Jungians on Myth and Religion
Jungian theories about mythology and religion examined by Stefan Stenudd
The texts are chapters from my book Archetypes of Mythology, in which also Carl G. Jung is examined at length. But his part of the book is 190 pages, which is far too much to be read comfortably on a website.
Here, instead, are eleven of his followers, who have made the most significant contributions to Jungian thought on myth, such as Joseph Campbell and, lately, Jordan B. Peterson. Below are the links to their chapter, in the approximate order of their flourishing.
This webpage also contains the introductory chapter of the book, which presents the basics and characteristics of both Jungian and Freudian theories on mythology, as well as their background and development. I hope it can be an interesting read, but the chapters on the Jungians also stand on their own.
Jungians on Myth and Religion
IntroductionThis is my second book on so-called depth psychology perspectives on mythology and religion. The first one was about how Sigmund Freud and his followers tackled the subjects, and this one is about the thoughts of Carl G. Jung and those who have applied his theories. Initially, it was to be one book, but it swelled beyond reasonable size, so I decided to divide it into two.
Also, it made sense regarding the content. The Freudian and the Jungian views differ considerably and profoundly. Therefore, each tradition is better to treat separately, for the sake of clarity and consistency.
Still, an examination of those theories is not complete without comparing them, which is what is done in this introduction. That is why some of its content is the same in both books. Here, though, a certain emphasis is on the characteristics of Jungian thought, as that of Freudian thought was in the previous book.
BackgroundThe psychoanalytical perspective on mythology was unavoidable. When the study of myths and religions from all over the world intensified during the 19th century, patterns in them were extracted and compared, and theories on what they revealed about common human conditions were proposed. Myths were increasingly seen as expressions of needs of the human psyche.
The beliefs expressed in myths, as well as in rites, gradually ceased to be dismissed as merely heathen misconceptions as opposed to the sacred truth of the Christian doctrine. Instead, they became respected fields of study of the human nature, inspired by the quickly growing mass of documented myths and increasing knowledge about religious traditions among distant and obscure cultures.
By the end of the 19th century, the literature on the subject was immense, and mostly pointing to psychological explanations to the structure and content of myths, as well as for the birth of religions and their spiritual meaning.
To name a few:
English anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor’s Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Language, Art, and Custom was published in 1871 and made a lasting impression. A few years earlier, in 1865, he had writtenResearches into the Early History of Mankind on the same theme.
The German philologist and orientalist Max Müller, who is regarded as the initiator of comparative religion, became Oxford’s first professor of comparative theology in 1868. He edited Sacred Books of the East, published in 50 volumes from the years 1879 to 1910.
Scottish anthropologist James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough, presenting a vast material on myth, lore, and ritual around the world, was originally published in 1890, as a two-volumes work. In the following decades it expanded considerably, reaching twelve volumes in its third edition, published between 1906 and 1915.
The Scottish author Andrew Lang’s Myth, Ritual, and Religion in two volumes preceded Frazer by just a few years, getting published in 1887. There were also journals of anthropology published since the mid-1800s, frequently containing documentations of myths and rituals in nonliterate societies.
This rapid growth of interest in the traditions of other cultures was taking place simultaneously with the establishment of the science of psychology, and they influenced one another continuously. Anthropologists used psychological concepts to analyze and explain beliefs and religious practices of societies they studied, and psychologists searched anthropological material for support of their theories about the mentality of man. This is still the case.
Freudians and JungiansThe two persons most influential in the emergence of psychological treatments of myth were Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung, the latter to a much wider extent than the former. Since both were connected to the psychoanalytical movement — Freud as its founder and Jung as his most prominent disciple until they parted ways — and their perspectives on man and myth involved unconscious parts of the psyche supposed to play much more of a role than mere emotions and instinctive stimuli, it is possible to label their theories on myth psychoanalytical.
It can certainly be said about Freud’s followers, who stuck with the term and what it contained. Jung was to change his name for the discipline toanalytical psychology, which is not that different.
The term depth psychology is often used in this framework, but that would imply the existence of a shallow counterpart, which can be questioned, and it also suggests a vertical grading of the components of the psyche that is not necessarily shared by other psychologists.
