Suspiria: The Three Mothers Explained

An alchemical breakdown of the Suspiria's Three Mothers reveals an opiate of faith.

I don’t know what price I’m going to have to pay for breaking what we alchemists call Silentium, but E. Varelli already imposed this knowledge on laymen in “The Three Mothers.” The book opens the second of Dario Argento’s giallo horror film trilogy about these three ancient witches, Inferno. Made in 1980, it followed Argento’s surrealistic masterpiece Suspiria, the remake of which hit theaters this past weekend. The plot line of the Three Mothers is featured heavily in Luca Guadagnino‘s art-house take on Suspiria, but you won’t be getting any spoilers for the new version here.

This will lead many on a journey to discovery of the three ladies who rule the world through sorrow, tears and darkness. They happen to have three homes: one in Rome, where the third of the trilogy, Mother of Tears, takes place; one in Freiberg, Germany; and one here in New York City, where the youngest and cruelest Mother lives. It’s on the Upper West Side right next door to Kazanian’s Antique shop, which happens to have quite a few old edition books. Even non-alchemists can find quite a bit of knowledge on the Three Mothers, also known as the Three Sorrows, in them.

“These are the Sorrows; and they are three in number, as the Graces are three, who dress man’s life with beauty; the Parcoeœ are three, who weave the dark arras of man’s life in their mysterious loom, always with colours sad in part, sometimes angry with tragic crimson and black; the Furies are three, who visit with retribution called from the other side of the grave offences that walk upon this; and once even the Muses were but three, who fit the harp, the trumpet, or the lute, to the great burdens of man’s impassioned creations,” Thomas De Quincey wrote in the book of prose Suspiria de Profundis, which inspired Argento.

further reading: Suspiria Ending Explained

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De Quincey’s 1845 collection of prose poetry was the sequel to his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, which came out in 1821. He saw the Three Mothers as three companions for the Roman goddess of childbirth, although Varelli warns they are “incapable of creating life” in the film Inferno. Mater Suspiriorum (Our Lady of Sighs), Mater Tenebrarum (Our Lady of Darkness), and Mater Lachrymarum (Our Lady of Tears) “are the Sorrows, all three of whom I know,” De Quincey wrote. The three wicked stepmothers are also three sisters. Just as there are three Norns in Norse mythology, three Weird Sisters in William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, and three Halliwells on Charmed. Just as there are three irises just beyond the door, toward the end of the original Suspiria, where witches bound to an ancient ritual perform sacrifices of flesh. They are the power of Three. They are the three aspects of the dark goddess. They are Lilith, Persephone, and Hecate, the maiden, mother, and crone.

De Quincey doesn’t call the sisters simply “The Sorrows” because he doesn’t want them mistaken for individual sorrow or separate cases of sorrow. He looks for a term that expresses “the mighty abstractions that incarnate themselves in all individual sufferings of man’s heart.” He presents these abstractions as impersonations “clothed with human attributes of life, and with functions pointing to flesh.” Our Ladies of Sorrow do not talk because “phantoms like these disdain the infirmities of language.”

The ancient witches have been masking their existence since the 11th century. That is when they created the art of witchcraft on the coast of the Black Sea, we learn from Udo Kier’s Father Johannes in Inferno. During their long tenure on earth, the Three Mothers had time to put together quite a little egg’s nest. They each amassed great personal wealth and enough power to affect world events. Mater Suspiriorum and Mater Tenebrarum both claimed the Three Mothers are the personification of death. The Three Mothers “rule the world” from the enchanted palazzos E. Varelli built.

Varelli says he discovered their evil plans too late but detailed the Mothers’ history in a book of memoirs entitled The Three Mothers. He did not do this out of pride or for recognition. Author credit went to an anonymous colleague. Six copies of the book are known to have existed. Four of them appear to have gone up in flames at the end of Inferno. We skimmed through one at Kazanian’s Antique shop.

