Paganism is not therapy

Pagan salvation?

“In fringe groups madness rules” a friend of mine used to say. She is working at an institution for addiction prevention – and she was pagan. A “free flying” witch with a close connection to Hekate and Hermes. We have both spent more than 15 years in the pagan society – both in Germany but also on an international level – and we were both pretty active on the internet. Many times we have discussed the amazing parallels we had observed between the people coming to her institution and pagans. Things we would have never talked about in public because the potential for conflicts was understandably high. But we were both pretty aware of several symptoms which point to various personality disorders or neurotic patterns. The aforementioned statement was yet a rather sarcastic one she made during a chat about the pagan community in Germany driven by our frustration about constant online fights on message boards which we both had experienced over years.


I think living within a pagan society you sometimes tend to forget that paganism is a fringe group. Because compared to other religious communities it is still rather small. And it consists to a high extend of “seekers” of people who are trying to find something which is better then what they have experienced before. Joining paganism is often driven by realizing that your religious upbringing is anything but flawless, that criticism might not have been welcome, questions remained unanswered and that it didn’t meet your spiritual and social needs as an individual. It seems – often coming from a Christian upbringing – pagans carry an idea of “salvation seeking” with them. Yet original paganism as it was practiced in the pre-Christian traditions hardly intended to provide healing. Although healing methods and natural medicine may have been part of many pagan traditions a generalized idea of salvation like in Christianity is hard to make out.

But still the subtle prospect of finding cure for one’s wounds or fulfill this sometimes hardly tangible notion of longing and searching is not an entirely new phenomenon. Paganism has gathered a lot of aspects by the time which have little to do with the ancient traditions but are hard to be separated from modern practice and understanding of pagan religion. One of the biggest influences on paganism, mysticism and occultism is certainly C.G. Jung and his archetype theory which evolved in a blooming time of romanticised longing and glorified mythology.

Carl Gustav Jung, 1910 Wikimedia Commons

Carl Gustav Jung, 1910
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Carl Gustav Jung
– a brief biography

In 1895 Carl Gustav Jung, a devoted Christian and son of a pastor, began to study medicine. At that time he also had a strong disposition to spiritism which, strangely, was considered closely related to psychology. Psychology was still not an approved part of medicine as it is today and mostly ridiculed by medical scholars. Jung regularly attended séances at his cousin’s house where a young 15 year old girl channeled spirits. This experience lead Jung to the conclusion that any appearances of the human soul where personality related “partial spirits”. Thus the basic concept of his archetype theory was born.

In 1900 Jung began to study Sigmund Freud’s interpretation of dreams and found many parallels to his archetype theory. The fact that Freud used a lot of terms which relate to Greek mythology (like “Elektra”- or “Oedipus” complex) is a consequence of his humanistic education. He always remained very critical about religion though – obviously Judaism and Christianity.

A major conflict issue between Freud and Jung was Freud’s sexual theory which Jung completely refused to accept most likely based on his strict religious upbringing. Freud, however, urged Jung to “never drop the sexual theory”. On the other hand Freud declared Jung’s religious bias as nonsense. He denied Jung’s interest in mythology and religions which in the end lead to discord between Jung and Freud. Freud mentions that back then he witnessed Jung being “in a phase of high mental pressure”. In 1928 Jung began to study alchemy and continued his studies in mythology and religious history.

International Psychoanalytic Congress, Weimar (1911) Wikimedia Commons
Front row left to right: 1) Poul Bjerre 2) Eugen Bleuler 3) Maria Moltzer 4) Maria Gincburg 5) Lou Andreas-Salomé 6) Beatrice M. Hinkle 7) Emma Jung 8) M. von Stack 9) Toni Wolff 10) Martha Boeddinghaus 11) Franz Riklin; Second row, left to right: 1) Otto Rank 2) Ludwig Binswanger 3) O. [Oskar?] Rothenhäusler 4) Isidor Sadger 5) Oskar Pfister 6) Sándor Ferenczi 7) Sigmund Freud 8) Carl Gustav Jung 9) Karl Abraham 10) unknown 11) W. Wittenberg 12) James J. Putnam 13) Ernest Jones 14) Wilhelm Stekel; Third row, left to right: 1) Jan Nelken 2) Ludwig Jekels 3) Max Eitingon 4) Leonhard Seif 5) Karl Landauer 6) A. Stegmann 7) unknown 8) unknown 9) Guido Brecher 10) Alfred von Winterstein 11) Johannes Jaroslaw Marcinowski; Fourth row: 1) Rudolf Foerster 2) unknown 3) Abraham Arden Brill 4) Alphonse Maeder 5) Jan Egbert Gustaaf van Emden 6) Paul Federn 7) unknown 8) unknown 9) Adolf Keller; Fifth row: 1) Eduard Hitschmann 2) unknown 3) unknown 4) unknown

