Blood, Carrie, Christianity, Colchis, curses, demonisation, Dracula, Euripides, feminism, Greek, Hekate, Horror, Jason, Lucy, Magi, magic, Malleus Maleficarum, Margaret Thatcher, Medea, menstruation, monsters, monstrous mothers, periods, powerful women, prophesy, Psycho, Religion, sacrifice, Sex, sexism, sexual predators, Stephen King, supernatural, The Devil, Vampire, vampirism, witch, witchcraft, women
Margaret Thatcher is nothing, if not memorable. She is both loved and reviled, depending on which side of the fence you stand on. It is not my intention to pay a tribute, though it does seem like a fitting topic this week, following the death of Thatcher, to discuss legendary women who fall into the category of ‘monstrous mothers’. Their deeds are outwith the accepted boundaries of what it means to be a woman. They, therefore, become known as a witch or monster.
Medea, wife of Jason, in the classical tale of the same name, is one such witch. Written in 431 BCE by the Greek playwright Euripides, Medea tells the story of a foreign witch betrayed by the man she loves. She gives up everything, her wealth and status, for Jason; everything, that is, except her magic. In fact, Medea is a priestess of Hekate from Colchis. This was the special domain of sorcery known as Kolkha. In the 6th century BCE Colchis came under the Persian Empire†. In Greece, foreign religions were treated suspiciously and given the name ‘magic’; terms which arose from the name of the Persian priests, The Magi. Medea is treated badly throughout the story, both by the suspicious women of her new town and from her once beloved Jason. The townswomen do not like that Medea dresses differently from them; and Jason betrays her when he decides to marry Princess Glauce. Glauce is deemed to be more of an appealing match. After all, Medea is only a ‘barbarian woman’ in the eyes of the Greeks. By this point in the story, Medea has raised Jason’s two sons, and gets her own appalling revenge on him by murdering his wife and her father on the wedding day. She goes on to murder the two sons that she and Jason have together. Medea is shown, however, to be an oppressed victim, appealing for the sympathy of the audience. In this tale, she escapes in a blaze of glory, astride dragons, having wreaked her revenge on the philandering Jason.
The Sun himself, the source of all life and warmth, vindicating the cause of passion, disorder, violent cruelty, against the cold, orderly, self-protective process of civilised man, is a reminder that the universe is not on the side of civilisation; and that a life combining order with happiness is something men must win for themselves in continual struggle with an unsympathetic environment. (1)
This week, I’ve read the line: “Ding dong the witch is dead…” so often I can’t now seem to get it out my head. Interestingly, it was not until The Wizard of Oz, that we had the introduction of the witch as a terrifying character on the silver screen.
The witch has always inspired dread and fear, going back to ancient times, as can be seen in the case of Medea. The earliest known witches were feared only because they were thought to have magical and terrifying powers, not because of any association with The Devil. This was a later-added Christian fear (both The Devil and the association of The Devil with witches).
In some cultures, young girls who experienced prophetic dreams during menstruation were thought to be witches. There was often this association with blood and the supernatural. Menstruation was linked to the ‘witches curse’, something Stephen King explored in his much celebrated story Carrie. Historically, the curse of a woman who was menstruating or pregnant was believed to be much more powerful. It was known as a ‘Mother’s Curse’, and meant certain death. In the 14th century, the secret feminine knowledge of midwifery became associated with witchcraft and in 1484 The Malleus Maleficarum stated that witches were castrators. Clearly men, therefore, had much to fear from these devil women! Witches, during those years, were often accused of such things. The main reason given for a woman’s ‘otherness’ is her natural carnal nature. Here is a shining example of the demonisation of women and sex, rolled into one convenient package. Burn the horny cock-thieving bitches!
