Joan of Arc was one of us: beautiful, burdened, powerful, despairingly vulnerable — and impelled by extraordinary forces largely beyond her control. Triggered by cultural and historic currents, but driven by agents rooted in her interior world, I believe Joan’s experience can best be understood through the lens of personal complexes.
Joan: Compelling and Compelled
I came to this research project interested in Joan’s ‘voices,’ three ethereal visitors that encouraged her to take up the sword and liberate her nation. But as I explored, I begin to suspect that this klatch of saints and angels was secondary to the deeper drama: the presence of a complexed archetype, an archetype shared by the historical Jesus, which I will describe as savior-type. On this basis I reframed my approach to my research, and dug in with these questions: To what degree was the life and death of Joan of Arc the ‘playing out’ of the narrative of a savior-type complex? And, what does her holy, tragic journey teach us about the perils and potentials of our own complexes?
There is nothing in Joan’s story, after all, that we are exempted from. Archetype, complex, trauma, ecstasy — these things are a part of everyone’s psychic makeup. To the degree that we respect the capacities of our complexes — to the degree that we honor and befriend them — we can begin to take up, and reign in when needed, our own power in the world. At the same time, by deliberately creating space for the speaking of our complexes, we are far less likely to be led by them into catastrophe — a heartbreaking betrayal, a loss of faith, a metaphorical or literal burning at the stake.
Complex Theory and Other Complex Theories
One helpful way to begin thinking about
complexes is not with definitions, but with metaphor and poetry.
Carl Jung, for
instance, offered us the uneasy image that we are not the masters of our own
inner houses. Even more strikingly, W.H. Auden observed,
We are lived by powers we pretend to understand. Within the
world of our psyches, which we so often perceive as a unity under our egoic
control, exist the complexes. Conceptualized alternatively as
Jung developed and clarified the concept
of complexes, perhaps most clearly articulating the premise in his
Review of the Complex Theory. While other practitioners,
including Freudand Adler,
have made use of the complex model, the theoretical heart of this paper orients around
Shalit, a Jungian, offers perhaps the
clearest definition of a complex, describing it as
a network of
associations, images, ideas, memories, or the like, clustered around a nuclear,
archetypal core of meaning, and characterized ... by a common emotional
tone. Stein goes on to unpack the theory, saying that
complexes have a tendency to commandeer the ego in a manner not unlike
possession. In this way, they alter our behavior,
perspectives, memories, and beliefs about the past, and the
future. At the same time, complexes color our
experience of the world by way of their penchant for projecting inner material
onto the outside world. Projections, says Jung,
change the world into the
replica of one’s own unknown face. Additionally,
Shalit tells us,
A strong autonomous complex will attract whatever it
encounters and draw it into its energy field.
Beyond their experiential qualities, one
of the key features of the complex is that its shell — the trappings of the
personal and contemporary cultural factors that give it its ‘appearance’ —
living dispositions, known as
the archetypes. Understood as
a pattern or energy that structures the
psyche at its deepest, collective, universal depths, the
archetype is ancient, numinous, and bears the effective powers of an
intrapsychic god. Sitting at the hearts of our many complexes, then, is a
veritable pantheon populating our inner world. Because of their power,
archetypes — and presumably the complexes they ‘wear’ —
have a unique
ability to ... bedazzle consciousness, and to bind one to other
With this bedazzling and binding
capability in mind, my examination will also incorporate aspects of trance
theory — particularly the work of trance researcher Dennis Weir. Hypnotism is
part of the rich history of depth psychology,
and works intricately with questions of dissociation and
being ‘in complex’ is a state of dissociation,
and because specialists have noted a strong overlap
between the process of dissociation and the function of trance states,
I believe there are important
questions to ask about the relationship of complexes to altered states of
The Extraordinary Joan: Warrior, Mystic & Girlpower Role Model
By 1412, the year Joan of Arc was born, the French had been warring with England for seventy
On the front
lines of the Armagnac-Burgundian conflict it is
unlikely that anyone in village of Domremy could have suspected that this
infant girl would ultimately turn the tide in the conflict later known as the
Hundred Years’ War.
