Poison is frequently referred to as “a woman’s weapon” because it allows murder to be committed from a distance and often requires subterfuge to deploy, which is probably why it doesn’t come as a surprise that women were at the heart of the so-called Affair of the Poisons that plagued Louis XIV’s court from 1677 to 1682.  Both men and women of the court sought out supernatural means to win Louis’s favor. The king’s longtime mistress, Madame de Montespan, was accused of resorting to love spells to keep his affection after childbirth had changed her figure.
The unravelling began with the execution of Madame de Brinvilliers, who was charged with poisoning her father and brothers in order to inherit their estates. She and her accomplice, the Chevalier de Sainte Croix, were alleged to have used Aqua Tofana, a poison that originated in Italy and was sold primarily to women who desired to be rid of their husbands, although other sources point to arsenic being the poison of choice.  de Brinvilliers was executed in 1676 by beheading and burning at the stake.
It’s been written that in her final moments, de Brinvilliers implicated “half the people in town.”  Deaths of courtiers that previously seemed unfortunate but not suspicious were now looked at from a new perspective, jumpstarting an inquiry that would last for years and end in the execution of over thirty people.
The Oracle Glass by Judith Merkle Riley is loosely based on this time period and straddles the line between historical fiction and fantasy fiction. The story is narrated by Genevieve Pasquiers, who later becomes the famed (and fictitious) Marquise de Morville. She describes herself as “an ugly girl who can’t walk right” . Her father educates her in classical languages and philosophy, instruction which leads her to view herself as a woman of logic.
Genevieve’s mother is based on the infamous Madame de Brinvilliers. It was purported that de Brinvilliers and her lover, de Sainte Croix, tested their poisons for the thrill of it, and much like them, Madame de Pasquiers is depicted as poisoning under the guise of charity. de Pasquiers and the woman she’s based upon are arguably psychopaths, as they need little encouragement to take a life beyond the prospect of their own pleasure.
When Genevieve’s mother poisons her husband and mother-in-law, Genevieve’s uncle assaults her in an effort to take her inheritance. Genevieve vows to avenge herself and her father, runs away, and crosses paths with La Voisin, a historical figure and, supposedly, a witch. La Voisin promises Genevieve, who can truly see the future by looking in an orb of water, to make her “strong enough to destroy” her uncle and transforms her into the Marquise de Morville, a 150-year-old fortune teller.  Fortune-telling allows Genevieve to support herself as well as repay La Voisin for the education. Although Genevieve focuses on fortune-telling and leaves the poisoning to La Voisin, she’s also determined to get revenge on her uncle, and she can’t escape getting caught up in the Affair of the Poisons.
As a doctor treats Genevieve for a broken arm, he correctly guesses she’d been injured by a man and says, “If it had been one of your witches, now, you wouldn’t have lived out the week, and there wouldn’t be a mark to show.”  The implication is that patience, thought to be one of women’s primary virtues, can also aid in immorality, for women are patient enough to wait for an opportune time to slip poison into a drink, to wait for a note covered in poison to be delivered, to wait for poison to take effect.
The Oracle Glass presents a variety of women who murder for a variety of reasons—for personal pleasure, for societal advancement, for money, for revenge. In real life, these women intrigue us because they’re statistically less likely to commit murder than men. Fiction allows us to explore the motivations behind such crimes and offers a means of coping with the fact that, in real life, there are often no easy answers.
 Duramy, Benedetta F. “Catherine La Voison: Poisons and Magic at the Royal Court of Louis XIV.” Toxicology in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, edited by Philip Wexler. Academic Press, London, UK. 2017. 135-140.
 Riley, Judith Merkle. The Oracle Glass. Sourcebooks, Illinois, 2012.
Shadow on the Crown is the first book in Patricia Bracewell’s trilogy about the real-life Emma of Normandy, who was queen of England twice over. Emma was married off to King Æthelred of England in 1002 by her brother Richard, the duke of Normandy, to form an alliance they hope will keep the Danes away from their shores. Although Æthelred’s first wife was only a consort, Richard makes Emma’s crowning a requirement of the treaty.
In the context of the novel, men view women as having one purpose—to bear children. Kings, especially are in need of heirs. Before the news of her marriage, Emma overhears her brother speaking with Swein Forkbeard, the king of the Danes. She’s surprised that their conversation moves “from the breeding of horses to the breeding of children” so easily. 
Because men need women in order to further their own lines, in a way, childbirth is also where women’s power originates. Æthelred disrespects Emma and resents that her brother made crowning her part of the treaty. The one thing that would solidify her place as queen would be to give birth to a son. Before she sails for England, her mother tells her, “Never forget that your first and most important task is to bear a son. It is your son who will be your treasure and your protector, even while he is yet a babe. It is your son who will give you power, who will bind the king to you in a way that he can be bound to no other living woman.” 
