“A Curse on Being a Woman:” The Witch in Maryse Conde’s I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem

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.

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Alfred Fredericks, Designer; Winham, Engraver – from “A Popular History of the United States”, Vol. 2, by William Cullen Bryant, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1878, p. 457

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.

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Kathleen Cody as Betty Parris and Tuesday Weld as Abigail Williams in The Crucible, 1967

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)

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Idina Menzel as Elphaba Thropp in Wicked. http://www.playbill.com.

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.


Works Cited:

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.

Witches: The Threat of Change

by K.P. Kulski

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.

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Children of Lir © Irish Central

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[1], 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[2], 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.

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Grave of Lilias Adie © Douglas Speirs BBC

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 12Counter 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

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[1] From the Irish tale, Children of Lir

[2] (Note that I use an alternate spelling of the name “Lileas” in the story) K.P. Kulski, “Tides and Lavender.” Typhon: A Monster Anthology Volume 2, Edited by Sarah Read, Pantheon Magazine, 2017.

Harvesting as Heroic: Magic and the Natural World in David Mealing’s Ascension Cycle

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.”

soul of the worldAll 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.” [1] 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. [2] The more energies a binder has access to, the more powerful and sought-after they are.

 

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Map of the Ascension Cycle world

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.” [3] 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.

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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?”
Silence.
“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. [4]

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.


[1] Mealing, David. Soul of the World. Orbit, 2017. Loc. 3089.

[2] Ibid. Loc. 672.

[3] Ibid. Loc. 294.

[4] Ibid. Loc. 6824

Books Featuring Female Antagonists

by E.J. Lawrence

Dear Readers,

I am taking a hiatus from blogging this month so to kick off our “Lady Midnight” theme for August, I’ve decided to bring you three of my favorite “modern” books featuring women who walk on the dark side…

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The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander

I’ve mentioned these books before in my post on the Morrigan. They’re loosely based on the Welsh Mabinogi, but one of the chief antagonists is a woman named Achren.

I say “antagonist”…but she isn’t always. One of the things I love about this series is that it shows motives may be marbled. Achren is a powerful sorceress who’s been upstaged by her former pupil, and she wants revenge. She’ll do anything to get it, even if that means killing the protagonist…

These books are more in the middle grade set (I first read them at age 12), but they’re also books I go back to again and again and again because the story and characters are just that compelling.

“It was then Taran saw [Achren] held a weathered branch of driftwood. She lifted it high and Taran gasped as in her hands it blurred and shimmered. Suddenly in its place was a dagger.” (The Castle of Llyr)

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The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

This one just got re-released with a new cover design! And Carrie did a post on Attolia not too long ago.

This is, technically, a series. And Attolia–as Carrie pointed out–does undergo character development (to be fair, so does Achren in The Prydain Chronicles). However, her portrayal in this first book is nothing short of chilling. The thief of the title, Gen, works for the King of Sounis, but she offers him a chance to work as her thief…or be executed for stealing from her lands. So, not much of a choice. She’s used to getting what she wants.

“‘You are promised to someone?’ said the queen in disbelief.

‘I am, Your Majesty,’ I said firmly[…]

‘Surely I am a better mistress to serve?’

‘You are more beautiful, Your Majesty.’ The queen smiled again before I finished. ‘But she is more kind.’

So much for discretion. The smile disappeared. You could have heard a pin drop onto the stone floor as her alabaster cheeks flushed red. No one could ever accuse the queen of Attolia of being kind.”

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And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

Okay, so this one isn’t fantasy, but it is a bit historical. I do not want to give away any spoilers for those who haven’t read it, so I won’t spend much time here except to say that this book is an excellent look at the evils of hypocrisy.

She didn’t want to die.

She couldn’t imagine wanting to die…

Death was for–the other people…”

Of course, if you want more historical takes, there’s always anything Arthurian, The Oresteia, The Aeneid, etc. But since I’m always sharing the ancient/medieval works, I thought it might be fun to share some modern classics, too! What about you? I’d love to hear some of your favorite books that feature some “lady midnights”!

