“Of Hope and Expectation”–My December Pick

by: E.J. Lawrence

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.

So, without further ado, here’s my December pick–“Of Hope and Expectation”

 

Perspective and Perception: The Evolution of Attolia in The Queen’s Thief Series

by Carrie Gessner

Perspective is one of the most powerful tools available to writers. It defines the reader’s entry point into the story and shapes their view of the characters. One of my favorite examples of this can be seen in The Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner. The series, which is currently made up of five books with a sixth planned, was inspired by ancient Greece. In Turner’s world, three small countries occupy a peninsula off of the main continent—Sounis in the west, Attolia in the south, and Eddis plunked between the two.unbound 02.jpg

The first book in the series, simply titled The Thief, is told in first-person from Eugenides’s perspective. He’s a teenaged thief whose only chance at getting out of the Sounis prison is to try to steal a mythical stone that is said to confer on the holder the throne of Eddis. Although Eugenides, known as Gen, is the main character of this book, it’s a tertiary female character who makes only a minor appearance toward the end—the queen of Attolia. Her given name is Irene, but in Turner’s world, leaders take on the name of their country. Gen is in prison—again—when he finally meets Attolia, whom he describes as follows:

unbound 0.jpg“Standing in the light, surrounded by the dark beyond the lanterns, she seemed lit by the aura of the gods. Her hair was black and held away from her face by an imitation of the woven gold band of Hephestia. Her robe was draped like a peplos, made from embroidered red velvet. She was as tall as the magus, and she was more beautiful than any woman I have ever seen. Everything about her brought to mind the old religion, and I knew that the resemblance was deliberate, intended to remind her subjects that as Hephestia ruled uncontested among the gods, this woman ruled Attolia.” [1]

This seems like a lot to unpack, especially if you’re not familiar with the series. Our brief glimpse of Attolia tells us two important things—she’s beautiful, and she’s powerful. However, as Gen points out just a page later, though Attolia is beautiful, she is less than kind—to the point of ruthlessness. There are even stories of how she poisoned her husband on their wedding day in order to claim the throne.

Through Turner’s deft use of Gen’s first-person point of view, readers are exposed to the tension among these three countries as well as his strong and poor opinion of the queen of Attolia. Consequently, it’s easy to side with him and dislike her. So imagine the reader’s surprise when Turner gives Attolia a point of view in book two, The Queen of Attolia, titled after the character in question. If she is ruthless, it is because she has had to be. “I inherited this country when I was only a child, Nahuseresh,” she says. “I have held it. I have fought down rebellious barons. I’ve fought Sounis to keep the land on this side of the mountains. I have killed men and watched them hang. I’ve seen them tortured to keep this country safe and mine.” [2] Perhaps Gen is right when he says she’s not kind, unbound 03but perhaps she was never given the chance to be.

By using Attolia’s point of view, Turner makes it clear that Gen’s initial assessment, though not wrong, isn’t the whole picture. Through her point of view, we get passages such as this: “She thought of the hardness and the coldness she had cultivated over those years and wondered if they were the mask she wore or if the mask had become her self. If the longing inside her for kindness, for warmth, for compassion, was the last seed of hope for her, she didn’t know how to nurture it or if it could live.” [3] We find that the true Attolia is a far cry from the stony-faced queen she presents to others.

Although Turner’s series offers a fully realized fantasy world as well as twisting plotlines, its biggest strength lies in the characters. I can give only a brief glimpse of Attolia’s development, especially because each installment comes with its own revelations and surprises, but I hope it’s enough to illustrate how our perception as readers is directly influenced by the perspective(s) a writer chooses. I don’t think anyone relishes being proven wrong, but in this particular case, the journey Turner takes us on in order to prove us wrong about Attolia is more rewarding than being right.


[1] Turner, Megan Whalen. The Thief. Puffin Books, 1998.

[2] Turner, Megan Whalen. The Queen of Attolia. Harper Collins, 2000.

[3] Ibid.

