Saturday, June 30, 2007

Listening to Raven: The Shadow’s Role as Guide

[I originally wrote this essay back in 1996-97, while living in Seattle. I revised it in 2002 after moving to Tucson and it was published that year at the CG Jung Page. When it was accepted there, the site was free to anyone who wanted to read the articles. In the last few years, however, they have required people to register -- and pay a fee -- to access the articles. So I am posting it here for free. It's long, but breaking it up into separate posts didn't feel right for this piece.]


Listening to Raven:
The Shadow’s Role as Guide

In the beginning, Raven created the world and all the animals, plants, and people we know to exist. But there was only darkness. Raven had not created the sun and the moon and the stars. There, in the darkness, lived a great chief and his daughter. In a cedar box, the young woman possessed the sun, the moon, and the stars. Raven coveted these items, and he decided that he would become a hemlock needle in order to steal these treasures from the people. Having become a needle, and falling into a glass of water the young woman was about to drink, he entered the daughter and became an infant in her womb. He was born into their family and was greatly loved by both his mother and grandfather.

Raven wanted to play with the treasures in the beautiful cedar boxes, and he would not stop crying until his grandfather allowed him to play with the boxes. Once he had them in his possession, Raven threw the stars and moon up through the smoke hole, where they instantly scattered throughout the heavens. But he did not yet have the sun, and he continued crying, making himself sick, until grandfather gave him the box containing the sun.

He played with the box for a very long time, then suddenly returned to his form as Raven and flew, with the box, up through the smoke hole. Far away from the village, he found some people living in the darkness. He asked if they would like to live in light, but they did not believe that Raven, as powerful as he was, could dispel the darkness. So he opened the cedar box and released the sun into the sky, and the people were afraid, scattering throughout the world. (Adapted from Smelcer, 31-2)

* * * * *

The other morning, just after sunrise, as I sat outside my apartment, drinking coffee and enjoying the infrequent sunlight in a Seattle winter, I watched two young crows, little brothers to the ravens, play keep-away with a piece of colored paper. From tree to tree, telephone pole to telephone pole, rooftop to rooftop, one crow chased the other, trying to steal the worthless piece of paper. This game continued for several minutes before I had to get ready for work, and the game surely continued in my absence.

From time to time during the day I thought about those crows. I remembered other times I had watched crows engaged in similar activities, such as hanging upside down from telephone wires, dropping stones and flying down to catch them before they hit the ground, or playing “king of the mountain” on top of a telephone pole. I have always felt a connection to crows and ravens, the shadowy birds, a bond that lives beneath waking awareness most times, but often surfaces in dreams or in poems. In the nine years I lived in Seattle -- a city where crows may be more numerous than in any other American city -- I had many opportunities to observe the behavior of crows, to watch them mate, hunt, and, most of all, play.­

Watching crows at play, I understand why the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest portrayed the crow and raven as trickster figures in their myths. Crows love to play, and because of their superior intelligence and relatively simple lifestyle, they have many hours of free time in which to pursue their love of games. In fact, they not only play among themselves, but they have been known to play with members of other species, pecking at a sleeping dog’s ears, pulling on the tail feathers of other birds, amusing themselves at the expense of others.

David Quammen suggests, only slightly tongue in cheek, that crows are bored, that they have outgrown their evolutionary niche. Another writer, Candace Savage, has documented example after example demonstrating that crows and ravens, already considered the most intelligent birds, may also be more intelligent than many of the highly regarded mammals such as cats and monkeys. With all this brain power, their love of play, their tightly knit family groupings, their preference for life-long mate pairing, and a rather complex ability to communicate with sound, crows are intriguing creatures. It is no wonder that in regions where crows and ravens are common, the indigenous peoples often placed these birds in the role of creator, although like coyote in the Southwest, a creator with a sometimes troubling sense of humor.

