Professional pounder of the patriarchy.

Posts tagged ‘ancient’

Agathon and the Women: Effeminacy and Femininity

There is a definite prejudice towards men who use femininity as part of their palate; their emotional palate, their physical palate. Is that changing? I’m not talking frilly-laced pink things or Hello Kitty stuff. I’m talking about goddess energy, intuition and feelings. That is still under attack, and it has gotten worse.

– RuPaul

I want to talk to you about Agathon.

Agathon was an Athenian tragic poet and playwright, who lived from (roughly) 448BCE to 400BCE. None of his own works have survived in their entirety – we know of six titles and we have 31 textual fragments – although he appears as a character in Plato’s Symposium and in Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae (Women at the Thesmophoria). Neither of these depictions are very flattering. He appears in the first act of Thesmophoriazusae. In the play, the tragedian Euripides is accused of misogyny, and the women of Athens have had it up to here with him. At the Thesmophoria, a women-only festival, they plot their revenge. Euripides plans to have Agathon – a man notorious for dressing as a woman and for his submissive sexual exploits – infiltrate the festival for him (although this doesn’t work out and Euripides’ relative Mnesilochus goes instead).

Agathon is mocked pretty ruthlessly throughout his appearance in the play, although you could argue that he gives as good as he gets; honestly, I wish he was in the play more. He’s heavily coded by the narrative as gay, he dresses as a woman (for writing purposes) and it’s implied that he works as a prostitute, but it’s the latter two of these qualities that seem to qualify him for mockery. Nobody would have had a problem with him being gay; the Greeks didn’t really have a concept of homosexual or heterosexual. You were either dominant (penetrator) or you were submissive (penetrated). Agathon falls into that second category – the category reserved for pubescent boys and women.

The reason I bring up Agathon (aside from his general brilliance) is because he exemplifies how masculinity and femininity intersected in ancient times, and there’s a lot we can learn from his portrayal about how the ancients – and how we – approach femininity and also what we might call effeminacy. Homophobia and sexism are both social justice issues. We don’t necessarily lump them in together or deal with them in the same way, but I often find that people who are passionate about fighting one of those causes feel some affinity for the other too. I also think many homophobic stereotypes and cliches which accompany depictions of gay men in media have their roots in misogyny and anti-femininity. That’s not to say the LGBT+ rights movement owes anything at all to feminists or to straight, cis women, but I do think there are some similarities to be acknowledged.

I’ve often argued that plenty of men’s issues are a direct result of our society’s demonisation of femininity. Men don’t have the opportunity to access domestic violence services and, even when they do, they don’t feel as though they can and still retain their masculinity. There’s a high suicide rate among young males, another result of constant social pressure to conform. This is when masculinity becomes toxic, something men have to labour under all their lives rather than something they settle into comfortably.

Perhaps this contributes to homophobia, particularly to femmephobia (discrimination towards feminine-presenting individuals, something that is perpetrated by gay men too, not just heterosexuals). Perhaps this insecurity manifests as resentment towards men who confidently, comfortably inhabit the space (a gap which is rapidly closing) between masculinity and femininity.

You might have seen an image that did the rounds on the internet recently, of a man wearing a “No fats, no fems” shirt.

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Yeah, okay, it’s a hella cute shirt. Yeah, it was meant to be ironic. But it highlights a massive problem in the gay community, this idea that “twinks” – feminine gay men – are letting the side down and giving in to stereotyping. In a way, it contributes to both homophobia and misogyny in one fell swoop. You can read a gay man’s perspective on “anti-campness” here, from Guardian columnist Owen Jones. In the article, Owen states: “This anti-camp hostility partly comes from a desire to conform to traditional gender roles, which gay men have already subverted whether they want to or not.” It’s all part of “internalised homophobia”, in which gay men (and gay women!) perpetuate harmful stereotypes out of fear and insecurity. However, this is steadily improving. I quoted RuPaul earlier. He’s a prime example; his series RuPaul’s Drag Race has been a smash hit with eight seasons (and two seasons of its spin-off All Stars) under its belt. As drag has entered the mainstream consciousness – via the accessible “talent show” format that RPDR employs – so has the idea that mixing masculine and feminine gender expression is totally acceptable.

