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What Is the Mother Archetype?

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  • Written By: Mark Wollacott
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 01 August 2014
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The mother archetype is an idealized version of the mother. This means the archetype represents what humans want in a mother, just as other archetypes represent values such as the hero or the villain. There are many aspects to the mother archetype representing the different aspects of being a mother. These run from the nurturer to the mother that abandons her child. Examples of the mother archetype in popular culture include Mother Goose and Mrs. Iselin in "The Manchurian Candidate."

Archetypes are seen as elements of the collective unconscious. This means they are often symbols or nebulous spiritual needs that are projected onto other people to help a person understand the world he or she lives in. This creates characters that are similar to epitomes and stereotypes. Each character is given characteristics that fulfill those needs, even if the real person is quite different.

Carl Jung, a psychologist, believed that the mother archetype exists within the child. This means that the baby projects these motherly ideals onto the person the baby feels is the nurturer. A substitute, such as a nanny, will be imbued with the same values as the actual mother if the nanny does the majority of the nurturing.

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Psychologist Sigmund Freud likened the development of an archetype to the development of a pizza. First, the child wants food. Then the child realizes he or she has a craving for a particular kind of food like pizza. This then develops into more specialized needs such as a pizza with salami, cheese, bacon and a host of other toppings. With the mother, this means a general need for a nurturer that develops into a need for specific mother qualities.

The mother archetype has a number of consistent characteristics. They are seen as persistent, stubborn, caring and patient. There is always an intense bond between mother and child. This bond, in the mythologies that inspired Jung’s thinking, often turned violent if the mother and the child were forcibly separated. An example of this is the vengeance rained down upon Greece when Hades stole Demeter’s daughter, Persephone, from her.

In mythology, the mother archetype is often linked to the idea of the Great Mother. This includes Great Mother deities such as Gaia and Mother Earth. In this archetype, the mother nurtures not just the child, but all of creation or the Earth or elements of nature. This kind of care is always given to a female deity. In many polytheistic religions, the mother forms a triumvirate along with the maiden and the crone archetypes as the three stages of womanhood.

Cinderella represents two mother archetypes, the wicked stepmother and the fairy godmother. The wicked stepmother represents a woman who is not the rightful mother, but is also not a nurturer of the child. It is a projection of neglect and a loss of a true mother in the child. The fairy godmother is the projection of a more benign and caring figure.

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Discuss this Article

lluviaporos
Post 3

@bythewell - I think you can still call love a universal quality. It isn't really fair to say that those women didn't fit a mother archetype. They might not have gone down with the ship, so to speak, but that doesn't mean they didn't love their children.

The Earth Mother archetype is often one that can be cruel but does it out of necessity or love.

I like to think this is the norm for mothers, even if they don't always get it right.

bythewell
Post 2

@clintflint - I remember reading a study once where the researcher wanted to discover if there really was a universal quality that could be ascribed to mothers. She figured that, if nothing else, the sacrificial quality of a mother's love must be just about universal.

But she actually found even that wasn't true. There are cultures that lived in places where there were often famines and there was a tendency among new mothers in these places to stop feeding their babies when there was scarcity and basically let them die.

Which sounds horrifying, because it goes against the standard mother figure archetype, but it was actually a survival thing, because it was a case of either the baby dying or the baby AND the mother dying. I think the study concluded that there just wasn't any real universal quality that could be ascribed to motherhood.

clintflint
Post 1

I think there are a wide variety of archetypal mothers. It depends on culture and the kind of media that you consume as well. They aren't all about love and familial pride either.

I mean, the nagging mother isn't exactly a positive archetype, but it is definitely one of the big ones. You have the mother who wants their child to succeed in the ways that they didn't and pushes hard for their child to excel.

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