I've been dealing with the parental wound lately; the lack of mother love. It's funny but what the ups and downs of my relationship with G have been leading me to is not my animus but my Mother. I've come to realize that the great, big, gaping hole in me - the one that howls like a starving, half-crazed wolf - is Mother Hunger, hunger for love and nourishment, acceptance. Hunger for Home.
So I've been reading books and scouring the internet for info on this particular kind of negative mother complex (there are several varieties apparently.) Some strike a chord in me... or maybe it's more accurate to say, they struck a wound.
Others suffer all their lives from a sense of their own inadequacy and inferiority; they feel that they are inevitably unacceptable, they are doomed to be outsiders debarred from normal companionship, whatever they do will be wrong, whatever they desire will be forbidden. They are accursed, alienated from God and man, and not least from themselves.(M. Esther Harding, The Parental Image, pp. 15-16)
These are the individuals who have never had an adequate experience of mother-love. In childhood they felt they were not wanted, and consequently in them the image of Mother is of a demanding and destructive power. But the archetypal pattern of Mother as the source of life, that Jung described in the passage quoted above, is not, for that reason, obliterated in them, but inasmuch as it has not been activated by their actual human experience, it remains in the unconscious, latent, not even appearing as an image, nor is it capable, in the most injured persons, of being projected to some mother substitute, an aunt, grandmother, nurse or schoolteacher. This positive image, however, does manifest itself, even in the most deprived individuals, as the expectation of Mother. The reciprocal of child is mother, his weakness and dependence being the obverse reflection of her strength and care. And so in these individuals, the absence of the mother-image is felt as a lack - the deprivation is felt but not the possibility possibility of fulfillment. The child wanders in the wilderness, and remains not only deprived but actively hostile to everyone and everything, and not infrequently in his despair he becomes self-destructive as well.
Mothers, in many cultures, are expected to be accepting and nurturing. A woman I know has received a minimum of nurturing from her mother and has developed an intense fear of being abandoned. Thus, she has an "abandonment complex" intertwined with her negative mother complex. Her fear keeps her in a state of anxiety. Because of her over-eagerness to be accepted, she tends to drive away friends and lovers.(Matton, Mary Ann, Obstacles & Helps to Self-Understanding)
Most of the things I found - and there's surprisingly little on the internet about this specific form of negative mother complex - were in this vein, but then I stumbled upon this site which contains author and analyst Jules Cashford's amazing essays (I've only read the one referenced in this post - there are many more to savor once I finish this post!) Below are (rather lengthy) excerpts from her piece on Hansel and Gretel, and the process of defeating the inner Evil Witch and restoring peace and fertility in one's life.
What struck me was the motif of the devouring mother, or the hungry mouth (the Evil Witch in the story.) I never thought of myself with a devouring mother, quite the opposite in fact as I had an absent mother, the lack of a mother. But, it seems, when the Mother archetype is wounded, she becomes the hungry maw that seeks only it's ever elusive satisfaction.
Neumann points out that ‘the destructive side of the Feminine, the destructive and deathly womb, appears most frequently in the archetypal form of a mouth bristling with teeth' (The Great Mother, p.168), as in the myths of the North American Indians, Egypt, Greece, some parts of Africa, and the Aztecs. In Aztec mythology, a gigantic open mouth is the hungry and all-consuming earth, and the death goddess is drawn with many knives and sharp teeth.http://www.julescashford.eu/articles/
...That primary sense of life as a source of nourishment is missing.
So what to do? For many years I thought that nothing could be done about it; certain wounds could never be healed, just managed. But the very fact that I've been lead here must mean something. So I poked around and this is what I found. The whole process of transforming the Devouring Mother into the inner source of nurturing appears to be a long and complex one, but does seem possible. I guess it's important to remember that Jung said that we never solve our problems, we just outgrow them. Continuing with Cashford's essay, let's take a look at what that might look like.
First off, there's the relationship between Logos and Eros, the mind and the heart. Originally, it's the mind that keeps us safe, but at some point we must rely on our feelings and instinct.
