Harvest is a time of celebration and plenty. It is a time when the wealth of a civilization pours forth, is stored, stacked, preserved and consumed. For many ancient civilizations, the crop itself was an embodiment of the death of the god, the sacrifice of a male deity in order to feed the masses. Leaving a mother goddess, who is represented by the earth to go through the winter months solitary. In the ancient Greek world, the mother goddess Demeter must relinquish her daughter Persephone to the underworld for the winter. The world transforms from fruitful to barren for the season.
As desolate as this sounds, there is more to it. According the Hymn to Demeter, a text important to the Eleusinian Mystery cult, the goddess was indeed desolate without her daughter. She was in great mourning when Hades stole away her daughter Persephone. When Demeter later stayed at the hall of a great queen, she remained depressed and despondent, unable and unwilling to find joy in anything. “Unsmiling, not partaking of food or drink, she sat there, wasting away with yearning for her daughter…”[i] This story is horribly tragic. This is about a mother’s loss, one that she could do nothing to change.
You’re probably wondering when I’m going to start talking about partying. The feast of Thesmophoria was exactly that, a party that was meant to reenact the exchange between Iambê and Demeter. Oh, and this party had one very specific guest list – no one else but adult women.
Seeing Demeter’s state, Iambê, true to her nature began to tease the mother goddess by telling jokes. Her use of humor brought a smile to Demeter, then eventually the mother goddess found herself laughing and enjoying herself. “Iambê, the one who knows what is dear and what is not, started making fun. Making many jokes, she turned the Holy Lady’s disposition in another direction, making her smile and laugh and have a merry thûmos.”[ii]
How does this fit together? How can a mother, stricken with sorrow over the loss of her daughter, find it alright to laugh, to find some measure of happiness?
The ancient Greek women who attended the Thesmophoria reenacted Iambê’s actions by telling jokes of their own. The feast was meant to be fun, a place to let go of social graces and to bring laughter, including raunchy jokes. It was a moment to let go of pain, responsibility and burden. Temporary release, but a release nonetheless.
Without the presence of men and children, these ancient Greek women were free from labels that were defined women’s roles by men and family. She is a woman, among women. In the Hymn, Iambê demonstrates camaraderie with Demeter and dearly wishes to please the mother goddess. She wishes to give Demeter some joy, any joy in a difficult time. Today, there is plenty of scientific evidence of the healing effects of laughter, it is even used by counselors and psychologists as a technique to help patients. Modern humorist Erma Bombeck said, “There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.” Most comedy today hits on painful experiences, with witty observations that reveal how absurd the truth really can be.
So each year, women in the ancient Greek world got together, had a party and sought to make each other laugh. There is much more to the rituals and celebrations of the Eleusinian Mysteries and a great deal of it remains…well, a mystery to us. However, the Thesmophoria remains my favorite. Perhaps it’s because a part of me wishes we had something just like it today.
Try to imagine the terror of it: It’s dark, near midnight, and you sit beside the bed of an ailing family member. Through the window comes the sound of a woman in the grips of deepest grief. She is unrestrained in her keening, raw with sorrow. It is not merely the mysterious sounds that fill you with fear, but also the knowledge that in the day that follows, a member of your household will pass from the world. The source of this wailing is a banshee. She is a fairy, though she is far from what a modern American imagination might summon up at the word: this is no mischievous winged sprite, but rather an omen given a woman’s form.
The banshee evokes an even earlier tradition of feminine warnings of death: in pre-Christian Celtic mythology, the badb, an aspect of the triplicate death goddess known as The Morrígan, was said to appear as a crow predicting the imminent death of an individual or the outcome of a battle. These omens are self-evidencing of a tie in the pre-modern Celtic world between death and womanhood, and an examination of the social forces at play give some insight as to why.
In order to examine the tie between femininity and death in the Celtic world, one must first understand the concept of liminal spaces. Deriving from the field of anthropology, “liminality” is usually used to denote a ritualistic space in which participants cross from one stage of life to another. The experience of liminality occurs right at the threshold between the two, when the participant is neither one nor the other.[i] Though often associated with coming-of-age rituals, liminality has strong ties to concepts of morality and death. Essentially, in entering the liminal space of ritual, the person who entered effectively dies and a new one is reborn.
Because of the frequency in which women died in childbirth in the pre-modern world, women had a unique relationship with this life-and-death liminality. Every time a woman entered the process of labor, she faced the very real risk that in striving to bring new life into the world, her own would be made forfeit. Women also inhabited a liminal space in the familial structure. Celtic society was organized into clans, built upon kinship lines. In order to sustain the lineage, which was traced patrilineally, women had to be brought in from outside.[ii] As such, the wife was both a vital part of her family structure and an outsider.