In “Medieval Mothers Had to Marry and Murder to Get Their Way,” Carolyn Harris writes, “Queens were supposed to value their roles as both wives and mothers, but when forced to pick between the two, the children always came first.”  Like with Emma, there is a breaking point where queens who are both wives and mothers must choose to honor and elevate their husband or their children. Many choose their children because motherhood imparts greater power than mere wifehood.
If bearing children confers power on women in general and on queens in particular, it’s a power that isn’t absolute. Æthelred’s first wife dies in childbirth, and Bracewell mentions that Emma’s own mother had lost three children in addition to giving birth to eight surviving ones. Emma’s rival for the king’s affections, Elgiva, knows that if Emma has a child, it will reinforce her standing as queen. When Emma becomes pregnant, Elgiva has her waiting woman slip poison into Emma’s wine to cause her to miscarry. There is no easily available source for Emma experiencing a miscarriage, so it’s safe to say this is a fictional part of historical fiction. However, the point stands. Forcing Emma to miscarry is a way for Elgiva to take Emma’s power away and to assert her own.
Fantasy fiction, on the other hand, allows authors more leeway with how they represent traditional relationships. While historical fiction should adhere to facts as thoroughly as possible, fantasy, though often based on history, has no obligation to history. In Shadow on the Crown, although Emma is a queen, her power is limited. In Daughters of the Storm, Kim Wilkins presents a medieval-Norse-inspired fantasy world where women can take the throne and rule. Women are seen as more than simply vessels for bearing children, but that doesn’t mean they can always escape the importance of motherhood.
The book follows five sisters who are daughters of the king of Thyrsland. A few years prior, Rose, the second daughter, was married off to a neighboring king, Wengest, in order to promote peace. Her central conflict is tied to her motherhood. She’s given birth to a daughter, Rowan, but Rowan’s true father is Wengest’s nephew. The king himself seems to be barren, though he doesn’t yet suspect. Unlike her historical counterparts, Rose feels a lack of power in her situation. She wrestles with her duties as a mother and a queen as well as her desires as a woman. Ultimately, much like as the historical queenly mothers Harris writes about, Rose realizes that “[s]he was a mother before she was a lover.”  Her identity as a mother, particularly the mother of a future ruler, outweighs all else.
The importance of family line comes into play with Bluebell’s story, too, even though she doesn’t have any children and expresses no desire to have any in the future. The oldest and already trained as a warrior, she’s the natural choice for her father’s heir. Wylm, the sisters’ stepbrother, is goaded by his mother into wanting his ailing stepfather’s crown. Consequently, he must come up with a plan to best Bluebell, who is said to be unkillable.
Through a misunderstanding, Wylm comes to the mistaken belief that Bluebell has a child she’s kept secret. Wylm is able to persuade the boy, Eni, to accompany him and uses him as a hostage when he confronts Bluebell for the crown. When he finally sees his stepsister, he cries out, “Is he important to you, Bluebell? Do you love him? I find it hard to believe that there’s a heart inside you.”  His opinion of Bluebell is so low that even though he believes Eni to be her son, he seems to doubt she’d give up the crown to keep Eni safe.
Wylm believes Bluebell cannot be a mother figure as well as a warrior or ruler. He believes she must choose. Consequently, when Wylm tries to push Bluebell into the role of mother and use that seemingly compromised state to his advantage, she’s able to resist that push. She’s compassionate enough to give herself up so Eni will be safe, but she’s also strong and determined enough to best her stepbrother anyway. In this, Bluebell has managed to sidestep the usual expectations that women, especially women who would be queens, marry and bear children to further the royal lines.
The common thread in Shadow on the Crown and Daughters of the Storm is that the prospect of bearing children often imparts a certain amount of power upon women. While not universally true, women like Emma of Normandy who were able to seize and use one of the few forms of power available to them can be inspiring to read about.
At one point in Daughters of the Storm, one of the sisters advises a dying woman afraid of leaving her son alone to tell herself “that, in him, you will live still. And in his children, and in their children.”  This doesn’t have to be limited to literal children, but rather legacies of any sort. Emma of Normandy lived a thousand years ago, and yet her legacy lived on through her children, and it lives on today through the stories we tell of her. So, you see, immortality is already within our reach.
Featured image: The Ordeal of Queen Emma, William Blake.
 Bracewell, Patricia. Shadow on the Crown. Harper, 2014.
One of my favorite college professors once said something in a class on renaissance drama that changed how I looked at history and storytelling. While discussing the enduring power of certain stories, she said that people have been telling stories about the same things for centuries. What changes is the language used. A character from one of these plays written in the early 17th century could be dealing with alcoholism or depression, and the audience understood those problems, but we as a culture didn’t develop those words until much later.
In that spirit, while E.J., K.P., and Meagan have all discussed literal shapeshifting, I’m going to be taking a more metaphorical approach, specifically looking at the type of shapeshifting most seen in modern superhero stories. DC Comics: Bombshells is a comic series that takes place in an alternate universe where the DC heroines get involved in World War II. The various intertwining stories follow Wonder Woman, Aquawoman, Vixen, Zatanna, and many more, but I’m going to focus on Batwoman, Stargirl, and Supergirl.
