The Mythology of Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!”
I first learned of Darren Aronofsky’s film “mother!” from a friend, who felt I should watch it because it was “heavy with symbolism,” yet warned me it was “very disturbing.” I’ve since heard a similar sentiment almost universally from anyone who has seen the film. The official synopsis scarcely hints at how deep the disturbance goes: “A couple’s relationship is tested when uninvited guests arrive at their home, disrupting their tranquil existence.”1https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5109784/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1 None of the characters have names—the main character is Mother, her husband is only known as Him, and the couple who disrupts their tranquility in the early part of the film are only known as Man and Woman.
There are really two disruptions in this film. The first is by Man and Woman, whose appearance, early in the film, sets off a series of events that lead to a murder and a memorial service in the home. In the second part of the film, Mother gets pregnant, and her husband, Him, a poet who had been suffering from writer’s block, finally finishes and publishes his magnum opus. Cue the second disruption, as adoring fans appear on the couple’s doorstep just as they are about to have a romantic dinner celebrating his success. This new and even more bizarre series of events leads to more death, including all-out mayhem and even cannibalism, and ultimately the destruction of their home.
It is clear that the plot of the film is multi-layered. Critics have noted that the film’s events are more than just an extended pregnancy metaphor;2http://www.vulture.com/2017/09/mother-is-a-second-rate-self-aggrandizing-tour-de-force.html another reviewer called it a scathing attack on Christianity.3https://www.pluggedin.com/movie-reviews/mother-2017/ These observations only scratch the surface of a film highly packed with archetypal, mythological, and religious symbolism. One popular view is that this is a full-scale allegory of the entire Bible. This seems to be a popular reading of the symbolism, so let’s look at that idea before moving into the less apparent archetypal and mythological themes.
If we view this as an extended retelling of the Bible, then Man and Woman are Adam and Eve, the crystallized “heart” in the husband’s study is the forbidden fruit, the fighting sons are Cain and Abel. We could see “Him” as the Creator, his writing as scripture, his newly-finished work that is “born” when his son is conceived as the New Testament, and the son as Jesus. There is even a scene with a flood at the end of the funeral scene that might be compared to the great flood of Genesis 7.
However, the parallels to the Bible are not as nice and neat as they appear on the surface. The cannibalized baby cannot be a true Jesus figure; he’s not old enough to have an important role. He is more like Freud’s totem sacrifice (discussed below). The character of Him is nothing like Yahweh in disposition—it is as though Aronofsky merges Yahweh and Jesus into that character, when they are very definite, separate personalities. The orgiastic violence of the revelers/worshippers may be a social commentary on religious followers, but it’s hardly Biblical in nature. Most importantly–the central presence of Mother is a problem if this is an allegory of a book that contains few references to any kind of creative female; you could make it fit, but it’s uncomfortable. After all, the film is “mother!” not “father!” This could be a film about a creative male, but Yahweh’s creation does not involve a female in any version of the story. One might argue that Mother’s relegation to the background by other characters in the movie makes her like Sophia, the “holy wisdom,” who was present at creation and venerated, but otherwise ignored. But Jennifer Lawrence’s character does not have the traits of a Sophia, either in the traditional or Gnostic versions of that female figure. It makes more sense to view her as an archetype of the Feminine.
Feminine Archetypes: The Great Container, the Anima, and the Terrible Mother
Erich Neumann describes an archetype as “not … any concrete image existing in space and time, but … an inward image at work in the human psyche.”4The Great Mother: an analysis of the archetype / by Erich Neumann. Translated from the German by Ralph Manheim. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, , 3. Our stories, emotions, feelings, and beliefs are all tied up in archetypes, according to Jungian psychology. They are manifestations of our collective unconscious, and we only know them by their effects. Falling in love is one example of an archetype projecting itself; the person we fall in love with matches some internal ideal image, and often the real person has little to do with the qualities the lover projects onto him or her. When we see the beloved for who they “really” are, we may fall “out of love.” The archetypal image is always an ideal that cannot be reached, and we can never really “know” what it is.
