Ladies of Legend: Queen Medb

References: Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, Legends of the Celts (HarperCollins, 1994, originally published 1989) by Frank Delaney, http://www.queenmaeve.org/, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medb, http://www.bardsongpress.com/Celtic_Culture/The_Intoxicating_Warrior_Queen.htm, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Medb, Celtic Myth and Legend (Newcastle Publishing Co. Inc., 1975) by Charles Squire

Trigger warning: references to rape

Welcome to May and this month’s Lady of Legend, the Irish warrior queen Medb (also spelled Medhb, Meadhbh, Maebh or Anglicised into Maeve). Translated, her name means ‘drunken woman’ or ‘she who intoxicates’. If you haven’t heard of her yet, you are missing out.

As is the case with many mythological women, she may have originally been a goddess of sovereignty (it being said that the ruler of Connacht had to be ‘married to Medb’, as if married to the land itself) or a goddess of war. Her sacred tree was the bile Medbh and she was often depicted with a squirrel and a bird sitting on her shoulders. In the stories that depict her as a human queen, the squirrel and the bird became her pets.

Her father was Eochaid Feidlech, the High King of Ireland, and her mother was Crochen (or Cruachú) Crobh-Derg, a handmaiden to Etain. It was partially through her mother that Medb claimed a right to rule over Connacht. Eochaid married Medb to Conchobar Mac Ness, the king of Ulster, as a recompense after Eochaid killed Conchobar’s (alleged) father in battle; not the most promising of starts to what would become a hellish marriage. Medb had a child with Conchobar, a son named Glaisne, but took a strong enough dislike to her husband to leave him, political reconciliation be damned.

Nothing daunted, Eochaid gave Conchobar another of his daughters – depending on the version, either Eithne or Clothru – but when the unfortunate second wife fell pregnant, Medb is said to have murdered her. The baby (a son, Furbaide) had to be taken from her dead body. There is, however, another version of events in which Furbaide’s mother drowns in a river and it is Lugaid mac Conor, Furbaide’s brother, who is responsible. It seems probable that Eochaid, at least, did not believe Medb killed her sister, given that he deposed the king of Connacht to put Medb on the throne. The erstwhile monarch, Tinni Mac Conri, made the best of the situation by winning a spot in the new queen’s bed.

Conchobar showed his true colours after an assembly at the High King’s seat of Tara, when he raped Medb. War broke out between the High King and Ulster, and Tinni challenged Conchobar to single combat. He lost. Eochaid Dála, Tinni’s rival for the crown of Connacht, managed to extract Medb’s army from the battle and became her next husband.

Being Medb’s husband came with conditions. Any man she married had to be without fear, meanness or jealousy – basically, she wanted a good-natured big spender for an open relationship and said so upfront. She was a beautiful, powerful woman known for sleeping with her best warriors and Eochaid Dála was fine with that up until he found out she was sleeping with Ailill mac Máta, chief of her bodyguard. He challenged Ailill to single combat, and lost. Ailill became the new king of Connacht.

Together, Medb and Ailill had two daughters, Findabair and Cainer, and seven sons. Upon being told by a druid that one of her sons would kill Conchobar, and that son would be named Maine, Medb renamed all her sons to increase the odds. Therefore Fedlimid became Maine Athramail (“like his father”), Cairbre became Maine Máthramail (“like his mother”), Eochaid became Maine Andoe (“the swift”) and was also known as Cich-Maine Andoe or Cichmuine, Fergus became Maine Taí (“the silent”), Cet became Maine Mórgor (“of great duty”), Sin became Maine Mílscothach (“honey-speech”), Dáire became Maine Móepirt (“beyond description”). And the strategy paid off! Maine Andoe did indeed kill Conchobar…just not the Conchobar Medb was expecting.

I’m disappointed, I can’t imagine how she felt.

And her luck with men continued to prove terrible. Aware he was only king through his marriage to Medb, Ailill had insecurity issues. One night after sex, he wrecked the afterglow by announcing that she’d been terribly lucky to get him what with all the wealth and prestige he’d brought to her. Medb laughed. Her retort was that her wealth far outstripped his and he was her ‘kept man’. This kicked off the sort of marital argument that begins with comparing all of your possessions to find out who really has the financial upper hand and ends (after Medb found out her own prize bull had refused to stick around in her herds, choosing to plough through the fences into Ailill’s fields because he couldn’t bear being owned by a woman, what the actual hell) with a legendary cattle raid and a whole lot of bloodshed.

You see, there was only one bull in Ireland to match Ailill’s. It belonged to Dáire mac Fiachna, a vassal to the unfortunately still surviving Conchobar. To her credit, Medb did try to buy the bull, but her messenger got drunk and told everyone that she’d just take the bull if Dáire wouldn’t sell it to her…so he didn’t sell it to her. And she did come to take it. Look, she had a POINT to prove.

Also, it could not have been a more perfect time to attack. A curse had been laid upon the men of Ulster, leaving them weak and unable to fight (the curse, incidentally, originated from a mistreated pregnant woman and they brought the entire damn thing on themselves). Medb was fast and strong and her very presence on the battlefield made her army feel invincible.

Among Medb’s forces was Fergus mac Róich, the former king of Ulster and one of Medb’s more worthwhile lovers. It was said that it took seven men to satisfy her in bed, or Fergus once. She had two children with him, Ciar and Cormac. He was a reluctant ally, but an ally just the same – and as it turned out, Medb needed him very much, because the one man left standing in Ulster was the unstoppable Cuchulainn, a hero so powerful he could take on an entire army on his own. Even the promise of the very beautiful Findabair’s hand wasn’t enough to attract a champion who could overcome him. He was also an old friend to Fergus. The two of them came to a deal that Cuchulainn would pretend to run away, so that they wouldn’t have to fight, if Fergus would return the favour at a time of Cuchulainn’s choosing.

Medb couldn’t let Cuchulainn go, however, and Cuchulainn himself was not the type to stay away from a battlefield. He slaughtered her armies, her pets, one of her handmaidens and one of her sons before finally dying of his many wounds – but first he gave the word to Fergus to flee, so that Medb’s army would follow and the war would be over.

Nevertheless, Medb got her bull. As soon as it was put in with her husband’s, the two beasts killed each other, so all those people died for no reason whatsoever, but the important thing to take away from it all was that Ailill couldn’t lord it over Medb any more. Out of jealousy, he had Fergus killed. Medb got her own back when Conchobar finally did everyone a favour and died, leaving the Ulster hero Conall Cernach to come spend his retirement in the Connacht court; Medb set the aged hero to watch Ailill, who was sleeping around himself, and with her support, Conall avenged Fergus by killing the king. Aillil lived just long enough to set his own men on Conall.

And Medb lived on. She’s said to have ruled for over sixty years. As an older woman, she made a habit of bathing in a pool on the island of Inchleraun, also known as Inis Cloithreann. Her nephew Furbaide, blaming her for his mother’s death, practiced with the slingshot until he was certain of his skill. The next time she went to bathe, he killed her. With a piece of hard cheese.

