Puer Aeternus is Latin for eternal boy. Senex is Latin for old man. However, this is just one archetype--a split archetype. Hillman (1970) explains "that the senex is a complicatio of the puer, infolded into puer structure, so that puer events are complicated by a senex background." (p. 146). Explaining that the senex has a double nature, Hillman continues by saying "one characteristic is never safe from inversion into its opposite" (p. 148). So what? How does all this double talk relate to the real world?

Since a thorough examination of the puer is usually incomplete without discussing its senex counterpart, for the sake of brevity and focus, the senex will not be discussed further. The puer will be the focus.

Having been an inveterate alcoholic/drug addict for more than 30 years of my life, those years can be juxtaposed with the problem of the puer aeternus. I went to a party when I was 11 and didn't get back until I was, ad extremum--at last, 43 years old. Indeed, the puer was alive and well in me. Having spent time in the Augean stables of county jails and ultimately the state penitentiary, I noticed that the puer population was alive and well in there too--a virtual pied-a- terre.

Kipnis (1999) reports studies done by the Prison Activist Resource Center that lists the top ten reasons for Californians entering prison today:

1. Possession of a controlled substance

2. Possession of a controlled substance for sale

3. Robbery

4. Sale of a controlled substance

5. Second-degree burglary

6. Assault with a deadly weapon

7. Driving under the influence

8. First-degree burglary

9. Petty theft with a prior conviction

10. Vehicle theft

Most inmates are imprisoned for substance-related offenses (p. 176). Kipnis reminds us that drug offenders represent sixty percent of federal prisoners and over one-third of state and county prisoners (p. 121). These statistics do not include the inmates who are intra muros--within the walls, because of malesuada fames--hunger that urges people to crime: crimes committed to finance drug and alcohol use, or crimes committed while under the influence, etc. In the netherworld of the prison yard, I found that most inmates were much like me in many ways-- quite comparable to the scabrous characters whom I associated with on the streets.

Marie-Louise von Franz (2000) describes me (the puer) as having an

arrogant attitude toward other people due to both an inferiority complex and false feelings of superiority. Such people also usually have great difficulty in finding the right kind of job, for whatever they find is never quite right or quite what they wanted. There is always 'a hair in the soup' (p. 8).

Lionel Corbett (1997), when addressing narcissism, writes that "pathological grandiosity which is needed to maintain a fragile self structure may make one depreciate the religious values of other people for the sake of self enhancement (p. 34). Not only toward religious values, I might add, but toward any values unlike their own.

Me and my puerile friends were often, to say the least, irresponsible. I am reminded of the time, under the influence of methamphetamine, I was digging holes in the desert at an old dump site. I was so preoccupied with this frivolous activity that I made a conscious decision to not go to court on a Failure to Appear charge. The Peter Pan in me wanted to play instead--trahit sua quemque voluptas, each man's fancy lures him. According to Kiley (1983)

Victims of the Peter Pan Syndrome can't escape irresponsibility. This trap begins as innocent, typical rebellion, but mushrooms into an adult lifestyle. A fundamental piece of the puzzle of the Peter Pan Syndrome is gross irresponsibility that spawns ineptness in basic self-care skills (p. 45).

Irresponsibility, a false sense of superiority, going from job to job, not bathing for a week at a time, and a penchant for blandae mendacia linguae--the lies of a smooth tongue, and building air castles are only some of the quotidian traits of the puer aeternus. This is not to say that puertraits are all negative. Gauche as the puer is, he is usually very affable, sanguine, well- intentioned, and good-natured. Many of his often subtle senex attributes also enhance the positive puer. His firebrand presence on prison yards, however, and his chemical dependency further exacerbates the plight of the negative puer. So, how might we account for such vast numbers of people in this country caught in the problem of the puer aeternus? One popular theory is that American youth are virtually without formal rites of passage--hoc opus, this is the difficulty.

To ignore rites of passage or dismiss them as trivial or unnecessary rituals is ridiculous as denial being a river in Africa. Gleaned from The Stanton Peele Addiction Web Site, it is stated that

in a 1980 article in the American Sociological Review and a 1984 article in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol, where two sociologists at the University of Syracuse, Barry Glassner and Bruce Berg, investigating Jewish drinking in a large upstate New York city because they believed that traditionally low Jewish alcoholism rates had increased over the years. Of the Jewish people the sociologists actually interviewed, none had ever had a drinking problem. Investigating all reports by activists in the Jewish community who had announced a growing alcoholism problem, Glassner and Berg could not actually locate one Jewish alcoholic. Accepting at face values all such reports led to calculation of an alcoholism rate of about one-tenth of one percent among Jewish adults.

Wow! Could it be that a bar mitzvah is responsible for this? Probably--at least where drugs and alcohol are concerned. However, judging by reports from the Jewish community, they do have other addictions such as overeating and anorexia. According to the National "Jewish Press," Ross (April, 1986) reports that there are seven to 10 thousand Jewish inmates in the United States. That is not very many compared to the two million Americans that Kipnis (1999) reports who are behind bars (p. 170). Under the aegis of the church, could initiatory rites of passage account for the absence of the puer in Jewish culture? If so, one could be compelled to investigate rites of passage in other cultures.

