I originally posted this in July of 2020, but I insert this addendum due to the recent interest in UFO’s. I find it intriguing that the pattern Jung elucidates, both in post WW II America and in 16th century Germany, fits with our current patterns. The interest in UFO’s commenced again in America just as we were/are undergoing a significant crisis of identity and cultural confusion.
And now, the original post . . .
On April 14 a report arose stating that “a very frightful spectacle seen by numerous men and women” appeared in the skies. Globes of “blood-red, or bluish” color appeared in large numbers near the sun,
some three in a row, now and then four in a square, also some standing alone. And amongst these globes some blood-colored crosses were seen.
There were two great tubes in which three, four, and more globes were to be seen. They all began to fight one another. They all fell from the sun and sky down to the earth, as if all were on fire, fading away on the earth, producing much steam.
This appears to us like any other modern UFO sighting. But the April 14 in question came from Basel in 1561–the quotes are from reports at that time.
On August 7, 1566 a Samuel Coccius in Nuremberg recored that
At the time of sunrise many saw large black globes in the air, moving before the sun with great speed and turning against one another as though fighting. Some of them became red and fiery and afterwards went out.
Below are the images produced by these reports, first from Basel, then Nuremberg.
Carl Jung wrote, Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies as attempt to deal with the phenomena of post W.W. II UFO sightings, most of which came from North America. As to the sightings, we usually divide into two camps:
- The sightings are real, or at least a great many of them remain genuine, and therefore UFO’s are real.
- The sightings are lies, distortions, etc. and UFO’s are not real.
Jung takes an interesting third position, stating that he firmly believes that “something is seen”–and those “somethings” are not weather balloons, experimental military aircraft, or some other natural occurrence. But at the same time, he remains skeptical of anyone seeing actual physical aliens.
Along with Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung developed new theories of psychology in the early 20th century. Both men shared an aversion to the overt materialism of prevailing theories of their day–perhaps Jung especially. Jung looked for archetypal and psychic explanations for human personality problems. Eventually he applied these ideas to civilizations in general.
Jung first notes that a great number of sightings seem to fall within a similar pattern, including
- They happen to people who are almost universally skeptical–before the claimed sighting–of UFO’s in general.
- They involve circular or possibly cylindrical shapes.
- They occasionally tend to produce apocalyptic dread, but often a sense of calm and inner contentment–one that brings with a “higher wisdom” that transcends current norms or beliefs.
- Most sightings happen in North America.
Jung considers all of this in psychic terms, first considering the importance of the shape of UFO’s.* He argues that the circle or cylinder has deep roots in mythic structures of consciousness. Circles have always represented eternity and perfection–heaven as opposed to earth. Note below, the mother of the saint on the left, still living at the mosaic’s creation, depicted with a square halo, with the departed saints with the traditional circle halo.
As the Chinese proverb states, “The way of heaven is round, and the way of earth is square.”
Jung argues that the constant theme of circular shape strongly suggests the psychic desire of the observer for encounter, wholeness, and transformation. Of course, encounters with “eternity” will also frighten us and change us, possibly even shaming and exposing us. The fact that these appearances happen to initial skeptics heightens the power of this encounter, a Damascus road of sorts for the UFO observer. For Jung, the very skepticism of the observer creates the perfect mental conditions for sightings. Such people starve certain metaphysical aspects of their being, and then when these deep parts of ourselves finally break out, they do so in strange and overwhelming ways.
Of course possibly UFO’s actually exist, and by coincidence appear to people fitting a particular pattern. Maybe these UFO’s just happen to be circular. Maybe they appeared mostly over North America either by coincidence or for some unknown reason. Jung thinks otherwise, and takes particular interest in the question of, “Why North America?”**
The UFO movement for the most part started after W.W. II in America, just as we were grappling with world power status and the real possibility that this power and knowledge would destroy all of us, i.e., atomic weapons. Jung makes explicit links between the H-Bomb and UFO’s. America’s position in the world had dramatically altered post-WW II, and we had unleashed nature against itself with atomic weapons. It makes “psychic-sense” that we should be primed for UFO appearances amidst this psycho-social crisis, a kind of schism in the soul.
True, religion had a strong presence in America at that time. But aside from very traditional Catholicism or Orthodoxy–an especially small minority–American Christianity has almost nothing to do with the pre-modern. Influenced by democracy and Enlightenment values, American believers often focused on plain truths in a materialistic way. Instead of the traditional “one-storey” universe, we have added a second floor and banished spiritual elements “upstairs” and outside our experience. Jung would say we have ignored the subconscious and the deeper elements of being. We can ignore such aspects of reality for a time, but they will come roaring back–starved and ready to make up for lost time.
