The Psychology of the Man-Child (Puer Aeternus)

The term puer aeternus is Latin for eternal boy. It is mentioned for the first time in the Metamorphoses, written by the Roman poet Ovid. The child god Iacchus is praised in his role in the Eleusinian mysteries, initiations related to Greek goddesses, and the most famous of the secret religious rites of ancient Greece. In later times, the child-god was identified with Bacchus, another name for Dionysus, and the god Eros. He is a god of life, death, and resurrection, the god of divine youth.

Swiss psychiatrist and psychologist Carl Jung rescued the mythological term of puer aeternus and used it in the exploration of the psychology of eternal youth and creative child within every person. When the subject is a female the Latin term is puella aeterna.

It is an archetype (a primordial structural element of the psyche), and like all archetypes, has both a positive and a negative side. It can bring the energy, beauty and creativity of childhood into adult life, or thwart self-realisation and doom us to both unrealistic adolescent fantasies and experiencing life as a prison.

The eternal youth archetype is the first one we experience in life, and remains vital throughout our whole life. It is closely related to the mother archetype.

A puer or puella avoids individuation, and fights against his or her inner drive towards psychological wholeness. This stunts growth. While they have a great imagination, and rich inner life,  they do not bring it into consciousness and thus do not progress in life, the potential remains hidden and unused, stored away in the depths of the unconscious.

In The Matrix, the main character Neo is offered the choice between a red pill and a blue pill. The blue pill allows him to remain content and comfortable in a simulated reality, it is the idea that ignorance is bliss. The red pill, on the other hand, allows him to confront the harsh truth of reality and to embark on the quest of  self-realisation. The puer will often choose the blue pill.

Those who find themselves unable to commit to work, to form satisfactory relationships, to commit to the discipline of education, to carry the weight of responsibility, or who feel that their life has become meaningless, will find the integration of the archetype of eternal youth invaluable in their life.

Adult Struggle with the Paradise of Childhood

Young Man Sleeping – William Dobell

In her book, Puer Aeternus: A Psychological Study of the Adult Struggle with the Paradise of Childhood, Jungian analyst Marie-Louise von Franz gives us an in-depth exploration of the puer aeternus.

The negative aspects of the puer aeternus is used to refer to a certain young man who remains too long in adolescence, and usually coupled with too great a dependence on the mother. The natural response of a mother is to protect her child, however, when the child is kept in the comfort of the nest for too long, he is unable to face the trials and tribulations of life when he grows up. He, therefore, flees from the cold cruel world and seeks his childhood under the nourishing and protecting circle of the mother, it is the unconscious temptation to return to the womb. This creates a mother complex.

The puer is the man-child who refuses to grow up, take responsibility, and face life’s challenges, he expects other people, typically his parents, to solve all his problems. Since he lacks zest for learning, he never develops a proper understanding of anything. von Franz writes:

“Such people usually have great difficulty in finding a job, for whatever they find is never quite right or quite what they wanted. There is always “a hair in the soup.” The woman is never quite the right woman; she is nice as a girlfriend, but… There is always a “but” which prevents marriage or any kind of commitment.”

Marie-Louise von Franz, Puer Aeternus

The puer is aware of the transitoriness of life, so he does not give himself wholeheartedly to any experience. He knows that the end will be a disappointment and a parting. The puer is always getting ready to say goodbye, which makes it more likely for the experience to end, thus erroneously reinforcing his beliefs even more.

It is a typical pathological reaction of the puer to train himself not to suffer by anticipating suffering, he anticipates the disappointment in order not to suffer the blow, and that is a refusal to live. It seems to him the rational thing to do, but thinking too much is a disease. He gets stuck in his own reflective hyperconsciousness, a self-created bubble which isolates him from life.

“One of the problems is that if the puer enters life, then he must face the fact that he is entering upon his own mortality and the corruptible world; he must realise his own death. That is a variation of the old mythological motif where after leaving Paradise, which is a kind of archetypal maternal womb, man falls into the realisation of his incompleteness, his corruptibility, and his mortality.”