Three Keys

To unlock the mysteries of the Three Mothers, we are told in Inferno, you must find three keys. The primary key is found in the smell that will come to permeate the area around the houses, built by Varelli, which will ultimately become deathly and plague ridden. The second key is hidden under the cellar of each of the houses where a portrait of the sister who owns the house is kept, along with her name. The third key is “under the soles your shoes.” Keys are important. There are references to keys in each of De Quincey’s descriptions of the Mothers. The key to the films is the artful way it weaves horror with texture, colorfully tossing blood on mirrored surfaces to refract broken minds. The keys are in the art and science, hidden and accepted, of the architecture of the buildings the Three Mothers live in. 

Varelli labels himself an alchemist when he writes about the three crones who invented magical arts. Alchemists are known for transmuting base metals into noble metals like gold. They also cooked up cures and an elixir of immortality with the philosopher’s stone. While there is no specific term for Sacred Architecture in magic, the science behind his blueprints are also found in the esoteric arts. “Because it can be used to transform energy, sacred geometry can absolutely be part of an alchemist’s armory. Sacred geometry and alchemy go hand in hand,” says Mimi Metta, a self-described alchemist who electroforms base metals and crystals into energetic tools at AlcheMysticAmulets.

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We are told in Inferno that alchemists have commissioned several houses of the damned, like Brussels’ Maison du Paon (House of the Peacock), the Cellender House in France, and Palermo, and Sicily’s Villa Palagonia (Bagheria), also known as the Villa of Monsters (Villa dei Mostri). Built by architects Tommaso Napoli and Agatino Daidone in 1715, the Sicilian baroque structure is protected by rows of grotesque statues that were created by Francesco Ferdinando II Gravina, the Prince of Palagonia, in 1749. “Whether magic is concealed or magnified is not solely reliant on sacred geometry,” Metta says. “It is largely dependent on the intention, the desired outcome of the practitioner or alchemist. Using sacred geometry to change the vibration can be seen as akin to setting the stage for a performance. It is a tool, among other tools, to be used to effect change, to transform; or in other words alchemize a situation or thing.”

It is assured the Three Mothers who invented witchcraft were themselves adept at alchemy. It could be the key to their longevity. “How sacred geometry can be used to promote longer life is subjective,” Metta admits. “In relation to the witches in the Three Mothers Trilogy, it would depend on what each witch brought to the table so to speak. There cannot be a one size fits all answer as, fictional characters or not, we are all individuals with our own attributes and issues. Hypothetically, what Mater Suspiriorum requires for extended life would be different from what Mater Lachrymarum needs, and Mater Tenebrarum might need something altogether different. Therefore, the application of sacred geometry would need to be customized for the individual.”

further reading: Top 12 Really Creepy Ballet Moments in Film and TV

The architect Varelli built the three homes the Mothers ruled the world from, in New York City, the German woods, and the papal city. “They lived in three different cities in homes created using the ideals of sacred architecture,” Metta says. “These structures would, of course, amplify their powers.” There is precedence for this which goes back to the Temple of Solomon and continues in the structural power grids of centralized governments.

“Looking at the energy of each location and then looking at the triangle formed by connecting the three locations, my mind wanders to topics like the theories behind Vatican City, London, and Washington D.C. and childhood stories about The Devil’s Triangle,” Metta theorizes. “Unholy trinities? Perhaps the unified energy of the three locations combined [then] amplified the powers of the witches, resulting in longer life. With the number 3 being representative of manifestation and creation, the number of alchemy, that is where I would look first. Beyond that, this alchemist isn’t giving away any secrets.”

When the Mother’s pallazzo in Rome is unearthed in the third film, Mother of Tears, the casket to the title character, found during a construction dig, is bound in chains.

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The three sisters are very tied to their homes. Sacred architecture is no small feat, especially when it is profane. The death of the mother in the original Suspiria causes the foundations of her home and coven to fail. The film ends as Mater Suspiriorum disappears into a sealed room while her house burns before we see her become death personified. In Inferno, Mater Tenebrarum’s maid sets the house on fire while dying, and the sorrow-filled sister dies with the house. The Mother of Tears‘ Mater Lachrymarum is impaled by an ornamental obelisk which crashes into the ceremonial chamber after anti-villain Sarah Mandy finds the underground lair and rips and burns her tunic. In The Mother of Tears, Lachrymarum’s home is revealed to be the Palazzo Varelli.