The first volume opens in Gotham City in 1940 at a women’s professional baseball game, where the players are forced to wear masks to hide their identities to protect themselves from harassment. This isn’t an origin story. In this world, the Batwoman, AKA Kate Kane, has been active on the baseball field as well as in the streets fighting crime, even merging the two when a group of criminals attacks the crowd gathered at the stadium. When Amanda Waller offers her the chance to help end the war, Kate doesn’t hesitate because, as she says, “I want my life to have greater meaning”1 a meaning she can’t get on the home front. Whether that’s a character flaw or strength is left up to the reader.
No matter the reason, she heads off to Berlin on a spy mission, where she continues to be Kate Kane in public and the Batwoman in private. In every superhero story, the protagonist is, essentially, two people—their heroic identity and their secret one. Kate is no different. She feels unable to contribute to the extent she wants as Kate Kane, so she becomes the Batwoman.
While she represents America in the war, Stargirl and Supergirl hail from the Soviet Union. In this universe, Kara Starikov (elsewhere known as Kara Zor-El) landed in Russia when she was sent to Earth. Consequently, she was found and adopted into a Russian family, including an adoptive sister, Kortni Duginovna. In 1940, they join the Night Witches, Russia’s legendary squadron of female fighter pilots. After an accident with Kortni’s plane forces Kara to reveal her alien powers, they pressed into service as Stargirl and Supergirl, “pinnacles of Soviet civilization” and “defenders of the motherland.”2 Their identities are turned into propaganda.
The question with all three of these characters, and with superheroes in general, is which identity is the true one? How does donning a costume and wearing a mask alter the original identity? In “What’s Behind the Mask? The Secret of Secret Identities,” Tom Morris discusses this dual nature, particularly in regards to Superman and Batman, and comes to the conclusion that “a duality has replaced a singularity, but with a new, fused unity.”3 In essence, a superhero character isn’t their secret identity at certain times and their heroic identity other times. They’re both simultaneously.
In her essay “What Is a Female Superhero?” Jennifer K. Stuller argues that “stories about superheroes can teach us about our socially appropriate roles (or, if we’re savvy, how to subvert them), how we fit into our communities, and about our human potential, both terrible and great.”4 As we do with all fiction, we learn about ourselves and other people through superhero stories. So while we read about a superhero’s two identities becoming one, we realize that we, too, can transform.
Circling back to Bombshells, at the end of volume two, Stargirl’s and Supergirl’s story intersects with the Batwoman’s in London, where they face the threat of the Tenebrae, soldiers brought back from the dead. All the heroines we’ve been introduced to so far are here, so there’s a lot going on in this climactic scene. Among the chaos, though, the Batwoman says to Stargirl, “Symbols and stories got power, sugar. Fairy tales and propaganda. It’s all in the story you tell. It’s all in the story you sell. . . . Write your own ending.”5 This brief, powerful moment confirms that we don’t have to wait around for change to find us. We have the power to change our story, and through that, we transform ourselves.
The Batwoman’s words make an impact on Stargirl, too. The memory of them nudges her into an otherwise unexpected choice that forever changes her life and her sister’s. “I am a new story,” she says. “I am a story for mothers to tell their little girls. We must decide for ourselves what we would create, what we would change, and what we would leave behind. What you leave will be the thing that most defines you. What you save will be the thing that saves you.”6
These are tumultuous times, and the challenges we face personally and as a society can seem overwhelming. But since we’ve told stories, we’ve taken strength from them. If we start small, start close to home, save the things we love so they can save us in return, maybe eventually, the shape of our society will shift into something kinder and lovelier for everyone.
Bennett, Marguerite, et al. DC Comics: Bombshells, Vol. 1: Enlisted. DC Comics, 2016.
Morris, Tom. “What’s Behind the Mask? The Secret of Secret Identities.” Superheroes and Philosophy: Truth, Justice, and the Socratic Way, edited by Tom Morris and Matt Morris, Open Court, 2001, 250-266.
Stuller, Jennifer K. “What Is a Female Superhero?” What Is a Superhero?, edited by Robin S. Rosenberg and Peter Coogan, Oxford University Press, 2013, 19-23.
Bennett, Marguerite, et al. DC Comics: Bombshells, Vol. 2: Allies. DC Comics, 2016.
Growing up, one of my very favorite book series was The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander. I actually, purely by accident, read the series out of order. I saw The High King at my local library and thought it looked like just the sort of book I would enjoy. Little did I know it was the last book in a series. I eventually read all the other books…then read them again…and a few dozen times more after that. In fact, I just revisited them over Christmas. They deal with typical themes found in children’s literature, but one of the profound messages it contains is its message on identity–delivered both through the hero-with-no-past, Taran…and also through three shapeshifting enchantresses.