Legend has it that Medb was buried in Rathcroghan, under a long slab called ‘Misgaun Medb’. There is, however, a second possible burial site in a stone cairn atop Knocknearea, where her body is supposed to stand upright, still facing her enemies in Ulster. Medb was not the type of woman to let go of a grudge. She was a terrible enemy and not even that great a friend – but she lived loud and fast and fierce, and even her death sounds like a tall tale. Who could ever resist the larger than life warrior queen of Connacht?

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!

Ladies of Legend: Helen and Cassandra

References: The Greek Myths Volumes I and II (The Folio Society, 2003) by Robert Graves, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, The Greek Myths Volumes I and II (The Folio Society, 2003) by Robert Graves, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, Eyewitness Companions: Mythology (Dorling Kindersley Ltd.) by Philip Wilkinson and Neil Philip, A-Z of Mythology (Bison Books Ltd, 1990) by Peter Clayton, Greek Mythology (Michaelis Toubis S.A., 1995) by Sofia Souli, translated by Philip Ramp, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cassandrahttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helen_of_Troy

Trigger warning: references to rape and incest

It all began with Eris, the Greek goddess of discord and the original bad fairy at the christening – or in this case, at the wedding, showing up at the nuptials of Thetis and Peleus to make everyone simultaneously regret not inviting her and remember exactly why they didn’t by riling up the three most powerful goddesses in the Pantheon and starting one of the most famous wars in myth and legend. She brought with her a golden apple (never ever trust a golden apple) with an inscription on it reading ‘for the fairest’. Zeus, who might be all kinds of terrible but was smart enough to realise that was a mess he wanted no part of, hastily foisted the role of judge onto Prince Paris of Troy. Thanks to an ominous prophecy made at his birth, Paris was living as an anonymous shepherd at the time, in ignorance of his birthright. All that was about to change.

The three goddesses who felt the strongest right to the apple were Hera, Zeus’s wife and sister and queen of the gods; Athena, goddess of wisdom and war; and Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Each offered Paris an appropriately extravagant bribe depending on her governance. Hera promised power and riches, Athena assured him of good fortune in battle, but Aphrodite swore that he would have the most beautiful woman in the world as his own and Paris awarded her the apple – thereby making himself two implacable enemies, and an ally as fickle as she was powerful.

Continue reading

Ladies of Legend: Morgan le Fay and Morgause

References: Women of Camelot: queens and enchantresses at the court of King Arthur (Orchard Australia, 2000) by Mary Hoffman, Le Morte d’Arthur in two volumes: volume one and volume two (J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1978, originally published in 1485) by Sir Thomas Malory, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, The Complete Book of Witches and Wizards (Carlton Books Ltd, 2007) by Tim Dedopulos

Trigger warning: references to rape

There is a tendency, in Arthurian legend, for Igraine’s daughters to be highly variable in number and almost entirely interchangeable in identity, their roles within different versions of the myth generally depending on which woman gives birth to which sons. The Vulgate Cycle, for instance, has a whole crowd of half-sisters, while other versions whittle it down to one or two. The Complete Book of Witches and Wizards credits Morgan le Fay with eight sorceress sisters – Cliton, Gliten, Glitonea, Mazoe, Modron, Moronoe, Thitis and Tyronoe – all living together on the island of Avalon and acting as good fairies at Arthur’s birth. Mythology: Myths, Legends and Fantasies speculates that Morgan le Fay may have originally been a Celtic sea goddess or even a goddess of death. She has associations with the Morrigana, an Irish triple goddess represented by the three warrior queen aspects of Badb, Macha and Morrigan, the latter of whom is also strongly associated with fertility.

In Le Morte d’Arthur, there are three sisters: Morgause (alternatively spelled Margawse) being the eldest, Elaine the middle child and Morgan as the youngest. They were the children of Duke Gorlois of Cornwall and Igraine. When Gorlois was defeated in battle by King Uther Pendragon, Igraine had little choice but the marry the victor. She gave birth to a son, Arthur, who was taken away to be raised with a foster family, his very existence a well-kept secret. Uther then used his newly acquired stepdaughters to secure political alliances, marrying Morgause off to King Lot of Orkney and Elaine to King Nentres of Garlot. At this point Elaine promptly vanishes from the narrative.

Morgan was perhaps too young for marriage at the time because she was sent to a convent for an unexpectedly arcane education, learning the arts of necromancy and sorcery. Other stories have her trained at court by Merlin himself. Eventually, however, she was given a royal marriage of her own and became queen to Uriens of Gore.

Morgause had four sons with Lot – Gawain, Agravaine, Gaheris and Gareth. The only one to inherit any magical tendencies was Gawain, whose strength increased as the sun approached its zenith. When Arthur emerged from obscurity and Uther’s former allies went to war against him, including Lot, Morgause calmly came as a messenger to the embattled young king (with all of her boys in tow, what’s more) and had a month-long fling with him that resulted in a fifth son, Mordred. The relationship appears to have been consensual and mutually misinformed.

When Merlin finally told Arthur the truth, it came with a side serve of apocalyptic prophecy and the two of them threw a full King Herod routine by having all the baby boys born on May Day sent to sea to be drowned. Mordred survived. What’s more, he appears to have been raised by Morgause, because he shows up later in the story as a knight in Arthur’s court, not quite popular but respected and running around with the other Orkney boys. How he got from one point to the other is one hell of a mystery that Malory never explains.

Nentres and Uriens were also aligned against Arthur, though that did not stop Igraine bringing Morgan along when she met Arthur for the first time. Which means that Morgan was present, listening, when Igraine told the court how Uther appropriated her husband’s face in order to rape her.

The fight for the throne was brutal. During the final battle, thirteen kings were killed; among them, Morgause’s husband Lot, brought down by Arthur’s ally Pellinore. This was the beginning of a labyrinthine tangle of messed-up relationships, as Gawain eventually killed Pellinore and the widowed Morgause later took Pellinore’s son Lamorak as her lover.

Arthur held a great funeral, attended by Morgause and her sons, Morgan and her husband Uriens, and their son Ewaine (also spelled Yvain). Eager to connect with his half-sisters on a non-sexual level that is also not a battlefield – this family is such a disaster in so many ways – Arthur entrusted his sword Excalibur into Morgan’s care. Apparently she had a trustworthy vibe or something. Arthur proved once again that he was a shocking judge of people because not only did Morgan plan to use that sword for a double regicide, she had learned enough about Arthur’s personality to arrange it that he took every step into the trap for himself.

Arthur went hunting with Uriens and a knight called Sir Accolon who, unbeknown to the others, was Morgan’s lover and accomplice. The kings and their companion spied a beautiful ship floating in nearby waters and were invited to stay the night aboard by the twelve beautiful women who were its only occupants. However, when Uriens awoke he was in bed with Morgan – and when Arthur awoke, he was in the dungeon of Sir Damas, a knight in the middle of a property dispute with his little brother and who had a habit of kidnapping promising fighters in the hope that one of them would consent to be his champion. Thus far, nobody had. Arthur grimly offered himself on the condition that the other prisoners would be released. He didn’t realise that the messenger girl he was talking to was a servant of Morgan le Fay, or that the sword he went to fight with was not Excalibur at all. Morgan sent Accolon to Sir Ontzlake, Damas’ brother, to volunteer as his champion in the upcoming fight, and he had the true sword.

