Carl Jung's ideas have been influencing the development of Neo-Paganism from its inception in the 1960s and 1970s. But what if Jung's ideas have been misunderstood by many Pagans: literalized on the one hand and oversimplified on the other? What fresh insights can a Jungian Neo-Paganism contribute to Pagan discourse and practice today? And might Jungianism serve as a bridge between the earth-centered and deity-centered Pagan communities?
But are the archetypes real?
"Scorn not the Gods: Despite their non-existence in material terms, they're no less potent, no less terrible. The one place Gods inarguably exist is in our minds where they are real beyond refute, in all their grandeur and monstrosity."
-- Alan Moore, From Hell
"But are the archetypes real?" This is a question that haunts any discussion of the archetypes, especially discussions of the gods as archetypes. I have made the argument here and here that the polytheistic experience of deities can be explained in Jungian terms as archetypes. But the question of the ontological nature of the archetypes remained unanswered.
In Neo-Pagan discourse, the archetypes are described as everything from mere metaphors to metaphysical Platonic forms. Part of the reason for this is that Jung was not always clear or consistent in his use of language. In addition, his beliefs about the nature of the archetypes evolved over time. So, in what follows, I will be selective, as is necessary in any discussion of Jung’s ideas.
Giving the psyche its due, or putting the “psyche” back into psychology
The short answer is that the archetypes are just as real as is the psyche or mind. Jung did not live to see the recent advances in neuroimaging, but neuroscience has still yet to account for consciousness in terms of the brain structure. Materialists believe we have only to wait upon the progress of science to explain everything about the mind, but Jung believed that the psyche was a phenomenon that deserved to be treated as a phenomenon in its own right.
While recognizing the “undeniable connection between psyche and brain”, Jung nevertheless rejected the notion that the psyche was “a mere epiphenomenal by-product of organic processes in the brain” (CW 11, P 14) or “a symptom of chemical reactions” (CW 11, P 769). Whether organic processes in the brain were the cause or the effect of changes in the psyche was an open question for Jung (CW 11, P 14), and I think it remains an open question today. In spite of the dependence of the psyche on the functioning of the brain, Jung insisted that the structure and physiology of the brain was not sufficient to explain the psyche: “The psyche has a peculiar nature which cannot be reduced to anything else” he wrote. (CW 10, P 528).
“For the human psyche is neither a psychiatric nor a physiological problem; it is not a biological problem at all but--precisely--a psychological one. It is a field on its own with its own peculiar laws. Its nature cannot be deduced from the principles of other sciences without doing violence to the idiosyncrasy of the psyche. It cannot be identified with the brain, or the hormones, or any known instinct; for better or worse it must be accepted as a phenomenon unique in kind.” (CW 16, P 22)
The concepts of both matter and spirit, according to Jung, “are mere symbols that stand for something unknown and unexplored, and this something is postulated or denied according to the temperament of the individual or as the spirit of the age dictates.” (CW 8, P 650). Jung recognized that the pendulum of the spirit of the age in his time had swung toward the sovereignty of the material, which resulted in “a psychology without the psyche.” (CW 8, P 650). Jung sought to describe a psychology which gave the psyche its due.
Jung believed that ultimately matter and psyche were both mysterious (CW 6, P 961), and it was a mistake to believe that mind is produced by matter, just as it is a mistake to believe that matter is produced by mind. These two phenomena are irreducible to each other. They are different aspects of the same mysterious “undivided unity”. (CW 6, P 962, 968). (See also CW 9 I, P 117-118; CW 16, P 202).
Fantastic facts and imaginary realities
Jung wrote, “What most overlook or seem unable to understand is the fact that I regard the psyche as real.” (CW 11, P 751, emphasis original). The archetypes are the structures of the psyche, so they are real as well. This is not to say that the archetypes are material, nor is it to say that the archetypes exist in some reified form independently of the human subject. For Jung, the archetypes are as real as the material world, but just not in the same way.
