A perfect example of the Cancer archetype on film is mother! – a mind-bending Gnostic creation myth stuffed with Biblical metaphors and Kabbalistic symbolism. It’s a home invasion story told from the perspective of Mother Earth and was inspired by the children’s book The Giving Tree. The film was marketed as a horror movie but only to prepare audiences for the onslaught of the harrowing final act. It plays as a fever dream or nightmare and isn’t easy to watch, but Darren Aronofsky, the director, says it’s a wake-up call to humanity. You’re supposed to feel uncomfortable watching mother!
Before we dive into the film, here’s the inevitable SPOILER WARNING! If you haven’t seen it (and you’d like to), don’t read on until you have. This film isn’t the usual Hollywood crap that can’t be spoiled because there’s not enough meat on the bone to feed a mildly peckish mouse. mother! is a proper film with layers of symbolism that can be interpreted in multiple ways. It triggers questions but doesn’t provide answers.
The story is about a poet struggling with writer’s block and being an arse about it while his wife renovates their house after a fire. Unexpected visitors bring disruption and violence that ultimately lead to the death of the couple’s son and the destruction of their house.
The basic interpretation is that it’s about the struggles of creativity and the vanity of the artist, as well as the monstrous capacity of the fragile male ego for abusive co-dependant relationships. But that’s the least interesting take on the film.
The clue there’s more to it than that comes from the fact that none of the characters are named, so they stand for archetypes. Jennifer Lawrence is ‘mother’ and Javier Bardem is ‘Him’, while the visitors are simply ‘man’ and ‘woman’. The poet is the only character whose name has a capital letter and that tells us he represents God.
So the next level of interpretation is that it’s a Biblical creation story. The original title of the movie was ‘Day Six’, a reference to Genesis and the day that God created mankind. Let’s unpack it:
The film begins with a woman burning. The poet (God) places a diamond crystal on a stand in the ruins of a house, which then regenerates and his wife (mother) appears in the bed. He struggles to write while she works on the house to create a paradise.
A man turns up who appears to be ill and has a wound in his side – he’s missing a rib, so this is Adam. Later his wife shows up too – presumably Eve, although she’s more like Lilith (Adam’s first wife) or perhaps a combination of the two. The visitors are rude and ungrateful and refuse to follow simple requests, like naughty children. They enter the poet’s room, despite being told they’re not allowed, and break the crystal.
The visitor’s children burst into the house – two brothers who are fighting over their father’s will. The youngest kills the eldest, so they’re Cain and Abel. The house fills with people for Abel’s wake and mother struggles to maintain order. The guests misbehave and laugh in her face when she tells them to stop. They break the sink and burst the pipes and cause a flood, so mother kicks them out of the house.
Inspired by the drama, the poet writes a new poem and mother becomes pregnant. The poem is a huge success and the house fills with the poet’s fans who want to be close to Him. The people become increasingly divided and destructive, taking what’s not theirs under the pretext that the poet told them to share. In the chaos, mother gives birth to a son – a sort of Jesus.
Against mother’s wishes, the poet gives his son to the people and in the chaos, the baby is killed. The people eat the baby (a sort of Eucharist) and mother goes ballistic with rage and grief. But the people turn against her and brutally beat her. The poet asks her to forgive them but she thinks he’s insane (she’s not wrong) and she burns down the house.
The poet survives the blaze but mother is charred beyond recognition. He takes her heart and removes the crystal from its centre and puts it back in its little stand. The house regenerates and another woman appears, slightly different this time…
The metaphors for the creation of religion and false idols are obvious and there are lots of details and things happening in the background. The publisher of the poem is credited as the herald – God’s messenger. We see the rise of priests and different factions within the cult, who then fight each other. The fans are anointed with ink by the priest, indicating that the religion is worshipping the words themselves and has lost touch with the meaning or reality behind them.
We never hear what the poem actually says and some people have speculated that it represents the New Testament, or perhaps the Lord’s Prayer or the Jewish Covenant. But if you pay attention, the film reveals the content:
As mother reads the poem, we see the ruins of the house and the poet’s burnt hand reaching out for someone. She appears and takes his hand – she’s not burnt – and life returns, spreading into the surrounding area and turning everything green. So the poem is about how mother regenerated the house and brought life back to the world.
