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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You Don't Know Jung, Part 2: Self

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

You don't know Jung ... and it's his own fault.  Jung concepts are frequently misunderstood by Pagans, both by those who love him and those who hate him.  Part of the confusion surrounding Jung is due to his choice of terminology.  Jung chose terms that -- at least when translated into English -- are commonly used to mean something very different than what he intended.  In this series, I discuss five Jungian terms which are easily and commonly misunderstood: psychic, energy, self, individuation, symbol, and archetype.  In this part, we'll talk about "Self".

"Self" is a terrible Jungian term because Jung means it in almost opposite sense in which people commonly use it.  What we usually mean when we speak about our "selves" is our sense of "I", often restricted to our waking consciousness.  What we commonly think of as our self is what Jung called the "ego".  The ego is the central organizing complex of consciousness.  What Jung meant by the "self" was a much broader term.  It is, according to Jung, that "wholeness that transcends consciousness" (CW 9i, P 278) and "the psychic totality of the individual" (CW 11, P 232).  It is what we might call our "True Self", "Deep Self" or "Big Self".  

If the ego is the organizing complex of consciousness, then the True Self is the organizing archetype of the whole psyche, which includes both the conscious and the unconscious.  If the psyche were analogized to the solar system, then True Self would be the Sun and the ego would be the Earth.  The ego and the True Self function very differently; where the ego tends to discriminate and separate, the True Self integrates and seeks the unity of opposites.  

The ego thinks it is the True Self, but it isn't.  When we confuse our ego-self with our True Self we are doing what Jung called "inflation".  The process of individuation (which will be discussed in a future post) is a kind of psychic Copernican revolution, a process of moving from an egocentric model of the psyche to a Self-centric model.  Jung described this transformation thusly:

"... there arises a consciousness which is no longer imprisoned in the petty, over sensitive, personal world of the ego, but participates freely in the wider world of objective interests. The widened consciousness is no longer that touchy, egotistical bundle of personal wishes, fears, hopes, and ambitions which always has to be compensated or corrected by unconscious counter-tendencies; instead it is a function of relationship to the world of objects bringing the individual into absolute, binding, and indissoluble communion with the world at large." (CW 7, P 275)

Jungians tend to capitalize the term "Self" to distinguish it from the common meaning.  Unfortunately, Jung did not capitalize the term in his own writings, which can lead to further confusion.  Even more confusion is created when Jung uses the term "self" to mean both the center of the psyche and the whole of the psyche:

"For certain reasons mentioned there I call this centre the "self," which should be understood as the totality of the psyche. The self is not only the centre, but also the whole circumference which embraces both conscious and unconscious; it is the centre of this totality, just as the ego is the centre of consciousness."  (CW 12, P 44) 

Jung already has a term for the wholeness of the unconscious and conscious processes: psyche.  So it makes sense to me limit the use of the term "Self" to the central organizing archetypes of the psyche. 

I have written elsewhere (here and here) that the Pagan community can be divided into four parts: the earth-centric, the deity-centric, the folk-centric, and the Self-centric.  In this context, it is especially important to distinguish Self-centric from ego-centeredness, because they are practically opposites.  From the perspective on one of the other centers of Paganism, it is easy to mistake one for the other.  And to be honest, much of Paganism which purports to be Self-centric really is ego-centered.  That is the challenge of a Self-centric practice and one of the reasons why we must frequently remind ourselves of the difference.

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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.


  • Jamie
    Jamie Sunday, 29 September 2013

    Mr. Halstead,

    I agree, in general terms, with your broad categories of modern Pagan belief.

    It was also interesting to learn the Jungian definition of "Self".

    Howard Bloom wrote a book that I really enjoyed called, "The Global Brain". He explained, in similar fashion, how consciousness is not what it appears to be from inside our heads. Controversial guy, but I liked his stuff.

    Thanks again for sharing! I always appreciate your perspective.

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