The ancient world often portrayed its wisdom figures—whether literal divinity or personification of virtue—as feminine. The Greeks gravitated toward this in the form of Athena, wisdom-warrior goddess, and later in the form of Sophia, one of Plato’s four cardinal virtues. Yet before these two more renowned figures was Metis.
Hesiod’s Theoganyplaces Metis among the second generation of Titans. She is the daughter of Oceanus and Tethys, and her siblings numbered in the thousands. Hesiod calls her the wisest among both gods and mortals. Zeus took her as his first wife, perhaps desiring to have constant access to her counsels as he was establishing his rule. However, Metis was prophesied to bear children who would inherit her great wisdom and who could potentially overthrow Zeus. To prevent this, Zeus deceived Metis into transforming herself into a fly, whereupon he swallowed her, unaware that Metis had already conceived a child. For Zeus, it was enough that he had corralled Metis in such a way that she would never bear her fated children but would still “devise for him both good and evil.”
Lodged in the belly of her husband, Metis did not sit idle. She crafted weapons and armor for her daughter, Athena, and when she sprang from Zeus’s head on the banks of the river Trito, she was fully matured and battle-ready. Pindar, in his Seventh Olympian Ode, tells further that Hephaestus split Zeus’s head with an axe so that Athena could emerge, perhaps because the smithing of Metis was so painfully cacophonous to the thunder god.
Neither Hesiod nor Pindar shed any light on how Zeus was able to trick Metis, and so here we enter the realm of speculation. Could it be that Metis perceived her husband’s fears in light of the prophecy and, rather than leaving him and risk the world crumbling into chaos in her absence, altered herself to perpetuate the effects of her own wisdom in Zeus’s rule? She knew his might alone would not be sufficient to maintain order. Into his depths she went, creating a somewhat blurred symbiosis of masculinity and femininity from which issued Athena, out of her mother’s womb first but then her father also—a womb containing a womb.
This dependence of rulers on feminine wisdom is carried over into Plato’s Republic, where he envisions the head of his utopia as a philosopher king, a friend to the feminine embodiment of Wisdom or Sophia. Plato also calls Sophia the noblest of the parts of virtue in his Protagoras.
A similar personification of Divine Wisdom as feminine can be found in the Hebrew scriptures. The first chapter of Proverbs entreats the hearer to heed Wisdom’s voice and avoid disaster. Some of the early Christian Fathers, including Justin Martyr and Origen, would eventually attempt to marry Platonic philosophy with these passages, describing the Divine Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) as an aspect of the Logos—the pre-incarnated, cosmic Christ—from John 1. Here in Christianity, too, is the universe born and sustained through the partnership of masculinity and femininity.
Thus, when vehicles change—Greek mythology to philosophy to Christianity—Divine Wisdom, following in Metis’s metamorphosing footsteps, changes with them. Yet always, in whatever form, she persists as a creative force, a vital bulwark against disorder.
In ancient awareness, trees have continually played an important role in symbolism across the world, through many cultures and belief systems. Some examples include the Celtic Tree of Life, the Norse Yggdrasil (symbols particularly popularized in the neo-pagan movement of modern day), the Bodhi Tree, its very name meaning the awakening or enlightenment of Buddha, and the Tree of Knowledge of the Judaic tradition. In each depiction, there are strong connections to humanity and the human experience. While the divine, or immortal may be connected to the tree, it is often in a human-like capacity that ascends into some type of enlightenment (in the case of monotheism, knowledge that leads to disaster). This can be explained by the idea that the tree is a mirror of humanity itself – ever rooted to the Earth by reaching for something greater, something higher, caught in a state in-between.
As symbols of humanity, there are plenty of male and female connections to them. However, there are very specific demonstrations of female links that seem to be repetitive in Western culture. I’d like to examine these through the lens of the Greek myth of Daphne, the nymph lustfully pursued by Apollo until she is transformed into the laurel tree in order to escape. It is a timely myth to revisit for the modern audience, as many women via the Me Too movement have spoken out against male sexual misconduct, particularly from powerful men. It has spurred not only conversations on the sexual harassment, pressure and assault on women, but questions concerning sex and power dynamics.
In Greek mythology, there are plenty of stories that feature a deity and a mortal love-interest. In many cases, the female mortal or lesser immortal (such as a nymph) is unwilling, and is subsequently seduced, pressured, tricked or raped into compliance to the god’s desires. Frequently, these women become pregnant from the encounter and face tragedies or suffer greatly because of it. Because of this, it is not surprising that women would spurn interest from a god as at least an unwelcome complication, or greater, a life-threatening or ruining possibility.
Daphne, faced with Apollo’s lust (which is sometimes described as love but is clearly of a purely sexual nature) rebuffs him because she has declared a life free from the complications of men in the model of the goddess Artemis. Daphne treasures her freedom and lives a life hunting and roaming free in the woods. Edith Hamilton remarks that Apollo saw Daphne in a state of physical disarray while she hunted, yet he was entranced saying, “what would she not look like properly dressed and with her hair nicely arranged?”
