Interpreting Dream Language, II

My last post dealt provided a brief introduction to Jung’s understanding of dreams and dream interpretation. The following post finishes this introduction by discussing Jung’s requirements for undertaking the interpretation of symbols and archetypes that make up dream content (as well as the content found in active imagination).


In looking at dreams as texts, Jung understood that dreams do not conceal information from an individual. Rather dreams speak in a language of symbols and archetypes that an individual does not immediately comprehend.[1] To interpret a dream correctly, the interpreter must first have full knowledge of the dreamer’s “conscious situation” at the time of the dream because the dream compensates activities within the individual’s conscious life,[2] including knowledge of material that motivated, formed, and had an active impact on the dreamer’s life circumstances.[3] To further contextualize a dream, the interpreter should ask the dreamer how she or he “feels about [the] dream-images.”[4] The central question one must ask of the dream, Jung wrote, is not “What produced the dream?” but “What was the dream produced for? What effect is the dream meant to have” in the life of the dreamer?[5] To facilitate a correct interpretation of the dream text and its imagery, Jung also suggested an interpreter have interdisciplinary knowledge of literature, mythology, psychology, and religion relevant to the dreamer’s life.[6]


Jung’s suggestions for how to interpret dream symbols and archetypes:

  1. Avoid filling gaps in interpretations with personal projections. Dreams and the results of active imagination do not present complete and defined thoughts; therefore, an interpreter must abstain from inserting information into the dream content so that the dream is more fluid.
  2. Avoid the temptation to engage in free association regarding symbols and archetypes. Free association moves an interpretation away from the dream or active imagination, into the interpreter’s purview, and does not allow an understanding of the content at hand.[7]
  3. Avoid falling back on stereotyped understandings of motifs appearing in dreams. Interpretations can only be achieved through examining the context of the dream content and the dreamer.[8]
  4. Avoid interpreting a dream in light of her or his own life experiences, fears, and desires. We understand others in the way we understand ourselves (i.e., ascribing similar personal motivations for actions performed by a person other than oneself), and we also misunderstand others in the way we misunderstand ourselves.[9] To understand the dream or active imagination of another person, the interpreter must sacrifice her or his own preference and outlook, no matter how uncomfortable this may be.
  5. Avoid castigating the dreamer as distorted or the dream as indecipherable. If an interpreter does not understand the dream at first, rather than labeling the dream as impossible to comprehend or the dreamer as problematic, the interpreter needs to recognize that she or he does not have an adequate view of the dream.[10]
  6. Avoid interpreting a dream in isolation and not as part of a greater series.[11] Dreams and images of active imagination occur in a sequence, and separating a single episode or picture from its context within this sequence will lead to an interpretation that does not benefit an understanding of the series in its entirety.[12]
  7. “[P]repare for something entirely unexpected.” Because the message of the dream and the product of active imagination are unknown at the outset, the interpreter must remain open to whatever the imagery reveals about itself and its creator.[13]


Two additional aspects of dreams to which Jung attended are: the meaning of the dream for the college and the religious nature of dreams.


Dream symbols and archetypes not only have significance for the individual, the presence of symbolic and archetypal images in dreams indicates “the psychological situation of the dreamer […] beyond the mere personal layer of the unconscious.” Because cultural elements influence the emergence of archetypes in individuals, archetypes touch on problems of humanity in a broader sense.[14] Dreams coming from a deep psychic level combine mythical motifs into various ideas and images found within the myths of the dreamer’s culture. Dreams then have a meaning for society at large. For example, dreams of this kind might be prophetic in nature, offering general warnings to humanity about the trajectory of life and the culture at large.[15] Symbols and archetypes offer a culture the chance to reflect on its present and see what might be in store in its future.[16]


As a tool for the collective, the dream, its symbols, and its archetypes provide the same compensatory function for a group as for an individual. In a collective context, the meaning of an archetype and/or symbol is based on the common identity, myths, and founding principles of a particular group. Interpretation of a dream with collective meaning is subject to the same dangers and heeds the same warnings as when interpreting an individual’s dreams, since straying too far from the imagery’s content will lead to misinterpretation and distortion of the message.


In accordance with Jung’s inclusion of the religious impulse in the psyche, Jung believed that dreams harbor the spiritual and religious activity of the psyche.[17] Modern humanity, however, dismisses the ancient view that God spoke through dreams,[18] so it is unsurprising that religious compensations to life appear in such dream content. If dreams are the voice of the numinous, it follows that dream imagery would bear religious themes as well. The frequency with which religious symbols and archetypes appear in dreams is a repercussion of the overarching modern worldview that rejects the numinous in favor of the material and profane.[19] In the psyche, religious ideas are not solely produced by faith and/or tradition, they derive from the archetype [20] since “[t]he history of religion […] is a treasure house of archetypal form.”[21] Archetypes typically personify gods and demons,[22] therefore, interpreting archetypes involves the dreamer’s religious experience,[23] even in those individuals “who deemed themselves miles above any such fits of weakness.”[24]


Next time: Moving from dreams to literature.



[1] C. G. Jung, Collected Works: The Symbolic Life: Miscellaneous Writings, trans. R. F. C. Hull, Vol. 18 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), par. 172.

[2] C. G. Jung, Collected Works: The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche, trans. R. F. C. Hull, 2nd ed., Vol. 8 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), par. 477.

[3] C. G. Jung, Collected Works: Civilization in Transition, trans. R. F. C. Hull, 2nd ed., Vol. 10 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), par. 324.

[4] Jung, CW 18:248. This would entail interviewing the author. However, since Mikhail Bulgakov is dead I will rely on biographies, his letters and his diary entries to take up the context of the dream and to interpret the imagery within The Master and Margarita.

[5] Jung, CW 8:463 and 8:530.

[6] Jung, CW 8:498.

[7] Jung CW 18:426511.

[8] Jung, CW 8:543.

[9] Jung, CW 8:508.

[10] Jung, CW 18:178-595.

[11] C. G. Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul, trans. W.S. Dell and Caty F. Baynes (New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1933),14.

[12] In literature, this equates with a warning to avoid isolating episodes of the novel and seeking to understand the whole in terms of the small part.

[13] Jung, CW 8:543.

[14] Jung, CW 18:229.

[15] Jung, CW 10:322. Jung frequently cited the prophetic dream of Nebuchadnezzar (see Daniel 2) as an example of an individual’s dream with consequences for the collective.

[16] Jung, CW 10:299.

[17] Jung, CW 10:330.

[18] C. G. Jung, “Approaching the Unconscious,” in Man and His Symbols, ed. C. G. Jung (New York: Dell, 1968), 92.

[19] Jung, CW 8:483.

[20] Jung, CW 8:427.

[21] C. G. Jung, Collected Works: Psychology and Alchemy, trans. R. F. C. Hull, Vol. 12 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), par. 38.

[22] Jung, CW 18:1490.

[23] Jung, CW 12:38.

[24] Jung, CW 8:405.


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