Why the Men Went into the Woods: Jungian Psychology and the Archetype of the Wild Man by Dennis Pottenger

For 35 weeks in 1991 a book about a wild man topped the bestseller list in the United States and Canada.[i]   The author of the book, poet Robert Bly, said he found the story of Iron Hans in the collection of fairy tales first published by the brothers Grimm in Germany in 1812.[ii]

According to classical Jungian theory, fairy tales “represent the archetypes in their simplest, barest, and most concise form.”[iii]   After working with symbolic material for many years, Marie-Louise von Franz concluded that “all fairy tales endeavor to describe one and the same psychic fact.”[iv] This psychic fact is, of course, what Jung called the Self.

With the archetypal pattern of the Wild Man, the psychic factor of the Self, and the ability of the fairy tale to convey psychological meaning to consciousness, in mind, we travel into dangerous terrain. Here we risk the experience of Phallos, that fundamental mark of maleness. Why do the experiences of erection, of testicularity, of insemination, feel dangerous, and thus risky? Because male development makes us all nervous. Indeed, according to David Tacey, “all peoples have shared a basic anxiety about the achievement of masculine maturity.”[v] To engage the inseminating and annihilating capacities of Phallos is a psychological move that brings us into intimate communion with what Jungian analyst Eugene Monick called “a powerful inner reality at work in a man,” a reality “not altogether in his control.”[vi]

In his preface to Iron John, Robert Bly distinguished between the Wild Man and the Savage Man. “The savage mode,” Bly wrote, “does great damage to soul, earth, and humankind; we can say that though the Savage Man is wounded he prefers not to examine it. The Wild Man, who has examined his wound, resembles a Zen priest, a shaman, or a woodsman more than a savage.”[vii] What Bly meant, I think, is that violence born of unhealed injury and fear of vulnerability and healthy wildness in which ego and Self are in right relationship with one another, are two different modes of masculinity.

According to poet Charles Upton, who wrote what he called a spiritual critique of Iron John and the mythopetic men’s movement that grew up around the book, what makes the transit between these two modes of masculine development troublesome—and potentially lethal—is

that when the archetype of the underworld comes up, it doesn’t always arrive neatly divided into positive qualities to be adopted and negative ones to be avoided. The things men need to integrate and those we had better get rid of dawn upon us as a single complex . . . Thus when Bly calls men to worship the spontaneous, the unexpected[—the Wild—]he is invoking appropriate wildness and destructive savagery at the same time.[viii]

The publication of Iron John, Robert Bly’s book about men, galvanized a cultural phenomenon that came to be known as the mythopoetic men’s movement.   In the years following the publication of Iron John, tens of thousands of men attended weekend retreats often held in remote locations.   Why did the men go into the woods? One pro-feminist male writer, Michael Kimmel, supported the

efforts to help men acknowledge and challenge their deep fears about connecting with other men and for enabling men to explore some of the vitality they had lost on their way to sober sensible American manhood, including a sense of joy and playfulness. At the weekend events in the woods there were outpourings of deeply felt grief and despair about fathers who had abandoned or abused their now-adult sons. These retreats helped men begin to dismantle the walls men build to make themselves feel strong, powerful, invincible—to shield themselves from vulnerability, pain, need.[ix]

Retreats offered men a safe, and, in a Jungian, sense, a sacred, even numinous, space in which they could begin to contact and reclaim the feeling-based aspects of their experience which had been shamed by patriarchy. With this interior process in mind, Eugene Monick linked the underlying psychological cause of male rage to the castrating effect of what he called the “patriarchal design.”

The rudiments of male rage begin to form when male weakness can no longer be altogether hidden. Patriarchal design typically lays the responsibility for male rage at the feet of women, who supposedly prompt the rage by their closeness to the irrational and chthonic unconscious.[x]

Femininity, Monick continued,

is a terror for men . . . . The implication of subjective femininity suggests castration. For men, the specter of being feminine is based on the perception that femininity emerges when the annihilation of masculinity takes place by means of castration.[xi]

For a man, Monick added,

the eruption of male rage signals the presence of instinctual danger—archetypal danger, in Jungian language—and with it, a sense of desperation. Or, worse, a sense that catastrophe has already taken place, that the man is therefore powerless, without phallus—castrated.[xii]

