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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You Don't Know Jung, Part 4: Symbols

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You don't know Jung ... and it's his own fault.  Jung concepts are frequently misunderstood by Pagans, both by those who love him and those who hate him.  Part of the confusion surrounding Jung is due to his choice of terminology.  Jung chose terms that -- at least when translated into English -- are commonly used to mean something very different than what he intended.  In this series, I discuss five Jungian terms which are easily and commonly misunderstood: psychic, energyself, individuation, symbol, and archetype.  In this part, I will discuss "symbol".

 

What is a symbol?

 

"Symbol" another problematic term in Jungian discourse because it means something different than what we commonly think of.  In common parlance, "symbol" is more or less synonymous with "sign", something that signifies another thing.  But Jung takes care to distinguish symbols from signs, metaphors, allegories, and other forms of representational discourse.  Unlike signs, symbols are images and ideas that cannot be exhaustively interpreted or reduced to their referents.  

 

"For a symbol," writes Jung, "is the intimation of a meaning beyond the level of our present powers of comprehension." (CW 15, P 119).  Symbols are "bridges thrown out towards an unseen shore. " (CW 15, P 116).  Jung writes of symbolic works of art, those that are not mere aesthetic,

 

"... their pregnant language cries out at us that they mean more than they say. We can put our finger on the symbol at once, even though we may not be able to unriddle its meaning to our entire satisfaction. A symbol remains a perpetual challenge to our thoughts and feelings."  (CW 15, P 119).

 

True symbols are arise from and are manifestations of the archetypes (which will be the subject of the next post).  Jung uses the term "sign" in the way that we commonly use the word "symbol".  And when Jung speaks of something being "symbolic", he means it in the way that we use "archetypal", something both more general and more elusive and ineffable than a mere sign.  

 

What does this have to do with Neo-Paganism?

 

In their article, "Jung and the Neo-Pagan Movement", David and Sharn Waldron write that Neo-Pagans’ insistence that they can consciously create symbols of divinity betrays a misunderstanding of the nature of symbols.  While Neo-Pagans are right to acknowledge that symbols have a deep impact on the human psyche, it is another thing altogether to believe that one can consciously create symbols designed to have a psychological effect.  

 

“According to Jung, consciously constructed images are allegories and signs that [...] do not represent the archetypes themselves and are thus not symbolic as such.  Allegories and signs have a conscious and known meaning whereas a symbol must always and necessarily be an unknown quantity. If a symbol can be totally explained or rationalized within the confines of the conscious mind, then it ceases to exercise the power of a symbol and becomes an allegoric reference.  From Jung’s perspective, symbols represent those unquantifiable aspects of the unconscious that have a numinous quality, creating meaning for the individual or collective. These play an illuminating role, revealing hidden aspects of the psyche.  However, when a symbol becomes a consciously apprehended and constructed image, it ceases to be a symbol and, although it may masquerade as a symbol, it becomes a representation of the persona [...] and becomes a collaborator in the suppression of the shadow.”

 

What this means is that symbols cannot be created; they must be discovered. In his essay, "Symbols of Faith", theologian Paul Tillich identified six characteristics of symbols.  The fifth is that symbols cannot be produced intentionally.  "They grow out of the individual or collective unconscious and cannot function without being accepted by the unconscious dimension of our being."  As a character in Anne Rice's Novel, Memnoch, the Devil, explains, "You can invent mythologies, but for them to work, they have to come from someplace deeper inside you."

 

Symbols can be discovered through various methods which I have written about here, including dreamwork, active imagination, and the creative arts.  Other practices I will write about in the future are tarot and shadow work.

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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.

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