The influence of Nazism on German science

An event that suddenly interrupted German science and research along a wide front was the Third Reich. Many scholars where forced to either dedicate their work to the Nazis or be regarded as enemies of the state and pursued as such. Jung unlike Freud (who was after all Jewish) decided to cooperate with the Nazis. While Freud’s books where burning Jung developed the idea of the “resurrected Wotan” in the shape of Hitler. Jung’s archetype theory developed strongly during the Nazi regime. He declared Hitler as a “high priest”, “medicine man”, “seer” and “guide” of a primitive society embodying the archetype of the “raging Wotan who came back to conquer the world” and this campaign was of course directed against the Jews. “Hitler as possessed by the archetype of the collective Aryan unconscious could not help obeying the commands of an inner voice,” Jung said, “Hitler is a spiritual vessel, a demi-divinity; even better, a myth(…) the messiah of Germany who teaches the virtue of the sword. The voice he hears is that of the collective unconscious of his race…” So Jung’s old dispute with Sigmund Freud was revived once more as part of a national anti-Semitic ideology dividing psychology into a “Germanic and a Jewish psychology”. (C. G. Jung, Wotan)

Jung explaining the “destructive potential of the Jews”:
“Christianity parted the Germanic barbarian into an upper and a lower half, and thus it managed – by suppression of the dark side – to domesticate the brighter side and make it sophisticated. The lower half however is waiting badly for salvation and to be domesticated, too. Until then it will remain in the subconsciousnss associated with the remnant of ancient times, the collective subconsciousness, which must lead into a raising revitalization of it. The earlier Christianity loses its authority, the more remarkable will the “blond beast” in its underground prison turn over and threaten us all with an outbreak and severe consequences, which can appear both as a psychological revolution for the individual as well as a social phenomenon. In contrast to this the Jews do not face this problem. They already have their ancient culture and additionally the culture of their host. It may sound strange but the Jew own two cultures. So he is domesticated in a higher manner, but in shame about something which may come forth by the Germanic man in a dangerous amount.” (C. G. Jung “Über das Unbewusste”)

Jungian psychology and spirituality

Despite the fact that Jung’s theories where highly influenced by the fascist ideology of Germany during WWII modern psychology is still based on both Freudian and Jungian research. Luckily many followers of Jung and Freud managed to purify especially Jung’s works from the coloring of Nazism and save the useful aspects which today form the foundation for many valuable therapy methods. Yet it needs to be mentioned that Jungian as well as Freudian psychology can no longer be considered as a “healing method” from a modern point of view. A lot of development has taken place in the meantime and psychoanalysis is being challenged by cognitive behavioral methods and cognitive neurology. Basically it is useful to regard psychoanalysis referring to psychotherapy/psychiatry like anatomy refers to medicine. It provides information about the mental anatomy of the human mind which is of course essential to apply the right therapeutic intervention.

A very important part of Jungian psychology is working with the subconsciousness. In spiritually interested groups people tend to be well informed about the fact that the subconsciousness is a container for suppressed and traumatic experiences and according to Jung’s theory a root of neurotic behavioral patterns which in many cases are hidden from daily awareness. So the rumor goes round that all that needs to be done to provide salvation is to lift those traumas and subconscious contents from their underground prison and drag them into the light. This has grown to be an extremely worrisome mentality which can be found amongst pagans, too. Spiritually interested people have a scary amount of eagerness to trigger each other’s traumatic issues referring to a basically misunderstood Jungian psychology and label this as part of a spiritual process of personal growth. Together with a dangerous occasionally almost addictive need for “challenging experiences” and mental “bungee jumping” pain is considered a “sign of healing” so hurting each other is very often declared as essential for providing spiritual development and therefore regarded as a legitimized method of psychological amateur “doctor games”. The erotic notion may sound more ironic than it is meant because in fact a certain amount of “eros” is indeed part of this dynamic as I have already pointed out in my post about Paganism and sex.

