The mythopoetic men's movement in the US, and now in Australia, is concerned with spirituality and personal growth, using mythology and ritual. Michael Flood offers an outline and critique, and explores the practicalities of the movement.

Robert Bly is the guru and grandfather of the American mythopoetic men's movement, a highly influential leader for at least the last decade, and his ideas and writings are beginning to be taken up in Australia. Other leaders include storyteller Michael Meade and psychologists James Hillman, John Lee and Robert Moore.

The spiritual perspective of the mythopoetic men's groups is largely indebted to the ideas of Jung (1875-1961). Its adherents agree with Jung that men start life as whole persons but, through wounding, lose their unity and become fragmented. Eventually, if men probe the archetypes buried in their unconscious, they will be able to heal these wounds and restore themselves to a state of wholeness and psychospiritual health.

Bly makes use of Jung's theory of archetypes, to argue that within each man there are numerous archetypes that will influence behaviour and attitudes, some in healthy ways and some in violent and unhealthy ways. These archetypes include the Wild Man, the King, the Trickster, the Lover, the Quester and the Warrior. Masculinity is the product of these deep psychological scripts, and particular archetypes are expressed at different historical periods.

Today's male

For Bly, there have been distinct historical forms of masculinity. The 1950s male was the organisation man, the 1960s and early 1970s male was an angry macho warrior, the late 1970s and 1980s male was a soft, feminised man.

Through long-term historical shifts, collective rituals of manhood have disintegrated, and father-son solidarity is now absent, damaged by changes in the organisation of work that were part of the Industrial Revolution. Masculinity is currently unhealthy and spiritually limiting.

Men must therefore descend into their spirits, into the "deep masculine", and make contact with an important archetype - the Wild Man. Bly retells the Grimm Brothers fairytale "Iron Hans" as "Iron John" to introduce the Wild Man. In this interpretation, personal growth begins with this spiritual discovery, achieved through participation in rituals, myths and story-telling.

The Wild Man

The concept of the wild man was introduced by Robert Bly about 10 years ago. He represents the wild and vigorous nature of man, that has been suppressed in modern males, and that we need to rediscover to break out of our spiritual malaise. If this part of masculinity is properly integrated into the male psyche, it will be positive and creative.

The Wild Man is a spontaneous, forceful, primal being. The Wild Man represents the "nourishing and spiritually radiant energy" of the "deep masculine". Bly has in mind the kind of energy that involves "forceful action undertaken, not without compassion, but with resolve." Wild men are not hostile and aggressive, but show a steady resolve to know and defend what one loves.

Bly distinguishes between the Wild Man and the Savage Man, who is hostile, insensitive and full of rage. The Savage Man has repressed his basic nature, ignored his hurts, and is in many ways the antithesis of the Wild Man. Some mythopoetic men who follow Bly don't make this distinction, and the distinction itself seems blurred.

In the ideal world of Bly's mythopoetic men, the animal nature of man is acknowledged and embraced,; the warrior is noble and never savage; the king is wise and sensitive; the poet and shaman are honoured; the father and son are loving mentor and pupil; all emotion is acknowledged.

He's dangerous

The main problem with Bly's perspective lies in the potential dangers of men celebrating the Wild Man. There are two parts to this problem; that Bly's ideas may encourage and justify a destructive masculinity, and that they may encourage anti-woman sentiment.

Bly's exhortation for a return to the wild man is based partly on the argument that the 1960s and 1970s were characterised by the 'soft male', men who have abandoned their "masculine energy", as a response to the questioning of masculinity by feminists in particular. 'soft males' lack initiative and strength, are confused about their identity, and unable to relate to their masculinity. Bly therefore preaches that men rediscover and express their energy and strength, their ability to shout and say what they want.

