Carl Jung, Budd Hopkins, And The Shape Of The Unknown

Carl Jung, Budd Hopkins, And The Shape Of The Unknown

redbook“There is an old saying that ‘God is a circle whose center is anywhere and the circumference nowhere.’ God in his omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence is a totality symbol par excellence, something round, complete, and perfect.”  -Carl Jung, Flying Saucers, 1959

“If there is an underlying oneness of all things, it does not matter where we begin, whether with stars, or laws of supply and demand, or frogs, or Napoleon Bonaparte. One measures a circle, beginning anywhere.” –Charles Fort, Lo!, 1931  

The shape of strange objects in the sky has been of crucial importance to the subject since before we even referred to them as Unidentified Flying Objects. Kenneth Arnold’s 1947 sighting over Washington’s Cascade Range kicked off the modern UFO era as we know it, but not in name, only in shape; until 1953 when the United States Military coined the term “UFO,”[1]   all unidentified shapes in the sky of any stripe were referred to as “saucers.” Given the ubiquity of the saucer descriptor, one might be surprised to learn that Arnold’s craft looked more like flying croissants than saucers as he described them.

ken_arnold(Arnold’s original use of the term “saucer” to describe the craft is somewhat confusing.  Arnold maintains that he originally used the word to describe their flight—“like a saucer if you skip it across the water”—and not their shape.[2] There are, however, several original quotations from June of 1947 that seem to indicate that Arnold did, at some point, describe their shape as saucer-like. Perhaps those were misquotes by careless newspaper editors.)


Since 1947 and throughout the 20th century, we have seen reports of almost a countless variety of shapes in the sky, but the most common are and have always been simply aerial lights (Anomaly type 1, or simply AN1, as it is known on the Vallée system employed by MUFON investigators today) whose shape, if indeed they have a physical form we might describe with a shape, is rendered obscure or invisible by the light they produce. There are also, of course, saucers, cigars, V-shapes, black triangles, spheres, eggs, etc., which may or may not be gray, green, black, metallic, shining, flaming, or sparkling.

Those common and shapeless AN1 lights in the sky described earlier generally conform to the same circular shape that any light source viewed at a distance takes on. Why, then, we might ask, do so many of our modern visions in the sky involve circles? Carl Jung, in his 1959 book Flying Saucers, treated the topic in a manner many would expect of Freud’s fallen disciple: the saucers, for Jung, were primarily a psychic and religious phenomenon, an outward manifestation of humanity’s spiritual needs in a secular age: “Just as physical hunger is sated, at least metaphorically, by the sight of a marvelous meal, so the hunger of the soul is sated by the vision of numinous images.”[3]

basil-broadsheetAnd what about a flying saucer might sate our spiritual hunger? Jung suggests that the circular shape of the visions is a symbol of their essentially spiritual character:

The round bodies in particular are figures such as the unconscious produces in dreams, visions, etc. In this case they are to be regarded as symbols representing, in visual form, some thought that was not thought consciously…The visible form, however, expresses the meaning of the unconscious content only approximately…If we apply them to the round object, whether it be a disk or a sphere, we at once get an analogy with the symbol of totality well known to all students of depth psychology, namely the mandala. This is not by any means a new invention, for it can be found in all epochs and all places, always with the same meaning, and it reappears time and again, independently of tradition, in modern individuals as the “protective” or apotropaic circle…or a modern symbol of order.[4]

mandalaThough Jung primarily wrote on flying saucers from his own professional perspective as a psychologist, he did not at all discount the possibility that they might actually be physically “real,” and he thought that such a revelation would take nothing away from his own musings on the topic: “Should it be that an unknown physical phenomenon is the outward cause of the myth, it would detract nothing from the myth, for many myths have meteorological and other natural phenomena as accompanying causes which by no means explain them.”[5] In short, even if a saucer had landed and a Grey had stepped out onto the White House lawn to shake President Eisenhower’s hand in 1959, Jung would have stuck by his story: The saucer mythos, or “rumour” as Jung called it, was a symptom of 20th century humanity’s deep yearning for God.

