The Great Mother vs. the Terrible Mother: the dual nature of the Jungian archetype.

The prehistoric figurine famously known as the “Venus of Willendorf”, which was made between 24,000 and 22,000 BCE.

That flowers-and-Hallmark-card festival of “why don’t you call more often?” guilt we so lovingly refer to as Mother’s Day has just passed, so I thought it topical to dedicate a post to mother archetypes. It goes without saying that, as long as there’s been people, there’s been mothers. Some of the earliest known artifacts of human prehistory are — or, at least, are believed to be — representations of female fertility and motherhood. The most famous of these is the Venus of Willendorf, a small, carved stone figurine of an ancient woman with what could be best described as fleshy, Rubenesque proportions. The exaggerated sexual characteristics of the figurine — her large, pendulous breasts, full, rounded belly and pronounced vulva — seem to support the theory that the Venus was used as a sacred fetish object relating to fertility, perhaps in some sort of Mother Goddess worship. Of course, the true purpose of the artifact remains a mystery:

Like many prehistoric artifacts, the cultural meaning of these figures may never be known. Archaeologists speculate, however, that they may be emblems of security and success, fertility icons, pornographic imagery, or even direct representations of a mother goddess or various local goddesses. — from Wikipedia.

Regardless of the cultural meaning behind such representations of womanhood, various historians and scholars have looked to the prehistoric Venus figurines for images of mother goddesses. The Jungian psychologist Erich Neumann argued that these figurines served as evidence of ancient matriarchal religion in his book The Great Mother: an Analysis of the Archetype (1955), although his theories have since been disputed by subsequent generations of academics. Whether or not there actually was a prehistoric practice of Mother Goddess worship, what we are left with from Neumann’s book is the potent archetypal image of the Great Mother. According to Jungian psychoanalysis, the Great Mother archetype symbolizes creativity, birth, fertility, sexual union and nurturing. She is a creative force not only for life, but also for art and ideas.

Lithograph of the bloodthirsty Hindu Kali, goddess of time, change, and death.

But, for every positive, creative force, there must be an opposing, destructive one. This notion is doubly true in the esoteric world of Carl Jung, where all archetypes must, by necessity, possess a shadow self. The dark twin sister of the Great Mother is the Terrible Mother, a force of death and destruction. This archetype inhabits the world of the primordial instincts, and is frequently represented as sub-human or even animal-like in form. A good example of the Terrible Mother archetype is the black-skinned Hindu goddess Kali. Her eyes are described as red with absolute rage, her hair disheveled, and small fangs sometimes protrude out of her mouth. She is often shown naked or just wearing a skirt made of human arms and a garland of human heads. Kali is often accompanied by serpents and a jackal while standing on a seemingly dead Shiva, her male consort. Her open, fanged mouth — with tongue lolling out — is a common characteristic of the Terrible Mother, whose image often emphasizes the oral and is closely related to the mythology of the vagina dentata. Erich Neumann relays one such myth in which “a fish inhabits the vagina of the Terrible Mother; the hero is the man who overcomes the Terrible Mother, breaks the teeth out of her vagina, and so makes her into a woman.” (The Great Mother. Princeton: Princeton University Press. pp. 168.).

Well, in either case — Great or Terrible — I sincerely hope you called your mother this past weekend.

9 thoughts on “The Great Mother vs. the Terrible Mother: the dual nature of the Jungian archetype.

  1. Pingback: Sacred Earthly Woman, and Divine Holy Mother « clearskies, bluewater

  2. I would love to hear your thoughts on the significance of the teeth of the great mother figure. I’m knee deep in Campbell and Bly, in Wang Wei, but I actually get to send you a comment with my question embedded, and, well, the mood strikes me.

    I certainly do appreciate your time, and, to boot I’ve enjoyed reading over your pages here.

    • Also, the teeth inside the vagina of the Terrible Mother basically symbolize male castration anxiety and present the Hero (i.e. Joseph Campbell’s notion of the male “hero”) with an obstacle to overcome to “tame” the Terrible Mother.

    • More from evolutional side of thing: Teeth might imply predatory nature of, well, nature (including other human beings). I don’t know how well you know Jordan Peterson (now known figure from fighting against political correctness) but he has lots of interesting propositions in his youtube videos (along his book Maps of Meaning) which ties mýthic structures into how we have evolved thru out millions of years.

      One method how he displayed effect teeth have on us was that he stretched his arm to his side and told students to stare his up-lift finger, and while staring his finger they could not tell how he’s face looked like. Then he grinned at them and instantly his students turned their gaze from finger to his face (unconsciously detecting the grin). So we have built in mechanism to detect that acting in our unconscious, and another his hypothesis is (based on rat-experiments) is that fundamentally we are scared beings, only with hard effort we can feel at ease and that hat feeling can be broken easily… Like by seeing exposed teeth! Which is why we can spot such things even in most trivial situations and why such things are displayed in mythic. There’s tons of interesting stuff to be make it more senseful, but all i can do is to direct you to some of his video-series on Maps of Meaning (or reading his book).

      My speculation would be that teeth in vagina represent dragon, opponent, Hero has to overcome it to gain woman (=price). Although it would sound more hybrid of both male and feminine version of hero myth. Males usually overcomes obstacle/beast to gain price. While Women seems to transform beast into prince, which is more what happens here. Which again is something human nature seems to do, men has to prove their worth (to get the woman) and women select most successful men (and their task is taming them)… Which again would require further explanation, which Peterson answers in his lecture-videos.

      Well, it’s 4 year between your post and mine, so i suppose this info doesn’t serve no-one but me to re-examine this issue :)

      • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Antti. (As you can see, it took me a couple of weeks to respond). I haven’t seen those videos by Peterson but that’s an interesting theory.

  3. Pingback: Boos Interpretation 02 | Sunklands

  4. Thank you for the post… Here are some of my thoughts on this subject….
    Only in overcoming and reaching the feminine inside themselves can the hero or heroine pass through the teeth of creativity also known as the guard/guide, (the mechanism and tools) which help digest and create as well as transform the balance of the human feminine to the divine feminine. The divine feminine is reached by passing the darkest part of the self or the shadow part or the subconscious part of the self. Rachel Gobar

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