Pagan Paths

The morning sun rising in the east calls to the Bright Youth in me, and the Bright Youth responds. The full moon calls to the Muse, and the waning and dark moon to the Dark Maiden who is a part of me. The earth I touch with my fingers calls to the Mother, in both her guises, Nurturing and Devouring. The bright green shoots rising from the earth and the green leaves on the trees on my street in the spring, these call to the Stag King, while the red leaves fallen to the earth in the autumn call to the Dying God. The spring storm that rises up suddenly in the west calls to the Storm King. The night sky, the dark space between the stars, calls to Mother Night, my death come to make peace. The gods-without call and the gods-within respond.

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Archetypes with agency?

Every so often, the devotional polytheistic community comes up with a new way to try to distinguish gods from archetypes.  In the past, terms like "real", "literal", or "separate" have been emphasized.  Now it's "agents".  The gods have agency while archetypes do not -- so the argument goes. 

One of the most visible exponents of this idea has been Morpheus Ravenna. Morpheus has written two essays -- here and here -- about this issue, and more recently delivered the keynote speech at the Many Gods West polytheist conference: "Deep Polytheism: On the Agency and Sovereignty of the Gods" (which I urge you to read in its entirety).  Morpheus argues that "if your Gods are real to you, treat Them like beings with agency." Agency, she says, is "the capacity of an entity to act ... something like will."  This, she says, is what makes gods distinct from archetypes.  And, on this point, I have to disagree with her.

Let me preface this by saying that I respect Morpheus.  She thinks deeply about these matters and I find her thought process engaging.  But she is wrong to say that archetypes do not have agency.

Someone actually beat me to this point in the comments to the the published speech at Heimlich A. Laguz explained this far better than I could have, so I am just going to copy his comment here:

"I had the pleasure of attending your lecture at Many Gods West and enjoyed it immensely. I appreciate your call for us to go beyond shallow forms into the mystery of our gods.

"I wanted, however, to say a word or two in Jung’s defense. Archetypes, as he deploys them, are not generic, agency-less ciphers, dropped into place for the ego enlargement of whoever should come along and dust them off. The concept has been horribly watered down by decades of shallow authors, and I think it is these which you are rightfully critiquing. But your characterization of the nature of archetypes is at odds with the way Jung utilizes the term.

"When you read The Red Book, you see the profound struggle Jung experienced as he yielded himself up to these archetypal forces that definitely, clearly had their own agendas and wills. He was diving right off the cliff of the inner/psychic/mystic unknown. Whatever their ontological status might be, it is clear that archetypes have power and intentions. Indeed, much of Jung’s work moves towards the same point of this essay, namely that we have to give over to the forces greater than ourselves; they are not vehicles for our egoic agendas, but powers to be honored and worked with as an end in itself.

"Jung stated that the concept of archetype was never meant to replace the existence of the divine. He felt that as a psychologist it was not his place to speculate on the nature of divinity, and so limited himself to phenomena of consciousness. In other words, the purpose of proposing archetypes is not to water down the divine but to have humility about the limits of his understanding or competence.

"The phenomenological stance that you take – seeing the gods as they present themselves, not as our expectations dictate – runs richly throughout Jung’s work. Even when he draws parallel motifs between different mythological traditions, he is always also meticulous about the particularities. This is what makes the commonalities he identifies so compelling; they do not come at the expense of being faithful to the phenomena.

"Indeed, if one agrees with Marie-Louise von Franz, this is a big part of why his focus turned to the study of alchemy, a tradition which highlights the uniqueness and quirks of processes rather than editing them to fit pre-existing mythic structures or narratives. Personally, studying alchemy (particularly Jung’s and von Franz’s writings) has helped me experience my deities in a far more intimate, intense, phenomenologically faithful way, a way that I suspect is very much in accord with your vision for polytheism.

"In one passage (I believe in the volume _Alchemical Studies_) Jung argues that the similarity of patterns and structures across different mythic and cultural traditions is simply due to the biological uniformity of the human race. This is a very progressive claim for someone writing in the 1930’s. If it makes it sound like he is reducing spiritual processes to biology, it is worth understanding again the point that Jung’s focus was on psychological process, not the ontological status of the divine. If you think about it, since all humans have structurally similar brains, it makes sense that there might be some commonalities in how we process our experiences of those forces which exceed our own personal ego structures. Yet this says nothing about the actual nature of the gods; nor is it meant to.

"Finally, it is worth considering that Jung caused a furor when, in a televised interview in his later years, he was asked if he believed in God. Jung replied something to the effect of “I don’t have to believe; I KNOW God.” Naturally, this caused a terrible ruckus from all the blasphemy-obsessed monotheists. More importantly, it underscores that archetypes are not meant to be a substitute for the divine; otherwise his response would have been something like, “no, I only believe in the existence of mysterious, collective psychic constructs that people mistake for God.”

"For myself, I do not speculate on the “true” nature of the gods. Sometimes it makes most sense to treat them as historical artifacts; sometimes as psychic constructs; sometimes as “real” beings (whatever that means – “reality” is one of the most familiar, yet most opaque, terms in the English language). Mostly I just focus on their guidance and building a solid relationship on a phenomenological basis; the more time passes, the more I am comfortable with discarding abstraction and simply working with whatever they see fit to present.

