Avatar and Cultural Transformation


Without this playing with fantasy no creative work has ever yet to come to birth.  The debt we owe to the play of the imagination is incalculable.  Carl Jung

Culture is created by the human psyche.  Intended or not, there is a psychological dimension to every art form. This is nowhere more evident than in James Cameron’s 2009 epic science-fiction film Avatar, a personal favorite.

Avatar’s characters, symbols and themes are updated versions of archetypes featured in stories from every nation, generation, and religion throughout history. Its symbols of interconnectedness—the wormy squirmy tentacled pony tails that bond with similar anatomical appendages of bizarre beasts, and the electrochemical connections between tree roots—are imaginatively resonant of ancient Hinduism’s Diamond Net of Indra, Jung’s collective unconscious, and quantum physics’ holographic universe. And its themes of self-discovery, initiation, revolution, transformation, and redemption have been with us since the first story ever told around a fire.

This lush film eloquently depicts the transformation occurring in humanity’s heroic journey into wholeness and consciousness. It does so by contrasting an ego that succeeds by opening to otherness and change with one that fails because it refuses to grow. Indulge me for a moment as I engage in a bit of imaginative word play to illustrate my point.

The time is the mid-22nd century. The place is Pandora, (mythically, the Greek goddess whose curiosity unleashed all the evils onto the world but whose ultimate legacy was hope). Pandora is a moon in the Alpha Centauri star system that is being colonized to mine a rare mineral. The plot revolves around the expansion of the mining colony which is threatening the existence of the local tribe of natives known as Na’vi.

Corporal Jake (Biblically, Jacob was Isaac’s son and Abraham’s grandson who overcame adversity to become the patriarch of the Israelites) Sully is a soldier whose body is bound to a wheel chair and whose soul has been sullied—i.e. contaminated and made impure—by bitterness, self-pity, and the aggressive mind-set of his dominator culture. Yet, by the end of the story, he is transformed into a heroic Warrior and passionate Lover.

Where love rules, there is no will to power; and where power predominates, there love is lacking. The one is the shadow of the other.  Carl Jung

After undergoing training to be an avatar, Jake’s crippled body rests in a remote location while his mind inhabits a genetically engineered Na’vi body that interacts with the natives.  His bravery, his respect for princess Neytiri (who says”nay” to tyranny and is Sully’s equal, savior, and Beloved), and his receptivity to the foreign ways of her culture all lead to his redemption and the salvation of the Na’vi.

And what might the name Na’vi symbolize? This tribe has long navigated safely through a difficult world by honoring the sacred underlying patterns of life. But because the people will not capitulate to the dominator ego mentality which has destroyed Earth, their culture is in danger of extinction.

Other archetypal themes are represented by the Na’vi’s spiritual leader Mo’at, (an abbreviation of Mother Earth?) who is a blend of the Jungian archetypes of Queen, Earth Mother, Wisewoman, and Beloved. Her earth-based values and connections to Nature are the glue that have enabled the Na’vi to flourish thus far.  Then there’s Jake’s mentor, Dr. Grace Augustine (a saintly name if ever there was one), who symbolizes the archetypal Queen’s regard for shared authority and individual differences and the Wisewoman’s intuitive intelligence and pursuit of truth.

Finally we have a plot with the necessary obstacles every hero must overcome: the self-absorbed and self-serving ego symbolized by Selfridge, corporate administrator of the mining program; and the obsessive Warrior mentality of the head of security, Colonel Miles Quaritch (from quarantine, a place of detention? Or quarrel, an angry dispute? Or quartz, a hard rock?). Cameron’s soulless dark invader, like Lucas’s Darth Vader, has miles to go in his own journey because of his rock-hard rigidity and unrelenting itch to maintain his power regardless of the cost to anyone or anything.

So here we have a story about a brave, heroic ego vs. a rigid, fearful ego. Earthly and cosmic connectedness vs. personal self-interest.  Accepting our shadows. Opening to otherness. Learning from feminine wisdom and nature. Moving toward balance. Uniting opposites with respect and love. Using our Warrior energy to protect and empower the vulnerable. Overcoming crippling disadvantages to become a force for positive change.

This haunting story is more than just another movie.  It is a mythic reflection of us at our worst and best. Of our blind ego with its rigid and self-righteous attitudes. Of our dysfunctional dark shadow that clings to old habits and blindly fouls our planetary nest. Of our power-hungry Warrior who continues to dominate families, neighborhoods and societies.

There is no coming to consciousness without pain.  Carl Jung

Our hope lies with Jake who represents the resilience, creative imagination, and heroic potential of every ego, no matter how much suffering it endures, to overcome its lethargy and choose consciousness:  consciousness of our light shadow with its unique gifts and ideals and sensitivity and care. Consciousness of our healthy Warrior with the courage to say no to ingrained attitudes and practices that produce chaos, pollution and destruction. Consciousness of the love waiting to blossom between healthy femininity and masculinity.

Image Credit:  Google Images

Jean Raffa’s “The Bridge to Wholeness” and “Dream Theatres of the Soul” are at Amazon. E-book versions are also at KoboBarnes And Noble and Smashwords. “Healing the Sacred Divide” can be found at Amazon and Larson Publications.