* * * * *

As shown in the Tlingit myth at the beginning of this discussion (variations of this myth are common among other tribes in Alaska and northern British Columbia), crows and ravens are often associated with darkness, most obviously due to their black feathers. In many traditional myths, from both this continent and Europe, Crow is a bringer of knowledge. The Norse God Odin has two ravens, Hugin and Munin, representing thought and memory, who each day fly over the earth and return at sunset with news of what they have seen. In one of the Greek myths, Apollo turns Raven (who serves Apollo as Hugin and Munin serve Odin and was originally white), to black after Raven returns with news that Apollo’s beloved was cheating on him. There are two themes in this myth. The first, and most important, reveals the raven as a messenger, as a creature capable of revealing what is unseen; the secondary theme is a variation on the cliché of killing the messenger. No matter how raven/crow became black, though, the reality is that we now associate these birds with darkness, as messengers of knowledge brought back from the unknown, often with a sense of foreboding or evil (remember Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”).

Because the crow and raven are black, and because birds are often associated with soul or spirit in mythology, I like to think of Raven (using the capital to denote the archetypal raven) as symbolic of the human shadow. More precisely, Raven represents the role of the personal shadow as a wisdom figure. To my knowledge, there has been little or nothing written about the role the shadow can play as a wisdom figure. In the Tarot, the Hermit, a shadowy personage living apart from other humans on his mountain and carrying a lantern, is associated with wisdom gained through isolation. This card speaks to the isolation one must court in order to meet one’s shadow. Just as the Hermit offers light in the darkness, so, too, the shadow can bring light to those hidden regions of the human psyche, if only we can confront and befriend that aspect of ourselves.

Approaching the issue from another perspective, that of Alchemy, the raven can be seen as an exterior manifestation of the alchemical nigredo, the dark, base material from which the major opus begins (see Jung’s Mysterium Coniunctionis). Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy contains an illustration (230) that depicts the raven as a nigredo symbol, and throughout this volume as well as the other alchemical works of Jung, similar images equate crow or raven with dark aspects of the psyche. Just as the integration of shadow elements into consciousness is the first step toward individuation, working with the nigredo is the first step in the psycho-spiritual transformation of physical lead into spiritual gold. In my own experience, and from various mythologies, Raven is an archetypal figure associated with that process of transformation.

Whether one is working with the Western Gnostic/alchemical tradition, or with the mythologies of various peoples from around the world, Crow and Raven are consistently associated with the dark aspect of the psyche, the shadow. As Jolande Jacobi points out, all things unconscious, including shadow elements, are often projected onto objects or persons in the outer world, or into the liminal space of dreams. The entire shadow may be embodied in the figure of a crow or raven in dreams, or in a coworker whose every word or action is annoying. But sometimes, the shadow can contain a figure who is benevolent, a kind of guide who helps one face the shadow, and in doing so, take away its ability to act autonomously.

* * * * *

Several years ago, during a period in which I had fallen in love with a young woman, I began to have dreams with Raven as a central figure, always watching, often silent. These haunting dreams persisted over a span of several months and frequently seemed more real than my waking life. In nearly every variation of the dream, I was empty at an interior level, searching for meaning, for connection, for some understanding of my isolation. Raven was always nearby, a presence that produced in my dream-self a sense of anger, of being judged. Even in waking life, I had a vague awareness that something ominous and/or portentous was beginning.

As the months progressed, my relationship with the young woman deteriorated. The dreams continued, accompanied by a creative burst of new poems in which Raven assumed the same role as in the dreams. Also during this period, I launched myself into a serious exploration of the writings of Carl Jung as part of some research I was doing on the poet William Everson. I had encountered Jung’s ideas a couple of years earlier, as a psychology student and in an art history class, but the academic atmosphere in my college did not admit any influence from Jungian psychology -- B. F. Skinner and Carl Rogers reigned supreme. So now, as an English major, but still with a driving need to understand the psychological processes that can create brilliant poetry and fiction, I immersed myself in Jung’s writings, first and foremost looking into his conceptions of the structures of the psyche. Upon reading about the shadow, I immediately knew there was more to those dreams than I had previously understood, but, as yet, I couldn’t put the pieces together.

