May 232015

medusa1“Our culture’s wounding and belittling of the feminine and its values has led many mothers to mistrust the world and men to a greater extent than ever before, and this mistrust inevitably becomes part of the emotional heritage of our children.” –  by Massimilla Harris, Ph.D., and Bud Harris, Ph.D., from Into the Heart of the Feminine

If you were the child of a mother crippled by her own devaluation, you may have inherited the feeling of being unseen, invalidated, or worse –  with the unspoken communication that you (or some aspect of you) was unwanted or even wished dead.

Long after you leave the family home, the tyranny of this archetype that Jungian analyst Marion Woodman calls the Death Mother continues its reign in our psyches.

Before you even think about attempting something new, asserting your voice, or stepping towards change, the Death Mother is there. Disapproving, denigrating, even repulsed by your impulse to expression and joy. Like Medusa, she only needs to look at you and raise a single eyebrow for your whole body to turn to stone.

Rejection from the one we love most can be so devastating to a young person that we internalise the belief that something is fundamentally wrong with us and deserves to be abandoned.  So we take up the habit of repeatedly leaving our own selves behind, especially when we most need support in going forward.

Even the smallest trigger of disapproval or rejection can summon the Death Mother to rear up in her full, terrifying size. The best way to describe her influence on us is collapse, paralysis, even a longing for the oblivion of death.

When I first encountered this brilliant interview with Marion Woodman on The Death Mother by Daniela Sieff,  I knew I’d stumbled upon something big. For years, I’d been searching to put words to the paralysing energy that not only haunted my own life, but which I found living in the psyches of so many of the women and men who share their dreams with me.

Without being conscious of it, the Death Mother continues to rule our lives in the form of unworthiness and self-abdication especially towards our own bodies. As one dreamer put it in Understanding and Healing Emotional Trauma by Daniela Sieff, “When I am hungry, I am not fed. When I’m exhausted, I’m not allowed to rest. When I need to move, I’m forced to stay still.” As Marion Woodman has written about extensively, even eating disorders, chronic fatigue and pain, as well as auto-immune diseases may also be expressions of that loss of inner valuation.

Book_Feature_1--Into_the_Heart_of_the_FeminineI was thrilled to be asked by the authors to review this fantastic new book by Jungian analysts Massimilla and Bud Harris called Into the Heart of the Feminine, which takes up the mantle of Woodman’s breakthrough work on the Death Mother. Using the guiding myth of Medusa, the authors show us how this shadow forms both personally and at the level of our cultural collective. In showing us a way forward, we are reminded to turn back towards the symbolic life, engaging with our dreams, and embodying our authentic feelings. You can also listen to Massimilla Harris give this hour-long talk on facing the Death Mother here.

In my own experience, I know this path to be slow and obscuring, at times frightening and often overwhelming. But from the moment you set foot on the dreaming way of life, there is a deeply-felt recognition in your bones of its necessity. And if you stay with the grief and confusion of it all, a kind of intrinsic order begins to reveal itself. Life has the chance at coming alive again. Magic begins to find us trustworthy and music returns to our silenced voices.


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A writer, artist and tender of dreams, Toko-pa has been interviewed by CNN News & BBC Radio and her writing has appeared in publications around the world. Thanks to Skype, she works with dreamers internationally in her Private Dreamwork practice, based on Salt Spring Island in Canada. You can find Toko-pa on Facebook or sign up for her mailing list to receive news about upcoming events.

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  39 Responses to “The Death Mother”

  1. The devaluing of feminine is soooo old in family tradition, ancestors, societal controls. If I died and came back a thousand more times, it feels I’ll never be clean of it. Tired.

    • It’s so important to rest when you feel tired. Then when you’re juiced up again, remount the enterprise!

      • I just discovered you.
        I am a dreamer; excited to read more..
        I needed the comment about resting when one is tired..I was feeling guilty; aware of it but….there it was..

  2. What an encouraging and hopeful stance at bringing to consciousness century old ignorance! Bless you for shining light into the darkness that all may bask in the glow of healing….healing that can reach and clear those who have been past unknowing victim-carriers and to those flung into future generations who can benefit from present beginnings of healing…our ignorance is responsibility born…right here…right now. This is the time to rise and step up and shout out.

  3. You could not have described it better…certainly when it comes to my experience of the “Death Mother” I am in my 80’s and am ever aware of taking bites out of the remainder of the damage that I have worked through for all of my life. I’m a strong woman with a voice now, but when I look back at where I’ve been, I cannot even recognize the voiceless, woman trying so hard to please everyone, and not wanting to be here. Thank you for this post. I’ve heard Marian Woodman speak a few times in the past, but I can’t recall ever hearing her on the archetype of the Death Mother. This is powerful!

