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Man and His Symbols

An explanation of Jung's theories about archetypes and the unconscious

By Carl Jung
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Man and His Symbols by Carl Jung

Man and His Symbols (1964) was the final work of the influential psychologist Carl Jung, and the only one written for a general audience. It breaks down some of Jung’s most complex ideas, such as his theories about archetypes and the unconscious, and it explores the vast expanse of symbols and stories that dwell within our minds.

Key idea 1 of 9

Our unconscious minds convey ideas to us symbolically through dreams.

Imagine visiting a grand Christian church or cathedral. Among the opulent stained-glass windows and ornate carvings, you’d be likely to find depictions of animals –⁠ eagles, lions, and oxen, in particular. If you knew absolutely nothing about Christian mythology, you might wonder why these particular animals were chosen. You might even conclude that Christians worship animals. 

But, in fact, these animals are merely symbols. They have a hidden meaning that needs to be deciphered. First seen in a vision of the prophet Ezekiel, the eagle, lion, and ox represent three of the Four Evangelists – the authors of the four Gospels of the Bible. 

Often, we use symbols to evoke ideas or communicate concepts that we can’t fully explain or grasp. This is one way we employ symbols consciously. But we can also make use of them unconsciously – most notably in our dreams.


The key message here is: Our unconscious minds convey ideas to us symbolically through dreams. 

The human psyche is incredibly complex. Many people incorrectly equate it with consciousness and its contents. But if we just focus on consciousness, we’re leaving out one very important part of the picture: the unconscious mind or simply the unconscious, for short. This is the part of the mind that contains everything we’re not consciously aware of at a given moment. 

In our conscious, waking lives, our five senses take in information from our surroundings. That information is transported from reality into our minds. We can’t control the way our minds perceive or interpret a given sensation, making this an unconscious process.

On top of that, there are many events, thoughts, sensations, and desires that we have or experience, but don’t consciously notice. And then there are all the memories of things we were consciously aware of at some point, but aren’t currently thinking about. All of these dwell within the unconscious, until something provokes us to remember them – or they appear in our dreams. 

Our conscious minds use language to think about and express ideas. Our unconscious minds, on the other hand, employ pictures and symbols. And the symbols chosen by the mind are highly individual. 

For example, let’s say a man dreams of inserting a key into a lock. This image could be interpreted as a symbol for sexual intercourse. But why did the man’s unconscious choose this symbol specifically? Why didn’t it choose, say, a battering ram breaking down a door instead?

Well, the key might convey something specific about the man’s attitudes toward sex. Or it might not have anything to do with sexuality at all. Symbols are almost never straightforward – instead, they are mixed up with, and altered by, an individual’s unconscious. 

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