Norse myth tends to echo; one story calling to another. There are at least three stories in Norse myth about a young man passing through a wall of flames and other hazards to reach a woman. This would seem to be a straightforward story of a woman sought and won, except that in two of these stories the young man is a stand-in for another, and only one story has a happy ending.
Review of In Search of the Swan Maiden: a Narrative on Folklore and Gender, by Barbara Fass Leavy.
Although this book is called The Swan Maiden, its subject could be described as: “a story about a fairy captured by a mortal man and forced into a tedious domestic existence and, obversely, about a mortal woman courted by a demon lover who offers her escape from that same mundane world.” (Loc. 347)
When I was researching the story of how the giant Thiazi took the apples of immortality for the giants, one thing that kept jumping out at me was how often the goddess who kept the apples, Idunn, was treated as if she were property as well.
During my research for my post on Medusa and the Gorgon, I constantly ran into the idea that the Gorgon was a faint echo of an early Mycenean sun-goddess, depicted face-front with radiating (snaky) hair. I could see how that idea might arise, but Athena as sun-goddess struck me as a bit of a reach. After all, Athena wears the Gorgon on her breast as a symbol of the triumph of cunning (metis) over elemental powers. (Deacy: 47)
It must be tempting, though, to invert the Greek beliefs that shaped patriarchal culture, with its binary of sun/reason/male vs. night/emotion/female. Especially in the form of its most complicit goddess, Athena, who upheld father-right against the Furies’s desire to avenge a matricide. (Although kicking Bachofen and his followers comes about 150 years too late.) Feminizing the Greek sun, and connecting it to those elemental powers, may feel like sweet revenge.
Verbal duelling is a major part of the sagas and Eddas, as a substitute for other kinds of violence. Mostly it happens between two men, who accuse each other of cowardice, effeminacy, and general unmanliness.
However, there are incidents of male – female flyting as well, with men and women trading insults, usually much the same insults. The two best-known examples of male – female flyting in the Eddas are the quarrel between Skadi and Loki in Lokasenna, a poem which is essentially Loki’s verbal duel with each god and goddess in turn, and the heroic poem Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar, which features a bout between the hero and a giantess.
Women in power in the Middle Ages had a problem. Women weren’t supposed to rule (remember Eve? and St. Paul?). If they did take the throne, they were expected to marry, and their husband would then exercise power. So the choice was simple: marry and lose power, or stay single and keep it, but rule alone and die childless.
The meykongr, or maiden king, romance was born out of this dilemma.
The Ages of Wonder Woman: Essays on the Amazon Princess in Changing Times – ed. Joseph J. Darowski
A Golden Thread: An Unofficial Critical History of Wonder Woman – Philip Sandifer
The Secret History of Wonder Woman – Jill Lepore
Wonder Woman Unbound: The Curious History of the World’s Most Famous Heroine – Tim Hanley
All four of these books address one central issue: what is it to be a heroine and a woman? We’ve had the philosophical take on both Superman and Batman, as well as Batman on the couch. (Hell, the philosophers even had a bash at Green Lantern.) With Wonder Woman, it seems that books are like buses – you wait for ages and then there’s four at once.
The fourth branch of the Mabinogion is shaped by exchanges between Arianrhod and Gwydion. From the moment he brings her into the story by suggesting her as Math’s footholder (which seems such an innoncent idea: let’s get my sister, your niece, to do it!) the two are at odds. For the two men subject Arianrhod to a chastity test, since Math’s footholder must be a virgin, a magical condition laid down for his kingship.
Arianrhod fails the test in grand style, giving birth to not one but two boys. Math has one of them baptized and names him Dylan, but this son opts out of the family quarrels and goes to live in the sea. The rest of the story follows the career of the other son, Lleu, as Gwydion tries to get around the curse that Arianrhod has laid on her son.
Long ago, at the very beginning of Roman civilization, there were kings. One king, Tarquin Superbus, took the royal prerogative a bit too far and blackmailed a noble matron named Lucretia into sleeping with him. (He tells her that he will kill her and his slave, then tell her husband he found them in flagrante.)
She, to take back her honour, and keep Tarquin from blackening her name, sent word to her husband of what had happened, and killed herself. A dissident noble named Brutus used her death to start a civil war and depose Tarquin, thus beginning the Roman republic.