Marie-Louise von Franz, Puer Aeternus

The puer is usually in a sleepy daze, so that sometimes one feels inclined to pour a bucket of cold water over his head. However, this is only an outer aspect, if one looks deeper, one will find that he has a cherished fantasy life within. The puer may become a megalomaniac and think of himself as someone special and exceptional, a hidden genius, or the next big philosopher – but, he has no tangible product to show his genius. He is an artist without art. The puer daydreams and engages in passive fantasy, which is very different from Jung’s technique of active imagination. Daydreaming about success, instead of visualising failure, can make one more prone to failure.

 Jung writes:

“The puer typically leads a provisional life, due to the fear of being caught in a situation from which it might not be possible to escape… Plans for the future slip away in fantasies of what will be, what could be, while no decisive action is taken to change. He covets independence and freedom, chafes at boundaries and limits, and tends to find any restriction intolerable.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol 9.2: Aion

The provisional life is a term used to describe an attitude toward life that is more or less imaginary, not rooted in the here and now. The person harbours a strange attitude and feeling that his job, house, car, creative endeavour, or relationship is not yet what is really wanted, they are but mere placeholders until the ‘real thing’ arrives someday.

Jung described it as:

“[T]he modern European disease of the merely imaginary life.”

Carl Jung’s Letter to Count Hermann Keyserling (30 August 1931)

The puer eschews commitment and responsibility, because it requires a rigid lifestyle. He escapes into the world of fantasy to find temporary comfort. The puer tries to go as high as possible away from reality, ending up like Peter Pan, the boy who wouldn’t grow up, who lives in Neverland, a place where people cease to age and are eternally young. The puer aeternus is also known as the Peter Pan syndrome. This has become an increasingly common problem in our modern age.

Such a person is missing a sense of identity which results in disquieting feelings of fragmentation and worthlessness. The puer compensates in his behaviour by pursuing the ecstatic “high” in drugs, alcohol, sex, sport, and daredevil escapade, that transcends the inner depression which threatens fragmentation, granting an illusion of selfhood, which underlies his restless search for that state of stability and harmony.

The person living provisionally is alienated from his own reality, spending his time ruminating on fantasies that go nowhere, and that achieve nothing.

In the ancient Greek fable, “The Astrologer who Fell into a Well”, Thales of Miletus, considered as the first philosopher, is said to have been so lost in thought that while gazing at the stars, he fell into a well. How should one have knowledge of the heavenly things above, if one knows not what is beneath one’s feet?

While the puer has a vivid imagination, he is not capable of transforming these insights into action, because he lives in an ethereal realm and misses the blood and guts of life on earth. As a result, the puer is not very successful in life.

von Franz writes:

“In actuality, for instance, he gets up at 10:30 a.m., hangs around till lunch time with a cigarette in his mouth, giving way to his emotions and fantasies. In the afternoon he means to do some work but first he goes out with friends and then with a girl, and the evening is spent in long discussion about the meaning of life. He then goes to bed at one, and the next day is a repetition of the one before. In that way, the capacity for life and the inner riches are wasted, for they cannot get into something meaningful but slowly overgrow the real personality. The individual walks about in a cloud of fantasies, fantasies which in themselves are interesting and full of rich possibilities, full of unlived life. You feel that such a person has a tremendous wealth and capacity but there is no possibility of finding a means of realisation.”

Marie-Louise von Franz, Puer Aeternus

The puer usually has a great capacity to assimilate the contents and to listen, so that it seems that he is going to implement them. But, he never applies the concepts he has learned, for he is not grounded enough in reality. It is a trick which the puer performs: the realisation that they should adapt to reality is an intellectual idea to them which they fulfil in fantasy but not in reality. Though it might seem simple, the puer is unable to cross the border from fantasy to action.

The word human derives from the Latin word humus, which means earth. To be human is to be humble, down-to-earth, and grounded in earthly experience, which contains a rich source of nutrients that heals us.

The puer is like Icarus, who in Greek mythology is warned about hubris and not to fly too close to the sun. However, he ignores this instruction and flies so close to the sun that his wings melt. He falls from the sky, plunges into the sea, and drowns.

Jung writes:

“The provisional life; where one does not exist really, they are only a spectator; so any experience is ghost-like, perfectly abstract, without a trace of realisation.”

