Erich Neumann on Matriarchy, Patriarchy, & Cultural Dissolution

(c) Watts Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

George Frederic Watts (1817 – 1904): Crius & the Titans (1874)

Erich Neumann (1905 – 1960), although self-consciously Jewish and distinctly Zionist in attitude, allied himself intellectually with the Swiss-German innovator of “Analytic Psychology,” Carl Jung, whose peculiar religiosity (Ich glaube nicht das es Gott gibt, ich weiss es) veered toward Gnosticism, but nevertheless kept something like a Protestant Christian orientation.  Neumann broke with the crudely sexual and absurdly reductive psychoanalytic theory of Sigmund Freud and embraced a version of Jung’s polymythic and symbolic approach to the understanding of consciousness, an approach that Neumann developed in some respects beyond Jung.  The cliché that “ontogeny repeats phylogeny” circulates widely – and no doubt conforms subtly to truth.  Jung or Neumann, but Neumann more than Jung, redeems the cliché by modifying it.  In Neumann’s view, ontogeny strongly implies phylogeny, such that the speculator might reconstruct the latter on the basis of the former.  The development of consciousness in the individual from childhood to adulthood would reveal in outline the development of consciousness overall going back to its origin.  The speculation might then be validated by comparing the phases of individuation, on the personal level, with the symbolic record of human development expressing itself in the archaeological layers of myth.  “Just as unconscious contents like dreams and fantasies tell us something about the psychic situation of the dreamer,” Neumann writes in the introduction to Part II of his Origins and History of Consciousness (1949 – R.C.F. Hull’s translation), “so myths throw light on the human stage from which they originate and typify man’s unconscious situation at that stage.”  In his exposition Neumann reverses the order, dealing first with the sequence of mythic imagery and only then with its analogy to individuation.

Neumann, Erich

Erich Neumann (1905 – 1960)

I. It bears significantly on the current, rapidly feminizing chapter of Western society that in Neumann’s theory ego consciousness counts as a male development. The appearance of ego consciousness inaugurates a dynamic era of cultural complexification that supersedes a stagnant and non-individuated matriarchal era. That previous era expresses itself mythically in the image of the uroboros – the snake that eats its own tail.  Indeed, Neumann warns, from a point in time almost seventy years ago, that certain trends of modernity threaten a psychic catastrophe – nothing less than the dissolution of ego consciousness and a return to the formlessness of the Great Mother.  Neumann never asserts his “stadial” evolution of consciousness as corresponding to a universal timeline.  He asserts rather that the absolute timeline differs from society to society, from one region of the world to another, but that in each case the stages follow in the same order.  Some existing societies – the tribal ones in particular – will not have advanced as far as the contemporary Western society or the ancient Egyptian or Greek societies on the path toward individuation.  And the danger of backsliding always threatens, however distantly, even in the advanced nations.  Neumann refers, of course, mainly to the totalitarian collectivities of the mid-Twentieth Century, which institutional feminism habitually denounces as manifestations of an omnipresent “toxic masculinity,” but not exclusively to them.  Neumann’s analysis challenges this claim in a remarkable instance of prolepsis, vindicating in advance the Integral Traditionalist critique of the emerging Nanny State.

Drawing on a wide variety of mythic material in Part I of Origins, Neumann describes the uroboric stasis as, in its own experience, “perfection, wholeness.”  But this totality exists “prior to any ego”; in it “world and psyche are still one.”  Neumann writes, “There is as yet no reflecting, self-conscious ego that could refer anything to itself.”  The totality remains “self-contained… without beginning [or] end” and “prior to any process… for in its roundness there is no before and no after, no time.”  Neither does an above or a below prevail.  By negation there is “no space.”  The uroboros eternally consumes itself; it also eternally begets itself.  Such symbols as the uroboros or the Primal Waters or the hermaphroditic parents (Earth and Sky) before their separation come not from the phase that they represent, but always from the next phase beyond, at least.  They constitute a recollection, or a reconstruction, rather than a direct perception.  Symbolization can only occur once a degree of alteration or differentiation toward ego consciousness has taken place.  Even then, the primeval symbols partake in the same ambiguity as the experience that they represent.  When the alarm clock rings, after all, the ego rouses itself and makes ready to work, but at the same time it experiences nostalgia for sleep, to which it would like to return.  In the same way an adult might feel nostalgia for childhood – the period of the merely nascent ego when no obligations impinged on the libido in its search for pleasure.  In the golden circle of paradise, “enfolded and upborne by great Mother Nature,” the subject “is delivered over to her for good or ill,” such that “the uroboros of the maternal world is life and psyche in one,” as Neumann writes.

