When I was learning Paganism I read a lot of 101 Books that had lists of different Gods and Goddesses and what they were “for.” The information from the author(s) had just finished outlining what spells are and how to cast them properly (in a manner of speaking – we’ll get to spells in another blog). In order to help boost your spell power, you were advised to connect to a certain Deity. The list provided by the author(s) was supposed to be a means for a starting point for you to begin learning about Them and what They can do for you. A classic example in some 101 books was Aphrodite. If you wanted to perform a successful love spell, call on Aphrodite. Use symbols appropriate to Her on your altar, and then with the visualization and meditation techniques you learned from the book, you will be able to successfully invoke Her power and BOOM! Love spell success.
At the time, I saw nothing wrong with this. I assumed it was correct because, after all, it was in a book. The author(s) had to know what they were talking about. Some may call it naivety, but when you are new and searching for information, where are you supposed to glean information from? I was a new Pagan, trying to learn what I could and attempting to understand how these Deities worked in this new found faith of mine. Backstory time:
I had just left Christianity not too long before I began journeying into Paganism. I was an ordained minister in a Pentecostal Church. I grew up Pentecostal in my teens, and I was a radical Born-Again Christian. I believed in God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit with all the fiber of my being. I interpreted the Bible as literal Truth. Why not? I had experiences to back up my beliefs. I had prayers answered, mystical visions, and witnessed spontaneous healing. I felt tangible energy weaving its way around the church. I was a Christian, through and through.
I won’t get into the specifics right now of how I left and found my way to Paganism, but suffice it to say that in my 20s I began exploring this religion. So where does one begin? Books obviously. Now, here is where the dilemma came in: I didn’t want to be brainwashed again. I didn’t want to fall victim to a fundamentalist mentality of literally believing that other Myths might be just as real as what I read in the Bible. My analytic brain could not wrap its head around how the stories in the Bible could be true (or so I thought), and how the Greek Myths or the Irish Myths were also true. I felt I had duped myself into believing the Bible was real, so I was not about to do that to myself again. I had been hurt from my falling out with Christianity, and I had reason to feel that way. So in Paganism I was very cautious about how I approached the Gods.
The way that many authors have described the Gods in lots of 101 Books is that the Gods are mental constructs. That is, that the Gods are something we as humans have invented to help us understand the world around us. One of the reasons Paganism seemed to fit for me at the time was because many 101 books purported to blend religion with science – and nicely at that. So being scientifically-minded, the explanation goes, the Gods are only as “real” as we believe Them to be. The books would then throw in names like Carl Jung to explain the Gods as “archetypes,” that is, expressions of basic human experiences according to them. By connecting with the Gods in ritual, we are connecting with the basic fundamentals of our own experiences and interpreting them in a story-telling fashion. It’s not that Aphrodite is a Being who exists outside of my own mind, continues the archetype explanation. It is that Aphrodite is that part of my subconscious which longs for sex, desire and beauty. So when I connect with Aphrodite in ritual, I am connecting with an aspect of myself embodied by Her.
It all seemed to make sense. It was comfortable, and this way of connecting with the Pagan Gods made room for me to feel as if I still had a sense of control. I still had a feeling that I was in charge, because the notion that Gods exist outside of myself actually frightened me. No lie. I felt more comfortable with the notion of aliens in flying saucers as the answer to if we were alone in the Cosmos than Gods. Ironically, technologically advanced beings that might be in conspiracy with our government was more plausible than suprahuman Beings. Go figure. (Interestingly, I find this same cognitive dissonance in the Greater Pagan Community to an extant).
