Article by Dennis L. Merritt, Ph.D.
The Covid-19 pandemic has created a unique moment in the history of our species. Something so small it takes an electron microscope to see is disrupting millions of lives and threatening the world’s economy. Frontline workers risk their lives trying to save patients who may die alone without friends or family at their sides. A virus, a strand of nucleic acid that highjacks the functioning of a cell to reproduce its unique viral form, is bringing our species to a near standstill. Despite the wonders of science, technology, and economic systems we can still be humbled by nature, indeed, by a strand of nucleic acid. It is crucial how we respond to the situation. What can we learn from it and how do we go forward?
We start with an adequate framing of the issue. This is a matter of life and death, which means it is in the most fundamental archetypal realm and requires an archetypal perspective. The fear of death from the pandemic is bringing a sense of immediacy and urgency on a planet-wide scale. Death cannot be separated from life, death makes us aware of the preciousness of life, and death confronts us with questions about the meaning of existence and our place in the bigger scheme of things. Death can bring an end to systems and beliefs that no longer support life and a healthy existence, and that could be the most important outcome of the present crisis.
The virus is demonstrating to what degree we are interconnected and how much we need each other. The forced social isolation and six-foot distancing has cut us off from intimate contacts and group experiences making us aware by absence how important we are to each other. The ghostly empty streets in otherwise bustling cities are eerie reminders that our systems are in shock at all levels. Like a nightmare that wakes us in the middle of the night, this shock is meant to shock us into a new awareness.
Our species needed to be shocked into an awareness that we have been barreling towards the edge of a cliff for many decades while showing no signs of being able to halt our “progress”. Well before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 and the first Earth Day in 1970, environmentalists have been warning us about overpopulation, destruction of natural habitats, loss of biodiversity, mining our lands with modern agricultural practices, collapsing ocean fisheries, etc. Greta Thunberg rallied millions of young people to demand action on climate change but powerful oil lobbies and vested political interests have been unmoved. The long term consequences of climate change will make any losses from a virus seem inconsequential, making this a moment for us to re-examine our fundamental relationships with each other and with the environment.
A most fundamental problem is that humans do not think of themselves as being part of nature. We are the only species that has to consciously be aware of this basic fact and adjust our systems and life styles to acknowledge that “we are all related” as the Native Americans say. This includes a relationship with all other two-legged, four-legged, six-legged (insects), standing brothers (trees), etc. Diseases play an important role in limiting populations of a species so it doesn’t overrun its environment. Because we have been so successful in curing diseases we have to consciously limit our numbers. Systems and beliefs that do not acknowledge this reality have to be changed or die off: planet Earth can no longer tolerate them.
Maybe it took something like this to wake up the approximately forty percent of Americans who have been blinded to the facts of science about pandemics, climate change, and a host of other issues. It took the cold number of coronavirus deaths and the harsh mathematical reality of exponential increases in the spread of the virus to finally force Trump out of the real “fake news”—his personal world of beliefs and “gut instincts”. The denigration of war hero John McCain, the abandonment of the Kurds in Syria, the adoration of dictators like Putin and Kim Jong-un, the Khashoggi murder by the Crown Prince—none of this woke up the “faithful”. Environmental standards are still being eliminated and industry regulations loosened to boost what Trump perceives to be his popularity poll, the stock market index.
Trump has been properly diagnosed as a malignant narcissist, but I believe his power goes beyond that into the archetypal domain of the Trickster. He is a self-described “stable genius” but we must recognize his gift—he is an evil genius. He has a unique gift of continual lying that undercuts facts and a trust in anyone but him. Hitler had such a gift. The Greeks recognized the Trickster as sacred in the form of the god Hermes; Mercury to the Romans. Hermes can “lead the way or lead astray”. We see this most clearly with Hermes as god of advertising. Drug companies pour millions of dollars into promoting drugs on tv while having to tell you that you might become suicidal, your immune system could be comprised and make you more vulnerable to tuberculosis, you could suffer serious internal bleeding—quite a trick! Watch carefully to see how it’s done the next time you see such a commercial and label Hermes as the god alive at the moment.