I'd state in contrast that most men aren't 'soft men', and millions are unaffected by feminism. There's a more subtle problem in Bly's argument, in his understanding of 'soft men' themselves. Bly is correct to say that (some) men have responded to feminism with passivity, guilt and self-hatred. I agree, this is not an ideal state for men, and it's not a very productive response to feminism. But the answer is not therefore to reject feminism entirely, as Bly implies. I would call myself one of those 'soft men', who initially responded to the challenge of feminism with confusion and weakness. But I now feel pride and strength as a man while fundamentally maintaining a closeness to and appreciation of feminism.

I wonder too if there isn't a hint of homophobia  in this criticism of the 1970s and 1980s 'soft male'. This period is also when the contemporary gay liberation movement began, involving both 'soft' and 'hard' styles of gay men.

The Wild Man is dangerous. Bly's program encourages anger and strength - for many men, this is a license for a regressive masculinity. As David Tacey points out in an article in the journal Meanjin, this urging to toughen up, scream and shout could simply worsen men's patriarchal condition. I am not suggesting an abandonment of energy and strength, but that we men take care and sensitivity in practising these.

Against feminism

Bly is seen by several commentators as reacting against the demands of feminism and provoking a surge of anti-woman sentiment. Bly states that feminism hurts men and holds them back from finding themselves. Feminism has contributed to an imbalance of "hard women" and "soft men". Women are partly to blame for men's current limited state. Bly here is picking up on a conservative theme in Jungian psychology that sees the traditional behaviours of men and women as natural and eternal, and that is resistant to change in gender roles. On the other hand, Bly does praise feminism as a positive force for women.

This unsympathetic attitude to feminism is expressed in some of the workshops of the US mythopoetic men's movement. Christopher Burant points out that, in some of these, what is being marketed as "wildness" is often nothing more than thinly disguised anger at women, and familiar patriarchal roles. And what does the fascination for classically patriarchal archetypes of king and warrior say about the agendas of the men involved?

The general understanding offered by Bly, as one of the gurus of the US spiritual men's movement, lends itself to an anti-feminist perspective. His ideas about current male reality appeal to another strand of the men's movements, the "men's rights" strand. Men's rights groups aim to combat the gains of feminism and reassert men's control and power. David Tacey in Australian Society puts this point very succinctly:

"There is too much of the American love of self in the Iron John culture. The movement wants men to "feel good about being men", but that feeling is spurious unless it has first grappled with, and not merely shrugged off, the feminist critique of men and patriarchy."

These criticisms are not an outright rejection of men's searches for spiritualities, rituals and archetypes. The point is simply that this particular spiritual model, involving the "Wild Man", is dangerous. It scares me, and it scares others. It may be possible to work out a wildman spirituality that isn't anti-feminist and that does take on issues of sexism, but this is doubtful, because the problem is in the notion of the wildman itself.

An alternative

There is an alternative to this particular form of new male spirituality. John Rowan practises and writes of a more pro-feminist men's spirituality. Rowan is similar to Bly in his use of the Jungian notions of archetypes. He argues in The Horned God that current patriarchal society involves men being wounded, because the dominant archetypes are violent and insensitive; they cause men to wound other men, women, and themselves. He identifies such masculine archetypes as the Hairy Chested Macho Man, the All Wise Daddy, the Cheery Life and Soul of the Party, and the Horned God.

Rowan takes up the positive and dynamic archetype of the "Horned God" as an important masculine idea. Through rituals of wounding and healing, men can reach this. In contrast to Bly, Rowan sees more unity and interchange between the masculine and the feminine. He argues that men are cut off from the feminine, and that men will benefit from feminine spirituality.

Rowan's spirituality is more pro-feminist and sensitive than Bly's. In some ways it's a male parallel to women's Goddess worship and the Wicca tradition. This type of men's spirituality offers men possibilities for healthy growth and positive energy, while maintaining a responsible social awareness.


What do "wildman" workshops and retreats actually look like? Will going to them change men? Quite aside from the question of the anti-feminist and women-blaming tendencies in some mythopoetic thinking, will the retreats and workshops actually encourage and allow men to grow?

