The Feminine Symbolism of Vessels

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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

Paper and E-book versions of The Bridge to Wholeness and Dream Theatres of the Soul are at Amazon. The Wilbur Award-winning Healing the Sacred Divide can be found at Amazon and Larson Publications.com. Jean’s new Nautilus Award-winning The Soul’s Twins, is at Amazon and Schiffer’s Red Feather Mind, Body, Spirit. Subscribe to her newsletter at www.jeanbenedictraffa.com.

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Comments

31 Responses

  1. Thank you. In the past week I created a piece of artwork with a gourd for a friend. The symbolism for me was loud, expressing my love and feeling of containment for that love that I feel, -a nurturing feeling of holding, of giving safe space to this other being, -unconditionally. This feeling lead me to enter “vessels as symbol” to google, and I saw this beautiful blog about vessels, put out today! Thanks for the validation.
    -J

    1. Hi Jordan,
      You’re very welcome. Your lovely story illustrates a very real and powerful spiritual law. When we honor what is meaningful to us in our inner lives by pursuing this meaning in the outer world, we see that meaningful coincidences like these happen all the time. Perhaps you already know that Carl Jung called this phenomenon synchronicity. I’m so thrilled to know that by honoring what was meaningful to me in this blog, something I wrote validated and affirmed you! Thank you for stopping by.
      Blessings,
      Jeanie

  2. Hi Jean. I loved this blog. I too have had synchronocity. After competing my studies in Visual Arts 25 years ago, I have returned to university to do an honours year..and I have been worked conceptually with exactly this. The representation of the vessel as a container for spirit..and the body as a vessel for the container of spirit. Reading this has created even further awareness, and has validated my thinking. Thankyou, and would like to stay in touch and hear more. Warm regards, Karen

    1. Hi Karen. I love it. Another synchronicity around the theme of vessels. I think that the phenomenon of synchronicity itself is a “feminine” way of perceiving and experiencing our lives. I don’t mean women, of course; I mean the feminine side in each of us that can see beyond the external, literal, historical and factual aspects of life that we associate with the masculine principle. The feminine is the part of us that can look within, take our inner promptings seriously, and create personal meaning for ourselves by noticing relationships between our inner and outer worlds. Your returning to school would indicate that you are moving in this direction, and as you say, this synchronicity simply affirms and validates an important step in your life. I’m so glad you’ve found my blog and I hope to hear more from you too! Best, Jeanie

  3. Oh Good morning , tears flowing~~~ just as the two artist above I too was wondering why I’m being drawn to vases. Last Sunday a fellow artist told me the whole story about the miracle of the Virgin of Guadalupe.I was deeply moved but when she said “vessel ” well it struck me deeply which led me here .My path is healing from a narcissist mother and my deep inner feelings of disconnection with humans and my own body issues . Nature is where I feel nurtured whole.Thank you Jeanie ….and Jordan and Karen too …happy creating !

    1. Hello, Debora. I’m very glad you found your way here by listening to where your energy wants to go. Just as Nature is naturally nurturing to us, so our true inner Nature, i.e. our instincts and emotions, just naturally guide us to our healing, individuality and creativity. Half the battle is over when we learn how to listen and honor what we hear our bodies saying, because this is what keeps us on the path. I wish you continuing nurturing, healing and creating. And thank you very much for your visit today. Jeanie

  4. Hi jean. I recently came across your blog while searching for meanings of vessels. I have had a connection to them for over ten years spiritually through art. My first series transformed average vessels into feminine figures who always seemed to be pregnant. The next series was a hive theme. I was very taken with it’s connection to the womb. I am presently working on actual ancient looking containers and your words on this connection was something I haven’t been able to verbalize but you express it so well. I don’t know if you will receive this for it is years later but I’m happy I stumbled across your site and will continue to follow your writings. 😊🙏

    1. Hi Carolyn,

      I received your message and am so pleased to know that my post inspired you. Thank you very much for letting me know. It was very kind of you. Love, Jeanie

  5. Dear Jeanie,

    I love reading back what I’ve written years ago, I do this often with my first poetry collection, in ways that acknowledge all my journeying through life. Sometimes I discover that I’ve come full circle, other times, I discover that I’m in a different place entirely.

    In terms of the body as vessel alone, I’m pleased today to be in a much kinder, more accepting, more compassionate place than I’ve ever been with my vessel, as my relationship to it has been slowly transforming since my monthly periods ended many years ago.

