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Reply To: THERE and BACK AGAIN,” with MythBlast author Stephen Gerringer”

Robert Juliano


I’d like to respond to your claim that the inner dragon that Joseph Campbell talks about is the unconscious (“What he is articulating, shown here, is actually the ‘Unconscious’ “). First, let me quote from the transcript of this part of the interview:

Campbell: … Psychologically, the dragon is one’s own binding of oneself to one’s ego. We’re captured in our own dragon cage. The problem of the psychiatrist is to disintegrate that dragon, break him up, so that you may expand to a larger field of relationships. The ultimate dragon is within you, it is your ego clamping you down.

Thus, the dragon is used here, not as a symbol of the unconscious, but as an image of the individual who has identified with the ego.

Now, one of the places where the unconscious has been imaged as a dragon is in the 16th century alchemical text De Lapide Philosophico Libellus or Book of Lambspring which contains a set of Emblems (images) which depict certain steps in the alchemical opus. One image is an individual in medieval armor with sword unsheathed facing a dragon. This is only the second image of the book, the preceding one expressing a set of positive conditions which have formed due to the efforts of the adept and his/her readiness to embark on the work. Now, when the ego first confronts the unconscious, there is great danger and the ego must protect itself during this confrontation. This protection is in the form of holding strongly to its position and its view and, as Dr. Jeffrey Raff writes in his commentary on the book, in having a “theory, a way of anticipating and understanding its interaction with the unconscious.” Crucially, at this stage, if the ego cannot protect itself, it is in danger of being completely overwhelmed by the unconscious.

The reason the unconscious poses such a danger to the ego at this point is that a relationship between the two has not yet been established. Furthermore, before an enduring relationship has been established, there is little stability in how the unconscious expresses itself. The ego experiences this as perceiving the images presented by the unconscious as constantly morphing into one another and having little or no stability. Here, developing a dialogical relationship between the ego and the unconscious is exceedingly difficult and must be done with great care.

But, tending this relationship can result in changes to both the ego and the unconscious. Practically speaking, one can bring a certain amount of stability in the dialogical relationship between the ego and the unconscious as well as to the manifestations of the unconscious. Eventually, the unconscious will have come closer to the conscious position and, likewise, the ego will have come closer to the unconscious.

Thus, we see here that the unconscious is only initially imagined as a dragon due to its overwhelming power and dynamism, but that it is not inherently dangerous nor does the unconscious remain imagined as a dragon, especially after a dialogical relationship has been established.