Theotokos: Paradox of the Tree of Death & Life

 Berthold Furtmeyr, Mediaval miniature by Berthold Furtmeyer: Baum des Todes und des Lebens, Tree of death and life- 1481
Berthold Furtmeyer: Baum des Todes und des Lebens, Tree of Death and Life– c. 1481. US public domain via wikimedia
There is a archetypal relation between the God, Self, and trees.

Jung calls the tree of life a “mother symbol” (CW 5, para 321). In the image above, we see Furtmeyer’s Tree of Death and Life. This image represents the paradox inherent in the tree as mother symbol. Anne Baring describes the scene of the image:

“The faces of the two women are identical, and their heads incline away from the central point of the tree in antithetical relationship: Eve, predictably naked, offering to humanity the apple of death, which she is passing on from the serpent; and Mary, predictably clothed, offering the redeeming apple of life. The position of the serpent arising from the not-to-be seen phallus of Adam is presumably less than coincidental. On Eve’s side of the tree lies the grinning skull, while Death waits for her on the right, and on Mary’s side of the tree – the Life side – the cross with the crucified Christ poised as on a branch, himself the fruit of her miraculously intact womb.”

This image is especially significant in that it is not only a “mother symbol”, but shows the profound paradox within the mother image. We here see a duality in the archetypal Mother. Here is Eve as the mother of our fallen state and here is Mary as the mother of redemption. Eve offers the fruit of death; Mary offers the fruit of redemption.

The fruit of redemption is Christ. Carl Jung understands that Christ is an image of the Self. Christ is an image of a re-birth into symbolic life, into life oriented toward Self. Jung says:

“Christ’s redemptive death on the cross was understood as a “baptism,” that is to say, as rebirth through the second mother, symbolized by the tree of death… The dual-mother motif suggests the idea of a dual birth. One of the mothers is the real, human mother, the other is the symbolical mother” (CW 5 para 494-495, emphasis added).


The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image By Anne Baring, Jules Cashford

Symbols of Transformation (CW5) by Carl G. Jung (in US Pubic Domain, first published 1912)



Jerusalem: rebirth from the mother city

Mapa Jeruzaléma, 12th Century. US Public Domain.
Mapa Jeruzaléma, 12th Century. US Public Domain.
Carl Jung tells us that “this longing for the mother is amply expressed in the literature of the Bible” (ibid). One such instance of the divine mother in the Bible is Jerusalem as sacred mother city. Heavenly Jerusalem “is the mother of us all” (Galatians 4:27).

The city, in general, is often as “a maternal symbol,… a woman who harbours the inhabitants in herself like children” (para 303). In the Biblical language of the Old Testament the “cities of Jerusalem, Babylon, etc are treated “just as if they were women” (ibid). The heavenly city Jerusalem is not only mother image, but divine mother, mother in whom we may be reborn of spirit. Jung sites Galatians 4:27:

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The mystics find in their heart the image of the sun

Saint Augustin by Philippe de Champaigne--1645-1650. US public domain via wikicommons.
Saint Augustin by Philippe de Champaigne–1645-1650. US public domain via wikicommons.
In the second section of Symbols of Transformation, Carl Jung is taking us into the life of the mystic: a path of soul and of divine heart. Jung speaks of “the teachings of the mystics,” he says:

“when they [the mystics] descend into the depths of their own being they find ‘in their heart’ the image of the sun, they find their own life-force which they call the ‘sun’ for a legitimate and, I would say, a physical reason because our source of energy and life actually is the sun. Our physiological life, regarded as an energy process, is entirely solar” (para. 176).

Continue reading “The mystics find in their heart the image of the sun”

The Gift of Love

Gentile Da Fabriano- The Annunciation- circa 1425, currently at held at the Pinacoteca Vaticana, via wikimedia US public domain.
Gentile Da Fabriano- The Annunciation- circa 1425, currently at held at the Pinacoteca Vaticana, via wikimedia US public domain.

Life energy moves through all living things. A seed sprouts, growing and becoming a tree, blossoming and bearing fruit. As long as the tree is healthy and without disease its life energy will follow a path. This is not a scientific declaration, but a poetic one: energy creates transformations in form.

In human terms, we call this energy ‘libido.’ The potential transformations of our energy are shaped by ‘libidinal’ desire: our instincts animate us, drive us. Our desire moves us to seek an object; in pure form libido moves us to seek out an other, not as object but subject.

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Divine Child: symbol of the soul’s fulfillment

German nativity scene with depiction of Trinity (God the Father and dove of Holy Spirit accompanying the Christ child and Madonna- C. 15th Century. US public domain via wikimedia.
German nativity scene with depiction of Trinity (God the Father and dove of Holy Spirit accompanying the Christ child and Madonna- C. 15th Century. US public domain via wikimedia.