    For no longer do I listen to an Animus who insists on straight lines, no curves allowed. I find myself now embracing the round, soft, feminine beauty of my body. Truly loving the vessel I live in, while knowing my spirit existed long before I came to inhabit this body.

    Thank you so much for reminding me of all this today and deeply connecting me to my vessel. And I think that because I’m more accepting of things “above”, other things “below” seem to be falling into place. If that makes any sense. Loved your quotes too!

    Love and light, Deborah

  6. Hi Deborah, I wrote a response to this yesterday but see that it wasn’t posted yet. I’m not sure what happened, unless I put it somewhere else. Anyway, I’m on the road and can’t write now. I’ll respond later when I can. It’s an unusually busy day for me. I’m back in Florida and on my way to the funeral of one of my dearest friends. I’m in for a sad day. Thank you so much for writing. Love, Jeanie

    1. Dear Jeanie, just to let you know I received your lovely reply via email a couple of days ago. Like Susan, I’m very sorry to hear that your dearest friend has passed, this is sad news for you and all who loved them. Interestingly, I wrote a new poem “Love is the Seed” I think on the same day, Jung’s birthday in fact, which coincidentally or not, covers the themes of life, death and reincarnation. Sending love, light and Lammas blessings across the oceans between us, Deborah.

      1. Aah. That solves the mystery. I sent you an email. I’m having to use my cell phone instead of my regular large computer and sometimes I get mixed up, forgetting I’m using email instead of a text. We’re heading back to my computer today and I’ll be glad to have it. By the way, I used to talk to my friend about Jungian psychology a lot. I didn’t realize his death was on the same day as Jung’s birth. Interesting. Thank you for your condolences. Jeanie

  7. So wonderful to contemplate. I just had an interview with the Jung Society of Chicago about Marion Woodman, so I’m filled with thoughts of the feminine vessel and all the ways Marion created that experience in her workshops, from the beginning circle to dancing circles to the closing circle, and all in the name of Sophia. I would love to talk with Marion about by butterfly passion. I honor the feminine through protecting them and nurturing their transformations. I contain the milkweed munching caterpillars in mesh vessels on the back porch so they feel natural light and wind and temperature change, but are protected from hungry spiders as eggs and small caterpillars. And then they create the most astounding teardrop (upside down tower) vessel of the chrysalis for their major transformation. It’s magic every time. I’m also raising a Black Swallowtail caterpillar. It’s preparing its chrysalis now by making a hammock out of silk threads and resting in this cradle it created. Soon, very soon, the skin will split and only a chrysalis will remain. Transformative feminine containers are everywhere when we look for them and each feels sacred.

    Thank you for this beautiful post. I love the vessel image. With love and blessings, Elaine

    1. Oh how I love the way you weave your symbols into every aspect of your life! I do that too. It has brought so much meaning and I know it has done the same for you. Thank you so much for sharing your process with the butterflies and the symbolism of feminine vessels throughout their lives.

      You were so lucky to have such a close relationship with Marion. She was an extraordinary teacher. Her books were an enormous source of pleasure and resonance and inspiration for me ever since I discovered her in the early 90s.

      Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts about vessels here.

      Love, Jeanie

  8. Love this post Jean! I have created 3D paper vessels and drawings in the past with the intention for them to be vessels that embody the feminine spirit and divine. I am feeling the desire to return to creating more vessels at this time…..as I believe we need the feminine spirit and divine more than ever!

    1. Hi Jo. Thank you for writing. I love how you use symbolism in your art and I can certainly see how you are drawn to the idea of vessels. To me your boats are feminine vessels. And I share your sense that it’s very important at this time in the history of our world to draw attention to and inspire respect for the feminine: the feminine side of all of us, women, and the feminine as a sacred drive for species-preservation in the world. I can’t wait to see the next phase of your work. Love and blessings, Jeanie

  9. Dear Jeannie, I’m so sorry that one of your dearest friends died. I have no words really …. deepest condolences to you and all her knew her.

    I wrote a comment yesterday that disappeared into the ether. This time I’ll keep it short. Timing is everything is something I believe in, or know because when the time is right a post like yours appears. I loved all of your post, the quotes and the comments so thank you for this.

    I plan to fashion a vessel tomorrow at pottery prompted by your post. It may be cylindrical but I also thought of a jug with a lip for pouring, with wings on each side of the neck …

    I wrote much more yesterday – also about my relationship with my body, something that I am now taking very seriously indeed. A fall exactly 2 months ago has had serious repercussions. But now is not the time to go into this.