On a broader level – beyond just the gay community – I think we’d solve a lot of men’s issues far more quickly if we stopped enforcing this idea that feelings = femininity = weakness. Even now, being called “a girl” is a grave insult for many boys and men.

Feminists have always had a complicated relationship with both masculinity and femininity. When feminists critique masculinity, generally what they mean is more along the lines of machismo – a word of Spanish origin that denotes hypersexual manhood, denigration of women and adherence to a strict set of “masculine” traits. Men also put up with some pretty hellish expectations regarding their bodies and their lives. I – and most other feminists I know – give a whoop and a cheer when a plus size man is hailed as a modelling icon or when the internet’s latest sweetheart is “unconventionally attractive” (whatever that even means).

Owen Jones – I know, him again! – also wrote a piece for New Statesman about masculinity. I used a quote from that particular post in my Quotes series. He wrote in that article: “…the point is this. Being a man is not static: it can change and be redefined.” I think that’s the crucial thing. The more we encourage people, especially young people, to see masculinity and femininity as fluid, the better our society as a whole will be. The pressure to conform to a rigid gender role can be so damaging and dehumanising, and it causes a massive disconnect between a young person’s inner identity and their outward expression. Imagine a world without that self-sabotage.

Really, we should see gender as a painter’s palette. Blend. Experiment. Why use just one colour for the masterpiece that is your life?

Finally, I’d like to leave you with a quote from Thesmophoriazusae, spoken by Agathon. He has a lot of good dialogue in the play, but, after studying the play for my AS Level, this line stuck with me. I think it’s apt for what I do.

What you write depends so much on what you are.

People I mentioned/cited:

Owen Jones, How To Be A Man, New Statesman (x)

Owen Jones, What Alan Carr Taught Me About Gay Men’s HomophobiaThe Guardian (x)

RuPaul, RuPaul speaks about society and the state of drag as performance artWikiNews (x)

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 6, Section 2 (x)

A little more about Agathon:

Agathon is credited with being an innovator in the world of Greek tragedy. Athenian plays were almost always based upon mythology, although they occasionally had their origins in history. Agathon is thought to have been the first playwright to have written an entirely original play, Anthos (“Flower”). The reason we know about him – aside from his roles in Symposium and Thesmophoriazusae – is because he won at the Lenaean Festival in 417BC. Greek playwrights competed at these festivals, showcasing their latest works, and it was a great honour to be awarded first place. I was especially surprised to learn that, as, in Thesmophoriazusae, Aristophanes depicts him as being an incompetent writer.

For more about him, go here, here and here. You can find PDFs of Thesmophoriazusae online, although a published translation is generally a better bet (we used this edition at college).

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The F Word 2: The Second One

“I understand feminism to be a social saviour because it liberates everyone without exclusion.” – Morrissey

After I published my FAQ page, my cousin reminded me that I hadn’t answered his question: why I call myself a feminist, rather than just saying I’m committed to gender equality. (That’s not to say my cousin isn’t in favour of gender equality; he’s a very smart, progressive dude and I admire him very much.) I suppose I roughly addressed this in my article The F Word, although I’ve re-read that particular post and found that it wasn’t as well-structured as I had once thought it was. It wasn’t a strong argument. I was annoyed at the time (I spent a good portion of 2015 being annoyed – last year was an awful year, for many reasons) and it was a very emotive piece. I always think my articles are better when they come from a place of emotion and a place of knowledge.

It came off as bitter, frankly, a child’s tirade at not having their opinion immediately accepted and held as gospel. And that’s the opposite of what I had wanted and planned.

I’m going to build on my original idea but, hopefully, this will turn out to be far superior to that first specimen. Like how Toy Story 2 is way better than Toy Story (harsh but true).