Carl Jung, The Visions Seminar

Jung tells the story of a 25 year old girl who had an extreme case of provisional life, which led to her suicide. She proved to be absolutely inaccessible. She lived things, she did things, but she did not know what she was living. No matter how hard Jung tried, nothing touched her, because she had no relation to the world at all. A few months later, she shot herself. Jung writes:

“I saw the corpse. She had shot herself through the heart in the street and had not lost consciousness for a minute or two. The expression on her face was completely altered. For a long time I stood watching her face and asking myself: “What kind of expression is that?” It was the most extraordinary, the expression of someone who was convinced, say, that a thing was black, and to whom it was very important that it was black, but to whom one had finally proven that it was red; and it was as if she suddenly realised it was red. It was a look full of bewilderment and a sort of pleasant surprise. I saw what happened: at the moment when she shot herself… she understood what life was for the first time.”

Carl Jung, The Visions Seminar

Sometimes people have to injure themselves very badly in order to awaken to what life really is. This shows how deeply unconscious people often are.

The inner world must complement the outer world, and vice versa. An over-reliance on the inner world in which the ego cannot get out of Neverland, will make it impossible to advance into adulthood. As this becomes more and more of a crisis, the unconscious starts to seep in and threatens to overwhelm and drown the ego.

“Whatever one has within oneself but does not live, grows against one.”

Marie-Louise von Franz, Puer Aeternus

There are also children that become mature too early, and grow up very quickly – the extreme opposite of the puer, these are neglected children. The hardships of life have forced them to become very realistic, independent, and disillusioned. You can generally tell from a bitter and falsely mature expression that something went wrong. They were pushed out of the childhood world too soon. Such people cannot love nor trust anybody, in that situation life has no meaning, because they have lost the magical aspect of the eternal youth. They always feel not quite real, only half alive. In therapy, the analyst has the difficult task of guiding them back to their childish fantasies, in order to deal with them correctly.

The eternal child also contains many positive qualities, a spirituality which comes from close contact with the unconscious. The puer is agreeable, has the charm of youth and starts invigorating and deep conversations. He appears as the divine child who symbolises newness, potential for growth, and hope for the future. Friedrich Nietzsche understood the importance of this. In fact, he considered the child to be the final metamorphosis to becoming who one is. He writes:

“The child is innocence and forgetfulness, a new beginning, a game, a self-propelling wheel, a first motion, a sacred Yes. For the game of creating, my brothers, a sacred “yes” to life is needed.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

What is meant by the inner child is that which is born from the maturity of the adult. It is not a regression towards an infantile state of life, but a progression towards wholeness. We all have an inner child within us, even older people, who sometimes appear to return to the child-like state of innocence.

The eternal youth is one who is immersed in the moment and filled with wonder and playfulness, giving way to pure creativity. He is a Yes-sayer, the pinnacle of life-affirmation. He brings the heavenly realm into his earthly existence.

A passage from the bible reads:

“Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

Matthew 18:3

Senex and Puer

Illustration for The Sword in the Stone – Alan Lee

As we grow older, we enter the world of the senex, which is Latin for old man. He too possesses positive and negative aspects. Positively, he is a balanced person who is grounded, patient, conscientious, risk-averse, and controlled. Here he appears as the archetype of the wise old man. The negative side of the senex is cynicism, rigidity, materialism, reluctance to change, and a lack of a sense of humour.

The senex is the opposite of the puer archetype, though they must be seen as the opposite sides of the same coin. We recognize youth by knowing age; we become aware of ageing by remembering how we were when young. Jung writes:

“The puer’s shadow is the senex… associated with the god Apollo – disciplined, controlled, responsible, rational, ordered. Conversely, the shadow of the senex is the puer, related to Dionysus – unbounded, instinct, disorder, intoxication, whimsy.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol 9.1: Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious

The puer dreams big. The senex works hard. The ratio of one to the other varies from person to person. Both archetypes live within us, and both are necessary for a psychologically healthy life. A one-sided imbalance in either direction is not advisable.

The puer and senex have different versions of play. While the puer enjoys sports, socialising, games, eating out, going to the movies, etc., (which are all non-tangible products), the senex feels that play is engaging in a non-work activity that produces a tangible result: painting, cooking, writing, building, and so on.