Daphne’s Laurel Tree and the Me Too Movement

by K.P. Kulski

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-The_Ash_Yggdrasil_by_Friedrich_Wilhelm_Heinepagan 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 Stone_Buddha_covered_in_tree_rootsrepetitive 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 laurel-forest-2228307_960_720greater, 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?”[1]

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.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini DaphneDaphne 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

The Dryad
The Dryad

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 John Roddam Spencerthe 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_William_Waterhouse_-_La_Belle_Dame_sans_Merci_(1893)I met a lady in the meads,

Full beautiful – a faery’s child,

Her hair was long, her foot was light,

And her eyes were wild.[2]

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.

I saw pale kings and princes too,

Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;

They cried – ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci

Thee hath in thrall!’

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,

With horrid warning gaped wide[3]

We could consider this from a negative perspective, that such a link is a sinister one, a LaBelleDame-Cowper-Lwarning 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.

_______________________________________________________________________________________

[1] Edith Hamilton, Mythology (New York: New American Library, 1969), 115.

[2] John Keats, “La Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad” Poetry Foundation. Accessed 08 MAR 2018. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44475/la-belle-dame-sans-merci-a-ballad

[3] Ibid.

The Write Awakening

by Sara Tantlinger

From a young age, writing followed Kate Chopin in many ways. She read often and kept

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Kate Chopin

journal entries and some private poetry, but her fiction didn’t really surface until after a series of tragedies impacted her future. Throughout Chopin’s life, she lost her father, husband, mother and other relatives all before she even turned 34. Left with six children, her husband’s debt, and a great struggle with depression, her obstetrician and a family friend both advised her to use writing as a way to heal and focus, and as a method to provide income. [1]

Writing as a form of escapism is a familiar concept to anyone who practices the craft. Before misfortune stole Chopin’s loved ones away, she was someone we sometimes think of (perhaps without meaning to) as being a person “immune” to depression. Her background was that of belonging to a wealthy, established family. She was a Southern beauty, well liked and considered a great conversationalist. But even then, Chopin was in search for a personal freedom that remained elusive. Like many of us who deal with inner struggles, Chopin hid her vulnerability from others, but she used writing to convey and perhaps to make sense of the complexities within her thoughts. As a teenager making her social debut she wrote in her journal, “I dance with people I despise [. . .] I am diametrically opposed to parties and balls; and yet when I broach the subject-they either laugh at me-imagining that I wish to perpetrate a joke; or look very serious, shake their heads and tell me not to encourage such silly notions.” [2]

Chopin’s determination not to sacrifice her personal freedom is a theme that comes up many times in her writing. The stability, or instability, of mental soundness is haunting. What Chopin dealt with was not easily escapable, but the vulnerability she exposes in

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Chopin with her 4 sons.

her writing, even at the sake of her reputation is something still currently admirable and needed. Even after marrying Oscar, Chopin upheld her freedom and developed a reputation for herself as not conforming entirely to societal expectations. Chopin is someone I come back to and read again and again because her struggle of not wanting to sacrifice her spirit is so relatable.

I remember being a voracious reader since elementary school. At that young age I was always reading Harry Potter or the Goosebumps or Fear Street books. However, I don’t remember actually writing much until after the unexpected loss of my father when I was in 7th grade. The concept of escapism was deeply embraced because well, middle school sucks for just about everyone, but dealing with depression at that tender age and missing someone you were close with so terribly makes for the grayest and thickest of fogs to wade through. But like Chopin, I wrote through the dark times. I wrote horrible, angsty poetry, sad song lyrics, ideas for grand novels I insisted to myself I’d write someday (newsflash to younger me—it’ll take you the 2.5 years you spend in graduate school to write that damned novel, but be proud of this because 1. The book doesn’t entirely suck 2. Your poetry gets so much better, and 3. You’ll be a published poet and that kind of rocks because your love affair with poetry will continue to breathe life into you when the gray clouds threaten to suffocate).

Another reason I often return to Chopin is because her struggle of obligation toward what was expected versus what she wanted to do for herself is a familiar battle for writers, too. Those questions of what do I change for the audience or what do I write for myself often linger and combat each other. As someone who writes horror and happens to be in possession of female body parts, comments such as “you’re a nice girl, why do you want to write this stuff for?” often arise…and that’s probably the nicest/cleanest version of that comment I’ve gotten. I love writing horror, especially with a feminist bent, because it allows me to explore my own discomforts, push boundaries, and write without apologies. I look to Chopin’s utter bravery for continuing to write after she Screen Shot 2017-06-11 at 1.00.53 PMreceived such harsh reviews for The Awakening. Such negativity would have been enough to permanently discourage someone from trying to publish anything again, especially since that novel conveys such pure openness at the expense of risking reputation. But now the novel that was considered obscene and received scathing criticism is considered one of the most important works in literature, especially feminist literature.

