Exploring the symbols, metaphors and archetypal patterns found in myth, pop culture, nature, literature, astrology, religion, psychology, Tarot, art and history.
The Mother Archetype
Whether through myth, fairy tale or film, one of the most easily recognized archetypes is that of the Mother. Archetypes are universally understood patterns of behavior that transcend geography, ethnicity or era.
Triple goddesses spanning many cultures have three expressions: Maiden, Mother and Crone. The Maiden, or Virgin, reflects independent women who are often unmarried. The Mother is the second stage heralded by fertility and growth. The last stage, Crone, is the archetypal expression of the “wise old woman” who has come into her own. Perhaps the most popular Goddess Triad found in mythology is Persephone (Maiden), Demeter (Mother), and Hecate (Crone).
The Greek goddess Demeter (known as Ceres in Roman mythology) was the goddess of the grain, and is one of the most well known maternal goddesses. In the classic myth, Demeter was one of the 12 Olympian gods and goddesses and had a daughter, Persephone. One day, Persephone was out picking flowers when the ground split, and out rode Hades atop a chariot drawn by black horses. Hades abducted Persephone into the underworld, and when Demeter found out, she was devastated. Demeter roamed for nine days without food and water looking for her kidnapped daughter. Demeter was so consumed with her grief that nothing grew, and nothing could be born. Persephone was eventually restored to Demeter, but her daughter had to spend two-thirds of the year with Hades.
This myth explained the cycle of the seasons in the Mediterranean: Persephone went underground at the beginning of autumn and returned at the beginning of summer. The Greek summers were hot and scorching to the land, which paralleled Demeter's grief during the time Persephone is underground with Hades.
In the fascinating book Goddesses in Everywoman - Powerful Archetypes in Women's Lives by Jean Shinonda Bolen, M.D., the psychology of women is outlined through the lens of various goddess archetype patterns. One of these goddess patterns is that of Demeter. Demeter women are maternal and nurturing, finding satisfaction in caretaking and providing for others. It is the Demeter woman that is moved by pictures of mothers and babies and, biologically speaking, is represented by a strong desire to become pregnant and have a child.
Not every woman who has a strong Demeter archetype is a mother; some nurture others through being a nanny, foster parent or babysitter. Still others nurture a business, co-workers, and employees. Many Demeter women love to feed others, feeling maternal satisfaction when their meals are enjoyed. Another aspect of this maternal archetype is having difficulty saying “no” for fear of hurting someone's feelings or from experiencing guilt.
Another aspect to the Demeter woman is persistence, stubbornness, and perseverance (as Zeus and the other Olympians gods and goddesses found out!). The nurturing energy of a Demeter woman makes them indispensable to children, spouses, and friends. On the flip side, the generous energy of the Mother archetype intrudes or smothers. If a child chooses to cut the proverbial apron strings (energetic umbilical cord), Demeter may feel rejected, thus experiencing incredible confusion and grief, much like Demeter felt when Persephone was abducted.
The dark side of the Mother archetype is often portrayed by Corn Mother myths, of which Demeter/Ceres is but one. According to The Element of Encyclopedia of Witchcraft by Judika Illes, Russia has several Corn Mother mythos, including the hag Baba Yaga and Poludnica (The Noon Woman). Rye Mother (Ergot), The Iron Woman of the Ukraine, Anat (Canaanite) and Ezili Dantor (Voudon) are also fierce expressions of the Corn Mother.
Just as Corn Mothers smite the land by withholding crops (which results in death), so do some Mothers symbolically “smite” their children by withholding love, attention, and communication. The Mother who gives the “silent treatment” or isolates their children as punishment withholds nurturing, life-giving love. Symbolically, this is much like the famines in the Corn Mother mythos. This withholding stunts the emotional growth of children and—if severe enough—damages them irrevocably.