Trump has used his unique talent to subvert the entire federal government to his ends. Every other president has contended mightily to enforce their aims but only Trump has succeeded. (1) The name calling and denigration of opponents, the demonization of minorities and the encouragement of white supremacists; even the intimidation of the judiciary—our democratic systems have been severely weakened. Trump brought all his tricks to bear in his mishandling of the Covid-19 crisis but the death toll does not lie—it is not fake news. Hopefully many believers will come to realize they have been sold a bill of goods and begin to question the many other things they have led to believe are true. This would be a giant wake up call thanks to the virus; it’s just sad that so many will have die to sound the alarm for the deep sleepers and see what a real swamp looks like. An important function of the Trickster is to hold up a mirror to a society to show it the ugly truths about itself.
One ugly truth is how inadequate and unfair our health care system is. Trump continues to attack Obamacare—the first serious reform of our broken system in decades. This system has accentuated the pandemic in America. Those without health care or policies with high deductibles are more likely to go to the hospital late while they continue to spread the virus to others. Worrying about being covered or having to pay exorbitant costs only increases the anxiety and torture of those battling the disease. Many of those working in the “necessary services” are low paid and with little or no insurance coverage—the bus drivers and grocery industry workers, the delivery personnel, the janitors and cleaners in hospitals and stores. Many have underlying health issues like diabetes and high blood pressure making them more vulnerable. On April 6, 2020, NPR reported that 72% of the Covid-19 cases in Chicago are African American while they make up only 30% of the city’s population. The mythical dimension is Hermes as the god of servants; the support staff in our societies. He comes to this role as god of the unseen and invisible that provide the working foundations of a person and a society, a role many “illegal immigrants” fill in America.
Even the presumed source of the virus has archetypal dimensions. The “wet markets” in East Asia are where wild animals from around the globe are crammed into cages stacked atop each other with the animal excrement contaminating the cages below them. Every species has viruses and the wet market provides a unique opportunity for lethal recombinations to develop. Such was the case with the SARS epidemic and epidemiologists have been well aware of the inevitability of a pandemic arising from these horror houses of wet markets. A man who has campaigned for years to shut these markets down describes the Covid-19 pandemic as being “nature’s revenge”, and so it seems. (2)
How do we go forward? Hexagram 42, Increase, in the Chinese book of wisdom, the I Ching, offers us an archetypal framework for the future. The message of the hexagram, an archetypal image, is that those with power in whatever form, come down to help the less fortunate. The Wilhelm/Baynes translation declares
This conception…expresses the fundamental idea on which the Book of Changes is based. To rule truly is to serve.
A sacrifice of the higher element that produces an increase of the lower is called an out-and-out increase: it indicates the spirit that alone has power to help the world. (emphasis added) (3)
As with any archetype it is a pattern that can be seen across many levels. It is relative to income inequality in our society and the increasing gap between the haves and the have-nots. It refers to racism and sexism, political and social inequalities, people with no or inadequate health care coverage—you get the point.
The most significant power imbalance we face is between humans and the environment. The Book Religions—the Jews, Christians, and Muslims—share a creation myth of humans being made “in God’s image” and commanded to have “dominion over” nature. Were not the frogs and toads and elks and bears not made in God’s image as well? Were they left out of the sacred domain, a domain they inhabit in all indigenous, so called “heathen” cultures and in the “zoological cathedrals” of our dreams as Hillman called them?
Carl Sagan, as co-chair of Religion and Science for the Environment way back in 1982, said that unless we can establish a sense of the sacred in the environment it will be destroyed because the forces aligned against it are too great. At the same time he declared we need an understanding of science. (4) How do we establish a sense of a sacred environment in modern men and women so far removed from nature? This has been the subject of my writings presented in the four volumes of The Dairy Farmer’s Guide to the Universe: Jung, Hermes, and Ecopsychology. (5) I believe that Jungian psychology in the form of Jungian ecopsychology offers perhaps the best system for diagnosing and understanding our disastrous relationship with the environment and with each other. (6) Jung believed that unless we established a sense of the numinous, the sacred, in our societies we would not have a holistic culture, and this includes our educational system. (7) One avenue for doing this is by the application of complexity theory to basic Jungian concepts that offers a way to integrate modern mathematical theory with a mythological foundation by seeing Hermes as the god of complexity theory. Jung said a task for Christianity was to come to terms with the tortures it has perpetuated upon our indigenous “heathen” ancestors. A supreme challenge he gave us was to unite our cultured side with the “the two-million-year-old man within”, what I call the “indigenous one within”.