The Role of Play in Jung’s Life

Carl Jung

Jung was primarily a senex. He would make sculptures, carve inscriptions on stone, draw mandalas and create the red book, full of images from the unconscious.

In one of the most difficult periods of his life, which he called his confrontation with the unconscious, Jung felt a psychic disturbance in himself and went twice through all his childhood memories, to try to find the cause of the disturbance. But this retrospection led to nothing but a fresh acknowledgement of his own ignorance. He said to himself, “since I know nothing at all, I shall simply do whatever occurs to me.” He writes:

“The first thing that came to the surface was a childhood memory from perhaps my tenth or eleventh year. At that time I had a spell of playing passionately with building blocks. I distinctly recalled how I had built little houses and castles… These structures had fascinated me for a long time. To my astonishment, this memory was accompanied by a good deal of emotion. ‘Aha,’ I said to myself, ‘there is still life in these things. The small boy is still around, and possesses a creative life which I lack. But how can I make my way to it?’ ”

Carl Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections

Jung realised that he had been neglecting his inner child. He felt humiliated to realise that he had to play childish games in his old age. Nevertheless, he started gathering stones and slowly built a miniature village. He went to his building game after the noon meal every day, until his patients arrived; and if he finished with his work early enough in the evening, he went back to building. In the course of this activity his thoughts clarified, and he felt a source of creativity, enthusiasm and a sense of renewal. He wrote:

“This moment was a turning point in my fate… I had… only the inner certainty that I was on the way to discovering my own myth. For the building game was only a beginning. It released a stream of fantasies which I later carefully wrote down.”

Carl Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections

Jung’s most ambitious project of senex play was building The Tower, situated at Bollingen, a product of 12 years of work.  It is a solitary place, surrounded by nature near Lake Zürich. He would spent several months there each year, and nourish his soul. He wrote:

“At Bollingen I am in the midst of my true life, I am most deeply myself.”

Carl Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections

The Puer Aeternus and The Little Prince

Illustration of The Little Prince

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is one of the most well-known books in the world. He displays all the typical features of the puer aeternus, which, however, does not alter the fact that he was also a great writer. He worked as a professional aviator, and died during World War II in an airplane crash. When he was not allowed to fly he always became depressed, walking up and down in his flat from morning till evening, desperate and irritated.

In the book, Saint-Exupéry begins with an introduction, like part of a personal autobiographical account. The book is based on the imagination of children and is very dream-like.

The narrator starts by saying that at the age of six he read about boa constrictors swallowing their prey whole without chewing them, after which they are unable to move and sleep through the six months that they need for digestion. His first drawing, which looks ordinary, has the entire mystery of Saint-Exupéry’s life in it. He shows his masterpiece to the grown-ups and asks them whether the drawing frightened them, but they say: why should anyone be frightened by a hat?

But his drawing was not a picture of a hat, it was a picture of a boa constrictor digesting an elephant. Since they were not able to understand it, he made another drawing. He draws inside of the boa constrictor so that they can see the elephant clearly, since adults always need to have things explained. The grown-ups respond by advising him to lay aside his drawings and focus on studying arithmetic, geography, grammar, etc. That is why, at the age of six, he gave up what might have been a magnificent career as a painter.

He then chose another profession and he learned to pilot airplanes, having flown all over the world. Whenever he met a grown-up, he would show them drawing number one, to find out if that person was of true understanding, but they would always say it looks like a hat. So he lived his whole life alone, without anyone that he could really talk to, until he had an accident with his plane in the desert. This experience is linked with his personal life, in which he nearly died of thirst, and experienced hallucinations. As he was trying to fix the plane, he heard an odd little voice say, “if you please – draw me a sheep!” It was the little prince, who had come down from the stars.

He shows him the hat, and the little prince says that he doesn’t want a boa constrictor that swallowed an elephant, he wants a sheep. This magical being from the unconscious is the first person he has met that understood him. However, he does not know how to draw a sheep, and after several failures, he draws a box instead, and in a tricksterish fashion, says that the sheep he wants is inside it, for he is too busy trying to fix the engine of his plane. This symbolises the conflict between the demands of the inner and outer life, which poses a tremendous tension.

A common thing that a puer does is to put all his plans in a box, and store them away, in a gesture of boredom and impatience. This is the great danger. Perhaps the most important thing a puer can do is to take something seriously, and to stick to it.