For many years I went along with the Archetype Theory of the Gods. I only did rituals with the group I was with at the time; I hardly ever practiced anything solitary. I discussed my experiences with my fellow Pagans and admitted that the Archetype Theory resonated more with me. Not too surprisingly, so did other Pagans. We all wanted to be more scientific and had bad experiences with literalist Christians. We wanted our religion to make sense. As an aside, many of the Pagans who also leaned towards this bent were anti-religious. Anyway, the Archetype Theory helped me to understand what the late Mythologist Joseph Campbell discussed as the “MonoMyth” that is, the basic pattern of human experience that can be found throughout the world (2008, The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, 3rd Ed.). One famous MonoMyth is the “Hero’s Journey” beautifully represented in the the persons of Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Herakles, Moses, Wesir (Osiris), Heru (Horus), Jesus and Buddha. It also gave me an appreciation for the well of creativity that helped artists and writers continue to present basic themes in newer ways. For example, let’s use Aphrodite again. According to the Archetype Theory of the Gods, Aphrodite is the embodiment of female sex, love and beauty. Thus, goes the explanation, any empowered woman in a story that is the vixen, the slut, the model, is a face of Aphrodite in that story. (For the record, I realize I am using terms that may offend some, but it’s necessary for me to be realistic and use terms that we are familiar with to get the point across). To my analytic brain, this explanation also helped me to understand why there were many similarities between Aphrodite and other Goddesses such as Astarte, Hathor, and the Morrighan. It neatly weaved different Deities from different Pantheons and made a well-known mantra ring true: “All the Goddesses are one Goddess, and all the Gods are one God.”
Here’s the problem: all of my philosophical thoughts and neat oratories were smashed to near-obliteration when I had an encounter with the Gods. I do mean encounter. I am talking about an experience that churned me inside-out, split wide my brain, and rerouted my neural circuits. I’m talking about something so “Other” it cannot be condensed into words, because none exist. I had become zapped and melted, then reshaped and saved. Like the heart of Dionysus protected by Zeus after the former was torn apart and boiled, my flesh tingled with the shadowy presence of a thousand volts that had forever transformed everything I ever knew about the world. I thought I was safe; I thought I was comfortable; I thought I had everything neatly figured out. Whatever I didn’t figure out, I told myself I would come to know in the afterlife. But apparently Someone Else had a different plan, and I am grateful for it.
Now, as an Occultist I am trained to always record my personal experiences to look back on later and assess. Not every experience has to be considered valid; I learned that the difficult way as a Christian when I fell into deception because I thought EVERY vision, EVERY experience, EVERY voice was true. It wasn’t. I learned in Occultism to separate what was relevant from what was not. It might take a day, a week, a month, or several years for me to discover if it was relevant, but I would discover it in time nonetheless. So I followed suit, and I wanted to discover if my changes were valid and hence, real.
I began to follow-up on my research from years before on Archetypes. What was missing? Here’s the thing: I had never actually read the works of Carl Jung. I had read about him from others. Or, to make matters worse, I had read about him from what others read about him from others. It was second, third, and fourth-hand retellings. Authors were quoting one another without giving each other credit, and basically every book I was reading began to sound the same. This was evident when even Pagans who adhered to the Archetype Theory could not define what exactly was meant by “archetype.” They gave examples of what they meant. One of the famous examples out there in the Pagan Community is the One Source Example. It goes something like this:
“There is One Source from which all the Gods of every culture come from. Different cultures have their own unique ways of interacting with this One Divine Source, and these are the Masks that we call the Gods. So Venus=Aphrodite=Ishtar.” This is pretty much the basic theme, and it seems to make sense at first. But, was this was Jung meant by Archetypes?
I decided to read Jung for myself, and what I was reading was a far cry from what I had been told.
Let’s start with the basics: Carl Jung did indeed write about Archetypes. He was inspired by the works of Plato (which I ended up reading) and a couple of other sources to develop his own theories and approach to what he was researching, which were basic primordial images that humans shared across cultures and time. But what is even more important is that Jung never completed his theories; he changed them over time, formulating them continuously in an attempt to really come up with his version of a Unified Theory of the Unconscious (my interpretation). I also discovered that there were some mistakes about what others defined as archetypes versus what Jung described as an Archetype. According to Jung in his works such as The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, mythological motifs such as the Trickster, the Wise Old Man, the Mother, the Sacred Prostitute, and the Hero were not archetypes in and of themselves, but they were creations that pointed to archetypal events that we all as humans share: birth, death, sex, and rites of passage. Basically, the archetype itself is an innate possibility that we all share that leads to inborn tendencies which shape our human behavior. It is not a thing in and of itself; it is merely a symbol pointing the way for us to understand each other. This definition is a far cry from Gods. Gods were worshiped and experienced. Although Gods might share traits with human behavior, They are distinct in scope, influence and power from beyond ourselves. They are not the empty shells that Jung was defining as Archetypes.
