Imagery is one of the most important and versatile aspects of fiction. Especially in fantasy, we tend to default to symbolizing goodness with light and evil with darkness. Just consider Star Wars (which I classify as space fantasy). Not only are the villains aligned with the literal dark side, but the major bad guys—Darth Vader, Palpatine, even some stormtroopers—are decked out in black. Anakin’s clothes start out as tan and light colors but slowly turn darker as he approaches his alliance with the dark side itself. Visually, this can be fantastic shorthand, and not just in movies. We use it in fiction all the time, too.
Outside of the black-and-white, good-and-bad binaries, though, darkness embodies uncertainty, and uncertainty makes us uncomfortable. What could be more uncertain and uncomfortable than the prospect of what happens to us after we die? It’s a question people have been wrestling with for millennia, as evidenced by the some of the stories that have survived thousands of years. One of the most well known in the western world is the Greek myth of Persephone, sometimes known as Proserpina or Cora.
Together with her mother, Demeter, Persephone represents the natural agricultural cycle—the planting and sprouting of seeds followed by the maturation of the harvest. The last piece of the cycle, the coming of winter and dormancy of the natural world, comes later on, following Hades’s abduction of Persephone (courtesy of the earth splitting open and a golden chariot). In her grief for her missing daughter, Demeter ceases to perform her godly duties and allows the earth to wither.
When Zeus realizes he must intervene, he sends other gods as messengers to Demeter, but Demeter doesn’t listen. “Never would she let the earth bear fruit until she had seen her daughter” . And so Zeus sends Hermes to retrieve Persephone from the underworld, but not before Hades gives her a pomegranate seed to eat, ensuring she must return to him. Rhea tells Demeter of the compromise:
Come once again to the halls of the gods where you shall have honor,
Where you will have your desire, your daughter, to comfort your sorrow
As each year is accomplished and bitter winter is ended.
For a third part only the kingdom of darkness shall hold her.
For the rest you will keep her, you and the happy immortals. 
Though Persephone is allowed to live with her mother for two-thirds of the year, she must return to the underworld for the remaining four months. “In Homer the underworld is vague, a shadowy place inhabited by shadows. Nothing is real there. The ghosts’ existence, if it can be called that, is like a miserable dream.”  What must it be like to be like to be mistress of such a place?
I think that’s one of the questions more modern fiction, in the form of retellings and adaptations of Persephone’s tale, likes to explore. Roshani Chokshi’s The Star-Touched Queen is a fantasy novel that’s inspired by India and Indian mythology , but because every culture has myths exploring the mystery of death, there are obvious similarities to Persephone’s story. The Star-Touched Queen tells the story of Mayavati, the princess of Bharata, whose fate is to be married to death and destruction. In an effort to escape war and almost certain death, Maya pledges herself to Amar, lord of Akaran, “a kingdom of impossible power” and “a kingdom that all nations feared.” All too soon, Maya realizes that Akaran is really Naraka, the realm of the dead, and Amar is “the lord of justice in the afterlife” . As the story goes on, she must learn how to trust the man who decides fates and how she fits into his world.
A lot of times, when we retell myths or write stories inspired by them, we give more agency to the female characters, which is part of the reason we keep returning to them. As for why Persephone’s story in particular commands such attention, I think it has a lot to do with the liminal darkness of the underworld and the discomfort it inspires. We grow stagnant if we stay in one place for too long. Discomfort pushes us to change, and Persephone’s story is a clear representation of that process.
 Hamilton, Edith. Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods andHeroes. Warner Books, 1999. 53.
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…
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)
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.”
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”!
If I had to sum up the tales of the female selkie, it would go something like this….
Dear Mythological Fisherman,
Please don’t assume a woman you stumble upon (whether she is clothed or nude) wants to become your wife/girlfriend/lover. Maybe ask next time or you will only cause yourself and those around you a lot of heartache.
I happen to love stories of the seal people, known as selkies in Scottish lore and there are many ways we can analyze them. For the purpose of this article, I’m going to stick with
one interpretation that discusses the importance of consent. If you’ve never heard of the selkie, let me start with an overview of the tale. Keep in mind there are some variations, including stories of male selkies, but we’re (of course) taking a good look at the traditional story that features a female selkie.
A fisherman is lonely. One day he ventures to the beach, in a state of sorrow and there he spots a beautiful woman perched on a rock and nude. He falls in love and although she is strange, he doesn’t ask too many questions. Questions that most people in healthy, whether they be supernatural or normal relationships might ask…
Why are you naked?
What are your dreams?
I’m interviewing for the position of wife. What are your short term and long term goals?
Or even maybe,
“Hey wanna get married?”
