The Origins and History of Consciousness

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The Origins and History of Consciousness
The Origins and History of Consciousness (German edition).jpg
Cover of the German edition
AuthorErich Neumann
Original titleUrsprungsgeschichte des Bewusstseins
TranslatorR. F. C. Hull
SubjectWorld history
  • 1949 (Rascher Verlag, in German)
  • 1954 (Princeton University Press, in English)
Media typePrint (Hardcover and Paperback)
Pages493 (English edition)
LC Class53-12527

The Origins and History of Consciousness (German: Ursprungsgeschichte des Bewusstseins) is a 1949 book by the psychologist and philosopher Erich Neumann. It was first published in English in 1954 in a translation by R. F. C. Hull.[1] Neumann's work has been seen as an important and enduring contribution to Jungian thought, but Neumann has also been criticized for using evidence in misleading ways and making untenable assumptions.


Neumann charts what he calls the "mythological stages in the evolution of consciousness", which include the creation myth, the hero myth, and the transformation myth, which is identified with the Egyptian god Osiris.[2] His theories, which were based on study of creation myths from around the world and his clinical experience, have been described by the Jungian analyst Robert H. Hopcke as follows: human consciousness develops out of unconsciousness through a series of stages, a process represented by the ego's emergence from the "Ouroboros", a primordial condition of self-contained unconsciousness symbolized by the circle of a snake devouring its own tail. As the ego consciousness differentiates itself from uroboric unconsciousness, it begins to experience this primordial unconsciousness both as the life-giving origin of its existence and as a threat to its newly won autonomy.[3]

This ambivalent experience is often given shape in the form of the Great Mother, who bestows all life and also holds life and death, existence and non-existence, in her all-powerful hands. For true autonomy to occur, the domination of the Great Mother must be shaken off by individual ego consciousness. This process occurs by two subsequent stages: first, the separation of the world parents in which the opposites of masculinity and femininity emerge from the matrix of uroboric unity, and second the hero myth, in which the ego aligns itself with the principle of heroic masculinity in order to free itself from the dominance of the matriarchy.[3] Neumann quotes Johann Jakob Bachofen, but for him the matriarchal stage "refers to a structural layer and not to any historical epoch."[2]

Homosexuality is seen by Neumann as a result of an identification with the archetypal feminine. He writes that, "even today we almost always find, in cases of male homosexuality, a matriarchal psychology where the Great Mother is unconsciously in the ascendant." He believes that homosexuality represents a lack of psychological development and can be considered immature.[3]

Neumann presents a theory of "centroversion" in ego formation, a blend of extroversion and introversion.[2] Neumann says of consciousness that, "one thing, paradoxical though it may seem, can be established as a basic law: even in woman, consciousness has a masculine character. The correlation 'consciousness-light-day' and 'unconsciousness-darkness-night holds true regardless of sex...Consciousness, as such, is masculine even in woman."[4]

Scholarly reception[edit]

The psychologist James Hillman writes that Neumann's identification of consciousness with the "heroic-Apollonic mode" forced him into the position that consciousness is masculine even in woman, which Hillman finds absurd.[4] The psychoanalyst Theodore Thass-Thienemann notes that The Origins and History of Consciousness is "an example of mythological analysis according to the principles of C. G. Jung."[5]

The philosopher Walter Kaufmann singles out Neumann's book as a "perfect illustration" of the "utterly tedious, pointless erudition coupled with a stunning lack of even elementary concern with objections and alternatives" that distinguishes "most of the literature on archetypes and the collective unconscious". According to Kaufmann, The Origins and History of Consciousness is "quintessentially dogmatic and operates with a notion of evidence not far different from the tracts of theologians who 'prove' points by citing a few Biblical verses that are far from proving what they claim. He is delighted when he finds something 'in Syria, Asia Minor, and even in Mesopotamia.' Diffusion is never even considered as an alternative explanation."[6] The book has been described as "Jungianism at its learned best" by the critic Camille Paglia, who identifies the book as an influence on her work of literary criticism Sexual Personae (1990) and her personal favorite among Neumann's works. Paglia describes Neumann's theory of "centroversion" as "idiosyncratic."[7][2]

Hopcke calls The Origins and History of Consciousness, along with The Great Mother (1955), "Neumann's most enduring contribution to Jungian thought". He notes that Neumann's view of homosexuality is neither original nor intended to be original, and differs relatively little from that of Jung.[3] The psychiatrist Anthony Stevens calls The Origins and History of Consciousness, "a great but misguided book". Stevens argues that Neumann makes several fallacious assumptions, among them that ontogeny (individual development) recapitulates phylogeny (evolutionary development), that preliterate human beings were "unconscious", and that Western consciousness has been subjected to different selection pressures to that of other civilized populations. Stevens considers all of those assumptions biologically untenable.[8]


  1. ^ Neumann 1973. pp. iv-vi.
  2. ^ a b c d Paglia 2014
  3. ^ a b c d Hopcke 1989. pp. 70-72.
  4. ^ a b Hillman 1978. p. 289.
  5. ^ Thass-Thienemann 1973. p. 411.
  6. ^ Kaufmann 1980. p. 353–354
  7. ^ Paglia 1993. p. 114.
  8. ^ Stevens 1996. p. 174.


  • Hillman, James (1978). The Myth of Analysis: Three Essays in Archetypal Psychology. New York: Harper & Row. ISBN 0-06-090600-6.
  • Hopcke, Robert H. (1989). Jung, Jungians and Homosexuality. Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc. ISBN 0-87773-585-9.
  • Kaufmann, Walter Arnold (1980). Discovering the Mind: Volume Three: Freud, Adler, and Jung. Transaction.
  • Neumann, Erich (1973). The Origins and History of Consciousness. Princeton: Princeton University Press 1973. ISBN 0-691-01761-1. External link in |title= (help)
  • Paglia, Camille (1993). Sex, Art, and American Culture: Essays. London: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-017209-2.
  • Stevens, Anthony (1996). Private Myths: Dreams and Dreaming. London: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-017278-5.
  • Thass-Thienemann, Theodore (1973). The Interpretation of Language. Volume 1: Understanding the Symbolic Meaning of Language. New York: Jason Aronson. ISBN 0-87668-086-4.
Online articles