In that original post, I stated in response to the question “Why are you a feminist?”:

The simple answer is: I’m a woman. It would be foolish not to be on my own side. It would be foolish not to participate in a movement that directly seeks to put me on a level playing field with men.

All that is accurate insofar that it’s what I feel to be true. But it’s not what I know to be true.

know that, of the two main players in the Gender Games (although I’m aware that the gender spectrum stretches far beyond male and female), women have always been the worst off. That’s just historical fact. We were the first to eat the apple in the Garden of Eden; for the longest time, womankind has not only been the origin of the population (shoutout to all my uteri-having folks) but the origin of sin. For the last 2000 years (if we consider that the Book of Genesis probably arrived in its original form between 500 BCE and 70 ACE), women have been by turns depicted as morally corrupt, emotionally stunted and biologically flawed. We have been pseudo-men; we have been men lacking something. Born of Adam’s rib, we are lesser.

I’m getting philosophical here, but the implications of this characterisation of women are far-reaching. Christianity is the world’s biggest religion, with 2.2 billion followers, but I can’t lay the blame at the feet of Christians. That would be unfair and unfounded. Throughout history, women have been depicted in practically every culture as stupid and inherently servile, and if we’re not stupid and submissive, then we’re dangerous. I’ve discussed before how the ancient Athenians seemed to consider women childlike and in need of guidance. Without proper control, they would inevitably become liars, adulterers and murderers. It’s this pervasive virgin-whore complex that has invaded our whole ethos. Men get to decide who is pure and who isn’t, even today, and I think that’s vile. Spend ten minutes on social media and witness as women are condemned for being “sluts” and “hoes” by the same men who buy Playboy or watch porn. You can be sexual, is the message, but only on our terms. As my good friend once put it, “you jack off with your left hand and point with your right.” 2000 years on and we’re stillstill seen as morally bankrupt. Take your clothes off – boom, you’ve clearly no self-respect, young lady.

The main issue (after all that waffle) is: why feminist? Why pick something so polarising, something that opens you up to so many misinterpretations and misconceptions? Why not humanist or egalitarian or equalist?

I use feminist – take note of the fem– part – because I  believe, legitimately, that women still have it harder on a social and an economic level. The wage gap is something I lament a lot and I don’t particularly want to reiterate it here, but the sites/articles to which I like to refer people are here, here and here. Better paternity leave and equal caring responsibilities would clear that up nicely (yet another way feminism helps men that MRAs enjoy ignoring). A lot of men’s issues are rooted deeply in our bias against femininity. There’s a high suicide rate among young males and men don’t feel they can access domestic violence services; much of that originates in social pressures surrounding expression of emotion or vulnerability. In a society where being “like a girl” is still an insult – why oh why aren’t we past that yet?! – we keep on enforcing this idea of women being almost a different class of people altogether. And for many men, it’s not a class they want to be associated with.

To explain it briefly:

Feminists: Look, there’s this social theory called the patriarchy and it’s a huge problem which results in all these derivative problems, like the wage gap and FGM and loss of abortion rights! If we solved it, everybody would be better off!

Anti-fems: Ummmm… everybody else has problems too, y’know… look at this stack of problems that men have! Less paternity leave, high suicide rates, no support after intimate partner violence. You don’t care about those, do you?!

Feminists: But if you’d help us solve this problem, we could-

Anti-fems: No.

Feminists: But the patriarchy ultimately contributes to your issues-

Anti-fems: No.

Feminists: You’re benefiting from oppression now, but sooner or later-

Anti-fems: LALALA I’M NOT LISTENING YOU HATE MEN

Feminists:  

eds gif

And so forth.

I know that wasn’t very concise, but I hope it clarified the point at least a little bit. Honestly, I think saying you’re committed to gender equality is amazing, but it’s too generalised. That doesn’t say anything about what you’re planning to do. Feminism – of all the “social justice” movements out there – is the most dynamic; it’s the one that gets stuff done. It’s about women, but under that umbrella of womanhood is a whole range of experiences. Women are in every walk of life, which gives feminists room to explore the impact of racism, sexual discrimination (specifically lesbophobia, but also biphobia), transphobia and classism. There are people who might have DFAB/AFAB experiences who still deal with sexism, despite not being female – a double whammy of misgendering and misogyny. Not pleasant.