This is a significant statement, as it alludes to “taming” something wild. The trappings of civilization, where society will ultimately insist on marriage, childbirth and domestic activities for women, are all things Daphne wishes to avoid. The pursuit of Apollo can be symbolic of the pursuit of society for women to acquiesce with societal expectations. Further, submission to male authority.
Daphne is described as athletic and when she flees, she gives a difficult pursuit for Apollo. But he is ultimately a god, so he is able to gain ground on her. Despite Daphne’s abilities, she cannot escape Apollo’s will. We could read this as despite female abilities and potential, women cannot escape society’s will.
Except Daphne does escape. She escapes by changing form, calling upon her father who transforms her at the last minute into a laurel tree. At this point, the myth describes Apollo’s continued “love” for her and elevation of the laurel tree in his esteem. But that glosses over the significance of Daphne’s shape-shifting as a proclamation of both the extremes women’s struggle with patriarchal cultural construction as well as a dire but possible avenue of escape. Daphne’s transformation makes her untouchable, even from men of power.
But what does that mean?
The cover of trees in both history and storytelling have provided exiles from society to
practice religions of their choosing, avoid capture and to create new lives. We might first think of Robin Hood’s Band of Merry Men. Yet it is the overtures of female mysticism that are strongly associated with the woods. In Western lore, the image of the forest dwelling witch pervades mythologies, fairytales and later religious persecution. In the latter, late medieval and early modern witch-hunts believed that women witches held ecstatic gatherings in the woods under the cover of darkness where they dedicated themselves to and engaged in sexual acts with Satan. The Maenads, the cult of Dionysius (or Bacchus in the Roman period) featured similar ecstatic and sexual forest gatherings of mostly women that often resulted in acts of violence.
The forest has often been a place of hiding, where things deemed socially unacceptable were practiced. It can offer refuge, but not without threat. The Tree of Knowledge of the Judaic tradition is forbidden, but Eden partakes unwittingly in a trade of knowledge for the withdrawal of God’s protection. In Celtic culture, trees, or a grove can serve as a gateway to the realm of the faery, a mysterious world of amazement and entrapment, rife with equal parts wonder and danger. Such transformations and withdrawal from societal cooperation are by nature threatening to that society, but there is a freedom that can be found.
These examples have been loud ones, stories and events that often served as subconscious warnings against the desire for liberation from patriarchal structures. Yet the mythological figure of the dryad, or other faery stories such as “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” construct a different outcome. In the case of the dryad, a female nature spirit that lives within and/or is one with a tree, the transformation and womanhood coexist. If we considered Daphne’s transformation into the laurel, akin to the existence of the dryad, then indeed, Daphne not only escaped Apollo but society itself, becoming instead a protective presence.
John Keats describes the faery woman – la belle dame sans merci (the beautiful lady without mercy) as Apollo may have described his sighting of Daphne as she hunted. But the power structure is different, the rules of society reversed or if you will, transformed. Here the faery woman has the power.
We could consider this from a negative perspective, that such a link is a sinister one, a warning to men of what could happen if women were allowed such self-direction. Indeed it hints at the very destruction of male power structures, “…pale kings and princes too, pale warriors, death-pale were they all.”
However, in its place is the woman, forced to transform in order to escape. Despite this, she has changed herself and her reality. By doing so, she has saved herself from abuse and violence, and further has claimed an unconventional power over her person, ultimately escaping patriarchal cultural requirements.
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.
I love studying mythology. Since we generally live in a society that brushes myths off as “mere superstition” and “just stories,” we run the danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater; of denying the truth of mythology simply because it does not line up with our understanding of the facts.
But facts and truth are not the same person. They are siblings–they share blood, and perhaps DNA, but are two distinct, unique beings.
For if mythology were “mere superstition,” we should have no need of any fiction, for fiction–and mythology especially–are not just stories which allow us to escape from this world. Rather, they are stories that allow us to understand it. Few stories do this better than creation myths.
There are those who say all creation myths are the same. There’s something to that–but only because they do not vary by kind; still, they do vary somewhat by degree.
But in considering our November theme of women who have experienced much and done much, I could think of no mythological figure who fit this theme better than the Celtic goddess Brigid, whose role is pivotal not only to the Celtic creation myth, but to the culture as a whole. Brigid literally translates to “Exalted One,” and we find that though Brigid is a well-rounded goddess, what makes her truly exalted is her thirst for wisdom.
