Sue Mehrtens is the author of this and all the other blog essays on this site. The opinions expressed in these essays are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of other Jungian Center faculty or Board members.
Senex Play and Puer Play:
A Jungian Interpretation of the Varieties of Recreation
… in my tenth year. My disunion with myself and uncertainty in the world at large led me to an action which at the time was quite incomprehensible to me. … I now carved a little manikin, about two inches long, with frock coat, top hat, and shiny black boots. I colored him black with ink… and put him in the pencil case, where I made him a little bed. I even made a coat for him out of a bit of wool… All this was a great secret. Secretly I took the case to the forbidden attic at the top of the house… and hid it with great satisfaction… for no one must ever see it!… Jung (1965)
… I had no choice but… to take up once more that child’s life with his childish games. … it was a painfully humiliating experience to realize that there was nothing to be done except play childish games…. And I started building: cottages, a castle, a whole village…. I went on with my building game after the noon meal every day, whenever the weather permitted. As soon as I was through eating, I began playing,…and if I was finished with my work early enough in the evening, I went back to building. In the course of this activity my thoughts clarified, and I was able to grasp the fantasies whose presence in myself I dimly felt. Jung (1965)
… I had to make a confession of faith in stone. That was the beginning of the “Tower,” the house which I built for myself at Bollingen… In my retiring room I am by myself… In the course of the years I have done paintings on the walls, and so have expressed all those things which have carried me out of time into seclusion… I chiseled this [a Latin verse by an alchemist] into the stone;… Soon something else emerged. I began to see on the front face, in the natural structure of the stone, a small circle, a sort of eye, which looked at me. I chiseled it into the stone, and in the center made a tiny homunculus. This corresponds to the ‘little doll’ (pupilla)—yourself–… I dedicated a few words to him which came into my mind while I was working… On the third face, the one facing the lake, I let the stone itself speak… When the stone was finished, I looked at it again and again, wondering about it and asking myself what lay behind my impulse to carve it. Jung (1965)
This essay arose from a conversation I had with my analyst. I noted how I have found—in both myself and my students—very different interpretations of “play.” What it means to “recreate” is not the same for the senex as it is for the puer.
“Senex” and “puer” are two of what Jung termed “archetypes,” which he defined as the “archaic, primordial images” that derive from the collective unconscious and are “common to all times and races;…” Just as all human beings have eyes and noses, we all experience childhood (puer) and maturity (senex). Archetypes are “patterns of behavior,” and they have intent. That is, they want to give rise to certain actions or activities. In the case of the puer, the intent of the archetype is to play. A child learns a great deal about her world during play and Jung was adamant that a proper childhood should allow a child times for carefree play and exploration. By contrast, the intention in the archetype of the senex is to be responsible. The senex is the energy pattern in us that would have us act in mature and responsible ways.
Senex and puer exist along a continuum. We have each archetype within us, but the ratio of one to the other varies from person to person. This has led me to speak of the “senex type” and the “puer type,” reflecting the predominance of one archetype more than the other. The person who is a “senex type” manifests more of the behaviors and traits of the senex archetype, while the “puer type” lives more oriented to the puer archetype. Let’s define the two types more explicitly.
The Senex Type
Senex is the Latin word for “old person,” giving us our English words “senate,” “senile,” and “senility.” Note that it did not have the negative connotation that Americans usually give to “old;” in fact, to the Roman mind, old age was venerated, and the oldster was invested in Roman culture with wisdom and experience.
As a type the senex is experienced. Having lived a sufficient number of years to acquire a personal history, the senex is more likely than a youth to be sober, realistic, grounded, stable, frugal, patient and accepting of limits. The senex type is likely to have a balanced checkbook, a well-run home, a car in good working order, a predictable schedule, and a reputation for reliability.
Maturity, reliability, grounded realism—these are some of the positive qualities of the senex type, qualities all adults in our culture would do well to develop and manifest. We are, after all, expected to “grow up,” and part of that growth process entails activating some of the behaviors of the senex archetype.
But the process can be overdone, and when it is we see the negative side of the senex archetype: rigidity and reluctance to change; resistance to personal development (because it requires change); a pessimistic outlook on life; materialism, possibly with hoarding (as a defense against possible future lack); a depressive solemnity that finds it hard to laugh or enjoy comedy; and a “party pooper” attitude that can squeeze every shred of joy out of life.
Clearly, the person living at the far senex end of the senex-puer spectrum is living a life out of balance. Both archetypes should be active in our lives. We need access to our inner puer as much as our inner senex.
The Puer Type
Puer is the Latin word for “child,” giving us English words like “puerile” and “puerility.” Our dictionaries define “puerile” as something “foolish for a grown person to say or do; childish.” Our use of the word conveys an assumption that adult persons should not act like children.
But the puer is not entirely negative. While we are young it is a key archetype and its intended activity—play—is how we learn about the world. Even as we age, the puer has much to offer us. For example, staying connected to our inner puer can keep us youthful and fun-loving. It can help us remain optimistic and enthusiastic about life, and imaginative and curious about the world. The puer fosters our creativity and whimsy in its spontaneous openness to whatever comes along during the day. When Buddhists speak about developing “beginner’s mind” they refer to the puer’s fresh, naïve take on reality that can see the wonder in the humdrum and react to it with awe and innocent delight. For most adults, it is a challenging process to recapture this “beginner’s mind.”
Just as the senex can be unbalanced, so can the puer. The adult living too much at the puer end of the spectrum might show up as the profligate spendthrift unable to manage his finances, always overdrawn at the bank, or living in debt up to his eyeballs. Unbounded, weak-willed, reluctant to commit (especially to anything that smacks of boring routine or requires persistence and tenacity), the extreme puer tends to chafe at limits, pushes the envelope in imprudent risk-taking, and has trouble delaying gratification. What he wants, he wants now—hence the irresponsible handling of money. impulsive spending, and likelihood of large indebtedness.
