About a year and a half ago, I wrote a piece here on archetypes, and how I essentially think of them, since I’m a polytheist, as another form of deity rather than as some overarching category, force, or being, of which deities are incarnations or embodiments. (Unlike this individual.) They are, thus, newer varieties of divine being, but likewise are rather boring and nearly faceless beings who can’t really sustain narratives of their own outside of big charts of correspondences–when they get more complex than that, they disappear in the face of much more specific and individual deities more often than not.
With this being my position, almost two weeks ago I got into a conversation about this with my Anomalous Thracian colleague, and an interesting further nuance to this notion came about as we spoke. I hope that he might address this issue at some future point, but considering that I had to do some major imbas forosnai last night to recover the substance of our conversation, I wanted to make sure I wrote about it soon in order to not forget it again! 😉
Those who do various types of work with deities know that it is possible, and in some cases almost guaranteed, that a deity can use a human as a medium, that a human can trance a deity, and that a deity can “ride” a human as their temporary vessel. While this may have further implications for other things of a theological nature that I might deal with on another occasion, it seems that deities can ride other deities as well. (Which might be a better explanation of syncretism than some of the others I’ve offered here over the years, for those who might work in the “horsing” paradigms more readily than not…!?!)
And, this phenomenon is nowhere more visible in modern polytheist and pagan practice, I think, than in the fact that oftentimes, deities ride archetypes; but likewise, archetypes sometimes ride (and even override) deities. Even if they’re boring, it doesn’t mean they’re not powerful…
First, let’s look at deities riding archetypes. This is something that happens constantly, I think. A new pagan or polytheist reads their first books on Wicca, they learn a bit about Jung in some college class, they remember back to their childhood when they read some books on Greek mythology or saw some film, and they go, “Yeah, a Mother Goddess and a Horned God–it makes sense!” They start a practice, and interact with those archetypal beings, who have a powerful effect on them, but don’t end up having much personality beyond a certain point. Then, suddenly, the Horned God starts to show some strange characteristics depending on the time of year or the circumstances or the rituals involved; and before you know it, the Wiccan duotheist soon becomes a soft polytheist because at different times in their experience, they get Hermes, Loki, Pan, and Herne the Hunter rather than just “generic Horned God.” As they get to know these other deities more and more over the years, they start to see them as more and more distinct, individual, and separate beings. These deities all rode the archetype at some point, and left their mark in doing so, leading the person toward a more individualistic and “hard polytheist” manner of engagement with each of these deities, until the archetype is somewhat left behind, forgotten, or even hidden with embarrassment in the person’s future accounts of their experiences and thoughts on theology.
This sort of thing happens very frequently in the experience of modern pagans and polytheists, I think.
Now, let’s look at the other side of this: archetypes riding deities. I suspect this is what’s going on in most cases where someone makes a statement like “deities are embodiments of archetypes.” The deity is not allowed to be itself fully, instead it is overshadowed by an archetypal force that flattens out its features, makes it less individual, less personal and personable. For whatever reason, people with these sorts of notion can’t seem to go to any ritual and have an experience of a deity without filtering it through their own archetypalist lenses; and while this may simply be a problem of human interpretation rather than actual divine interactions and “horsing” between deities and varieties of deity, it could very well also be a situation in which the human’s attachment to the archetype rather than actual deities makes their own spiritual playground, as it were, the “territory” of that archetype, through which any deity must then gain safe passage by allowing itself to be ridden. It is as if the archetypal being here is the “patron” of the individual, and thus other divine beings must negotiate through that patron archetypal being in order to interact with the human in question.
Those who maintain the identity of the Horned God despite the various forms in which it occurs would be examples of this sort of situation. In fact, I suspect that the Gaulish (possible) deity Cernunnos is a “victim” of this sort of thing, and has become so ridden by the Horned God as to have lost almost all traces of his original personality or identity as a result–and almost everyone who invokes the name of Cernunnos these days isn’t doing so along the lines of the original Gaulish deity, but instead amongst archetypalist lines and outdated and poor scholarship…but, it’s also very possible that Cernunnos, “Horned One,” was perhaps an archetype in origin anyway, and not so much an individual deity as much as many would like to think he was. The Gundestrup Cauldron’s antlered figure image, the Val Camonica rock inscriptions of antlered beings, and the horned figure on the Notre Dame altar relief with the one attested inscription of -ERNUNNOS are manifestly not the same beings, and cannot be demonstrated to be such beyond either outdated scholarship or archetypalist notions.
So, if we begin to think of archetypes as a class of newer divine being, with particular modes of operation, we can see that they interact with and via other deities in a number of ways. We need not disregard their existence, nor nay-say it, but we can be aware of how their presence seems to operate for many individuals, and how a strong enough relationship with any individual deity likely undermines the ability of archetypes to be effective and influential presences in a given human devotee’s life.