Great Mother

In Container, the third article in my series on leaving home, I wrote briefly about what can happen when a child’s need for balanced “containment” and nurturance are not met in the family of origin, and she grows up uncontained, unprotected, and without nurture. The opposite can happen, of course, and a child can grow up over-protected by an over-involved mother or father, as in the case of some religiously home schooled children, for example. And it is to the concept of opposites and ends of the bell curve that we must now turn, for when we write in Jungian terms about mothers, we are writing not only one’s own actual mother, but about the archetype of mother, one Jung referred to as the Great Mother.

eucharist10 by you.Jung believed that the influence of the mother on a child derived not only from the actual mother, but also from the Great Mother archetype, a universal image or symbol, along with influences from the child’s own psyche. The child’s idea of “mother” may or may not correspond accurately to the actual mother, then, depending on the child’s own temperament and personality combined with universally-held archetypes and the influence of the actual mother.

The Great Mother is an archetype of opposites, including at one end the sympathetic, caring, solicitous mother and at the other the devouring, seductive, poisonous mother. The first may be represented by the Virgin Mary, for example, while the latter might be represented by Kali, the mother who devours her young. Even though the child may understand that his personal mother is neither a Madonna nor a Kali, he may relate to her as if she were such a figure. Likewise, the undeveloped mother with a mother complex may constellate or manifest her own Good Mother (or Bad Mother), fail to integrate the two within herself, and give her child a mother-child experience that, for all practical purposes, is experienced very much as if the child had actually grown up with an archetype rather than a real mother.

Why might this occur? Most probably it occurs because the mother never came to terms with her personal mother’s dual natures and thus failed to successfully handle the Good Mother-Bad Mother split. To put it in the simplest terms, the child with a projected Good Mother may internalize Bad Mother and give only Bad Mother to her own child, or vice-versa. This legacy of a one-dimensional, split mother image may thus come to be handed down from generation to generation, with the parent carrying one image and the child carrying its opposite until someone awakens and integrates the two.

This rudimentary level of consciousness is referred to as participation mystique, a term coined by French anthropologist Lévy-Bruhl. The child identifies with the parent, and the parent with the child, experiencing no awareness that they are unconsciously identified with one another. This same type of identification may occur not only with parents or other people, but with objects or the career or any number of things. However, the earliest participation mystique occurs in the family of origin, and connects parents and children through the process of identification, introjection, and projection.

eucharist7 by you.

Identification is the unconscious projection of one’s personality onto that of another, causing the individual to behave as if two different and dissimilar entities are in fact identical. Through identification, the infant believes that he is the same as his mother. Introjection is an attempt to internalize experience or to take another’s personality, situation, or essence inside oneself. One possible positive use of introjection is empathy, or the ability to perceive or feel another’s experience as if it were one’s own. Projection, on the other hand, is the expulsion of an individual’s unconscious, inner content onto another person (or object). Projected contents are regarded as part of the other person, having been disowned by the one doing the projecting.

eucharist9 by you.In analytical psychology, projection is seen as the way in which elements of a person’s unconscious world are made manifest to him consciously. The projection of one’s unconscious contents onto the external world is regarded as a valuable service to the internal world of the individual if and when a re-collection or re-integration of the projected contents takes place. This may occur through analysis, with the help of conscious and aware mentors or loved ones, when the target or carrier of another’s projected contents steadfastly refuses to cooperate, or (less often) when the individual him- or herself recalls the projections.
According to Jung, he process of recalling one’s projections occurs thus:

  1. The person is convinced that what he sees in the other is the case.
  2. A gradual recognition dawns of a differentiation between the other as she or he really is and the projected image. This awareness may be facilitated by dreams or events or other means.
  3. Some sort of assessment or judgment is made of the discrepancy.
  4. A conclusion is reached that what was felt was erroneous or illusory.
  5. A conscious search for the sources and origin of the projection is undertaken. This includes collective as well as personal determinants of the projection.

Jung believed that analysis could only help the individual through the fourth step. All other real progress toward integration of the self could only occur within the individual, based on work undertaken on his own.

In contrast to Melanie Klein’s idea that projective identification leads to the elimination of separations, Jung believed that projection divided and separated people. I side with Jung on this one, believing that the splitting of the self through rejection and expulsion of inner contents onto another cannot possibly lead to unity between people, much less to unity within the person doing the projecting. I do, however, understand Klein’s point: the unconscious intent of projection is to achieve the appearance or feeling of unity within the person doing the projecting. I simply believe that this ploy cannot possibly work in the long term because the appearance of unity and real unity are two different things. Ongoing projection must inevitably lead to the decline, decay, and eventual dismissal of whole parts of the personality.

