We're going to be running a new series of posts over the next few months, in which we ask readers to recommended their best examples of a particular literary genre, type of person, or other cool topic. To kick off the idea, we would like you to tell us your favorite mythological heroines—and why, what makes them amazing, heroic, feminist, progressive, compelling, whatever. Please leave a comment with your examples, justifications or pure gushings of love. To get you started, we’ve asked a few editors, authors and other friends of TFF to give their recommendations.
Margrét Helgadóttir (web page; FB)
Among the most famous and widespread of Inuit myths is the legend of the goddess known as Sedna, Nuliayuk or Taluliyuk, the Mother of the Sea. More than one version of the Sedna creation myth exists but each describes how her father, for different reasons, takes her to sea in his kayak, chops off her fingers, and then hands, when she attempted to return to the boat. She sinks to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean and her body parts become the animals of the sea and she becomes the Mother of the Deep, the woman who controls all sea beasts and is half-woman and half-fish.
I find the legend about Sedna very fascinating. Despite her cruel death she gains a major role in the Inuit everyday life. The Arctic Ocean is a major food source and Sedna was worshiped by hunters who depended on her goodwill. She was considered a vengeful goddess, and hunters must placate and pray to her to release the sea animals from the ocean depths for their hunt. Other legends however tell about the good woman who lives under the sea who will keep children away from the dangerous places when they play on the shore. Mythology also says that when an Inuit breaks a taboo in society, Sedna’s hair gets filthy and entangles the animals, preventing the hunters from catching any food. The shaman must clean her hair and talk with her to find out which taboos were broken and communicate these lessons back to society.
Rachel Linn (author page)
The first time I remember hearing about Yuki-onna was in Kwaidan, a film by director Masaki Kobayashi that consists of a series of supernatural stories. Yuki-onna’s nature is difficult to pin down, but she is along the lines of a spirit or ghost and she often appears during snowfall. There are varied stories of Yuki-onna, though most of them begin with a mortal man falling in love with her and end with her disappearing like melting snow.
Yuki-onna is usually portrayed as a perilous influence, but I find the idea of her comfortingly heroic because of my own experiences with snow. I am particularly frightened of hypothermia because I became cold enough to hallucinate the first time I went for a hike in the dead of winter. I often feel that I am only a capable mountaineer with the help of modern insulation technology—water/windproof jackets, chemical warmers, etc.—and have a hard time valuing what I have done because of this. While on cold weather mountaineering or backpacking trips, as I fight with the cold, the image of Yuki-onna stepping out of a snowy forest in below-freezing temperatures (naked or dressed in a delicate kimono), is eerily reassuring. (The book Yūrei: The Japanese Ghost is a great account of ghosts and spirits in Japanese culture, if you want to learn more.)
Jessica Campbell (web page)
I first got excited about Psyche while I was working on my undergraduate thesis on fairy tales and discovered how similar “Cupid and Psyche” was to my favorite tale, “Beauty and the Beast.” Psyche’s story is complicated by the fact that for a long time she interacts with Cupid only in the dark and therefore does not know what he looks like; her jealous sisters feed her suspicion that he hides his appearance because he is some hideous beast. But it turns out that her mysterious lover is actually better than a human—he is a god, and an extremely attractive one at that. Now, as a queer person, I love the statement on nonnormative relationships that we can read into this development: a lover of an unexpected kind may turn out to be exactly the one you want. Oh, and did I mention that Psyche goes on a quest to recover her lover from the machinations of his controlling mother, Venus, at the end? For an intriguing fusion of this story with “Beauty and the Beast,” check out Tanith Lee’s story “Beauty” from the delightfully titled 1983 collection Red as Blood: Tales from the Sisters Grimmer.
Valeria Vitale (TFF)
I encountered Isis, Egyptian goddess of magic and the Underworld, when I was working on the 3D reconstruction of a temple dedicated to her. The story that won my heart is a peculiar one. During a (divine) family dinner, Set, a jealous rival of Isis and her brother-spouse Osiris, challenges all the guests to fit into a beautiful wooden box. If you think that it doesn’t sound like a good idea to step into something that your arch-enemy has built and that looks very much like a coffin, you are not being too suspicious. Once Osiris is inside the box, Set nails it quickly and dumps it in the river.
When Isis finds out what has happened, she immediately goes looking for the body of her partner, to properly bury him. She travels Egypt from corner to corner. I imagine her on a small boat, always followed by one or two silent crocodiles. And finally she finds the box floating! But Set, furious that his plan has been spoiled, chops the body into 14 parts and scatters them all around Egypt. Again, Isis starts her search. Patiently and stubbornly, she collects all the pieces of Osiris’ body to bring him back to life with magic. She finds all but one: his phallus. There are a couple versions of what happened next. One says that another god gave her a golden phallus for Osiris. In my favorite, though, she makes one herself, from mud, and then “blows life into it” (yep!). I love Isis’ determination, her proactive optimism, her faith in her own strength and resources, her unshaken loyalty. I like that it’s her rescuing the male character. Her story may also hint at the fact that a couple doesn’t need a biological phallus to have good sex :-)
Dolly Garland (web page; twitter)
A quintessential Hindu woman, idolized for her inner fire—born of the literal fire—Draupadi is often cited as the catalyst for the great war of Mahabharata. Though she plays such a pivotal role in the epic from which the Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita is derived, Draupadi is rarely mentioned as a heroine or a central character, let alone a superhero. If she is, it is as the cause of the war, or as an example of a “typical” mischief-making female.
Though far from flawless, she was truly the woman behind the men. I believe the reason she was a designated catalyst of the Mahabharata (the Great War) in the long game played by Lord Krishna to rejuvenate the human race was because while her husbands—the mighty Pandavas—were brave and true of heart, they hid behind duty and tradition. Draupadi forced them to acknowledge that if they stand for truth and justice going to war was the right thing to do. She was the catalyst because she possessed the strength to do what hundreds of men could not—to raise her voice against injustice rather than hide behind duty and tradition.
In the Indian society which still, in 2017, often values traditions above everything else, Draupadi, a character that is so embedded in mythology and thousands of years old, is a true superhero.
Now tell us about your favorite mythological heroines in the comments!