* * * * *

The most common understanding of the shadow maintains that this aspect of the unconscious Self contains all the dark and unacceptable traits we have repressed because they are unpleasant. But this is only partly true. The shadow, specifically the personal shadow, contains all aspects of Self that have been repressed or not admitted to consciousness. This includes positive traits, aspects of ourselves--such as creativity in men or assertiveness in women--that are not socially accepted, as well as the more commonly labeled negative traits.

For most of us, the shadow aspect of our consciousness remains unknown, unconscious. As mentioned above, everything that is unconscious is projected onto some object outside of the ego. By projection, I am referring to an automatic, unconscious process in which something that is unconscious in the psyche is attributed to an object (a person, image, or figure of dreams) as though it belongs to that object. From this definition, the shadow becomes a fertile darkness we need to admit to consciousness in order to prevent it from distorting the way we view the world. But if we allow that the shadow also contains positive traits or aspects of our psyches of which we are not conscious, it then becomes a possible light that can help us lead a more fulfilling life.

To be more specific, I believe that we each contain a type of Guide figure, a psycho-spiritual complex focused around an archetypal aspect of Self that, if recognized, can serve to guide us through difficult periods of the individuation process. This Guide image has been incorporated into the Tarot deck as the 14th trump of the Major Arcana, known as Temperance (Waite), Art (Crowley), or the Guide (Old Path). The 14th trump plays an important role in the Fool’s progress through the Major Arcana: the card is associated with purging, right action, testing one’s self, and the proverbial trial by fire (Alli, 191). The idea that these challenges are functions of the Guide is intriguing, and suggests that the best away to deal with a crisis or trauma is not to avoid it, but to face it and go through it.

In most people, this archetypal Guide aspect of Self remains fully unconscious or is relegated to the shadow. But, like all shadow elements, it can and will become present when the archetypal energy in the psyche reaches a critical mass. When a complex -- “an emotionally toned group of representations” in the psyche that originates in the unconscious, and centers around an archetypal element (Jacobi 7) -- acquires so many associations that it can longer remain submerged, it can displace the persona as the ego’s interface with the world. (The classic example is the young man with a “mother complex” who only chooses as partners women who will act in the role of mother for him. The complex has assumed control of his actions, and until he can name it and make its sources conscious he will not be able to choose a woman based on any other criteria.) The important thing to recognize, however, is that complexes are “intrapsychic,” and as such, have at their core an archetypal element.

If there is buildup of psychic energy, and one is unable, or unwilling, to actively admit the presence of the Guide archetype into conscious awareness, it may manifest as a projection out in the world or in our dreams. The archetype may show up in the form of a mentor who happens along when one is in the depth of a crisis, or, in my case, as a raven who appeared repeatedly in my dreams. In the latter case, not only is the Guide making its presence felt, it is doing so with the full impact of the shadow. The Guide, in my dreams, was both sourced in and a symbol of the shadow, and it demanded that I acknowledge and integrate my shadow into consciousness.

Years later I finally made the connection between my Raven dreams, with the corresponding poems, and the shadow’s capacity to act as Guide, to reveal “right action” by activating unconscious elements that seek admission to consciousness. I believe there often exists in the individual a complex of emotional and/or archetypal energies that can come to awareness through a connection with objects or events in the physical world, a notion Jung termed synchronicity. In the world of poetry, T. S. Eliot suggested the term objective correlative to designate a pattern of objects, events, or actions that can awaken in the reader an emotional response without the author having to state the connection directly. When I was first exposed to Eliot’s idea, I liked the psychological quality of it, which seems absent in most approaches to literary theory. As I have used the term in literary criticism, an objective correlative is composed of events or objects in the physical, external world that become associated with a complex in the unconscious (archetype/shadow) to produce some form of psychological awakening. Since then, I have become much more familiar with the concept of synchronicity and have adopted that term for the idea I originally acquired from Eliot. As Jung pointed out with his story of the golden scarab, recognizing an association is often enough to begin the process of healing a previously unconscious wound.

