Pagan ritual as an encounter with depth, Part 2, by John Halstead

Trapeze ghost, by Elaine Clayton

“Ritual is not like a scientific formula, but rather like a poem or dance — intended not to control, but to court the unconscious.”

In Part 1, I discussed how I try to create ritual that is an expression of the unconscious.  Today, I will explain how I try to maintain the connection to the unconscious after the ritual is created.

The routinization of ritual

Jung often used the metaphor of water to describe the vivifying energies of the unconscious.  He called it the aqua gratiae (“water of grace”).  This water, he says, “comes from deep down in the mountain [the unconscious] and runs along secret ways before it reaches daylight [consciousness].”  The place where it springs forth is marked by a symbol.  This symbol merely marks the experience of the archetype, and it should not be confused with the experience (the water) itself or the archetype (the source of the water).

This “water” that Jung speaks of can be creative or destructive: “Where there is no water nothing lives; where there is too much of it everything drowns.”  The role of the conscious mind, then, is to regulate its flow.  Jung writes: “It is the task of consciousness to select the right place where you are not too near and not too far from water; but water is indispensable.”  Too much and ritual is a flood of chaotic imagery that may even threaten to imperil our psychic well-being.  Too little and ritual becomes an arid formality that only aids in the repression of the unconscious.  As Jung writes, “There is no development at all but only a miserable death in a thirsty desert if one thinks one can rule the unconscious by our arbitrary rationalism.”

James Hollis writes that the purpose of ritual is to lead us back to the experience of depth from which the ritual arose in the first place.  Ritual can be imagined as a canal leading back to the place where the archetypal energies first bubble to the surface.  If that connection is interrupted, then ritual becomes a dry canal, a mere routine or dead form.  Two ways the connection to the unconscious can be blocked are (1) by treating ritual as a technique and (2) by treating ritual as a self-expression.

Ritual vs. technique: Courting the unconscious

The canal analogy I used above should not be taken to imply that we can control the unconscious.  We may be able to channel the flow of the water of the unconscious, but we can neither stop it when it comes nor cause it to flow when it has ceased.  Edward Whitmont describes ritual as a formalized context for “containing” the affect-charged contents of the unconscious so that they can be safely confronted.  While this is true, it is a mistake to think of ritual as a means of controlling the unconscious.  Many Pagans view ritual as a technique for creating altered states of consciousness, raising “energy”, or achieving some other psycho-spiritual effect.  To the Jungian Pagan, ritual is not a technique — not even a technique for integration of the unconscious.  The integration of the unconscious can never be effected, only prepared.  Ritual creates a “space” for the potentialities of the unconscious to manifest, but their manifestation is not caused by the ritual.  Ritual, then, is an active waiting upon.

An example of the too-conscious or overly-rationalistic ritual can be seen in the case of the Renaissance magician or the modern occultist.  When magic is understood as a technology, “a science of causing change to occur in conformity with the will”, then ritual becomes an expression of the ego.  Occultists believe that the careful and precise application of magical formulae can be used to control (super-)natural forces, including the daemonic.  The occultist imagines themselves to be something like a scientist, but one who understands (super-)natural laws which are unknown or unrecognized by the scientist.  Some Pagan magical practice and ritual resembles occultism in this way.  A good example of this is the ritual circle.  Renaissance magicians believed they could control the daimonic forces they summoned within the circle, and many Pagans today use the circle in a similar way to control the “energy” raised in the ritual.

The Jungian Pagan, on the other hand, knows that, in the realm of the unconscious, control is an illusion.  The forces of the unconscious may be invoked, aroused, courted, persuaded, and seduced — but never controlled.  Even when they draw on some of the same symbolism as occultists, Jungian Pagans understand their use of these symbols in a very different way.  For a Jungian Pagan, ritual is not like a scientific formula, but rather like a poem or dance — intended not to control, but to court the unconscious.  If a Jungian Pagan uses a ritual circle, for example, it is not to magically contain the forces of the unconscious, so much as to create a psychological space into which those forces can be invited.  The unconscious may manifest, or it may not, or it may happen after the ritual is completed and when it is least expected.

