The Devouring Mother 2.0

It’s coming up to the two-year anniversary of the publication of my book The Devouring Mother: The Collective Unconscious in the Time of Corona. As I mentioned in a recent post, the corona hysteria might be done, but the delirium is far from over and the Devouring Mother archetype is, if anything, becoming even clearer as the dominant archetype of our time. I noticed recently that Jordan Peterson has started mentioning the Devouring Mother in reference to gender surgeries and the concept seems to be gaining some traction in the wider culture as a result.

Long-time readers will know I have been continuing to try and sort through the issues raised by my initial Devouring Mother concept, which was inspired by Jung’s Essay on Wotan. I was guided in that initial analysis by my studies of archetypes as tools in writing and analysing narrative fiction. Because our culture requires us to separate “the real world” from the “fictional” world of art, it probably would never have occurred to me to make the jump from one to the other if not for Jung’s essay and I was as surprised as anybody how well the archetypes worked as a tool for sociological study. But there were a couple of differences between my Devouring Mother analysis and Jung’s Wotan analysis that seemed important and which I have been working through since then.

Perhaps the main difference is that Jung posited Wotan as a geographically-specific archetype. Wotan was activated in Germany because of Germany’s location in central Europe, the home of the archetype. By contrast, the Devouring Mother and the Orphan are universal archetypes based in the relation between mother and child. They are not geographically-specific. This was not a problem in relation to corona since that was a global event. But WW2 was also a global event. So, there was a discrepancy between mine and Jung’s analyses in this respect.

This discrepancy was heightened when I realised how well the Devouring Mother accounted for the current state of global politics. Post-war global politics has been shaped in obvious reaction to WW2 and specifically to the appearance of the Tyrannical Father archetype in the form of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin etc. This seemed too coincidental to be ignored and led to me to try and sketch out how the Devouring Mother fitted into the larger historical context.

Meanwhile, I realised that I needed to pay more attention to the Orphan. I had focused on the Orphan’s relation to the Devouring Mother in my initial analysis. But considering the Orphan archetype on its own terms opened up a new avenue of exploration that led me back to Joseph Campbell’s concept of the Hero’s Journey. Every Hero is an Orphan. Every Hero’s Journey is the journey out of “orphanhood” and into “adulthood”.

More specifically, though, the Orphan is the archetype which sits between childhood and adulthood and this is where the anthropological and sociological element becomes important. The Orphan maps to the rites of passage we all must go through on our journey to adulthood which includes the biological changes of puberty and the social changes associated with becoming fully-grown members of our culture.

Of particular importance is the fact that the “initiation” of the Orphan cannot be done by the parents. It must be done by one or more Elders. This is one of the things Campbell had discovered in his analysis of the Hero’s Journey. It is hardwired into the stories we tell about the Orphan and is also present in the anthropological literature around rites of passage.

The Elder must facilitate the transition of the Orphan into adulthood. The parents can only be a hindrance because their job is to provide the unconditional love of the family home and it is exactly that comfortable, cosy environment which the Orphan must leave and face the wider world. In the modern world, schoolteachers have become a kind of proxy Elder. But the school system was never designed to be a proper rite of passage and so this leaves the underlying need unfulfilled.

The combination of all these clues, the Orphan archetype and the historical context in which the Devouring Mother and the Orphan appeared in modern western history, finally came together when I went back and re-read Toynbee’s A Study of History. I realised that the Elder-Orphan and the Parent-Orphan dynamic sits at the heart of Toynbee’s model.

Per Toynbee, the driver of a civilisation is always the minority. These days, we call them the “elites”. In the ascending phase, the elites are a Creative Minority who solve the challenges the culture faces and drive it to new heights. In the descending phase, the elites turn into a Dominant Minority who can no longer solve the problems faced by society and try to make up for this increasing incompetence by becoming dictatorial and authoritarian in relation to the wider public (sound familiar?).

Put into archetypal terms, the Creative Minority are the Elder who successfully initiates the Orphans (the general public).

“The leader’s task is to make his fellows his followers; and the only means by which mankind in the mass can be set in motion towards a goal beyond itself is by enlisting the primitive and universal faculty of mimesis.”

