THE GREAT MOTHER AND SON-LOVER

Excerpts from Erich Neumann, The Origins and History of Consciousness, trans. R.F.C. Hull (Princeton, 1954).

“The figure of the son-lover follows on the stage of embryo and child. By differentiating himself from the unconscious and reaffirming his masculine otherness, he very nearly becomes the partner of the maternal unconscious; he is her lover as well as her son. But he is not yet strong enough to cope with her; he succumbs to her in death and is devoured. The mother-beloved turns into the terrible Death Goddess. She is still playing cat-and-mouse with him, and she overshadows even his rebirth. Where, as the god who dies to rise again, he is connected with the fertility of the earth and vegetation, the sovereignty of the Earth Mother is as obvious as his own independence is questionable. The masculine principle is not yet a paternal tendency balancing the maternal-female principle; it is still youthful and vernal, the merest beginning of an independent movement away from the place of origin and the infantile relation” (47).

“The young men whom the Mother selects for her lovers may impregnate her, they may even be fertility gods, but the fact remains that they are only phallic consorts of the Great Mother, drones serving the queen bee, who are killed off as soon as they have performed their duty of fecundation” (48).

“All lovers of Mother Goddesses have certain features in common: they are all youths whose beauty and loveliness are as striking as their narcissism. They are delicate blossoms, symbolized by the myths as anemones, narcissi, hyacinths, or violets, which we, with our markedly masculine-patriarchal mentality, would more readily associate with young girls. The only thing we can say about these youths, whatever their names may be, is that they please the amorous goddess by their physical beauty. Apart from that they are, in contrast to the heroic figures of mythology, devoid of strength and character, lacking all individuality and initiative. They are, in every sense of the word, obliging boys whose narcissistic self-attraction is obvious” (50).

“Those flower-like boys are not sufficiently strong to resist and break the power of the Great Mother. They are more pets than lovers. The goddess, full of desire, chooses the boys for herself and rouses their sexuality. The initiative never comes from them; they are always the victims, dying like adorable flowers. The youth has at this stage no masculinity, no consciousness, no higher spiritual ego. He is narcissistically identified with his own male body and its distinguishing mark, the phallus. Not only does the Mother Goddess love him simply for his phallus, and, in castrating him, take possession of it to make herself fruitful, but he too is identified with the phallus and his fate is a phallic fate” (51).

“All phallus cults—and they are invariably solemnized by women—harp on the same thing: the anonymous power of the fertilizing agent, the phallus that stands by itself. The human element, the individual, is merely the bearer--the passing and interchangeable bearer--of that which does not pass away and cannot be interchanged because it is ever the self-same phallus. . . . Hence the phallus and the phallic cult go together with the sexuality of the adolescent stage, and the deadly aspect of this stage likewise appears as the slaying of the phallus, i.e., as castration. The orgiastic character of the Adonis, Attis, and Tammuz cults, not to speak of the Dionysian, is all part of this sexuality. The young lover experiences an orgy of sex and in the orgasm the ego dissolves, is transcended in death. On this level, orgasm and death go together, just as do orgasm and castration. . . . Sexuality here means losing the ego and being overpowered by the female, which is a typical, or rather archetypal, experience in puberty. Because sex is experienced as the all-powerful transpersonal phallus and womb, the ego perishes and succumbs to the supreme fascination of the nonego. The Mother is still too great, the seat of the unconscious still too near, for the ego to resist the surge of the blood” (52; 60-61).

“The youths, who personify the spring, belong to the Great Mother. They are her bondslaves, her property, because they are the sons she has born. Consequently the chosen ministers and priests of the Mother Goddess are eunuchs. They have sacrificed the thing that is for her the most important—the phallus. Hence the phenomenon of castration associated with this stage appears here for the first time in its proper sense, because specifically related to the genital organ. The castration threat makes its appearance with the Great Mother and is deadly. For her, loving, dying, and being emasculated are the same thing. Only the priests, at least in later times, escape being put to death because, by castrating themselves, they have voluntarily submitted to a symbolical death for her sake” (53).

“The womb of the earth clamors for fertilization, and blood sacrifices and corpses are the food she likes best. This is the terrible aspect, the deadly side of the earth's character. . . . Everywhere blood plays a leading part in fertility ritual and human sacrifice. The great terrestrial law that there can be no life without death was early understood, and still earlier represented in ritual, to mean that a strengthening of life can only be bought at the cost of sacrificial death” (54).

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