Dreaming the Myth Forward: Jungian Neopaganism

Carl Jung's ideas have been influencing the development of Neopaganism 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 Nepaganism 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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John Halstead

John Halstead

John discovered Jungianism and Neopaganism 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 HumaniticPaganism.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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I previously argued here that the Neopagan reclamation of the Shadow of Western civilization in (the form of the Great Mother Goddess, Horned God, and a resacralized body) should not be confused with the reclaiming of our own Shadow.  In my last post, I suggested two archetypes which might constitute part of the Shadow of contemporary Paganism: the Eternal Victim and the Terrible Mother.  To conclude this series, I want to propose one more archetype which may be part of the Pagan Shadow.

Wotan/Dionysus, the Maddener

There is a tendency in Neopagan discourse to valorize the darkness.  This is part and parcel of the spiritual feminist program to reclaim all those things associated with the feminine, and I applaud it.  However, in the process, two kinds of “darkness” can get conflated.  First there is the darkness of the Unconscious.  We describe the Unconscious as dark because it is unknown; it is concealed from the “light” of the conscious mind, from conscious awareness and from the power of discernment.  There is another kind of darkness, which Jung called the Shadow.  The Shadow represents the repressed parts of ourselves.  In Jung’s thought, every positive and constructive aspect of our personality has a shadow side which is negative and destructive.  (There is also the “bright shadow” those positive aspects of ourselves that we repress, but for present purposes I will use “Shadow” to refer to the negative only.) 

To conflate the darkness of the Unconscious with the darkness of the Shadow is to confuse what is unknown with what is evil.  It is to confuse an epistemological issue with a moral one.  Not everything “dark” is good.  It is important that, in the process of reclaiming the dark, we do not lose our powers of discernment.  I think we are right to fear the dark.  That fear is not a reason to perpetuate repression — whether psychological (i.e., repression of parts of ourselves) or social (i.e., repression of women).  But let us not be naive either.  Our psyche has good reason for repressing some things.  While our task, if we are to become fully human, may be to bring these parts of ourselves to light, we must do so in a way that does not destroy ourselves or those around us in the process.  And that is where the conscious power of discernment comes into play. 

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In my last post, I described how Neopagans have helped to reclaim part of the Shadow of Western civilization, which takes the form of a kind of "Shadow Trinity" of Great Mother Goddess, Horned God, and Holy Body. But, it is important to recognize that, while Pagans are consciously engaged in reclaiming the Christian Shadow, Paganism has its own Shadows. We should not make the mistake of thinking that, in reclaiming the divine feminine, the holy animal, and the sacred body from the collective unconscious, that we have eliminated our own Shadow. For every light that we cast onto the Shadow of Western civilization casts its own Shadow, both revealing and concealing.

I recall the first time I realized this, when I was attempting to work out the constituency of my own “secretly potent pantheon” (Joseph Campbell) of my psyche. I realized that all the gods I had acknowledged were ones with whom I was more or less comfortable. Absent were the gods who represented parts of myself about which I was still ashamed. Why would anyone want to worship those parts of themselves? No one really wants to acknowledge, much less worship, their shadow -- but that's the point. If we are to truly "make the darkness conscious" rather than "imaging figures of light" (CW 13, P 335), then we must find a time and place to honor those parts of ourselves that we do not readily acknowledge.

What are Paganism’s true Shadow gods then? I cannot pretend to be able to answer this question in full. But I propose three archetypes which might begin to outline the Shadow of contemporary Paganism.

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When I first started getting into Jung, I was lost.  I quickly discovered three things: First, Jung wrote a lotThere are 18 volumes of his Collected Works (not counting the bibliography and index) and they are not even complete.  Second, there is very little logic to the ordering of Jung's writings.  This is why electronic versions of Jung's writings are great: because they are searchable.  And third, electronic versions of many of Jung's writings are very hard to find.  I've previously provided a list of Internet Jung resources here along with a link to a torrent download of Jung's Collected Works

Jung's Collected Works

Most citations to Jung's works refer numbered paragraphs of the Collected Works (i.e., CW 9ii: P 77).  Jung's Collected Works are not organized exactly chronologically.  As a result, it is difficult to determine the evolution of his ideas.  And it would be difficult to organize Jung's writings chronologically anyway, because of confusion about when many of them were written.  Most of the volumes consist of collections of essays written across Jung's career, with the exception of Volumes 5, 9(i), and 14, which are self-contained works.  

