Pagan Paths

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?

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Polytheistic experience and Jung’s experience of the archetypes

Last time, I talked about how Jungian archetypes, far from being mere metaphors for natural and psychological processes, can accurately be described as "gods".  In this post, I want to discuss how the experience of Jung's archetypes closely resembles Polytheists' descriptions of their encounter with the gods. 

It is not uncommon for Pagans to draw on Jung’s concept of archetypes to explain the nature of Pagan deities.  Polytheists*, however, often reject Jungian or archetypal explanations of the gods because they seem reductive, and such explanations do not seem to account for the Polytheistic experience of the gods as “actual beings with independence, volition, and power”.  When Polytheists hear the gods described as archetypes, they may hear the speaker telling them that it is "all in your head".  In addition, talk about “archetypes” can seem abstract, which is inconsistent with the Polytheists' experience of the gods in all their specificity.  For example, the "Mother archetype" may not evoke the same devotion among Polytheists as the goddesses Demeter or Kali do. 

But is Jung’s theory of the archetypes really inconsistent with the experience Polytheists?  Is it possible that the archetypes have been misunderstood by many Polytheists and Pagans alike? 

Jung in dialogue with the archetypes

The way that many Pagans have applied Jung’s theories does admittedly render a divinity which is psychologized and abstract.  But Jung’s own description of the experience of the archetypes was very different.  Jung engaged his unconscious through a technique called “active imagination”, which he also taught to his patients.  Active imagination involves inducing a kind of trace or “twilight consciousness”, of the type which we experience just before falling asleep -- a waking dream, if you will.  Then Jung would attempt to consciously interact with the images that emerged. 

In his semi-autobiographical, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Jung writes about how he would dialogue with archetypal images, like his "anima", a muse-like mediating archetype.  The fact that Jung would talk to the archetypal images of his unconscious, by itself, is not all the surprising; but the fact that the images responded to him -- actually talked back to him -- is surprising.  (Jung admitted that he sometimes feared for his sanity.) 

The significance of Jung’s experience for Polytheists becomes clear when Jung describes his interaction with another archetypal figure, Philemon, a figure from Greek myth who functioned as a psychopomp (soul guide) for Jung.  Philemon was an image of Jung’s "Wise Old Man" or Senex archetype.  Jung writes about Philemon as something (or someone) which was simultaneously a part of him and yet acted independently of him; Philemon knew things Jung did not know, and said things that Jung did not think:

“Philemon and other figures of my fantasies brought home to me the crucial insight that there are things in the psyche which I do not produce, but which produce themselves and have their own life. Philemon represented a force that was not myself. In my fantasies I held conversations with him, and he said things which I had not consciously thought. [...] I understood that there is something in me which can say things that I do not know and do not intend, things which may even be directed against me. [...]  Psychologically, Philemon represented superior insight. He was a mysterious figure to me. At times he seemed to me quite real, as if he were a living personality.

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Here, Jung’s description of his interaction with Philemon resembles closely the language used by many Polytheists to describe their own encounters with the gods, which may also be described as encounters with "living personalities".  To anyone who only knows of the archetypal through the writings of Pagan authors, Jung's description of the archetypes should be surprising.  Jung's archetypes are clearly not mere psychologized versions of the gods.

It is also noteworthy that Jung was not interacting with the Old Man archetype itself, but a specific and very personal image of the archetype, Philemon.  The archetypes are ineffable -- and are, in that sense, abstract.  But while the archetypes cannot be experienced directly, they can be experienced through “archetypal images”, of which Philemon is one example.  The many pagan and Neopagan deities may be seen as other examples of archetypal images, which point beyond themselves to the unknowable archetypes or gods.

The archetypes as “other”

Many Polytheists balk at archetypal explanations of the gods, because they experience the gods as separate beings, not as creations of their own minds.  But Jung experienced the archetypal image of Philemon, not as some mere metaphor, but as “a living personality”, something which was in him, but yet, not him.  This “otherness” is an essential quality of the archetypes for Jung.  Jung called this quality “numinosity”, a term he borrowed from Rudolph Otto.  According to Jung, the numinous is

“a dynamical agency or effect not caused by an arbitrary act of will.  On the contrary, it seizes and controls the human subject, who is always rather its victim than its creator.  The numinosum -- whatever its cause may be -- is an experience of the subject independent of his will.  At all events, religious teaching as well as the consensus genitum always and everywhere explain this experience as being due to a cause external to the individual.  The numinosum is either a quality belonging to a visible object or the influence of an invisible presence that causes a peculiar alteration of consciousness.”