Not every compensation is wrong

Supression is certainly the reason why certain traumatizing memories are banned into the subconsciousness but this does not mean that dragging them onto the surface will heal a person. Freud thought it would but meanwhile modern psychology and neurology luckily knows better. Supression is a coping strategy, a compensation. Compensation is a natural and necessary way of neutralizing injuries. For example, when you harm your leg and you rip one of your knee ligaments the muscles are usually able to compensate the missing ligament. The stability of the knee might of course be reduced compared to it’s condition before the accident but if the owner of the knee takes care of not overstraining his knee he can live with it without any serious problems. Naturally he should avoid any activities which would be likely to harm his knee.

People tend to assume that only because the human soul is not physical it can always heal completely into the state before being damaged. This is a major mistake! Especially modern neurology has proven in various ways that this dangerous idea needs to be dropped. The human mind knows a number of compensative mechanisms which if necessary need to be kept up throughout a life time. Suppression is such a compensation. Possibly together with strategies of avoiding. And those compensations need to be highly respected and taken care of like of the injured knee. To drag the suppressed contents into the light of daily awareness would be like ripping open the knee and harm exactly those muscles which have taken over the function of the missing ligament. I think it should be pretty clear that any intended amateur psychological intervention of this kind is extremely inappropriate and in fact dangerous. The risk of severely re-traumatizing and even worsening the psychological condition of a person is unimaginably high.

Psychological surgery for professionals only

But, of course, sometimes this risk is being taken into account on a professional level if a compensation has lead to behavioral patterns which obstruct a person in his or her daily life in a way that leading a normal life as a social being becomes close to impossible. This is why opening up psychological wounds can sometimes be necessary and to be able to picture what this actually means I would like to compare this to a knee surgery. A surgery has to take place in an antiseptic environment, the patient need to be anaesthetized and a well-educated professional and focused team needs to perform the surgery. It is pretty much the same for any kind auf trauma therapy which includes working with the subconsciousness. The therapeutic intervention has to take place in a protected setting, a well-educated, professional therapist needs to take care of the process and in many cases medical intervention is necessary to help the patient face the traumatizing contents without being harmed. No internet communication of any kind is able to provide such a setting and, regarding paganism, it is more than daring to assume that the gods will mysteriously take over the role of professional therapists let alone psychologically interested pagans. While religious practice – alone or in a group – may provide a lot of stability to mental sanity and certainly remarkable spiritual growth it is not a therapeutic concept. The fact that overcoming an acute psychological disorder may in fact lead to personal growth does not necessarily mean that growing and developing spiritually always takes place in this shape nor does it mean that any disorder can be overcome through spirituality. Sometimes, however, religious practice can be a great helper to compensate and cope with chronic mental problems.

Jungian arechtypes

Jung developed his assumption of a primordial universal soul structure consisting of partial spirit-like aspects from his mythology and alchemy studies.

“It is a fact that certain ideas appear almost everywhere and anytime and can even occur spontaneously, completely independent from migration and tradition. They are not made up by the individual, but the happened to him; in fact, they invade the individual consciousness. This is not platonic psychology this is empiric psychology.” (C.G. Jung Psychologie und Religion)

Amor and Psyche, 19th century, Wikimedia Commons

Amor and Psyche, 19th century
Wikimedia Commons

Jung assumed a mutual mental layer “the collective subconsciousness” which influences the individual in its mental and emotional processes. This is in a way of course a “one-source-theory” and it need to be remembered that the Victorian age was influenced by a search for a single source of religion. Although Jung had focused his religious enthusiasm mainly on pre-christian mythology he was still struggling with his own biography and religious upbringing as a Christian. So basically Jung’s very subjective goal was to weaken the good-and-evil-concept of Christianity and monotheism and to achieve this he used what basically embodied the ultimate “evil” in Christianity:  pagan deities.

