Icon creation in basic assumption groups: Marianismo and King Arthur

The scope of the current paper is the psychology of attribution by devotees onto a presumed person – an icon. The historical person and the icon are only slightly connected. Religious and political beliefs and the artistic merits of icons are outside the current scope. The psychoanalytic concepts of idealisation, projection and identification will be used to describe the relationship between devotees and the presumed person onto whom they attribute.

The graphic below illustrates the hypothesis that devotees of Tonantzin/ Mary of Guadalupe enhance themselves by projective identification onto an icon. Members yield some control of the self to the group so projection and introjection become more frequent. If they are all women, the self-boundary is now ♀.  The focus of approval is the centre, the icon fantasy; she is represented here by the Chinese character好, ‘good’, which is in turn composed of 女 ‘woman’ and 子 ‘child’. The icon is idealised so “bad” characteristics are excluded.  Negative feelings – rage, guilt, sadness, revenge etc. are projected outside the group. Devotees then introject the icon and experience enhanced self-esteem, represented by individual thought bubbles. On the right of the image are Catholic devotees, while on the darker left are the now hidden Aztec devotees.

In the early Christian church the first object of veneration was Jesus and the later object was Mary, the mother of Jesus. In mediaeval times icons usually referred to visual images, particularly in Eastern Orthodox churches. There was heated debate about whether a visual image should be venerated – iconolatry, or be banned – iconoclasm – or be treated as a symbol of the venerated person. Now the term has come into general use for people who are widely admired, including pop singers, gay spokespersons and women admired by feminists.

Humans have highly developed perception of other people and we can attribute thoughts and feelings on the basis of language, paralinguistic and non-verbal cues. Without the ability to infer the mental processes of others, we would not be able to live in densely-packed urban environments. The musculature of our faces, , unlike those of most other animals, can give clues to a wide range of emotions. The face of a tiger, a sheep or a primate tell us nothing. In a chimp we might notice tooth-baring, but not recognise it as a sign of submission until an ethologist explains it. Our companion animals have evolved some ability to read faces through long cohabitation. Dogs roll on their backs and lower their heads, which we interpret as friendliness, but they can now read our eyes and can raise their brows. A horse may choose to look at us with the right eye if it finds us friendly, and with the left if we are seen as a threat, but it takes long contact with horses for a human to recognise this. The process by which we construct the thoughts of the other is always an attribution: we can misread the face or the tone of voice, and we can be deceived by lies, bluffs and flattery. The word “projection” is not quite a synonym for attribution, as it implies the process is deeply unconscious, whereas an “attribution” can be corrected by new information.

Idealisation is a psychological process that elevates the status and conceals the faults of a historic person. The four Marian dogmas of Catholicism – perpetual virginity, motherhood of god, immaculate conception and assumption into heaven, show very strong idealisation. Mary’s actual words are rather few, in the gospels of Luke and John, the magnificat, the annunciation and two other short utterances. Devotees themselves are also elevated by association with the iconic person. The devout female believer who identifies with Mary removes from herself the negative aspects of sexual intercourse and elevates motherhood to a divine level. Mary the presumed mother of Jesus is believed by Catholic and Orthodox Christians to confer blessings on the devout. This will be discussed as projective identification below.

Apart from idealisation, the other psychoanalytic construct of relevance is projective identification. This combines two Freudian defence mechanisms: projection and identification. The individual projects qualities that are unacceptable to the self onto another person, and vilifies them in the other. This splitting is a particularly bizarre concept in adult thinking, but may be illustrated by cutting of teeth. Parents are familiar with the problem of trying to soothe an infant who is cutting teeth, which is often ineffective as the child pushes the adult away. In the perspective of Melanie Klein, the infant experiences pain in the mouth as being inflicted by a tormenting witch, who must be destroyed so that the kind mother can return. We can also introject projected qualities and believe ourselves to be characterized by them appropriately and justifiably. Adults and older children reluctantly and sadly accept they are mostly good but with some negative aspects. The infant does not yet have a concept of self and other, so can split and project bad feelings in order to keep all the good feelings inside.

The lexicology of εἰκών, eikon, ‘ image’ needs consideration, as early Christian church spoke Greek. It is the opposite of iconoclasm, which meant literal breaking of visual images before its modern metaphorical sense. Both extreme positions, iconolatry and iconoclasm, were rejected in 787 by the Second Council of Nicaea, which decided that holy icons should neither be destroyed, nor be fully worshiped, but should be venerated as only symbolic representations of God, angels, or saints. Islam acquired converts from eastern Christianity and Zoroastrianism and initially adopted icons on coins and art, but came after half a century to ban all depictions of human figures. This has the effect that God can be known only through speech, dictated via Gabriel to the last prophet. God is therefore very remote and powerful and not to be conflated with any human leader, except as a male. An “iconic sign” used to indicate that the form resembles its meaning in some way. For example, “Coca-Cola” used Spencerian script and a distinctive bottle shape, widely recognised throughout the world (Eco, 1975). The word “icon” in the 21st century is applied to anyone with a high approval rating as a singer, entertainer, or TV performer, without characteristic visual images.