Most men in the mythopoetic men's movement are middle-aged, white and middle-class (and heterosexual as far as I can tell). This is not a criticism, but it helps us in trying to understand the character of the movement. Many of the men found their way to the movement after the breakup of a marriage or long-term relationship, and the scary and lonely realisation that they can't always turn to women.

The typical goings-on at a wildman retreat, as far as I can gather from reading several accounts, are myth and story-telling, personal sharing, and rituals of initiation and exploration of archetypes. These include practices of drumming, sitting in sweat-lodges, and role-playing.

It's too easy to laugh at this sort of thing, men leaping about and crying and drumming. We need a more thoughtful response. I try to look for the positive whenever I hear of men's attempts at change, however silly or strange they sound. The mythopoetic movement involves men sharing emotions and experiences, looking within themselves at the ways they are and asking what ideals have influenced them. This is a good thing. It suggests the potential for men to change in productive ways, through self-knowledge and self-critique.

Growling up the wrong tree

Yet the style of workshop, and the notions of what is going on, may actually hinder growth. The experience of being confronted by things that are too far removed from ourselves, and going along with the workshop while feeling it's stupid and fake, is described by several participants at mythopoetic events. All the New Age myth-making may be a side-track to the real business, of sharing and listening. The role-playing and mythology can be another way for a group of men to avoid any honest and meaningful exchange. Another problem lies in the search for latter-day rituals. In the US, mythopoetic (white) men use images and rituals from Native American and African cultures, and ancient Greek and other societies. Performed out of context, these may not connect with men.

The beat of a different drum

What most men seem to want are more forums in which they can talk directly and openly to one another. If beating drums, making spears and sitting in sweat lodges is the only way some men can do it, then so be it. On the other hand, the consciousness-raising group provides a powerful and profound model for talking and listening. My own two-year involvement in a consciousness-raising group led me to enormous and inspiring changes.

Men can celebrate positive masculine energy and strength in many ways apart from those preached by Bly and his followers. Personally, I like chopping wood, cycling, and dancing. Other men may take up Rowan's "Horned God" or other spiritualities, or work out rituals of their own. And we can and should accompany this exploration with a responsible social awareness.

No program

Bly and others in the mythopoetic men's movement raise issues such as men's unhealthy lives at work and in families. But their solutions consist solely of these rituals and workshops, couched in a generalised mysticism. As Richard Glover commented in the Sydney Morning Herald, Bly is frustratingly unspecific about an alternative path for men.

The mythopoetic men's movement looks inward, and does not have a strong social or political agenda. Where is there a concern for the actual and daily possibilities for, and practicalities of, change? In relying on ancient mythology and Jungian theory, Bly and others actually neglect the realities of men's lives.

Postscript: Four months later, I still like this article. But I should have said more about how men's needs are answered by the notion of the "wildman". I could have spent more time on these men's lives and the possibilities open to them.

Further reading

Kenneth Clatterbaugh's book Contemporary Perspectives on Masculinity (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1990) is a unique and accessible outline of current perspectives on masculinity. I recommend it very highly.

Sources used

Jerry Alder et.al "Drums, Sweat and Tears", Newsweek in The Bulletin, 25 June 1991
Trip Gabriel "All of the wildmen", New York Times Magazine 1990
Richard Glover "Balmain Spearmen", SMH 25 May 1991, "Agenda" section
Richard Glover "Dancing with spears", SMH  31 May 1991, "Agenda" section
Margaret Horsefield "Machos marching to a different drum", SMH 2 July 1991
John Rowan 1987 The Horned God New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul
David Tacey "Reconstructing Masculinity: A Post-Jungian Response to Contemporary Men's Issues", Meanjin Vol. 49 No. 4, Summer 1990
David Tacey "How new is the new male?", Australian Society June 1991
Jon Tevlin "Of hawks and men: A weekend in the male wilderness", Utne Reader Nov./Dec. 1989

First published in "XY: Men, Sex", Politics, 1(4), Spring 1991. Reprinted with permission. PO Bo" 26, Ainslie ACT, 2602, AUSTRALIA.