In an older version of the Tarot deck, the Marseilles Deck, Temperance is depicted as a blue-haired angel wearing a red flower on her forehead and pouring liquid from a blue vase into a red vase. A simple reading of the card would suggest that the blue vase is spirit and the red represents flesh, with the white liquid perhaps symbolic of the energy created when these two aspects are mixed. The combining of two liquids can also be read as the union of any pair of opposites, male/female, light/dark, fire/water, conscious/unconscious, and so on. The figure of the angel, however, is a bit more difficult to read, especially considering the proliferation of, and specious interest in, angels over the last fifteen or so years. Sallie Nichols, in Jung and Tarot, offers this interpretation:


Angels have long been seen as winged messengers from heaven, meaning psychologically that they represent inner experiences of a numinous nature which connect man with the archetypal world of the unconscious. These winged visions appear in our mundane lives at crucial moments, suddenly bringing new insights and revealing new dimensions of experience. (250)


The images of this deck most likely date from Renaissance France, so it is understandable that the 14th trump would be depicted as an angel. Modern versions of the Tarot have updated the Christian imagery to be more universal in its application, including the Tarot of the Old Path, which names the 14th card The Guide and depicts a figure who is largely androgynous.

The importance of this card remains, however, its correlation to an archetype in the unconscious mind. Jung, in Alchemical Studies, defines angels as “personified transmitters of unconscious contents that are seeking expression” (82). He goes on to explain the consequences of not listening to the voice of this interior guide:


But if the conscious mind is not ready to assimilate these contents, their energy flows off into the affective and instinctual sphere. This produces outbursts of affect, irritation, bad moods, and sexual excitement, as a result of which consciousness gets thoroughly disoriented. (82)


Essentially, this defines the Guide’s relegation to shadow and the resulting projection of the turmoil created when unconscious elements of the psyche seek expression but are thwarted. Most of us have suffered through periods like this in our lives, as I have in the dreams described above.

There is one more connection between the shadow, the angel/guide, and the crow/raven. In discussing an alchemical work by Senior (De chemia), Jung suggested that ravens “represent the helpful spirits or familiars who complete the work when the skill of the artifex has failed him. They are not, as in Faust, beautiful angels but dark messengers of heaven, who at this point themselves become white” (Mysterium Coniunctionis 77). The artifex is the alchemist attempting to bring together opposites (black/white, male/female, animus/anima, and so on) as part of the major opus. When the alchemist reaches the limits of conscious/ego ability, the unconscious sends forth a dark, angelic guide, the Raven, to aid in the completion of the task, to bring the needed material from the unconscious mind. The raven is a projection of the shadow, as Jung has identified the bird in other places (Psychology and Alchemy 134, Alchemical Studies 198). Having achieved the task of completing the work of the artifex, acting as the shadow to bring the necessary elements into consciousness, the raven is purified and becomes white.

So, crow/raven is identified with the shadow and also is identified with the archetypal Guide figure in the psyche. As we have seen, the shadow often contains this archetypal figure, which, if not integrated into consciousness, can project itself into our dreams or out onto the world. The task of the Guide is to draw attention to those aspects of the unconscious that are hidden and are seeking admission to consciousness, and through confrontation with the shadow, to bring the psyche one step closer to wholeness.

* * * * *

I’d like to refer to the Tarot, once again, to understand the role of the Guide in the “individuation process,” Jung’s phrase for the process of accessing and integrating unconscious elements of the psyche into consciousness. The Temperance card follows the Hanged Man (12), whose role is surrender to processes working in the psyche, and then Death (13), which signifies the falling away of old forms, the death of ego. With Temperance following these two crucial phases, the stage is set to begin the third and final process of the Tarot Path: entry into the realm of Self-Realization. The Guide makes itself felt only when the energies of the psyche have reached the point when its presence is necessary.