When the culture tips into the declining phase, the Elder-Orphan relationship breaks down and is replaced by the Parent-Orphan dynamic. The Dominant Minority becomes the tyrannical parent ruling over Orphans who are no longer initiated properly.

“But when ‘the cake of custom’ is broken, the faculty of mimesis, hitherto directed backward towards elders or ancestors as incarnations of an unchanging social tradition, is reoriented towards creative personalities bent upon leading their fellows with them towards a promised land.”

Orphans who do not get initiated can either rebel and try to find their own pathway or get stuck with their parents. That is true at the microcosmic level and also at the macrocosmic. That is why the disintegration phase of a civilisation typically sees the rise of new social movements leading towards a promised land and the opposing force of a Tyrannical Father archetype trying to hold everything together.

But this is where the Faustian (European) civilisation has deviated from the normal path. There have been no shortage of would-be Tyrannical Fathers vying for the job: Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Franco etc. But they were all defeated by the British-American empires. This has led to the inversion of the Tyrannical Father i.e. the Devouring Mother.

This inversion fits with the general pattern of Faustian culture being the opposite of the Classical. Spengler made this point repeatedly and yet he refused to generalise it because he was trying to decouple the Faustian from the Classical.

Here is a list of the primary inversions based on where we are now in Toynbee’s cycle i.e. the disintegration phase:

Universal StateRomeWashington D.C.
Dominant Political FormMilitary Dictatorship (Army)Deep State (Bureaucracy)
Archetype of the Dominant MinorityTyrannical FatherDevouring Mother
Archetype of the ProletariatOrphanOrphan
Exercise of PowerExotericEsoteric

In one sense, therefore, what I had discovered with the Devouring Mother concept was identical to what Toynbee had already outlined. The Devouring Mother is the form of the Dominant Minority in Faustian civilisation. But this represents something that neither Toynbee nor Spengler predicted. Both expected a return of the Tyrannical Father, especially Spengler who gave it the name Caesarism, ironically referring back to the Classical world that he so wanted to decouple from.

In this way, the Devouring Mother is a natural extension of both Spengler and Toynbee’s theories with the benefit of having actually lived through the period in question and seen how history unfolded.

There is also an implied correspondence between the archetypal analysis and the historical. Because I wasn’t considering the historical perspective at the start, I was able to arrive at the archetypal conclusion independently. It’s only much later that I’ve realised that the Devouring Mother-Orphan fits into the historical cycle. This leads to the hypothesis that there is some kind of archetypal relation going on. The historical cycle is itself an archetype that manifests in the broader culture.

But perhaps this historical influence is itself an element of the Faustian. The Faustian has, far more than any other culture, been preoccupied with history. The Faustian has not sat passively back and waited for history to unfold. It has at least made an attempt to learn from history. It may well be that the reason the Faustian so reliably inverts the Classical is exactly because of our historical consciousness. Even now, we are terrified of the emergence of a Tyrannical Father because that’s what history tells us to be on the lookout for. Because of that, we are oblivious to the warning signs as the Devouring Mother becomes ever more voracious.

The Faustian’s obsession with history also raises the possibility of a meta-meaning of the Orphan. We may, in fact, say that the dominant archetype of the Faustian has always been the Orphan. The Faustian consistently needed to justify itself in relation to the Classical just like a child trying to impress its parents. The acquiescent Orphans of the Faustian revered the past. The rebellious Orphans, beginning with Luther, broke with the past. This dichotomy of reverence and rebelliousness even solidified in politics in the last couple of hundred years with the conservative-liberal distinction.

Viewed this way, Spengler’s work was a cry for the Faustian to finally “grow up” and become independent of the Classical. He was not alone in this. The theme was also present during the Enlightenment. Immanuel Kant wrote that laziness and cowardice keeps us as “children”. The Enlightenment was supposed to make us “adults”.

A final meta-meaning for the Orphan is the fact that, because of the global reach of the Faustian civilisation, almost everybody in the world has been brought into its orbit. We are all members of the proletariat of the Faustian and therefore its Orphans. But we are Orphans in a culture which is itself an Orphan! That’s why I am calling it the Age of the Orphan. I’ll be exploring the ramifications of that in my upcoming book of the same name.