Hansel, who as the boy images that aspect of the new life or the Self which is the more conscious, logos-oriented way of solving this problem, manages to outwit the step-mother's particular plan the first time, but fails to follow through the implications of what she intends: that life is not safe at home. It is only when his strategy is itself outwitted by the birds that he can be, as it were, tricked into facing the problem at a deeper level. The story moves towards an intensification of the original situation for the bread house with sugar windows and a witch inside is an image at this deeper level of the sweetness of any home with any kind of mother inside, and points to the danger of fantasizing the missing aspect of the archetype. The need for the mothering that was originally withheld is both appeased and perpetuated in fantasies about the original mother, and, more subtly, re-enacted in the search for a symbolic substitute in any experience. This creates a person predisposed to dependence on the other, hungry (to return to the metaphor in the story) for love while fearful of being starved or detoured (rejected or overwhelmed) by the imagined source of it. It would seem, then, that the first stage of growth would require a distinction between the good and the bad in the actual mother, and between good and bad mothering in general - what one has a right to expect - and, more fundamentally, between the Good and the Bad Mother in the Great Mother Archetype.One of the things that strikes me about the above is how the mind helps us deal with things. It's the mind that schemes and helps us avoid being truly thrown "to the wolves." Of course, the problem is that Hansel - the mind - can only bring us back to the problem, never lead the way forward. For that we need the white bird, the symbol of the Self. It's only when we follow the bird that we finally break free of the endless cycle of suffering. Of course, originally it's to more intense suffering, but it's our legitimate suffering. Unlike the neuroses that we escape to - and are trapped in - when we try to avoid our problem, this suffering is ours. It belongs to us, as ugly and as horrible as it is.
So looking at the fairy tale more closely as an image of the ‘anatomy' of the psyche, what can it tell us about this stage of separation? For the children to survive with all the odds apparently against them, so we have to follow what they do and what ‘happens' to them as a model for the instinctive responses that are right for this specific situation. It then appears that the deliberate, purposive working out of the matter, which Hansel adopts, is necessary to start with, but has to be suspended at the crucial transitional point in order for the more feeling, less conscious impulses of Grettel to take over.
In the beginning Grettel can only weep and must be comforted by her brother, who provides the ‘temenos' in which she can feel safe: ‘"Be comforted, my dear little sister, and go to sleep"', and he crams his pockets with the white pebbles that glitter in the moonlight. The way he drops these signposts for their return is instructive for, apparently unnecessarily, he stands still and looks back at the house each time he drops a pebble, pretending he is looking at his kitten waving him farewell, an image, possibly, of the magnetic power of the complex. Jung writes that a ceremony is magical so long as it does not result in effective work but preserves the state of expectancy' (VIII, 46), and in Hansel's ritual we could see a reluctance to give up the former expectations from his home. The first time his plan succeeds, but it does so only to lead them back to the original situation with nothing changed, pointing to the circularity of conscious solutions to problems of feeling. The second time there is a famine, the step-mother argues still more forcefully, and this time the door is locked against Hansel's ingenuity and they are taken still deeper into the forest, ‘further than they had ever been in their lives before'. This tells us that left alone the complex gets worse. They are more lost than last time, and they have half as much bread, for Hansel has to take from his own portion to feed his strategy, the dropping of crumbs that are picked up by ‘the thousands of birds that fly about in the woods'. The beauty of this image already implies that the failures on the side of the good, that reason, ‘the ratio of what is already known' (Blake), must fail in order to call forth from a deeper level of the psyche that which is not yet known, but which knows. "Never mind", said Hansel to Grettel, "you'll see we'll still find a way out"; but all the same they did not'. This ends Hansel's effective leadership, and for three days, the time of the moon's disappearance, Jonah in the whale and Christ in hell, things get darker than ever before. Once consciousness is unable to operate, however, as in all fairy tales, the unconscious is free to surprise us with its magic, and into this gap, this desperate need for help or else they would surely perish, comes ‘a beautiful little snow-white bird sitting on a branch, which sang so sweetly that they stopped still and listened to it'. Like Orpheus, the song enchants them, end they are distracted from their hunger and their longing for a way out of the forest - their own sense of what help is needed - and when the song is finished the bird flies in front of them and leads them directly to the witch. It is obvious that the bird does not belong to the witch even though it perches on the roof of the house she has made to lure them inside, so here we see a deeper impulse in the story.
