Literature / Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow

A prose poem by writer (and opium addict) Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859). Included in the collection Suspiria De Profundis (itself a sequel to the more widely known Confessions of an English Opium Eater), this essay is considered the supreme example of what De Quincey called "impassioned prose".

De Quincey begins by describing the role of Levana, goddess of newborn infants, in the Roman religion, followed by conjectures on grief and the development of children. He then envisions a triumvirate of women, the Sorrows, who curse humanity with depression, grief and despair.

The "Three Mothers", as the Sorrows are known, have become popular enough to appear in various works:
  • The most trumphant example would be Dario Argento's "Three Mothers" trilogy of films, which recast the Sorrows as wicked witches. The trilogy is comprised of Suspiria, Inferno and Mother of Tears.
  • Il Gatto Nero (The Black Cat), an inferior attempt by Luigi Cozzi to make the third film in Argento's trilogy, which falsely casts Levana as the antagonist witch.
  • Mother of Darkness, a 1977 novel by Fritz Leiber, which features quotes from De Quincey's poem and not-so-subtly implies that Mater Tenebrarum is the antagonist.
  • The third entry in Kim Newman's Anno Dracula series of novels, Dracula Cha-Cha-Cha (aka Judgement of Tears) features Mater Lachrymarum aka Mama Roma as the antagonist.
  • The fifth movement of Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, Songe d’une Nuit du Sabbat (Dreams of a Witches Sabbath) was reportedly based on De Quincey's poem.
  • Our Ladies of Sorrow, an RPG by Miskatonic University Press, in which you play as an investigator working to solve the mystery of a haunted building. The game book even includes an abridged version of De Quincey's poem.
  • Lachrymae: On the Trail of the Three Mothers, an online account by film director Richard Stanley, chronicling a series of strange events loosely related to De Quincey's poem [1].

A TV Series, based around both the Argento trilogy and on Suspiria De Profundis, with De Quincey as the main character, is currently in the works.

This poem provides examples of:

  • Anthropomorphic Personification: The Three Mothers, who personify grief ("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 for ever"), despair ("She is humble to abjectness. Hers is the meekness that belongs to the hopeless") and depression ("She is the defier of God. She is also the mother of lunacies, and the suggestress of suicides").
  • Bilingual Bonus: In Latin, Mater Lachrymarum (The Mother of Tears), Mater Suspiriorum (The Mother of Sighs), Mater Tenebrarum (The Mother of Darkness).
  • Crossover Cosmology: Although De Quincey deliberately mentions modeling the Sorrows after pagan examples of The Hecate Sisters trope, he presents them in a very Catholic manner, giving them the title Mater as if they were aspects of the Virgin Mary, describing their involvement with biblical events, and even being in league with the Christian God, despite having them converse with the pagan Goddess Levana.
  • Erudite Stoner: Thomas De Quincey
  • The Hecate Sisters: The Three Mothers
  • Infant Immortality: Averted by the Mother of Tears (or, rather, the Mother of Tears, in the form of grief, accompanies an aversion).
  • Reality Subtext: Each of the sorrows roughly corresponds to an aspect of De Quincey's life (the death of his children, poverty, drug addiction, etc.).
  • Wham Line: While the last paragraph is largely a list of the ways the three women intend to break the young protagonist, the final line reveals their motivations to be anything but For the Evulz.
    "Banish the frailties of hope, wither the relenting of love, scorch the fountain of tears, curse him as only thou canst curse. So shall he be accomplished in the furnace, so shall he see the things that ought not to be seen, sights that are abominable, and secrets that are unutterable. So shall he read elder truths, sad truths, grand truths, fearful truths. So shall he rise again before he dies, and so shall our commission be accomplished which from God we had,—to plague his heart until we had unfolded the capacities of his spirit.”