For my December pick, I decided to go with an article that matches the season–my April article on Mary titled “Of Hope and Expectation.” I enjoyed writing this one because I love seeing how mythology and story structure help us better understand and explore the world we live in. When we use the phrase “life’s not a fairy tale” as some sort of platitude to mean “life doesn’t always end happily,” it’s because we’ve forgotten that not even all fairy tales have “happy” endings, or even expected endings. But they do have right endings. Just because the story ends unexpectedly does not mean it ends wrongly. And just because darkness seems to have won doesn’t mean it has. We are living a story right now. The belief in a meta-narrative gives us hope that, in the end, all will end right.
The Salem witch trials in colonial Massachusetts are one of those dark spots of American history that continue to intrigue us even as they warn us about the dangers of mass hysteria and the necessity of due process. As is often the case, the history surrounding this has not been kind to some of these women. We remember the initial accusers—Betty Parris, Abigail Williams, and others—as hysterical and attention-seeking, a view that Arthur Miller’s 1953 play The Crucible only solidified.
Some women, like Tituba, we barely remember at all, and what we do is hardly accurate. She’s been immortalized in works such as Miller’s or Marion Starkey’s 1949 book The Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Enquiry Into the Salem Witch Trials, both of which depict her as the cause, however unwittingly and indirectly, of the witch hunt. Starkey suggests that, “in the absence of the elder Parrises, Tituba yielded to the temptation to show [Betty and Abigail] tricks and spells, fragments of something like voodoo remembered from the Barbados” (Starkey 30). She goes so far as to say she put Betty under “the spell of an evil, thrilling dream” (30). Neither is Miller concerned with historical truth when he suggests that hysteria arises because Samuel Parris catches his daughter, Betty, and his niece, Abigail, in the forest with Tituba, dancing and “traffick[ing] with spirits” (Miller 10). He then says to Abigail, “I saw Tituba waving her arms over the fire when I came on you. Why was she doing that? And I heard a screeching and gibberish coming from her mouth. She were swaying like a dumb beast over that fire!” (10)
Essentially, both Starkey and Miller attribute the cause of the hysteria to Tituba’s otherness, whether she’s simply telling the girls stories from her home of Barbados or deliberately teaching them “voodoo.” In reality, we know very little about Tituba. But in her 1986 novel, I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, Maryse Condé blends history and fantasy in order to give Tituba a fully realized narrative.
After her mother is hanged for stabbing her master in self-defense, Tituba learns about healing herbs from a woman on the island named Mama Yaya. Mama Yaya also teaches her that “death is merely a passageway and the door always remains open” (Condé 124). Throughout the novel, Tituba is able to talk to and consult with her dead loved ones, her mother and Mama Yaya among them.
As E.J. wrote about Baba Yaga, the witch Condé presents is just as adept at healing as at harming. “I was born to heal,” Tituba says, “not frighten” (12). In death, Mama Yaya warns her that even though she won’t be able to escape the white man’s world, she needs to use her powers to serve others and not for revenge.
This is tested when Samuel Parris brings Tituba and her husband, John Indian, to Massachusetts as slaves. Here, the story becomes familiar. Tituba grows fond of Parris’s wife, Elizabeth, and their daughter, Betsey. They’re sickly and have little stimulation, so she makes herbal remedies to help them feel better and entertains them with stories about Barbados. It’s Abigail, though, who learns of Tituba’s innocent acts and turns their intentions sinister. Eventually, she’s the one who leads Betsey and the other girls in the accusations.
Condé deliberately ties the girls’ accusation of Tituba to her blackness. In Salem Village, the adults view Tituba and John as having “close connections with Satan” simply because of their skin color. Betsey and the rest of the girls pick up on this belief and eventually turn against Tituba. Later, once Tituba has left Salem Village, she learns that “[t]he girls were being manipulated by their parents. It was all a question of land, money, and old rivalries” (129). She was merely a scapegoat, like many “witches” throughout history. Witches make easy scapegoats because, as K.P. wrote, they live on the outskirts of society while challenging the power structures in place. Tituba was an easy target because of her otherness. She was black and had knowledge the villagers of Salem couldn’t fit into their worldview.
