The Mortificatio: Death and Dismemberment Dreams and a Coffin in the Backyard

Blackbirds and the Nigredo of Mortificatio*

This is not a summer article. Yet similar to how life’s hardships and imagery through dreams and the unconscious can interrupt our lives at any time; this topic seems relevant now, even in the middle of the summer, and after a horrific event like the massacre in the movie theater in Aurora, CO. I had started writing this article about one month prior to the killings in Aurora, but put it aside until now. What happened in Aurora, struck home to me as I have friends and family in the area.

This article is about the most negative stage in alchemy, the “mortificatio.” Mortificatio is associated with blackness or “nigredo,” death and dismemberment and those areas of life that most of us living in North America are not exposed to on a regular basis. Of course there are exceptions. Most of us, however, try to avoid the unpleasant imagery associated with death.

Unpleasant as such imagery is, it is nonetheless woven into our dreams and nightmares. Carl Jung found that there seems to be deeper meaning associated with death and dismemberment imagery. Jung discovered that on one level, alchemy was not only a precursor to modern chemistry, but that it revealed a deep and projected psychological process. In other words, the alchemists projected their own psychological developmental onto the contents of their experiments.

Jung found that the stages inherent in alchemy contain categories and imagery associated with his own ideas around his own concept of individuation; a person’s unique development across the lifespan. Alchemy can be a kind of map of individuation.

In North America, and throughout much of the developed world, we have neatly brushed aside death. Yet, even here, some people are exposed to death and dismemberment imagery on a somewhat regular basis. I have counseled some of these individuals, many of whom are haunted by the images that they have witnessed.

Some workers encounter death and dismemberment imagery in the line of duty. For example, police officers sometimes come upon the scene of  horrible automobile accidents and the victims. Morticians work closely with the dead. Hospital emergency room staff may be in the direct line of sight of death and dismemberment, as are some of our combat military men and women.

And then there are the victims who are exposed to traumatic scenes of violence when they are least expecting it. This article is not necessarily about the isolated acts of evil and/or insanity that explode into the lives of the unfortunate. But I have included reference to Aurora, CO, and these deaths, because it is yet one more example of how violent scenes of death and dismemberment creep into the collective psyche.

As for the rest of us, we are sometimes exposed to death and dismemberment images in our sleep—even when we have never witnessed such imagery in our waking lives. The psyche contains a reservoir of all of the imagery that humankind has experienced and witnessed over time.

Jungian psychology is a field of psychological study that has attempted to map the imagery from the unconscious across the lifespan of the individual. Carl Jung found the ancient practice of alchemy to be an area that surprisingly contains many of the constellations of images that can occur over the course of an individual life.

Jung became fascinated with alchemy sometime after undergoing his well-known split with Freud. Essentially, Jung spent the remaining years of his life studying and learning about this ancient practice. Schwartz-Salant (1995), a Jungian analyst, noted that Jung said about alchemy in Jung’s Religious Ideas in Alchemy from his Collected Works:

It should now be sufficiently clear that from its earliest days alchemy had a double face: on the one hand the practical work in the laboratory, on the other a psychological process, in part consciously psychic, in part unconsciously projected and seen in the various transformations of matter. (p. 65)

At its core, alchemy is about turning a base metal into gold. There are a series of psychological stages present in alchemy described in great detail by some Jungians, and in particular, in the classic Jungian alchemical text by analyst Edward F. Edinger, Anatomy of the Psyche: Alchemical Symbolism in Psychotherapy.