This duality of familiarity and strangeness may also have contributed to the concepts of witches and witchcraft.[iii] The Celtic wife would have been responsible for the management and feeding of the household, and even as she worked to sustain the family and continue it’s lineage, an unhappy wife with a certain amount of knowledge of plant lore could make her family very sick—even to the point of death. We can only speculate about the source of fears associated with witchcraft, but perhaps the witch served as a focal point for anxieties around this familiar/foreign liminal state.
Like the ancient Celtic wife, the banshee too is a liminal being. Banshees usually appear at midnight, the liminal moment between two days, and represent a person’s passage into a sort of pre-death space in which they continue to live but are known to be near death. They also were heard from outside of homes, but never seem to enter them—the inverse of an ordinary woman, who would be strongly associated with hearth and home. Also like the ancient Celtic wife, the banshee has strained but important ties to the line of kinship: certain families were believed to be “followed” by a banshee. To be from a family followed by a banshee may have been a symbol of a certain rank and a point of pride.[iv] Despite the sorrow and darkness they represented, they remained important and valued.
The lore of the banshee carries with it a lot of the contradiction of life as a pre-modern Celtic wife—life and death, familiarity and strangeness. She is both a man’s fear at the potential damage his wife could do to the family line, and a woman’s grief at the suffering she must endure. Though any modern scholar can only guess at the societal forces behind mythology and lore, the shared liminality between the banshee and the Celtic wife does present a strong rationale for the persistent ties between death and femininity in ancient Celtic societies.
In the ancient world, centuries of oppression lent a certain darkness to femininity—after all, why shouldn’t the husband fear the wrath of a woman taken from her birth family and constrained to the hearth, doomed to watch her brothers and sons die in wars entirely outside her control? There is power in a woman’s rage and a woman’s grief. Perhaps fear of that power is what gave rise to the prevalence of the badb and the banshee.
In ancient mythologies, goddesses dominate the dark depths of the Earth. Early civilizations based particularly in Mesopotamia, the Mediterranean and Europe strongly associate the Earth with primordial forces of creation. In past articles I’ve discussed the ancient associations with wombs and the underground. Yet these are extremely cyclic and dualistic. Essentially, in the eyes many ancient belief systems, one cannot have death without birth, birth without death.
In the same vein, mother goddesses are just as prevalent as goddesses of death. Whether it be the womb or the grave, both sides have dark overtones. But understandably, goddesses of death also reign over the underworld, therefore have direct a connection with darkness. We tend to see death/dark goddesses as counterparts to goddesses that represent life or the living. I’d argue that we are thinking about it in reverse and instead those goddesses of life are counterparts to death. In some cases, such as Nyx (which I will discuss more below), dark goddesses are not directly linked to death, but instead with the lack of life and light. Or even a state that existed before creation. So importantly, these are goddesses that existed and reigned long before life itself.
The Sumerian Ereshkigal is one of the earliest examples of an underground death goddesses. She is featured prominently in the Descent of Inanna, as her sister who ultimately slays Inanna and hangs the body on a meat hook along the wall of the afterlife. Inanna’s journey to the underworld is a process of stripping away parts of herself, culminating eventually in the stripping of her very life. Ereshkigal slays her sister because all those who enter the underworld must experience death. “She who receive the me of the underworld does not return. She who goes to the Dark City stays there.” It hits on the great mystery almost all of us wonder, what happens after life? If anything? Of course, the answer to this comes with great cost.
The Norse goddess Hel, dwells in Niflheim where she presides over the dead who were not chosen for Odin’s Valhalla or Freyja’s Fólkvangr. Meaning, she presides over the dead who did not die in battle or do not have what would qualify as a noble death. Hel’s realm doesn’t offer the feeling of continuance like Valhalla and Fólkvangr, it is a rather final, inglorious, an eternal state of dark. Even Baldur, one of the most loved of the gods cannot easily escape Hel’s realm. When the gods sought his return to the living, Hel declared she would only allow it if all things grieved for him. Note, she held dominion over death and not even the gods could make demands of her. Of course, someone wasn’t all that big of a fan of Baldur and did not grieve, so he continued to be quite dead.
The Greek goddess Nyx mentioned above, is an excellent example of a goddess of darkness, or in this case, specifically the goddess of the night. While she is not specifically linked to death, her nature is ultimately both primordial and dualistic. She existed before the world was created. Her identity is both the absence of light as well as the absence of order and one can further compare a symbolic connection to life and death cycles. Interestingly enough, Nyx is believed to have been the mother of the incarnations of light and day. Again, the dualistic existence is prominent. Cycles are of utmost importance as one exists alongside the other.
The Greek goddess Persephone contains this dualistic nature within one figure. She is both the goddess of spring (and therefore renewal and life), but cyclically dwells with her husband Hades in the underworld. Her absence on the surface brings the seasonal “death” of Autumn and Winter. (Check out other Unbound articles on Persephone here and here.)
These goddesses held such power that even the other deities in their pantheons were not immune from them. Burial of the dead is much like returning to the womb, to the dark sacred space of mystery.