Chopin wrote on. She persisted. Her search for freedom of the female spirit would not be silenced. Her fearless attitude, her ability to embrace the soft, perhaps more vulnerable sides of being human, of being a woman, with the tough, gritty, strong and often unseen sides will forever serve as inspiration for me and hopefully countless others. When I scrapped my original plan in undergrad and decided to take on creative writing, I was terrified to share my work with peers in such open settings, but I found I could take constructive criticism from others. I could handle rejections from publishers. After that, my fears faded into something completely manageable. I love feedback. I hunger for conversations on what can be improved and how to write better, and that’s why I love writing. This is the craft of constant challenges, of endless outlets and genres to try. The call to write is like a needy, hidden organ in your body — full of blood, waiting for you to decide how much you’ll squeeze out onto the page today.

Some things will hurt, whether they’re comments from others, a rejection you thought surely wouldn’t happen, learning someone you respected in the industry isn’t all that great…there’s a lot of things that happen in this field. But if we can learn anything from Chopin, I believe it is that the power to persevere lives inside all of us. Women are tough as hell. Like Chopin, we know, inherently, how to swallow the crap down and turn it into fire, to forge rage into determination, to use determination to embrace our talent and satisfy ourselves with our work before worrying about what others think. Chopin was ahead of her time. There was something mystical about her, and her calling to write is something I am deeply grateful for because her influence, her awakening, helped lead me to mine. She showed me how to confront my own truths, the ones hidden away in the shadows of the soul.

“But the beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing. How few of us ever emerge from such beginning! How many souls perish in its tumult!” –The Awakening [3]

So here’s to souls not perishing in tumult, but rather learning to embrace the entangled chaos of a writer’s life. Here’s to the middle-school me who learned to write about more

Screen Shot 2017-06-11 at 1.08.43 PM
Photo by MaxPixel.  “The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander…” The Awakening

than ghosts and sadness and silly boys. Here’s to women who dare to be both vulnerable and tough, who know how to live with both the sunny days and the storms within them. You are summer days and you are thunderclouds with lightning always poised, waiting to strike anyone who may try and steal your sun or your storms. Remember, the successes of others do not take away from your own — they never have and never will. Your daily courage and your own survival, these are your successes. You are awakened, and you will not be contained.

 

 

Works Cited:

  1. American Literature. “Kate Chopin.” https://americanliterature.com/author/kate-chopin/bio-books-stories.
  2. Deter, Floramaria. “Kate Chopin: In Search of Freedom.” ThoughtCo, 2017. https://www.thoughtco.com/kate-chopin-in-search-of-freedom-735149.
  3. Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. Norton, 1996.

My Doubts are Chains of Shadows – In the Light, I am Free

by E.J. Lawrence

Dear Reader, I ask that you bear with me as this post gets very personal. However, I promise I tie back to the point of this blog, and re-focus on a woman in history.

I’ve wanted to be a writer ever since I knew such an occupation existed. I remember in the 2nd grade, a teacher stayed inside during recess with me one day to teach me about haikus. I decided to write a poem a day, and found an old legal pad in my dad’s office on which I scribbled out some semblance of poetry every day for a good few months. Some were haikus, and some were my own brand of free verse, given my limited seven-year-old vocabulary. (They all rhymed)

EPSON MFP image
The Two Brothers The Two Brothers by Elenore Abbott2

I started a writing group in the 3rd grade. At recess, two of my friends and I would sit under the tree with our notebooks and write stories together. They were fairy tales, mostly. Princesses and dragons and that sort of thing. Because those were the stories we knew and loved, and the ones we wanted to write.

 

But I soon learned that sharing your soul on paper is a dangerous activity. We were teased mercilessly about our writing group, and my two friends caved. One day, they simply didn’t want to write anymore, and I was left to go at it alone.

