The Three Mothers & SUSPIRIA: Dario, De Quincey & the Dark Goddess; Part 2

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By H.B.G.

In Part 2, We continue to think way too much about Suspiria, witchcraft and The Three Mothers

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Jessica Harper, Alida Valli and Joan Bennett in SUSPIRIA, 1977

In Part 1 of this article we mentioned how the sensitive and melancholy Romantic Era essayist Thomas De Quincey channeled the concept of The Three Mothers (used later by Dario Argento in his Three Mothers Trilogy) through his own opium expanded brain in his work Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow, where he named them as Mater Lachrymarum, Mater Suspiriorum and Mater Tenebrarum. We also introduced The Three Mothers and hinted at their associations with a deeper layer of mythic origins. Patience please as we prepare to dive deep into the Inferno and take a deeper look at The Devil in the Details…

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Dario Argento plagued by Demons? Or, ‘Orestes Pursued by the 3 Furies,’ by William-Adolphe Bouguereau. The Furies/Erinyes share many attributes with Hekate (triplicity, the underworld, torches and serpents). Much of The Three Mothers may be seen in their relentless pursuit to torment their victims.

The Trine

The Three Mothers in Suspiria (1977), Inferno (1980), and Mother of Tears (2007) are a dark feminine trinity akin to female triads known throughout world mythology, literature and religion who are directly referenced in Suspiria’s sequels: The Fates (the Moirai, The Parcae), The Muses, The Graces, The Graeae, The Morrígan, The Sirens, The Norns, The Erinyes/Furies, The Harpies  and The Gorgons. Also there are The Three Witches from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, 3 Fairy Godmothers in folktales,  The Three Marys at the Empty Tomb  in Christian tradition, as well as the Tridevi in Hinduism.

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The Three Mothers, each sister bares her right breast. East France, late Roman period.

Interestingly, in direct relation to Suspiria and the Frieburg region of Germany, there was a female trinity worshipped in Germanic  and Celtic regions of pre-Christian Roman Europe commonly referred to as  The Matres or Matronae.  (The Mothers or The Matrons). Data on the widespread cult of The Three Mothers, or Matres, is limited as their cult was viciously suppressed by the incursion of Christianity; but they often appear together in surviving votive shrines, occasionally each one bearing her right breast as in the shrine pictured above. But that’s a small detail which hardly relates to Dario Argento’s Three Mothers Trilogy, ….right?

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The Mother of Tears, aka La Terze Madre (The Third Mother in Argento’s native Italian). Right breast bared.

Uncanny coincidence, innit?

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From the very start of SUSPIRIA we are situated in the fairy tale world of  The Black Forest. Note the poster at left as Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) steps from the airport terminal.

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Shrine to The Three Mothers,                     2nd century, Germany

 

The Black Forest near Freiburg Germany seems an appropriate location for the story in Suspiria. It is often associated with the Brothers Grimm fairy tales and is not far from known sanctuary sites to the Three Matres or Matronae. 

“Matronae altars include an abundance of floral and faunal symbols, such as trees, branches and flowers, birds perched in branches, cornucopias, goats, snakes wound around tree trunks, and scenes of sacrifice. All these suggest strong fertility and chthonic connections.”

– ‘The Cult of The Matronae In the Roman Rhineland’ by Alex G. Garman

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In case you missed it, we are reminded we are in The Black Forest as Suzy leaves the airport and enters the dark stormy night which begins her harrowing journey. Note poster at right, placing us firmly in the fairy tale realm of the supernatural.

“The altars show the Matronae holding fruit, bread, money, and in one case spinning material.” The abundance and wealth symbolism is obvious. The spinning material perhaps links them directly to the power of The Three Fates: Clotho spun the “thread” of human fate, Lachesis dispensed it, and Atropos cut the thread, thus determining the moment of death for each individual. 

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“If the Fates allow…” The Three Fates by Paul Thumann. In center is Clotho (as Maiden) spinning the thread of life, at right is Lachesis (as Mother) who dispenses it, at left is grim Atropos (as Crone) with her shears ready to snip the thread of life.

