The Power of the Great Mother

Mother, Come Back!

Bena Mukini people, Zambia, West Africa.

Acacia tree on savanna. Jungian analysis

Acacia tree in savanna




A mother went wild, flew away to hunt for food, and fed her beautiful daughter in a tree. The king’s men came to cut down the tree and capture the daughter, but the mother killed them.

Then the king sent new-born babies who did capture her.

The mother said she must not pound corn but, while the king was hunting, his other envious wives made the daughter pound.

As she pounded she disappeared into the earth. Then the people sent the dove to tell the mother: ‘she who swallows the sun is gone’.

The mother returned killing people and animals and rescued her daughter.



When we hear a strange myth, we have to struggle to orient ourselves.

We could read it at the outer level, that is, about things that happen between a mother and her daughter: but then the story is bizarre and does not make sense.

Or we can read it as Jung would, at the inner level, as a story symbolic of changes which happen within a personality. Then the story has authority; it has the ring of truth.

We must first ask, who is the main character?

Is it the King? The King is always off-stage. His men are ineffectual: they cannot cut down tree. Then the King is absent. His orders (she must not pound) are only a repetition of the mother’s orders and his other wives defy his orders anyway. Thus he too is ineffectual which means that the story is not about the masculine; the masculine is a catalyst but is not the central force.

Is this like the Roman myth Psyche and Eros, which Jung discussed?

Venus made a young woman, Psyche, journey into the underworld and perform difficult tasks. Then Psyche could marry her lover, Eros, who was Venus’s son.


women doorway.jungian psychoanalysis

Psyche entering Cupid’s garden. J. W. Waterhouse, 1904.

Photo: source unknown.

In our african story the daughter undergoes transformation but she is passive: she is fed in tree, she cries for her mother’s help, she is tied up by new-born babies, she is bullied by the other wives and by her mother-in-law, and she only complains and keeps repeating the rule (she must not pound) which had been pronounced by her mother. In the end the daughter is rescued by her mother.

Because Psyche was active throughout her story while our african daughter is passive, we cannot interpret our story as Psyche’s story.

In our story the mother is flamboyantly active and she surprises us again and again. The story begins with the image of the mother living in the bush. The first words are ‘This is what a woman did.’

Above all our story is about the mother and her actions. Or we could say about the cycle of Mother Nature, Mother Nature’s timing.

At the inner level the story tells us what the feminine does. It is about the differentiation and transformation, the unfolding of the feminine, as represented by both mother and daughter.

This differentiation is important in the psychology of a man just as it is in the psychology of a woman.


Mother, Come Back! Complete tale with amplifications and interpretations

The wild mother

This is what a woman did.

She was then living in the bush, never showing herself to anyone. She had living with her just one daughter, who used to pass the day in the fork of a tree making baskets.

To understand the image ‘living in the bush’, we need to amplify it with another story which has the same image.


The Devil and her Daughter

Kpelle people, aboriginal Liberians, West Africa

A man and a woman got married. The woman became pregnant. But before she gave birth the husband walked off.

Angry and frustrated, the woman went into the bush. She got used to the bush and became afraid of human beings. She became as wild as the beasts of the forest.

In time she gave birth to a daughter. Her daughter grew up to be beautiful beyond belief.

But the mother became very hairy and turned into a devil. She grew wings and began to fly. She fed on human beings but she fed her daughter on the meat of animals.

She built a cabin with two rooms. She could not enter her daughter’s room and her daughter could not enter hers because it was filled with human skulls.

Note the differentiation: two aspects of feminine were separated from each other.

The wild mother reverted to pure nature, living out of the unconscious. Mothering requires a return to instinct; to some degree a mother sets aside career, her ego work, and suckles like every other mammal.

At the symbolic level the woman fell out of normal society. She was no longer sustained by the collective roles of wife or friend. Instead she met her dark inner world and began inner development. This is characteristic of the inner journey: we have to go it alone, alienated from society.

The woman fell into a purely natural uncivilized state. Pure nature is ambivalent: it is spontaneous and lively but amoral; it nurtures freely and kills without remorse.

wolverine threatening with teeth. jungian analyst

Wolverine: boreal forest & tundra, northern hemisphere

Photo: Klaus Rudloff, Skansen park, Stockholm 2004

In some european fairy tales it was the devil who fed on human flesh, which means that our wild mother is like the devil. Because the devil is derived from a suppressed pagan god, the mother is like a pagan god.