The Celtic creation myth, much like other myths such as the Greek or Norse traditions, has supernatural figures that exist before the gods. In Celtic mythology, Danu–the “Mother Goddess”–and Bíle–the sacred oak–fulfill these roles. Into the void, Danu sends her divine waters to the thirsting oak, and from the oak come two acorns. The first is Dagda, “Father of the Gods”; the second is Brigid, the “Exalted One.”1
Brigid becomes the mother of many gods. She was known for imbibing from the holy waters of her mother, Danu, and thus grew in wisdom.2 In this is a beautiful picture of the historical significance of wisdom being passed from mother to daughter and continuing through generations. Because of Brigid’s willingness to drink from her mother’s fountain–being nourished by her both literally and figuratively–she became one of the most accomplished goddesses of mythology, overseeing healing, craftsmanship, smithing, poetry, war, and so forth. As one mythologist puts it, “she excelled in all knowledge.”3 Many mythologists believe that it was her understanding that the secret to all wisdom came from her mother which granted her access to such knowledge and insight. This again points back to a culture that values the voices of women as being voices of wisdom. Without these voices, we, the children, cannot hope to attain the heights or enter the secret places of discernment.
That isn’t to say the Celtic culture is the only one who understands this. Indeed, it seems many ancient cultures had similar ideas; the entirety of Proverbs 31, from the Judeo-Christian tradition, is a king reciting a series of lessons his mother taught him, including to stand up for those who cannot defend themselves and to look for a wife who “speaks with wisdom and…faithful instruction.”4 Can you imagine how much different the world might be if we sipped from the fountain of wisdom which came before us?
Brigid is “exalted,” revered, listened to, believed. Not simply because she is a goddess; she enjoys her stature because of her thirst for wisdom and because she is relentless in her pursuits. Though she is the goddess of war, she is also the goddess of poetry, two perhaps contradictory pursuits that she, being steeped in wisdom, understands how they connect. In one story, she tells her children to go and people the world, but to beware their cousins who are all the inverse of their grandmother (what’s a myth without a battle between good and evil?). It’s in this war that one of Brigid’s own sons (Ruadan) is killed, and Brigid shows that even the exalted can be brought low. Yet, from this defeat, rises a new form of song, keening, showing Brigid’s other face–the face of emotion. Of Poetry:
“But after the spear had been given to him, Ruadan turned and wounded Goibniu. He pulled out the spear and hurled it at Ruadan so that it went through him; and he died in his father’s presence in the Fomorian assembly. Brig came and keened for her son. At first she shrieked, in the end she wept. Then for the first time weeping and shrieking were heard in Ireland. (Now she is the Brig who invented a whistle for signalling at night.)”5
Her symbols are fire, water, snakes, and oxen. She is goddess of the home, and goddess of the battlefield. Goddess of the flame, and goddess of the well. Goddess of those who create, and goddess of those who destroy. It’s almost as though there is no end to her multi-faceted being. In some versions of the legend, she is a three-part goddess, and each part represents a different aspect of her nature. Her wisdom is the seed for all else; it allows her to understand, to empathize, to learn, to seek, and to do.
It’s hard to believe Brigid would be quite so renowned and exalted if she had not first sought wisdom and discernment from the waters which flowed from heaven and “showed her children that true wisdom was only to be garnered from the feet of Danu, the Mother Goddess, and so only to be found at the water’s edge.”6 Whatever one might say about the factual nature of this statement, the truth of it cannot be denied; in fact, it’s the old paradox repeated in story after story, “mere myth” after “mere myth”–in order to ascend the heights, we must first humble ourselves at the feet of another. Only then can we obtain the wisdom necessary to know what true potential is.
Ellis, Peter Berresford. Celtic Myths and Legends, London, 1988, pp. 25.
Last week, we looked at the infamous “evil queen” of Arthurian literature, Morgan le Fay, and found that she’s too complicated of a character to warrant the stigma of pure evil. These complexities I labeled the “ugly” debate. This week, I want to offer some specific examples from the text, showing times when Morgan does acts that can be considered “bad”…but also times when her acts and motivations are more “good.”
Though, as I pointed out last week, medieval literature tends to be so plot-driven that it’s sometimes difficult to discern character motivations, there are times in Arthurian literature when the audience is aware of Morgan le Fay’s motives. One example of her “bad” side would be her jealousy toward Guinevere because of her own love of Lancelot.
The few times we are explicitly given Morgan’s motives for her actions, we see a queen jealous of Guinevere, and there are several instances where Morgan tries to trap Guinevere or even cause her death via magic. One such instance is in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight when Bertilak tells Gawain why his Aunt Morgan orchestrated the elaborate scheme of the Green Knight. He says that, while part of the ruse was meant to humble Arthur’s table (she thought them too proud), a secondary motive, the “icing on the cake,” as it were, was “to grieve Guinevere and to bring her to die/ aghast at that same ghoul with his ghostly speech/ with his head in his hand before the high table.”3 In other words, she’d hoped by disguising the man as a green giant, she would both prove Arthur’s knights prideful and frighten Guinevere to death. Two birds. One stone.