By psychoanalytical perspectives on myths, I here refer to the theories of Freud, Jung, and their followers. For the 20th century, these two groups of theorists are so clearly defined that they can be treated as such without doing their individual thoughts any significant injustice. Freudians have treated myth and religion from the paradigm established by Freud, and Jungians have done the same from that of Jung.
For the future, though, both groups are sure to lose some of their homogeneity, since both Freudian and Jungian ideas about myth and religion are increasingly questioned and altered in differing directions, where they are not altogether abandoned. The latter seems to be more the case for Freud’s ideas than for those of Jung. Freud has not stood the test of time to the extent that his former disciple has — especially in regard to theories about mythology, its psychological roots, and how it should be interpreted.
While Freud’s psychology as a whole had a considerably wider reputation and respect than Jung’s — and to some extent still does, although questioned on many central points — his take on myths in particular did not fare so well. There, Jung’s influence grew to overshadow Freud all but completely, not that it has managed to find any consensus among either psychologists or mythologists.
The Freudian perspective can be described as one of mythology stemming from personal urges that may be shared by all, but are strictly internal and based on each individual’s instinctual emotions. Jungian theories, on the other hand, involve social causes and a symbolism formed and upheld by the human species, more or less independently of individual minds. Where Freudians see a pattern of instincts, Jungians point to imagination nurtured by cultural heritage. One focuses on strictly internal factors, and the other emphasizes external influence.
Although these two perspectives sometimes lead to similar conclusions regarding the causes and effects of myth and religion, they display fundamentally different views on the human psyche. So, they may just as well be treated separately, in order to explore each approach adequately.
In examining the Freudian and Jungian theories about myth and religion, I have turned to their own writing on the subject, just about exclusively. Neither contemporary nor later commentators on their views are treated more than occasionally in passing, since their own words speak well for themselves and are enough material for an examination of them.
This book is about their theories on mythology, and not aiming at presenting other aspects of their psychology. It is also the reason for some significant Freudians and Jungians being excluded for not treating the subject at hand in any substantial way, if at all. Only those who in their writing showed an interest in myth and religion are included. I may not have caught all of them, nor all of their writing on the subject, but I am confident that most of them are treated, as well as their most notable texts.
A Critical ExaminationAs is certainly evident in both books, my examination of the Freudians and Jungians who theorized about the psychological causes behind mythology and religion is quite critical. I trust that it is also evident why. Anything else would be a betrayal of the book’s objective. A serious investigation of this subject unavoidably leads to criticism, since there is such a discrepancy between Freudian and Jungian claims and their arguments for them. So much is stated and so little is proven.
It is blatantly obvious already with what Sigmund Freud had to say about the emergence of religion and its constant fuel — the Oedipus complex, which he regarded as the root to just about all expressions of the male psyche. He would not admit to the existence of something similar in the female mind.
The theory is, especially but not only when applied to religion, as preposterous as Freud’s insistence on it is obstinate. He stuck with it until his death, refusing even to consider a nuanced view or alternative hypotheses. What he claimed to be a verified scientific theory was really a doctrine not to be questioned. A decree.
His followers were anxious to comply and did so with a reverence akin to that given high priests in religious congregations. This fidelity was clearly demonstrated by the formation and activities of the so-called Secret Committee, working to protect Freud’s dogma from any modification, described in my previous book. That kind of loyalty is not unheard of in many kinds of subcultures, but it is gravely detrimental to scientific research.
The Freudians were more obsessed with defending the dogma of Freud than trying to expand the understanding of the human psyche. This explains the high degree of conformity in their theories about mythology and religion. Those who followed other lines of thought were condemned and expelled.
What made this situation possible and consolidated it was the fragile nature of the science in which they worked. Psychology was still very much limited to speculation and little was proven by hard empirical facts, during the first few decades of psychoanalysis. Freud was the father of this emerging science, and therefore his paradigm was the foundation on which his followers built their understanding.
That changed when Carl G. Jung broke free and developed his own paradigm, which was quite different and deviated increasingly as he continued to develop it. He was quite peripheral at first. Freud dominated the scene. But by time, Jung’s alternative attracted more and more attention, though not primarily from psychologists and psychiatrists. Instead, he was increasingly read and respected by anthropologists, mythologists, authors, artists, and the general public.
