Breaking the Spell
James Hillman wrote: “The way to ‘solve the mother complex’ would be not to cut from Mom, but to cut the antagonism that makes me heroic and her negative.” He was implying that in the mythology of the hero that is so central to popular culture (and which I contrast to the archetype of the Warrior in Chapter Nine of my book Madness at the Gates of the City: The Myth of American Innocence), behind every hero is a child struggling to separate from Mother. Behind the dragon he slays lie many layers of mother myth, going all the way back to Tiamat, the Great Mother of the Middle East, whom I address in Chapter Four.
And near that hero mythology may lie other, more personal stories. Michael Meade writes:
Breaking the spell around any one emotion makes all the emotions more available. Making it more conscious may reveal the mythical or spiritual component, the story that we have been enacting, that can unlock the cage of our literalism or fixed psychological stance. This may mean entering the spellbound area, following it to its source, rather than waiting until the spell falls again.
In Greek myth, Memory (the goddess Mnemosyne) is the mother of the nine Muses, who personify all the arts. Painters across time have generally pictured them dancing to the music of the lyre, played by the god Apollo. These goddesses are in a happy relationship with the masculine. Over 35 years of the men’s mythopoetic movement, we have learned that art – making art and ritual, not just passively appreciating it – is the best way out of the mother complex, a way of working it so that we can please Mother with our art rather than sacrifice to her (or to the Father) with our lives.
In most tribal cultures, writes Meade, nature becomes the body that holds and carries someone who has outgrown his or her mother’s arms, and culture or artful living becomes the next womb. Thus, the inner mother moves to nature and to art. Men as well as women, free of our Puritan constraints, make beauty and adorn themselves.
We see a memory of this in the old Russian tale The Firebird, told in great detail by Meade in his great book The Water of Life: Initiation and the Tempering of the Soul. In what I consider to be the most important scene, the hero accepts the task of luring the most beautiful woman in the world from her home in the sea (a universal symbol of the unconscious, and the home of that mother complex). He does so not by carrying her off or by displaying his macho skills, but by erecting a grand tent or pavilion that he decorates inside and outside with great art and finely wrought instruments, and by plying her with fabulous food and wine.
By winning her heart with beauty, he steps into the power of his own erotic nature and reclaims it as a characteristic no less masculine than feminine.
In the indigenous world, writes Meade, the initiation process introduces us to the Great Mother in nature and to the Mother of Inspiration – Mnemosyne – who presides over the well of memory and art. But the price of receiving these gifts of nature and art means giving up the heroic perspective and accepting the cycles of birth and death. Growing up. The beauty in nature is married to sorrow, and no heroics can remove the sorrow without also destroying the beauty. The son learns ways of being reborn from the Belly of Memory. From the place of inspiration, culture equals nature; they are each eyes for seeing the world.
The Greeks and Romans offered many images of the erotic imagination that both honor literal sexuality and point toward a subtler imagination. The god Eros had three faces or manifestations, collectively known as the Erotes. Himeros was the god of intense, erotic, material desire for the immediately present, to be grasped in the heat of the moment. Anteros was the god of reciprocal love, relational mutuality and exchange.
The third face of Eros was Pothos, the god of yearning and wanting, who personified the erotic desire for a distant, unattainable, incomprehensible object which is beyond our capabilities. Pothos was synonymous with impossible desire, what cannot by definition be fulfilled. He was the spiritual component of love or the erotic component of spirit, the portion of love that is never satisfied by actual loving and actual possession of the object. This face of Eros is what really drives our wandering and longing.
Hillman said, “Tell me what you yearn for and I will tell you what you are. We are what we reach for.” It is this face of Eros who drives us to reach past our mother complex projections and toward the infinite depths of our own souls, toward the divine.
Freud taught that the Oedipus myth was the fundamental myth for modern man and built his whole psychology around it. But Hillman argued that the tale of Psyche and Eros is much more descriptive of the deep work of the soul and of archetypal psychology. Psyche, the Greek word for soul, also meant butterfly, that creature that transformed itself from an ugly, wormlike thing into something magnificent. The myth tells us that soul awakens in relationship with the erotic imagination, while Eros deepens through psychological insight.
Hence the critical importance of the creative imagination, of myth, of poetry, of metaphor, of beautiful language. Hillman says:
Unimaginative language displaces the metaphorical drive from its appropriate display in poetry and rhetoric…into direct action. The body becomes the place for the soul’s metaphors.
Or, in plain if not beautiful language: If we can’t make images in art, music or fine speech, if we can’t see the value in constructing stunningly gorgeous altars and shrines so as to welcome the ancestors with grief and beauty, we get sick.
At the end of the story, Eros raises Psyche to Heaven, they marry, and Psyche gives birth to a daughter, whom they name Voluptas, which is Latin for Pleasure. Hillman finds great meaning in this divine child: The working of the soul, which necessarily involves breaking the spell of the mother, is not ascetic renunciation or escape from the world, but pleasure!
The mother complex is nothing new. The Greeks were well aware of her spell, and they evolved many mythic images and narratives that offer alternative ways of breaking it. I invite you to explore my blog series on this subject, starting here.