Dreaming the Myth Onward: Jungian Neo-Paganism
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?
Dreaming the Myth Onwards
“Not for a moment dare we succumb to the illusion that an archetype can be finally explained and disposed of. Even the best attempts at explanation are only more or less successful translations into another metaphorical language. (Indeed, language itself is only an image.) The most we can do is to dream the myth onwards and give it a modern dress.” (Collected Works, vol. 9, emphasis added).
I chose the title for this blog, "Dreaming the Myth Onward", because the quote above captures for me what Jungian Neopaganism is: an attempt to live the myth forward, in other words, an attempt to live a mythopoetic life. The meaning of this is something I will explain over the course of several posts. While I will attempt in this blog to explain the archetypes, the title is also a reminder to me that all such explanations must bow to the lived experience of the archetypes.
My vision for this blog is to describe Jung’s ideas in a way that will be unfamiliar to many Pagans. I will attempt to walk the conceptual tightrope that Jung strung between the dual traps, the Scylla and Charybdis, of reification or literalization of the archetypes, on the one hand, and the oversimplication and reduction of the archetypes to mere symbols, on the other. I want to present an understanding of Jung’s ideas that might appeal to both earth-centered naturalists and to deity-centered polytheists. And in so doing so, I want to exercise both my critical faculty and my intuition of depth, and I want to be true to my experience.
To that end, let me tell you a little about me and how I became a Jungian Neopagan. Both Jungianism and Neopaganism grew in reaction to the Christianity of their times, so it should come as no surprise that I came to Jungian Neopaganism in reaction to the Christianity of my youth. When I was a Christian, I felt a perennial sense of powerlessness and self-loathing. While this is not a necessary condition for every Christian, it was a condition which flowed naturally from my experience of Christianity.
One day, shortly before I left Christianity, I was reading Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology, and I came across these words: “Freedom is the possibility of a total and centered act of personality, and act in which all the drives and influences which constitute the destiny of man are brought into the centered unity of a decision.” (I later learned that Jung and Tillich have a lot in common. See, John Dourley’s Psyche as Sacrament: A Comparative Study of C.G. Jung and Paul Tillich.) These words were like a revelation to me: In that moment I realized that my sense of powerlessness derived from the fact that I was trying to overpower certain parts of myself (spirit over body, intellect over emotion, “good” over “bad”), thus dividing me against myself. This division at my core was a recipe for powerlessness and concomitant low self-esteem. I realized then that personal power comes not from conquering the rejected parts of myself, but by integrating those parts, by finding a place and time to treat every part of me as sacred. When I discovered Jungianism and Paganism, they both appeared to me as religious paradigms built around this idea of resacralizing the rejected parts of ourselves.
I discovered Neopaganism and Jungianism at the same time, first through the writing of Jungian Wiccan Vivianne Crowley, and later through Margot Adler and Starhawk. Wouter Hanegraaff has written that Crowley’s Jungian perspective “is so strong that readers might be forgiven for concluding that Wicca is little more than a religious and ritual translation of Jungian psychology.” And, indeed, I thought that was exactly what Neopaganism was. I was surprised to learn later that not all Pagans embraced Jung’s ideas (more on that in a future post).
Neopaganism, as I understood it, was best described by Robert Ellwood and Harry Partin in their book Religious and Spiritual Groups in Modern America when they wrote that the unifying theme among the diverse Neo-Pagan traditions was “the ecology of one's relation to nature and to the various parts of one's self.” The ecology of the various parts of oneself: that was a powerful idea to me, who had previously identified my “self” only with my consciousness and my intellect. As Ellwood and Partin explain, in contrast to the Judeo-Christian tradition which teaches that the intellectual will is to have dominion over the natural world and over the unruly “lesser” parts of the human psyche, as God has dominion over man, the Neo-Pagan tradition teaches, on the contrary, that we must cooperate with nature and with the deep forces of the psyche with an attitude of reverence. Neopagan morality, according to Ellwood and Partin, was based, not on imposing the will on the reluctant flesh, but rather on that “expansiveness of spirit which comes from allowing nature and rite to lower the gates confining the civilized imagination.” In other words, unlike Christianity, which divided me against myself, Neopaganism seeks to break down those divisions and bring together nature and humankind, body and soul, light and dark.
I discovered a similar ethos in Jungianism. Jung wrote that “life calls not for perfection but for completeness” (CW 12). The goal of life for Jung is not to become saints, but to become more fully human. To Father Victor White, Jung wrote, “A ‘complete’ life does not consist in a theoretical completeness, but in the fact that one accepts, without reservation, the particular fatal tissue in which one finds oneself embedded, and that one tries to make sense of it or to create a cosmos from the chaotic mess into which one is born.” Creating a cosmos of the chaos of one’s psyche is what Jungian’s concept of individuation is all about. But this is accomplished, not by “imagining figures of light”, but by “making the darkness conscious” (CW 13). “There is no light without shadow, and no psychic wholeness without imperfection,” wrote Jung (CW 12). “Without the experience of the opposites there is no wholeness and hence no inner approach to the [gods]” (CW 12). In short, Jung taught me the truth of John Middleton Murry’s claim that “it was better to be whole than to be good, and that, therefore, to be whole was to be good, and to be good something different.”
Both Neopaganism and Jungianism offered me a path toward wholeness, healing, personal power that I did not find in Christianity. These two paths complemented each other in ways I hope to share with you in future posts. In closing, I leave the words of Hermann Hesse (a friend of Jung’s): May you “treat your drives and so-called temptations with respect and love. Then they will reveal their meaning — and they all do have meaning.”
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