All of this is symbolized by the mother living alone in the bush.


The mother fed the daughter meat and porridge. Feeding is emphasized in both stories.

You might take this at face value: ‘A mother feeds her child, this is just normal, it doesn’t mean anything.’ But everything in the tale has been preserved because it has meaning. This is not about a literal mother and daughter and the insistence on feeding is significant.

This traditional story is insisting upon the energy that inner work takes. Inner development requires much libido and hard work. In analysis our patients resent that it takes so much energy and costs so much and we have to tell them that inner work is very demanding for everyone involved.


The beautiful daughter

The mother kept her daughter young by confining her to the nest. Youth symbolizes new potential for development. Because the child holds the future she is the most precious person.

In analysis, when I am in resistance, I cling to the old and avoid the new possibility; the mother is resisting the new development.

The daughter’s beauty suggests marriage which symbolizes the inner marriage, the union by which the conscious mind and the unconscious become more intimately related. So marriage represents inner growth. But beauty itself also means integration because beauty means harmony, proportion, and the regularity of features. At a deep level beauty includes vigor, strength, authenticity, relatedness and integration.

Beauty suggests inner growth and, at the deepest level, this is why it attracts us. When we long for something beautiful to grace our life, a home, a car, or fashionable clothing, or when we long for a beautiful person, we are longing for inner growth though we may not know it at the time.

wooden figurine of african girl. jungian analyst

Zulu figurine

Photo: Gallery Ezakwantu

Living in a tree

…. She had living with her just one daughter, who used to pass the day in the fork of a tree making baskets.

The daughter lives in a tree like a flower. To understand this image we need to amplify it with another tale.

Tale of an Old Woman

Bondie people, Tanzania, East Africa

An old woman is destitute. So she goes to the bush to cut down a tree. But the tree protests. Instead the tree gives the old woman its flowers and these become children who can work for her.

purple flower.jungian psyhoanalysis

Tree flower

Photo: source unknown


The tree Instructs her: Do not scold the children, and the youngest child must be fed, not made to work, and not scolded.

She is too young, it is not the right time for her to work.

The old woman prospers. But eventually she scolds youngest child and complains about all her children.

The children retaliate by leaving her and going back to the tree. The old woman is destitute again.

In this story, as in our main story, the tree bears natural resources. The daughter is the flower of the unconscious, the possibility of inner development.

Inner growth is the source of wealth but its authority and its timing must be respected. Ego needs cannot be forced upon it; it cannot be exploited.

The prohibition on scolding is an issue of feeling. It shows that new potential has to be greeted with tolerance and acceptance if it is to develop.

The King and his men

One day there appeared a man just when the mother had gone to kill game. He found the girl making baskets as usual. ‘Here now’ he said. ‘There are people here in the bush! And that girl, what a beauty! Yet they leave her alone. If the king were to marry her, would not all the other queens leave the place?’ Going back to the town, he went straight to the king’s house and said,

‘Sire, I have discovered a woman Of such beauty that, if you call her to this place, all the queens you have here will make haste to go away.’

The following morning people were called together and set to grind their axes. Then they started for the bush. As they came in view of the place, they found the mother had once more gone to hunt.

Before going, she had cooked porridge for her daughter and hung meat for her. Then only had she started on her expedition.

The people said, ‘Let us cut down the tree on which the girl is.’ So they put the axes to it.


metal axe.jungian psychoanalysis

Chokwe / Lwena Axe. Forged iron blade. Called a chimbuya; a ‘court art’ object owned by chiefs, headmen, and nobles. 1900.

In:Islamic and Native Weapons of Colonial Africa 1800 / 1960 Anthony C. Tirri. p. 376

This image represents the attraction of opposites. The daughter attracts phallic power for penetration and discrimination (the axes). This is because the feminine needs the masculine to trigger further change. The attraction of opposites plays a role in this story but we will see that it is not the main theme.

The Sky-Goddess

The girl at once started this song:

‘Mother, come back!

Mother, here is a man cutting our shade tree.

Mother, come back!

Mother, here is a man cutting our shade tree.