In different parts of the novel, “witch” is defined differently. The girls, before they’re afflicted, define a witch as “someone who has made a pact with the devil” (61). Hester tells Tituba what Cotton Mather says of witches: “Witches do strange and evil things. They cannot perform true miracles; these can only be accomplished by the visible saints and emissaries of the Lord.” (96)
It’s not until late in Tituba’s story, when yet another man has demanded yet another thing from her, that she realizes the truth. “Everyone gives that word [witch] a different meaning. Everyone believes he can fashion a witch to his way of thinking so that she will satisfy his ambitions, dreams, and desires…” (146)
Therein lies the truth of this novel. A witch can’t define herself. Society always does it for her. Tituba doesn’t think of herself as a witch until she’s called one by others. People like Abigail Williams demand unreasonable things from witches, and when these demands can’t be fulfilled, they turn on them. Witches hardly ever get to tell their story, which is part of the reason audiences latch onto stories like Elphaba’s in Wicked. Similarly, in I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, Maryse Condé gives Tituba the voice she’s been denied all these centuries.
Condé, Maryse. I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem. The Random House Publishing Group.
Miller, Arthur. The Crucible. Penguin Books.
Starkey, Marion. The Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Enquiry into the Salem Witch Trials. Anchor Books.
You tell ’em I’m coming… and Hell’s coming with me.
I’ve often thought these words, while said by Wyatt Earp in the movie Tombstone, had to have been first uttered by a pissed-off witch somewhere in history.
Women overcrowd the rosters of those who bear the label of witch. Even in the modern lexicon, the very word summons the image of a woman… specifically a threatening woman. But why? What is it about these women that are threatening? What about them warranted the extreme punishments we’ve all read about? Was it really just religious?
In my opinion, it was not so simple. I see witch hysteria as one of the many incarnations of the status quo reaction to female agency.
Interestingly enough, the major historic witch hysterias occurred during periods of significant change or disruptions to social norms. In fact, attacks on women in general have been heightened when a social system feels threatened by change.
All witches are dangerous, but more than that, they are influencing, they can spread their ideas to others, they are able to trick or enchant others to their will. Witches are not merely black sheep who do not fit into the social structure, they are dangerous because they are women who buck the system. Even further, they have the ability to instill their ideas as the foundation of a new configuration, disrupting the original power structure, converting it into something new if left unchecked. This is why, during times of witch hysteria, it became important for the existing power structure to expose and eliminate witches. These women were powerful and threatening because they were capable of changing minds and bringing new ideas that decrease the authority of the existing order. It is important we identify witches less with witchcraft, but with women whose ideas, lifestyle and practices challenge patriarchy.
Classical tales seek to teach that women of power are not only dangerous to entire families but also communities. Witches are featured prominently as the stepmother who is wicked and has usurped not only the position of a loved mother but male power. From hunting Snow White to turning children into swans, she disrupts the status quo to the detriment of all. The lesson is clear, if women get power they will cause harm for everyone, men and women alike. It is no wonder, when we examine historic accounts of witch trials, torture, executions and burials they are all conducted with a sense of urgency. It seems that people of the past feared that even in death, these women had the power to spread her ideas. Her very existence having happened at all, is threatening.
Witches feature prominently in my fiction. Sometimes they are purely tattered ghosts of my imagination, but frequently, they are based on a historic figure. In my short story, Tides and Lavender, I created a fictionalized version of the Scottish witch Lilias Adie. What attracted me to her was the manner in which she was buried.
After being tortured and confessing to being a witch, Lilias Adie died in prison and was subsequently buried within a brackish mudflat. Beliefs from the time included the fear that dead witch could rise again, animated by the devil himself, so a hefty stone was placed over her grave sight to ensure she was unable to do so.
In my story, Lilas is buried alive and of course, she does indeed rise again. The fear surrounding a revenant is less about the actions of the undead, but the ability to extend their corruption beyond themselves; zombies bite and create new zombies, vampires suck the blood of others and turn them into mindless servants, companions or new fully independent vampires. They can spread these things to people you know and love, turning them into not only strangers but into villains in their own right. But witches, even in their monstrous fictional form do not spread a physical “disease,” for lack of a better term. Witches spread ideas that are counter to the civilized structure of the society.
