Jungian Psychology Series: Animals (part I)

The last article in this series examined the Self. The Self is the spiritual core and regulating center of the psyche. It is often symbolized in dreams by dream figures and images which evoke a sense of wholeness and the creative union of opposites. Examples include rare and enduring objects (e.g., gold, diamonds, a unique rock, a majestic tree), mandala figures such as a circle, square, cross, or maze, or individuals symbolic of humanity’s highest spiritual aspirations (e.g., Christ, Buddha). And, as this article will illustrate, the Self is occasionally symbolized by certain kinds of animals.

In order to understand how animals can serve as symbols of the Self it is helpful to recall that the psyche is composed of two basic parts: the conscious and the unconscious. Consciousness is symbolized in dreams by light. For example, to dream of lighting a candle or turning on a lamp is symbolic of trying to bring conscious awareness to some aspect of your inner or outer life. The unconscious, on the other hand, is typically symbolized in dreams by darkness, water, and the soil/underground. These three environments have probably become symbols of the unconscious because they are not the natural habitat of human beings–at least in our conscious state. All three require some type of artificial device (a lamp in darkness, caves, mines,  and goggles when swimming under water) in order for us to navigate through them with ease. Animals whose natural habitats include both the light/aboveground and the dark, water, or underground are symbolic of entities that can serve as guides to the unconscious, for they reflect the fundamental nature of the Self.  The Self knows both the light and dark, the surface and hidden, the conscious and unconscious aspects of our being. Examples of animals that are frequently used as symbols of the Self include: snakes, owls, ducks, swans, geese, frogs, turtles, and occasionally bugs and bees. Whales, dolphins, porpoises and other fish (excluding sharks) are also frequent symbols of the Self (e.g., the symbol of Christ as a fish) because they are at home in the water (the unconscious).

A four-year-old boy dreams: “Some people gave us their pet turtles because they didn’t want them. Each of us (each family member) had our own turtle and they were all different colors. We took them to a forest and went for a walk. I carried my rainbow-colored turtle some of the time. His name was ‘Rainbow-colored-turtle-flower-that-smells-good.’ When we got back home I played with all the turtles. I had to make a special shelf for my turtle to protect him from our dogs. My turtle slept with me and we dreamed together. In the morning I put my turtle on a leash outside with the other turtles.”

Not yet fully conditioned into the worldview we adults call “reality,” young children are sometimes lucky enough to retain a vibrant and vital connection to the archetypal world of the Self. This young boy has such a connection. To his credit and benefit, he is also watchful in protecting this connection to the core of his being. If he is able to nurture this relationship while still shouldering the demands of outer life and society, his adulthood is likely to be particularly creative and fulfilling.

A man dreams: “I am going to a party. My mother is preparing the meal and my brother is also there (in external reality they are both deceased). I see the meat being prepared: large slices of prime rib. But hidden beneath each slice is a live coral snake. They are poisonous and I am aghast at the thought of eating this.”

To the surprise of many people, snakes are usually a very positive figure to encounter in your dreams. They are excellent symbols of the Self and the unfolding psyche. Not only do they live both above and below ground, but through the periodic shedding of their skin they personify the process of transformation that is at the heart of all true growth of the personality. In this dream a meal is prepared for the dreamer by his mother and brother. Because they are both deceased, they are probably serving as symbols of the unconscious or the “spirit world.” Additionally, his mother may symbolize the nourishing aspect of the unconscious. Symbolically, the psyche wants to nourish the dreamer. To eat the meat and to eat the snake is symbolic of integrating the Self, of incorporating into one’s conscious personality aspects of one’s deeper nature and potential. But, why did the dream utilize a poisonous snake? This is probably because the ego’s standpoint or worldview (symbolized by the dreamer) must be sacrificed (poisoned) for the larger personality to be integrated. Sometimes what is poison or abhorrent to the ego is, ironically, the necessary food of the emerging personality.