At the end of the day, I don’t really care if you identify yourself as a feminist or not. For me, it’s part of my life. I love being a feminist. I love the sense of community, I love the sisterhood, I love that I’m never, ever alone – there’s always a woman (or man, or non-binary person!) out there who feels the same way.

I also think there’s a little bit of my soul that really, really enjoys being contrary. Feminism is the internet’s favourite punching bag, so why wouldn’t I – underdog extraordinaire – align myself with that?

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This is the kind of girl I am.

Dolly xxx

 

UPDATE: “The Song of Achilles”

“In the darkness, two shadows, reaching through the hopeless, heavy dusk. Their hands meet, and light spills out in a flood, like a hundred golden urns pouring out the sun.” – The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller

Finished reading it today and oh my Zeus it was spectacular. So beautiful. I genuinely burst into tears reading the final chapter; it’s so… ughhh, I have no words.

Update on the women front: Briseis was introduced since I last posted, and she was portrayed so well. I really love Briseis, and she was far more active in this novel than she was in The Iliad (although I can forgive Homer for that, as it’s the oldest book in Europe and all). She’s a bit of a sass master, frankly, but her relationship with Patroclus is so cute. Love ’em. Also, Patroclus is a feminist; don’t you DARE tell me otherwise.

I also really like the depiction of Thetis, Achilles’ mother. She’s so harsh to Patroclus because of her bias against mortals, and you could mistake the portrayal as a negative one (the novel is from Patroclus’ perspective and I found that I empathised with him so much). But she definitely redeemed herself for me as a reader, and it’s actually very easy to empathise with her too. She’s not a nice character, I don’t think, but that’s pretty inkeeping with the depictions of the gods generally in the book.

ALSO NEWSFLASH: ACHILLES AND PATROCLUS ARE SO FRICKIN’ ADORABLE

Stab me in the heart with a spear, Ms Miller, it would be less painful.

So that’s it, I’m at the end of the novel. It’s been a rollercoaster of a read. Gorgeous prose, fantastic character development, beautiful imagery. Madeline Miller is a goddess in her own right.

“The Song of Achilles”

“I could recognize him by touch alone, by smell; I would know him blind, by the way his breaths came and his feet struck the earth. I would know him in death, at the end of the world.” – Patroclus, about Achilles

I’ve started reading The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller and it’s so good. It’s utterly beautiful and so heartbreaking. I’m honestly dying a little inside with every chapter I read.

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Me when Patroclus says something overwhelmingly sad:

It tells the story of Achilles and Patroclus, in the years before they leave for Troy. The Trojan War tests the relationship they have built since they were boys to its absolute limits. If you’ve read The Iliad, you’ll know exactly how their love story ends. Also, I can relate to Patroclus on pretty much every level (except for the murder thing). It’s totally believable, and Miller has managed to seamlessly blend the romance with historical context (she’s a lecturer in Latin and Greek). I particularly like the acknowledgement of the treatment of women in ancient cultures. The women in the novel aren’t unrealistically active (by ancient Greek standards), but they’re certainly not as passive as in The Iliad; personally, I think that’s an admirable feat.

So yeah, you should definitely read it. You will cry.

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Surrounded by the revision I should be doing…

 

 

 

The Myth of Female Shame

Being a woman often goes hand in hand with being ashamed.

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You know what kind of blog this is.

In an article called “The Feminine Mistake“, which I wrote about last year, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talked about her own experiences with (what she calls) the rituals of female shame. All the women in her life idolised her Auntie Chinwe. She was an excellent doctor, but her most admired attributes were not to do with her success or her intelligence. Her enviable qualities were that she was the perfect wife, she was dutiful and she was loyal. Her badge of honour was her refusal to cause a stir. She would endure jokes made at her expense, and she had transformed herself in order to fit her husband’s expectations. She was “an ocean of endless nice”.