Join 5,847 other subscribers


0 Responses

  1. Absolutely superb work Jeanie! You strike at the heart of a rich, affluent vein just waiting to be tapped for I have read nowhere (in book form) Jungian interpretations of well-known contemporary stories. As I am writing this, a vision of a theatre flashes through my mind … I watch in amazement as the audience are sat in their seats reading this book. The theatre is full to the rafters, it is a film screening, unlike any other.
    Oh my goddess how we crave these stories, how we hunger for them … so desperately that every day we recreate them on our streets, in our offices, in our houses. Popeye, Avatar, Star Wars … to name but a few, all recognisable, all decipherable. In clear, concise language you unravel the deeper stories, the deeper mysteries while fires are lit and we gather once more to listen to the keeper of old tales, the cantadora. Blessings, Deborah.

    1. Bless your sweet heart, Deborah! You keep lighting fires in my imagination with your encouraging comments! You touched on something especially deep with this one and a not-so-little “Aha” in me is still resonating. I was telling my husband about your comment over breakfast this morning and how it’s got me thinking more seriously than usual about starting a new book—one about the deeper stories beneath popular culture and he said, “It sounds like a lot of work,” and I said, “Yes, but I love it!” He said, “Well, no surprise there. You wrote your doctoral dissertation on the values and messages conveyed on popular television shows watched by older children.” Wham!!
      That year (1980-81) I examined the three most popular TV shows watched by 4th, 5th, and 6th graders—they were “Dukes of Hazard,” “Love Boat,” and “The Incredible Hulk”—to see what values were being conveyed. I examined factors such as the tempo and loudness of music, the intensity and frequency of words, actions, and facial expressions, etc. The article I wrote on it when it was finished received national attention in the media, and my first published book was about my discoveries. I knew I’d hit on something the general public was interested in, but I didn’t have time to pursue it after graduation.
      Yet, as you’ve noted, this interest keeps showing up in my blog. I’ve been inspired by other topics during the last few years, yet done nothing about them. So now I’m thinking this might be THE theme I’ve been looking for.
      So thank you, Muse Lady! As soon as I finish answering these comments I’m going to make note of the ideas spinning around in my head. We’ll see what happens.
      Blessings, Jeanie

      1. Aha! So you’ve already had a practice run at your new book! I truly believe that this digging down to unearth the deeper stories beneath our playhouses and motion pictures would build a sacred bridge to the other world … a bridge (the middle place, the mandorla) of books that tell us what you have learned, what you have seen and what you have experienced on your cinematic journeying. In doing so you further heal the divide between consciousness and unconsciousness … now there’s a task … for the world shares this profound wound with you. I am aware that book four creates a quaternary, a wholeness … and we all know what Jung thought about that! Oh happy days Jeanie, happy days! Blessings, Deborah.

        1. Oh, Deborah. What a generous spirit you have, and are! Yes, Book IV of my explorations into the unconscious would, indeed, create a quaternary. Now you’ve done it, Muse Lady! You certainly know exactly how to hook a fish like me!

  2. Thank you so much Jean for these wonderful insights. Avatar is one of my favourites too! I particularly love the deity in Avatar – Eywa – and the way in which the N’Avi can connect through the tree of life (reminds me of ‘collective unconscious). There was even a search done a few Christmases ago for a possible copy of the anthropology book ‘The N’Avi’ we see in the film, supposedly written by Grace! (No luck, so far). Like you, I am often compelled to spin a Jungian world around many movies I enjoy (especially Dune and The Matrix), in fact I believe that is why we enjoy stories, films and fairy tales so much, because they resonate with us at a deep, archetypal level. Very keen to see the upcoming Avatar sequels (apparently two and three are in production simultaneously) and rumour has it Grace may return (I’m guessing through her spirit residing in Eywa), so looking forward very much to your thoughts as and when! Roberta 🙂

    1. Hmmm. Eywa. Eyes watching? Elemental waters? 🙂 I do love to play with this kind of symbolism! And yes, the tree of life reminds me very much of the collective unconscious too. I missed the book written by Grace! I really have to see this film again. It’s been far too long. And the Matrix! Another favorite. I used to belong to a women’s group we called The Matrix and did a summary of the psychological meaning of the film for them too. I think you’re absolutely right that the stories we love most are ones that resonate at the deepest, archetypal level.
      Yaaaayyyy and whoop de do!!! I’m thrilled to know there will be Avatar sequels. I had no idea.
      Blessings to you sweet lady for your enthusiastic response! You’re fueling the fire growing in me……. 🙂

  3. Hey, Jeannie. Wonderful reflection on a really engaging movie.
    I have a question: does any archetypal or mythological female figure come to mind that would relate to a mixed race child of slave rape?
    Thanks. Always love reading your blog.
    Diane McPhail about.me/diane.mcphail
    dianecmcphail1@me.com dianemcphail.com, dianemcphail.info

