Life After Death, or Who Are the Ladies?

So how would the three major players in Depth Psychology, Freud, Jung, and Hillman, interpret the Ladies? For Freud (1913/1950), there is no question: They must be fantasy figures that fulfill some innermost, infantile, most likely sexual need. “Spirits and demons . . . are only projections of man’s own emotional impulses. He turns his emotional cathexes into persons, he peoples the world with them and meets his internal mental processes again outside himself.” (p. 115).

Jung, though he remained appropriately skeptical of spiritualist claims, was more open to different interpretations. He investigated spiritualism and occult phenomena when they presented themselves, and was familiar with automatic writing and other apparent manifestations of ghosts or spirits. He (1938/1953) noted that when confronted with such phenomena,

a naïve intelligence at once thinks of spirits. The same sort of thing is also observable in the hallucinations of the insane, although these, more clearly than the first, can often be recognized as mere thoughts or fragments of thoughts whose connection with the conscious personality is immediately apparent to everyone. (p. 196)

Even though Jung believed that most occult phenomena were best explained in terms of personified complexes, he did not preclude the idea of life after death. It is merely something about which we have no certain information:

The immediate meaning of “immortality” is simply a psychic activity that transcends the limits of consciousness. “Beyond the grave” or “on the other side of death” means, psychologically, “beyond consciousness.” There is positively nothing else it could mean, since statements about immortality can only be made by the living, who, as such, are not exactly in a position to pontificate about conditions “beyond the grave.” (1938/1953, p. 191)

In 1948 Jung (1948/1976) wrote the foreword to the German translation of Stewart Edward White’s (1940/1959) book The Unobstructed Universe, in which White records conversations with the spirit of his deceased wife. Jung (1948/1976) remarks that “proof of identity” of a spirit, even one as well known in life as “Betty,” a former medium, is likely impossible to attain.

In practice, however, cases actually occur which are so overwhelmingly impressive that they are absolutely convincing to those concerned. Even though our critical arguments may cast doubt on every single case, there is not a single argument that could prove that spirits do not exist. (p. 313)

Jung’s perspective, in the end, seems to have been that the information provided by “spirits” should be regarded as “statements about the unconscious psyche” (1948/1976, p. 313), certainly as useful to psychological understanding as dream images. Whether the invisibles are real or not, “these phenomena exist in their own right, regardless of the way they are interpreted” (p. 313). This is how I approach the question of just who the Ladies “really” are.

Hillman (1997) agrees:

What is immortality and reincarnation of the soul in psychology is conservation and transformation of energy in physics. . . . For if the psyche is an energetic phenomenon, then it is indestructible. Its existence in “another life” cannot be proved any more than the existence of the soul in this life can be proved. Its existence is given only psychologically in the form of inner certainty, i.e., belief. (p. 67)

I readily admit that by attempting to make sense of my dreams and artwork in terms of the actual women’s lives, I am doing exactly what Hillman repeatedly says one must not do: using these dreams, synchronicities, and so on, to gain understanding of the waking world. Hillman (1985) would suggest I am falling into what he calls “externality”:

We fall into externality all the time, even when internalizing in active imagination, taking the figures at face value, listening to their counsel literally, or simply by having to do active imagination at all in order to find depth, interiority, fantasy, and anima. Then the world of psychic images and the anima figure within this world hold magic sway. One is in thrall to Mistress Soul. No matter how introvertedly performed, this is externality, acting in, literalism, absolutizing, or whatever else one likes to call it. (pp. 123-125)

Hillman would say that taking the counsel of the Ladies literally, taking them “at face value” as they present themselves to me, is externality and literalizing. I think that he would advocate refraining from taking them as human beings in any way. Hillman (1979, 1999) is consistent in referring to such “spirits” as belonging to the underworld, the “Brood of Nyx.” He views the persons of the imaginal world from a more distant perspective, and would likely advise viewing them as something more akin to gods or mythological figures, watching them, seeing how they act and interact. But how is that not looking at the Ladies through a lens, seeing them from the perspective that says, “these figures are not what they appear to be”?

It is important, obviously, to understand the Ladies as more than the women they once were. I must not literalize them as “nothing but” the souls of the departed; nor may I literalize them as “nothing but” images or mythological figures with no direct relation to the waking world, as Hillman seems to advocate. And I must not give over control to them.

