Marion Woodman: Psyche, Metaphor, Soma

Marion Woodman: Psyche, Metaphor, Soma


Internationally renowned Jungian analyst, mythopoetic author, and women’s movement figure Marion Woodman (1928-2018) was a pioneering analyst in the relationship between psyche and soma, crafting an embodied and feminist psycho-mythical path that sought to unify these two aspects of Self. [1] She examined the effects of patriarchal society and its repression of the feminine principle on the development of eating disorders, addiction, and our relationship to the body, and examined the psycho-spiritual dimension of woman’s oppression in a culture that “favors patriarchal values—productivity, goal orientation, intellectual excellence and spiritual perfection” (Stromsted, p.3) over values viewed as belonging to the feminine.

Marion believed these feminine values are best cultivated through a connection with nature, honoring one’s internal and emotional world, developing a positive relationship with the body through self-mothering and bodywork, and living from the heart. [2] “Conscious femininity”, as she called it, is at the heart of Marion’s work and seeks to liberate the archetypal feminine from its patriarchal confines by deepening our understanding of genuine femininity, leading to a renewed understanding of true masculinity and a balanced expression of these two principles within the individual. [3]

Work on Addiction

Marion’s life and her work were deeply interwoven. The deterioration of her physical health and consequent journey toward healing greatly informed her work. For decades Marion suffered from anorexia, a disorder that stemmed from a childhood wound inflicted by her mother’s disdain for her own feminine body and subsequent unconscious rejection of her female child. [4] In an interview with Parabola, Marion spoke of how parental expectations of perfection placed on the individual in childhood can often be the birthplace of addiction. The child gets the sense that who they are – the totality of their being – is unlovable, and that they must perform an idealized version of who they should be. They repress all that within themselves that does not fit into this ideal and begin to live for the other, to please the other, for fear that doing otherwise will lead to rejection.

This striving for ‘perfection’, according to Marion, is patriarchal. Not the masculine principle necessarily, but rather the power principle that dominates our society. Someone suffering from anorexia, for example, “has an image of what her body should be . . . she kills her femininity in order to force herself into a rigid ideal, which is delusion.” Such an individual must come to know the feminine side of their being, which is spontaneous, receptive, natural, and accepting.

The addict must not only come to terms with but surrender to this feminine principle and accept the fullness of their being, both strengths and limitations. Marion further states that the feminine and masculine principles exist in both men and women, and therefore a healthy relationship to the masculine principle, that is assertion, discernment, goal orientation, and clarity, is essential to the healthy development of the feminine.

The addict does not live in the present and therefore does not live in their body, they live perpetually in the future – thinking ‘I will quit next week’ and everything will be all right in the future – or they live in the past, but they avoid the present. Thus, the body suffers, uninhibited. Starved by this denial. In the absence of real meaning, the addict attempts to feed this starvation with the material, worshipping the material as though it were a religion. This denial of self makes life intolerable, and so they avoid it with the ritual of addiction which takes them deeper and deeper into unconsciousness.

“I think the positive side of addiction is that many addicts are profoundly religious people. They have immense energy, and they are not satisfied with the world as it is. They think it is a dreadfully cruel, ruthless place, and they want meaning in their lives.”

― Woodman, Parabola

In her work on addiction, there was always an attempt to find the metaphorical counterpart to the physical symptom, stating that addiction could be viewed as a blocked spiritual quest and misinterpretation of the soul’s longing for a material longing. [6] For example, a craving for cake might be interpreted as the soul’s longing for sweetness or love.

“I always try to grasp the metaphor at the root of an addiction. That varies. With food, it can be mother; with alcohol, spirit; with cocaine, light; with sex, union. Mother, spirit, light, union – these can be archetypal images of the soul’s search for what it needs. If we fail to understand the soul’s yearning, then we concretize and become compulsively driven toward an object that cannot satisfy the soul’s longing.”

― Woodman, Conscious Femininity, p.124

This psycho-mythical approach to the conception of addiction finds its resolution in meaning – metaphor, symbolism, imagination, dreams, and creativity – must all necessarily be integrated into the life of the addict. The symbolic meaning behind the addiction must be brought to consciousness, shadow work employed to promote a more integrated, whole perception of self, and a greater respect for the sacredness of the body fostered.

Claiming the Body

In 1968 at the age of 40, Marian recognized a need within herself for personal transformation. Struggling with both anorexia and her identity, she traveled to India, where she encountered Sophia, the feminine face of God, and experienced a brush with death that changed the course of her life. In an interview with analyst Tina Stromsted (pp. 9–10), Marion describes an out-of-body experience during a severe case of dysentery.

Laying on the tile floor of her hotel bathroom, she watched herself overhead.

“How long I was there I do not know. I came to consciousness on the ceiling, my spirit looking down at my body caked in dry vomit and excrement. I saw it lying there helpless, still, and then I saw it take in a breath. ‘Poor dummy,’ I thought. ‘Don’t you know you’re dead?’ And mentally gave it a kick. Suddenly I remembered my little Cairn terrier . . . ‘I wouldn’t treat a dog the way I’m treating my own body.’”

Marion wondered at the opportunity to free herself from her body, something she had wanted her entire life. She felt paralyzed by the immensity of this decision when she saw it take another breath.

