The Spell of the Mother
The Scottish Rite Temple, San Francisco, 1988: I remember the first time I heard Robert Bly tell the story of Iron John. I remember when the hero learns of a key that can unlock the cage that imprisons the wild man. And I remember the groans that escaped from a thousand men upon hearing that the key was under his mother’s pillow.
At men’s conferences we’ve long been accustomed to working with father wounds. We’ve become familiar with the two most fundamental modes of fathering under patriarchy: Uranos, who represents the distant, abandoning father, and Kronos, our image of the abusive, intolerant father who eats his own children.
But we still have difficulty acknowledging our mother wounds, even though they profoundly influence our erotic nature.
Our memories are permeated with Mother. Our bodies begin in hers and remain attached to hers by means of the scenes, feelings and habits that compose our life. Memory, and therefore Mother, affects us continually.
For a young child, the mother is partly the center of the world and partly an atmosphere that affects everything that matters. We are and always will be “stuck” in Mother because she is the ground of the experiencing soul. Only the thinnest of membranes separated us, and it was permeable. A mother literally knows her child from the inside out. Michael Meade writes that the fetus, with its transparent skin, absorbs everything from the mother “in an extended feast of subjectivity.” This includes her emotional wounds and unfulfilled desires as well as her affection.
Mother and fetus merge so thoroughly that all embryos appear female for the first six weeks in the womb. A shock occurs in the womb when a rapid release of hormones causes a male fetus to grow. For the rest of his life, shocks will tend to precede and accompany meaningful changes.
This connection will affect all subsequent relationships. She lives on in the memorial rooms of the soul as the happiness and fear of childhood, family, home, and the earliest desires and pain. She is like a permanent stain, a dominant chord, the warp of the carpet structuring us as we are.
As original ground of soul, she is also final ground, burial ground in symbolisms worldwide. She goes on triumphant; hers sons, her heroes and warriors fall. And so we bring fear to her, and mourning. The great size of these emotions finds its equivalence in the figure of the Great Mother, all those goddesses, stepmothers and witches who mother a man with care and advice, all the while smothering his free spirit. Crudely or delicately, she cannot help touching in some way upon the son’s masculinity.
Jung speaks of the “loving and terrible mother” who brings cherishing and nourishing kindness, orgiastic emotionality, and the depths of death and the underworld. The bad mother archetype may connote what devours, seduces and poisons. She is “lovingly tender yet cruel like fate.” In one of her forms, the narcissistic mother, she holds on and smothers, consuming a child’s feelings, making everything about her, or turning him into a surrogate mate.
The term mother complex refers to the emotional memories distilled into our most intimate habits of feeling to which we cling as if for survival. Here, the archetypal Great Mother overlaps with and gets confused with the human mother as she was experienced by her child. This is all mother memory ruling a man’s life. She is the continuity of patterns we have lived with for so long that we have become them, thereby living in the ground of her body, still. Our like, dislikes and addictions seem so secretly mine yet attest to my origins in her.
We are not blaming actual, individual human mothers here.
Jung says that the mother experience is archetypal, yet it is so intensely personal that we all “load that enormous burden of meaning, responsibility, duty, heaven and hell, on to the shoulders of one frail and fallible human being…who was our mother.”
And if these issues are so huge, we remember that they occur within the wider context of patriarchy, where absence of the father (literal or emotional) places an even greater burden upon the mother.
Meade writes, “When I tell stories about mothers to groups of men we all seem to fall under a spell ourselves. The atmosphere in the room becomes heavy; sometimes the room even starts to spin. Thoughts become murky and unclear…We can no longer remember what we started out to look for.”
The territory feels different from that of the father and the son. Usually the blow from the father can be named, stated in a single sentence that carries the shape of the blow. That’s why we speak of the curse of the father. But sons encounter the mother wound more as if they have fallen under a spell. While the father’s curse often has a verbal component (often beginning with “you messages” such as You should do this, or You will never amount to anything) and a specific spot on the body, the mother has a profound preverbal, even preconscious effect.
We fall into moods; we can’t focus; we struggle to know what we feel. We feel empty, stuck or trapped, especially in trying to communicate with a lover, unconsciously comparing her with mother, either favorably or unfavorably. This idealized mother (and the home she symbolizes) is either the perfect haven or a demoness we must escape from.
We spin round and round the same issues, only to arrive at that place where anything we say is the wrong thing. It’s like trying to walk through thick pea soup or deep snow. We find ourselves back in the womb (or the tomb), without any clear sense of boundaries between ourselves and others. We may blow up into rage or retreat into the silent treetops of pornography.
Indeed (as I have written in recent blogs), James Hillman argued that, denied access to our cultural consciousness, the goddess Aphrodite has cast her own spell over the diminished imagination of Western culture, reappearing in images of the female body. Since we can no longer find her in ourselves, since we can no longer embody her in art and ritual, we search for her in one of the few places she is allowed: images of the erotic.
Just as the father’s curse fell on the area where the son was seeking blessing, writes Meade,
…the mother’s spell falls on an area where the son can find something charmed, a giftedness, an inspired area of inheritance. If he avoids dealing with the spellbound area, he also avoids learning something about the charm and the grace and even the fate that are in his life.
How is the spell of the mother activated? Leaving home, separating or any attempt at ending something. Coming home. Consider our fantasies, positive or negative, about going home to the parents for the holidays. Intimacy or isolation; new relationships and retreats from them; rituals of sustenance that Mother once presided over, such as meals. Once activated, the spell becomes gigantic and takes over everything. Things grow out of proportion, because proportion implies conscious awareness, and denying its presence only increases its appetite.
Next blog: Breaking the spell of the mother