|Athenian Women at Home, artist unknown|
It makes total sense that most stories focus on extraordinary people as well as extraordinary places and events. No one wants to read a fairy tale about the sad-sack assembly-line worker who never gets a fairy godmother. Everyone would pick the princess or the wizard or the talking fox. But just because stories are full of privileged royalty doesn't mean that nobody works in Fairytale Land. And just because they live in a world of physical gods and tangible magic doesn't mean that things don't get depressingly realistic.
|Odysseus and Nausicaa, William McGregor Paxton|
Well. Actually. There is that bit in the middle, in case you forgot that Greek myths rival zombie movies for bloodshed. The bit where the handmaidens, despite being the only witnesses to a princess's abduction, get tortured and executed by said princess's totally rational dad. As colenso points out in the comment, princesses can survive the occasional reckless stunt. Their attendants, not so much. One slip-up - which was neither their fault nor within their power to prevent - and you're a goner.
|The Penelopiad, Nightwood Theatre|
A similar school of thought holds true in the Odyssey, when Telemachus hangs the twelve traitorous handmaidens who slept with the suitors and spied on Penelope. Theirs is, in the important details, a very different case from Europa's handmaidens; Penelope's maids chose to betray their mistress and to disrespect her to her face. But even knowing that, it still seems uncomfortably excessive to force them to dispose of the mangled bodies of their butchered lovers, wash the suitors' blood from the room where they were killed, and then be hanged themselves from a ship's cable. Again, not an individual - no names, no differentiating characteristics. Whether you "bring it on yourself" or not (and Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad is a horrifying and brilliant argument that they actually didn't deserve their fate), a handmaiden's life is no cakewalk.
|The Goose Girl, Cindy Salens Rosenheim|
she orders the heroine's talking horse, the witness to her takeover, slaughtered; and ultimately gets herself killed in a manner she'd explicitly intended for the heroine. It's as impossible to condone this handmaiden's actions as it is to accept the deaths of Europa's unfortunate attendants. But it's not hard to see why a simple, forgettable handmaiden would want to better her lot. It's much less dangerous to be royal than to attend royalty; after all, even in her degradation, the heroine survives.
Luckily, not everyone takes social climbing to such an extreme. But there are plenty of handmaidens out there who read their myths and know exactly who takes the fall for royal mistakes. Pwyll, the prince of Dyfed, falls head-over-heels for the mysterious and beautiful Rhiannon. When they finally marry, she's a perfect queen in every way but one: she gives Pwyll no children. So the eventual birth of a son is nothing short of miraculous. Parties are thrown, ale is quaffed, and everyone in Dyfed heaves a sigh of relief.
And then a monster breaks into the palace, steals the baby prince, and slips out again with no one the wiser.
|Rhiannon, Margaret Jones|
Horror of horrors, it works. Pwyll can't bring himself to execute the woman he loves, so he makes her carry visitors into the palace on her back. Wouldn't you know, sixteen or so years down the line, along comes an old farmer and his strapping son to petition Pwyll. Adopted son, that is, since a cattle-stealing monster abandoned a baby at the farmer's house about sixteen years ago. Rhiannon carries her son into the palace, all the pieces of the story are fitted together, the royal family is reunited... and no one ever does anything to the seriously sketchy handmaidens who condemned the queen to a decade and a half of menial labor on oaths that they knew were false.
Don't mistake me - I'm never going to be on the side of people who kill puppies and frame mothers for infant cannibalism. But if Pwyll's literally backbreaking punishment of Rhiannon was lenient, it's easy to see why the handmaidens would have been so terrified of his vengeance that even the most grotesque lies seemed like a better option.
|Birthing chair, Roman era (artist unknown)|
|Seducer, Nasreddine Dinet|
|Maid Maleen, Louisa Roy|
But if that's too much of a downer ending for the rest of us real-world peons, just remember: handmaidens also know how to frame someone and get away with it. Not quite glass slipper material, but agency and survival aren't bad consolation prizes.