"On the whole then, I applaud your intent, your conclusion, your call to the polytheist community. But I felt the need to speak to Jung’s defense; it is not fair to critique an epochal thinker on the basis of his ignorant so-called inheritors. On that point, you might enjoy David Tacey’s book _Jung and the New Age_, which offers a detailed, blow-by-blow account of the point of view I have here presented."

Needless to say I am so pleased to discover a polytheist -- someone who even attended the Many Gods West conference -- who appreciates the richness of the Jungian concept of archetypes -- a concept which has been watered down by Neo-Pagans and then set up as a straw man by unwitting polytheists.  It is something that I have been writing about for four years.  (If you'd like to read more, a list of links is below.)  I'll be writing more about Morpheus' keynote speech in a later post.

Links about the agency of archetypes

Polytheistic Experience and Jung's Experience of the Archetypes

But Are the Archetypes Real?

You Don't Know Jung, Part 6: Archetypes

The Archetypes are Gods: "Regodding" the Archetypes

Are the Gods Real?

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John Halstead also writes at (Patheos),,,,, and The Huffington Post. He was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment” (, and the editor of the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans. John is also a Shaper of the fledgling Earthseed community ( To speak with John, contact him on Facebook.


  • Billybareblu
    Billybareblu Wednesday, 26 August 2015

    Very good and thought provoking article John.

    This is one of those subjects that will be difficult for individuals to wrap their minds around, without settling on a specific point of view, to the exclusion of any other point of view. It can also make for frustrated and heated conversations and transforming companions into adversaries.

    I think it's a good idea to take a step back from the specific question of whether the gods are strictly internal archetypes or strictly and distinctly external entities, and instead do some research on the nature of Reality, the problem of universals, and the differing points of view concerning these concepts, as well some study of quantum theories and concepts of unified field theory as allegory to the subject in question.

    Consider, for instance, the concept of infinity. Infinity exists as a fact, which has reality and is depended upon in science, as well as abstract but definite and relatable philosophical qualities, yet cannot be proven empirically, since we cannot yet ascertain or measure if the universe itself is infinite or finite. Infinity appears to exist in experiential reality, since it can be expressed mathematically and geometrically and is a necessary component of science in general, yet it is dependent upon the imagination to be conceived, and then perhaps only as an abstract secondary function of tangibly applicable concepts.

    Also consider understanding the "laws" of physics and how they relate, and knowing they can be depended upon, that they are constant within our experiential reality, while also knowing that in particular instances they break down and do not function the same.

    In a nutshell, as I am able to conceive it, in my limited capacity, though both points of view seem distinct and irreconcilable from our limited perspective, from a broader perspective they could/would be found to both coexist, in unification, within and throughout the same experiential reality.

    So for me the question of validity between the points of view is moot. The archetype of a god will effectively embody all the attributes of a god, even that of being an autonomous, distinct entity, separate and complete from, as well as beyond the individual self, with knowledge, power, and experience transcendent of and unknown to the self, in all respects "real", the same as a god possessing all those characteristics independent of the conceivable archetype, to the extent that they cannot be quantifiably differentiated. If this is the case, then they are the same thing, described from different philosophical perspectives, so judging the validity of one point of view over the other is moot.

    The facets of a discussion on these issues may themselves be infinite, at least from our perspective, so I will leave off here. I do hope that our companions can manage to tolerate our various perspectives, and realize that none of us, in our limited capacity, has attained the absolute and total conception of reality or the gods, and will choose to embrace all our differing points of view, rather than use them as points of division.

  • Henry Buchy
    Henry Buchy Wednesday, 26 August 2015

    Just a point of information regarding this quote-" 'In one passage (I believe in the volume _Alchemical Studies_) Jung argues that the similarity of patterns and structures across different mythic and cultural traditions is simply due to the biological uniformity of the human race. This is a very progressive claim for someone writing in the 1930’s.'"

    "Given a small planet, and an evolution of life and living things thereon; and of men, who, where ever they be on that planet, see the same heavens, and the same phases of those heavens-not, may be, at the same precise hour of the twenty-four, nor the same exact day of the 360 and odd, nor even the same year of the cycle-given these men and their (within planetary limits)same mode of evolution, propagation, cerebral organisation, and nutriment; with their sameness of non-planetary objects of sense and thought; and there would seem no reason why they should not everywhere- evolve the same or very similar theories, mythological or otherwise, of their cosmic surroundings."
    "Night of the Gods"- John O'Neill- 1893
    It's not really all that progressive except perhaps to 'mainstream'.Modern paganism is adrift in 'mainstream', lol, a result of severing 'historical lineage'.
    and to echo Billy bareblu-
    "I do hope that our companions can manage to tolerate our various perspectives, and realize that none of us, in our limited capacity, has attained the absolute and total conception of reality or the gods, and will choose to embrace all our differing points of view, rather than use them as points of division."
    Of course that will not happen as long as folks indulge in political theology and continue with casuist and sophist arguments. Same as it ever was...

  • John Halstead
    John Halstead Wednesday, 26 August 2015

    Thanks for the reference to O'Neill. I'll check it out.

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