If you’re unfamiliar with the books, they’re about an orphan boy (because all great fantasies start with orphans) named Taran who is raised by a great magician. But Taran has no magic of his own; he’s only the “assistant pig keeper” who, like most children in these tales, wants to seek adventure outside of the confines of his farm. In The Black Cauldron (the book, not the Disney movie), Taran and his adventuring group stumble upon the Marshes of Morva and three old women. The old women are comical, talking about things such as whether they should eat the adventurers or turn them into toads and what-not. Naturally, this makes the group uneasy (for they do not want to be turned into toads), but draws laughter from the young audience (who finds the idea rather ridiculous).
That night, the group camps outside of the three women’s home, and Taran sneaks up to their window, only to catch a magnificent sight–the three old women aren’t old after all, but young, beautiful maidens weaving a tapestry he can’t really see.1
The next morning, the women (old, again), offer to give Taran and his friends the cauldron they seek, if Taran will give up his most valuable possession–a brooch that helps him portend the future. Yet, even as he does so, he recognizes that the three women meant him to find the cauldron, and also that they meant for him to trade his brooch for it.2 This realization makes the young man uneasy–yes, the three old women look ridiculous and sound a bit flighty and perhaps seem frail…but they possess a danger he would do well to fear.
It wasn’t until years later, on re-reading this series yet again, that I even thought to take a peek at the “Author’s Note” at the front of the book. There I discovered that Alexander drew much of his inspiration for The Prydain Chronicles from the Welsh Mabinogi, and that many of his ideas and characters were a part of Welsh legend. Who, then, are the three old women from the Marshes of Morva? The women who appear as they wish to be seen? Whose power is dangerous because it is undefined?
The Morrigan is a Welsh triune goddess whose form changes as she wills, and who, it seems, possesses a power that is feared above else. She is the goddess of war and death, whose form as the raven is an ill-omen before battle. In fact, in “The Children of Lir,” one character says just that. Aoife, after having turned the children of Lir into swans against the gods’ will, faces punishment from her foster-father. She begs that he spare her life, and he responds:
“That I will, for the snuffing out of your soul is but to show you mercy. Answer this question, for you are bound to do so: of everything that is on the earth, or above it, or beneath it, or everything that flies or creeps or burrows, seen or unseen, horrible in itself or in its nature, tell me what do you most fear and abhor?”3
Shaking, she replies:
“I fear Macha, Badb, and Nemain, the three forms of the Morrigan, the goddess of war, of death and slaughter, and most of all, her blood-drinking raven form.”4
Because she says this, he deems her punishment to be trapped in the form of a raven and haunt battlefields forever.
And therein lies the true horror of shapeshifting–does becoming the thing you most fear help you overcome fear? Or just become fear itself?
In the case of the Morrigan, she is feared because she is unknown. She is unknown because her nature can never be pinned down. She is the goddess of war, but also a mother. She presides over fear and death, but also over love and life. She takes, but she can also give. She is an ugly hag, a beautiful maiden, a raven, a banshee. She is the “Phantom Queen.”
Even her modern moniker–“phantom queen”–gives us insight into her nature. “Phantom” means “illusory” or even something that exists in one’s mind, giving the impression that she is not actually real. The wailing on the battlefield is all misleading; the raven portending death in war is a figment of imagination. In shifting her shape to take on other identities, the Morrigan has no identity at all.
Lloyd Alexander addresses this idea in the last book of his series, The High King, when the women of Morva come back to visit Taran after he has defeated the Death-Lord. They return in the form he once spied them in–beautiful maidens. Two wore robes of shifting colors, while the third remained shadowed in a cloak of black,5 depicting the shifting nature of the Morrigan, but also the constancy of darkness and fear. He admits that he did not recognize them at first, and one reminds him they choose their form as the situation “seems to require it.”6
They tell him they have come to deliver a tapestry to him–the same tapestry he’d seen them weaving all those years ago. It’s his tapestry, with the story of his life. They did not choose the pattern, they say; he did that. They just thought he should see what the result was of his choices.7 But, he tells them, he no longer sees his path clearly, and then says, “No longer do I understand my own heart. Why does my grief shadow my joy?”8 For this, they have no answer and fade away, leaving him (and us) to question.
And therein lies the truth of shapeshifting–we fear it because it is us.
At the end of the series, Taran realizes that he is not who he was before; he did not know himself then, and he isn’t sure he knows himself now. Perhaps we do become what we fear; we change our shapes “as the situation seems to require”; we lose our identity in the sea of identities.
Though Aoife lives the rest of her days as a raven, she is not burdened by the quest for identity, as the Morrigan is; as we all are. And perhaps it is not fit to think of identity as clothes we slip on and off. We fear what is illusory and crave permanence. But while permanence cannot be found in an identity that alters with the wind, perhaps it is through the illusory quest that we find our permanence. With every shape we put on, we come closer and closer to the true one.
