In an interview on CBS This Morning, director Darren Aronofsky described his film Noah as “the least biblical, biblical film” ever made, because he wanted to reinvent the biblical flood narrative for the twenty-first century. If Noah’s biblically based story isn’t biblical, how might audiences interpret Aronofsky’s film? One means of approaching Noah is through the archetypal theory of analytical psychologist C. G. Jung (1875-1961).
Jung developed his archetypal theory in the context of a process of psychic adaption and regeneration that he called individuation. Jung saw commons symbols and archetypes (images and figures respectively) within his patients’ (and his own) dreams, writings, and paintings, and found that the imagery represented internal conflict to each individual. In other words, the psyche dramatized inner conflict through visible narratives of symbols and archetypes that offered the individual a chance to confront and resolve conflict. This psychic narrative moved through a pattern of conflict, dissolution, and restoration, guided the individual through adaption to the conflict and, if successful, renewed psychic and spiritual balance. Jung compared the narrative, symbols, and archetypes of individuation with mythology and religious scriptures, and found similarities that suggested myth and scripture as individuation narratives in their own right. Jung’s studies included the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible), which he interpreted as a record of humanity’s collective psychological adaption and regeneration through repeated engagement with the numinous, transcendent power that encompasses the entire psyche; the Self (an archetype of the indwelling God).
Using Jungian archetypal theory as an interpretive guide, viewers of Noah might consider Aronofsky’s “least biblical, biblical film” version of the flood as an archetypal narrative of adaption and regeneration. Because the archetypal elements within Noah are abundant, I narrowed my focus to four archetypal themes that show the film’s progression through psychological regeneration: the conflict between Tubal-cain and Noah, the destruction of innocents/innocence, the floodwater, and the grandfather.
Tubal-cain vs. Noah
A central issue Jung observed in the process of psychological adaption and restoration was the individual’s regular struggle to assert her/his unique personality amidst societal expectations that reward conformity. In Jungian terms, this conflict occurs between the persona, an individual’s public face concerned with adherence to societal expectations (think of the face you display while at work), and the personality, the individual’s private face reserved for life away from society. The constant theme of conflict between Tubal-cain, self-proclaimed king of Man, and Noah, who lives away from Man, personifies this psychological conflict between the persona and the personality, respectively.
Three themes in which this persona/personality variance appears are:
(1) Kingship: Tubal-cain asserts that he is king of Man, while Noah claims humanity has no king.
(2) Treatment of animals: Tubal-cain sees animals as something to subjugate and eat, while Noah views animals as companions. Noah’s son asks Noah about Man’s meat consumption when they witness Man hunting. Noah says that Man believes eating meat makes them strong, but they are incorrect; strength comes from the inner connection with the Creator.
(3) Relationship with the Creator: Tubal-cain steals the birthright that the Creator gave the descendents of Adam yet he cannot communicate with the Creator. Noah has a clearly defined relationship with the Creator who communicates regularly with Noah through dreams. Noah and Tubal-cain’s differing relationship with the Creator suggests that divine connection comes not through conformity, the desire for power, or the physical symbol of the birthright; it comes through a willingness to remain open to an experience of the Creator however it may occur.
Noah’s journey into Tubal-cain’s territory brings the conflict to a head as Noah builds his ark with Tubal-cain looking on. Noah’s action reflects the movement of unconscious elements into consciousness, where Noah/unconscious literally sets up shop to build his ark—a project the Tubal-cain/consciousness cannot ignore. Noah refuses to submit to the control of Tubal-cain and rejects pressure from Tubal-cain to alter the Creator’s plan. The personality, in other words, defies the desires of the reward-seeking, conformity-driven persona.
Tubal-cain’s penetration of, and stowing away on, the ark during the deluge symbolizes the last ditch effort the persona makes to destroy the personality. Ham, Noah’s impressionable middle child, becomes caught in the contagion of Tubal-cain’s ideology (reflected also in Ham’s obsessive desire to find a wife among society). Ham even contemplates killing his father to help Tubal-cain, but at the last minute, Ham betrays the invading persona and stabs Tubal-cain, effectively ending the influence of the persona and reasserting the personality’s claim on the psyche.
The Destruction of Innocents/Innocence
While the death of Tubal-cain is expected (he is the villain after all), the film constantly returns to the theme of the “destruction of innocents/innocence.” Psychologically, the process of psychological adaption and restoration needs more than just the death of the persona/Tubal-cain to succeed. Psychological adaption and regeneration also requires the dissolution of elements associated with the persona that impede the personality’s development.