In his work on castration and male rage, Monick noted that

conventional [patriarchal] wisdom lets women express themselves, while men think, abstract, plan, organize, support. For men to get emotional is ordinarily seen as an abandonment of masculine strength and directedness. Sometimes that is the case, as when a complex seizes a man and he flies apart. But it need not be so. Men can learn to overcome the cultural restraint inhibiting emotional expression, to subjectively discover value and to express the emotion that inevitably flows from feeling.[xiii]

If the woods marked the setting for men’s move into feeling, Jungian psychology became the symbolic map they followed into the dark spaces of the deep masculine. According to Michael Schwalbe, a profeminist writer who attended mythopoetic men’s events while researching his book, Unlocking the Iron Cage: The Men’s Movement, Gender Politics, and American Culture, Jungian psychology comforted the mythopoetic men

by saying that the psyche is naturally a wellspring of unruly impulses; that strong, unpredictable feelings are a normal and fascinating part of every man, and thus no man need feel ashamed of being emotional. But it also implicitly demanded, less comfortingly, that a man who wished to become a whole person explore this part of himself, even if doing so was painful. Real and sometimes disruptive insights could thus be gained, if only by studying what was once ignored. If a man undertook this work, Jungian psychology promised relief from inauthenticity, relief from the loss of control to dark psychic forces, and the attainment of self-knowledge that was previously limited by the strictures of traditional [or patriarchal] masculinity.[xiv]

In pinpointing even more precisely the pivotal role Jungian psychology played in the mythopoetic men’s movement, Schwalbe concluded that it helped men enter wounded psychological terrain, previously experienced as a weakness, without being shamed or pathologized. Through this process, they were able to recognize their wounds as the places that held their potential for growth.

Robert Bly himself said again and again that the men who went into the woods were not trying to injure women, nor were they trying to perpetuate a patriarchal emphasis arising from centuries of Christian culture that left in place a rigid scheme of gender dichotomy in which femininity always signals inferiority. The men were, instead, trying to find and develop personal authenticity and authority through contact with a Wild Man covered with hair the color of rusted iron. Bly believed that the image of the Wild Man offered men a symbolic experience of the instinctive, and the sexual and primitive qualities, of the deep, or archetypal, masculine.   Bly, Michael Meade, and the late James Hillman were fond of a poem by the late William Stafford. Stafford’s poem, titled “A Story That Could Be True,” spoke to the wild fierce personal presence so missing in the “soft” (in a patriarchal sense, limp, even impotent) men Bly indicted in Iron John for their passivity:

If you were exchanged in the cradle and

your real mother died

without ever telling the story

then no one knows your name,

and somewhere in the world

your father is lost and needs you

but you are far away.


He can never find

how true you are, how ready.

When the great wind comes

and the robberies of the rain

and you stand in the corner shivering.

The people who go by—

you wonder at their calm.


They miss the whisper that runs

any day in your mind,

“Who are you, really, wanderer?” —

and the answer you have to give

no matter how dark and cold

the world around you is:

Maybe I’m a king.[xv]

With the word king we come to a place of trouble. Archetypes, as we know, display an active-passive bipolar shadow structure. In the case of the uninitiated male, what we see, in the context of relationships between men and women, is what Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette, in their work on the mature masculine, identified as the Tyrant (the active pole of the shadow side of the archetypal pattern of the King) and the Weakling (the passive pole of the Shadow King). The Tyrant, Moore and Gillette wrote,

exploits and abuses others. He is ruthless, merciless, and without feeling when he is pursuing what he thinks is his own self-interest. His degradation knows no bounds. He hates all beauty, all innocence and strength, all talent, all life energy. He does so because . . . he lacks inner structure, and he is afraid—terrified, really—of his own hidden weakness and his underlying lack of potency.[xvi]

What Stafford and the men of the mythopoetic movement were referring to in terms of masculine maturity was what Moore and Gillette called the good King.

