I’m currently working my way through this book, and feel that some of the women here would appreciate its content, so I’m going to make a short post after each chapter to summarize and collect my thoughts. As a Jungian text, it deals quite heavily with the subconscious, mythology, archetypes and symbols. It may feel a little hocus-pocus for some of the more analytical minds in here (like me), but encouraging and acknowledging the more intuitive, feminine-brained parts of ourselves can be very helpful - and seems to be the point of this book!
If you’d like to read along with me, you can download a copy for free here.
Mary Esther Harding was born in 1788 in Shropshire, England. She trained as a medical doctor and worked for some years in a London hospital before moving to Switzerland to study psychoanalysis under Carl Jung. By the 1930s she was a well regarded Jungian intellectual in New York City, and published her first book on the topic - Woman's Mysteries. Ancient and modern: A psychological interpretation of the feminine principle as portrayed in myth, story, and dreams.
Chapter one - Myth and the Modern Mind
This first chapter opens with a discussion of scientific advancement, and what this means for humanity in general. She speaks about the shift humanity has made in recent years from a more holistic worldview, where the physical and the spiritual worlds are inextricable and equally respected, to the purely rational or objective.
She is concerned about the psychological and spiritual effects of this shift on all mankind, but singles women out as being particularly vulnerable to it as the feminine, subjective approach to the world is the one being neglected and diminished.
She then speaks about the difficulty in explaining and understanding the feminine mind, as it is by its very nature intangible and emotive, but that this doesn’t mean it should be ignored. She says that the best way to understand such a subjective world is through mythology and symbols, and points to the moon as an example of a feminine symbol that it extraordinarily widespread across time and culture.
I’ve pulled my favorite paragraphs from this chapter to summarize below, I’d love to hear your thoughts on them!
Some discussion questions if you feel like sharing:
Do you agree with her assertion of there being two separate and worldviews that are both complementary and conflicting? Do you feel both of these in yourself? Is one much stronger than the other?
Do you feel that with societies endless advancement in the rational (masculine) realm that the subconscious, intuitive (feminine) worldview is being lost?
Do you feel that her concerns of a one-sided psyche have been alleviated since the time of writing, or have they intensified?
When do you feel most in touch with the feminine part of yourself? Do you actively seek this out? Do you feel that this part of yourself is respected and encouraged by society/the people around you?
The scientist pays attention to the inner psychical realm only that he might be sure to exclude it from his observations.
There is hardly to be found a human being who is not at some time profoundly affected by the sight of the full moon rising over the sea.. there is more in such an experience than just the objective material fact, there is also a subjective experience which in a man’s life is perhaps more important and more powerful than the scientific knowledge of the nature of moonlight. So that to say that the scene which so deeply moves him is nothing but salt water and light reflected from a cold dark body moving round the earth, fails to take account of one part of the facts.
Today, however, we are increasingly dissatisfied with this mechanistic aspect of life… Whatever the reason, there is no doubt about the large part unhappiness and neurosis, dependent on unsatisfactory human relationships, plays in the dissatisfaction with life from which so many people suffer. The life of today is empty and sterile and we look for renewal, whether we want to or not, to that source of spiritual awakening which lies within. For our science has proved itself strangely impotent in face of a threatened break-down in our culture.
Each one has a nature which seeks for love and relationship and also there is embedded in everyone the necessity to strive for impersonal truth. These opposing tendencies are expressions of the duality of human nature which is both objective and subjective. In all human beings such an opposition is at work and leads inevitably to conflict.
In the Western world of today this conflict is most severe, and bears hardest upon women, because Western civilization lays especial emphasis on the value of the outer and this fits in more nearly with man’s nature than with woman’s. The feminine spirit is more subjective, more concerned with feelings and relationships than with the laws and principles of the outer world. And so it happens that the conflict between outer and inner is usually more devastating for women than for men.
There is another reason why this problem is a particularly urgent one for women today. This is related to the recent development of the masculine side of woman’s nature which has been so marked a feature of recent years. This masculine development is definitely related to her life in the world of affairs, in the majority of cases it is even sought as a prerequisite for earning a living in the world, practicing a profession, or following a trade. The change of character, which has accompanied this evolution, does not stop at the professional part of a woman’s life but affects her whole personality.
These changes have produced for woman an unavoidable inner conflict between the urge to express herself through work, as a man does, and the inner necessity to live in accordance with her own ancient feminine nature.
In the physical realm he knows that he overcomes nature only by obeying her laws, but in his own person he has, in not a few cases, become so entranced by his power to stand against nature that he has forgotten her laws.
In the Western world this is so in regard to the essence or principle of masculine and feminine. Not infrequently we hear it affirmed that there is no essential difference between men and women, except the biological one. Many women have accepted this standpoint and have themselves done much to foster it. They have been content to be men in petticoats and so have lost touch with the feminine principle within themselves.
This is perhaps the main cause of the unhappiness and emotional instability of today. For if woman is out of touch with the feminine principle, which dictates the laws of relatedness, she cannot take the lead in what is after all the feminine realm, that of human relationships.
But important though it is, the feminine principle or essence cannot be understood through an intellectual or academic study. For the inner essence of the feminine principle will not yield itself to such an attack, the real meaning of femininity always evades the direct interrogator. This is one reason why women are so mysterious to men — to the man, that is, who persists in trying to understand a woman intellectually.
In seeking to understand the nature of these hidden reactions we must renounce our superior intellectual attitude which considers them only errors, mistakes, dross, and attempt to understand them in their own terms.
When intellectual acumen fails us in this way we have to turn to unconscious products for enlightenment and see whether a study of symbols and instinctive ways of acting may not throw some light on the obscurity.
The moon, first as an influence of fertility and later as a deity, has been considered throughout the ages to be in a peculiar relation to women. It is source and origin of their power to bear children, the goddess who keeps watch over them and all matters that primarily concern them. These beliefs are very wide-spread. They are to be found almost all the world over and persisting from remote times up to the present.