The massive loss of humanity within Noah becomes easier to understand, as does Noah’s refusal to let Ham take a wife from the population of Man, when considered within an archetypal context. The masses under the leadership of Tubal-cain embody the elements that prohibit psychological development, and must be removed. Noah’s treatment of Na’el (Ham’s brief love-interest) seems cruel and uncaring (Noah refuses to release her from an animal trap and she is trampled by a mob), yet his action is correct from an archetypal perspective. If Ham marries and has children with Na’el, elements of the persona would infiltrate the personality, making the effort behind the ark a waste.
The destruction of persona elements is neither a pleasant nor a comfortable experience for the personality, evidenced by Noah’s brooding as he listens to the wails of the people outside the ark while the flood rages. Although this destruction of familiar elements is difficult, the process is necessary for regeneration, which Noah repeatedly asserts to his family: the Creator told him things had to be this way. Noah argues with the Creator, as well, and rejects his mission on several occasions. Noah’s challenge to the Creator reflects the difficulty inherent in dissolution, despite its being necessary to achieve the goal.
In contrast to the death of Man, Noah’s declaration that he will kill the offspring of Ila and Shem (Noah’s eldest son) is far more disheartening from a psychological perspective. Adopted in her childhood and raised by Noah’s family, Ila belongs to the personality. Noah states that if she has a boy, he will not kill the child. If Ila has a girl who can grow up to become a mother, then Noah will kill her because he believes humanity is meant to end with his family’s line. In fact, the point of the flood is to begin (or regenerate) humanity within their family line. (Ironically, earlier, when Tubal-cain says that the flood is the end of all life, Noah asserts that the flood is the beginning of everything.) Ila’s twin daughters were conceived within the confines of the personality and symbolize the psyche’s power of self-renewal. Ila does not have one child, but two, ensuring that both of Noah’s younger sons will continue to regenerate their family line as well. Noah’s refusal to kill Ila’s twin girls then reflects not only his kindness and love, but his recognition that his granddaughters fit within the Creator’s regenerative plan.
The archetype of innocents/innocence refers not to experience with good or evil (as we might assume). Rather, proximity to the Creator determines innocents/innocence. Man, which follows the will of the persona and is blinded by the belief in conformity, dissolves. Noah’s family, which follows the will of the Creator, will be reborn.
Water & the Womb
Floodwaters, the ark, and the animals that reside on that ark are the most well known legacy of Noah’s biblical mythology, and are no less significant when considering Noah from an archetypal perspective. Early in the film, Noah shares his dream-vision from the Creator with his grandfather Methuselah, who assumes that the earth’s destruction will come by fire. Noah corrects Methuselah, saying the destruction of humanity will be through water because water cleanses and brings rebirth. According to Jung, water is the most common symbol for unconsciousness, and as a fixture in religious ritual, water embodies sacredness and denotes a hierophany, a direct encounter with the divine. Thus, the moment we all anticipate (the actual flood) does not simply indicate the destruction of wickedness, the flood waters confirm humanity’s psychological and spiritual entrance into the realm of the unconscious and home to the divine Creator.
Water’s association with rebirth aligns water with the archetype of the mother. This association between water and motherhood is most direct when Ila’s water breaks and she gives birth prior to reaching land. However, when thinking of the narrative of Noah, we must consider the floodwater as an emblem of motherhood as well, specifically as the amniotic fluid within the mother’s womb that surrounds and protects the developing fetus, or the ark [See Ingrid Esther Lilly, "Noah's Flood as Environmental Apocalypse."]
The ark itself is a container that protectively houses animals and Noah’s family. Noah, his wife, and children regularly enter and exit the ark through a central portal located between two extended portions of the ship. For the most part, the animals enter (and presumably exit) through this same portal. The animals are also placed into an induced slumber prior to the journey, alluding to the slumber of the fetus in utero. Noah and his family will wake the animals only once the ark has reached land and the time for their (re)birth is at hand. This (re)birth refers to the physical regeneration of life as the world begins again and to the renewal of psychic health and balance that concludes the period of psychological adaption and regeneration.
Reaching land and being (re)born are not the final steps within psychological adaption and regeneration. The personality must adjust to the new reality within the psyche. Psychological adaption and regeneration do not create a brand new individual; the process transforms and strengthens the already-existing personality such that it assumes a new role. For Noah, that new role comes as the archetypal grandfather.
