Perhaps we need to look backwards toward old forms and old stories to re-imagine approaches to this dilemma. Greek myth is a tangled amalgam of stories, some of which date from the pre-patriarchal eras when, it is imagined, the genders lived in harmony. Over time, myths that justified the rule of men replaced most of the older tales. But we can still find the archetypal theme of initiation in many of them, because all stable societies have had to address the need to make a boy into a man. The most fundamental transition (besides birth and death) is the separation from his mother that the male child must undergo. Greek stories rarely deal directly with this theme, but the images lie just below the surface.
The task of many a heroic figure is to cut the psychic chords to the mother, and in Greek myth, she is usually the bad mother. Philip Slater, whom I quoted earlier, saw many of these male images as examples of unconscious strategies to deal with the narcissistic mother.
This may be a psychologically accurate statement, but it reduces myth to psychology. Carl Jung, by contrast, wrote, “…instead of deriving these figures from our psychic conditions, (we) must derive our psychic conditions from these figures.” I prefer to see them as the indigenous imagination’s creative efforts to find initiatory routes to the father.
At the social level the bad mother represents misogynistic condemnation of the needy or vindictive female. But psychologically, the bad mother is a man’s mother complex: that flawed inner relationship with the feminine part of his own soul, and it determines how men see women, the world, nature, family and the whole world of relationship, which patriarchy has assigned to the feminine.
A man projects that relationship outwards in moodiness, or in wildly idealized visions of actual women, who, he feels, can save or destroy him. “We look for the wonderful woman to be our salvation,” writes James Hillman. But this longing for the unattainable “…constellates the other side, betrayal and destruction.”
Many myths give a hint: before accessing his own masculine nobility – imaged as becoming king or claiming his birthright – a man or boy must first break that bond and (eventually) repair his relationship to the feminine. But when the father – whom we may more broadly interpret as the community of initiatory elders – is absent, as he is in almost every Greek myth, the son is on his own. Greek myth imagines initiatory separation from the mother in several modes. I will consider stories of men, of demi-gods and of immortal gods, beginning with modernism’s best-known example.
The most famous mother-son story of all, the man who married his mother and never knew his father, provided the fundamental image behind Freudian psychology. Like any profound myth, the tale of Oedipus is full of ambivalence. Did he ensure his demise through his incestuous union? Or did his fatal flaw lead to the terrible insight that propelled his life toward his last years as an honored sage and elder? Wasn’t the realization of his incest – or his entanglement in his mother’s emotional web – the first step toward self-knowledge? Wasn’t the blindness that he inflicted upon himself an initiation into a deeper “in-sight?” Is it possible that he achieved that insight only after his mother (complex), Queen Jocasta, killed herself?