Archetype of the Great Mother
The symbols are of this archetype are the Virgin Mary; sometimes one’s own mother; a divine female; an old or ageless woman; the Earth; a blue grotto; the sea; a whale; a cave, a tree. Whatever the image it often contains great religious feeling or spiritual uplift. After all, our mother was the most powerful being in our early world. ‘Did she admire hunters; then we would kill dragons and cleanse the world. Did she feel the weight of the world; then we would be the peace maker and bring her joy.’ (W.V. Caldwell).
The symbols of mother represent not simply our relationship with her, but also how the mother influence enters into our own growth, our move toward independence and mature love. As a baby we do not feel separate from mother. The gradual separation is difficult. In some people it is never managed, even though they separate physically. Their mother, or their sense of their mother within them, still directs their decisions. The old joke about ‘My mother wouldn’t like this’ is true.
In many older cultures this break was worked out in the custom of tribal ritual. At a certain age the children were taken from their parents home and lived together with the other young males or females. Today we have to manage these subtleties of our psyche alone. A woman must find a way of transforming the pleasure – or absence of it – of her mother’s breast into a love for a male. If she cannot she may wish to return to the breast of another female, or be the man her father never was for her. A man must find a way of transforming his unconscious desire for his mother into love of a woman which is more than a dependent or demanding baby or youth. If he cannot he may seek his mother in a likely woman, ignoring who that woman is as a real person. And this acceptance of our mother as she really is – a human being – precedes the acceptance of ourselves as we really are.
But the archetype of the great mother is more than simply a residue of our relationship with our own mother. Motherhood on our planet is as old as life. So the archetype holds in it all that experience, all those patterns of behaviour, whether of the mother wolf with her cubs, or the eagle rearing its young. To touch such enormous wealth of experience is to be penetrated by the holy. Something so beyond the limitations of our own small personality enters us and leaves its imprint. The constant stream of visitors to the shrine of the Mother at Lourdes in France continues because people touch the mystery of the Great Mother there. Such shrines have developed throughout the world, dedicated to the Mother as met in the widely different cultures and periods of time.
The symbols of the great mother hold in them our awareness, unconscious as it may be, of the forces of nature active in us. These forces, in the guise sometimes of a beautiful woman dancing or beckoning, are both wonderful and dangerous. The dance of nature is unconscious. If we get in its way without awareness we may be ground under its heel, as it dances on its beautiful way. We see this not only in natural disasters such as earthquakes which wreck towns, but also in our own emotional and sexual energies which, if not cared for and deeply respected, can be enormously destructive. To meet this aspect of ourselves we must be both admiring of the natural in and around us, but also resourceful. The danger for a man might be that he loses himself in desire for all women or one woman. For a woman, that she becomes a spiritual whore, thinking she can uplift all through her womb. The point for the woman is that she is only incidentally part of the creative act of childbirth. The processes of creation are far deeper than her personality. To feel she is personally holding all that power can lead to hubris.
The positive aspect of the archetype is seen in the wonder of healing evident at shrines dedicated to her. The mother is also the great source of nourishment, or fertility, of bringing forth the new in a creative act. She represents the condition in which we can stand beyond preconceptions and receive an influx of divine newness.
The symbols and archetype of the Great Mother are incredibly old. The figurines of the woman carved in pre-history graphically display an archetypal image of woman. The mystery of woman in those times was very great, for it was not realised that the sex act was connected with the birth of a child. Therefore the place of males in this greatest of wonders had no significance except perhaps as a provider. This most ancient of mysteries is still presented in our present culture by the archetypal image of the Virgin Mary – the woman holding the child. In the past she was known in her various guises as Athena – the shaker of spears; Ishtar; Cybele; Rhea; Astarte; the Egyptian Isis; Demeter; Hecate; Diana; Venus; Quan Yin; Rhada, Ishtar, Aphrodite, Freya, Kali, Cybele, Magna Mater, Hera, Durga, Devi, and Shakti. The most ancient of these mother goddesses is the Earth itself, mother to us all.
