Herstories: Women in Mythos
Different groups in human history have been faced with injustice and inequity at the hands of their one another. Women could be said to be one group that has endured the longest-running prejudice from the male-dominated societies into which they were born. These inequities are often evident within the religious works of the cultures from which the believers derive their ideologies of womanhood and the role of women within the larger society. And, these idyllic roles of women can often be evaluated by the context of three critical factors: the importance of women in the myths, the characteristics of the women, and their after-characterizations. These factors are quite evident in the literature of the Judeo-Christian tradition where the woman is never the central figure of the story being recounted and, even if some significance is attributed the woman, the significance is only granted by her relationship with a man in her life. Additionally in the Biblical tradition, a woman, having no importance of her own, is also often a victim of stereotypical or one-dimensional depictions or is often characterized poorly by her peers or the audience. In contrast, however, these same critical factors shed a different light upon the ancient Egyptians and how they understood the nature of a woman within their stories and within the broader understanding of their culture. The female figures within this tradition are often placed in the central roles of important myths and often have entire cosmologies which evolved from them, they are often multi-dimensional with entire personalities that run the full spectrum of human emotion and individuality and they are invariably characterized by the people and their peers as holy, reverend, and beloved.
Throughout the Judeo-Christian mythos, women were often cast in roles that were none too flattering for themselves or their sex. Indeed, it was rare that a woman would be given a name within the mythos, let alone have an important role to play within the context of the myth. Women were never truly an integral part of the story being told, but were often secondary characters: characters whose significance was especially related to the men in her life; a woman in a Biblical story often served no purpose other than to distinguish the man or men in the myth—a plot device. Lacking any real significance or value to the story or to those to whom the story is being told, women were often portrayed in ways or described with singular qualities that left them one-dimensional without much else to contribute to the myth other than their archetypal behavior or representation. What’s more, these Biblical women would serve as allegorical yardsticks by which real women could and would be judged; these women of Judeo-Christian myths would be roles models without distinct roles to play other than examples to live by or to avoid. Indeed, women of the various Judeo-Christian myths, stories, and parables had very little particular importance as a person unto themselves, were imbued with stereotypical or singular characteristics, or were often poorly characterized by the story-tellers and audience.
When discussing important or influential figures within the Biblical stories, one is confronted by a host of male figures. The list might begin with Adam, the first man, and Noah, who built the Ark; each man important for what he did and who he was: Adam the progenitor of our kind and Noah, a virtuous man chosen by Yahweh to preserve life. The list might continue with other names like Moses, the abdicated price, and Jesus, the savior of mankind; both men sent on a special mission by Yahweh to be performed on his behalf: Moses was to lead the “chosen people” from slavery and Jesus was to free the people from damnation. One could continue and find a long list of other examples, but one would be hard-pressed to create a comparable list of important women. Two of the most likely candidates for consideration would arguably be Eve, the first woman, and Mary, the mother of Jesus. However, it is difficult to ascertain what importance these women have unto themselves, if they have any at all. Though Eve was the first woman, she was created specifically as a companion for Adam, to sate his loneliness as “there was not found a helper like himself”; she is not the central figure within the context of the story (Genesis 2:20). And while Mary is revered by many Christians today as the holiest of saints and the mother of the Christian savior, she has no identity of importance without the context of her son, Jesus. Indeed, it is only because of Jesus’ conception that Mary exclaims, “[…] henceforth all generations shall call me blessed […]” and not because of any particular innate quality and virtue of or deed by Mary, herself (Luke 1:48). These two women, arguably the most famous and oft-revered figures in the Christian tradition, seem to possess little significance that is not related to the men in their lives. The importance of these women is defined specifically and intrinsically relation to the males for whom she is made or to whom she gives birth.
The Bible is riddled with interesting and fantastic characters. Many of the characters are heroes with fitting personalities and admirable traits, some are reluctant faithful who have their faith tested and are vindicated before their god, and others are well-rounded prophets and messiahs. These characters are fully developed by the writers with extensive backgrounds and are given multiple aspects to their personalities (e.g., faithful, fearful, in awe, etc). However, very few of them, if any, are women. While Moses can be described as “a grand and illustrious personage, of strong character, high purpose, and noble achievement, so deep, true, and efficient in his religious convictions”, very few women within the Bible are described as eloquently or have material about them enough to make such a claim (Reilly, 1911). For example, Mary Magdalene is one of the few named women within the lines of the Bible, but so little information is given about the character. In fact her most important attribute is that as a repentant sinner, especially within the Catholic tradition of Christianity, a role she would be portrayed in even after her conversion “for thirty years she devoted herself to solitary penance for the sins of her past life, which she had never ceased to bewail bitterly” (“The Life of Mary Magdalene”, n.d.). And unlike Job, who was “called the “persecuted one”, that is, the one tempted by (personified) suffering, the one hard beset, the patient sufferer”, Hagar, Abraham’s second wife and mother to Ishmael, is another example of a woman within the tradition that was pigeon-holed into a specific role and given one-dimensional characteristics to simply further the plot of the story (Hontheim, 1910). Hagar was a compliant servant in the service of Sarai who was matter-of-factly given to Abraham to bear him a son and was just as easily dismissed by her master and mistress. She is painted as insubordinate and hostile to Sarai despite the fact that she was pregnant with Abraham’s only heir at the time (Genesis 16). These women, unrepresentative of their real-world counterparts and a distant cry from an accurate depiction of contemporaneous women of the time, are a dime a dozen throughout the various legends and scriptures of the Judeo-Christian tradition and are presented to the audience as nothing more than one-dimensional caricatures of the womanhood.