“Grandfather”: The Wise Old Man
Early in the film, Noah sets out on to consult Methuselah, his grandfather. Methuselah lives alone in a cave, has flowing white hair, and magical powers: he puts Shem to sleep with a breath, conjures a vision of the flood for Noah using an herbal tea, and later, restores Ila’s ability to bear children. Each of these attributes of Methuselah’s character align him with Jung’s archetype of the Wise Old Man, a “sagacious and helpful old man” who appears as a “magician, doctor, priest, teacher, professor, grandfather, or any other person possessing authority” when the hero requires assistance in his mission. An archetype of “knowledge, reflection, insight, wisdom, cleverness, and intuition,” the Wise Old Man asks questions to induce self-reflection and offers a series of realizations that help an individual begin to untangle himself from his current predicament.* After inducing a dream-vision for Noah so that he may divine his purpose in the drama of humanity’s annihilation, Grandfather/Methuselah announces that fire will destroy humanity. The assumption is so quick that it suggests he (as the Wise Old Man) is testing whether Noah understands why the destruction will occur through water, and not fire. Noah’s statement that water cleanses and purifies confirms that he comprehends the significance of water as the tool in the Creator’s regenerative project. Thus, Noah’s visit with Grandfather expands his understanding of his role within the Creator’s plan.
Each of Noah’s family members also refer to Methuselah as grandfather: Naameh (who is related to Methuselah through marriage), Noah’s sons (who are properly Methuselah’s great-grandsons), and Ila, Noah’s adopted daughter. While the family’s use of “grandfather” demonstrates respect, Methuselah’s role as Grandfather plays a larger, more significant and archetypal role in narrative of regeneration. Methuselah does not survive the flood, but through his encounter with Ila, he ensures that the Grandfather archetype will continue.
Noah’s transition into Grandfather comes in three parts:
(1) Noah becomes a grandfather once Ila gives birth to twin daughters.
(2) Noah continues Methuselah’s curious and humorous desire for berries. Once the family reaches land, Noah finds an abundance of grapes and uses the berries to make wine. He isolates himself in a cave (like Methuselah), and with the help of the berries, drinks himself into a stupor. While Noah’s drunkenness seems at odds with the idea of the Wise Old Man and the behavior of a biblical patriarch, the archetype of alcohol alludes to heightened religious experience. Noah’s drunkenness aligns him with the archetype of the Holy Fool of Christ, a seemingly crazy, sometimes intoxicated, and irresponsible man who walks around naked or in disheveled clothing. True to form, Noah’s sons find him sprawled naked and passed out on the shore in front of his cave dwelling. This bad behavior, however, veils the Holy Fool’s sanctity and connection to the divine. Rather than being an affront to the memory of his biblical predecessor, Aronofsky’s drunken Noah actually communicates the significance and height of his relationship with the Creator.
(3) Noah’s physically transforms into Grandfather. At the film’s conclusion, Noah embodies the Wise Old Man with his longer, greyer beard and longer, greyer hair. He assumes his role as patriarch of renewed humanity as he blesses Ila and Shem’s daughters with the reclaimed symbol of his birthright and passes the divine energy through to his grandchildren. He becomes the new Wise Old Man, the spiritual guide to whom the next generation may appeal for wisdom.
From an archetypal perspective, Aronofsky’s reinvention of the biblical flood narrative represents a re-visioning of the archetypes found within Noah’s story: Noah’s journey becomes more associated with psychological adaption and regeneration that separates the individual from controlling authorities demanding conformity, strengthens inner convictions, and fortifies a connection with the Creator. The conflict between Tubal-cain and Noah suggests the conflict between the persona and personality over the personality’s desire to express itself as a unique individual and not submit to the authoritative demands of conformity. The “destruction of innocents/innocence” alludes to the dissolution of all psychic elements associated with the persona that prevent the personality from following its inner voice (i.e., the Creator). The flood and the ark represent the womb that protects the psyche as it regenerates and prepares for rebirth as a stronger, more committed individual. Noah’s evolution brings him closer, not farther from the Creator as he becomes the Wise Old Man and patriarch of a renewed humanity.
Noah is a dark and ethically challenging film because individuation is a dark and difficult process, which, Jung noted, many do not complete because the experience is so jarring. Rather than challenge Noah and Aronofsky with the myriad ways in which the film diverges from its biblical origins, re-vision Noah as a manifestation of a personal experience with the inner Creator when you find yourself battered by life’s destructive forces.
In other words, be like Noah: trust the Creator and go with the flow.
*C. G. Jung, Collected Works: The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Vol. 9.1. 2nd ed. Translated by R. F. C. Hull. Vol. 9.1 (Princeton: Princeton University Press): par. 398-406.