unconsciousness raising — individuation and the feminine.

Image by Rimel Neffati

Joseph Campbell wrote in his collection, Goddesses: Mysteries of the Feminine Divine, that the contemporary challenge of individuation was to move beyond “biological archetypes and personalities imitative of the male” and emphasized that currently, “there are no models in our mythology for an individual women’s quest.”(Campbell 2013.)

This bold and fundamental statement provides both a question and a challenge to contemporary Western women, if indeed it is true, to find and create models for the individual’s inner journey that meet the spirit of our times and speak to the female experience of Self-realization today. Joseph Campbell was highly influenced by Carl Jung and his psychological and personal application of mythology, however in placing the individuation quest within the context of patriarchy and espousing the challenges western women face here, he was able to do something that Jung in his ‘contextless’ psychology wasn’t.

Out of the disillusionment with male dominated religious traditions a modern re-imagining of ancient Goddess imagery and worship as well as a new body of mytho-poetic narrative has grown over the last few decades in the arena of women’s spirituality as a response to this state of affairs. Though a necessary stage in the developing awareness of the feminine path to wholeness and individuation, feminine responses to individuation must continue to evolve out of the patriarchal structures that have framed them and find new avenues of expression through re-visioning and re-writing the ‘quest’ literature that runs deep in the western mythic canon.


Jung’s concept of individuation as a contemporary spiritual path or map towards the realization of the Self has been immensely attractive to both men and women over the last century in the context of general disillusionment with the authority of traditional structures of religion to provide models for living ones life, and has both created and arisen out of a new consciousness that seems to require individual responsibility be taken for one’s inner growth and spiritual development.

The Self, used in Jungian psychology to denote a state of wholeness that incorporates both masculine and feminine archetypes fully integrated, is the “supreme goal of the individuation process.” (Von Franz 1994) For Western women, who have long been “unnoticed and unanalyzed” in regard to religious practice and participation in comparison to the privileged position of maleness and masculinity, especially within the symbolic of the Western monotheistic traditions, Jung’s model has provided access to a modern psychological process in which spirituality is not only “woven into the fabric of consciousness and everyday life,” (Stein, 2014) but also claims to include, understand and honor the feminine.

The process of individuation according to Jung’s protégé, Marie Louise Von Franz, is “the psychological process of inner growth and centralization by which the individual finds its own Self.” (Von Franz, 1977) This is not be confused however with the egoic self or identity but is rather seen in Jungian psychology as an “ultimately unknowable inner centre” or a new God — image, “the God within us.” This inner God image is thought by Jungian psychologists to be carried in the psyche and appear in one’s dreams as the individual reaches the later stages of integrating various aspects of oneself or archetypal images contained within, such as the persona, shadow, anima and animus.

Emerging out of an evolutionary image of God embedded in the western religious tradition, which has most recently been monotheistic and male, the God –image within speaks to the new consciousness of modernity where, according to Jung, the “psyche takes the place once occupied by the divine.” With the human psyche taking centre stage and replacing the metaphysical Gods and Goddesses, myths are now internalized and played out through the challenge of the individuating human soul who strives to realize and know the Self that is thought to be glimpsed in dreams and visions of the “cosmic man…a divine or semi divine male being or in the psyche of women a kind of cosmic mother.”

For western women the challenge in terms of internalizing the god-image has been to move as second wave feminist theologist, Mary Daly wrote, “Beyond God the Father” and to revision masculine imagery of God in order to claim agency in her own unfolding process of individuation. Daly’s approach was radical in her feminist rejection of the masculine god-image and sought to reclaim female access to the religious symbolic by using a mythopoetic strategy designed to “deconstruct a myth in which woman has been excluded and to reconstruct it in a way that gives voice to a female figure from the corpus who was previously silent, objectified or inaudible.” (Nicholson, 2016.) She writes “if God in ‘his’ heaven is a father ruling his people, then it is the nature of things and according to a divine plane…that society be male dominated. Within this context, a mystification of roles takes place: The husband dominating his wife represents God “himself.” (Daly, 1986)

Sublimation of the ego is considered one of the key stages in the individuation quest and one of the key requirements for the birth of the Self. Feminist scholars in their critique of the androcentricity of Jungian psychology, however, argue that the individuation process with its central goal of ‘annihilation of the ego’might be better suited to a western male psychological process than to a woman’s process for women have, in patriarchal systems, often had a very poor relationship to their own ego’s having for the most part already engaged in unhealthy levels of self-abnegation. Though Jung acknowledges a different relationship to boundaries in women, he is unable to provide the context necessary to fully understand why “patriarchal women are tacitly and explicitly discouraged from gratifying their own needs or seeking fulfillment of their own desires.” (Wehr, 1987)

Viewed through a sociological lens, Demaris Wehr argues that Jung continually fails to contextualize the archetypal concepts and images he has created, particularly in respect to women’s psychology and spiritual journey’s, within patriarchy, and therefore often reinforces rather than heals internalized oppression in women. She calls for a potential re-visioning of Jung’s individuation process for women in asking them not to annihilate the ego necessarily, but to “die to the false system that patriarchy has imposed on them.”