Western witch hysterias of the 17th and 18th centuries coincides with the Reformation and Counter Reformation. For a society dominated by the rules of Catholic Christianity for centuries, the threat of Protestantism was just as threatening to the social structure as it was the spiritual. Witches in Catholic regions were accused of fouling the Eucharist or using it for spells. Protestant regions were much more susceptible to this phenomenon. This may be due to the intense need to differentiate themselves from the Catholic Church as beacons of righteousness and in doing so, validate their emerging social structures. This opened the possibility for many ideas and it is no wonder that female agency was particularly suppressed during this transition.
The Lilias Adie of my story is victim to all these things. She recognizes that the label of witch is an attempt to separate her from other women and that the strategy of “divide and conquer” has been effective against women. She chooses otherwise, even in the face of betrayals from her fellow women. In doing so, she plants the seeds of female resistance.
My fictional Lilias is terrifying and angry, she is raw with pain. She is the victim, but despite her torture and death, she rises again. She can’t be held down, no matter how many stones that are put over her grave.
When she rises, it is terrible, but more importantly it is infectious.
Featured Image: Oz the Great and Powerful – Movie Poster 2013
Harvest is a time of celebration and plenty. It is a time when the wealth of a civilization pours forth, is stored, stacked, preserved and consumed. For many ancient civilizations, the crop itself was an embodiment of the death of the god, the sacrifice of a male deity in order to feed the masses. Leaving a mother goddess, who is represented by the earth to go through the winter months solitary. In the ancient Greek world, the mother goddess Demeter must relinquish her daughter Persephone to the underworld for the winter. The world transforms from fruitful to barren for the season.
As desolate as this sounds, there is more to it. According the Hymn to Demeter, a text important to the Eleusinian Mystery cult, the goddess was indeed desolate without her daughter. She was in great mourning when Hades stole away her daughter Persephone. When Demeter later stayed at the hall of a great queen, she remained depressed and despondent, unable and unwilling to find joy in anything. “Unsmiling, not partaking of food or drink, she sat there, wasting away with yearning for her daughter…”[i] This story is horribly tragic. This is about a mother’s loss, one that she could do nothing to change.
You’re probably wondering when I’m going to start talking about partying. The feast of Thesmophoria was exactly that, a party that was meant to reenact the exchange between Iambê and Demeter. Oh, and this party had one very specific guest list – no one else but adult women.
Seeing Demeter’s state, Iambê, true to her nature began to tease the mother goddess by telling jokes. Her use of humor brought a smile to Demeter, then eventually the mother goddess found herself laughing and enjoying herself. “Iambê, the one who knows what is dear and what is not, started making fun. Making many jokes, she turned the Holy Lady’s disposition in another direction, making her smile and laugh and have a merry thûmos.”[ii]
How does this fit together? How can a mother, stricken with sorrow over the loss of her daughter, find it alright to laugh, to find some measure of happiness?
The ancient Greek women who attended the Thesmophoria reenacted Iambê’s actions by telling jokes of their own. The feast was meant to be fun, a place to let go of social graces and to bring laughter, including raunchy jokes. It was a moment to let go of pain, responsibility and burden. Temporary release, but a release nonetheless.
Without the presence of men and children, these ancient Greek women were free from labels that were defined women’s roles by men and family. She is a woman, among women. In the Hymn, Iambê demonstrates camaraderie with Demeter and dearly wishes to please the mother goddess. She wishes to give Demeter some joy, any joy in a difficult time. Today, there is plenty of scientific evidence of the healing effects of laughter, it is even used by counselors and psychologists as a technique to help patients. Modern humorist Erma Bombeck said, “There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.” Most comedy today hits on painful experiences, with witty observations that reveal how absurd the truth really can be.
So each year, women in the ancient Greek world got together, had a party and sought to make each other laugh. There is much more to the rituals and celebrations of the Eleusinian Mysteries and a great deal of it remains…well, a mystery to us. However, the Thesmophoria remains my favorite. Perhaps it’s because a part of me wishes we had something just like it today.