18 thoughts on “The Devouring Mother 2.0”

  1. Simon – maybe you’re already saying this, so apologies if I’m being slow on the uptake, but do you think the Tyrannical Father constellates the Devouring Mother at the archetypal level? They can certainly act as counterparts in families.

  2. Shane – hmmm, I hadn’t thought about that. I was assuming it’s one or the other which results in a classic good cop/bad cop dynamic. But I guess there’s no logical reason you couldn’t have both.

  3. There is some real shadow stuff going on here because in many ways the classical culture was the more feminine culture and the Faustian is an overwhelmingly masculine one, as Spengler mentioned multiple times. The entire industrial revolution and everything we have from it is a like a tumour outgrowth of the male side of the psyche, so much so that the feminine side has been completely enveloped and atrophied to the point we don’t even really know what it is anymore. Women in our culture now have to do all the same things men do, and things that women traditionally did are outsourced or absent, and where they do exist are looked down upon.

    Over and above this Faustian culture has always been a nerdy one. After the early days of Mary worship, the priesthood, and then the rational priesthood of science, has eschewed the feminine, eventually branding it as a sort of evil. Compare this to the classical where the priesthood died out quite early, losing the battle to the nobility who quite literally fought each other with entire armies over what were culturally thought of as domestic disputes (Helen and Cleopatra spring to mind). Odysseus just wants to get home to his family, while Faust with his insatiable will to power, well, he is on some crazy shit: The masculine side has a pathological tendency towards abstraction, and no culture has is more abstract than the Faustian, verging on our male computer nerd stereotype living in a esoteric dream world outside lived sensory reality. The feminine side has a pathological tendency towards outside appearance (plastic surgery anyone?), so caught up in sensory reality that any meaning or depth disappears , which is what happened to the late classical world.

    As you have mentioned perhaps the Magian explosion that quickly overwhelmed the classical was due in part to the repression of the esoteric, so maybe we can expect something similar now with the repression of the exoteric, which might be already showing up: The underlying rhythms of the USA seem to be more in line with something akin to the classical than the Faustian as Americans that are outside the political coastal Faustian bubble tend to be less historical, more for the moment and focused on outside appearance. A lot of the seem to be doing a Faustian pantomime rather than truly believing in it.

  4. Skip – well said! Protestantism definitely threw the balance massively in favour of the masculine. One of Gebser’s more interesting ideas was that materialism emerged as a compensation for the true feminine. Jung said much the same thing. So, another way to think about our current status is that it’s just the Tyrannical Father pretending to be the caring Mother. Which would look exactly like this.

    health sec

    Interestingly, if Gebser and Jung were right about materialism, the decline in the economy would be a major problem. Not because people would starve. That’s easily preventable. But without the promise of accumulating stuff, how can materialism be kept up and how can the massive imbalance in favour of the masculine be maintained?

  5. Hi Simon,

    I’m with Immanuel Kant in that regard, in these enlightened days, who are the adults? It’s a more important question than it may seem at first. What do you reckon about that?

    It is of interest that over the years I’ve been lucky enough to come into the orbit of a number of very strong male role models. Coincidentally, my family environment was hardly what I’d describe as comfortable and cosy. Hmm.



  6. Chris – I always come back to this pyramid. pyramid

    The leaders of nation states are now the “Clueless”. Who then are the sociopaths? They are hiding behind in the shadows pulling the strings through the deep state network. In Jungian terms, they are “parents” in shadow form.

  7. Hi Simon,

    Thanks for the laughs, and I can’t fault your logic. 🙂

    I guess you’re right about the leaders appearing like the clueless. The sheer lack of coherence in the policies being pursued at a national or state level, suggests to me that our elites are unable to present a compelling vision as to why we are doing all the stuff demanded of us. Many paths being pushed are frankly contradictory.

    Sociopaths are unable to put aside their self interests. And from what I’ve observed of the few that I’ve encountered over the years, is that they believe they’re the pinnacle, whilst all others are lesser. What did the ancients used to say about hubris turning to nemesis?



