THE PRODIGAL SON as Shadow, Ego & the Self

May 6, 2022

Photo Credit: The Return of the Prodigal Son (1773) by Pompeo Batoni

Jung interpreted religious traditions from the viewpoint of their psychological significance. The allegorical tale of the Prodigal Son illustrates Jung’s basic understanding of the structure and development of the psyche. The young prodigal epitomizes shadow qualities of ignorance, arrogance and impetuousness. His dissolute indulgences show lack of ego strength and land him in a pigsty. Repentant, he returns to his father’s estate, hoping for servant work. Instead, his father celebrates his homecoming. The older brother is aghast at this joyful reception; he has been dutiful yet never so acclaimed. He is the embodiment of respectable persona and adaptation—yet his ego-oriented sense of self seems to have a less enlivened connection with the father. The father, symbolizing the transcendent Self, provides redemptive eros and safe haven. Each of us has a shadow, an ego that tends to believe it’s our totality, and a transpersonal center that can welcome us home.


“I am on the second platform of a four-tiered structure leading from a dock on the river to the top of a cliff. There are ladders and obstacles connecting each of the platforms. I am looking down at the water which is raging and ebbing with monstrous waves. The water is a beautiful color of indigo blue, vastly wide, and immensely deep. There are boats being tossed in the waves with the owners tethered to them by rope, desperately attempting to climb aboard but ultimately becoming swallowed by the crashing waves. I notice a small park ranger dinghy boat come out from a crack in the cliff face and set into the raging water in an apparent attempt to save the other boaters. The driver of the boat appears timid and frightened. I shout to a man next to me, “I used to have that job!” The boat is immediately capsized. I begin climbing up to the third platform and become paralyzed with fear as I climb the wooden pegs jutting out of the side of the cliff. I am aware that a slip would result in certain death. I realize that I have done this many times before and struggle before ultimately pulling myself up and over. A young Afghan boy comes after me effortlessly scaling this obstacle and the next, reaching the top of the cliff. I realize that I was holding up a line of people! I think of the capsized park ranger and determine that I must go save him. I look into the water from on high and see his body; curled in the fetal position; bobbing in the water. I am transported down and reach my hand in to gather him and perform CPR. I am confused to find that all I pull out of the water is a long-expired cartridge from a firework or rifle.I begin the climb up to the second tier and at the threshold there is a tangled web of rope that ensnares me. I am panicking when I hear little voices from below: “Wear it like a dress!” I ponder this for a second and then slip through the rope web as if putting a dress on, and am securely on the second platform. I look below and see a dozen young girls; aged about five years old; all wearing matching black and white dresses. I realize that I must help them up and demonstrate the climbing technique: “Pretend you are a pirate!” I shout to them and demonstrate in an animated way the  technique. They begin to climb and I reach down; gathering them two at a time and pulling them to the second platform.”


Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version, Luke 15:11-32.


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  1. Todd

    The introduction of eros back into the family is really interesting (son to the father). The father often needs eros at a later age…and many of us…ESPECIALLY people who were raised in a very religious atmosphere who became very schizoid or removed from the body from an early age…really find ourselves needing eros later in life in the search for wholeness. We turn to the puer/puella for that.

    How many pastors have we seen have a very public “falls from grace” …. and honestly it turns our stomachs because its often done in hypocrisy and in a very unconscious way …but we should also seek to understand that for what it is…a search for wholeness by people who were way too “one-sided” in their youth and young adulthood and a needed re-introduction of eros back into the father. The Father really needs that…and often times you see the love for that “puer” son exceed the love for the “good son.” I’m reminded of the father in “Legends of the Fall” who loved his tumultuous son Tristan more than the Aiden Quinn character…..

  2. Mamie Allegretti

    Hello Joseph and Deb,
    I was thinking that the younger brother might represent our young, risk taking, get out in the world and get dirty side. It’s the one who take the real hero journey out in the world and finds out that the world isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The older brother might represent our play it safe side – stay home and follow familial duty. The younger brother might also be living out the father’s unlived life or perhaps the father knows what the young son will find when he gets out there and knows that this is the experience he needs to have to mature. The side of us that plays it safe will be resentful and feel like it should be celebrated for its long labor. But it is really in the moving out of the familial realm and into the world where we need to go to be transformed. It almost reminded me of the theme of homecoming in The Odyssey. After we’ve gone out and tasted the world, we need to come back and there is always a sweetness in that and a place to celebrate one’s successes, failures and transformation. Thank you for your work.

  3. Judy Gibson

    During your talk, I started thinking of the fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper (the connection being the two sons) which, according to Wikipedia, has many different interpretations my favorite being this: In Joseph Autran’s Réhabilitation de la fourmi, the ant, while only having straw to eat himself, agrees to share his stocks with the cicada, so long as she sings him a song that would remind them of the summer, which, to him, will be more than worth the price. I find it fascinating that the ant, who worked all summer, gets to enjoy the summer through the grasshopper’s / cicada’s song in winter.

    I looked up the quote: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” ― G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World

  4. Simcha

    Hello !

    After spending his inheritance and being reduced to slavery, the prodigal son seems to mirror his brother’s fate back home.

    After all, his older brother works day in, day out, for his father, much like a slave. One of the father’s real slaves, who informs the older brother about the party, knows more about what’s going on in the family!

    When the prodigal son “burns out,” his fate becomes similar to what he would have experienced by staying at home in the first place. He returns home to offer to work as his father’s slave, with the hope that this position might be better than feeding pigs in a foreign land.

    So his attempt to escape brings him first figuratively and then literally back home. It’s as if the “eros” pleasure part can be integrated only within the family.

    Thanks again for a great podcast!

  5. Kay

    As I listened, it occurred to me that the unspoken ending of the tale may be contained in its circular nature, a sort of ouroboros. In essence, the elder brother’s turn towards shadow material and exile via envy is answered in reflecting on the younger brother’s return from the shadows and welcome home. Perhaps that fate awaits the elder as well.


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