In the first two posts for this month, K.P. touched on how the Christianization of Europe affected modern views of motherhood. It became a far more exalted office, in large part due to the Church’s exaltation of Mary, the mother of Christ. The “Madonna and child” became a popular theme for literature, music, and art, rejoicing not just in Jesus, but in his mother, as well.
But the question arises–why such a fascination with the mother? After all, the medieval Church did not hold that Mary was divine. And yet she receives such praise as being called “Holy” or “the Queen of Heaven.”
To answer this question, we must take a look at basic story structure. (Wait–what? Story structure? How did this blog on motherhood turn into a writing lesson all of a sudden?)
“Bear” with me a moment.
Imagine a story–Once upon a time, there was a young girl named Goldilocks who found a house in a forest. She was cold, so she went inside to see three chairs by a warm fireplace. She sat in the first chair, but it was too big. So she sat in the second chair, but it was also too big. The third chair was just right, so she warmed herself by the fire.
Presently, she began to grow hungry, so she went in the kitchen and saw three bowls of porridge. She tried the first bowl, but it was too hot. So, she tried the second, but it was too cold. The third bowl of porridge was just right, so she ate it all up.
All that food and warmth made her very sleepy, so she went upstairs to find three beds. The first bed was too hard. The second bed was too soft. The third bed was just right, so she fell sound asleep.
What? Were you expecting a bear to come back or something? Because that would be awfully disappointing to set you up expecting one thing and never actually deliver.
People generally do not like their expectations to go unfulfilled. We may not expect that it’s a family of bears, but we at least expect that this little thieving, house vandalizing girl will get some sort of comeuppance.
That’s the beauty of the fairy tale. We expect the ending, and yet…we don’t. (G.K. Chesterton has a terrific essay on this very topic here)
We expect the Prince to find Cinderella, but are pleasantly surprised when her stepsisters get their due, too. We expect the princess will kiss the frog; we don’t expect the frog to be a prince. The best stories are the ones where, at the ending, we say, “Ah ha! I knew half of it, and I’m pleasantly surprised by the rest!”
And so, the story of Mary does not begin in the New Testament, but in the Old. All the way back to the very beginning when Eve took a bite of fruit. That was the story “in the beginning.” The first woman–often called the “mother of mankind”–disobeyed God and ruined it for everybody (you can read that story here).
And so, to the early Church spreading across Europe, Eve became “the temptress.” She
was a representation of womanhood left unchecked.1
But the much of the rest of the Old Testament (in the canonized Bible) contains, in storytelling terms, foreshadowing about a Messiah. There is an expectation that the conflict will be resolved in a way that is both expected and yet unexpected.
Isaiah 7:14 says, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”
I mean, every author will say foreshadowing can’t get more blatant than that.
So when it comes Mary’s moment to enter the story, a really long time has passed between Eve, Isaiah, and Mary. Maybe it’s like expecting a friend to come over, and the friend said she be there “noon-ish,” but it’s already nine p.m., and you’re tired and want to go to bed. The expectation has gone unfulfilled for so long you’ve given up on expecting it.
Until Mary goes to her cousin Elizabeth and tells her she’s–expecting! (Come on…you had to know the pun was coming…)
(I would also like to pause and give a shout out to this moment of two excited cousins sharing their pregnancies with each other–which goes to show the more things change, the more they stay the same.)
To the early Church, Mary was hailed as the “new Eve.” The fault committed by the “mother of mankind” was undone by the “mother of God.”2 The symmetry is poetic.
But it also speaks to the story’s purpose to begin with. What Eve created (according to some scholars–we can debate Adam’s role in the whole thing at another time) was a hopeless situation; the child Mary bore restored the hope that was lost. That hope came, not through some divine warrior sent hurtling down to earth; not from a mysterious basket left lying in the woods with unknown parentage; nor from the planet Krypton. Rather, it came from a teenage girl and her baby.
That’s a pretty…unexpected twist. Even with all the foreshadowing.