It’s neatly done. It would have worked beautifully had the Lady Nimue not been among the spectators, because in Le Morte d’Arthur it is she who received the training from Merlin, not Morgan, and after she got rid of him for good, she took over the role of Arthur’s intermittent protector. She forced Accolon to drop Excalibur, so that Arthur could reclaim it. Accolon confessed to everything. Morgan’s plan was to kill Uriens as well, take Accolon as her consort and rule the land herself. I shouldn’t like that. But I sort of do.

Expecting Accolon to have already succeeded, Morgan had moved in for the next kill. She sent a handmaiden for Uriens’ sword so that she could kill her husband with his own weapon – nasty sense of irony that the lady’s got there – but the handmaiden had qualms and woke Uwaine, who was sadly prepared for exactly this kind of situation. “I may say an earthly devil bore me,” he said, catching the sword before his mother could strike. She might be willing to murder her brother and husband in cold blood, but Morgan loved her son and in exchange for his forgiveness, she swore that Uriens would be safe from her. She kept her word, too; as far as Malory tells it, she never made another attempt on her husband’s life.

Arthur was deeply hurt by Morgan’s betrayal. He settled matters between Damas and Ontzlake, and when Accolon died of his injuries, four days after the fight, Arthur sent the body to Morgan as a warning. She hid her grief, planning her vengeance. She went to see Guinevere before Arthur returned to court, acquiring royal permission to travel into the country. Travelling with a company of her own knights, she found the abbey where Arthur was staying overnight and tried to steal Excalibur from him, only to discover he’d taken to sleeping with it in his hand. She settled for snatching the scabbard, which protected its wearer from physical harm. Arthur soon woke and pursued her. Maliciously, she hurled the scabbard into a lake and enchanted herself to disappear into the landscape as a rock until Arthur gave up looking.

After that, Morgan rejoined her knights and travelled on. She encountered one of Arthur’s knights, blindfolded and pushed into a fountain by the man whose wife he was sleeping with. The imperilled knight was Sir Manassen, cousin to Accolon. Morgan turned the tables: it was the other knight who drowned and Manassen was sent back to court unharmed, as a message to Arthur: she saved one of his knights for love of Accolon and with all her magic, she did not fear Arthur. She then turned her attention to building up the defences and devotion of Gore.

Her next attempt to get at Arthur was presented as a truce. She sent a handmaiden with a beautiful cloak as a reconciliation gift, but Nimue was there once again to foil her; she suggested the handmaiden try the cloak on first and the court watched, horrified, as the girl burned alive. Though Arthur did not blame Uwaine for his mother’s actions, the young knight was no longer welcomed at court and when he left, his loyal cousin Gawain went with him. The children of Morgause and Morgan were fiercely clannish. Of course, Morgause decided to be on good terms with Arthur – as he had no children with Guinevere, Morgause’s children were his obvious successors, a good reason if ever there was one to take his side in this unusually bloody sibling squabble. But Morgause never seemed to be on bad terms with Morgan either.

Which is not to say Morgause didn’t have problems of her own. To begin with, her (favourite) son Gareth took it into his head to arrive at Arthur’s court incognito and prove himself as an unknown knight instead of claiming his royal birthright from the get go, so Morgause had to storm over there and tell off Arthur for not keeping a better eye on his nephews – and then she told off her other sons for not recognising their own goddamn brother when he was right under their noses. Upon hearing that the court bully Sir Kay nicknamed her son Beaumains (meaning ‘fair-hands’, this being a way of calling him a freeloader) she tersely retorted that Gareth was ‘fair-handed’ indeed, flipping the insult into a compliment to Gareth’s sense of justice. The adventure ended happily, with three of her sons all getting married at once.

Meanwhile, Morgan’s one woman war on Arthur continued undaunted. She started running with a girl gang of fellow queens, including the Queen of Northgalis, the queen of Eastland and the queen of the Out Isles. I swear, I am NOT making this up. They captured Sir Lancelot while he was out questing and tried to make him choose a lover from among them, but he held true to Guinevere and was rescued by another independently-minded handmaiden, the daughter of King Bagdemagus, who is not named by Malory but who Howard Pyle calls Elouise. Morgan preferred to work with women (she was later reputed to have a spy network of up to thirty women across the kingdom) but was prone to overestimating her influence on them.

One woman Morgan was completely disinterested in bonding with was Guinevere, who she appeared to view as nothing more than a weak spot in Arthur’s defences. She knew – well, everybody knew – that Guinevere and Lancelot were lovers, and came up with increasingly ingenious ways to try and drum home the message to Arthur. She sent a horn that could not be drunk from by an unfaithful lady, only for it to be waylaid and given to King Mark of Cornwall’s court instead; she depicted a king and queen on a shield with a knight above them both, imagining the symbolism to be obvious, only for Arthur to dismiss it entirely. He was too familiar with his sister’s traitorous habits to take her word for anything.

Morgan also captured Arthur’s knights whenever she could. One of her female spies tried to talk Sir Tristram and Gawain into an ambush. Though Gawain revealed her as one of his aunt’s servants, Tristram wanted the fight anyway, but (recognising a bull-headed hero when she saw  one) Morgan refuses to send out her knights. She later managed to imprison Tristram and made  him carry the suggestive shield in return for his freedom. That was not enough for her lover at the time, Sir Hemison, who chased after Tristram against Morgan’s advice and was killed in the ensuing fight.

Morgause, meanwhile, was thoroughly enjoying her widowhood with Lamorak. He was a contemporary of her sons, so presumably a couple of decades or so younger than herself, and who was the kind of fiery type who picked fights with anybody who implied Guinevere might be more beautiful than his own regal silver vixen of a girlfriend. He also beat a whole gang of Morgan’s knights to work off some steam. The sex was canonically excellent.

Unfortunately, Morgause’s sons were not on board with her having an active love life. Gawain resented Arthur’s fondness for Lamorak, seeing him only as the man whose father murdered his own, and taking Lamorak as a lover ‘shamed’ Morgause in Gawain’s eyes. All his brothers, apart from possibly Gareth, took the same view. Having intercepted a message that named the time and place for a rendevous, Gaheris stormed in on the lovers and cut off his own mother’s head. Covered in the blood of the woman he loved, Lamorak screamed that he would rather have died in her place, but he was unarmed and could not fight back. Gaheris’ twisted sense of honour would not allow him to kill a naked man and so he let Lamorak go, but the enmity between him and the Orkney brothers was bitter after that and Lamorak was eventually killed by Gawain, Agravaine, Gaheris and Mordred acting as a mob. The only one who refused to be involved was Gareth.

It was a terrible end for a remarkable woman.

Both Arthur and Lancelot were horrified at Morgause’s death and Gaheris was banished from court. The narrative being what it is, Morgan’s reaction is not recorded, but her enmity with Arthur seemed to taper off after that. She went into small-scale acts of evil sorcery with the Queen of Northgalis as her partner. For instance, she allowed King Mark to talk her into using her sorceress connections to find an enemy of his…only to turn around and heal the young knight in question, swearing him to her service. She kept him at the castle of La Beale Regard. The castle’s true heiress soon showed up, brought the knight over to her side, then had the castle razed to the ground, once again proving that Morgan needed to stop underestimating other women.