Triplicity is a common motif in myth and magic…

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The Norns in Norse mythology are female beings who rule the destiny of gods and men. They are usually depicted as stationed at the roots of The World Tree or Axis Mundi. (Artist uncertain. Please enlighten us.)

De Quincey traversed oceans of deepest darkness in his explication of Levana and our Ladies of Sorrow.

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The funereal Three Marys appear at the empty sepulcher in Christian tradition. Group of sculptures by the sculptor Juan Jose Quiros, Elche, Province of Alicante, Spain. Compare with the image below.

Interesting to note how the birth of Christ was attended by 3 Wise Men, whereas his death/resurrection (re-birth?) was attended by 3 women, or funereal midwives. We are reminded of the European fairy tales, like Sleeping Beauty, (in which a spinning wheel figures) and legends  like King Arthur, where births and deaths are attended by 3 fairy godmothers or three women of power.

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Detail from Altar to the Matronae Aufaniae dedicated by Q. Vettius Severus, 164 CE. Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn, Germany.

An unconscious memory seems to have taken hold upon the European mind from the earliest days of human spiritual culture which is echoed throughout art and literature.

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Peter von Cornelius – The Three Marys at the Tomb. Bearing jars of unguents for mortuary duties. Women in the ancient world often oversaw the preparation of the corpse as well as tending to sickness and childbirth, linking them with the powers of The Fates.

The ‘INFERNO’ of HECATE

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“Hekate” by Maximilian Pirner (1901).  A singular work depicting the three-formed goddess soaring and twisting round through the night sky of the waning moon. In her multiple hands are key, torch, dagger, and what may be serpents or cords for binding.

One goddess we can easily associate (though not completely identify) with Suspiria‘s terrifying Three Mothers is Hecate, (or Hekate), of the Greeks and Romans, famous for her associations with witchcraft, the moon, magic, crossroads, doorways and thresholds,  necromancy, childbirth, ghosts and unclean lunar rites of sacrifice and expiation, having magical, protective or apotropaic qualities. In the post-Christian writings of the Chaldean Oracles (2nd–3rd century CE) she was regarded with (some) rulership over the three worlds of earth, sea and sky – or heaven, earth and underworld – as well as a more universal role as Saviour (Soteira), Mother of Angels and the Cosmic World Soul. She was also lauded as Kourotrophos (nurse of children), Chthonia (of the earth/underworld), and as Phosphoros,  and Lampadephoros (bringing or bearing light). Black animals, dogs in particular, were her preferred sacrificial animal.

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Midnight sacrifice at the crossroads. Suspiria, 1977

Often referred to as Queen of the Witches or Queen of Hell (the Underworld), Hecate is an ancient goddess portrayed in classical literature as haunting crossroads and cemeteries, where she presided over uncanny midnight rites, with her dreadful nocturnal approach heralded by howling dogs. She was attended by a train of torch bearing nymphs from the underworld (the Lampades) who were said to cause madness, along with the ghosts of those unquiet dead who met their ends by suicide, murder or other sudden tragedy, or those who died without receiving the proper funeral rites.

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Ghoulish, phosphorescent, unquiet dead – a victim of black magic (note the pins stuck in the eyes and the “pinning” of the wrists (in sacrilegious imitation of Christ) of Sarah (Stefania Cassini) the victim – definitely a member of Hecate’s tribe. Suspiria, 1977.

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“Her head, turreted like that of Cybèle,” as De Quincey describes Mater Tenebrarum.                 An ancient statue of torch-bearing Hecate who also often appears with turreted head – linking her as The World Tree or Axis Mundi. This one adorned with lunar crescent. 3rd century A.D. on display in the Antalya Museum, Turkey.

Hekate’s common significant identifying attributes, other than her triplicity, are torches, keys, daggers, serpents, and cords/rope or scourges/whips. As “Holder of the Keys,” (Kleidotrophos) we see a definite connection to the Three Mothers as imagined by De Quincey as he describes Mater Lachrymarum and Mater Suspiriorum as keybearers (see Part 1 of this article). Her turreted crown, “like that of the goddess Cybele,” as De Quincey describes Mater Tenebrarum, symbolizes her jurisdiction – (Mother goddess as hypostasis of the World Tree or Axis Mundi) – over the heavens, earth and underworld, thus giving her triple power over the crossroads of the three worlds. She is also strongly identified or equated with the lunar goddess Artemis / Diana, as Diana Lucifera, She Who Brings Light. She is a popular goddess amongst modern Witches, Wiccans and Pagans.