    • Thank you Elly, for sharing from the voice of being greatly healed. I first heard Marion speak of the Death Mother in a 2006 article in the Sun Magazine, when she mentioned she was writing a book on the topic, but it has not yet come to pass. I’m still holding out hope!

    • The number of men wanting to restore the balance is increasing, as without understanding the Divine Feminine we cannot understand ourselves. You have our support. There’s still much work to be done, but the process cannot be stopped. Thank you for your words of encouragement Elly. Your story needs to be heard and shared. And thank you Toko-pa for spreading such powerful message. You are not alone.

  4. This is so right on. I went from being silent to screaming my head off as an environmental activist. Not that it mattered. Still wasn’t heard. Both in my family dynamic and in society at large, this hits home. I have done some healing, but this understanding amps it up. I am a fan of Marion Woodman, but don’t recall coming across this. Thank you so much. At the age of 55, I can still be momentarily paralyzed by my mother’s disapprovals. I have learned not to share so much. Time to break the pattern.

    • I’m so glad there’s something of value here for you Karen! As I mentioned to Elly (above) the first time I heard Marion refer to the Death Mother was about 10 years ago, when she spoke of writing a book on the topic, but life and other things must have gotten in the way. I’m so glad the Harris’ decided to expand upon her work, and that Daniela Sieff published her excellent interview with Marion on the topic.

  5. This is new to me. It describes what I could not define. Much of me is dead. I am isolated. But here, I see, I am not the only one.

    • Certainly not – you are in fine company, Esther. Take heart, keep going!

    • Ester, you may be physically isolated as I have chosen, but in spirit we are one. I have finally found my Sisters (even Brothers) here in the Missouri Ozarks. Some are married, some are in committed relationships, some are hermits. Even we hermits seek like others out in this area. I have found common ground in order to grow…..and grow I have…so can you. You are not dead, you have yet to find your like spirits. Look…venture out…not all groups are to our liking, but the good ones are quiet, kind & nurturing. I have healers, herbalists, naturalists, etc around me. I am learning to heal & flower; I have learned to be a beautiful old crone….you will learn to heal as well….seek your kind…learn to love yourself & find what you love to do.

  6. As I experienced it myself it was “the negative animus’ in my mother that tried to “kill me” (even in dreams) so the masculine in my mother. I saw afterwards she was not free, was not permitted to lead a life that fullfilled her. That force used generalizing words like: always, and never, and everyone, made ugly that what was beautiful to me, etc etc. It had same effect as what Woodman told about the negative Mother. So what was first? Anyway, It is a negative force, that is true. Still strugling sometimes to be really freed from it, and good enough the way I am.. Love your posts, they really are bread that nourishes 🙂

    • Yes, there are many similarities between the Negative Mother complex and the Death Mother – Marion differentiates between them by saying that while the animus-possessed mother is more of a mental wrestle, the Death Mother hits you in the body. It feels like there is still so much more to be understood about her. In any case, I’m so glad these posts are nourishing for you, Marianne!

  7. Thankyou, thankyou for these words, this heart of healing inside of this article: the Death Mother – La Madre Morta.

  8. I needed this , I’m going through a hard time but THIS let’s me know I’m on the right path.

  9. Thank you so very much for your heartfelt interest and support of our book. It represents a quest of almost three decades for us and we are deeply grateful and moved by your review and the responses of your readers. We send our love and best wishes to you all.

    • Bless you Massimila & Bud! We are so grateful for your dedication to this important work. The book is a much needed contribution, thank you! Tell me, would you care to comment on how you see the differences between the Negative Mother complex and the Death Mother?

  10. That is an important question. Thank you for asking it. We consider the Death Mother a more relentless and stronger complex than what we usually think of as the negative mother complex. The Death Mother kills rather than simply wounds our potentials and has gone beyond being the experience of unfortunate individuals into becoming a dominant force in our entire culture. In other words, it is now damaging all of us.

    • Thank you for that elucidation, friends! There is so much about her yet to learn and, like your good selves, I find my own writing and contemplation often being drawn towards her.

  11. I so appreciate your writing on this particular aspect. In psyhco-spiritual work of many years, I have learned to separate myself from this Death Mother, not always, but often enough to lead a spectacularly happy existence. Thank you for your continuing writing!

    • That’s wonderful news Kathy! It’s so heartening to hear from others who’ve been able to face her and not only survive, but thrive!

