The Archetype of the Womb – Part 1

by Theresa C. Dintino

Once there was the archetype of a nurturing womb that lived in the collective human psyche offering comfort and assurance. This archetype was a strong and persistent one. Modern westerners have lost this archetype. The loss of this powerful archetype leaves us with many wounds: a deep sense of isolation, alienation, disconnection and disorientation. We are plagued and haunted by deep, primal fear. This fear drives us, continually leading us in the wrong direction – away from a return to the Archetype of the Womb.

The Archetype of the Womb, the number one in sacred geometry, is one of connectedness, interconnectedness, unity and community. There is a birth from and return to the nurturing womb, rendering blood and darkness a sacred mystery. The mystery is held within the womb. When the universe, kosmos, is viewed as a womb, there is the awareness of a series of nested wombs held within this larger womb image – an infinite nesting of wombs within wombs. Carefully held contained space creates more carefully held contained space.

The universal womb enables the galactic womb, solar system womb, solar and earth womb, ocean womb, community and village womb, mother womb, daughter womb, cellular and quantum womb.

When this archetype has a living presence, there is an organic feeling of belonging – a constant and reliable place to return to, release to, dissolve or melt into. The womb is the place of birth and death, the before-during-and the after. No wondering. A deep trust in knowing that the womb space holds us all, all life, all systems, all realities. There is no outside. All are held within. There is a deeply held within nested safely with within inside even more within.

There is the story of Seth, the god who holds the negative or opposing force in Egyptian tradition breaking through his mother’s womb with his impatience to be born. Perhaps this is the definition of evil: breaking this precious held space. Breaking the web of connectedness and then believing that the broken web is the truth.

The loss of the Archetype of the Womb has led to a loss and devaluation of mothering energy, mothering presence and mothers in general. I doubt any of us know what mothering energy looks like in its purest form. There are so many overlays and projections, mostly negative. Pure mother energy has fierce boundaries. We see this in the animal world. Mothers are not ‘nice’ among birds and bears. Mothers get the job done and the main job of a mother is protection. Many human mothers in the western world feel powerless to protect their children. Rather mothering is the experience of a slow inculcation and preparation of our young to accepting the realities of life in a world of horror.

I believe if the archetype of the womb were present there would be no global warming, humans would not be killing species at record rates, and there would be no war. To the mother energy who knows what it takes – the ­ time and energy to create – life is too precious to squander. Pure mother energy also knows how each and every manifestation of life is unique, special and essential to the whole. Pure mother energy does not need to arise only from mothers and females but it is always a female energy.

The archetype of the womb is that of the container – contained space, the alchemical space within which transmutation occurs. Within this womb container all arises, transmutes, becomes, and dissolves back into the cauldron of the womb to arise yet again, again transformed, again becoming, again dissolving. A wise woman once said to me life is about transforming matter. When you are down, depressed, feeling lost, go and make something. You’ll feel better. Why? Because you will be participating with the universe in its ultimate purpose.

We westerners envision ourselves as sitting on the outside of an unprotected planet in a dangerous solar system within a meaningless universe. Because of this, we feel acutely alone, at risk and profoundly vulnerable but this is not the truth of our existence.

We are held within countless containers of safety. The earth, our mother, created a variety of systems to enclose us within layers of protection while remaining interactive with our local solar system. The atmosphere and magnetosphere but two examples of systems created by the earth which repel asteroids and other space debris as well as harmful radiation while allowing other, beneficial matter and light in. Similarly the heliosphere of the sun encloses and holds the solar system within a contained, protected space while interacting with the galaxy as a whole and so on. Layer upon layer of membranes permeable yet protective. This more accurately describes the truth of our existence.

Cosmologist Brian Swimme sites the emergence of the membrane as one of the most crucial developments for the presence of life on earth. “Really dynamic creative emergence requires isolation, removal, separation in order to articulate itself. The membrane protects complexity and creative power.”[1] Swimme describes the existence of molecules in the early sea, how in the early earth system complexity is created and then washed away by the ongoing forces of nature. But there is a “moment where a molecular web folds around a complex chemical interaction and that molecular web protects what has been developed.” This is the birth of the cell and all other life forms emerged as a result of this moment of creativity. Membranes also posses the power of discernment, deciding what to allow in and what to keep out for the overall integrity of the cell. Swimme calls this a form of intelligence and notes that human sensitivity is yet another variety of this development created by cells in the early sea. [2]

I see the membrane as but another manifestation of the Archetype of the Womb. It is a womb that folds around that which has been created, to preserve and protect it, like a mother’s arms.

If you believed you were held in a within space which you shared with all the rest of life as you know it would you consider differently how to behave?

We have lost the archetype of connectedness.

