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The Mother Archetype

Four Archetypes: Mother, Rebirth, Spirit, Trickster (Routledge Classics)

The Mother Archetype:

Like any other archetype, the mother archetype appears under an almost infinite variety of aspects.

I mention here only some of the more characteristic.

First in importance are the personal mother and grandmother, stepmother and mother-in-law; then any woman with whom a relationship exists—for example, a nurse or governess or perhaps a remote ancestress. Then there are what might be termed mothers in a figurative sense.

To this category belongs the goddess, and especially the Mother of God, the Virgin, and Sophia. Mythology offers many variations of the mother archetype, as for instance the mother who reappears as the maiden in the myth of Demeter and Kore; or the mother who is also the beloved, as in the Cybele-Attis myth.

Other symbols of the mother in a figurative sense appear in things representing the goal of our longing for redemption, such as Paradise, the Kingdom of God, the Heavenly Jerusalem.

Many things arousing devotion or feelings of awe, as for instance the Church, university, city or country, heaven, earth, the woods, the sea or any still waters, matter even, the underworld and the moon, can be mother-symbols.

The archetype is often associated with things and places standing for fertility and fruitfulness: the cornucopia, a ploughed field, a garden.

It can be attached to a rock, a cave, a tree, a spring, a deep well, or to various vessels such as the baptismal font, or to vessel-shaped flowers like the rose or the lotus.

Because of the protection it implies, the magic circle or mandala can be a form of mother archetype.

Hollow objects such as ovens and cooking vessels are associated with the mother archetype, and, of course, the uterus, yoni, and anything of a like shape. Added to this list there are many animals, such as the cow, hare, and helpful animals in general.

All these symbols can have a positive, favourable meaning or a negative, evil meaning. An ambivalent aspect is seen in the goddesses of fate (Moira, Graeae, Norns).

Evil symbols are the witch, the dragon (or any devouring and entwining animal, such as a large fish or a serpent), the grave, the sarcophagus, deep water, death, nightmares and bogies (Empusa, Lilith, etc.). This list is not, of course, complete; it presents only the most important features of the mother archetype.

The qualities associated with it are maternal solicitude and sympathy; the magic authority of the female; the wisdom and spiritual exaltation that transcend reason; any helpful instinct or impulse; all that is benign, all that cherishes and sustains, that fosters growth and fertility.

The place of magic transformation and rebirth, together with the underworld and its inhabitants, are presided over by the mother.

On the negative side the mother archetype may connote anything secret, hidden, dark; the abyss, the world of the dead, anything that devours, seduces, and poisons, that is terrifying and inescapable like fate.

All these attributes of the mother archetype have been fully described and documented in my book Symbols of Transformation.

There I formulated the ambivalence of these attributes as “the loving and the terrible mother.” Perhaps the historical example of the dual nature of the mother most familiar to us is the Virgin Mary, who the mother archetype is not only the Lord’s mother, but also, according to the medieval allegories, his cross.

In India, “the loving and terrible mother” is the paradoxical Kali. Sankhya philosophy has elaborated the mother archetype into the concept of prakrti (matter) and assigned to it the three gunas or fundamental attributes: sattva, rajas, tamas: goodness, passion, and darkness.

These are three essential aspects of the mother: her cherishing and nourishing goodness, her orgiastic emotionality, and her Stygian depths.

The special feature of the philosophical myth, which shows Prakrti dancing before Purusha in order to remind him of “discriminating knowledge,” does not belong to the mother archetype but to the archetype of the anima, which in a man’s psychology invariably appears, at first, mingled with the mother-image.

Although the figure of the mother as it appears in folklore is more or less universal, this image changes markedly when it appears in the individual psyche. In treating patients one is at first impressed, and indeed arrested, by the apparent significance of the personal mother.

This figure of the personal mother looms so large in all personalistic psychologies that, as we know, they never got beyond it, even in theory, to other important aetiological factors. My own view differs from that of other medico-psychological theories principally in that I attribute to the personal mother only a limited aetiological significance.

That is to say, all those influences which the literature describes as being exerted on the children do not come from the mother herself, but rather from the archetype projected upon her, which gives her a mythological background and invests her with authority and numinosity. The aetiological and traumatic effects produced by the mother must be divided into two groups:

(1) those corresponding to traits of character or attitudes actually present in the mother, and (2) those referring to traits which the mother only seems to possess, the reality being composed of more or less fantastic (i.e., archetypal) projections on the part of the child.

Freud himself had already seen that the real aetiology of neuroses does not lie in traumatic effects, as he at first suspected, but in a peculiar development of infantile fantasy.

This is not to deny that such a development can be traced back to disturbing influences emanating from the mother.

I myself make it a rule to look first for the cause of infantile neuroses in the mother, as I know from experience that a child is much more likely to develop normally than neurotically, and that in the great majority of cases definite causes of disturbances can be found in the parents, especially in the mother.

The contents of the child’s abnormal fantasies can be referred to the personal mother only in part, since they often contain clear and unmistakable allusions which could not possibly have reference to human beings.

This is especially true where definitely mythological products are concerned, as is frequently the case in infantile phobias where the mother may appear as a wild beast, a witch, a spectre, an ogre, a hermaphrodite, and so on.

It must be borne in mind, however, that such fantasies are not always of unmistakably mythological origin, and even if they are, they may not always be rooted in the unconscious archetype but may have been occasioned by fairytales or accidental remarks.

A thorough investigation is therefore indicated in each case. For practical reasons, such an investigation cannot be made so readily with children as with adults, who almost invariably transfer their fantasies to the physician during treatment—or, to be more precise, the fantasies are projected upon him automatically.

When that happens, nothing is gained by brushing them aside as ridiculous, for archetypes are among the inalienable assets of every psyche.

They form the “treasure in the realm of shadowy thoughts” of which Kant spoke, and of which we have ample the mother archetype evidence in the countless treasure motifs of mythology.

An archetype is in no sense just an annoying prejudice; it becomes so only when it is in the wrong place.

In themselves, archetypal images are among the highest values of the human psyche; they have peopled the heavens of all races from time immemorial.

To discard them as valueless would be a distinct loss. Our task is not, therefore, to deny the archetype, but to dissolve the projections, in order to restore their contents to the individual who has involuntarily lost them by projecting them outside himself. ~Carl Jung; Four Archetypes :Mother, Rebirth, Spirit, Trickster

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