“An invisible presence that causes a peculiar alteration of consciousness”: what could be a better description of the experiences of many Polytheists?  Elsewhere, Jung described the power of the archetypes to fascinate, overcome, and even possess us.  He speaks of another “will” operating within him, of the experience of “spontaneous agencies”, and of “elements in ourselves which are strange to us”.  

The archetypes are not creations of our conscious minds.  They are "agencies" at work within us, yet separate from what we commonly think of as "us": they are an otherness within our own subjectivity.  This description is consistent with Polytheistic experience of the gods as "persons".  This experience of otherness can manifest in subtle ways, such as artistic inspiration, as well as in less subtle ways, such as divine revelation, schizophrenia, or even so-called “spirit possession”.  

While the empiricist in Jung preferred the term “archetypes”, he explained that “god” and “daimon” are better terms, because they convey the numinosity, or the otherness, of the archetypal experience better:

“[Humankind] cannot grasp, comprehend, dominate them; nor can he free himself or escape from them, and therefore feels them as overpowering. Recognizing that they do not spring from his conscious personality, he calls them mana, daimon, or God. [...] Therefore the validity of such terms as mana, daimon, or God can be neither disproved nor affirmed. We can, however, establish that the sense of strangeness connected with the experience of something objective, apparently outside the psyche, is indeed authentic.

We know that something unknown, alien, does come our way, just as we know that we do not ourselves make a dream or an inspiration, but that it somehow arises of its own accord. What does happen to us in this manner can be said to emanate from mana, from a daimon, a god, or the unconscious. The first three terms have the great merit of including and evoking the emotional quality of numinosity, whereas the latter the unconscious is banal and therefore closer to reality. [...] The unconscious is too neutral and rational a term to give much impetus to the imagination. [...]

“The great advantage of the concepts ‘daimon’ and ‘God lies in making possible a much better objectification of the vis-a-vis, namely, a personification of it. Their emotional quality confers life and effectuality upon them.”

Thus, Jung validates the Polytheistic experience of the gods as something "objective", seemingly "outside" of one's self, even while he locates the gods in the psyche.  He can do this because, for Jung's, the psyche is much "bigger" than what we ordinarily think of as our "self".

The role of the conscious mind

The gods, for Jung, are "other", because they arise out of the unconscious, which we experience as other than our waking consciousness.  It is the source of our dreams, creative inspiration, and the "still small voice" that we sometimes hear.  And yet, Jung insisted that the consciousness had a critical role to play in interacting with the archetypal gods.  Without ordering effect of consciousness, the gods, according to Jung, become “diseases”: neurosis and psychosis.  He explains:

“The essential thing is to differentiate oneself from these unconscious contents by personifying them, and at the same time to bring them into relationship with consciousness.  That is the technique for stripping them of their [destructive] power.  It is not too difficult to personify them, as they always possess a certain degree of autonomy, and separate identity of their own. Their autonomy is a most uncomfortable thing to reconcile oneself to, and yet the very fact that the unconscious presents itself in that way gives us the best means of handling it. …

“I took great care to try to understand every single image, every item of my psychic inventory, … and, above all, to realize them in actual life.  That is what we usually neglect to do.  We allow the images to rise up, and maybe we wonder about them, but that is all.  We do not take the trouble to understand them, let alone draw ethical conclusions from them.  This stopping-short conjures up the negative effects of the unconscious.”

Jung explains that, by personifying the archetypal images, we differentiate our conscious selves from them.  This dis-identification is actually the first step to consciously re-integrating them into our lives in a healthy fashion -- which is what Jung alludes to when he talks about drawing "ethical conclusions" from archetypal experience.  Failing to take this step, says Jung, "deprives us of our wholeness".