The physical manifestations of the loss of this archetype are everywhere around us. Losing this archetype has allowed us to destroy permeable yet protective membranes. Here we are able to see how the state of our psyches directly affects physical matter. We are destroying the atmosphere, one of the layers of the womb, because we do not believe in it. Because we do not believe in it we are losing it, we are allowing it to be destroyed. We are creating what we believe, deeply. We are literally creating the reality of disconnection and alienation that we carry deep in our psyches.

This Archetype of the Womb has had many manifestations in human consciousness. Around 10,000 BCE it arose in the human psyche in the form of bucrania (bull head and horns). Throughout the middle east at this time period archaeologists begin to find the skulls and horns of wild bulls and cows buried underneath housing, embedded inside the plaster of the walls and benches and used as a decorative motif in association with images of the Goddess. They call this image the bull and male and mostly separate it from the Goddess images. But it is not separate and it is not male. It is yet another image of the Goddess. It is the womb of the Goddess. These Bucrania are images of the horned cow, the cow Goddess which is a manifestation of the Archetype of the Womb.

African Hathor is a cow Goddess. From her udders flows the milk that creates and sustains life in the cosmos. Hathor is the Goddess of Papyrus, the opener of wombs, Goddess of love, the mother. She is the goddess of licentiousness, ecstasy. She is also associated with the sistrum, a tambourine type percussion instrument. Her priestesses were dancers and musicians. Her celebrations were bawdy and sexual. She is Mistress of the Vulva; wooden phalluses were left to her.

Hathor means ‘house of Horus’, her womb housed Horus, the level of transmutation humans aspired to in Egypt and alchemical traditions. You need the womb within which to be transmuted. No matter how ‘enlightened’ someone is, or a tradition is, if they miss the boat on this one, it is no good. Nothing happens in isolation. No one transforms themself. The container of your life, beliefs, experiences, transforms you. And this is held female space. We are destroying the womb container of the earth. Global warming is nothing other than this. If we destroy the container, nothing can live, meaning nothing can transform. Womb space is generated at the core and then emanates out and around. Womb space comes from within the within, a deeply interior space which creates new deeply interior space.

Hathor is a solar Goddess. If life on earth is transformed sunlight she is the transformer – the one who holds the space within which transmutation occurs, the vessel, container – womb. She is often depicted as a vessel. She wears a sun disc on her head between her horns. Her symbol is the mirror which captures the sun within it and transmutes it, a reflection of the sun, herself reflecting and channelling sun. She is a sky Goddess, often associated with Nut. She is the mother Goddess, the nurturing womb archetype.

It was Dorothy Cameron who originally pointed out that the bucrania image, so omnipresent in the cultures that worshiped the Goddess in prehistory, is a perfect replica of a human woman’s uterus, fallopian tubes and ovaries. [3]

We know that ancient people knew human anatomy because they engaged in the process of excarnation – a process where the bodies of the recently dead were left out in the open air to be exposed to the elements, sun, wind, rain and vultures – their flesh offered up as food. The priest/priestess carrying out the service would have observed the internal organs at certain stages of decomposition; they would have seen the female reproductive organs in various stages of pregnancy. The flesh they offered to the vultures, the sun, the wind, the air for further transmutation. The cleaned and bleached bones they carried back to their shrines, temples, placed them into clay pots or baskets and buried them under the floors of their houses. Undoubtedly there were rituals involving the bucrania that invoked returning them, in the form of their cleaned and prepared bones, to the womb of the Goddess for rebirth.

Bucrania images were often created out of plaster with actual horns. These carefully crafted images protruded from walls of tomb like spaces, adorned alters or the ends of benches. They were painted onto pots and clay vessels as well. Later the image is stylized into the downward facing triangle. The Egyptian hieroglyph for uterus is V.
Barbara G. Walker writes, “Perhaps the most common manifestation of the Great Mother as Preserver was the white, horned, milk-giving Moon-cow, still sacred in India as a symbol of Kali.”[4] As Lat, Al-lat, Latona, Lado, Leto, or Leda she was known as the ‘milk giver’. Io, Europa, Hera, Brigid, horned cow Goddesses all. Cow as Creatrix. In shrines uncovered in the Neolithic village of Çatal Hüyük (circa 7th mill. BCE) located in what is now Turkey we find bucrania lining the walls, or protruding from walls underneath painted images of the large spreading wings of vultures, being born from between the legs of the awesome frog Goddess. From Prehistoric Crete are images of bucrania and bulls, often with a labrys, double axe, symbol of cyclical nature of life/death non duality in its head. In Sardinia (circa 4th mill. BCE) in underground, egg shaped tombs images of bucrania hang over doors and entryways as well as emerging from and lining the circular walls within, as a recurring, repeating symbol.