In another instance from Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, Morgan le Fay casts a spell upon a shield, which she gives to Sir Tristram in hopes that he will fight Lancelot. The shield, she tells him, represents Arthur, Guinevere, and a “knight who holdeth them both in bondage.”4 Her plan? To have Tristram fight this knight (whom Morgan knows is Lancelot) and expose Lancelot and Guinevere’s affair because “Queen Morgan loved Sir Launcelot best, and ever she desired him, and he would never love her nor do nothing at her request, and therefore she held many knights together for to have taken him by strength.”5 The plot fails at exposing Lancelot as a false knight, but does succeed in allowing Tristram to dominate at the tournament. However, I can’t really fault Morgan for wanting to expose Lancelot–Lancelot is in many ways a “false knight.” What one can fault Morgan for is her petty, jealous motive.
But at the outset of this post, I mentioned Morgan le Fay could not truly be categorized as “evil.” Rather, like most human beings, she is marbled, and for the most part, the medieval narratives treat her thus. There are two instances in particular which show Morgan le Fay using her magic for more positive ends. In one, she shows a side to herself that is just. A knight leads another knight behind his horse, bound and blindfolded, toward a lake. The two men cross paths with the Queen, and she asks the man on horseback who his prisoner is.
The knight explains he caught the prisoner sleeping with his wife, and now he was going to take the man to the lake and drown him, and then throw his wife in after.6 Morgan questions the prisoner–is this accusation true? The prisoner denies that it is, and says he is a knight of Arthur’s court and cousin to Accolon of Gaul, a man whom Morgan had loved.
“Ye say well,” says Morgan. “For the love of him, ye shall be delivered, and ye shall have
your adversary in the same case ye be in.”7 And with that, the prisoner is loosed and the other man is bound. Though the text does not say overtly, it implies that Morgan’s magic allows for this switch. The former prisoner then promptly throws his captor into the lake, where he drowns.
Morgan has, at this point in the story, fallen out of Arthur’s good favor. Yet, rather than tell them knight, “Hey, be sure you tell my brother what I did for you so that maybe he won’t be angry with me anymore,” she tells him, “Tell [Arthur] that I rescued thee, not for love of him, but for love of Accolon, and tell him I fear him not while I can make me and them that be with me in likeness of stones.”8 Their feud, then, isn’t ended there, though Morgan does send him a peace offering a few days later, which Arthur accepts, saying “but little” except that she is a “loving sister”9 (perhaps a bit sarcastically?). However, it’s worth noting that many of the knights were so angry with her words, they called for her to be burnt at the stake, and though it’s clear Arthur is angry, he is more willing to allow peace rather than continue their passive-aggressive argument. Their relationship, more so than the relationship between Arthur and his other sisters, is not much different from how we perceive sibling relationships today. They fight, but at the end of the day, they are family. Even if one’s a king and one can call upon demonic powers.
Perhaps the best example of this love-hate relationship is at Arthur’s death. He commands Bedivere to throw Excalibur in the lake and then to put him on a barge where there are “three queens,” one of whom says, “Ah, dear brother, why have ye tarried so long from me? Alas, this wound on your head hath caught over-much cold.”10 The implication is that this is Queen Morgan herself, come to her brother’s side. Her words make it clear that she wishes he had come to her sooner; then, perhaps, she could have helped him with her magic. As it is, he is too wounded even for her powers, and she ferries him toward Avalon from where, as the legend goes, he will return when England most needs a king.
Women play no small role in Arthurian legend. And many of the female characters–perhaps, most especially, Morgan le Fay–are complex. Which is why it continues to surprise me when I read articles about how there are so few women in fantasy novels because medieval women did not live very interesting lives…so why would they exist as major characters in medieval-style fantasy novels? Yet, one only has to go to the medieval narratives themselves to discover a world in which women do more than sit at a spinning wheel and gossip. And if one digs a little deeper, going beyond the plot-driven narrative of a medieval story, one can even find women with motivations and desires strikingly similar to the motivations and desires people have today. At her core, Morgan le Fay is the good, the bad, and the ugly side of humanity altogether in a single person. Just like most of us, I’d wager.
Etymology is a hobby of mine. I not only relish the history of people, but I also relish the history of the words they use. So when I thought of this month’s theme–“compassion”–I wondered where such a word even came from.
Of course, compassion implies more than just a strong feeling–what we usually think of when we think of the word “passion.” It usually means a call to action–the feeling must drive the person in some way to do something. To have compassion is to not just feel sympathy, but act upon the sympathy one feels.
Which brought me back to the etymology–where does this word even come from? if “com” means “with,” and “passion” is a “strong feeling,” does compassion mean to do things with a strong feeling?…Yet I am passionate about writing; I am passionate about relationships; I am passionate about leaving a better world. I would say I do most things “with passion.”
But that does not always mean I am compassionate.
“Com” could more nearly be translated as “together” while the root of the word “passion” is Latin passio, “suffering; submission.”
Perhaps even…With submission to suffering.
Compassion is more than a feeling; it is a belief held so strongly that one must submit oneself to suffering in the effort to alleviate, or even share, another’s pain. It is willingly shouldering a burden that isn’t one’s own.
