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“Where do we come from?”, a perennial question, pondered by great philosophers and young children alike. The simple answer provided by every parent is either, we are created out of love, by God, or a combination of the two. Regardless of whether it is true or not, most of humanity seems to have arrived at the same conclusions. The ancient Greeks believed that it all began with Chaos. She was the gaping and formless void out of which sprang forth, three more primordial deities: Gaia the Earth, mother of all life followed by Tartarus the Underworld, and finally Eros, love. With the birth of Eros, the two female deities, Chaos and Gaia began to procreate and spawn everything that is known and unknown in the Universe. (The Editors of GreekMythology, 2021). Despite barriers of language, space, and time, different cultures and civilizations like the Romans, Egyptians, Vikings, and Chinese also came up with similar theories of life and order being born out of Chaos. As humans began to observe and articulate the depth of their existence and relationships, they began to bring to the surface of consciousness the Mother archetype that gracefully unites these experiences. The theory of evolution showcases a completely different perspective backed by rationality and science, however, it is undeniable that the process would have been improbable without the crucial character of the mother. The mother is one of the oldest figures which is linked with every single lifeform from time immemorial. (Spore et al., 2002, p.5).


He/She/They?


“You are born to one mother, but if you are lucky, you will have more than one. And among them all you will find


most of what you need.”


― Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype


As we grow from infants to adults, we perceive the mother as one of the first representatives of feminine energy. Although the biological mother is not the matrix of this particular archetype, for most people in general she presents as one of the first natural anchors of its projection in the unconscious mind. However, the gender of the individual remains irrelevant and can be substituted with anyone else, even an imaginary character. (Atre, 2011, p.156). Although the term mother is gender-specific there are no constraints to associate it only with women. All genders are capable of fulfilling the role of the mother. Perhaps it is easier to understand it from an androgynous perspective. Androgyny is not about trying to manage the relationship between the polarities of masculine and feminine, but rather to leave it fluid and simply flow between them. (Singer, 1977). Femininity does not necessarily equate to being a female and neither does masculinity to being a male. When it comes to the world of mythology the Gods are capable of traversing between different sexes and many are assumed to simply transcend all genders. A famous example of this is the Hindu God Vishnu, who transformed himself into Mohini, his female avatar. Mohini uses her seductive charms to trick the Asuras into handing over the holy nectar to the gods. Turns out, Mohini as Vishnu’s female avatar was so attractive that even Shiva was bewitched by her. As a result of their union, Mohini gives birth to a son, who is known by many names but most famously as Ayyappa. (Madhavan, 2018). Shiva portrays the same concept in the form of Ardhanarishvara, which translates to,” the lord who is half woman”. As the name suggests one half is the God Shiva and the other is his consort Goddess Parvati or Shakti. This form symbolizes that the masculine and feminine cannot be separated and is in fact the same. It attempts to illustrate the paradox of opposites as a unified force, not through negation but through positive experiences. (Raveesh, 2013).


Humans irrespective of gender consist of both the masculine and the feminine. The dominance of either of them in personality is dependent on the socio-cultural norms and gender roles governing the individual. For example, the cliche that the sun is male and is worshipped for his great and powerful masculine energy while the moon is a delicate symbol of the feminine is not as universal as it may seem. The Japanese worship Amaterasu as the Goddess of the Sun and her brother, Tsukuyomi as the God of the Moon. Many cultures like the Eskimos and the Khasis of India also believe the Sun to be feminine and the Moon masculine. Similarly, the Earth has always been considered as the mother while the Heavens the father. However, the Egyptians and other similar cultures consider it to be the reverse. This shift towards neutrality and androgyny frees each gender from the ‘straitjacket’ of culturally predetermined gender roles. (Toub, 2013).