Jung explained that the archetypes should be understood as realities, “not as concrete realities--that would be a regression!--but as psychic* realities, real because they work.” (CW 7, P 151, emphasis original). When Jung says the archetypes "work", I understand him to mean that we can observe their effects in our lives. When Jung was asked about whether he believed God exists except as an archetype, he responded, "I am sufficiently convinced of the effects man has always attributed to a divine being. [...] I am well satisfied with the fact that I know experiences which I cannot avoid calling numinous or divine." (CW 18, P 1589). I believe Jung's answer to the question about God applies equally well to the archetypal gods.
God, the gods, the numinous, the divine: these we can only infer from our experience of their effects. But the inferential nature of our knowledge of the archetypes is no reason to doubt their reality. Jung considered it remarkable that human beings would consider only material causes to be real. After all, he pointed out (following Kant), our subjective experience is the only thing that we have immediate knowledge of. (CW 11, P 769) “We might well say, on the contrary, that physical existence is a mere inference, since we know of matter only in so far as we perceive psychic images mediated by the senses.” (CW 11, P 16).
Indeed, for Jung, "fantasies are facts" and the imaginary is real (Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters/The Houston Films, p. 302; CW 11, P 16). The reality of the psyche can be demonstrated by their effects on both the individual and collective levels. On the individual level, psychosomatic disorders, for examples,
“make it exceedingly difficult to believe that the psyche is nothing, or that an imaginary fact is unreal. Only, it is not there where a near-sighted mind seeks it. It exists, but not in physical form. It is an almost absurd prejudice to suppose that existence can only be physical."
On the collective level, the effects may be even more obvious:
"Even if a neurosis had no cause at all other than imagination, it would, none the less, be a very real thing. If a man imagined that I was his arch-enemy and killed me, I should be dead on account of mere imagination. Imaginary conditions do exist and they may be just as real and just as harmful or dangerous as physical conditions. I even believe that psychic disturbances are far more dangerous than epidemics or earthquakes. Not even the medieval epidemics of bubonic plague or smallpox killed as many people as certain differences of opinion in 1914 or certain political ideals in Russia.” (CW 11, PP 16-17).
In fact, in his "Essay on Wotan", Jung describes the disastrous events in Germany in the 1930s in terms of a nation "possessed" by the archetypal storm god.
"The world seen from within"
Jung complained that the statement, "‘It's only psychological’ too often means: It is nothing.” (CW 18, P 606). “The prominence of the subjective factor does not imply a personal subjectivism, despite the readiness of the extraverted attitude to dismiss the subjective factor as ‘nothing but’ subjective. The psyche and its structure are real enough,” wrote Jung. (CW 11, P 777).
“Psychic events are facts, are realities, and when you observe the stream of images within, you observe an aspect of the world, of the world within. The psyche, if you understand it as a phenomenon occurring in living bodies, is a quality of matter, just as our body consists of matter. We discover that this matter has another aspect, namely, a psychic aspect. It is simply the world seen from within." (Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters/The Houston Films, pp. 302-303).
This brings us full circle, back to the "undivided unity" of mind and matter, the one being the world seen from within and the other the world seen from without.
Thus, the archetypes are part of the world, but they are the world seen from within. In Jung's words, "the world of gods and spirits is [...] the collective unconscious inside us", and "the collective unconscious is the world of gods and spirits outside us". (CW 11, P 857). B.T. Newberg has described it thus:
“Deities in this view are wholly natural phenomena embedded in the universal chain of cause-effect, just like ourselves and everything else in the cosmos. They are not metaphors for nature, they are specific natural phenomena occurring within the cosmos of our mind."
So, to answer the question whether the archetypes are real, Jung would definitely respond in the affirmative. If asked if the archetypes are material, he would probably say "no", but acknowledge that brain and psyche are not wholly independent phenomena. For Jung, the archetypes are are real as any other subjective experience, like love, awe, and transcendence. This answer may be unsatisfactory for some who might wish for more concrete gods, but in my mind, this analysis puts the gods on par with the most important things in human life.
* "Psyche" here means "of or relating to the psyche" and does not refer to extrasensory powers or paranormal phenomena.
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