Compassion–I not only suffer for you; I suffer with you. If your pain is in my power to alleviate–even if it causes me physical or emotional torment–I will do whatever I must.
Then why, on a blog dedicated to praising active heroines, would we choose such a subject of abject humility?
I, for one, believe in the old paradox that “the last shall be first, and the first shall be
last,” even though our modern society does not do a very good job of lifting up the humble. However, come to think of it, no society in history has done a great job of recognizing those people among them who daily lay down their lives for others. Sometimes it seems as though the loud, the proud, and the pompous receive all the praise.
But those who are compassionate know that praise is not warranted or required. The compassionate do not show compassion out of a need for praise or desire for reward; in fact, if they did act out of such motives then, by definition, they would not be compassionate. They would be opportunists. Compassion is not, and cannot, be about tit-for-tat. Compassion is about seeing the humanity and brokenness of another, and joining in that humanity and in that brokenness.
Compassion involves, by necessity, an act of humility. The focus of being compassionate is not to reap rewards or call special attention to oneself or one’s own pain–or even the pain of another. True compassion is silent, unassuming. It is caring more for the good of another than for one’s own good. It is kneeling down to bring another up.
Compassion also involves bravery and faith that the act of submission to suffering will lead to an alleviation of the same.
This was the hardest month I’ve had yet in terms of choosing the woman in literature or history about whom I wished to write. However, when I truly thought about the meaning of the word “compassion,” and determined that compassion by definition involves humility, bravery, and faith, one woman kept repeating over and again in my mind: Queen Esther.
During the time of the Persian Empire, Esther was a Jewish exile living in Babylon. In her time, the Persian king was a man named Ahasuerus, also known as King Xerxes. Esther is perhaps most well-known for winning a beauty contest–when the king wants to choose a wife–because he deposed the last one for refusing to come when he called her (Esther 1:19)–he calls all the virgins in the land to him, and ultimately selects–you guessed it!–Esther (2:9).
She wins the contest and gets a literal crown…that came with some small measure of power.
However, Esther was Jewish, and not Persian. A dangerous heritage. At the behest of her guardian, Mordecai, she doesn’t reveal her ancestry to the king.
So the plot thickens. Haman, the king’s adviser, does not like Mordecai because he will not bow down whenever he (Haman) passes by, so Haman devises a scheme to have all the Jews in the land eradicated (3:6). When Mordecai hears about this, he puts on sackcloth and ashes to weep for the fate of his people. Esther’s response? “She sent clothes for him to put on instead of his sackcloth, but he would not accept them” (4:4). Then she tries sending one of her men to Mordecai to ask him what is wrong. When Mordecai explains the edict and pleads for her help, Esther is frightened; if she goes to the king without first being called, her life is forfeit (4:10). Mordecai replies by saying that she is the one with the power and position to help “and who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (4:14). Her argument is that she is powerless; Mordecai’s argument says the opposite.
Faced with this choice, Esther decides there is but one option. She has compassion on her people by telling Mordecai to fast and pray for three days, as she does the same, and at the end of those three days, she would go to the king to plead on her people’s behalf: “And if I perish, I perish” (4:16).
Though the word “compassion” is not used, we know from Esther’s response that she humbles herself–by fasting and praying with her people, she willingly abandons her position as queen in order to suffer with them. For those three days, she says, they will suffer together.
Her response is also brave. She recognizes the danger and the potential torment, even death, that she will receive if the king does not have mercy on her. Yet the suffering of others drives her to action, gives her motivation. And she is willing even to perish for their sake.
Finally, her response is faithful. Her loyalty to her people is firm. She will not leave them to die, and though she could easily claim her position as queen and turn her back on her people, leaving them to suffer without her, she does not do this. Rather, she says they will pray and fast for three days, and then she will go to the king “even though it is against the law” (4:16).
“And if I perish, I perish.”
She could only make such a bold statement if she was humble, brave, and faithful. But she could also only make such a statement if she loved her people. And that, to me, is the most compelling, and mysterious, aspect of compassion. Compassion is born out of love. Not duty, not a desire for fame, or a desire for gain. To be truly compassionate, we must be willing to get into the dirt with someone else; to feel cuts and bruises with someone else; to give up our desires in order to aid another; to give up our own comfort and safety to reassure another.
There is no other rationale for doing such things than unconditional love.
To finish the story of Esther, the king grants her petition and does not order her execution. She pleads her case to the king, and when Haman tries to plead with Esther, the king believes his adviser to be making a move on his wife, and instead orders Haman’s execution. But Esther’s trials are still not over; she makes one more petition to the king: To reverse Haman’s order and not kill her people. The king grants her petition.
And so it seems Mordecai was right–Esther was placed in her position “for such a time as this.” She loved her people and was moved to compassion; she chose to suffer with them, when she could have chosen comfort. Her love was an abiding love.