  8. Chris – our leaders are either clueless or doing a flawless impersonation of being clueless.

    As for the ancients, yes, pride goeth before…

    a fall

  9. Simon – while pundits like Jordan Peterson get a lot of traction from using emotive & trad concepts/terms like the Tyrannical Father or the Devouring Mother, archetypal energies aren’t inherently anthropomorphic. Yet even the ancients personified the planets & the forces of nature, & astronomers are still naming newly discovered heavenly bodies after personified gods – as if humans need non-human energies translated to relate to them.

    And this act of personification involves gendering (the masculine, the feminine, the true feminine etc.), except that now, as our civilisation & its contents/discontents are breaking down, the meaning of masculine & feminine (like a lot else) is up for grabs, w/ the establishment pushing a redefinition of ‘woman’ etc., LOL (while pushing endocrine disruptors that mess w/ sexual development). So might referring to actual qualities (that might or might not characterise ‘the masculine’ or ‘the feminine’, depending on the reader’s generation & perspective) make for less ambiguity?

    Dr Shiva’s great value! Love his definitions: happy = entertained etc.

  10. Shane – “archetypal energies aren’t inherently anthropomorphic” – yes, but the human archetypes are human, by definition.

    To me, the microcosm and macrocosm lines up too well here to be accidental. For example, Munchausen by Proxy cases are more than 90% committed by females and that microcosm maps to the macrocosm of harms from the medical and pharmaceutical industry in wider society. The pattern is inverted for violent crime (Tyrannical Father at the macrocosm). It seems to me that removing the gender aspect would make things more ambiguous, not less. And making things more ambiguous is exactly what our “elites” are trying to do.

  11. Simon – obviously the burden of childcare (& therefore responsibility for its perversions) still falls mainly on women; I was just wondering what younger generations now understand as ‘the masculine’ & ‘the feminine’? 🙂

  12. Shane – fair point. Maybe the more useful distinction will be jerks and non-jerks 😛

  13. Because western civ is in the decadent late phase what young folk think about things such as the masculine and feminine are going to be absurd from a global perspective and historical timescale.

    Across the globe, and through time, there are definitely common themes regarding gender, the feminine and the masculine. Amongst many present non western countries there is a ongoing rejection of the whole decadent ideology of the west, with a particular focus on the gender/sexuality part of it.

    Living as we do in empire it can seem as if the whole world is behaving the way we are, but a quick trip to countries outside the western empire quickly sets one straight (as an Australian, look no further than Indonesia).

    As Illich decried in his Gender essay, the move away from gendered world (even, and perhaps especially in language) says far more about the state of the modern west and it’s late phase than about gender or the archetypes.

  14. Skip – true. But it’s also true that European and particularly Northern European cultures have had an anthropologically unusual attitude to gender. During the Crusades, the Muslims of the holy land couldn’t believe their eyes when not only did the crusaders show up with women but that some women were even leading troops into battle. Similarly, some historians propose that the reason capitalism started in northern Europe was because the average marriage age was unusually high (mid-20s), something which was seen to empower women. Coeducation starts with the Reformation and the idea that women should be able to read the Bible. All things considered, it’s not actually a surprise the feminism would be a product of Faustian culture. Having said all that, I agree we are in seriously decadent form now and it’s no surprise that other countries are backing away from the crazy people.

  15. Yeah agreed but I’m not saying that human males or females in all cultures are stuck in a rigidly gendered ‘way to be’, and indeed in many mature civilisations like China the differences in roles and occupations becomes minimal.

    Rather most human cultures have acknowledged the complementary and interdependent nature of the two sides of human existence that balance each other, rather than pretend they don’t exist or shun one underground. The two sides are expressed within each human as well, on a sort of sliding scale. I’ve seen it in romantic relationships too, with each partner offering balance to their other on this scale.

    It could probably be argued that the west is pathologically obsessed at present with the physical ‘way to be’ part of it, and has lost sight of the the esoteric part of it which is interesting considering what we have discussed.

  16. Skip – same as everything else in the West right now. We try and solve all problems on the material plane alone and even when it self-evidently causes more harm than good we just plow on regardless. Of course, this ties in with late capitalism since every problem is a business opportunity that helps to grow the GDP and entrenches the power of the bankers. The sooner the whole thing falls apart, the better.

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