“The myth needs to unsheathe with monotheism und give up it’s (officially denied) dualism, which would always state an eternal dark opponent to the almighty good.[…] Only then completeness and the union of opposites can it can be granted to a god.” (“Erinnerungen von C.G. Jung”)

So Jungs main intention was to apply his concept of a splitted mind into daily awareness and subconsciousness on monotheism. He assumed that “evil” was basically just the unwanted and rejected object of suppression which needs to be re-united. To imagine this theory in an environment of the actual evil taking place in Nazi-Germany is rather scary. The fact that people like Heinrich Himmler were very enthusiastic about C.G. Jungs work is more than devastating and a few decades later the jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt would develope her concept about the “Banality of evil” to show exactly this phenomenon of collective blindness to evil and underestimating the horror of the facistic ideology. Yet especially this Jungian dualistic theory is being used repeatedly in paganism to argue against the Christian concept of good and evil while making the same mistake that C.G. Jung made: denying that there IS actually evil that needs to be fought actively. To experience actual evil can cause mental harm to such a destructive extend that compensations through suppression are sometimes the only way to survive mentally if not physically. To disrespect and violate this kind of compensation is a severe act of invalidating the mental injury a person has experienced and can be extremely re-traumatizing.

Archetypical Polytheism?

Basically the archetypes are just a further diversification of Jung’s dualism together with his idea of Animus and Anima, a concept of universal femininity and masculinity, which again is colored by Jung’s assumption of the mind split into “light” and “dark” aspects. Yet especially his archetypes and the fact that he concluded them from mythology and fairytales has lead many modern pagan and spiritual traditions into assuming that the deities of polytheistic pantheons should be regarded as archetypes. Considering Jung’s theory of dualism this distorts the polytheistic multiplicity and reduces it into simple duality with varying archetypical faces. The complex interaction and the cultural setting of a polytheistic tradition is completely neglected since this is considered as rather unimportant from Jung’s point of view. This raises the question if archetypes are really that useful for an actual pagan practice in its authentic sense. And further on the arechtypical concept in the Jungian manner has lost its meaning in modern psychology, too, so it is not even very useful as a therapeutic concept. The modern Jungian psychology does now take into account that cultural surroundings have a high impact on individual and collective social ideals and are of course very dynamic. Especially intergenerational conflicts are rooted in this disharmony of social ideals which have now taken over the function once the archetypes used to have. So, sadly, Jungs archetypes remain more or less a historical relic of the beginning of psychology and can certainly not be regarded as a useful and effective tool for modern psychotherapy.

Paganism for pagan awareness

Yet to work with a polytheistic pagan pantheon in a more or less psychotherapeutic manner is of course not without effect. Modern therapies which include creative, sensory and somatic processes like Gestalt therapy, psycho drama therapy, systemic therapy etc. provide a very intuitive access to explore the human mind and using this method to explore a pagan mindset is certainly not wrong and in fact very effective. The only idea that should be dropped while making use of this is the hope for salvation and healing. Paganism can provide pagan awareness and if this is not your goal you will only end up frustrated not finding what you long for. I think many short-term pagans have experienced this wrong track and ended up leaving paganism in disappointment. So it is essential to actually define your personal needs and examine well which method is the right one to fulfill them or at least seek fulfillment. Sometimes you can’t help going a bit experimental on this.

I my post about Scientific views on daily rituals I have described the amazing effect of rituals in a religious or spiritual setting. By including all the spheres of the human mind into pagan practice the chance to bring back a pagan awareness even on a social level is very high. And this should be the goal instead of individual salvation in my opinion. One reason why I am pagan is the fact that I am convinced that pagan traditions can provide a high amount of social skills combined with environmental and nature-related awareness which in the end can of course create an indirect healing effect on the individual, too. It might not entirely heal the individual but it can provide a tangible, socially competent surrounding for an individual healing process which each of us will have to undergo from time to time. In my opinion religion is a lot more about providing healing and harmonizing concepts to a community as a whole.

What is sanity?