Yet, as K.P. pointed out, the Christianization of Europe began to exalt motherhood because Mary was exalted as a mother, and prize infants because an infant became for them the hope of the world. We see remnants of this play out in the modern world as we listen to celebrities sing that “children are our future” or call out the refrain “think of the children!”
While the romanticization of children came a bit later (thanks, Romantics!), children became prized in Europe as inheritors, but also as the “hope for the future.” Practices such as exposing unwanted infants became anathema, and the status of mothers increased, as these women were responsible for producing the future.
Of course, this caused other problems such as allowing women to become prized only for what they could produce, but that is a topic for another time. Since our theme this month is motherhood, we can at least address the important role mothers played in Europe in the Middle Ages and understand their status increased, in large part, because they were seen as bearers of hope. In some (hotly contested) theologies, motherhood was even seen as a way to “escape” Eve’s curse.
Which brings us back to our quote for this month’s theme–“hail our life, our sweetness, and our hope” says the prayer, and it is addressed from the “banished children of Eve.” The banished children who remain banished no longer.
Somewhat unrelated (but kind of not), I thought I would put in a shameless plug for one of my favorite poems on the hope of a new life from early feminist (and Mary Wollstonecraft rival) Anna Letitia Barbauld:
To a Little Invisible Being Who is Expected Soon to Become Visible
Germ of new life, whose powers expanding slow
For many a moon their full perfection wait,—
Haste, precious pledge of happy love, to go
Auspicious borne through life’s mysterious gate.
What powers lie folded in thy curious frame,—
Senses from objects locked, and mind from thought!
How little canst thou guess thy lofty claim
To grasp at all the worlds the Almighty wrought!
And see, the genial season’s warmth to share,
Fresh younglings shoot, and opening roses glow!
Swarms of new life exulting fill the air,—
Haste, infant bud of being, haste to blow!
For thee the nurse prepares her lulling songs,
The eager matrons count the lingering day;
But far the most thy anxious parent longs
On thy soft cheek a mother’s kiss to lay.
She only asks to lay her burden down,
That her glad arms that burden may resume;
And nature’s sharpest pangs her wishes crown,
That free thee living from thy living tomb.
She longs to fold to her maternal breast
Part of herself, yet to herself unknown;
To see and to salute the stranger guest,
Fed with her life through many a tedious moon.
Come, reap thy rich inheritance of love!
Bask in the fondness of a Mother’s eye!
Nor wit nor eloquence her heart shall move
Like the first accents of thy feeble cry.
Haste, little captive, burst thy prison doors!
Launch on the living world, and spring to light!
Nature for thee displays her various stores,
Opens her thousand inlets of delight.
If charmed verse or muttered prayers had power,
With favouring spells to speed thee on thy way,
Anxious I’d bid my beads each passing hour,
Till thy wished smile thy mother’s pangs o’erpay.
Alexander, Flora. “Women as Lovers in Early English Romance.” Women and Literature in Britain: 1150-1500. Ed. Carol M. Meale. Cambridge University Press, 1993.
“Death by Eve, life by Mary” — Saint Jerome (Epistle 22)
When Constantine became Roman Emperor in 306 AD, it was to a transforming Empire. His official conversion to Christianity was reflective of the strong spread of the religion into Roman culture.
This form of Christianity held a strong Roman identity, the spread having first moved through the aristocratic classes. Remarkably, Constantine legalized the collection of exposed infants for the purpose of enslavement. While the option of slavery is potentially horrific, Constantine’s act of legalizing such activities is a significant shift in social perspectives on babies. He would later outlaw the practice of infant exposure altogether. What has become known as the Christmas story, glorifies the potentiality of the infant Jesus with associations of hope. Constantine’s ruling indicates that infant life is worth preserving, even in conditions of slavery without other options.
