“Men and the Feminine”, by Jon Wilson

Men and the Feminine

A long time ago I read a book called ‘Iron John’ by Robert Bly. It is based on a Grimm’s story and is a book about men.

In the story ‘Iron John’ lives at the bottom of the pond. After he gets out of the pond, he is put in a cage by The King. A young boy loses his golden ball after it rolls into the cage with hairy Iron John. The only way the boy can get his golden ball back is by freeing him from his cage, and to free him he has to get the key from under his mother’s pillow.

I am not completely sure about this story, mostly because in my own dreams there is a woman at the bottom of the pond(and not a hairy wild man). But I can get this story, if it is about the period of boyhood(or adolescence, or somewhere between childhood and manhood). Where there seems to be something about a boy finding more of his masculine identity.

And I was close to my mother, and I know there is an awkward time for any boy(when you realize how much you love your mother, but that you might also have to break away to find more of yourself). Anyway, in the story the young boy has to get his golden ball back and to do that he also has to free the wild man – Iron John – and to do that he also has to steal the key from under his mother’s pillow, and I am just following this story, for a while.

Freud might like this story, he had a lot to say about boys and their mothers. He reminded us of the Oedipus Complex or the Mother problem(and the primary entanglement with the Mother). And not only in Freud, but in Jung too, we get this idea of the Mother as the first and powerful carrier of the feminine. She is our ‘first world’ said Jung. She is the ‘first love of our life’ he said. We love our mother, and psychologically speaking, that might be the point(because we can’t stay in the lap of childhood forever).

The Mother ‘Complex’ could be wanting to stay in the ‘lap of the mother’ for too long, or wanting to stay in the charmed circle of childhood. And somewhere in puberty there is a further kind of cutting of the umbilical cord. And to put it in the language of the story, we might have to steal that key from under the mother’s pillow, if we want to find more of our natural masculinity.   

In a story about Aboriginal initiation, I read, once a boy reached a certain age his mother would stop talking to him. Not only that, all of the women in the tribe stopped talking to him(the women turned away from him, so to speak, and he was kicked out of the mother’s realm). And he had to go and hang out with the men, for a while, and do some ‘men’s business’. In this puberty rite the boy has to leave his mother’s realm and enter the Father’s realm.

And he is initiated by older men into the first stories of the tribe(it is like a traditional ‘rite of passage’ where the boy has to leave the world of childhood and enter into the adult world). And it shows, maybe, a kind of natural psychological separation that takes place from the mother(and how in traditional rites, boys are initiated into more of their masculine identity). And it shows, maybe, a kind of natural psychological separation that takes place from the mother. ‘There were intricate ‘rites of passage’, said Jung, ‘in so-called primitive societies’. ‘Because the mother is the first bearer of the soul image, separation from her is a delicate and important matter of the greatest educational significance’.

Accordingly amongst(so-called)primitives we find a large number of rites designed to organize this separation’. ‘The mere fact of becoming adult and of outward separation is not enough; impressive initiations into the ‘men’s house’ and ceremonies of rebirth are still needed in order to make the separation from the mother(and hence from childhood) entirely effective’. Of course, we don’t have any of these formal initiation rites anymore, but maybe, they can still give an insight, into a psychological process that takes place.

And separation from the mother might not always be entirely effective. There might be some mothers that don’t really want their sons to get those keys, because they would like the childhood to continue. And their might be some sons that don’t really want to steal those keys because they would also like the charmed circle of childhood to continue. And Jung sometimes speaks about The Mother Complex as a conspiracy between the mother and the son to stay in childhood. They might both want for the situation of childhood to continue.

It is hard to know who is more at fault says Jung. And Robert Bly’s story seems to be speaking to this male psychology. And Robert Bly wasn’t much a fan of the mother bound son, or some of the new age boys – they are polite and sensitive, and all of that, but they might be a little naïve, and they might not have stolen the key from under their mother’s pillow, yet. And they might not have found that natural man(who is still caged in their own ‘psyche’). They are still boys and haven’t made the masculine development into a man.


But in the second half of life, if we follow Jung, something else happens. The initiation for men, might be more likely through the feminine(the feminine not like the mother). That might even be the way of ‘individuation’, as Jung has called it.

Whilst in the first half, the initiation for boys, was about being initiated into more of their masculine identity(and in becoming a man), in the second half of life, there is a different kind of initiation that might take place, and a man might be initiated through the feminine.

Let’s say, someone is grounded in their masculine identity. But in the second half of their life, the one-sidedness of their masculinity, might become a problem for men(and if that happens everything can start to dry up or become barren, if not destructive). And that kind of one-sided development can lead to a road of ashes descent and grief as Robert Bly calls it. And in some ways, in the second half of life, it is not so much St George conquering the Dragon, as Sir Gawain looking for a cup or a chalice(or a container for his own soul). To put it another way, ‘A man is asked to love his own soul’ as James Hillman said.

Somewhere in the mid-life a man is confronted more by aspects of his inner life or his deep feeling life or the óther’ side of himself(and that might go against some of his training in the heroic model, or at the school of masculine heroics where they didn’t like ‘touchy feely’ subjects, or any undue Latino emotional expressiveness, and where the main thing was never to show any weakness, and where the inner life and the feeling life was seen as inferior, and that kind of thing can was seen asmessy or chaotic, and scarier than killing a wild bull).

And a man might have to turn towards the ánima’ in Jung’s language, whether he likes it or not, or either willingly or unwillingly. And the ‘’anima’ is like the archetype of relationship or the archetype of life as Jung has called it. And there might be a descent, whether men like it or not, into their inner life and their feeling life, and more of an intimacy with this side of themselves. And it is like some kind of a ‘deepening’ needs to take place, and this kind of turn ínwards or ‘downwards’ could be like an initiation through the feminine.

And so a man might have to take some of the body armor off, and put down the sword, and drop some of the masculine superiority, or his ideas about a heroic ego strength or a will power that can achieve anything, and drop some of his masculine defences, and what is more required is some kind of openness, or a receptivity, or an intimacy with his own soul. And as James Hillman said even Hercules had to serve the Lydian Queen and spin and weave his female soul, for a while, and that might be more like what men encounter at the mid-life. 

And I am not saying that they have to throw away their masculine qualities, just that following Jung, what they might need to find is more of a ‘wholeness’. And at the bottom of a pond for a man at the mid-life, there might be a woman, or maybe, the depths of a more feminine mystery. And in another way, it is the ánima’ that can also re-animate or re-enchant his life.


There are two figures from myth that are in good relationship with the feminine and both of them are non-heroic, in the traditional sense. That is Dionysus and Odysseus who seem to show more of this kind of initiation through the feminine. Dionysus because of his natural affinity with the feminine(he was known as a ‘god of women’ and enjoyed the company of women and was at home in their world). According to Hillman Dionysus has always had the feminine as a structure of consciousness.

And Odysseus because he was surrounded by feminine figures that play many roles as Hillman says: Goddess(Athene), Mistress(Calypso), Devourer(Scylla and Charybdis), Enchantress(Circe), Mother-Daughter(Arete-Nausica), Personal Mother(Anticleia), Rescuer(Ino), Seductress (Sirens), Nurse(Eurykleia), and Wife(Penelope) — the feminine is there in The Odyssey, in all of its many forms. The feminine is guiding him towards Ithaca.

Jon Wilson is a Jungian based Therapist and writer who lives in Fremantle in Western Australia. He is currently working on his second book.

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