He loves her so much that he whisks her away, believing he is saving her, after all she was naked and alone and clearly wants to marry him. (Because why else be naked on the beach, isn’t that the usual husband getting method?) Eventually they have children. At some point, she begins to pine for the ocean and becomes very sad. The fisherman who’s known all along that his wife is not human and is in fact, a creature known as a selkie, returns her seal skin to her. Without the skin, she remains trapped in human form. Once she gets the skin back she immediately transforms into a seal and returns to the sea. In most tales, she is never seen from again.
There are variations on this tale that can be found in Orkney, Shetland and Faroe, as well as some Scandinavian lore. Sometimes the fisherman doesn’t return the skin, but hides it, or doesn’t even know about it. But she ultimately finds it and returns to the sea. Not all tales make mention of children as products of the human-selkie union. In some, she returns to visit the children at specific intervals and for only a short time.
It’s a lovely tale, no matter the variation until we look at it closer. What could this tale really be telling us? I spend a great deal of time examining the myriad of symbols used in mythology concerning women. I’ve written quite a few Unbound articles on this, particularly highlighting Greek mythology. But the Celtic tale of the selkie is something else entirely. Unlike the Ancient Greeks, this is not a warning of what a beautiful woman can do to harm, mislead or even kill a man. The tale of the selkie is certainly a warning to men, but a warning concerning female consent.
We don’t get the selkie’s side of the story, sometimes she isn’t capable of even speaking. Her nudity tells us she is vulnerable. That vulnerability is intensified with the inability for her to return to her form as a seal without her skin and therefore is perpetually unable to return home. She lives life for the fisherman as he would wish her life to be, not a life that she chooses for herself. The fisherman seems to get everything he wishes. The beautiful wife he loves, children and the removal of loneliness… or has he? There continues to be a sense of solitude about the fisherman and he spends a good deal of his time attempting to prevent his selkie wife from obtaining her skin. There is little sense of other players and that loneliness from the beginning of the story that launches him forward into marrying the selkie in the first place remains despite this.
In fact, her lack of choice in the matter is a big problem. This is a story of inevitability.
The selkie is from another world, her hopes and desires are not considered and she is thrust into a domesticated life with little to say on the matter. It is no wonder she looks to escape back into the wild of the ocean with the sense that she was never meant to be bound to the human world in the first place.
I once heard a saying–I don’t know how true it is–that in the ancient eras, boys were more often associated with water, while girls were more often associated with fire. The reasoning given to me was that boys spent more time in the outdoors and were more prone to fall into wells, rivers, oceans, etc., while girls spent more time indoors or around fires and were more prone to burning themselves.
Whether this is true or not (and it isn’t like our ancestors are known for their super meticulous record keeping and preserving), it is interesting how few stories one can find that associate women with water. The ones that do tend to be negative–sirens, mermaids, women on a ship as “bad luck.” Which is why I find the connection between women and water in the Arthurian legends fascinating–first, because they exist, and second, because they are equal parts “good” and “bad.”
Really, “good” and “bad” are too simplistic a way of describing the relationship women in these legends have with water. Women in the Arthurian canon are notoriously complicated characters, but they also make a valuable contribution to the medieval discussion about the roles of women. From a theological (and thus academic) standpoint, there were two primary schools of thought on women. Camp A: Women are like Eve; they are all temptresses who work to bring about the downfall of mankind and their passions must be kept in check (see: Tertullian, Augustine). Camp B: Women are like Mary; they are good and chaste and through them, we receive hope (children) for the future (see: Julian of Norwich, Hildegard).
The answer to the question “Are women more like Eve or Mary?” is probably “yes.” Also, “no.” Which is precisely how many of the Arthurian texts answer this same question. Particularly when it comes to the women associated with water.
Though there are several, I will briefly cover two Arthurian women and their complex, watery ways.
The first that comes to mind is probably the Lady of the Lake. Depending on which
version of the legend one reads, she goes by many names: Nimue, Vivienne, or simply “The Lady of the Lake”…and any spelling variations of those. Many might consider her “good”–she gives Arthur his famed sword, Excalibur, after all!
…But she does so with the caveat that Arthur will owe her a favor one day (spoiler alert: This particular deal never goes well in literature.)
The “favor” she asks for later is that he behead Balin, one of his own knights. So this would seem to make her evil again.
Arthur refuses, and Balin takes of the lady’s head instead. Arthur is unhappy, but the lady doesn’t die; she’s a fairy, after all.
She also raises a human boy as her own. His name is “Lancelot du Lake”–or “Lancelot of the Lake.” See? She’s good again!
…But later, she forces Merlin to teach her all of his secrets of magic and then traps him in a tree for all eternity, depriving Arthur of his adviser just when he needs him most. So…evil again.
