Puer Aeternus: Its Impact on Personal Growth and Relationships

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February 8, 2021
Painting depicting a young man. Featured image of Puer Aeternus: Archetype Anatomy
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Puer Aeternus in Mythology

The words, puer aeternus, come from Metamorphoses, an epic work by the Roman poet Ovid (43 BC – c.17 AD) dealing with Greek and Roman myths. In the poem, Ovid addresses the child-god Iacchus as puer aeternus and praises him for his role in the Eleusinian mysteries. Iacchus is later identified with the gods Dionysus and Eros. The puer is a god of vegetation and resurrection, the god of divine youth, such as Tammuz, Attis and Adonis. The figure of a young god who is slain and resurrected also appears in Egyptian mythology as the story of Osiris.

It is embodied in the literary work Peter Pan by the British author James Barry (1860–1937), which has been adapted numerous times in plays, movies, and television. It is often used as a pejorative phrase to denote a young man who will not make the emotional commitments of adulthood and prefers to continually “play the field.”

Pushing the archetypal image backward in time from Victorian literature, Pan was the proverbial “naughty boy” in Greek mythology. Like the lost boys in Barry’s work, Pan lived out in the wild woods and was notorious for unrestrained sexuality. Other creatures fill this role; centaurs, half-man and half-horse, and were notorious not only for their unrestrained sexual appetites but for their aggression as well. Satyrs, half-man, half-goat, were Pan’s species, and he was their chief.

The Innocent Child and the Wise Old Man

The antagonistic position in which the two archetypes find themselves gave birth to claims such as that the polarities of puer and senex “provide the psychological foundation of the problem of history”. Or, in other words, we could say that history repeats itself is to say that history is an expression of human nature. Puer can be seen as Potential, whilst the Senex is the Experience, the wisdom that should come with it.

This polarity is fundamental for personal growth, in which case, the key is to gain wisdom without losing potential.

At a broader societal level, puer is represented by change and the embrace of progress, whilst the senex is the accumulated wisdom of a culture embodied in laws and institutions.

Friedrich Nietzche, in The Birth of Tragedy described these forces as Apollonian and Dionysian. As we may know by now, Jungian psychology strongly encourages for a unity of opposites, advising to avoid taking a “one-sided” view of facts.

Puer Aeternus and the provisional life

The provisional life is a kind of prison. The bars are the parental complexes, unconscious ties to early life, the boundless irresponsibility of the child. Thus the dreams of puers and puellas are full of prison imagery: chains, bars, cages, entrapment, bondage. Life itself, reality as they find it, is experienced as imprisonment. They yearn for independence and long for freedom, but they are powerless to pull it off.

Puers chafe at boundaries and limits and tend to view any restriction as intolerable. They do not realise that some restrictions are indispensable for growth. This is expressed in the I Ching, the Chinese book of wisdom, as follows:

Puer Aeternus and Individuation

The typical puer shirks responsibility for his actions, and understandably so, since what he does is not within his conscious control. He is at the mercy of his unconscious, and is especially vulnerable to his instinctive drives. He is prone to do what ‘feels right.’ However, he is so alienated from his true feelings that what feels right one minute often feels wrong the next.

The individuating puer—one coming to grips with his attitudes and behaviour patterns—knows that undifferentiated feelings are highly suspect, especially when they arise in conjunction with the use of alcohol or other drugs. Instead of identifying with his feelings, he tries to keep some distance from them, which means objectifying what he is experiencing. He questions himself:

Is this what I really feel?

Is this what I want? What are the consequences? Can I live with them?

Can I live with myself?

How does what I do affect others?

Works about Puer Aeternus

The Problem of the Puer Aeternus is a book based on a series of lectures that Jungian analyst Marie-Louise von Franz gave at the C.G. Jung Institute, Zurich, during the Winter Semester, 1959–1960. In the first eight of twelve lectures, von Franz illustrates the theme of the puer aeternus by examining the story of The Little Prince from the book of the same name by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

Now or Neverland is a 1998 book written by Jungian analyst Ann Yeoman dealing with the puer aeternus in the form of Peter Pan, one of the most well-known examples of the concept in the modern era. The book is a psychological overview of the eternal boy archetype, from its ancient roots to contemporary experience.

The Peter Pan Syndrome

Peter Pan syndrome is the popular psychology concept of an adult who is socially immature. The category is an informal one invoked by laypeople and some psychology professionals in popular psychology. It is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and is not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association as a specific mental disorder.

Psychologist Dan Kiley popularized the Peter Pan syndrome in his 1983 book, The Peter Pan Syndrome: Men Who Have Never Grown Up. His next book, The Wendy Dilemma (1984), advises women romantically involved with “Peter Pans” how to improve their relationships.

Humbelina Robles Ortega, professor of the Department of Personality, Evaluation and Psychological Treatment of the University of Granada and an expert in emotional disorders, warns that the overprotection of parents can lead children to develop the Peter Pan Syndrome, given “it usually affects dependent people who have been overprotected by their families and haven’t developed the necessary skills to confront life.” The ‘Peter Pans’ of present society “see the adult world as very problematic and glorify adolescence, which is why they want to stay in that state of privilege.”

Some characteristics of the disorder are the inability of individuals to take on responsibilities, to commit themselves or to keep promises, excessive care about the way they look and personal well-being and their lack of self-confidence, even though they do not seem to show it and actually come across as exactly the opposite. Also they are constantly changing partners and looking for younger ones. 

Humbelina Robles stresses that “Wendy is the woman behind Peter Pan. There must be someone who deals with the things Peter Pan doesn’t do in order for Peter Pan to exist.”

The researcher from the UGR states that Wendy “makes every decision and takes on the responsibilities of her partner, thus justifying his unreliability. We can find Wendy people even within the immediate family: the overprotecting mothers.”

The professor declares that the biggest disadvantage of both disorders (Peter Pan and Wendy Syndromes) is usually that the person who suffers from them doesn’t feel as though they are part of the problem, they are not aware of it. Robles points out that the only solution for this disease is the right psychological treatment, not only centered on the person who suffers from the disorder but also on his/her partner and family.

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