Archetypal Cosmology & The Writing of Richard Tarnas

Astrology, Synchronicity, & Two Paradoxical Narratives of Human Consciousness

“The collective unconscious surrounds us on all sides. It is more like an atmosphere in which we live than something that is found in us.  Also it does not by any means behave merely psychologically; in the cases of so-called synchronicity it proves to be a universal substrate present in the environment rather than a psychological premise. Wherever we come into contact with an archetype we enter into relationship with transconscious, metaphysical factors.”

– C.G. Jung

According to the California Professor Richard Tarnas, the discovery of the planet Uranus in March 1871 serves as a major indicator of the Promethean impulse found throughout the history and evolution of human consciousness. In his early essay Prometheus the Awakener, Tarnas writes:

“The observed qualities [of the new planet], however, bore little resemblance to the Greek mythic figure of Ouranos. Indeed, Ouranos role in myth is not to initiate rellion and change, but to resist it. Instead, I noticed that these same astrological qualities fit another figure in greek mythology with extraordinary precision. This figure was Prometheus, the Titan who rebelled against the Gods, helped overthrow the tyrannical Kronos, tricked Zeus, and stole fire from Mount Olymbus. The clear consensus is that the planet is empirically associated with the principle of change, rebellion, freedom, reform, revolution, and the unexpected breakup of structures, liberation.”

This mythic impulse to progress and its shadow, the tragic loss of a primal enchanted world, are central to discussing a new and emerging cosmology, the subject of this brief article today.  In the writing of Richard Tarnas, most specifically in his major work Cosmos & Psyche: Intimations of a New World View, this discussion centers on an archetypal understanding of astrology, a new perspective on the correlation between the movement of the planets in our solar system and the historical and psychological evolution of human consciousness. Astrology is a difficult subject to broach, bound as it is by so many ideas completely antithetical to our present rational, scientific minds. Much of this difficulty is self inflicted. For a long while now, contemporary astrological understanding has been similarly trapped in a rationalist, concrete, and limited frame that results only in superstition and fortune telling. However, our discussion can take on a new light with an investigation into the very boundaries that create such a frame.


Gaetano Gandolfi – Prometeu Biblioteca Nacional do Brazil

Central to Richard Tarnas’ writing is a discussion of world views, of the “profound disorientation
and groundlessness” of the present state; the crisis of the modern self existing in what he eloquently describes as a disenchanted universe. Tarnas sees the entire human project as a drive toward differentiation between self and world. He posits two major narrative myths central to his cartography of human history: the myth of progress and the myth of the fall. The trajectory of Progress, the Promethean impulse, describes human history as “a long heroic journey from a primitive world of dark ignorance, suffering and limitation to a brighter modern world of ever-increasing knowledge, freedom and well-being.” All this is made possible by human reason, the development of the modern enlightened mind, that of the individual and of scientific reasoning. Of this development Tarnas notes certain epochal shifts, most notably the Copernican revolution as a singular tear in the collective consciousness, disengaging our world view from the cosmos, empowering the individual subjectivity. It is a narrative of individual self mastery, of revolution toward individual freedom.

Nicolas Copernicus (Polish unknown painter)

Of the opposite trajectory, the myth of the Fall, Tarnas details a story where human history and the evolution of human consciousness are seen as “a predominantly problematic, even tragic narrative of humanity’s gradual but radical fall and separation from an original state of oneness with nature and an encompassing spiritual dimension of being. In its primordial condition, humankind had possessed an instinctive knowledge of the profound sacred unity and interconnectedness of the world, but under the influence of the western mind, especially its modern expression, the course of history brought about a deep schism between humankind and nature, and a desacralization of the world.” Here, that same Copernican shift and all those revolutionary steps which follow are seen as tragedy rather than empowerment. The evolution of human reason and historicity have left us in a state of “profound alienation.” A world once filled with spiritual meaning, consciousness and truth is now subjugated to an inanimate existence of matter, mechanical objects and resources.