For, as Alexander reminds his young readers, identity is perhaps more about altering our perceptions than our shapes. In Taran Wanderer, Taran goes to the Morrigan and asks for their help in uncovering who he really is. Instead, they offer to turn him into any animal he likes. Offended, he refuses their offer, and one of the women says, “We were only trying to make things easier for you.”9 It’s much easier, she seems to say, to change the outward appearance and accept that as inward reality than it is try it the other way around.
We often place value in appearances; “what you see is what you get.” And yet, so often, the outward appearance is a mask for a false identity. There is no easy answer or path for how to discern reality from illusion, but it is a journey worth taking.
“Is a man truly what he sees himself to be?’
“Only if what he sees is true.”10
Alexander, Lloyd. The Black Cauldron, 1965, Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1990, pp. 147-148.
Ibid, pp. 160-161.
Ellis, Peter Berresford. Celtic Myths and Legends, Constable and Robins, 2002, pp. 64.
Alexander, Lloyd. The High King, 1968, Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1990, pp. 285.
Demigoddesses were rare in Greek mythology. The few mentioned tended to be some variety of nymph. One exception of that trend were the Amazons.
Hippolyta is a notable figure in Greek mythology made all the more famous by the Wonder Woman franchise, but she was not the first queen of the Amazons. Her mother, Otrera is most frequently credited with founding the Amazon nation.
In some versions of the myths, Otrera is the daughter of the eastern wind and consort to Ares. In others, she’s a daughter of Ares. She is credited with the creation of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus.
In short, she was an awesome figure in mythology. So why haven’t more people heard of her?
I made it my mission to change that by incorporating her into my Aphrodite trilogy. Her matter-of-fact level-headedness was a much-needed addition to Medea’s tragic naiveté and Aphrodite’s divinely skewed view.
Here’s one of my favorite scenes featuring Otrera:
“OKAY, LET ME get this straight,” Otrera said the next morning as we were getting ready.
Aphrodite and I rolled our eyes at each other and moved to either side to give her some counter space in the bathroom. If the three of us had to share a cabin with only one bathroom, at least it was a big bathroom. A mirror ran the length of the entire wall, reflecting the crowded strip of marble-patterned countertop and two sinks. A space about as wide as a hallway separated the countertop and the wide Jacuzzi tub, and the walls of the bathroom and shower stall came together to form a semi-private room that tucked the toilet out of view.
Otrera had taken the news that Aphrodite was a goddess in stride, but when it came to the plan Aphrodite and I had come up with, Otrera had been “getting this straight” all night and most of the morning.
If Otrera noticed our eye-rolling, she didn’t comment on it. “You want to do something stupid in hopes that if you get Narcissus angry enough, you’ll get thrown into the hidden hospital wing. Then you’re going to search the top-secret, guarded lab and find the Lord of the Underworld while you’re in there. Once that’s done, you want to have Medea teleport all the weapons and poisons away before summoning a pissed-off goddess to our island?”
“I’m open to other ideas.” Aphrodite’s lips pulled back in a way that somehow looked more like an animal baring its teeth than a smile.
My hand paused midway between my powder compact and my face as I studied Aphrodite in the mirror. She still looked like Elise, but she’d changed somehow. Maybe it was just because I knew who she was now, or maybe it was just that she was covered in scabbing scrapes and fading bruises. But she didn’t look like the demigoddesses I’d seen. There was a quiet power to her. A determination. The shock had faded and left something, someone, dangerous in its place. Someone other.
I’d never seen her at full strength. The poison had already leached away most of her powers before we met. But now, I found myself wondering. Was she like them? Poseidon and Persephone? Was she so filled with power that she almost seemed to glow with it? Was my attempt to join the Pantheon, my proclamation that I was what came next, laughable to her? Swallowing hard, I resumed applying my makeup, suddenly self-conscious.
Rein it in a bit, Medea. Right. I could feel myself over-attaching to Aphrodite. Latching on to her like I had Jason, far too much, far too fast. Normal people didn’t do that. But I couldn’t seem to stop myself. If you build her up too much, you’re setting her up to let you down. But it was like a train hurtling toward a broken bridge just beyond the bend. I saw the disaster looming, but I couldn’t seem to make myself jump the track.
Otrera remained unimpressed. “You do realize they’re just as likely to kill you as lock you up if you do anything too drastic, right?”
“If Narcissus lets me die, he loses his scapegoat,” Aphrodite reasoned, scowling when she caught a glimpse of her reflection in the mirror. “And he definitely can’t let any harm come to Medea. She’s his escape route.”
What did she look like when she wasn’t disguised as Elise? I tried, and failed, to imagine her without her tousled hair that somehow made the just-out-of-bed look unobtainably sexy. Her gold skin was darkened with bruises, cuts, and scrapes, her hawkish eyes perpetually narrowed with frustration or anger. Every feature was so uniquely her that I couldn’t imagine her looking like anyone else. How had I ever mistaken her for the model in all those pictures? Her every mannerism was different from the Elise behind the makeup tutorials I’d watched before her arrival on the island.