It was possibly with that in mind that Morgan and the Queen of Northgalis cursed Elaine of Corbin, called the fairest lady in the land, leaving her to boil alive without ever dying until the best knight in the world came to rescue her. It’s a brutal act of spite. Of course, this could also have been an indirect attack on Arthur, as Lancelot’s rape by Elaine ends up triggering great turmoil at court, but predicting all of that might be beyond even Morgan’s talent for scheming.

In any case, Arthur’s court crumbled on its own, first losing many knights to the hopeless quest for the Sangreal before being shaken apart at the foundations when Mordred revealed Lancelot and Guinevere’s affair beyond any chance at denial. It was Mordred who took over the kingdom; it was he who led the final battle against Arthur and struck the blow that would kill him, even as he himself lay dying.

Arthur sent Bedivere, the sole knight remaining at his side, to throw Excalibur into the nearby waters. To Bedivere’s amazement, a hand rose to catch the blade. By the time he carried Arthur down to the water, a barge had arrived at the bank. Nimue was aboard it, and three queens: the Queen of the Waste Lands, the Queen of Northgalis and the Queen of Gore. Arthur laid his head in the lap of his sister and Morgan asked, gently, “Ah dear brother, why have ye tarried so long from me?” They disappeared together, across the water to Avalon. Neither were ever seen again.

Morgause and Morgan were ruthless women, in their different ways – Morgause being the pragmatic one, willing to overlook the blood on the hands of the men in her life if she got what she wanted out of it, while Morgan pursued power with a single-minded force of will and fierce cunning. What is so glorious about Malory’s women is that they are, above all other things, people. Their motivations may be obscure, but they are their own selves, making decisions in their own interests. They are not shadowy seductresses stalking the edges of Arthur’s court; these women are queens, and the daughters of a queen. Their lives might be tragedies, but they lived them proudly – the political matriarch and the warrior witch. They are not interchangeable at all.

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!

Ladies of Legend: Atalanta

References: The Greek Myths Volumes I and II (The Folio Society, 2003) by Robert Graves, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, The Greek Myths Volumes I and II (The Folio Society, 2003) by Robert Graves, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, Eyewitness Companions: Mythology (Dorling Kindersley Ltd.) by Philip Wilkinson and Neil Philip, A-Z of Mythology (Bison Books Ltd, 1990) by Peter Clayton

Miss February is Atalanta, a Greek huntress with very terrible luck but a very interesting life. The identities of her parents vary from one iteration of the legend to another – one version has her as the child of Iasus and Clymene, while another names King Schoenus of Boeotia – but regardless of who he really was, her father was a man who wanted a son so badly that when he got a daughter instead, he ordered that she be abandoned on a hillside to die. But Atalanta did not die. She was instead mothered by a bear, who fed and protected her, and was later taken in by a clan of hunters, who taught her all their skill. She molded herself after the tradition of Artemis, goddess of the hunt: beautiful, virginal and tough as nails.

Artemis was also, like nearly everyone in the Pantheon, very easy to offend. When King Oenus of Calydon forgot to make a sacrifice to her in his annual acknowledgement of the gods (an oversight dobbed in by her fellow god Helius) the indignant goddess sent a gigantic boar to ravage the countryside in his kingdom. Oenus sent out a call for the greatest hunters in Greece to kill the monster. Among those who answered was Atalanta. Though some of the other hunters objected to the presence of a woman in their line-up, Oenus’ son Meleager declared that either she competed alongside them or they could all go home. So Atalanta stayed.

Before you go getting the wrong impression, this was not the act of an egalitarian prince who believed in gender equality. Meleager had a crush on Atalanta that was so obvious his uncles immediately started doomsaying over it. This was fair enough – not only was Meleager already married, he was sort of cursed as well. Oenus was the father he had grown up with, but by birth Meleager was the son of the war god Ares. When he was born, the three Fates came to his mother Althaia to prophesise what his life would be. Clotho, spinner of mortal life, predicted he would grow to be a brave man; Lachesis, weaver of life, declared he would become a hero; but Atropos, cutter of life, pointed out a log on the fire, warning that Meleager would live only as long as it took the wood to burn to ash. Althaia immediately snatched the log from the fireplace and hid it away. So Meleager grew up, unaware that his life was literally in his mother’s hands.

During the boar-hunt, Atalanta separated herself from the other hunters. Two centaurs, Hylaeus and Rhaeccus, saw her and decided she would be easy prey. Their mistake. Atalanta calmly shot both her would-be rapists dead and went off to join Meleager. When the boar charged into the trap set for it, all went to chaos as the hunters’ over-confidence and just plain misfortune added up to a scene of carnage. Atalanta managed to land an arrow behind the beast’s ear; Meleager followed her up with a spear to its heart, and presented the dead boar’s pelt to Atalanta in honour of her drawing first blood. It was a well-chosen gift for a girl like that, but riled up his mother’s brothers some more, who thought he ought to have gifted it to them instead, based on social precedence. Meleager expressed his frustration with their attitudes by killing them both.

This, understandably, did not please Althaia, or for that matter her two remaining brothers, who attacked Meleager’s city. His wife Cleopatra managed to talk her husband into taking up arms, even though Althaia had cursed him to be defenceless in this war. When he killed the last two of his uncles, Althaia burned the log and Meleager was struck by a sudden savage pain. He died, just as the Fates said he would. Althaia and Cleopatra both committed suicide and Artemis concluded her revenge by turning nearly all of Meleager’s sisters into guinea-hens.

The outcome of the hunt on Atalanta’s side was an entirely unwanted reunion with her father, whose first words to the daughter he discarded were “My child, prepare to take a husband!” Atalanta had more reasoning behind her choice of a chaste lifestyle than a disinterest in domestic life. She was warned against marriage by the Delphic Oracle. She chose a very pointed way of refusing her father’s plans for her life: any suitor contending for her hand would have to compete against her in a foot race. If the suitor won, Atalanta would marry him. If the suitor lost, she would shoot him.

Here’s the thing. Atalanta was really good at running.

She kept to her word – any suitor who could not match her, and none could, lost his life – but that didn’t stop the queue of candidates. Eventually her cousin Melanion (or in some versions, a man called Hippomanes) tried his luck. Before the race, he prayed for help from the goddess of love and Aphrodite favoured him (mostly out of pure annoyance at Atalanta’s stubborn refusal to fall in love) with a gift of three golden apples from the Garden of the Hesperides, instructing Melanion to let them fall during the race.

Atalanta mocked the apples when she saw them, but when he dropped them she could not help being distracted by their beauty and stopped to pick them up. It took all three apples, one dropped right up against the finishing line, for Melanion to outrace her. He definitely cheated. Atalanta married him anyway and for a time it seems that they were happy together. Later, though, while out hunting, they passed a temple – sacred to Zeus in some versions, in others to Cybele – and Melanion persuaded Atalanta to have sex with him inside it. Of course, this brought on divine fury and the lovers were transformed into lions. In Cybele’s version, she compounds the curse with the indignity of using the couple to pull her chariot. Aphrodite’s hand may have been involved in the fulfillment of the prophecy – she’s a goddess who likes her thank-yous to be fulsome, and Melanion was a little too absorbed in a success that wasn’t actually his own.