Neumann makes surprisingly little use of Hesiod’s Theogony, but the Boeotian’s creation-story helps in understanding the “inexhaustible twilight world” of the matriarchal stage.  It does so, moreover, from a critically male perspective, which rejects the myth of saccharine wholeness and sees enfoldment as an unwanted coddling limitation.  Finally, Theogony hints at the difficulty in symbolizing the beginning.  For Hesiod, “Verily at the first Chaos came to be.”  (Hugh Evelyn-White’s translation)  The fact that the word gas probably derives from the Greek chaos signifies.  Gas, or air, qualifies as the least formed and least internally differentiated of perceptible things.  Hesiod names Earth as coming to be only after Chaos.  Later he records that, “From Chaos came forth Erebus and black Night.”  It is unclear whether the initial preposition, from, also applies to Earth or whether the two manifestations, Chaos and Earth, lack a causal link, the latter not proceeding from the former, as do Erebus and Night.  The reader might, even despite the absence of explicit causality, take Chaos for the environment in which Earth, the female principle, emerges, and which she then absorbs into herself.  Chaos in fact reasserts its anti-principle when Earth gives birth to Sky (Ouranos), the male principle, with whom she immediately falls into strife, but by whom incestuously she immediately bears many offspring, whose de-differentiating inter-familial conflicts hearken back to the chaotic.  Much later in Theogony, after his suppression of the Titans, Zeus, grandson of Earth, must fight the chaos dragon Typhon, whom an imagery of volcanism links, by analepsis, to Gaia.  Reading backwards, Typhon suggests Gaia’s uroboric character in Hesiod’s scheme.  The daunting catalog of godlets birthed by her gives evidence in turn of her spontaneous fertility; and her beguilement of her son Cronos into castrating his father confirms picturesquely her hostility to the male principle.

Uroboros 02

Hellenistic Uroboros (Much Domesticated)

In the phase of the uroboric circle, Neumann observes, “man experiences himself, as a self, sporadically and momentarily only.”  To return to the list of godlets – its proliferation of exotic names (“Oceanus, Coeus and Crius and Hyperion and Iapetus, Theia and Rhea, Themis and Mnemosyne and gold-crowned Phoebe and lovely Tethys,” to name but a few in one sequence of eighteen proper designations) prevents discrete identities from emerging, keeping them, as it were, crowded together.  It is an onomastic Schwärmerei.  One of Neumann’s many illustrations in Origins (Figure 7) is a “Mexican Calendar Stone” in which, encircled by a serpent that entwines its head with its tail, dozens of fetish-signs indicate the obligatory rituals that demarcate the year and the deities who govern them.  The image fits the early cosmos as Hesiod describes it, including his catalog of elemental and Titanic names.  In the poetic complement to Theogony, the Works and Days, Hesiod similarly demarcates the agricultural calendar-year and gives advice how to increase the harvest.  According to Neumann, in the phase of the uroboric circle, the subject, not yet really regarding himself as a subject, experiences life in an overwhelmingly alimentary way hence also in an overwhelmingly bodily way.  Neumann remarks the pervasiveness of bodily substances in the lowest levels of myth.  He derives the idea of mana from the taboo status of those substances.  “The mana-charge originally associated with everything that belongs to the body,” he writes, “is expressed in primitive man’s fear of magical influences, due the fact that every part of the body, from hair to excrement, can stand for the body as a whole and bewitch it.”