Cut! – Here is the tree falling in which I eat,

Here it is falling.’

The mother dropped there as if from the sky:

‘Many as you are, I shall stitch you with the big needle. –

Stitch! Stitch!’

They at once fell to the ground. . . The woman left just one to go back and report.. ‘Go,’ she said, ‘and tell the news.’ He went.

The Mother drops from sky which shows that she is a sky goddess.

She dominates the personality. This corresponds to an early stage in development of consciousness when the maternal principle dominates the personality and everything else is in relation to it.

In ancient egyptian myth the goddess Nut arched naked over the earth. The stars lay on her body and the sun rode across her every day. Geb, a black earth god, lay beneath her with his erect phallus reaching up.


sky goddess.jungian psychotherapy

Nut and Geb. Papyris of Tamenill, ca. 1000 BC, Egypt

Photo: source unknown

In this psychological state the phallus is a fertilizer; it is not the ‘head-phallus’, not a sky god. The feminine dominates the sky which means that she dominates awareness.

In this way the ancient egyptian collective differed from our present collective in which consciousness is conditioned by the enlightenment and the rise of science and engineering. Our collective values objectivity, proof, logical reasoning, verbal and mathematical analysis and computing, along with planes, rockets and satellites which fly through the heavens.

Science and engineering are expressions of the ‘head-phallus’, that is, of the phallic sky gods.

space station over ocean with shuttle. jungian analysis

International Space Station

Photo: NASA

zeus with eagle and lightening bold. jungian analysis

Zeus with eagle and lightning. Athenian red-figure amphora 5th Century B.C., Louvre, Paris

Photo: source unknown

In ancient Egypt, when Nut ruled the sky, consciousness was dominated by natural forces of death and fertility. The annual flooding of the Nile was not contained and regulated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; the land flooded, agriculture stopped and then the land reappeared, refreshed and made fertile again. The myth of Isis and Osiris, which was central to egyptian understanding of death and afterlife, also represented the Nile’s annual cycle. In the same way the menstrual cycle reminds both men and women that life is subject to nature. Taboos around menstruation, like taboos around defecation, body hair, and body odor seek to limit the Great Mother’s power.

The mother and death

The wild mother stands for death as well as life. She hunts animals; she kills the King’s soldiers with a needle, a feminine weapon. This detail shows that she is not phallic like a man but phallic like the Great Mother who is the origin of all psychology, out of whom phallic power has not yet been differentiated.

Later, when she is called back, she kills zebras and people and harvests the herds of her mother and father.

We don’t tend to notice the killing side of mothering but it is obvious in farming: a farmer composts the old vegetation, grows apples and prunes the tree, raises hogs and chickens and then slaughters them, and raises wheat and then reaps it. The farmer is the grim reaper.


wood and cloth.jungian psychoanalysis

Kali. Replica of Kalighat Temple Kali at a Kali Puja Pandal at Behala, Kolkata.

Author: Jonoikobangali

Children imagine making their siblings or parents ‘go away and never come back’. Grownups sometimes do the same.

In a marriage both partners may be unconsciously possessed by archetype of the death mother. The wife may be strong while the husband is boyish in the home, ineffectual, absent, or alcoholic.

Perhaps the wife’s mother was also strong, while the wife’s father was also ineffectual, absent, or alcoholic.

And when the mother comes to visit there is even more trouble between husband and wife: the husband becomes even more child-like, ineffectual and addicted.

A doctor who is consciously identified with ‘conquering death’, may never-the-less convince you that you are sick and may get sicker!

A teacher who is consciously identified with a student’s progress may convince the student that he or she is a failure and always will be.

For therapists the issue is consciousness. If we are conscious of our deathly side, if we have sorted it out carefully, then our patients may thrive.

If our deathly side is unconscious then we tend to act it out and our patients do not thrive.

Gathering the axes

[When the king heard of this he ordered more men to go back and get the daughter. The next day they went back, but everything happened as before, the men were all killed.] The woman and her daughter picked up the axes.

This detail would be easy to ignore but it has meaning: the mother and daughter gained the men’s tools of penetration and discrimination. They were integrating opposites which shows that their consciousness was evolving.

Umbilical cords

‘Olo!’ said the king when he was told. ‘Today let all those that are pregnant give birth to their children.’

