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.