Neumann links sacrifice, a theme prevalent in agricultural myths, to the Great Mother: “The world experienced by the waking ego of humanity is the world of J. J. Bachofen’s matriarchate with its goddesses of motherhood and destiny.”  Bachofen, a Swiss philologist and professor of Roman Law at the University Basel, published in his two-volume Mutterrecht (literally “Mother Right”) in 1861.  In it, he argued that mankind as a whole had undergone a prolonged era of matriarchy, and that this explained the predominance in Stone Age archaeology of female images and by contrast in upper-level myth of conflicts between male heroes, who are often founders of their societies, and female monsters.  Many later thinkers such as the novelist and mythographer Robert Graves and the Indo-Europeanist Marija Gimbutas borrowed from and distorted Bachofen’s argument, as though he had actively vindicated what he only objectively discussed.  Neumann himself drew on Bachofen, but he also drew on James G. Frazer, author of the multi-volume Golden Bough (1890 – 1916).  Moral ambivalence characterizes the uroboric circle, precisely as in Hesiod’s early cosmos: “The unconscious life of nature, which is also the life of the uroboros, combines the most meaningless destruction with the extreme meaningfulness of instinctive creation; for the meaningful unity of the organism is as ‘natural’ as the cancer that devours it.”  Neumann adds that, “The same applies to the unity of life within the uroboros, which, like the swamp, begets, gives birth, and slays again in an endless cycle.”  The uroboric circle perpetually re-establishes its stasis through sacrifice.

All about the ancient Eastern Mediterranean, myths and cults link the Great Mother, or rather a later and more anthropomorphic version of the earthy-fleshy Gaia, to a lover-son who, falling victim to the goddess’s wrath, undergoes castration and murder.  There is the Phrygian pair of Attis and Cybele, the Greek pair of Adonis and Aphrodite, and the Syrian pair of Tammuz and Inanna.  Neumann accepts the Frazer’s view that “in ancient times a human victim, whether god, king, or priest, was always offered up to ensure the fertility of the earth”; and once again, “the female earth needs the fertilizing blood-seed of the male.”  Frazer explains human sacrifice as a result of magical thinking, but another more recent theory of sacrifice might be brought into connection with Neumann’s exposition.  René Girard argues in Violence and the Sacred (1966) that human sacrifice or scapegoating is the origin of the human community; for Girard sacrifice deflects an internal war of all against all by focusing ire on a single scapegoat-victim, whose killing galvanizes the collective attention of the rioters, quells the mêlée, and produces a sense of outside – that is, divine – intervention.  The Frazerian-Neumannian magical thinking corresponds to Girard’s idea of how sacrifice functions most efficaciously when it dissimulates itself.  Dissimulation takes the form, for Girard, of myth, which, in his analysis, lays a false accusation against the victim, so as to exculpate the lynch-mob.  Girard indeed equates myth with unconsciousness.  Girard never addresses the shift in myth from female dominance to male dominance, but he does argue that human moral progress coincides with an increasing dissatisfaction in respect of myth and again with the increasing awareness of the scapegoat mechanism, as he calls it.  Girard’s moral consciousness, which he ties especially to Christian revelation, and Neumann’s ego consciousness complement one another.

