This past summer, Morpheus Ravenna delivered the keynote speech at the Many Gods West polytheist conference. Her speech was entitled, “Deep Polytheism: On the Agency and Sovereignty of the Gods”. It was later published at polytheist.com, and I encourage you to read it in its entirety. I’ve been meaning for some time to write a response to Morpheus’ speech, for a couple of reasons. First, I am always interested in the intersection of Jungian psychology and polytheism. In fact, it was the pairing of these ideas in Margot Adler’s 1979 Drawning Down the Moon that drew me to Paganism in the first place. Second, I think Morpheus is one of the most interesting polytheist writers out there, and I am often surprised at how much of what she writes I agree with. Her keynote speech was no exception.
Masks of Gods
The theme of Morpheus’ speech was how the gods are distinct from Jungian archetypes. Morpheus defines archetypes as “images arising from the collective consciousness of human beings which are reflective of essential human experiences or responses, and which may or may not be enspirited with consciousness of some kind.” This is close to a Jungian definition, but there is one critical distinction I would like to draw. For Jung, archetypes are not images. Archetypes are the powers behind the images. Archetypes are always unconscious. This means that we cannot experience them directly. According to Jung, they are “irrepresentable” and “can be grasped only approximately” by the conscious mind. Jung distinguished between archetypes and what he called “archetypal images”. Archetypal images are what most people mean by “archetype”, in other words, a symbol. We can only know archetypes through the archetypal images. As will be seen, the relationship between the archetypes and archetypal images is similar to the relationship Morpheus describes between the gods and what she calls “archetypes”.
Morpheus says that these “images” (which she calls “archetypes”) can be “enspirited”, and it is the gods who animate them. Carl Jung himself probably would not have disagreed with Morpheus on this point. He was agnostic about the nature of God or gods and believed that we could only infer their existence through our experience of the archetypes. In her speech, Morpheus addressed the limits of our knowledge as well. The gods, she says, are always larger than our experience of them. The deific presences which we experiences are “masks” of the gods (a common Jungian term incidentally) which the gods assume in order to communicate their meaning to our limited consciousness. These masks are what Morpheus calls “archetypes” and what Jung called “archetypal images”.
To a certain extent, it may seem like the difference between Morpheus and me is merely semantic. What she calls “gods”, I call “archetypes”, and what she calls “archetypes”, I call “archetypal images” and “symbols”. But where Morpheus and I differ is that I believe that “the human psyche is the origin of the Gods”, and Morpheus believes the gods “exist independently of our experience” of them. I don’t think locating the gods in the psyche makes them any less “real”, though. As I have written elsewhere, the archetypes continue to upon us whether or not we believe in them — in fact, not believing in them sometimes gives them more power over us. In the end, I don’t think there is any way to prove which one of us is right, and I’m not sure anymore that it even matters.
The Stained Glass Windows of the Mind
The heart of Morpheus speech is an analogy. She describes the archetypes as stained glass windows which are “brought to life” by the sun behind it. The sun, in this analogy, is the gods. The glass is not alive, but only seems to come alive by virtue of the “elivening” power of the gods. The church which houses the stained glass images is the human mind.
I think Morpheus’ analogy to sunlight shining through the stained glass windows is a beautiful and appropriate one. There are two interesting implications of this analogy. First, while you can feel the warmth of the sun through the window and you can see the light, you cannot see the sun behind the stained glass window. You have to infer its existence and guess at is nature based on your experience of the light and the warmth. Similarly, we cannot know the gods directly. We can only infer their existence and guess at their nature based on the experience we have of them, mediated through the archetypes. I think Morpheus would probably agree with me on this point.
The second implication of Morpheus’ analogy is probably an unintended one. The sun is a single, undifferentiated source of heat and light, which can illuminate many different stained glass windows at once. This implies a monism which Morpheus may not have intended. It is possible that there are multiple suns on the other side of the window – indeed there are, if you consider the other stars. But there is no way to know whether the ultimate source of light behind the windows is single or multiple. We might believe the gods are multiple because we experience them through different stained glass windows, but it is possible that there is only one sun and multiple windows. Many polytheists believe that there are multiple “suns”. As a monist, I suspect there to only be one sun. But I don’t think we can prove this one way or the other.
And perhaps it doesn’t matter. Personally, I’m glad that the stained glass windows are there, standing between me and the sun. They give me something beautiful to appreciate, something to relate to. I might sometimes go outside and stand in the direct sunlight and bask in its unmediated warmth – some mystical experiences are like that. But as wonderful as that experience is, I wouldn’t want to give up the stained glass windows. It’s true that all the colors of the rainbow exist within the white light of the sun, but I can’t appreciate them in that form. It’s just too hard for human beings to relate to an undifferentiated Oneness. We need diversity and color.
Who Are We Talking To?