  12. What a powerful
    And significant conversation to have right here right now ..I can see myself in all of your comments / the perspectives: the grief / shame / denial /sense of being unworthy and yet like the Phoenix rising the will and courage to keep uncovering more and go deeper to the source : to find our core strength and amazing ability to keep on keeping on through the dark painful layers thet is also ours to claim : To release all the subconscious voices of fear and doubt .. I weep for my mother ..and curse the the inheritance of it and weep for whatever I passed on to my daughters that is now theirs to carry ..but through it all I open my heart to embrace us all .it is in that embrace that we may help each other without blame or judgement as we are all trying to clear that which clouds the understanding of our own inner strength and the brilliance of our spirit .it is from that embrace that we accept the gifts we can offer along way and feel with compassion that which encompasses us all

  13. Thank you so much! This is wonderful and thank you to all the responses as well. I have been in a state of pure anger and rage for nearly 3 years consistently. Trying to figure out, navigate and process the emotional hell of a life time of endless loss. Doing so much emotional work in the process, learning so much of the reasons why This is a wonderful affirmation going further into the heart the feminine from whence she is so often hidden from her hard cold outer shell. So very difficult to break through and free from having to always be in such a male dominated patriarchal tradition. The very thing that keeps her from BEING MOTHER. This book looks promising I look forward to reading it and breaking down the walls erected around her and the ones mother herself erected. Thank you. Many blessings.

    • Yes, well said, Ayesha. May these resources be of some inspiration to you. xoxox

    • I have been going through this for the past few years and recognize that I am healing CPTSD from narcissistic abuse. Daniella Sieffs book, Understanding and Healing Emotional Trauma is great as she interviews many pioneering professionals from from a diverse set of backgrounds. I have found Meredith Miller, Inner Integration (SANA & Self care series invaluable); and there is a forum called Out Of The Storm and it’s sister site Out Of The Fog that I have is a very supportive and has great number of resources. We are not alone. We are rising from the ashes together.

  14. the Knowing dawns that we all do and did (sometimes over decades) substantial work to change the collective consciousness by travelling through our own abysses and pains and facing them. Not hiding, not running away (if we had power enough i,e, ;-). Something our mothers had no utensils for, And we, thanks to analysis and therapies have…. And that is/was good and meaningfull, not only for our personal life, but for “All”as well…By growing towards Aquarius this was/is at least our part to pave the ways for new beginnings. May we all continue with hearts (more&more) filled with fertile Love..

  15. I love this piece, thank you. Have you heard of Voice Dialogue? It’s a powerful way of separating from archetypes and the more personal inner selves. I’ve used it to become more conscious of the patriarch within myself who carries the rules and values of the patriarchal system and who I believe has much to answer for in regard to the Death Mother. It would be interesting to dialogue with the Death Mother directly and to notice any changes afterwards. (There’s a piece on the Inner Patriarch and how he affects both women and men on my blog:

    I also thought you might be interested in my book Enlightenment Through Motherhood which is about the devaluing of the feminine and how that’s affected the way we approach spirituality. If that interests you let me know and I’ll send you a coupon to download the book for free. If anyone else is interested, let me know too – I’m happy to share it. There’s information about it here:

  16. Really interesting.. I think this stuff affects many many men also, as well as women

  17. This article so resonates with my Heart♥Helps me in a very profound manner to Understand the Pain I have carried for generations…and the Pain my daughters are working through in this Lifetime.I feel blessed to finally have Started Embracing the Divine Feminine in myself and all who I meet ..Males included as They need our Goddess guidance and Love to heal too…Gratitude and Many Blessings of Love Joy and Peace..From New Zealand♥

  18. Wow. I’ve never heard of the Death Mother, but I’ve experienced and internalized it. About a year after she died, I had a sudden, healing epiphany. I realized it was her opinion and treatment that had been causing my suffering- I had taken her view to be the truth for 56 years. I knew no one deserves to be treated that way my whole life, but had still somehow felt that I did deserve it. I’m glad your link found its way to me. Thais was a great read.

  19. I should have read the comments. Also very helpful.

  20. Thanks for the timely post this Mother’s Day. It helps validate the pain that the Death Mother causes her children. Mother’s Day is often a trigger of the mother I never experienced. Facing her has been challenging, but rewarding as I crumbled to pieces and am now rising. Having a voice to process through this terror has been essential towards my healing. Thanks for the opportunity to voice upon this fine weekend to witness and help me see all Mother’s – the ugly, the mighty and the beautiful❤

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