Queen, Warrior, Goddess

I have been reading fairy tales and legends from a very young age, and that reading has populated my mind with women: some so important to who I am that the imagery is etched into my bedrock, others more elusive, whispers and ghosts like snatches of half-remembered poetry. This project was not so much an in-depth exploration of figures of myth and legend (I referenced Wikipedia more than once, academia this is not) as a remembrance, a rediscovery. Were these women who I remembered them to be? What else were they, that I never knew?

Myth and legend are not an exclusively masculine province and never have been, any more than history was made by men, but you have to pay attention to realise it. The grand stories are named after male heroes – the Odyssey, the tales of King Arthur, of Robin Hood, it goes on – and the old adage that behind every great man there is a great woman doesn’t mean very much when generations of storytellers have kept her firmly in his shadow.

There are a thousand ways to dismiss a female character you don’t like, and not all of these women are easy to like. Some didn’t want to be. They wanted to be feared; they wanted to be worshipped. They wanted to live. These are the girls who were forgotten, or given up on. They are the mothers and lovers and wives, the sisters and daughters, but those words are just starting points, not finishing lines. Their roots go so much deeper.

Camelot was a court of bright and brilliant women. There would have been no Golden Age without them. Lyonet and Lyonesse were dangerous by name and nature, beloved by the men who saw their savagery and didn’t flinch away. Ragnell’s face could be changed by a curse but her silver tongue was always her own; kings and princes and rebels were no match for her mind. Guinevere and Isolde found each other, they saw past beautiful faces and powerful husbands to the pain of two hearts that loved too much. They were friends. How did I never know that before? Guinevere adopted the girls of her court like sisters; she locked herself in a tower to escape a would-be king and made her walls unbreachable. And how is she remembered? For marrying Arthur and sleeping with Lancelot. Oh, Guinevere, your heart was always fiercer than either of those men could handle.

Marian was the Queen of Sherwood, an heiress who turned outlaw. In some versions she was Robin’s equal as a fighter, but here’s the thing, she doesn’t need to be. She was not Robin’s competitor – she was his equal. Fair Janet was the woman who looked the Queen of Faerie in the eye and thought no, you move. Nothing could make her let go of something she wanted to keep. Medb was shameless, proud of everything she had and everything she was. Savitri could talk rings around Death himself. Blodeuwedd called her soul her own and was ready to kill to keep it.

Circe was a capricious lover, a reluctant aunt, a notorious sorceress. Medea was a passionate, vicious thunderstorm of a woman who would rip up the world to get what she wanted. Andromeda’s wedding was a battlefield; she took a leap into the unknown and she did not fall. They are so much bigger, so much more terrible, than the men they slept with. Helen and Psyche were defined by their beauty, cursed by it, loved and hated and hounded and blamed for it. That they might not be treasures for the winning – that they might, in fact, have wills and wishes of their own – was unthinkable. Pandora wanted answers and became a punchline moral to the perils of feminine curiosity; Medusa asked for nothing except to be left the hell alone and somehow she is remembered as the monster.

Mythology is filled with stories of women warriors and brutal queens, heartless witches and implacable goddesses. Maybe it makes sense that they became cautionary tales; the very least you’d need is caution to survive them.

I started this project because names matter. Because the stories behind those names matter. Because the women of myth and legend have been ignored and diminished and dismissed for so long that those stories can be hard to find, and it is worth taking them out of the dusty corners to hold up to the light and realise that they were here all along.

They are not ghosts. They are wicked and golden and wise, and they are here.

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Ladies of Legend: The Fates

References: The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies (Vega, 2002) by Anna Franklin, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moirai, http://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends/slavic-star-goddess-zorya-guardian-doomsday-hound-and-servant-sun-god-006303, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, Eyewitness Companions: Mythology (Dorling Kindersley Ltd.) by Philip Wilkinson and Neil Philip, http://www.pantheon.org/articles/z/zorya.html, http://www.theoi.com/Daimon/Moirai.html#Zeus, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clotho, http://www.self.gutenberg.org/articles/eng/Sudice_(mythology),

Welcome to the last installment of Ladies of Legend! I tried to post yesterday but the website crashed, which seems rather ominous given who I’m talking about. Let’s try again.

Fate, according to the Reader’s Digest Word Power dictionary, is ‘the development of events outside a person’s control, regarded as predetermined’. It also refers to the cross-cultural mythic tradition that the biggest of the big guns, the manipulators of destiny itself, are a trio of women.

In Greek mythology, they are known as the Moirai, or Moerae, meaning ‘apportioners’. When a baby was born, it was said they would appear within three days to decided the course of the child’s life. The fates of mortals were threads to them, to be spun together and, in due time, cut off. They also ruled over the fates of the gods. They are described (Fragments 1018, from Stobaeus, Anthology, trans. Campbell) as sitting ‘nearest of the gods to the throne of Zeus’, weaving their work on adamantine shuttles, and some sources claim that he alone could control them, but other accounts imply that the Moirai were completely independent and that Zeus, too, was subject to their will. Which is obviously the version I like better.