In accordance with the variety of his audience, those who picked up on his ideas in their own writing were quite a diverse group. Many were not even primarily interested in psychological aspects, but focused on the myths and Jung’s ideas as tools to explore them.
That had the distinct benefit of the Jungian line being much less constrained and controlled than that of the Freudians. It is strikingly obvious in the Jungian texts. They dare to deviate considerably from Jung, even when praising him as their source and guiding light. There is something about Jung’s thoughts that invites creativity instead of conformity. He is used as a trampoline by which to reach new heights and perspectives, and not at all a standard to obediently repeat.
This is definitely a winning recipe, indicating that Jung will remain much longer and with more appreciation than Freud — at least regarding speculations about mythology and religion. As for therapeutical benefits, both are probably going to be of diminishing value, until they fade away completely. They just don’t have the track record to be sustainable.
The Jungian perspective on myths has proven to inspire innovation and creativity in the pursuit of their meaning, which Freud’s constraining doctrine just does not allow. Also, the scope of the Jungian view is so much wider and so are its applications. Right or wrong, it is a tool of greater use.
That liberty is what a science needs the most, especially in its primal stage, and I would argue that this is still the stage of a nonprejudiced study of mythology and religion. It is only a hundred years or so since these subjects were treated from a perspective where Christianity was the norm and everything else an oddity. Already the concept of religion was based on its Christian form, and the same was the case with the narrow idea of what constituted a god. Many mythological traditions are so far from how these concepts were defined that they can hardly be called religions.
Jung and his followers were not completely free from Christian prejudice, but they explored the myths of other cultures with both respect and curiosity, since they searched for a common essence in all myths, including those of Christianity. Whether they found it may certainly be debatable, but that aim made them regard all traditions as equal in significance. No mythology was superior or inferior, since they were all believed to contain universal meanings on which none of them had any patent.
The Jungian attitude in general was also distinctly more welcoming towards critique and questioning of its claims, than what the Freudians had shown to be. Of course, criticism is still very much needed also in regard to Jungian claims, as will be evident in the following pages of this book. The significant thing is that they practically invited it. They usually confessed to being speculative, which is vastly different from falsely stating something as an established fact. There were exceptions, but that is to be expected.
Jung in his writing was certainly insisting on the accuracy of his claims, but he did so with sort of a fictional style, a speculative twist, which opened for doubt and rebuttal. He did not lock the door to contradictory views, although he was not exactly asking for them. Frequently, he even seemed to intentionally provoke them. He was serving a palette, and not a finished painting.
Well, that palette was kind of rigged, with a set number of particular colors. Still, a palette. Jung invited creativity, where Freud demanded conformity.
Clinical and TextualSystematic testing of a psychological hypothesis is an intricate matter already because it is very difficult to repeat the test with a similar setting, which is necessary in an empirical process. Even if the hypothesis is defined with precision and clear delimitation, which is particularly problematic in psychology, repeated testing is not sure to isolate the item to be studied from other known or unknown variables. If the hypothesis is vague, the task is practically impossible.
The human mind is just too much of a maze to be trapped in repeated clinical experiments, without lots of circumstances bound to deviate from one test to the next. And people are far too different, in ways impossible to predict, for their results to be confidently compared even if the tests are deemed identical — in itself something very hard to assess.
In addition, the psyche is not enough understood and its processes not sufficiently mapped, for test results to be adequately observable and measurable in an empirically trustworthy manner. There are too many unknowns in the equation.
The simple cause and effect of, say, what the lack of one vitamin does to the body or how a broken bone is healed, is objectively observable. But that is rare to find in psychology. In the mind, everything is subjective. That gives room for speculations, but few affirmed conclusions.
What modern psychology often relies on to make conclusions are statistical correlations: more people than pure chance would have it react in a certain way to something. It is a precarious path of inquiry, and its application is limited to strictly simplified assumptions. At best, it can show correlation, but rarely causation. Still, it is used a lot by psychologists, mainly because they have few other tools by which to experiment and get tangible results.
The Freudian psychoanalysts used a method to reach their conclusions, which was similar to the statistical one, but with even more alarming shortcomings. They referred to their own experiences with patients treated by psychoanalysis, and used that as evidence of their theories. But those numbers were far too few to make any statistical evaluation, and they did not bother to present any figures. Instead, they regarded their thesis as true because they had patients whose behavior confirmed it. They often settled for just one case to prove their point, no matter how far-fetched or intricate it was.