Morpheus goes on in her speech to explain how the gods are different from archetypes in the same way the people are different from the roles that they occupy. Thus, Goibniu, Brighid, Wayland, and Hephaestos are all gods who are smiths, but they are not the same person. And to have a “personal relationship”, a “full devotional relationship” with them, say Morpheus, you have to get beyond the surface level of the archetypal “Smith” and down to the level where each of these gods has different images and different stories.
I think Carl Jung would have agreed with Morpheus on this point as well. Allow me to give you an example from Jung’s own life. One of the archetypes Jung wrote about was the “Senex” or the Wise Old Man. This archetype played an important role in Jung’s own individuation, as he recorded in his Red Book. Jung interacted with an archetypal image of the Senex, but he did not call it “Senex” or “Wise Old Man”; he called it “Philemon”, which was the name of a specific person from Greek mythology. Philemon had a specific appearance for Jung, which had the wings of a kingfisher. (You can see a picture of Philemon which Jung painted, to the right.) This archetypal image was unique to Jung. The Senex would appear differently to me or to you. But the image of Philemon was “archetypal” because it functioned in Jung’s psyche in the same way that another image of the Wise Old Man would function for me or for you.
Interestingly, Jung described his encounters with Philemon in terms that resemble those used by many polytheists to describe their encounters with the gods:
“Philemon and other figures of my fantasies brought home to me the crucial insight that there are things in the psyche which I do not produce, but which produce themselves and have their own life. Philemon represented a force that was not myself. In my fantasies I held conversations with him, and he said things which I had not consciously thought. … I understood that there is something in me which can say things that I do not know and do not intend, things which may even be directed against me. … Psychologically, Philemon represented superior insight. He was a mysterious figure to me. At times he seemed to me quite real, as if he were a living personality.”
Morpheus writes that it is important to understand the nature of the gods, because “we can’t form relationship to beings while we are misconstruing their identities.” I don’t know if I agree with this. I think we form relationships with people all the time with only very little knowledge of their true natures. A person can form a relationship with a person remotely, like on the internet, for example, and easily misconstrue their identity. You might argue that you don’t really have a relationship with them if you don’t know who they “really” are, but I’m not convinced that’s true. I don’t know that it matters what we believe about the metaphysical nature of the gods, so much as how we interact with them. Whether we believe they exist entirely independently of us or not, we can still act as if they are persons. And this is precisely what some archetypalist Pagans and atheistic Pagans do.
Connecting to the Source
Morpheus’ concern is that, by essentializing the gods, we can end up treating them like “divine vending machines”. We see this in Neo-Pagan talk about “using” gods in ritual, what has been called by some polytheists “plug-and-play religion” and “the god faucet”. I have the same concern that about “using” archetypes that Morpheus does about “using” the gods — because for me the archetypes are gods. Many Neo-Pagans understand the gods as archetypes, but they misunderstand the nature of archetypes, confusing them with mere symbols. When we see the gods as mere symbols, it is easy to treat them as things, objects to be manipulated at will. And we start to believe that we can create the gods. This is problematic, not only from both a devotional polytheistic perspective, but also from a Jungian perspective. A Jungian would say that, even though the gods arise from within us, we cannot create them, any more than we create our dreams. Rather, they are something which happens to us. Nor can we manipulate them at will; rather it is they who manipulate us. To view archetypes as mere symbols is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of archetypes. For the last four years I have been advocating the “regodding the archetypes”, restoring the sense of numinosity, of mysterious otherness, to the archetypes, both here and on my other blog, Dreaming the Myth Forward.
Whatever our differences about the ontological nature of the gods and the archetypes, one thing Morpheus and I agree on is the importance of the connection between the forms by which we experience divinity to the source that vivifies those forms. Morpheus’ analogy of the stained glass windows reminds me of a similar analogy Jung used to describe the relationship of archetypes to archetypal images. Rather than sunlight, he used the metaphor of water. Water represented, for him, the vivifying energies of the unconscious, what we might call“eros”, the energy of life. This “water”, he says, comes from deep down in the unconscious and runs along secret channels before it reaches the daylight of consciousness. The underground channel though which it runs is the archetype. The place where the water springs forth is marked by an archetypal image or symbol. This symbol merely marks the place, the locus, of the experience of the archetype. But the symbol should not be confused with the experience (drinking the water) or the archetype (the underground channel through which the water flowed) or the collective unconscious (the source of the water).
The point is that when the connection to the source is broken, then religious forms become empty and powerless. To use Jung’s metaphor, without the water flowing through the underground channels of the unconscious, there is nothing to drink at the spring. The symbol becomes an empty idol. Or to use Morpheus’ analogy, without the sun shining behind the stained glass windows, the images in the windows seem dead and lifeless. I agree with Morpheus that a lot of Neo-Paganism seems to have has lost that connection to the source, leaving us playing with forms, without experiencing the substance. I think both of us are, in our own way, trying to find a way to restore that connection.