“If they cross any major lines,” Aphrodite continued. “If they do anything they might actually look back on and regret, then Narcissus risks losing the crowd.”
“Let’s assume you’re right.” Otrera reached under the cabinet for her lotion. “What happens once you get thrown in there? You’ll be under guard, and you’ll be locked up. How does that help us get off the island?”
“That’s why she has to get locked up with me.” Aphrodite jerked a thumb toward my reflection in the mirror. “She’s linked to the Steele and the poisons. I can talk her through ‘porting them away once we’re behind the shield.”
I nodded, like my input held any weight with either of them.
It should. It had during the chaos of yesterday, but now that they’d both latched onto their own idea of the best way to handle things, no one else’s input mattered. Not each other’s, and definitely not mine.
Hush now, sweetie, the grown-ups are talking, their tight faces seemed to say when I interrupted with questions or suggestions. It wasn’t right. My input should be the be-all and end-all. Not only was I the linchpin in Aphrodite’s plan, but I was the method of escape in Otrera’s. Part of me resented the way they dismissed me. Like just because I was younger than them—well, physically in Aphrodite’s case since she was only what, three?—my ideas were somehow invalid.
But unlike Jason, I could tell I was more than a tool here. They might just see me as a naïve kid, but I mattered to them as a person. So maybe I wasn’t where I wanted to be, but I was still leagues ahead of where I left.
Last time you were willing to settle for “better than where you left”, you ended up impregnated by a lying psychopath who used your blood to torture people. Maybe it’s time to set your standards higher.
“Why not just shred the shield?” Otrera stepped back from the counter. “Medea said she could teleport through the shield protecting the island. The one protecting the hospital can’t be much stronger.”
Medea is right here, I wanted to point out. Instead, I studied myself in the mirror, searching for what they saw when they looked at me. Dark hair; strange, frightened eyes; young; small for my age. I wouldn’t take me seriously either, but at the moment, I was stronger than either of them.
Shouldn’t that count for something? My fingers itched to write in my journal. Everything was so much clearer when I wrote it down. But I hadn’t had a chance. They’d been right here all day, all night, all morning. Writing about them while they were just a few feet away felt wrong.
Today, I promised myself. I’d make time today. I had to get my thoughts in order before we did anything. When I turned my head to look at Otrera, my neck objected with a phantom pinch of pain. Scowling, I rubbed at it. Last night, I’d been unable to stomach the thought of sleeping in the bed Jason and I’d shared after I abandoned him to the Pantheon. So, I’d pulled out the couch bed. Otrera had spent yesterday afternoon rearranging Jason’s office space, also known as most of the living room, to make room for her mattress. That was smart of her. The damage from the uncomfortable night of tossing and turning on the couch had long since healed, but the memory still hurt.
Aphrodite claimed my bed. After changing my sheets and complaining about the lack of pillows, she’d sprawled out on the king-sized bed with nary a thought to me or Otrera and crashed until she woke up in the middle of the night screaming bloody murder. Otrera and I both pretended that hadn’t happened, but I desperately wanted a few minutes alone with Otrera to talk about what we’d heard last night. The way Aphrodite screamed, how long it had taken her to calm down. I’d never heard anything like it before, and I never wanted to again.
Aphrodite sighed, stepping back from the countertop, apparently giving up on her reflection. “Look, they are going to know the second we mess with the shield. But if Medea and I can get ourselves placed behind the shield, they won’t know anything is wrong until they’re disarmed.”
“It’s a matter of seconds,” Otrera argued.
“Assuming she’s back at full strength,” Aphrodite replied, like “she” wasn’t standing right next to her. “I don’t know how long it takes to recover from moving a land mass.” The twist in her lips told me what a stupid idea she thought that had been.
But it had worked, hadn’t it? It had hurt like hell, but it had worked. I arched a brow at her in my reflection.
“If we try it your way,” Aphrodite said to Otrera, “we risk alerting everyone to what we’re doing, then being stuck there with no way to ‘port ourselves or the weapons out. With my way, it’s all one shot. If it doesn’t work, no one even knows we tried, so we live to try another day.”
“It’s a moot point at the moment,” I reminded them, finally working up the nerve to speak. “I’m still pretty burnt out from moving the island yesterday.” Feeling the power missing from my body last night was part of what had kept me tossing and turning. It was like a physical ache. After a few hours’ rest, I could feel some growing tendrils within me, but not enough for what Aphrodite was talking about.
Concern flickered in Aphrodite’s eyes, and she nodded, her face dead serious. “We can’t risk draining your powers completely. So we’re going to have to wait a few days.”
“Days?” Otrera objected. “Yesterday, we were looking at escaping this island as soon as possible. Why not get out of here as soon as Medea’s recovered, then teleport back in when her powers are completely back? Hell, let’s meet up with the Pantheon and bring one of them with us if you’re worried Medea can’t manage all of that. Everyone wins! We’re safe, you’re reunited with your . . . brother.” Otrera cringed as though she’d tasted something foul.