When Arthur dies, he asks Sir Bedivere to return the sword Excalibur to the lake. After three tries, Bedivere finally does so and sees a woman’s hand reach up from the lake, grab the sword, brandish it three times and then disappear. It is then Arthur knows he can cross the sea to Avalon. So…perhaps she is good, after all.
Accompanying Arthur across the sea is also his sister Morgan le Fay, whom I’ve written on extensively here and here. Morgan le Fay (also a “fay” or “faerie”) shares many of the Lady of the Lake’s qualities–she, too, is sometimes “good,” acting in the best interests of Arthur’s kingdom, and sometimes “evil,” acting against Arthur and his kingdom.
But perhaps it’s best to view these two women as acting in their own interests more so than determining their morality based on how they act in the interest of others. Considering the significance of symbolism to the medieval world, I think the fact that these two women in particular are associated with water helps to show their fluid nature, as well as the fact they “ebb and flow” according to what is needed. Are they Eve or Mary?
Yes. And no.
Though this fluidity might make them seem fickle, it’s important to note there is a consistency to their actions. Both the Lady of the Lake and Morgan le Fay pursue their own interests and goals to the exclusion of others’, and while their own goals come into conflict with Arthur’s at times, everything in the Arthurian narrative works toward the ultimate goal of bringing the downfall of Camelot.
Still, this is one of the reasons I adore the women of the Arthurian canon–they are complicated. Though popular narrative has tried to boil them down to “good” or “bad” distinctions (Morgan le Fay, “bad”; Lady of the Lake, “good”), when one actually digs into the stories themselves, it just isn’t that simple. Medieval literature is known for its driving plots, not its complex characterization. Which makes it all the more interesting to see these types of nuanced female characters represented in medieval narratives.
Runner Up Idea: I really want to write about Perceval’s sister one of these months, and I thought about writing her story here since she meets the Grail Knights by boat…but the Lady of the Lake seemed to align more closely to the theme. But keep an eye out for my discussion of Perceval’s sister!
Source Note: All summaries in this article are from Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, both the Winchester and Caxton MS.
We’re taking a week off, BUT stay-tuned for the kick-off of our July theme of Women and the Ocean next Monday.
In the meantime, if you enjoy our analysis of the Ancient Greek world, I recommend taking a gander over to The History of Ancient Greece Podcast. Their latest episode is on the “Goddess of the Young” which explores the paradox of Artemis, young women and childbirth.
Last month, I promised to cover Helen of Troy eventually. Since this month’s theme is “We Thought We Knew Her,” I thought it would be a good opportunity to do just that.
I certainly had an “I thought I knew her” moment with Helen of Troy when I read Homer’s Iliad for the first time. The plot of The Iliad was one my teachers had explained before, but somehow I got through school without ever having to read it. So it was an adult discovery, and boy, was I ever shocked!
Especially about Helen.
You see, I’d always heard the story of the Trojan War. The beauty contest between Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. How Paris chose Aphrodite because…well…love (*ahem* lust). How Aphrodite arranged for Paris to meet Helen. How Paris and Helen went back to his house in Troy…but Helen was already married, and her husband came after her. She was “the face that launched a thousand ships.” And, gosh, kind of a tart for leaving her husband.
And then I read The Iliad. While there were many things that surprised me in that text, I would like to focus on three misconceptions I had about Helen that were reversed in reading this text. Please keep in mind that Homer’s version of the story isn’t the only one, and thus these statements may be true in other versions. Still, Homer’s is a more holistic version, including perspectives from many of the main players in this drama which is why I find it a more “true-to-meaning” version.
Misconception #1: Helen went with Paris willingly
Helen was tricked into leaving Menelaus, and Homer makes it clear she’s unhappy and torn in Troy. She blames herself for the war, but it doesn’t mean she’s worthy of blame.
She tells Priam, her new father-in-law:
“Would that evil death had been my pleasure when I followed thy son hither, and left my bridal chamber and my kinfolk and my daughter, well-beloved, and the lovely companions of my girlhood. But that was not to be; wherefore I pine away with weeping” (Book III.171).
He replies that she is not to blame for the war, but that doesn’t mean Helen becomes any happier. Though Priam is sincere, she doesn’t really seem to believe him.
In Colluthus’ The Rape of Helen, Paris is disguised as Eros, the god of love (most know him as Cupid, his Romanized name). Helen follows Eros, who reveals himself to Helen as the prince of Troy and “judge of goddesses” (because he’s super humble). Helen agrees to go, saying that she does “not fear Menelaus when Troy shall have known me” (305).