For Tarnas, a new approach to cosmology, one that arises through investigation of the archetypal level of experience, is in fact an opening, a “psychological reconcilliation” of sorts between these contradictory myths of progress and the fall. In fact, it is through holding the paradox and contradiction between these two paradigms of history that we first glimpse this new vision of archetypal reality.  Richard Tarnas’ own work focuses on the astrological implications of such a project. If the Copernican revolution is one of many early epochal shifts, helping to create the dualistic subject/object divide between human psyche and the world; a new comtemporary understanding of interaction between psyche and the planets, the universe itself, becomes a means toward a new trajectory of synthesis. In this world view, one experiences the freedom inherrent in Progress and the intersubjectivity inherrent before the Fall.

In a letter to the journal The Mountain Astrologer, Tarnas writes of his early days of astrological research alongside the transpersonal psychologist Stanislav Grof uncovering correlations between individual psychological transformations and planetary transits to their natal charts.

“Although the evidence for planetary correlations sharply contradicted the mainstream Newtonian-Cartesian scientific paradigm, we noticed many parallels with the concepts coming from new-paradigm sciences – quantum physics, systems theory, morphogenetic fields, the implicate order, the holonomic universe,” writes Tarnas. “Suddenly, from this most improbable and scorned source, we had a method of illuminating both the archetypal character and the timing of individual experiences, including non-ordinary states of consciousness such as those mediated by powerful psychoactive plants and compounds – something Grof and his colleagues at his psychiatric research clinics in Prague and later in Maryland had searched for fruitlessly for many years. To be able to better understand the sudden onset of a psychological crisis or a spiritual breakthrough… to gain insight into certain cyclical activations of particular complexes in an individual’s inner world and outer life circumstances… astrology seemed to represent a kind of ‘Rosetta stone’ for understanding the human psyche.”

CG Jung

CG Jung

From this early research, Tarnas developed a new approach to astrological correlation based on a return to the Platonic conception of the archetype as an essential metaphysical structure of our world. This new approach recognized that astrology was never concretely predictive but rather, archetypally so; the interaction of the planets with our own personal experience never deterministic or fixed. Instead, the actions and dramas of our human lives evolved within a synchronistic, non-causal and participatory archetypal language of the planets as myth and symbol. This participatory cosmology in fact finds many similarities in Gnostic mystic traditions as well as in CG Jung’s late period research and observations on synchronicity.  Tarnas writes often of Jung’s final years: “He [Jung] began to see the archetypes as informing both outer world and inner psyche. Even astrology, which he had sometimes described as a projection of the collective unconscious onto the heavens, but which he was now using with many of his patients to discern their archetypal dynamics, he began to consider as potentially reflecting a kind of cosmic form of synchronicity on a vast scale.” Jung’s turn toward a metaphysical understanding of archetype is a return to the Platonic-Pythagorean conception of the term. It is a radical shift from even the mainstream Jungian definition where the archetype is seen as simply an inherrent psychological structure, a projection arising from the collective unconscious. Archetypes have meaning yes, but relative meaning, meaning of mind and mind alone. Instead, what Jung’s late investigation into synchronocity, what Tarna’s own investigations into mythic narratives presuppose is an actual, non-relative, field of archetypal experience- an intermediate space of Images, myth and symbol.

al Sufi Astronomical Atlas. 16th Century Northern  Italy

al Sufi Astronomical Atlas. 16th Century Northern Italy

This hypothesis of a cosmology imbued with pattern, myth and symbol has many manifestations. It is one that resonates as you enter into it, central in many fields even while hidden: in psychology, in the arts, in the process of creation at its most profound. It is here also that Tarnas sees possible a new “reconcilliation” between progress and fall. It is also here, in this archetypal field of existence, that we find a doorway into much of mystic tradition and process. The capacity to enter this field is itself an act of what the phenomenologist Henry Corbin calls “the direct Imagination.”  Furthermore, it should be noted that Corbin’s reading of the Ṣūfism of Ibn ‘Arabī speaks quite directly to Jung’s hypothesis of synchronicity as well as to Tarnas’ perspective vision of a participatory, archetypal cosmos.

In my article on Henry Corbin, The ‘Alam al-Mithāl: Henry Corbin and the Sufi mystic Ibn ‘Arabī, one finds many similarities with Richard Tarnas and his two conflicting narratives of human consciousness. One such vantage point is Corbin’s understanding of the concept of ta’wīl, etymologically the carrying back of a thing to its principle, a fundamental “symbolic exegesis” that transcends and contradicts rational historical meaning through a mutual knowing. The ta’wīl is the essential shift from a rationalist empirical understanding to that of mystical intersubjective experience. Entering the ta’wīl is to exit the sharī’a- the law, the literalist religion. It is to leave the zāhir- the literal aspect and enter the bāṭin- that which is hidden. It is an entry into cyclical “transhistorical” time and knowing, into the ‘ālam al-mithāl, the intermediate world of real subsistent Images- the archetypal field of our existence.