After all sanity is something that needs definition. Our modern concept of sanity is still closely related to the idea of the absence of sickness which is certainly way too short-sighted. Perhaps this is why we are sometimes still concentrating so much on our injuries and traumas assuming it will make us grow spiritually instead of trying to develop our primary and acquired talents and offer those to support and complete one another. Maybe if we start focusing on what actually provides sanity instead of seeking to avoid what causes sickness we might have an even greater chance to develop a healthy community and I would love to see people starting to seek for these hidden treasures in pagan traditions.


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4 Responses to Paganism is not therapy

  1. Myriad says:

    This is an amazing post…!
    “Modern therapies which include creative, sensory and somatic processes like Gestalt therapy, psycho drama therapy, systemic therapy etc. provide a very intuitive access to explore the human mind and using this method to explore a pagan mindset is certainly not wrong and in fact very effective.

    Could you perhaps elaborate on that, I don’t think I followed this train of thought…

    Also, seeing how you’re the only person I actually trust to know what exactly an archetype is supposed to be — can you define that in like, 2-3 sentences that are understandable by psychology laypeople?

    So basically, archetypes were intrinsically dualistic; they were also understood to be absolute in the sense that they appear in a collective unconscious (…????). Their conception was inspired by Freud’s work, which again was inspired by mythology (but not in a religious way, more in a classicist way). That being given (is it?), it would seem that saying the archetypes are the pagan Deities that inspired them indirectly, is… well, backwards.

    Of course, this doesn’t mean that people cannot “work with” archetypes. Why not. I mean, you can work with a lot of things, why not archetypes… if that’s someone’s thing? (argh. I don’t get that archetypal thing at all..)

    • Sati says:

      Yay thanks for the support ❤ Glad you liked it!

      To answer your questions:

      Therapy methods like Gestalt therapy, systemic work or psycho drama therapy go beyond the mere talking. They include non-verbal actions like movement, symbols, creative expressions, acting to increase the perception of the patient. So basically a lot of things which have always been part of religious rituals and which are now known to be very effective to set up specific neurological pathways in the brain (see my post about 'scientific views on rituals'). My personal believe is that by using traditional rituals you train your brain not only in the aware parts to adjust to a pagan mindset but also in the unaware parts which you refer to by the non-verbal performances or sensory processes. Rituals are a container for the non-verbal contents of a tradition. We are pretty used to focus on written and spoken contents in our western world so we tend to overlook that there are a lot of non-verbalized ones lying hidden to a daily awareness in pagan rituals.

      Roughly summarized, archetypes are primordial ideas or ID concepts which are rooted in a mutual layer of the collective subconsciousness independent from culture.

      The archetypes are basically Jung's idea not Freud's. Freud was working with a symbolism of mental images which appeared in his theories about dream interpretation but he did not assume a mutual transpersonal source for those. This had evolved from his use of hypnosis and it is not entirely wrong because the most subconscious parts of the human mind work with images and not with verbal language since verbal language is learned later in life (babies think in images and emotions). But Jung combined this with his archetype theory and assumed that the subconsciousness is a not individual but collective and that dreams are a gateway to this collective subconsciousness. Especially the western ritual magic is based on this assumption and modern paganism is of course strongly influenced by this.

      This collective subconsciousnes is where Jung assumed the origin of the archetypes. Primordial ideas and concepts, which then again evolve into different cultural concepts. Archetypes are eg. "the mother" or "the warrior", "the child" etc. Jung claimed to have seen that EVERY culture would have the same ID concepts which appear in pantheons, myths, fairytales etc. This is why I am saying it is a one-source-theory. It's basically a "backwards reasoning" assuming ONE root instead of many. When people say "don't we basically all believe in the same gods giving them different names?" this is something that comes from exactly this archetypical mentality. From a historical or cultural-scientific point of view this is of course entirely wrong and if we really want to work with authentic paganism I believe we need to get away from this one-source-mentality.

      Yet it has to be said he was not the first one to come up with this. Platon's concept of "idea" is pretty similar, also Décartes and Locke came up with it. The difference is that archetypes are a philosophical concept but Jung has started to use them as a psychological one. So yeah you can work with philosophical concepts if you want of course but imo this has little to do with actual paganism and certainly not with psychotherapy (and it shouldn't). It is – if I am to name a category – very ritual magic and as you know I, as a recon, am not very happy about the ritual magic influences on paganism.

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