This does seem to suggest that she goes willingly, doesn’t it?…
Perhaps. Until one notices the name of the poem, The Rape of Helen. The word “rape” in its earliest usage could mean an unwanted sexual advance, but it actually meant more than that. Its more common meaning was to be taken by force, i.e. kidnapped. This shows that, if it were not for the interference of the gods (and Paris), Helen would not have gone of her own free will.
In Homer, Helen blames herself for the war, but Priam is there to remind her that “thou art nowise to blame in my eyes; it is the gods, methinks, that are to blame, who roused against me the tearful war of the Achaeans” (Book III).
Whether by Paris or the gods (or both), Helen was kidnapped and is not in Troy voluntarily.
Misconception #2: Helen’s face “launched a thousand ships.”
A truer way to say this may be…
Menelaus launched a thousand ships.
A lot is made of Helen’s beauty and the fact that the war was fought over her (which I’ll address below), but the fact is that many of the men fighting under Menelaus thought the war was pointless and didn’t even want to go. In The Iliad, for instance, Achilles doesn’t want to be there. He actually spends half of the book sitting in his tent refusing to fight because Agamemnon stole his slave girl (did I mention these guys were *super* petulant?). When he does fight, it’s only because Hector killed his BFF Patroclus; definitely not because he cared about getting Helen back.
Even without Homer, though, the other myths about Achilles tell us that he hid among a harem of women just to avoid being dragged into Menelaus’ war in the first place.
Odysseus pretended to be insane to get out of fighting.
For the Trojan side, Hector calls his own brother “evil” and a player (to use the modern term), and he pities Helen. In Book VI, he tells, Paris, “Thy people are perishing about the town and the steep wall in battle, and it is because of thee that the battle-cry and the war are ablaze about this city” (bolding mine), but he is always kind to Helen, and she even remarks that he and Priam alone have shown her such kindness.
Thus, it seems those closest to Paris and Menelaus know Helen is an excuse for the ships, not a reason.
Misconception #3: The Ten-Year Trojan War was Fought over Helen
Helen was incidental in the war.
In the poem, people often say, “we’re doing this for Helen” or “this war is for Helen,” but as the old saying goes, there are always two reasons for war: the stated reason, and the actual reason. The stated reason is Helen. The actual reason is…stupidity.
In many ways, The Iliad is an anti-war text. It certainly doesn’t shy away from showing the evils of war, as well as the impact war has on the innocent. Take, for instance, one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the poem (**SPOILER ALERT**): While Hector is being slaughtered by Achilles and his body is being desecrated, Hector’s wife is upstairs in the palace, drawing him a bath (Book XXII). The contrast of Hector–arguably the most admirable warrior in the entire text–being killed in an “unfair” manner while his wife prepares for his return from battle sends a clear message that war destroys lives and families.
The other thing to consider is how much of a moron Paris is. He’s the one who starts the whole mess by selecting Aphrodite in the first place. What Hera and Athena promise him are far more lasting investments. What Aphrodite offers is a temporary investment–Helen won’t remain beautiful forever. Even the start of the war has nothing to do with Helen, not really. Rather, it’s about Paris’ sexual gratification because Helen is never anything more than an object to Paris.
Then, once Paris gets Helen, it becomes about Menelaus’ pride. Helen almost becomes collateral damage, which is the true tragedy of the story.
One might think this is a “modern interpretation.” That perhaps the ancient readers would be able to accept Helen as the “plot device” for starting the war and her fading into the background is just a part of it.
But if that were the case, I would not be writing this post and certainly not for this blog, which aims to show the prevalence of women in ancient literature.
Because even Homer himself acknowledges on multiple occasions that it is not for the sake of Helen the person, but Helen as object that they fight. This, according to Homer, is pointless and unfair, not only Helen and the Trojan women, but to the warriors forced to fight (and die). And since she’s an object, she becomes a point of lust (for Paris) and pride (for Menelaus), and for that, many, many good warriors lose their lives–not for her sake; but for the sake of Paris and Menelaus. Who are both pretty awful. (Paris is probably more awful than Menelaus, but that’s a much longer discussion…)
Hector calls out his own brother for starting the war by being selfish: “But Hector saw [Paris], and chid him with words of shame: ‘Evil Paris, most fair to look upon, thou that art mad after women, thou beguiler, would that thou hadst ne’er been born and hadst died unwed’” (Book III).
He goes on to tell his brother that Menelaus is a better warrior, and almost insinuates that he hopes Menelaus takes him in the fight because he’s a better man than Paris ever will be.
It’s not only Hector who sees through to the real reason for the war, but also his father when he reminds Helen the gods are the ones who started this war. Priam avoids directly blaming his son who chose Helen, but he acknowledges the gods have stirred up this war–which does, in fact, make sense, given that it was Eris, the goddess of discord, who started the whole apple beauty contest thing.
