A woman squats on a rocky shore. Cavernous cliffs frame her from behind, as monstrous children seem to tumble, one after the other, from between her legs. Her long hair covers her right breast but she suckles a winged demon at her left, propped up on her thigh. She weeps and weeps, her eyes half closed. Her chin is covered in blood and her hands take a headless child to her lips. It’s only once the eye catches this detail that we begin to process the scene in its entirety: the rocky shore is littered with bones, skulls, the half consumed carcasses of children – monsters and humans alike. Some with cloven feet, some with wings, some with chubby baby toes. We see now that the woman is scooping the children as she births them; scooping them up to suckle and devour, caught in an endless cycle of begetting and consuming: Carver’s horrific image of the mother of monsters.
Description of Leia Carver’s Lilith (1942), oil on canvas
For many of us, from our earliest experiences with stories, we are introduced to the figure of the child-eating woman perhaps most notably through the fairy tale ‘Hansel and Gretel’. In this tale, a witch lures her prey through the feminine art of baking, only to try and bake the children themselves. Other fairy tales, including ‘The Juniper Tree’ and ‘The Rose Tree’, feature a mother figure that kills and cooks a child, serving it up to the child’s unsuspecting father. These acts are often attributed to a stepmother, but, as Maria Tatar has suggested, this was often done to sanitise the stories for children and, she asserts, ‘stepmothers… are almost always thinly disguised substitutes for biological mothers’ (2003: 143).
I am fascinated by these kinds of monstrous mothers, and I often find them appearing unbidden in my own fiction. From Lamia to Baba Yaga to Medea, these wicked women recur in all sorts of maternal guises. Archetypes of the evil mother proliferate because they are, as Susan Bordo suggests, ‘reflective of deep cultural anxieties about women’s autonomy rather than the realities of its exercise’ (original emphasis, 2003: 95).
What stories like these really tell are stories about transgressive women: ‘monster women’ because they act against what good femininity should be. They transgress and taint the saintly role of mother, nurturer, and selfless giver. Their transgressive acts are monstrous and inexplicable because they refuse to become, as Judith Butler puts it, ‘intelligible through becoming gendered in conformity with recognizable standards of gender intelligibility’ (1999: 22). The acts these women perform do not meet such standards.
But these are, of course, women of fantasy: myths and legend, folklore and fairy tale. What are these stories we tell about wicked mothers, and why do we tell them? What are we so scared of? What is it about the maternal that terrifies us so much when it strays from the script? This article proposes that the predilection to use the maternal body as a sight of maleficent evil can be linked to the ways in which the maternal body has been viewed as inherently abject. At the same time, it considers how the ‘transgressive’ nature of reproductive autonomy in folkloric tales contributes to the construction of monstrous motherhoods, taking as example tales of Lilith and tales of La Llorona. By examining this interplay of ideas in creative practice, I consider the ways in which monstrous maternal archetypes continue to be challenged and rewritten in new and dynamic ways.
In Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, Julia Kristeva speaks of the ‘immemorial violence with which a body is separated from another body in order to be’ (1980: 10). This ‘violent, clumsy breaking away’ (13) makes the maternal body a ripe site for vilification because the maternal body is already broken, open, vulnerable. It only takes a little imagination to turn it into a site of anxiety, disgust, and abjection, and only a little more imagination to make such an abject and othered body a vessel to perpetrate violence, as much as a site to receive it.
Barbara Creed suggests that, in the Kristevan view, ‘the image of a woman’s body, because of its maternal functions, acknowledges its ‘debt to nature’ and consequently is more likely to signify the abject’ (1993: 11). Because the feminine is so closely aligned with the animal and with base nature, it is unsurprising that fears about female reproductive autonomy, and, perhaps more poignantly, fears about women who lack a motherly ‘drive’ towards their offspring, should result in stories that vilify these maternal failures as monstrous. ‘The monster woman’, according to Toril Moi, ‘is the woman who refuses to be selfless, [who] acts on her own initiative, who has a story to tell’ (2002: 57). A woman with too much agency is a scary beast indeed.
Because the monstrous feminine is so closely aligned with the animal, with base nature, it is unsurprising that fecund classical figures such as Lamia and Errour come equipped with serpentine tails. The nature of this fusion with the animal thrusts another level of abjection upon the female body: a disgust that arises from the troubling of borders and the collocation of female with animal. There is something inherently horrific in the refusal to obey ‘categorical distinctions such as inside/outside, living/dead, insect/human, flesh/machine, and so on’ (Carroll, 1990: 43), and the merging of femininity, specifically here transgressive femininity, with the animal is a trope not uncommon in varying folkloric contexts, often inflicted as punishment. One need only think of Medusa who is punished with her monstrous form because she is molested by a god. In later versions of her story, Medusa’s beauty is able to tempt Poseidon to attack her in Athena’s temple, and the transgression ultimately rests with Medusa, rather than the patriarchal godhead.