Endoios (6th Cent. BC) - Artemis of Ephesus

Endoios (Sculptor): Artemis of Ephesus (Late Sixth Century BC)

II. Much of Origins devotes itself to defining the stages by which ego consciousness at last emerges and frees itself from the self-sealing realm of Bachofen’s Mutterrecht. One telling myth comes from the Gilgamesh epic. The goddess Ishtar, impressed by Gilgamesh’s virility, attempts to woo him.  Gilgamesh sees the trap being set out for him.  Invoking a version of Tammuz, he boldly reminds Ishtar of the fate that befell her previous lovers and he prudently rejects her advances.  In an intellectual way, employing deduction against seduction, Gilgamesh repeats the brutal but necessary killing of the female water-monster Tiamat, a Babylonian counterpart of Hesiod’s Gaia, by the younger male god Marduk in the liturgical poem Enuma Elish.  Marduk not only slays Tiamat; he then dismembers her and creates a new universe from the dissevered body-portions.  Marduk’s deed counts as the reversal of the son-lover sacrifice in that the latter includes dismemberment by castration just prior to the victim’s death.  As Neumann writes regarding Gilgamesh, “The stronger the masculine ego consciousness becomes, the more it is aware of the emasculating, bewitching, deadly, and stupefying nature of the Great Goddess.”  Collating the Greek myths, Neumann enables himself to link Zeus the god-hero to “the Cretan Zeus child who was suckled by a goat, cow, bitch, or sow, these being representatives of Gaea, the Earth Mother, in whose charge he was placed.”  He notes as well that the Cretan Zeus child claims a counterpart in Zagreus-Dionysus, killed by the Titans using the labrys, “the instrument of sacramental castration.”  The saga of Zeus traces the full movement from ritual closure in the Mutterrecht to emancipated ego consciousness in the polis.  In Theogony, Zeus brings a luminous, emphatically noetic order to a cosmos that began in turbulent darkness.  Hesiod associates Zeus with law, the basis of self-conscious order in society.

Theogony amounts to much more than a legendarium of the gods.  It springs from its author’s project of reconciling divergent and competitive stories and thus of creating a single coherent account of the Olympian succession under Zeus.  As numerous commentaries have concluded, Hesiod belongs to an incipiently post-mythic phase of Greek thought that would reach an epoch in Ionian physics and then blossom as philosophy in Parmenides, Socrates, and Plato.  (Thales’ pronouncement that, “water is first,” invites the response, “yes, but it is not last; your theory of water is last – and that makes it better than first!”)  Had Neumann devoted more attention than he does in Origins to Theogony, he would certainly have acknowledged that Hesiod’s attribution to Zeus of a noetic faculty and a determination to promulgate the law indicates the poet’s own possession of that faculty and that determination.  Concerning the transformation of the Egyptian pantheon as the dynasties follow one another, Neumann does observe that whereas in the early dynasties theriomorphic imagery associated with the Great Mother predominated, “from the Third Dynasty onwards the human form becomes the rule.”  In the passage from female to male dominance on the social scene, “this progressive assimilation of unconscious contents gradually builds up the personality, thus creating an enlarged psychic system which forms the basis of man’s inner spiritual history as this makes itself increasingly independent of the collective history going on all around him.”

The achievement of the individuated subject in the upper echelons of the Egyptian and Greek societies marks for Neumann an acme of cultural development, which the West, in particular, has preserved down to the present.  The ego consciousness once attained can, like language, be endowed on or imitated by others – and no doubt but men gradually transferred ego consciousness to women, or women simply imitated the novel faculty, so that mothers might join with fathers in fostering the same faculty in their children.  This makes for civilized continuity, which requires the free cooperation of men and women and the general cultivation of a balanced mental state.  Free cooperation between men and women, which never occurs in the Mutterrecht, is therefore crucial to civilization, which finds rich roles for both sexes.  Take the role of women in the codification of chivalry in the Middle Ages.  This deed which expresses itself demurely as a request magnanimously and diplomatically reciprocates the original male-to-female gift of ego consciousness.  By its success of placing a voluntary obligation on men, it raises the level of cultural refinement in the West even higher than previously, but the gesture would not have been possible without the aboriginal male rebellion against confinement in the uroboric circle.  “This dominance of masculinity,” Neumann writes, “which is of crucial importance for the position of the female in patriarchal societies, determines the spiritual development of Western man.”  Indeed, “the correlation of consciousness with masculinity culminates in the development of science.”  Thus “the ‘reality principle’ comes to be represented by men.”  While the reality principle is “represented by men,” it remains applicable and available to all.