The Contested Images of Femininity

The stereotypical feminine qualities such as sensitivity, gentleness, and empathy are often viewed as inferior to the backdrop of the patriarchal society it exists in. Women are often characterized as passive and too emotional to make rational decisions, while the men who embody these traits are considered to be unmanly and ‘girlish’. Femininity, however, is more multidimensional than these one-sided descriptors. The seven types of the feminine archetype can best be summarized into three categories. The first is the Vulnerable Goddess which consists of Hera, Demeter, and Persephone. Much like these three goddesses, they are strong, independent, and nurturing caretakers with a strong zest for life. A fine example of this would be Belle from “The Beauty and the Beast” or even Mary Poppins. However, they are also vulnerable to jealousy, naivety, and dysfunctional relationships like the Queen of Hearts from “Alice in Wonderland”. The second category is the Virgin Goddess which comprises Artemis, Athena, and Hestia. They are brilliant strategists like Elisabeth Harmon from “Queen’s Gambit”. Goal-oriented, fearless, successful, and protect the weak. One of the most popular examples is Katniss Everdeen from “The Hunger Game”. Their shadow side can be unpredictable and emotionally aloof much like the character of Miranda Priestly from “The Devil Wears Prada”. The third and last category is that of the Alchemical Goddess which is the one and only Aphrodite. She is passionate, creative, transformative, and free-spirited as seen in various famous individuals like Marilyn Monroe and Beyonce but she can also be vindictive and narcissistic like the Evil Queen from “Snowwhite and the Seven Dwarfs”. (Bolen & Clausson, 1995, pp. 79-80). For different stages of history, each of these categories has been either supported, repressed, or punished based on the social norms and values of that time. For example in the 1950s when marriage and child-rearing were shown a lot of importance the pendulum swung towards the Vulnerable Goddess and later when women entered the workforce in the ’70s the Virgin Goddess archetype was expressed much more clearly. (Marlo, 2016) Thus it can be said that femininity is the process and not just the end product. It possesses a natural capacity to resonate with others personally and shows great receptiveness to people and ideas alike. (Kenevan, 1975, p.123).

The Great Mother

The birth of a child signifies the start of a new life not just for the infant but also for the mother, for this is what she will continue to be, for the duration of her life. It is an irreversible process and has now been baptized as a Mother. She represents the unconditional fountain of love and devotion. The Mother is the life-giver, source of nourishment and care, and is the protector of the children, family, and all life. The essence of the mother is the creation and sustenance provided which means every single project undertaken by us, whether a work of art, literature or thought has transformed us into a Mother. Every creation formed as a result of our innovation and thought becomes our ‘brainchild’. The devotion and respect one holds for their country and language are referred to as ‘Motherland’ and ‘Mother Tongue’, respectively. The oceans, forests, holy places, heaven, earth, and even the underworld are symbols of the mother. (Jung, 1970, p.15). The Great Mother inspires awe and reverence and indicates her incredible power as the source of all life.


The archetypal image of the Great Mother has two aspects: the Good Mother who creates and nurtures while the other is the Terrible Mother who destroys and consumes her own creations. Shakti is the personification of this archetype as she is the feminine energy that is creative and sustaining but also destructive. (Johnson, 2011). The good mother protects us from the harshness and uncertainty of the real world. Quan Yin the Chinese goddess is a great example since she is the literal incarnation of compassion and mercy and weeps for the world. Virgin Mary is another figure of the mother who portrays deep devotion and benevolence. Due to her connection to physical sustenance and creation, the Good Mother is often portrayed as the Earth that generates and sustains life. In Mythology she is personified in many forms. Most famously in Greek myths as Gaia, in Roman as Terra, and the Indian as Bhumi. The good mother is characterized as someone of an accepting and forgiving nature. (Spore, 2002, p.6). She is present and vigilant so as to protect and fulfill the needs of her children just like the Titan Rhea, the Greek goddess of motherhood who gave birth to six of the Olympian Gods. Her husband Kronos was warned of a prophecy wherein one of his children would dispose of him and so he took to swallowing each of them as soon as they were born. Rhea, however, tried to protect her children by hiding the youngest and tricking Kronus into devouring a rock instead. (Atsma, 2017).