[W]hen the snow-white bird brings the children to the witch, and obliges them to confront irrevocably that which they would have avoided had they known, we can see at work the fundamental directing agency of the Self. For the superior wisdom of the Self brings together the fantasy and the reality of the mother in the children, given in the image of the fantastic house of food on the outside and the child-eating real old woman on the inside; which is to say that the Self brings together the superficial conscious attitude adopted to the deprivations suffered from the mother - that it didn't really matter - and the interior unconscious feeling - possibly, that it hurt so much it's impossible to break the spell and get away from her. For what is a witch to a child except a figure whose power is so absolute, so all-containing, that escape is unthinkable? And when the imagination fails then the spell is cast.
What is the meaning of this psychologically? Two comments of Jung are particularly relevant here: ‘A complex can be really overcome only if it is lived out to the full. In other words, if we are to develop further we have to draw to us and drink down to the very dregs what, because of our complexes, we have held at a distance' (IX, i, 99). Also, ‘A neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering' (XI, 75). So the children must go inside the sweet-tasting house and fully experience the evil of the witch within. They must suffer emotionally to the extent of imagining being boiled alive, roasted and consumed in what they had tried to avoid feeling too deeply because it hurt. Fire is traditionally a symbol of the heating up of feeling, the intensification and concentration of the whole being so that the inessential is burnt away and only the essence remains. The alchemists insisted that the fire be kept forever burning beneath the retort lest the heart falter and become distracted.
Now that the witch can be seen for what she is, what can she tell us about the way the negative mother complex works? The story says that ‘witches have red eyes, and cannot see far, but, like beasts, they have a keen sense of smell, and know when human beings pass by'. This suggests that the complex acts relatively blindly, automatically, crudely, without differentiation and can be discerned whenever the person ‘takes things literally', recalling the literal imagination of the step-mother, who could not ‘see through' Hansel's strategy, supposing each time he was mistaking what he said he saw for the morning sun glittering on the chimney. On the other hand, she can smell like a hunting animal, which suggests her power is in the unconscious which is where she must be faced. On the surface, though, she is ‘apparently friendly', and her house likewise is a temptation to overlook what it contains, to take it literally for what it pretends to be, which is what the children do. They respond to it as though under a spell; they don't ask questions - whose house is it, will they miss the roof? Even when a shrill voice calls out from inside ‘who's nibbling my house?' the children answer: "Tis Heaven's own child, The tempest wild', and go on eating ‘without putting themselves about'. Because of their great hunger she gets them in her power, the extreme longing to be loved creates the dependence.http://www.julescashford.eu/articles/
However, once Hansel and Grettel see the woman to be a witch, their relation to each other and to the problem change places. Hansel, as the carrier of the more conscious approach of the self, is locked up in the stable, and it is up to Grettel, the feeling powers hitherto dormant in the self, to take the active role. At first, like Cinderella, she has to serve the witch, is held in thrall to her, called a lazybones and starved of anything but crabshells, while Hansel, the imprisoned leader, is to fatten up to be eaten. Perhaps this is the testing time that is so difficult to predict. Who will win.
