The wedding and specifically the bride just might be one of the grandest of all archetypal images. We commonly associate weddings with the bride and the groom, but I’m going to make a case for the bride alone as a prime archetypal image and symbol for transpersonal love and union–the alchemical phase of the coniunctio.
But before I talk about archetypes, unions and the coniunctio, I feel a need to mention a qualifier. This post is personal for me. I was married several months ago, and I still retain the feelings and keen memories of the experience and what it felt like to be swept away by love.
While reflecting upon standing at the alter while waiting for and watching the bride walking down the aisle, I realized two things. One was this: “we” (bride and groom) and “I,” were a part of something much larger. And two: the bride and her image, carried the wedding. Even the behavior of those attending spoke to this, as people and the ceremony itself pivoted around the bride. And this is how it should be, because the image of the bride is so much more than a woman getting married to a man.
Since this article also talks about the often misunderstood Jungian concept of the archetype, I’m going to use a metaphor by Jung himself (Stevens, 20o3, p. 152). He said that archetypes function like river beds. This resonated with me and the river bed metaphor may help to illustrate this central idea of Jung’s psychology.
Archetypes function something like this: Think of a large desert valley in the heat of summer. In the middle of this valley is a deep, dried up river bed. Shooting off from the central river bed, there may also be smaller river beds as correlaries. Next, imagine a series of heavy rainstorms coming at the beginning of a monsoon season. What happens after this is that the dried up river beds begin to flow with water again and the water is swept away through the desert valley and into the smaller tributaries.
This process describes how an innate archetype can be imagined (archetype potentiality as dried up river bed) and then activated with the right conditions (monsoon season bringing rains filling the river). Archetypes then are innate potentialites waiting for the right conditions to activate them. Which now brings us to the wedding and the bride.
The wedding and the bride have the potential to constellate a series of human emotions, thoughts and behaviors that are triggered and set into motion similar to how a dry desert river bed changes into a mighty river when the rains begin to fall.
Think of the last wedding that you attended either as a participant, or maybe even as the bride or the groom. For many people weddings are times of strong emotion, perhaps uncharacteristic behavior like flying across the country or world and spending hard earned dollars to be present at the ceremony. There is often a powerful, innate urge to make the trek to the wedding, and to celebrate the union of two people.
Sometimes, troubled marriages are even rekindled at weddings. Weddings can be ceremonies of second chances. Of course, tears are common at weddings, along with powerful feelings and emotions including those of love, connection and family.
The bride’s white, flowing dress in all of its grandeur is the color of the spirit and purity of love. The color white is sometimes used in dreams as representative of things of a spiritual nature. Industries have been built around the bride and her dress. This is not only because of prolific marketing, but it is because we are drawn to the powerful and archetypal symbolism of the wedding and the bride.
The bride in her flowing, white dress is the perfect image for symbolizing the alchemical phase of the coniunctio. Coniunctio symbolism is common in wedding dreams and represents the union of the opposites. By uniting two opposites, such as the images of the bride and the groom, we integrate those opposites, bring them together and make them stronger. Wedding imagery usually symbolizes an inner alchemical and psychological union of opposites occuring in certain phases of a person’s development or what Jung termed “individuation.”
The ancient practice of alchemy was originally discussed by Carl Jung as being symbolic of the Jungian psychotherapy process of individuation. Jungian analyst Edward Edinger (1985) wrote about the alchemical operation of the coniunctio. He said, “That which goes by the name of love is fundamental to the phenomenology of the coniunctio. Love is both its cause and effect.” He added:
This transpersonal love is at the root of all group and social loyalties such as allegiance to family, party, nation, church, and humanity itself. The extraverted aspect of the coniunctio promotes social interest and the unity of the human race; the introverted aspect promotes connection with the Self and the unity of the individual psyche. (p. 223)
The image of the bride symbolizes even more. Some Christian mystics used to think of themselves as the bride of Christ. To be a symbolic bride therefore, isn’t just for women, and it is another reason that the symbol of the bride and the white dress, is such a prominent image in the wedding ceremony and holds so much spiritual significance.
John of the Cross wrote about the union of the soul (bride) and the bridegroom (Christ) in the Stanzas Between the Soul and the Bridegroom in The Spiritual Canticle. Soul is synonymous with bride in this writing by John of the Cross. We can infer from this that the marriage to the bride is a marriage to the soul.
When you drop everything in your busy life and make a pilgrimage to a wedding you are not only coming to celebrate and to see those that you love get married. There is a hidden, deeper, ceremony taking place that is calling to your soul. This ceremony is one that will be honoring and symbolizing the union of opposites–a union with soul and God. Almost all of us have this archetypal tendency—to be pulled toward numinous events that honor this union in us all.
The archetypal and alchemical imagery of the wedding and the bride, is one of the reasons that weddings are so numinous and provoke powerful emotions in so many. When we dream of weddings, marriage, or a bride, we are dreaming of the potential for a sacred union.
Jung said, “The language of love is of astonishing uniformity, using the well-worn formulas with the utmost devotion and fidelity…” (Welch, p. 172). The bride symbolizes a spiritual marriage with your soul and a commitment and marriage to God. The language of love is expressed in the imagery and the archetype of the bride. Welch added to this idea and said, “The spiritual marriage is an image symbolizing the union of that personality with God” (p. 183).