The other face of the Good Mother is the Terrible Mother, who is not merely cold but awful in her destructiveness. She is heartless, cruel, and relentless in exacting the death of those whose time has come. In mythologies, she is often conceived as the weavers or the three fates.


Although she is terrifying it also functions as a necessity. For example, Gaia who is the bringer of life and creation can also represent death and destruction. (Holden, 2012). The Indian goddess Kali is depicted as a paradox of the loving and terrible mother. Her role is to destroy all the decaying aspects of the world to prevent it from turning into a “garbage pile”. She represents the inevitability of death which ultimately leads to the renewal and rebirth of the world. What is alive is dying and what has died provides the soil for the new life. (Lazarus, 2012). Another example is the Egyptian Sky Goddess Nut who consumes the Sun God Ra every night and births him every morning. She represents the “double womb” of the world that gives us out at birth and takes us back at death. Although she is the bringer of our death she also gives us the passion for living. Death after all is not the symbol of the end, rather it is the predecessor of something anew.


The Dark Mother Versus The Death Mother

The Dark Mother and the Death Mother are not one and the same. The Dark Mother represents the nurturing qualities of the divine feminine whereas the Death Mother is the dark or the shadow side that nobody wants to encounter. The dark mother is someone who never got to have a child of her own and yet she is still so full of love and understanding. She offers her wisdom in the dark times of grief, healing, winters, and pain. She is the dark womb that nurtures and supports you as you gain understanding and pull yourself together. She is the wise woman who offers her hard-won wisdom and protects and holds us fiercely as we grieve and enter a new light. (Hetenyi, 2019). The Greek Goddess of the Moon and the hunt, Artemis, is a great example of this. Artemis or as her roman equivalent, Diana, preferred to remain as a virgin and is said to be the patron and protector of young girls. She relieves them of disease and is considered to be the goddess of childbirth and midwifery. It is said that after she was born she even helped her mother, Leto, as a midwife in the delivery of her twin brother Apollo. Despite never having children of her own she had a band of followers and companions. They were usually young adolescent girls who wanted to remain as virgins and live independently and therefore willingly swore allegiance to her for life. (Britannica, 2020). Acknowledging the dark mother is the key to healing and empowerment.


The Death Mother has lost touch with her own soul and is depressed and anxious. She is characterized as the absent or aggressive mother who is unattainable and forbids the growth of the child. She takes away the child’s freedom while keeping a deathly grip on them. Even just the thought of attempting something new, voicing one’s opinion, or stepping towards change, the Death Mother is already there. Disapproving, denigrating, and criticizing every expression of joy and pride just like the tale of Medusa, even a single look from her paralyzes your entire body to stone. (Tokoba, 2015). The Death mother seems to be a recurring theme in the horror genre across a range of literary and film texts. In Book II of Paradise Lost, Milton depicts the character of Sin as a half-woman, half-snake who sprang from Satan’s head and as a result of their unnatural union, she gave birth to Death. Making her the literal mother of Death. Recent horror films such as Carrie (2013), Coraline (2009), and Psycho (1960) foreground a monstrous femininity. (Greven, 2014, pp.167-168). The death mother is a maternal figure associated with death, offering toxic threats instead of the conventional nurture, inflicting terror, not love. The death mother is best summarized into three types: the devouring mother, the abusive mother, and the abandoning mother.


The Devouring Mother

The devouring mother ‘consumes’ her children emotionally and psychologically and often instills in them feelings of guilt at leaving her or becoming independent. She loves her children selfishly instead of selflessly and is emotionally manipulative making the child incompetent and dependent. Loving when they do what she wants and hateful when they don't. She hinders the growth of the child and punishes them by behaving in a cruel and almost homicidal manner. The devouring mother is said to come from a place deep within herself, from a fear of being left alone and forgotten. Thus driving her to become controlling and obsessive in nature. She holds onto others with an almost vice-like grip forcing them to meet her standards and fulfill her desires. (Myss, 2021). Her obsession with her child leads to a complete lack of privacy and absolute invasion of their personal space. Devouring them like the cannibal women mentioned in Native American stories or like the popular European tale of Hansel and Gretel who were lured in and almost eaten by the terrifying witch, Baba Yaga. (Holden, 2012). This constant need for attention and control becomes like a drug resulting in her completely smothering her children, and stifling their ability to become competent and accomplished individuals. However, in doing so she does not realize her constant supervision and suppression will only backfire by permanently infantilizing the child, making them codependent on each other.


She tends to go overboard and tries to control and regulate every minute detail of their personality and life. She is never satisfied with the achievements of her child regardless of how hard they strive, adding immense pressure and contributing to lower self-confidence. (Li, 2021). Back in ancient Greece, Athens was considered to be the center of power, culture, and success and so everyone who wanted to make it big and live out their Hollywood dreams would set out to Athens. Travelers on the way to Athens however, would almost inevitably encounter Procrustes and his bed. If the traveler happened to be short or small in size, they would be stretched out until they fit, unless they were split into two, that is… and if they were too long to fit the bed then whack! It was cut right off. (Britannica, 2011). Similarly only what is considered pleasing to the mother is allowed to exist even if it means hacking off a part of oneself or stretching oneself so thin you rip like paper. That which is unwelcomed becomes a source of shame and is suppressed, cut off, and consigned to the underworld. Whatever is ignored remains as undeveloped gifts or potential within the underworld.


It is possible to perceive the parallels of the devouring mother even in the context of the modern world. The invention of advanced technology and machinery has changed human life altogether. Driven by ticking clocks and the fear of wasted time. We attempt to function as human beings in an inhuman environment, working ourselves down to the bone, marching towards the insatiable cry of a culture that functions in the service of the devouring mother. (Woodman, 2018).


The Abusive Mother

As a general consensus of society, mothers are considered to be the bulwark of protection and rearing of children across the world. Just like a mama bear they are fierce protectors of their young and natural caretakers. Nobody gets to mess with them or their kids, but what happens when the mama decides to be cruel with her own cubs? The abusive mother harms their own children physically, sexually and the most common is, emotionally. She tends to be toxic, erratic and manipulates the child into doing her bidding by withholding affection.


When we think of abuse, “physical” is the first thought that crosses our minds since it is easier to understand and recognize in comparison to the emotional or psychological abuse which may fly under the radar. The abusive mother pretends to have our best interests at heart and will insist that only she knows what is best for the child while hiding her selfish intentions behind the shadow of a smile. (Kirby, 2021). In the 2010 Disney Film, Tangled, Mother Gothel kidnapped Rapunzel and locked her away in a tower far away from everyone else. Since she was kidnapped at such a young age she believed that Gothel is her real mother when in fact she was in the care of a self-serving kidnapper. Mother Gothel can be considered as the very blueprint of the abusive mother archetype. She made sure Rapunzel lived isolated from the rest of society, making it easier to manipulate her into believing that everyone in the outside world is out to get her and the only one she can trust is Mother Gothel. She mentally derides her by calling her “chubby, clumsy and ditzy”. She tries to convince her that no man will ever truly love her and that the only reason Eugene stuck around was because he wanted to steal the crown. She conditioned Rapunzel to think that she is incapable and too immature to live independently. That she should continue to listen to her since,” Mother knows best” when in reality it is her who is completely dependent on Rapunzel. (April, 2018) The abusive mother is an excellent actress who gaslights and uses the child as a scapegoat for everything. She projects her own insecurities and fears onto the child. As a result of the mother’s vanity and jealousy, the child develops self-confidence and body image issues. The mother’s abusive and narcissistic behavior leaves psychological scars that last a lifetime. It sends a message to the child that they are bad, worthless, and unlovable. (Määttä & Uusiautti, 2018, p.2)


The Abandoning Mother

Just like language and other social behaviors, emotions like love and hate, trust, and mistrust have to be learned by experience and imitation. Emotions are not completely instinctive and have to be taught. The abandoning mother, however, does not want the responsibility of parenting and tries to avoid being held accountable for the child. She has removed herself emotionally, psychologically and in some cases, even physically. (Blumberg, 1980, pp. 353-354). The child who is nurtured well, whose frustrations are properly relieved, and is shown adequate love and affection learns from these experiences to show the same love and care towards others. However, the child who is physically harmed, emotionally denigrated, and is seriously neglected, does not know how to exhibit proper love or care and grows up with a poor self-image.