Ritual vs. self-expression: Listening to where the words come from

Just as the ritual circle is not used to control the unconscious, so too the words of a ritual are not intended to command it.  They are intended rather to evoke, as when we evoke a feeling or a memory.  As such, it is critical during the ritual to listen deeply.  I try to adopt a listening attitude even when I am the one speaking.  This applies to the non-verbal expressions, like gestures, as well as the words.  The goal of ritual for Jungian Pagans is not to speak to the unconscious, but to listen to it.  The trick then is to think of ritual not as a self-expression, but as a self-forgetting.

In order to achieve this self-forgetting, I find that it is essential that I learn the words and gestures of the ritual by heart.  Reading and speaking from memory are very different internal experiences, and I find that reading is too self-conscious and often interferes with evocation.  This dictates that the ritual must be relatively simple.  The aphorism, “less is more”, has usually proven to be true in my experience of ritual.

Then when I listen, I try to hear what is unspoken in the words and gestures of the ritual.  Jung quotes Gerhard Hauptmann as saying, “Poetry evokes out of words the resonance of the primordial word.”  The words in ritual are poetic in this sense and intended to evoke what Jung calls “the primordial image” or archetype.  When I speak the poetic words of ritual, I try to hear the “primordial word” or archetype, to listen not so much to the words as to the place where words come from.  Martin Heidegger writes that to truly hear what is unspoken we must let the words come to us as something “unique, never to be repeated, inexhaustible” and let ourselves be shaken to our depths by it.  I find it is helpful to read these words by Heidegger before I perform a ritual to put myself in this receptive frame of mind.  When I speak the words, I imagine this is the first time the words have ever been spoken, and this will be the last time they will ever be spoken, knowing that the sound of the words themselves will never capture the fullness of their meaning.  Then, sometimes, the ritual will transport me back to that experience of the archetype that gave rise to the ritual in the first place.


Hanegraaf, Wouter. “How Magic Survived the Disenchantment of the World”, Religion, vol. 33 (2003)

Heidegger, Martin. “What is Called Thinking?” (1968)

Heidegger, Martin. Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics (1929/30, 1993)

Hollis, James. Under Saturn’s Shadow: The Wounding and Healing of Men (1994)

Jung, Carl. Correspondence to H.L. Philp, in Psychology and Western Religion (1984)

Jung, Carl. “On the Relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetry”, The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature, Collected Works, vol. 15

May, Rollo. Love and Will (1969)

Whitmont, Edward. Return of the Goddess (1982)

The author

John H. Halstead

John Halstead is a former Mormon, now eclectic Neopagan with an interest in ritual as an art form, ecopsychology, theopoetics, Jungian theory, and the idea of death as an act of creation.  He authors the blog The Allergic Pagan.

Check out John’s other posts:

11 Comments on “Pagan ritual as an encounter with depth, Part 2, by John Halstead

  1. Are there people who consider themselves Jungian Pagans (or at least fit the descriptions in these posts), or are you speaking hypothetically?

  2. Pingback: Upcoming work « Humanistic Paganism

  3. wow. This is such an excellent piece that will leave me referring back to it again and again when ever I want to write out customs and rituals. Thank you for sharing this John, it would be a treat to experience first hand one of your own rituals.

      • Oh No! I am getting soft now aren’t I? *shudder* lol ^_^ Well don’t be surprised if you get more similar responses, I’ve always enjoyed reading what you have to say. Even though I may have failed to express as much before. *Hopes to see more posts from you – I is loving the Jungian stuff* 😀

  4. Pingback: A tropical rainforest ontology: In search of a non-reductive naturalism, by John Halstead | Humanistic Paganism

%d bloggers like this: