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The Great Mother: An Analysis of the Archetype

The Great Mother: An Analysis of the Archetype

by Erich Neumann

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Loving and nurturing or hostile and devouring, the Great Mother is explored as a primordial image of the human psyche in this landmark book by renowned analytical psychologist Erich Neumann. Here he examines how this archetype has been outwardly expressed in many cultures and periods since prehistory drawing in ritual, mythology, art, and records of dreams and


Loving and nurturing or hostile and devouring, the Great Mother is explored as a primordial image of the human psyche in this landmark book by renowned analytical psychologist Erich Neumann. Here he examines how this archetype has been outwardly expressed in many cultures and periods since prehistory drawing in ritual, mythology, art, and records of dreams and fantasies.

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Journal of Analytical Psychology
Neumann's creative intuition has enabled him to read in these records of the past a content and meaning that throws a beam of light on the psychological history of [hu]mankind.
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"Neumann's creative intuition has enabled him to read in these records of the past a content and meaning that throws a beam of light on the psychological history of [hu]mankind."Journal of Analytical Psychology

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Princeton University Press
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The Great Mother

An Analysis of the Archetype

By Erich Neumann, Ralph Manheim


Copyright © 2015 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-16607-0



When analytical psychology speaks of the primordial image or archetype of the Great Mother, it is referring, not to any concrete image existing in space and time, but to an inward image at work in the human psyche. The symbolic expression of this psychic phenomenon is to be found in the figures of the Great Goddess represented in the myths and artistic creations of mankind.

The effect of this archetype may be followed through the whole of history, for we can demonstrate its workings in the rites, myths, symbols of early man and also in the dreams, fantasies, and creative works of the sound as well as the sick man of our own day.

In order to explain what analytical psychology means by an "archetype," we must distinguish its emotional-dynamic components, its symbolism, its material component, and its structure.

The dynamic, the effect of the archetype, is manifested in energetic processes within the psyche, processes that take place both in the unconscious and between the unconscious and consciousness. This effect appears, for example, in positive and negative emotions, in fascinations and projections, and also in anxiety, in manic and depressive states, and in the feeling that the ego is being overpowered. Every mood that takes hold of the entire personality is an expression of the dynamic effect of an archetype, regardless whether this effect is accepted or rejected by the human consciousness; whether it remains unconscious or grips the consciousness.

The symbolism of the archetype is its manifestation in specific psychic images, which are perceived by consciousness and which are different for each archetype. The different aspects of an archetype are also manifested in different images. Thus, for example, the terrible aspect and the life-giving, "kindly" aspect of an archetype appear in diverging images. But on the other hand, the terribleness of one archetype, e.g., the Terrible Mother, is expressed in other symbols than that of another archetype, e.g., the Terrible Father.

By the material component of an archetype we mean the sense content that is apprehended by consciousness. When, however, we say that an archetypal content of the unconscious is assimilated, this assimilation—if we disregard the emotional character of the archetype—refers to the material component.

The structure of the archetype is the complex network of psychic organization, which includes dynamism, symbolism, and sense content, and whose center and intangible unifier is the archetype itself.

The archetype is manifested principally in the fact that it determines human behavior unconsciously but in accordance with laws and independently of the experience of the individual. "As a priori conditioning factors, [the archetypes] represent a special, psychological instance of the biological 'pattern of behaviour,' which gives all living creatures their specific qualities." This dynamic component of the unconsious has a compelling character for the individual who is directed by it, and it is always accompanied by a strong emotional component.

In other words, a state of biopsychical seizure is always connected with the constellation of an archetype. This latter may bring about a change in the instincts and drives as well as in the passion, affectivity, and, on a higher plane, in the feeling tone of the personality on which the archetype works. But the dynamic action of the archetype extends beyond unconscious instinct and continues to operate as an unconscious will that determines the personality, exerting a decisive influence on the mood, inclinations, and tendencies of the personality, and ultimately on its conceptions, intentions, interests, on consciousness and the specific direction of the mind.

When the unconsious content is perceived, it confronts consiousness in the symbolic form of an image. For "A psychic entity can be a conscious content, that is, it can be represented, only if it has the quality of an image and is thus representable." For this reason, even the instincts, the psychic dominants, which of all unconsious contents are most important for the psychological totality, seem to be linked with representations of images. The function of the image symbol in the psyche is always to produce a compelling effect on consciousness. Thus, for example, a psychic image whose purpose it is to attract the attention of consciousness, in order, let us say, to provoke flight, must be so striking that it cannot possibly fail to make an impression. The archetypal image symbol corresponds, then, in its impressiveness, significance, energetic charge, and numinosity, to the original importance of instinct for man's existence. The term "numinous" applies to the action of beings and forces that the consciousness of primitive man experienced as fascinating, terrible, overpowering, and that it therefore attributed to an indefinite transpersonal and divine source.

The representation of the instincts in consciousness, that is to say, their manifestation in images, is one of the essential conditions of consciousness in general, and the genesis of consciousness as a vital psychic organ is decisively bound up with this reflection of the unconscious psychic process in it. This fundamental constellation is itself a product of the unconscious, which thus constellates consciousness, and not merely an "activity" of consciousness itself. For this reason Jung says: "The primordial image might suitably be described as the instinct's perception of itself, or as the self-portrait of the instinct."

Thus, despite the seeming contrast between them, the instinctual plane of the drive and the pictorial plane of consciousness belong together, for "man finds himself simultaneously driven to act and free to reflect." "As well as being an image in its own right, [the archetype] is at the same time a dynamism."

But the pictorial plane, on which the archetype becomes visible to consciousness, is the plane of the symbol, and it is here that the activity of the unconscious manifests itself in so far as it is capable of reaching consciousness.

Symbolic images, as archetypal representations, must be distinguished from the "archetype an sich." "The archetype an sich is an 'irrepresentable' factor, a 'disposition' which starts functioning at a given moment in the development of the human mind and arranges the material of consiousness into definite patterns."

For this reason Jung says that 'The archetypes are there preconsciously, and presumably they form the structural dominants of the psyche in general. They may be compared to the invisible presence of the crystal lattice in a saturated solution." In other words the "archetype an sich" is a nuclear phenomenon transcending consciousness, and its "eternal presence" is nonvisible. But not only does it act as a magnetic field, directing the unconscious behavior of the personality through the pattern of behavior set up by the instincts; it also operates as a pattern of vision in the consciousness, ordering the psychic material into symbolic images.

We designate the symbols belonging to an archetype as its symbol group or symbol canon. A difficulty arises, however, from the fact that this co-ordination is not unequivocal. For "the single archetypes are not isolated from each other in the unconscious, but are in a state of contamination, of the most complete, mutual interpenetration and interfusion." This contamination is proportionately greater as the differentiating consciousness is weaker; it diminishes as consciousness develops and—what amounts to the same thing—learns to make clearer differentiations.

Thus to the differentiation of consciousness corresponds a more differentiated manifestation of the unconscious, its archetypes and symbols. As consciousness unfolds, the unconscious manifests itself in a series of forms, ranging from the absolute numinosity of the "archetype an sich," through the scarcely definable image paradox of its first emergence—in which images that would seem to be mutually exclusive appear side by side—to the primordial archetype.

The term "primordial archetype" is a seeming pleonasm and requires explanation. We employ the concept of the archetype as Jung has clearly defined it in his most recent writings—as a structural concept signifying "eternal presence." But since for an understanding of the history of consciousness and for psychotherapeutic practice it has proved essential to differentiate the archetype from the standpoint of its "development" within the psyche, we employ the term primordial archetype to stress the genetic aspect: by it we define the archetype as manifested in the early phase of human consciousness before differentiation into the particular archetypes. The process of the differentiation of archetypal phenomena, which I have designated in my Origins and History of Consciousness as the "fragmentation of archetypes," leads to the emergence of individual archetypes from a great complex mass, and to the formation of coherent archetypal groups.

Parallel to this development, the symbols are differentiated and ordered. The symbols are the manifest visibility of the archetype, corresponding to its latent invisibility. While, for example, the primordial archetype may contain the most diverse and contradictory symbols, which for consciousness are mutually exclusive—e.g., positive and negative, male and female—these symbols later split apart and order themselves according to the principle of opposites.

The symbols, like the archetype itself, possess a dynamic and a material component. They take hold of the human personality as a whole, arouse it and fascinate it, and attract consciousness, which strives to interpret them.

The material component of the symbol sets consciousness in motion; aroused by the symbol, consciousness directs its interest toward it and seeks to understand it. That is to say, the symbol, aside from its dynamic effect as an "energy transformer," is also a "molder of consciousness," impelling the psyche to assimilate the unconscious content or contents contained in the symbol. This assimilation culminates in the formation of views, orientations, and concepts by consciousness; although these have their origin in the sense content of the symbol and hence in the collective unconscious, of which the archetype is a part, they now, independent of their origin, claim an existence and validity of their own.

Let us take as an example the archetype of the "way." As far as we know, this archetype first appeared among the prehistoric men of the ice age. In a ritual that was still in large part unconscious, the way led these early men into mountain caves, in whose hidden and almost inaccessible recesses they established "temples" adorned with representations of animals on the killing of which their existence depended.

The magical and sacral significance of these paintings and of the caves in which they are found is today unquestioned. But it is also evident that the "hard and dangerous way," by which alone these caves could often be reached, formed a part of the ritual reality of the mountain temples that we now see in them.

At a later cultural stage, when consciousness was more highly developed, this archetype of the way became a conscious ritual. In the temple precinct, for example—from the temples of Egypt to the Borobudur of Java—the worshiper is compelled to follow a ritual way from the periphery to the center, the shrine. Christ's Calvary is another, more highly developed form of this archetype: here the way of destiny becomes the way of redemption; and with Christ's conscious utterance, "I am the way," this archetype attains to a new, wholly inward, and symbolic level, which has determined the attitudes of all the ensuing generations that have re-enacted this inward Christian way. Moreover, this symbol of the archetypal way has taken a universal place in the consciousness and orientation of modern man. We take for granted such expressions as "inner ways of development"; and the companion symbols of "'orientation" and "disorientation," as well as references to philosophical, political, artistic "trends," belong to the same context. All these linguistic formulations are based on the archetype of the way, whose pattern determines the originally unconscious behavior of man moving toward a sacral goal.

The difficulty of describing the structure of an individual archetype arises in part from the fact that the archetype and the symbol erupt on a number of planes, often at the same time. The phenomenology of the workings of the archetype extends from the unconscious instinctive drive of the primitive individual, contained in the group, to the formulation of concepts and beliefs in the philosophical systems of the modern individual. In other words, a vast number of forms, symbols, and images, of views, aspects, and concepts, which exclude one another and overlap, which complement one another and apparently emerge independently of one another, but all of which are connected with one archetype, e.g., that of the Great Mother, pour in on the observer who takes it on himself to describe, or even to understand, what an archetype, or what this archetype, is. Although all these many forms are ultimately "variations on a ground theme," their diversity is so great, the contradictory elements united in them so multifarious, that in addition to speaking of the "eternal presence" of the archetype, we must also speak of its symbolic polyvalence.

The manifestation of the archetype as a symbolic expression of the unconscious can, in its relation to man, be formulated from two points of view, which seem contradictory but actually complement one another. The archetype may manifest itself "spontaneously," or else it may stand in a compensatory relation to the consciousness of the man in whom it appears. When the archetype appears as a spontaneous expression of the unconscious, it operates independently of the psychic situation of the individual and of the group, as an autonomous force that determines the actual situation. This is most evident in phenomena of irruption, e.g., psychosis, in which the archetypal phenomenon irrupts unpredictably and with the strangeness of something "totally other," and in which it is impossible to establish adequate relations between whatever it is that irrupts and the victim of the irruption. But even here partly intelligible connections can be demonstrated between the type and content of the psychosis and the personality of the affected individual.

This means, however, that the archetypal manifestation is not isolated but—this must be said to round out the picture—is determined by the total constellation of the collective unconscious. It depends not only on the race, people, and group, the historical epoch and actual situation, but also on the situation of the individual in whom it appears.

When we say that the archetype and the symbol are spontaneous and independent of consciousness, we mean that the ego as the center of consciousness does not actively and knowingly participate in the genesis and emergence of the symbol or the archetype, or, in other words, that consciousness cannot "make" a symbol or "choose" to experience an archetype. This by no means precludes a relation of the archetype or the symbol to the totality of the personality and consciousness; for the manifestations of the unconscious are not only a spontaneous expression of unconscious processes but also reactions to the conscious situation of the individual, and these reactions, as we see most commonly in connection with dreams, are of a compensatory nature. This means that the appearance of archetypal images and symbols is in part determined by a man's individual typological structure, by the situation of the individual, his conscious attitude, his age, and so on.


Excerpted from The Great Mother by Erich Neumann, Ralph Manheim. Copyright © 2015 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Meet the Author

Erich Neumann (1905-60), a psychologist and philosopher, was born in Berlin and lived in Tel Aviv from 1934 until his death. His books include The Origins and History of Consciousness, The Fear of the Feminine, and Amor and Psyche (all Princeton). Martin Liebscher is senior research fellow in German and honorary senior lecturer in psychology at University College London.

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