In our “times such as this,” when suffering abounds, may we find such a love. And may we shine its light in our compassion for others.
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.
Okay, honesty time…because I guess it would come out sooner or later: I’ve never been all that impressed with the archetype of the warrior in literature. So what if our fearless hero can out-muscle the bad guy? Yawn. Boring. I’m far more likely to be impressed by the hero who outsmarts the bad guy. Odysseus outsmarting the cyclops is way more intriguing than Odysseus going full postal on the suitors who tried to get with his wife. Sure, it took some brawn to get past that one-eyed monster…but far less brawn than if he’d just tried to muscle his way out of the situation.
So when K.P. suggested we do a month on female warriors, I really had to think about who I would pick, given that I normally don’t pay much attention to the archetype. I thought I could kind of cheat and go with Athena–the goddess of war and wisdom–but then, that’s not really in the spirit of the theme. Then I thought perhaps I could go with Joan of Arc, whom I’ve always admired…but it’s a little cliché. Besides, my past few posts have been historical, and I’ve been itching to do a literary character.
Then I remembered Camilla. Who possibly fits the spirit of the theme better than Camilla?
If you aren’t familiar with Virgil’s Aeneid, I 100% recommend it. If not for Book XI’s Camilla, at least for Book IV’s Dido. But for today, I’ll just keep the lens on Camilla.
The poem itself focuses on Aeneas’ flight from Troy, after it fell to the Greeks. The purpose of the Aeneid is to connect the fall of Troy to the founding of Rome, and ultimately, to the Roman empire. It’s essentially an empire origin story, starring its mythical hero Aeneas. When Aeneas arrives in Latium (after a long sea journey), he finds the king welcoming. The king even offers his daughter’s hand in marriage to the new arrivals. However…the queen wants her daughter to marry Turnus, a local, and she conspires with Turnus to start a war against Aeneas and the Trojans.
Long story short, she succeeds, and during the battle, Turnus kills the son of Aeneas’ closest ally, whom Aeneas had sworn to protect. Naturally, this makes things worse, and the Trojans unleash their full fury on the Latins.
Turnus…for lack of a better term…turns to a group he believes can help…turn the war in his favor: the Amazons. The women come to his aid, riding upon magnificent steeds, and their coming is described in appropriate warlike terms. Then, as Camilla dismounts her horse–the others following–she tells Turnus:
“If sense of honor, if a soul secure
Of inborn worth, that can all tests endure,
Can promise aught, or on itself rely
Greatly to dare, to conquer or to die;
Then, I alone, sustain’d by these, will meet
The Tyrrhene troops, and promise their defeat.
Ours be the danger, ours the sole renown:
You, gen’ral, stay behind, and guard the town.”1
I’m really not usually awed by “tough talk,” but this speech sends chills up my spine every time. “Hey, Turnus, if we’re talking about honor or that je ne sais quoi a true hero is born with, then I guess that makes this my fight. And since it’s my fight, I (and my fellow Amazons) get all the glory for it. And since we don’t need you, just, you know, stick around here and make sure the town doesn’t spontaneously combust or something.”
At least, that’s how I imagine her tone in my head.
And Turnus, rather than getting irritated, seems kind of giddy at having her there. He thanks her for coming and calls her “grace of Italy”2 before adding that he, and his entire army, are at her command.3
If Turnus, our prideful antagonist, is impressed by Camilla and her entourage…then I suppose I should be, too.
Of course, all is not well up on Mount Olympus, as Diana knows her champion’s fate is to die in battle…and even though they’re gods, they can’t change fate. Phoebe, Diana’s nymph, wishes that whoever kills Camilla in battle with “not pass unpunish’d from this
And with that, the Latin and Trojan forces go to war.
With all that build-up, it might seem that Camilla would meet her match on the battlefield, right? That perhaps our fearless hero Aeneas might prove to be stronger than she. That as she faces him, her downfall is his sword because…well, because he’s the dauntless hero, and she’s fighting for the side we’re kind of rooting against. So that’s what happens to Camilla…isn’t it?
Nope. Actually, Camilla’s actions on the battlefield are every bit as good as her reputation. She’s a force of pure brutal energy, slaughtering Trojans left and right. She is “resistless” and “pleas’d with blood.”5 We are the regaled with a list of her kills–all gruesome, but all fair. She even kills two men at once by throwing her spear so hard it runs through one guy and pierces the second.6 And then she goes around taunting all of the men she’s killed, asking if a woman warrior was just too strong for them.6
So one might ask, if Camilla is so good at being a warrior–so good that the general of the Latin army is willing to hang back and let her take the lead; so good that she and her entourage are slaughtering the Trojans in droves; so good that she can kill two men at once while taunting the ones she’s already killed–who on earth could possibly take down the indomitable Camilla?
Some nobody Trojan named Aruns.