So one woman after another straightway brought forth her child. Soon there was a whole row of them. Then the whole band departed, making a confused noise.

When the girl saw that, she said, ‘There is no joke about it now. There comes a red army with. the umbilical cords still hanging on.’

They found her at her own place in the fork of the tree.

‘Let us give them some porridge,’ thought the girl. She just plastered the porridge on their heads, but the children did not eat it. The last-born then climbed up the shade tree, picked up the baskets which the girl was stitching, and said, ‘Now bring me an axe.’

The girl shouted once more:

‘Mother, come back!’

[And so on]

The mother dropped down among the crowd:

‘Many as you are, I shall stitch you with the big needle.’

[And so on]

But there was the troop already dragging the girl. They had tied her with their umbilical cords, yes, with their umbilical cords.

To be bound by umbilical cords is an extraordinary image. What does it mean?

The umbilical cords bound the daughter to the web of life, to her past, present, and future.

The cords wove her fate; they symbolize the life cycle which cannot be stopped. Either we cooperate with the stages of the cycle, or we are dragged through them anyway.

spider web over black background. jungian analyst


Photo: Francesco Tomasinelli, Emanuele Biggi


The weaver is the creator, the spider who is another image of the Great Mother. This means that the Great Mother acted on both sides of the conflict as does a mortal mother, not only trying to preserve her daughter’s childhood but also propelling her forward into life.


The mother went on with her incantation:

‘Many as you are, I shall stitch you …’ [and so on].

In vain! The troop was already in the fields and the ngururu went up as far as God’s abode, and soon the children were in the town,

As soon as they reached the town the mother said, ‘Since you have carried away my child, I must tell you something. She is not to pound in the mortar, nor to go to fetch water at night. If you send her to do one of these things, mind you! I shall know where to find you.’

Then the mother went back to her abode in the bush.

Why does the mother want her daughter to weave baskets? Why does she order that she must not pound?

Pounding is work for older women because it is hard on childish hands and arms. This image means that the feminine should not always be occupied by adult heavy-handed labor. There must be time for a light touch, for gentleness and pleasure, for fun, laughter and play.

Inner work requires a playful approach, a light touch; it cannot be driven by sheer effort.

Also to weave baskets is to create wich shows that youth is a time of new synthesis and creation.

Pounding refers to the dark secrets of life (more about this below) and the daughter is too young for these secrets. In youth we play and tell fairy tales. In maturity it is time for dismembering and the dark secrets are revealed.

The following day the king said, ‘Let us go hunting.’ And to his mother he said, ‘My wife must not pound in the mortar. All that she can do is to stitch baskets.’

While the husband was away there in the open flat, the other wives as well as the mother-in-law said, ‘Why should not she also pound in the mortar?’

When the girl was told to pound in the mortar, she said, ‘No.’

A basket of corn was brought to her. The mother-in-law herself took away the meal from the mortar, and then the other women in their turn brought corn and put it all there.


women wooden mortars.jungian psychanalysis

Pounding corn. Malawi

Photo: Evelyn Hockstein, New York Times


So the girl pounded, singing at the same time:

‘Pound! At home I do not pound,

Here I pound to celebrate my wedding –

Yepu! Yepu!

If I pound, I go to God’s.’

She began to sink into the ground but she went on singing the same chant

She was now in the ground as far as her hips, then as far as her chest.

She continued her same chant. Soon she was down as far as her neck.

Mortar and Pestle

Now the mortar went on by itself pounding the grain on the ground, pounding on the ground. Finally the girl disappeared altogether.

When nothing more was seen of her, the mortar still pounded as before on the ground.

The mortar and pestle symbolizes things ground to their essence, getting to the bottom of things, seeking to understand at the deepest level. It pulverizes the ego to ashes, leads to contrition, the realization of sins, the shadow, the uncovering of the darkest layers of evil within.

Thus the mortar and pestle is analysis, which sometimes has to grind deep into painful issues before they can transform.

When the mortar pounds by itself, handless and sinister, it also suggests nature’s mill: the relentless grinding of nature, impersonal, endless, and sometimes destructive and evil. It suggests that nature includes great evil which we must admit into consciousness.

The Dove

The women then said, ‘Now what shall we do?’