The justification for the war essentially revolved around the question of who should sit on the French throne. And, in fact, during Joan’s early life there was a figure waiting in the wings who, many French believed, deserved the crown. Known as the Dauphin, he would ultimately become — thanks in large part to Joan of Arc — King Charles VII of France.
But before Joan would take up the sword,
she was a devout Christian child in a war-torn community —
certainly no less traumatized than any child of war we might meet today.
She learned the crafts traditionally expected of women, spinning and cooking, in
an apprenticeship that began as soon as a girl was able to fetch and
carry. And yet, it was this apparently common
girl who would come to hear voices who she believed were emissaries of God.
This child who would, in time, help liberate France
from the abuses of the English. She would
inspire her people, see her king crowned — and, finally, she would die at the
hands of clerics who would condemn her as a heretic.
The causal foundation of a complex, as Jungians understand it, is trauma. The first question we need to consider, then, is whether Joan was sufficiently traumatized to result in the powerful sort of complex that I suspect she carried.
The French war with the English was not a
distant, theoretical reality to Joan. As noted above, Joan’s family fled their
home to shelter in a neighboring village, an effort to avoid an invasion by
some 2,500 soldiers. At the same time, the English
military was known for its morale-shattering assaults,
ravag[ing] the land, burning whatever they didn’t steal ... and killing
That Joan lived under constant specter of violence might, by itself, be sufficient to birth the savior-type complex I will explore here, but this is not her sole trauma.
In Joan’s day, the legal marrying age was thirteen. Joan’s father wasted no time getting the ball rolling; negotiations with a marriageable young man in a nearby city were soon underway.
It is easy to imagine that marriage, in
itself, might have been a frightening proposition for very young, medieval
women, a circumstance that caused them to leave their familiar, childhood home,
subjecting them to the veritable ownership of a stranger. But for Joan, there
was much more at stake. In the Middle Ages, a woman’s greatest spiritual asset
was her chastity.
Only a virgin escaped the pollution inherent to her
sex. Chastity connected her to the
martyrs of the early Church and improved a woman’s reward in heaven.
A mystic like Joan, then, might have felt that the loss of her
virginity could damage her connection to God. If we further complicate matters
by considering that Joan’s faith was almost certainly a means to manage her
fears of English violence, the prospect of marriage might well have left her in
real terror. Taking all these factors together, it seems likely that the
possibility of a wedding threatened the archetypal core of her complex, her mystical
It is in this context that Joan’s complex stepped up to defend itself, Joan, and France.
The Complex Calls
It is probably no coincidence that Joan
first heard the first of her voices from God at the age of thirteen. After all,
As Joan’s father would discover, it’s not easy to marry off a daughter
who has given herself to God.
Understanding from the outset that her
voices came from a holy, rather than infernal source, Joan would, in time, come
to identify them as the Saints Catherine, Margaret and Michael. At first,
they spoke of simple religious obedience,
but eventually they came to discuss more urgent matters. It was Joan’s task,
they explained, to help liberate France from the awful yoke of the English. She
would, they explained,
drive out the English; to bring [the Dauphin] to
be crowned and anointed at Reims; to rescue the Duke of Orleans from the hands
of the English; and to raise the siege of Orleans.
This list of tasks seems strangely ‘out
of the blue,’ for a young woman in the Middle Ages. Why would anyone —
including God and Joan’s complexes — even imagine that a young woman could
accomplish such things? And considering how restricted women’s lives were, who
would let her? But in fact, there were a number of
female visionaries who
concerned themselves with politics in the late 1300s,
and might have inspired a devout young woman. At the same time, a prophesy
so widespread that it was astonishing
a maiden ... should bear ... arms and deliver the
kingdom of France from the enemy. These cultural factors,
not to mention a nighttime dream of her father’s that Joan would
with a band of soldiers, might all be understood as
forces that shaped the shell of Joan’s savior-type complex.
