Collision, which reconstructs relatively recent events associated with Venus and Mars, the cosmic serpent episode appears as a general class of mythical imagery stimulated by the near collision of the earth with the proto-planet Venus and its fiery, serpentine tail.  Reinforced by contiguous global calamities, the event left a basic image in collective traditions around the world.(3) Along the same principle, earlier motifs had already developed from events associated chiefly with Saturn and Jupiter (Kronos and Zeus).

In psychology, according to Jung's observation and analysis, the cosmic monster motif is one of several archetypal forms which frequently appear in dreams and fantasies of modern individuals, some of whom, such as young children, seem unlikely to have acquired the ideas or images through personal experience.  Jung concluded that the unconscious was in part collective; that instinctive trends toward certain mental patterns had developed through adaptive evolution and continue to function as "aboriginal, innate, and inherited shapes of the human mind."(4)

Freud, founder of psychoanalysis, maintained that unconscious phenomena traced primarily to a complex of sex instincts whose basic quality and pattern of development is inherent in the biological nature of the individual.  Freud chose the Oedipus drama to characterize the complex he considered to be the nucleus of human personality and cultural development.(5) For its component elements of parricide, incest, and castration (among others) one finds parallels in the king-of-heaven drama as well.

In relating catastrophism to psychology and particularly to the origins for unconscious motifs proposed by Freud and Jung, Velikovsky briefly suggests that experiences of cosmic events may have become embedded in the "unconscious or subconscious strata of the mind" and from there continue to influence behavior.(6) This hypothesis implies the inheritance of acquired characteristics and awaits experimental proof that such psychological effects are possible.(7) More immediately, the idea has intriguing implications for the theories above since, from the perspective of catastrophism, the similarities between motifs chosen by Freud and by Jung to characterize unconscious content and motifs of the kingship-of-heaven myths suggest that both researchers unknowingly encountered psychic elements stemming from ancestral experience of cosmic catastrophes.

In this light, recent information concerning the universal natural development in children's art of the mandala design, a symbol identified by Jung as a major archetypal motif of the collective unconscious, offers a psychobiological alignment which may trace to catastrophism.  Kellogg has observed that children's art follows a maturational course of development from early scribbling (at about age two), through a stage of abstract forms and designs (three to five), to culturally influenced representational drawing (school age).  During the abstract design stage, from a repertoire of basic geometric forms and scribble patterns, the world's children tend consistently to produce a mandala design, an upright or diagonal cross centered in a circle.  This quaternary pattern often forms the basis for more elaborate mandala-like productions as artistic technique becomes more complex.  Kellogg explains the phenomenon as the outcome of natural perceptual-motor development patterns in children aided by an inherent sense for balance and design.(8)

This explanation may account for the maturational staging of mandala patterns in child art but it overlooks the continued significance of the design in the psychology of both children and adults.

Jungian psychology identifies the mandala motif as an unconscious expression of the collective archetype of self, "the vital center of the personality from which the whole structural development of consciousness stems."(9) The symbol appears in various forms in dreams and fantasy and is most often associated with "conditions of psychic dissociation or disorientation . . ."(10) Children produce the mandala in "dreams and symbolic drawings of unconscious material . . . to an unusual degree" during periods of psychological stress.(11)

Jung found the emergence of the mandala image in dreams and fantasies of middle-aged patients consistently coincidental with a new phase of psychic growth toward self-realization and individuation.  He attests the strength of the image in the collective unconscious by its worldwide appearance in mythological-religious sculpture and iconography.  Jung cites the symbol of Christ and the Four Evangelists, the vision of Ezekiel, and the "Egyptian sun-god Horus and his four sons," as primary examples of the collective theme.  "There are, moreover, such objects as the wheel and the cross that are known all over the world . . . Precisely what they symbolize is still a matter for controversial speculation."(12)

Velikovsky has indicated that the Egyptian god, Horus, was originally the name for the planet Jupiter which "had already caused havoc in the planetary family, the earth included," prior to the period covered in Worlds in Collision.(13) As the principal planetary god, worldwide, during a long period of ancient history, Jupiter and its four planet-sized satellites must have been a far more imposing celestial figure than it is today.  Assuming the same type of collective analogy to Jupiter as the cosmic dragon to the proto-planet Venus, the speculation offered here is that the spontaneous artistic selection of the four-fold mandala by small children, its collective nature in the unconscious psychology of children and adults, and its ubiquitous appearance in the world's religious symbols, may all trace to the common root of cataclysmic activity associated with Horus-Jupiter.  If so, activity of the symbol in the unconscious mind could represent an example of a collective image related to cataclysmic experience which has demonstrable biological roots through its maturational staging in children's art.

