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.

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