There is an implicit message in society’s expectations of women. It is: “What you are is something to be ashamed of.” What you have started with – i.e. your own body, your own self, your own feelings – is imperfect and it needs to be rectified. It needs to be suppressed. You don’t get to be angry; you’re a “bitch”. You don’t get to be in control; you’re “bossy”. Present any semblance of rage or uncooperative behaviour, and you’re an embarrassment.

This is not a new idea. For the people of ancient Rome, it manifested as pudicitia, “modesty”. The opposite was impudicitia, “shamelessness”. It was almost entirely an expectation of a woman’s moral code. The only men who were tarred with the impudicitia brush were those who deviated from the masculine sexual norm, usually homosexual men who took the “submissive” role. This was because their sexual preferences feminised them, in the eyes of Roman society. (There are plenty of parallels to be drawn between the treatment of women and gay men in the ancient world, but that’s a story for another day.) Lucretia was considered the epitome of pudicitia; she was beautiful but modest, assuming the traditional role of the loyal wife. According to Livy, it was her chastity that attracted Sextus Tarquinius to her, to the point that he raped her and she committed suicide to preserve her reputation. This was seen as ideal – a woman who cared so much about her honour that she would die to defend it. A common translation or interpretation of the word is “shamefaced(ness)”. It was morally right for a woman to avoid engaging in certain acts in order to prevent bringing shame upon herself.

A later Roman example is that of Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi. The Gracchi were two brothers, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, who both became tribunes (political officials). She is particularly admired for how she speaks of her relatives. Her husband had passed away when she was still young, and she never remarried. Nine of her eleven children died in infancy, and Tiberius and Gaius were both murdered. Cornelia does not grieve in front of guests, instead telling them of her family’s great achievements. This emotional restraint is specifically referred to: “… she was most admirable because she did not grieve for her sons and talked to her audience without weeping…” Again, mourning among her guests would have been shameful.

But that was over 2000 years ago (Lucretia’s story is dated to circa 510BC and Cornelia’s to the second century BC). Why should you care if a Roman woman was shamed for improper behaviour?

Well… because we see it everyday. In newspapers, on social media, among our friends. We have fostered a culture in which a woman can be criticised for anything and everything, for the most ridiculous things. Women are shamed disproportionately to men. Consider Kim Kardashian, who gained notoriety for an… errrrmmm… interesting video she taped with her then-boyfriend Ray J. For the entirety of her career – despite proving herself to be a savvy businesswoman and engaging in charitable work – she’s been constantly reminded of this incident. She’s the butt (no pun intended) of every related joke imaginable. Is anybody having a go at Ray J for this? No. He’s still joking about it years later. He has literally stated publicly that he once “had to tell her” that her downstairs department smelled terrible. I shit you not.

A celebrity woman who leaves the house in anything less than the latest Vivienne Westwood evening gown is evidently stressed and struggling. She’s not, you know, an actual human being who has to do actual human things. In adverts for shaving products, the actress shaves an ALREADY BALD leg. That’s how taboo female body hair is. Hair, for fuck’s sake. You know, that thing we all have, all over our bodies???

We have created a world in which women – even ordinary women like me – are required to have a public face and a private one. Why do I have to pretend that I don’t urinate or defecate or menstruate? Why am I required to be this ethereal, angelic, pure creature with no bodily functions beyond those I can offer to men?

I’m calling stinking horseshit. I’m not ashamed of anything. If I want to walk to the toilet in college with my sanitary towel in my hand, unconcealed, then I bloody well will. If I want to complain to my friends that my boobs are aching, then I will. I am at liberty to do so.

Fucking destroy this idea that women ought to be ashamed. Destroy the concept that femininity comes with weakness and deceit and original sin attached.