The lead character in the film, played by Jennifer Lawrence, expresses all the main feminine archetypes—the positive and negative manifestations of the Mother, as well as the Anima, the female “soul” within a man. The feminine mother archetype represents both the beginning and the end, and is often represented as an ouroboros—a snake swallowing its tail. Neumann refers to this archetype as the Great Container, or Great Round, and says it represents undifferentiated consciousness.5 Neumann, 18. It is Adam and Eve before they ate the forbidden fruit; there is no difference between male and female in this womb-like state. While life as we know it takes place in space and time, and is experienced through differences, ending in death, the womb of the Mother archetype precedes this kind of awareness. According to archetypal psychology, the child is attached to the mother in early life, but develops its own identity and becomes an individual. However, a deep image of the mother remains and the male child will later encounter the Anima as the mysterious “woman” who is the source of his creativity, and will see this archetype in any woman he loves. The Anima has the power to make the man whole, by integrating the masculine and feminine sides of his being. However, a fear of the loss of ego or identity makes the man rebel against the Anima, fearing a return to the undifferentiated state, or emasculation. The man wishes to be a force in his own right, without feminine influence. Unfortunately for him this isn’t really possible, at least not in the world of archetypes; an imbalance occurs when the feminine is rejected. This can bring about a manifestation of the destructive feminine, or Terrible Mother, who can be both a protector and a killer, usually both at the same time. Think of the mother bear who goes after a human messing with her cubs—that gives an idea of how the archetype can manifest.
Introvert/Extrovert: The House and the Marriage
The house is an important part of this film, and in psychoanalysis and dream work, the house generally represents the personality. Anything happening to the house in a dream is a reflection of a conflict or concern within the psyche—often a threat to the personality. In the film, Mother wants to keep the house as a quiet refuge for herself and Him. Her husband wants to bring in outsiders, and always without her consent. She is the introvert, he is the extrovert, and their characteristics line up with the traditional aspects of femininity and masculinity respectively. Though she is there, and has rebuilt his house that burned down, he claims early on to be inspired by Man, who is an intellectual and stirs ideas in him. When Mother tells him that she also loves his work, he says, “Yes, I know you do” rather dismissively. He is outward focused, interested in socializing and in exchanging ideas. He comes across as magnanimous, but in reality he is just narcissistic; all of these invaders are his adoring fans, and they feed his ego.
Mother is interested in keeping a protected, loving, and nurturing environment—and in keeping strangers out. However, she yields to Him when he opens their doors, albeit reluctantly. At the end of the first disruption, they have an argument—Him says to Mother, “I want to open this house and let others in. You are suffocating me in this place. Things don’t always happen the way you expect them to.” She responds by saying her life was not what she expected—he says he wants a child, but won’t have sex with her. He responds by passionately making love to her. This interim period represents the only true unity in the film, the only time masculine and feminine come together, in conflict and then in love.
Creation and Destruction: Sati (or Shakti)
The first major theme is that of creation and destruction—the end of the film is like the beginning (recall the ouroboros mentioned above), and the woman who lovingly builds the house is also the one who destroys it through immolation. This recalls the Indian myth of Sati, the wife of Siva. When Sati and Siva marry, her father does not approve, as he does not like that Siva is dirty, lives in the woods, and does not properly bow before him. Her father cuts her off from the family, and does not invite her to the yagna ritual (i.e., sacrifice to the gods). When she comes anyway he insults her and her husband. She responds by immolating herself; the grisly ritual called Sati that is now outlawed in India required a widow to throw herself on her husband’s funeral pyre in remembrance of this, as it is said Sati did this in her grief at insults to her husband. When Siva learns of his wife’s death, he begins a dance of destruction, destroying the earth.
The immolation scene in the movie is about the offenses of Him, rather than a response to anyone offending Him. This leads us to the next theme.
The Athena Syndrome: Ajax of Telamon
The next theme is expressed in Greek mythology through the story of Ajax of Telamon. This Ajax, also known as “Ajax the Greater,” was one of the great Trojan War heroes of the Iliad. When the hero Achilles dies, there are contests at his funeral, and the prizes are his personal possessions. When Ajax competes with Odysseus for Achilles’ armor, it is awarded to Odysseus. Ajax is furious, as he does not regard Odysseus as a “real” warrior; he feels Odysseus’ success comes through manipulation and cunning. As a result, he vows to torture and kill the Achaean (Greek) leaders. However, the goddess Athena intervenes, and causes him to kill a bunch of cattle instead. When Ajax realizes what he has done—and that the Achaean generals discovered his intentions—he falls on his sword and kills himself.