There are other legends in which Atalanta bore a son, Parthenopaeus, to either Meleager or Ares, and left the boy on the same hillside where she herself was abandoned. Like his mother, Pathenopaeus survived and went on to make a name for himself as a warrior.

Atalanta’s story is a tragedy, in the sense there is not a happy ending. But I’m not sure that, for a woman as fierce and independent as Atalanta, becoming a lioness would be such a dreadful fate. Whether her body was flesh or fur, she’d always be a hunter.

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!

Ladies of Legend: Cerridwen

Resources: The Complete Book of Witches and Wizards (Carlton Books Ltd, 2007) by Tim Dedopulos, The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies (Vega, 2002) by Anna Franklin, The Fairy Bible (Godsfield Press, 2008) by Teresa Moorey, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creirwy

Welcome back to Ladies of Legend, a blog series exploring the identities of mythic women. Kicking off 2017 is Cerridwen (also spelled Caridwen or Keridwen), a Welsh goddess of the Underworld turned Arthurian-era witch.

She’s described as dark-haired and stocky with pale skin and black eyes. Legend has it that she lived in a mansion in the middle of Lake Tegid in Penllyn, Wales, with her husband Tegid Voel and their three children. The eldest son, Morvran, went on to be an advisor at King Arthur’s court; the middle child, Creirwy, grew into a reknown beauty; but the third child, Avagddu, worried Cerridwen immensely. He was apparently ‘the ugliest man in the world’, which is a subjective title if ever I heard one and also a really bad basis for judging a person’s future prospects. Some versions of the legend have the brothers as one and the same person, just to add to the general confusion in the family.

Anyway, Cerridwen was afraid that her son’s looks would preclude him from success at court, so she decided to gift him with such overwhelming intelligence that he would leave everyone who met him in awe. To this end she searched through her spellbooks and began work on a potion called Greal, to bestow inspiration and knowledge on its drinker.

It was a fiendishly difficult concoction to make. For one thing, it would have to be kept boiling for a year and a day exactly. Cerridwen’s time was much too valuable to slave over a potion for that long so she brought in a blind man called Morda to tend the fire and kidnapped a child called Gwion Bach to stir the cauldron. That left Cerridwen with the task of collecting all the (many) necessary herbs. These were not ingredients that you could stock up on in advance, oh no, this was the recipe from your worst nightmare. Everything had to be harvested under the correct astrological influence. No wonder there were not magically-imbued geniuses wandering all over the place.

One day while Cerridwen was out and Gwion was stirring the potion, three scalding drops spat out and landed on his hand. He instinctively sucked his burned finger and therefore accidentally imbibed the inspiration and knowledge intended for Avagddu. Spell complete, the cauldron cracked in half and the now-poisonous potion spilled into the nearby river, ending the lives of a lot of innocent horses.

Gwion was gifted with a flash of blinding insight, but it really shouldn’t have taken a magic potion to realise that Cerridwen would be really, really pissed off at him. Sensibly, he fled. Cerridwen took her rage out on poor Morda first, whacking him hard enough to pop out one of his eyes, but she quickly accepted that it was all Gwion’s fault and went after him instead. Having been granted a brand new skill set of sorcerous powers by his taste of the potion, Gwion tried to escape by changing his shape. First he became a hare, then a trout, then a bird – but Cerridwen was quick to follow as a bigger, fiercer predator. In desperation, Gwion became a grain of wheat amidst many other grains of wheat, clearly hoping for a ‘needle in a haystack’ situation. No such luck. Cerridwen turned herself into a hen and ate him up.

That was not the end of it. Cerridwen fell pregnant and in time Gwion was reborn as the beautiful, golden-haired Taliesin. Her original intention was to kill him, thereby reclaiming the potion, but once the baby was born Cerridwen could not bring herself to go through with it. She just…wrapped him in leather and threw him into the sea instead. Which is totally not the same thing as trying to kill him! Being a hero of legend, he of course survived, was taken in at the court of King Gwyddno Garanhir, and became a very famous bard.

I cannot, in any of the sources I have read, find out what happened to Cerridwen after Taliesin’s birth; the legend switches allegiances to him and leaves her in shadow. Cerridwen is associated with the sow (there being a longstanding Celtic tradition of pigs symbolising the Otherworld) and is said to travel on the back of a giant crow. Some sources parallel her to the Irish fire goddess Brighid (later Christianised as Saint Brigit) who is the patroness of poets, but she’s also compared to the Roman harvest goddess Ceres, which casts Creirwy as ‘the British Proserpine’. For all that, though, Cerridwen is still a woman – a witch, sorceress, goddess – of the Underworld. Her daughter must come by a little darkness naturally.

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!

Ladies of Legend: Maid Marian

References: “Robin Hood”, Fact or Fiction (Channel 4, originally aired 18/10/2003), Robin Hood and His Merry Men (Ward, Lock & Co., Ltd, publication date unknown) by E. Charles Vivian, Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (Dean & Son Ltd., publication date unknown) by author unknown, http://www.boldoutlaw.com

Maid Marian is not the hero of this story. She didn’t even appear in it at the start – Little John has a longer history in the ballads about Robin Hood than she does – and her role varies from one version to another. I’m going to start with a pair of storybooks, to show how different her narrative can be depending on who is telling it.

Version A is from Robin Hood and His Merry Men. In this one, Maid Marian is a young heiress, the daughter of the Norman knight Sir Richard of Lea. She is described as being ‘slim and fair…with great blue eyes and hair of gold’. When her mother dies, Sir Richard decides to channel his grief into (period appropriate xenophobia) patriotism by joining King Richard the Lionheart on Crusade. To finance his journey and thus speed up his departure, Sir Richard borrows five hundred marks from Hugo de Rainault, the very wealthy abbot of the Abbey of St. Mary’s, at a rate of fifty marks interest per annum and with his manor house staked as surety. He also leaves Marian under Abbot Hugo’s guardianship.

Sir Richard promptly dies at sea.

Except, not really – he survives the shipwreck and washes ashore near home, where he is found and taken to the abbey. Hugo sees an opportunity to loan out his cake and eat it too. His local ally is the notorious baron Isambart de Belame, a man so hated by the local people that his castle is known as ‘Evil Hold’ and who is perfectly happy to throw the dazed, wounded Sir Richard into his dungeons, to be kept a prisoner until the four years of the loan have expired and Hugo can legally claim the manor. Richard has no idea where he is, only ever seeing Isambart’s friend Roger the Cruel.

Meanwhile, Marian is placed with the Abbess at Kirklees. Hugo intends to make a nun of her, thereby getting the rest of her inheritance for the church (read here: himself). Unfortunately for him, his habit of taking other people’s land has finally backfired. Robin of Locksley, a Saxon freeman with a defiantly philanthropic bent, flouted the game laws that declare all deer the property of the king – not by killing the beast himself, but by defending the starving serf who did it – and Hugo’s enthusiastic enforcer Guy of Gisborne seized the excuse to crack down on him. Robin turned outlaw.

