Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Deadlier Than the Male

Last week I touched very briefly on war goddesses in the general context of "humans feel weird about war." But they're rather fascinating in their own right. For instance: what makes a culture like, say, ancient Greece produce a total badass like Athena, who's smart, gorgeous, and aggressive all in one? Or Freya, creation of the wargoing Norse, who could be Athena's twin (now with 78% more marital issues)? What's the story behind Hathor's alarming transformation into Sekhmet? Can anyone really ever explain Inanna?

Well, probably not. But I'll do my best.

Creation of the Witchblade, Stjepan Sejic
There's one thing a lot of them have in common. It's very glaring, and very weird. War goddesses are intimately entwined with violence and sex, in about equal measure. Gilgamesh's rejection of Inanna consists of him reciting to her a list of the ex-lovers she screwed over on a whim. Sekhmet, mad with bloodlust, is the dark side of beautiful, sensual Hathor. Durga and Kali, the best-known Indian warrior goddesses, are both manifestations of Parvati, the beloved wife of Shiva most closely identified with fertility and motherhood. Freya, goddess of beauty and fertility, had a temper that could shake the halls of the Aesir and got prime pick of the fallen dead, before even Odin. And Athena, let's not forget, never took vows of chastity like Artemis, and was invested enough in her own beauty to claim Eris's golden apple as her own.

The disturbing and obvious conclusion is that a sexually voracious female is dangerous. She's dangerous beyond the warning inherent in a goddess like Aphrodite, who's aggressive but kind of dumb. Subtext won't do for someone like this; it's got to be blatant text. You've got to dress her up in armor and give her a sword or a spear to make sure everyone gets the point. Danger! Danger! This incredibly hot woman is going to destroy you!

The Washer at the Ford, lindowyn-stock
It gets weirder. It's not just sexual aggression in a woman that gets portrayed as dangerous. It's femininity, period. The three aspects of the Morrigan - Macha, Badb, and Nemain - have little if anything to do with sex appeal. Yet they're still goddesses of war, individually and together. Their primary domain is the fear and frenzy of battle. The symbol of the Morrigan is still the crow, the eater of carrion. One of the ways in which Badb foreshadows death in battle is by washing the doomed soldier's clothes - a very feminine act of caretaking, become suddenly ominous in context. Macha, whose husband made her race horses while pregnant, went into labor after her win and cursed the male spectators to feel the pangs of childbirth at the most inconvenient time possible. This forced femaleness incapacitated all the men of Ulster except for Cuchulain in battle. No wonder Macha was worshiped - no one wanted to become like a woman again.

Is it safe to say that powerful women scared the men of ancient times? Sure. Is that the only reason for these origin stories? Absolutely not. If they were so scary, why are there so many of them? Why are they available to pray to as protectors and guardians? The very power that freaked people out seems to have been a fact of life. One highly feminized war goddess would be an anomaly. So many of them present an organized front of acknowledged power that any sane person, male or female, would want on their side. So maybe Athena gets vain from time to time. It doesn't mean you want her fighting against you. It doesn't matter whether Inanna ruins her lovers' lives; she's an unstoppable force that you might as well court.

Having a war goddess like you is certainly better than the alternative. Remember, these women don't just get angry when they're slighted. They know the ins and outs of bloody vengeance. If you don't want to go into labor in the middle of a duel to the death, you had better respect the hell out of them.

And maybe, the next time your wife or your mother or your sister took your clothes to the river to wash them, you'd remember the war goddesses and respect your own women, too. It couldn't have hurt.


  1. Julia's right, this one is good.

    There are obviously many ways to look at these figures, and femininity varies across cultures. You say here that War is often characterized as feminine because men were afraid of powerful women. 1) I agree and 2) There's substantial evidence to back you up on this.

    BUT. lol. You also make me wonder if it's not something of the reverse. If something about war itself didn't strike people as feminine. Again, obviously, what people associate with women shifts constantly. But, I'd say women have a pretty broad reputation for being wrathful and emotional. Hell hath no fury, after all.

    Your discussion of Badb and the washing of clothes also makes me think of women's traditional place in wars. Women bear the sons, raise them, send them off to war and lose them. Women lose their homes, get kidnapped, raped, enslaved. Women suffer war in a way completely different than men. It makes sense that they should embody the frightening, tragic side of war, the side of bloodlust and violence and horror, as a reminder that war is not all glory and honor.

    1. I really love the idea that war might be feminine - or at least that female wrath is worthy of deifying. There certainly is the colloquial "peace in the home" notion to back that up. And going back to your thought, on the war gods post, about the presence of more than one war god overseeing the progress of battle, it's of a piece with your idea here to blame a loss on the emotional impulses of women. The Greek gods, at least, bear this out - Athena's usually rational, but sides to obsession with the Greeks because she feels insulted.

      The funny thing is, when we hear about the dark side of war, it's almost always from a woman's mouth. Glory and honor are things generally relegated just to men as individuals; women can earn honor for their family by being dignified, proper, or courageous, but any glory won by them reflects back on their house, not on them as people. When they talk about war (I'm thinking of "The Trojan Women" here), they're only talking because their men have failed to defend them. They have no one to speak for them, therefore in order to uphold the honor of their house, they have to speak for themselves. The impact of war on women is to destroy the social order; they themselves become creatures of chaos, thrown out of their known place into strange lands and new situations. So I think you're right, in that there is nothing traditionally accepted about war that women can embody, since their relationship to war is fundamentally one of disruption. They can only represent chaos and fear; they're not identified with war in any other way.

      I love how much you make me think!