Mater Suspiriorum, the Mother of Sighs

Argento wrote Suspiria with Daria Nicolodi, who also wrote De Profundis with Luigi Cozzi, another frequent Argento collaborator. Nicolodi plays Countess Elise De Longvalle Adler in Inferno, and Elisa Mandy in The Mother of Tears. She also starred in Argento’s films Deep Red (1975), Tenebrae (1982), Phenomena (1985), and Opera (1987). De Profundis, which was also released as The Black Cat and Demons 6: Da Profundis, told the story of how the film crew making a movie about the Third Mother inadvertently unleashed the actual ancient witch. De Profundis labels Suspiriorum the second Mother, but the mythology of Argento’s trilogy calls her the oldest and wisest of the witches.

The first of the trilogy, Suspiria, focuses on Mater Suspiriorum, the Mother of Sighs. There she is presetned, again, as the oldest and wisest of the Three Mothers, which differs from De Quincey’s work. Born Helena Markos, she is known as the Black Queen. She was played by Lela Svasta in Suspiria. The actress didn’t get a credit and you won’t find much about her on IMDb. Jessica Harper (Phantom of the Paradise), who stars as young American student Suzy Bannion, said she was a “was a 90-year-old ex-hooker Dario had found on the streets of Rome.”

Further reading: Activist Witches Protest Trump Immigration Policy at Detention Center

Markos, a Greek immigrant who had been expelled from several countries around Europe, founded The Tanz Akademie of dance and occult sciences in 1895. Local people believed her to be a witch and there was something about her that seemed to beg for persecution. In 1905, “after being hounded and cursed at for ten years, Madame Markos died in a fire. The school was taken over by her favorite pupil. The study of the occult was abandoned,” according to Suspiria. “That’s all there is, as far as witchcraft is concerned.” Markos’ coven is headed by Madame Blanc, played by Dark Shadows‘ Joan Bennett.

In the film, Markos has the powers of invisibility, illusion casting, and telekinesis. But she’s become old and feeble and can’t conjure quite enough power to take out the young American, although she does put her psyche through an emotional Cuisinart in primary colors. De Quincey’s Mater Suspiriorum, also known as Our Lady of Sighs, finds her power “in suffering, in agony unuttered and unutterable, to develop the intellect and the spirit of man; to open these to the ineffable conceptions of the infinite, and to some discernment, otherwise impossible, of the beneficent might that lies in pain and sorrow.”

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Our Lady of Sighs creeps timidly and stealthily. She “never clamors, never defies, dreams not of rebellious aspirations. She is humble to abjectness. Hers is the meekness that belongs to the hopeless,” De Quincey writes. Suspiriorum wears a turban. She appears to be inscrutable. “Her eyes, if they were ever seen, would be neither sweet nor subtle; no man could read their story,” De Quincey writes. “They would be found filled with perishing dreams, and with wrecks of forgotten delirium.” The coven at Suspiria‘s Helena Markos Dance Company believes “beneficent might lies in pain and sorrow.”

Every slave, every woman without love or hope, every defrauded nun, every captive in every dungeon, all who are betrayed and all rejected outcasts walk with Our Lady of Sighs. She carries a key but her subjects are homeless.

Mater Tenebrarum, the Mother of Darkness

Giallo icon Mario Bava helped with some of the visuals for Inferno, the follow-up to Suspiria. Argento’s 1982 film Tenebrae is sometimes mistaken as the second installment in the Three Mothers trilogy because Inferno doesn’t mention the Mother of Darkness, Mater Tenebrarum, in the title. Inferno also introduces Mater Lachrymarum. De Quincey and Argento agree Mater Tenebrarum is the youngest and cruelest Mother. Inferno claims Lachrymarum is the most beautiful and powerful. Neither Mater Lachrymarum nor Mater Tenebrarum have proper names, like Helena Markos in Suspiria. In Inferno, Lachrymarum is played by Ania Pieroni. In The Mother of Tears Lachrymarum is portrayed by Israeli actress Moran Atias. Veronica Lazar plays Tenebrarum in Inferno.

further reading: True Detective Season 3: A History of the Occult in the Ozarks

Mother Tenebrarum is the “suggestress of suicides.” Her secret cellar is filled with water and corpses. According to De Quincey, the youngest mother is “the defier of God. She also is the mother of lunacies.” The third sister’s kingdom is not large, “or else no flesh should live; but within that kingdom all power is hers.”  The roots of her power lie deep, “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.”