The King archetype in its fullness possesses the qualities of order, of reasonable and rational patterning, of integration and integrity in the masculine psyche. It stabilizes chaotic emotion and out-of-control behaviors. It gives stability and centeredness. It brings                     calm. And in [this King’s] “fertilizing” and centeredness, it mediates vitality, life-force, and joy. It brings maintenance and balance. It defends our own sense of inner order, our own integrity of being and of purpose, our own central calmness about who we are, and our essential unassailability and certainty in our masculine identity. . . . [The good King’s eye] sees others in all their weakness and in all their talent and worth. It honors them and promotes them. It guides them and nurtures them toward their own fullness of being.[xvii]

For men, the mythopoetic approach to the re-visioning of traditional, or patriarchal, masculinity offered a promise of renewal—hope that they could gain access to a kind of potency, an instinctual wildness, or un-niceness, as Bly put it, that would lead not to power and abuse of privilege but to a fierceness that leads to forceful action undertaken, not with cruelty, but with resolve. The man without fierceness, Bly wrote,

allows his own boundaries to be invaded and in the moment that happens his uninitiated passivity will turn to rage. Violence and brutality toward women and children are not the function of fierceness but evidence of the absence of it.[xviii]

Feminist and pro-feminist male commentators watched the hordes of men retreat into the woods to find the Wild Man and saw the painting of faces and the pounding of drums in a different light.   By embracing Iron John—a fairy tale the feminists, with some accuracy, claim portrays women as prizes, as hags, or as cloying mothers who are blamed for making their sons into effeminate sissies—the mythopoetic men were actually reinforcing the patriarchal presumptions of male superiority they claimed to reject. Where does the patriarchal position—the attitude of power and domination that spawns the harmful behaviors of the Tyrant and the Weakling—leave women? Here is how one feminist writer described her experience of a patriarchal structure which systematically discounts women through rape, genital mutilation, incest, sexual harassment, sex trafficking, economic inequalities, reproductive rights, and other manifestations of violence:

Patriarchy is like a razor blade embedded in a chocolate cream. We bite down eagerly, charmed by the heart-shaped box and the shiny wrapper, and then suffer the pain. Our gums are bleeding, but before the feminist movement nobody ever talked about it. We kept our mouths shut, and if we occasionally noticed a trickle of blood seep out the corner of some sister’s lips, we politely looked away so as not to embarrass her. Feminism taught us to say, “Ow! Hey, this hurts, this is wrong—and look, it’s not just me, it’s you and you and you. Something is wrong with this candy! Let’s get rid of the razor, or change the menu.”[xix]

Gloria Steinem blasted Bly for his “warlike language of kings and battles” and for a misogynistic attitude that insisted on “closeness only to males” and “measured adulthood by men’s [rejection of and] distance from mothers, thus reconstructing patriarchy in a supposedly gentler form.”[xx]   Another feminist, Kay Leigh Hagan, expressed “cautious hope that men are coming to terms with the realities of true partnership and shared power.”[xxi] With rape, domestic violence, and other forms of injury against women in mind, Hagan also expressed disgust at the “chorus of whining white men [whose] movement has only succeeded in legitimizing a fashionable new form of woman-hating.”[xxii]

A third feminist, Starhawk, admitted that she was afraid that the men of the mythopoetic movement were going to disappoint women as they had since the advent of patriarchy and simply use their personal growth to continue blaming women for their problems and defending their own privileges. Peek under the pain, however, and the feminists were willing to admit a longing for men to heal. Starhawk wrote:

Those of us whose lives continue to be bound up with men want to see them become whole.   We dream of a world full of men who could be passionate lovers, grounded in their own bodies, capable of profound loves and deep sorrows, strong allies of women, sensitive nurturers, fearless defenders of all people’s liberation, unbound by stifling conventions yet respectful of their own and others’ boundaries, serious without being humorless, stable without being dull, disciplined without being rigid, sweet without being               spineless, proud without being insufferably egotistical, fierce without being violent, wild without being, well, assholes.[xxiii]

So the bar has been set. For optimum maturity a man must embrace the vulnerability that is shamed by patriarchy and which threatens to annihilate his sense of self-definition. For a man shame is simply insufferable. Rage and injury to others, including women, can be the result of a man’s attempt to defend against his own castration, his own annihilation. Eugene Monick spoke to this male experience of distress when he wrote that male rage “is an indication that a man is in living and excruciating personal contact with profound injury, even nonbeing.”[xxiv] Monick also wrote of what he called the “castration complex,” which he said:

forms in a male’s unconscious when an event or events take place causing a boy inwardly to perceive that something essential to his being as a male actually has been taken from him. Ever after, he has a hole, a weak spot in his masculine grid, an emptiness.[xxv]