Even as these images begin to account for
the shape that Joan’s complex would take, the fact of the complex, itself,
becomes apparent, as well. Barstow notes that Joan’s testimony in her heresy trial
a rare glimpse into the formation of a new persona,
 suggestive of the sort of
incompatib[ility] with the habitual
attitude of consciousness Jung ascribes to complexes.
At the same time, Joan’s communications in the form of letters, and most of her
testimony at court, carries an extraordinary fervency, a fiery religiosity that
might be understood as
intense affect and
energy that Shargel suggests are
hallmarks of complexes.
As we will see below, there is also good reason to suspect that
Joan’s savior-type complex enacted powerful projections, as well as creating a
magnetic pull, drawing in
perceptions that validate [its]
The Life of a Savior
The Christianity of Joan’s era embraced the
concept of imitatio Christi, the imitation of the life of Christ.
Taken by Jung to mean that
we should follow the
ideal [of Christ] and seek to become like it, Von Franz
suggests that this practice could even embrace extremes such as dying at the early
age that Jesus did.
In an era and culture so dominated by
Christianity, it makes sense that a good many devotees would fold themselves
around the imitatio. And what better imitatio Christi than to
take up the very same complex
lived out to the full by Jesus himself? In words, deeds, and ultimate demise,
career aligns with Christ’s. It is
unlikely this was a conscious effort on her part; it is clear she embraced
Jesus as a savior figure and would have thought it a heresy to claim a Christ-like
role or powers for herself. Rather, I feel this alignment underscores the power
of the savior-type complex constellated in her psyche.
Joan’s words, for instance, began to echo
those of Jesus.
I was sent for the consolation of the poor and
destitute, she said, mirroring the Gospel. Both
Jesus and Joan were heralded by prophesy, and where Jesus
I was sent for this purpose, Joan proclaimed,
born for this.
drafted his own death
warrant by angering people in power. Joan did
something similar with her insistence on wearing men’s clothes — essential for
practicality and safety — and by her refusal to
conform to other expectations placed on women.
After her capture by the English, she was
paraded throughout many of the
lands of France ... then the English, her own Via Dolorosa.
Christ-like, Joan was also associated with miracles. Waters rose and winds shifted in her army’s favor. Her prayers seemingly returned a dead infant — three days lifeless, its body blackened — back to life.
And, of course, like the savior she loved so well, her life would end in tragedy. Like Christ, she was betrayed — Jesus by Judas, Joan by the king she served — and was ultimately put to death for her ‘crimes.’
Harrison sums up the connection between
Joan and Jesus beautifully, poetically:
Figures of purity, free from
sexual stain. Impossible people, alien architects of their own
destruction. From start to finish, the savior-type archetype
would have its way in the life of Joan, ultimately enfolding itself in a
complex so powerful that Joan was not the only one to be affected by it.
The people of Orleans, when they first saw her in their city,
thought that it was an angel from heaven ... come down to save them. 
Throughout Joan’s story, we see accounts
of her extraordinary
charismatic gift. While
still at home, she would defend herself in court, convincing a judge to dismiss
a wrongful suit against her. In the larger world,
she would convince a king to put an army in her hands.
In time, French citizens of all stripes would leave their homes in hopes of
joining Joan’s army
like the Magi following their star.
Another striking way that Joan seemed to
affect others was in the quelling of sexual desire among the men of her army.
