Dreaming the Myth Forward: Jungian Neopaganism
Carl Jung's ideas have been influencing the development of Neopaganism 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 Nepaganism contribute to Pagan discourse and practice today? And might Jungianism serve as a bridge between the earth-centered and deity-centered Pagan communities?
Jungian Pagan Practice, Part 2: Creative Arts and Ritual Creation
[Note: This is a revised version of an earlier essay that appeared on the Humanistic Paganism blog.]
"... creative imagination is the only primordial phenomenon accessible to us, the real Ground of the psyche."
-- Jung, letter to Kurt Plachte, Jan. 10, 1929
In my last post, I wrote about active imagination as a form of Jungian Pagan spiritual practice. Today, I want to talk about another form of spiritual practice, the creative arts. This may include activities traditionally thought of as art forms, including drawing, painting, sculpting, music, and dance. It also includes poetry and other forms of creative writing. Less obviously, at least to non-Pagans, it also includes the creation of ritual forms. (See Sabina Magliocco, "Ritual Is My Chosen Art Form: The Creation of Ritual as Folk Art Among Contemporary Pagans", in Magical Religion and Modern Witchcraft, ed. James Lewis (1996).
What all forms of Jungian spiritual practice have in common is that they bring together the rational conscious mind with the non-rational unconscious mind in a kind of dialogue or dance. In an essay entitled, “On the Relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetry”, Jung explains that the secret of great art
“consists in the unconscious activation of an archetypal image, and in elaborating and shaping this image into the finished work. By giving it shape, the artist translates it into the language of the present, and so makes it possible for us to find our way back to the deepest springs of life.”
This is what it means when we speak of an artist being inspired by a muse (or possessed by a daimon), they are giving conscious form to unconscious potentialities.
But how do we know if we have succeeded in tapping into the unconscious? Jung writes that the origin of a work of art can be seen in the work itself. A work of art which is the product of one’s own conscious intention will reflect only the effect intended and “nowhere overstep the limits of comprehension”. But if a work of art is a product of the “alien will” of the unconscious, we find
“something suprapersonal that transcends our understanding to the same degree that the author’s consciousness was in abeyance during the process of creation. We would expect a strangeness of form and content, thoughts that can only be apprehended intuitively, a language pregnant with meanings, and images that are the best possible expressions for something unknown — bridges thrown out toward an unseen shore.”
Jung describes these as two different types of art, but it is probably better to think of them as two ends of a spectrum.
This principle holds true when the creative activity in question is ritual creation. Edward Whitmont explains in his book, Return of the Goddess (1982), “A genuine ritual, like a living symbol or a religious experience, cannot be fabricated; it can only be discovered.” Rituals are not invented; like our dreams, they happen to us. James Hollis echoes this principle in his book, Under Saturn’s Shadow (1994):
“A rite is a movement in and toward depth. Rites are not invented. They are found, discovered, experienced. They rise out of some archetypal encounter with depth. The purpose of the symbolic act which the rite enacts is to lead back toward that experience of depth.”
However, creative activity also requires the imposition of consciousness on the unconscious contents. Although inspired by the unconscious, ritual is nevertheless consciously and intentionally constructed. The action of the conscious will is necessary, or else there could be no “ritual” per se. Ritual, then, is the product of a conscious form applied to unconscious content. The unconscious content can be discovered through a variety of methods, including meditation, dreamwork, active imagination, creative engagement with mythology, or by collecting what W.H. Auden calls “privately numinous words”, phrases, and images. Ideally, the conscious and unconscious sides of the process are balanced.
When I first began creating my own Pagan rituals, I did not feel authentic in performing the rituals, I felt a distinct sense that the rituals were lacking life of their own. I first attributed this to the newness and unfamiliarity of the ritual. However, I have come to realize over time that my early rituals, although drawing heavily on mythological symbolism, were overly cerebral, unnecessarily complex, and lacking in poetry and bodily movement. The most evocative rituals I have since created have been poetic creations, ones that seemed to come from somewhere other than my rational mind. They combined words that I had read or heard, which had a talismanic-like effect on me, with intuitive bodily movements. It is only at the end of the process that I would consciously apply structure to these contents to give the ritual a form. The result is a ritual that feels like, as Jung says, a “bridge thrown out toward an unseen shore”.
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