Women of mythology: celebrated or misjudged?
(and some book recommendations)
We grow up listening to mythological tales in our households. From The Ramayana to the Egyptian pharaohs, it is quite uncommon to not have not heard about these tales, that continue to wholly shape the present and the future. Think back to the last time you heard a folktale, and recall whether the protagonist of the story was a woman.
The representation of glorious and undefeatable men has been ingrained in our minds for several millennia. There is variety too– from the virtuous Ram to the almighty Zeus, all the way to the clever Odysseus. However, when it comes to the female characters in mythology, they were either ‘ideal’ or ‘negative’, and often were mothers, wives, or vamps.
The depiction of women as monsters or wicked plotters is evident across global mythology, while the male were widely accepted. These villains, wrote classicist, Debbie Felton in a 2013 essay, “all spoke to men’s fear of women’s destructive potential. The myths then, to a certain extent, fulfill a male fantasy of conquering and controlling the female.” Ancient male authors inscribed their fear of and desire for women into tales about monstrous females: In his first-century A.D. epic Metamorphoses, for example, the Roman poet Ovid wrote about Medusa, a terrifying Gorgon whose serpentine tresses turned anyone who met her gaze into stone. Earlier, in Homer’s Odyssey, composed near the seventh or eighth century B.C., the Greek hero Odysseus had to choose between fighting Scylla, a six-headed, twelve-legged barking creature, and Charybdis, a sea monster of doom. Both have been described as unambiguously female.
The tales’ female monsters reveal more about the patriarchal constraints on womanhood than they do about women themselves. Medusa induced fear among many because she was both deceptively beautiful and hideously ugly; Charybdis terrified Odysseus and his men because she represented a churning pit of bottomless hunger. Female monsters represent the bedtime stories patriarchy tells itself, reinforcing expectations about women’s bodies and behavior.
Another common characteristic of female portrayal in mythology is the using of their sexuality against them. Mythical figures like Delilah and Menaka are known to destroy the lives of their male lovers. Mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, Delilah, under instructions from the Philistines, was ordered to trap the Israelite hero Samson with her beauty and charm, and was tasked to discover Samson’s weakness. She then revealed this weakness to the Philistines, contributing to Samson’s eventual downfall. Similarly, in Hindu mythology, there is the story of Menaka and the sage Vishwamitra. Indra, (the king of gods) grows insecure of sage Vishwamitra’s growing powers, and sends Menaka, a heavenly nymph to seduce Vishwamitra and nullify his penance. Vayu (the God of Winds) participates and lifts Menaka’s garments as Vishwamitra opens his eyes. Seeing an almost naked woman, Vishwamitra forgets his ascetic pledge. Menaka and other apsaras in Hindu mythology have been repeatedly used as weapons to distract men in their pursuit of power. They are the ultimate forms of male fantasy: beautiful, young and seductive. Their promiscuity gives them immense power and makes them alluring foes. This ‘dangerous seductress’ has appeared in the Greek legend of Sirens. They are described as half bird and half female creatures who lure sailors to their destruction with their voice. Female characters are repeatedly written to destroy men with their charm and sexuality.
The opposite of this phenomenon has also been portrayed several times, such as when the conflict boils down to protecting a woman’s “dignity”. In Hindu mythology, the war between good and evil in the epic, Ramayana, is fought primarily over the ‘honor’ of two female characters: Sita and Surpanakha. Similarly, in another Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, the conflict between Kauravas and Pandavas peaked when the Pandava queen Draupadi was humiliated in front of the royal court. All these female characters had no agency over their destinies or any instruments to deal with the injustices they incurred. They had to rely on the help of their male counterparts. The women and their ‘honor’ are therefore portrayed as properties of the male kin. These women merely depict the house’s weakness and are therefore avenues for the enemy to attack.
Female characters like Draupadi who adhere to typical social roles such as that of a wife or sister are seen as weak and helpless. On the other hand, women like the Apsaras who do not fulfill these criteria are described as shrewd or dangerous. Although both the characters are poles apart, they are products of the same patriarchal framework. All the characters mentioned above lack any agency over their sexuality. While in the first case, patriarchal powers use female sexuality as a weapon to entrap men and in the second case, the confines of female sexuality are seen as the family’s responsibility.
To summarize, much of our perception about the female gender originates from the stories we hear as a child. Although the literature we consume has developed greatly over the years, we still have much to acquire. What each and every one of us can do however, is expose ourselves to a broader perspective.
Here’s a list of some books (a combination of fictional and non-fictional themes) that I recommend we all read, straight from my reading list, in order to consume and live a whole literary experience:
The Daughter from a Wishing Tree: Unusual Tales about Women in Mythology by Sudha Murty
Women and Other Monsters: Building a New Mythology by Jess Zimerman
Women in Indian Mythology by M.L Ahuja
Heroines of Olympus: The Women of Greek Mythology by Ellie Mackin Roberts
Women of classical mythology by Robert E. Bell
Pandora's Jar: Women in the Greek Myths by Natalie Haynes
Shakuntala: The Woman Wronged by Utkarsh Patel
The Girl who Chose by Devdutt Patnaik
Women of Myth by Genn McMenemy and Jenny Williamson
Women and Goddesses in Myth and Sacred Text by Tamara Agha-Jaffar
Happy reading :)
Theme: abstract, mythological. Would like local, ancient indian art with females.