Aphrodite glanced up at the ceiling as though she was praying for patience, and I wondered who that particular prayer would be directed to.
“I told you last night, divine genetics—”
“Don’t work that way,” Otrera said by rote. “They pass on power. The incest taboo is a human thing that makes total sense because of the way mankind works, but you’re all different and special. Yadayadayada. I’ve spent the last two and half years of my life on an island full of super inbred demigods. I’ve heard the spiel. It doesn’t mean it’s not gross.”
I fought back a smile. I’d always wanted to live out scenes from my favorite TV shows. And now, here I sat, listening to my roommates, my two best friends with wildly different personalities, who cared about each other more than they dared to admit, gripe at one another. I realized that as long as I ignored the death, the destruction, and the terrifying stakes, this was the happiest I’d ever been.
I stepped in before there could be actual bloodshed. “Otrera, if we do it your way,” I pitched my voice loud to drown out their bickering, “they won’t owe us. And you and I need them to owe us.”
“Exactly,” Aphrodite said. “An entire island popping up in Poseidon’s domain isn’t going to go unnoticed for long. Once he finds us, the rest of the Pantheon will follow. If we neutralize the threat before they get here, it will be better for everyone.”
Otrera still looked like she wanted to argue, but a glance at her watch cut her off short. “I’m on breakfast duty today.” She scowled at the watch, as if she could make it turn back time through sheer force of will. “Do not—” she held up a finger to me and Aphrodite in warning “—do anything stupid until I get back.”
Aphrodite bristled at the order, but I shot her a quelling look as I followed Otrera through the tiny cabin. I couldn’t set foot in the living room without running into bedding. The three of us living here made for some pretty cramped quarters.
The daughter of a king, the sister of a king, the wife of a king, Marguerite de Navarre was by virtue of her parentage and offspring, one of the most notable women of the 16th century, but in character and accomplishments, she was far more than the inheritor and ancestor of great European dynasties. A queen, author, intellectual, diplomat, polyglot, patron of the arts, and humanist, Marguerite’s abilities challenged and transcended the social expectations of a noble woman of her time, and in so doing presaged the changing roles of women in the realm of intellectual pursuits.
One might say that, gender pronouns notwithstanding, Marguerite de Navarre was the archetypal “Renaissance Man.” Though born at a time when even the most talented women were unlikely to be recognized for their artistic and intellectual contributions, history remembers her not only for her hereditary place in the history of European royalty, but for her art, and for the support and protection that she provided for some of the great other great thinkers and artists of the Renaissance.
Born to the heir to the French throne (and the sister to the future King Francis I), Marguerite was connected to some of the most important people and events of the 16th century. Though she was given an excellent education, as a member of the famous and prestigious House of Valois, she began her adult life just as many noble women of her time–as a diplomatic chip to be bartered in marriage.
Historically speaking, she dodged a bullet when negotiations failed that would have her marry England’s Prince of Wales, who would go on to rule as King (and serial wife-decapitator) Henry VIII. Instead, she was married to the Duke of Alençon, who was captured (along with her brother Francis I, and future husband Henry II of Navarre) during the French debacle at the battle of Pavia in 1525 and died not long after. According to accounts Marguerite, a notable diplomat in her own right, rode day and night into Spanish territory to secure her brother’s release.
After being widowed, Marguerite, still a young woman, was married to Henry II of Navarre. Henry was in many ways a king in name only, as most of his kingdom had been absorbed by Ferdinand II of Aragon over twenty years prior. Still, her marriage to a wealthy and well-connected nobleman afforded an opportunity to devote herself to her passions of art and learning. Her renowned salon, dubbed “New Parnassus” was famous across Europe, and Marguerite hosted and corresponded with some of the most notable thinkers of her day, including Leonardo da Vinci and Desiderius Erasmus.
Marguerite was a devoted humanist, and was the patron to many Renaissance artists and figures of the reformation, providing protection for artists and thinkers that might otherwise have been suppressed or persecuted in other, less tolerant realms. Notably, under Marguerite’s protection, François Rabelais wrote the controversial Gargantua and Pantagruel, the third book of which is dedicated to the Queen of Navarre.
Though her first marriage was childless, Marguerite’s lone surviving child would go on to cement important place in history. Her daughter Jeanne III was an important figure in the Huguenot movement, and the mother of Henry IV of France, the first of the Bourbon line of French kings. The loss of her only son as an infant is often suggested to be the inspiration for her controversial poem Miroir de l’âme pécheresse (“The Mirror of the Sinful Soul”), a devotional and personal work that caused outrage in some religious circles.
Ironically, for all Marguerite accomplished as a patron and artist in her lifetime, the unfinished Heptaméron is often considered the best, and certainly the most well-known, of her work. Written in the style of Bocaccio’s Decameron (whom Marguerite greatly admired), the book is a collection of short stories linked with a framing narrative. Originally planned to be a collection of ten stories per day over ten days (in the style of Bocaccio), Marguerite’s death in 1549 left the book unfinished with only 73 entries.
