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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Paganism's Real Shadow Gods, Part 2

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. 

Jung wrote: “The unconscious is neutral, rather like nature.  If it is destructive on the one side, it is constructive on the other side.  It is the source of all sorts of evils and also the matrix of all divine experience …”  For Jung, the unconscious could be destructive, as well as constructive.  It may be the source of all psychic life and energy, but, unchecked, the “waters” of the unconscious could overwhelm the conscious mind in a flood of madness.  He writes:

“The water simile expresses rather aptly the nature an importance of the unconscious.  Where there is no water nothing lives; where there is too much of it everything drowns.  It is the task of consciousness to select the right place where you are not too near and not too far from water; but water is indispensable.”

As Carol Christ explains in Rebirth of the Goddess, “The ego is sterile unless animated by the unconscious; the unconscious is a fertile source, but it remains irrational and dangerous unless it is brought under the control of the conscious mind or ego.”

In our desire to reclaim the dark of the unconscious, I fear we Pagans sometimes forget the importance of the light of the discerning conscious mind -- or worse, condemn it outright as an expression of patriarchy.  I often wonder about this when I hear Neopagans uncritically extolling the virtues of gods like Dionysus or Wotan/Odin.  As Camile Paglia explains in her book, Sexual Personae:

“The Dionysian is no picnic.  It is the chthonian realities which Apollo evades, the blind grinding of subterranean force, the long slow suck, the muck and ooze.  It is the dehumanizing brutality of biology and geology, the Darwinian waste and bloodshed, the squalor and rot we must block from our consciousness to retain our Apollonion integrity as persons.”

Jung knew these deities to be representations of destructive aspects of the unconscious.  Consider Jung’s “Essay on Wotan”, in which he explains the rise of National Socialism, not as a political or historical event, but as a spiritual one -- one in which Germans were “possessed” (Egreiffenheit) by the storm god Wotan, another name for Odin (whom he also equates with Dionysus).  Jung's essay deserves an entire post of its own, but that will have to wait for another day.

I am not suggesting that contemporary Pagans are prone to fascism.  As Gus diZerega has convincingly argued in his posts “Deep Ecology, Paganism, and Fascism Revisited” and “The Pagan-Fascist Conroversy”: “anti-modern romanticism is not uniquely prone to totalitarianism”.  Comparisons of contemporary Paganism to Nazi fascism overlook the predominance of democratic liberal values among contemporary Pagans.  However, along side the commitment of contemporary Pagan commitment to Enlightenment and modernist values of “democracy, peaceful politics, individual rights, and toleration”, Paganism also embraces the values of the Counter-Enlightenment and its critique of modernism and rationality, the same critique which inspired some parts of the National Socialist movement.  These two influences, Enlightenment and Romanticism, exist side by side in contemporary Paganism, and each has its constructive “light” and its destructive “Shadow” sides.

Nor am I suggesting that the worship of Dionysus or Odin will necessarily lead to destructive madness.  As Sannion explains in his post, “Will worshiping Dionysos drive me mad?”:

“Dionysos dissolves boundaries and looses pent up emotions. This katharsis or purification can be a difficult and excruciatingly painful process at times that can take us into very dark and unpleasant places within our souls, forcing us to confront things we'd much rather leave alone. But when we ignore that it festers and grows corrupt. The lesser madness brought on by Dionysiac ritual is a cure for the greater madness born of repression and stagnation. But when we willingly face the pain and terror it is transformed into joy and freedom -- and he is there to lead us safely through it if we trust and love him enough to accept his guidance.”

But I do think that polytheists who worship gods like Odin or Dionysus, gods who have aspects of madness, should be aware of the risks and approach their gods with discernment.  (Check out this post about a Loki devotee's journey on the "Madness Road".)  Dionysus (and his like) are dangerous.  As Jungian Edward Whitmont explains in his book, Return of the Goddess:

“Psychologically, the world of Dionysus is the world of embodied raw nature, of desire and of passion in its double aspect of rapture and suffering.  It expresses the primacy of longing, lustfulness and joyous ecstasy which includes raging violence, destructiveness, and even the urge for self-annihilation.  It shows the double aspect of sado-masochism as a primary inborn drive.  This is the archetypal force which Freud called libido (the Latin word for desire) and split into the bipolarity of Eros and Thanatos, life and death drives.  Yet Dionysus represents the identity as well as the opposition of sexuality, love, violence, and destruction.  To the sense of order and meaning, Dionysus opposes the rapture of losing oneself in irrationality, in pure emotion, in the drunkenness of passion, and the abandonment of the ego sense. ...  In excess this dynamic can lead to madness, nihilism, and annihilation; yet its total absence means petrification, rigidity, and grim, joyless boredom.”

Paganism has its Shadow side, just as all of its gods do.  We should seek balance, balance between the conscious ego and the unconscious, balance between the rationality of the Enlightenment/modernism and the irrationality of Romanticism/anti-modernism, balance between Apollo and his “dark twin” Dionysus.  This balance is, in my mind, one of the greatest strengths of contemporary Paganism.

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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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