“[Friendship] was a bond worth fighting for.” – Ragnarök Unwound
I have the pleasure of introducing this month’s theme—female friendship! We’re going to do things a little bit differently today. As you know, here on Unbound, I write about the depiction of women in fiction. As you may not know, I run a micro-press called Sky Forest Press. We focus on science fiction and fantasy novels with female protagonists and diverse casts. I chose to focus on this niche because it’s a little harder to find in the bookstore, especially adult epic fantasy with female protagonists.
That’s one of the reasons I was attracted to Ragnarök Unwound, written by Kristin Jacques, author of Zombies Vs. Aliens and the upcoming Marrow Charm from Parliament House Press. Ragnarök Unwound is the story of Ikepela Ives, who is known as the Fate Cipher. The Fate Cipher’s job is to untangle the threads of fate. The only problem is Ives is the first part-mortal Cipher, and no one ever taught her how to use her powers. She runs away from her duty until one day, she can’t anymore. A Valkyrie locates her in a bar and pleads for her help in stopping Ragnarök, which has been set in motion. Jacques blends Norse and Hawaiian mythology for a truly unique tale filled with a unique ensemble cast.
Ives is an endearing protagonist. She’s a little bit snarky, a little bit messy, a little bit awesome. She deals with having one foot in the world of mortals and one foot in the world of gods—if not gracefully, then with an awful lot of heart. But the real charm of the book is the friendships she makes. At the beginning of the story, she’s already friends with Jules, a brownie. Along her journey to stop Ragnarök, she acquires Hildr the Valkyrie and Hel, the Goddess of Death, too (and a few boys, but that’s not what this post is about!).
And each woman is unique. Jules, because she’s a brownie, humorously loves cleaning, and she owes Ives a blood oath. That’s not why she sticks around, though. She sticks around because she’s friends with Ives, truly, and does whatever is in her faerie power to protect her. Hildr is a Valkyrie, a warrior from Norse mythology. She’s quite the opposite of Ives and Jules—stoic and unfamiliar with human customs. Even so, she proves her loyalty and does her part in stopping the coming apocalypse. Jacques puts a spin on Hel, the Goddess of Death, and portrays her quite differently from Cate Blanchett’s turn as Hela in Thor: Ragnarok. Here, she’s a gamer who doesn’t often visit the mortal realm because half her body is skeletal. With Ives, she doesn’t feel the need to glamour herself to appear normal. Even though the gang is up against nearly insurmountable odds, the strength of these friendships is what gets Ives through.
I love stories of oddball people banding together to save the world, and that’s really what attracted me to this story and why I wanted it for Sky Forest Press. I’m hopeful that you’ll enjoy it, too! Ragnarök Unwound will be published on January 8, 2019, but you can add it to your Goodreads list now. You can also check out Kristin and Sky Forest Press on Twitter.
[Featured image: The Ride of the Valkyrs by John Charles Dollman. 1909]
Witchcraft possesses some deep and dark historical roots that make it a fascinating area of endless study. While men were also targeted during the trials, such as with Giles Corey who was pressed to death by large stones, the word “witch” itself is more often associated with women and carries quite a few connotations. So while we have gone from witch hysteria to the concept of being a witch as something more trendy, (and I mean hey, I enjoy listening to my Queen Stevie Nicks and am happy to blast “Sisters of the Moon” anytime of the year while twirling around in a black shawl, so I understand the appeal), but at the same time, the actual study of witchcraft has become deeply commercialized by superficial brands and consumers.
Earlier this year, perfume-brand Pinrose announced they were going to sell a “Starter Witch Kit” through Sephora stores with a retail price of $42. The kit was set to include
sage, rose quartz crystal, and tarot cards, according to altpress.com. The backlash from those citing witchcraft as a real religion and not a gimmick to make teens feel on trend was loud enough to get the kit pulled from being manufactured. I was kind of fascinated by this whole ordeal because it reminded me of how, over these many years, we have gone from witch hysteria, associating it with the devil, and of course murdering real women over false accusations, to trying to package it into something pretty and aim it at target audiences for entertainment purposes. I don’t identify as a witch religiously, but I can certainly identify with the rage that comes from being damned over something until it suddenly becomes fashionable.
