Dionysus and Eros

Dionysus and Eros, Naples Archeological Museum

Puer aeternus is Latin for eternal boy, used in mythology to designate a child-god who is forever young; psychologically it is an older man whose emotional life has remained at an adolescent level. 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. He covets independence and freedom, chafes at boundaries and limits, and tends to find any restriction intolerable.[1]

The puer 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.[2] The figure of a young god who is slain and resurrected also appears in Egyptian mythology as the story of Osiris.

The puer in Jungian psychology

Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung developed a school of thought called analytical psychology, distinguishing it from the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). In analytical psychology (often called "Jungian psychology") the puer aeternus is an example of what Jung called an archetype, one of the "primordial, structural elements of the human psyche".[3]

The shadow of the puer is the senex (Latin for "old man"), associated with the god Cronus—disciplined, controlled, responsible, rational, ordered. Conversely, the shadow of the senex is the puer, related to Hermes or Dionysus—unbounded instinct, disorder, intoxication, whimsy.[4]

Like all archetypes, the puer is bi-polar, exhibiting both a "positive" and a "negative" aspect. The "positive" side of the puer appears as the Divine Child who symbolizes newness, potential for growth, hope for the future. He also foreshadows the hero that he sometimes becomes (e.g. Heracles). The "negative" side is the child-man who refuses to grow up and meet the challenges of life face on, waiting instead for his ship to come in and solve all his problems.

"For the time being one is doing this or that, but whether it is a woman or a job, it is not yet what is really wanted, and there is always the fantasy that sometime in the future the real thing will come about.... The one thing dreaded throughout by such a type of man is to be bound to anything whatever."[5]

"Common symptoms of puer psychology are dreams of imprisonment and similar imagery: chains, bars, cages, entrapment, bondage. Life experienced as a prison."[4]

When the subject is a female the Latin term is puella aeterna, imaged in mythology as the Kore (Greek for "maiden").[6] One might also speak of a puer animus when describing the masculine side of the female psyche, or a puella anima when speaking of a man's inner feminine component.


Peter Pan 1915 cover

Cover of 1915 edition of J.M. Barrie's novel, first published in 1911.

C.G. Jung wrote a paper on the puer aeternus, "The Psychology of the Child Archetype", contained in Part IV of The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (Collected Works, Vol. 9i). The hero-child aspect and his relationship to the Great Mother is dealt with in chapters 4 and 5 of Part Two of Symbols of Transformation (Collected Works, Vol. 5).[7] In his essay "Answer to Job" (contained in Psychology and Religion: West and East, Vol. 11 of the Collected Works; but also published separately) Jung refers to the puer aeternus as a figure representing the future psychological development of human beings.

"That higher and 'complete' (teleios) man is begotten by the 'unknown' father and born from Wisdom, and it is he who, in the figure of the puer aeternus—'vultu mutabilis albus et ater'[8]—represents our totality, which transcends consciousness. It was this boy into whom Faust had to change, abandoning his inflated onesidedness which saw the devil only outside. Christ's 'Except ye become as little children' prefigures this change, for in them the opposites lie close together; but what is meant is the boy who is born from the maturity of the adult man, and not the unconscious child we would like to remain."[9]

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. The remaining four lectures are devoted to a study of a German novel by Bruno Goetz, Das Reich ohne Raum (The Kingdom Without Space), first published in 1919. Of this novel von Franz says:

"It is interesting that it was written and published before the Nazi movement came into being in 1933, before Hitler was ruminating on his morbid ideas. Bruno Goetz certainly had a prophetic gift about what was coming, and ... his book anticipates the whole Nazi problem, throwing light upon it from the angle of the puer aeternus".[10]

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, including a detailed interpretation of J. M. Barrie's popular novel and play.

"Mythologically, Peter Pan is linked to...the young god who dies and is well as to Mercury/Hermes, psychopomp and messenger of the gods who moves freely between the divine and human realms, and, of course, to the great goat-god Pan.... In early performances of Barrie's play, Peter Pan appeared on stage with both pipes and a live goat. Such undisguised references to the chthonic, often lascivious and far from childlike goat-god were, not surprisingly, soon excised from both play and novel."[11]

Peter Pan syndrome

Peter Pan syndrome is the pop-psychology concept of an adult (usually male[12]) 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.