Zeus vs. Typhon Greek Black-Figure Vase Late 6th Cent. BC)

Zeus Slays Typhon (Black-Figure Vase from Early Fifth Century BC)

All this is positive, but Neumann cautions his readers not to take these hard-won victories on behalf of all for granted.  In any given society, including those of the modern West, the degree of ego consciousness in individuals varies greatly.  The total cumulus of positive developments manifests itself in relatively few people.  By contrast, “the average ego… remains fixed in the group”; and “for the primary security of the unconscious he exchanges the secondary security of the group.”  In what Neumann, borrowing from Jung, calls participation mystique, or adaptation to the group, the multitudes feel the tug of the unconscious.  And because the multitudes constitute the mass, the society feels the same tug through them.  The group can, moreover, easily transform into the crowd, and the crowd into the scapegoating posse.  Neumann’s argument converges with that of Gustave Le Bon in the latter’s study of The Crowd (1895).  As morality and individuation go together, to descend from the integrity of ego consciousness is to descend from morality into a bloody pre-morality of the primitive psyche.  “Taking the word ‘morality,’” Le Bon writes, “to mean constant respect for certain social conventions, and the permanent repression of selfish impulses, it is quite evident that crowds are too impulsive and too mobile to be moral.”  Elsewhere: “Like a savage, [the crowd] is not prepared to admit that anything can come between its desire and the realisation of its desire.”  Neumann himself writes in Origins of “the global revolution which has seized upon modern man.”  Replacing “the clan, tribe, or village” with “the city, office, or factory,” this revolution massifies and atomizes at the same time.  It results in a recursion to “the primitive psyche,” to “effeminacy,” and to “the negative aspect of the Great Mother,” including her sacrificial propensity.

According to Neumann, “every single one of these phenomena is discoverable today in the mass situation and in the [anti-process] of recollectivization.”  Neumann refers not only to the socialist-totalitarian societies, such as the late Nazi state, and Stalin’s Soviet Union, but to Western Europe and North America.  In modernity, massification, feminization, and recollectivization, which show but aspects of one thing, appear universally and give evidence of steadily increasing in their sway into the future.  “The daemons and archetypes become autonomous again,” Neumann writes, “the individual soul is swallowed back by the Terrible Mother, and along with it the experience of the voice and the individual’s responsibility before man and God is invalidated.”  Seventy years later, the crisis has deepened.  What Neumann describes as “the decay of a more complex unit not into a more primitive unit but into a centerless agglomeration” puts itself on display in instances from the trivial to the horrific.  The intrusion of digital technology into the social scene, especially in the form of the now ubiquitous cell phone, furnishes an extreme case of the abstract replacing the concrete.  The voice, that organ of conversation and friendship, gives way to the tweet, in the mindless exchange of which what remains of ego consciousness rapidly empties itself in the agglomeration.  When an Amy Wax or a Jordan Peterson defends common sense in public, invoking on the one hand bourgeois values and on the other hand Stoic discipline, the institutions fly into maniacal dudgeon and shriek for the virtual lynching of the offenders.  Civic regimes encourage hoboism and sidewalk defecation.  It reminds one of Neumann’s numerous remarks in Part I of Origins that, within the uroboric circle, eating and excreting are to the fore; and that the body and bodily substances predominate.

