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On the Great Mother
Terrible and devouring, beneficent and creative
This post forms part of an ongoing series:
This article will further expand on the Great Mother that has featured in the last two articles. Mother goddesses are a key primordial image within the human psyche, representing the principle that nourishes our being, and births consciousness. As with all universal symbols, the Great Mother influences us towards completeness through the interplay of symbolic opposites, such as life and death. For Mother Nature represents not only growth and vegetation, but also the final destination of all living beings as they die off and decay into nothingness.
Erich Neumann in his book, The Great Mother, defines this universal symbol as the ‘living reality’ of our Earth, our bodies, of matter. Matter as commonly understood is dry, and inhuman, however to Neumann, matter represents so much more. It is the Body, the Vessel wherein all subjective experience takes place. It is the Egg, the source from which all life and consciousness is born. It represents the primordial mystery of transformation, wherein matter and intention is transformed in the womb of the Mother by an unseen process.
Neumann delineates this universal symbol into two figures. First we have the Mother, which represents the conservative will to unconsciousness, sameness and stillness. The Mother is a maternal relationship that drives dependence, protection and security. Second, we have the Anima, which represents the dynamic will to consciousness, movement and unrest. The Anima is a psycho-spiritual relationship that drives all aspects of transformation, particularly in the urge towards self-realization.
Note that it is very important to appreciate that neither aspect is to be seen as good or bad, but rather two halves of the same whole. The influence from both figures represent the same process taking place that affects us at different levels. The Mother is connected to our instinctual side, ensuring continuity in our being and leads to growth akin to rebirth. The Anima is concerned with self-actualization, and as such births inspiration and insight. Communion with the Great Mother then, represents all aspects of the emotional and inner journey of human transformation.
(All words written in bold italics below refer to the above diagram)
Neumann traced the history and psychological significance of Mother figures across world cultures, and summarized his research into the above diagram. The diagram indicates the growth in consciousness the Great Mother leads us through, which takes place in three phases - the Elementary, Transformation and then finally, the Spiritual Transformation phase. This structure can be seen as descending a Mountain from the central circle. It may also be seen as the birth of a Divine Child, whereby the central elementary circle represents the Womb, and the transformation stages represent the birth and awakening of the Child.
The Mother and the Anima, previously mentioned, are represented above as the two axes through which we experience the Great Mother. Our unconscious leads us through a complete experience of both figures to arrive at completion, meaning that both positive and negative aspects are encountered (see above). As an example, the Good Mother is easily understood as the source of rebirth. However in order to make way for new life, it is often necessary that an aspect of ourselves must pass away first. This is where the Terrible Mother kicks in, guiding us towards death in the later stages of spiritual transformation.
At the center of the diagram lies the seed of our consciousness, the fiery spark of our hidden nature that dwells in matter. This seed originated from an unmanifest state, commonly symbolized as the ouroboros, the snake that bites its own tail. This is the state of undifferentiated chaos from which all life and symbols originate, including this seed that is to be nursed into existence by the Great Mother.
The Elementary stage is where the Mother and the unconscious predominate. Here the Good Mother contains life, bearing it to fruition and releases it. The ‘plant bursts out of the dark womb of the earth and sees the light of the world’. There is also an inertia here from the Mother who ensnares the subject, holding them fast to remain ‘asleep’ within the womb. The conscious awareness is ill-defined at this stage, which is of no great concern to the Mother principle. The Mother is queen of the unconscious domain and resists any disruption to it. She is unconcerned with individuality, for to her, one shoot of vegetation is as good as another.
The development of consciousness at this stage originates instead from the transformative influence of the Anima. The Positive Anima gives to the subject, warming and nourishing the seed of consciousness towards embryo and then finally to birth. Through a period of great struggle the conscious principle starts to break free from the Mother, and gains independence. However this is not a simple affair. The trauma of birth is experienced as rejection caused by the Anima, and deprivation of the constant feed provided from the womb of the Mother.