One of the stages in the alchemical process, which was Jung’s attempt to map and categorize some of the many images present in the unconscious psyche, is the stage of mortificatio, and which is the specific subject of this article. Edinger (1985) said that mortification literally means “killing” and refers to the experience of death. He said:

Mortificatio is the most negative operation in alchemy. It has to do with darkness, defeat, torture, mutilation, death and rotting. However, these dark images often lead over to positive ones—growth, resurrection, rebirth—but the hallmark of mortification is the color black. (p. 148)

Those of us practicing psychotherapy are sometimes witness to our clients’ mortificatio imagery that present in night-time dreams and other experiences. A male client’s dream illustrates mortificatio imagery quite nicely. He had been feeling depressed and complained of many somatic concerns such as severe muscle aches and pains and general body weakness with fatigue.  He even wondered if he was dying. Then he dreamt:

I was walking down the street and someone was throwing the dismembered body parts of a person or dog onto the street. Then I ended up in a city library to study, though there was no room at the table. I was talking to a pretty blonde reporter (who had a booger in her nose) and told her about the body parts. She went to get the story.

When his dream is examined, it is no wonder that he had been feeling this way.  He was being “dismembered” psychologically. When this mortificatio imagery was explored during psychotherapy, it brought meaning to his body experiences, and several weeks later, the severity of the symptoms dissipated. Through the psychotherapeutic work, he was beginning to embrace a new vision for his life, while letting the old vision die.

In another dream, we can see the death imagery again. Another person, this time a female, who had been significantly struggling in her relationship with her partner, dreamed:

My dead mother’s coffin is in the backyard. I saw it move several feet. I told my father about this, and he said he sometimes “felt” my mother in the neighborhood at times. We went to the backyard and someone had put in fruit and notes “as if” from my mother. (I think it had been my Aunt and Uncle.) They blessed all of us and our partners. My dog had tears in his eyes. I started to sob briefly. I noted in the corner of the yard that the landlord had recently cut down a large tree without anyone knowing. I think it was a flowering tree like the Magnolia.

While working with this dream, she saw that among other things, she needed to let go of her expectations about her relationship and learn to view it in another manner. She realized that something there was dying, and she needed to move forward with her life nonetheless and regardless of the desired outcome.  This dream with the death images (coffin in the backyard, cutting down flowering tree) and the associated emotionally laden imagery (the dog’s tears and her own sobbing) helped her to bring the needed affect into her processing of the relationship and the end of a phase.

Why do we experience such dark death imagery even if the imagery has no direct connection to any of our previous experiences? The central theme of mortificatio death and dismemberment imagery and its corresponding life phase, is letting go of the old. In other words, we can’t hold on to certain phases of life for too long, or the psyche will dismember us.

For the above dreamers, their dreams contained important messages for them, suggesting that they were in a process of death and renewal. For them, it is a time when old parts, old attitudes, are being taken apart. And because almost everyone is tasked with change from within and/or without, most everyone will at one time or another have dreams that are harbingers of such a change process.

When we accept and become conscious of these processes within, it helps us to understand what is happening in our lives, with our bodies, and with our suffering. Through his study of alchemy, Jung was able to provide another map that reflects natural, psychological processes that have both greater meaning contained within and helps assimilate some of the “whys” of traumatic experiences that occur without or through our daily life experiences.

Edinger (1994, p. 71) wrote that Jung said about mortificatio, “The integration of contents that were always unconscious and projected involves a serious lesion of the ego. Alchemy expresses this through the symbols of death, mutilation, or poisoning.”

The above photo is one that I took on a trail close to my home. The flower in the picture is a Calla lily. Surrounding the lily is a mass of Poison Oak and thorns from Blackberry branches. The image and its message perfectly illustrate mortification—a thing of softness and beauty is possible even in the midst of a poison or mortificatio phase. (Interestingly, even the Calla lily is poisonous, but unlike the Poison Oak, only if actually ingested.)

Most of us do not naturally gravitate toward the theme and imagery of death and dismemberment. Yet, they are as real a part of what it means to be human as the themes of love, joy and compassion. Ideally, we should not run from death—the blackness that enters our lives at certain times. If you monitor and honor your night-time dreams, there is a very good chance that you can discover a greater purpose to these symbolic death images and experiences in your life.

To dream of your own self (or another) dying, rotting or being mutilated and dismembered, presents a paradox. There can be real suffering and a very real symbolic death is happening. A death to the ego is underway. But these dark images can lead to new growth and a psychological rebirth.