Gilgamesh from the Palace of Sargon II (ca. 700 BC)

Relief-Portrait of Gilgamesh from the Palace of Sargon II (Eighth Century BC)

Anything attaching to form comes under attack – the national border, the fact of sexual dimorphism, a step-by-step curriculum that initiates students into what should be their cultural inheritance but which now functions solely as a dimly perceived object of ritual vilification.  Restraint itself comes under attack.  But then restraint consists in a morally informed reason checking the passions and the emotions.  The Great Mother knows no restraint.  She permits no criticism.  She is nothing but passion and emotion.  When in Enuma Elish (L. W. King’s translation) Marduk has armed himself to effect his liberation from the Mutterrecht, Tiamat “spawned monster-serpents, sharp of tooth, and merciless of fang”; and “with poison, instead of blood, she filled their bodies.”  In the torrents of invective that spew from the Women’s Studies faculties, from the multiculturalists and diversitarians, from the new worshipers of Gaia led by an autistic girl, against a supposed “toxic masculinity”; in the institutional adulation of sexually confused adolescents who, like the ancient devotees of Cybele, mutilate themselves; in the (quite literal) out-gassing of rabid politicians; and in the infantilization and left-wing ideological Puritanism encouraged by commercial culture: In these insurrections, yes, and in many others, the fury of Tiamat and the single-mindedness of her monstrous brood, fused with her in the highest degree, make their ugly reappearance.  Ego consciousness – where it persists – finds itself assailed from every direction.  Neumann joins with the larger Twentieth-Century Réaction.  He marshals his arguments along with those of Oswald Spengler, José Ortega y Gasset, and Julius Evola, to name but a few, against degeneration.  Order exists in the object-world.  Man created an inward order for himself.  Where the external and internal orders match, life becomes optimal.  The future stands open.  Where a resurgent primitivism rejects all order – misery must rule.

4 thoughts on “Erich Neumann on Matriarchy, Patriarchy, & Cultural Dissolution

  1. Pingback: Erich Neumann on Matriarchy, Patriarchy, and Cultural Dissolution | Reaction Times

  2. That was a very interesting read. Thank you. It seems that Western Man has reached a critical point in ego consciousness and needs to move on from it as it currently is. What he should be doing is progress to a conscious creative union with the Father, spiritual responsibility. What he actually is doing, in the mass and as things stand anyway, is falling back into the amorphous spiritual immaturity of the Mother, an unconscious union or return to Chaos, the state of undifferentiation. There are reactions against this but they are mostly on the ego consciousness level itself. We need to create a world in which the mature ego is able to transcend itself while retaining full individual integrity. That is surely the path laid out for us by Christ if we take him as an example of what to be (John 14:12 “Whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these”).

    • Thank you for commenting. It obliges us that we should perfect ourselves and in so doing raise the level of the social structure that gives us context. Neumann although Jewish is aware that the Gospel offers a new and powerfully differentiated symbolism. He writes: “The hero is always a light-bringer and emissary of the light. At the nethermost point of the night sea journey, when the sun hero journeys through the underworld and must fight with the dragon, the new sun is kindled at midnight and the hero conquers the darkness. At this same lowest point of the year Christ is born as the shining Redeemer, as the light of the year and light of the world, and is worshiped with the Christmas tree at the winter solstice. The new light and the victory are symbolized by the illumination and transfiguration of the head, crowned and decked with an aureole. Even though the deeper meaning of this symbolism will only become clear to us later, it is evident that the hero’s journey brings with it a new spiritual status, a new knowledge, and an alteration of consciousness.”

      In passages such as the one above, Neumann comes into congruence with Twentieth Century Christian thinkers like Gabriel Marcel and Nicolas Berdyaev who emphasize the Gospel’s call to full humanization and recognize the tremendous inward discipline that the task of becoming who we are supposed be requires. One of the great disappointments of my teaching career (such as it is) consists in my long-term witness to the ever-diminishing inward discipline of incoming (and for that matter outgoing) college students. What I see is a pervasive spiritual flaccidity that unfits the young from benefiting from a genuine higher instruction. Identity politics amounts in fact to the destruction of individuality, which is tantamount to the destruction of the person, as such. In my judgment it rises to the level of criminality. When fanaticism rules, the person disappears.

  3. Pingback: Cantandum in Ezkhaton 01/05/20 | Liberae Sunt Nostrae Cogitatiores


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