It may not be obvious what this has to do with the film; however, Sophocles gives us a hint in the play entitled “Ajax.” When the characters in the play fear that Ajax has done the worst by killing himself, a messenger appears, explaining that Ajax brought doom upon himself by refusing Athena’s help on the battlefield. Athena is associated with fairness and justice, so it is jarring to see her deluding and manipulating Ajax in the first scene. Athena is the “anima” aspect of the warrior, and the real source of his success and strength. Athena battles the god of war, Ares, in a scene in the Iliad. She beats him so severely that he goes to their father, Zeus, and asks him to “restrain his crazy daughter.” By rejecting her help, Ajax puts his ego before his Anima; he is “better” than the goddess, and this is an act of hubris (pride). Thus, Athena becomes the Terrible Mother: no act of hubris in Greek myth goes unpunished, and neither does the metaphorical equivalent in this film. It is the out-of-control ego of Him that makes him dismiss his wife’s gifts in favor of the adulation of all these strangers who make him into a god, and they are all immolated as a result.
The Appearance of Man and Woman: Xenia and the story of Penelope
If Aronofsky is critiquing traditional religious ideas and values in this film, then he starts with a very old one: xenia, or guest-friendship. This is one of the core values of the ancient Greeks—a guest seeking shelter is invited in and showered with hospitality. Penelope in the Odyssey is the ultimate female embodiment of xenia; she puts up with the suitors when her husband doesn’t return home, even though they have taken over and are eating up all their resources. In fact, the chaos of Odysseus’ household might have a parallel in this film, when strangers enter the house without any respect or concern for those living there. The ideal is for the host to treat the guest well in spite of their behavior, and disorderly guests are punished by the gods. In the film, Mother is doing her duty, but it is Him who appears to be the hospitable one. She is not a Penelope; she is more than ready to eject the unruly guests when they are out of line, though it is clear she is too weak to do so. Woman’s response is clear—you (i.e., Mother) want us out, but Him does not. Him is in charge. Mother is constantly made to feel she is a bad hostess, and Woman goes as far as to say she has no feelings because she has no children. Hospitality is tied up with nurturing.
However, xenia and gift-giving are not always selfless acts, and this is the critique of the film. Him invites people in—perhaps at first because he longs for male company, but in the later part of the film it is because his ego has become gorged on the deity-like admiration of the invaders. In the same way that people may obsess over how many “likes” they have on social media, Him has entirely given up his authentic self in favor of pleasing the crowd. There is a sense of power that comes with this adulation.
The instructive Greek mythical scene that comes to mind is the embassy to Achilles in the Iliad. The Iliad starts with the “rage of Achilles,” who withdraws his troops and support when he is betrayed by Agamemnon. When the Achaean army is badly pummeled, Agamemnon sends Odysseus and several others with gifts and promises of marriage to Agamemnon’s daughter to Achilles if he would accept Agamemnon’s apology and return as a comrade. Achilles will have none of it. Why not? “Go back and proclaim to him all that I tell you, openly, so other Achaians may turn against him in anger if he hopes yet one more time to swindle some other Danaan, wrapped as he is forever in shamelessness…”6The Iliad / by Homer. Translated by Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011, 226. While it appears that Agamemnon is being humble, he is in fact putting Achilles in a position of obligation. By accepting gifts, Agamemnon now has a kind of power over Achilles, and if Achilles is a decent person, he will accept his obligations. Achilles will not allow Agamemnon to manipulate him. In the film, hospitality is extended to Man and Woman, and they dutifully behave in a worshipful fashion toward their host.
There is a side commentary here on the “famous” person. Often when someone is famous, fans feel that they are “owed” something; their devotion justifies crossing private boundaries. Often celebrities with newfound fame go to ridiculous excesses to gain adulation, but soon realize that they have no privacy as paparazzi and other invaders feel perfectly free to invade their personal boundaries once the gates are opened. The lust for ego gratification and social power has a destructive price.