Edinger (1994, p. 72) writes about the mortificatio, “the idea is that putrefaction which stinks and is foul brings about sweet and soft consequences.” This is no sugar-coated philosophy of making good out of the bad, but a general law of the psyche; a law that nature teaches by example time and time again throughout the course of the ages. If you are going through a symbolic death phase in your life, it is possible to both endure this difficult time and to find meaning in the process.

 

Edinger, Edward F. (1985). Anatomy of the Psyche: Alchemical Symbolism in Psychotherapy. Illinois: Open Court Trade and Academic Books.

Edinger, Edward F. (1994). The Mystery of The Coniunctio: Alchemical Image of Individuation. Joan Dexter Blackmer (Ed.), Toronto: Inner City Books.

Schwartz-Salant, N. (1995). Encountering Jung: Jung on Alchemy. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

(*photograph by Dan Anderson, Eagle River, WI)

© 2012 – 2014, Dr. Jeff Howlin. All rights reserved.

This entry was posted in Alchemy, Archetypes, Depression, Dreams, Imagery, Individuation, Psyche, Psychology, Psychotherapy, Shadow, Unconscious and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to The Mortificatio: Death and Dismemberment Dreams and a Coffin in the Backyard

  1. Cynthia Baxter says:

    What an excellent piece, Jeff!

    • Dr. Howlin says:

      Thanks Cynthia. I’m glad that you liked it. This was a difficult post for me to write, and had been “dormant” for awhile until it seemed to come together just recently. Interesting how that works sometimes. I hope all is well, and that you are enjoying the end of summer.

      Jeff

  2. Seth Mullins says:

    Hi Jeff,

    You’ve given great treatment to a really hard subject here. I struggled with this theme over many years of working with my dreams. The “death of the old and birth of the new” rhetoric I was totally comfortable with. But the question remained as to why the message had to oftentimes be delivered so graphically and disturbingly.

    What I came to believe is that our thoughts, beliefs and feelings are far from dead debris in our heads. They are living: They consist of consciousness, and like any sentient beings they will fight for their life and integrity. Thus, any decision to make major changes in one’s orientation, one’s ways of thinking and being – any progress made in the course of psychotherapy, for example – can trigger a veritable war within the psyche. This is then communicated very dramatically within one’s dreams.

    • Dr. Howlin says:

      Thanks for the comments Seth. I agree with you that this type of death imagery is a hard subject to wrestle with and to write about. You put it well when you describe this material as “living.” I think one of the reasons that the psyche uses such graphic imagery (and oftentimes disturbing symptoms) during these times is to really get our attention. I appreciate you stopping by my blog and leaving a comment. Thank you!

      Jeff

  3. Love this post Jeff! The actual dreams always illustrate the process so much better than a mere explanation. Thank you for including them. I always think of the dismemberment part as akin to throwing all the food scraps, hair, etc. into the compost heap. All the pieces that never served, or no longer serve, are broken down in the chemical process, with the result being a rich soil ready for planting and growing something new, beautiful and nourishing.

    • Dr. Howlin says:

      Hi Sarah…thank you for stopping by and leaving a comment. I’m glad that you also liked the inclusion of actual dreams. I was debating on whether or not to include them in this post, and I’m glad that I did. I particularly like your compost heap metaphor for this alchemical process. Great!

      Jeff

  4. It was a huge help for me in coming to terms with this content when through Schwartz-Salant’s amplification of Jung’s “Transference” essay, he stressed the union-death-rebirth pattern. So much of our culture is focused on attaining to a pseudo-conjuntio (the incessant cult of happiness), without any recognition of the larger framework. This is how the archetype of process moves through us, and your post is a wonderful exposition of the darker aspects.

    • Dr. Howlin says:

      Thank you Richard for your comments. Especially for those of us that practice as psychotherapists, we see through our clients that happiness is not possible for anyone to retain at all times, and when it is strived for above all else, we also see the cost to the soul. I’m glad that you enjoyed the article and took the time to reflect upon it and leave a comment.