They went and called a crane, and said, ‘Go and break the news to her mother. But, first, let us know, what will you say?’

[But the crane’s call didn’t say it right. So they asked the crow and then the quail, but neither of those birds knew how to say it right either. Then they asked the dove what it would say, and the dove said:]

Kuku, ku

She-who-nurses-the-sun is gone,


You who dig,

She-who-nurses-the-sun is gone


The women said: ‘Go, you know how to do it, you.’

The women sent the dove who was the most articulate. Birds symbolize ideas because they are far-seeing, light and fast; the women were making the Great Mother more aware.


white dove flying black background. jungian analyst




The dove’s flight suggests that the spirit of the daughter rose and carried the message. In Christian mythology the dove represents the Holy Spirit which, with the Father and the Son, makes the Trinity. In the Christian myth female figures are sidelined but in our story the Great Mother dominates the action and the daughter is like Christ. Still the underlying pattern is the same in both stories: both deal with burial, resurrection and a spiritual message. It is remarkable that this african fairy story independently repeats and thus confirms the story of Christ, in terms of the feminine.

In psychological terms both these myths show that, when we enter archetypal realm new messages (the dove) reverberate throughout the personality, that new awareness may emerge and change may begin.

Nursing the sun

‘You who dig,
She-who-nurses-the-sun is gone.’

This is an extraordinary image. A corn seed, ripening its body in the sun, is imagined as a breast nursing the sun with nutrients flowing in reverse from sun to breast: the breast becomes round and full. The same idea is captured in the phrase ‘ripe breasts’. The image synthesizes fertilization and nursing – the sun fertilizes the daughter and her breasts grow round – which is also hinted at in the Christian myth of the annunciation.

sun beam striking breasts of Mary while angel watches. jungian analyst
Annunciation. Fra Angelico, 1435

For people who live by growing corn (corn was introduced to Africa in the 1500s and became a staple) the mystery of corn ripening in the sun is central. The sun epitomizes yang and a woman’s breasts epitomize yin. The corn’s mystery is captured by the conjunction of sun and breast in she-who-nurses-the-sun.

ripe corn ear, kernels exposed to sun. jungian analyst

Corn in sun

Photo: source unknown


The underworld

After the corn seeds ripen, the mystery continues when they are pushed into the ground.

To understand this image we have to amplify it with the Greek myth Demeter and Persephone:

Demeter was the Earth mother, the Goddess of grain.

Her daughter, Persephone, was plucking flowers in a meadow. The ground split open and Hades seized her and took her to the underworld to be his bride.

Demeter, grieving and enraged, made the land barren. The gods wanted to appease Demeter but Hades also had a claim on Persephone. So the gods worked out a compromise.

Each year Persephone would spend six months above ground with Demeter and six months below ground as Hades’ Queen. Hence the cycle of summer and winter.


stone relief

Persephone and Hades. Seated in underworld. Stone Relief.

Reggio, Museo Nazionale. Photo: source unknown


The Greek amplification confirms that our daughter is like a corn seed and, furthermore, that the mother is not only a sky mother but also an earth mother, like Demeter.

The daughter sinks into the the realm of the dead and connects with its secrets, with the mystery of life, death and transformation.

So it is with inner growth: we separate from the outer world. Energy is withdrawn from consciousness and transfered to the archetypal world which then becomes aroused and speaks to us.

The harvest

The mother came back when she heard the dove. There she was going toward the town. She carried medicines on a potsherd, also tails of animals with which she beat the air.

While she was on the road, she met a zebra, and killed it.

Then she met people digging, and killed them.

Then she met a man beating a skin, and killed him.

When she reached the town she gathered up the herds of her mother and her father.

The Mother returned, killing all. This is the mystery of the harvest: as Demeter grieved she made the world barren, killing old life and preparing the land for transformation.

demeter with sickle and grain against starry sky. jungian analyst

Demeter. Unknown French artist, 15-16th Century
Demeter’s celestial aspect is shown by the stars around her.

Photo: source unknown


The cycle of Demeter and Persephone is central to analysis because we must accept death when we grieve past losses; we must take the life out of psychological adaptations whose time is past.


The mother’s killing energy has another meaning. The creativity which belonged to the feminine (basket weaving) was blocked by envy and the result was murderous narcissistic fury.

