Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A Woman's Other Weapon

Jupiter and Io, Antonio da Correggio
The sexploits of most gods are quite literally legendary. Sometimes a god is remarkable for being the only one in a pantheon to get much action; sometimes you just can't join the club until you drop your pants and chase every nymph in sight. What doesn't get talked about nearly as much, if at all, are the comparative lusts of goddesses.

(Yes, I just saw Magic Mike, and my mind's on double standards. Can you tell?)

Take the Greek gods. Hera's seduction of Zeus in the Iliad is possibly the only time in the entire mythos when we see its central couple engaging in mutually consensual sex, and this is well after she's given birth to at least two kids. (She's also the mother of the goddesses of youth, childbirth and discord; analyze that, Dr. Freud!) Aphrodite has a very famous roving eye, and what does it get her? Trussed up in a net by her husband, as well as being bad-mouthed forever as the biggest slut in a pantheon of sex maniacs. Echo's shy advances to Narcissus are brutally rebuffed; Eos claims a man and has to watch him wither into a grasshopper, while her sister can only sleep with her beloved while he is actually asleep. And it's never made universally clear whether Persephone was a product of rape or not.

Isis and Osiris, Susan Seddon Boulet
Things don't get much better elsewhere. The contemporary Norse turned a relatively blind eye to Freya's gadding about, but nearly everyone since has passed judgment on her actions, either by censoring, over-excusing, or simply writing her sex drive out of the story. Isis, who as a mother goddess derives an enormous amount of her power from her sexuality, gets mostly a throwaway mention about how she resurrected Osiris and slept with him to get pregnant and can we move on now please? Inanna's undeniable and insatiable passion gets her typecast as a terrifying hellion to fear and avoid, and her very real power is, if not shunned, then not actively courted. And the Virgin Mary's power is right there in her name: to be important, she has to lack desire.

So what are we talking about here? Is female sexuality too much to handle, even in primal tales of basic urges, even in pantheons with characters like Zeus and Odin and Jacob? Did the mostly-male mythologists shy away from really discussing women and sex out of blind fear? If myths ignore or censor women harnessing their sexuality free of judgment, isn't that really just an age-old manifestation of the madonna-whore complex?

Well, maybe not.

Female sexuality is an astoundingly powerful force, in myth and in reality. Women hold the power to create life as a direct result of their sexuality. You get early matriarchal society because early humans recognized and acknowledged that power. And you get creation myths like the Greek one, where Gaia trains her children to destroy her selfish and unsatisfactory consort, harnessing the product of her sexuality to annihilate Uranus once he's given her the missing ingredient to make life. And she turns that same power on Cronus when he too displeases her. It is no accident that Cronus' final defeat is Zeus castrating him; by going against the will of the female - that is, the one in charge - Cronus brings on himself his unmanning, by all the classic Greek rules of hubris.

Jupiter and Juno, Annibale Caracci
And even in the less satisfactory myths, you can see the threads of that power. Hera distracts Zeus from the most epic war of all time just by flashing a bit of cleavage. Inanna may be frightening, but as Gilgamesh aptly points out, she is not someone to mess with; tapping into her primal power allows her to control men's lives. Freya snatches up the best warriors for her own hall before even Odin gets his pick, and no one dares to question her. Isis and Mary turn the alarming threat of female sexuality into salvation by giving birth to their respective messiahs.

The Awakening of Adonis, John William Waterhouse
Yes, openly sexual women are scary things to the makers of myths. But it's not plain old misogyny. It's born of a healthy respect for the change a woman can make in the world, just by embracing her sexuality. And while stainless Vestal Virgins might get a story or two - Artemis, anyone? - it's the women grounded in their instinctive power who keep coming back to shake things up, even when the men around them get scared and try to push them away.


  1. Ah, motherhood. It doesn't help, probably, that humanity had such a poor understanding of exactly how babies got made for such a long time. Like, to the Greeks, it probably made perfect sense that a woman and a bull getting it on could result in the Minotaur. And it took people forever to figure out the whole womb thing. Biology was not our forte.

    So along with being able to produce babies, women were also totally mysterious physically. Sadly that is still true in a lot of ways. Women are still Other, even *with* solid biological understanding.

    I was wondering how much the rise of Christianity affected our view of older goddesses though. Like Isis - I doubt the Egyptians were shy about her story. And as you mentioned, the Norse didn't seem upset about Freya. And the Greeks themselves never seem to mind that Aphrodite gets around - it's kind of expected. It's just there are also consequences to her actions. (and to be fair, there are consequences for other greek myths too. Aries also ends up in the net, Actaeon is killed by his dogs, and Zeus, while generally managing to avoid serious trouble, is probably the most henpecked husband in all storytelling.)

    1. I don't even think it's a question that Christianity affected how we see the older stories. It practically rewrote the Norse myths, since we really only have them thanks to Christian writers jotting down the myths of their ancestors and fitting them into a pre-Christian cosmos. And the tendency of Judeo-Christians to freak out over women with power (Salome and Potiphar's wife, anyone?) has seriously colored our latter-day visions of sexual women.

      The funny thing is, even when there's no direct consequence for women using their sexuality (I'm thinking specifically of Isis), the people hearing the story from a later time bring judgment to it that wasn't there when the story was first told. Our society doesn't much care for magic, incest, or necrophilia, so even though Isis never pays for her ingenious plan, we get squeamish about it. And by the same token, we give Aphrodite a pass on her affair with Adonis because it's often told as a great romance, when we don't have nearly as much sympathy for her and Ares because that affair's just stupid and lustful and *deserves* to be punished. It's not fair to the stories, but we can't shake our cultural mindsets any more than the original tellers of the stories could when they made them up.