The Problem With Jung
I have some problems with John Halstead. But before I dig into them, let me throw out a disclaimer (which of course applies to anything I’d write about Halstead) that I’m not here to name call or sling mud, but simply have my voice counted as dissent to his apparent goals of steering collective Pagan discourse from a Jungian, pantheist perspective.
With that said, let us begin with this column from Sep. 4th. In it, Halstead appears to be grappling with the relevance of Myth in modern Paganism. His quest to contextualize what Myth can mean for a modern world living after Max Weber’s declaration of “disenchantment” is something we all do when we, as followers of non-Atheist non-Abrahamic/Yahwist religions, choose to step outside the Atheism/Abrahamism cultural dichotomy.
We have to put serious thought and effort into what we believe about the old Gods. And this applies to any divine families, tribes, or pantheons, not just the Greeks, Slavs, Gauls, or any others. And I don’t have an answer about how we are to go about incorporating old Myth into a modern world view that works universally for every polytheist, unfortunately. But I know that couching the old stories in the safe, sterile environment of literary tools and psychoanalysis is not the way to go.
And so, getting to Halstead, I find serious fault with his propensity to contextualize his ideas in a reaction to both Mormonism and Christianity through a lense of early 20th century psychoanalysis and comparative myth studies instead of approaching the ideas of non-Abrahamic religions at face value couched in their respective cultures, as most modern scholars of the subjects do.
To get specific, his article approaches the relevance of Myth in terms of the First Visions tall-tale of the Mormon church, and then the lie of the “burning times” (which I won’t dignify with capitalization) or the supposed immediately pre-Indo-European matriarchal societies.
Halstead argues that those stories, which he generously dubs “myths”, are to be neither followed literally or completely thrown out, as they still have credence, according to his Jungian views, as communal cores around which a shared belief can rotate and grow. The problem, though, is he is arguing for Myth as we understand it in antiquity and applying it to what we know are modern blatant falsehoods. And it is easier, I’ll admit, to wrap these stories in discussions of “archetype” or “shared community” because so many people, primarily non-reconstructionist or non-historically informed polytheists, want these stories to be true, in some way. And so making them “true” as a shared core of relation between community members, they can still be useful while the members themselves can dodge any (deserved) accusations of ignorance.
The problem, then, is Halstead is telling people to forgive outright lies as being a valid spine for a new religious experience. And that simply cannot provide for a healthy community. Because even as well-intentioned as the originators of these tales may have been, they are still foundations of sand, and make as much sense as still giving credence to phrenology or radium toothpaste. The only lessons and shared experience to be gleaned from the burning times and the inaccurate timeline of human matriarchal societies is that research marches ever forward, and human history does not always line up with our desires. It’s a lesson we can all appreciate.
It’s also a lesson to pay attention to what we understand as accurately as possible about our predecessors and their Myths. Because if we are to follow the old Gods, we should do our best to understand the stories the ancestors themselves used to illustrate their standing in the universe contrasted and compared with the gods and spirits they worshipped and/or feared.
And that leads us now to Carl Jung, and why his understanding of world religions is both outdated for modern understanding, and a poor tool that does allow false equivocation of Halstead’s “myths” and true Myth. I cannot speak to Carl Jung as a psychologist, as I have zero training in the science and no background in his works on the subject. But I believe I can speak to his use of archetype in Myth, because his, and his followers’, insistence on archetypical interpretation of the divine is as reductive as the worst of Georges Dumézil’s relentless cramming of Western European myth into Vedic molds because of a (very) distant shared history.
Primarily, Jung’s work on mythology was done in an era when Tolkien himself had not even published “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” as best as I can tell, and so mythological studies at that time, at least of Celtic and Northern Germanic (and even Vedic!) persuasions, were stuck in an era when such myths were considered fanciful and ill-advised grasping at straws by their respective cultures. And the Mediterraneans, what we knew of them, were still stuck in dusty academia, cut off from a living culture by a wall of scholars interested only in their historicity, not their mythology.
Combined with Jung’s pantheistic leanings, it’s easy to see why he had no problem relegating the gods, in all of their glory and all of their horror, to simple literary components. Because at the time he was approaching his views of comparative mythology, most continental European deities, what we knew of them, were the gods of Noble Savages of a sort, crude and violent, with many similarities across various cultures, and the Roman and Greek gods were simply curiosities from a culture assumed to have been moving in a direction similar to pantheism or monotheism anyway when Christianity took root.