Some Corn Mothers, such as the one in Austrian mythology, have “red-hot iron fingers with which she will prick, string, and hurt children if she can…Given the opportunity, she’ll roast and eat children, too, just like ears of corn.” (The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft). In this book, author Judika Illes sums up the paradox within the Mother archetype:
“The classic attribute of the Corn Mother is that she simultaneously destroys and creates. In the act of killing, she gives life and vice versa. Even the most terrifying Corn Mother—and some are truly monsters—provides nourishment; even the most benevolent is a potentially a killer. Nourishment generously given can also be inexplicably withheld and vice versa.”
Those with a Demeter/Mother archetype are often physically demonstrative, especially with hugs, and attract men who are drawn to motherly women. However, many are indifferent towards sex—even puritanical—believing that it’s only for procreation. Interestingly, many with this archetypal pattern find more sensual satisfaction through breast-feeding than sexual relations with their husband.
It would likely be a woman with a Demeter/Mother archetype who views marriage as a means to one end: having children. For those with a strong Demeter/Mother archetype in their psyche, infertility or empty nest syndrome (when adult children move out of the house) can be especially difficult, often producing depression.
Other famous examples of the mother archetype include Mother Goose, Old Mother Hubbard, the Old Woman in the Shoe, Naomi (from the book of Ruth), Mother Theresa, both the Wicked Step-Mother and Fairy Godmother from Cinderella, and the Madonna (Mary, mother of Jesus). Kwan Yin, the Asian goddess of compassion, exemplifies nurturing feminine energy. Doreen Virtue notes that Kwan Yin has been considered the “Mother Mary of the East”. Even Gaia/Mother Nature is an expression of the Mother archetype.
Films serve as a rich source for observing archetypes in action, and the Mother Archetype is no exception. In the movie Mommie Dearest, actress Joan Crawford is portrayed as a real-life Devouring, Abusive Mother towards her daughter, Christina. Interestingly, Joan Crawford portrayed the Self-Sacrificing Mother archetype in the movie Mildred Pierce—a role that won her an Oscar. In the movie Mr. Mom, actor Michael Keaton showed us that the Mother archetype need not be relegated to females. Flowers in the Attic, the classic teen novel by V.C. Andrews, portrays the Abandoning/Neglectful Mother. Another twist on the Mother Archetype is the Queen Mother--a pattern played brilliantly by both Angela Lansbury and Meryl Streep in the The Manchurian Candidate.
In the Tarot, two cards seem to embody the energy of the mother archetype. In the Major Arcana, The Empress is traditionally portrayed as surrounded by grain, a reference to Demeter/Ceres. (Note that Ceres is the origin of our word "cereal"). Her heart-shaped shield bears the symbol of Venus, the Roman version of the Great Goddess. Abundance, fertility, nurturing, intuition, sensuality, creativity and maternal instinct are all associated with The Empress Card.
Another card from the Tarot indicative of the Mother archetype is the Queen of Pentacles. The Pentacles suit (also known as Disks or Coins) is associated with the Earth element, the realm of the material world. In Astrology, the Earth signs are Taurus, Virgo, and Capricorn. Like that of the Mother Archetype, these Earth signs share her stubbornness and persistence. The Queen of Pentacles represents the protective, pragmatic, and procreative aspects of motherhood, as well as regal common sense, a trait that many Demeter women possess.
The Mother Archetype has many faces: nurturing, compassionate, sacrificing, protecting, defending, providing, generous, persistent, abandoning, devouring, grieving, destructive, indifferent, smothering and abusive. Those who manifest an empowered Mother archetype enrich the lives of those they touch, imparting life. For those who maim, ignore, or abuse their children--real or symbolic--destruction and chaos results. Perhaps one way for this pattern to become an empowered one is for the individual to become their own Mother--nurturing and forgiving the Self with gentleness and understanding. Other ways to reverse this pattern are through therapy and/or soul retrieval.
The good news is that every archetypal pattern can be transformed into its highest expression--even those we deem troublesome, negative, or painful. Likewise, the fall-out from a destructive archetypal pattern can be healed and transmuted from the lead of woundedness into the gold of healing and empowerment—including that of the Mother archetype.
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