"The term initiation," as defined by Eliade (1958) "in the most general sense denotes a body of rites and oral teachings whose purpose is to produce a decisive alteration in the religious and social status of the person to be initiated" (p. x). The closest I came to being elevated from a child to something more than a child, was my entrance into junior high school. Without so much as a caveat from the elementary school level, what followed came as a radical social change. In what seems now like an almost overnight transformation, I went from a pleasant grade school boy to a acerbic junior high school rebel without a cause: from playing on the monkey bars to getting drunk at Friday night football games; from wrestling with schoolmates on the playground to gang fights with rival Mexican gangs after school--riotous, no doubt, as the Germanic berserkers of antiquity; from playing hide-and-go-seek with girls to whisking them out of the movie theater to kiss and fondle them--not unlike Theseus carrying off Adriadne (p. 109); from recess to smoking in the bath rooms during breaks; from evenings home with parents to malicious mischief with friends. It could be argued that there is a nexus between our malicious mischief and the spirit of initiation. My friends and I felt compelled to prove ourselves to each other, so we acted-out an incredible amount of destructive behavior in the process. This alchemical coniunctio, from boy to wacko, also involved more subtle anomalies. Discussing initiation in Tierra del Fuego, Eliade mentions that "a frequent custom is that of giving the novice a new name immediately after his initiation (p. 28). Soon after my nascent arrival into junior high school, one of my new friends tagged me with the name Little Richard. I remained Little Richard for the rest of my first life. My first life being my drug and alcohol years; my second life being my post drug and alcohol years; my pre life being a rather short childhood.

The closest I came to a formal initiation ceremony during puberty was my sixth grade graduation ceremony, elevating me to junior high school status. This happened at about the same age as the bar mitzvah does in Jewish culture. Being unfamiliar with the bar mitzvah and what their ordeals entail, I believe it is safe to assume that there are painstaking lengths gone to for some kind of enduring conversion. Eliade (1958) says that among the Australian Yuin tribe "the first initiation ceremony, comprising the separation from the women and the ordeal by fire, is thus complete. From that night on the novices share only in the life of the men"( p.8). Indeed, the elevation to junior high school with its incumbent social status, seemed to suddenly sever an emotional attachment to my mother, and created a different kind of emotional attachment to my newly acquired friends--friends, I might add, some of whom I kept for more than 30 years. In discussing "the secret society of the Bakhimba in Mayombe," Eliade shares that "the initiatory ordeals continue from two to five years (p. 75).

When considering my adolescence, I could say that my initiatory ordeals, or rather my initiatory gradations, also continued for years; thereby eventuating the problem of the puer aeternus. After my elevation to junior high, I could not bear the interminable passage of time to arrive at Xvarnah--that light of glory that the magical age of 16 brings, when that golden driver license can be attained. I took a driver education class at 15 and a half and avoided the 16-year- old driver license requirement by legalizing my driving privilege with an instruction permit. This legal manipulation empowered me to drive a car if I had a licensed driver in the car with me. It also empowered me to drive a motor-driven cycle without any supervision; therefore, I talked my parents into allowing me to spend my savings on a Cushman Eagle motor scooter. Wa la, I attained independent mobility. Not only did my social status go up another notch, but my mobility put me in contact with the higher echelons of the streets. The Los Diablos motorcycle gang even took me under their wing. I had arrived! My blissful state of Xvarnah, however, was short-lived. Two weeks later I was arrested and jailed for curfew. Two weeks after that I got my first of seven DUI's. Ironically, in another two weeks, a friend and I were arrested for stealing milk off a porch after staying out all night drinking. Consequently, my dad took away the motor scooter and I found myself immobile and distraught.

Can my entrance into junior high school be considered a rite of passage? Can my driving privilege be considered a rite of passage? Probably not--at least not in the traditional sense. However, it is my contention that these were different kinds of rites of passage. Not having adequate formal guidance--I guided myself, which is common, and has been for a long time. The lack of parental control, of course, exacerbates the situation.

Eliade (1958) says that

even if the initiatory character of these ordeals is not apprehended as such, it remains true nonetheless that man becomes himself only after having solved a series of desperately difficult and even dangerous situations; that is, after having undergone 'tortures' and 'death,' followed by an awakening to another life, qualitatively different because regenerated" (p. 128).

By the time I was socially established in junior high school, I had been through various tortures and been awakened into another life by suffering with hangovers, sporting black eyes and bruises from fighting, getting in scooter and car accidents, enduring punishment for indiscretions at school, and continually having to endure the wrath and retribution of my officious parents for my refractory behavior. It could be said that I was tortured when I was metamorphosed from the archetypal innocence of a butterfly into a nasty old caterpillar (etymologically cater comes from tomcat and pillar comes from plunderer). By the time the caterpillar summer was over, my heterodox lifestyle had been firmly established. This new and parlous life--this self will run riot, continued until I was 43 years old. Graduating from high school and turning 18, then turning 21 were still further entrenchments, but they were really gradatory inevitabilities compared with the junior high school awakening that established an eonian lifestyle. I did not experience rites of passage in the way they were experienced in the mystery religions or in any other traditional way.

