What the heck is Jungian polytheism?

What the heck is Jungian polytheism? January 28, 2014

Conor O’Bryan Warren asked me during our Pagan Tea Time chat what “Jungian polytheism” is.  I found myself stumbling over how to answer, primarily because Conor is a devotional polytheist, and I know how some polytheists feel about my Jung-talk.  But Conor was genuinely wondering what the heck I was talking about.  So I gave it a shot.  Here’s what I said, less eloquently and more succinctly, to Conor.

First of all, as I explained in a previous post, I don’t really call myself a Jungian polytheist or any kind of polytheist, because “polytheism” (note the quotes) is just one element of my belief system, and not one that I would place right in the center.  But let’s set that issue aside and explain what a “Jungian polytheism” looks like.  I’ve written about this before on this blog at my Jungian Neo-Paganism blog, Dreaming the Myth Forward.  I usually quote a lot of Carl Jung, because I love how he says things, and I try to make it sound erudite.  But in this post, I want to try to explain it as simply as I can using my own words.  As an experiment, I’m going to resist the urge to quote Jung or anyone else.  (If you want to read some of what Jung said, you can check out my other blog, click on some of the links below, or just type “Jung” into the search engine to the right.)

For me, being Pagan means that I find the divine (1) in myself and (2) in the world around me.  These are two aspects of my Paganism that I struggle to bring together: the Self-centric Paganism and the earth-centric Paganism.  Anyway, “Jungian polytheism” is (mostly) part of the former, the part of my religion that locates the divine in myself.

Now, when I say I locate the divine in myself, I don’t mean I am divinizing my conscious ego-self — that would be delusional.  For me, what I am calling “myself” or “my Self” is much larger than my conscious mind — which is just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.  My “Self” includes an unconscious that is much “larger” than what I ordinarily think of as “me”.  In fact, that larger Self may very well expand out into the world in some way, and that is where my Self-centric and earth-centric Paganism begin to overlap.  (But that’s a discussion for another day.)  This all comes from the psychologist, Carl Jung.  So that’s where the Jungian part of “Jungian polytheism” comes from.

What’s important for this discussion is to understand that this unconscious Self is not unitary.  It is made up of myriad partial personalities running around in the background of my conscious mind.  These partial selves are not invented; they are discovered — through meditation, dreams, analysis of neurosis and so on.  They often have certain resemblances or correspondences to the gods and heroes of myth.  (I think there’s a reason for that, but again that’s a discussion for another day.)  So that’s where the poly- part of the “Jungian polytheism” comes from: There are “many” of these partial selves.

If these partial selves are left to their own devices, they will drive us to ruin, because they are all battling for dominance.  At any given moment, we can be kind of “possessed” by one of these mini-personalities that drive us or “ride” us.  By making room in my conscious life for each of these selves, a sacred time and a sacred place to honor each of them in their own right, I bring order to the chaos that is my “self”.  This can be done through therapy or many other ways.  I do it through ritual.  The goal of ritual, for me, is not mastery of these other selves, but wholeness.  Through ritual, I seek to integrate these partial selves with my conscious self.  Personal power (power-with, not power-over), I believe comes from bringing these disparate personal forces into some kind of harmony.

But why call them gods?  That’s a question I really didn’t get to when talking to Conor.  The reason I call them “gods” is because I can’t think of any other word that adequately describes the overwhelming influence that these powers have over our lives.  In a very real sense, they are living us.  They determine our fate, the way a literal god would.  We might also call them demons (or, better, what the Greeks called daimones), but the goal to to sacralize them, not to demonize them — to honor them, and treat each of them as holy.  (What are demons anyway, but the repressed gods of a conquered people?)  And that’s the other reason why I call them “gods” — because I respond to them the way I would to a god, by honoring them in sacred ritual.  And invoking these “gods” can have the same effect within me that many people experience by praying to traditional gods, such as emotional healing and personal transformation.  Can they help me get a job or a lover?  Of course they can: by helping me to change, so I can change my circumstances.  So that’s where the –theism part of the “Jungian polytheism” comes from.

That’s about as non-jargony and succinct as I can do at this point.  (I know, I have a way to go.  Wow, I really wanted to include some quotes from Jung.)

It’s obvious this is a very different understanding of the gods than many devotional polytheists have.  And I admit that when I talk to devotional polytheists, I am hearing them describe their relationships with the gods through my own paradigm.  I don’t understand the metaphysical nature of the gods in the same way as Conor, for example.  But I do respect and honor the relationship he has with his gods.  I respect and honor the rituals he uses to create and maintain those relationships.  And I respect and honor the good that those relationships bring into his life.  And I have no problem calling his gods “gods”, because that’s what they are to me as well.  The same goes for my Christian wife and her God.  I honor her experience and I can use her language.  Does it matter that we don’t mean exactly the same things by those words?  It would sadden me if my wife, or Conor, or any other theist found me impious or disrespectful because the words we use mean something different to me.  I think that while we are starting out in very different places, with different understandings about the nature of the gods, we do end up, if not in the exact same place, then at least in the same neighborhood — the place where we all honor the holiness of the encounter with the divine Other, however we conceive that.