The following three dreams all utilize animals as symbols of the Self. A woman whose body was rejecting a liver transplant dreamed: “I am in a room with a bunch of snakes. I don’t like them and am beating them to death with a stick.” Another woman dreams: “I am covered with small black bugs. They’re crawling all over me, trying to get in my nose, mouth and ears. I’m brushing them away with my hands as fast as I can.” A man dreams: “I am in a large circular room with quite a few people. There are windows around the top and we are watching them. We have come to witness an unusual event, the return of the white bird. It seems that each year a white bird comes to these very windows and tries to get in. Soon the bird arrives; it is about the size of a goose. It starts to fly against the windows, and to bang against them over and over. It is a remarkably violent and desperate attempt. The will that it is demonstrating to get in, and the seemingly little regard that it has for its own safety, begins to frighten me. I am thinking that if it ever gets through the windows, it is going to hurt someone very badly. Suddenly the bird flies up and away from the windows, and then dives straight towards them. It has found a small opening and enters the room with great speed. It flies directly to me and looks me straight in the eye with its own dark eyes. I am very fearful, and I quickly think that my only hope of not getting hurt is to hurt it first, although it has done nothing to harm me. I grab its neck and I jerk it as hard as I can, breaking it. As soon as I’ve done it I realize what a great mistake, what a stupid thing I have done.”

These three dreams are perfect examples of how not to relate to the Self. Each one of the dreams symbolizes an attempt by the deep psyche to penetrate the constricting boundaries and fortifications of the self-protecting ego. The Self appears threatening and invasive because the dreamer is so defensive and egocentric. The Self is like a mirror, reflecting back to the ego the attitudes it has directed towards the Self. In battles between the Self and the ego, the Self eventually wins (if not in this plane of reality, then the next, or the next…). The Self is the calling of your deepest, truest nature. It becomes adversarial only when you have become adversarial towards it. So the next time you encounter an animal messenger of the Self in your dreams, dialogue with the figure in your imagination upon waking. Ask it what it has to tell you, what gift it brings you. Be open to its response. (This is a method for learning more from our dreams which Carl Jung called “active imagination.”) If you find yourself in a conflictual interaction with a dream figure of the Self, you can also ask yourself in what ways you are resisting the promptings of your deeper nature. Perhaps there is something that God, life, the universe, has been trying to communicate to you, but which you have been unwilling to hear.

8 thoughts on “Jungian Psychology Series: Animals (part I)

  1. Thank you for the very insightful article. I had a question – why are sharks excluded as symbols of guide to the consciousness? I had a dream that I was bitten by a shark (but don’t recall feeling any pain?

    • That’s a good question! Perhaps there are times when a shark could play this role. However, it is much less likely because sharks are, by and large, more associated with being cold blooded killers (even though most are no threat to humans). Whales, porpoises and dolphins, on the other hand, are warm blooded (they are also mammals and nurse their young), are generally seen as more intelligent than sharks, and develop more affectionate and cooperative bonds with humans. Thus, they hold many more characteristics of a helpful guide than the more predatory shark. (A killer whale and other more predatory creatures of the sea, such as a lamprey, would also be placed in the same category as a shark.) Snakes are also cold-blooded and can be dangerous to humans (although they don’t eat humans, usually). But a snake lives in two spheres–above and below ground–and they also shed their skin which makes them an apt symbol for the ever evolving and transforming nature of the psyche. Sharks don’t share these positive symbolic attributes.

      I hope these thoughts are of some help. Thank you for your question.


  2. my child was bitten by a dog and he was asked to draw a picture of our family but which animal they were and he draws the father as a loin, mother as an elephant, oldest brother as a bee, himself as a wasp, baby brother as a butterfly.

    • Very interesting. Have you asked him what each of these animals mean to him, what he thinks of when he thinks of them?

  3. This is very interesting. I found your blog while writing an essay on Jung and dream analysis. I frequently dream about snakes and am glad to see a more positive interpretation, rather than the threat that someone is conspiring to harm me.

  4. I just dreamed that one of my ex-bf (it was a secret affair) cooked me and some other people shark and we ate it. In my earlier dreams there were times that I saw shark or sharks. And they all came as threat and in fact in one of them I got lucid and tried to talk to it but he rejected. Last dream I had a shark in it (the one before the meal one) I was able to walk under the Sea and when I looked above I saw many creatures swimming peacefully and one of them was a shark. I know that from my lucid one that shark was related to certain fear but he didn’t let me know what it was. How would you put this progress? Thanks

    • Hi Selen,

      I wonder if over time you have become more conscious of the shark-like, predatory nature in certain people, such as your ex-boyfriend, and perhaps within yourself (a negative masculine attitude which attacks you, for instance). In learning to see and address this predatory energy, a greater peace and balance of your inner “ecosystem” is possible.

      Thank you for your question.


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