I kept a diary in a 3-ring binder. During a chilly fall day, a girl jerked it from my hands, popped open the rings and threw the whole thing in the air. I chased my loose pages, picking them up from the damp fallen leaves. It was poetic, really, the leaves of paper among the colored tree leaves. But it was the last time I wrote at recess.

I remember in fifth grade being given a writing assignment in class. We were to write a story–any story–but we had to follow the five steps of the writing process, and each of those steps would be graded. When we were given time to work in class, our teacher would circulate the room, making sure we were on task. I hated this. I didn’t want her to see what I was writing. I didn’t want to share. I hovered over my paper so closely so that she couldn’t see what I wrote. Thus I did most of my work at home, but one day carelessly left my notes lying on the coffee table, where my mother found it. She told me how wonderful it was, and asked why I didn’t show it to her sooner.

I threw it in the trash.

It wasn’t good enough. It was never good enough.

What happened to the girl who wrote poetry every day? And fairy tales at recess? Who narrated her own life as if she were a character in a novel?

Somewhere between 1st grade and 5th grade, she had discovered that writing made one vulnerable; and she did not wish to be, as they say, “an open book.”

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The cover of one of my many, many journals

I did not stop writing. I filled notebooks of story ideas and stories and drawings of maps for my make-believe worlds. And then I took all of these things and shoved them under my mattress (I know, I know — incredibly original hiding spot for a teenage girl).

 

In college, I tried to write “literary” stories and poems for my creative writing classes, but never showed a soul the fairy tales hiding on my computer. Even if I wasn’t sharing my stories, I still felt impelled to write, to create. But never, never, not ever would I tell someone I wrote “fantasy.” Fairy tales were for children. Unless you were Tolkien. Which I was not.

After undergrad, I decided not to even apply for an MFA program because there was no way I could possibly get in. I would save myself the pain of rejection, and apply to MA English lit programs because those were much safer. I went to George Mason University, where I took a course in 12th Century literature (because it’s amazing), and one week, we studied the writings of Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th century German nun, and I came across a passage where Hildegard describes hearing a “voice from Heaven” urging her to write “what you see and hear.” Here was Hildegard’s response to the vision:

“But although I heard and saw these things, because of doubt and a low opinion of myself and because of what people might say, I refused for a long time the call to write.”1

I stopped. I read that passage, then read it again. Here was a woman, in the 12th century, expressing in words what I had long felt, but refused to acknowledge. Even with a vision from Heaven telling her, “Hey, write this,” she refused — not because she doubted the vision. Not even because she doubted the message she was meant to convey. But because she doubted herself.

Hildegard_mapHildegard wrote what is commonly known as the oldest morality play, Ordo Virtutum. She was a pioneer of the study of natural sciences. She was a theologian. A scholar. A poet. A healer. A songwriter. My professor even described her as “an early sort of marriage counselor.” She was a Renaissance woman before the Renaissance was cool. And to think what the world would have missed out on, if we didn’t have her writings! If she had continuously refused to offer them.

 

What would have happened if Hildegard continued in her refusal because of her self-doubt and fear of “what people might say”?

And am I, in refusing to share my own writing, depriving the world?

I don’t think I’ve had any specific visions from Heaven I can point to and say, “ah ha! There’s my calling!” However, I do know that when I am writing, I feel in that moment that there is no other purpose for my being. I do not doubt that purpose. Nor do I doubt the message in the words I type. It is myself I doubt, and the rejection I fear.

Yet fear is a lie, determined to keep us in chains. It deceives us into thinking that it keeps us safe, far from the rejection and pain. But the shackles with which it holds us is darkness conjured by our own minds — shackles made of shadows. Once we test them, once the light of truth is cast upon them, they dissipate. We are freed.

Hildegard says that she overcame her doubt with “the witness of a certain noble girl of high morality and of the man whom I had found[…]” then “I set my hand to writing. When I did so[…]I rose from my sickness with renewed strength.”1 When she didn’t write, it made her physically ill, and it wasn’t until she sought the council of trusted friends that she realized what she must do — she must cast off her illusory chains, pick up the pen, and write. It was her only source of freedom.

