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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Why I don't trust the gods enough to be alone with one

We make our destinies by our choice of gods. -- Virgil

In my last post, I wrote about the danger of trivializing the gods.  In this post, I want to discuss the danger of trusting them.

The word "worship" derives from the Old English word for "worthy".  I wonder then, why I rarely see the question asked whether the Pagan gods are worthy of worship. John Beckett has written about the gods as paragons of virtue.  But, if so, they are also paragons of vice.  The polytheistic gods, as I understand them, are not necessarily good and they are not omni-benevolent.  If the myths are to be believed on any level, the gods are just as flawed as human beings -- they just have more power.  

You might ask, "Why worship the gods at all then? Why bow down to power, if it is not paired with virtue?" One answer perhaps is that the gods should be worshiped because they are -- just as nature can be worshiped because it is.  Worship (or reverence, if you prefer) is the natural human response to nature, and the archetypes are party of nature -- our nature.  Nature is not moral or virtuous, and many Pagans (myself included) have no reservations about worshiping it -- but worshiping something and trusting it are two different things.

I agree with John Beckett, when he writes that "we can trust the gods to be who and what they are"-- not to answer all our prayers, not to have our best interest in mind, but "we can trust the gods to be the gods."  I agree, but I don't think that's saying very much.  I trust a thunderstorm to be a thunderstorm or the ocean to be the ocean, which is to say, I don't trust either much at all.  You might say that I trust nature as a whole -- to be generally supportive of life -- but I trust no single aspect of nature at any given moment.  And I feel the same about the gods within.

I believe the gods within are especially dangerous when approached individually, for example, when Dionysus' ecstasy is not balanced by the tempering influence of Apollo's cool rationality or when Odin's berzerker rage is not mitigated by the grounding influence of Frigga.  This is one thing that Paganism has taught me about my former faith, Christianity:  The problem with Yahweh wasn't so much that he was a bad god; it was that he thought he was the only godJungian Neo-Paganism, taught me that it is better to be whole than to be good -- if to be "good" means to be one-sided.

In this sense, it is only the gods in their plurality that are worthy of worship, not any individual god.  To put it another way, it is only the pantheon, not the gods, that can be trusted.  Christine Downing writes,

"At the very heart of polytheism lies the conviction that only the totality of the gods and goddesses constitutes the divine world. ...  There are many myths that reveal how fatal it is for us humans to overlook even one, to fail to give each his or her due honor." 

For us to disregard any one of the gods, she goes on "is to curtail the richness of the world and the fullness of the human."

Of course, I can't worship all the gods all the time.  I can't even worship all the gods of one pantheon all the time.  But I can be aware, as my attention is drawn to one god in particular for a while, that any deity exists in a sacred context -- a pantheon -- that includes other balancing powers. I can remember this in deed this by honoring different gods during different seasons or different times of the day.  I can do this by honoring in my rituals those ADF druids call "the Outsiders" and what the Greeks called Agnostos Theos, the unknown god.  I can do this by celebrating the fact that every god has his or her shadow -- even the most seemingly benign.

Devotional polytheist Galina Krasskova explains this from a different perspective:

"It's not as though everyone has to venerate every Deity all the time, after all. But not making a place for the Gods …that generally ends pretty badly just like when you try to suppress something within yourself: it always comes out and then through the only opening we give: violently. If we look at a Pantheon as being a cohesively balanced whole, then it's dangerous and ill thought out to exclude any part of that unit, including those (perhaps most especially those) with Whom we are most uncomfortable. This does not of course mean make Those Gods your fulltrui, your patrons, your "best buds" (unless of course you're called and claimed by Them), but it does mean proper veneration at the properly prescribed time. Perhaps you will find that some are best kept at arms length, but that is then Their place and They are deserving of Their place which is a far different thing from total exclusion based on fear, doubt, or ignorance (or anything else)....Even that which disturbs our neat view of the world has a place. To deny it is to court our own destruction.... Balance doesn't mean excluding that which makes us uncomfortable. Jung himself said that 'one does not become enlightened by imagining creatures of light but by making the darkness conscious.'"

Of course, there will always be those who are called to be priests and priestesses, devoted exclusively to one god or another.  But perhaps such individuals should be approached with the same reservation and caution with which we approach the gods.  Emerson is believed to have said,

"The gods we worship write their names on our faces, be sure of that. ... Therefore it behooves us to be careful what we are worshiping, for what we are worshiping we are becoming."

Krasskova seems to suggest as much when she writes:

"Falling into Gods like Odin, and like Dionysos ... carries with it the potential for finding those elements of the Gods' nature in ourselves, for becoming in however small or large a way, transformed by Them, by the contact, transformed into becoming a bit more like Them in outlook." 

What does this mean when your god is a "savage god" like Krasskova's Odin?  I imagine this can be a good thing. There is such a thing as righteous anger, after all -- but anger is not an unmitigated good.  An exclusive worship of any one deity can be pathological. 

Fortunately, Pagan priests generally don't identify completely with the object of their devotion, and not all deities are as destructive as Dionysus or Odin.  But, as a Jungian Neo-Pagan, I think the danger is always there in focusing exclusively on one god or goddess.  It seems like there is a fashion in Paganism recently for ever increasing levels of intimacy with individual gods (witness the proliferation of "god spouses") -- which seems odd in a community which is defined primarily by its polytheism.  Priests and priestesses are an essential part of our community, but it's good, I think, that most of us are not priests (at least not in the traditional sense of the term).  A large pagan laity is a good thing, in my mind.  A community of true priests, like a community of shamans, would be no community at all -- it would be a madhouse.

As for me, I am content that no Pagan god has singled me out.  I know what that kind of divine scrutiny is like.  I know what it is like to be "possessed" by a god (Yahweh).  I experienced it more like a disease than a blessing.  And I have learned that the only remedy for it is to open my eyes to discover "a world full of gods".

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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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