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The Great Mother: A Write Up of a Chapter Read in 'The Origins and History of Consciousness' by Erich Neumann

The Great Mother: A Write Up of a Chapter Read in 'The Origins and History of Consciousness' by Erich Neumann

I have embarked upon the writing of Erich Neumann, a student of Carl Jung's, specifically his book 'The Origins and History of Consciousness'. As someone with no formal education in psychology at all it's quite the daunting read. As such I have decided to do a write up on each segment I read in order to cement and fortify what it is that I am learning. I of course will not be going into the level of detail and explanation that Neumann does, and it's likely that I won't necessarily have a full grasp on what it is that I am reading. So should any psychology students be reading this, I offer my apologies in advanced for what may end up being a complete butchering and misrepresentation of Neumann's ideas.

The book draws upon a range of mythology the world over to argue that individual consciousness plays out the same archetypal stages of development as human consciousness on the whole.

The book consists of two parts, as follows:

Part I: The Mythological Stages in the Evolution of Consciousness
A: The Creation Myth

  1. The Uroboros
  2. The Great Mother
  3. The Separation of the World Parents: The Principle of Opposites

B: The Hero Myth

  1. The Birth of the Hero
  2. The Slaying of the Mother
  3. The Slaying of the Father

C: The Transformation Myth

  1. The Captive and the Treasure
  2. Transformation, or Osiris

Part II: The Psychological Stages in the Development of Personality
A: The Original Unity
B: The Separation of the Systems
C: The Balance and Crisis of Consciousness
D: Centroversion and the Stages of Life

Today I'll be covering The Great Mother.


After the ego starts to emerge from the uroboros, and begins it's descent into a lower reality, i.e the physical world, The Great Mother splits into two halves, and the ego begins to feel ambivalent towards the feminine goddess. The desire for unconscious slumber, brought about overwhelmingly by the awareness of things such as death, flood, famine, the desire to blindly chase instinct, and things of the like is the manifestation of the evil mother. The overwhelming and innate desire to experience the beauty and the depth that the world has to offer is the manifestation of the good mother. She is abundance, nourishment, and the creator of life. She is "the cornucopia of the fruitful womb".

During this early stage of development, the ego is still primitive. It is small and as yet without firm footing in the world it newly inhabits. It is defenceless and mostly dependant. A speck floating through a vast and unforgiving ocean, it does not yet recognise fully it's individualism from the Great Mother herself.
(Side note: I would swear that I have read elsewhere that this actually occurs in newborns. That they don't actually realise that they and their mother are not the same entity, and that it in fact takes them several months to begin to realise their individualism).

Exposed to the malevolence of life, with no understanding as yet of cause and effect, the infantile ego steps directly into the unknown with every new experience it encounters, this is why fear is so prevalent in children. As they face up to these fears and experiences and learn of the outcomes, the ego begins to strengthen and consciousness begins to turn to self-consciousness. Though still infantile and with the maternal uroboros still looming like a dark shadow, the ego begins to demand it's own needs and independent existence and the attraction to the peaceful slumber of an unconscious existence grows ever more repugnant to the ego, infantile as it is, because it's emergent recognition is coming into play, and to sink back into uroboric incest would be for the ego to die.
(Another side note: as I was reading the last idea put forth I couldn't help but wonder if that is why people have such a deep, almost primordial, unfounded fear of psychedelics. Who knows what role and to what extent psychedelics have played and shaped us throughout our evolution. We most certainly came into contact with them quite early on, and they were most certainly a large part of very early and primitive cultures. To say that we have instinctual built in knowledge of their affects is, in my opinion, not outside of the realm of possibility. And to undergo ego death is a very reasonable thing for our conscious mind to want to avoid).

As the infantile ego marches further out into the world of experience and cause and effect, the passage of time and it's ultimate death becomes an ever more pressing contemplation and leads to a greater degree of autonomy. It is this that spurs the ego out from the last remaining embryonic reliance it has with the uroboric womb of the great nurturing mother, and into the realm of adolescence. This is when the ego emerges fully as the centre of consciousness. (Though children do still show actions of self-awareness, despite an ego having not been developed to it's fullest extent before this.)

An important note here is that consciousness is masculine, and unconsciousness is feminine. This is true of both sexes, male and female, and the distinction between masculine and feminine is a symbolic one, not a literal one (as needs overstating in today's political climate). Ergo, unconscious=maternal womb=asleep=dark=night. Consciousness=paternal action=awake=light=day. This is an important distinction as we enter the next epoch of the ego.

In the adolescent stage of the ego the conscious and unconscious duality and the relation between them is played out and dramatised in the myth of the mother and son as lovers. Once again the evil mother is at play here, coming forth in the guise of a masked trickster using false sweetness to lure the son/ego to his own destruction for the Great Mother's own end. This archetypal myth exposes the relation between the unconscious and the conscious in this stage of being. The masculine consciousness, whilst trying to assert itself as separate from the feminine unconscious, is born, loved, slain, buried, and then reborn again through her. Feminine is always the primary mode of being, and masculine the secondary. This is because the masculine is a product of, and a servant to, the feminine. A woman, being born of herself, is always a mother first. A man, being born of a woman and ultimately to serve a woman, is always a son first. This is why fertility gods are merely phallic manifestations of the Great Mother herself, they are simply drones serving a purpose to the queen bee.

