01.02.2013 Relationships

Divinely Feminine

It's time to free the feminine essence trapped in mythology and patriarchy, says Maureen Buckley-Fox

Women need more than ever to reclaim, retell and recreate myths for the modern world. The art of storytelling was kept alive throughout the ages by grandmothers and wise women of the village who entranced children with their stories. By treading the paths of the ancients through stories and fables, myths and fairytales, our lives and our children's lives can be enriched.

Many mothers and grandmothers of today are still under the spell of the patriarchy. This spell can be broken with a new understanding of the stories we have accepted for years, whether from Hebrew, Greek and Roman myths or fairy tales such as Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and Cinderella.

Almost everyone is familiar with the myth of Adam and Eve. Eve, portrayed as the seductress who tempts innocent Adam with the apple in the Biblical Garden of Eden, is ultimately blamed for the downfall of the entire human race.

But who has heard of Lilith? Not the aptly named wife of Frazier in the TV series, but Lilith, the first wife of Adam as recorded in the Talmud.

According to the Hebrew tradition, Lilith and Adam were both created by God from the dust of the earth at the same time. However, Lilith refused to submit to Adam and allow him to always lie on top of her during intercourse. She flew away and vanished and spent her time coupling with demons.

At Adam's request, Yahweh sent three angels who found her on the shores of the Red Sea. They told her that if she did not return to Adam she would lose a hundred of her own children every day. Lilith still refused to return and was finally allowed to live on the condition that she would never harm a newborn child who bore the name of an angel on their body.

She became known as the persecutor of the newborn. Baby boys were in danger of her demonic powers for eight days, whereas girls were safe for 20 days after birth. Lilith was banished to hell and became Satan's wife.

Eve is later created from Adam's rib and is relegated to a subordinate position to her husband. Lilith, the first woman, was wild and free and expressed her wishes openly.

We need to ask ourselves as women, have we been cajoled into believing that we are sinners like Eve, who must obey men or is it time to reclaim the Lilith within, wild and free, able to decide for herself and to be heard?

Mythology, during the patriarchal era, recounts many similar stories in which women are blamed for causing ruin and bringing trouble to the world.

The story of Pandora, (meaning 'all gifts') is told in Hesiod's Theogony. Prometheus stole fire from the gods and, as punishment, Zeus, the king of the Greek gods, fashioned a young girl from the clay of the earth. Athena, Greek goddess of war and wisdom, dressed the girl in robes of silver, fashioned a girdle for her, placed a crown of gold and a wreath of spring blossoms on her head. Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, filled her with the power to charm all men. The Graces gave her golden necklaces and the Seasons wove spring flowers into her crown. Hermes, the messenger of the gods, filled her with lies and deceit. He named the beautiful young maiden Pandora, meaning all gifts, because each of the gods and goddesses had presented her with a gift, each one a source of misery to mankind.

Zeus brought her to a place where men gathered and all who gazed upon her were entranced by her beauty. However, Pandora opened the jar which contained all the gifts, troubles, strife and diseases which beset mankind. Only Hope remained in the jar. As a result, Pandora, the first woman, was blamed for all the troubles which beset mankind. Hermes, messenger of the gods, was instructed to "put in her breast, lies, persuasive words and cunning ways."

Young boys and girls in ancient times were familiar with these stories and hence encouraged to view the female as the cause of evil in the world.

These impressions have persisted even up to the present day in our Western culture. The devaluation of the feminine pervades our culture with countless images of women portrayed as sexual objects. The Pandora of the modern age, created by the new god of media, is suffering in similar ways. Young women are encouraged to see only the outward attractions of beauty, being abnormally thin with blemish-free skin as their ultimate goal in life.

Many of these stories portray women either as the cause of all the problems in the world or as existing only to serve men and their desires. Where is their voice?

In Western societies, older women are often referred to as hags and treated with disrespect. The origin of the word hag is from "holy" and in the medieval myths of the Grail legend it is the true knight who treats the ugly, old woman with respect and in return receives help and guidance in his search for the Holy Grail. Robert Johnson in his book Femininity Lost and Regained discusses the importance of regaining the feminine dimension in our lives.