The strange sights in the sky in 16th century Germany fit this same pattern.
- That era was dominated by thoughts of the end of the world either literally by divine intervention or figuratively via invasion of Moslems who had entirely taken over the Byzantine empire.
- Germany found itself geographically at the center of religious and geopolitical controversy.
- The Protestant world was not yet “modern” in their outlook, but they had perhaps (according to Jung at least) began to sever themselves from the mythic (which does not mean “false”) substructure of their faith.
For Jung, these manifestations reveal more about the people or civilizations that report them than what may actually be “out there.”^ Whether or not you agree with Jung on UFO’s I think he has some interesting thoughts for us as we manage our multiple crises as a nation. As to what follows, well . . . I’m no expert.
As we tackle the COVID crisis, I am hopeful that we have learned that we cannot treat public health only in terms of material physical health. Our approach to COVID mirrors the modern approach to religion in general–reductionistic and materialistic. We quarantined for weeks, “fasting” from communing with one another. After starving ourselves of this element of our being, the moment an opportunity came to “feast” on group interaction we did so. Alas that some chose to do so violently–surely a Jungian moment for our society. We see that strong societies have to foster regular and “healthy” interactions between people. When the next pandemic comes along, hopefully we now understand that telling people to simply play video games and watch Netflix fails in the long run.
So too our politics have become more and more totemistic. I have discussed before Trump’s symbolic status for his supporters. Recently Alex Morgan at The Atlantic argued that, “It’s as if Biden exists primarily as an idea, rather than an actual candidate.” All we need, she intoned, is for Biden to “stay alive.” “Democrats need little from the front-runner beyond his corporeal presence,” as the byline states. Politics always has contained certain symbolic elements. Pre-modern societies had strong symbolism woven directly into their political cultures, and so their politics could bear the necessary weight of psychic modes of being (to borrow Jung’s language). Certainly our founders had the opposite view. They created a form of government built on a philosophy quite wary of concentrating coherence of meaning, leaving that to the individual or local community.
But as our society has grown more connected, technocratic and incorporeal, i.e., more digital, we have seen strange apparitions. We have gone into our subconscious, a world both potentially more rewarding and more dangerous and open to temptation. Even rather anodyne statements about free speech have become actual debating points. And, no matter who wins the presidential election in November, America will see a strange symbolic presence above us in our “highest” office. It appears that try as we might, we cannot be quite as secular and “modern” as some might wish.
*Those interested in further reading on this may wish to consider Father Seraphim Rose’s Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future. Father Seraphim had a serious background in mathematics and philosophy of the west and east, which may help buttress his overall conclusion for skeptical readers. Father Seraphim does not deny the possibility of UFO’s per se, but argues that it is very likely that many recent claims of sightings are demonic apparitions or temptations. His analysis differs from Jung’s, obviously, but has some interesting overlaps, including:
- “Something is seen”
- This “something” is primarily not a physical something
- For Rose, the apparitions may indeed have something to do with the observer’s psychic or spiritual state.
Neither Jung, Fr. Seraphim, or myself discount the idea that UFO’s exist. They may exist, and perhaps just maybe some recorded sightings prove this. Rather, they both argue that the accumulated evidence on hand leads to a different conclusion.
If I had to choose, I would choose Fr. Seraphim’s analysis over Jung’s.
**I am discussing the parts of the book I found possibly persuasive. I am not discussing here Jung’s interpretations of dreams where UFO’s are encountered. I can believe that Jung might be onto something at least in part with his universal archetypes, but dream interpretations seem much more subjective and not a subject for argument. Alas that about 1/2 of the book involves his interpretations of different dreams of UFO encounters reported to him.
Jung mentions the possibility of mass hallucinations but never sets out to prove this is possible. A more full treatment of UFO sightings would have to include something about this. If Fr. Seraphim is right in his conclusions, he needs no mass hallucinations to explain the phenomena. To be fair to Jung, he would probably not term these sighting “hallucinations” but perhaps psychic projections. These “projections” would be entirely real, just as our psyche is real–though not materially so.
^Jung has an interesting psychological theory on why pilots often report UFO’s–too complex for me to understand–but essentially involving a psychic effect of contrasting the combination of precision mechanical instruments directly in front of the pilot in the midst of a vast open expanse.