So is Helen the femme fatale I’d always been told she was? After all, I remember learning about the femme fatale archetype, and Helen being listed as a “good example” of such a woman–a woman who seduces men to their deaths.
Yet, when digging into the story, I just cannot come to that conclusion. Helen did not lead men to their deaths. Aphrodite did. Athena did. Paris did. Menelaus did. But Helen? Helen, like most people in these Ancient Greek dramas, was merely a pawn of the gods to use in their war. The Iliad is a good representation, not just for Ancient Greece, but also the modern-day world, of how wars often begin. Not over beautiful women…but over greed and pride.
But Helen is also a reminder that, when people are treated as objects, they do not become objects. Though to Paris, Helen was a commodity to which he thought he had a “right” (since Aphrodite “gave” her to him), Helen was a person who took on pain and blame, feeling that the world was on fire because she set it.
That, of course, was not the reality. But it was her perception that no one, no matter how any times they told her it wasn’t her fault, could change. In the story of Helen and the Trojan War, everyone loses–The Trojans, the Greeks, the heroes and the kings on both sides, the wives on both sides. No one escapes this war without injury.
But perhaps Helen loses most because she feels the weight of the responsibility. She understands the yoke to which Paris has tied her, even though he does not. Though one might take some comfort in knowing that Paris dies in the war he created because his first wife–whom he cast off for Helen–refuses to heal him, no amount of pain caused to Paris can take away the pain he caused Helen. As Lady Macbeth would say, “What’s done cannot be undone” (Shakespeare V.1)…so perhaps it’s best to consider the consequences before doing something that cannot be undone.
Though history has tried to make her an archetype, a pawn, a McGuffin in the tale of the Trojan War, Homer in both The Iliad and The Odyssey gives us a fuller picture of her story and her pain. Which is why it’s so important to read the original sources rather than rely on someone else’s summary–for in summary, Helen can be flat. A femme fatale. A reason so many died.
But in reading Homer, Helen ceased being an object to me and became a person. And isn’t that the purpose of literature?
When taking a deeper look into the stories of Lilith and Eve, understand that organized religion was an important part of creating order within early civilizations. When I say “civilization” I’m referring to settled towns and cities that are permanent places of human dwelling. In the prehistoric world human life was mostly nomadic in nature, with belief systems that fit into that lifestyle.
The Ancient Greeks, a significant influence on Western social ideas concerning
patriarchy (that’s a whole other article to explain), asserted that women needed to be restrained for the good of civilization. “Zeus eventually puts an end to the successive overthrowing of kings by conspiracies of wives and sons. Establishing a patriarchal government on Olympus. Zeus introduces moral order and culture…” They believed that women were more animal-like, subject to base instincts, sexually wild and would destroy civilization if not properly controlled. As my friend E.J. likes to say, “social ideal does not equal social reality,” so certainly there are plenty of examples of women in Ancient Greek society who were not at all controlled.
But the idea was there. If there is a fear that women can dismantle civilization, what role
did women play before civilization was established? As evidenced by Lilith, early civilizations like both the Ancient Greeks and the Israelites expressed concern over patriarchal order, which became synonymous with civilized order. Nomadic groups became “barbaric” and “uncivilized.” In these early groups women seemed to have had at least a place of respect, if not reverence or even dominance.
Could Lilith and Eve’s story have more to do with the fear of the ruin of civilization and a return to equality of the genders?
Many of the earliest artifacts found in and around Europe, Asia Minor and the Middle East depict an array of what is known as Venus figurines dating from this prehistoric time period.
Don’t let the name mislead you, these figurines have little to do with the Roman goddess Venus. Instead these date from prehistory, the Paleolithic to the Bronze Age, a time long before the Roman Republic. Most famous (and bearing the same misleading name) is the Venus of Willendorf. The depictions of women are carved from stone, antlers, bones or shaped from clay and fired.
So why am I talking about all this? You thought this was an article about rebellious women? Bear with me.
These figurines may represent something far bigger than the shape of a woman crafted into the perfect handheld icon. Certainly, the exaggerated focus breasts, hips and the pubic triangle, seem to indicate that these were for fertility,
but this not certain. It is important to note that these figurines are found throughout Europe – Germany, Austria, Italy, France and Russia to name a few. Further, they have strong connections to other symbols and figurines found in the early Mediterranean cultures like the Minoans of Crete and places like Çatalhöyük in Turkey. These connections and the wide-ranging areas they have been discovered may indicate something much bigger than reverence of fertility alone. They could represent a social ideal, a wide-spread reverence for womanhood—sacred
womanhood, socially equal, or even superior womanhood.None of this is definitive, but the sheer amount of Venus figurines point to something focused on women.