The tale tells us that trickery wins, that the trickster archetype is what is needed here. Both Hansel and Grettel play the witch's game, only they play it better than she does. Hansel pretends that he is thinner than he is, knowing she wants to fatten him, and holding out a bone instead of his finger, gains them time. Grettel pretends she is as helpless as she used to be - ‘I don't know how to do it; how do I get and shoves the witch in the oven instead of herself. That Grettel does to the witch exactly what the witch would have done to her may suggest that feeling must accept some identification with the dark aspect of the mother imago personified in the witch, maybe in the form that it is a greed for life's inexhaustible possibilities that contributes to the fear that they may not manifest themselves... At any rate, with the witch and Grettel before the open oven, ‘from which fiery flames were already issuing', it is not the time for moral deliberations, and we cannot but think that Grettel acts spontaneously rightly. But where does this usually weeping girl get her strength from? It seems from a combination of awareness and intensity of feeling. We are told that ‘Grettel perceived the witch's intention', and it is perhaps this moment of awareness that transfers the power of the witch to Grettel by releasing the energy trapped in her fear. At the point of immanent death she gathers enough strength, rebellion and even ferocity of feeling to say No to being devoured and this tips the balance and the negative complex is, as it were, burnt up. As with the stepmother, the witch's literal reaction to Grettel's pretense is no match for the dual perspective of awareness. Perhaps what this means is that the person trying to deal with the ‘witch' in himself or herself, since, while the witch may play a different role in the male and female psychology, there is a level at which the need for freedom from this complex is the same for both), must somehow trick the witch within, that is, withhold the habitual, automatic reaction in order to allow the feeling to deepen to an intensity that gets its power to respond from a hidden, previously submerged level of the psyche. As the trouble with this complex is that the instincts themselves have become distorted, it would seem necessary to, as it were, distort the distortion, do what feels wrong, to reach that last instinct of survival common to all animals when even a zebra will fight a lion to protect her young. It may be that in human animals this instinct has its parallel in the instinct of individuation.
Grettel flies straight to Hansel, crying: ‘Hansel, we are free; the old witch is dead', and we are told that ‘Hansel sprang like a bird out of a cage when the door is opened', a wonderful image of ‘the release of the dove'. Now appears the treasure of the Self, the pearls and precious stones disclosed in the other rooms of the house which they are free to explore once the fear has gone. Here are the jewels of the life renewed - joy, fearlessness, purpose, affection all that immersion in the waters of life makes possible. Leaving the ‘witch's wood' they come to a big lake with no bridge or ferry-boat, but just a white duck swimming in the water. The ‘crossing of the return threshold' is the hero's last trial in the hero myth (Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, p. 210-243), in which he is set the task of reconciling the truths won in the inner world with the actions he undertakes in the outer, public world. Here, some period of adjustment or some effort at translation is obviously indicated in the absence of any predictable way to cross the water to find the familiar part of the wood they came from. It is significant that at this point Hansel is the one who decides they can't get over because there is no bridge, and Grettel who sees the white duck and asks her help. The renewed feeling of the self can now for the first time exercise power for the care of life, for Grettel, sensitive to the duck's needs as well as their own, overrules her brother: "No", she answers, in total contrast to her submissiveness at the beginning of the tale, "we should be too heavy a load for the duck: she shall carry us across separately". The logos and eros of brother and sister are now in harmony with each other, such that each takes the lead when it is appropriate, and thus the original imbalance in the family is redeemed. Implicitly the story says that the killing of the witch is the death of the step-mother, for when the children run to ‘their father's house' and fall upon his neck, we are told simply: ‘but the woman had died'.
The restoration of the nourishing and healing aspect of the Mother archetype is shown in the emergence of the big lake with the bird now swimming upon it, an image of unity between nature and spirit which puts the duck, as Hermetic ferry-bird, in loving service. For the duck, white again as was the snow-white bird who led them deep into the unconscious, here ‘returns', in touch with the newly discovered waters of life to lead them back again. The treasure of the witch vanquished will buy them food to withstand any hardship, and so they are released from complete dependence on the Great Mother. But nothing is heard of the former famine in the land, and it is as though the confrontation with the reality of the bad personal mother which frees them from the negative mother complex within, activates at the same time the potency of the good mother archetype, so that from now on life may be trusted:
'Thus all their troubles were ended, and they lived happily ever after'.