For a modern observer, what Marguerite de Navarre accomplished was nothing short of stunning. Not only did she create an artistic and intellectual legacy for herself, and foster the development of countless Renaissance artists, she did so while somehow maintaining her own reputation in her own era. History is littered with woman of talent and drive who succeeded only in retrospect, who are appreciated only posthumously for their contributions, and in their own time ignored or even scored for the audacity to aspire to “men’s work.” Marguerite was a unique artifact of history; she was the personal embodiment of arts and intellectual endeavors, who perfectly reflected the changing face of Western society. Her direct and indirect contributions to the arts, religious discourse, and humanist thought earn her a well-deserved reputation as the first “modern woman,” and heralded the rise of women authors and scholars that came after her.
As a mother, I’m quite aware of the gap of stories of girls who are self-motivated and independent (not in need of saving) for children. Things are improved, but there are so many stories to tell that are historically based, of strong women who acted and not merely acted-upon… a theme so vital to our interests here at Unbound.
The project, Rejected Princesses, present with endearing illustrations the stories of women and girls who have not been featured in the popular awareness. Created for children, the stories are accessible, fun and positive. The interest and introduction to reading and the knowledge, themes and ideas that they convey are vital to the education of children everywhere. Books can change the world.
I recommend perusing the Rejected Princesses site and although modern, in the interest of our monthly theme, read the story of Soraya Tarzi.
“You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting “Vanity,” thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for you own pleasure.” ― John Berger, Ways of Seeing
When people think of the Goddess Aphrodite, they think of sex. Of lust. Of cheating and scandal. They think vanity. Every version of Aphrodite I saw or read growing up went the extra mile to also portray her as a dumb blonde. Part of that is because of myths that did not portray her in a positive light. She did cheat on her husband, she was promiscuous, and her vanity did kind of start an epic war in Troy.
But then again, why is Aphrodite, a goddess who was forced into marriage to Hephaestus despite her long-term, established relationship with Ares, judged more harshly than Zeus for cheating on Hera? Why is her promiscuity viewed more harshly than the fact that Zeus was a serial rapist? The Trojan War was bad, but remember that time Zeus unleashed Pandora’s Box on human kind?
The way we interpret and reinterpret stories is a window into our values. The fact that Zeus is often a multi-dimensional character with some flaws whose worst crimes never seem to come up in most retellings and reimaginings, and Aphrodite is a stereotypical vain, mean-girl slut, says a lot about our current values.
“Oh my gods.” Adonis threw up his hands in frustration. “Could you be more conceited?”
“Why is that a bad thing?” I demanded. “I honestly don’t get how anyone manages to function in a society with such a contradictory social code. You claim to value honesty, yet you thrive on lies. Calling a plain person plain is somehow an insult instead of a statement of fact, meanwhile the only acceptable form of validation is from other people giving you compliments and then you have to deny them?”
It’s no wonder so many women are plagued with self-doubt. Women are socialized to constantly belittle themselves “What, this old thing,” and downplay their achievements, “Oh, thank you, it was nothing, really.”
That’s why rewriting Aphrodite into a complex, actual character was so important to me. Here was a woman who was confident in her sexuality and her appearance and played by the exact same rules as the men in the Pantheon. Historically speaking, that’s huge. That our modern-day society took a character from an ancient society that was totally cool with things like rape and owning people and reduced her to a more offensive, one dimensional, cardboard cut-out of every stereotype negatively portraying women you can think of, is frankly terrifying.
The final book in the Aphrodite Trilogy, Venus Rising was released June 9th. Please enjoy this spoiler-free excerpt.
I’M NOT PERFECT. But I was designed to be. Once upon a time, Zeus sculpted me from foam and death. He made me into a puppet. A box. A symbol. A thing designed to be perfectly obedient to him.
I bent and twisted beneath his onslaught of lightning and thunder, but when the storm cleared, I remained. Fragile and broken, but still alive. His death released me from his vision of perfection, leaving me free to find my own. That’s when I discovered how far from perfect I truly was.
I’ve been called promiscuous, shallow, arrogant, self-centered, annoying, and worse by beings who physically can’t lie. They’re not wrong. I’m riddled with flaws. I am neither strong nor brave. I cling too tightly, love too freely, and fear that without my beauty, there’s nothing left of me. Nothing real.
But life goes on, regardless of my uncertainty. As time passed, I had no choice but to learn to stand on my own two legs, shaky as they might be.
Here’s what I’ve learned. I’m nobody’s statue or posable doll. I am neither a box nor a symbol. Yes, I’ve been loved by war, struck by lightning, hugged by spring, and mauled by the sea, but I’m more than a victim. I am greater than my story.
I’m real, flaws and all, and that’s terrifying. Every day, I become someone else. Someone stronger. Wiser. Better. I’m becoming myself.
But that process isn’t always pretty.
If you want to learn more about Kaitlin Bevis, visit her website www.kaitlinbevis.com for bonus content.