What happens is this: Jove is surveying this “unequal fight”7–it just isn’t fair. Camilla’s side is clearly much stronger than the Trojans. He needs to do something about this. So, as the Trojans start to retreat, he puts a fire into Tarchon, a Trojan leader, and Tarchon delivers an impassioned speech, reminding the Trojans that they’re losing to a bunch of weak women, and they need to turn around and fight.7
Aruns, another Trojan, decides that he will be the one to put an end to this massacre. He sneaks up behind her and throws his javelin. It strikes home and comes through the other side of her chest.8 Immediately, he turns in shame and runs because, to the ancient warrior, nothing was worse than killing an opponent from behind. It was seen as pure cowardice. In this case, the ends do not justify the means.
What I find most fascinating about this section is that, while typically I laud a character who can outsmart his or her opponent, in this case, Aruns doesn’t outsmart Camilla–he cheats. It’s not a delicate skirting of the rules, but a shredding them up altogether.
And the poem recognizes this. Even though it’s the Aeneid, and our dauntless hero Aeneas fights for the Trojans, the poem does not recognize any admirable thing about the Trojan Aruns stabbing Camilla from behind. Camilla is presented as strong, bloodthirsty, courageous, and fair–all of her kills were met front-to-front on the battlefield. So it is somewhat ironic that her defeat comes through what amounts to treachery.
Aruns, called now by the name “traitor,” does not go unpunished. Opis, one of Diana’s sentries, sees him running away, and she says:
“Thy backward steps, vain boaster, are too late;
Turn like a man, at length, and meet thy fate
Charg’d with my message, to Camilla go,
And say I sent thee to the shades below,
An honor undeserv’d from Cynthia’s bow”9
Thus Aruns meets the same fate as Camilla–Opis shoots an arrow through his heart.
Camilla’s cause, however, does not end with her death. As the Latin men run back to their town, the Latin women who witnessed the treachery from their place on the wall, were filled with such a rage that they grab rustic poles and “imitated darts”10 and basically begin hurling down at the Trojans whatever is in reach.
Let me repeat that slowly–while the men run back to the town and close the gate behind them, the women stand on the wall and throw things at the Trojans to avenge Camilla’s death.
That’s a pretty cool image, if you ask me. A fierce female warrior who could only be taken down by one of the worst ancient war crimes is avenged by a group of women watching from a wall. All in a poem written in Latin some 2,000 years ago. About an event that happened some 3,000 years ago.
So even though I’m not typically attracted to the warrior archetype, I have to admit an admiration for Camilla. I also have to hand it to Virgil, who writes a story about war that asks the reader to sympathize with both sides…and does not excuse a war crime, even when committed by the protagonist’s side.
Camilla’s legacy is that she strode into battle with confidence and inspired that same confidence in others, even in death.
Camaraderie in the military is necessary for the smooth function of operations. It tends to develop easily because military life is a series of routine hardships. This sentiment intensifies as the experiences intensify, particularly in combat. Current politics have made quite a spectacle over the concept of transgender military service. I don’t necessarily believe Mulan was transgender, or at least is depicted as transgender. However for my analysis here, whether she was or was not, doesn’t really matter. What matters is the implicit commentary of her story that demonstrates the importance of military camaraderie over gender concerns.
The story depicted in the ballad reveal an important sentiment that is applicable to the presence of transgender people in the military. Given the quality of the individuals, who like Mulan, serve in a capacity that is revealing of their character and capability, the identity that is formed from respect, admiration, and deep non-romantic love that is so often framed by combat veterans, is outside of the realm of gender, but within the realm of the greater human experience. Mulan’s story and blurred gender identity shows the reader that she is greater than the sum of her private parts, that she’s a whole person, that her actions have been the most important part of her existence. The reaction of her fellow soldiers, is initial surprise, but without change in their demeanor or respect for Mulan.
If we examine the ballad in a feminist lens, that looks at her female specific experience, we can find further interesting commentary. In modern society, we are aware of studies devoted to understanding the occurrence of under promoted women. Whether it be women who are more qualified, yet are surpassed by less qualified men on the ladder to success, or women who are paid less than their male counterparts, there is a sense that to be successful as woman, it requires at least twice the effort and qualifications.
This idea isn’t lost on the world of Mulan. In the ballad, Mulan serves faithfully for twelve years, earning the great respect of her comrades-in-arms. It took twelve years for her to develop a respect that would lead to unquestionable respect of her person, without social considerations of gender.
However, she is also upheld as an example of honor and grace for her lack of interest in power. Her motivations remain pure till the end. She can be compared to the Khan, the ultimate symbol of male power. Notice the play on words, the focus on the title “daughter,” throughout the poem, “they ask Daughter who’s in her heart, they ask Daughter who’s on her mind.”
Mulan’s status as the definitively female, “daughter” does not change at the end when she returns home, “When Father and Mother hear Daughter is coming, they go outside the wall to meet her, leaning on each other.”