When creativity is stifled fury results and the fury must go go somewhere. It may take many forms, perhaps depression or self-destruction, but a reaction is inevitable.


She then heard the mortar still sounding right above the child. So she sprayed one medicine, then another.

There was the child already pounding from under the ground. Little by little the head came out. Then the neck, and the song was heard again:

‘Pound! At home I do not pound,

Here I pound to celebrate my wedding.

[And so on]

The child was now in full view. Finally she stepped outside.

I have finished.

The mother intervened and the daughter re-emerged, just as corn sprouts in the spring and just as Persephone returned each year to Demeter. The cycle was completed.

After something traumatic has been deeply analyzed, after all the pain, injury, and fury has been faced, then spontaneously, organically, like new sprouts, a hopeful, joyful feeling may emerge.

Here the story comes to an abrupt end which suggests that the daughter’s return was the whole point. The feminine was renewed; the story was finished.

fresh dew covered crocus flowers emerging. jungian analyst





How does our story differ from story of Demeter and Persephone?

Persephone was pulled underground by Hades’ passion and he made her his one Queen. In our story the King had less passion. He was polygamous and he went away, leaving all his wives.

The man who first saw the daughter told the King that ‘all the other wives will leave [if you marry her]’, which suggests that the King’s motivation was partly to provoke envy.

After the King left the action was driven not by attraction between opposites but by the envy of the other wives and of the mother-in-law, all of whom represent the Great Mother.

Envy is often murderous, as in Anita Desai’s novel Fasting, Feasting, between MamaPapa and their daughter, Uma:

But Uma was not confident. ‘I have no degree,’ she faltered, ‘or training.’

‘This kind of work does not require training, Uma,’ Dr Dutt assured her, ‘or degrees. Just leave that to me. I will deal with it if the authorities ask. You will agree sir?’ she turned to Papa smiling, as if she knew how much he adored being called sir.

But Papa did not appear to have noticed the honor this time. He was locking his face up into a frown of great degree. The frown was filled with everything he thought of working women, of women who dared presume to step into the world he occupied. Uma knew that, and cringed…

Uma bobbed her head rapidly up and down. She tried to say ‘yes, please, yes, please, yespleaseyes’ …

It was Mama who spoke, however. As usual, for Papa. Very clearly and decisively. ‘Our daughter does not need to go out to work, Dr Dutt,’ she said. ‘As long as we are here to provide for her, she will never need to go out to work.’ …

‘There is no need,’ Papa supported Mama’s view. In double strength, it grew formidable. ‘Where is the need?’

When a therapist is possessed by unconscious envy of patients, then therapy can be murderous.

envious medieval man with snake in mouth and bag of money, flames at feet. jungian analyst

Envy. Giotto, Seven Vices, 1306 AD

Photo: source unknown


In our story, the Mother-in-law and the other wives trampled on the young daughter. But, paradoxically, by driving her into the depths, their envy furthered her differentiation and individuation. What does that mean?

Our story represents an early psychological stage when the Great Mother still rules development and the masculine is not an independent, opposite power. Then envy may serve as a motivating force between peers. That explanation is consistent with the internal evidence of the story that the masculine was not an effectual power.


How does this archaic story apply to our inner life?

It applies whenever nature needs to take its own time, ‘in the fullness of time’ or ‘when the time is ripe’ (time which the Greeks called kairos in distinction to chronos which was measured ego time), whenever the personality needs to unfold, not according to the ego’s urgency or the ego’s plans but at its own pace.

Between a daughter in her early teens and her mother there are many issues of timing: the daughter is still a child and needs mothering but she is beginning to enter womanhood; the mother feels older and displaced.

All of this needs to unfold between the two. If the masculine entered at this point it might be too soon.

In therapy when dealing with narcissistic injury, an interpretation is often too penetrating and therefore destructive. The therapist needs to listen (perhaps to much killing energy), accept what he or she hears, and let things unfold vegetatively.

A man in analysis learned something which he had never known before and wanted to write a book about it! He then had the following dream:

He was standing in an area of dense, lush rainforest. It was being exploited for its wood.

His dream showed that phallic cutting and discrimination would be a violation; his timing was off. Psyche needed to unfold in her own cycle.