The Church would eventually equate infant-hood as the moment humanity was the closest to the divine, being newly emerged into the mortal world, theologically asserting that infants exemplified purity. By 787, we see the establishment of the first orphanages in Christianized regions of Italy. In Milan, the Archbishop had a special revolving cradle installed so women could anonymously leave children. Interestingly, this acknowledges social stigmas surrounding women who either had children out of wedlock or were unable to care for their child. Clearly indicating that at this point, infant exposure was not generally practiced and the involvement of a male head of family in the decision to keep or reject a child, such as the paterfamilias was diminished or nonexistent. Further, the Church had developed authority in the matter and became particularly concerned with preserving new and unborn life. An Anglo-Saxon penitential dating from the late 7th century states:
Women who commit abortion before [the foetus] has life, shall do penance for one year or for the three forty-day periods or for forty days, according to the nature of the offence; and if later, that is, more than forty days after conception, they shall do penance as murderesses, that is for three years on Wednesdays and Fridays and in the three forty day periods. This according to canons is judged [punishable by] ten years.
What we see here is a significant transformation. The Roman concept of abortion that essentially considered newborns in a late stage of fetal development and acceptance of infanticide changed to the Early Medieval belief that life began during pregnancy. This argument is quite familiar to the modern world, where political pundits frequently argue over the moment when life and therefore personhood occurs.
But it wasn’t just a sense of heightened morality and compassion instituted by religious conversion that created these changes. After the failings of partible inheritance, primogeniture developed, a system of inheritance that depended on first-born children of the sovereign. This system was not only in the interest of the ruling family, but to the fiefdoms of early Medieval Europe who also practiced primogeniture in their own households. In the post-Roman world, hyper-localism reigned in order to maintain pockets of stability. Broken systems of inheritance or uncertain heirs often led to fractured support of the elite classes who contributed to military power. When this happened, the already tenuous balance would shift and ultimately led to grabs for power, conflict and war. The birth of heirs, became overwhelming stressed for the preservation of social and economic order.
Additionally, the Church called for the spread of Christianity. The call came from a religious and spiritual motivation. But it also came from the intent to establish Western Europe as a region that essentially played by the same political rules. While the Roman Empire held the original authority to recognize claims of kingship to Western European kingdoms, in its absence that authority transferred to the Church in Rome. This resulted in the concept of “Christendom,” religiously described as a vision of God’s kingdom on Earth that politically bolstered the claims of kings and lords as well as preserved the Church itself. Church leader, Augustine intentionally promoted higher rates of childbirth in Christian marriages as part of building Christendom.
The value and role of motherhood rose greatly in prominence. Women continued to have limited legal rights, and due to the need to ensure the true stock of any children born to her, women’s access to easy movement became limited. Power for elite women, was derived from her family, husband and particularly her position as mother of male heirs. Mothers were responsible for the basic indoctrination and instruction of their children into Christian values. Oddly enough, mothers became the backbone of the perpetuation of their own suppression, but also the elevation of children as important parts of the social order. Advanced education for boys, occurred after this period by male instructors.
So strong came the drive for the birth of male heirs, other children and mothers suffered. The Church recognized not only this struggle for women, but how the practice could diminish survivability of other children in a world where infant and child death were common place. Further, the Church noted that infants who were nursed by a healthy mother had greater chances for survival. In the late 6th century, Pope Gregory I insisted that women should not only nurse their own children, but husbands should abstain from intercourse with their wives during that period. This reveals a basic understanding that nursing promotes infant health, but with new pregnancies, milk tends to dry-up.
Further, her husband ought not to cohabit with her till that which is brought forth be weaned. But an evil custom has arisen in the ways of married persons, that women scorn to nurse the children whom they bring forth, and deliver them to other women to be nursed. Which custom appears to have been devised for the sole
cause of incontinency, in that, being unwilling to contain themselves, they think to scorn to suckle their offspring. Those women therefore who, after evil custom, deliver their children to others to be nursed ought not to have intercourse with their husbands unless the time of their purification has passed, seeing that even without the reason of childbirth, they are forbidden to have intercourse with their husbands while held of their accustomed sickness; so much so that the sacred law smites with death any man who shall go into a woman having her sickness.
This statement from Pope Nicholas in the late 9th century echoes many of the same sentiments.
