Erich Neumann and the Wiccan Goddess

Erich Neumann’s book The Great Mother is fascinating and maddening. Neumann was a Jungian psychoanalyst, and his book is subtitled An Analysis of the Archetype; understandably, then, it presents a Jungian approach to world mythology in the aim to establish an overarching cross-cultural archetype of the Great Mother. As a work of comparative mythology, the book fails utterly, because it falls victim to the great sins of Jungian analysis. Neumann is reaching for the universal and archetypal, and in so doing he neglects the specific and cultural. He glosses over the details of various myths and religious practices, and he ignores the differences between the cultures that gave rise to those myths so that he can claim a universal psychological continuity. The problems with Neumann’s analysis are glaring and, in some ways, damning.

And yet.

This book still speaks to me. Despite the problems, it gets at something. I don’t think Neumann accomplished what he was trying to accomplish, in that the various myths he draws together can’t really be unified without eliminating some of their key features—but I do think he accomplished something quite extraordinary. He did touch on something special and divine. In particular, although Neumann wasn’t Wiccan and wasn’t trying to write about Wicca, this book reads to me like a dissertation on the Mother Goddess of traditional Wicca. Neumann’s Great Mother is perhaps the closest description I’ve ever found in a book of the experience I have of my Goddess when I set foot in a Gardnerian ritual circle.

This book isn’t typically high on my list of recommendations for people looking to learn about the Goddess, both because of its methodological foibles and because it’s a very dense and difficult read. But the thing Neumann was striving at—that universal, divine experience of the Great Mother of us all—is, to my mind at least, very much what the Wiccan Goddess is all about. I don’t think that all Goddesses fit Neumann’s paradigm, despite his best efforts, but I do think that in his attempt to find a universal experience of Goddess-hood, he stumbled onto a kind of Goddess who is, if not identical to the Goddess of Wicca, at least very close to her.

The crowning achievement of Neumann’s book is a diagram that schematizes the themes associated with his Great Mother. This diagram has two axes, each with a positive and negative pole: The Mother axis and the “Anima” axis. The Good Mother includes figures like Demeter and the Virgin Mary, while the Terrible Mother includes figures like Kali and Hecate. The Good Anima includes Goddesses of inspiration like the Muses and the Gnostic Sophia, while the Terrible Anima has seductresses like Circe and Lilith.

The diagram is arranged in a circle, with the center being the most basic, fundamental feature Neumann finds in his Great Mother archetype. He identifies this feature as “containing,” suggesting that the primal symbol of the Goddess is the vessel or womb.* From there, it works outward through more complex themes along each axis, culminating in four basic mysteries associated with the Great Mother: Vegetation, inspiration, death, and drunkenness.

This schema isn’t comprehensive, as much as Neumann tried for it to be. There are many Goddesses who don’t fit anywhere into this picture, and even if we re-adapt Neumann’s framework and use it in another context to describe one specific Goddess (namely, the Wiccan one), there are things about her that wouldn’t quite match up to it. Nonetheless, holy hell, what an attempt. Wicca is fundamentally experiential, and getting to know the Goddess is always going to be something that can only really happen in the context of Wiccan ritual, rather than by reading from a book. But if you’re gonna try to learn about her from a book, or if you want a book to help prime you for experiences with her or to provide an interpretive lens through which to understand those experiences, Neumann’s work is a damn good place to start.

There’s a lot more in the book than just this diagram, and honestly, it’s all good shit. It needs to be severely qualified, contextualized, and engaged with critically: Once again, I wish to emphasize that there are indisputable problems with Neumann’s work. Demeter is not Hecate, Circe is not Lilith, and you can be damned sure that the Sophia we see in Gnosticism is not the same figure as the Gorgons of classical Greek mythology. But if you can read past those problems, The Great Mother has some extraordinary insights. And even though it’s not actually a book about Wicca, it really can be a gateway to the Wiccan Goddess.

All of this is just background, contextual information for the post I had meant to write today, but I think I’m going to end the post here and turn it into a two-parter. In the next post, I’ll talk about a diagram of my own creation, following Neumann. This diagram tries to schematize the Horned God of Wicca in a similar way to how Neumann’s book lays out the mysteries associated with the Goddess. The Horned God can be very hard to understand, and I had a lot of fun putting together a schema that explores his mysteries. I didn’t want to introduce that schema without talking about Neumann first, though, because the above is all necessary context in order to understand why I think a project like this might be valuable (and in order to qualify that I’m aware of Neumann’s methodological sins and am not trying to uncritically repeat them). Nonetheless, I’m very excited about that post, and can’t wait to share it with you. Until next time!

*Obviously, there’s some troubling biological essentialism here (another common fault of 20th-century Jungian approaches), but it’s not wholly off base. I often say that the fundamental polarity of the Wiccan Gods is the Qabalistic relationship of force and form. The Goddess shapes and gives form to things, bringing them into reality and grounding their being. That can still be true even if we avoid gender essentialist language about the womb.

2 thoughts on “Erich Neumann and the Wiccan Goddess

  1. I read that book for an independent study project in college. What I took from it was, Good Mother + Terrible Mother = Great Mother. And I dug that. I suppose it did prime me for Wicca in time. After reading the book I would pray to Her to reveal Herself to me.

    I should re-read it. That was a long time ago.

    But where is the Descent of the Goddess in this schema? That’s a core aspect of Her portfolio too, I think.

    Looking forward to the God post.


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