In seeking an archetypal image for the divine feminine, Jung celebrated the Catholic dogma of the Bodily Assumption of the Virgin Mary in the 1950’s as a forward step in the equality of women that gave “a new availability of a divine image of woman, body and soul” to Western culture. Though he shows concern that this elevation of Mary might diminish the relation of the mother archetypal image with the earth and unconscious, he writes in Answer to Job that he considers the dogma of the assumption “to be the most important religious event since the Reformation …(that) points to the equality for women. But this equality requires to be metaphysically anchored in the figure of a divine woman, the bride of Christ.” That the potential now exists for the divine child to born out of this union becomes for Jung a symbol of the individuation process of uniting the conscious and unconscious psyche.

Later feminist scholars of religion and psychoanalysis such as Luce Irigaray however, argue that no clear image of the divine for woman exists, for in the figure of the Virgin Mary we see an idealized projection of female as ‘virgin’ or ‘mother’ but not a God-image. “There is no women God, no female trinity: mother, daughter, spirit. This paralyses the infinite becoming of a woman…as long as women lacks a divine made in her image she cannot establish her subjectivity or achieve a goal of her own. She lacks an ideal that would be her goal or path in becoming.” (Irigaray, 1984)

Jung’s celebration of the feminine therefore is, to many feminist critics, as an essentialized principle in relation to the masculine and not in her realization as an embodied, autonomous self. For Irigaray, individuation within the masculine God –image symbolic, is simply not possible.

Re-imaging the divine as feminine has been the concern of many contemporary feminine writers and scholars of religion as well as those working with Jung’s concept of archetypal images in much the same way that the “Christian Church can be understood as a continuation of the Old Testament patriarchs to obliterate the female-as-God — she who had previously been worshipped as the Great Goddess” As Jung himself claimed, archetypal images are not fixed and “we are confronted at every new stage in the differentiation of consciousness to which civilization attains, with the task of finding a new interpretation (of the archetypes) appropriate to this stage.” (Jung, CW9, 1940)


Arising out of a response to this lack of a divine feminine archetype to represent the individuating woman, “the Goddess has been invoked as a replacement to (the problem) of God.” In seeking a feminine spirituality, it was out of the feminist movements of the 1970’s that a revival of ancient matriarchal traditions occurred and Goddess worship among circles of women arose in response to “the nadir of violence and destruction that had been unleashed by patriarchal religion and rule.” Influenced by Wiccan leaders such as Z. Budapest and Starhawk, feminist theologian Carol Christ was drawn to the Goddess movement as a way for western woman to ground herself “in a new sense of self and a new orientation in the world.” Her journey to the Goddess saw her gather stories and myths from western women writers to illustrate their spiritual quests for “without stories, (women) cannot understand herself…she is alienated from those deeper experiences of self and world that have been called spiritual or religious.

Jungian psychology too has found favor with feminist spirituality in the form of the Goddess archetype and mythic female characters have been used by many Jungian scholars, including Maureen Murdock and Sylvia Brinton Perera, to give psychological healing and relevance to western women’s lives today. Jungian analyst Jean Shinoda Bolen utilized the ancient Goddesses of ancient Greece in her psychological approach to women’s development and called for their integration as part of the quest towards wholeness. As Sarah Nicholson argues however, though these archetypes contain representations of gender roles that can be identified and transcended, they represent parts of a woman’s psyche and do not point to an integrated “archetype of the Self” necessary for the purposes of individuation. “While archetypal images found within the Greek goddesses point in the direction of, and are an essential part of the passage towards, transpersonal union, they are not themselves representations of the full potential of the Self…the culmination of the transformative process of individuation (self realization) is represented by the Archetype of the Self.”


