The Scarab: Jung Created a Coincidence within a Coincidence
Updated: Jul 27
Jung's scarab shows the difficulty in taking responsibility for a coincidence.
In his monograph Synchronicity (1973) Carl Jung (1875-1961) reported a synchronicity with a patient during psychotherapy. The image of a scarab beetle had appeared in patient's dream and as she told Jung about it, a scarab-like beetle appeared at the window of his consulting room. Her amazement triggered positive psychological change. The first post on this blog describes how Jung functioned for his patient as a silent intermediary between an external event (the beetle at the window) and a mental event (the beetle in her dream) although Jung seems to downplay his role in her synchronicity.
This post expands that observation, looking at how Jung may have helped to create the synchronicity. Namely, Jung's use of the scarab beetle as an archetypal symbol may have been picked up on a subconscious level by his patient who may have manifested it as part of a common need of patients to please their therapists. The scarab story also illustrates a unique variation on a new coincidence form, the meta-coincidence, which will be defined and explored later in this post.
In this famous synchronicity, the scarab served as the external event that coincided with the mental events of two people, Jung and his patient. The Scarab
“A young woman of high education and serious demeanor” was being treated by Jung. Jung could see that her quest for psychological change was doomed unless he was able to succeed in softening her rationalist shell with “a somewhat more human understanding.” He needed something to help transform her.
He remained attentive to the young woman, while hoping something “unexpected and irrational” would turn up. She was describing a dream from the previous night about a costly piece of jewelry in the shape of a golden scarab. He heard a tapping on the window. Jung opened the window and plucked a scarabaeid beetle out of the air, the common rose-chafer (Cetonia aurata).
Jung commented that the beetle “contrary to its usual habits had evidently felt an urge to get into a dark room at this particular moment.” The beetle, closely resembling the golden scarab, was just what he needed and just what she needed. “Here is your scarab,” he said to the woman, as he handed her a link between her dream image and the external world. Analysis of the Coincidence
The three incidents of the coincidence are: 1) the scarabeid beetle coming to Jung’s window. 2) The patient’s reporting a dream of the scarab jewelry. 3) Jung's need for something irrational and unexpected to happen.
Incident #1: The dream image. She dreamed an image, the scarab, well-known to Jung—the scarab as a symbol of death and transformation (Jung, 1973, p 23). Psychotherapy research suggests that the therapist shapes the content of what patients say. To illustrate this, an old adage says “Freudian patients dream Freudian dreams, and Jungian patients dream Jungian dreams.” She also may have incorporated a daytime encounter with a swarm of rose-chafers into her dream as a subconscious match to a Jung’s archetypal image of transformation. Incident #2: The Beetle. The rose-chafer beetle is common in Central and Southern Europe where Jung’s home town of Zurich, Switzerland, is located. They can be seen in large numbers feeding on the nectar of flowers, especially roses in May and June. Jung did not report the time of year, but most likely, the synchronicity took place when there were swarms of rose-chafers in the area. To have a beetle knocking on Jung’s window during spring and early summer would be likely. Incident #3: Jung's role. Unlike most synchronicities, this one had an intermediary (Jung) between the event in the surroundings (the beetle knocking on the window) and the mental event (the patient's dream). Jung got up, opened the window, caught the beetle and presented it to her. Jung was frustrated with her lack of psychological movement and wanted something to encourage her to change. The rose-chafer seemed to respond to his need. Did Jung know about the beetle being active at this time of year? Probably. Yet he reported being surprised that the beetle wanted to enter a dark room "contrary to its usual habits." Consequences
The patient seemed to have been amazed enough to now listen to Jung who, magician-like, had produced the beetle. Her defenses dropped. She could respond to his pleas to loosen her hyper-rational thinking. Since the Egyptian meaning of the scarab was death and transformation (Jung, 1973, p. 23), he found support for his concepts of archetype and the unus mundus (one world) to explain the event. Both participants were changed by the event. This fairy tale like coincidence has had major impact not only on the patient and Jung but also on the study of coincidences. For decades afterwards, this story became the paradigm synchronicity. The story also represents Jung’s vision of himself—bringing transformation to the rigid, rational thinking of the Western mind through synchronicity. Meta-coincidence
Coincidences can be about coincidences; these are meta-coincidences. For example, a coincidence experienced by a person in the course of studying coincidences.
The more complicated meta-coincidences involve a pair of coincidences, usually occurring within a short time window, in which the content of one coincidence is directly related to the content of the other. The “meta” prefix is meant to show that the coincidences have somehow come together cumulatively, just as a metastudy is a study on the topic of studies.
In the scarab story, one coincidence is that the woman was talking about a scarab and a scarab appeared. The other coincidence is that Jung needed a way to jolt her out of her ultra-rational thinking, and a way appeared. Comment
While Jung seems to present himself as an almost invisible observer of this scarab synchronicity, without his active involvement, the synchronicity would not have taken place. He needed to have something happen to help his patient's therapy move along. His own actions produced the result he sought. Jung's difficulty directly acknowledging his role in the patient's coincidence highlights how most of us have difficulty recognizing personal responsibility for the coincidences within which we find ourselves. The scarab story urges us to look again for personal responsibility. Note: Thank-you to Tara dos Santos for her helpful suggestions.
Jung, C.G. (1973) Synchronicity. Princeton:, NJ: Princeton Press
Truax, C. B. (1966). Reinforcement and nonreinforcement in Rogerian psychotherapy. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 71(1), 1–9. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0022912