Seeing as Friday of this week is both Friday the 13th and the full harvest moon, it seems like an auspicious time to launch a new feature: Fairytale Focus, where I look at the representation of fairytales in popular media. This week we see a myth called Lady Ambrosia which was featured in the show The Blacklist.
The myth is as follows:
Once upon a time, there lived a woman in the woods.The Blacklist, “Lady Ambrosia”
She was neither purely evil, nor purely good.
She gathered unwanted children and gave them a home in which to stay.
She promised them they’d live forever and a day.
She changed them into colors, so beautiful, so bold.
She cared for them so sweetly, they never grew old.
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I’m currently watching the Blacklist and while I haven’t finished it yet, there was one episode in season 3 that I found particularly interesting as a lover of fairytales: Lady Ambrosia. Lady Ambrosia is number 77 on the Blacklist, a list of baddies that wanted criminal Raymond “Red” Reddington helps the FBI bring in. He introduces Lady Ambrosia by reciting the verses above, though FBI profiler and sometime-fugitive Elizabeth Keen finishes the last line, implying that in the universe of the Blacklist characters, this is a well-known tale. This made me curious as to whether this Lady Ambrosia myth exists in our world.
I was unable to find any evidence of the exact verses quoted by Red and Liz existing outside of the Blacklist, but as is common with fairytales, the motifs in the Lady Ambrosia myth have correspondences with well documented folktales. Here they are, summarized:
- Hansel and Gretel. If you have a woman in the woods with unwanted children, the story of Hansel and Gretel immediately comes to mind. The plot differs in some minor details, and the emphasis on immortality in Lady Ambrosia is lacking in Hansel and Gretel. The reference to Lady Ambrosia changing the children into colors could be considered a parallel to the witch feeding Hansel until he is good enough to eat. In the Aarne-Thompson classification system, Hansel and Gretel is class 327A.
- The Old Woman in the Wood. This is another German folktale, somewhat similar to Hansel and Gretel but different enough in details that in the Aarne-Thompson classification system, it is type 442. In this tale, the child is not unwanted, but a victim of circumstance: her family is attacked by robbers on the highway, and she is the only survivor and is in fact saved by another victim of the woman in the woods.
- Weila Waile. Weila Waile is a variant of The Cruel Mother. This ballad was actual the first thing that came to my mind when I heard the Lady Ambrosia myth, because of the opening line of Weila Waile which runs “There was an old woman, and she lived in the woods.” This Irish variant of The Cruel Mother tells the story of a mother who murders her own child and is subsequently arrested.
- The Cruel Mother. Child ballad #20, Roud #9, The Cruel Mother is very similar to the Weila Waile variant, but differs in two key details (as well as the number of children). First, it makes explicit the reason the mother did not want her children—she became pregnant out of wedlock and wants to avoid the stigma associated with this. Second, instead of being arrested as in Weila Waile, the mother gets away with her crime but is informed by visions of her dead children of the punishment that awaits her in the afterlife.
- The Maid and the Palmer / The Well Below the Valley. Child Ballad #21, Roud #2335, The Maid and the Palmer, alternately known as The Well Below the Valley, features a plot more or less the same as in The Cruel Mother, with the exception of the interrogator being a “palmer”—that is, a pilgrim. The verses in The Cruel Mother detailing the punishment awaiting the mother in the afterlife originate from this ballad. The feature of the well in this ballad is interesting as a well also figures prominently in the plot of the Blacklist episode, but I refrain from details to avoid spoilers.
- Lady Ambrosia and Raymund Lully. While I did not find any evidence for a Lady Ambrosia myth that resembles the one cited in the Blacklist episode, I did find another myth concerning a Lady Ambrosia and Raymund Lully. The story goes that Raymund Lully was a lord in Majorca, where Ambrosia di Castello was a lady. They were both happily married, but one day Lully observed Ambrosia attending mass and was so struck by her beauty that he rode his horse into the church. He sent her a letter in which he claimed he had been struck by a “supernatural” love. Lady Ambrosia, acting on her husband’s advice, told Lully that only an immortal life would be sufficient to do justice to a so-called supernatural love, and advised him to seek the elixir of life.
Lully devoted 30 years of his life to this task and was eventually successful, but at this point both he and Lady Ambrosia had grown quite old. When he appeared to her with the elixir, he only recognized her after she spoke to him, her appearance had become so different with age. She told him that an elixir of life was wasted on the old, as it could not bring back lost youth, and asked that he let her die. Lully agreed to do this, but he himself had already consumed the elixir, and was thus compelled to suffer immortality in the body of an infirm old man. This story does not address any of the motifs of a woman in the woods or lost/unwanted children, but does account for the immortality aspects of the Lady Ambrosia myth. It is also worth noting that “ambrosia” is the term used for the food consumed the immortal Greek gods.
Source for the myth of Lady Ambrosia and Raymund Lully: Lévi, Éliphas. (1913). The History of Magic. Tr. Arthur Edward Waite. London: W. Rider & Son. pp. 319-323. Retrieved from https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/009026708
Review finished: September 10, 2019
Review posted: September 12, 2019
All images in this post are copyright 7/4 review / Short & Sweet WTF