In Jewish mythology, Lilith was the first woman created by God. The earliest written form of her story appears in the early Middle Ages (between the 8th to 10th centuries), but is much older. It is no surprise however, that it was written during a time that marked significant struggles for new social orders. As Adam’s wife, Lilith refused to have sex in the missionary position saying to Adam, “We are equal to each other inasmuch as we were both created from the earth.” Before you get caught up in the Kama Sutra of sexual positions, realize the story has much more to do with social dominance. Lilith didn’t just have a problem with how she and Adam engaged in sex, she had a problem with the inherent idea that she was, “fit only to be in the bottom position, while I (Adam) am to be the superior one.” When Adam refused to treat her as an equal, Lilith left him with all the credit card bills and the Garden of Eden mortgage and went out to find herself in the great unknown of the world beyond.
So here we are, Lilith decided she was equal and wasn’t going to put up with Adam’s ideas of superiority. Not so demonic is that? Ok hold on to this information, you’re going to need it to put together the pieces of what the conflict was really all about.
Adam complained to God, “the woman you have given me has run away.” Note the concept here that Adam has ownership over Lilith as seemed sanctioned by God. So Lilith ran away and God seemed compelled to “give” Adam another wife.
Then came Eve.
Lilith isn’t in the Bible, but Eve is and unlike Lilith, Eve is rather cooperative with Adam. She doesn’t spend much time fighting with him and seems to accept her relative lower position. However, Eve is ultimately tempted and finally eats the forbidden fruit. When she does this, she was not transgressing Adam, instead she was transgressing God by accessing the Tree of Knowledge he has forbidden. God in these stories is the ultimate male power who has exerted order and established a great place to live (i.e. civilization). Eden has inadvertently rejected the social ideal of her subservience, by not only disobeying God, but also through the desire and obtainment of knowledge. Because of Eve’s disobedience (and of course Adam too) they are cast out of Eden.
Oh no! A woman has caused destruction of civilization that the Ancient Greeks feared.
The mythological Lilith became a demonic power after leaving Adam. There are many forms her legend has taken over the ages – the cause of sickness in infants, an evil spirit, a lamia, a spirit that brings death and destruction, a succubus and a hyper-sexualized temptress that brings ruin to men who can’t help but desire her. Sometimes all or some of these ideas are wrapped together. These concepts of Lilith go all the way back to Sumer, indicating that Lilith was a shared cultural idea, as the prehistoric Venus figurines were a shared cultural idea.
The metamorphosis and focus on Lilith’s refusal to adhere to the social order set out before her, indicates a strong patriarchal reaction to (at the very least) a much more egalitarian value system between genders. With the establishment of civilization and increasing successful births rates due to settled lifestyles, the importance of woman waned before the need for a definitive social order in the face of the increased population centers. With the increase of things to own and wealth to accumulate (things difficult to do in a nomadic culture), a system of inheritance rose up. No longer could possessions be passed communally since communities were much too large in this structure. Familial relations over community relations become more important for the purpose of passing on goods and property. In order to determine familial relations, a formal system of mating (marriage) had to be established as well. In a patriarchal structure this amounted to essentially ownership over their spouse(s) as well as their offspring.
Lilith is what happens when a woman refuses to accept a lower position.
Eve is what happens when a woman desires knowledge.
A whole lot of blame. (Really Adam you couldn’t just be bottom sometimes?)
Ultimately, Lilith isn’t quite the demon she is made out to be. Eve isn’t quite the betrayer she is made out to be. Instead they represent some of the earliest fears of female agency.
Arguments we continue to hear today when women’s rights are discussed, argued over and… well, are also demonized.
 Sarah B. Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves. (New York: Schocken Books, 1975) 2.
 “But the woman took off the great lid of the jar with her hands and scattered all these and her thought caused sorrow and mischief to men.” “Pandora: Hesoid, Works and Days.” Theoi Greek Mythology, Accessed 02 June 2018. http://www.theoi.com/Heroine/Pandora.html
True Crime shows are my guilty pleasure. I love a good detective mystery…the “who done it” and the reveal scenes and trying to figure out how it all happened…it’s exciting to try and put all of the pieces together to solve the mystery along with the detective. But for me, the why is always more important than the how. I find myself constantly drawn to the motive, and am most often let down when the detective looks at the camera and says, “He won’t talk, so I guess we’ll never know why he did what he did.”
In most murder mysteries, at least on the true crime shows I watch, we often get the how (Col. Mustard hit him over the head with a candlestick as he entered the ballroom), but are so often left without the why (they seemed like such good friends…what could ever drive him to murder?). That’s the beauty of fiction–it can satisfy our need to know both the how and the why. To wrap up our “women who murder” theme, I would like to turn to one of my personal favorite stories: The Oresteia by Aeschylus. This trilogy contains one of the most famous murderesses in mythology–Clytemnestra, who murders her husband Agamemnon and tries to kill her own son Orestes. But unlike those True Crime shows, we are never in the dark about why she kills…She wants revenge.