We are in deep winter: days short, nights long. Father sun seems so far away, mother earth lonely. All the creatures mourn in winter. They burrow in their little holes and mourn the lost days of sun. Mother nature proffers so little in winter. The animals seem to know that. They go within and await her spring, her bosom, her blossom. All the world will rejoice when light and earth rejoin in their holy union. It is then, that life will burst forth in divine celebration. The animals frolic, make love, build their little nests, hatch their eggs– life is born of union.

But we, us human souls, are on another cycle. While our bodies may follow such creaturely cycles, seeking union in bodily form, our souls follow a different cycle entirely. In the depths of winter the divine child is born. On the darkest of days we celebrate the birth of the divine child.

What is the divine? How might we know it? Carl Jung provides a unique perspective. The divine is a divine couple: mother and father of souls.  In Symbols of Transformation, Jung speaks to the soul, leading us on a path of soul. This is not your normal everyday path. God is not some distant icon, some idealized figure in the sky. This is a phenomenological path: the soul comes into form insofar as it lives and knows. This is Gnosis. And what are we to know? Many things, but first we shall start with our divine parents.

The first parent we shall meet is God the father: God is “love.” God is there for us, loving us, guiding us from the beginning. But Jung warns us that we need to be careful of any overdetermined images this idea might provoke:

“The language of religion defines God as “love,” there is always the great danger of confusing the love which works in man with the workings of God” (para. 98)

To know God we must move beyond God as image. We must know God, see God, feel God. It is through this act of knowing that the soul is born. For the “God-concept is not only an image, but an elemental force”… a “primitive power”…(para. 89). God’s love is a “creative force” (para 198). God’s creative force is love, bringing forth the soul through love. Jung says:

“the procreative urge– which is how love must be regarded from the natural standpoint– remains the essential attribute of the God (para.87).

And it is on the darkest nights of winter that God’s creative urges wells up to give birth to his child: the divine child. Christ is God’s child. But God is not alone. God is always with the mother, through she may be hidden or transparent.  Jung says:

“The God-image is a complex of ideas of an archetypal nature, it must necessarily be regarded as representing a certain sum of energy (libido) which appears in projection. In most of the existing religions it seems that the formative factor which creates the attributes of divinity is the father-imago, while in the older religions it was the mother imago… In certain pagan conceptions of divinity the maternal element is strongly emphasized.” (para. 89)

At times culture favors the father, at times the mother. But nevertheless, they together are the two ‘formative factors’ of psychic life. Jung says:

“How am I to be creative? Nature knows only one answer to that: Through a child (the gift of love).” (para 76)

The child is born, ‘the gift of love.’ Nature births us into world. The divine couple births the soul into the eternal. In the Christian myth, the divine child is born from the virgin womb of the mother Mary. In 431 the Council of Ephesus said that Mary is Theotokos: “God-bearer”, “Birth-Giver of God”, “the one who gives birth to God.” God and the mother are the two ‘formative factors’ within psychic life.

The divine couple births us into divine world. These are psychic facts. Jung says: “God dwells in the heart, in the unconscious” (para. 89). In the footnote Jung adds: “The psychic fact “God” is a typical autonomism, a collective archetype.”  The two Greek words, “auto-nomos”, speak to a God which lives by his/her own rule. God is within the unconscious, and yet autonomous, living by his own rule within our hearts.

Here, within our hearts, God procreates with the Mother, the divine vessel, giving birth to a possibility: call it the divine child, the potential of the soul. This divine birth within is no easy task. There is something within us that wants to kill it off, a murderous instinct within psychic life.  The revelation of the divine child is so disastrous, so threatening to the old guard, that it must be killed. According to the Gospel of Matthew 2:16–18, Herod ordered the execution of all babies in Bethlehem, desiring to assure the death of the divine child.

[Herod] “gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old or under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.”

The divine child must outlive the murderous instincts of the superego. Our soul must survive the murderous rage of the envious tyrant who seems to rule the inner world. The murderous superego does not believe in the potential of our own soul. He does not trust in the good, in the enduring.  He cannot see the soul’s potential: the child of the divine mother and father. It is our spiritual labor to protect the child. To be like Joseph, listening to the angels, protecting the child.

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt,where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” (Matthew 2:13–15)

Joseph sees the angel of the Lord, and the angel says that he must flee Egypt, symbol of tyranny. We must leave behind the tyranny of Herod ruled by fear, finding a place for the soul’s birth, and protecting the soul so that it may grow.


  1. Psychology and Religion (Collected Works of C.G. Jung Vol. 12)
  2. Symbols of Transformation (Collected Works of C.G. Jung Vol. 5)