P. W. MARTIN says ‘She is the maiden. She is the earth mother. She is the queen of the underworld. She is the goddess of war, the goddess of nature, the goddess of love, the goddess of marriage, the mountain goddess, the goddess of the chase, the goddess of herds, goddess of agriculture, goddess of fecundity, goddess of the moon.’
As can be seen, the aspects, the powers, therefore the personal relationship with this archetype are varied. The great mother can be devouring and destructive like the Indian goddess Kali. She can be loving and healing like the Fairy Godmother. What this means in personal experience is that if one meets with the loving aspect, a man may feel permeated by love, bathed in it as if he were in great peace in the womb of all life. A young woman may develop a fixation upon an older woman such as a female teacher, and devote enormous energy to emulate her or be of service to her.
Conversely, experiencing the effect of the devouring mother, a woman might hold fast to her children, using every bonding and binding force she can. This negative aspect of the mother directly connects with feelings of dread about death. The image of the cave – one of the symbols of the Great Mother – may indicate not only a holy place full of divine light, but also a death pit crawling with corruption. Recent explorations of the psyche show that such a symbol acts in a similar way to an icon on a computer screen. The picture the icon displays may be of a printer. When we click on the icon a distant printer reproduces what is on the screen. The icon is not the printer, but the icon has full connection with the printer and the picture indicates its function.
So whatever image of the Great Mother we meet, it is only a synthesis of something much more potent and full of action and feelings than itself. But the image is full of clues as to what lies latent in it if we activate it. The recent findings mentioned show that the cave or the negative mother images often connect with prenatal experiences, particularly with awful experiences of birth, shown as hell and the tortures of hell. In past cultures such imagery, while full of meaning, was never defined beyond its mythological aspect. One of the great developments of recent times is to trace the way the unconscious produces such imagery to depict life experiences which are deeply buried or completely non-verbal. See: Levels of the Mind.
The Great Mother may not have these connections for us personally, but may represent unformed, or largely unconscious feelings we have about how we are linked with the process of life, and have within us the splendour of this mystery. For a woman this may be particularly potent at times. It connects her with the forces of death and renewal occurring within her during every menstruation. It connects her with the tremendous link with natural forces of mothering and the strength of womanhood and the female principle in the Earth and universe. After all, it is from the earth, matter, Mater, that our body is formed, and at death will return.
Below a man describes his feelings and imagery experienced when he explored a dream in which a bull is being led up a meadow toward a cow – the cow being one of the symbols of the Great Mother.
Example: The sexual drive cannot be dragged, it will be led, and it must be treated as intelligent, as a living creature or process. In the dream the bull, depicting my sexual drive, is following, is willing to be led. And it is being led by the woman. This means that the cow, the woman, the earth, always leads the sexual drive in the male animal. All things are born by the great cow, the earth. The earth holds all the seeds in it. I am kneeling and honouring the Great Cow. The woman was leading me because she represents this power. In youth I, the bull, fed at the teats of the cow. Even now I suck the teats of the Great Cow, mother earth, as I eat the grass. The mother can also destroy. Anthony.
In her book The Once and Future Goddess Elinor Gadon writes that for her ‘In the late twentieth century there is a growing awareness that we are doomed as a species and planet unless we have a radical change of consciousness. The re-emergence of the Goddess is becoming the symbol and metaphor for this transformation of culture.’ But I believe that it is the re-emergence of the self we have all lost – the integration of all we are, male, female and pure consciousness.
Useful Questions and Hints:
Do I know how to accept this deeply unconscious creative process in me to take hold of my being and express through me?
What times in my life have I met or experienced this power of the goddess, of nature working in and around me?
In my relationships with women can I or do I recognise the goddess in them?
It might give results in you use Talking As.