Jungian analyst Marie Louise Von Franz in her exploration of the feminine archetype acknowledges the problem that “women have no metaphysical representant in the Christian God-image” except for Mary whom she agrees does not represent the “whole feminine principle.” The issue for Von Franz as for many feminist critics of Jungian archetypes is that many ancient myths, including those of the Virgin Mary and Sophia, and even fairytales — of which she heavily draws from in deconstructing feminine psychology- have been written by men and therefore represent a male idea of femininity and “the projection of (his) anima problem.” Her solution however, rather than search for a feminine archetype for the Self in feminine form, is to explore the psychology of the feminine within this state of affairs which, though assisting women to understand and make sense of the feminine projections they encounter, ultimately maintains the status quo and does not offer a pathway to individuation.

Of the tales that she does cite as being representative of the feminine journey, Sleeping Beauty or Briar Rose is explored and compared to the popular Greek myth of Persephone and Demeter as an archetypal expression of the neglected feminine principle or ‘the pattern of the daughter goddess disappearing…in a deathlike sleep” and later returning. Jung speaking of the descent myth of Demeter and Persephone offers the possibility that here lies a myth that, for the feminine process of becoming, “is far too feminine to have merely been the result of an anima projection” as it deals with the mother daughter relationship that naturally excludes the masculine. In this sense the myth, if it, as Jung says, belongs wholly to women, suggests a female mythical expression for the archetype of self realization and it has indeed been re-visioned by many Jungian and non Jungian feminists as a kind of initiation tale following the Eleusinian mystery tradition.

Referencing Homer’s account, Luce Irigaray and other feminists however, condemn such a proposal and describe the myth as a betrayal by the masculine, emphasizing the unwilling abduction and rape of Persephone and the normalization of such actions in a “dominant masculine-paternal symbolic / imaginary.” According to feminist scholar Francis Gray, “womanly autonomy in which a woman can determine for herself where and with whom she wants to be” is the central issue of the myth and one that is largely ignored in Jungian readings and interpretation. Rather than seeking an alternative myth to reflect the individuation process of women, Gray and Irigaray see, in attending to the myths via a mimetic practice, the message of a young women torn away from her own embodiment and a mother figure unwilling to sacrifice her daughter. Here in their view, lies a potential for women to “retrieve not only a sense of physical integrity, but of psychic integrity as well.” It is the process of “re-reading, retrieval and refiguring (of woman’s mythic traditions) that will be part of the process of making a feminine Divine.”

Of the descent myths that have articulated a pathway to wholeness and potential Self-realization for women, the Mesopotamian narrative of Inanna’s descent to the underworld is perhaps cited most often as an example of feminine divinity that encompasses wholeness. The myth of Inanna like that of Persephone belongs to a group of tales that concern themselves with “descent of and to the goddess.” For feminist scholars of religion and mythology such as Sarah Nicholson, the journey towards finding and cultivating an archetype for the Self that “represents the full potential of divine / human embodiment in the form of a woman,” is both historical and contemporary and she advocates for the excavation of ancient mythic and religious figures including Inanna, who is a key figure in her inquiry. For feminist scholar Joanna Stuckey, who is more critical of the Goddess movement’s reclamation of ancient female deities, she too sees the value in mining the Inanna story from a feminist perspective for “the rediscovery of lost knowledge (serves) as the basis for a new religion and the creational of foundational myths for a new religion.”

Nicholson gives preference in her reading of the tale to the mystical, describing Inanna’s willing descent to the underworld as “immanent — transcendent” and likens it to the Satori experience of Buddhism where one drops the egoic self and is forced to find “the pure, empty formless, timeless Witness or primordial Self.” In this respect , as well as the fact that Inanna manages to embody both a deep, earthy, communal sensuality as well as an immanent self-knowledge, the Sumerian Goddess represents “the first example of the heroic figure of the divine in female human form.”

Stuckey, on the other hand, contextualizes her critique of Inanna in a socio — historical reading of Inanna’s mythology in a male dominated society. She describes depictions of Inanna as a young women / goddess representing “potentiality and transformation” and emulating the process of “becoming,” which is also key to the evolving aspect of the archetypal Self. In the tale of the huluppu tree, likened to an archetypal world tree, another symbol for the Self in Jungian psychology, however, Inanna’s becoming is halted by the boundaries of a patriarchal society that seeks to “tame and control her.” Though she is depicted as a representation of wholeness with “her head in the realm of deities and her feet in the underworld” as well being the connector between these realms, Stuckey reminds women here that the institution of male kingship in ancient Sumeria controls Inanna and uses her for access to the unconscious realm. This “male centered mythic explanation” of the Goddesses role and function needs to be remembered by women seeking to uphold Inanna as a model of female divinity and placed within the context of “a consolidating stage of male dominance.” In this respect she has the possibility of being an empowering archetypal symbol of the Self.