13 responses to “Great Mother”

  1. Irene Avatar

    “What will happen when we dutiful daughters are more duty-bound to our real selves than we have been to our ideas of duty that looks good but is impossibly depleting? For in being “good” we deprive others of the opportunity to reap what they sow.”

    That is exactly what I can feel rising up inside – the recognition that I want to be away from this duty, but because I am ‘good’, and because I empathise so deeply with my mum – well, how can I desert her? She mostly speaks to me about her conflicts with dad, and she has no friends outside family. How could I cause her so much pain? Hasn’t she had enough, didn’t she have enough all her life, from when she was 15 in the war, and on and on?

    And yet, I understand the need for letting others reap what they sow. I really do. So on goes the conundrum. And the horrible conflict of the desire for this part of my life to be gone, to put down this load. To be free.

    Eve, I would very much like you to write your thoughts about the dark feminine, as I feel I would like to explore it further also. Somehow it feels like a very rich vein.

  2. The Librarian in Purgatory Avatar

    The Chinese well understood the mother/father, male/female archetypes, their dynamics and the full spectrum of the interplay of their energies capturing them in K’un and Ch’ien, the two primary hexagrams in the I Ching. As an aside, Jung wrote the introduction for the Wilhelm translation, which is what is below.

    1. Ch’ien / The Creative

    The first hexagram is made up of six unbroken lines. These unbroken lines stand for the primal power, which is light-giving, active, strong, and of the spirit. The hexagram is consistently strong in character, and since it is without weakness, its essence is power or energy. Its image is heaven. Its energy is represented as unrestricted by any fixed conditions in space and is therefore conceived of as motion. Time is regarded as the basis of this motion. Thus the hexagram includes also the power of time and the power of persisting in time, that is, duration. The power represented by the hexagram is to be interpreted in a dual sense in terms of its action on the universe and of its action on the world of men. In relation to the universe, the hexagram expresses the strong, creative action of the Deity. In relation to the human world, it denotes the creative action of the holy man or sage, of the ruler or leader of men, who through his power awakens and develops their higher nature.

    2. K’un / The Receptive

    This hexagram is made up of broken lines only. The broken lines represents the dark, yielding, receptive primal power of yin. The attribute of the hexagram is devotion; its image is the earth. It is the perfect complement of THE CREATIVE–the complement, not the opposite, for the Receptive does not combat the Creative but completes it . It represents nature in contrast to spirit, earth in contrast to heaven, space as against time, the female-maternal as against the male-paternal. However, as applied to human affairs, the principle of this complementary relationship is found not only in the relation between man and woman, but also in that between prince and minister and between father and son. Indeed, even in the individual this duality appears in the coexistence of the spiritual world and the world of the senses. But strictly speaking there is no real dualism here, because there is a clearly defined hierarchic relationship between the two principles. In itself of course the Receptive is just as important as the Creative, but the attribute of devotion defines the place occupied by this primal power in relation to the Creative. For the Receptive must be activated and led by the Creative; then it is productive of good. Only when it abandons this position and tries to stand as an equal side by side with the Creative, does it become evil. The result then is opposition to and struggle against the Creative, which is productive of evil to both.

  3. Irene Avatar

    For years I did/do (!) all the heavy projecting on my father, but I can see how subtly issues with the mother side of things is tweaking at the periphery for me. It is starting to make me roll my eyes and feel “why am I sooo attached here?” My identification with my mother’s traumas dished out by my father is so complete, he sees me as a clone of her – the one who sides with her. But I’ve been trying in recent years to become more central, and see where my mum is just as responsible for her predicaments. I just want to stop feeling her pain, and knowing that underneath I am angry that she doesn’t stand up to him and his bossy behaviour.
    In fact, lately, I just want to escape all that drama – the war zone, I call it now. But I am the dutiful daughter.

    Its funny how I have always been attracted to the darker mother archetype culturally…the black Madonna, Kali.

    1. Eve Avatar

      Irene, oh, I feel a pang when I read your line, “But I am the dutiful daughter.”

      But. But… But…. BUT!

      I too am a dutiful daughter. And a dutiful wife and mother. Lately–and here I must praise God for being over 50!–a not-so-dutiful part is brewing. It has been there all along, but what has not is the will to act differently. Less dutiful. Less … “good.” And this brings us (does it not?) to the black Madonna, Kali, and to Medusa and all those other images of dark loveliness.