What modern Pagan authors had incorrectly done was assign the term “Archetype” to the motifs, and had gone one step further by stating that the Gods were examples and therefore mental constructs.
So basically, where the hell do the Gods fit in? Are They real or are They fictions?
This is where many Pagans become uncomfortable, because they confuse the word “archetype.” What Pagans were throwing around was a confusion between the word “Archetype” and “stereotype.” The word stereotype comes from two Greek words which mean “solid impression.” It has come to mean an image that is being perpetuated about individuals or customs which are perception errors; those impressions may or may not be rooted in reality. It is an incorrect assumption in other words. The stereotype is that Aphrodite is just a Goddess of Love and Beauty, and ergo She must be the same as Venus, as Ishtar, as Inanna. Hekate is only a Triple Goddess of Magic(k), and so She must be the same as Cerridwen. Upon doing further research and actual Work, I came to realize my blunder. A very serious blunder.
If you don’t want to believe that the Gods are actual Beings which exist, that’s an individual choice. But what is plain ignorance – whether willful or not – is the assumption that because Gods have similar symbols or spheres of influence that They must be the same. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Let’s use ourselves as an example. In actuality, we are all archetypes. Every single human being at some point embodies a certain image or aspect (another much misunderstood word) that is characteristic of innate human behavior such as Grumpy Old Person, Joker, Bitch, Mother, Father, Daughter, Son, Wise Woman, Healer, etc. Although each of us are different with different cultures, different parents, different personalities, different characteristics, and different beliefs, we all share basic patterns that speak to us because at some point we will experience some or all of the behaviors which make us human: we are born, we live, we lose, we cry, we laugh, we have sex, we hurt, we joke, we manipulate, we are good, we are bad, etc. Our stories, our Myths, are just one way we have developed to use analogy in order to make sense of our experiences. It’s how movies and stories from one region will always find an audience in another. But that doesn’t take away our individuality and uniqueness. The Archetypes are simply an alphabet of symbolism that allows us to speak a common language to one another. It’s how fundamental stories such as the Hero’s Journey transcend cultures and time. Because there is resonance there.
But just because I share the same basic experience as someone living in China doesn’t mean they and I are the same person. We may share traits, but we are different. We are individuals.
The Gods are Individuals as well. They exist. That doesn’t take away the fact that They function as Archetypes, but not “archetypes” in the misunderstood sense of mental constructs. Rather, “Archetypes” in the sense that They have relevance for us as humans and are able to communicate with us and through us. Archetypes in the sense that we are able to communicate with Them and develop a relationship that is real and purposeful. When I work with the Goddess Rhea, for example, I am able to understand Her Work as a Mother Goddess because I see Her Face in the faces of every mother. More importantly, I see Her in the women who have had a role as “mothers” in my own life: my birth mother and my High Priestess. But She is also more than that. As a Goddess She is able to encompass more than even what these women have to teach me. Yet She is able to communicate and I am able to understand Her better because of these women. It’s about validity, not subjectivity. This doesn’t make Rhea any less of a Goddess, nor does it relegate Her to the status of an invented mental construct. But it does make Her even more real. Unfortunately, however, polytheists such as myself have been attacked with the word “fundamentalist.” I’ll get into that in my next blog, and the dissonance between polytheists and other Pagans. In the meantime, hopefully I’ve laid out some food for thought.
But the next time I hear a Pagan talk about archetypes, I’m going to chime in. Because I do not think that word means what they think it means.
Eirene kai Hugieia!
(Peace and Health!)
Luis A. Valadez