The thing is, he’s really, really good at it and gains followers fast. The road through Sherwood Forest, which is the main route into Nottingham, is no longer safe, so Hugo has to strike a deal with Isambart for a squad of men to go clear Robin’s gang out of the forest. What Isambart, already once widowed, wants in return is a wife and Hugo concedes to his demand for Marian’s hand in marriage. Marian herself, still under Hugo’s guardianship, does not get a say; if she did, it would be a definite no.

Isambart sends his men, but it doesn’t do the least bit of good against Robin, who is a master strategist at guerilla warfare. Hugo tries to renege on his deal but can’t afford to make an enemy of Isambart and reluctantly dispatches the eternally incompetent Gisborne to go fetch Marian from Kirklees. Of course, they have to travel through Sherwood. Robin is fiercely indignant on Marian’s behalf, despite her being a total stranger to him, when his spies tell him who she is expected to marry, and he ambushes the party on their way through the forest.

Gisborne is more than willing to abandon his charge to the outlaws. Disgusted, Robin packs him off with his men, before turning to the problem of what to do with Marian now. She points out that if she goes back to Kirklees, Hugo will just figure out another way to send her to the man she describes as ‘the fiend who rules Evil Hold’. Having taken a strong fancy to Robin – well, he did just rescue her, plus he effortlessly bested Guy of Gisborne in a showy sword duel, he’s made a pretty good first impression – she asks to remain in Sherwood and pay for the shelter when she comes into her inheritance. Her skills with medicine will be put at the outlaws’ disposal and she offers to cook and sew for them as well. Little John immediately takes her side, pointing out that Will Scarlett’s wife already lives in the camp.

Robin, as taken with Marian as she is with him, proposes to make her Queen of Sherwood, and they are married by Friar Tuck. Marian never does end up doing any of the cooking, Tuck handles that himself, but she is an instant hit with the outlaws. Robin later helps another woman out of an unwanted wedding, barging into the church where Eleanor of Warsop is about to be married off to the elderly (but very wealthy) Sir Ralph. Robin pushes aside her bridegroom, her father and the priest so that he can personally give her away to Alan of Meden Dale, the sweetheart of her choice. The young couple become frequent visitors to Sherwood.

Another friend of Robin’s, Will Scarlett, is captured by Isambart. Disguised, Robin tricks his way into Evil Hold and distracts Isambart’s knights with weaponised beehives – I did say he’s really, really good at this – while he breaks open the dungeons. Among the escaping prisoners is Sir Richard at Lea, who politely and very formally thanks Robin for deliverance and helps him get Will to safety.

Robin is shocked to learn he just rescued his father-in-law. Marian is overjoyed and though he has doubts about Robin’s side of the law, Sir Richard is too grateful to make an issue of it.

Being something of a local hero, Robin follows up the attack on Evil Hold by going to the aid of a Saxon nobleman under threat from pirates. While Robin is away, however, Isambart strikes. Another escaped prisoner turns traitor against the outlaws, leading Isambart’s men to the forest camp. It is burned to the ground and Marian is brought back to Evil Hold, where Isambart tries to compel her into signing away her lands to him. Marian, however, is made of stern stuff. Tied to a chair, captive to the man who made her believe her father was dead, she refuses to give up her inheritance.

Robin is quick to come after her. Accompanied by a mystery knight in black, who insists on helping out, Robin uses the keys he stole to slip in a back entrance. He frees Marian and sends her across the moat to safety while the battle rages. The knight in black – who is none other than King Richard in disguise – kills Isambart in a duel and Robin, implacable in his fury, burns the place to the ground. An eye for an eye.

He then turns his attention to Abbot Hugo. Sir Richard at Lea goes to the abbey to plead for more time to repay his loan, but he has the money – Robin is a generous friend – and it’s entirely a charade to prove to King Richard (once again disguised) how bad the situation is. Abbot Hugo is put on notice. Sir Richard reclaims his lands. Robin, pouncing on Hugo as he travels through Sherwood, reclaims his money, plus some nice fabric that he thinks Marian will like.

Though Robin is pardoned by King Richard and made warden of Sherwood, the change of status doesn’t last long. The king leaves the country and the Sheriff of Nottingham, who is Hugo’s brother, gets Prince John’s permission to declare the whole band outlawed again. Bitterness builds and builds until it all comes to a head in a vicious run of confrontations that leaves both the Sheriff and Gisborne dead at Robin’s hand and Abbot Hugo too frightened to keep up the feud.

But Isambart’s crony Roger the Cruel survived the fall of Evil Hold and he never lets go of the grudge. Many years pass. Roger is an old man when he finally comes to Abbot Hugo with a plan. Masquerading as a peasant, he talks a trusted pedlar into taking him to the camp, intending to return with armed men – but Marian sees him, and recognises him. When she starts to cry out a warning, Roger stabs her.

Her scream brings Robin to her side. He shoots down Roger and takes Marian in his arms, though they both know there’s nothing he can do. She’s quite peaceful, telling Robin that there is no better way to die than ‘in the heart of the greenwood with [his] arms round her, and the evening light fading’.

The outlaws never recover from the loss of their queen. Robin can’t bear to go on living the same way without her; he settles each of his people with the wealth they’ve accumulated and travels aimlessly about the country with Little John, reminiscing on good times past. When Robin falls ill, he goes to Kirklees Abbey, where the Abbess Elizabeth is his aunt and he thinks he will be safe. He is not. Hugo has got to her; under the pretence of healing, she bleeds Robin to death.

Little John realises what she’s doing too late to save Robin’s life. Towards the end, Robin dreams of Marian and asks for his bow, shooting an arrow through the window and asking to be buried where it lands. Marian’s name is his last word.

Version B is from Robin Hood and His Merrie Men and introduces Marian earlier in the story, meeting Robin while they are still children. She is not Sir Richard of Lea’s daughter in this one; she is Robin’s cousin Will’s cousin – presumably not on the same side of the family as Robin – and comes to stay with them at Gamwell Hall. She likes to play with the boys, proving to be a good archer herself. They remain good friends even as Robin’s confrontational personality earns him the enmity of the Sheriff of Nottingham. He has to take to the forest, where he rapidly gathers a circle of friends and insists on them all wearing poncy green uniforms.

Not that he has a monopoly on resisting authority. There’s a battle at Gamwell Hall when the squire is accused of shooting the king’s deer and the people there put up a fight against the Sheriff’s men. Marian’s father is staying at the Hall at the time and is killed. Squire Gamwell manages to keep his lands and adopts Marian, but that safety is only temporary. The next time Squire Gamwell is attacked, he is killed too, and Guy of Gisborne claims the hall. To Robin’s alarm, Marian vanishes entirely and when he goes to confront Gisborne, she’s nowhere to be found. He’s terrified that she died in the attack.

Fortunately, she was away with Will Gamwell, visiting relatives. Upon their return, they quickly see how bad things are and take refuge with Robin. He’s delighted and relieved to see them, and when he sees how happy Marian is in Sherwood, he asks her to marry him. Their wedding is rudely interrupted by the Sheriff’s men, who are quickly repelled by Robin’s outlaws.

Robin continues to antagonise the Sheriff, more for fun than anything else. He wins a silver arrow at the Sheriff’s shooting contest, eluding the trap set for him, and gives the prize to Marian as a gift. He also intervenes when Marian learns from Alan-a-Dale that Lady Ellen is going to be married against her will and Marian gets really indignant on Ellen’s behalf.