Patsy - annoyed

She’s eating an apple BECAUSE SYMBOLISM

Infinite love, with zero fucks given,

Dolly xxx

La Brujería: Las Implicaciones Feministas

Este es una traducción (¡aproximadamente!) de un mensaje de blog anterior.

Después del estreno de la película nueva La Bruja, una película de terror del director Robert Eggers, más y más gente está notando los matices feministas. Podría argumentar que sea una historia de hacerse maduro en vez de una película de terror.

Aunque durante la historia muchas de las víctimas inocentes que fueron acusados de la brujería han sido hombres, en las imágenes de cultura popular la mayoría de las brujas son mujeres.
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(Lisa: Cuando una mujer es segura de sí misma y poderosa, ¿por qué la llaman una bruja?)

La evolución de la bruja en mitología está conectado íntimamente con las percepciones sociales de las mujeres. Depende del tipo de cultura también. En el norte de España, en el País Vasco, la palabra para la bruja es sorgina (plural: sorginak). Sorginak son las sirvientas de la diosa principal, Mari, y las descripciones en la lectura y en el folclore normalmente fueron positivas – hasta el Cristianismo llegué. La religión vasca – y la primera sociedad – fue matriarcal, así que falta las figuras femeninas que son engañosas y manipuladoras. Encontramos estas figuras en la mitología cristiana y judía (mira a aquí, aquí y aquí). Las mujeres en las primeras comunidades vascas podían controlar sus propias propiedades y heredar la fortuna de la familia. Tenían más poder que las mujeres de otros países europeos.

En la mitología griega, había dos figuras muy famosas que eran brujas. La primera se llamaba Medea, la esposa de Jasón (Jasón y los Argonautas). En la obra Medea de Euripides, Medea mata a sus hijos después Jasón se casa con una otra mujer. En los mitos, Medea generalmente es una sacerdotisa de la diosa Hécate – una diosa que estaba asociada con temas oscuros tales como la muerte, las fantasmas, la necromancia y – ¡qué sorpresa! – la brujería. La segunda se llamaba Circe, una diosa y bruja que figuraba en La Odisea de Homero, la historia de la vuelta a casa del héroe griego Odiseo. En la epopeya, Circe transforma en animales a sus enemigos y intenta a seducir a Odiseo, aunque – con el ayudamiento del dios Hermes – la resiste. Aquí, tenemos una otra bruja mítica que controla a los hombres usando la manipulación y la sexualidad. Los griegos antiguos pensaban que las mujeres inteligentes fueron peligrosas. Las brujas en los mitos de Antigua Grecia representaban los temores que los hombres griegos tenían sobre sus esposas. Si piensas que aparece ridículo, hay un ejemplo interesante en un discurso del juzgado, que Antiphon escribío en 420a.C. En el discurso, un hombre acusó a su madrastra de matar a su padre. Se la llama “Clitemnestra”, que fue una reina mitologíca que mató a su esposo Agamenón. Hoy en día, no podría decirlo en un juzgado, pero en la sociedad patriarcal de Atenas, fue totalmente aceptable.

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Clitemnestra de John Collier

Es posible que la bruja es casi emblemática del feminismo. Las brujas de la mitología eran en contraste con los sistemas sociales patriarcales, subvirtiendo el concepto de la mujer ideal. No es un secreto que mujeres poderosas asustaron a las sociedades del mundo antiguo (y moderno) y los hombres trataron a la sexualidad femenina como un arma. Tal vez la brujería es una manera para manejar este arma.

¡Gracias para leer! Por favor, “like” y comparte si te gusta el artículo.

Debo decir:

No intentaría a sugerir que las brujas realmente existían en estas culturas. Habían indudablemente sacerdotisas paganas, pero no hay nada evidencia para una religión de brujas. Hay la tradición de Stregheria (strega es la palabra italiana para “bruja”), que está basado en el libro Aradia, o el Evangelio de Las Brujas. Quisiera a creer que había un culto matriarcal de brujas con una mesías femenina, sin embargo es improbable que el libro sea más que una ficción. La gente que sufría durante las cazas de brujas no realizó la brujería en realidad, y pienso que es insultante llamar a esa gente “brujas”.