One of the reasons why I am interested in the whole concept of witchcraft is because of the power that one word holds. When I hear the word, I think of a woman who is not afraid to use her identity and power, who is in touch with her individual spirituality, and who, at the end of the day, does not care if her power scares those who toss the word around like an insult. Okay, in that regard maybe I do identify with some aspects of being a witchy woman, but I know the word has different definitions, practices, and aspects that make it truly hard to logistically define. But then again, I think women are sick of being defined in static ways, which is one of the reasons why I roll my eyes when I hear the term “strong, female character” in the writing world. Well yeah, all women are strong. I don’t need to be told that. Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer was an
incredibly strong witch, but she was also wicked smart, a loyal friend, and experienced some incredible growth in terms of her identity, sexuality, and overall powers. I imagine she’d easily flay open anyone who came to try and execute her for witchcraft. While her powers at one point came from some dark places, she never sold her soul to the devil, which is what many believed witches did during the times of the trials and witch hunts.
Witch hunters primarily focused on nonsensical confessions and often linked a woman accused of witchcraft as being someone who had sexual relations to the devil. Take the story of Märet Jonsdotter, for example, who was accused of having intercourse with the devil, riding a man as a horse into a legendary meadow, and attending witches’ Sabbaths there. In 17th century Sweden, she was the first to be tried during their witch hunt, also known as “The Great Noise.”  At first, she denied the accusations and was not able to be executed until the laws changed as witch hysteria continued to rise. The laws in Sweden changed in regard to confession, and Jonsdotter was accused of witchcraft, sentenced to death, decapitated, and then burned at the stake. Unfortunately, much of this happened after one of Jonsdotter’s suitors was attacked by another suitor, so I get the feeling her death was more due to the patriarchy as opposed to casting curses in the meadow.  This whole concept of women being synonymous with the devil throughout history and religion is something I’ve embraced as being delicious and hilarious because in my mind, it all comes down to people fearing women who use their power to embrace their ambitions and perhaps choose to live an unconventional life that does not appease societal norms.
Witch is power, not a commercialized trend or makeup kit, and women should be reclaiming the word and taking back how we define it, just as we have done with many other slurs and insults. We get called these words and many others, usually for scaring those who don’t want women to be in charge, and frankly, those people should be scared. If anything, I believe in the power of rhetoric and words, so taking back what others use as an insult and evolving it into a meaning of empowerment for women is true magic in my eyes.
The Salem witch trials in colonial Massachusetts are one of those dark spots of American history that continue to intrigue us even as they warn us about the dangers of mass hysteria and the necessity of due process. As is often the case, the history surrounding this has not been kind to some of these women. We remember the initial accusers—Betty Parris, Abigail Williams, and others—as hysterical and attention-seeking, a view that Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible only solidified.
Some women, like Tituba, we barely remember at all, and what we do is hardly accurate. She’s been immortalized in works such as Miller’s or Marion Starkey’s 1949 book The Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Enquiry Into the Salem Witch Trials, both of which depict her as the cause, however unwittingly and indirectly, of the witch hunt. Starkey suggests that, “in the absence of the elder Parrises, Tituba yielded to the temptation to show [Betty and Abigail] tricks and spells, fragments of something like voodoo remembered from the Barbados” (Starkey 30). She goes so far as to say she put Betty under “the spell of an evil, thrilling dream” (30). Neither is Miller concerned with historical truth when he suggests that hysteria arises because Samuel Parris catches his daughter, Betty, and his niece, Abigail, in the forest with Tituba, dancing and “traffick[ing] with spirits” (Miller 10). He then says to Abigail, “I saw Tituba waving her arms over the fire when I came on you. Why was she doing that? And I heard a screeching and gibberish coming from her mouth. She were swaying like a dumb beast over that fire!” (10)
Essentially, both Starkey and Miller attribute the cause of the hysteria to Tituba’s otherness, whether she’s simply telling the girls stories from her home of Barbados or deliberately teaching them “voodoo.” In reality, we know very little about Tituba. But in her 1986 novel, I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, Maryse Condé blends history and fantasy in order to give Tituba a fully realized narrative.
