The Archetype of Death

The symbols of death or the fear of death can be sunset; evening; a crossed river or falling in a river; a skeleton; snarling dogs; sleep; anaesthetic; gravestones; cemetery; blackness or something black; an old man or woman, Santa Muerte, or father time with a scythe; ace of spades; a fallen mirror; stopped clock; a pulled tooth; an empty abyss; the chill wind; falling leaves; a withering plant; an empty house; a lightning struck tree; coffin; struggling breaths; the dead animal in the gutter; the rotting carcass; underground; the depths of the sea – the VOID.

What lies beyond death is conjecture for all of us except if we have had a near death experience. But the archetype of death we are considering is not completely about physical death. It is about our observation of it in others; our conceptions of it gained from our culture, and our impressions arising from seeing dead animals, rotting corpses; the feelings that generate around our experiences and thoughts of it; our attempts to deal with our own ageing and approach to death; social violence – PLUS – what the deeper strata of mind releases in symbols or emotions regarding it and in response to our observations of the external world. It is about how our sense of conscious personal existence meets the prospect of its disintegration. In meeting any image or experience of death, or any nightmarish image, if we can meet it without fear it transforms into an experience of Life and beauty. This is because the inner world is about waking you up and overcoming fears. See Near Death ExperiencesInner World

In every moment of our life we face the possibility of death. In fact we only live because we are constantly dying. Our body is all the time dying as thousands of cells die, and in doing so the new and living body can continue. If we allow ourselves to realised that it illustrates the meaning of the phoenix – it is consumed by the flames, and yet it arose anew. We have the fire of life within us that in consuming us gives birth to us continuously. It is the warmth of our body, the warmth, even passion, of our emotions and that is life – continuous through death.

Example: I knew I was dying and it was incredibly real. So real I wept deeply because I knew this was the end of everything and I would lose my children. All that I had created in life would be at an end too. But there was nothing I could do about that and I died. Then I seemed to be at a slight distance watching my dead body, and I saw my father, who had died some years before, come and carry the body over a threshold into a heavenly meadow. There a resurrection took place. My dead being was given new life. And the new life came from all that I had given to others, and all I had received from others, during my life. That was my spiritual life that survived death.

In this way my new being began, with my father near by. And my first awareness was of love in its many forms. The shy love of a child, tender love of a woman’s care, or the passionate love of jealousy, a baby’s devouring love, or the unexpressed love of one who simply sits and waits. A.C. See Death Was The Loss

Unless we can come to terms with what is behind the haunting images of death we meet in waking and in our dreams, we fail to live fully and daringly. This is because we are too troubled by death lurking in the shadows of injury and the unknown. We therefore avoid living in a way that would be risky. Images of death and the associated emotions, carried within for years, can have a negative influence on our health. Coming to terms with death means the courage to feel the emotions of fear or chill and discover them for what they are – emotions; a personal image we have built. They are certainly not death, only our feelings about it. The differences shown in the two following examples illustrate the avoiding and the meeting. The first can be called an experience of the ‘death pit’.

Example: I was disturbed by an unusually vivid dream last night – unable to sleep afterwards for almost two hours. In the dream I went out for the evening to see some friends. Golden beer spilled as one of my friends doubled up and the room sprang open with a Death’s Head shrieking behind him, as if a skin had been peeled back to reveal the bones of life crackling in a gigantic electric chair. It burned my brain. With a great effort I managed to wall up the apparition behind the bright fabric of the evening, leaving only a blurred after-image of the hole, like the torn edge of a strip of wallpaper that has been ripped and glued back into place.

It happened again. At first it was the result of a form of irritated curiosity, like picking at a scab, or scratching an itch irresistibly, in spite of the inevitable pain. This hurt far too much though. My whole frame shuddered, as if my bones were lines being ridden by a hundred express trains, or an electric current, a force field of limitless indifferent energy.

I sealed it up again, but the wound had been weakened by my curiosity, and burst open at the slightest agitation: as soon as I tried to lose myself in the happy group, my laughter triggered the catch, and I saw my friends faces twisted by laughter, with their own deaths crowing scornfully behind their backs, as if Death couldn’t wait to show He had the last laugh, pointing it out obscenely, obvious as a schoolboy’s joke. I was denied the temporary relief of friendship by the hideous mockery that was audible to me alone.

When I realised that I couldn’t control it, I was speechless and dizzy with fright and pain. I couldn’t stand properly, and vainly tried to stop falling against people and things like a drunk. Either my appearance of something I was unaware of saying had upset V., as I could see her crying, and from the snatches of conversation I caught, I realised that I had spoilt everyone’s evening. Eventually I was picked up and carried out by the bouncers, and left on the opposite side of the street. As I struggled, I became vaguely aware that I was dreaming, a fact which glimmered like a pinprick of light seen from the foot of a mine-shaft. I groped desperately towards it, even as I realised that the multifarious shapes of memory and imagination were materialising in the very street around me. I averted my gaze as a squat, malformed figure limped by, unwilling to acknowledge it as the progeny of my own brain. I clawed my way desperately in the shaft, as I felt visual imagination solidify into sound, and the threat of touch. Liquid splashed on the ground behind me, as if a bucket had been emptied from a half remembered opening in the building above.

With a desperate convulsion of mental energy, I deliberately tore my way out of the dream. I opened my eyes with relief, to see my room unchanged and still lit by the street lamp outside, opposite the school where the children would arrive in a few hours time. In spite of the heat of the June night, I was not even sweating, and felt surprisingly calm, apart from a raging suspicion about the means of my escape from my own imagination and its absurd but terrifying creations. A. J.