The Biblical Lilith is another woman who receives the tail of a snake. As the first wife of Adam, she is often merged with the serpent that tempts Eve. But Lilith refuses to lie beneath her husband and, instead, chooses to leave Paradise rather than submit to subservience (Warner, 1996: 220-21). She is punished for her choice, transformed into a monster who begets demons and is compelled to consume children, including her own (Hurwitz, 2009: 44; Schwartz, 1991: 5). Because Lilith rejects her function as mother to Adam’s children she is destined to play out a sinister mockery of the role regardless.
This essay’s introduction offers an account of a painting, titled Lilith, that describes this scene, but it is a fictional description, as the painting only exists in the world of my own creative practice: a novel in progress. This work muses on how we pass on stories of monstrous mothers and continue to attach the abject to the maternal as well as how we speak these stories without hesitation:
She thinks about the stories her own mother told her sometimes when stories were allowed. Gingerbread and breadcrumbs and women who lived in chicken-legged houses. Her mother teased her, saying that she envied those women their independence, what it must feel like to live in a house of your very own, even if it was made of chocolate and sweets or the bones of little babies. She would shriek with mock terror as her mother played the witch, threatening to fatten her up and roast her in the oven. The way her mother sometimes cooed: ‘I love you so much, I just want to eat you up!’
Taking place in contemporary Mexico, this work also engages with the legend of La Llorona, a child-killer who is also often given animal features but in this instance the head of a horse. In most versions of La Llorona’s story she has children by a rich nobleman — often depicted as a European — while she herself is typically an indigenous peasant. La Llorona’s foremost transgression, then, is her sexual relationship with a man from outside her own social and racial class. But when he abandons her, she commits the vengeful act of drowning their children. Like Lilith, she too is punished, becoming a ghoul that must wander for eternity, perpetually weeping and seeking out other children among the living to lure to their deaths. It is transgression then, of one kind or another, that results in these female figures becoming monsters, and that turns them into creatures that perpetuate violence on others.
In folk story traditions transgression must occur because of the propensity for these tales to already deal with interdiction: that is, with limits, exclusions, rules that must not be broken. These kinds of interdictions tend to take the form of a warning, a ‘prohibition, such as, “Do not leave the path,” “Do not open this door/this box,” “Do not attempt to look at me”’ (Stephens, 2016: 1045). The breakage of these rules sets the wheels of the stories we tell in motion. Lilith’s transgression is to disobey Adam, to refuse subservience to him and to wilfully abandon him and leave the Garden of Eden. La Llorona’s act of infanticide is a result of her initial sexual transgression. In their discussion of contemporary ghost stories and folktales, Diane Goldstein et al., refer to these kind of women as ‘women who flagrantly fail… basic Angel-in-the-House training’ (2007: 91), or, more dramatically, as what happens when you give the Angel-in-the-House an axe.
Maternal transgressions can come in many forms, from abuse to neglect, to the simple act of ‘unmotherly’ thoughts. In my fiction generational layers of maternal transgressions are considered through the experiences of the novel’s protagonist, Nika, who does not want the role of mother that is thrust upon her. Her rejection of motherhood is partly exposed through memories of her own mother:
When Nika she was a child her mother confessed to her that on the day of Nika’s birth she’d been consumed by the idea that one life enters the world as another leaves it. So consumed, in fact, that as she was pushing Nika’s over-sized head out into the light she was also wondering about who might be dying at that exact moment, and whether or not they were good or bad. She wondered if there was a murderer, or some other villain, breathing out their last as Nika gulped her first, and whether their soul was prowling about, homeless, looking for a screaming baby to enter. Her mother also worried that in thinking such a thing she was cursing it to be so.
Nika often wonders if there’s some other person inside her, some dark soul that rammed itself deep into her squalling maw at birth and settled down in a corner. Nudging up now and then against the parts that she knows are her own, influencing her actions with sly remarks, whispered dares. She’s always suspected that her mother had cursed her with the thought and that she’ll end up thinking the same thing when it comes to her turn for it.
Michael Warner’s definition of ‘repro-narrativity’ also fits neatly around this idea of generational transgression: repro-narrativity being ‘the notion that our lives are somehow made more meaningful by being embedded in a narrative of generational succession’ (1991: 7), and that severing that line of meaning is, in itself, a radical and transgressive rupture. Female bodies that stray from their maternal imperatives become transgressive: deviant. Punishment for these failures is an amplified and grotesque maternity: Lilith must beget demons she herself will devour, while La Llorona must forever steal away children to replace the ones she has lost.