After her mother is hanged for stabbing her master in self-defense, Tituba learns about healing herbs from a woman on the island named Mama Yaya. Mama Yaya also teaches her that “death is merely a passageway and the door always remains open” (Condé 124). Throughout the novel, Tituba is able to talk to and consult with her dead loved ones, her mother and Mama Yaya among them.
As E.J. wrote about Baba Yaga, the witch Condé presents is just as adept at healing as at harming. “I was born to heal,” Tituba says, “not frighten” (12). In death, Mama Yaya warns her that even though she won’t be able to escape the white man’s world, she needs to use her powers to serve others and not for revenge.
This is tested when Samuel Parris brings Tituba and her husband, John Indian, to Massachusetts as slaves. Here, the story becomes familiar. Tituba grows fond of Parris’s wife, Elizabeth, and their daughter, Betsey. They’re sickly and have little stimulation, so she makes herbal remedies to help them feel better and entertains them with stories about Barbados. It’s Abigail, though, who learns of Tituba’s innocent acts and turns their intentions sinister. Eventually, she’s the one who leads Betsey and the other girls in the accusations.
Condé deliberately ties the girls’ accusation of Tituba to her blackness. In Salem Village, the adults view Tituba and John as having “close connections with Satan” simply because of their skin color. Betsey and the rest of the girls pick up on this belief and eventually turn against Tituba. Later, once Tituba has left Salem Village, she learns that “[t]he girls were being manipulated by their parents. It was all a question of land, money, and old rivalries” (129). She was merely a scapegoat, like many “witches” throughout history. Witches make easy scapegoats because, as K.P. wrote, they live on the outskirts of society while challenging the power structures in place. Tituba was an easy target because of her otherness. She was black and had knowledge the villagers of Salem couldn’t fit into their worldview.
In different parts of the novel, “witch” is defined differently. The girls, before they’re afflicted, define a witch as “someone who has made a pact with the devil” (61). Hester tells Tituba what Cotton Mather says of witches: “Witches do strange and evil things. They cannot perform true miracles; these can only be accomplished by the visible saints and emissaries of the Lord.” (96)
It’s not until late in Tituba’s story, when yet another man has demanded yet another thing from her, that she realizes the truth. “Everyone gives that word [witch] a different meaning. Everyone believes he can fashion a witch to his way of thinking so that she will satisfy his ambitions, dreams, and desires…” (146)
Therein lies the truth of this novel. A witch can’t define herself. Society always does it for her. Tituba doesn’t think of herself as a witch until she’s called one by others. People like Abigail Williams demand unreasonable things from witches, and when these demands can’t be fulfilled, they turn on them. Witches hardly ever get to tell their story, which is part of the reason audiences latch onto stories like Elphaba’s in Wicked. Similarly, in I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, Maryse Condé gives Tituba the voice she’s been denied all these centuries.
Condé, Maryse. I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem. The Random House Publishing Group.
Miller, Arthur. The Crucible. Penguin Books.
Starkey, Marion. The Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Enquiry into the Salem Witch Trials. Anchor Books.
You tell ’em I’m coming… and Hell’s coming with me.
I’ve often thought these words, while said by Wyatt Earp in the movie Tombstone, had to have been first uttered by a pissed-off witch somewhere in history.
Women overcrowd the rosters of those who bear the label of witch. Even in the modern lexicon, the very word summons the image of a woman… specifically a threatening woman. But why? What is it about these women that are threatening? What about them warranted the extreme punishments we’ve all read about? Was it really just religious?
In my opinion, it was not so simple. I see witch hysteria as one of the many incarnations of the status quo reaction to female agency.
Interestingly enough, the major historic witch hysterias occurred during periods of significant change or disruptions to social norms. In fact, attacks on women in general have been heightened when a social system feels threatened by change.
All witches are dangerous, but more than that, they are influencing, they can spread their ideas to others, they are able to trick or enchant others to their will. Witches are not merely black sheep who do not fit into the social structure, they are dangerous because they are women who buck the system. Even further, they have the ability to instill their ideas as the foundation of a new configuration, disrupting the original power structure, converting it into something new if left unchecked. This is why, during times of witch hysteria, it became important for the existing power structure to expose and eliminate witches. These women were powerful and threatening because they were capable of changing minds and bringing new ideas that decrease the authority of the existing order. It is important we identify witches less with witchcraft, but with women whose ideas, lifestyle and practices challenge patriarchy.
