The Dark Mother

If you’ve been watching this season of American Horror Story, there are times when Fiona is an exceptionally hard character to like.

However, there’s a scene, don’t worry I’m not going to spoil it, last week’s episode that drove home for me the way that the dark mother is present in both folklore and popular culture. It’s a theme that’s been running through my life for the last few weeks as well, and with the coming of winter it’s time to address it.

A friend of mine recently pointed out that we love to talk about the mother, with her compassion, loving, and gentleness but not her counterpart-the dark mother and the crone.

Women don’t seem to like the crone. In the image of the aged woman, they see their future and they fear it. They see the loss of vitality, beauty, and growth. While it’s true that women phase out of one arena-the creation of children and mothering-the crone is rewarded with grace, wisdom, and a deeper sense of self. There is also a fair amount of power in a croning-though it is admittedly a power that stems from being a step closer to death.

In mythology, the crone is sometimes psychopomp and thus fulfills a role that is absolutely pivotal to the life cycle. The pyschopomp, the guide of the souls into the underworld, is the bridge between two realities-that which we already know and the one that is unknowable. The crone sits at the bridge between the two worlds. Hecate, who is a triple goddess-that is maiden, or untried woman, mother/warrior/healer, and the crone, is the only deity who is capable of facing down Hades and mentoring Persephone during winter. It is her wisdom and grace that allows Persephone to move into her role of queen and also comfort her mother Demeter.

The crone as the witch is sometimes underestimated as well. Baba Yaga is one of those crones and dark mothers who can’t be fit into a perfect role. It is easy and perhaps desirable to make her into a terrifying creature, what with her habit of decorating with skulls and eating both heroes and children, but it is from her house that the cycle of the days (the colored riders) come forth and heroes, if they are both respectful and courageous, gain great wisdom. She is full of features that are deplorable, and yet is her that gives Vasilisa fire and teaches her the value of community and aid.

The crone and the dark mother are both associated with destruction, but mythology is often careful to remind us that creation and destruction are linked in a cycle, not independent entities. Winter, for all of its death and darkness is what prepares the ground for the rebirth of spring. Many plants need the winter to mature seeds so they can be planted in the spring.  Cailleach Bheur, or Beira, is both the spirit of winter and the mother of all the gods and goddesses in Scotland. She is paired with Brighde, who watches over the spring and summer. It is her dual nature, the destroyer as winter and mother of gods that marks the dual nature of the dark mother and crone.

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