In addition to the named woman whose only importance is her relationship to the men in her life and the woman who serves as one-dimensional plot device is the woman within the Biblical tradition who is characterized negatively to further the suppression and marginalization of unorthodox models of womanhood. Throughout the Judeo-Christian tradition, women were expected to be subordinate and subservient to their male counterparts, always yielding and deferring to their husbands, brothers, or fathers, but some of women recounted throughout the tradition refused to be relegated as second-class members of society and they paid the price of immortal infamy. The first among these women is the mythical Lilith, Adam’s first wife, made from the clay just as much as he, who considered herself her husband’s equal and refused to lie beneath Adam during intercourse and was punishment for her transgression, Lilith was banished to the desert and destined to become mother to all demons for the rest of eternity (Graves & Patai, 1964). Like Lilith before them, other women throughout the Judeo-Christian tradition who are poised for positions of power or were in positions of power were also had the wrath of Yahweh befall them. Jezebel, Queen of Israel, and de facto ruler of the nation through her husband Ahab and sons, Ahaziah and Joram, was no exception. Though not the titular ruler of the nation as no woman of Israel would be fit in a patriarchal society, Jezebel made proclamations and executed affairs of state in the names of her male relatives (Ecker, n.d.). These women of the tradition, arguably the first feminist figures to stand up against patriarchal injustice and inequity, are painted with colors deep and dark enough to stain their names for thousands of years after they were immortalized in legends and scriptures.
Despite the apparent meaning for the nature of man in his depictions of women as unimportant, one-dimensional, secondary, docile creatures throughout the Judeo-Christian tradition, not all cultures across the globe shared the same sentiments. No less than three-thousand years before the accounts of Jesus of Nazareth, the proliferate literature of the ancient Egyptians depicted and recounted innumerable stories of females throughout their mythic tradition. Many of these depictions cast women in roles normally associated for women, but they also cast women in roles typical of men. Females within the tradition are simultaneously described as nurturing and awesomely destructive, loving and vengeful, mother and warrior, and creatrix and destroyer. Indeed, many of these female characters are deities unto themselves and are far removed from the women of the Judeo-Christian tradition. In fact, the women in the ancient Egyptian tradition are often written into roles that are of the utmost importance, imbued with complex characteristics befitting well-rounded, three dimensional characters, and characterized as awe-inspiring and worthy of reverence.
The traditions of the ancient Egyptians are perfuse with incalculable numbers of important gods within the pantheons without whom the everyday lives of the ancient peoples would be impossible, indeed, life, itself, would be impossible. Among their countless numbers are Ra, Father of the Gods; Wesir (Osiris), the Greatest King of Egypt who brought about the Golden Age of Egypt; Heru-sa-Aset (Horus), the rightful King and heir to the throne of Egypt by his divine father, Wesir; and, Setukh (Seth), the Great Storm God who finds himself embattled daily with the demon of uncreation—Apep. But unlike their counterparts in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the females within the traditions of ancient Egypt are as undeniably equally as important as every male. There is an inexhaustible list of prominent, strong, important female characters within the annals of the Egyptian mythos ranging from Aset (Isis), Great of Magic, whose magical prowess was said to be even greater than that of the Creator’s and who was capable of rebuking—verbally and physically—her older brother, Setukh; Sekhmet, the Terrible Lioness Goddess who was not only a goddess of medicine and healing, but one of terrible destruction as she brought every man who opposed the Creator to his knees and drank his blood; and, Bast (Bastet), the Hidden Claw, who tears the hearts of the Pharaoh’s enemies from their chests and lays them before the God-King (Hart, 1990). These goddesses were not only worshipped alongside the males of the pantheon, but were afforded equal status, reverence, and importance within the myths and to the lives of the ancients, themselves.