Ok, I'm kind of stuck here. Everything up to the examination of Gretel shoving the witch into the oven makes sense to me. Part of it is that I'm still pretty early in the process (basically at the point where I'm exploring the nature of the witch), but part of it is that this explanation doesn't resonate with me. This is just speculation, but my feeling is that Gretel pushing the witch into her own fire represents "burning" the witch - the hunger and desire - in it's own "fire." In other words, cooking in one's own juices. This is, in fact, the dragon's fire that I wrote about in an earlier post on snake symbolism:
[It] is hard to accept: the fire has to burn the fire, one just has to burn in the emotion till the fire dies down and becomes balanced. That is something which unfortunately cannot be evaded. The burning of the fire, of the emotion, cannot be tricked out of one’s system; there is no recipe for getting rid of it, it has to be endured. The fire has to burn until the last unclean element has been consumed, which is what all alchemical texts say in different variations and we have not found any other way either. It cannot be hindered but only suffered till what is mortal or corruptible, or, as our text says so beautifully, till the corruptible humidity, the unconsciousness, has been burnt up. That is the meaning, it is the acceptance of suffering.(Marie-Louise von Franz, Alchemy.)
So, the way I'd interpret it is that Eros (Gretel) draws us to those situations in which we have to cook in our juices. While our mind may tell us to stay safe, our heart keeps dragging us into just those situations where the witch is tossed into her own fire. Again, early days but this seems to be the more likely interpretation of the fairy tale. At least for me.
Some further thoughts (I expect these to keep coming for a while):
The house is a spun sugar fantasy of a relationship. It's not a real house, it's a fantastical house. When we've been driven from "home" (nurturing) by a mother who cannot give us the mother-love we need, we end up lost in the woods. And what we come upon is this faux house; it's not only not a real house, it's pure temptation. It's everything we thought we wanted, we are fed after we've starved for years (the years of famine.) But inside the house is the witch, the demonic caricature of the murderous stepmother. Something else to consider is that it's the Self itself that brings us to this deadly situation, because this is exactly what we need in order to truly resolve the problem at home. It's in the witch's house itself that the treasures of the Self reside.
Another thing is Gretel; this whole experience with the evil stepmother makes her completely helpless. When we are denied this mother-love our feelings can't function; we feel like we can't let ourselves feel, like it's all too much for us, leading us to rely on logic and reason. This can keep us out of trouble for a while but by itself it's incapable of finding a way out of the situation. The problem is that Gretel - our feelings - can't find her power until we're actually in the witch's house, i.e. the middle of our tumultuous emotional drama.
What does this mean? Is it that being in the situation with the witch puts the mind under lock and key forces us to rely on our feelings? Or is it that being in this situation allows us to bring some of the witch into us (Gretel doing to the witch what the witch had planned to do to her)? In either case the empowerment of feeling is part of the healing process as Gretel becomes more active, until at the end she tells Hansel they can't both ride on the white duck.
Gretel, as the female child, is the renewal of the feminine instincts. In the stepmother and the witch, and the presence of the famine in the land, the current female instincts (emotion, instinct) are wrong, turning them into the opposite of the nurturing mother into the destroyer. But, as with many stories of "evil" older women, their actions instigate the confrontation and change needed for renewal. The white dove is a symbol of the Goddess, and the white duck at the end is also female; with one hand the Mother Goddess drives us to wholeness with her terrifying side, and with the other she lures us to the same with her angelic side. All of this is in the service of pushing the young feminine, represented by Gretel, into her own power.
This reminds me of significant dreams I've had about the young girl in me (breaking and entering , the girl with long white hair) - is she the Gretel in me? The tender, connected emotional part? The part that the tough, intellectual surface me has always protected, the way Hansel protected Gretel? This seems to be the case, but I'm still not quite certain what she needs to do now. I know that I've been in the witch's house with this thing with G that I've been going through (the sugar spun fantasy of love with the raging, hungry witch inside.) What exactly is that Gretel's supposed to be doing?
Hansel has been jailed. Gretel is suffering (the whole thing with G is the pain of her Cindarella suffering - loving and loving, but with no reward.) But what is the thing with tricking the witch with the bone, and with Gretel pushing her into her own oven? How can I empower my inner Gretel to find her power? From my dream I've started by rescueing the trapped little animal, but later the girl was blind (a weakness) and she ran away. Do I need to keep my emotions present - keep Gretel from running away - when all I want to do is stop feeling for him? I need to ponder this some more...
Had some futher realizations, specifically about the symbolism of burning the witch.