In a future post, I hope to introduce you to my gods so you can see what I am talking about in practice.

"Ironically, the pagans have stumbled upon evidence that there will be an Armageddon exactly when ..."

Call for a Pagan Community Statement ..."
"John H.Halstead...Someone wrote or said. Be the change you want to see in the world. ..."

13 Things You Don’t Need to ..."
""petty and defensive"?: "Are you foolish enough to think christianity is the elder?""

13 Things You Don’t Need to ..."
"Attack? This isn't my faith :)Is it yours? You come accross more christian....petty and defensive."

13 Things You Don’t Need to ..."

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Hmm. Can you expand on the difference between these partial personalities and subpersonalities as espoused by methodologies like Internal Family Systems?

    I work with IFS subpersonalities/parts in my coaching and in my magick (younger self LOVES them) but I’ve never thought of them as archetypes and certainly not as divine (any more than they are part of myself and I am divine). The term daimones is perfect! (Oh yes, they like that one..)

    I find my emotional response to this article curious. At first I experienced a deep sense of confusion and sense of alienation. Upon further examination I realized that this was because of the value orientation I attach to the words “partial” and “personality”. Then, I found myself angry that you seemed to be suggested that you used ritual to bring wholeness to the Gods, when aren’t the Gods themselves the sources of healing and wholeness? And then I realized really that this was what you WERE saying–I was just being too literal and unwilling to look at it from your perspective.

    I’d like to know more about what this actually LOOKS like for you. You’ve painted a broad brush, but how does this actually function in your life? Can you tell us about a specific relationship you have with an archetype and how you have worked with it in ritual?

    Thanks for another great post. And congratulations on doing it without quoting Jung!

    • It’s interesting you brought up Internal family Systems. My wife is a marriage & family therapist and really likes IFS, and when she read my post she wondered about the same thing. Unfortunately, I’m not familiar enough with the theory to respond intelligently. When my wife has explained it to me in the past, it has always sounded a lot like Jung to me. I’m going to have my wife educate me more about IFS and come back to you on that. I do know that Schwartz did cite to Jung in his book: http://books.google.com/books?id=SdPZAAAAQBAJ&pg=PT309&lpg=PT309&dq=%22internal+family+systems%22+jung&source=bl&ots=WnIs9oLA7r&sig=Sih2ngMviaGPfCOEDy3LbXED5t8&hl=en&sa=X&ei=amvoUreBK6rMyQHdqIGoAg&ved=0CEoQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q=%20jung&f=false

      I will definitely be writing about more about my practice in the near future and try to make it personal. I promise to write about specific relationships I have with my “gods” and how I do ritual with them.

    • After speaking with my wife about IFS again, it seems like the two are very similar. I think what IFS adds to Jung is the focus on the *systems* of relationships between the subpersonalities. Also, I think Jung is more open ended about the subpersonality types. While IFS seems to focus on the practical functions of the subpersonalities (i.e., managers, protectors etc.), I would say that Jung was also concerned about the archetypes that play various roles in our life quest, a la Joseph Campbell (i.e., the hero, the dragon, the devouring mother).

      Last thing, I think Jung’s concept of the Self is somewhat grander than Schwartz’s. Jung equates the experience of the Self with the experience of God (capital “G”). That’s another reason I use the term “gods” (lower case); if the Self is “God” (i.e., ground of Being), then the subselves are “gods” (i.e., divine beings) … in my belief system.

      • Thanks for delving into it more deeply. Very interesting.

        I had a teacher who told me once that our personality is not what we are, but only that which we have mistaken ourselves to be. I see my work with the Self and the Parts in IFS as moving away from that personality and closer to something that is a deeper Essence. Our parts are not what we are, but expressions of mistaken identity. When I orient from them, instead of orienting from the Self, my perspective is limited because the part has an agenda of some sort. I agree with you that these parts, or as you call them “partial personalities” do “live us” and determine our fate if we let them run unchecked. I also agree with you that sacralizing their role in our life and honoring them in holy ritual is extremely beneficial and the path towards wholeness.

        My Parts emerge as quite vivid characters to me, with names, character attributes, personalities, preferences, etc. The idea of thinking of them as gods has never occurred to me, and doesn’t make intuitive sense to me though your reasoning is sound. It has always felt rather like they are orphaned children gathered at my feet, and my job is to me the Goddess who will gather them up in loving embrace and bring them home.

  • Natalie Reed

    Thank you for writing this – really clarifies what you mean by the term. And it is not what I thought at all. While I would have to say we differ on the definition of gods, I do look forward to hearing more.

    • Thanks Natalie. If you don’t mind sharing, what did you think I meant by the term before I wrote this? I’m curious about how I’ve been heard in the past.