When doing random acts of social justice gets a little old, Robin and Marian take a trip to the seaside, where Robin’s cover as a fisherman gets called by their elderly hostess. She needs someone to stand up to the fishermen crewing her dead husband’s boat, who cheat her of her rightful share in the catch. Robin is terrible at fishing but good at fighting pirates and bestows half the booty of his victory on the old lady. Marian finds these antics rather amusing.

King Richard also finds him amusing, and admirable enough to pardon and take into his service. Patriot that he is, Robin is happy to go, but court life proves toxic and on a visit to Sherwood his men ‘kidnap’ him so that he need not go back. He and Marian live long and happily in the forest, until he decides – please note, he decides – that she should go into a nunnery, because she’s getting too old to live this way. He stays in Sherwood. At last he calls Little John and they set off for Kirke Hall Priory to see her. It’s too late; saddened to be away from the greenwood, she died three months after her arrival. Robin dies there of old age, in Marian’s former room.

Of course, this kind of legend has countless variations. Sometimes Marian is the daughter of Lord Fitzwalter, other times she is the ward of the Sheriff of Nottingham or Prince John. Some stories have her as Norman while in others she is Saxon. One ballad introduces her as Robin’s sweetheart who dresses as a boy to come into the forest and find him. Both disguised, they don’t recognise each other and engage in a sword fight so fierce that Robin, acknowledging her as his equal, calls for peace between them and asks her to join his band. She knows him by his voice and kisses him delightedly. They feast together to celebrate and she becomes as trusted a lieutenant to him as Little John.

The earliest ballads of Robin Hood don’t actually come from Nottingham, but from Barnsdale in Yorkshire. In those stories the famous outlaw is a violent and unpredictable yeoman instead of a rebellious, idealistic nobleman. Among the variety of historical candidates that exist for a real-life Robin Hood, there’s a 14th century forester called Robert Hood from Wakefield who was married to a woman named Matilda. She joined him in the forest when he was outlawed. Many stories of Robin Hood have him betrayed by an aunt or a female cousin – Matilda’s cousin Elizabeth de Stanton was prioress of Kirklees in 1346.

Whoever really inspired the character of Marian, if in fact it was just one woman, she has gained a foothold that is no longer easy to dismiss in this very masculine legend. While her place in it varies from one version to another, and her relationship with Robin ranges from chastely long-distance to a full partner in crime, she is always – in spirit, if not in name – the Queen of Sherwood.

This is the last Lady for 2016 but I’ll be returning next year with more remarkable women of myth and legend!

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!

Ladies of Legend: Pandora and Psyche

References: The Greek Myths Volumes I and II (The Folio Society, 2003) by Robert Graves, Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies (Hodder, 2013) by Dr. Alice Mills, The Kingfisher Book of Mythology: Gods, Goddesses and Heroes From Around the World (Kingfisher, 1998) ed. Cynthia O’Neill, Peter Casterton and Catherine Headlam, Greek Mythology (Michaelis Toubis S.A., 1995) by Sofia Souli, translated by Philip Ramp, http://www.theoi.com/Daimon/Hedone.html

Trigger warnings: dubious sexual consent, attempted suicide

The first thing you need to understand for any of the following information to make sense is that gods and goddesses are usually, not to put too fine a point on it, mean. The Greek Pantheon are no exception. They do what they want and if there is even a rumour that someone is better at anything than they are – better at weaving, at music, at winning the subjective mess that is popular beauty standards – they will come and make their competitor’s life absolute hell. Because they CAN. They also have a petty point-scoring system among themselves that leads to vicious pranking; for instance, that little business of the war on Troy.

The Pantheon are a younger generation of gods, preceded by the Titans, and the two battled it out for who would rule. Zeus, the leader of the Pantheon, came out on top and settled in by demanding animal sacrifices from humanity as a part of their worship. The Titan Prometheus was tasked with cutting up the first sacrifice so that Zeus could decide which bits he wanted, and was so artful in his arrangement of the dismembered animal that Zeus ended up picking the bones and the humans were left with all the edible pieces. Zeus retaliated by outlawing fire on Earth. Prometheus, ever the rebel, stole fire right out of Mount Olympus and returned it to humanity, spreading it so far and wide that nobody would be able to take it away again.

Zeus took a subtler approach on his next attack. He had his son Hephaestus, god of smithing, create the shape of a beautiful woman – one source says of clay, another of metal. Zeus then brought her to life. She was a blank canvas for the other gods to bestow traits upon, including beauty, grace, intelligence and persuasiveness, cunning, deceit and a powerful sense of curiosity. In other words, a multi-faceted human. She was named Pandora (in another version, Anesidora) and sent down to earth to be the bride of Epimetheus, Prometheus’s brother. She brought with her a container – a box or a jar locked up with a key that was placed into Pandora’s keeping. The gods told her that if she was to live happily, she should never open the box.

Prometheus, sensibly, did not trust anyone who had Zeus pulling their strings, but Epimetheus had been given this beautiful woman as a gift (as a thing, not a person) and he decided to keep her as his wife. There are shades of Blodeuwedd in this. By all accounts, the couple were happy at first, but there was that box in their house. Pandora could not stop thinking about it. She thought it was unjust of the gods to give her something they didn’t want her to use (well, she wasn’t wrong) and eventually gave in to her curiosity, opening it up to see what lay inside.

There’s some disagreement on what exactly that was. One version has it that she was right, the box was full of wonderful gifts that escaped the second the lid went up and were therefore lost; the better known story is that the diseases and disasters of the world spilled out and were anything but lost, spreading to the far corners of the world like a vicious mirror of Prometheus’s gift. Only one good thing was in Pandora’s box: hope. That, she kept.

She had one child, a daughter called Pyrrha. When Zeus decided he no longer liked this miserable world that he’d brought about and sent a flood to wash the slate clean, Pyrrha and her husband (also cousin, being the son of Prometheus) Deucalion were among the few to survive. One story has it that Zeus was impressed by their goodness and spared them; another has it that Prometheus warned Deucalion in time, which I personally find more credible. Pyrrha helped repopulate the world by transforming stones into women, but she also had six blood children of her own and one of her daughters was given Pandora’s name.

Zeus is touchy about sacrifices. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, is touchy on the subject of beauty. When a doting mother was unwise enough to remark aloud that her youngest daughter was more beautiful than Aphrodite, the goddess’s followers turned around and started worshipping the human princess Psyche instead and Aphrodite was livid. She sent her son Eros to take revenge on her behalf by piercing the girl with a divine arrow that would cause her to fall in love with a terrible candidate and make a disastrous marriage. Eros screwed it up by getting distracted by Psyche’s lovely face and literally shot himself in the foot, falling desperately in love with the girl his mother wanted him to destroy. If you can call that experience love, which I feel very dubious about.

Psyche did not even want to be worshipped. It was weird, and uncomfortable, and really lonely. Her two older sisters married and left her behind, as Psyche was so high on the general population’s mental pedestal that nobody dared try for her hand. Her anxious father consulted the oracle of Apollo on where to find Psyche a husband and was told to take her to the top of a steep mountain, where she would be claimed as the bride of a monster so terrifying that even Zeus would fear him.

