views updated May 29 2018


CHILD . The child is a universal symbol of future potentiality as well as the carrier of the heritage of the past. The child is symbolic of the past, coming into being from generative forces that preceded it, yet for it the future is an open possibility. In Essays on a Science of Mythology (1949), Károly Kerényi states that the image of the primordial child represents the childhood of the world itself, even the origin of life. There is a mystery about the child, for what it will be as an adult is not yet and cannot be known. The child represents innocence, purity, wonder, receptivity, freshness, noncalculation, the absence of narrow ambition and purpose. As yet innocent of life, the child portrays the beginning, the origin of all. It symbolizes a primordial unity, before differentiation has taken place. Gender differences are mainly in potentiality; consciousness has not been separated out from the unconscious; choice has yet to become a burden and a responsibility.

In the alchemical tradition of medieval Europe, a child wearing a crown or regal garments was a symbol of the philosopher's stone, that is, of a wholeness realizing the mystical union of the inner spirit with the eternal spirit. Something of this feeling may sustain the devotion to the Infant Jesus of Prague, whose statue, preserved since 1628 in the Church of Our Lady of Victory in Prague, portrays the infant Jesus as Christ the King, with his left hand encircling a miniature globe surmounted by a cross and his right hand bestowing a blessing.

Because the child requires care and nurture, it represents the needs and demands of utter dependency. The child's closeness to nature is indicated in numerous stories telling of a special child being cared for by animals. Children are further associated with the Great Mother, and thus with maternal elements such as water; in legend, then, one finds children brought by fishers such as the stork, or by water dwellers such as the frog, or born from Mother Earth under a bush or in a cave. Children are often used to personify the seasons: Spring, amid leaves and flowers; Summer, holding ears of corn; Autumn, with fruit; Winter, wrapped in a cloak. Growth and development are implicit, for childhood is a temporary state. The child represents incredible power, vitality, and persistence toward growth; one grows up physically, whether one wishes to or not. Furthermore, there is rejoicing at growth, no matter how charming a child may be. There is grief at the death of a child but not at the loss of a child to adulthood.

Children and old people have something in common and usually get along well with one another; both must accept dependency. The child also symbolizes that stage of life in which the old person, transformed, acquires a new simplicity. Together, they represent the continuity and flow of life. The child symbolizes a higher transformation of individuality, the self transmuted and reborn into perfection. Thus, not surprisingly, the motif of the child is found in religions and mythologies from earliest times and all around the world. In Christianity, for example, the baby in the crèche and the adult on the cross are the two poles between which the liturgical year moves, each in different ways pointing to the tasks of human life for spiritual development.

The Child in Mythology

The symbolism of the child implies a connection with the mythology of the hero. The potential of the child is indicated in many myths depicting heroic nature as predestined rather than simply achieved. Almost invariably, the hero is described as endowed with extraordinary powers from the moment of birth, if not of conception.

In The Myth of the Birth of the Hero (1959), Otto Rank identifies many of the principal motifs associated with the divine child. Typically, the child has parents of royal or noble lineage. In many stories the father is a god and the mother a human, or some other miraculous quality characterizes the birth. Since extraordinary difficulties attend the birth of a hero, the child is endangered. Often the father is the source of danger, or a ruler who has been warned that the child will kill or supplant him. The infant is abandoned, exposed, or sent away. In every myth of sanctified childhood, the world assumes the care of the child. However rejected, the child is rescued by a providential act of nature or by rural people close to nature. Upon maturity the child discovers his or her true identity and sets up a new order, rectifying previous wrongs.

Not all hero myths have birth stories, but most of them do, and the same motifs are found throughout the world, as Joseph Campbell demonstrates in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1968). In a story from the Hindu epic Mahābhārata, the hero, Kara, is born of a virgin and the sun god, Sūrya. According to one account, the bodhisattva who later became Gautama Buddha entered his mother's womb from the right side, and at the end of ten months left the right side of his mother again in full consciousness. The North American Algonquin tell a story of the miraculous birth of Michabo, who, in one form of the myth, is said to be the grandson of the Moon and the son of the West Wind and a maiden who had been miraculously fecundated by the passing breeze. His mother died in giving birth, but he did not need the fostering care of a parent, for he was born "mighty of limb and with all the knowledge that it is possible to attain." The mother of the Aztec hero Quetzalcoatl also died at his birth, but the newborn at once possessed speech, reason, and wisdom.