Jung speaks about “personification” of the archetypes, but this should not mislead us into think that we are "playing pretend" when we interact with the archetypal gods.  For Jung, the archetypes are as "real" as any other human experience, and their power can be a blessing or a curse to us:

“Although everything is experienced in image form, i.e., symbolically, it is by no means a question of fictitious dangers but of very real risks upon which the fate of a whole life may depend. The chief danger is that of succumbing to the fascinating influence of the archetypes, and this is most likely to happen when the archetypal images are not made conscious. If there is already a predisposition to psychosis, it may even happen that the archetypal figures, which are endowed with a certain autonomy anyway on account of their natural numinosity, will escape from conscious control altogether and become completely independent, thus producing the phenomena of possession.”

Jung’s last comment raises some interesting questions about the Polytheistic and Pagan practices of possession, aspecting, “invocation” or “calling down” the gods.  Is it possible that not all encounters with the deities are healthy?  Is "bringing back the gods" a valid end in itself or just one step in a larger process of Self-realization?  These are questions I will explore in a future post.

In this post and the previous one, I talked about Jungian archetypes in relation to  Polytheists' experience of the gods.  Next time, I will explore some of what Jung had to say which may be of interest to earth-centered Pagans.

*Note: Here, I am distinguishing "Polytheists", who espouse a "hard" polytheism and whose practice may be characterized as deity-centered, from "Pagans", who tend to espouse "softer" versions of polytheism and whose practice may be more earth-centered or Self-centric.

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John discovered Jungianism and Neo-Paganism at the same time through the writings of Vivianne Crowley, Margot Adler, and Starhawk, and the two have remained intertwined for him ever since.  John is the managing editor at HumanisticPaganism.com, a community blog for Naturalistic Pagans. He also writes about his spiritual quest on his blog The Allergic Pagan (www.patheos.com/blogs/allergicpagan/), where he explores his personal religious history, Paganism, UUism, and Jungianism.

Comments

  • B. T. Newberg
    B. T. Newberg Wednesday, 30 January 2013

    >“The essential thing is to differentiate oneself from these unconscious contents by personifying them, and at the same time to bring them into relationship with consciousness. That is the technique for stripping them of their [destructive] power.

    I'd never heard this quote before, which makes more sense of Jung's method.

    The "chief danger" of "succumbing to the fascinating influence of the archetypes" strikes a note of irony for me, since the joy of sitting rapt in fascination before one's deity, or even before in unnamed profound experience, seems more a chief perk or even goal of religious devotion. I suspect the danger, for Jung, is in lack of control in such an experience?

    I'm also curious whether you think Jungian Paganism is equally compatible with naturalism, soft polytheism, and hard polytheism? In this post, it sounds like it is... maybe?

  • John Halstead
    John Halstead Thursday, 31 January 2013

    "I suspect the danger, for Jung, is in lack of control in such an experience?"

    That's a good question. I don't know if it's so much control as a question of consciousness. Jung's concern, like in the others in the psychoanalytic school, would be with something influencing our behavior that we are not conscious of. I think Jung would be okay with "sitting rapt in fascination before one's deity" if it did not end there, but led on to greater person integration or positive social action.

    "... whether you think Jungian Paganism is equally compatible with naturalism, soft polytheism, and hard polytheism?"

    I'm working my way there, but I think the answer may be yes. Jung's compatibility with soft polytheism has been pretty thoroughly explored by other Pagan authors, and I'm trying to make the case here that it is at least not inconsistent a hard polytheism. Later I hope to make the case that is consistent with a philosophical naturalism. But keep in mind that (at least in my reading of him) Jung was agnostic about metaphysical questions. I'm trying to use Jung to demonstrate that the experiences of these three groups are not necessarily incompatible -- although they may draw different metaphysical conclusions about those experiences.

  • B. T. Newberg
    B. T. Newberg Thursday, 31 January 2013

    >Jung's concern, like in the others in the psychoanalytic school, would be with something influencing our behavior that we are not conscious of.

    Gosh, considering all we've learned of unconscious influences, and just *how much* we are not conscious of, that sounds so naive from a 21st-century perspective...

  • John Halstead
    John Halstead Friday, 01 February 2013

    I didn't mean to imply that he thought it could be avoided, just that the point is to work toward ever greater levels of consciousness, even if, by its very nature, the goal cannot be achieved.

  • John Halstead
    John Halstead Thursday, 31 January 2013

    Jung said it is the project of several lifetimes.

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