Through Corbin’s own phenomenological reading of Islamic mysticism, we might also recognize the very radical nature of his own argument against an empirical and objectivist understanding of history in general. This reading is in direct correlation to a synthesis of the narratives of progress and the fall through archetypal cosmology as described by Tarnas. It is also, in so many ways, parallel to the basic heresy of all Gnostic tradition.  The true mystic seeks self mastery and self awareness and refuses submission to the authority and reason inherrent in the Law. There is a symbolic logic in this heresy to the consistent degradation and destruction of all such traditions whatever their cultural basis, and the need for such traditions to carry on in secret. It is also fascinating to note that in discussing such a perspective in light of the different historical epochs of Tarnas, Corbin, and the Sufi Ibn ‘Arabī, the fundamentalist mind and the rational, objective mind appear in a shockingly similar light.

Still, what is most fascinating to our present discussion is Henry Corbin’s retelling of a single Koranic Sura on the appearance of Khidr, the invisible guide of the artist and mystic. In his narrative, Khidr appears alongside Moses and initiates Moses into the science of predestination. “Thus he reveals himself to be the repository of an inspired divine science, superior to the law (sharī’a),” writes Corbin. “Thus Khiḍr is superior to Moses in so far as Moses is a prophet invested with the mission of revealing a sharī’a. He reveals Moses precisely the secret, mystic truth (haqīqa) that transcends the law and this explains why the spirituality inaugurated by Khiḍr is free from the servitude of the literal religion.”

What we are perhaps after in such a discussion as ours here is not to simply describe the hypothesis of an archetypal cosmology, of an archetypal field of existence but rather, to open new doorways to this experience through our own consciousness and perception. We want to not only speak of the archetypal field, this intermediate world of subsistent Images, but to consciously inhabit such an experience through our own awareness. Myth and symbol, the synchronisms and non-causal connections of the archetypal field, all arise in transitional space- to use a psychological term. This intermediate realm is the ’ālam al-mithāl, realm of the creative Imagination in the Ṣūfism of Ibn ‘Arabī and Henry Corbin. So it is as well in the work of Richard Tarnas: a world view of embodied archetypal meaning that synthesizes the modern Self, the trajectory of Prometheus, and the primal experience, the trajectory of the original Fall. 

Richard Tarnas

Richard Tarnas

So archetypal experience is the experience of the intermediate state. The more we bring focus to such transitional space, the more we interact in that intermediate space, the archetypal realm arises. From a contemporary perspective especially, a focus on direct Imagination, on the empirical reality of creativity and the creative act, is perhaps the most direct language for such an experience. Of the Sufi tradition of Ibn ‘Arabī, the invisible guide Khidr could be described in this light as the archetype of one’s own self-awareness manifested in the Imagination realm. The true creative act is the “theophanic prayer;” the prayer that “becomes dialogue,” a mutual prayer between unmanifested awareness and its manifestation, ourselves. Such is also the synthesis described by Tarnas. The reintegration of the world into our subjectivity and meaning arises through the medium of direct Imagination, the embodying of a new vision of a personal cosmology. It is important to note that this cannot misconstrued in a relativist, psychological fashion. The true action of the ta’wīl, “the symbolic exegesis,” the true synthesis and entrance into the bāṭin, the hidden meaning, in fact obliterates the Law and obliterates the limits of reason.

-Peter Matthew Bauer


Tarnas, Richard                                                                                                                                      Cosmos & Psyche: Intimations of a New World View                                                                     2006 Plume New York, New York

Tarnas, Richard                                                                                                                                       Prometheus the Awakener                                                                                                                                 1995 Spring Publications Putnam, Connecticut

Corbin, Henry                                                                                                                                          Creative Imagination in the Ṣūfism of Ibn ‘Arabī                                                                                       1969 Princeton University Press Princeton, New Jersey

Jung, C.G.                                                                                                                                             Memories, Dreams, Reflections                                                                                                                       1963 Pantheon New York, New York