      • Natalie Reed

        Likely I am not as well versed in psychology as many others here, and do not speak for anyone but myself, but I will elaborate on what I had thought you meant. I thought that the idea of archetypes was more a collective conscious of various entities that share archetypal characteristics. For instance, say, knights of various names who save damsels in distress might all be the same archetype, while still maintaining their independent identities. And so, this could then be extended to deities so that you have gods of various names who are considered Solar deities and so all may represent the same Solar archetype, but still maintain their own identity. Thus, still being gods. Note that I mean that these entities still exist as independent beings, simply that they are representative of certain archetypes. And so, I am a mother, and so are many women I know. We may, in certain aspects of ourselves, represent the archetypal mother in certain stories or myths, but this does not mean that we do not exist as real and independent individuals, and it does not mean that there is not much more to each of us than being a mother. To me, what you are describing is a recombining of various aspects of yourself, perhaps even akin to shamanic soul retrieval. I, personally, would not consider these psychological parts of myself to be individual gods. But I am interested to hear more about how they are gods to you.

  • Fascinating! Thanks for the elucidation.

    In some OBOD exercises, one also works with these multiple archetypes or aspects of the self, and when I first started noticing the gods actually-existing I suspected that they were part of this conception. I experimented with this heavily (including consulting with lots of others who were kindly patient enough to endure my probably incoherent attempts to describe what I was finding!) but found that this framework didn’t sufficiently explain any of my experiences, which led to what I described as “Divine Trauma.”

    After reading this I sat with it for awhile to self-check (“discernment” or what have you–something I always have to do) and I’m wondering if we’re actually describing different things altogether? That is, at least from your description and how I think it corresponds to some of my own experiences, that what you are describing is in essence a mysticism of the multiple selves (and an important one, I suspect, and one that modern psychology could benefit greatly from), an incredibly useful practice which helps with the discernment process I sometimes use in order to self-check which voices, impulses, and insights are my own (particularly when of parts I don’t always formally recognize except in self-exploration) and which ones are from outside.

    • Yes, we may be talking about different experiences altogether. Or it may be a matter of degree. I can’t say.

  • Y. A. Warren

    “But why call them gods?”

    I have big issues with calling any part of what infuses us with awe “god.” This is because, it seems to me, that gods demand worship because they can’t exist without it. The Sacred Spirit of the universe needs nothing. The Sacred Spirit is simply manifested in many physical and non-physical forms in the universe.

    • That’s interesting. Of course Christians, Daoists, and lots of other people have for thousands of years believed in gods who had no actual need for worship or human beings.

      • Y. A. Warren

        In my research of the term “god,” it seems that the term is defined by the component of demanded ritual worship attached to a god. I am not aware of any “Christians” that don’t believe that God demands worship and the bloody sacrifice of his own son to appease his anger.

        • That’s one (very polytheistic) interpretation of the Christian myth. In any case, it’s one thing to say the god demands sacrifice to avoid his wrath and another to say he “needs” the sacrifice.

          • Y. A. Warren

            I stand corrected on the use of the terms “demands” and “needs.”

            “That’s one (very polytheistic) interpretation of the Christian myth.”

            I am not sure how this is polytheistic, as the monotheism of the triune “god” is simply legalistic double-speak typical of the Roman Catholic religion, from which the accepted Bible and the current “Christian” religions descended.

  • blackenedphoenix

    I consider myself a Jungian pagan and love, love, love this article!

    • Thanks! I’d love to hear more about your theology and practice.

  • This is a great article – as much as I love the Jung quotes, it’s interesting to get a simplified, in-your-own-words and boiled down version.

    It was only after reading this article that I started to see how much I’ve come to deviate from your and some other naturalistic Pagans’ perspective on the gods. I’m sure that to a hard/devotional polytheist it would sound much the same, but somewhere along the line the gods have started to be something in some way outside of myself as well as being all of the above, in a way that is informed by but I think goes beyond Jungian “eco-psychology”.

    Anyway, I can’t wait to read more about your gods! Very interesting stuff.

    • I often wonder how common this is, that we have very different perspectives on the nature of the gods, but our practice looks and sounds very similar. To someone non-Pagan looking at my practice from the outside with no other information, they would probably think I am a hard polytheist of some variety.

      It’s interesting you brought up eco-psychology. I got to the point in my Jungian practice where inner gods were not enough. I needed a connection with the world around me. I’ve written a little about that here: http://witchesandpagans.com/Pagan-Paths-Blogs/jungian-eco-psychology-touching-nature-through-psyche-and-psyche-through-nature.html

      and in my more recent post: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/allergicpagan/2014/01/31/gods-i-have-known-part-2-macrocosm/

      • I feel like I’m getting to a point now in my practice where my vague metaphorical gods are not enough, so I know what you mean. I’ve been catching up with your Dreaming the Myth Forward blog in the past few days, very interesting stuff. I think we’re touching on something very similar with the macrocosmic gods, it’s just that for me the macrocosmic and the microcosmic are one and the same.

        Anyway, I love making comparisons between my beliefs/practice and others’. And I often do wonder if seemingly similar beliefs/practices really are similar to mine, or if seemingly different ones are really all that different, particularly when it comes to experiences.

        • I feel the same way. I love doing the compare/contrast with other beliefs/practices. All this has been me searching for a way to deeming my connection with the divine. It’s why I continue to probe polytheism for possibilities.