This had a doubly-negative effect on all non-Abrahamic religious studies, in fact. The heavy focus and leaning on Homeric poetry and Roman mythology exclusively in a historical/academic setting led to comparisons in larger discourse about how other myth cycles compared to such storytelling, ignorant of the context or stylings of other cultures. So tales like Beowulf or the Mahabharata ended up being evaluated by how they compared to the Aeneid or the Iliad instead of taken on their own terms, as mentioned before. And their evaluations suffered for it, being misunderstood as subpar or somehow incomplete poetry, because a Vedic or Saxon poet would not write like a Roman! How shocking!
And it was in this particular zeitgeist of mythological study that Jung formed his ideas about comparative myth, and how to interpret the stories of the ancestors. His ideas have continued to be propagated, in modern times, ignorant of advances made by Tolkien’s work for the Anglo-Saxons or other scholars in Vedic, Slavic, or any other number of cultural studies. I can see the appeal, too, because set in a backdrop of sterility and negatively dusty academia, these tales become safe to approach, because they either don’t have any true meaning to the modern mind, or are faulty and disjointed enough to simply be curiosities. And, the Jungian logic surely goes, if the ancestors would treat their own cultural collective experiences with such disdain and carelessness, stories which were relevant to the everyday member of society and how they functioned, then why should a pantheist or atheist take any time to treat the gods themselves with more respect?
So it makes sense, then, that modern followers would continue his ideas, because, as I discussed above, that form of interaction with the divine is safe. It’s sheltered. You’re not really accountable to anyone above you, because you’re praying to fuzzy not-quite-gods with no real names or definitions beyond “thunder god” or “crone”, and that allows one to ignore the nuances between Thor and Perun, or even Taranis and Tuireann. Because then they’re not truly unique beings, but the products of cultures with faulty histories, and so are broken gods to begin with.
But back on the myth itself, it took Tolkien’s aforementioned essay on reading Beowulf for what it is to, I honestly believe, start a sea-change in how we interact with pre-Christian theology, because he enabled us to meet these myths head on for what they were. Not brutish allegory for science or nature, the ancestors weren’t simply oafish cavemen, but something that the good professor says is “alive all at once and in all its parts, and dies before it can be dissected.”
To me, that confirms, from a man whose entire academic career was steeped in proper understanding and interpretation of a specific set of pre-Christian cultures and literature, that myth is not something to be psychoanalyzed. Because as a vibrant, vital method of information transfer, a myth is not a historical record, or a window into a person’s mind. It is a story of humanity and our place in a certain cosmology of gods and goddesses and more, variant from culture to culture, explaining not just the divine, but also the customs and rites of others through example, showing us the way to live in accordance with the gods who call us.
And that, ultimately, is why Halstead’s examples fall flat on their face. We know where examples of falsehoods like matriarchal domination violently subsumed by patriarchal peoples and lies of the “burning times” started: with wishful thinking in eras before we truly started to understand our past. That there were no clear-cut “heroes and villains” in the ever-shifting landscapes of religious and societal competition over the entire course of human history.
We know that if a matriarchy existed as a dominant societal model, it was aeons before anything resembling human culture from the last ten thousand years, at the very least, existed. We know that there was persecution of non-Abrahamic indigenous religions by the spread of the Catholic and Orthodox churches and by the spread of Islam through the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa, and the Near East. But the most violent, bloody, and sustained conflicts were between Absolon’s forces and the Wends, the Teutonic Knights and the Lithuanians, and Charlemagne and the Saxons. None of those battles, however, involved long and sustained persecution of any pan-European “witch cult”.
And so, to compare those falsehoods with the myths of the ancestors whose gods we are attempting to emulate, what kind of common Pagan culture are we really building if we rely on Halstead’s acceptance of those ideas? How can we call ourselves true to the ideas of Face as the Insular Celts knew it, how can we stand by our own word as the Germanic Tribes knew it to equate the Worth of a person, if our own core, fundamental shared ideology is built on a falsehood, no matter how innocent or well-meaning the origin?
Halstead was right to reject Mormonism based on those very same principles, that no matter the good intentions of the lie, it was still a lie and not worth following. However, he has kept his pre-conditioned predilection to accept similar tales as necessary when they are just as false.
He is also attempting, through a Jungian context, to say those lies are equal to the older myths of our ancestors, that our own past was innocently or willingly lying to us to build a society, when we know such myths are not the case at all.
There is value in, as his article states, “believing in our myths, without believing them.” Unfortunately, his very concept of myth is clouded and faulty because of his fundamental preference for inaccurate and hazy interpretation of the divine through the filter of a brilliant psychologist who was a terrible comparative mythologist.