This first part of the novella contains the whole problem of the puer aeternus in a nutshell.

We see that Saint-Exupéry has never really gotten used to living in the world of the adult. He was experiencing depression and disillusionment. It was as if his unconscious were saying to him that he must participate in the world and cannot always escape the unimaginative and banal world of everyday life. He felt as if his soul had been completely dried up, and that he was dying of thirst, hence the image of the desert. This mid-life crisis leads to conscious absent-mindedness and one little mistake can cost one’s life.

The adult world lacks enchantment of nature, and the magic found in fairy tales. It is totally dead. Saint-Exupéry writes:

“I know a planet where there is a certain red-faced gentleman. He has never smelled a flower. He has never looked at a star. He has never loved anyone. He has never done anything in his life but add up figures. And all day he says over and over, just like you: “I am busy with matters of consequence!” And that makes him swell up with pride.”

The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Saint-Exupéry speaks about the emptiness, idiocy, and meaninglessness of adulthood, and that the childhood life is the fantasy life, the artist’s life, the true life – all the rest is empty persona running after making money, making a prestige impression on other people, and having lost one’s true nature. The great problem is that he has not found a bridge by which he could take over the true life into the adult life.

The English poet William Wordsworth wrote about this poignantly:

“There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,

The earth, and every common sight,

To me did seem

Apparelled in celestial light,

The glory and the freshness of a dream.

It is not now as it hath been of yore; –

Turn wheresoe’er I may

By night or day.

The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

Shades of the prison-house begin to close

Upon the growing Boy,

At length the Man perceives it die away

And fade into the light of common day.”

William Wordsworth, Immortality Ode

The fundamental question is: how can one grow up without losing the feeling of totality, the feeling of creativeness, magic, and of being really alive, which one had in youth?

What is really going on in Saint-Exupéry’s life is that his greater personality has been devoured by the mother, which suffocates life and prevents the human being from development and growth. One is permanently in the womb and never leaves the mother’s protective shell to go into the adult world. The Great Mother becomes the devouring mother, like the Hindu goddess Kali.

Saint-Exupéry never embarks on the hero’s journey, and that is the meaning of the elephant in the drawing, which is the greatest hero in Africa. In contrast to other mythological parallels, the swallowed hero cannot find his way out of his predator.

The elephant is generous, intelligent, taciturn, but irritable and inclined to terrible moods and fits of rage, which can only be appeased by music, not by sensual pleasures. Amazingly, these were also the outstanding qualities of Saint Exupéry. The elephant is the image in his soul of what he wanted to become, and it’s swallowed back by the devouring mother, the regressive tendencies of the unconscious, and later by death. But, Saint Exupéry did not know that, though von Franz says he came very close.

Integration of Puer Aeternus

Sir Galahad – Arthur Hughes

To integrate the puer aeternus, one must bring oneself down to earth, not by having a one-sided view on the life of fantasy, but rather by exposing oneself to daily life, chores, and hard work.

The puer must also merge with the crowd, to become the sheep that Saint-Exupéry put into a box, though this isn’t without its dangers. A dangerous situation is cured by a dangerous situation. However, it is the anti-dote for a mother complex. Normally, very few young men have a strong enough individuality to pull away from the mother of their own accord; they do it via collectivity. This is the first step of the cure, it is only by immersing oneself in society that one can experience the warmth of human beings, have relatedness, and a sense of being part of a tribe that transcends individual desires and needs.

The second step is that the puer must take care not to lose his self in the crowd. He must simultaneously sacrifice his inflated specialness, and megalomania (which is his fake individuality) – and not lose his real individuality by becoming a mere number in the crowd. This can be done by balancing one’s social life with one’s spiritual life, for if one never spends time alone, one may never built an indestructible foundation, which is crucial for self-realisation. Nietzsche wrote:

“When I am among the many I live as the many do, and I do not think as I really think; after a time it always seems as though they want to banish me from myself and rob me of my soul and I grow angry with everybody and fear everybody. I then require the desert, so as to grow good again.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreak, §491

Jung likened the human life span to the passage of the Sun over the course of 12 hours: the Sun rises and we begin the day (birth); the Sun rises in the sky (we grow from infancy to youth to young adulthood); the Sun comes to the zenith at noontime (mid-life, the peak of our abilities, vigour and, if we have been on the right path, career success); then the Sun begins to lose its altitude (we begin to age), until it finally sets (we die). These phases of life have different priorities, and specific types of psychology.