The Anima gains ascendancy during the Transformation stage, inducing growth in the initiate. Unlike the Terrible Mother, she is capable of and interested in interacting with the initiate on a personal level, through the symbols that appear in their dreams and motivations. However in return she expects much from the subject and is capable of inducing anxiety or extracting consequences if she is ignored. The Anima’s influence is often interpreted as tests and riddles for the subject, which in its positive aspect leads to sublimation, but can easily lead towards dissolution and confusion as the subject struggles to make sense of what the Anima is presenting to it.
The Mother throughout the later stages continues proceeding with development at an instinctual level, regardless of our level of conscious awareness of it. The seed culminates into the fruit wherein it rises out of the darkness and attains to its true nature. And of course, within the fruit lies further seed that the Mother commences once again to germinate, symbolizing a process of rebirth. However this rebirth must always include involvement from The Terrible Mother wherein we encounter the mystery of death. The goddess demands a blood sacrifice before rebirth can take place through the vegetation mystery, the fertility rituals and growth of the Good Mother. The Terrible Mother requires fertilization of the earth by blood through which the goddess draws the initiate back into herself.
The development through the Anima culminates in the inspiration mysteries. This indicates everything prophetic or religious in nature, taking place as a psycho-spiritual process, which has always in all cultures been attributed to the influence of the feminine principle. Rather than the slow growth to fruition through the Mother, the Anima indicates a sudden burst of inspiration. However the danger here is that there is often only a subtle difference between true inspiration, compared to dissolution and the stupor of madness. Here belongs the possibility of being enchanted or bewitched by the young witch aspect of the Anima, leading to a spiritual death as opposed to the physical death of the Terrible Mother.
The further along in the process, the stronger the fascination the symbol exerts, leading to a loss of ability to differentiate, culminating in reversal. And so at the poles, death leads to life, and madness leads to the ecstacy of inspiration. At this point, the axes become an ouroboros, meaning that each can no longer be distinguished and are indifferent to each other. Spiritual transformation induces a fundamental change in consciousness, passing beyond into the ‘feminine spirit’ where the mystery is imparted to the initiate, who then recedes back into silence.
The visions so far indicate an exact match with this structure. In the first vision there was an encounter with the undifferentiated chaos, the source of all life. This is the Midnight Mystery, which Neumann symbolizes as the snake eating its own tail, and is represented in the vision as the primordial waters of creation. The vision indicates it is the source from which consciousness is regenerated, representing the seed to be gestated by the Mother principle.
The second vision introduces this seed as the Ruby that is bestowed upon the initiate. This Ruby is the divine spark that is hidden within matter, such that it can be bought into existence. It is the ‘Divine Child’ of new consciousness that will be birthed and nursed through the influence of the Anima. The initiate first encounters the Anima as Hera, who also displays aspects of the Good Mother. She is represented as maternal, a ‘nurturing presence bathed in moonlight’. She tells the initiate she ‘appears when all seems lost’, offering ‘sweet words of understanding’ when ‘all I see is blackness’.
Hera quickly morphs into she of a ‘terrible aspect’, the Terrible Mother Kali of which the initiate is told not to ‘fear the shadow of She who destroys’. Kali continues to exert an influence over the initiate over the course of the visions, representing the conservative, the ‘terrible’ influence of the Mother to keep him asleep and unconscious. And yet this is also the process that influences the initiate to push forward, and realize his consciousness amidst the darkness.
In line with the diagram above then, there has been an action of giving and nourishing from Hera, and an equivalent element of ensnaring and holding fast from Kali. The birth process exerts a birth trauma upon the initiate, whereby the initiate experiences rejection and deprivation. These elements all represent the elementary phase of containment whereby the consciousness is starting to distinguish itself, struggling to assert its independence from the unconscious.
In the next article, I’ll conclude the second vision with a deeper look at the initiate’s encounter with Aphrodite. She is the Anima counterpart to Hera, who was introduced as the ‘Consort to the King’ and Aphrodite as the ‘Love that streams into this world’. They also are closely related as the mythological Mother and Lover to Hephaestus, who is the symbol that the initiate is playing out through this journey in being cast out from Heaven by his Mother. The vision will reveal the ambiguous nature of the Anima, who not only guides the initiate but if he is not careful, is capable of bewitching and leading him to his doom and madness as well.
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