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 6: Archetypes

You don't know Jung ... and it's his own fault. Jung's 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 six Jungian terms which are easily and commonly misunderstood: psychic, energyselfindividuationsymbol, collective unconscious, and archetype. In this final part, I will discuss "archetype".

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WHAT THE ARCHETYPES ARE NOT

The archetypes are not ideas.

Jung repeatedly emphasized that the archetypes were not ideas. This is important to Pagans to understand, since calling the gods archetypes may seem reductive if the archetypes are understood as mere ideas.

Writing about the archetypes, Jung explained, “I do not by any means assert the inheritance of ideas, but only of the possibility of such ideas, which is something very different.”  (CW 7, P 101). Jung described the archetypes as “systems of readiness for action” (CW 10, P 53) and potentialities (CW 10, P 165). The archetypes are not unconscious ideas. They have form, but no content. When the archetype becomes conscious, it becomes an "archetypal image", and then and only then is the form of the archetype filled out with the content provided by individual experience. (CW 11, P 845). We cannot be conscious of the archetypes themselves. (CW 5, P 154; CW 10, P 14; CW 9i, P 155). “They only emerge into consciousness when personal experiences have rendered them visible.” (CW 11, P 846). Only through our lived conscious experience are the potentialities that are the archetypes actualized. 

The archetypes are not transcendent Platonic ideals. 

Jung sometimes described the archetypes as “transcendent”, but by this he only meant that they transcended the conscious mind. The archetypes are “irrepresentable” and only in that sense transcendent. (CW 8, PP 419-420). Jung did compare the archetypes to Plato’s ideal forms (eidos) (CW 9i, PP 5, 149, 154), but while Plato’s ideals are static, the archetypes are dynamic (CW 8, P 414). Jung described them as “active-living dispositions” (CW 9i, 154) and wrote that they are experienced as “spontaneous agencies” (CW 8, P 420). 

The archetypes are not mystical.

Calling the gods archetypes may seem like obfuscation or mysticism to philosophical naturalists, but this is not so. The collective unconscious of which the archetypes are a part is not a group mind. The collective unconscious is simply that part of the unconscious which all of humanity has in common by virtue of a shared evolutionary history. Because we share a common humanity, we also share certain psychic similarities, just as we share certain biology. Jung called this shared psyche the “collective unconscious”. (CW 13, P 11). He explains:

"We do not need to think that there is anything mystical about it. But because I speak of a collective unconscious, I have been accused of obscurantism. There is nothing mystical about the collective unconscious [...] and it is really common sense to admit the existence of unconscious collective processes. For, though a child is not born conscious, his mind is not a tabula rasa. [...] The brain is born with a finished structure, it will work in a modern way, but this brain has its history. It has been built up in the course of millions of years and represents a history of which it is the result. Naturally it carries with it the traces of that history, exactly like the body, and if you grope down into the basic structure of the mind you naturally find traces of the archaic mind." (CW 18, P 84).

The archetypes are not pictures.

Jung’s description of the archetypes as “primordial images” has been much misunderstood. He emphasized that the archetypes were “irrepresentable” (CW 8, P 418) themselves, but were the condition of the possibility of representations which he called “archetypal images”.

The archetypes are not conscious

While we can be conscious of archetypal images and archetypal ideas, this is not the same thing as being conscious of the archetype itself, which is unconscious. Archetypes “can be grasped only approximately” by the conscious mind as visualizations or ideations. The archetypes are “irrepresentable”e (CW 8, P 417).

The archetypes are not instincts (but they are closely related).

Jung wrote that the archetypes are biologically inherited, as part of the brain structure. (CW 10, PP 12-14, 53). He described the archetypes as being the psychological aspect of the instincts which are biological. In other words, they are two sides of the same coin, or rather two ends of the same spectrum. (CW 8, P 414). Jung analogized the relationship of archetypes and instincts to the spectrum of light, with visible light in the center and invisible infrared light on one end and invisible ultraviolet light on the other end. The instincts are like infrared light and the archetypes like ultraviolet light, both “invisible” -- meaning they are experienced as relating to the psyche or spirit -- whereas the physiology or biology of our organism is like visible light -- meaning that it is experienced as relating to the physical. These experiences bleed into each other so that it is difficult to say where one begins and the other ends. (CW 8, PP 419-420).

The archetypes are not complexes (but they are closely related).

Jung emphasized that the archetypes are part of the collective unconscious, in contrast to complexes, which serve the same function in the personal unconscious. (CW 9i, P 4; CW 6, PP 746-746). While complexes are conditioned by our personal history, archetypes are inherited with our biology.

WHAT THE ARCHETYPES ARE

The archetypes are a theoretical concept.

This is something that often gets lost in the rush to either reify the archetypes or dismiss them. Jung explains that the all sciences rely on concepts, but it is a mistake to confuse the concept for a metaphysical reality. Jung explains that, like the model of an atom, the concept of the archetype is only a model that may at any time be exchanged for a better model. (CW 11, P 460).

The archetypes are inherited.

Jung wrote that the archetypes are biologically inherited, as part of the brain structure. (CW 10, PP 12-14, 53). And just as our body has an evolutionary history, so to does our mind. He described that archetypes as “impressions of ever-repeated typical experiences” that have been “stamped on the human brain for aeons.” (CW 7, P 109). And just as our physical organs function without our conscious awareness, so to do the "organs" of the psyche, the archetypes. (CW 11, 845).

The archetypes are practically inexhaustible.

Jung describes the archetypes as having an “almost limitless wealth of reference” which makes narrowing down their meaning to a single conscious interpretation impossible. Jung calls them “inexhaustible”. This is because they are essentially paradoxical. (CW 9i, P 80). Like the gods, they are capable of being both one thing (i.e., a youth) and another (i.e., aged).

The archetypes are independent of our conscious minds.

The archetypes are dynamic. (CW 8, P 414). Jung described them as “active-living dispositions” (CW 9i, 154) and wrote that they are experienced as “spontaneous agencies” (CW 8, P 420). They appear personified as personalities in dreams and fantasies. But even when they appear as things (which Jung called “archetypes of transformation”) they have an independent character. (CW 9i, P 80).

The description of archetypes as structures and “possibilities” (above) makes them sound like dead things, far from the vitalities that Pagans call gods. But as they are realized through our very lives, the archetypes are anything but inert: 

“[J]ust as the organs of the body are not mere lumps of indifferent, passive matter, but are dynamic, functional complexes which assert themselves with imperious urgency, so also the archetypes, as organs of the psyche, are dynamic, instinctual complexes which determine psychic life to an extraordinary degree.”  (CW 11, 845).

Thus, Jung can write a few paragraphs later that 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).

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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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