Pagan ritual as an encounter with depth, part 1, by John Halstead
We are not one
Jungian-based Paganism begins with the proposition that the human psyche is not unitary. We are not one; we are many striving to become one. As James Hillman writes, “every sophisticated theory of personality has to admit that whatever I claim to be ‘me’ has at least a portion of its roots beyond my agency and my awareness.” Our conscious mind is only the tip of an iceberg which is largely unconscious. The unconscious includes the primal parts of ourselves as well as parts of ourselves that have been repressed. The goal of Jungian-based Neopaganism is wholeness, the integration of the unconscious and the conscious.
A Jungian-based Paganism uses ritual to facilitate this integration. In Jungian Pagan ritual, the contents of the unconscious (archetypes) are represented symbolically: as persons sometimes, but also as things, places, and events. The archetypes sometimes become the “gods” of Jungian Pagan ritual. As David Waldron explains, psychic development
“cannot be achieved through will or intention alone. People require symbols and rituals to express realities beyond the scope of conscious thought in order to achieve wholeness. The collective unconscious, the wellspring of intentional and unintentional thought is, by definition, unknowable and cannot be grasped within the confines of conscious rational intent. The mediation of symbols is required to give a person’s psychological development meaning beyond that of the purely rational. From this perspective, when a Jungian-oriented neo-Pagan utilizes ritual, it is a metaphor to describe psychic realities in relation to certain archetypes, within the collective unconscious [...]”
Conscious ritual creation
However, the conscious nature of ritual creation raises an interesting dilemma. When the purpose of ritual is to listen to the unconscious, what role does the conscious mind play? Jungian Pagans seek to consciously and intentionally construct rituals for the purpose of integration of the psyche. But, according to Jungian theorists, psychic development cannot be achieved through conscious intention alone.
The reason is because the conscious mind is always trying to transform the contents of our unconscious into something more psychologically palatable, and in the process defeating the purpose of ritual. Jung wrote that, “Filling the conscious mind with ideal conceptions is a characteristic feature of Western theosophy [...]. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” We run the risk of “imagining figures of light” when our rituals are too much the product of conscious intention. When this happens, the ineffable archetypes are reduced to mere symbols*. Waldron explains that, when an archetype is reduced to a symbol which can be a consciously apprehended, it ceases to be archetypal. Although a symbol may masquerade as an archetype, it is a construction of the ego, and can become what Waldron calls “a collaborator in the suppression of the shadow.” In other words, when ritual symbols are a product of conscious intention, they not only fail to speak for the unconscious, but actually contribute to its ongoing repression.
Discovering the rite
How then is a new ritual to be arrived at? Edward Whitmont answers, “A genuine ritual, like a living symbol or a religious experience, cannot be fabricated; it can only be discovered.” Rituals are not invented; like our dreams, they happen to us. James Hollis echoes this formula:
“A rite is a movement in and toward depth. Rites are not invented. They are found, discovered, experienced. They rise out of some archetypal encounter with depth. The purpose of the symbolic act which the rite enacts is to lead back toward that experience of depth.”
Thus, for Jungian Pagans, the process of creation of the ritual is a collaboration with the unconscious. We can liken it to an artist being inspired by a muse (or possessed by a daimon).
Understood in this way, ritual is the product of a conscious form applied to unconscious content. Conscious design of ritual is unavoidable, or else there could be no “ritual” per se. However, to balance the conscious side of the equation, as it were, the Jungian Pagan seeks to draw the content from the unconscious. This can be done though meditation, dream work, what Jung called “active imagination” (which would be better named passive imagination), creative engagement with mythology, or by collecting what W.H. Auden calls “privately numinous words”, phrases, and images. These contents are then combined into a ritual form. Jung explains that the secret of great art (in which I would include ritual creation)
“consists in the unconscious activation of an archetypal image, and in elaborating and shaping this image into the finished work. By giving it shape, the artist translates it into the language of the present, and so makes it possible for us to find our way back to the deepest springs of life.”
How do we know if we have succeeded in tapping into the unconscious? Jung writes that the origin of a work of art can be seen in the work itself. A ritual of one’s own conscious intention and will can be expected to reflect the effect intended and “nowhere overstep the limits of comprehension”. But if a ritual is a product of the “alien will” of the unconscious, we find
“something suprapersonal that transcends our understanding to the same degree that the author’s consciousness was in abeyance during the process of creation. We would expect a strangeness of form and content, thoughts that can only be apprehended intuitively, a language pregnant with meanings, and images that are the best possible expressions for something unknown — bridges thrown out toward an unseen shore.”
Jung describes these as two different types of art, but it is probably better to think of them as two ends of a spectrum.
When I first began creating my own Pagan rituals, I did not feel authentic in performing the rituals, I felt a distinct sense that the rituals were lacking life of their own. I first attributed this to the newness and unfamiliarity of the ritual. However, I have come to realize over time that my early rituals, although drawing heavily on mythological symbolism, were overly cerebral, lacking in poetry and bodily movement. The most evocative rituals I have since created have been poetic creations, ones that seemed to come from somewhere other than my rational mind. They combined words that I had read or heard, which had a talismanic-like effect on me, with intuitive bodily movements. It is only at the end of the process that I would consciously apply structure to these contents to give the ritual a form. The result is a ritual that feels like, as Jung says, a “bridge thrown out toward an unseen shore”.
Next week in Part 2, I will discuss how I try to maintain the connection with the unconscious during the performance of the ritual.
* Note on terminology: I have the terms “archetype” to refer to a structure of the unconscious and “symbol” to refer to a signifier which points to an experience of the archetype. An archetype is ineffable, while a symbol can be fully apprehended by consciousness. This can be confusing because Jung often used the term “symbol” and “symbolic” in the way that I have used “archetype” and “archetypal”, and distinguished “symbols” from mere “images”, “signs”, and “allegories”.
Auden, W.H. “Making, Knowing, Judging”, The Dyer’s Hand (1962)
Hillman, James. Re-visioning Psychology (1975)
Hillman, James. “A Psyche the Size of the Earth”, Ecopsychology, eds. Roszak, Gomes & Kanner (1995)
Hollis, James. Under Saturn’s Shadow: The Wounding and Healing of Men (1994)
Hollis, James. Tracking the Gods: The Place of Myth in Modern Life (1995)
Jung, Carl. “The Philosophical Tree”, Alchemical Studies; Collected Works, vol. 13
Jung, Carl. “The Psychology of the Child Archetype”, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious , Collected Works, vol. 9, part i
Jung, Carl. “On the Relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetry”, The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature, Collected Works, vol. 15
Tillich, Paul. “Symbols of Faith”, Dynamics of Faith (1957)
Waldron, David. Sign of the Witch (2008)
Whitmont, Edward. Return of the Goddess (1982)
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 authors the blog The Allergic Pagan.
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