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The goddess Hecate wielding daggers, scourges and torches and flanked by serpents.               From an engraved Roman gem

In Inferno (1980) the second film in Dario Argento’s Three Mothers Trilogy, the film opens with lingering shots of some common symbols of Hecate, the Greek and Roman goddess of witchcraft.

We see a dagger, 3 keys attached to an ornamental coral snake (venomous – “Red touch yellow, kill a fellow.”), as well as a book of arcane knowledge.

 

The character Rose Elliot (acted by Irene Miracle – what a magical name!) in Inferno has a natural inclination towards the occult as her taste in literature and jewelry indicate (notice her Eye of Wisdom necklace). Just before Rose dives into the submerged underground ballroom, she uses a lighter to illuminate her way through the darkened cellar; the torch is a common attribute wielded by night wandering Hecate.

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Rose Eliot (Irene Miracle) descends into the unconscious fear of the dark… only to be submerged in terror in Dario Argento’s Inferno.

This is the spirit venturing into the darkness of the Underworld. Indeed, it is her serpent ornamented keychain which drops into the aqueous subterranean realm of Mater Tenebrarum, the deep subconscious world of nightmares, thereby “unlocking” the way towards her fateful encounter with the supernatural. Her passage (initiation) into the Mysteries is a submersion into the womb-realm of the Dark Mother (Mater Tenebrarum) herself!

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She attains the keys to occult wisdom by diving deep into the darkness. Serpent keychain – Serpent = Wisdom. The keys are to her own apartment within the House of Mater Tenebrarum, a true Temple of Darkness.

But perhaps her fate was already sealed from the moment she used the blade (symbol of Hecate) to unseal the first pages of the book The Three Mothers by Varelli; her curiosity unlocking forbidden secrets better left unknown. A type of premature C-Section made by a fledgling Handmaid of Darkness to birth herself – her own self-initiation – to the sacrificial mysteries of a sudden, terrifying death, thereby joining her spirit to the hordes of Hecate.

 

 

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Hecate Triformis with scourge, key, cords, and torch, articles such as any professional midwife or witch may carry.

As a liminal goddess of crossroads and threshold guardian between the realm of the living and the dead, the mysterious accouterments of Hekate could serve purposes both mystical and practical. Symbolic tools of powers required, perhaps, for lighting the way along midnight excursions into restricted chambers of difficult childbirth, illness in extremis, death, or other health crises, such as wise women, herbalists or poisoners, midwives, abortionists or morticians (any of which may be labeled “witches”) may have required.

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Hecate Triformis (another view of the statue above?) bearing torches, rope and dagger.

In the ancient world, the maternal and infant mortality rate, and other complications surrounding childbirth, was astronomical compared with our relatively safe and routine procedures today. Childhood death, amongst other pitiable or sorrowful themes, is a discernible motif in De Quincey’s somber writings.

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Ad for the final installment of Dario Argento’s Three Mothers Trilogy.

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“The Moon – Goddess of Mystery” ~ by Emily Balivet

Join us next month for the third and final part of this article where we will complete our analysis of The Three Mothers in Argento’s Trilogy.

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The Three Graces are the light side of the Trine. Goddesses associated with Charm, Beauty and Creativity; or Faith, Hope and Charity.

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The Three Mothers & SUSPIRIA: Dario, De Quincey and the Dark Goddess; Part 1

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By: H.B.G.

thremothers‘Suspiria’ (1977) is a singular horror movie that has become a classic of modern cinema. It is impossible to overstate the impact this remarkable film – and the unique stylings it’s director Dario Argento – has had upon artists and writers since it’s release 40 years ago. The mysterious name of the film itself serves as a kind of  wicked enchantment guaranteed to conjure sighs of awe and twinkles in the eyes of horror film buffs. In this special three part article we will stare long and deep into the dark, searching for The Devil in the Details in the art and mythos of Suspiria and attempt to reveal the weird links between horror film fantasy and genuine occult doctrine. In Part 1 we will introduce The Three Mothers and their origins for those yet unfamiliar, and deepen our understanding of them. Part 2 will connect these femmes fatale to the Triple Goddess of Witchcraft and her necromantic symbols and connections in Suspiria and it’s sequels Inferno and Mother of Tears. Part 3 will round it all out with The Three Mother’s taste for tears, misery and sacrifice.