The Great Mother, whilst being an all loving, fruitful goddess is, in many different cultural myths, simultaneously a goddess of fear, darkness, death, war, and blood. Especially blood. This is true of Egyptian, Indian, and Mesopotamian theology to name a few. It was well understood by early fertility cults that the nature of life and death were tied together intricately. Without one, there could not be the other. All of these cults partook in orgiastic blood ceremonies, in which a male sacrifice was made to mother earth. They would dismember, consume, and bury him, with great attention paid to the phallus. The blood was seen to be the fertility agent that the earth required to continually produce life. It is likely that blood was linked so tightly to fertility due to menstruation in females.

So what was uroboric incest during the stage of infantile ego was a whole bodied desire to succumb once again to sleep within the Great Mother, but uroboric incest during the stage of adolescence ego happens on an entirely sexual level and is restricted strictly to the genitalia. The great mother remains the ever present womb, but the masculine ego becomes the phallus with the desire to succumb to the orgiastic, drunken, unconscious brought about through sex. The feminine swallows the masculine and makes herself fruitful. This is why adolescents have a limited amount of individualistic qualities. They are a group embodiment of sexual maturation, fresh out of infantile mentalities with no ability to resist temptation, and as such, are led for the most part only by a narcissistic infatuation with the body, and the phallus.

In the second half of this chapter, Neumann spends quite a long time analysing several different mythological stories throughout many different cultures and times. From Egypt, Lybia, Phoenicia, Crete, Mycenae, and Greece. From the story of Osiris and Isis, to the story of Bata. I won't attempt to replicate his analysis here because it seems they require quite a lot of foreknowledge regarding the cultures and stories he dives into, but what he is doing is showing how in psychological development, and societal stories, there comes a conflict between the matriarchy of the Great Mother and the patriarchy of the emerging hero conscious. A more commonly recognised example of this is the representation of epic history and the personalisation of family history set out in the Greek hero myths.

One story that Neumann tackles is that of Osiris. He is dismembered by Isis and his phallus is lost to the Nile. Another representation of fertility sacrifice which we discussed earlier. As culture evolved, human sacrifices turned to animal sacrifices. One such sacrifice was the bull; a symbol throughout the ages of fertility and sexuality, it is still a common archetypal symbol of such in modern dreams.  The bull's head was not allowed to be consumed, and was instead thrown into the Nile, much like Osiris' lost member. The horns being an obvious analogy of the phallus. What's important to note is the significance of the connection between the head and the phallus in the mythological stages of conscious development, they are interchangeable.

This story, like all others Neumann references show both the Great Mother's loving, and destructive sides. Her womb and the phallic imagery is representative of the uroboros still being operative in the background, despite the ego's attempts to strive through adolescence and into fully fledged ego consciousness. This signifies that it is still not able to overcome the pull of the unconscious nor able to assert itself independent of it. It is impotent against the uroboric mother and the overwhelming power of it's own fate (another facet of the feminine goddess). This is much like we see in Greek tragedy, most notably that of Oedipus. For masculinity and consciousness are failing to attain independence and the incest of the uroboric infantile has simply given way to the matriarchal incest of adolescence.

"The death ecstasy of sexual incest is symptomatic of an adolescent ego not yet strong enough to resist the forces symbolised by the Great Mother".

Next we come to the "strugglers", the next stage in ego development. These are the manifestations of fear toward the Great Mother, and that which expresses itself in flight and resistance to her. This is the first sign of centroversion, self-formation, and ego stability which is brought about through the rejection of the Mother's 'love' and will for it. We see this in the tale of Narcissus, who rejects the love of a fiery goddess and instead becomes infatuated with his own reflection (hence the root of the word 'narcissism'). This is the ability of self-recognition emerging, allowing the ego to become fully aware of itself, and reflect inwardly about itself. Narcissus does ultimately end up being a victim to the overpowering and instinctive force of love, which is an element over which the Great Mother presides, the fact that she uses his own reflection to illicit this seduction is yet more confirmation of her ultimately treacherous qualities. This is indeed though the first steps taken and the precedent set for the ego to emerge fully from the unconscious.

After this the negative aspects of feminine begins it's conversion into the background, taken to the extremes in the patriarchal religions of the West. The defiance in the face of the Great Mother's treacherous love, allows the growth of self-consciousness and the strengthening of masculinity. The conscious patriarchal cultures split the Great Mother into two, and only the Good Mother remains in the foreground, whilst her terrible aspects are relegated purely to the unconscious, which the ego is marching ever further away from by this point. Later developments had the negative half of her represented by animals, and the positive half represented by human form. 

Emergence of killer male myths are still a representation of a part of the Great Mother and symbolic still of the ego's evolution. The motif of the hostile brothers steps forth from this. Cain and Abel, Thor and Loki, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde etc. This motif appears as the ego is on the cusp of attaining full self-consciousness, dividing itself into two constituent elements, one destructive, one creative. This is an expansion of, which runs parallel to, the division of the Great Mother into good and bad. Now instead of fighting the tragedy she attempts to incur, it instead fights with it's own potential for dissolution. It can see past the predetermined conclusion of death, and shifts it's focus as to ensure it's own mortality is not the highest priority and only aspect of it's life. It is in doing this that the ego becomes heroic and uncouples itself from the mighty draw of the unconscious. It is now capable of standing alone as a fully independent ego consciousness.

We then enter unto the next stage of psychological and archetypal evolution, the separation of the World Parents; the principle of opposites.


Mm, this is getting intense, and quite possibly all the more nonsensical. There is so much content and context within these pages which Neumann fleshes out elaborately, that it truly is rather difficult to distil the crux of the points that are being made. Still, this is all part of the learning process, and I press ever on, slowly but surely.

The Uroboros: A Write Up of a Chapter Read in 'The Origins and History of Consciousness' by Erich Neumann

The Uroboros: A Write Up of a Chapter Read in 'The Origins and History of Consciousness' by Erich Neumann