    1. Thank you, Diane. The only archetype I can think of at the moment that is close to your theme would be the Orphan. Think of Cinderella and the wicked stepmother and sisters; or Persephone who is abducted away from her mother Demeter, the Goddess of Fertility, raped by Hades, the God of the Underworld, and forced to live with him in the dark underworld for half the year; or Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Match Girl; or Hansel and Gretel whose stepmother lures them into the dangerous woods.
      The connection between the Orphan archetype and your example would be that there’s something unusual, i.e. dark and mysterious, about the birth stories of certain children that sets them apart and makes them more vulnerable than others. Yet, at the same time, this very wound is often the impetus that drives such children toward heroic accomplishments. Cinderella marries the prince. Persephone becomes the Goddess of the Underworld. Hansel and Gretel are empowered by destroying the evil witch.
      I hope this is helpful. Perhaps other readers have more thoughts on this. If so, I encourage them to comment here. Thanks so much for reading.

  4. Another wonderful piece that people need to see and understand. I’m convinced that the “Shift in Consciousness” needed for today is explained in paragraph 752 of _Answer to Job_, where Dr. Jung pointed out that the psyche exists, and that it is a different universe from the physical world, yet no less important. I am convinced that articles like this and Popeye are important steps to helping people who do not have 20 years to study Dr. Jung’s work to see this important Truth for themselves. Among other things, this understanding can put an end to religious wars, which have roiled humanity for millenia. Thank you Jeanie! By the way, coming in December will be “The Force Awakens” from the Star Wars series, where the trailer suggests this point will be made explicitly.

    1. Thanks for this, Skip. I especially love your reminder about Jung’s observation in Answer to Job…”the psyche exists, and…is a different universe from the physical world, yet no less important.” Bingo! I think I may need to read that book again.
      Yours is the third voice I’ve heard this morning encouraging me to pursue this fascination of mine, and as we all know three is the magic number in myths and fairy tales! I’m listening. I hear you.
      “The Force Awakens?” Wow. I can’t wait to see this one.
      With gratitude and blessings,

        1. I’ll definitely check it out. I actually have the book in two forms: Jung’s Collected Works and the individual book. I’m assuming you’re referring to the CW as you mention paragraphs instead of pages! Thanks again.

      1. Jeanie: Paragraphs 751-752 come on pages 101-102 of my paperback version, but I noticed that most books of Dr. Jung these days come with paragraph numbers, which allows you to reference them, regardless of where they are printed. I don’t know if I have it in the Collected Works, but I think you can find the paragraph number. All of my other copies of CW list paragraph numbers.

        1. It’s in my Collected Works but not at that same paragraph number. I need that quote, so I have some searching to do. No problem. I love the book and could use a refresher course! Thanks.

      2. Dear Jeanie: Here is the quote as it appears in my article:
        “…What most people overlook or seem unable to understand is the fact that I regard the psyche as real. They believe only in physical facts, and must consequently come to the conclusion that either the uranium itself or the laboratory equipment created the atom bomb. That is no less absurd than the assumption that a non-real psyche is responsible for it. God is an obvious psychic and non-physical fact, i.e., a fact that can be established psychically but not physically. … ¶751
        “…Clearly, the material evidence for the existence of this psychic phenomenon is more than sufficient. It does not matter at all that a physically impossible fact is asserted, because all religious assertions are physical impossibilities. If they were not so, they would, as I said earlier, necessarily be treated in the text-books of natural science. But religious statements without exception have to do with the reality of the psyche and not with the reality of the physis.” ¶752, Answer to Job, C.G. Jung

  5. May I be the fourth person to encourage you to go forth Jeanie and bring these stories to light in your 1Vth book. As Deborah says, the quaternity …Myth plays such an essential role, legend and fairy tale as well. It’s like going back to basics to illustrate dynamics that continue to play out on the world stage. The hunger is here; and your telling them as you do so artistically will have a ready audience.
    I’ll have to see Avatar again now that you’ve given such a wonderful explication of the underlying themes. The Matrix too.
    Thank you for this wonderful post Jeanie … keep those imagination cells firing on all cylinders …

    1. Hi Susan, Yes, I’m honored to have you as the fourth Muse to inspire me to write a book on this topic! As it happens, I’ve just come down from four hours of intense possession by my creative daimon. In that time S/He helped me fill up 35 pages of a new document now on my computer that has outlined and filled in suggested material from this blog for the New Book. I was so lost in that eternal flow that I made my lunch in the throes of it and only when I sat down and began to eat did I come back to myself enough to ask, “Who is this person consuming this meal?” My next question was: Who was that who just asked that question? And I know you know what I mean. The cells are still firing on all cylinders! At the moment it feels as if every cell in my body is alive and tingling! Such is the power of creative inspiration.
      Many thanks back to you, Susan. This blog and its amazing followers has made an enormously positive contribution to my life, and I’m so grateful.

      1. Skip, apparently I have to leave my comment down here instead of directly after your the comment you made above in which you provided the link to your review of Answer to Job. I think it’s a wonderful review! I should think trained Jungians would agree with you; not sure why you think they might not. But I certainly do. Well done and highly recommended! And thanks for providing the full quote. I’ll have no problem finding it in my copy now. Jeanie

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Recent Posts