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A symbolically bloody passage leads us over the threshold, towards the inner mysteries of       The Three Mothers.

The vitality of the cult art-house status which this extremely original film has achieved is emphasized by the fact that a remake, directed by Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino and featuring Dakota Johnson and Tilda Swinton, is due to be released in the not-so-distant future. Hollywood has been grinding out plenty of horror remakes in recent decades and not all have met with much success. Whether or not the Suspiria remix does any justice to  the original film or source material, we can see the Suspiria trilogy (with Inferno (1980) and Mother of Tears (2007)) being elevated to the mythic dimensions of Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy in our collective movie-going unconscious.

But Suspiria is unique in the horror canon; instead of treading the well-beaten path of vampires, mad scientists or undead pharaohs, the storytelling of Suspiria  constellates about (we hesitate to say ‘narrative focuses on’ – because of it’s surrealistic, dream-like nature): witchcraft and black magic, brutal and prolonged ritual murders perpetrated by dark, unseen forces, and the darker side of the feminine principles of motherhood and sisterhood. On film, this heady brew of elements conjures a hallucinogenic kaleidoscope of ingénues in mysterious buildings overseen by shadowy femme fatales, cryptic warnings whispered about witches, a forbidden book by an alchemist, animals that go berserk, and unhinged violence complimented by the inevitably mounting supernatural mayhem.

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“Names which begin with the letter S… are the names of snakes!” Suspiria!

Suspiria‘s origins arise like an intoxicating vapor from the Chinese puzzle-box-like literary works of Romantic Era, British essayist Thomas De Quincey. His best known work: Confessions of an English Opium Eater, inaugurated the tradition of addiction literature in the West when it first appeared in 1822. Later he composed Suspiria de Profundis translated as “Sighs from the Depths,” which was first published in fragmentary form in 1845, from which the title for the film Suspiria derives. The work is a collection of short essays in psychological fantasy — what De Quincey himself called “impassioned prose,” (now termed prose poetry). The essays of the Suspiria “are among the finest examples of De Quincey’s or anyone else’s English style.”

“Some critics consider De Quincey’s Suspiria de Profundis the supreme prose fantasy of English literature.”

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“Secret flowers?”                                                                                  Shouldn’t they be opium poppies?

De Quincey conceived of the collection as a sequel to his masterwork, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. Like that work, the pieces in Suspiria de Profundis are rooted in the visionary experiences of the author’s opium addiction. The Suspiria of De Quincey, when taken all together, are a touchingly poignant and beautifully melancholic  excursion into the experiential depths of the sorrows and afflictions of the human heart. He was an extremely sensitive man who suffered deeply from the trials of life, including the premature childhood death of a beloved older sister, and his own son, as may be read in his work. A listing of the titles of the pieces in De Quincey’s Suspiria de Profundis will give some indication as to it’s themes (feel free to skip down to The Three Mothers):

  • Dreaming — the introduction to the whole.
  • The Palimpsest of the Human Brain — a meditation upon the deeper layers of human consciousness and memory.
  • Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow — beginning with a discussion of Levana, the ancient Roman goddess of childbirth, De Quincey imagines three companions for her: Mater Lachrymarum, Our Lady of Tears; Mater Suspiriorum, Our Lady of Sighs; and Mater Tenebrarum, Our Lady of Darkness.
  • The Apparition of the Brocken — on an optical illusion associated with a German mountaintop where dark pagan rites were once practiced.
  • Savannah-la-Mar — a threnody on a sunken city, inspired by the 1692 earthquake that sank Port Royal in Jamaica; beginning, “God smote Savannah-la-Mar….”
  • Vision of Life — “The horror of life mixed…with the heavenly sweetness of life….”
  • Memorial Suspiria — looking forwards and backwards on life’s miseries; foreshadowing and anticipation.
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Hekate Triformis, Three-formed Hecate, (with dog and mare heads), offers us an opium seed pod to help illuminate our darkness.