NEVER CONSULT AN ORACLE. They are the actual worst.

Instead of just letting their daughter live the single life for the rest of her days, Psyche’s parents escorted her to the mountain in tears, fully expecting to never see her again. She was left alone with her terror. Instead of a monster, however, she was caught up by a gentle wind which carried her to the foot of the mountain and into a palatial house. It was beautiful but empty. Disembodied voices and hands tended to her needs, bringing food and playing music. Thoroughly bewildered, she went to sleep, having seen no trace of the prophesied monster.

She was woken in the middle of the night by someone – or something – climbing into her bed. That is straight up nightmare material right there, and it was pitch black, she couldn’t see a thing. Her ‘husband’ (please note, Psyche had not agreed to any part of this arrangement) did not say who he was or why she was there. Mythology: Myths, Legends, & Fantasies discreetly skims over the details, but it’s very clear what happened: they had sex in a situation where consent was seriously compromised and the stranger left before it got light.

The first night set a pattern. The owner of the beautiful house came to her each night in darkness and never let her see his face. At length they had an actual conversation, with him informing her that her sisters were scaling the mountain to seek her out. Can I just pause there for a moment to acknowledge how brave those women were? They thought their sister had married a monster. They didn’t know if she was even still alive, but they were willing to risk their lives to find out. Psyche’s husband did not want her to let them in but of course she did, asking the obliging wind to carry them safely to the palace. Here, sexism takes over the narrative. We’re expected to believe that the devoted sisters who dropped everything to find Psyche switched over into rabid jealousy as soon as they saw her jewels and lovely clothes. Apparently wanting to know what kind of a man their little sister had married, and being appalled when she couldn’t tell them because she didn’t know, is unreasonable.

They pointed out that she was prophesied to marry a terrible monster, could she really be sure she hadn’t? Who else would refuse to let his own wife see his face? Upon hearing that Psyche had fallen pregnant, they warned her that her monster-husband probably wanted to eat her and the baby at the same time, and told her she should kill him. Convinced by their arguments, Psyche concealed a lamp and a knife in her room. That night, once her husband had fallen asleep, she lit the lamp and saw him for the first time.

It was, of course, Eros. Aphrodite’s son had the form of a beautiful youth and even in bed, kept his bow and arrows close by. As Psyche held the lamp over him, marvelling, she scratched herself on one of the arrows and doomed herself to eternal insta-love. She leaned in to kiss him. The lamp tipped, dripping burning oil on Eros’s bare shoulder, and he flew (literally flew) from the room in a panic. Psyche clung on to him as long as she could, before she lost her grip and tumbled to the ground.

Eros went home to his mother. He knew she would be outraged that he’d decided to sleep with Psyche instead of obeying Aphrodite’s orders to ruin her life (though…you know, her life with him wasn’t great. There’s an argument about semantics to be made there) but apparently a drop of hot oil was too much for his immortal body to handle and he needed his mother to heal him. Psyche was left alone on the mountainside with the crashing weight of realisation that Aphrodite herself would soon descend in a maternal rage. Psyche decided to skip to the finish line and tried to drown herself in a river, but the river god recognised her as the bride of Eros and wouldn’t let her die. She then prayed to the goddesses Hera and Demeter for help. Neither was willing to offend Aphrodite for Psyche’s sake.

Aphrodite duly arrived and started flogging Psyche for the crime of not implicitly trusting her extremely untrustworthy son. But where’s the fun in sticking to physical pain when you can throw in some psychological torture too? She decided to set Psyche tasks that were impossible for a mortal to achieve, then use the failures as an excuse to beat her again. That’s Aphrodite for you.

For the first task, she mixed together grains, beans and seeds and scattered them on the hearth of Aphrodite’s own palace. If Psyche could not separate them all by nightfall, she would be whipped. Psyche tried, but knew she would fail and started to cry. Fortunately for her, an ant noticed her distress and rallied an army of tiny helpers to aid Eros’s bride. When Aphrodite returned, the task was done.

Not that it stopped her coming up with a new one just as difficult – the next day Psyche was sent to take a handful of golden wool from a flock of sharp-horned, poison-toothed sheep. Hovering on the edge of their meadow, Psyche was warned by a nearby reed (yes, an actual reed) that the gold fleece grew burning hot under the sun and riled up the sheep into a ferocious temper. If she went to them after dark, and gathered the wool from thorns and briars instead of the sheep themselves, she would complete the task unharmed.

Psyche followed that advice. Aphrodite was furious. She ordered Psyche to go to the Styx, the river of the dead, and bring back water from its source – not just that, but water taken from the middle of the river, meaning Psyche would have to wade in. Psyche reconsidered plan A, suicide, which would be a lot easier in this particular locale. As she ran towards the dragons that guarded the river, however, Zeus (in the body of an eagle at the time) spied her and flew down to help, having received Eros’s support in an awkward love affair. He filled the jug for her, so that she could return with it to Aphrodite.

Who sent her straight back to the Underworld, to call upon its queen and ask for some of her beauty. It was against all the rules for a mortal to go into the realm of Hades and Persephone and come back alive, but when a despairing Psyche climbed to the top of a tower, planning to jump and just end all of this misery once and for all, the tower itself spoke up to protect her. If she took two barley cakes and two coins, she could bribe both the ferryman Charon and the three-headed dog Cerberus to let her in. She also had to ignore all pleas for help, refuse any food or drink except for bread and water, and sit upon the ground even if she was offered a throne.

Psyche followed these instructions. Aphrodite sent phantoms to beg her for help, hoping to make Psyche drop the barley cakes, but she ignored them and reached Persephone, who gave her the box without complaint. I’d love to know what Persephone actually thought about this situation and whether she was secretly rooting for Psyche to win or just hoping that Aphrodite would stop complaining if she helped out this one time.

The last test was of Psyche’s will. She had been warned not to open the box, but longed for a god-like beauty to win back Eros and gave into temptation. The box, however, did not contain beauty. It was all a scheme between goddesses. Psyche breathed in a rush of air from the underworld and collapsed, dying.

While she was suffering through Aphrodite’s tasks, Eros was recovering from the burn. Finally fully healed, he came for her just in time, carrying her to Mount Olympus where Zeus gave her ambrosia – the food of immortality. It made Psyche the goddess of the soul and gave her the wings of a butterfly. When her daughter Hedone was born, she too was a goddess, joining the family business as the representative of sensual pleasures.

Male rule-breakers get to be tricksters and heroes. The thieving and deceit of Prometheus helped humanity survive, and his eventual imprisonment and torture only made him a more beloved figure. When the women of mythology break the rules, though, they might not even get the agency of being wicked – they’re just foolish girls who should have known better. The message is very clear: take what you’re given with grace or it will be taken away, ask no questions, expect nothing better than obedience. Even modern books of mythology perpetuate this idea. The truth is, these women were set up very deliberately to fail. Why give a gift, then forbid the receiver to touch it? How can you ask a girl to trust you when you won’t even show her your face?

But Pandora and Psyche are not foolish, or failures. They are survivors of cautionary tales meant to crush female curiosity.

If you want to live outside the box, you have to open it first.

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!