Reimagining Maternal Monsters
While the stories of Lilith and La Llorona would appear to have expressly negative outcomes, it is significant to note that writers, poets, and artists of all kinds continue to break apart these stories and rewrite and revise them, producing new and progressive alternatives. In the case of La Llorona, revisionist mythologies have been significant to Chicana authors because La Llorona is ‘symbolic of historic and contemporary oppression of women by economic and patriarchal forces’ (Perez, 2002: 110). For example, author, poet and scholar, Gloria Anzaldúa, reimagines La Llorona in her poem ‘Llorona Coyolxauhqui’ (2003) as a symbol of defiance:
On my shoulder rides a horse’s head
my teeth are fangs
I am the horse with fangs
My mother calls her lost and exiled child
a call to the vocation of artist
La Llorona wailing, beckoning, encouraging the artist to rai
against injustices. She calls me to act.
While sociologist Imogen Tyler argues that using a Kristevan abject paradigm fails to consider ‘what it might mean to be that maternal abject’ (2009: 95), I am drawn to an act of reimagining like Anzaldúa’s precisely for its ability to inhabit and redefine such a position. It is in this transformative mode of fiction that maternal monstrosity can be redressed.
Because of the considerable cultural significances of folklore, my aim is not to rewrite a specific La Llorona myth or a specific Lilith myth. These are culturally distinct tales, and my task is not to conflate these two figures with each other but to parallel the ways in which their stories highlight anxieties about maternal bodies, and how this plays out in fiction, including my own. In this vein, I write my own transformative myth, not of Lilith or of La Llorona, but through both.
She hurries down the rusted stairwell and almost falls when she reaches the bottom, the muddy ground is thick and slick as oil. Everywhere the earth has turned to mush, and in the strange twilight glow it’s coloured red, clotted and bloody. She hesitates on the edge of the little rise and then she gingerly steps down, clutching at the same trees and vines she grabbed at to steady her ascent. Now she clings dearly to them, lowering herself carefully down the hill. The cry comes again, closer, drawn out into a long, low wail. Nika is amazed to find herself compelled onwards, unwavering. She can’t stop herself, even if she wanted to. She’s slipping down, down.
Her dress, her legs, her shoes, are covered in mud and the litter it collects from the jungle floor. Leaves, twigs. A butterfly’s torn wing, brilliant yellow, gleams on her thigh, embedded in the muck, glued to her skin. And the light makes it all seem so surreal, enhances the colour of things. The world’s brand new, fresh and vivid before its swan-song of luminosity fades.
She slithers to the bottom of the slope and crashes through the trees at the river’s edge. The wailing is to her left, aching and constant, but she can’t see anyone around. Her hair is stringy with rain, and it sticks to her face, impossible to brush from her eyes with her wet and dirty fingers. She follows the sound, stumbling along the river stones, tripping, overbalancing, righting herself again. Steadying, her arms out for leverage, a tightrope walker.
Then ahead a little she sees her, the back of a woman crouched in the shallows, black hair wet along her back, the sound rising and falling from her.
Nika stops and stares. Unsure how to go forward, how to approach this woman, scared now, not understanding why she’s here like this, and how a woman so clearly bereft and hopeless could possibly help her.
Then the woman stops weeping. A sharp, quick silence, as though she’s sensed Nika’s presence and is listening for her to make a sound, straining to sense who it is that has come upon her here, in her sorrow.
Nika takes a step towards her, and the sound of the river water against her foot, the whirlpool slosh of the movement, makes the woman turn. And it’s a moment of slow motion, of clarity and stillness as the woman looks back over her shoulder towards Nika.
First the wide, black nostrils, then the chestnut brown suede of her mouth, her face, her perfect sheer black eyes; her enormous horse’s head.
But Nika doesn’t need to stop because she’s known all along this woman would have the head of a horse, she was expecting nothing less. So she steps again towards her, and each footfall follows the next, and the woman begins to rise from the water, the hem of her dress heavy and dripping, and her hands turning over and over each other, an anxious, desperate gesture, a wringing of the wrists, an actual wringing, Nika understands this expression now, because the woman is trying to twist her hands around each other to squeeze them free of the water that soaks her skin. And she opens her horse’s mouth and cries again at Nika’s approach. But despite her appearance, her bestial form, the sound she makes is unmistakable.
It is a woman’s cry.
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