The abandoning mother behaves in a hostile, apathetic, or indifferent manner towards the child. She regrets having any children and may even commit infanticide. (Sieff, 2019, p.17). A perfect example of this is the famous myth of the birth of Hephaestus. It is said that when Hephaestus was born to the Goddess Hera, he was extremely ugly and was born with a limp. One look at her son and his features was apparently more than sufficient for her to reject him and she instantly threw off the top of Mount Olympus where the Olympians usually resided. Hephaestus being a god however obviously survived the fall and later took revenge on her when he learned of his origins. (Britannica, 2019).


The abandoning mother is emotionally dead and neglectful. The archetypal symbol of a mother is her unconditional and undying love. However, the abandoning mother represents the betrayal or the unfulfillment of the maternal promise. She is full of her grief and loss and this same absence is transferred to the child. Harkening back to the original Grimm’ 1812 version of the tale “Hansel and Gretel”, the family were living in the woods when they ran out of food and had to face starvation. It is then the biological mother who proposed to abandon the children in the forest. However, the idea that a biological mother could commit such an act was unacceptable to the readers and so in the fourth edition, it was revised from a biological mother to a stepmother. As one may notice the trend stuck even in popular Disney movies like Snowhite and Cinderella where the Stepmother are portrayed as the villains of the story. Another example of the abandoning mother is Euripide’s Medea who killed her children to get revenge on her husband. The abandoning mother is absent to herself and therefore to the child. It creates a sense of immense emptiness and emotional distance with others and within our own self. The child feels rejected not just by the mother but also by their own self. These deprivations impair proper ego and superego developments leaving a basic id individual who is, therefore, prone to develop disorders and emotional aberrations like feelings of being invisible, unlovable, unworthy, and may even cause them to act out and seek attention. (Wyden, 2018).


The Mother Wound


“The Great Mother aborts children, and is the dead fetus; breeds pestilence, and is the plague; she makes of the skull something gruesomely compelling, and is all skulls herself. To unveil her is to risk madness, to gaze over the abyss, to lose the way, to remember the repressed trauma. She is the molester of children, the golem, the bogey-man, the monster in the swamp, the rotting cadaverous zombie who threatens the living. She is progenitor of the devil, the “strange son of chaos.” She is the serpent, and Eve, the temptress; she is the femme fatale, the insect in the ointment, the hidden cancer, the chronic sickness, the plague of locusts, the cause of drought, the poisoned water. She uses erotic pleasure as bait to keep the world alive and breeding; she is a gothic monster, who feeds on the blood of the living.”

― Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief


The mother wound is the pain and trauma that is carried by a mother and inherited by her children. Even if the mother is physically present but not emotionally attuned or mentally available it can cause great pain to the growing child. Although the mother wound impacts both the daughter as well as the son, living in a patriarchal society can make it easier to transfer the wound to the daughter. Mothers with internalized misogyny which relegates women to second-class citizens are more likely to unconsciously transmit these beliefs and wound their daughters. In such a dilemma the daughter is stuck between two choices; she can either accept the beliefs of the mother so as to maintain peace and continue to receive the mother’s love or, she can fight for her own beliefs and aim for empowerment. (Lewis, 2020). The mother wound is usually a repetition of the wound that was passed down to the mother due to the lack of mothering and the emotional absence in the generations prior. Unfortunately, most mothers do not have the resources to process their own traumas. As a result of the child’s dependence on her during the formative years, they end up internalizing many of her beliefs and views and even take on her unhealthy coping mechanisms. (Nguyen, 2020). The mother wound leads to low self-esteem, lack of emotional awareness, inability to self-soothe, and difficulty forming relationships.