Classical tales seek to teach that women of power are not only dangerous to entire families but also communities. Witches are featured prominently as the stepmother who is wicked and has usurped not only the position of a loved mother but male power. From hunting Snow White to turning children into swans, she disrupts the status quo to the detriment of all. The lesson is clear, if women get power they will cause harm for everyone, men and women alike. It is no wonder, when we examine historic accounts of witch trials, torture, executions and burials they are all conducted with a sense of urgency. It seems that people of the past feared that even in death, these women had the power to spread her ideas. Her very existence having happened at all, is threatening.
Witches feature prominently in my fiction. Sometimes they are purely tattered ghosts of my imagination, but frequently, they are based on a historic figure. In my short story, Tides and Lavender, I created a fictionalized version of the Scottish witch Lilias Adie. What attracted me to her was the manner in which she was buried.
After being tortured and confessing to being a witch, Lilias Adie died in prison and was subsequently buried within a brackish mudflat. Beliefs from the time included the fear that dead witch could rise again, animated by the devil himself, so a hefty stone was placed over her grave sight to ensure she was unable to do so.
In my story, Lilas is buried alive and of course, she does indeed rise again. The fear surrounding a revenant is less about the actions of the undead, but the ability to extend their corruption beyond themselves; zombies bite and create new zombies, vampires suck the blood of others and turn them into mindless servants, companions or new fully independent vampires. They can spread these things to people you know and love, turning them into not only strangers but into villains in their own right. But witches, even in their monstrous fictional form do not spread a physical “disease,” for lack of a better term. Witches spread ideas that are counter to the civilized structure of the society.
Western witch hysterias of the 17th and 18th centuries coincides with the Reformation and Counter Reformation. For a society dominated by the rules of Catholic Christianity for centuries, the threat of Protestantism was just as threatening to the social structure as it was the spiritual. Witches in Catholic regions were accused of fouling the Eucharist or using it for spells. Protestant regions were much more susceptible to this phenomenon. This may be due to the intense need to differentiate themselves from the Catholic Church as beacons of righteousness and in doing so, validate their emerging social structures. This opened the possibility for many ideas and it is no wonder that female agency was particularly suppressed during this transition.
The Lilias Adie of my story is victim to all these things. She recognizes that the label of witch is an attempt to separate her from other women and that the strategy of “divide and conquer” has been effective against women. She chooses otherwise, even in the face of betrayals from her fellow women. In doing so, she plants the seeds of female resistance.
My fictional Lilias is terrifying and angry, she is raw with pain. She is the victim, but despite her torture and death, she rises again. She can’t be held down, no matter how many stones that are put over her grave.
When she rises, it is terrible, but more importantly it is infectious.
Featured Image: Oz the Great and Powerful – Movie Poster 2013
My apologies to the reader for the really bad pun in the title. I just couldn’t resist.
I have a very vivid memory from childhood. I was four or five, and I was sitting in the living room of our apartment watching The Little Mermaid on VHS. My dad was on the couch watching with me. I don’t remember how I felt about the movie up until this point, but I do remember the moment that terrified me.
To add some context, I happened to be a pretty adventurous child who wasn’t afraid of much–no monsters in my closet or under my bed. No night terrors or fear of the dark. But the most scared I ever remember being as a small child happened toward the end of The Little Mermaid. It’s the moment when the sea-witch Ursula’s identity is revealed, and suddenly, she begins to grow…and grow…and grow. I remember screaming, “Daddy, turn it off!” as I covered my eyes with my hands. I didn’t watch The Little Mermaid for probably another ten years.
To date, no mythical or fairy tale creature terrifies me quite like the witch. She can steal your voice; your life; your very soul. The Slavic Baba Yaga is particularly fearsome–her house stands on chicken legs. And, well…there’s just something not quite natural about a house that’s stilted on two chicken legs.
Witches. Are. Terrifying.
And yet, one of the little-known (or little emphasized) points about the fairy tale witch is that she’s as likely to help as harm. In a Russian version of Cinderella–“Vasilisa the Fair”–Baba Yaga threatens to eat Vasilisa if she does not do as she’s told; however, Vasilisa does as the old woman requires, and it is through her patience that Baba Yaga helps her to marry the Tsar in the end.