Recommended Sites: The History of Ancient Greece Podcast

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.

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Featured image credit: The History of Ancient Greece Podcast

Feminism: Dispelling Frequent Misconceptions

by K.W. Taylor

I’m a speculative fiction author, but I’m also an academic who teaches, researches, and writes about cultural issues, particularly media and literary representations of gender. Since 2013, I’ve taught introductory women’s studies courses, and one of the things I cover on the first day of class is to ask students to make a collaborative list of common stereotypes of feminists. The results are sometimes over-the-top and humorous, but even though most people in the classroom disavow believing in the stereotypes, negative conceptions of feminism still pervade our society. Whether or not you identify as a feminist, it’s useful to have a basic working understanding of the term and clarify what it actually means. What follows are five common misconceptions about feminism and some history and data to dispel them.

Misconception 1: There is one kind of feminism; if you don’t perform it “that way,” you’re doing it wrong.

The fact is, not only are there different schools of thought within feminism, the core 220px-Annie_Kenney_and_Christabel_Pankhurstideology has shifted over time. In the so-called “first wave” of feminism in the nineteenth century, for example, the general focus was on voting rights. During the middle of the twentieth century, many feminists fought for equal pay, while others protested against exploitation. At the transition to the twenty-first century, the focus for several years has included digital activism and collaboration, while other feminists focus on obtaining better representation in politics or family leave in the workplace. Just because someone puts their emphasis on one area of gender-based equity doesn’t mean they’re not “doing” feminism correctly. Many textbooks on the matter pluralize the word “feminism” to emphasize its plurality of meaning.

Misconception 2: “Feminism” means trying to make women superior to men, and feminists hate men.

Many people have claimed a better term than “feminism” would be “humanism” (although technically the latter word is already claimed by an anti-theological philosophical movement), because “feminism” as a word seems to imply female superiority. In fact, very few strains of feminism aim for female superiority; most are fighting for equality and equity with men. Other than extreme outliers, in fact, most feminists don’t hate men, especially on an individual level, and one goal of feminism is often a dismantling of patriarchal gender roles that hurt men, too. By leveling the playing field and reducing cultural expectations on everyone, men, women, and gender non-conforming people can all live more freely.

Misconception 3: Feminists are all lesbians, and men can’t be feminists.

First of all, these misconceptions tend to imply negative judgment against members of LGBTQ+ groups. Certainly, some feminists are lesbians, but not all, and not all lesbians are even feminists. Most feminists—regardless of sexual orientation—are also supportive of LGBTQ+ rights. Part of the reason for this misconception stems from some radical feminist ideology of the late second wave, wherein there was some advocacy for “political lesbianism” regardless of one’s natural sexual orientation. However, it’s important to contextualize this, as even as late as the 1970s and 1980s, women in heterosexual marriages lost specific political and economic rights when they married, including their own credit history. Furthermore, with the gain of certain reproductive freedoms over time, marriage no longer has to mean the same extent of familial obligation it once did. Therefore, there is far less call to avoid heterosexual unions or marriage than there used to be, and the third wave of feminism in the 1990s advocated ever-increasing positive attitudes about women’s sexual freedom and expression, regardless of the gender of one’s partners.

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Image © factmyth.com

In the mid-1960s, the National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded to help solidify women’s rights. It’s notable the preposition is “for,” not “of,” as its purpose is women’s advocacy, not to imply they are only constituted “of” women. Anyone who wants gender equality can consider themselves a feminist, whether they themselves identify as female, male, or nonbinary, whether they are cisgender or transgender, and regardless of sexual orientation. Some feminists believe it may be difficult for male-identifying people to be fully invested in feminist causes, as men are perceived to benefit from sexism, and as a result, some men choose instead to identify as “feminist allies.” Regardless, that difference is slight; if you don’t identify as female but believe in gender equality, you shouldn’t feel afraid to say you are either a feminist or a feminist ally.

Misconception 4: Feminists are white.

