Every day, whether we notice it or not, we encounter symbolic representations — in architecture or art, on the coins in our pockets, in the corporate logos on TV ads, and in our own thoughts and dreams. “Symbols are everywhere, but people are poorly trained to understand or think about them,” says Thomas Singer ’64, a Jungian psychiatrist in San Francisco.
Enter the Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism, or ARAS, a collection of tens of thousands of meticulously annotated images, drawn from different cultures, geographic regions, and historical periods. For the last 20 years, Singer has been a tireless proponent for the archive, helping to bring it into the digital age and encouraging new uses for its contents. He currently serves as chairman of the ARAS national board.
There are several online databases of images that are larger than ARAS, but few can match the archive’s curated content. If a user searches for “snake,” for example, she can view more than 1,200 images of snakes, see examples arranged on a timeline of global civilizations spanning 50,000 years, and read commentary and context for representations of snakes in different cultures. While presenting similarities and differences, the archive also illustrates the interconnectedness of cultures. “That’s what makes ARAS absolutely unique,” Singer says.
The archive was started by scholars in the 1930s, and for its first six decades, it was “a pretty esoteric collection,” Singer says, accessible at Jungian institutes in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. In the 1990s, board members began talking about ways to use technology to make ARAS more widely available, and a digitization project began in 2003, enabling the archive to expand its reach to artists, historians, scholars of mythology, and other curious individuals. Users from more than 130 countries search ARAS each month, according to Singer. The archive also was the basis for a popular art book, The Book of Symbols, published in 2010.
As an undergraduate at Princeton, Singer studied religion and European literature, but after graduation, he followed a more scientific path, enrolling at Yale Medical School. At Yale, he first came into contact with the Jungian tradition, which offered a bridge between medicine and the humanities, Singer says, and a rewarding career path for the last 50 years.
Singer’s Jungian education had a Princeton connection: His first analyst and mentor was Joe Henderson ’27, an alumnus who had trained with Carl Jung in the ’30s. Henderson helped to spark Singer’s interest in imagery, both in the psyche and in culture, which in turn led to his connection with ARAS.
In Singer’s view, ancient symbols and archetypes remain relevant in the modern world. “People are very hungry for meaning,” he says. “Even as we are flooded with all kinds of data and information and imagery, so much of it is undigested. … What ARAS really does is it tries to help one approach what’s meaningful in image and symbol.”
For the Record
This story was updated to clarify the timing of ARAS’ digitization.