To be completely fair, Agamemnon’s entire household is cursed. His father, Atreus, murdered his own nieces and nephews then (*gag alert*) fed them in a stew to his twin brother. Cannibalism in Ancient Greece was definitely in the top “deadly sins,” so the gods put a curse on the house of Atreus, and–due to Fate–Agamemnon never stood a chance in the first place.
But Clytemnestra’s story begins a bit later, right before the Trojan War (as all great Greek myths do). Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus has just had his wife kidnapped by some Trojan idiot named Paris, and Menelaus launches the famous thousand ships after her (we’ll definitely cover Helen another time). The problem, however, is that Agamemnon has somehow offended Artemis, and without her blessing, their ship will never make it to Troy. Her demand? The sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter, Iphigenia.
This poses some problems in Greek mythology. After all, the Olympian gods aren’t really the human sacrifice types, and so this story generally puzzles mythologists. It also opens the door for a wide variety of interpretations of exactly what happened to Iphigenia. Perhaps she was sacrificed. Perhaps Agamemnon began the sacrifice, but Artemis swooped in at the last moment and saved her. In either case, the stories all agree on one thing: Agamemnon lied to his wife, Clytemnestra, telling her that Iphigenia was to be married off to Achilles (or some soldier), then took her daughter away where Clytemnestra never saw her again.
The winds were lifted, and Agamemnon’s ship sailed on to Troy…but Clytemnestra was left only with the rumors that her husband had sacrificed their eldest daughter just to go fight a war he had no business meddling with in the first place.
So it’s easy to understand why, with her husband gone for ten years, Clytemnestra had time to move on, find a new man, and of course, plot her revenge. The new man was Aegisthus, a cousin of Agamemnon’s, and here’s where the story gets a bit fuzzy, depending on which version of the myth you’re reading. Since I started out by mentioning The Oresteia, I’ll give you Aeschylus’s version…but it’s not entirely complete. In Ancient Greek theatre, all violence took place offstage, which means that even in Aeschylus, we don’t see anything; we only hear about it after the fact.
What we know is that when Agamemnon arrives home, he’s greeted warmly by his wife and invited inside. Then there’s some screaming, Agamemnon’s new slave-girl runs in, there’s more screaming…the guess is left to the audience. The play makes it clear that Clytemnestra and Aegisthus had planned this murder for a long time–possibly ever since Clytemnestra lost Iphigenia those ten years ago.
There’s something satisfying to me in this story that is often missed in those True Crime documentaries–we actually get the why and the how all at the same time. Clytemnestra feels justified in her actions, and gladly tells the details of how she murdered her husband and his slave-girl. When the Chorus rebukes her for being so “shameless,” she replies:
I am no shallow woman, whom ye mock.
With unconfounded heart, albeit ye know,
I speak; and whether thou wilt praise or blame,
‘Tis one to me. Lo, my right arm hath wrought
The handiwork of justice : he is dead,
My husband, Agamemnon. He is dead!1
By calling her murder “the handiwork of justice,” she makes her position as judge and jury plain. She then goes on to tell the Chorus that she didn’t recall any of them speaking out against the injustice her husband wrought when he sacrificed their daughter. Where there was no justice, she would take it for herself. She then goes back even further, stating that she did it even for the children Agamemnon’s father slew,2 arguing her case to the Chorus, who represents the interest of the audience.
The Chorus does not buy her reasoning.
Her son Orestes, eventually comes home and learns from his sister Electra what has happened. According to the custom, Orestes as the eldest son is responsible for avenging his father’s death. However, killing a blood relative was a mortal sin…it’s what got his house cursed in the first place. So, the question for the rest of the play becomes primarily one of logic: Given those two premises, what action should Orestes take? Avenge his father by killing his mother and angering the gods? Or anger the gods by not avenging his father’s death?
(Ancient Greek writers certainly took the whole “be cruel to your characters” advice to heart.)
Orestes takes the first option, but Clytemnestra does not let him take her without a fight. Rather, as Orestes storms his mother’s room, Clytemnestra is there to meet him. Again, no onstage battle ensues except for an exchange of words and arguments, then they exit…and only Orestes returns, his mother’s blood on his hands. In some versions of the story, it’s clear she would rather fight to the death, willing to kill her own son rather than be killed–so she meets him at the door with a battle axe (I’m almost ashamed to say how awesome I find this image–her son is coming at her with a sword, and she meets him with a battle axe. Gutsy.). This was likely meant to show how cold-hearted she was, but I think it gives us another insight, as well…it shows how strongly she believed in her “cause.”