      Jeff

  5. Ruth Martin says:

    Jeff this is a great piece! Also true for Richards comment and Jeff’s reply.

    An Aside re: the picture which you may already know: crows travel in tribes, and when one dies, they put out a funeral call and the tribe comes and…they gather in a circular pattern to ‘talk’.

  6. Ruth Martin says:

    or perhaps to grieve?

    • Jeff says:

      Hi Ruth,

      Thank you again for visiting my blog and for posting a comment. I’m glad that you liked this article. It is interesting what you said about crows. There are so many mysteries regarding animal behavior that I believe we have just scratched the surface with our knowledge about them. The crows grieving…I wonder?

      Thanks Ruth, and enjoy the weekend!

  7. Ruth Martin says:

    Hi Jeff, Thanks for your reply. Yesterday was an announcement, actually a Declaration on Consciousness from ” a prominent International group of cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neuroanatomists, and computa-tional neuroscientists gathered at the University of Cambridge to” …Can’t do more typing but glad to fax if your interested. Basically all mammals, birds (particularly African Grey parrots) AND octupi have consciousness. It’s fascinating. Scientific Amer/Mind also gave their ‘humorous’ (?) take on it. Might’ve been worried their readers wouldn’t understand ‘neural substrates’ or ‘neocortex’. Personally think it’s terrific info!

  8. Dr. Howlin says:

    Hi Ruth,

    I also read about the announcement that you mentioned. I think many of us who observe our pets and other animals intuitively thought this anyway, but it is good to see that a group of scientists agree that non-human animal consciousness exists. Thanks for passing this along.

    Jeff

  9. Michael J Barrier says:

    I spent a year in Vietnam at war and found myself surrounded by Death and Dismemberment. I killed my first enemy infiltrator from my perimeter guard post. I had a primitive night vision scope on my rifle. Abpit 100 meters out, he froze behind a buldozed tree in a ditch. I waited for him to move and squeezed the trigger. For a moment after, I wondered why I felt nothing and was immediately realized that in spite of my rejection of flag waving gug-ho bullshit, they had gotten to me anyway. After three of my buddies were blown to piees in a mortar attack just about two hours after our last beer of the night, something inside me died snd left me a hollow man. I wanted no new “buddies” and made sure everyone knew to keep their distance. I had a dedly aim by age twelve. In the war, I killed as many as I could, somehow hoping that THEIR dead would somhow compensate my sense of loss, but I only grew emptier and colder inside.
    It never went away. I am the killer and the victim as well.
    __________________________________________________
    On alchemy. I read every word of Jung’s Bolinger series. I read an exerpt from the writings of a master alchemist. It diffeentiated between “our gold” and the “profane gold”. That alchemist knew very well that their chemical experiments were really quests for Self. They lived well at the pleasure of Kings and Nobility who aspired to have every bit of the glittering metal they could and it was quite convenient to have an Alchemist at hand who could transform base metals. That job gave alchemists plenty of time to work on their true and noble quest for the lapis philosiforum, the stone of no value, the perfect substance to which nothing could be added and from which nothing could be taken away.

    You will forgive my rambling. I am the unwilling warrior again with something thst is of course mine and I do know what haunts me now.

    • Dr. Howlin says:

      Thanks so much for sharing some of your experiences Michael. You lived through something (the death and dismemberment theme) that most only know of through the imagery of their dreams and nightmares.
      You carry the experiences and bear the weight of these experiences for the rest of us, and it is so very much appreciated. I am glad that you took the time to comment here about this very hard topic of death themes and living with this content. I hope that you eventually find that the weight of these experiences lessens with time and understanding.