When the collection was reprinted in the collected works in the 1850s, another short essay was added: The Daughter of Lebanon, a parable of grief and transcendence.

The four pieces that first appeared posthumously in 1891 are:

  • Solitude of Childhood — “Fever and delirium,” “sick desire,” and the Erl-King’s daughter.
  • The Dark Interpreter — he was a looming shadow in the author’s opium reveries. (Reminds us of Dexter Morgan’s “Dark Passenger” from the cable drama series Dexter).
  • The Princess that lost a Single Seed of a Pomegranate — echoes upon echoes from an Arabian Nights tale.
  • Who is this Woman that beckoneth and warneth me from the Place where she is, and in whose Eyes is Woeful remembrance? I guess who she is — “memorials of a love that has departed, has been — the record of a sorrow that is….”
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The Ladies of the Academy                                                                                                               Suspiria, 1977

The Three Mothers

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Of all of the pieces in the Suspiria, Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow is arguably the most widely anthologized, the best known, and the most admired. “The whole of this vision is clothed in a prose so stately, intense, and musical that it has been regarded by some.. “as the supreme achievement of De Quincey’s genius, the most original thing he ever wrote.” Before the word “archetype” even existed, De Quincey successfully expressed “the mighty abstractions that incarnate themselves in all individual sufferings of man’s heart; …to have these abstractions presented as impersonations, that is, as clothed with human attributes of life, and with functions pointing to flesh.”

It is also at the the black heart of Dario Argento’s cinematic horror masterpiece, as it is here in De Quincey’s Suspiria that we discover the origins of The Three Mothers as fateful companions to the Roman Goddess Levana, thought to oversee childbirth as well as the raising and tutelage of children. By the education of Levana is meant – “not the poor machinery that moves by spelling books and grammars, but that mighty system of central forces hidden in the deep bosom of human life, which by passion, by strife, by temptation, by the energies of resistance, works for ever upon children – resting not day or night,…” Each of these dark goddesses is assigned a specific office; under their dreadful auspices they oversee human misery and sorrow through the powers of sighs, tears and darkness. It will become apparent that Argento took artistic liberties with certain characteristics De Quincey had assigned to each of The Three Mothers as they appear in the films.

The Three Mothers are named and described by De Quincey as:

Mater Lachrymarum – Mother of Tears: Because she is the first-born of her house, and has the widest empire, she is Honored with the title Madonna. “She it is that night and day raves and moans, calling for vanished faces.” And, “She it was that stood in Bethlehem on the night when Herod’s sword swept its nurseries of Innocents, and the little feet were stiffened forever…” And, “Her eyes are sweet and subtle, wild and sleepy by turns; oftentimes rising to the clouds; oftentimes challenging the heavens. She wears a diadem round her head.” And, …“she could go abroad upon the winds, when she heard the sobbing of litanies or the thundering of (funereal) organs…”.

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Ania Pieroni appears as Mater Lachrymarum in Inferno, 1980.                                   The oldest sister according to De Quincey.

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Our Lady of Sorrows

“She moves with uncertain steps, fast or slow, but still with tragic grace.” Oftentimes she is stormy and frantic; raging against highest heaven and demanding back her darlings. She carries keys “which open every cottage and every palace.” “By the power of her keys it is that Our Lady of Tears glides a ghostly intruder into the chambers of sleepless men, sleepless women, sleepless children” around the world.

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Moran Atias as Mater Lachrymarum.                                                                      The Mother of Tears, 2007.

Mater Suspiriorum – Mother of Sighs: “She never scales the clouds, nor walks upon the winds.” With drooping head on which sits a dilapidated turban, this humble Lady of the Hopeless “never clamors, never defies.” “And her eyes, if they were ever seen, would be neither sweet nor subtle; …they would be filled with perishing dreams, and with wrecks of forgotten delirium. But she  raises not her eyes.” her head droops forever… fastened on the dust. “She weeps not. She groans not. But she sighs inaudibly at intervals.” And, “Hers is the meekness that belongs to the hopeless. Murmur she may, but it is in her sleep.  Whisper she may, but it is to herself in the twilight. Mutter she does at times, but it is in solitary places that are desolate as she is desolate, in ruined cities, and when the sun has gone down to his rest. This sister is the visitor of the Pariah…”

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With drooping head, Veronica Lazar as Mater Tenebrarum in Inferno, 1980; appears rather Mater Suspiriorum-ish.

