Cycladic goddess
“The Great Mother fills the universe and earth with fertility and abundance, and tends to be characterized by a naturalistic, ‘sensuous’ form, while her aspect as ruler over the spirits and the dead favors forms stressing the unnatural, unreal, and ‘spiritual.’” (Erich Neumann, The Great Mother: An Analysis of the Archetype, 108) Great Mother goddesses are the most primitive manifestations of archetypal feminine symbolism; they present matriarchal symbolism in an undifferentiated form, before the split into elementary and transformative, positive and negative goddesses. As symbols of the overwhelming power of the forces of nature and the unconscious, these figures have a heavily elementary accent, but they encompass both fertility and sexuality, both life and death. One and the same figure is the dispenser of life, happiness, fullness and abundance and of death, plague, and castrating sexuality.

Hallmarks of Great Mother Images

BODY: There is an overwhelming emphasis on the female body, particularly its reproductive features; there can be no doubt that these are goddesses of both human, animal, and agricultural fertility. According to Erich Neumann, “These figures reveal the static nature of the elementary character by the integration of the arms, the active elements of action and motion, with the block of the torso, and by the frequent underemphasis on the head, which is small and sightless, a mere appendage, as it were, of the accentuated torso. Another characteristic of these figures is the disproportionate breadth and fullness of the posterior” (96-97).

steatopygic goddess figurine
neolithic goddess figurine

POWER AND IMPERSONALITY: These figures symbolize tremendous power, power that is totally impersonal. They appear entirely independent and self-contained, superior to and unrelated to human personality. Thus they are never comforting and comfortable goddesses; there is always something uncanny about them, a fearful and intimidating aspect.

UNCONSCIOUS: These goddesses represent the primacy of the unconscious and its superiority over the dependent ego. They are the rulers over all instinctive drives.

prehistoric burial urn

April, 1999
Barbara F. McManus
Topics, Assignments, Notes