    With love,

    Susan

    1. Hi Susan, I’m sorry it took so long to respond to your post and I’m sorry you lost the original one. I’m also sorry to hear about your fall and its negative consequences. I guess this is the season of life when we have to be prepared for these things and learn how to move through them with as much consciousness as possible. I wish you luck in your ability to reimagine your relationship with your body in a new way. Perhaps making vessels will be helpful in that regard. I do hope so. I’m wondering if you did make a vessel after you wrote your comment and what it turned out to be. Thank you so much for your continuing affirmation of my writing. This post felt especially important. Much love, Jeanie

      1. Dear Jeanie, thank you for your response. Yes, at pottery this morning I said to my teacher that I wanted to make a vessel as a symbol of a feminine container prompted by your post. She said good, you must make two pinch pots and we’ll take it from there. I said, I’ve never made a pinch pot. She said, I make all my new students spend time on making pinch pots. I said I hadn’t ever. Well, we laughed and wondered how I missed this important step. I looked up in Taschen’s Book of Symbols the other day on vessels – in ancient times cylindrical vessels were fashioned with life and death on either side and though I didn’t tell her, this was what I was thinking of making. But the idea of a jug had the stronger hold so with her help I’ve made the two pinch pots, the first step, and they’re now together and in the fridge at pottery. Still to be fashioned is the neck and the lip and the wings. Will it be functional? This is not my purpose – I like the idea of a container pouring forth. As feminine containers do.The jug could have been more oval but I will see –

        So, that’s the story, a beginning done, the middle part still to be done, and the last part after!

        Right now, I’m in a good space. People have been so kind and I’m basking in the glow. Thank you for reminding me about ‘moving through through them with as much consciousness as possible’.

        Re Mary: something I read recently in a lovely book my daughter-in-law’s grandmother sent me said that any mother would have done anything to save her son from his tortuous death. Mary could have avoided his death by saying his was not a virgin birth but she knew that her son was the son of G.d and would be risen.

        I hope your weekend is peaceful and lovely as you remember and reflect on your dear friend’s death.

        Much Love, Susan

        1. I love the idea that ancient cylindrical vessels were made with life and death on either side. In a way, that’s what the Yin/Yang symbol is all about too: the union of opposites as a symbol of wholeness. I’d love to see a picture of your pottery vessel when it’s finished!

          I’m learning that coming to terms with the changes aging brings, facing the inevitability of death and fully grieving it, brings a renewal of sorts. It helps us be grateful for the gift of each moment instead of living in denial and dreading the inevitable future. Two days ago at my friend’s funeral mass I felt a fierce need to focus, to attend with all my senses and emotions. It felt like I was wandering in a strange territory and this ritual of transition was guiding me through. It was comforting.

          The trip was exhausting—ten hours of driving 562 miles either way with only two days in between—but it satisfied my need for closure. With the added plus that we spent the day after the funeral helping our daughter’s family pack the contents of the house they’ve lived in for the last 17 years and transport them to their wonderful new house. It’s been a week of endings, transitions, and beginnings. Not the easiest of times, but very life-affirming.

          Much love,

          Jeanie

          1. I love all these posts about vessels. I’ve been painting vessels in the form of the feminine spirit for over 10 years. and only this year the spirit of the containers themselves. Jean I used one of your comments in my statement and gave reference to you snd your book. I just love all this. I felt very isolated in my expression of this but now feel so validated reading all these posts. Thank you!!

          2. I’m so glad to know the discussions on this post have been helpful to you and validate your work. I appreciate knowing that you used a comment of mine and referenced one of my books/ I’d love to see some images of your work and your statement about it. Where might I find them? Perhaps you could share a link here so others can see your art. Or if you prefer, email me at jeanraffaauthor.com. With love and appreciation, Jeanie

            P.S. I just clicked on your highlighted name before your comment and found your page and images. Your vessel paintings are gorgeous! I urge anyone who’s interested to look you up on facebook at carolynabrams.com

  10. At the Wild Goose Festival earlier this month, Diana Butler Bass delivered a Closing Sermon entitled All the Marys. I suggest you find a copy. She talks of Mary Magdalene, (Mary the Tower as mandala is tower in Greek). As the result of recent biblical research, there are some stunning revelations about Mary Magdalene and particularly in the Gospel of John it is Mary that uttered the words, “Yes, Lord, I believe you are the Messiah, the son of God, the one who is coming into the world.” Peter the Rock, and Mary the Tower. I just thought this was so prevalent to your most recent posting.

  11. Thank you for this information, Kevin. I’ll look for that sermon. It does sound relevant. And thank you for writing. Jeanie

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