Healing the Mother Wound

For healing, this mother wound it is important to first separate the identity of the mother from the self. The very first step of this healing process is to understand the basics of one’s relationship with the mother and then building a clearer image of oneself. It is not necessarily a linear process and often facing the pain of the mother wound is very difficult, however, it is an essential part of the journey to free yourself from the burden of the mother wound. (Gaba, 2019). Therapy is instrumental in healing this mother wound.


This process of transformation and recovery demonstrates parallels in the myth of Persephone and Hades. After Persephone was kidnapped by Hades to the underworld, her mother Demeter vowed that nothing will grow on earth whilst her daughter remains in the underworld and that spring would arrive only with the return of Persephone to the mortal world. This is just one of the many myths which explain the cyclical patterns of birth and death, ascent and descent. This simple myth is not just an allegory of the seasons or day and night but also a metaphor of the descent to the unconscious and psyche. The Underworld is a symbol of the mother wound, the dark abyss, emotional hell, identity disintegration, depression. However, Hades in this story is also a bringer of transformation. (Dryza, 2020). The underworld becomes a place to confront ourselves, our hubris, and our weakness and to come to terms with the uncomfortable feelings it inspires. Attempting to heal the mother wound involves embracing the grief, allowing yourself to express your anger, and slowly learning to validate and love yourself. Re-creating your self-image by letting go of the less-than-ideal image. (Serrallach, 2017). Transformation does not simply imply removing or fixing past traumas. To quote Marrion Woodman, “healing means making whole”.


Conclusion

A core part of healing the mother wound also relies on reconnecting with the feminine. Living in a patriarchal society has diminished the role of the mother to a mere caretaker. A feeble and nurturant character. The Great Mother, however, is an immensely powerful being. She is the creator and the destroyer. Yet she has been tossed aside, hidden in the shadows, forgotten. As a result, our entire planet is suffering, and we are suffering

along with her. In 2017 the Afro-Cuban artist, Harmonia Rosales re-imagined Michelangelo’s masterpiece, “The Creation of Adam '' as, “The Creation of God ''. She painted both God, angels, and the ‘first man ‘ as black women. The title of the work makes you ponder if it was truly man who was created in the image of God or God in the image of man. The painting helps to bring the focus back to the mother as the primordial creator of the universe just like the primeval mythologies of the ancient world. In the end, it is not about creating some kind of new, Goddess-centric religion or placing only women in positions of power. Rather it is about showing deep respect and reverence for all life, to help elevate the marginalized and suppressed voices while not forgetting our place in the natural order as no greater or lesser than any other living thing. Only by respecting her and putting her back where she belongs, which is at the center of society can we truly begin to heal. She is after all much older than any religion.

Oh! that we might together renew

Our communion with the earth,

She, the cradle of humanity;

She, the nourishment of our seeds;

She, the beauty of the song within;

She, the wailing that precedes.

  • The Great Mother Wails by Antonia Darder (2008)

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This article on 'The Inner Mother' has been contributed by Aalia Passanha who is a student of Psychology from Sophia College, Mumbai. and peer reviewed by Anushka Kharbanda who is a psychology student from Amity University


Aalia and Anushka are both part of the Global Internship Research Program (GIRP), which is mentored by Anil Thomas.


Aalias's future plan is to raise awareness regarding mental health and diversity.


Anushka keenly inetrested in exploring the psychology subject and aspire to excel in it.


GIRP is an initiative by (International Journal of Neurolinguistics & Gestalt Psychology) IJNGP and Umang Foundation Trust to encourage young adults across our globe to showcase their research skills in psychology and to present it in creative content expression.


Anil is an internationally certified NLP Master Practitioner and Gestalt Therapist. He has conducted NLP Training in Mumbai, and across 6 other countries. The NLP practitioner course is conducted twice every year. To get your NLP certification







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