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Momma, How Could You Do that to Me?

Tangled Concept Art, Craig Mullins

"The more the feminine ideal is bent in the direction of the masculine, the more woman loses her power to compensate the masculine striving for perfection, and a typically masculine ideal state arises which, as we shall see, is threatened by enantiodromia. No path leads beyond perfection into the future, there is only a turning back, a collapse of the ideal, which would easily have been avoided by paying attention to the feminine ideal of completeness. Yahweh's perfectionism is carried over from the Old Testament into the New, and despite all recognition and glorification of the feminine principle this never prevailed against the patriarchal supremacy. We have not, by any means heard the last of it." - "Answers to Job", C.G. Jung

The conflict between a father and a son is a common theme that occurs in much of our mythological, literary, and later cinematic cultural heritage. The new king often dethrones the old king, who is the new king's father. Simply, the father is dethroned by the son. Sometimes, the redemption is offered and the old king accepts that his time has passed and that his throne ought to belong to someone fresh, young and new.

On the other hand, fairytales and oral literary tradition, as well as folklore, perhaps maybe because women were often the ones to tell them to their children or families, carry a lot of themes and patterns that are more specific to women and women's experience. The protagonists are often young women and we follow them through their struggles and victories. In these fairytales, an evil witch is one of the most common themes. Since she appears so often, and since it is an archetype that over and over again resonates with the collective, it means that she plays a significant role in our psyches. The devouring mother, as someone who does not allow her son to be weaned off is commonly known, but it seems that it is less often discussed how the devouring mother or the witch, impacts the psyche of a young girl and later a woman who tries to be an adult. Coming from the perspective of Jungian psychoanalysis, this essay will try to explore how it manifests in women.


Perfection Instead of Completion

Tangled Concept Art, Lisa Keene

In the opening excerpt, Jung makes a difference between animus (masculine) and anima (feminine) values. Animus values aim towards perfection - things have to be executed in a certain way in order to deliver the most efficient and perfect results possible. And indeed in the realm of many animus activities - such as finance, or a medical surgery, such value serves everyone's interests, because sometimes even a small mistake in these fields can bring about consequences that are detrimental for the many. As a complementary, anima values aim towards completion. Things are not to be perfect but complete. Anima values serve us much better when we interact with ourselves and with other people - guiding people towards completion instead of perfection, allows for less strain and more compassion. Simply, when we approach ourselves or other from this perspective, we allow ourselves, and others, to be humans who make errors, instead of getting irritated that us and those around us are not perfect gods or machines who act in the optimally efficient way.

Many of our mothers, if not all of them, operate on animus values, even in relationships. Their world is of "ought", "should", must". Every moment, every space must be filled with obedience to duty. If the dishes are not perfectly placed in the cupboard, the world might come to an end! God forbid if you dirty up your hands with food or perhaps with mud after playing outdoors! God forbid your shirt got a little wet from a shower on a May's journey back from school. She told you to take the umbrella that morning! You did not listen! Now you are all wet and she will have to wash the shirt. Maybe before that you had perfect fun being touched by a warm shower, but now you are being told that there is something wrong with your pleasure and joy. Your little joy and pleasure has brought disappointment and has brought you a feeling of guilt. Perhaps, the next time you enjoy something - a warm rain, a cupcake or something else, you may hide it. But while having to retreat into hiding in order to enjoy something, a little witch inside, of which a child is not being aware of, is being fed. It is not hard to imagine what happens then - pleasure or joy is equated with guilt and with hiding. If it is not stopped, soon, the psyche will not be able to differentiate between the two, and in order to feel pleasure or joy, it will have to feel guilt as well. A woman in Woodman's "Addiction to Perfection", describes the loop in which she is kept by the exchange of pleasure and guilt: "When I was at the university I weighted 150 pounds because I was hungry all the time. I'd buy a pound of cake and eat the whole thing. Sex was very important to me, I did not understand why at the time. Now I know it is my way of staying in my body. But the guilt! I was so guilty in relation to my mother. Every time I acted out of her value system, I was guilty and looked for a man who would mother me, love me unconditionally, cuddle me, hold me, be my MOTHER. And then my contempt would flare and I'd crush him under my heel. I hated myself and hated him. I hated him for allowing me to be the little girl I wanted to be."