Hopefully the virus will do what the titanic hurricanes or the hellish wildfires in the Western United States in 2019 couldn’t do nor the fires in the Amazon or the toasting of the koala bears in Australia—shock us into consciousness of the almost unimaginable significance of the present time being labeled by many as the Anthropocene Era. For the first time in our planet’s four and a half billion years of existence an era is being named after the effect of one life form—humans. Other eras arose out of the planet being entirely covered with ice or a meteorite hitting the planet and taking down the dinosaurs who dominated animal forms for millions of years. Every species has some effect on the environment and manipulates it to some extent, but our species is unique with our ability to figure out the “laws of nature” and manipulate them for our advantage. We have the powers of the gods but lack their wisdom.
Some good news is that human-created systems are at the root of most of our problems, systems that can be changed by humans. These systems act in unseen and insidious ways, but Jung and Hillman’s emphasis of the power of personification is a godsend. Jung said the modern day monsters and dragons, repeat, monsters and dragons, were big things—big machines, big militaries, big governments, but his particular example is most poignant. “All the little merchants…crushed by the Standard Oil Trust”, he said, must have felt it to be “a great crushing monster”. (8) We have the ultimate development of that with the modern giant corporations that rule the planet. A corporation is interested only in making a profit for its shareholders assessed on a quarterly basis. It tries to eliminate competition, people are expendable, and the environment is treated as a resource base and a waste dump. In other words, our planet is in the grips of the ultimate narcissistic dragons and monsters—the corporations.
The dimensions of the changes required are in the archetypal domain of a paradigm shift. Jung knew a new paradigm had to come to the West and countries influenced by the West, which is now the entire world. In 1940 he labeled that shift a “new age” and “age of Aquarius”. (9) Significant elements in the shift, as Jung saw it, were a rise in the importance of the archetypal feminine, new spiritual forms, and a concern about the decimation of the environment. Transition from one age to another entails a great deal of confusion and fear as old power structures and institutions, including religious institutions, crumble and die or are significantly reconfigured. It is hard to imagine changing the corporate model given the economic and structural power behind it, including the conservative Supreme Court nominees Trump has put in place, but that is but one aspect of a necessary paradigm shift.
This is a revolutionary moment whose archetypal parameters are prescribed in Hexagram 49, Revolution (Molting); a time of “extremely grave matters”. A revolution “should be undertaken only under stress of direst necessity, when there is no other way out.” Real leadership is needed “by someone quite free of selfish aims” and then only when the time is ripe. (10) Even the conservative Financial Times British newspaper said in an April 4, 2020 article
…The great test all countries will soon face is whether current feelings of common purpose will shape society after the crisis….
Radical reforms — reversing the prevailing policy direction of the last four decades — will need to be put on the table. Governments will have to accept a more active role in the economy. They must see public services as investments rather than liabilities, and look for ways to make labour markets less insecure. Redistribution will again be on the agenda; the privileges of the elderly and wealthy in question. Policies until recently considered eccentric, such as basic income and wealth taxes, will have to be in the mix. (11)
These sentiments were echoed in an April 5, 2020, NPR interview with historian Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens—A Brief History of Humankind. Harari emphasized the rare opportunities for major change emerging from the extreme fluidity of the moment when old, solid forms could be quickly overturned. Experimentation is occurring with things that were previously considered to be crazy, like universal basic income and improved safety nets. Many choices are on the table with no predictable outcomes. Like any revolution things could turn out badly in the form of authoritarianism and mass surveillance for example. (12) Things will solidify quickly once this is over in 2021, what in biology is called punctuated evolution—rapid major change followed by a plateau of indeterminate length of the existence of the new form.
I have long favored the concepts of the green or sustainable economists that include many of the possible positive changes Harari mentions. Enough is Enough, a book by by Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill, offers an excellent presentation of the premises, many of which are touted by the Green New Deal. (13)
Jung said, “We are beset by an all-to-human fear that consciousness—our Promethean conquest—may in the end not be able to serve us as well as nature.” (14) Jung also said, “Nature must not win the game, but she cannot lose”. (15) At this moment it looks like nature could win as our modern economic structures might conceivably collapse if the pandemic lingers for several months. The real horrors are yet to come when the virus ravages developing countries with weak or nonexistent health care systems and massive shanty towns and favelas. A Jungian analyst inquired of the I Ching about the pandemic and got hexagram 56 for the future—The Wanderer. I call this the “divorce hexagram” because I have often seen people get this hexagram who were in the throes of a divorce or post-divorce machinations. The metaphor is that of a wanderer in a strange country: “A wanderer has no fixed abode; his home is on the road”. (16)
We are in a period of massive uncertainty, fear, and confusion. A diminishingly small virus has stopped us in our tracks. We had been racing towards oblivion and no economic or environmental disasters seemed to be able to change our direction. Maybe our species, and the planet, needed this virus to shake us into consciousness. It is of utmost importance how we respond and go forward.