To the ancients, the two states weren’t much different.
 Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer, eds., Inanna Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns From Sumer, (New York: Harper & Row, 1983), 61.
Imagery is one of the most important and versatile aspects of fiction. Especially in fantasy, we tend to default to symbolizing goodness with light and evil with darkness. Just consider Star Wars (which I classify as space fantasy). Not only are the villains aligned with the literal dark side, but the major bad guys—Darth Vader, Palpatine, even some stormtroopers—are decked out in black. Anakin’s clothes start out as tan and light colors but slowly turn darker as he approaches his alliance with the dark side itself. Visually, this can be fantastic shorthand, and not just in movies. We use it in fiction all the time, too.
Outside of the black-and-white, good-and-bad binaries, though, darkness embodies uncertainty, and uncertainty makes us uncomfortable. What could be more uncertain and uncomfortable than the prospect of what happens to us after we die? It’s a question people have been wrestling with for millennia, as evidenced by the some of the stories that have survived thousands of years. One of the most well known in the western world is the Greek myth of Persephone, sometimes known as Proserpina or Cora.
Together with her mother, Demeter, Persephone represents the natural agricultural cycle—the planting and sprouting of seeds followed by the maturation of the harvest. The last piece of the cycle, the coming of winter and dormancy of the natural world, comes later on, following Hades’s abduction of Persephone (courtesy of the earth splitting open and a golden chariot). In her grief for her missing daughter, Demeter ceases to perform her godly duties and allows the earth to wither.
When Zeus realizes he must intervene, he sends other gods as messengers to Demeter, but Demeter doesn’t listen. “Never would she let the earth bear fruit until she had seen her daughter” . And so Zeus sends Hermes to retrieve Persephone from the underworld, but not before Hades gives her a pomegranate seed to eat, ensuring she must return to him. Rhea tells Demeter of the compromise:
Come once again to the halls of the gods where you shall have honor,
Where you will have your desire, your daughter, to comfort your sorrow
As each year is accomplished and bitter winter is ended.
For a third part only the kingdom of darkness shall hold her.
For the rest you will keep her, you and the happy immortals. 
Though Persephone is allowed to live with her mother for two-thirds of the year, she must return to the underworld for the remaining four months. “In Homer the underworld is vague, a shadowy place inhabited by shadows. Nothing is real there. The ghosts’ existence, if it can be called that, is like a miserable dream.”  What must it be like to be like to be mistress of such a place?
I think that’s one of the questions more modern fiction, in the form of retellings and adaptations of Persephone’s tale, likes to explore. Roshani Chokshi’s The Star-Touched Queen is a fantasy novel that’s inspired by India and Indian mythology , but because every culture has myths exploring the mystery of death, there are obvious similarities to Persephone’s story. The Star-Touched Queen tells the story of Mayavati, the princess of Bharata, whose fate is to be married to death and destruction. In an effort to escape war and almost certain death, Maya pledges herself to Amar, lord of Akaran, “a kingdom of impossible power” and “a kingdom that all nations feared.” All too soon, Maya realizes that Akaran is really Naraka, the realm of the dead, and Amar is “the lord of justice in the afterlife” . As the story goes on, she must learn how to trust the man who decides fates and how she fits into his world.
A lot of times, when we retell myths or write stories inspired by them, we give more agency to the female characters, which is part of the reason we keep returning to them. As for why Persephone’s story in particular commands such attention, I think it has a lot to do with the liminal darkness of the underworld and the discomfort it inspires. We grow stagnant if we stay in one place for too long. Discomfort pushes us to change, and Persephone’s story is a clear representation of that process.
 Hamilton, Edith. Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods andHeroes. Warner Books, 1999. 53.
If I had to sum up the tales of the female selkie, it would go something like this….
Dear Mythological Fisherman,
Please don’t assume a woman you stumble upon (whether she is clothed or nude) wants to become your wife/girlfriend/lover. Maybe ask next time or you will only cause yourself and those around you a lot of heartache.
I happen to love stories of the seal people, known as selkies in Scottish lore and there are many ways we can analyze them. For the purpose of this article, I’m going to stick with
one interpretation that discusses the importance of consent. If you’ve never heard of the selkie, let me start with an overview of the tale. Keep in mind there are some variations, including stories of male selkies, but we’re (of course) taking a good look at the traditional story that features a female selkie.
A fisherman is lonely. One day he ventures to the beach, in a state of sorrow and there he spots a beautiful woman perched on a rock and nude. He falls in love and although she is strange, he doesn’t ask too many questions. Questions that most people in healthy, whether they be supernatural or normal relationships might ask…
Why are you naked?
What are your dreams?
I’m interviewing for the position of wife. What are your short term and long term goals?
Or even maybe,
“Hey wanna get married?”
