The Feminine Symbolism of Vessels


Our relationships with nature and matter are closely connected to our relationships with our bodies. In certain orthodox religious circles, love for God as remote masculine spirit has gone hand in hand with physical self-loathing. For example, Moses Maimonides, the greatest Jewish medieval philosopher, was merely stating a commonly held belief when he said that “all philosophers are agreed that the inferior world, of earthly corruption and degeneration, is ruled by the natural virtues and influences of the more refined celestial spheres.” Likewise, St. Augustine considered his body to be the major source of his spiritual problems and sufferings.

This attitude is an obstacle to the fullest development of our spirituality. In Care of the Soul, Thomas Moore writes:

“Spiritual life does not truly advance by being separated either from the soul or from its intimacy with life. God, as well as man, is fulfilled when God humbles himself to take on human flesh. The theological doctrine of incarnation suggests that God validates human imperfection as having mysterious…value. Our depressions, jealousies, narcissism, and failures are not at odds with the spiritual life. Indeed, they are essential to it….The ultimate marriage of spirit and soul, animus and anima, is the wedding of heaven and earth…”

Vessels are classic symbols of feminine matter. Of the many vessels symbolizing feminine containment, one that is particularly dear to Christians is the chalice or grail, the highest level of spiritual development and heavenly and earthly happiness. The female body is a vessel which receives sperm and produces eggs. A womb is a vessel within a vessel, the cradle of life that receives, holds, nurtures, and protects a growing embryo. A breast is a vessel which creates and dispenses milk. A skull is a vessel containing the brain, itself a vessel teeming with creative potential. In Christianity, Mary is a vessel for new spiritual life.

Another vessel-like symbol is the tower. A tower’s elevated position links it to heaven; its impenetrability to virginity; its vertical aspect to the human figure; its roundness to the womb; its containment to creative new life. Hence, towers that are closed and windowless were once emblematic of the Virgin Mary. In early Christian times a tower was often used to suggest the sacred walled city, another feminine symbol. The Herder Symbol Dictionary notes that a tower with a light is a lighthouse, which has long been a symbol “of the eternal goal toward which the ship of life [is] steered across the waves of this existence.” Its light suggests Sophia, the divine spark of life within us.

For Jung, too, the tower was a feminine symbol with sacred meaning. In his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, he describes the stone tower he built at Bollingen, a small town on the upper shores of Lake Zurich, and writes that it “represented for me the maternal hearth.” He wrote,

“From the beginning I felt the Tower as in some way a place of maturation — a maternal womb or a maternal figure in which I could become what I was, what I am and will be. It gave me a feeling as if I were being reborn in stone.”

Vessels accept, contain, protect and preserve the birth/death/rebirth cycle of life at both the physical and metaphysical levels. Our planet Earth is a living vessel whose life cycles mirror the soul-making processes of psychological and spiritual transformation. The matter (L. mater) of which our bodies are composed is our mother, teacher, partner and guide on the spiritual journey. For that, it deserves our everlasting gratitude. How do you honor and thank your mother/body for nurturing the life of your soul?

Photo Credit:  “Chalice” by Barbara Sorensen

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0 Responses

  1. Dear Jeanie, this is a wonderful, insightful article which explores the ‘body beautiful’ (as I see it!) with deep symbolic meaning. I enjoyed Thomas Moore’s quote …. “The ultimate marriage of spirit and soul, animus and anima, is the wedding of heaven and earth…” So true as our feminine bodies, which embrace the possibility and promise of creation, life, and rebirth, await inspired impregnation by our very own animus. Thank you so much for feeding up my skinny feminine side more divine, and sacred food.
    How do you honour and thank your mother/body for nurturing the life of your soul? That’s a truly great question! Well just now I’m slipping on my walking boots and I’m off for a long (few miles hopefully) shoreline saunter while the tide is still ultra-low and I can access the sands. Walking for me is a deep meditation, where I reconnect with deep joy to body and nature. The noise of the tumultuous sea crashing onto nearby rocks and the gulls squawking is exhilarating!
    The whole experience echoes the tension of the opposites within, as sprit and matter collide too on inner levels. I often slip off my boots then, even in deep winter, to once more reunite with those living waters and feel their glory, and power radiate throughout my whole being. That’s it, I’m off … now where’s my thick, warm winter’s coat and my Animus Diet notebook?! I hope the day finds you well. Blessings always, Deborah.