In horror, the witch still has an essentially sexual nature, with supernatural powers and a wish to harm, wreaking destruction on the community. Being closer to nature than man, she can control such things as storms and hurricanes. In Carrie, the anti-heroine is a young menstruating woman, although not a mother. The monstrous mother role is given to her mother, who desires to control her daughter through a warped sense of religious morals. At no point in the story does she ever really show a maternal bond with Carrie. In both Psycho and Carrie the monstrous child is a product of the psychotic, domineering and monstrous mother. There is, incidentally, another important similarity between Carrie and Psycho. Both Marion in Psycho and Carrie, are punished severely after enjoying sensual pleasures in the shower, and both these scenes end in blood-shed.
Having been given no prior warning about periods from her mother, Carrie is then subjected to a lecture on the sins of women when she returns home. Raving about sexist religious beliefs, Mrs White goes on to blame all human evil on women. Woman is the universal scapegoat, and Carrie is, therefore, the sacrificial victim at the Prom, where she is baptised in the blood of a pig as a joke by her bullying classmates. Carrie is ‘crowned queen and anointed with pig’s blood’ before going on to wage her terrible and monstrous revenge. Like Medea, we are encouraged to view her display of monstrosity with sympathy because, like Medea, Carrie has been treated appallingly by her female peers and (not her husband) her mother.
Both women desire a fresh start at the end of their vengeful outburst: Medea in Athens, and Carrie, pictured as a trembling child washing off the indicators of her womanhood, kills her mother and returns to the ‘womb’ of the dark closet.
It’s pretty safe to conclude that the monstrous female is a patriarchal invention. Women tend not to be frightened of themselves, usually. In horror, the monstrous nature of women is undoubtedly linked with her place as man’s sexual other (2).
The dark side of maternity is also explored in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The Count, described by Almond as a ‘monstrous baby’, suckles on women, turning them into bad mothers: ‘non-maternal sexual predators’ such as the vampirised Lucy, is later destroyed by honourable men. Furthermore, the three female vampires encountered by Jonathon Harker are representative of rampant female sexuality, much reviled by Victorian society. In such a society, they symbolise the corruption of motherhood. With witch-like qualities Shakespeare would have been proud to see, the terrifying power these three possess is female sexuality. Furthermore, Lucy goes from unconscious flirtatiousness to becoming blatantly seductive and, therefore, dangerous. Shortly after her death there are newspaper reports of children going missing who later, returning with bitten necks, report having met a beautiful woman who turns out to be Lucy. When confronted vampirising a child at night, Lucy callously discards the child and attempts to seduce her husband, Arthur. This is a scene which shows female sexuality is incompatible with maternity, a strong Victorian notion. It also reverses the roles of the mother and child. Instead of the child feeding from the mother-figure, the mother feeds upon the child (3).
Powerful and/or sexual women are often seen as a threat to a patriarchal-dominated society, whether or not they and their behaviour deserves to be viewed as ‘monstrous’. Like her or loathe her, Margaret Thatcher was a successful politician from the late 1950s, gaining the ultimately most powerful position possible in 1979 when she became Prime Minister of the UK. Thereafter, she became a Monstrous Mother, suppressing the power of her ‘children’, sending them to be killed in unnecessary wars, increasing their poverty and manipulating them with well-timed elections. Eventually, 200,000 of Maggie’s children demonstrated against her policies. There’s definitely a gothic horror story in that! I doubt, however, that Maggie would get as much sympathy as Medea or Carrie…
I’m not sure either if she had an ‘essentially sexual nature’, though no doubt she was the wank fantasy of some BDSM pervs…
Well, anyway, I’m even more grateful to have such a loving mother when you see what’s out there! Mine even gave me a kidney – she’s a keeper!
Until next week: More power to MILFs! Your friend, A.D.
(1) Euripides, Medea & Other Plays Penguin (1963 edition) p9.
(2) Creed, B (1993) Woman as Witch in “The Monstrous Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis” Routledge pp73-83.
(3) Almond, B R (2006) Monstrous Infants and Vampyric Mothers in Bram Stoker’s Dracula in “The International Journal of Psychoanalysis” 2007:88:219-35.
† The Making of the Georgian Nation: 2nd Ed, Ronald Grigor Suny, p 13