As we were writing our recent book Into the Heart of the Feminine, we felt that we needed to begin with a moment in time when we knew what it meant to be whole. We found ourselves tapping into the kabbalistic lore which speaks of a time when the world vessel was whole…before it was shattered and the divine sparks were scattered all over the cosmos. This archetypal moment serves as an important metaphor for our own birth…from being contained warmly in the womb within the Great Mother…and then being sprung forth into our world. We would like to share with you this particular passage, “The Feminine Principle: The Foundation of Life,” from our book where we address this (p. 9 – 11):
The Feminine Principle: The Foundation of Life
When we begin to talk about the feminine principle, it is very hard to separate it from our ideas of gender and from the wounds we have all received in our struggles for recognition, empowerment, respect, and equality. This differentiation is so difficult because the feminine principle, as an archetypal part of all of us, also transcends our identities, and yet many of its characteristics are not only discounted but actually ruthlessly denied in our culture. I will give more details about this in a later chapter. When itʼs all said and done, our concept of the feminine principle as one of the two great archetypal foundations in life-whether you call them masculine and feminine, creative and receptive, or yin and yang-is most often associated with the Great Mother.
One of the most common images associated with the archetype of the feminine is the Venus of Willendorf, which is clearly a mother figure. It is a statuette of a female figure with large breasts and a large belly. It was found in the village of Willendorf, Austria, and the statueʼs origins date back to between 28,000 and 25,000 BCE. Over the centuries, of course, many other archetypal figures of the feminine have evolved as various pantheons of goddesses that all represent aspects of human nature. But the Great Mother remains a primary one.
In his book The Great Mother: An Analysis of the Archetype, the Jungian analyst Erich Neumann explains that the Great Mother has two essential positive characteristics. The first he calls elementary, and its positive attributes are to nourish and protect, to give warmth and security. The second characteristic he calls transformative, and the accent here is on the dynamic element of nature, which has an inherent urge toward motion and change, growth and transformation. Of course these two characteristics have their negative counterparts as well, which can become devouring and destructive. Neumann calls these negative characteristics the Terrible Mother.
Most of us are familiar with these patterns. From these images, we have taken the step of considering Mother Nature the source or womb of all life. Nature is bountiful, often seeming to give continually without limits. But nature can also be ruthless, killing and devouring without reservation. Because of this reality, humans throughout history have attempted to live with nature, conquer nature, or influence it through religious rituals. The situation with our own human nature is different. Through conscious awareness and our efforts to get to know our nature more thoroughly and to heal the wounds to it we have experienced, we can cultivate its positive characteristics. When we live in ways that thwart our natureʼs good intentions, we thwart her life-giving qualities, and they bury themselves deep in our unconscious and turn destructive.
Our attitudes toward our own nature begin with the first personification of nature, the first feminine figure, we encounter: our mother. For most of us, the first woman we experience is our mother. Her fundamental purpose in our life is to hold us; give us warmth, food, and nurturance; and to care for our bodies. Her power is extensive, and she can easily fill our tiny hearts with fear, feelings of helplessness, and even rage. But she can also fill our little worlds with comfort and security as she nurses us, rocks us to sleep in her arms, and tends to our emotional and physical needs. The relationship between a mother and a baby is one of natureʼs most beautiful mysteries and is shown in art and sculpture throughout the centuries. But as Neumann points out, just as nature can be cruel, so can mothers. The Terrible Mother can be destructive in many ways. In her devouring form, she may keep her children fixated in a nightmare of infantile dependence and through a smothering psychological attachment, often disguised as love, inhibit their development, using them to fulfill her own selfish desires and neurotic needs.
The devouring mother as an aspect of the Terrible Mother becomes the archetypal foundation of what we call a negative mother complex. As I will explain further in our discussion of complexes, this kind of negativity takes over our personality completely at times and shades its perspective all of the time. The negative mother complex becomes the lens through which we see the world and the way we expect life and other people to treat us, which frequently has nothing to do with the reality we are experiencing but cannot see because of the tinted lens we have. Negative complexes arise from a variety of wounds and experiences. All complexes are combinations of at least three experiences we have. First, they are based on our own personal wounds and experiences of growing up. In addition, our parents and grandparents, through their psychology, pass on to us their wounds, unsolved problems, and unlived lives. Finally, the neuroses-the out-of-balance or one-sided aspects, the conflicts, and the inadequacies-in the social character of our culture affects our experiences as we struggle to form our identity and feel secure in the world.
The Death Mother is the foundation of a destructive complex that is both personal and cultural, and it is a special form of the negative mother. With certain complexes, we cut off some of our particular gifts and are unable to live out some of our potentials. But the Death Mother causes us to cut off the essence of life within us.
Learn more about how important the elemental feminine is to our lives and how it can nourish or destroy us. Follow the path in INTO THE HEART OF THE FEMININE and dare to move into a life of full vitality and creativity.
Queen Mother Pendant Mask: Iyoba, Edo Peoples of Nigeria, 16th Century
Articles by Drs. Bud and Massimilla Harris