This doesn’t make Baba Yaga good; but it does show how even the witches in these stories have their own codes of honor and are perhaps more nuanced than we often give them credit for.
In Japanese folklore, there’s the Yama Uba who, like Baba Yaga, can be harsh, but will also help a lost traveler or bestow wealth on the needy. I have heard the argument that the witch in “Sleeping Beauty” isn’t all bad–she puts the girl to sleep, after all, rather than kill her. Perhaps even she had a modicum of feeling?
Fairy tale witches–like everything else in a fairy tale–serve more as symbols than independent characters. Though, what they’re symbols for has stirred a great deal of debate.
Some argue that witches are women who represent an independence that society fears; that she is the unbridled power of women.1 Some argue that witches represent the fears of the female protagonist–the part of herself that she represses, but a very real, tangible image of what she has the potential to become.2 Still others say that the witch is a symbol of the negative aspects of femininity–rather than nurture children, she eats them; rather than create healing herbs, she dabbles in poisons and harmful potions.3 Perhaps the fairy tale witch is all of these, or at least a mixture of some.
What I think is interesting to point out when trying to determine the role of the fairy tale witch is the etymology of the word itself. For one, the word is so old that determining its exact etymology is difficult. The OED marks it of “indeterminate origin,” but that doesn’t stop there from being theories. On the one hand, it could be cognate with the words “wicked” and “wicce” (meaning “bad”). On the other, it could be kin to the words “wizard” and “wise”–both words with positive connotations.4 In many early English manuscripts, the word was used interchangeably to refer to a woman who dabbled in dark magic or a woman who used healing herbs to save someone’s life. It seems that the English language has long recognized the nuance and the duality of the term, even if they more often associate the word with the former rather than the latter.
And yet, all of that seems to be consistent with what we know of fairy tale witches themselves. They can be malicious and malevolent, seeking to harm two poor children lost in the woods or poisoning their stepdaughter with a shiny red apple. But they can also be good, helping a young maiden escape her evil stepmother and find love or casting charms of protection when it suits her purposes. But perhaps it is her unpredictability or perceived capriciousness that causes the word “witch” to give us such uneasiness. I can’t say for sure.5
Yet, I can think of no other fairy tale character as nuanced or as complicated as the witch. Even within the confines of the fairy tale universe, she stands apart as independent, making decisions as they come; wielding her skills and talents as she pleases. Whether or not this is a “good” thing, I don’t know.
Due to slight technical difficulties this week, we are going to take this opportunity to cross-promote our friend @greekhistorypod and his podcast on “The Two Goddesses”–Demeter and Persephone, one the goddess of the harvest, the other the goddess of the seasons. One can’t exist without the other, right? Enjoy!
As we read in K.P.’s post, crops and harvest were inescapable concerns of life in ancient civilizations. Today, unless we’re farmers of some sort, we think about the harvest less, but it’s no less important. However essential it is to human life, it’s not exactly the stuff of heroic sagas. Unless they’re writing about a farming family or community who might be devastated by a bad harvest, authors tend to stay away from this theme. Usually, the closest fantasy comes to mentioning it is by making the protagonist an idealistic farm boy who’s somehow the long-lost son of the king and therefore is “the chosen one.”
All of that is to explain why this month, I had to get a little creative when it came to keeping with the theme. I’m going to look at Soul of the World, the first book in the Ascension Cycle, an epic fantasy series by David Mealing. The world is inspired by the European settlement of North America. On the coastline are the colonies of Sarresant, including the capital city of New Sarresant, whose culture is reminiscent of France. To the south are the colonies of Gand, reminiscent of England. To the west of the colonies is the Great Barrier, which separates them from tribes indigenous to the land, among them the Sinari, from which one of the protagonist hails.
Crop harvests are certainly of concern to characters in the story. In fact, the New Sarresant colonies are experiencing food shortages, which help foment the growing revolution against the monarch in Sarresant proper. Although this is an important aspect of the world-building, I’m focusing instead on the harvesting of magic. The book deals with multiple systems of magic instead of the standard single system. The main system I want to look at is one wielded by Erris, one of the three main protagonists.