The earliest evidence of Egyptian culture extends far into the pre-history of mankind and five-thousand years before the supposed date of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Throughout that time, the Egyptians created, embellished, and evolved their various arts and their myths were no exception. Every member within the ancient Egyptian pantheon was afforded a human likeness and imbued with human qualities, ostensibly, in an attempt to make the unknowable divine more relatable. Each and every goddess within the ancient Egyptian cultural religion has a complex personality that, like a human being’s, seems contradictory at times. They are fully fleshed-out individuals who not only represent a cosmological truth or bear witness as an archetypal character but also exhibit a dynamic quality in their behaviors and their interactions with one another. One prominent example can be found in the goddess, Sekhmet, a powerful solar deity, who was not only a goddess of healing and medicine to whom the faithful would petition protection from disease and plague, but a fearsome war goddess who was set loose upon the face of the Earth to exact punishment upon the men who “’plotted evil plans’ against [Ra]” (Hart, 1990). However, she became so “intoxicated by the smell of blood, got so completely out of control that the king of the gods had to fall back on a stratagem to avert the total destruction of humankind” so Ra tricked Sekhmet into drinking blood-colored beer until she became so drunk she could no longer continue her mission, but upon sobering, she felt embarrassment and sorrow over her own failure and banished herself from the land (Favard-Meeks, C. & Meeks, D., 1996). Exhibiting the full fury of a goddess of divine retribution and justice, Sekhmet terrified the common man with her awesome power and ferocity, but she also displayed emotions of sorrow, regret, and embarrassment. She was a central figure in the myths concerning her as both a goddess of order and as the wandering goddess who leaves her land out of shame for her embarrassment of failure. Typical of the cultural paradigm, she (and other goddesses) displays very natural, human emotions relative to the situation in lieu of being typecast into a constant, static role.
Additionally to being important figures capable of displaying well-rounded qualities of personhood, the goddesses of ancient Egypt were also revered and adored for thousands of years. The deities, regardless of their sex, were much beloved by the people who worshipped them as evidenced by the long-standing culture of piety that began with some of the earliest primordial goddesses like Mut and Het-Heru (Hathor) to the last surviving cult of Aset during the early centuries of the Common Era. Indeed, the favorable characterization of these female figures within the mythos can often be seen in the titles bestowed upon the goddesses. Aset is not only “Great of Magic” but is “She who seeks shelter for the weak people” and Mut is known as “the Great One”. Het-Heru was also a goddess of great reputation whose worship continued for millennia before the culture died out, indeed, Deborah Vischak (2002) remarks:
“Her status as a prehistoric goddess makes determining her origins nearly impossible […] It is clear that she played a vital role in Egyptian society from its highest levels to its lowest, essential to the identity and characterization of the king and a favorite goddess of the general population, who flooded her local cults with offerings and prayers.”
With goddesses of such high reputation and being held in such high esteem with the people, it is clear that the ancient Egyptians held healthy characterizations of the women within their mythos and that, regardless of the divinity or character’s sex or gender, it was the personality and power of the being that was revered, respected, and adored and not some arbitrary attribute associated with a sex organ.
Throughout human history, different groups have been faced with injustice and inequity at the hands of their peers. Generally, women are, arguably, one group which has suffered the longest at the hands of the male-dominated, often patriarchal societies in which they were born. The nature and depth of these inequities are often evident within the literatures of the religious cultures from which the adherent believers derive their idealizations of womanhood and the role of women within the broader society and these idealizations and roles of women can often be evaluated by the context of three critical factors: the importance of women in the myths, the characteristics of the women, and their after-characterizations. These factors are no less prevalent in the literature of the Judeo-Christian where the woman is never the central figure within the context of the story, myth, or history being recounted and, even if some significance is afforded the woman, the significance is only derived by her relationship with a man or the men in her life. And, additionally in this tradition, a woman, having no importance to herself, is also often a victim of stereotypical or one-dimensional depictions or is often characterized poorly by her peers or the audience. In contrast, however, these same critical factors shed a different light upon the ancient Egyptians and how they conceptualized the nature of a woman’s sex and gender within their stories. The female figures within this tradition are often placed in the central roles of various myths and often have specific cosmologies which revolved entirely upon them, they are often multi-dimensional with entire personalities that run the full spectrum of human emotion and idiosyncrasy, and they are invariably characterized by the people and their peers as holy, reverend, and beloved.
Ecker, Ron. Jezebel. Retrieved April 19 2009 from Ecker’s Biblical Web Pages:
Favard-Meeks, Christine & Meeks, Dimitri (1996). Daily Life of the Egyptian Gods. Ithaca: Cornell University Press
Graves, Robert & Patai, Raphael (1964). The Hebrew Myths. New York: Doubleday
Hart, George (1990). Egyptian Myths. Bath: Bath Press
Hontheim, J. (1910). Job. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved from from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08413a.htm
Life of Mary Magdalene, The. Retrieved April 20, 2009 from The Nazarene Way of Essenic Studies:
Reilly, T. (1911). Moses. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10596a.htm
Vischak, Deborah (2002). Hathor. In Redford, Donald B. (Ed.), Ancient Gods Speak: A Guide to
Egyptian Religion (157-161). New York: Oxford University Press.