American culture encourages puerility, with its easy credit, consumeritis that urges instant gratification, and plethora of childish diversions: sports (both active and spectator sports), video games, movies, parties and incessant “night life” meant to satisfy the puer “party animal.” As you might imagine, this type of play does not appeal to the senex type.
The Two Types of Play
I first became aware of the stark difference between senex play and puer play in discussions with my dream students. When, from a series of dreams, it seemed the psyche was suggesting that the dreamer play, I would mention this, and I often got an interesting reaction from the senex type. Either he/she didn’t have any idea what I meant, or the dreamer assured me that he/she didn’t have time to play. Given my own orientation—being more senex than puer—I began to observe myself and what “play” meant for me.
I discovered that when I took time out from my work to “play,” I didn’t spend my play time in sports, at bars or parties, or with video games, movies or television. Rather I interpreted “play” as a change of pace, engaging in a non-work activity that produced a tangible result. For example, I would make a dress, or bake a cake, or build a bookcase. There would be something to show for the time I spent away from my work life.
By contrast, I observed adults in my circle who would type more over on the puer side of the spectrum, and saw that they played in very different ways. The puer is more likely to play sports or watch sporting events; to socialize with others, eating out, hanging out in bars, enjoying the proverbial “happy hour;” going to the movies; enjoying a round of golf or motorcycle riding. At the end of the day the puer has warm memories, maybe some sore muscles, a full stomach, perhaps a hangover, but no tangible product to show for the time spent.
It would seem that the senex type—perhaps out of his/her frugality and sobriety—feels the need to be productive and engaged in what is useful, while the puer—perhaps out of his/her fun-loving enthusiasm—wants to extract maximum pleasure out of each work-free moment. I don’t have an explanation for the difference in how the two types play, but it certainly seems to be a reality. I never now suggest to my senex-type students to “go play,” without describing what I mean by “play.”
Jung’s Life as an Illustration
Jung was primarily a senex, and so most of his play time had a grounded and practical cast to it. He painted walls to express his feelings. He carved inscriptions on stone to memorialize alchemical ideas. He built cities out of stones to gain clarity in a time of inner turmoil. He made manikins to exorcize the demons of his childhood, and he worked at chiseling to allow stone to speak. In each case of “play” that Jung mentions in his memoir his activity has a purpose and a tangible result.
Note how he felt about his more public exercise of “play:” humiliation. Jung felt he had no choice, during his intense confrontation with the unconscious, but to return to his childhood and “take up that child’s life…”. Jung noted that, for all the resistance and reluctance, it paid off: “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….”
So it may be with others of us senex types: If we can allow ourselves the time and freedom to return to childhood endeavors, we might experience our own “turning points,” and discover the myths we are living. I have certainly found that, if I allow myself time away from my desk to recreate amid my fabrics, woodshop or kitchenware, I can return to my writing or course preparations with far more creativity, enthusiasm and a sense of renewal.
I’m not so sure the process works in the same way for the puer. It would seem to me that, for the puer to undertake senex tasks is much harder, because senex stuff feels like work—something the puer would rather avoid. The “shoulds,” “oughts” and “musts” that accompany so many senex activities tend to turn off the puer’s enthusiasm. The Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream Company bumper sticker captures the puer’s mindset very well: “If it’s not fun, why do it?”
But I suspect Jung was on to something in his modeling of the balance between these two important archetypes. Whichever side we tend toward—puer or senex—we do well to strive to balance them, and, in doing so, we foster our growth and greater consciousness.
Barrow, R.H. (1949), The Romans. Baltimore: Penguin Books.
Hillman, James ed. (1979), Puer Papers. Dallas TX: Spring Publications.
Jung, C.G. (1971), “Psychological Types,” Collected Works, 6. Princeton: Princeton University Press
________ (1976), ”The Symbolic Life,” CW 18. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (2008), Children’s Dreams: Notes from the Seminar Given in 1936-1940. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1965), Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York: Vintage Books.
Stevens, Anthony (2003), Archetype Revisited. Toronto: Inner City Books.
Suzuki, Shunryu (1984), Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. New York: Weatherhill.
von Franz, Marie-Louise (1970), Puer Aeternus, 2nd ed. Boston: Sigo Press.
 Jung (1965), 21.
 Ibid., 174.
 Ibid., 223-228.
 Collected Works 6, ¶746-747. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW.
 CW 18, ¶1228.
 Stevens (2003), 100, 119.
 Jung (2008), 108, 113, 138.
 World Book Encyclopedia Dictionary, II, 1767.
 Barrow (1949), 21.
 Hoarders are not always senex types; the phenomenon tends to arise out of an unconscious sense of inner emptiness, with the resulting tendency to fill the outer space with stuff; personal communication with Lynda W. Schmidt.
 For more on the senex and puer, cf. Hillman (1979) and von Franz (1970).
 World Book Encyclopedia Dictionary, II, 1571.
 Suzuki (1984), 21-22.
 Far more men in our culture are adult pueri than women, in part because we task women with raising children, maintaining a home, being caregivers and in many other ways taking on adult responsibilities, while men can “tie one on” at the local bar, enjoy a “boy’s night out,” and get away with irresponsibility with the excuse that “boys will be boys.”
 Jung (1965), 224.
 Ibid., 226.
 Ibid., 174.
 Ibid., 21.
 Ibid., 227.
 Ibid., 174.
 Ibid., 174-175.
 Since Ben & Jerry’s original factory and its current factory tour/tourist attraction is here in Vermont, we see a lot of these bumper stickers.