As the individuation process occurs in each person, there can be moments of crisis when a complex of the unconscious mind breaks into awareness. According to Jung, “complexes always contain something like a conflict—they are either the cause or the effect of a conflict” (Modern Man in Search of a Soul, 79). Unless the presence of the complex is so disruptive as to require intervention, the assumption is that its breakthrough into awareness signals the psyche’s readiness to resolve that conflict. The integration of a complex into consciousness, with the corresponding dissipation of its conflict, destabilizes the ego for a time. This destabilization of the ego is sometimes experienced as a kind of death. With the transformative energies released in the dying of the ego, the Guide serves as that aspect of the psyche that can lead one toward the final stages of growth. Once the Guide presents itself, it will always help the Hero along the journey (Nichols 253).

Once we recognize the presence of the Guide -- whether as an angel, a crow, or a mentor figure -- and become familiar with its energy, we can then access its wisdom through active imagination, Jung’s method of engaging the archetypal figures in the psyche. There are a variety of approaches to this project, mine being the creative process out of which poetry emerges. For me, the act of engaging language and allowing it to carry psychic content to the page is a form of direct access to archetypal energy. Another valuable approach is through the generation of myth, either personal or transcendent. Through writing a personal mythology, one is able to contextualize events and actions, and give them a place within a narrative structure, thereby providing meaning to what otherwise may have seemed meaningless.

Essentially, you become a character in a story, and the plot of the story is your life. Significant events can be written with all the detail and omniscient view that an author has when writing a novel. By writing about a traumatic or ecstatic event, you can establish its importance in the plot of the life story, and possibly access previously unconscious awareness of the event. The essential element, in order for mythology to be effective, is that it be believed, that it hold a central role in the understanding of one’s life.

The myth with which I began this discussion explained several things for the Tlingit, not least of which was how the sun, moon, and stars were placed in the heavens. Remembering back to the end of the myth when the people, frightened by the sun, scattered throughout the world, it also explained the existence of peoples all over the world that recognize Raven as creator.

If we look at this myth at a universal level, Raven, as both shadow and Guide figures, brings light to dispel the darkness. At the most basic level, we may see darkness as symbolic of the unconscious mind, the unknown, and light as symbolic of consciousness, the known. Of course, Raven uses trickery to conjure this magic, but the Guide, coming as it so often does from the shadow, is not always a purely benevolent figure; it also manifests, as we have seen, as the Dark Angel. In fact, the projection of the archetypal Guide is sometimes meant to confront the psyche with its own shadow, as the Raven dreams did for me. In Greek mythology, it was Hermes (the Roman Mercury) who performed this Trickster role, both as guide between this world and the underworld, and as Patron of Thieves. Hermes is nearly always depicted as winged, thus furthering in Western myth the association of bird imagery with the ability to bridge the worlds of known and unknown. If the bird appears as crow or raven, so much the better -- we then know we are engaged in the process of bringing the shadow to consciousness.

In the Bible, when the rains stop and Noah wishes to find dry land, he sends a raven to bring back a sign, but the raven does not return until later, when all the waters have receded. So Noah then sends a dove, which at first returns unable to find land; sent out again seven days later, it returns with an olive twig (Genesis, 8.6-10). Putting aside the fact that it was Raven who found dry land in the Babylonian Flood myth, and that Judaism had to differentiate itself from that tradition by having a dove find dry land, it is clear crows and ravens are not always to be trusted. Ignoring for now the cliché of black (raven) as bad and white (dove) as good, this parable reveals raven as a survivor and also as a creature not apt to do what it is told. Just as Hermes is Patron of Thieves, crows and ravens are notorious for their ability and, seemingly, joy in stealing things and hiding them, or using them in a game of keep-away, as I mentioned earlier.