As a method in empirical science, it has little value. It lacks any more weight than saying, “I once knew someone who was like that.”
The Jungians who were active therapists, which was far from all of them, used much the same flawed method of proving by examples from their patients. Jung certainly did so repeatedly. Apart from that, though, they also based their theories on the content of mythology and the symbolism they extracted from it.
That second route made it possible for people without therapeutic training to join the discussion, coming up with their own applications of Jungian principles based solely on what they found the myths to reveal. Their analysis can be described as textual instead of clinical.
The main problem with this approach was that the analysis tended to be biased, favoring an interpretation of the myths that would confirm the Jungian theories. It was bound to lead to a flawed understanding of the content of the myths, sometimes absurdly so. There are many examples of it in this book.
Furthermore, the Jungian theory of the archetypes and the collective unconscious is so vaguely and insufficiently defined that just about anything can be molded to fit it.
As for the archetypes, there is neither an authoritative and complete list of them, nor a precise definition of what does and what does not constitute an archetype. As for the collective unconscious, there is no evidence of its existence and no precise account of what it does and does not contain.
There is not even a plausible explanation to how it could exist at all, the way it is described in Jungian theory. A container in the brain with a multitude of symbols, innate from previous generations and identical in all of us, is not genetically possible. It is so much more plausible that the archetypes, said to be the content of the collective unconscious, are learned from generation to generation, and not genetically inherited. That also accounts for the variation of such symbols and how they are regarded in different cultures.
What it boils down to, for Freudians and Jungians alike, is that their theories are pure speculation. That is fine, if not pretending to be proven fact. The Freudians made rigid claims of scientific certainty, which have not aged well.
The Jungians, due to the complexity of their theories and their focus on the meaning of myths instead of just their therapeutical function, were less categorical with their scientific claims — mostly. They tended to allow the speculative nature of the myths they studied to influence their reasoning and descriptions, so that the results became mythical, too. They created myths of what myths were all about. Stories about stories.
That may be unavoidable. Analysis of fiction is also fiction.
Unconscious as a NounBoth Freudian and Jungian psychology are based on the erroneous assumption of an unconscious, inaccessible to the conscious mind and still controlling very much of our psyche, our emotions, and our perception of ourselves as well as the world around us. This claim is so central that their psychological models would collapse all but completely if it were removed from the equation. So, it has not been questioned by them, but held as a paradigm to which they adapted the whole structure of their psychology. They were building their castles in the sand.
There is no evidence of an unconscious as an entity in the mind, even less so of such an entity being a hidden ruler of it. Also, there is nothing of a thinking nature going on in the brain that is inaccessible to the conscious mind. It may be ignored, in the constant flow of impressions, reflections, and considerations going on in our heads, but it is accessible, or it simply could not affect us.
There is just one exception — what we dream in our sleep. We only get a glimpse of the dream going on as we wake up, but our dreaming before that has faded away completely, and it is not stored in our memory. It happened, but then it’s gone. This phenomenon has intrigued people for as long as our species has been around, and still does.
Freudians and Jungians have put a lot of emphasis on dreams, using them as arguments for their theories about the unconscious. But of course, the only dreams they have had access to in their research are the ones remembered by the dreamer, i.e., the ones at the moment of waking up — at which point they are accessed by the conscious mind of the dreamer. Previous dreams are not, and since they are not memorized at all, they have no lasting effect on the mind.
Something so fleeting is a fragile base for a theory of psychology. Dream interpretation is a risky business, for several reasons. It cannot be used as empirical evidence, but that has not stopped Freudians and Jungians from making such claims. Both my previous book and this one have many examples of it, where their reliability — or rather lack thereof — is discussed.
Returning to the unconscious, the problem with the concept is when it is used as a noun instead of an adjective, the difference between having an unconscious and being unconscious. The latter is no mystery. We may be unconscious of thoughts spinning around in our minds that we do not give any attention, of habitual behavior, of instinctual reactions, and so on. We can also become unconscious in the drastic meaning of fainting, losing consciousness for a while.