The Battling Sons: Seven Against Thebes
When Mother and Him are on the point of ejecting Man and Woman from the house, the Older Son and Younger Son rush into the house; these are the children of Man and Woman. Apparently Man has changed his will in such a way that Older Son loses out, and he is furious. Arguing ensues, and then Older Son fights with Younger Son, killing him in the process. The pooled blood leaves a mark on the floor that looks like a vulva, or a heart. The battle between brothers for succession is the last tragic part of the Oedipus myth. Freud’s Oedipus Complex is built on the notion that young boys want to kill their fathers and marry their mothers. This is interpreted by Otto Rank as a fantasy manifestation of the special or Divine Child—the father is threatened and tries to do away with the son, but the son survives and goes back to challenge the father.7The Myth of the Birth of the Hero and Other Writings / by Otto Rank. Edited by Philip Freund. New York: Vintage Books, 1964. This is one of the basic elements of Campbell’s “monomyth,” the journey of the hero. But this is not heroic; the chaos that ensues after it is discovered that Oedipus has indeed killed his father and married his mother is a better parallel to the film—the battle between Eteocles and Polynices, the sons of Oedipus, for succession, in a myth known as the Seven Against Thebes. Oedipus curses both of his sons and they die in battle. While this does not precisely mirror the events of the film, the narrative of the battling brothers for succession is a clear motif.
On a related note, the funerary oration for the dead son is almost grotesque in its lack of authenticity. This may be a commentary on the artificial way in which we cope with grief as a society, and a critique of the idea of unconditional love in the family. The reality is that most families are “broken” somewhere, and often we see the cracks in the façade of unity when money or succession is involved—usually when someone dies.
The Bacchanal: Dionysus and Jesus
We finally come to the latter part of the movie, the most disturbing and horrifying. There are large groups of “devotees” of Him, the newly successful author, and all of their actions suggest they have come to worship him—they tell him they have come from a long way to see him. Rather than respect his pregnant wife and their planned intimate evening, the throng ends up invading the house, and a festival of blood, sex, and violence ensues. Him revels in all the attention, even as his horrified wife tries to unsuccessfully maintain boundaries in the house. The combination of religious fervor and violence is reminiscent of a Bacchanal, the orgiastic celebration of the god Dionysus (or Bacchus). Bacchanals featured gratuitous sex, drinking, dancing, and the tearing of animals from limb to limb, in addition to general disorderliness.
What people don’t often realize about Dionysus is that he is a direct predecessor to Jesus—the similarities between the god-figures are striking. Dionysus worship in the mystery cults addressed the idea of being saved after death, an idea not present in Greek religion. The Orphics, who had their own cosmogony of Dionysus, painted him as the son of Zeus and his successor on Olympus. The Titans got jealous, lured the child Dionysus with toys, and then tore him apart, cooked him, and ate him. He was resurrected when Athena saved his heart, and Zeus reduced the Titans to ashes, out of which came the first mortals. While the movie’s ending is not a direct recounting of this myth, the focus on saving the heart and reducing the house to ashes is a parallel that is hard to discount.
The Jesus connection goes deeper than death, eating flesh, and resurrection. Dionysus changed water into wine long before Jesus did, and much of Jesus’ life and mission centered around gaining credibility—the religious establishment would not accept him as the Messiah, who is not technically a god, but later interpreted as such in Christian doctrine. Most of the mythology of Dionysus revolves around his being a “foreign” god not accepted as a real god by established kings.8For more examples see: Taylor-Perry, Rosemary. God Who Comes: Dionysian Mysteries Reclaimed. New York: Algora Publishing, 2003. Given the popularity of the Dionysus (Bacchus) cult at the time when Christianity was new, and the amount of mixing between religions at that time, this is not as strange as it seems at first.