He loves her so much that he whisks her away, believing he is saving her, after all she was naked and alone and clearly wants to marry him. (Because why else be naked on the beach, isn’t that the usual husband getting method?) Eventually they have children. At some point, she begins to pine for the ocean and becomes very sad. The fisherman who’s known all along that his wife is not human and is in fact, a creature known as a selkie, returns her seal skin to her. Without the skin, she remains trapped in human form. Once she gets the skin back she immediately transforms into a seal and returns to the sea. In most tales, she is never seen from again.
There are variations on this tale that can be found in Orkney, Shetland and Faroe, as well as some Scandinavian lore. Sometimes the fisherman doesn’t return the skin, but hides it, or doesn’t even know about it. But she ultimately finds it and returns to the sea. Not all tales make mention of children as products of the human-selkie union. In some, she returns to visit the children at specific intervals and for only a short time.
It’s a lovely tale, no matter the variation until we look at it closer. What could this tale really be telling us? I spend a great deal of time examining the myriad of symbols used in mythology concerning women. I’ve written quite a few Unbound articles on this, particularly highlighting Greek mythology. But the Celtic tale of the selkie is something else entirely. Unlike the Ancient Greeks, this is not a warning of what a beautiful woman can do to harm, mislead or even kill a man. The tale of the selkie is certainly a warning to men, but a warning concerning female consent.
We don’t get the selkie’s side of the story, sometimes she isn’t capable of even speaking. Her nudity tells us she is vulnerable. That vulnerability is intensified with the inability for her to return to her form as a seal without her skin and therefore is perpetually unable to return home. She lives life for the fisherman as he would wish her life to be, not a life that she chooses for herself. The fisherman seems to get everything he wishes. The beautiful wife he loves, children and the removal of loneliness… or has he? There continues to be a sense of solitude about the fisherman and he spends a good deal of his time attempting to prevent his selkie wife from obtaining her skin. There is little sense of other players and that loneliness from the beginning of the story that launches him forward into marrying the selkie in the first place remains despite this.
In fact, her lack of choice in the matter is a big problem. This is a story of inevitability.
The selkie is from another world, her hopes and desires are not considered and she is thrust into a domesticated life with little to say on the matter. It is no wonder she looks to escape back into the wild of the ocean with the sense that she was never meant to be bound to the human world in the first place.
I once heard a saying–I don’t know how true it is–that in the ancient eras, boys were more often associated with water, while girls were more often associated with fire. The reasoning given to me was that boys spent more time in the outdoors and were more prone to fall into wells, rivers, oceans, etc., while girls spent more time indoors or around fires and were more prone to burning themselves.
Whether this is true or not (and it isn’t like our ancestors are known for their super meticulous record keeping and preserving), it is interesting how few stories one can find that associate women with water. The ones that do tend to be negative–sirens, mermaids, women on a ship as “bad luck.” Which is why I find the connection between women and water in the Arthurian legends fascinating–first, because they exist, and second, because they are equal parts “good” and “bad.”
Really, “good” and “bad” are too simplistic a way of describing the relationship women in these legends have with water. Women in the Arthurian canon are notoriously complicated characters, but they also make a valuable contribution to the medieval discussion about the roles of women. From a theological (and thus academic) standpoint, there were two primary schools of thought on women. Camp A: Women are like Eve; they are all temptresses who work to bring about the downfall of mankind and their passions must be kept in check (see: Tertullian, Augustine). Camp B: Women are like Mary; they are good and chaste and through them, we receive hope (children) for the future (see: Julian of Norwich, Hildegard).
The answer to the question “Are women more like Eve or Mary?” is probably “yes.” Also, “no.” Which is precisely how many of the Arthurian texts answer this same question. Particularly when it comes to the women associated with water.
Though there are several, I will briefly cover two Arthurian women and their complex, watery ways.
The first that comes to mind is probably the Lady of the Lake. Depending on which
version of the legend one reads, she goes by many names: Nimue, Vivienne, or simply “The Lady of the Lake”…and any spelling variations of those. Many might consider her “good”–she gives Arthur his famed sword, Excalibur, after all!
…But she does so with the caveat that Arthur will owe her a favor one day (spoiler alert: This particular deal never goes well in literature.)
The “favor” she asks for later is that he behead Balin, one of his own knights. So this would seem to make her evil again.
Arthur refuses, and Balin takes of the lady’s head instead. Arthur is unhappy, but the lady doesn’t die; she’s a fairy, after all.
She also raises a human boy as her own. His name is “Lancelot du Lake”–or “Lancelot of the Lake.” See? She’s good again!
…But later, she forces Merlin to teach her all of his secrets of magic and then traps him in a tree for all eternity, depriving Arthur of his adviser just when he needs him most. So…evil again.
When Arthur dies, he asks Sir Bedivere to return the sword Excalibur to the lake. After three tries, Bedivere finally does so and sees a woman’s hand reach up from the lake, grab the sword, brandish it three times and then disappear. It is then Arthur knows he can cross the sea to Avalon. So…perhaps she is good, after all.
