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?

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Taking the Gods Seriously as a Jungian Pagan

I am a Jungian Neo-Pagan, which means that, theologically speaking, I fall somewhere between atheist Pagans and devotional polytheists regarding the existence of the gods.  By placing my beliefs in the "middle" here I do not mean to privilege my beliefs, only to make the point that I both agree and disagree with both groups about different things.  One thing I agree with devotional polytheists about is that the gods should be taken seriously. 

I worry sometimes that we Neo-Pagans don't take our own gods seriously enough.  I disagree with devotional polytheists about the metaphysical nature of the gods, whether they are "real, independent, sentient beings" or real, independent semi-conscious archetypes. (Carl Jung called the archetypes "gods" and compared the psyche to an “Olympus full of deities who want to be propitiated, served, feared and worshipped”.)  But one thing I admire about them is the seriousness (the "piety" if you will) with which they approach the gods.  

Ronald Hutton has noted that one of the distinguishing features of Neo-Pagan witchcraft is the "consecration of play".  As the Charge of the Goddess affirms, "mirth and reverence" both play an important role in Neo-Paganism.  This is an admirable corrective to the dreary seriousness of much of Christian liturgy.  But there is a time and place for all things, and sometimes it seems that our revelry trivializes our religion.

More to the point, sometimes we Neo-Pagans trivialize our gods.  We do this with a lot of our art -- consider how, in Pagan art on the Internet, the goddesses look like Barbie dolls or comic book superheroines.  Barbara Ardinger's Finding New Goddesses: Reclaiming Playfulness in Our Spiritual Lives is another good example of the trivialization of the gods.  While Ardinger's book was perhaps intended as a parody, there is more than a kernel of truthfulness in her characterization of Neo-Pagans worshiping "found gods" like "Spendifera (spen-DIF-er-uh) Goddess of the Mall".  And then there is the eclectic Neo-Pagan practice of "using gods" like tools, which has been called "plug and play gods" and "the god faucet".  These trivializations of the encounter with the divine have encouraged a kind of backlash in our community, helping in part to fuel the growth of devotional polytheism -- which I see as a much needed balance to the excesses of an eclectic and playful Neo-Paganism.  

The Cambridge ritualist, Gilbert Murray, wrote the following about Euripides' Dionysus:

"There are in the world things not of reason, but both below and above it; causes of emotion, which we cannot express, which we tend to worship, which we feel, perhaps, to be the precious elements in life. These things are Gods or forms of God: not fabulous immortal men, but ‘Things which Are,’ things utterly non-human and non-moral, which bring man bliss or tear his life to shreds without a break in their own serenity.”

It's easy to see how gods like Dionysus and Odin might fit this description, but I think it potentially applies to all the gods.  Take Aphrodite, for example, the so-called "goddess of love", perhaps one of the most trivialized pagan goddesses in mainstream culture.  But in the myths, she was was responsible for the doom of dozens of mortals and gods who crossed her.  One thing that I take away from the myths is that the gods are just as likely to bring doom as they are to bring a boon.

"That's all well a good for mythology," you might be thinking, "but how an archetype can be dangerous?"  They can become dangerous when we trivialize them or assume they are benign. Consider Aphrodite again.  What would happen if I treat this archetype as merely a saccharine goddess of "love"?  In so doing, I may confuse two faces of the goddess: Aphrodite Pandemos -- lust -- with Aphrodite Ourania -- universal love.  Would that not wreak havoc on my personal life? 

Or what if I treat the intoxicating power of Dionysus -- in the form of drugs, alcohol, or sex -- as an unequivocal good?  What happens if Dionysus' ecstatic passion is not balanced by the tempering influence of Apollo's cool rationality?  Or if Odin's berzerker rage is not mitigated by the grounding influence of Frigga?  Will not these archetypal powers tear my life to shreds "without a break in their own serenity", as Murray writes?

Whether we call them "gods", "archetypes", "forces of nature", "immensities", or "things which are", it seems to me that these powers should be respected.  We show respect for them by remembering that every god has his or her shadow -- even the most seemingly benign.

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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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