But the noun has no bearing. Our thoughts neither flee to nor emerge from some hidden part of the brain, with its own agenda.
VerdictThis project started with a paper I presented for a seminar in 2006 at the Department of the History of Ideas at Lund University, thinking that would be the end of it. But in 2014, I decided to return to it for a substantial editing and expansion of the text, mainly by not only treating Freud and Jung more at depth, but also their followers. The text turned out to have swelled almost twentyfold.
After having spent several years, to and fro, on this examination of Freudian and Jungian theories about myths and religion, I ask myself what to conclude. Within the history of ideas, my work has been concentrated on the thought patterns of creation myths, where this was one of many aspects explored.
Somewhat like many Jungians, and less so with the Freudians, I was and still am more interested in what the myths meant to those who created and upheld them, than what they may mean to us today. It is my conviction that this is also how we can find them relevant to us — not as a basis for religious belief or therapeutic technique, but to find ancient patterns of thought that are compatible to ours. There is an abundance of them.
Upon scrutiny, it is not at all difficult to see how our distant ancestors came up with those myths, even when they superficially seem absurd. We just have to consider what the world looked like to our predecessors, and what they were able to conclude about it. Also, and this is the most important thing, what they were able to imagine about it.
Where knowledge ends, fantasy begins. Human creativity is not boundless, since it depends on what is fathomable, but that gets us very far indeed.
Myths are stories, first and foremost. They may have started with speculations about the beginning of the world and the invisible powers that act on it, but the rules they follow are those of stories and storytelling, or they would not have stayed with us for so tremendously long. Way before the development of writing, they were transmitted orally between generations. That means they had to make some kind of sense to those who told them as well as to those who listened. And they had to engage, fascinate, scare, or enchant — preferably all of it combined. Just like good fiction or drama.
This is what Freudians and Jungians got wrong. They insisted that myths were not consciously invented, but sprang from unconscious sources, dealing with other issues completely than those told by the stories.
To Freudians, they were expressions of suppressed emotions, usually of guilt and more often than not related to the Oedipus complex. To Jungians, they stemmed from the collective unconscious and symbolized the quest towards individuation, which is in essence becoming aware of that part of the unconscious. They were, so to speak, calls from that hidden depth. Both theories were based on the claim that myths were not products of conscious efforts and conscious ideas.
With such a premise, it is impossible to even try looking objectively at the myths and what they might actually have meant to their creators and their original audiences. It is brutally ethnocentric and arrogant to assume that they meant what they may mean to us. The interpretation made by our present culture doesn’t have precedence over how our predecessors saw it.
The only reasonable starting point is to accept that it meant something to them, and trying to find out what that was. The myths preserved to our time are expressions of the times and cultures in which they appeared. Anything else is preposterous to claim. It would be sort of a colonialism of cultural heritage.
That attitude was certainly present at the time Freud and Jung developed their theories, when missionaries travelled the world to make everyone Christian, and European rule and law were established by military force in numerous distant regions. The cultural appropriation was used as an excuse for the exploitation. Populations of the conquered territories were not even acknowledged to understand their own traditions correctly.
Whether knowingly or not, Freud and Jung took part in this process with their theories on how to understand the myths of faraway cultures, without considering what the myths meant to those cultures. They did so in a time when few would object to it, or even understand the problem. Still, it is alarming with what confidence they made firm statements about things way beyond their own experiences, without even giving alternative explanations a thought.
It is at least equally sad to see those shortcomings of Freud and Jung repeated later, when their followers continued on the same track, assuming that they understood the old myths better than did the people of the cultures where they were formed. None of those Western theorists would have accepted that done to the biblical myths by people from other traditions.
On the other hand, some of the elaborate interpretations of mythology, especially those from Jungian writers, are rather ingenious in their treatments of the material, widening the perspectives considerably. They recognize the complexity and refinement of those ancient stories, by finding in them the possibilities of such far-fetched assumptions about their meaning.
That is what constitutes excellent fiction — it allows for all kinds of disparate impressions. Therein lies a proper homage to the clever imagination of our ancestors. They made stories that still intrigue us and nourish our speculations.
 Stefan Stenudd, Psychoanalysis of Mythology: Freudian Theories on Myth and Religion Examined, Malmö 2022.
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