Accompanying Arthur across the sea is also his sister Morgan le Fay, whom I’ve written on extensively here and here. Morgan le Fay (also a “fay” or “faerie”) shares many of the Lady of the Lake’s qualities–she, too, is sometimes “good,” acting in the best interests of Arthur’s kingdom, and sometimes “evil,” acting against Arthur and his kingdom.
But perhaps it’s best to view these two women as acting in their own interests more so than determining their morality based on how they act in the interest of others. Considering the significance of symbolism to the medieval world, I think the fact that these two women in particular are associated with water helps to show their fluid nature, as well as the fact they “ebb and flow” according to what is needed. Are they Eve or Mary?
Yes. And no.
Though this fluidity might make them seem fickle, it’s important to note there is a consistency to their actions. Both the Lady of the Lake and Morgan le Fay pursue their own interests and goals to the exclusion of others’, and while their own goals come into conflict with Arthur’s at times, everything in the Arthurian narrative works toward the ultimate goal of bringing the downfall of Camelot.
Still, this is one of the reasons I adore the women of the Arthurian canon–they are complicated. Though popular narrative has tried to boil them down to “good” or “bad” distinctions (Morgan le Fay, “bad”; Lady of the Lake, “good”), when one actually digs into the stories themselves, it just isn’t that simple. Medieval literature is known for its driving plots, not its complex characterization. Which makes it all the more interesting to see these types of nuanced female characters represented in medieval narratives.
Runner Up Idea: I really want to write about Perceval’s sister one of these months, and I thought about writing her story here since she meets the Grail Knights by boat…but the Lady of the Lake seemed to align more closely to the theme. But keep an eye out for my discussion of Perceval’s sister!
Source Note: All summaries in this article are from Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, both the Winchester and Caxton MS.
We’re taking a week off, BUT stay-tuned for the kick-off of our July theme of Women and the Ocean next Monday.
In the meantime, if you enjoy our analysis of the Ancient Greek world, I recommend taking a gander over to The History of Ancient Greece Podcast. Their latest episode is on the “Goddess of the Young” which explores the paradox of Artemis, young women and childbirth.
Perspective is one of the most powerful tools available to writers. It defines the reader’s entry point into the story and shapes their view of the characters. One of my favorite examples of this can be seen in The Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner. The series, which is currently made up of five books with a sixth planned, was inspired by ancient Greece. In Turner’s world, three small countries occupy a peninsula off of the main continent—Sounis in the west, Attolia in the south, and Eddis plunked between the two.
The first book in the series, simply titled The Thief, is told in first-person from Eugenides’s perspective. He’s a teenaged thief whose only chance at getting out of the Sounis prison is to try to steal a mythical stone that is said to confer on the holder the throne of Eddis. Although Eugenides, known as Gen, is the main character of this book, it’s a tertiary female character who makes only a minor appearance toward the end—the queen of Attolia. Her given name is Irene, but in Turner’s world, leaders take on the name of their country. Gen is in prison—again—when he finally meets Attolia, whom he describes as follows:
“Standing in the light, surrounded by the dark beyond the lanterns, she seemed lit by the aura of the gods. Her hair was black and held away from her face by an imitation of the woven gold band of Hephestia. Her robe was draped like a peplos, made from embroidered red velvet. She was as tall as the magus, and she was more beautiful than any woman I have ever seen. Everything about her brought to mind the old religion, and I knew that the resemblance was deliberate, intended to remind her subjects that as Hephestia ruled uncontested among the gods, this woman ruled Attolia.” 
This seems like a lot to unpack, especially if you’re not familiar with the series. Our brief glimpse of Attolia tells us two important things—she’s beautiful, and she’s powerful. However, as Gen points out just a page later, though Attolia is beautiful, she is less than kind—to the point of ruthlessness. There are even stories of how she poisoned her husband on their wedding day in order to claim the throne.
Through Turner’s deft use of Gen’s first-person point of view, readers are exposed to the tension among these three countries as well as his strong and poor opinion of the queen of Attolia. Consequently, it’s easy to side with him and dislike her. So imagine the reader’s surprise when Turner gives Attolia a point of view in book two, The Queen of Attolia, titled after the character in question. If she is ruthless, it is because she has had to be. “I inherited this country when I was only a child, Nahuseresh,” she says. “I have held it. I have fought down rebellious barons. I’ve fought Sounis to keep the land on this side of the mountains. I have killed men and watched them hang. I’ve seen them tortured to keep this country safe and mine.”  Perhaps Gen is right when he says she’s not kind, but perhaps she was never given the chance to be.