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Kimberlé Crenshaw Columbia University

This misconception has more factual roots than not. One valid criticism of feminism is a lack of diversity; during its first and second waves, feminism was focused on the concerns of white women. In the late 1990s, legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” to describe the ways in which different identity markers work together to cause multiple forms of oppression. For example, black women are usually subject to more social disadvantage than white women, and all women may be at a greater disadvantage than white men. On the other end of the spectrum, a white woman who is able-bodied and of normative sexual orientation, gender identity, and religion may be more privileged than she realizes. Thus, many people of color who would otherwise be sympathetic to feminist ideology eschew it in favor of women’s

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Image © Medium.com

rights issues specifically focusing away from white women. “Womanism” is a term many women of color have adopted that speaks to a black female experience and integrates elements of cultural life seen as missing in broader feminist circles. However, many other scholars and thinkers on this subject simply speak of “black feminism” or a need for inclusive or intersectional feminism. So while it is erroneous to say feminists are all white, this is indeed an area rife with opportunities for improvement.

Hopefully, this has been helpful in dispelling some of the myths surrounding feminism. For some additional reading, I recommend the books Introducing Feminism, by Caitha Jenainati and Judy Groves (Icon Books, 2007), Women’s Studies: The Basics, by Bonnie G. Smith (Routledge, 2013), and Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, by bell hooks (Routledge, 1984).

Featured Image © Atwood Vintage

Not Below: The Rebellion of Lilith and Eve

by K.P. Kulski

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

Pandora
Pandora

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…”[1] They believed that women were more animal-like, subject to base instincts, sexually wild and would destroy civilization if not properly controlled.[2] 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

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Venus figurines of Balzi Rossi circa 24,000-19,000 BCE (Italy)

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?

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Venus of Willendorf circa 24,000-22,000 BCE (Austria)

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,

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Minoan Snake Goddesses circa 1600 BCE (Crete)

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

Catalhoyuk figurine
circa 6300-6000 BCE (Image credit: Çatalhöyük Research Project)

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.”[3] 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.”[4] 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.”[5] 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 Diaporama-Adam-Eve_0_445_334position. 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.

So…

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.

_______________________________________________________

Endnotes

[1] Sarah B. Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves. (New York: Schocken Books, 1975) 2.

[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

[3] “The Alphabet of Ben Sira: The Story of Lilith.” trans. Norman Bronznick. Jewish and Christian Literature, Accessed 02 June 2018. http://jewishchristianlit.com/Topics/Lilith/alphabet.html

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

Hell Hath No Fury Like a Woman Deceived: Clytemnestra’s Revenge

By: E.J. Lawrence

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.House_of_Atreus_family_tree

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.

The_Murder_Of_Agamemnon_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_14994
The Murder of Agamemnon

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.)

Clytemnestra_by_John_Collier,_1882
Clytemnestra by John Collier (1882)

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…

-0440_Orestes_Killing_Klytaimnestra_Altes_Museum_anagoria
Orestes Killing Clytemnestra by Anagoria

 

  1. The Oresteia, https://archive.org/stream/oresteiaofaeschy00aesciala/oresteiaofaeschy00aesciala_djvu.txt, 38.
  2. Ibid, 44.

 

Women’s Weapon, Women’s Work: The Oracle Glass and the Affair of the Poisons

By: Carrie Gessner

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. [1] 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.

montespan
Madame de Montespan

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. [1] de Brinvilliers was executed in 1676 by beheading and burning at the stake.

de brinvilliers
The execution of de Brinvilliers

It’s been written that in her final moments, de Brinvilliers implicated “half the people in town.” [2] 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” [3]. Her father educates her in classical languages and philosophy, instruction which leads her to view herself as a woman of logic.

la voisin
La Voisin

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. [3] 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.

oracle glassAs 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.” [3] 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.


[1] Frost, Natasha. “The Scandalous Witch Hunt That Poisoned 17th-Century France.” Atlas Obscura, 05 Oct. 2017. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/affair-of-the-poisons-france-witch-hunt-occult

[2] 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.

[3] Riley, Judith Merkle. The Oracle Glass. Sourcebooks, Illinois, 2012.