The Dark Mother

Article by Andrea Paterson

I love Halloween. There’s something about the license to be dark and the embrace of all things strange and creepy that calls to me. In the old pagan calendars Samhain marked the turn into the dark half of the year. The harvest is over, the fields lie fallow, the night flows over the world leaving only a brief sliver of daytime or, in the most Northern latitudes, no daytime at all. It’s a time of year when the old ways become accessible again–magic, incantation, superstition, ritual. We don our masks and go out into the world leaving our regular faces and selves behind. We become something else for a moment, maybe something wild or unsavory, and threaten mischief if we are not appeased with treats. The world inverts, the dead seem close, little ghouls yell in the streets and remind us of all the darkly wonderful things that we repress from day to day.

There can be joy in taking on a new persona, until the frightful moment when you realize the mask you’ve put on won’t come off, and that is what postpartum depression and anxiety was like for me. I put on the clothes of the Mother with glee in the early days. I wore my new role as homemaker with a sense of illicit thrill. Here I was, at home with my new baby, baking stuff…it was like playing house. I literally wore aprons as my daily costume. I had all the right accessories–Ergo carrier, unbleached natural cotton toys, cloth diapers, nursing bras. I walked around in a maniacal haze of ecstasy, until the sleep deprivation took its toll, and breastfeeding didn’t work out how I’d hoped, and I realized that my own mother was too far away to mother me, and I was so very very alone. Things began to crumble, the Mother costume was itchy and too tight and I wanted so desperately to throw it off. I wanted to sleep again. I wanted to feel the familiar form of my pre-baby body holding me together. My desperation was so great that I lay in bed at night wishing to die. The darkness in my life became a sinister and menacing thing–living, breathing, consuming. There was no joy in that darkness, only fear and nightmares.

With time and help I emerged from that place, but the darkness lingers. There is a shadow in my Motherhood and it’s one that I am befriending slowly. It’s the Samhain place where ghosts and witches lurk, stirring up potions that intoxicate me. The place is full of all the beautiful dark mothers that we have forgotten. The word “Hag” comes from the Greek “Hagia” meaning “wise” and with Halloween approaching its comforting to remember that out of darkness and fear comes a wisdom that might not otherwise be accessed. Meeting a cast of ancient Dark Mothers helped me to navigate my own motherhood, and to wear the dark, heavy cloak it came with.

So let me tell you the story of Angrboda, a Norse Mother-Goddess. She is sometimes called Mother of Monsters and her children were wild creatures: Fenrir the wolf who cannot be contained, Jormungander the serpent who releases poison into the world and causes it to fragment, and Hel who is keeper of the dead. Despite the monstrous nature of her children, Angrboda remains a devoted mother. She embraces her shadowy offspring.

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I see this story as containing truths relevant to motherhood today. I read it as a story about aspects of the Mother-Self that are birthed alongside our children. When I gave birth to my son I opened a door into a very dark place, and from it came monsters in the form of depression and crippling anxiety. They whispered lies into my ear and made me wish for rest in death, and I had to hold and nurture those dark children so that they wouldn’t destroy me. Along with my son came an animal wildness, a wolf-like part of myself that felt trapped and angry yet intensely protective of my baby. A serpent rose in  my mind and destroyed it. Depression ripped me apart and my soul felt shattered. I lost my sense of self. I lived under the care of Hel, keeper of souls that are waiting to be reincarnated. I waited for my moment to be reborn as something whole.

In Norse mythology Angrboda’s lineage goes on to destroy the world in an apocalypse. But from the wreckage of the old world, a new one is built. And that is the story of my postpartum depression journey as well. The things that I birthed ripped my world to shreds, but now I have the chance to rebuild, to revise, and to re-imagine the entire foundation of my life. When I put myself back together I found that the Motherhood cloak fit better and didn’t feel so heavy on my shoulders. I still hear ghosts whispering intrusive thoughts into my ear, but their voices are weaker and more easily dismissed. The shadow world isn’t gone, just less insistent, and I move back and forth between the light and the dark with more ease. While the creatures of the night are not always friendly they are often wise. The hag with the poisoned apple may be hiding a true gift as well.

 

References

I found some of my information about Angrboda in this article.

Art by Emil Doepler

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