The shape of the saucers was not lost on another student of the UFO phenomenon: abstract expressionist artist Budd Hopkins found himself nearly obsessed with the topic after his encounter with an object he described as “lens-shaped” in the skies near Truro, on Cape Cod, in August of 1964.[6] (“The rumour states that the UFOs are as a rule lens-shaped. . .” –Jung, Flying Saucers, p. 10, emphasis added) Hopkins would later go on to become an authority on alien abduction, working with such high-caliber UFO researchers as Dr. J, Allen Hynek and John Mack, M.D. But in the early sixties, before he became an authority in that field, he found UFOs influencing one arena of his life in which he was already well-established: his painting. Hopkins was a nationally renowned abstract expressionist artist, who would eventually become a Guggenheim Fellowship recipient with works on display in the Whitney, MOMA, Guggenheim, Metropolitan, and Boston Museum of Fine Art. He relates the unconscious effect of his UFO experience on his art in his 2009 memoir Art, Life, and UFOs:

…in my case, after 1965 I began to employ what might be called a more hierarchical structure in which one central image dominated and controlled the other forms. The central image I used again and again was a geometrically pure circle, usually black, and sometime invaded by loosely painted streaks of gray and white… In other words, I used the circle as both an imperious, controlling solid and as a mysterious void.[7]

GemniSFunny as it may sound, Hopkins had no idea until much later that UFOs had infiltrated his paintings. As Jung might have been interested to hear, the lens-shaped visions had exerted their hold on his subconscious, while Budd went along thinking his style was progressing nicely on its own:

…it was not until several years later that I first became aware of the possible formal and philosophical links between Sun Black paintings and my 1964 UFO sighting… As I look back over the decades following Sun Black 1, I can see that virtually everything I painted for the next twenty years contained a large, dominating circle of some sort: black, colored, divided into pie-slice sections, banded, repeated in fragmentary form, and varied in every way I could think of.[8]

It would be interesting to hear Jung’s (and Budd’s) thoughts on the gradual shift away from spherical and circular UFOs towards the seemingly more menacing black triangles that would silently patrol our skies towards the end of the 20th century. While the broader Ufological community might be inclined to associate the black triangles with a more nefarious and modern manifestation of the UFO phenomenon (the occupants of the saucers were Venusian royalty, but the triangles were abductors and mutilators of cattle), Jung might have seen it quite differently. If the circle and the saucer represent, to Jung, a symbol of wholeness, totality, or unity, the meaning of the triangle might simply be the same religious totality simply taking on a new visual expression: the trinity. Although the most obvious reference for many readers here will be the Christian trinity, three-fold God-forms are to be found in many other world religions, as Jung himself once noted:

Triads of gods appear very early, at the primitive level.  The archaic triads in the religions of antiquity and of the East are too numerous to be mentioned here. Arrangement in triads is an archetype in the history of religion, which in all probability formed the basis of the Christian Trinity.
–  Jung, A Psychological Approach to the Dogma of the Trinity.

What symbols might patrol the skies of our thoughts in the 21st century? While the black triangles have joined their ranks, Jung’s and Hopkins’ circles in the sky have not gone anywhere. Jung’s own musings on the UFO phenomenon did not deal explicitly with the physical reality of the shapes in question, but he could not refrain from asking the same question that so many other Ufologists have probably carved into their desks out of frustration:

“This question is by no means settled yet. If they are real, what are they? If they are fantasy, why should such a rumor exist?”[9]

Indeed, why should these rumors exist and persist? We love your feedback, whether it’s on Facebook, at Twitter, or in our humble comments section!


[2] In an interview with CBS Newsman Edward R. Murrow on April 7, 1950, Arnold explained: “In the excitement of it all … nobody knew just exactly what they were talking about … They said that I said that they were saucer-like; I said that they flew in a saucer-like fashion.

[3] Jung, Carl. Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies. 1959. Reprint: Princeton University Press, 1978. p. 36

[4] Ibid., p. 22.

[5] Ibid. p. 23.

[6] Hopkins, Budd, Art, Life, and UFOs: A Memoir. Anomalist Books: 2011. Pp. 177-185.

[7] Ibid, p. 188

[8] Ibid, pp. 188-9

[9] Jung, Carl, Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies. 1959. Reprint: Princeton University Press, 1978. p.3


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Martin Nelson

Martin Nelson

Regular contributor at Week In Weird. Currently resides in either Pennsylvania or New Jersey.

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A delightful read. Thanks 🙂

VERY well-written and well-thought out article. I can see you put a lot of time and research into this subject; it’s amazing how much of Jung’s stuff correlates directly to the weirder stuff in the fringe.

Respect for Jung in our post-psychoanalytic era is maybe defensible, but you should be warned that Jung presented his thinking on saucers as experimental and not a finished or rigorously reasoned thesis. The flying saucer phenomenon was a mere decade old when he was writing and many things were poorly established, let alone understood. Jung’s inspiration to treat saucers as mandalas and totality symbols was undoubtedly an effort to resolve the paradox that one should more reasonably expect next generation visionary jets or ghost rockets than aerodynamically dubious saucers. Jung knew nothing of the lost truth hidden in Ken Arnold’s… Read more »