What Is the Mother Archetype?

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  • Originally Written By: Mark Wollacott
  • Revised By: C. Mitchell
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 18 October 2019
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The mother archetype is basically an idealized or invented version of a mother that, in most cases, is meant to be more or less universal. Archetypes generally serve as composites or standardized templates of what a certain role or identity is or, conversely, should be. When it comes to mothers, they are usually divided into several categories, each with heightened or enhanced attributes. The archetypical nurturer, for instance, might display all the best elements of caring and selflessness, whereas a depiction of a mother who abandons her child would probably have exaggerated flaws and complexes. The archetypical mother is commonly used as a dramatic element in storytelling, mythology, and lore, and also has an important role in psychology. Psychologists Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud in particular have written extensively on how humans create their own archetypes of motherhood, and what that means both to human development and to society as a whole.

Understanding Archetypes Generally

Broadly speaking, an archetype is a representative model or universal example of something. They are frequently seen as elements of the collective unconscious. This means they are often symbols of nebulous spiritual needs that are projected onto other people to help individuals understand the world in which they live. This creates characters that are similar to epitomes and stereotypes. Each is given characteristics that fulfill those needs, even if the real person is quite different.


Consistent Characteristics

The mother archetype is an idealized version of the mother, which means that it usually represents what humans want in a mother just as other archetypes represent values such as the hero or the villain. There are many elements that represent the different aspects of being a mother, but some characteristics are more or less consistent. In most cases these figures are seen as persistent, stubborn, caring, and patient. There is also almost always an intense bond between mother and child.

Jungian Perspectives

Psychologist Carl Jung spent a lot of time considering the mother figure and what she represents to growing children. He believed that the mother archetype exists within the child from infancy. According to his theories, babies project their own motherly ideals onto the person they feel is their primary nurturer. A substitute, such as a nanny, a grandmother, or a day care worker, can be imbued with the same values as the actual mother in the eyes of the child if that person does the majority of the nurturing.

The Archetype According to Freud

Sigmund Freud had a slightly different approach. He theorized that the archetype developed in layers over time, which some have likened to the building of a pizza. Following this analogy through, the child first feels hungry and wants food. Then the child realizes he or she has a craving for a particular kind of food, in this example 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 that are unique to the child’s situation.

Mothers Throughout Mythology and Lore

In mythology, archetypical mothers are 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 certain 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.

The familiar Cinderella fairytale 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, by contrast, is the projection of a more benign and caring figure.


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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.

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.

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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