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It is one thing to sing of the beloved. Another, alas,

to invoke that hidden, guilty river-god of the blood. 

-- Rilke

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Recent Comments - Show all comments
  • D. R. Bartlette
    D. R. Bartlette says #
    This is a wonderful post. I love your statement that NeoPagans are modern society's "shadow." I will proudly take that title! I al
  • John Halstead
    John Halstead says #
    I agree with everything you said about the Horned God. It's still true that the Neopagan Horned God derives from the Wiccan Horne

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"Scorn not the Gods: Despite their non-existence in material terms, they're no less potent, no less terrible.  The one place Gods inarguably exist is in our minds where they are real beyond refute, in all their grandeur and monstrosity."

-- Alan Moore, From Hell

"But are the archetypes real?"  This is a question that haunts any discussion of the archetypes, especially discussions of the gods as archetypes.  I have made the argument here and here that the polytheistic experience of deities can be explained in Jungian terms as archetypes.  But the question of the ontological nature of the archetypes remained unanswered. 

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For this (bi-)week's post, I offer the following collection of Internet Jung resources of interest to Pagans:

 

Complete Collected Works of Jung

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... and what the soul is, also
I believe I will never quite know.
Though I play at the edges of knowing,
truly I know
our part is not knowing,
but looking, and touching, and loving,
which is the way I walked on ...
-- Mary Oliver, "Bone"

 

Post-Jungian James Hillman writes that the "first task of psychology is to explore and give an account of subjectivity."  But what are the limits of that subjectivity?  Where do "I" end and the "other" begin?  Hillman writes, "Since the 'discovery of the unconscious,' every sophisticated theory of personality has to admit that whatever I claim to be 'me' has at least a portion of its roots beyond my agency and my awareness."  But just how far beyond?

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In the previous two posts, I set out to show how Jung’s archetypal psychology might be of interest to polytheists and deity-centered Pagans.  In concluding, I promised to discuss how Jung may also be of interest to earth-centered Pagans.

Jung’s earthiness is sometimes easy to miss.  It is quite possible to read a great deal of Jung’s writings, as well as a lot of secondary literature on Jungian psychology, and not find much concern at all with the natural world.  In fact, it is easy to interpret Jungian philosophy as being introverted to the point of solipsism.  And yet, one of Jung’s biographers confidentially calls him “earth-rooted” as well as “spiritually centered”.  People who knew him called often described him as “earthy”, referring to his physicality and vitality, as well as his simplicity.  Olga Konig-Fachsenfeld, for one, wrote that Jung's "earth-rootedness" was for her "the guarantee for the credibility of his psychology". 

In his personal life, Jung had an intense love of nature, simple rustic lifestyle, and solitude, reminiscent of the Transcendentalists.  Jung writes in his semi-autobiographical Memories, Dreams, Reflections that part of him always felt “remote from the world of men, but close to nature, the earth, the sun, the moon, the weather, all living creatures.”  His experience of nature bordered on the pantheistic:

“Nothing could persuade me that ‘in the image of God’ applied only to man. In fact it seemed to me that the high mountains, the rivers, lakes, trees, flowers, and animals far better exemplified the essence of God than men with their ridiculous clothes, their meanness, vanity, mendacity, and abhorrent egotism [...]

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Last time, I talked about how Jungian archetypes, far from being mere metaphors for natural and psychological processes, can accurately be described as "gods".  In this post, I want to discuss how the experience of Jung's archetypes closely resembles Polytheists' descriptions of their encounter with the gods. 

It is not uncommon for Pagans to draw on Jung’s concept of archetypes to explain the nature of Pagan deities.  Polytheists*, however, often reject Jungian or archetypal explanations of the gods because they seem reductive, and such explanations do not seem to account for the Polytheistic experience of the gods as “actual beings with independence, volition, and power”.  When Polytheists hear the gods described as archetypes, they may hear the speaker telling them that it is "all in your head".  In addition, talk about “archetypes” can seem abstract, which is inconsistent with the Polytheists' experience of the gods in all their specificity.  For example, the "Mother archetype" may not evoke the same devotion among Polytheists as the goddesses Demeter or Kali do. 

But is Jung’s theory of the archetypes really inconsistent with the experience Polytheists?  Is it possible that the archetypes have been misunderstood by many Polytheists and Pagans alike? 