“A woman’s husband should not approach to lie with her until the infants, to whom she has given birth, have been weaned. But a depraved custom has arisen in the behavior of married people, that women despise nursing the children whom they have born and hand them over to be nursed by other women; and this seems to have happened solely because of incontinence, since those who refuse to restrain themselves, despise nursing those to whom they have given birth.”
Simultaneously, we see a rise of iconography in glorification of Mary, particularly in
the role of exalted motherhood. Resulting in the first popularization of the “Nursing Madonna,” which often enmeshing local pagan beliefs. This type of Marian depiction would continue well into the Renaissance. But if we look at its development with what would become secular law, we can see that Mary became not only revered, but an example for motherhood. Additionally, infants were no longer results of disposable fertility and that the relationship between women’s freedoms and the value of infants are interestingly linked, with often unexpected outcomes.
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.
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.
I count the grains of sand on the beach and measure the sea.
Oracle at Delphi – 560 BC
She stands close to associations with the Earth, the musty damp womb of the dirt where decay and birth exist simultaneously. You can find her only after a journey, you can hope she will proclaim that you are destined for greatness or give clarity for your decisions, but she may also give omens of dread, of doom or mere unsatisfying riddles. Whatever she utters, for ill or good, are the words of divinity.
Read the great mythologies of Ancient Greece and you will encounter over and over the Oracle at Delphi, the Pythia. She dwelled at a place that must have seemed to the ancients was the opening to the womb of the Earth itself, a seam from which the vapors arose giving the Pythia the power of prophesy. Her words can be found in many sources from the ancient world. But there’s so much more to the existence of the Pythia that captures my imagination, it is what she represents—a remnant of even older belief systems.
The serpent brings instinctive fear. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is the Devil, in the form of a serpent who tempts Eve, who, along with Adam are cast out from the Garden of Eden as punishment. The Medusa of Ancient Greek mythology with her head writhing with nest of serpents could turn a man to stone. Early civilization abounds with the association of women with serpents, something that continues into the Ancient Greek world. The very title “Pythia,” is a reference to the great Python, the serpent beast who originally guarded the Delphi site.
Snakes frequently nest in crevices and the underground. They emerge from the Earth itself, as if born forth from a womb. Much like humanity, they can be beneficial but are also dangerous. The Oracle is the conduit, much like the Earth, or a mother for what thing that emerges. She is the womb of prophesy, just as filled with potential and uncertainty as humankind. While controversial, the studies of Marija Gimbutas bring entirely worthwhile connections. If the serpent is representative of what can emerge from the Earth, what other connections can we find? Gimbutas says upon death European Neolithic cultures may have believed, “new life grows from the remains of the old…symbolically, the individual returned to the goddess’ womb to be reborn.” She goes on to place a direct correlation between what she calls the “tomb as womb.” That is to say, in death everyone returned to the womb of the Earth and then ultimately were reborn.
The site at Delphi likely represented that regenerative cycle, further because of the presence of the fault line within. The Pythia was further reported to have drank from a spring that ran underground and back to the surface near Apollo’s temple. The spring is yet another strong cyclic signifier. The mythological story of Apollo slaying the Python of Delphi and claiming the site as his own also points to this cultural memory. Some have argued that Apollo acts as a patriarchal symbol slaying a matriarchal belief system. If we interpret the serpent and Earth as female symbols, it is not hard to see a patriarchal connection to the slaying of the Python.
“Then Phoebus Apollo boasted over her (Python): Now rot here upon the soil that feeds man! You at least shall live no more to be a fell bane to men who eat the fruit of the all-nourishing earth…but here shall the Earth and shining Hyperion make you rot.”
But even as Apollo takes control (by force) over prophesy, he cannot eradicate the origins of the Delphi site. Note that the Pythia, like many oracles in the ancient world, was a female specific position. While the Ancient Greeks believed that Apollo gave the words of prophesy to the Pythia, the oracular significance remains female. Joan Breton Connelly asserts that, “the Pythia exerted considerable control over the oracles that she delivered,” and that while male priests existed they did not perform as oracles and further were not the ones who were the subject of attempted bribery. Meaning, they had little control or influence over the Pythia and further, she likely was quite purposeful when she delivered her highly influential answers.