This raises some interesting questions about the nature of God – or at least, God as represented in this film. Superficially it appears to be Him who creates the house and the world, but he does it using the crystal taken from mother. He has no power to create on his own – he needs her. She contains the source of life and the source of his creative spirit.
This means that the God of mother! is more like the Gnostic demiurge – the false god who doesn’t know he’s not the true god. The Gnostic text On the Origin of the World describes how Pistis Sophia accidentally created the chaos of matter and a child called Yaldabaoth:
“And when Pistis Sophia desired to cause the thing that had no spirit to be formed into a likeness and to rule over matter and over all her forces, there appeared for the first time a ruler, out of the waters, lion-like in appearance, androgynous, having great authority within him, and ignorant of whence he had come into being. Now when Pistis Sophia saw him moving about in the depth of the water, she said to him, “Child, pass through to here,” whose equivalent is ‘yalda baoth’.”
Yaldabaoth has no knowledge of Pistis Sophia and thinks he’s alone, so he makes a world for himself to rule over. As a blind god he can only create a fallen world, but hidden within it is the essence of Sophia.
The God of mother! is also a blind god – he’s a creator but has writer’s block, which suggests he doesn’t know what he’s doing. The dream logic of the film provides a lot of off-kilter moments that make it feel like God is making the story up as he goes. His motives are never clear – sometimes it looks like he’s lying, such as when he denies he knew Adam had a wife, but he might just be ignorant and creating blind.
He’s more like a whiny, petulant child than a God – a self-involved narcissist. The drama unfolding in the house feeds his creativity and the adulation of his fans feeds his ego. He shares his son with the people, not for their sake, but for his own – so they’ll love him more. As the house is destroyed, he doesn’t appear to care. He only cares about his poetry and his reputation. In the end, mother says to him:
“You never loved me. You just loved how much I loved you.”
He doesn’t appear to be capable of love and explains that he can only create because nothing is ever good enough. He creates because he has to, to fill the void he feels inside himself, searching for something he doesn’t understand. He’s locked into this cycle and has no idea who he is, or who she is. It really is a nightmare.
mother breaks the cycle by destroying the house using the lighter she confiscated from Adam earlier in the film…
The lighter represents the fire of the gods and Adam has been misusing it – smoking cigarettes that are slowly killing him. If you look closely, you can see a symbol on the lighter that looks like the sign for Pisces, but it’s the wrong way up. It’s similar to the Wendehorn rune, which combines the symbols for life and death (according to the Nazis), which might mean something. It can also be drawn like Tvimadur, one of the calendar runes.
However, considering the fact it’s on a lighter, it makes more sense to see it as a Vajra symbol. Vajra means thunderbolt and diamond, and it was a weapon used by the god Indra to kill sinners. The symbol is also found in Buddhism and Hinduism as a ritual object associated with indestructibility and enlightenment. Cosmic thunderbolts are also found in Greek and Mesopotamian mythology, and were often wielded by Zeus.
So who is mother? The first word that mother speaks when she wakes up is, “Baby?” This is a clue that she’s the mother of this child-God, but it’s not that simple because she seems unaware of what’s going on too.
The mother character is a mix of various feminine archetypes. She represents Mother Earth in her ability to bring life back to the world and in her bond with the house itself. As the mother of the doomed baby, she’s a sort of Mary, and she could also be seen as God’s wife, Asherah, the fertility goddess. Another possibility is the Shekinah, or divine feminine, in Kabbalah.
Shekinah means ‘indwelling’ and it’s through Her that everything comes into existence. She is the Presence or Soul of God – God manifest rather than just in potential – and She forms the essence of everything that exists. As it says in Wisdom 7:27:
“Although she is but one, she can do all things, and while remaining in herself, she renews all things.”
In the film, the essence of Shekinah is held in the crystal through which God brings everything back to life. The mother character is a manifestation of the Shekinah but in a fallen state because the whole of the creation is imperfect. The Demiurge creates but it’s only a copy of eternity – an imitation of the true creation.
