She appears in numerous fairy tales: cruel and ruthless, miserly yet unfairly generous to her own ugly daughters. She feeds the greedy, self-pitying elements of the psyche and starves, neglects and abuses the innocent children: Hansel and Gretel, the good and beautiful Cinderella, Vasilisa, Snow White. She is a terrible parent to the psyche: insecure, desperate, plagued with fears and loathing; she is murderous.
She is the cousin of the wicked witch, the sister of the predator. Like them she is a shadow archetype, but unlike them she resides in the house of the personality while they attack from the outside. She is the inner voice of negative self-talk, the self-criticism, self-deprecation. She seeks to control the good and innocent elements of personality because she is afraid. Of course, not all stepmothers are evil, and birth mothers and fathers can be just as tyrannical but the symbolism of the stepmother archetype is one of severance and separation: she represents a fracturing of the psyche that is difficult to re-integrate.
Just as in the personality these shadow elements come from fractures and suppression, in society the repression of femininity has led to the demonisation of strong women. Strong women are often discriminated against. Female politicians, prominent feminists, and leaders are judged on their appearance and personality, their very femininity is called into question time and time again. They are shaped into the evil step-mother or the witch, representing, in the outside world, this part of the psyche that is so difficult to manage. She is the product of misogyny.
In Cinderella and Snow White she is defeated, with the help of dwarves or the fairy god mother, but ultimately by the prince. From a feminist perspective, this story is achingly patriarchal, complete with the happily-ever-after ending. A woman cannot save herself, she must play the role of the helpless victim and await her rescuer. From a symbolic perspective the prince represents the animus of a woman’s psyche, although this strong defensive archetype need not be a masculine.
In the story of Vasilisa the Wise, as told by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés, the young heroine defeats her cruel step-family with the help of the little doll her dying mother had given her, symbolising intuition. The stepmother’s plot to kill the sweet and uncomplaining Vasilisa was to send her into the forest in search of fire from Baba Yaga, the terrifying witch-crone. With the help of the intuitive doll Vasilisa is able to complete impossible chores and return home with a fiery skull on a stick. This burning gift of awareness watches the stepmother and step sisters all night and by the morning they are burnt to cinders.
The evil stepmother archetype and the process of burning up one’s inner tyrant through awareness and observance is reminiscent of Eckhart Tolle’s ‘pain-body’ and his advice on dealing with it. The pain-body concept is the tangle of emotional damage everyone carries around with them. Sometimes it is dormant and sometimes it is active. It seeks to feed itself through creating drama and misery. Tolle advises close observance of the pain-body, and the cultivation of self-awareness, in order to overcome it’s controlling influences.
Astrologically, as the pathological parent, she resides in the fourth and tenth houses, in Cancer and Capricorn, in the afflicted Moon and Saturn. She is cunning and resentful as the dark side of Scorpio, Pluto and the eighth house can be and she and her daughters’ gluttony could be represented by an unruly Taurus, Venus and the possessive second house.