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From Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans (ed. John Halstead)

I often hear Neo-Pagans say that the gods are archetypes, but rarely do I hear the reverse of that idea: that the archetypes are gods. The idea that gods are archetypes is not a new one. It dates back to the 1960s at least, when Neo-Pagans began to seize on Carl Jung’s concept of archetypes as a way of making polytheism relevant to a modern world. As Margot Adler explained in Drawing Down the Moon (1979),

“Much of the theoretical basis for a modern defense of polytheism comes from Jungian psychologists, who have long argued that the Gods and Goddesses of myth, legend and fairy tale represent archetypes, real potencies and potentialities deep within the psyche, which, when allowed to flower permit us to be more fully human.”

In the process of psychologizing the gods, though, we have lost the sense of the gods as something which transcends us. We have humanized the gods and lost the sense of gods as gods.

Psychologizing the Gods

Pagans often talk about the disenchantment of the modern world. The phrase, “disenchantment of the world,” derives from Friedrich Schiller, who described the Entgotterung der Natur, literally, the “de-godding of nature.” Neo-Pagan myth and ritual are seen by many Pagans as a counter-cultural response to this disenchantment, a re-enchantment of the world or a “re-godding” of nature. Ironically, though, some of the pre-modern cultural forms which Neo-Pagans attempt to reconstruct may actually be transformed in the process, so much so that the “enchantment” is lost in the translation. For example, Wouter Hanegraaff has argued that occultist magic survived the disenchantment of the Enlightenment by becoming disenchanted. 

In contemporary Neo-Paganism, we can see this “psychologization,” not only in discussions of magic, but also in explanations of the nature of the gods, specifically the reduction of the gods to “archetypes.” In the 1960s and 1970s, as the claims to historical continuity with an ideal pagan past began to come under attack, Neo-Pagans turned to Jungian psychology as a means for legitimating Neo-Pagan practice. Unfortunately, as the Jungian interpretation of Neo-Pagan gods was popularized, it was also oversimplified. The archetypes were reduced to mere ideas or metaphors, ideas which with we can consciously play. This “psychologization” of the archetypes was something that Carl Jung himself was actually critical of.

When we talk about the gods as archetypes, we often contribute to the ongoing disenchantment of the world, because we lose the sense of the archetypes as gods. In other words, the “numinous” quality of the archetype is lost. The archetypes become disenchanted. One of the most conspicuous examples of this is the practice of “using gods” in Neo-Pagan magic, also sometimes referred to as “plug-and-play” gods.

The gods may be a part of us, but we have forgotten that they are also other than us—if by “us” we mean our conscious mind or ego-self. This is why Jung called the archetypes “gods. We experience the archetypes as gods in the sense that they are beyond our conscious control and they have the power to transform our lives. Jung wrote that we are dominated, even “possessed,” by the archetypes, which “function exactly like an Olympus full of deities who want to be propitiated, served, feared and worshiped.” A true encounter with the gods is not only an experience of re-enchantment (what Rudolf Otto called mysterium fascinans), but also an experience which shakes us to our core (what Otto called mysterium tremendum).

While the gods are part of the human psyche, we should remember that the Greek term psyche is better translated as “soul” than “mind.” Too often, in discussions of the psychological nature of Neo-Pagan gods, the modifier “just” is inserted immediately preceding the word “psychological,” as in, “The Neo-Pagan gods are just psychological.” It is as if to say, “They are figments of your imagination.” This is not only a profound misunderstanding of Jungs theory of the psyche, but it also contributes to the disenchantment of the Neo-Pagan concept of divinity. In effect, the Neo-Pagan psychologization of the gods has de-godded the archetypes.