For Jung, the priority of the first half of life is a strengthening of the ego: work, education, relationships, and so on. It is only in the second half of life that we are sufficiently anchored in reality and our focus shifts to our inner world, to our quest for individuation. An imbalance in this transition is often the start of a mid-life crisis, the cry of the soul for growth.

Jung writes:

“The significance of the morning [of life] undoubtedly lies in the development of the individual, our entrenchment in the outer world, the propagation of our kind, and the care of our children. This is the obvious purpose of nature… Whoever carries over into the afternoon [of life] the law of the morning, or the natural aim, must pay for it with damage to his soul, just as surely as a growing youth who tries to carry over his childish egoism into adult life must pay for this mistake with social failure.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 8: Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche

Jung tells us that to cure the neurosis of the puer, one has to work. This is the most disagreeable word for a puer because he has to sacrifice the wonder of the fantasy realm to a conventional life, which requires commitment and responsibility. It seems like utter madness to him, because he is letting go of his specialness. The crucial step is that he must drive out his devils, and be careful that he doesn’t also drive out his angels. This can only be achieved by a focus on the inner world, and the outer world, which is the purpose of individuation.

Through work, the puer may actually become exceptional in reality, not in fantasy. It doesn’t matter if one has no idea which job is the right one, or what one really wants to do – one has to stick with any kind of job and immerse oneself in the outer world. Søren Kierkegaard calls this type of anxiety – the dizziness of freedom – the vertigo that comes from having to choose from a sea of infinite possibilities. Here one may either lose himself in the finite (becoming an imitation of other people), or lose oneself in the infinite (a state of analysis-paralysis where one thinks of all the possibilities but never acts).

The puer usually tries various different jobs but never sticks to one, and quits when it becomes too boring. While he can work, he’ll find it a chore. This is because he is working completely uphill in opposition to his own flow of energy. The puer knows that everything goes wrong because he is lazy, but he cannot want not to be lazy, and so he remains in depression.

We all possess a great storage of enthusiasm, which is kept hidden as long as we do not integrate the archetype of eternal youth. The unconscious indicates the direction in which there might be some enthusiasm or where energy flows naturally, for it is, of course, easier to train oneself to work in a direction supported by one’s instinct.

Nevertheless, in every field of work there always comes the time when routine must be faced. All work, even creative work, contains a certain amount of boring routine, which is when the puer complains.

When asked how one should live, Jung wrote:

“There is no single, definite way for the individual… if you want to go on your individual way, it is the way you make for yourself, which is never prescribed, which you do not know in advance, and which simply comes into being of itself when you put one foot in front of the other. If you always do the next thing that needs to be done, you will go most safely and sure-footedly along the path prescribed by your unconscious. Then it is naturally no help at all to speculate about how you ought to live.”

Jung’s Letter to Frau V (15 December 1933)

Jung tells us that we shouldn’t spend time in useless speculation and waste our energy and our resources by thinking of how to live, but rather to toil the soil directly in front of us. As such, we are always doing something meaningful and intended by fate.

The puer denies the call to adventure in the Hero’s Journey, which separates the person from the aspects of their previous life and causes anxiety. He remains in the stage of refusal, and cannot leave the ordinary world and enter the special world, where he must confront his dragon (his worst fear, event, person, situation, or memory long avoided).

Thus, he cannot access his reward, a treasure chest full of inner gold that is guarded by the dragon. The puer remains in perpetual stagnation, because he cannot acquire the insight that comes from a psychological death and rebirth, the death of one’s old self, and the birth of a new and more capable self – without which there’s no individuation at all.