Dr. Dan Kiley popularized the Peter Pan syndrome in his 1983 book, The Peter Pan Syndrome: Men Who Have Never Grown Up;[13] his next book, The Wendy Dilemma (1984), advises women romantically involved with "Peter Pans" how to improve their relationships.[14] Patricia Craine's book, Wendy's Club: ...for women hooked on "Peter Pans" and how to break the addiction (2006), addresses the same target audience as Kiley's 1984 book.[15]

Notable modern-day Peter Pans

A prominent example of a celebrity with Peter Pan syndrome was Michael Jackson[16][17] who said, "I am Peter Pan in my heart".[18] Jackson named the 2,700-acre Los Olivos, California property, where he lived from 1988 to 2005, Neverland Ranch[19][20] after Neverland, the fantasy island in the story of Peter Pan, and shared that it was his way of claiming the childhood he never had.[16][17] He had built there numerous statues of children, a floral clock, a petting zoo, a movie theater, and a private amusement park containing cotton candy stands, two railroads, a Ferris wheel, carousel, Zipper, Octopus, Pirate Ship, Wave Swinger, Super Slide, roller coaster, go-karts, bumper cars, a tipi village, and an amusement arcade;[21][22] As The New York Daily News staff writer, Carrie Milago, reported on 26 June 2009: "On Jackson's dime, thousands of schoolchildren visited over the years, from local kids to sick youngsters from far away." Visitors "often recalled it as dreamlike", she observed,[23] and a preschool teacher visiting the site told USA Today in 2003, Neverland "smells like cinnamon rolls, vanilla and candy and sounds like children laughing".[23]


  1. Sharp, p.109
  2. von Franz, p.7
  3. Sharp, p.27
  4. 4.0 4.1 Sharp, p.110
  5. von Franz, p.8
  6. Hopcke, ch. 24
  7. Hopcke, ch. 23
  8. "Of changeful countenance, both white and black." Horace, Epistulae, II, 2.
  9. Jung, "Answer to Job", par. 742
  10. von Franz, p.176
  11. Yeoman, p.15
  12. Various materials compiled from University of Granada (May 3, 2007). "Overprotecting Parents Can Lead Children To Develop 'Peter Pan Syndrome'". ScienceDaily. Retrieved 12 September 2012. 
  13. Kiley, Dr. Dan (1983). The Peter Pan Syndrome: Men Who Have Never Grown Up. Avon Books. ISBN 978-0380688906. 
  14. Kiley, Dr. Dan (1984). The Wendy Dilemma: When Women Stop Mothering Their Men. Arbor House Publishing. ISBN 9780877956259. 
  15. Craine, Patricia (2006). Wendy's Club: ...for women hooked on "Peter Pans" and how to break the addiction. AuthorHouse. ISBN 1425960472. 
  16. 16.0 16.1 Hiatt, Brian (2009, July 30). "Michael Jackson: What Went Wrong - Over the past 20 years, Michael Jackson went from being the biggest star in the world to a reclusive broken man. The inside story of his downfall". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 12 September 2012. 
  17. 17.0 17.1 Corliss, Richard (26 June 2009). "Michael Jackson: The Death of Peter Pan". Time.,8599,1907344,00.html. Retrieved 12 September 2012. 
  18. Stanley, Alessandra (6 February 2003). "TELEVISION REVIEW; A Neverland World Of Michael Jackson". The New York Times. Retrieved 12 September 2012. 
  19. "Neverland Never More", by William Etling (author of Sideways in Neverland: Life in the Santa Ynez Valley),, 2009
  20. Toumi, Habib (January 23, 2006). "Jackson settles down to his new life in the Persian Gulf". Gulf News. Retrieved November 11, 2006. 
  21. Soriano, Cesar G (2003-11-24). "At Neverland, they believe". USA Today. 
  22. "Vegas Hosting Big Jackson Family Auction.". Associated Press. Fox News. 2007-05-29.,2933,276076,00.html?sPage=fnc/entertainment/jackson. 
  23. 23.0 23.1 Melago, Carrie - Daily News Staff Writer (Friday, June 26, 2009). "Michael Jackson's Neverland, his own 'Oz' and place to reclaim lost childhood". Retrieved 13 September 2012. 

Further reading

  • Hopcke, Robert H. A Guided Tour of the Collected Works of C.G. Jung. Shambhala, Boston, 1989. ISBN 0-87773-470-4
  • Jung, C.G. The Collected Works of C.G. Jung. Bollingen Series XX, Princeton University Press. (Twenty Volumes) Translated by R.F.C. Hull (except for Vol. 2)
  • Jung, C.G. Answer to Job (from CW 11). Princeton University Press, 1973. ISBN 0-691-01785-9
  • Sharp, Daryl. Jung Lexicon: A Primer of Terms & Concepts. (pp 109 – 110). Inner City Books, Toronto, 1991. ISBN 0-919123-48-1
  • von Franz, Marie-Louise. The Problem of the Puer Aeternus. 3rd Edition, Inner City Books, Toronto, 2000. ISBN 0-919123-88-0
  • Yeoman, Ann. Now or Neveland: Peter Pan and the Myth of Eternal Youth (A Psychological Perspective on a Cultural Icon). Inner City Books, Toronto, 1998. ISBN 0-919123-83-X

External links

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