These questions about how to treat the Ladies fit in with what Hillman (1985) says about exploring the unconscious:

Anima explanations point to the unconscious and make us more unconscious. She mystifies, produces sphinxlike riddles, prefers the cryptic and occult where she can remain hidden: she insists upon uncertainty. By leading whatever is known from off its solid footing, she carries every question into deeper waters, which is also a way of soul-making. (pp. 133-135)

So the very act of attempting to answer a question like, “How shall I relate to the Ladies?” is, for Hillman, an act of soul-making.

Hillman clearly believes in the “invisibles,” so the fact of the Ladies’ existence is not in question. It does seem clear, though, that he would not accept them as the literal souls of the women themselves. Relating to the Ladies as the souls of departed women, Hillman might suggest, is tantamount to dragging them back from the underworld and into the daylight of everyday existence. Instead, Hillman (1979) would prefer to regard them as images, as he would the figures in dreams. “The dream image of a human person cannot be taken in terms of his actuality, since the image in a dream belongs to the underworld shades and therefore refers to an archetypal person in human shape” (pp. 60-61). For Hillman, dream images and figures from active imagination are altogether not equivalent to their daylight counterparts, and to Hillman, we do them an injustice if we literalize or externalize them by equating them.

My counter-argument is this: Treating the Ladies as they present themselves—relating to them as the souls of women who have departed this world and now dwell in the imaginal realm—does them honor. It is exactly what is needed to expand our worldview, to bring greater awareness of soul back into daily life. The Ladies are not “ghosts,” stuck between the worlds, howling and haunting because they cannot let go of their unfinished business in this plane. The Ladies have returned to the dayworld of their own volition; I have not “dragged” them here. They seem to have messages for those of us now living, messages that reside between the lines of their stories, that are hinted at by their interests, and that can only be understood by an ear attuned to soul. Our job is to attend to them as they appear and to bear witness to them without imposing our own meanings.

In my experience of them, the Ladies clearly have a broader perspective than do we who are still in the land of the living. Yes, they speak of simple, familiar things like gardening and sewing and the care of children, but there is always a feeling of something larger, more metaphorical, in their concerns. How is this different from what Hillman calls “an archetypal person in human shape”? The difference is subtle but important. In one of my earliest encounters with her, one of the Ladies said to me, laughing, “We keep our personalities!” And yet they seem to have access to information, insight, and wisdom that are unavailable to those of us still on this side of the veil. As an analogy, look at the difference between one’s own level of wisdom and maturity at age ten, say, and one’s maturity after a lifetime of experience and individuation. The Ladies seem still to be themselves, but vastly “older,” wiser, and more knowledgeable.

There will probably always be different schools of thought about the nature of imaginal figures. In this dissertation I strive to maintain an attitude of not-knowing. I do not know who or what the Ladies are; I only know how they show themselves to me. What I have as my evidence or data are the experiences, the letters, and a few facts about the women who wrote them. I am not going to try to explain the Ladies in any way, only present the experiences. Romanyshyn (2002) reminds us that “the imaginal is a quantum reality” (p. 107), non-local and non-temporal. He also reminds us not to try to pin down or define the beings we are provisionally addressing as “imaginal.” Their radical otherness cannot be overstated.

In the end, in my opinion, it matters little how the individual reader interprets the Ladies and other imaginal figures in this dissertation. Their precise nature can never be “proved” one way or another. What matters is how their words and activities affect our lives. The end result is up to us and how we choose to act in response to them.


Freud, S. (1950). Totem and taboo: Some points of agreement between the mental lives of savages and neurotics (J. Strachey, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton. (Original work published 1913)

Hillman, J. (1979). The dream and the underworld. New York: HarperPerennal.

Hillman, J. (1985). Anima: An anatomy of a personified notion. Dallas, TX: Spring Publications.

Hillman, J. (1997). Suicide and the soul (2nd ed.). Woodstock, CT: Spring Publications.

Jung, C. G. (1953). The relations between the ego and the unconscious (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.). In The collected works of C. G. Jung (2nd ed., Vol. 7). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1938)

Jung, C. G. (1976). Psychology and spiritualism (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.). In The collected works of C. G. Jung (Vol. 18). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1948)

Romanyshyn, R. (2002). Ways of the heart: Essays toward an imaginal psychology. Pittsburgh, PA: Trivium Publications.