The Mother of Darkness’s head is turreted like the ancient Phrygian Mother of the Gods, Cybele. She wears a veil of crape which blazes misery. She moves with “incalculable motions, bounding, and with tiger’s leaps.” Our Lady of Darkness Mater Tenebrarum carries no key.

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The Mother of Tears led saints to idolatry. Her sister, the Mother of Sighs, seasoned them for the dreadful Mater Tenebrarum. The “wicked sister, that temptest and hatest,” De Quincy explained, banished the “frailties of hope,” withered “the relenting of love,” scorched “the fountain of tears,” and cursed him as only she can curse: To “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.”

For most of Inferno, Mater Tenebrarum poses as Professor Arnold’s nurse. Arnold turns out to be the architect Varelli, now a deaf/mute confined to a wheelchair, who broke the alchemist’s code of silence at the beginning of the film. The best known historic alchemist, Nicolas Flamel, reputedly achieved immortality when he discovered the philosopher’s stone, a code word for the elixir of life. Alchemists also found the Elixir of Love, which was at the center of Gaetano Donizetti’s 1832 opera L’elisir d’amore. Felice Romani’s libretto says the potion, which is actually fake, is so strong lovers “could die of love” in the aria “Una furtiva lagrima,” or one secret tear in Italian.

Mater Lachrymarum, the Mother of Tears

Our Lady of Tears is what night and day raves and moans about when they call “for vanished faces.” She is the mightiest of the witches. In the best example of one of the witches affecting world events, the power of Mater Lachrymarum���s coven grows so strong they cause chaos and violence throughout Rome in 2007’s The Mother of Tears (La Terza madre), which stars Asia Argento, Daria Nicolodi, Moran Atias, Udo Kier, and Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni. Asia Argento’s character Sarah Mandy awakens the Mother of Tears by opening the urn that stores her most powerful relic, a red tunic. Mother Lachrymarum disguises herself as a beautiful young music student and who leads a cannibal cult.

De Quincey says Mater Lachrymarum, Our Lady of Tears, is the eldest of the three. 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,” he writes. She “stood in Bethlehem on the night when Herod’s sword swept its nurseries of Innocents, and the little feet were stiffened forever.” Mater Lachrymarum wears a diadem round her head and can “go abroad upon the winds, when she heard the sobbing of litanies or the thundering of organs, and when she beheld the mustering of summer clouds.”

Our Lady of Tears moves with “uncertain steps, fast or slow, but still with tragic grace.” She glides ghostly intruders into the chambers of sleepless men, sleepless women, and sleepless children by the power of the keys. Her eyes are “sweet and subtle, wild and sleepy, by turns; oftentimes rising to the clouds, oftentimes challenging the heavens,” De Quincey writes. Oftentimes, she is “stormy and frantic, raging in the highest against heaven, and demanding back her darlings.”

In The Mother of Tears we learn white witch Elisa Mandy (Daria Nicolodi) fought Markos in Freiburg. Markos killed Elisa and her husband, but was weakened into the hag-like state seen in Suspiria. Father Johannes (Udo Kier), in the third film, says the battle left Suspiriorum “a shell of her former self.” In The Mother of Tears, Elisa’s daughter Sarah defeats Mater Lachrymarum in Rome.

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Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake opens with Lutz Ebersdorf (Tilda Swinton), a student at the Helena Markos Dance Company in Berlin, listing “Three Mothers, three gods, three devils. Mother Tenebrarum, Mother Lachrymarum, and Mother Suspiriorum. Darkness, tears, and sighs.” Chloë Grace Moretz’s character, Patricia, writes in her notebook “Today there is only her, one of them and at the same time not… Mother Markos, a shadow over my story.” This implies time has run out for Mother Tenebrarum and Mother Lachrymarum. The alchemy of filmmaking means Dario Argento’s Suspiria will cheat the ages. In more ways than one if you’ve seen the bizarre ending of that new movie.

Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake is in theaters now.

Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.