There is a lot of pain and confusion in this woman's confession. The "I" is constantly attacked by the subconscious content. But it is very easy, to see here, how criticism from the mother, and how mother's absolute devotion to duty sets a fertile soil for deep complexes to develop, especially in a woman's mind. The woman in this confession, says how she wants to be allowed to feel like the little girl, yet she hates the man after he does this for her. She hates him because, by allowing her to be so, he feeds the complex, and he does not allow the little girl to cut the umbilical cord with the mother and be her own person. He comes as an animus (masculine) that she hopes will rescue her, yet instead, he obeys the little girl inside of her, and further enforces her delusions. As a result, she feels contempt and resentment towards him. At the same time, she feels the need for nourishment (her constant hunger and binge eating), so she feels the need to provoke a mothering response from others. Yet, whenever she attempts to get nourished, she feels guilty, because nourishment (which doesn't have to be only food, but simply doing anything that serves no other purpose but bringing one joy) has been equated with guilt. She uses sex to get inside of her body, because the lack of nourishment has made her detached from it. Food and body issues in any form - be they anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, a feeling of guilt after eating, obsession, anxiety surrounding food, are common manifestations of being in the grip of the "witch mother".

When we use the term "witch mother" here, this is not to put guilt on our mothers, because often they were not conscious of these patterns. They were simply acting out what they were taught. But, usually, children have to deal with parents' shadow consciously, and that's why daughters of such mothers are the ones who have to "heal" the both from their shadows. It is actually another symptom that woman is still a little girl psychologically, when she feels resentment or need to either rebel or go along her mother's values, without even considering what are her values.

Mothers devoted to the principle of perfection will simply not allow the child to make mistakes. Imagine a situation in which a little girl has to do something on her own - bake a cookie, build something with building blocks or something else, and mother, upon seeing the girl do it imperfectly, or struggling a little, takes on and does it for her. It may appear simple, but if this becomes a pattern, what can happen in a girl is that she will become removed from her accomplishments. Whatever she accomplishes later in life - no matter how big or how small it may be, will not feel like hers, it will feel like it belongs to the mother. The more perfectly she performs, the more she is removed from herself. Even if she accomplishes outwardly, she has an inner sense of failure. She cannot understand why accomplishing makes her more and more miserable instead of bringing her joy. It is because she does not believe that the accomplishments belong to her.

In all of these situations and contexts, the true masculine principle or animus is actually not present. It is more of a parody of what he is. Surrounded by such an animus, the anima or the feminine, remains the perpetual adolescent: "The adolescent feminine, in both men and women, cannot relate to the masculine because the polarization is not there. There is no genuine masculine, no genuine feminine. Thus it is not "otherness" that the young feminine is surrendering to. Without the otherness, the whole point of Kore being carried off by Hades and transformed into Persephone is lost. Miss is not transformed into a Ms or Mrs. Where the masculine and feminine are not differentiated, the act of union is merely an identification. In mythological terms, she would be a neutered hermaphrodite. She may believe she is an androgyne, an independent woman, but in fact she has given up on ever being a woman, and unconsciously decided to be nothing instead. The true androgyne embodies the conscious union of the differentiated masculine and the differentiated feminine, something quite different from the neutered hermaphrodite, in which the opposites are symbolically joined." - "The Addiction to Perfection", Marion Woodman


Through Sacrifice to Completion

Tangled Concept Art

"Every rite of passage involves a death and rebirth. The price is sacrifice. Part of that sacrifice is the giving up of old securities and illusions. The danger in our time, however, is that in making the sacrifice we are playing fast and loose with the values that were won through centuries of heroic honing of consciousness and our culture may debouch into chaotic unconsciousness. The consciousness that was won in the past by the heroes who fought their way out of the maw of the Great Mother by armoring themselves against the seductions of sensuality is in jeopardy. In Western society, very little is sacred: connections between man and nature, man and God, are broken. We are without archetypal images, without sacred rituals, without a myth to hold our ego - orientation together. In giving up "Thou shalt nots" and "shoulds" and "oughts" we have released a storm of passion, and with it the rage and fear and guilt of our shadows." - "The Addiction to Perfection", Marion Woodman