Tenemos poca evidencia que las tradiciones de la religión moderna neopagana de Wicca tienen alguna conección con las curanderas del pasado. No es una crítica de Wicca. De hecho, creo que Wicca es tal vez la religión más emancipadora del mundo (¡una opinión polemica, lo sé!). Puede aprender más sobre Wicca aquí (el texto es en inglés).

Witchcraft: Its Feminist Implications

After the release of Robert Eggers’ new horror film The Witch (UK release: 11th March), more and more people are picking up on the subtle feminist undertones in the film. You could argue that it’s as much a coming-of-age story as it is a horror film.

Although many of the innocent victims tried for witchcraft throughout history have been male, the pervasive pop culture image of the witch is that of a woman.

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The evolution of the witch in mythology is intimately connected with societal perceptions of women. It also depends on the type of culture. In northern Spain, in the Basque Country, the word for “witch” is sorgina (plural: sorginak). The sorginak are the servants of the goddess Mari and were rarely portrayed negatively in literature and folklore – until Christianity arrived. The Basque religion – and, arguably, its early society – was matriarchal, so it lacks the deceptive, conniving female figures found in Judeo-Christian mythology (see here, here and here). The women in early Basque communities could control their own property and inherit the family fortune. They had much more power than women in neighbouring cultures.

In Greek mythology, there are two famous figures who are witches. The first is Medea, the wife of Jason (as in Jason and the Argonauts). In the play Medea by Euripides, Medea kills her children after Jason marries another woman. In the myths, Medea is generally a priestess of the goddess Hecate/Hekate – a goddess who is associated with dark themes such as death, ghosts, necromancy and – surprise, surprise! – witchcraft. The second is Circe, a goddess and sorceress who features in Homer’s Odyssey, the tale of the Greek hero Odysseus’ journey home after the Trojan War. In the epic, Circe transforms her enemies into animals and attempts to seduce Odysseus, although – with the help of Hermes – he resists her advances. Here, we find another mythic witch who controls men through manipulation and sexuality. The Greeks thought that intelligent women were dangerous women, and the women in the myths of Ancient Greece represented the fears men had about their wives. If you think that seems ridiculous, there’s an interesting example of mythical women being used tactically against a real woman in a law court speech by Antiphon, circa 420BC. In it, a man accuses his stepmother of poisoning his father, comparing her to Clytemnestra (the epitome of a Greek girl gone bad) who murdered her husband Agamemnon. You’d think a jury would laugh him out of the court, but not so in the patriarchal society that was Athens in the 5th century BC. All that mudslinging was totally acceptable.

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Clytemnestra by John Collier

Arguably, the witch is almost emblematic of feminism. The witches of mythology stood in stark contrast to harsh patriarchal social systems, subverting the very concept of the ideal woman. It’s no secret that powerful women terrified the societies of the ancient (and not so ancient) world and a woman’s sexuality was treated like a weapon. Maybe witchcraft – regardless of the form in which it exists or existed – is a way to wield that weapon.

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Disclaimer:

I’m not trying to suggest that witches of any sort actually existed in these cultures. While there were certainly pagan priestesses, there’s little to no evidence that any kind of witch religion ever existed. The closest we have is the Italian tradition of Stregheria (strega is the Italian word for “witch” or “hag”), which is based upon the book Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches. As much as I’d like to believe that there was a matriarchal cult of witches worshipping a female messiah, it’s very, very unlikely that the book is anything more than elaborate wishful thinking. None of the people who were executed during the witch hunts of the early modern period actually performed witchcraft, and I think the suggestion that they were witches trivialises the futile and unnecessary suffering that occurred.

We have very little evidence that the traditions of the modern neopagan religion Wicca have anything to do with the healers and wise women of yesteryear. That’s not a criticism of Wicca at all. In fact, I think Wicca might just be the most empowering religion out there (controversial opinion, I know!). You can find out more about Wicca here.