The Great Mother

She nurtures and devours

CULTURE.devouring mother

A pantheon of mythological devouring mothers from Durga to Kali to Isis reaches across cultures and down through history. There’s even a tiger goddess who both nurtures and devours.

by Stacey Warde

A soft gentle voice, much like my mother’s, calls to me, a young boy of 4, while I sleep, “Stacey, Stacey, Stacey….”

I awaken in the dream and look about the room from my top bunk; in the bunk below, my younger brother sleeps soundly.

I notice the squarish light fixture on the ceiling in the darkness, and turn my gaze to the bedroom door.

At the side of my upper bunk, towering menacingly above me, nearly touching the ceiling with her enormous head, a saber-toothed tiger, blood dripping from her fangs, walking on her hind legs, slowly approaches me. My heart begins to pound wildly with fear.

As she nears, I can see my mother’s sweatshirt on the saber-toothed monster. I start screaming until my real mother appears.

I had the worst recurring nightmares as a child; ghouls, monsters and wild animals filled my early childhood dreams.

These dreadful nightmares occurred with alarming regularity. I sensed concern from my young parents, and from relatives at whose homes I often slept, where I could awaken an entire household with blood-curdling screams in the middle of the night.

“What’s wrong with him?” I remember an older cousin, whose room I once shared, asking my aunt. I was staying with them, and attending school in Laguna Beach, where mom grew up, while she recovered from a life-threatening illness.

“Nothing’s wrong with him,” my aunt said, “he’s just having a bad dream.”

“Yeah, but does he have to do it in here?”

Finally, Jiminy Cricket appeared in a dream, probably stirred by a Disney episode I might have seen in which he asks Pinocchio, the wooden puppet, if he’d like to become a real boy, and in the first of a series of lessons sings “Always let your conscience be your guide.”

“When you get into trouble and you don’t know right from wrong, all you gotta do is give a little whistle.”

I could give a little whistle and feel safe again. I’m not sure I even had a conscience then but I wanted to be a real boy and needed the security offered by this peculiar animated bug friend.

I have no idea what triggered my rescue from these night time horrors of a devouring mother by this bumbling Disney character, but the nightmares ceased.

I worked on becoming a real boy.

I wavered between two questions that sprung from this recurring nightmare, adding to the horror and confusion it brought: What did this monster do with my mother? When did my mother become a monster?

I’ve since learned through psychology that a devouring mother image suggests an overbearing and anxious woman attempting to compensate for her deficiencies and insecurities. She’s controlling and critical. She can be harsh and judgmental.

The sons of these mothers often grow up to be puers, little boys who need their mommies, who never venture out beyond the safety of mom’s apron strings and become independent men, or the authors and heroes of their own lives. They remain dependent and seek dependencies in relationships that mimic their mother complex.

They are commitment phobes, never quite able to break the primitive bond with mother. The challenge is to break away, to pursue a life free from maternal dependencies or attachments, to become a person of independent means and bearing and character.

This is no easy feat for boys whose mothers were themselves still children when they gave birth.

In a way, mother and I grew up together.

She was 17 when she gave birth to me. I suspect she felt a lot of insecurities, as any teenage mother would, and she mustn’t have felt any more secure when, at the age of 20, she was left alone with two young boys, after my father walked out on us and never returned.

I suspect she did her best to protect me and my brother, to give us a safe haven from the rigors and perils of life. I never felt unsafe, except when monsters pursued me in the night.

***

Western tradition’s finest example of a puer who bolts from under his mother’s wings and grows into a man of formidable power and influence is Perceval.

Through trial and error, he moves beyond the clutches of his overbearing and protective mother, who does not want him to become a warrior like his deceased (read “absent”) father, killed in battle when Perceval was too young to remember.

Eventually, by following his bliss, and through numerous mishaps and the counsel of more worldly, perhaps wiser, souls, he grows to become one of the great knights of the Roundtable.

***

Once, I remember flying over the front seat from where I stood on the back seat in one of those clunky ‘50s chevys, long before seat belts were mandatory, when mom had to suddenly apply the brakes. I wound up on the floor boards under the glove box.

“Are you OK?” she asked in a panic. I was fine.

She was pugnacious and caring, if not overwhelmed and frightened in those early years. She found her way, remarried, built a home and family; and I never had another nightmare of a devouring, blood-dripping, saber-toothed tiger wearing my mother’s sweatshirt.

A pantheon of mythological devouring mothers from Durga to Kali to Isis reaches across cultures and down through history. There’s even a tiger goddess who both nurtures and devours. Ultimately, as these powerful figures remind us, we shall all be devoured by the Great Mother Earth.

But that’s not all.

The First Mother also nurtures and sustains.

On the more personal level, of course, the same holds true for our mothers who birthed us. They can also nurture and sustain and devour.

It seems the only way out, the only way to free one’s self from the harm of this devourer is to create a life of one’s own, grounded in but not held captive by mother’s nurturing and protective instincts.

Eventually, a man must break away from his mother and become his own person. Cultures recognize this in which boys are taken at a certain age from their mothers and joined to the men, from whom they learn the skills necessary to survive.

In the U.S., this does not always happen. Many men grow up without a father, their upbringing charged mostly to their mother, who attempts to be all things to her children. Sometimes, boys will grow up, as I did, with dependencies which can be extremely difficult to overcome.

I’ve lived the greater part of my life under the shadow of this primal monster of my early childhood nightmares, afraid to disappoint or to stray too far. But I’ve also learned to venture out, believing that behind my biggest dragons are my deepest treasures.

Mom, meanwhile, would like nothing more than for me to uncover these treasures, my birthright, to live in good conscience and when troubled with fears of being devoured to give a little whistle.§

Stacey Warde is publisher of The Rogue Voice. He can be reached at roguewarde@gmail.com.

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