Normally a young woman in a group of soldiers would be considered an object of
desire and/or a target for assault. And yet, the men around her
it was impossible to desire her ... Suddenly their sexual feelings were
checked. The effect was so striking that
Joan was believed to have safeguarded her virginity by using supernatural
Barstow notes that
none of Joan’s
contemporaries doubted her power; their question was whether it came from God
or the Devil. So, what was it about Joan that gave off this
sense of mana? What drew people to her, much in the way they were drawn
In Imitation of Christ
Earlier in this paper, I noted Smith’s
contention that complexes are able to
bedazzle consciousness, and to bind
one to other realities. Shargel notes their
inductive ... magnetic pull. If we take complexed
archetypes seriously — if we ascribe a reality to them and allow their
numinosity to suggest deep meaning — then the idea that Joan and Jesus shared a
savior-type complex is no small assertion. The charismatic power of Jesus
affected people in his lifetime and continues to resonate through many world
cultures to this day. On this basis, it does not seem unreasonable to suggest
that, by way of the archetype at the heart of her complex, Joan, too, may have
wielded an unconscious, complex-based ‘magnetism’ — essentially a trance state —
over the people she encountered.
I would also expand this examination of complex-centered
‘magnetism’ to consider that other characteristics of trance may inhere where
complexes are involved. For instance, Weir posits that highly compelling
individuals — he lists Jesus, Hitler, Rasputin, and the Buddha among them — are
themselves under the effect of what he calls a
trance, the basis of which is often a trauma such as exposure to
conditions of war. When we are
in the presence of
someone who is ... generating and maintaining a charismatic trance, [we] are
compelled to go into a trance [ourselves]. I would tentatively
propose that both of these phenomena — the individual’s trance, the capacity to
induce trance in others — may be potential functions of the personal complex.
If Joan’s complex, then, was able to ‘cast’ her charismatic trance over the people outside of her, this would go a significant way towards explaining phenomena like the damping of sexual desire in the soldiers of her company, her persuasiveness over figures who seemed likely to disbelieve her, the King’s putting an army in her hands. Did people see Joan as an angel simply because she was beautiful, spiritual figure — or did something in her psyche compel this perception?
Consider also the miracles ascribed to
Joan. While I would be disinclined to ascribe any miracle strictly to exclusively
intrapsychic factors, I would suggest that it is at least possible that Joan’s
other realit[ies] projected
onto others by a savior-type charismatic trance as described by Weir.
This sculpting of the behavior and perceptions around her is, perhaps, the most striking aspect of Joan’s imitatio Christi. It also serves as an incredible portrait of just how powerful complexes might be when they are given their full breadth and set into a context that is ready to receive them.
The Bitter End
The trouble with emulating the narrative of Christ is that things are unlikely to turn out well, at least for the physical body that houses the savior-type complex.
It is interesting to note that there came
a time, after completing the tasks Joan’s saintly advisors initially set for
her, that Joan’s charisma seems to have dwindled. Her time in prison and a failed
escape attempt make clear that she was less and less able to affect her
situation by persuasion or action. Perhaps this is
because, as Shargel notes, complexes tend to peter out once their
is discharged. After their libido is spent, complexes
descend back into the unconscious, leaving the ego-complex with a baffling
feeling of, What the heck just happened? It may be that Joan’s uneasy
end came as it did — terrible, and perhaps also surprising given Joan’s earlier
momentum — because the complex receded.
On the other hand, it may be that Joan’s charisma only seemed to fail because the narrative arc of her complex had moved into another phase. There came a time for Jesus, too, when worldly circumstances seemed to begin to fail him. And so, Joan’s bitter end may, in fact, reflect not that her complex had receded, but that it was entering its ‘home stretch,’ the final conclusion, unavoidable for Christ — and thus, why less so for Joan? The archetype would culminate in a terrible sacrifice on the altar of the world. For Jesus, a crucifixion. For Joan, a burning at the stake.
What possible alternative?
At times, it seemed Joan understood her
story would be a short one. At one point, she said she only expected to
last a year. But in other moments, she
I shall be freed. We can only
wonder, at a distance, which parts of her knew her time was limited, and which
fought for hope.