We may none of us be the next Hildegard of Bingen, pioneering sciences, writing plays, and studying theology, all while healing people and offering counseling services (without Netflix, the 12th century was really productive). However, we do all have something to offer the world. If Hildegard or Jane Austen or Agatha Christie all had said, “oh, but what might people think about me, if I take up the pen? I can’t possibly,” imagine how the worlds of drama, romance, and mystery would be so altered. Imagine what the world might have lost.

Hildegard_von_BingenJane_Austen_coloured_versionChristie1925

I cannot say I am completely over this fear. However, I have resolved myself to write and share my work, even in the face of rejection. I will surround myself with support of people who remind me, “yes, this is your calling. Pursue it.” I will face my fears head on, throwing the leaves in the air myself, to see who might wish to pick them up. And even if no one does, I will keep writing.

Don’t deprive the world of your light simply because someone has shackled you with shadows. Shine, and watch them dissolve.

1 Hildegard von Bingen. Secrets of God. Selected and translated by Sabina Flanagan, 1996, pp. 11.

2 Scanned from Grimms’ Fairy Tales (1920 Charles Scribner’s Sons edition), Public Domain

3 Sean Butcher & Carmen Butcher. Map used in Hildegard of Bingen: A Spiritual Reader by Carmen Butcher, published by Paraclete Press. Map of Hildegard’s preaching tours.

Pictures of Hildegard, Jane Austen, and Agatha Christie {{PD-1923}}

Persephone’s Side of the Story

by Kaitlin Bevis

The Persephone myth has resonated with women generation after generation. I can think of no other myth with more retellings, ranging from Disney classics like Beauty and the Beast, to classic literature-turned-Broadway shows like Phantom of the Opera, to dozens of contemporary retellings like my novel, Persephone.

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Persephone is a fascinating figure in mythology. She goes from a nameless maiden (Kore) picking flowers in a meadow, to Hades’s queen (Persephone), to the terrifying ruler of the Underworld (The Iron Queen). But through the entire transition, she never gets to tell her own story. The myth goes into Hades’s motivations, his negotiations with Zeus, Demeter’s panic, Ascalaphus’s trickery to get Persephone to eat the pomegranate seeds, random nymph bystanders, and villagers seen along Demeter’s quest. Every person in the story gets a voice except Persephone.

Her lack of her voice, her thoughts, and fears, and feelings, plucks at our subconscious, insisting there is more to the story. Is it any wonder there are so many retellings trying to fix that problem?

It’s a story that demands to be told.

 

And for too many years it was told wrong. Her role reduced to that of a victim. Very few versions of the myth go into her role in the Underworld afterward. How it was widely acknowledged throughout Greece that Hades was a bit of a pushover, but do not mess with his wife. She was feared, revered, and had entire cults dedicated to worshiping her name.

It’s a common problem for women in history, mythological and otherwise. Look at Helen Keller. If you walk up to a random person off the street, they can likely tell you she was blind and deaf, they can probably tell you her first sign, and the name of her teacher, but what they aren’t likely to know are the legion of accomplishments to her name. Like Persephone’s story ends when she emerges from hell for a portion of each year, reunited with her mother, Helen’s story often ends with her ability to communicate unlocked.

Greek mythology is a very good microcosm for the way women are treated in history. Though the women in Greek mythology were powerful and complex, they were often reduced to a single, definable (often passive) trait. In popular culture, Athena isn’t known as the war goddess she was, but the goddess of wisdom, known for popping up and giving heroes advice. Persephone is a victim, not a queen, Hera is a jealous lunatic, not the God-Queen, Aphrodite is painted as a whore. That’s it. That’s her entire role. While Zeus and Poseidon somehow get left off the hook for their ridiculous levels of promiscuity. If mentioned, it’s never their sole defining trait.

I figured it’s about time the stories of these amazing, powerful, flawed, and complex mythological figures got told right. So, I wrote the Daughters of Zeus series, starting with Persephone’s myth. I take Persephone from the innocent maiden picking flowers all the way to her rise as one of the most feared goddesses in the Pantheon. My next trilogy tackles Aphrodite. The other gods and goddesses make appearances all throughout the series in their full complexity. I took liberties transitioning the myths to modern day, but I remained true to the spirit of the original myths. I am not the only author envisioning these myths for a modern audience, nor are my versions perfect. But they are full of powerful women with different flaws and strengths, leaning on each other as they navigate the horrors of a pantheon steeped in patriarchy.