Like the emotion and behaviors associated with being swept away by a wedding, you may be experiencing an archetype when you have similar feelings of being swept away by life. When an archetype is fully activated, it is as if a latent, dried up river bed is brought back to life by the constellation of the right symbols and stimuli.
The bride in her white dress, coniunctio symbols of love and union, serve as transpersonal symbols not only for the bride and groom, but for all of us. The image of the bride invites us to connect to her and form a stronger union to our soul and to God. The bride and the groom marry for love, for union, and perhaps to have children. But the bride and the archetypal image that she represents, carries us all.
The Dress (*Photos courtesy of Breckenridge, CO, wedding photographer Josh Dayton)
Edinger, E. (1985). Anatomy of the Psyche: Alchemical Symbolism in Psychotherapy. Chicago: Open Court Publishing Co.
Stevens, A. (2003). Archetype Revisited: An Updated Natural History of the Self. Toronto: Inner City Books.
Welch, John. (1982). Spiritual Pilgrims: Carl Jung and Teresa of Avila. New York: Paulist Press.
*See Josh Dayton Photography > http://weddings.joshdaytonphotography.com/#home in Breckenridge, CO and the Summit County area for a skilled and professional wedding photographer.
That is a beautiful and very helpful description of the potentiality of archetypes and their activation by the using imagery of the dry river bed, monsoon, and tributaries.
The bride as an archetype is deeply fascinating, and your post, particularly mentioning John of the Cross reminded me of the beginning of the Cistercian order. Monks such as Guerric of Igny and Aelred of Rievaulx wrote of Christ’s body possessing womanly attributes that were capable of nurturing, sustaining. Relationships and imagery potent with the feminine seem to have supported an emerging transformation towards gentleness with self, others and the soul.
The writings of the women mystics such as the beguines of Helfta and Hadewijch, deeply convey the necessary union of opposites, in physical terms, to attain the ultimate union with God. Personally, it seems more as if we are remembering and re-uniting with a forgotten piece that can take any form, at any time, in something beyond time. I believe this is one of the reasons we experience deep emotions at weddings. We can sense the promise of eternal union, unconditional love, and the reminding and remembering of the interconnectedness of all. The bride as the lynchpin holding together the pieces and supporting the movement that directs our realization toward this love is very powerful.
The pictures are beautiful. The top one of the veil falling in a triangle from the center of the bride’s head feels synchronous to me, as I have seen something so close to that very image in my own dreams.
This topic is very thought-provoking and beautiful! Thank you.
May your day at the altar, alter your life always for the better.
You write about the idea of the union of opposites and the attributes of the feminine very nicely. I particularly like how you put the idea forth of the feminine as supporting “gentleness” with self, others and soul. I also appreciate the comments about the women mystics. There is so much to learn from their writings and experiences. Thanks so much for stopping by my blog and leaving a comment.
I found your blog today after entering a search for archetype of the bride. I didn’t expect to find this, thank you. I was searching for this because I am engaged and having am experiencing some barriers to actually having a wedding. I thought I should start from the beginning and ask what does it mean as a symbol or what it is its energetic pull. After reading the article I will reflect on the union with the masculine and the union with God. I guess sometimes we fear our own expansions. Thanks for giving me something new to feel into.
Thanks so much for stopping by my blog and for taking the time to comment. I like how you put it-“something new to feel into.” The archetype of the bride and the wedding is indeed powerful and meaningful on its own, but I also hope that you are able to discern its specific meaning for you and your life.
I loved this! This was exactly what I was looking for! I can’t wait to read more. Any chance we could make requests of topics for you to write about? Haha.
I felt engaged and yet I completely comprehended everything you were discussing even though this is not my area of expertise. Thank you!
I was entranced by your description of the bride as the carrier of the wedding , the coniunctio and union of the soul self with God. I have had dreams of this wedding, nearly every phase of it, sometimes just the bride, sometimes the entire ceremony, and have recorded them for 36 years. I am in the process of going back through them now and find it so awesome and at times overwhelming. It seems that this archetypal river has been flowing in me for some time. Thank you for posting about this incredible subject. I want to read more-!
Thank you for reading my blog article on “the bride.” It seems that you are a big dreamer and the dreams that you have around weddings are fascinating. I wish you the best in your exploration of these dreams.
Hi Dr Howlin
Thank you for your riveting article.
I hope this finds you and all yours well at this time.
Well, here we are in 2021 and I am humanist celebrant. I wished to know why – in the face of far more fundamental tragedies created by our covid climate – a wedding ceremony carries such weight and I felt sure that Carl Jung would supply some answers. Most weddings are rescheduling but each ceremony or reschedule creates huge emotions despite wedding couples acknowledging other ‘more important’ aspects of our current climate like health, jobs etc.. matter far more. It is clear that weddings represent something and your beautifully written piece has so much depth. Lots to dwell upon I wish to find a way of putting all you have said succinctly for us lay people! (though I am also a person centred therapist however so far as my knowledge of psychoanalysis is concerned I would consider myself an interested lay person!)
thank you for this.
I have also noticed the toll the pandemic has had on planning weddings. Strong emotion, many disappointments around scheduling and rescheduling, etc. But weddings do indeed represent and symbolize something much bigger. Because of this, I think most couples trying to wed will make it through one way or another. Thank you for your comments Laura.
It’s church altar, and alter-ego.