This speaks to the affect, to the manifest emotion, in the male experience of wounding. But what of healing? With shame, and the castration of a man’s connection to the archetypal qualities of the Wild Man, in mind, an idea first attributed to Paracelsus, the Renaissance physician and alchemist, becomes meaningful. To the alchemical imagination, semen, as both a physical substance and a metaphoric possibility of the imagination, was a particularly potent substance.

In an essay he titled “Fear of Semen,” Jungian analyst Joseph Cambray quoted Paracelsus speaking about the attraction of the sexes:

The tendencies of man cause him to think and speculate; his speculation creates desire, his desire grows into passion, his passion acts upon his imagination and his imagination creates semen.[xxvi]

According to Cambray, identifying semen with the imagination is a radical notion. For

in this theory Paracelsus makes it clear that for him semen is a basic, archetypal, substance, involved in the creation of the universe. . . . Semen is, here, at the archetypal foundation of the world. Psychologically, it is equivalent to the psychic reality upon which the self takes shape and manifests.[xxvii]

What makes semen so important, psychologically speaking? In one passage Cambray pinpointed the apocalyptic impact semen can play in the work of individuation:

What . . .   is being sought psychologically in the retention [of semen]? Is it not the sense of a potent, powerful self that can be lost when arousal leads to discharge? Tantric exercises seem aimed at introverting the aroused masculine libido, sacrificing it in a return to the self . . . . In the language of psychological objects this might be called a “retentive identification.” By this I mean the possibility of an experience of the self has been projected onto an aspect of the body image, in this case the semen, which it then becomes crucial to hold onto for the sake of the wholeness carried by it.[xxviii]

If we consider our experience of gender difference, and our understanding of gender conflicts, from the point of view of alchemical psychology, we realize that opposites cannot come back together consciously until they have first been separated. My sense is that men and women—and here I include individuals of every sexual orientation and preference—are still in this phase of things, each wounded by patriarchy and by each other, each longing, in their own ways, for contact, for what David Deida called intimate communion.[xxix] So where do we go from here? How can those who have been, and are being, injured by patriarchy move toward a type of testicularity that carries wholeness into the world?

As depth psychologists we know too much. Like Jung, we don’t just believe in the numinosum, we know there are forces at work in the world that we do not produce or control. As scholars of Jung, and as practitioners of analytical psychology, we engage in the work of individuation in a bid to bring the intelligence and numinosity of archetypal patterns into the world through human experience. As Jung made clear in Answer to Job: God needs man.[xxx] I wonder if the same isn’t true of men and women: we need each other, and each gender needs both masculine and feminine to bring about the experience of wholeness.

This is sound depth psychological theory. But how, in particular, are men and women to address the political, economic, and socio-cultural aspects of gender that perpetuate the castration and shaming of men and the patriarchal oppression of the feminine and inferiority of women? One step toward the conjunction, or union, of the Wild Man and Wild Woman, and of men and women on a human, or ego, level of experience, is for us to forgive where we have been within the oppositional forces of masculine and feminine, and risk starting again. What comes next—learning to value, and integrate, both the inseminating quality of the deep, or archetypal, masculine and the gestating fecundity of the archetypal feminine into the human experience of gender constructions—may be more difficult.

There is much at stake in this work of wholeness. And for those who make meaning and soul through the practice of depth psychology, the work of the inner life is by nature intangible, unpredictable, and often incomprehensible. Demanding ego-death, it calls upon our vulnerability and courage to engage energies and futures not fully within our control. To accomplish the psychological and cultural marriage of the archetypal masculine and feminine within each gender, alchemy—as a metaphor for the process of psychological growth—tells us that we need sacred, boundaried space (a tenemos) and a well-sealed vessel that can tolerate the heating of the base material with which we start. It may be that in the work of a depth psychological transformation of the wounds of the patriarchy, we are still beginning—still in need of vessels that can safely contain our vulnerabilities in the presence of complexed affect and damaged instincts. Perhaps the men who went into the woods sought such a container.