You should check it out.

To learn more about Kaitlin Bevis, click here. Or go here to order your own copy of Persephone.

 

Antigone: To Stand in the Storm

by E.J. Lawrence

When I first brought up the notion of doing a blog that focused on women’s roles in ancient literature and history, K.P. Kulski and I tossed around several ideas of what we could call the site. I kid you not (this is how we knew this relationship was fated), she suggested “Antigone” at about the same time I was thinking it.

Ultimately, we decided on “Unbound” (playing off of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, and also the idea of the binding and unbinding of hair), but I just couldn’t shake the Antigone reference, and how, when I first read the Ancient Greek play, Antigone became one of my top ten literary role models. Even though she is from a time centuries (millennia!) past, she now seems more relevant than ever. Thus, it seemed fitting for Antigone to kick off our look at great women in literature.

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“She never learned to yield,”1 the chorus tells Creon in Antigone, referring to the titular character. Another translation says, “to the storm she bendeth not”2; and still another, “she knows not how to bend before trouble.”3

That line can pretty much tell you everything about why she is my literary role model. If you’ve never before read Antigone, you should. Right now.

Or perhaps, you can knock it out later… it’s a very short read, and you’ll find links to three different translations at the bottom of this post. I first encountered this play as a sophomore in high school, and I found it so incredibly…modern. I mean, no one can accuse the Ancient Greeks of being feminists — certainly not by modern standards, in any case. But Antigone offers us one of the most powerful female characters in all of literature.

To give you some context, Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta. Yes, that Oedipus–the one who killed his father and married his mother through a tragic act of fate. Side Note: I remember when we read Oedipus Rex as seniors, the boys were super grossed out. It was funny as a student. Then I became a teacher, and my department chair said, “Have them read this.” And that was the most uncomfortable teaching experience of my life.

That’s beside the point — you came to hear about Antigone. Antigone had two brothers, Polyneices and Eteocles. These two brothers went to war and killed each other, leaving no direct heir of Oedipus to take the throne (gotta love a good Greek tragedy). Creon, Jocasta’s brother, is the next in line, ordering that Eteocles (whose side Creon agreed with) would receive a hero’s burial, while Polyneices (whose side Creon did not agree with) would receive no burial whatsoever, and be left to the birds and dogs. Ouch.

Now, you have to understand a few things about Ancient Greek culture to fully get the weight of this. The main point being, no burial = no afterlife. Creon isn’t just saying Polyneice’s body can be eaten by carrion birds . . .  he’s saying Polyneice’s soul can never find rest. He’s damning him to an eternal punishment, one not confined to physical torment. The spiritual torment in this case is far, far worse.

Furthermore, whoever attempts to bury the traitor’s body will himself be condemned as a traitor. Angered by this denial of her brother’s soul, Antigone resolves to bury him, sneaking out at night and sprinkling dirt on his corpse. The first night, the sentries brush off the dirt and then report the act to Creon, who flies into a rage, accusing his guards of doing it themselves and threatening their lives if they don’t bring forth the perpetrator.

They soon catch Antigone in the act, as she goes back to bury her brother’s body again. She’s brought before Creon and condemned to death. Everyone, including his son (Antigone’s fiancé), tries to reason with him, but Creon, in the throes of power, is beyond reason.

In true Greek tragedy fashion, the play ends with the death of everyone Creon has ever loved, leaving him, the tyrant, alone with the realization that he is the instrument of his own suffering.

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“Wow, E.J.,” you say. “That sounds morbidly depressing, and what on earth does that have to do with this blog you’ve set up, celebrating the roles of powerful women in literature and history?”

I’m so glad you asked. Antigone, at its core, is about the dangers of pride and overreaching. Creon believes himself to be the ultimate law, but Antigone knows the laws of the gods are higher, and she resolves herself to follow them, not Creon. To say Antigone is courageous almost understates her resistance. Here, I’ll try and show you what I mean:

Antigone proves that there is no fear in doing the right thing. Okay, that sounds a bit moralistic. I get it. Yet…that’s the beauty of her story. Standing there, before Creon–the man who holds her life in his hand–and saying, “All these men here would praise me if their lips were not frozen shut with fear of you. Ah, the good fortune of kings. Licensed to say and do whatever they please!”4

Dang, girl. She not only tells him she’s not backing down, but she calls out Creon’s tyranny and the cowardice of the men around her, all in a single breath.