A rather common incident in the stories of American Indian heroes is their immediate growth from early childhood to manhood, as in the case of Young Rabbit of the Sioux, Bloodclot Boy of the Blackfeet, and the Divine Twins of the Pueblo Indians. In Roman mythology, Romulus and Remus were born of a king's daughter and the war god, Mars. In Greek mythology, King Acrisius of Argos, having been warned by an oracle against male descendents, locked his daughter in an iron chamber; but Zeus penetrated the roof in the guise of a golden rain, and Danaë became the mother of Perseus. In Christian tradition, Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The extraordinary difficulties at the hero's birth take a variety of forms. Sometimes the father is the child's enemy, as was Kronos, who devoured his children to prevent his predicted demise by a child of his; or the father may be merely absent, as Zeus was when Dionysos was being torn to pieces by the Titans. Jesus was threatened by the edict of Herod, who, having heard of the birth of a king, ordered all male children under two years of age put to death. The infant Moses, being in similar danger from the Egyptian pharaoh, was placed in a basket to float down the Nile. In the Hindu story, Kara was likewise placed in a basket on a river, while in an Old Norse saga, Siegfried was put in a glass vessel to float down a stream to the sea. Romulus and Remus, when condemned by the king, were set afloat in a tub on the river Tiber. The delivery of the hero from danger is frequently effected by the waters of a river or sea. In Oceanic mythology, the hero Māui was cast into the sea by his mother, because he was so small and scrawny that she thought he was dead. The father of Oedipus ordered him exposed to die, because an oracle had advised him that he would be killed by his own son.

Typically, the rejected child is rescued either by animals or by simple, rural folk. In a Greek story about a hero of the Medes, Cyrus, the baby, upon being ordered exposed by his royal grandfather, was raised by a herder who did not carry out the order but substituted his own still-born child. In another Greek story, Paris, the son of Priam of Troy, was ordered exposed by his father and was left on a mountaintop; a she-bear nursed the child for five days, and when he was found still alive, the servant who had left him there took him home to raise him himself. Ka, an incarnation of the Hindu god Viu, grew up among cowherders and is famed for his sport with the gopī s, or cowherdesses. A child that is abandoned to nature, then saved and brought up by her, no longer shares the common experience of humankind, for as Mircea Eliade points out in Patterns of Comparative Religion (1958), the abandoned child has reenacted the cosmological instant of beginning and grows up not in the midst of a family but in the midst of the elements. He is dedicated to a destiny that no ordinary person could attain.

These stories commonly present the exile or the despised one as handicapped, or make the hero an abused son or daughter, orphan or stepchild. The child of destiny has to face a long period of obscurity. This is a time of extreme danger, with many obstacles. The myths agree that an extraordinary capacity is required to face and survive such experience: heroic infancies abound in anecdotes of precocious strength, cleverness, and wisdom.

In time, the hero, now a youth, returns to his proper home, often to overthrow his father and set himself in his place, as did Oedipus and Perseus. Jesus said that he did not come to abolish the Law but rather to fulfill it; however, his followers understood his teaching to be a new covenant as the basis of relationship with God. Gautama Buddha, rejecting the scriptures and the caste system of traditional Hinduism, offered a new way, the Eightfold Path, for dealing with the problems of life.

Psychological Interpretation

Many students of mythology, such as Károly Kerényi and Joseph Campbell, have made use of C. G. Jung's concept of archetypes to interpret the worldwide occurrence of motifs like that of the child. In Jung's view, an archetype is a pattern through which human nature has repeatedly expressed itself, employing different imagery in different cultures but reflecting in each case a recognizable form common to all humankind. In his essay "The Psychology of the Child Archetype" (1949), Jung suggests that one function of the child motif in the adult psyche is to compensate or correct, in a meaningful manner, the one-sidedness and extravagances of the conscious mind, by revealing the possibility for future development.

The symbolism of the child has no one meaning but on the other hand it is not unlimited. Most personality theories assume that the psyche, like the body, has a built-in mechanism for healing itself. Just as the body produces antibodies to ward off attack from foreign invaders, so the psyche produces images that are suggestive or corrective for its health. The motif of the child, when occurring in the unconscious of an individual (as in a dream, an obsession, or a fascination) or in the mythologies and fables of a culture, may suggest a future potential development for the individual or the culture.

The child symbolizes movement toward maturity. Being itself the product of the union of two opposites, male and female, it is a symbol of wholeness. In the mythologies of the divine child, there is a union of the divine and human; spirit and body have become one, which is the essence of the human experience. The miraculous element in the stories indicates that a special manifestation of the immanent divine principle has become incarnate in the world. The child is a symbol, then, of the wholeness toward which life moves. The mythologies of the child hero or divine child illustrate the problems encountered in psychological growth and development toward wholeness. As a "miraculous" conception the future potential is a given element, yet it is also precarious: the child as future possibility is abandoned daily. Many difficulties and obstacles have to be overcome in any movement of the psyche toward wholeness.

The motif of the child may also occur as a corrective to a conscious attitude that has become too rigid, too fixed, or stagnated. The child suggests something evolving toward independence, which necessitates detachment from its origins. In this sense, abandonment, though painful, is necessary for the future potential.