By using Attolia’s point of view, Turner makes it clear that Gen’s initial assessment, though not wrong, isn’t the whole picture. Through her point of view, we get passages such as this: “She thought of the hardness and the coldness she had cultivated over those years and wondered if they were the mask she wore or if the mask had become her self. If the longing inside her for kindness, for warmth, for compassion, was the last seed of hope for her, she didn’t know how to nurture it or if it could live.”  We find that the true Attolia is a far cry from the stony-faced queen she presents to others.
Although Turner’s series offers a fully realized fantasy world as well as twisting plotlines, its biggest strength lies in the characters. I can give only a brief glimpse of Attolia’s development, especially because each installment comes with its own revelations and surprises, but I hope it’s enough to illustrate how our perception as readers is directly influenced by the perspective(s) a writer chooses. I don’t think anyone relishes being proven wrong, but in this particular case, the journey Turner takes us on in order to prove us wrong about Attolia is more rewarding than being right.
 Turner, Megan Whalen. The Thief. Puffin Books, 1998.
 Turner, Megan Whalen. The Queen of Attolia. Harper Collins, 2000.
When taking a deeper look into the stories of Lilith and Eve, understand that organized religion was an important part of creating order within early civilizations. When I say “civilization” I’m referring to settled towns and cities that are permanent places of human dwelling. In the prehistoric world human life was mostly nomadic in nature, with belief systems that fit into that lifestyle.
The Ancient Greeks, a significant influence on Western social ideas concerning
patriarchy (that’s a whole other article to explain), asserted that women needed to be restrained for the good of civilization. “Zeus eventually puts an end to the successive overthrowing of kings by conspiracies of wives and sons. Establishing a patriarchal government on Olympus. Zeus introduces moral order and culture…” They believed that women were more animal-like, subject to base instincts, sexually wild and would destroy civilization if not properly controlled. As my friend E.J. likes to say, “social ideal does not equal social reality,” so certainly there are plenty of examples of women in Ancient Greek society who were not at all controlled.
But the idea was there. If there is a fear that women can dismantle civilization, what role
did women play before civilization was established? As evidenced by Lilith, early civilizations like both the Ancient Greeks and the Israelites expressed concern over patriarchal order, which became synonymous with civilized order. Nomadic groups became “barbaric” and “uncivilized.” In these early groups women seemed to have had at least a place of respect, if not reverence or even dominance.
Could Lilith and Eve’s story have more to do with the fear of the ruin of civilization and a return to equality of the genders?
Many of the earliest artifacts found in and around Europe, Asia Minor and the Middle East depict an array of what is known as Venus figurines dating from this prehistoric time period.
Don’t let the name mislead you, these figurines have little to do with the Roman goddess Venus. Instead these date from prehistory, the Paleolithic to the Bronze Age, a time long before the Roman Republic. Most famous (and bearing the same misleading name) is the Venus of Willendorf. The depictions of women are carved from stone, antlers, bones or shaped from clay and fired.
So why am I talking about all this? You thought this was an article about rebellious women? Bear with me.
These figurines may represent something far bigger than the shape of a woman crafted into the perfect handheld icon. Certainly, the exaggerated focus breasts, hips and the pubic triangle, seem to indicate that these were for fertility,
but this not certain. It is important to note that these figurines are found throughout Europe – Germany, Austria, Italy, France and Russia to name a few. Further, they have strong connections to other symbols and figurines found in the early Mediterranean cultures like the Minoans of Crete and places like Çatalhöyük in Turkey. These connections and the wide-ranging areas they have been discovered may indicate something much bigger than reverence of fertility alone. They could represent a social ideal, a wide-spread reverence for womanhood—sacred
womanhood, socially equal, or even superior womanhood.None of this is definitive, but the sheer amount of Venus figurines point to something focused on women.
In Jewish mythology, Lilith was the first woman created by God. The earliest written form of her story appears in the early Middle Ages (between the 8th to 10th centuries), but is much older. It is no surprise however, that it was written during a time that marked significant struggles for new social orders. As Adam’s wife, Lilith refused to have sex in the missionary position saying to Adam, “We are equal to each other inasmuch as we were both created from the earth.” Before you get caught up in the Kama Sutra of sexual positions, realize the story has much more to do with social dominance. Lilith didn’t just have a problem with how she and Adam engaged in sex, she had a problem with the inherent idea that she was, “fit only to be in the bottom position, while I (Adam) am to be the superior one.” When Adam refused to treat her as an equal, Lilith left him with all the credit card bills and the Garden of Eden mortgage and went out to find herself in the great unknown of the world beyond.
So here we are, Lilith decided she was equal and wasn’t going to put up with Adam’s ideas of superiority. Not so demonic is that? Ok hold on to this information, you’re going to need it to put together the pieces of what the conflict was really all about.
Adam complained to God, “the woman you have given me has run away.” Note the concept here that Adam has ownership over Lilith as seemed sanctioned by God. So Lilith ran away and God seemed compelled to “give” Adam another wife.
Then came Eve.