    1. Hi Deborah,
      I love how you’re continuing to work with your anima and animus in terms of nurturing your body and soul, seeing their influence in everything that comes your way, i.e. this post as “feeling up my skinny feminine side more divine, and sacred food.” I can’t wait to hear the outcome of your animus diet.
      A walk by the tumultuous sea, being in the presence of these magnificent primal forces of nature: what an exhilarating and inspiring meditation experience! I also love walking in the forest on a cool fall day with the sounds of chirping birds, cawing crows, leaves rustling in the breeze and crackling underfoot. It does the same thing for me….although in a slightly different way. The forest nurtures trust, relationship, gratitude and serenity; the ocean’s crashing surf nurtures awe and wonder. Matter and spirit: again the interaction between opposites.
      I hope you had a soul-filling walk. Jeanie

      1. Ha-ha! ‘Feeling’ or ‘feeding’ I don’t mind which way your wonderful wisdom comes Jeanie, just as long as it does! Yes, wonderful soul-filling walk, very cold here today … maybe snow on its way over tonight. Until I started the A-diet I had no idea how funny the animus could be, and I’m dreaming about him like crazy! I absolutely love the forests too, especially when dressed in their splendid autumn colours. Oh! I could kiss the earth a thousand times over!

  2. Thank you Jeanie for the reminder of the life-giving symbols that are all about us at any one moment. If I look outside from my desk and see the green leaves of the tree gently waving in the breeze, supported by the branches which are supported by its trunk and mirrored in the earth by its roots then I’m reminded of the vessel that the earth is … and womb-like in its being. I also appreciate your quote by Thomas Moore – all of it, the pettinesses and grievances, are all part of life … facing them and working through them is all part of this mysterious thing we call life …

    1. Yes, and thank you for the reminder that our Mother Earth supports all that is, including everything in us. A difficult lesson to grasp sometimes, but obvious when we simply stop and look. And look how we respond to Her with our mindless devastation and pollution….. There’s a psychological lesson in this for us too. Jeanie

  3. Thank you for the information about the tower being a symbol of the Divine Feminine in Jungian psychology

  4. Thank you for the info regarding the tower being a symbol of the divine feminine. Never thought of it as a vessel of the feminine and a connection of the heavens and earth. This is great info!

  5. It’s wonderful to think of towers as feminine vessels after years of thinking of them primarily as phallic structures constructed by conquerers. Quite different to built a tower to connect earth to heaven in this feminine way.
    I love your examples of vessel. When I’m able to quiet this agitated mind, I feel the vessel of the Egyptian Goddess Nut, the arch of heaven with her feet on the eastern horizon where she births us and her hands and mouth on the western horizon where she consumes us and all living things so we can travel through her body to be renewed. What a vessel! My earth-heaven pillar is the tallest pine tree in my forest which I see above the canopy from my house. Wherever I am, I imagine that tree rooting me to the earth and connecting me to higher realms.
    As I sit with my dozing brother who is more robust than I imagined he would be, I feel the power of the vessel of body to hold us in life before it lets go. And the vessel of family, too.

    1. I love this connection too. Yes, for me, this tower—this spark of light and life in us, this Sophia, this Holy Spirit, this Mary—is a mediatrix between heaven and earth, spirit and matter, a visible sign that All That Is is sacred and holy. Nut is an exquisite image too. How is it that religions have always known this, yet the vast majority of their earthly authorities have always fought it?
      I love your tallest pine tree. Another sacred image, for sure.
      Blessings and love to you and your brother from this vessel of a friend. Jeanie

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