Creon responds in kind, saying that she is the one guilty of a crime, not them.

She persists with “There is no guilt in reverence for the dead.”5

Everything about her says she stands on solid moral ground. Ultimately, the tragedy of this play is Creon’s, not Antigone’s. Sophocles makes it clear that Antigone follows a law that exists above even the King of the land, and in following the natural law (the law of the gods), Antigone, for all Creon’s bluster, is right.

There’s nothing overblown about her rightness; no real smugness or flying at Creon in a rage. No fear or even anything close to backing down.

She doesn’t have to.

 

And that’s why I love Antigone. Her strength is more than just some flippant human nature rebellion against authority; rather, she stands firm in her conviction that true justice prevails.

In the end, Antigone, her fiancé Haimon, and her aunt Euridice all lie dead because of Creon’s rash decree, and we the audience are left with these final words from the Chorus:

“There is no happiness where there is no wisdom

No submission but in submission to the gods.

Big words are always punished,

And proud men in old age learn to be wise.”7

The reasoning in this last stanza, even when compared to varying translations, is so poetic. You can’t be happy without wisdom; wisdom means being humble; “proud men” can never stay that way. Therefore (to honor the Greeks and make this a syllogism), pride is always foolish. In the end, natural justice will prevail, raising up the humble and laying low the prideful fools.

I mean, for a tragedy, it actually ends on a great note of hope. The common English proverb says, “Pride goes before a fall.”8 It’s reassurance that, in the end, the proud engineer their own destruction.

I like happy endings. Hopeful conclusions. Stories where doing the right thing means the good guys win. But sometimes, life doesn’t always work out that way.

Still, even though Antigone’s story ends in her death, her untimely demise in no way detracts from her boldness, her conviction.

Do the right thing. Always. The world promises you no reward for it, but it does promise you self-respect.

“I dared,” Antigone says when Creon expresses surprise that she defied his decree. “[Yours] was not God’s proclamation… I knew I must die, even without your decree. I am mortal…This death of mine is of no importance; but if I had left by brother in death unburied, I should have suffered. Now I do not.”6

Incredible. Her refusal to suffer under tyrannical, unnatural law is what gives her freedom and peace. When she lives under the freedom of doing what is right, no one, not even a king, can has the power of death over her. No wonder she will not yield to Creon’s storm…the power he holds is far less sufficient than her own.

May we all stand as strong in the storm.

 

References:

  1. Fitts, Dudley and Robert Fitzgerald. Antigone. Line 376. https://mthoyibi.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/antigone_2.pdf
  2. Murray, George Gilbert Aimé. Antigone. vv. 477-500.
    https://www.gutenberg.ca/ebooks/murraysophocles-antigone/murraysophocles-antigone-00-t.txt
  3. Jebb, R.C. Antigone. no lines.
    https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/ancient/sophocles-antigone.txt
  4. Fitts and Fitzgerald lines 369-372
  5. line 406
  6. lines 399-403
  7. lines 1039-1042
  8. Though the common phrase is “Pride goes before a fall,” the actual verse states:       “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” Proverbs 16:18, The Holy Bible, New International Version

 

Unbound is Now Live!

Just in time for Women’s History Month…it’s like we planned this or something.

If you’ve stopped here, I’d like to say welcome. Here’s a blanket, a cup of tea and a comfy chair. E.J. and I look forward to sharing some amazing stories of women throughout time and literature. You will explore with us the identities of some of the most fascinating women who ever graced the Earth and our imaginations. Some of them will inspire and others with make us cringe, they all will empower and move the world around them.

Our first article will premier on the 6th. Our weekly schedule will follow content publication on most Mondays.

This month will feature articles from E.J. and myself, author Kaitlin Beavis, of The Daughters of Zeus series and Erica Millard, writer and Professor of Children’s Literature.

In April, we will go live with a fiction and poetry page.

Thank you for joining us. We look forward to your next visit.