In the myth that began this discussion, Raven uses trickery first to become human, then to steal the prized boxes. Raven transforms himself into a hemlock needle to enter the womb of the young woman and be born as a human child. This highlights another talent of Raven and Crow -- shapeshifting. Much like Coyote of the Southwest, Crow and Raven are capable of transforming themselves into other creatures and things when it suits their purposes. And like Coyote, the results aren’t always what were intended. In this case, however, Raven gets what he wants -- he steals the three boxes and releases the sun, moon, and stars into the heavens.

When elements in the shadow become so charged with energy that they make their presence felt in one’s life, there is also an element of trickery involved. Unless one actively seeks out the lessons, shadow material often presents itself as projections into the world. A person will act in such a way that irritates me until I feel anger or frustration. Many times, when this occurs, it would be prudent to pause for a moment and see if there is anything in the particular behavior that is relevant to my own issues. I might discover that the behavior that is crazy-making to experience is something I also do, but don’t like about myself or that is not conscious. The shadow has just used trickery to bring awareness to an element of the self that needs attention but is not yet conscious. In this way, the shadow acts as a guide to awareness.

* * * * *

In my own life, Raven appeared at a crucial transition point. The unique combination of my first spiritual love relationship and its subsequent deterioration, the burst of creative output that marked my first major phase as a maturing poet, and the luminous dreams all signaled that time in my life as a critical period of transformation. Essentially, I experienced the trauma of moving from childhood to adulthood. That period also marked the end of a false self I had adopted after the death of my father, when I was thirteen years old, and the emergence a truer sense of Self. Because I did not have the father who might typically play the role of Guide for a young man entering adulthood, my psyche had to devise its own solution to the problem. The presence of Raven in my dreams and poems revealed to me the emptiness of that false self, confronting me with my shadow in a variety of ways until it worked its way into awareness. It also helped to point me in the direction of seeking out a more authentic identity.

Since that period in my life, nearly seven years ago, Raven has often appeared in my dreams, and he still frequently haunts my poems. Over time, though, the tone of Raven’s presence has shifted from malevolence to benevolent compassion. Even in my daily life in the world, I always try to acknowledge the presence of crows and ravens around me as a way to honor the presence of the archetypal Raven who inhabits my psyche.


Works Referenced

Alli, Antero. Angel Tech: A Modern Shaman’s Guide to Reality Selection. Santa Monica, CA: New Falcon Publications, 1994.

Conger, John P. Jung & Reich: The Body as Shadow. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 1988.

Jacobi, Jolande. Complex / Archetype / Symbol in the Psychology of C.G. Jung. Trans.

Ralph Manheim. Bollingen Series LVII. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1959.

Jung, Carl Gustav. Alchemical Studies. Trans. R.F.C. Hull. Volume 13,

Collected Works. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1967.

-----. Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious. Trans. R.F.C. Hull. Volume 9, Part 1,

Collected Works. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1959.

-----. Modern Man in Search of a Soul. Trans. W.S. Dell & Cary F. Baynes. New York,

NY: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1933.

-----. Mysterium Coniuntionis. Trans. R.F.C. Hull. Volume 14, Bollingen Series XX. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1970.

-----. Psychology and Alchemy. Trans. R.F.C. Hull. Volume 12, Bollingen Series XX. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1968.

Nichols, Sallie. Jung and Tarot: An Archetypal Journey. York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1980.

Quammen, David. Natural Acts: A Sidelong View of Science and Nature. NY, NY: Avon Books, 1985.

Savage, Candace. Bird Brains: The Intelligence of Crows, Ravens, Magpies, and Jays. San Francisco, CA: Sierra Club Books, 1995.

Smelcer, John E. The Raven and the Totem: Traditional Alaska Native Myths and Tales.

Anchorage, AK: Salmon Run Books, 1992.


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