In an astounding image from Egypt in Saqqara – ­the cemetery site for early dynastic Memphis, (3100-2800 BCE.) 300 Bucrania surround tomb #3504 excavated by Emery. The heads are made of mud but the horns are genuine. They must have been collecting them for some time. These 300 line perfectly the outer wall of the tomb complex. It is a powerful image. The idea of rebirth within the womb of the Goddess exists long before this and worship of Hathor has a powerful and central presence in Egypt at this time and yet in written descriptions of the tomb I find only references to the bull and the kingship.

Hathor is mistress of the west; the netherworld was located in the west. She was well known for her ability to revive the dead. She greets the dead with food to sustain them on their journey. Why is this left out of the interpretation of 300 bucrania surrounding a tomb in early Egypt?

Hathor is a midwife, she is present at birth, she is the opener of wombs, she is the one to go to when one needs help with fertility, sexuality. She is a healer. The active presence of this archetype gives way for physical human manifestations that will embody the archetype. Hathor as a midwife Goddess, a healer and sage gives way to the wise woman, the midwife, the Strega the Curandera, Witch. Without her, there is no place for these kinds of women. Without her women who embody these particular powers become frightening aberrations.

The swallow is the sacred animal of Hathor. Swallows are associated with the sun and fire. Contrary to most recent Goddess scholarship which places male energy firmly with the sun and female with the moon, the Goddesses of Egypt are mostly sun Goddesses. Osiris is the Moon God who dies and is resurrected. In the mid-east there was the tradition of the sun Goddess and her consort moon God husband/lover/son/who died and resurrected like the moon on a monthly basis. Some say the story of Jesus was yet a continuation of this. The moon God who was sacrificed ritually to ensure fertility and everlasting life.

Studying the Egyptian pantheon does not allow one to make definitive statements. There is an ambiguity, an overlapping, a changeability to their Goddesses and Gods that can be confusing but also instructional especially for us westerners with our often black and white view of the world. The Gods and Goddesses of Egypt inhabit the meaning of both/and. They exchange roles, names, they are at once animals, symbols, words and opposing energies. At different times they are different elements.

One reason for this is the long time span documented of Egyptian belief. Changes in belief are mirrored in the changing roles of Goddesses and Gods. However, this changeability is also indicative of the nondual view of life that the Egyptians held which is also revealed in their views on evil. Things were not evil as in bad or wrong, they were in opposition. They were twins, another part of the totality or whole, another side, another aspect. They embodied energies we now label evil but I do not believe the Egyptians saw it that way. These energies are what we now call the shadow, the repressed and cut off parts of ourselves, but they were not shadows in Egyptian belief. They were out in the open, and they were revered. They were powers humans had access to.

With this in mind it is important to move to the other aspect of Hathor, our womb Goddess, lest we get wrapped up in modern views of mother energy as only a nurturing force. Hathor is another manifestation of Sekhmet, her twin or dual/nondual aspect, and Sekhmet is the fierce Goddess in Egypt. She is a lion, fire, what some would call a destroyer Goddess – the destructive side of creation but also, like Kali, the one who cuts through illusion to truth – the one who will kill you and cut you down to protect that which she loves which is nothing less that all of life itself.

Like Durga, the Hindu fierce Goddess who rides a lion, she is a blood thirsty Goddess. In fact Sekhmet’s story is very similar to Durga’s in that she is invoked to clean up the earth when things are out of control and that it involves the drinking of blood. Sekhmet has been given the task of destroying humans who have forgotten about RA. Her force becomes uncontrollable once unleashed and it seems all of humanity will be destroyed. She is reined in through drinking pomegranate juice laced with beer which she, thinking it is blood, laps up eagerly becoming drunk and passing out.

And yet the Sekhmet in this story, the fierce murderous Goddess to be feared is only one facet of this powerful lion. There is so much more to this Goddess that has been overlooked, most evident in the fact that she is the dual aspect of Hathor, nurturing mother womb. Like the womb itself with its ability to carry and create life as well as its ability to bleed and destroy life, to Hathor’s sparrow is Sekhmet’s lion. The womb is awash with life giving blood.

Sekhmet’s name means “the powerful one”. She is the “dynamo of Divine Light and energy that drives the universe.”[5] She too wears the sun disc on her head. The lion’s face is reflection of the sun. Don’t get too close to either.

Intriguing to me is the fact that Sekhmet derives her name from the word sekhem. In, Dreams of Isis, Normandi Ellis tells of being in the temple of Edfu and seeing an image of a lion headed serpent, tongue thrust forward between her teeth, ‘Buddha-like’. “She is the goddess of the life-force herself-Sekhmet. She is the fire that arises up in all things the way a flame leaps to a bit of wood to consume it, or the way life essence shoots up through the ground each spring.”[6]

Sekhem is the life force, the kundalini, the numen, chi. Ellis tells us sekhem literally means ‘the powers’. Sekhem is the life force generated in and rising out of the womb space. Mother is life force, creatrix/destroyer. This is not a passive force – a subservient, patient force. This is the magic that moves through beings and enlivens them. Mother=life energy. And life energy is a blade that cuts both ways.