Dennis L. Merritt, Ph.D., is a Jungian psychoanalyst and ecopsychologist in private practice in Madison and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Dr. Merritt is a diplomate of the C.G. Jung Institute, Zurich and also holds the following degrees: M.A. Humanistic Psychology-Clinical, Sonoma State University, California, Ph.D. Insect Pathology, University of California-Berkeley, M.S. and B.S. Entomology, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Over twenty-five years of participation in Lakota Sioux ceremonies have strongly influenced his worldview.
Dr. Merritt is the author of Jung, Hermes, and Ecopsychology: The Dairy Farmer's Guide to the Universe Volumes 1 - 4.
2. For an excellent report on the wild animal markets in East Asia, see:
For greater detail on the history of the wet markets and their link to the coronavirus see:
3. Wilhelm, Richard. 1967. The I Ching or Book of Changes. Princeton, New Jersey: Prinston University Press, p. 162.
4. Sagan, Carl. “To Avert a Common Danger”. Parade Magazine, March, 1992: 10-12.
5. Merritt, Dennis. The Dairy Farmer’s Guide to the Universe: Jung, Hermes, and Ecopsychology. Sheridan, Wyoming: Fisher King Press.
Volume 1. Jung and Ecopsychology. 2012.
Volume 2. The Cry of Merlin: Jung, the Prototypical Ecopsychologist. 2012.
Volume 3. Hermes, Ecopsychology, and Complexity Theory. 2012.
Volume 4. Land, Weather, Seasons, Insects: An Archetypal View. 2013.
6. Ecopsychology is a new field of psychology that emerged in the early 1990s. It is a study of the human relationship with the environment and explores ways to connect people more deeply to nature with the belief that a person connected to the land will naturally want to protect it.
7. Jung, Carl. 1969. Psychology and Religion: West and East. Volume 11 of The Collected Works of C. G. Jung. 2nd ed. Herbert Read, Michael Fordham, Gerhard Adler and William McGuire, eds. R. F. C. Hull trans. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. par. 735.
8. Jung, Carl. 1984. Dream Analysis: Notes of the Seminar Given in 1928-1930 by C. G. Jung. W. McGuire, ed., Princeton University Press: Princeton. p. 538, 539.
9. Jung, Carl. 1973. Letters. Vol. 1. 1906-1950. Gerhard Adler and Aniella Jaffe, eds. R. F. C. Hull, trans. Princeton: Princeton University Press, p. 285.
10. Wilhelm, Richard. 1967. The I Ching or Book of Changes. Cary Baynes, trans. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 189, 190.
11. “Virus lays bear the frailty of social contract”, Financial Times, April 4, 2020.
Retrieved April 5, 2020
Retrieved April 5, 2020.
13. Dietz, Rob and O’Neill, Dan. 2013. Enough is Enough: Building a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
14. Jung, Carl. 1969. The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche. Volume 8 of The Collected Works of C. G. Jung. 2nd ed. Herbert Read, Michael Fordham, Gerhard Adler and William McGuire, eds. R. F. C. Hull trans. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. par. 750.
Prometheus was the Greek Titan who stole fire from the gods for humans to use, enabling progress and civilization. His punishment was to be chained to a rock and have his liver pecked out by an eagle, the emblem of Zeus. The liver grew back by the next day and was eaten again, a scenario eternally reenacted.
15. Jung, Carl. 1967. Alchemical Studies. Volume 13 of The Collected Works of C. G. Jung. 2nd ed. Herbert Read, Michael Fordham, Gerhard Adler and William McGuire, eds. R. F. C. Hull trans. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. par. 229.
16. Wilhelm, Richard. 1967. The I Ching or Book of Changes. Cary Baynes, trans. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 217.