[i] M. Kimmel, “Weekend warriors: The new men’s movement,” in The politics of manhood: Profeminist men respond to the mythopoetic men’s movement (and the mythopoetic leaders answer), M. Kimmel, Ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1995, p. 15.

[ii] R. Bly, Iron John: A book about men (New York, NY: Addison-Wesley, p. 5).

[iii] M-L von Franz, The interpretation of fairy tales (rev. ed.) (Boston, MA: Shambhala, 1996, p. 1)

[iv]   von Franz, p. 2.

[v] D. Tacey, Remaking men: Jung, spirituality and social change (New York, NY: Routledge, 1997, p. 99).

[vi] E. Monick, Phallos: Sacred image of the masculine (Toronto, Canada: Inner City Books, 1987, p. 9).

[vii] Bly, p. x.

[viii] C. Upton, Hammering hot iron: A spiritual critique of Bly’s Iron John (Wheaton, IL: Quest, p. 202).

[ix] M. Kimmel, “Introduction,” in The politics of manhood: Profeminist men respond to the mythopoetic men’s movement (and the mythopetic leaders answer, p. 7.

[x] E. Monick, Castration and male rage: The phallic wound (Toronto, Canada: Inner City Books, 1991, p. 14).

[xi] Monick, 1991, p. 14.

[xii] Monick, 1991, pp. 98-99.

[xiii] Monick, 1991, pp. 67-68.

[xiv] M. Schwalbe, Unlocking the iron cage: The men’s movement, gender politics, and american culture (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1996, pp. 61-62).

[xv] W. Stafford, The way it is: New & selected poems (St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 1999, pp. 49-50).

[xvi] R. Moore, & D. Gillette, King, warrior, magician, lover: Rediscovering the archetypes of the mature masculine (San Francisco, CA: Harper, 1990, p. 64).

[xvii] Moore & Gillette, pp. 61-62.

[xviii] R. Bly, When a hair turns gold: Commentary on the fairy tale Iron John (St. Paul, MN: Ally Press, 1989, pp. 18-19).

[xix] Starkawk, “A Men’s Movement I Can Trust,” in Women respond to the men’s movement: A feminist collection, K. L. Hagan, Ed. (San Francisco, CA: Harper, 1992, p. 28).

[xx] G. Steinem, “Forward,” in Hagan, Ed., 1992, pp. viii-ix.

[xxi] K. L. Hagan, “Introduction,” in Hagan, Ed., 1992, p. xi.

[xxii] Hagan, 1992, p. xi.

[xxiii] Starhawk, in Hagan, Ed., pp. 27-28.

[xxiv] Monick, 1991, p. 102.

[xxv] Monick, 1991, p. 49.

[xxvi] J. Cambray, “Fear of Semen,” Spring 51: A journal of archetype and culture (Dallas, TX: Spring, Vol. 33, No. 1, 1991, pp. 39-53).

[xxvii] Cambray, p. 42.

[xxviii] Cambray, p. 43.

[xxix] D. Deida, Intimate communion: Awakening your sexual essence (Deerfield, FL: Health Communications, 1995).

[xxx] C. G. Jung, as cited in E. Edinger, Transformation of the god-image: An elucidation of Jung’s Answer to Job (Toronto, Canada: Inner City Books, 1992, pp. 90-91).

Dennis Pottenger is a depth-oriented psychotherapist in Northern California.   He plans to train as a Jungian Analyst.



  1. Dennis,
    I’ve been meaning to write to thank you for your article and the emphasis on woods as container, the alchemical cauldron, sacred vessel, in which we heal as men. So often, I need to hone enlightenment in this area, quicken my sensitivities. Your article helped to fan this flame!

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Paul. As a man who goes into the woods wilderness travel, for me, becomes an archetypally-induced pilgrimage into the deep interior of soul. Outer journeys with inner meaning, I guess you could say. Was disappointed that you couldn’t attend the JSSS conference back in the summer. Given that my mother lives in Santa Fe and I need to visit her perhaps with advance notice we could meet for coffee or lunch. Thanks again for your kind words. Dennis P

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