For Jungian analyst Sylvia Brinton Perera, though much of what Inanna potentially symbolized for women has been depotentiated or taken over by masculine divinities in the patriarchal West, Inanna in her “suffering, disrobing, humiliation, flagellation and death, the stations of her descent, her ‘crucifixion on the underworld peg, and her resurrection” may can supplant the Christian myth and “give meaning to women’s quests.”


The western female spiritual quest when viewed in the context of Jung’s individuation model is in a complex state of evolution. It is often assumed that Jungian psychoanalytic concepts and patterns “derived from male experience are applicable to women’s as well” however, in the mytho-poetic writing and re-writing of ancient myths and stories of personal quests towards wholeness it is clear that this is not so. Though the ancient Goddess myths of Inanna and Persephone as well as Isis and to an extent Mary, all explore elements of descent into the unconscious and re-birth as essential to the female quest for Self — realization, the patriarchal contexts and structures within which these myths were written cannot be ignored in an attempt to essentialize a woman’s experience or set these figures up as archetypes of the Self. As Naomi Goldenberg argues it is “the separation of the absolute from experience which lies at the base of all patriarchal experience” and it is western woman’s experience which points the way to the formation of new divine models for the archetypal feminine Self.

In exploring the typical narrative pattern of the heroic quest used by Jung and Campbell as a model of the individuation journey, it is clear that women writers diverge in the ways their heroine’s manage to integrate and then return from their explorations. As Anne Pratt argues, though the male’s return and integration to wholeness is also fraught, it is ultimately beneficial to society. For women, the result is sadly often to end up “mad, dead or socially outcast.” For 19th century literary heroines, Catherine in Wuthering Heights and Edna in The Awakening, the choice is either to fit back into socially accepted values or die, which is the ultimate fate of both protagonists. For Persephone and Inanna, the task is to find a way to stay within the realm of death until a suitable compromise is found and part integration into the upper world becomes a possibility.

More recent revisionist mythmakers such as Madeline Miller and Margaret Atwood in their depictions of Homer’s goddess Circe give a powerful voice and centre stage to his image of a dark feminine divinity in the sidelines of Odysseys’ journey. Neither author ignores the centuries of misogyny that surround the myth but “propose a new form of feminine mythmaking in which woman is simultaneously both victim to the patriarchal history of myth and creator of an alternative feminine mythic narrative.” For Miller it was Circe’s very exclusion from the social sphere and subsequent growth of her independence, freedom and divine power that made her a heroic archetypal image and the subject of her novel,

What the solitude allows is for Circe to be who she is without having her selfhood deformed by the expectation of her father, family, or society. She can finally say who am I, really? Who do I want to be? What do I believe in? I don’t have to think about doing something that is socially acceptable anymore so what do I want to do?”

“For the woman hero(ine), the shadow in the unconscious (to be integrated and brought to light) is society, the marital norms and sexual prohibitions that impede her full development” and her social and spiritual pathway to authentic Self-realization must embody both her journey and its culmination beyond the limits of duality and into an integrated future that could acknowledge both archetypal experience and individual difference on the path.


Von Franz, M.L. (1993) The Feminine in Fairy Tales. Revised Ed. Shambhala, Boston.

Perera, S.B. (1981) Descent to the Goddess: A Way of Initiation for Women.Inner City Books. Canada.

Nicholson, S. (2016) The Evolutionary Journey of Woman. From the Goddess to Integral Feminism. Neo-Perennial Press.

Irigaray, L. (1984) ‘Divine Women’ in (1993) Sexes and Genealogies. Columbia University Press. New York.

Clark, M. ‘Women’s Lack: the Image of Woman as Divine’. In, Adams & Duncan (2003) The Feminine Case: Jung Aesthetics and Creative Process

Daly, Mary. (1986) Beyond God the Father. The Women’s Press. London.

Collected Works of C.G.Jung. Volume 7.

Von Franz, M. L. (1994) Archetypal Dimensions of the Psyche. Shambhala

Christ, C. (1980/2018) Diving Deep and Surfacing: Women Writers on Spiritual Quest. 3rdEd. Beacon Press, Boston.

Campbell, J. (2013) Goddesses; Mysteries of the Feminine Divine. New World Library, California.

Wehr, D. (1988) Jung and Feminism: Liberating Archetypes. Routledge, London.

Myth, Metaphor and the Symbolic Life thissymboliclife.wordpress.com

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store