In the final examination, it is difficult to see a way out of this painful ending for Joan. Given the structure of the myth that her complex was bound to, and her psyche’s extraordinary dedication to it, her imitatio Christi seems very much like an all-or-nothing proposition. At this distance, it feels clear that her savior-type complex, and ultimately her full psyche, surrendered utterly to the journey God had set out for her, as was authentic to her mystic’s nature.
On that basis, I am uncertain whether it is fitting to ask questions like, What might bring greater consciousness to this complex for Joan? or With greater awareness of her complex, how might things have turned out differently? But let’s take a few moments to explore these issues, understanding that Joan, herself — had she known how things would end — may have resisted such intervention.
Although some people seem to come into this world with a mystical bent — and it appears that Joan was one of them — it also seems reasonable, as noted above, to suspect that Joan’s mysticism was one way to manage the anxieties resulting from growing up in a war zone. This becomes particularly clear when we see that the ‘objectives’ set out for Joan involved tasks that, if successful, would seem likely to save her country and put the war to an end.
Here, then, we see the projection-making capacity of Joan’s complex. Joan was once a little girl in a war-swept countryside. It is not hard to imagine that her prayers included a wish, a hope — wouldn’t somebody come save her and her community? And so, in the way of the binary nature of complexes, Joan’s psyche cast her as the savior — giving her a sense of control over what had felt uncontrollable — then projected the need (and ability) to be saved onto France.
Given these possibilities, the simplest place to begin to help Joan would have been in her early life. There is a common refrain in mental health circles: It’s easier to help a child than heal an adult. True, the only ‘mental health care system’ in Joan’s day was the Church. But let’s imagine a relatively enlightened figure, perhaps a female anchorite who Joan felt drawn to visit. If such a figure were to empathize with Joan’s fears (‘It must feel terrifying to have to flee your home when the English soldiers are coming.’ ‘I imagine you hear lots of scary stories about things the English armies do.’) and give Joan a chance to express her distress — her wish for a savior, maybe even her frustration at God or Jesus for failing to do something — this might have put Joan on the path to a greater consciousness concerning her inner situation. Our fictitious anchorite might have also suggested ways for Joan to take actions that were less drastic than leading an army and subjecting herself to the judgment of men and, ultimately, to the flame. Perhaps Joan might have undertaken charitable work to aid the victims of the war, helping them restore their homes or offering them comfort as their injuries healed. Another option might have been to join a convent that was doing this kind of work, if such a setting were available.
In this way, Joan might have come into a more moderate, safer version of her imitatio Christi, and her savior-type complex might have played out more gently. Rather than burning at the stake, perhaps Joan would have become a mystic like Hildegard of Bingen or Julian of Norwich, but without the awful suffering — and possible sense of betrayal — at the end.
Joan of Arc’s story evokes a difficult question. When the functioning of a complex alleviates suffering for many, but does so at great cost to the individual who hosts the complex, is it more ethical to intervene, or should we let the complex run its course? If Joan were able to ’step out of herself’ and see the long view of things — how she changed history and has inspired so many — I imagine she might choose to leave the complex in place and suffer the consequences to herself. Especially when it comes to spiritual matters, the decision that makes the most practical sense is not always the most desirable outcome, after all.
There are other valuable inquiries we might make concerning Joan and her complexes. The question of whether her voices were complexes — and how her various complexes interacted — remains an area ripe for consideration. Additionally, I hope to continue to pursue the possibility of a link between trance states and the functioning of complexes in the inner and outer worlds.
But, finally, what remains for all of us to consider in Joan’s story is the degree to which our own complexes move us — and whether we are harnessing that power healthily, or being commandeered by it to the detriment of ourselves or others. Joan reminds us that the powers of archetype and complex should not be underestimated. One girl’s complexes, set into the unique context of her day, changed the face of Europe. They drove her to a bitter, brutal end. They awakened in her a beauty that compels us even now. In that sense, Joan’s complexes still entrance us. It is important that we consider what beauties and terrors we, ourselves, are projecting into the world before us, what mirrors we find ourselves stepping into.