The archetypes are gods: Re-godding the archetypes, by John Halstead
image enhanced from original by burnt in effigy
Put your thinking caps on today, boys and girls – this essay is worth it. The critique of Neopaganism given here is provoking me to completely rethink the way I relate to the gods. - B. T. Newberg
We Neopagans often say that the gods are archetypes, but rarely do we hear how the archetypes are gods.
In the 1960s, Neopagans grabbed onto Jung’s conception of archetypes as a way of making polytheism seem legitimate in the modern world. In the process, however, some Neopagans lost the sense of the gods as numinous.
Psychologizing the gods
By psychologizing the gods, we have contributed to the ongoing disenchantment of the world which began with the Enlightenment. We have humanized the gods, but in doing so, we have sometimes lost the sense of the gods as gods.
In reaction, many Neopagans in search of communion with the numinous Other have rejected Jungian theory in favor of a radical polytheism which sees the gods as beings existing independent of the human psyche. This presents a challenge to Humanistic or Naturalistic Neopagans who cannot identify with this conception of the divine.
The disenchantment of the modern world is a common topic of Neopagan authors. The phrase “disenchantment of the world”, coined by Weber, derives from Friedrich Schiller, who wrote about die Entgotterung der Natur, the “de-godding of nature.” Neopagan myth and ritual is supposed to be a counter-movement to this disenchantment, a re-enchantment of the world or a “re-godding” of nature.
However, some of the pre-modern cultural forms which Neopaganism claims to reconstruct may actually be transformed in the process, so much so that the “enchantment” is lost in the translation. For example, Wouter Hanegraaff has argued that “occultist” magic has survived the disenchantment of the Enlightenment by becoming itself disenchanted. Hanegraaff explains how part of process of the disenchantment of magic was its psychologization.
In contemporary Neopaganism, we see the process of psychologization present not only in discussions of magic, but also in explanations of the gods. This often takes the forms of describing the Neopagan gods as Jungian archetypes. In the 1960s and 1970s, as the claims to historical continuity with an ideal Pagan past began to come under attack, Neopagans turned to Jungian psychology as a means for legitimating Neopagan practice. Unfortunately, the Jungian interpretation of Neopagan gods came to be oversimplified as it was popularized.
Neopagans often describe the gods as archetypes, but sometimes we lose the sense of how the archetypes are gods. In other words, the numinous quality of the archetype is lost.
The gods may be a part of us, but we must remember that they are also other than us, if by “us” we mean our conscious mind or ego-self. It is not without reason that Jung called the archetypes gods. He wrote:
“They are the ruling powers, the gods, images of the dominant laws and principles, and of typical, regularly occurring events in the soul’s cycle of experience.”
We experience the archetypes as gods, because they are beyond our conscious control and because they have the power to transform our lives. A true encounter with the gods is not only an experience of re-enchantment (what Rudolf Otto calls mysterium fascinans), but also an experience which shakes us to our core (which Otto calls mysterium tremendum).
While the gods are part of the human psyche, we should always keep in mind that the Greek term psyche is better translated as “soul” than as “mind”. Too often, in discussions of the psychological nature of Neopagan gods, the modifier “just” is inserted immediately preceding the word “psychological”, as in “So the Neopagan gods are just psychological?”
It is as if to say “So they are figments of your imagination?” Not only is this a profound misunderstanding of Jung’s theory of the psyche, but it contributes to the disenchantment of the Neopagan concept of divinity.
In effect, the Neopagan discourse has de-godded the archetype.
Re-godding the gods
This in turn led to a backlash against Jungian theory in Neopaganism. David Waldron writes how, in the 1980s, the Jungian approach to Noepaganism came under fire from a number of sources. Feminists like Naomi Goldenberg criticized Jungianism as being Eurocentric and patriarchal, while queer scholars criticized Jung’s male-female polarization of the psyche. As a consequence, Jungian psychology was gradually displaced as the dominant Neopagan interpretative paradigm.
Since the 1990’s, radical polytheistic theory has entered the foreground of Neopagan discourse. Neopagans’ gods came to be described less as Jungian archetypes and more as literal beings that exist independent of the human psyche. Radical (or “hard”) polytheistic discourse in Neopaganism can be seen as a reaction to this disenchantment of the Neopagan gods. It is an attempt, if you will, to put the “god” back into the gods.