      I’m reminded of Song of Songs, where the poet writes that his beloved is dark and lovely.

      Anyway, perhaps when I finish this series I’ll write about that, too. What will happen when we dutiful daughters are more duty-bound to our real selves than we have been to our ideas of duty that looks good but is impossibly depleting? For in being “good” we deprive others of the opportunity to reap what they sow. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately as I read about the dark side of feminine.

  4. Scott Erb Avatar

    Yes, that all makes sense. And, given the way you had me show my thinking, and then you used it to explain the concepts and ideas, I have to say you’re a natural teacher.

    1. Eve Avatar

      Scott, during my research for another bit of writing, I ran across something by Melanie Klein that applies to our conversation. I thought you might be pleased to read this. It is from her book, “Love, Guilt, and Reparation,” in her chapter about creativeness. She wrote:

      “I have suggested that any source of joy, beauty, and enrichment (whether inner or external) is, in the unconscious mind, felt to be the mother’s loving and giving breast and the father’s creative penis, which in phantasy possesses similar qualities–ultimately, the two kind and generous parents.” (New York: W. W. Norton, 1964, p. 107).

      I thought this was very well put, as it shows how at heart, so to speak, the mother-father need is one in that it is the need for “kind and generous” parents. Parents who nuture, protect, sustain, etc.

      When writing about the meaning of “Father” or “Mother” symbolically, truly we will probably begin with different ideas. But the bottom-line need that’s being filled eventually is for “good.” I thought the way Klein writes this might help clarify things for both of us.

      Does this help?

  5. Eve Avatar

    Scott, I appreciate your thoughtful response, because now you’ve gotten me thinking. I think your question is very good because of the different roles we have in our culture now. I wonder what actually happens when “I am the one who gets up with them at night” becomes knit deep into children’s souls?

    Your question speaks directly to the ideas Jung had about the Great Mother archetype. As I wrote at the beginning of this article, there’s your actual mother, and then there is your perception of your mother; and then there is the archetype of “Mother.” Same for “Father.”

    So when I think “Father,” I think something different than what you think, due to our personal fathers. However, if someone asked me to choose an image or photograph to represent “Father,” would I choose a female? No. I would choose a male.

    I was looking at art today and came across Cowper’s painting “Vanity.” Very well done, it represents the vice very well. I tried to imagine what a contemporary artist might use to depict vanity, and thought that most people would probably still imagine a female figure. However, in our culture an uppity gay man would work just as well. Or perhaps a male potentate with the right facial expression.

    Still, when you use Google images to search for “vanity,” besides getting a lot of furniture and bathroom photos, you will find that nearly every artistic image is of a female. That’s the archetype. And yet I do see your point. And I have to agree that culture and era do change our representations of archetypes, as they must. I think that 100 years ago, the idea of using a gay man or a little potentate (except maybe for Napoleon) for the idea “vanity” would not work as well as it would today.

    The feminine ideal is the receptive, the relational, etc., as I’ve written. However, if by role my husband is more nurturing and I am less, and he’s the one the kids run to with their skinned knees, then what I would say is that his anima is serving him well, while my animus may be driving my bus. If it works for us, and it works for the kids, then who’s to say it’s wrong? The archetype is still the same in terms of what it means, even if we change the image attached to it. Rather like we might link mirror, plumage, jewels to “vanity.”

    I also think that male/female is temporal and will not last forever. So there’s something to what you’re getting at.

  6. Scott Erb Avatar

    Yeah, I understand what you say. Our two boys gravitated to cars and wheels, not dolls, there is definitely something inherent in the masculine and feminine from childhood to parenthood.

    I think my response was personal, which probably isn’t the best way to think of this. I was thinking of how my sons (ages 6 and 3) are experiencing reality. They definitely do not experience ‘mom and dad’ the way I did. My dad was distant and the authority, while my mom was more approachable. For my kids, if anything I’m the one who gets mad less (I have to bite my tongue sometimes to keep from saying ‘get that cleaned up before mom sees it, she’ll be mad’). The mom has more organized activities, the dad is the one that follows their lead. They usually want me to tell them the story and lay with them at night, and when they would wake up in the middle of the night as babies and toddlers they would call for ‘daddy’ because I was the one who handled night duty. I’m a lighter sleeper and fall asleep easier, so I volunteered to do that.