In some Native American rituals, young boys are gathered by the men and taken out in the middle of the night and dragged off into the wilderness, where they must pass trials for their initiation into manhood. This is the beginning of the Hero’s Journey. If he succeeds in slaying his dragon, he re-enters the community as a man who has left the realm of childhood. Manhood is different from being a man, it is a badge of honour one must earn. It creates a sense of autonomy and a growth in ego strength, a sense of belongingness, purpose and meaning. That’s something missing in a puer, who is often driven by a desire for safety and/or pleasure. Jung writes:

“For the hero, fear is a challenge and a task, because only boldness can deliver from fear. And if the risk is not taken, the meaning of life is somehow violated, and the whole future is condemned to hopeless staleness, to a drab grey lit only by the will-o’-the-wisps.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 5: Symbols of Transformation

Initiation invites us to throw ourselves into the fire of life. In modern times, we lack these tribal initiations that were so important to our ancestors, and many men opt for alternatives such as military service, or the so-called “gym bro mentality”.

Some young men are hoping that something in life will carry them off, from the painful and mundane day to day life, like being thrown on an island where one must survive by building a fire, shelter, hunting for food, and so on. This is both terrifying, and exhilarating. In psychological terms, they are waiting for an archetype to activate in the psyche, and help orient them in life.

For a young woman it is marriage and childbearing that conquers the puella. There is a sacrificial moment that in order to incarnate the archetype of the mother, she has to put the archetype of Aphrodite into the sacrificial altar, and accept the fact that her body is going to look very different, and that she is going to feel different, after giving birth to a child. This enormous responsibility of the mother often causes the death of the puella. Though, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t cases in which a mother is still a puella, or a woman that has no children that is not a puella.

Dreams are an important source to integrate the puer. When the inner child appears in dreams, it’s always behind us and ahead of us, simultaneously. Behind us is the infantile shadow, that which always pulls us backward into being infantile, dependent, lazy, escaping problems, responsibility, and life. It must be sacrificed for us to become the hero. The child god that is ahead of us means renewal, the possibility of life continually growing and expanding.

When our ego attitude changes, the dreams respond. We can influence dreams by writing them down and giving meaning to them, and by drawing, and colouring it. This helps us to amplify the contents of the dream and bring the imaginary figures into reality, and the unconscious realises that one does this, because it changes too.

Dream images can be used in active imagination, when you enter your inner picture while being conscious, and continue to live in it and transform it, giving it a new life. Dreams tells us what to do with our lives, and we don’t have to worry when we don’t understand a dream, because a dream understands us.  

Swiss artist Peter Birkhäuser had a dream of the puer aeternus, and made a painting. A wonderful, divine boy rides an extremely powerful wild horse – he comes from cosmic distances, from the boundless universe, in other words, from the collective unconscious. He rides through the space of the psyche like a new star in the heavens. It is an encounter with the archetype of the Self. He has four arms and out of one hand grows a magical eight-pointed flower (or he is holding it). The boy embodies quaternity, the universal expression of spiritual totality, and characteristic of most images of the divinity.

The English poet and visionary artist William Blake is an example of an individuated person having integrated his puer aeternus. He reminds us that if the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite, opening us up to the mystery of the inner and the outer life.

“I feel that a man may be happy in this world, and I know that this world is a world of imagination and vision. I see every thing I paint in this world, but everybody does not see alike… The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way… As a man is so he sees.”

William Blake’s Letter to Dr. Trusler (23 August 1799)

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Puer Aeternus – The Psychology of Eternal Youth

The term puer aeternus is Latin for eternal boy. Carl Jung used the term in the exploration of the psychology of eternal youth and creative child within every person.

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In Pursuit of Meaning. I hope to help as many people as possible who seek to enrich their lives with value and meaning. That is the ultimate purpose of Eternalised.

4 thoughts on “The Psychology of the Man-Child (Puer Aeternus)

  1. Appreciate your videos and everything you do. You’ve talked a lot about Carl June but I was wondering if you could do a video just about his mysterious red book and it’s origins?? And your personal thoughts about it?? If you do please talk about how it includes the explorations of psychedelic drawings of mythical characters from his dreams and waking fantasies. And why you think it was locked in a Swiss safe deposit box by the heirs to C.G. Jung’s estate for so many years? It took Jungian scholar Dr. Sonu Shamdasani three years to convince Jung’s family to bring the book out of hiding. It took another 13 years to translate it.And still, the Red Book remains incomplete. The last word Jung wrote in the Red Book is “moglichkeit,” or possibility.

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