In Kabbalah, the world is created in a series of emanations that become progressively denser as they fall away from the original divine consciousness. The vessels that are created to hold the divine essence shatter and this leads to a rupture in the fabric of reality – the opposites split apart and evil is introduced into the world. The role of humanity is to restore the balance and reunite the opposites to attain wholeness.
In the film, the Breaking of the Vessels is represented by Eve breaking the crystal – equivalent to eating the forbidden fruit. After this act of vandalism everything starts to unravel. But the house itself (and everyone in it) could also be seen as a broken vessel in need of redemption.
mother can’t leave the house because she is the house, which represents the earth. She has a strong emotional connection to it and sees a beating heart within its walls. After Cain kills Abel, a hole appears in the floor that bleeds, like a wound. The house is alive and reflects her moods – the heart in the walls becomes increasingly blackened as the house is destroyed.
It makes no difference to the poet if his world is destroyed – he can just start again. He’s apart from it, watching the drama from his room at the top of the house. But she’s part of the creation so when it’s destroyed, she’s destroyed too. She feels every cut, every blow, and she still cares, still pours out her love – until the humans go too far…
I’m being quite hard on God in assuming he doesn’t care about his creation, but there could be something else going on. The poet creates out of lack, but mother creates out of love. He needs her love but can’t seem to access it directly – they’re too far apart, separated by the split between the opposites. They need to be reunited and this seems to be her focus in the film – she just wants to be with him and is annoyed when he invites the pesky humans into their paradise.
But he needs the humans, and not just for entertainment value. He’s looking for something through them, but they reflect their creator’s imperfections. If God is creating out of lack then his creations will suffer with the same problem. That’s why his fans steal from the house and take what isn’t theirs. This is a flawed creation, so mother is flawed too. She can’t forgive the humans for killing her son and destroying her world, even when he pleads with her:
“We can’t let him die for nothing. Maybe what happened could change everything. Everyone.”
Perhaps this is why he keeps re-creating the world out of the ashes, hoping that next time things will change. In his blindness, he’s trying to redeem this fallen world.
As a living system, the earth is constantly seeking equilibrium. If the system gets thrown out of balance, the earth acts to bring it back into harmony again. But this harmony isn’t static – it’s a dynamic equilibrium. Change is built-in to it and this includes chaos. But too much chaos will tip the whole thing into anarchy and death. Too much stasis also leads to death through stagnation.
In the film, the poet and mother represent the two sides of this equation. She’s focused on maintaining order and harmony, while he wants to stir things up with a bit of drama. You need both to make life work, but there was already trouble in paradise before the humans arrived.
The poet had writer’s block – he couldn’t hold up his side of the equation. He couldn’t create. He needs the humans as a mirror so he can reflect on himself and know himself. But the mirror is cracked.
Miguel Conner says that Gnosticism is the story of how God went crazy and became us. But it also shows how we can reverse that process by attaining gnosis. So the desire for gnosis – or knowledge – might be what’s driving the nightmare cycle of destruction and rebirth.
God has fallen into madness and now he’s trying to heal himself. He’s trying to wake himself up from the nightmare, and mother sacrifices herself to serve that quest for self-knowledge.
To bring this down to earth and make it personal look at it like this: the house is the earth, but it also represents the human mind. The house was designed using octagons to mimic the human brain using the old idea of phrenology. The octagon was seen as the most harmonious shape and the number eight is linked to ideas of completion, perfection and infinity.
The house has a labyrinthine structure on many levels with no dead ends. The rooms spiral round and the action follows mother as she walks round and round, up and down the stairs – with God at the top and hell in the basement. This also represents the human mind with its different levels of consciousness.
The poet and mother could then represent internal archetypes of the human psyche, like the anima and animus. Better still, the poet could stand for the ego, while mother stands for the soul. Then the whole film could be a kind of psychotic break where the house/mind is invaded by neurosis and emotional complexes and then destroyed by madness.
The soul wants to be set free – mother asks him to let her go and he refuses – but the ego can’t break the cycle. The ego is crazy and believes it’s in charge and creating its own reality, but it isn’t.
The nightmare will continue as long as we continue to sleep. It’s our madness that’s destroying the earth. Our mother really needs us to wake up.