Jungian Psychology Series: Animals (part II)

The last article in this series examined how the animals that appear in our dreams sometimes function as symbols of the Self, Carl Jung’s term for the core of the psyche. The animals listed included snakes, owls, ducks, geese, swans, frogs, turtles, whales, dolphins, porpoises, fish, bugs and bees. To that list we could also add the following: lions, tigers, and bears (for they are the “rulers” of their animal communities like the Self is meant to be the “ruler” of the psyche); bison (because they symbolize wisdom and nourishment); eagles and hawks (because of their keen eyesight and over-arching perspective); and elephants (because of their intelligence, memory, and long life). In this article, we turn our attention to the ways in which animals can also serve as symbols of our instinctual life.

The following paragraphs examine some of the more common animals encountered in the dreams of North Americans. Primary focus is given to the archetypal (cross-cultural) meanings attached to these animals. It is important to keep this level of symbolism in mind as you work with your dreams. However, you will also want to explore your personal associations to the dream figures (animal or otherwise), for sometimes these associations will take priority over the archetypal perspective. The interpretation of any dream figure also varies with the specific events taking place in the dream, as well as the life context of the dreamer at the time of the dream. Finally, as you work with the animal figures in your dreams, try to remain true to the actual social and ecological nature of the animal being considered. For example, the dream-maker is more likely to use a wolverine to symbolize aggression than, say, a koala bear.

A man dreams: “I am leading a thin, tired horse out of the rain and into a barn.” Horses are often used as symbols of the body and one’s physical health. Like the horse, this man needs to nourish and rest his body. If you dream of a horse that is sick, diseased, or injured in some way, give some examination to your own physical health. Are you over-stressed or asking too much of your body? Are you listening and responding to its needs and innate wisdom? Horses can also symbolize your life energy and instinctual drives (the psyche as a whole).  To dream of taming and riding a horse can symbolize the process of developing greater control over your instincts/passions, such as your sexual impulses, eating or drinking behaviors, aggression, or competitiveness. The symbolism of the horse can also be applied to events from your outer life. If you are kicked by a horse or bucked off of a horse that does not normally behave in this way, life may be conveying you the message that you are not listening to your body and deeper psyche. You might ask yourself if your ego is serving the needs of the body and the Self, or is it, rather, using the body to serve itself?

A young man dreamed, “I see an older man in a large concrete drainage pipe. He is trying to step on and kick some small animals. They look like cats to me, but he claims they were rats.” Because wild rats have a history of spreading diseases to humans (e.g., the Black Death of the 1300’s) and of contaminating food supplies with their droppings, they often symbolize a destructive energy or attitude within the psyche or one’s outer life. Cats, on the other hand, are symbols of the instinctual feminine. They can symbolize our feelings, but also the maternal instincts of nurturance, self-protection, and protection of offspring. Cats are excellent hunters and admirable fighters, and often retain a certain wildness and independence despite their domestication. Having ready access to the instinctual wisdom of a cat can be a great asset. If you dream of losing your cat, or of a cat being harmed, it may be helpful to contemplate how you can reconnect with and protect your relationship to your feminine instincts. (In the above dream, a harmful shadow figure is trying to interfere with the dreamer’s relationship with his inner feminine by tricking him into thinking it is something evil.)

A young woman dreams: “I am in a maze with Lucy, my dog. We are having a very hard time finding our way out.” It is said that “dogs are mans’ best friend.” Evidently this saying applies in the land of the unconscious as well. Because their hearing and sense of smell are much more refined than that of humans, dogs often serve as guides to the unconscious and the spirit world in dreams and myths. For example, among pre-Hispanic Mexicans it was believed that a dog guides its master’s spirit to the land of the dead following his/her death. To dream of being on a journey with a dog suggests the good fortune of a helpful ally as you negotiate life’s challenges. Ultimately, the dog symbolizes your instincts–your ability to hear the voice of your intuition and “sniff out” trouble, food, etc. As a watchdog, it can also be your assistant in learning how to protect yourself (“bear your teeth” so to speak) and set appropriate boundaries in your relationships. In this dream, the young woman has the assistance of her instincts on her life journey. Unfortunately, (and this shows how personal associations to dream figures can be crucial) her actual dog was quite skittish–afraid of people, and men in particular. The same was basically true of the dreamer, and so her life was a frustrating puzzle at the time of the dream.