Erris is a binder, which means she has the ability to “bind” different energies found along leylines to either herself or others. Here’s an excerpt from her perspective: “Beneath the camp she saw the familiar network of leylines, a crosshatch of energy pulsing with colors and forms. Three she recognized: the green pods of Life, the red motes of Body, and the inky clouds of Death. All the others were gray haze, indiscernible from one another and useless if she tried to bind them. There were six known leyline energies: Body, Shelter, Life, Death, Mind, and Entropy.”  And each binding offers specific gifts. Of the bindings Erris can use, Life enhances her senses and heals wounds, Body enhances her strength and speed, and Death enables her to sever enemy bindings, thus rendering them ineffective.  The more energies a binder has access to, the more powerful and sought-after they are.
There are a finite number of energies, and binders can use only what they find in the natural world. There’s no creating bindings, but it is possible to discover them, and that’s part of what the colonies of Sarresant and Gand are fighting over. “Conquest and colonies brought the great powers gold and trade, but more important, discoveries of new bindings. The academics argued larger claims of territory led to a stronger leyline grid, able to retain a broader spectrum of energies and bolster the gifts of those who could tether them. It had proven true, though, even in her lifetime. The Thellan War, five years before, had resulted in a select few of Sarresant’s binders gaining access to Entropy.”  Part of Erris’s challenge is that the Gand commander has found a new energy, which Erris refers to as Need or Hope. When Erris realizes she, too, is one of the rare binders who can access it, she has to learn to control it on her own with no one and nothing to guide her.
What I think is interesting about this magic system is exactly why I chose to write about it for this theme. In many fantasy books, the causes and conduits of magic are relatively intangible—incantations, mysterious power only certain people or races can tap into, abilities given by the gods. But here, Mealing uses the natural world to influence this magic system. Body is plentiful where there are mass crowds of people, Entropy is caused by decay and chaos within the natural world, and Life is found near men and beasts. The energies don’t simply exist in nature; they arise from within the environment itself, which means binders like Erris basically harvest what nature offers to them. Only in this case, instead of crops, it’s energy.
In a different storyline concerning a different magic system, we learn that these energies aren’t the only things that can be harvested. A Sinari woman named Llanara gains the companionship of a kaas, a dragon-like animal who has access to magic based on a color system. For lack of a world-specific term (at least in book one), I’m calling it “color magic.” Toward the end of the book, during an attack on a neighboring tribe, she finds out about a new color. When the women of the village retaliate against her attack, Llanara’s kaas, Vekis, subdues them with merely a thought.
“What was that?” [Llanara] whispered to her companion. “What did you do to stop her?” Black.
“Black,” she murmured to herself. A new gift. “It takes away the magic of others?”
“Vekis, I would know more. You harvest it from killing our enemies?”
More silence. A maddening trait. It meant she was close, so close to understanding. 
Vekis and the other kaas are reluctant to reveal their secrets, but if Llanara is correct, his black power doesn’t come from nature. Rather, it comes from draining the magic of others. Vekis’s color magic and Erris’s power to bind are similar in their operation—in that the user needs sources of energy to draw upon—and yet vastly different in their targets. In this respect, they form a dichotomy—if not of good and evil, then at least of neutrality and evil. When Erris and other binders draw upon energy within the environment, they’re using the available natural resources, which can replenish over time. When Vekis and other kaas use their power, though, we infer that it’s less than natural and, consequently, negative. Through the use of both, Mealing creates an interesting shorthand for readers and makes it clear that the heroes are ones who ally with the natural world instead of abusing it.
 Mealing, David. Soul of the World. Orbit, 2017. Loc. 3089.
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.
I grew up in a rural farming community so harvest time has always left an impression on me. It’s when all the lush, green crops disappear and suddenly you can see through a corn field again. I’ve always loved summer for the fresh produce, and there’s something about harvest that always makes me a little sad. Another cycle has ended…and it’ll be a few months before it begins again.
But that’s just me being poetic, I suppose. And thinking about harvest and all the farmers I know back home also makes me think about the history of women in agriculture. I don’t know of a single farm that’s a one-person operation, and I know many women who are proudly involved in that work today. So this week, I’m offering a post from Successful Farming about women’s roles in agriculture through the ages:
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.