Denigration may use the same vocabulary by people outside the circle of devotion. “Madre de dios” and “puta tu madre” are routinely used as expletives for other drivers in Spanish and putin is a very general denigration in French. In Catholic Poland “kurwa” is an all-purpose pejorative with the same meaning. In Quebecois foutre and merde are less offensive than tabarnack ‘tabernacle’, calisse ‘chalice’ and calvaire ‘calvary’. A complaint of blasphemy is unlikely to be sustained in the UK now, though it can carry the death penalty in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. Indeed, we have forgotten that “cripes”, “jiminy cricket” and “jeez” were once minced oaths, as “sugar!” is currently. The associations “woman” – “of low worth” – “whore” – “associated with the devil” in slurs are particularly strong in countries that are, or were once, Catholic. Protestant Scandinavia uses slurs associated with a bad divine object – the devil. The Danish swearword diafla ‘devil and Swedish fān ‘devil’, have the same effect as ‘go to hell’ or ‘fuck off’. The lexicography of such pejoratives is analysed in more detail in my paper on slurs . It may be hypothesised for later study that denigration is the psychological pole of devotion.

Marianismo is the increased veneration of Mary after 1531 and defines standards for the female gender role in Hispanic American folk cultures. It is dialectically related to machismo. The feminine virtues among assimilated Hispanic women include interpersonal harmony, inner strength, self-sacrifice, family, passivity, sexual purity, self-silencing and morality. The term was first used by political scientist Evelyn Stevens in her 1973 essay “Marianismo: The Other Face of Machismo”. Machismo is “exaggerated aggressiveness in intransigence in male-to-male interpersonal relationships and arrogance and sexual aggression in male-to-female relationships.” Stevens continues: “although submissive in behaviour, the devotee feels herself semi-divine, morally superior to and spiritually stronger than men.”

Stevens drew her data from Mexican women, perhaps mainly from the middle class. She believes that marianismo is rooted in the awe and worship of female bodies, particularly in the context of pregnancy, exemplified by early cultures. Hernández-Tubert has very recently discussed the virgin of Guadalupe in the journal Group Analysis. In 1531 five Marian apparitions to a Mexican peasant named Juan Diego, a native American convert to Catholicism, and to his uncle, Juan Bernardino. The presumed image of Mary on a tilmàtli (cactus fibre cloak) is similar to the shroud of Turin. The image of Mary is dark-skinned and she is reported to have spoken in Nahuatl, the Aztec language. Cortes came from Guadalupe Extremadura whee there wis a similar cult of Mary.  While being acceptable to the Spanish empire and Catholicism, she is very similar to Tonantzin, translated as “our little mother”, a pre-Hispanic veneration title for goddesses and mothers.  She allows native American self esteem to re-emerge after Aztec cultural destruction by conquistadores. The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City is the most-visited Catholic shrine in the world.

The figure below shows a possible group analytic scenario for the creation of the “Arthur” icon by Geoffrey, Wace and Laghamon. The three named authors represent a few hundred middle aristocrats who recognised each other, despite some separations in time and place. They form a basic assumptive culture, “guarding itself” from certain of the basic fears, or conflicts, that groups bring about in their individual members. Each is in his motte, surrounded by challengers. The group dynamic is BaF -“fight-flight”. The focus of the group is the crown of England, which must be legitimated. At right are a few of the eighty or so “kings of England”, legitimated by God. The fictitious King Arthur is most like the Norman self-image – a fierce but pious cavalryman with a broadsword with magical properties only a divine appointee can master.

Geoffrey of Monmouth in his book Historia Regum Britanniae, an Anglo-Norman narrative of Britain starting with Brutus of Troy and finishing with Cadwaladr in the 7th century. Russell (2017) argues that his sources were the oral histories of the Catuvellauni and Trinovantes and the king-lists of several post-Roman dynasties.  Despite this, up to 50% of the monarchs, including King Lear and King Arthur, may be fictional. Arthur as an Anglo-Saxon hero is much the best-known. King Ambrosius Aurelianus is the first of five, gaining the victory at Gweith Vadon (‘Battle of Badon’) purportedly fought between Britons and Anglo-Saxons with the most likely date as 496 CE. This figure has some provenance in the writings of Welsh authors in Latin, the Annales Cambriae and the Historia Brittonum. Arviragus is the second, 24% of the source of Arthur according to Russell. He subjugated the Orkneys in the 1st century CE and married Ganhumara (Guinevere).  Constantine the Great, Magnus Maximus and  Cassivellaunus make up the other three fifths. This leaves only the invasions of Iceland and Norway, which seem to be Geoffrey’s own fantasy. Freud used the terms condensation and displacement to describe the formation of dream images.  At the risk of being flippant, Geoffrey’s merging of five historical persons might be described as just such a condensation.

Geoffrey’s Latin text from around 1150 then formed the basis of the Norman French text Roman de Brut by Wace around 1155, and the Old English text of Laghamon Brut some time after 1205. About half of the 16,095 lines in the latter are a greatly expanded version of King Arthur. The popularity of Arthur in the English language is then associated with Sir Thomas Malory’s le morte Darthur, despite its having been written in prison with rather bad French. The attributions by this time concerns knightly valour and honour, cavalry methods and other concerns of the Anglo-Normans.   


Bion, W.R. (1961, 1998). Experiences in Groups. Karnac Boks and Routledge paperback. 

Eco, Umberto (1975). A theory of semiotics. ISBN: 9780253202178

Geoffrey of Monmouth (about 1150) Historia regum Britanniae (The history of the kings of Britain).

Russell, Miles (2017). Arthur and the Kings of Britain: the Historical Truth Behind the Myths. Stroud: Amberley.

Vannan, Eleanor M. The Queen of Propaganda: Boudica’s Representation in Empire. The Arbutus Review – 2021 – Vol. 12, No. 1.