Lilith isn’t in the Bible, but Eve is and unlike Lilith, Eve is rather cooperative with Adam. She doesn’t spend much time fighting with him and seems to accept her relative lower position. However, Eve is ultimately tempted and finally eats the forbidden fruit. When she does this, she was not transgressing Adam, instead she was transgressing God by accessing the Tree of Knowledge he has forbidden. God in these stories is the ultimate male power who has exerted order and established a great place to live (i.e. civilization). Eden has inadvertently rejected the social ideal of her subservience, by not only disobeying God, but also through the desire and obtainment of knowledge. Because of Eve’s disobedience (and of course Adam too) they are cast out of Eden.
Oh no! A woman has caused destruction of civilization that the Ancient Greeks feared.
The mythological Lilith became a demonic power after leaving Adam. There are many forms her legend has taken over the ages – the cause of sickness in infants, an evil spirit, a lamia, a spirit that brings death and destruction, a succubus and a hyper-sexualized temptress that brings ruin to men who can’t help but desire her. Sometimes all or some of these ideas are wrapped together. These concepts of Lilith go all the way back to Sumer, indicating that Lilith was a shared cultural idea, as the prehistoric Venus figurines were a shared cultural idea.
The metamorphosis and focus on Lilith’s refusal to adhere to the social order set out before her, indicates a strong patriarchal reaction to (at the very least) a much more egalitarian value system between genders. With the establishment of civilization and increasing successful births rates due to settled lifestyles, the importance of woman waned before the need for a definitive social order in the face of the increased population centers. With the increase of things to own and wealth to accumulate (things difficult to do in a nomadic culture), a system of inheritance rose up. No longer could possessions be passed communally since communities were much too large in this structure. Familial relations over community relations become more important for the purpose of passing on goods and property. In order to determine familial relations, a formal system of mating (marriage) had to be established as well. In a patriarchal structure this amounted to essentially ownership over their spouse(s) as well as their offspring.
Lilith is what happens when a woman refuses to accept a lower position.
Eve is what happens when a woman desires knowledge.
A whole lot of blame. (Really Adam you couldn’t just be bottom sometimes?)
Ultimately, Lilith isn’t quite the demon she is made out to be. Eve isn’t quite the betrayer she is made out to be. Instead they represent some of the earliest fears of female agency.
Arguments we continue to hear today when women’s rights are discussed, argued over and… well, are also demonized.
 Sarah B. Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves. (New York: Schocken Books, 1975) 2.
 “But the woman took off the great lid of the jar with her hands and scattered all these and her thought caused sorrow and mischief to men.” “Pandora: Hesoid, Works and Days.” Theoi Greek Mythology, Accessed 02 June 2018. http://www.theoi.com/Heroine/Pandora.html
True Crime shows are my guilty pleasure. I love a good detective mystery…the “who done it” and the reveal scenes and trying to figure out how it all happened…it’s exciting to try and put all of the pieces together to solve the mystery along with the detective. But for me, the why is always more important than the how. I find myself constantly drawn to the motive, and am most often let down when the detective looks at the camera and says, “He won’t talk, so I guess we’ll never know why he did what he did.”
In most murder mysteries, at least on the true crime shows I watch, we often get the how (Col. Mustard hit him over the head with a candlestick as he entered the ballroom), but are so often left without the why (they seemed like such good friends…what could ever drive him to murder?). That’s the beauty of fiction–it can satisfy our need to know both the how and the why. To wrap up our “women who murder” theme, I would like to turn to one of my personal favorite stories: The Oresteia by Aeschylus. This trilogy contains one of the most famous murderesses in mythology–Clytemnestra, who murders her husband Agamemnon and tries to kill her own son Orestes. But unlike those True Crime shows, we are never in the dark about why she kills…She wants revenge.
To be completely fair, Agamemnon’s entire household is cursed. His father, Atreus, murdered his own nieces and nephews then (*gag alert*) fed them in a stew to his twin brother. Cannibalism in Ancient Greece was definitely in the top “deadly sins,” so the gods put a curse on the house of Atreus, and–due to Fate–Agamemnon never stood a chance in the first place.
But Clytemnestra’s story begins a bit later, right before the Trojan War (as all great Greek myths do). Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus has just had his wife kidnapped by some Trojan idiot named Paris, and Menelaus launches the famous thousand ships after her (we’ll definitely cover Helen another time). The problem, however, is that Agamemnon has somehow offended Artemis, and without her blessing, their ship will never make it to Troy. Her demand? The sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter, Iphigenia.
This poses some problems in Greek mythology. After all, the Olympian gods aren’t really the human sacrifice types, and so this story generally puzzles mythologists. It also opens the door for a wide variety of interpretations of exactly what happened to Iphigenia. Perhaps she was sacrificed. Perhaps Agamemnon began the sacrifice, but Artemis swooped in at the last moment and saved her. In either case, the stories all agree on one thing: Agamemnon lied to his wife, Clytemnestra, telling her that Iphigenia was to be married off to Achilles (or some soldier), then took her daughter away where Clytemnestra never saw her again.