      Jeff

  10. Ira Katz says:

    Hi Jeff- Excellent blog on a very important topic. There is no Life without Death or some kind of damage or poisoning. Suggest you read Dr. Irv Yalom’s recent book about death. Think it is called Looking into the sun. Basically he says we are all suffering from anxiety over our fears of death. We need to get past that and join Life with Death in a healthy way. Your writing is profound and good. I really enjoyed the blog. Very inspirational to me. I am able to walk unassisted now. So next time you see me there will no longer be a walker- maybe a cane. I can not tell you how many times I have looked Death in the eye and said, “No thanks…” Thank you for sharing your wisdom and love of Jung’s gifts to all of us. I am sure you are aware that in the Mexican tradition there is even a “Day of the Dead” where various symbols are put on display in Church in November right around All Saints Day.

    Peace,

    Ira

    • Dr. Howlin says:

      Hi Ira,

      I’m so glad that you liked my blog post on “Mortificatio” and the themes of death imagery and its potential meaning for us. That means alot to me. I especially liked your insight about joining “Life with Death,” in a way that can be healthy. Interesting how you bring up the Mexican “Day of the Dead” tradition. I hadn’t thought of that in some time. When I used to live in Missoula, MT, the town celebrated this each year and had a “Day of the Dead” parade. What I remember now is how joyous the event was. I think there is more room in our culture to honor all aspects of death and its associated effects of helping us to live a more authentic, full and joyous life.

      Also, thanks for the tip about Dr. Yalom’s recent book. I’ll have to put it on my reading list. I’m so glad to hear that you are able to walk unassisted now. It sounds like you’re making good progress!

      Warmly,

      Jeff

  11. Jennifer Mearney says:

    An interesting read and great article. I myself experienced a dismemberment dream a few nights ago, hence my stumbling upon this page. In the dream it was my then-lover who’d dismembered his own former partner, he’d lined the limbs and various body parts up very neatly on a concrete path and when I came upon him his expression was one of shame at being caught out (blood on his hands, committing the crime etc). His and my relationship was only finding ground, we’d had some terrible rows however, mostly concerning incompatible belief systems and fundamental differences in values, ie: I’m an environmentalist and what’s termed these days a “millennial”. I can understand that the dream represented fatalistic “death” of our relationship; what confuses me is that my former lover had “murdered-dismembered” his former partner and organised her body parts so neatly – are these elements projections of my own organised approach to ending the relationship, neatly compartmentalised and leaving no loose ends? Thanks for an illuminating and insightful article re: a topic I find quite fascinating. Hope you or another reader can perhaps shed some light on those more confusing dream elements, it would me with the healing process and on the road to recovery from a traumatic and regretful end to my most recent relationship, Thanks once again.

    • Dr. Howlin says:

      Hi Jennifer,

      Thank you for your comment. You shared an interesting dream, but I am unable to interpret the dream in this format. If you would like to explore this or other dreams in greater detail, I suggest reaching out to a Jungian-oriented therapist for insight into dreams and other areas. Thanks so much for stopping by my blog.

      Dr. Howlin

  12. I wonder if you could shed some light on a dream I had early this morning. For context, I’ve been going through some dark times, have been investigating Jung’s work on alchemy and related matters.
    The dream is this: I am holding a baby, wrapped tightly in a white blanket, but I know that the baby is dead, and was born dead. Its face is like a flower bud that will never now unfold. I am distraught; we are taking the baby for baptism. As I hand the bundle to my husband to baptise (he is a priest in real life) the baby stirs and wakes (despite being dead), opens her eyes, and says in a voice that seems very adult, “I love you, Daddy.” Then the dream ends.

    • Dr. Howlin says:

      Hi Vivienne,

      Thank you for sharing your dream and stopping by my blog. You mentioned that you have been investigating Jung, and I think that is a very good thing to do if one is in “dark times” as you say. Jung has some very good insights for dealing with such times. As for shedding some light on your dream, that is very difficult for me to do without knowing more about you, and this blog comment section is not such a great format for getting to know one another in more depth. In other words, it’s difficult to hit the mark about meaning behind a dream without knowing the person behind the dream! One option for exploring this dream or other dreams further would be to consult a Jungian therapist or analyst.

      Best,

      Dr. Howlin

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