From this perspective, a painting and related verbal associations produced by one of Jung's patients as part of the analytical method are of particular interest.  Figure 2 shows the general schema of the painting, one of a series created by a 55 year-old woman who was experiencing a period of heightened unconscious activity in the course of her treatment.  The painting shows a planet-like red and blue sphere ringed by a wavy silver band.  The contours of the band indicate a four-fold division around the sphere, identifying the whole as a quaternary mandala.[*]  The band was compared to the ring of Saturn but "unlike this . . . her ring was the origin of future moons such as Jupiter possesses." Above and to the right floats a twisting golden serpent which she drew in "afterwards on account of certain 'reflections' " and associated with Mercury.  The patient's primary association to the whole painting was that of a "planet in the making."(14)

If instead of perceiving these unconscious images and associations in a wholly symbolic way as Jung did, one allows them to represent directly a "planet in the making"—perhaps the birth of Venus as a serpentine comet or some earlier event involving Jupiter and Mercury as the initial associations suggest—the whole episode may be imagined as a collective unconscious metaphor for a Jovian event.

A single case, of course, proves nothing in itself but the planetary references in the patient's associations to the painting clearly are consistent with the conjecture that mandalas in unconscious mental processes trace back to collective memory of cosmic events.  We have seen earlier that the quaternary mandala is a common religious symbol of ancient origins, an early Egyptian expression of which is associated via catastrophism with Jupiter.  Is it coincidence that the form emerges spontaneously and universally in the art of young children and continues as a dynamic motif among the symbols of unconscious life, or has some aspect in the natural history of Jupiter left its mark on the human mind?

Current perspectives in American psychology lead away from theories requiring instinctual properties in human behavior and flatly reject any assumption of inherited, acquired characteristics.  The primarily experimental, behavioristic approach to psychology operates from the basic assumption that learning alone is sufficient to account for the complexities of human mental life.  Yet, the preference for such a position lies more in the general uniformitarian philosophy of science than in the facts of empirical observation.

Given the success with which Velikovsky has challenged the uniformitarian position, particularly in the physical sciences, and the rate at which evidence continues to accrue in support of the general theory of catastrophism, one may anticipate new interest in the concept of inherited effects of ancestral experiences.  In this respect, the potential link of catastrophism, mandala symbolism, and hereditary maturational processes should be of heuristic value in the development of research efforts concerning the substance of Velikovsky's psychological hypothesis.


1).  C. Scott Littleton, "The 'Kingship of Heaven' Theme: Phoenician, Babylonian, Hittite, Hurrian, Iranian, Norse, Parallels to Greek Mythology," in Myth and Law Among the Indo-Europeans.  Jaan Puhvel, ed. (University of California Press, 1970), 83.

2)lbid, 84.

3).  Immanuel Velikovsky, Worlds in Collision, (Doubleday, 1950).

4).  C. G. Jung, "Approaching the Unconscious," in Man and His Symbols, C. G. Jung, ed. (Doubleday, 1964), 67.

5).  Sigmund Freud, A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, (Perinabook, 1953), 347.  Also, "Totem and Taboo," in The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud.  A. A. Brill, trans. and ed. (Modern Library, 1938), 927.

6).  Immanuel Velikovsky, Worlds in Collision, (Doubleday, 1950), 383

7).  William Mullen, "The Center Holds," Pensee, 2, (May, 1972), 33.

8).  Rhoda Kellogg, "On the Subject, How Young Children Teach Themselves to Draw," Handbook for Microfiche Showing drawings from the Rhoda Kellogg Child Art Collection. (Microcard Editions, Inc., Washington, D. C., 1967).

9).  M. L. von Franz, "The Process of Individuation," in Man and His Symbols, C. G. Jung, ed. (Doubleday, 1964), 166.

10).  C. G. Jung, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (trans.  R.F.C. Hull), Bollingen Series XX, (Princeton University Press, 1959), 387.

11).  M. L, von Franz, "The Process of Individuation," in Man and His Symbols, C. G. Jung, ed. (Doubleday, 1964), 166.

12).  C. G. Jung, "Approaching the Unconscious," in Man and His Symbols, C. G. Jung, ed. (Doubleday, 1964), 21.

13).  Immanuel Velikovsky, Worlds in Collision, (Doubleday, 1950), 173-174, n. 7 and 183.

14)C. G.  Jung, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (trans.  R.F.C. Hull), Bollingen Series XX, (Princeton University Press, 1959), 305-306.

[*].  The mandala-planet evolves directly into the familiar quaternary mandala symbol when, in subsequent paintings, the patient adopts an abstract rather than representational style.

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