Understanding The Sage

The Sage archetype, called ‘senex’ (old man in Latin) by Jung, is one of wisdom, knowledge and power. It represents the innate spiritual aspect of our personality in the unconscious and according to Carl Jung, appears in our lives through different symbols. It may take the form of people, dreams, insights, or our life’s learning we pass on to others.

In literature, the sage often takes the form of a mentor or a teacher to the hero, playing a crucial role in the hero’s journey. The sage archetype may be portrayed by a God or a Godess, a magician or wizard, a philosopher or an advisor.

The sage is usually depicted as a wise old man or an old crone with great foresight, who offers measured advice and guidance to help the hero in his quest, and at the same time letting the hero choose his path towards destiny.

The sage archetype has been described in various forms throughout literature across cultures. The sage archetype makes its presence felt in modern popular fiction as well, for instance, as Yoda from Star Wars, as the Wizard Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings and as Professor Dumbledore in Harry Potter series to name a few.

The Sage’s Quest for Truth


The Sage is a seeker of truth, and this archetype operates from a fundamental principle that ‘the truth will set you free’. It is associated with attributes of self-reflection and understanding that enlightens our path to individuation. It implies asking questions to self in order to reach to the answers one seeks in life.

Often, when we reflect inwardly and deeply, we are able to generate insights, new perspectives and actionable solutions and it is the sage archetype that drives us toward such self-reflection in the search for wisdom. The sage thus engages in meaningful introspection, which involves reflecting and looking inward by being aware and accepting of one’s thoughts, feelings and actions without any judgement.

Such tendencies of the sage archetype make us associate it more often with its light characteristics and with an idea of ‘illumination’. However, the sage too has a shadow of its own that needs to be embraced. The shadow of any archetype contains its weaknesses, repressed desires and unacceptable impulses. (To know more about the shadow, please read our previous article on the same).


The Sage’s Dark Side


The shadow of the sage asserts itself in us by our tendencies to be critical and dogmatic in our views of the world, as well as of our own selves. We can easily imagine the wise old man sometimes, becoming too fixed or rigid about his ideas.

Often when we reflect, we tend to be critical and make judgments about the thoughts, feelings and actions of ourselves and others. We label them as ‘good or bad’ and/or ‘right or wrong’. For instance, we might think “How can I be jealous? Jealousy is wrong, I should not feel this way” or “How can I be attracted to another person when I love my partner so much? This means I am a bad, sinful person”. These labels that we attach to the insights we derive while looking inward, make us feel guilty and hurt. Such reflections then become unhelpful as they lead to unhealthy rumination.

By making judgements about our thoughts, feelings and actions that we do not like and by labelling them as ‘bad or wrong’, we are rejecting those aspects of our being, which in actuality cannot be denied to oblivion. Such denial, though bringing temporary respite, becomes suppressed and gets integrated into the shadow. In our anxiety of running away from our shadow that in fact lies within us, we end up perceiving our lives as a series of uncontrollable events we feel helpless in.

For example, a person who thinks anger is a ‘bad’ emotion, will not acknowledge or express when he feels angry and is likely to blame his environment or people around him as being insensitive and imposing towards him. The quote below conveys this idea beautifully:

“Whatever is rejected from the self appears in the world as an event, and until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” – Carl Jung


Individuation of the Sage


Carl Jung believed, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”

Individuation is this process of bringing the shadow aspects into the consciousness, thereby, integrating it into the archetype. In all examples of the sage archetype as cited above, the sage too had to undergo his own process of individuation as a part of the collective journey.

An instance of this can be seen in Lord of the Rings, through the transformation of the wizard Gandalf, when he confronted his shadow in the form of a Balrog – a demon. In the story, Gandalf, the Grey sacrifices himself to protect others and falls into a dark abyss with the demon. Later, he emerges as Gandalf, the White, recounting his experience of coming out of the darkness by following the demon, his shadow. He says, “In that despair my enemy was my only hope, and I pursued him, clutching at his heel.”

Post contributed by: Kavya Raghavan

Image Credit: Gage Skidmore