“I was overcome with compassion for this dear creature lying on the floor faithfully waiting for me to return, faithfully taking in one breath after another, confident that I would not forsake it, more faithful to me than I to it. All my life I had hated my body. It was not beautiful enough. It was not thin enough. I had driven it, starved it, stuffed it, cursed it, and even now kicked it, and there it still was, trying to breathe, convinced that I would come back and take it with me, too dumb to die. And I knew the choice was mine . . . either to move into my body and live my life as a human being, or to move out into what I imagined would be freedom . . . A profound shift took place: an overwhelming sweetness and love came into me for this poor thing on the floor . . . so infinitely innocent and trusting, so exquisitely familiar, in that movement I chose to come down from the ceiling and move in.”

This experience of claiming her body was the beginning of Marion’s journey toward claiming her life. A testament to the alchemical process of transformation of which Jung so often spoke, by means of burning within your own fire, it took Marion burning within the depths of her addiction – her own unconscious body – to realize that she no longer desired to transcend its confines through anorexia. For descension into her body is what allowed her a nourishing connection with life. [5]

For the first time, there was a desire to take up residence within and come to know her body, to whom she felt a renewed sense of loyalty. This was the start of Marion’s conception of embodied consciousness as the insight that one gains from a deep and loving relationship to the body.

Uniting Psyche and Soma through Metaphor

In 1974 at the age of 45, a kidney ailment related to her anorexia led Marion to leave her job as an English and drama teacher where she had worked for 24 years, to travel to the C.G. Institute of Zurich, where she studied to become a Jungian analyst. While studying in Zurich, Marion took an experimental approach to healing her kidney failure. “When I arrived, there was nobody doing body work at the time. But my dream told me to take images from my dreams and put them in my body, saying, “Don’t ask any questions, because it won’t make any sense!” (Stromsted, p.13).

Following the instruction of her dream, she began an imaginal process of relaxing into an almost womb state and placing imagery from her dreams into the afflicted areas of her body, allowing the energy inherent in the archetypal image to flow through and infuse her body in healing. Marion continued this practice over the course of four years, until “a very severe kidney condition was healed” (p.13).

While Jung had touched on the relationship between psyche and soma as “two different aspects of one and the same thing” (Jung, The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche) and the importance of psychophysical work, she took on this somatic approach despite a lack of support from her Zurich community. Her analyst, outraged at the idea of bodywork, told her to focus on her dreams. “I could have a wonderful time with my dreams,” Marion told Stromsted, “but it didn’t change my body. In fact, I got higher and higher into spirit, so my body became more and more exhausted”. To her, a devaluation of the imminent body in favor of the transcendent mind only prohibited spiritual transformation, for the inseparability of the two required they be worked on together.

Mirroring her work on addiction, at the base of this dream ritual was the belief that reconnecting spirit and matter could be achieved through metaphor due to its symbolic capacity for unifying psyche and soma. Marion tells us that for her, “bodywork is soul work, and the imagination is the key to connecting both” (p.19). She believed that to fully surrender to and embody a metaphor works to bridge these two often disconnected entities.


Marion set up her practice as an analyst in Toronto and London, Ontario, following the completion of her studies. She became an international lecturer, workshop leader, and author, producing an outpour of books including Addiction to Perfection, The Pregnant Virgin, The Ravaged Bridegroom; Leaving My Father’s House; and The Maiden King (which she co-authored with Robert Bly). Marion co-developed the experimental workshop BodySoul Rhythms with colleagues Mary Hamilton and Ann Skinner. A culmination of her work on strengthening the relationship between psyche and soma through a combination of embodied consciousness, analytical psychology, and the creative arts, these international woman’s retreats incorporate a variety of practices. Such as dreamwork, active imagination, lectures on myth, creative expression through voice, movement, bodywork, mask-making, ritual, and various other practices, to promote individuation and a deeper relationship to the Self. BodySoul Rhythms led to the formation of the Marion Woodman Foundation, which upholds her remarkable legacy. [7]




[1] Menter, L. L. (2018). Transcendence from Below: The Embodied Feminine Mysticism of Marion Woodman. The International Journal of Transpersonal Studies37(2), 49-66.

[2] Marion Woodman on Jungian Analysis, Eating Disorders and the Great Work

[3] Wilbur, M. (2020). Marion Woodman: An Embodied Life. Psychological Perspectives63(1), 40-58.

[4] ibid

[5] Miranda, P. (2014). Body and soul relations: Marion Woodman and CG Jung. Bulletin]. https://static1. squarespace. com/static/593965691e5b6c8ab19019cc5950.

[6] Menter, ibid

[7] ibid

[8] Stromsted, T. (2005). Cellular resonance and the sacred feminine: Marion Woodman’s story. Spring: A Journal of Archetype & Culture, Body & Soul: Honoring Marion Woodman72, 1-30.

[9] Woodman, M. (1992). Leaving My Father’s House a Journey to Conscious Femininity.


Art: Hopi Maze or Mother Earth Symbol

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Comments (5)

  • Katherine Taylor Davis Reply

    Helpful overview! Thank you!

    June 15, 2023 at 3:55 pm
  • Laura Reply

    Interesting and thorough article, thanks for sharing.

    June 15, 2023 at 4:35 pm
  • Charles Fraser Reply

    wonderful to have read about marion, a feminist jungian. patriarchy has caused so much damages to people, places and things. Refreshing read and I will explore her teachings more. Love Jung, but, he came from the world of patriarchy and was tainted, still the best approaches in psychology….

    June 15, 2023 at 8:09 pm
  • Klara Reply

    I so love and appreciate Marion’s work. Her books are like little light bulbs of truth that bring the unconscious to the surface. Thank you for sharing.

    June 16, 2023 at 5:05 am
  • Etel Harris Reply

    Excellent article, Kiva.

    June 16, 2023 at 9:09 am

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