The three figures of the Moirai were Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos. They are usually described as old women, dressed in white robes and sometimes crowns, each either carrying a staff or a symbol of her work. According to some versions, the Moirai were the daughters of Nyx, goddess of night, giving them the siblings Thanatos (god of peaceful death), Nemesis (goddess of vengeance) and the Keres (goddesses of violent death). Other sources say that their mother was Themis, goddess of divine law, and their father was Zeus, with the goddesses Eunomia (of law and order), Dike (of justice) and Eirene (of peace) as their sisters. Yet another account has them as the children of Ananke, goddess of inevitability and necessity.

Clotho’s role was to spin the thread of life. It was she who decided when a person was born and when they died, and one time when the notorious Tantalus murdered his son, the gods piled all the bits of the dismembered boy into a cauldron and Clotho brought him back to life. Being the original multi-tasker, she also helped Hermes invent the alphabet. Lachesis, meanwhile, was the measurer. It was up to her how much life any individual received, measuring it precisely with her rod, and her other duty was Reincarnation Instructor, providing the options – animal and human – for souls to take on as their new life. Atropos, meanwhile, was the eldest of the three sisters, and wielder of the shears that could end any (and every) thread of life. The nature of death was her particular province. During certain battles of the gods, the three of them took a more active role in dealing out judgement, wielding bronze clubs to take down their enemies.

The Moirai had companions in their work – Eileithyia, the Minoan goddess of childbirth, and the Erinyes, or Furies, who punished evil-doers. But the Moirai could also be placated, or even tricked. Athenian brides offered the Moirai locks of hair. Booze would also do the trick. Alcestis, widow of Admetus, once got all three Moirai thoroughly drunk and Clotho admitted that if a replacement could be found to go into the Underworld in Admetus’ stead, he would be freed. Alcestis gave up her own life, but was rescued by Heracles when Death came to get her, so the lovers both cheated destiny and survived.

The Roman parallel to the Moirai were the Parcae, or Fata: Nona, Decima and Morta. They were known as ‘the sparing ones’ and were, of course, anything but. On the day that a child’s name was chosen – this being the ninth day after birth for a boy and the eighth day for a girl – the Parcae would decide upon how long the child’s life would be.

In Slavonic mythology, there are the Sudice, also known – depending on region – as the Sudičky, Suđaje, Rodzanice, Narecznice, Sudiczki, Sojenice or Rojenice. At the birth of every child, it was the Sudice who foretold their destiny. The Slavic Fates appeared as three elderly spinners, the first with an oversize lower lip from licking the thread, the second with a thumb widened from handling the fibres, and the third with a foot swollen from turning the spinning wheel.

Another Slavonic trio of goddesses were the Zoryas, guardians of the universe who kept the Doomsday Hound Simargl chained to the star Polaris. The maiden figure was Zorya Utrenyaya, the Dawn, a warrior spirit and patroness of horses. Her duty was to open the gates so that her father Dazbog’s sun chariot could pass through. She was Zwezda Dnieca in Polish, Dennitsa in Eastern Slavonic and Auseklis in Latvian. The mother figure was Zorya Vechernyaya, the Dusk or Twilight, who closed the gates after the return of the sun chariot. She was Zwezda Wieczórniaia in Polish. The crone figure was Zorya Polunoshnaya, the Midnight, also known as Zwezda Polnica or Polunocnica. She was associated with witchcraft and the Underworld. The three guardians could merge to form the warrior goddess Zorya, who used her veil to shield warriors from death. She lived on Bouyan Island, home of the sun, where the winds of the North, East and West all met. Zorya was married to the god Perun in some versions, while in others her husband was Myesyats, the god of the moon, making her the mother of the stars.

Like the Sudice, the Norns of Norse myth were said to manifest at births to map out the child’s future life. The judgement of Norns nearly always meant a death sentence. There were many such spirits – unlucky people were known to bemoan the malice of their personal Fates – but there were three giantesses said to be the greatest of the Norns. These are Urðr, Verðandi and Skuld, associated respectively with the past, presence and future. One of their duties was to draw water from the Well of Urðr to pour over Yggdrasill, the World Tree, to keep it alive.

Though the mythic traditions vary from region to region, the Fates tend to represent the natural order of things, and woe betide you if you go against it. They are the warriors of the law, the guardians of justice. Fate may not always be kind, but it can be named. It can even, occasionally, be defied. And it might just win your war for you.

These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller – I work with the sources I have to hand but if you know an alternative version I would love to hear it!