“She also carries a key; but she needs it little. For her kingdom is chiefly amongst the tents of Shem, and the houseless vagrant of every clime.” She sits amongst the pariahs: with the baffled penitent criminal whose name and condition has been forgotten as he languishes in prison, with every slave bound to a caste system, with the disgraced, the betrayed and all outcasts of society, and with the lonely hearts whose fire of younger years has burned away until it is now a solitary candle that gutters on an unseen ledge.

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Veronica Lazar as Mater Tenebrarum in Inferno, 1980.

and Mater Tenebrarum – Mother of Darkness: Is the youngest, cruelest and most frightening of the three. We are cautioned to whisper whilst we talk of her! “Her kingdom is not large, or else no flesh should live; but within that kingdom all power is hers. “Her head, turreted like that of Cybèle, rises almost beyond the reach of sight. She droops not; and her eyes rising so high might be hidden by distance. But, being what they are, they cannot be hidden; through the treble veil of crape which she wears, the fierce light of a blazing misery, that rests not for matins or for vespers, for noon of day or noon of night, for ebbing or for flowing tide, may be read from the very ground. She is the defier of God. She also is the mother of lunacies, and the suggestress of suicides. Deep lie the roots of her power; but narrow is the nation that she rules. For she can approach only those in whom a profound nature has been upheaved by central convulsions; in whom the heart trembles and the brain rocks under conspiracies of tempest from without and tempest from within.” And, “…this youngest sister moves with incalculable motions, bounding, and with tiger’s leaps. She carries no key; for… she storms all doors at which she is permitted to enter at all.”

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Helena Markos, aka Mater Suspiriorum, is destroyed by Suzy (Jessica Harper) in 1977’s Suspiria.

 Occult Horror Geek Purport:

The idea in De Quincey’s dream vision being that the sorrows and afflictions which so work their adversities and “fearful truths” upon his own heart and mind – but by extension we may make this a universal truth as affecting the hearts and minds of us all as children, forming and molding us into mature adults until our hearts are fully aquatinted with the miseries of human existence – these conditions (sighs, tears, and darkness) are a commission from God to these archetypal, female spirits or deities to plague the human heart until they have unfolded the capacities of the spirit.

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This is an intriguing concept though not entirely new or unique. The idea of suffering as a motivator leading towards atonement or some kind of spiritual fulfillment is an ancient one and widely recognized, in varying degrees, amongst all religions. Here we may note Buddhism in general, and in particular the Catholic Cult of Mary as the Mother of Sorrows, some devotional goddess cults in India (Kali and similar goddesses), as well as Santa Muerte and the Aztec goddesses Coatlicue and Tlazolteotl, to name just a few.

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Santa Muerte

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Our Lady of Sorrows clutches the crown of thorns to her pierced sacred heart.

De Quincey’s dream vision being that the sorrows and afflictions which so work their adversities and “fearful truths” upon the heart and mind… are a commission from God to these female spirits, or deities, to plague the human heart until they have unfolded the capacities of the spirit.

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A brutal piercing of the heart in Suspiria.

Early on in Suspiria, the film presents a graphic display of a murder – a kind of atrocious plaguing of the human heart, a raging cenobitic (in the Hellraiser sense) opening up, or unfolding of, the capacities for suffering of the human spirit. Perhaps not exactly what De Quincey had in mind, but the visceral poetry does not escape us. In that first horrific murder scene, the murderer uses a dagger and cord which have significance as will be seen when we explore Hecate – the triple-formed Goddess of Witches – and her symbols in Argento’s Three Mothers Trilogy… in Part 2.

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Hecate Triformis

Please stay tuned for the rest of this 3 part article. Parts 2 & 3 will be released in September & October.