A Crone goddess who has received bad press is Hecate, the Greek moon goddess of the night. She is the triple goddess, mother of Demeter and grandmother of Persephone. Hecate is depicted as having three faces, standing at the crossroads of three roads, able to see in all directions at the same time and accompanied by three dogs. As wise Crone, she brings protection, abundance and success and earlier myths associate Hecate with the Great Earth mother.

She represents the three phases of a woman's life which are closely connected to the three phases of the moon; as maiden, the waxing moon, as mother the full moon, and, as crone, she represents the waning moon who can descend into the darkness and bring illumination into women's lives.

Hecate's demise is most evident in the persecution of the witches, especially in the witch hunts of the Middle Ages and the Inquisition. Women who practised the gifts of healing, had knowledge of the medicinal purposes of herbs and who maintained and treasured their connection to the earth, were tortured, reviled and, in many cases, burnt at the stake. During the Middle Ages, Hecate became known as the Queen of Witches, a diabolical influence on women who practised magic, midwifery or any of the healing crafts. For many years, women were barred from universities, unable to assist their sisters in the miracle of birth, usurped from their natural role as healer, and the word witch became synonymous with evil. What freedom did innocent women have to speak their truth during these times of persecution?

Legend of Baba Yaga
Baba Yaga is the archetypal witch of Russian folklore. Baba Yaga, the Boney-legged, lives in a log cabin that moves around on spindly chicken legs. Baba flies through the air in a mortar, using the pestle as a rudder and sweeps away the tracks behind her with a broom made out of silver birch. The keyhole to her front door is a mouth filled with sharp teeth and the fence outside is made of human bones with skulls on top.

She is usually portrayed as a fearsome witch who loves to devour children, but in some stories she is a benevolent character who helps children who are polite and pure of spirit. Clever children can sometimes trick her and she respects their audacity and rewards them with special treats.

In one folktale, Vasilissa the Beautiful is sent to visit Baba Yaga and is enslaved by her. Vasilissa is given three impossible tasks and she solves them with the help of a magic doll given to her by her mother.

The image of Baba Yaga living in a chicken hut on spindly legs is sure to capture the imagination of young children who can be encouraged to make up their own stories in which she is the kindly old lady who helps innocent children who are lost and in need of guidance. These imaginative activities help to restore the imbalance in always seeing the old woman as an ugly old hag who causes harm.

Accept Our Shadow
We need to remember that we also have a shadow side. Hindu goddess Kali is both creator and destroyer. Aphrodite is the embodiment of sexual love but causes mischief in lover's affairs and suffers terribly when her beautiful lover Adonis is gored to death by a wild bull.

As women we need to accept this wild side and acknowledge our ability to cause mischief, to manipulate others, to be the all devouring mother as well as the nurturer and peacemaker. By embracing Kali and the dark Egyptian goddess Sekhmet, we have the capacity to become more whole and more fully human, to be wild and free. We need to accept our own shadow side truthfully and step out with courage from the shadow imposed upon us by the patriarchal oral and written traditions.

Fairytales abound with images of fairy godmothers, evil witches and damsels in distress.

Snow White innocently eats the apple sent to her by her jealous stepmother. She sleeps until the Prince arrives and is woken by his kiss. Sleeping Beauty suffers a similar fate. Rapunzel is locked in a tower by her father. Hansel and Gretel are lured into the forest and face the evil witch. There are over three hundred versions of the story of Cinderella. We can identify with the image of a silent Cinderella serving and suffering under the jurisdiction of a nasty stepmother and evil stepsisters, but how often is Cinderella recognised as an icon of transformation. She personifies the plight of the feminine soul in today's world. Where was her voice? Why did she not have the courage to insist that she had every right to attend the ball?

All this time there are many such Cinderellas, afraid to speak up, who sit among the cinders and keep the fires alight in much the same way that priestesses of old tended the sacred fires of temples which were dedicated to ancient goddesses.

Reading these deceptively simple tales from a different perspective can illuminate our lives as women. Maiden, mother or crone we all have a sacred duty to reclaim the lost feminine and to wake up from the deep sleep which we have endured silently. We can help this process by telling the truth of our own stories and speaking in our own voices in this time which is in dire need of the feminine. We need to step out from the shadow and fear imposed upon us by many of these old stories, myths and fairytales and fully embrace all that makes us wild and free.

Maureen Buckley-Fox