The de-godding of the archetype in Neopaganism is a consequence of a fundamental misunderstanding of Jung’s theory, namely a confusion of symbol with archetype. Waldron explains:
“It is one thing to acknowledge that symbols and archetypal images have a deep impact on the human psyche through religious experience. It is a profoundly different thing to believe that one can consciously and arbitrarily create and ascribe meaning to symbols, based upon that which is seen to be suited to consciously designated psychic needs.”
One of the most conspicuous examples of this is the practice of “using gods” in Neopagan magic, also sometimes referred to as “plug-and-play” gods.
Jung clearly differentiated between consciously constructed symbols and numinous archetypes. According to Jung, symbols refer to, but are not identical with, the archetypes located deep in the unconscious. While symbols have a conscious and known meaning, an archetype is always necessarily unknown. Thus, the archetype retains a numinous quality.
The apprehension of an archetype by consciousness is always necessarily partial, never total. The meaning of the unconscious archetype is inexhaustible.
The claim that any one symbol exhausts the archetype is the substance of what John Dourley calls “psychic idolatory”. If a symbol can be totally explained or rationalized by the conscious mind, then it ceases to be an archetype. While a symbol may masquerade as an archetype, it actually is a representation of the ego-self and becomes, in Waldron’s words, “a collaborator in the suppression of the shadow.”
Neo-Jungian James Hillman writes:
“Just as we do not create our dreams, but they happen to us, so we do not invent the persons of myth and religion [i.e., the gods]; they, too, happen to us.” (emphasis Hillman’s)
It is no coincidence that historically and cross-culturally, the gods have spoken to mortals in dreams. As Neopagans came to consciously construct and “plug-and-play” their gods, we lost the sense of the gods as something that happens to us. It may be said that we overemphasized the immanence of the gods and lost the sense of their transcendence.
The modern hubris
In ancient Greek tragedy, heroes who were guilty of the sin of hubris, disregarding the existential gulf between themselves and the gods, were invariably punished for it. In contemporary Neopaganism, hubris takes the form of conflating the creations of the conscious mind with the numinous aspects of the unconscious.
On the one hand, this modern form of hubris results in the loss of our experience of the gods, a further disenchantment or de-godding of our world. But on the other hand, it invites the retribution of gods, who may be repressed in the unconscious, but will not be ignored. If they are not given their due honor, the gods will make themselves known forcibly and often with disastrous results in our lives.
In A History of Ancient Greek Literature, Gilbert Murray writes:
“Reason is great, but it is not everything. There are in the world things not of reason, but both below and above it; causes of emotion, which we cannot express, which we tend to worship, which we feel, perhaps, to be the precious elements in life. These things are Gods or forms of God: not fabulous immortal men, but ‘Things which Are,’ things utterly non-human and non-moral, which bring man bliss or tear his life to shreds without a break in their own serenity.”
To confuse Murray’s “things not of reason” with the conscious creations of our own mind is hubris, and we do so at our own peril. The gods may be archetypes, but we must also always remember that the archetypes are gods.
As Neopagan discourse moves increasingly in the direction of radical polytheism, those Humanistic or Naturalistic Neopagans who find this position rationally untenable may find themselves (more) marginalized in the Neopagan community. The pendulum which previously swung to the humanistic extreme by reducing the gods to symbols is now swinging to the other extreme of transcendental theism, denying that the gods are part of the human psyche.
Jung’s theory of archetypes offers us an opportunity to create a golden mean between these two extremes, one which may simultaneously satisfy the humanist or naturalist who sees the gods as products of the human psyche, while also satisfying the mystical longing for contact with a numimous Other which is greater than any creation of our conscious mind.
Dourley, John P. The Goddess, Mother of the Trinity (1990)
Hanegraaf, Wouter. “How Magic Survived the Disenchantment of the World”, Religion, vol. 33 (2003).
Hillman, James. Re-visioning Psychology (1975)
Jung, Carl. The Collected Works: The Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious
Waldron, David. The Sign of the Witch: Modernity and the Pagan Revival (2008)
 By “numinous”, I refer to an experience of that which transcends or is other than our conscious ego-selves, but is not necessarily supernatural.
John Halstead is a former Mormon, now eclectic Neopagan with an interest in ritual as an art form, ecopsychology, theopoetics, Jungian theory, and the idea of death as an act of creation. He maintains the website American Neopaganism and the newly-minted blog The Allergic Pagan.