Last night I dreamt of a big mother elephant chasing behind me, bringing me close to the brink of death. It most likely had already killed my own mother, who initially had been guiding the baby elephant along the street. The baby elephant and my mother were both nowhere to be found, the mother elephant was furious… I could escape her barely, by desperately asking someone to let me through a tightly locked door to what seemed to be a high-security area. I heard the voice of Neil deGrasse Tyson, he opened the door, and it shut down behind me the very moment the elephant had almost caught me. I ended up at a fair, which was vaguely reminiscent of a modern version of Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island. Perhaps the baby elephant in my dream was somewhat related to Disney’s Jumbo, one of my favorite movies as a kid…?
In order to analyze the archetypal patterns in your dreams, you can refer to cultural associations like I did shortly above, especially those that you have absorbed yourself and have had a strong attachment to (like my references to Disney movies; a Hindu would rather focus on elephant symbolism in their religion). However, modern cultural symbolism goes only so far, it can be even more enlightening to trace it very back to our early ancestral experiences, because that is the time when a lot of, if not all, the archetypal figures in our unconscious collective first developed.
For Jung, the collective unconscious was containing a conglomerate of archetypes which were indirectly expressed in mythology (see “C.G.Jung – Die Archetypen und das kollektive Unbewußte“). Mythology at its best would let our unconscious archetypes emerge in the sea of storytelling, like strange creatures from the bottom of the ocean, possibly frightening and deceivingly alien in appearance. The images of the “Shadow” are like ghosts, both familiar and horrifying…
Jung counted religions as significant holders of relevant mythology, which in some ways lost their appeal once people started to make rational sense of them. So what I called “cultural association” can and does include religious mythology. Religion is so powerful, because it represents images and archetypes of the collective unconscious. They stir something deep inside of us, which is not usually accessed by our conscious mind. Once you attempt to deconstruct those religious myths with rational thought, they can lose their power or magic, so Jung. This appears to be a bit of a paradox to me when it comes to deconstructing your dreams, because wouldn’t the dream lose its power then? However, Jung priced dream interpretation highly, saying that it is our unconscious talking to us, and if we decipher the meaning, we will be able to understand what it is trying to say – which can be very useful, because our unconscious can contain ancient wisdom. In a similar manner, deconstructing religious myths can be enlightening (to some extent), but this is not the aim of my article.
My aim is to stress the link between the collective unconscious and early ancestral experiences, especially in the context of dream interpretation. You could call the collective unconscious the collective hub of ancestral instincts and experiences. Collective unconscious is a term that sounds rather abstract and divorced from physicality, entirely mental, but it has a physical basis, which I would call the “collective body” – our shared human/animal conditions (e.g physicality, instincts, and so on).
I told you about my elephant dream not only because it has affected me, but also because it contains an obvious connection to our early ancestors’ experience with pre-historic elephants. We used to live amongst them, and hunt them. And one of our greatest fears was most likely to be trampled over to death by an elephant, just like in my dream.
So when it comes to analyzing animals in our dreams, it can be enlightening to see their link and early representation from the earliest times of humanity. Perhaps it does take away some of the dream’s magic or power, to reduce the elephant to a prehistoric threat. But for me personally, it opens up a world of great time dimensions, where the far-distant past is anchored into a part of our unconscious minds, or in other words, in our “reptilian brains”. It seems as if the “collective unconscious” is the rationalized and abstract take on the reptilian brain, or rather, a sign of an interplay between the two. The contents of the reptilian brain are being transformed into abstract myths by the prefrontal cortex…
If we didn’t have science to show us our early experiences with elephants, perhaps we could mentally re-construct our early collective life merely by analyzing our myths! Apparently we do not need to do so nowadays, but this very possibility is exciting to me. We carry within the “past lives” of our ancestors, which is not a new thought or idea, but it looks as if people seem to be blind to the apparent connection between the collective unconscious and those very past lives I am speaking of.
One could cross-reference symbols like the elephant in myths around the world and distill their commonalities, which then would hint at the ancestral experience. But why not just go to the ancestral experience straight-away?
As said before, elephants were a source of excitement (during the hunt), nourishment and vitality (after the hunt), or even death (negative outcome during the hunt). Deducing the role of the elephant from those early experiences, one could surmise that the elephant in dreams symbolizes your desire to attain physical pleasure and vitality, however in the face of possible annihilation. In that sense, the elephant is a paradoxical figure, and contains this inherent tension between life and death.
For my dream analysis, I would have to emphasize that tension, as well as the pleasure aspect (note: Pleasure island) and the mother aspect. The mother can be an archetype of her own according to Jung, which I will not go into for this analysis. Focusing on the elephant symbolism, it is clear that my dream is telling me, that in the pursuit of my pleasure, I could end up harming my mother and our mother-daughter relationship, and almost myself as well. For attaining my pleasure, it seems as if I would have to close off her and our relationship from my life, which my mother would be furious about (assuming she is also represented by the mother elephant). Whether that pleasure-seeking is “bad”, is left unclear – while I was at the fair, nothing harmful, dubious, or morally reprehensible occurred. I know how my personal life experience correlates with all that, so I can confirm that this seems to be the most straightforward interpretation of my dream.
As you can see, I could arrive at the most accurate interpretation of my dream merely by analyzing the elephant’s role in our early ancestral experience (and of course, putting it into relation with my current life circumstances). It should be possible to do the same with all our symbols. This could be challenging if we do not have enough factual information on those early experiences, but the very reduction of the symbol to the question of how it would affect our (early/basic) animal nature hypothetically, can be enough for a fitting dream interpretation. Our animal nature is ultimately the “collective body” we share, so putting each symbol into context with it, could give us the most accurate dream (and myth) interpretations.