A wild “cousin” of the dog, the wolf shares some of the dog’s positive attributes, such as a deep instinctual knowledge of the natural world. As a pack animal, the wolf can also be a symbol of loyalty, cooperation, and teamwork. Because of its wisdom and a healthy balancing of independence with interdependence, the “spirit of the wolf” can be a helpful guide on life’s journey. Unlike dogs, however, the wolf is also represented in a very negative light in a variety of myths and fairy tales (Little Red Riding Hood being just one example). In our dreams, the wolf can sometimes symbolize a dangerously destructive force. It has been associated with war, chaos, gluttony and the blind, unchecked desire to devour, consume, and acquire. Although it is somewhat unpopular to speak negatively of wolves in this day and age, the psyche is not “politically correct,” and recognizes a duality in the symbolism of the wolf.

A woman dreams: “I see a fox running away from me. As he runs he looks back at me, and I see that he has the face of my husband.” Foxes and coyotes are known for their cleverness and cunning, their swiftness of thought and action. These can be positive attributes when used in the service of the Self. They can also be negative when used for egocentric purposes. Both animals can be symbols of the trickster as well. They can bestow the gift of being able to see humor in difficult situations. (In the above dream, the psyche was letting the dreamer know that her husband was up to no good. In fact, he’d been spending time with another “vixen.”)

A young boy dreamed: “I see a black widow spider coming towards me. I step on it, but others come marching behind it.” Spiders are sometimes used as symbols of the Self, especially when we hold a negative attitude towards the Self. We may see it as an annoyance or pest, for example. However, they can also represent a regressive force within the psyche, as they do in this dream. They can symbolize attitudes or behaviors that keep us from maturing and from developing our abilities and gifts. Fear, laziness, and addictive behaviors are examples. In this dream the spiders symbolized the boy’s fears. He needed to battle his fearfulness of life in order to grow.

Copyright © Andy Drymalski, Ed.D.
Excerpts may be used provided full and clear credit is given author with link to original article.

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

  1. Could you help me with a dream I am struggling to understand. I was on a large boat, a ferry. I was walking across it when from my left side I saw a large bear come out of a forest, grab a woman and take her back into the forest. I shouted and pushed my female friend, forwards and into a small locker, she hadn’t seen the bear. I said something about the danger of the bear and a woman banged on the door asking for help but was attacked by the bear straight away. The bears class came through the wood of the door.
    Then it was later and I dared to come out and I asked the sea captain what had happened and he said that Tobias’s (my 13yr old grandson) photos on his phone showed he had not survived.

    • Hi Emma,
      I wonder if the dream may relate to a process of initiation you are going through. Age 13 would be a time of initiation for a young boy who symbolizes a part of yourself. The bear is the ruler of the forest much as the Self is the ruler of the psyche. If the bear abducts a woman (or two women) this may represent a forced journey into the unconscious. Terrifying as this may be, it may be a necessary initiation to acquaint you with the power of the psyche and help you develop a deeper relationship with the wisdom of your inner instinctual self.

  2. Is there any chance of getting somekind of list of the archetypical meaning of the animals? Im actually writing a childrens book where Im going to have different animals in the background symbolizing different subtile things happening in the story. But its hard to find the meaning of each animal, each websites have different meanings.

    • Hi, Sebastian,

      I know of no such book. Although certain types of animals may tend to symbolize certain things, there is no set meaning that would apply in every situation, especially in dreams or literature. So much depends upon the context and the dreamer’s own associations to the animal. That being said, you might find a book on animal spirit guides or animal symbolism from a Native American perspective a fruitful starting point. They do a pretty good job of tapping into the unique and archetypal character of many animals. Good luck.


  3. Hi and thanks fro your insightful blog.
    I dreamed about a huge brown bear. I was actually inside a multiple-story building and it was near a (some kind of) river, and huge animals were living there. The rout from outside the building to the river was on a slope, and i saw this huge brown bear running very fast from down there to come to the building, but I saw that the building was protected by tall glass walls, so the big bear hit the glass walls and was taken aback to where he was. I saw the bear a few times doing this, and of course I was feeling somehow safe to know that the bear cannot come inside where I was. I somehow liked the bear, and it was not an aggressive, attacking one, but really powerful and enormously huge. I wonder what it means for me…

    • Hi,

      The bear would most likely symbolize a part of nature–part of your own inner, psychological nature–that is trying to break through the wall of your conscious awareness. As the king of the forest, he may symbolize the Self, or ruling center of the psyche. The Self has something to tell you but your wall (worldview, conscious goals or perspective) acts as a boundary preventing contact. You say he is friendly, so why not take the risk of dialogueing with him in your spontaneous imagination and ask him what he wants to tell you. Good luck.


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