Review of Ariadne's Clue: The Symbols of Humankind

Anthony Stevens, Ariadne's Clue: The Symbols of Humankind,
(Princeton: Princeton UP, 1998) cloth, 350 pp.

Reviewed by Melinda Weinstein
Lawrence Technological University

In Ariadne’s Clue: the Symbols of Humankind, Anthony Stevens identifies the origin of archetypal symbols in the phylogenetic psyche of the earliest Homo Sapiens. Working against psychoanalytic and behaviorist accounts of symbol formation, Stevens offers a psychobiological perspective that combines Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious with evolutionary genetics. Whereas psychoanalysts argue that symbols are private and essentially pathological, fabricated to suppress the memory of a prior event, and behaviorists imagine the mind a blank tabula rasa, acquiring symbols through learning and experience, Stevens views the mind’s responsiveness to archetypal symbols, a proactive, adaptive process absolutely crucial to human survival. Our “mental apparatus,” he argues, “is made up of numerous ‘modules’ or archetypes which have evolved though natural selection to meet specific adaptive problems confronted by our hunter–gatherer ancestors in the past” (10). Archetypes are innate predispositions to “develop certain kinds of perception, ideation or actions…genome bound units of information which programme the individual member of a species to perceive, respond and behave in ways which are adapted to the circumstances prevailing in the environment at any given time” (22). The archetype of the snake, for example, “not the image per se, but an archetypal predisposition to perceive danger in a configuration of snakelike characteristics” (31) becomes established in the genotype or the archetypal structure of the human psyche when a fear of snakes proves itself a desirable characteristic for the survival of the human species:

Accordingly we are predisposed and prepared to encounter archetypal figures (for example, mother, child, father, mate), archetypal events (for example, birth, death, separation from parents, courting), and archetypal objects (for example, water, sun, fish, predatory animals, snakes). Each is part of the total endowment granted us by evolution in order to equip us for life in the ancestral environment. Each finds expression in the psyche in dreams, in behavior and in myths. (32)

Symbols proceed from archetypes when we project the complex of emotions or ideas constitutive of the archetype onto objects and images encountered in daily life: a pattern established in the phylogenetic psyche responds to impressions generated by a similar pattern in the external world.
Stevens’ goal in Ariadne’s Clue is to promote the life enhancing effects of opening oneself to symbols in dreams, myths and everyday life. To be responsive to symbols, he argues, is to look within a “psychic mirror in which we see our human energies reflected, and, by recognizing their significance, take personal possession of them” (81). In tuning in to symbols and archetypes, we actualize ourselves and enhance our creative vitality. Stevens illustrates this through his work with several patients.
Stevens divides Ariadne’s Clue into two parts. In the introduction, he presents his theory; in the second half, he offers a “thesaurus” of archetypal symbols in which the reader may browse. The symbols are organized into four categories: the physical environment; culture and psyche; people, animals and plants; and the body, with further subdivisions within these categories. Departing from traditional dream-dictionaries that assign one-to-one connections between symbolic images and possible meanings, Steven’s thesaurus works by amplification; he offers a range of meanings for a symbol and then provides examples of the symbol at work in various world mythologies. Oddly, Stevens encourages the reader eager to interpret his or her dreams to skip the rather provocative and rich theoretical introduction, and to begin with the thesaurus.

In brief: Ariadne's Clue presents an interesting paradigm, but its value for the study of esotericism remains uncertain.