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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The Origin of Jung's Concept of the Archetypes

Jung’s conception of the archetypes evolved over a period of a half century. In general, he tended to describe the archetypes more in biological terms (instincts, structures of the brain) in his earlier writings, and in more spiritual terms in his later writings.

saturn-goya.jpgThe Archetypes and the Parents

Jung’s conception of the archetype originated with his recognition that the personalities of the parents of a child continue to exercise a vital influence on the child, even after the parents are dead. Jung realized that the “images” of the parents survive, often in a distorted form, and continue to “lead a shadowy but nonetheless potent existence in the mind of the patient.” ("The Theory of Psychoanalysis" (1912), CW 4, P 134).  Jung called this parental image an “imago”. The imago was Jung’s first articulation of the concept of the archetype. It’s no wonder then that the mother and father archetypes were of such special importance to Jung.

The Archetypes and the Myths

Jung’s theory of the archetypes developed through his study of mythology. In addition to the dreams of his patients, Jung studied the myths, legends, and folktales of cultures widely separated in geography and history. He discovered that there were common themes in the two bodies of material. This led him to hypothesize the existence of a collective aspect of the psyche, which he called the “objective unconscious” and the “collective unconscious”. He called the organizing structures of the collective unconscious “archetypes”. 

In his 1912 work, Psychology of the Unconscious, which marked his split from Freud, Jung brought his study of mythology and comparative religion to bear on his theory of the psyche. In the process, he began to distinguish personal "complexes" from what he was later to distinguish as trans-personal "archetypes". For Jung, the critical discovery was the realization that some of his patients were producing symbolic material which corresponded to mythical material which they had no conscious knowledge of. While some of the clinical evidence which Jung cites is of dubious significance, it cannot be doubted that some of the symbolic matter of our dreams has cross-cultural correspondences and that some of the content our dreams is difficult to account for in terms of one's idiosyncratic history.

An important influence on Jung’s conception of the archetypes was the German historian Jacob Burckhardt. It was from Burckhardt that Jung borrowed another early term for the archetypes, “primordial image” or urtumliches bild. (CW 6, P 624). In Psychology of the Unconscious, Jung wrote:

"Thus, there must be typical myths which are really the instruments of a folk-psychological complex treatment. Jacob Burckhardt seems to have suspected this when he once said that every Greek of the classical era carried in himself a fragment of the Oedipus, just as every German carries a fragment of Faust." (emphasis original)

In a footnote, Jung sets forth the actual quote from Burckhardt’s letter 1855 letter to Albert Brenner:

"Faust is a genuine myth, i.e., a great primordial image, in which every man has to discover his own being and destiny in his own way. Let me make a comparison: [...] There was an Oedipus chord in every Greek that longed to be directly touched and to vibrate after its own fashion. The same is true of Faust and the German nation."

By “folk-psychological complex”, Jung was referring to what he would later call the “collective unconscious”, and by “typical myths” he is referring to what he would later call “archetypes”. Jung explains:

“There are present in every individual, besides his personal memories, the great ‘primordial’ images, as Jacob Burckhardt once aptly called them, the inherited possibilities of human imagination as it was from time immemorial. The fact of this inheritance explains the truly amazing phenomenon that certain motifs from myths and legends repeat themselves the world over in identical forms. It also explains why it is that our mental patients can reproduce exactly the same images and associations that are known to us from the old texts. I give some examples of this in my book Symbols of Transformation [Jung's revision of Psychology of the Unconscious].” (CW 7, P 101)

What this tells us is that there is a personal aspect of the unconscious -- influenced heavily by one's parents -- and a trans-personal (or collective) aspect of the unconscious -- influenced by our biological inheritance from our distant ancestors.  These factors (archetypes) create the condition of the possibility of common images in dreams and myth.
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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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