Who is the other prominent figure in the story? Well, oddly enough it is, “the Son of Heaven,” a reference to the Khan. It is him she meets at the end of her service and he asks her what she wants so she can be rewarded for her service and the only thing she asks is for a horse to return home. She does not seek a post as a minister or other high rank. With her lack of desire for power and only desire to return home, reflect on the idea that she never really changed, that she had always been “daughter,” despite leaving home. Along with the simultaneous existence of gender identity, Mulan also embodies opposing ideas: fierce warrior, loyal daughter; male power, rejection of male authority, soft and hard power.
With all this considered, when I take a look at the costume of Disney Mulan in the toy store, I’m baffled. It’s not the dress itself, but that the very thing Mulan is defined by, the determination to pick up a weapon, to break gender conformity and demonstrate her own power is completely lacking in the doll. It is the same as taking the ice away from Elsa and painting her with motifs of fire. I love that Mulan exists in popular culture and that has been brought to Western society through the Disney films. In fact, as a part Asian woman in a Western culture, I greatly appreciate it. As I dig further into Mulan herself, there remains, quite a bit about her, said in only 31 couplets that is strangely loud, profound and relevant to our times. She was a woman who decided to go to war. But really, what did she fight for and against? What did her battlefield look like?
It’s not surprising that Mulan is my favorite Disney princess. My favorite female figures of history of have always been warriors, women who defied social norms. I particularly loved the idea that they could defend themselves and exert a power of their own. In a world of Disney princesses who need saving and who are most known for their beauty, Mulan stood out.
But she isn’t really a princess is she? While she’s included in the Disney princess lineup, she wasn’t born into or married to a royal family. She’s not particularly celebrated for her taste in frilly gowns, compassion or a singing voice. Her story is significant because she was a warrior and (by extension) because she did not follow gender expectations. In fact, she spends most of the film in armor. Despite this, I’ve noted that Disney merchandise opts to feature Mulan in beautiful gown instead of armor.
Before I dig all that up further, let’s look at the actual history of Mulan. First, let me assert that there are many tales about Mulan, some conflicting. Mulan’s story enjoyed a popular revival and reimagining in both the 16th and 17th centuries. For the sake of this article, I am focusing on the original “Ballad of Mulan” as recorded in the Music Bureau Collection, which was compiled in the 12th century, long after Mulan was said to have lived.
Her surname and therefore ethnic origins are uncertain, sometimes she is referred to as Hua Mulan, but she could have easily been Zhu Mulan or Xie Mulan. During the period of the Wei Dynasty, a non-Han Chinese group, the “Ballad of Mulan” was written by an unknown author. We’re talking about the 5th or 6th centuries. Whether Mulan existed is also uncertain.
Nonetheless, in a time that male physical might and female beauty permeated stories, Mulan’s tale stands out as quite unique. By disguising herself as a man, she takes her aging father’s place in the army. This part is pretty familiar if you’ve watched the Disney movie. However, according to the song, Mulan’s military term is not a short one, in fact, she spends twelve years campaigning in the Khan’s army. There is a clear connection to filial piety in Mulan’s actions. In order to save her father, she is willing to break with expectations and social conventions. While worth exploration, I would warn against focusing entirely on that element of the ballad. There is much more going on this tale. We are presented with an extraordinary, dualistic existence that discusses gender norms, breaking gender norms, earning of honor and loyalty to a noble philosophy.
Most obviously, Mulan challenges the idea that gender exists in binary, and more importantly that social roles are not necessarily gendered. Mulan’s comrades-in-arms, do not lose respect for her the moment they find out she is female. They are surprised, but after, “traveling together for twelve years,” Mulan remains the same individual they have come to admire, who has proven herself over and over.
The ballad goes on to stress that Mulan embodies elements of both genders, “’I open the door to my east chamber, I sit on my couch in the west room, I take off my wartime gown and put on my old-time clothes.’” If we use traditional Taoist ideology, east corresponds with yang—female and west with yin—male. Mulan accesses her femininity, is open to it, but rests within her masculinity. She opens herself to the yang, but remains rooted in yin, yet chooses to remove the outward symbols of maleness and puts on female. To further stress common duality, the ballad closes with, “’The he-hare’s feet go hop and skip, the she-hare’s eyes are muddled and fuddled. Two hares running side by side close to the ground, how can they tell if I am he or she?”
The ballad seems to want the listener to understand that Mulan is female, but more than that, her actions are not male, that they are instead, simply honorable. The stress of the story focuses on Mulan’s nobility, grace and inner reflection.
In next week’s post, I will further discuss and analyze the ballad with special attention on military camaraderie and about female success in traditionally male spheres of influence. I’ll take a look at how the story of Mulan can give us insight into our own political and social issues. Maybe Mulan will save the today’s world too.
 Note, I say “Khan” here, the northern tribe title for a ruler, where the Disney film depicts the “Emperor,” which is a Han-Chinese title. Again, this is a story that does not originate from a Han-Chinese background.