The story of Rapunzel is a wonderful demonstration of a woman's imprisonment by a witch mother. In the story that we all know too well, a young woman is kept isolated from the world. She is in a high tower, and she is given everything that she supposedly needs. The high tower is a symbolic representation of her alienation and disassociation from the world. Women, held by a witch mother, are also in such a tower. Sometimes they describe it as being behind a glass - looking at things but not being able to relate to them. She is alienated from herself and her surroundings.

Rapunzel's most significant feature is her long hair. Hair in women, can often be a symbol of intuitive powers, intuition, perception, and it is exactly this hair, that will help her in getting out of the tower. Her journey towards individuation begins similarly to other heroines - her world suddenly feels too small, to little, she becomes curious about the world, and she desires more than the small confined space she is in. The women who are ready to become free from the witch, become aware of the prison, and desire a way out of it. Rapunzel's wish is soon made fulfilled. A desire, a space in her soul appeared, and that soul's desire was to be met. The answer to her soul's desire is a young and handsome prince. He is symbolic of the animus principle and he is the one who will take her on an adventure. Both of them are differentiated and polarised animus and anima - he, as very extroverted and with a hunger for adventure, she as extremely introverted and closed off from the world. Or in alchemical terms, they are expressions of the solar and the lunar.

The witch mother may pretend to be caring and selfless, but the moment the woman tries to leave her prison, she will turn extremely oppressive. In real life, this doesn't have to be an actual physical mother, it is enough that she is inside of a woman. Actually, it is this internal image of the mother that one has to be freed of in order to become a psychological adult.

The "shoulds" and "oughts" that the animus gives anima when he takes her out of her tower, will not feel oppressive, the way power and control driven deformed animus of the witch does. The external world demands "shoulds" and "oughts" as it is the only way to keep a harmony and not allow chaotic shadow to resurface and potentially destroy everything. Those "shoulds" and "oughts" make the anima who has been shut off from the external world feel safe in it. She reaches out for it with confidence of the conscious "should" and "ought", and it drives away the fear of the dangerous wolves or bears that may be there.

Very often, towards the end of these stories, the prince or the hero dies, before he comes to life again. Also, it is often a tear of his princess, or the heroine, that brings him back to life. By awakening her own, true genuine feeling, he awakens his own as well - his anima is now conscious, he has "died" and been reborn a new man ("The Beauty and the Beast" plays the same pattern). In Rapunzel, in some versions of the story, she cuts her hair and eventually loses the magical powers that come with it. In order to truly become complete, she must become free of the fantasy in which she must be the perfect goddess. She must sacrifice a big part of her identity, her hair, the very thing that helped her reach external world, in order to become complete. The colour or length of the hair no longer matter, and neither does the identification with it, as love liberates her, and welcomes the completeness through the union of the polarities.




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Hugo Smith
Hugo Smith
Jun 02, 2021

In most fairy tales I'm familiar with, the figure of the witch mother is not the girl's birth mother. In Rapunzel, for example, it is a sorceress. The archetype of the wicked step-mother is much more frequent. Any thoughts on why?

Also, congratulations on you newly published essay. The book looks interesting.

Lionel Chan
Lionel Chan
Sep 06, 2021
Replying to

Peace Friends,

At the same time, I so often hear these same women following "what mother said" or "the way I was raised" to the letter, and indeed use this as a rationale for behaving in such a way when they are given notice that such that behaviour may be inconsistent and unaligned with stated principles. There is deep ancestral trauma and shame here I suspect. Just as women manifest these blood gifts without "earning" them, women may have to bear these weights, in ways men do not by default, as well. Salaam.

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