    Breast feeding…well, we used breast milk, but after the second month or so it was pumped, and I did most of the feeding. But certainly I’m more likely to take them hiking into the woods or play sports, while my wife is the one who will get them to do puzzles or arts and crafts. But I’m also ten times as likely to cry at a movie (or news report) than my wife. I’m free to be a different kind of dad than mine was, and I can take stress off my wife, who probably would not like having to play the role of a mother from forty years ago.

    So I go from a kind of “of course” in response to your first comment, there are symbols and representations, there are differences that transcend culture, to a “but how are my kids experiencing their parents and understanding the difference between mom and dad. I don’t think I’m less nurturing or more aggressive (I less likely to get mad; I tend to put in practice techniques from ‘supernanny’) than my wife.

    I’m probably being too sensitive about this — too much getting mad at *Parenting* magazine for focusing on moms, when it’s stuff dads do too! Maybe there is an ‘archetypal’ meaning of ‘mother’ that can vary between cultures. How much is cultural, how much is natural?

  7. Eve Avatar

    P.S. Scott, I thought your question about whether the symbolic representations of “Mother” and “Father” are different. What do you think?

    An image of a woman in a suit with a briefcase in her hand, or maybe “Doctor Barbie” with all her physician trappings, comes to mind. But putting “Mother” in a suit and giving her a brief case doesn’t change anything about the essence of “Mother,” does it?

    Still, the woman with the briefcase is a new representation of “Mother,” as compared with the Norman Rockwell image of, say, the 1950s or so. I guess I’ll ask you in return whether you think that either representation of “Mother” has changed the archetypal meaning of “Mother”?

    I’d like to know more about what you’re thinking.

  8. Eve Avatar

    Scott, hehe. I’m smiling here, even though I understand what you mean. It seems somehow comical to me that you and I have the luxury of dismantling the concept of “Mother,” while our (so-called) more primitive brothers and sisters elsewhere in the world have no trouble with the concept at all.

    “Mother,” she is the one like the fertility dolls, with ample bosoms, a round belly, and children all around her. She is the one the Mexican artisans make, sitting on the ground, her head raised to the heavens, with 10 or 20 little ones draped all over her. This image or idea is not role based; it is based on giving birth, nurturing, breast feeding, kissing boo-boos. You know that. No matter whether you and your wife are paid equally or she more than you; whether you change exactly the same amount of diapers, the fact is that if you ask your boys “what is ‘Mother’” and “what is ‘Father’” they will give you different answers. Just as if you have a boy, and take his six-shooters away from him, he will make war with sticks and rocks. And if you have a girl, and take her baby dolls away from her, she will make babies out of sticks and rocks.

    This is what an archetype is: a universal symbol bearing a universal meaning. Yes, it changes some over time. But at its core it remains the same. “Mother” is the full breast, the receptive womb, she who receives and bears. “Father” is the erect penis, the seed-thrower, the spear hurtling through the air. Both “Mother” and “Father” are and must be internalized in you (a man) and in me (a woman); that’s not roles, that’s biology. But the spirit transcends biology.

    It’s metaphor.

  9. Eve Avatar

    Deb, Mary Englebright has a little motto that says, “Wherever you go, there you are.” I always liked that, because it’s just true! She probably didn’t illustrate it with quite the same meaning I invest in it, but whenever I think that flying the coop is the answer, I stop and consider that no matter how far away I run, there I’ll be. So I’d better be darn sure that the problem at hand can be solved by running away! LOL.

  10. Scott Erb Avatar

    I have a hard time with the image of a “mother” or “Mother archetype.” That seems very culturally bound to Europe of the era of people like Jung and Freud. Does “mother” and “father” have the same meaning today as then?

    The issues may all still be there, but are the symbolic representations different? My children know that “mom” means a woman and “dad” means a man, but the cultural baggage that would have come with the roles even 40 years ago have been completely transformed. What does this mean when applying concepts and theories from a different cultural era to the present?

  11. deb Avatar

    Apparently I’m not alone, yet again. What a relief. When I left my husband I was shocked to discover that so many of his problems came along with me to my new house. It was a good thing, the leaving. It allowed me to separate out what was his and what was mine, something I was completely unable to do while living with him.

    This experience has me looking more closely at all of my relationships and wondering, what is it that I’m projecting onto others. Not always a pleasant experience obviously but educational.

    I’m also working at wriggling out from under my own mother’s projections. Middle age is fun!

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