Second Example: ‘Suddenly I was in a huge underground cavern. It was hundreds of feet high and as wide. It had two great statues in it, both to do with death. The whole place overpowered me with a sense of decay and skeletal death, darkness, underground, earth, the end. I cried out in the dismal cave, ‘Death, where is your sting! Grave, where is your victory!’ I immediately had the sense of being a bodiless awareness. I knew this was what occurred at death. Fear and the sense of decay left me.’ Andrew.

Summarising these and many other dreams, it is not only the accumulated images of death, but also bodilessness, aloneness, loss of power and identity, which bring so much fear. There are antipodes of human experience. At the tip of one is focused, self determining self awareness. At the tip of the other is unfocused void without focussed identity. Strangely enough we experience both each day in some degree. The first while awake – the second when we sleep. Yet to face the second with consciousness feels like all the horrors of death and loss. But facing it is important, especially in the second half of life. Although the unconscious carries the dark images we have of death, it also provides what feels like certainty about an existence which transcends death to those who experience it. This is presented as an awareness of existing eternally as part of the very fabric of life. In one form or another this is what those who dare to confront the dark images of death find beyond them.

Something that stands out in A. J.’s dream of the death-head, if one is looking for it, is that he was actually the creator of it all. He says in describing the dream, ‘I averted my gaze as a squat, malformed figure limped by, unwilling to acknowledge it as the progeny of my own brain.’ The realisation of how we create our whole experience of life is, as he says, frightening and painful. It was not simply the ‘bad’ things he was creating, but also the good. The frightening thing about this realisation is partly that we do not want to admit responsibility. It is much easier to feel we are victims. We are victims, but of our own creativity. See Dreams Are Like a Computer Game.

One of the most powerful dreams in which the whole spectrum of death and eternity is met is in Priestley’s book Godshill. In it he gives a personal account of his transforming meeting with death. See: religion and dreams.

Here is another example with quite a different image of death. 

Example: I was alone in a house and asleep in bed. Something materialised or landed on the foot of the bed. It woke me a little and I felt afraid. I had the feeling it was some sort of entity materialising and coming for me in some way. It moved up the bed a little. I felt paralysed, partly by fear but also as if the ‘thing’ was influencing me. This made me more afraid of it. Then it moved up higher, not on my body but on the bed. I was very afraid and struggling against the paralysing influence. I managed to shout at it – I will destroy you. I will destroy you. As I shouted I pushed at it with my hand. This felt to me as if I were going to will its destruction and use my hand to smash it. I still felt a little uncertain of the outcome but I was very determined to fight it. At this point I woke up or was awakened by my wife. She asked me what I had been dreaming. Apparently I had been pushing her and shouting that I would destroy her. David P.

David explored his dream in depth and describes his insights as follows –

I started by considering the recent nightmare of the ‘thing’ at the foot of my bed. Gradually I began to feel tense throughout my body, with difficulty in breathing. The ‘thing’ seemed at first to be a woman’s vagina. There was a little feeling in this but not much. Then it slowly grew in intensity and I realised the ‘thing’ was death. Recently it is obvious from the mirror that my body is going through another period of rapid ageing. The dream was a dramatic representation of my feelings about this. Death was gradually creeping up on me, gradually overwhelming me and I was fighting it. As the session deepened I saw that in my feelings I felt that death had put its finger on me. The touch of death was like a disease though. Once touched the disease was incurable and gradually took over ones body. I could hardly breathe as I experienced this, and I understood the sort of emotions that might lie beneath asthma attacks. This struggle with death went on for some time. It was not terrible but was felt strongly. I also recognised that my wife Deb, has similar feelings about her ageing, and is communicating to me that her body is dying and unclean, especially her genitals, and this is off-putting. I see that when I shout I ‘I will destroy you!’ in a way it is my fear of being destroyed that is behind the emotion.

I began to wonder what to do about the situation. The feeling was that death was claiming me. So I wanted to face the truth about death, whatever it was. I wanted to walk right up to it and look it in the face and know whether death meant a final end. If it did I would rather know. As I approached death like this by imaging walking toward the THING, my feelings went through an amazing transformation. All the tension left me. I felt good, positive and with a sense of hope about life and death. I could breathe easily again. This was so surprising and sudden I wondered what had produced it. I needed to be aware of how this change had occurred. So I retraced my steps to look at death and try to understand why it had lost its power of fear.

At first I saw that my tension and sense of death being or giving a disease was due to a view I had of it. When we look at the world only through our senses, death is obviously a terminal sickness that claims everyone. Someone said on TV the other day – Life is a sexually transmitted disease that produces a 100% mortality. Seen in this way death is the rotting corpse, the skeleton. The path to it is disease or breakdown. But in looking it in the face I saw another view of it. I saw the dead body, the corpse, the skeleton, as a form left behind by the process of life, like shell left on a beach as life continues. When I looked at myself to see what ‘David’ is, I cannot separate myself from the process of life. That process leaves behind shells, bodies, tree trunks, but it goes on creating other forms.

If we observe the images and emotions of death in dreams, especially in a series of such dreams, the process of rebirth or transformation usually follows that of death. See: death; death and dreams; death – is there life afterwards?; archetype of rebirth or resurrectionJourneying Beyond Dreams and Death

Useful Questions and Hints:

What are my own inherited or self created images of death?

Have I met and dared to discover where such images and fears arise from, and what lies behind them?

Am I really living without paralysing fears? If not, is the fear of death involved in my paralysis?

It might help to use Acting on Your Dream

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