The winds were lifted, and Agamemnon’s ship sailed on to Troy…but Clytemnestra was left only with the rumors that her husband had sacrificed their eldest daughter just to go fight a war he had no business meddling with in the first place.
So it’s easy to understand why, with her husband gone for ten years, Clytemnestra had time to move on, find a new man, and of course, plot her revenge. The new man was Aegisthus, a cousin of Agamemnon’s, and here’s where the story gets a bit fuzzy, depending on which version of the myth you’re reading. Since I started out by mentioning The Oresteia, I’ll give you Aeschylus’s version…but it’s not entirely complete. In Ancient Greek theatre, all violence took place offstage, which means that even in Aeschylus, we don’t see anything; we only hear about it after the fact.
What we know is that when Agamemnon arrives home, he’s greeted warmly by his wife and invited inside. Then there’s some screaming, Agamemnon’s new slave-girl runs in, there’s more screaming…the guess is left to the audience. The play makes it clear that Clytemnestra and Aegisthus had planned this murder for a long time–possibly ever since Clytemnestra lost Iphigenia those ten years ago.
There’s something satisfying to me in this story that is often missed in those True Crime documentaries–we actually get the why and the how all at the same time. Clytemnestra feels justified in her actions, and gladly tells the details of how she murdered her husband and his slave-girl. When the Chorus rebukes her for being so “shameless,” she replies:
I am no shallow woman, whom ye mock.
With unconfounded heart, albeit ye know,
I speak; and whether thou wilt praise or blame,
‘Tis one to me. Lo, my right arm hath wrought
The handiwork of justice : he is dead,
My husband, Agamemnon. He is dead!1
By calling her murder “the handiwork of justice,” she makes her position as judge and jury plain. She then goes on to tell the Chorus that she didn’t recall any of them speaking out against the injustice her husband wrought when he sacrificed their daughter. Where there was no justice, she would take it for herself. She then goes back even further, stating that she did it even for the children Agamemnon’s father slew,2 arguing her case to the Chorus, who represents the interest of the audience.
The Chorus does not buy her reasoning.
Her son Orestes, eventually comes home and learns from his sister Electra what has happened. According to the custom, Orestes as the eldest son is responsible for avenging his father’s death. However, killing a blood relative was a mortal sin…it’s what got his house cursed in the first place. So, the question for the rest of the play becomes primarily one of logic: Given those two premises, what action should Orestes take? Avenge his father by killing his mother and angering the gods? Or anger the gods by not avenging his father’s death?
(Ancient Greek writers certainly took the whole “be cruel to your characters” advice to heart.)
Orestes takes the first option, but Clytemnestra does not let him take her without a fight. Rather, as Orestes storms his mother’s room, Clytemnestra is there to meet him. Again, no onstage battle ensues except for an exchange of words and arguments, then they exit…and only Orestes returns, his mother’s blood on his hands. In some versions of the story, it’s clear she would rather fight to the death, willing to kill her own son rather than be killed–so she meets him at the door with a battle axe (I’m almost ashamed to say how awesome I find this image–her son is coming at her with a sword, and she meets him with a battle axe. Gutsy.). This was likely meant to show how cold-hearted she was, but I think it gives us another insight, as well…it shows how strongly she believed in her “cause.”
In any version of the tale, but perhaps especially Aeschylus’s version, Clytemnestra is intelligent and fierce. She argues with sound logic and makes a strong case that her murder is justice, rather than revenge. She is patient, waiting over ten years to exact her revenge (or justice, depending on how one looks at it), and she does not go down without a fight.
However, in spite of all of this, Clytemnestra’s tragedy is that she’s still just a pawn in the great game of Fate. Agamemnon’s house was cursed before she got there, and the only way to lift the curse was through her son, Orestes, being tormented by the Furies in retaliation for her own murder. And that only came after a lengthy (a whole play’s length, actually) courtroom scene where Orestes pleads his case before Athena. Was it justice? Or revenge? And how thin is the line between them?
And if the difference between the two is motive, then what had been Clytemnestra’s true motive? Or Agamemnon’s? Or Atreus’? No one in this family (except perhaps Iphigenia) is innocent of another family member’s blood, after all.
In those True Crime documentaries I love so well, there’s a similar theme–when a motive is discerned, it’s seldom unique. The motives of jealousy and revenge have withstood the test of time. But no one pleads that to the judge. Rather, everyone justifies themselves in their own mind. After all, justice is “an eye for an eye,” and if one feels their eye has been taken, don’t they deserve the right to enact the same on the offender? Yet, as the tragedy of the House of Atreus so well illustrates, perhaps an eye for an eye really does make the whole world blind…