In any version of the tale, but perhaps especially Aeschylus’s version, Clytemnestra is intelligent and fierce. She argues with sound logic and makes a strong case that her murder is justice, rather than revenge. She is patient, waiting over ten years to exact her revenge (or justice, depending on how one looks at it), and she does not go down without a fight.
However, in spite of all of this, Clytemnestra’s tragedy is that she’s still just a pawn in the great game of Fate. Agamemnon’s house was cursed before she got there, and the only way to lift the curse was through her son, Orestes, being tormented by the Furies in retaliation for her own murder. And that only came after a lengthy (a whole play’s length, actually) courtroom scene where Orestes pleads his case before Athena. Was it justice? Or revenge? And how thin is the line between them?
And if the difference between the two is motive, then what had been Clytemnestra’s true motive? Or Agamemnon’s? Or Atreus’? No one in this family (except perhaps Iphigenia) is innocent of another family member’s blood, after all.
In those True Crime documentaries I love so well, there’s a similar theme–when a motive is discerned, it’s seldom unique. The motives of jealousy and revenge have withstood the test of time. But no one pleads that to the judge. Rather, everyone justifies themselves in their own mind. After all, justice is “an eye for an eye,” and if one feels their eye has been taken, don’t they deserve the right to enact the same on the offender? Yet, as the tragedy of the House of Atreus so well illustrates, perhaps an eye for an eye really does make the whole world blind…
For Jason, she betrays her father, kills her own brother, and abandons her home of Colchis. In Corinth, she murders her sons as vengeance against Jason and then escapes in a serpent-drawn chariot sent by the sun-god Helios. King Aegeus of Athens grants her sanctuary. But when she nearly tricks Aegeus into poisoning his own son, Theseus, she flees again. In this final flight, Medea breaks free of Greek mythology, unconquered to the last.
It is a unique fate for a woman who murders her sons. Greek mythology is not so kind to
its heroes. They do not die peacefully with past glories dancing in their head. Wine had soured in Jason’s mouth when a rotted spar from his ship Argos strikes him, the unfaithful husband, dead. King Aegeus throws himself from the high acropolis of Athens, believing Theseus defeated. Theseus lives long enough to see his beloved wife and son into their graves. Hercules burns himself on his own funeral pyre, accidently poisoned by his wife, before Zeus allows him into the stars. Odysseus’s son murders him; Oedipus is blinded; and Antigone, hounded into insanity.
Medea is no heroine, but neither is she a Minotaur to be vanquished. Instead, she is elemental – a wind that drives demi-gods to victory or to the bottom of the sea. What element she signifies is revealed by the men around her, the men who use Medea. When she enters the stage, Medea is ruled by her heart from the first. Jason wields that love to achieve his goal: stealing the golden fleece from Medea’s father. Without Medea’s power, Jason will not succeed. She tells him how to defeat each of her father’s traps, and when the lovers escape Colchis, it is Medea who dismembers her brother to prevent the King from following.
And Jason uses Medea as much as he can. He marries Medea and asks that she regenerate his aging father into a full vibrant life. Medea gives Jason healthy sons. Having borne him two legitimate heirs, though, Jason considers Medea a spent force to be cavalierly disposed once she is no longer useful. He throws Medea over for the daughter of the King of Corinth. The King of Corinth, at least, has the sense to banish Medea; Jason never considers that the power he used to capture the golden fleece and his future might take it from him.
Medea laments the position of a wife, forced aside, but she is not powerless. She strikes a deal with King Aegeus to save herself: She will give him sons. Aegeus sees Medea as the power through which he can ensure his dynasty continues. Medea fulfills her end of the bargain, a bargain Aegeus revokes when his own long-lost son, Theseus, arrives. Like Jason, though, Aegeus cannot end Medea – she escapes with their son.
While Medea is “passion” and an “anti-mother,” this simplifies her. She is the power of progeneration. She promises a future. Her fire protects Jason and regenerates his father to good health. She grants Jason two male heirs, a precious gift when children were not certain to survive to adulthood. She gives the same to King Aegeus. When Medea seeks to destroy, she cuts off that same future, beginning in Colchis. Medea kills her brother, her father’s heir. She kills Jason’s sons. She kills the King of Corinth’s daughter. She tries to destroy Theseus as well, so that her children with Aegeus are the future.
And here lies the genesis of her immortality. As dangerous as she may be, without Medea – without the power to progenerate – there is no future for kings or paupers. Jason and Aegeus used Medea to advance their cause, conscious that same power could destroy it. The power itself, though, one might try and tame the wind.
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.