The Jesus story is known by most of us, and Freud picked up the theme of eating the flesh of the god in his work Totem and Taboo.9Totem and taboo: resemblances between the psychic lives of savages and neurotics / Sigmund Freud. New York: Vintage Books, 1946. Freud suggests that eating the flesh assuages the guilt of the son murdering the father in the Oedipal myth. Again, that does not directly translate here; yet, it is clear that the child of Him, who is the “divinity,” is sacrificed, most likely to assuage the guilt of the murder of the young son in his house. In fact, the same lines are repeated: “Here there is life!” when discussing both the death of the younger son and the baby boy. There is also a clear allusion to Jesus when Him tells Mother that she needs to “forgive” the crowd for dismembering and eating their son. And yet this is more than a critique of Jesus; it is drawing a direct line between Dionysus and Jesus, whether Aronofsky intended it or not. There is a cannibalistic savagery that underlies Christianity—it underlies Western mythology. In Greek myth, the Mycenaean saga of the House of Atreus actually begins with Tantalus, the founder of the line. Tantalus cooks his son Pelops and feeds him to the Olympian gods. They are all horrified and refuse to eat, except for the goddess Demeter, who takes a bite of his shoulder. Pelops is regenerated, but Tantalus is banished to Tartarus, where he suffers eternal hunger and thirst for his crime. Later, Pelops’ successors in Mycenae, Thyestes and Atreus, fight over kingship. Both men cheat to lay claim to the throne, but Atreus eventually wins. He gets revenge on Thyestes for his deceptions by killing his son and feeding his body to him at a feast that was allegedly meant as a truce. Thyestes goes to the Oracle at Delphi, and is told to have a child with his daughter; this child (Aegisthus) would avenge him for the cannibalistic crime. Aegisthus and his sister-in-law Clytemnestra would go on to murder Atreus’ son Agamemnon when he returned home from the Trojan War. This left Agamemnon’s son Orestes with the horrible conundrum of having to kill his mother to avenge his father. In this case, cannibalism is a desire by the father or brother to gain power over the son or younger brother, with permanently destructive results for the family.
In an ideal world, myths of mothers, fathers, and families are meant to be stories of expansion. Marriage and childbirth are supposed to enrich the world—they bring opposites together, and are creative rather than destructive. Greek myths show how incest and cannibalism subvert this process and destroy the family, and hence the world. In the psychology of myth, incest and cannibalism represent fear, narcissism, and the desire for domination, to the detriment of the healthy psyche. We have only seen the latter taboo in the themes of this film; however, it is clear that Aronofsky’s use of the cannibalism of the “Divine Child” falls into this mythical narrative.
This essay only begins to unpack the mythical layers of this film; perhaps readers will be able to tease out more from looking at the details. In this rather complex stew of mythologies and female archetypes, there is no doubt a social critique of the status of women, and the role of religion and tradition in creating that social situation. If I admire any particular thing about the film, it is the way in which it presents a feminine narrative exactly as it is—confounding and complicated. Joseph Campbell identified four functions of mythology—the numinous/mystical, the cosmological, the social, and the psychological. This movie touches them all—the mystery of life and its closeness to death, the creation of new worlds, the social critique of the status of women and relationships, and the impact on the individuals involved.
The movie begins and ends with Him holding a beautiful stone with a fiery line through it, placed lovingly on a mini-pedestal by Him in his writing studio. We discover that this stone is actually Mother’s heart, taken from the ashes of her dying body, and Him is more fascinated with the object than the real Feminine behind it. Like another set of Greek myths—those of Pygmalion and Galatea (bringing a stone woman to life) and its reverse, Medusa (turning a live human to stone), there is much to consider regarding the lack of real relationship to the Feminine, which is often patronized and objectified. It is also the drama of the Anima, in which the man is fascinated with the image projected onto his beloved, while ignoring the real woman beyond it. The film is truly disturbing, and the normative reality its symbolism portrays and critiques is also truly disturbing.
|↑4||The Great Mother: an analysis of the archetype / by Erich Neumann. Translated from the German by Ralph Manheim. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, , 3.|
|↑6||The Iliad / by Homer. Translated by Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011, 226.|
|↑7||The Myth of the Birth of the Hero and Other Writings / by Otto Rank. Edited by Philip Freund. New York: Vintage Books, 1964.|
|↑8||For more examples see: Taylor-Perry, Rosemary. God Who Comes: Dionysian Mysteries Reclaimed. New York: Algora Publishing, 2003.|
|↑9||Totem and taboo: resemblances between the psychic lives of savages and neurotics / Sigmund Freud. New York: Vintage Books, 1946.|