"Modern man," explains Eliade (1958)

no longer has any initiation of the traditional type. Certain initiatory themes survive in Christianity; but the various Christian denominations no longer regard them as possessing the values of initiation. The rituals, imagery, and terminology borrowed from the mysteries of late antiquity have lost their initiatory aura" (p. 132).

However, there is a more formal movement of initiation going on in society today under the guise of another name--hazing.

At a web site sponsored by Education Week, Walsh (September 6, 2000) reports that

almost half the high school students responding to a national survey said they had been subjected to activities that fit a broad definition of hazing to become members of sports teams, cheerleading squads, gangs, and other groups. The study by researchers at Alfred University in New York, released last week, is described as the first serious academic research into initiation rites at the high school level. Some of the results surprised even the authors. For example, the survey showed that 24 percent of students joining youth church groups faced hazing. The study's authors, expecting little hazing in that category, almost didn't include it in the survey. Among all survey respondents, nearly one out of four students was required to engage in substance abuse, such as participating in drinking contests. And 22 percent were subjected to activities the researchers defined as dangerous hazing not involving substance abuse, such as stealing, inflicting pain on themselves, or being physically abused.

Drinking contests, daredevil fighting, stealing to fit in, etc., were the callow activities I participated in during my pubescence--a temporary modus operandi that I consider initiatory, even though I wasn't being forced to do it. If I hadn't, however, then I would have been alienated or suffered some other type of consequences. Durkheim (1995), discussing tattooing, states that "it is true that, among the Arunta, the design thus made does not always and necessarily represent the totem of the novice" (p. 116). It astonishes me today that I willingly endured such excruciating pain incurred from tattooing, macho-acting as though it wasn't painful at all. I now consider this non compos mentis--not of sound mind. Durkheim, however, shares that "Preuss was the first to become aware of the religious role that is ascribed to pain in the lower societies" (p. 317). Of course we did not conceive ourselves as doing anything religious or even spiritual, but our tattoos were always symbolic to the interests of our group.

Walsh's article went on to describe in detail the various forms of hazing that I am not inclined to include here. The original study he quotes from is available at the previously mentioned web site.


Obviously, our youth in this country is now, and has for a long time been ripe for some kind of formal rites of passage, and since we don't seem to feel it is necessary to incorporate it into our culture--they are. Like solicitous parents, we should take heed of magnum bonum--the great good, of the bar mitzvah in the Jewish community and do a commensurate service to our pubescent population by supplanting independent hazing practices. This may be too idealistic. Such an achievement would, indeed, be a pyrrhic victory. Whether it is hazing, addiction, or any type of aberrant behavior, most of us know that what we're doing is not conducive to a productive life--video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor, I see the better course of action and I approve of it, but I follow the worse course. Here is a parable to this Latin phrase.

"According to Webster's Dictionary," says Ellis (1985)

mumpsimus is an error obstinately clung to. The word comes from the story of an old priest who, for thirty years, had conducted services using the word mumpsimus, a substitute for the correct Latin word sumpsimus. One day, when his error was finally pointed out to him, he replied, 'I will not change my old mumpsimus for your new sumpsimus.' (p. 106).

The bottom line: Without a significant rite of passage, much of our youth will remain adolescent in behavior and attitude far into adulthood--puer aeternus.


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Kipnis, A. (1999). Angry young men: How parents, teachers, and counselors can help "bad boys" become good men. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Miller, D. (1973). Achelous and the butterfly: Toward an archetypal psychology of humor. Spring: An Annual of Archetypal Psychology and Jungian Thought. Dallas, Texas: Spring Publications

Peele, S. (11/12/2001). Would legalization of alcoholic drinks to minors decrease or increase underage drinking? In The Stanton Peele Addiction Web Site. Retrieved December 18, 2001 from www.peele.net/faq/childdrink.html

Ross, R. (April, 1986). Three nation umbrella org. to aid Jewish prison inmates, families. In National Jewish Press. Retrieved December 30, 2001 from www.rickross.com/reference/Jewpris5.html

von Franz, M. The problem of the puer aeternus. (1988). Toronto, Canada: Inner City Books.

Walsh, M. (6 Sept. 2000). Hazing is widespread, student survey shows. In Education Week. Retrieved December 15, 2001 from www.edweek.org/ew/ewstory.cfm?slug=01haze.h20

Author's Bio: 

After 40 arrests, five formal probations, four country jail sentences, and a prison term (as a result of chemical dependency), I turned my life around. I was released from prison in Dec 1989, and have been clean and sober since. I started at Barstow College in Feb 1990. Received my AA degree in '92 from Barstow College in Barstow, CA; BA in '94 from Chapman University in Orange CA; MHS in 98 from National University in San Diego CA, and finished with a Ph.D. from Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, CA in Feb 2004. I have taught as an adjunct instructor for Park University and Barstow College. I can be contacted through my website www.ScumbagSewerRats.com or directly to my email account ScumbagSewerRats@verizon.net