b2ap3_thumbnail_zeus.JPGI have heard hard polytheists come up with all sorts of words to distinguish their gods from Jungian archetypes.  The gods, they say, are "real", "literal", "individual", "distinct", and "separate"; they are "persons", "beings", "entities", or "agents".  The archetypes, it is implied, are none of these things. 

I think much of this is based on a misunderstanding of the nature of the archetypes.  In the next four posts, I want to talk about four terms that polytheists use to distinguish gods from archetypes: "real", "literal", "separate", and "agents".

In this post, I want to address the question of whether the archetypes are "real".  Defining "reality" would probably be a post in itself (at least), but for present purposes I would adopt Phillip K. Dick's definition: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.”

By this definition, the archetypes are very much real.  Whether we believe in them or not, they to exert an influence on our lives.  In fact, an argument could be made that they are more "real" when we don't believe in them.  So long as they remain unconscious, we cannot integrate them in a healthy way, and they have all the more power over us.  As we become conscious of them, we are able to integrate them with our conscious lives, and they become less "god"-like and more a part of what we recognize as "us".

Ironically, in one way, archetypes are more real than many people's gods.  There are some religious phenomena which may be experienced only so long as one has faith in them.  For example, prayer has been shown by some studies to have a positive influence on healing.  But presumably this only works as long as the person believes in it.  People who believe in gods see evidence of their presence everywhere, but those signs disappear (or are reinterpreted) when they cease to believe in the gods. 

But this does not happen in the case of archetypes.  So long as we believe the archetypes are gods, then treat them as "other" and hold them psychologically "at arms length" from our ego-selves.  And this, writes Jung, prevents them from "storming the citadel of the ego."  But when we discover that they exist "only in our heads", if we then wrongly infer that they are not real, then we tend to confuse them with our ego-selves, and they then have even more power to possess us. (See CW 11, PP 142-143)

Let me give you an example.  I used to be Mormon and I used to believe in a god I called "Heavenly Father".  I prayed to "Heavenly Father" and received answers to my prayers and saw found signs from him in my life.  Eventually, I started to notice certain similarities between "Heavenly Father" and a certain personality complex of my own -- namely a judgmental and wrathful part of me that I associated with my human father.  When I stopped believing in this god, I stopped seeing evidence of him in the world around me.  So, in that sense, he was not real.  There was no "Heaven Father" sitting in heaven judging me and deciding whether or not to answer my prayers.

However, even though I stopped believing in "Heavenly Father", this complex* or archetype continued to work in me.  I continued to be as judgmental -- of myself and others -- as I had been when I believed in "Heavenly Father" -- maybe even more so.  Only now, I was even less conscious of it, because I thought had rid myself of such irrational influences and was behaving in a purely rational manner.  It turns out, that even though the god called "Heavenly Father" never really existed, the archetype or complex called "Heavenly Father" did.  And archetype didn't cease to exist when I stopped believing in it.  It continued to do its work in me, but out of my sight.  In a way, I was even less conscious of it than I had been when I had believed.

It was not until several years later that I realized that "Heavenly Father" had not left me when I stopped believing in him.  Indeed, I realized that he would always be with me.  When I realized this, I was able to recognize his influence in my life in the years since I had stopped believing.  I then had more power to integrate that complex or archetype into my consciousness in a healthy, constructive way, rather than letting it run amuck behind the scenes.

Jung wrote that we moderns like to 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."

In other words, the gods are not gone; they have just come home -- to the psyche.

So, yes, the archetypes are "real".  They continue to exist, even when we stop believing in them.  In the next post, I will address the contrast between archetypes and "literal" gods.

*A note on terminology: "Complexes" may be thought of as personal archetypes, whereas archetypes are intrasubjective complexes. Complexes arise out of our personal unconscious and are products of our individual history, whereas archetypes arise out the collective unconscious and are products of our shared biology and culture.