If Hathor is pregnancy and birth, Sekhmet is menstruation, menopause and puberty, the woman raging on hormones, the woman who needs some space, in our so called modern world, the madwoman, the shadowed and split off part.

Female lions are the hunters in that species. They know how to take care of themselves and their young. They understand protection. What is the big mystery of the sphinx? If you were the Pharaoh would you choose anyone other to be your protectress in the afterworld? This is an awesome power and it is held in the womb matrix – the archetype of the self-contained, self creating universe. This is the part of woman, womb, mother that Christianity and so many western religions left out and why women are so conflicted and split, disconnected. Sekhmet is no ‘nice girl’. She is no doormat. Her boundaries are clear. The Archetype of the Womb is a powerhouse of creativity. Sekhmet. We have a lion in our wombs. No one ever told me that but I knew it all the while. I experience her red liquid every moon.

Sekhmet is associated and depicted with the color red. She is called the ‘scarlet lady’. She is Lilith of the red sea, Inanna, the whore, Magdalene of the red hair and red dress. She is blood. We ‘see red’ when we are angry. We are angry when our boundaries are violated. Sekhmet is the protective boundary of the membrane saying ‘No!’. We see the Hathor/Sekhmet dual/nondual nature repeated over and over again in the Eve/Lilith, Virgin Mary/Mary Magdalene relationships to name only a couple.

Creation and destruction are dual aspects of this same archetypal energy. Revering and honoring destructive power is a way of being relationship with it rather than hoping that by denying it, it will go away. We must dance with the fires of creativity, we must die to be reborn, we must cut through our egoic tendencies to accomplish any real work on ourselves. In the container of the womb it is the fire, the heat, which transforms.

This dual power is the womb and it holds us all. Even in death we are yet held by the womb. Since there is no outside, all is eternally present. With the presence of Sekhmet in the archetype of the womb death is not bad, other or an unexplainable horror. Death, (not gratuitous violence, not war, not our of control rage) is essential to life. It is a gift. The dead are ever present(there is no where else to go). Within the womb container, death is the ultimate transformation. Ancient and indigenous people understand this; the ancestors are interacted with, held close for the good of the living. Death is a realm not an ending.

If our psyches held the Archetype of the Womb, all aspects of it, would there be less confusion? If we honored the archetypal power of Sekhmet would we be less inclined to rail against it? Egyptians fearful Sekhmet would go on the attack again were pious in honoring her, meaning there was the belief that destructive forces can be riled or kept in line through human actions.

When I saw the film, The DaVinci Code, I was struck how many times the theme of Mary Magdalene as the womb was iterated. I had not received that same message when I read the book and yet in the film it seemed to be one the most prominent themes. In the film the sarcophagus is a very potent image. I began to see it as the Archetype of the Womb, the way it was portrayed underground, rather buried – in hiding, hunted and disappeared. In the book, Mary Magdalene and thus her sarcophagus as a metaphor for her, is the literal womb that housed the children and future descendents of Christ. Truly, it is about so much more than that. The Da Vinci Code is about the return of the lost Holy Grail – the Archetype of the Womb. It is about rediscovering the cosmic womb of the Goddess, our place in the Universe, the arising of this archetype once again in human consciousness.

©Theresa C. Dintino

[1] Notes from a retreat, Powers of the Cosmos, Santa Sabina Center, San Rafael, CA, October 2002.

[2] Video clip, Workshop on Race and Cosmology, Sophia Institute, Holy Names College, Oakland CA, June 2005. http://www.caroline-webb.com/Video.htm

[3] D.O. Cameron, Symbols of Birth and of Death in the Neolithic Era, (London:Kenyon-Deane, 1981.)

[4] Barbara G. Walker, The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, (HarperSanFrancisco, 1983)p.180

[5] Normandi Ellis, Dreams of Isis: A Woman's Spiritual Sojourn, (Illinois: Quest Books, 1995) p.180.

[6] Ibid., p.179.

Theresa C Dintino

Theresa C. Dintino is the author of seven books including her most recent Tree Medicine Trilogy which includes, Teachings from the Trees: Spiritual Mentoring from the Standing Ones. She is an ancestral Strega (wise woman and witch in the Italian tradition) who founded the Strega Center in Sebastopol CA, and the Strega Tree Apothecary which crafts products for spiritual care, support and healing. Learn more about Theresa and her work by visiting stregatree.com or ritualgoddess.com.