Re-godding the Archetypes

In Sign of the Witch: Modernity and the Pagan Revival (2008), David Waldron writes how, in the 1980s, the Jungian approach to the gods began to decline. Since the turn of the millennium (perhaps not coincidentally, after the publication of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods), a literalistic polytheism has become more popular among Neo-Pagans. This may be in reaction to the disenchantment of the gods or the “de-godding of the archetypes. Many Pagans, in search of communion with the numinous Other(s), have rejected Jungian Neo-Paganism in favor of a more literalistic polytheism which sees the gods as beings existing independent of the human psyche. It is an attempt, if you will, to put the “god” back into the gods. But Naturalistic Pagans like myself are not comfortable with a literalistic conception of the divine. Perhaps it is time we re-examine Jung’s ideas and see if we can put the god back in the archetype.

The de-godding of the archetype in Neo-Paganism is a consequence of a fundamental misunderstanding of Jungs ideas, namely a confusion of symbol with archetype. As David Waldron explains:

“It is one thing to acknowledge that symbols and archetypal images have a deep impact on the human psyche through religious experience. It is a profoundly different thing to believe that one can consciously and arbitrarily create and ascribe meaning to symbols, based upon that which is seen to be suited to consciously designated psychological needs.”

Jung differentiated between consciously constructed symbols and numinous archetypes. According to Jung, symbols refer to, but are not identical with, the archetypes located deep in the unconscious. While symbols have a conscious and known meaning, an archetype always transcends our attempts to understand it. Thus, the archetype retains a numinous quality. Our comprehension of an archetype by consciousness is always necessarily partial, never total. The meaning of the unconscious archetype is inexhaustible. The claim that any one symbol exhausts the archetype it refers to is the substance of what John Dourley calls “psychological idolatry.” If a symbol can be totally explained or rationalized by the conscious mind, then it ceases to be an archetype. While a symbol may masquerade as an archetype, it actually is merely an expression of our ego-self.

Neo-Jungian James Hillman writes, in Re-visioning Psychology (1975): “Just as we do not create our dreams, but they happen to us, so we do not invent the persons of myth and religion [i.e., the gods]; they, too, happen to us” (emphasis Hillmans). It is no coincidence that, historically and cross-culturally, the gods have spoken to mortals in dreams. As Neo-Pagans came to consciously construct and “plug-and-play” their gods, we have lost the sense of the gods as something that happens to us. We might say that we overemphasized the immanence of the gods and lost the sense of their transcendence.

The Modern Hubris

In ancient Greek tragedy, heroes who were guilty of the sin of hubris, disregarding the existential gulf between themselves and the gods, were invariably punished for it. In contemporary Neo-Paganism, hubris takes the form of confusing the creations of the conscious mind with the numinous aspects of the unconscious psyche.

On the one hand, this modern form of hubris results in the loss of our experience of the gods, a further disenchantment or de-godding of our world. But on the other hand, it invites the retribution of gods, who can be repressed in the unconscious, but will not be ignored. Above the door to his home in Zurich, Jung had inscribed the words: “Called or not, the god will be present.” We can ignore the gods, but their effect in our lives is unavoidable. If they are not given their due honor, the gods will make themselves known forcibly and often with disastrous results for our lives.

In A History of Ancient Greek Literature, Gilbert Murray explains the meaning of Euripides play, The Bacchae:

“Reason is great, but it is not everything. 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.”

To confuse Murrays “things not of reason” with the conscious creations of our own mind is hubris, and we do so at our own peril. The gods may be archetypes, but we must also always remember that the archetypes are gods.

As Neo-Paganism moves increasingly in the direction of literalistic polytheism, those Neo-Pagans who find literalism untenable may find themselves marginalized in the Neo-Pagan community. The pendulum which previously swung to the humanistic extreme by reducing the gods to symbols is now swinging to the other extreme of transcendental theism, denying that the gods are part of the human psyche.

When properly understood, Jungs theory of archetypes offers us an opportunity to find a golden mean between these two extremes, one which may simultaneously satisfy the humanist, who sees the gods as products of the human psyche, while also satisfying the mystical longing of the theist for contact with a numinous Other, which is greater than any creation of our conscious mind.