Jung in dialogue with the archetypes

The way that many Pagans have applied Jung’s theories does admittedly render a divinity which is psychologized and abstract.  But Jung’s own description of the experience of the archetypes was very different.  Jung engaged his unconscious through a technique called “active imagination”, which he also taught to his patients.  Active imagination involves inducing a kind of trace or “twilight consciousness”, of the type which we experience just before falling asleep -- a waking dream, if you will.  Then Jung would attempt to consciously interact with the images that emerged. 

In his semi-autobiographical, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Jung writes about how he would dialogue with archetypal images, like his "anima", a muse-like mediating archetype.  The fact that Jung would talk to the archetypal images of his unconscious, by itself, is not all the surprising; but the fact that the images responded to him -- actually talked back to him -- is surprising.  (Jung admitted that he sometimes feared for his sanity.) 

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Recent Comments - Show all comments
  • B. T. Newberg
    B. T. Newberg says #
    >Jung's concern, like in the others in the psychoanalytic school, would be with something influencing our behavior that we are not
  • John Halstead
    John Halstead says #
    Jung said it is the project of several lifetimes.
  • John Halstead
    John Halstead says #
    I didn't mean to imply that he thought it could be avoided, just that the point is to work toward ever greater levels of conscious

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Recently, P. Sufenas Virius Lupus created some online controversy by arguing that one of the “points” of modern Paganism is to “bring back the gods”.  Lupus’ post was written in the context of a wider discussion about the place of Polytheism within contemporary Paganism, which began when several prominent Polytheists decided to disassociate themselves from the term “Pagan”.  (For more on this see here and here.)

Part of the reason for the antipathy of many Polytheists for Paganism is the perception that for Pagans the gods are personifications of natural forces or Jungian archetypes, whereas for Polytheists the gods are, in Lupus’ words, “actual beings with independence, volition, and power”.  Polytheistic practice, according to Lupus, “presupposes a definite being with volition and consciousness on the other end of the interaction.”  In contrast, Jungian archetypes are often understood by Pagans as mere metaphors of of natural or psychological processes.  A Polytheist who understands the archetypes in this way might well wonder why would anyone worship the creations of their own mind.

In the 1960s and 70s, Pagans seized onto Jung’s conception of archetypes as a way of legitimizing Pagan polytheism in the face of the crumbling claims to historical authenticity.  In the process though, the gods of Paganism became psychologized, and they lost their numinous quality.  (Numinosity refers, in part, to the mysterious “otherness” of an encounter with the divine.)  The Pagan gods had become archetypes, but Pagans had lost the sense of the archetypes as gods.  In reaction, many Polytheists in search of communion with numinous Others rejected Jungian Paganism in favor of a radical (or “hard”) polytheism which treats the gods as beings existing independent of the human psyche. 

I believe that this rejection of Jungian archetypes is the result of a misunderstanding by many Pagans of Jung’s concept of archetypes.  Jung would say that, while the gods may be a part of us, we must remember that they are also other than us, if by “us” we mean our conscious mind or ego-self.  Thus, Jung could say that “the world of gods and spirits is truly ‘nothing but’ the collective unconscious inside me”, and in the same breath say that “the collective unconscious is the world of gods and spirits outside me”.  This is why Jung called the archetypes “gods” and compared the psyche to an “Olympus full of deities who want to be propitiated, served, feared and worshipped”. He wrote that moderns congratulate ourselves

"imagining that we have left all these phantasmal gods far behind. But what we have left behind are only verbal spectres, not the psychic facts that were responsible for the birth of the gods. We are still as much possessed by autonomous psychic contents as if they were Olympians. [...] Zeus no longer rules Olympus but rather the solar plexus."

The gods are not gone; they have just come home -- to the psyche.

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  • John Halstead
    John Halstead says #
    Chas Clifton reports that Robert Anton Wilson published an article in the old Llewellyn Publications magazine Gnostica, involving
  • John Halstead
    John Halstead says #
    "And if so, is it than 'my' unconsciousness where they reside or perhaps in the unconsciousness of that other place or person." T
  • Janneke Brouwers
    Janneke Brouwers says #
    This is very interesting and I am curious how P. Sufenas will respond to this one. In any case it will lead to a more productive d

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“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 Forward", 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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  • John Halstead
    John Halstead says #
    Thanks Elani! It's an honor to be here.
  • Elani Temperance
    Elani Temperance says #
    Welcome to PaganSquare, John. I look forward to your posts here.

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