The child has a naive view of life, is typically interested in learning more about life, and has a lot of energy for that task. It represents one of the strongest urges in every being, namely, the urge to realize itself. There is an invincibility and uncomplicated vitality about the child that the stories describe in various ways. The obscurity in which the child is typically raised points to the psychological state of nonrecognition, the naive condition of the beginning, before consciousness has become differentiated from the unconscious. As such, the child symbolizes the goal of human development, when there has been a reintegration of consciousness with the unconscious or nature. The wisdom of old age is a state in which the opposites and tensions of life and growth have become reconciled and are more or less at peace. "You must become as little children," Jesus taught. Maturity can be seen as the unclouded joy of the child at play who takes it for granted that he or she is at one, not only with playmates, but with all of life.

The symbol of the child is a source of energy for a new development. In "Reveries toward Childhood" in his Poetics of Reverie (1969), Gaston Bachelard says, "The great archetype of life beginning brings to every beginning the psychic energy which Jung has recognized in every archetype, for the archetypes are reserves of enthusiasm which help us believe in the world, love the world, create the world" (p. 124).

See Also

Jesus; Ka; Heroes.


The Hungarian classicist Károly Kerényi has published extensively on mythology; his essay "The Primordial Child in Primordial Times," in Kerényi and C. G. Jung's Essays on a Science of Mythology (1949; rev. ed., New York, 1963), has explored the theme of the divine child, drawing primarily on Greek, Roman, Finnish, Russian, and Indian mythologies. Daniel G. Brinton's collection of hero myths of American Indians, American Hero Myths (Philadelphia, 1882), demonstrates the presence of similar motifs among the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere. Joseph Campbell's classic work The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Princeton, 1968) describes the basic pattern of myths of the hero. Otto Rank's The Myth of the Birth of the Hero (New York, 1959) outlines the basic motifs of its subject and offers a psychoanalytic interpretation. Joseph Campbell's The Mythic Image (Princeton, 1974) reexamines the motifs Rank identified and offers some illustrations and interpretation in a section on "Infant Exile." C. G. Jung's essay "The Psychology of the Child Archetype" can be found in Essays on a Science of Mythology (cited above) and in volume 9 of The Collected Works of C. G. Jung (New York, 1959); it provides a psychological interpretation of this worldwide motif. Mircea Eliade's Patterns in Comparative Religion (New York, 1958) has in section 87, "Man's Descent from the Earth," a brief discussion of the meaning of the motif of the abandoned child. A philosophical reverie on the meaning of childhood can be found in Gaston Bachelard's "Reveries toward Childhood," in Poetics of Reverie (New York, 1969). The fourth issue of the journal Parabola: Myth and the Quest for Meaning (August 1979) is devoted to the meaning of the child and childhood.

Wallace B. Clift (1987)


views updated May 18 2018

child / chīld/ • n. (pl. chil·dren / ˈchildrən/ ) a young human being below the age of full physical development or below the legal age of majority. ∎  a son or daughter of any age. ∎  an immature or irresponsible person. ∎  a person who has little or no experience in a particular area. ∎  (children) the descendants of a family or people. ∎  (child of) a person or thing influenced by a specified environment: a child of the sixties. PHRASES: child's play a task that is easily accomplished.from a child since childhood.with child formal pregnant.DERIVATIVES: child·less adj.child·less·ness n.


views updated Jun 27 2018

child a child on a boar is the emblem of St Cyricus.
the child is the father of the man asserting the unity of character from childhood to adult life. The saying comes originally from a line in Wordsworth's ‘My heart leaps up when I behold’ (1807), ‘the Child is father of the Man’, but a similar idea is found in Milton's Paradise Regained (1671), ‘The childhood shows the man.’
Monday's child is fair of face first line of a traditional rhyme associating the day on which someone is born with particular qualities, recorded from the mid 19th century. Individual lines are often used separately, and the complete verse runs: ‘Monday's child is fair of face, Tuesday's child is full of grace, Wednesday's child is full of woe, Thursday's child has far to go, Friday's child is loving and giving, Saturday's child works hard for his living, And the child that is born of the Sabbath day, Is bonny, and blithe, and good and gay.’

See also children.


views updated Jun 08 2018

child A word peculiar to English. OE. ċild :- *kilþam, rel. to Goth. kilþei womb, inkilþō pregnant; OSw. kulder, kolder (Sw. kull), ODa. kol(l). Da. kuld, young of a litter, child, have been compared. The nom. pl. of OE. ċild appears as ċild and ċildru (ME. childre, mod. dial. childer); the addition of the weak pl. ending -(e)n produced the surviving standard pl. children (XII).


views updated May 29 2018

child Any node in a tree, except the root. Every child thus has a parent.