Every child grows up listening to various mythological stories of their culture. These stories have been passed along for generations through word of mouth, of course, with some tweaks here and there at times. These stories form how the culture is viewed and play a major role in shaping young minds. The beliefs and actions in these religious stories are narrated in an encouraging manner to children and are easily internalised by them. The subordination of women finds expression in these stories and tries to justify the reason for patriarchy.
For example, ever since the very existence of life, it’s been said that giving women power, as given to the first woman in this case, is destructive. Eve, the first female on Earth according to mythology, was supposed to be the representation of womanhood. Someone who is dependent on their male counterpart, someone who is so vain that they fall in love with their own reflection and someone whose only purpose in life is to give birth and take care of children. As soon as she was given the power to make a decision, she was shown to be so naïve and irrational, that the result was death and destruction.
Another example is Helen of Troy. The highlight of her story isn’t how she was a powerful leader and an extremely smart woman, but how she was the reason for the Trojan War. The men in the equation, whose egos were the actual reason for the war, were never held accountable for their actions.
These might seem as mere stories of fiction to some people, but the impact these have made is unbelievable. When a young, gullible child is introduced to stories like these, they grow up believing that the only outcome that can come from giving women even a morsel of power, is destruction. Stories like these also validate the egos and already existing patriarchal beliefs of people.
Diving deeper into Greek Mythology, the story of Medusa also depicts thought-provoking representation of women. Many of you might know of Medusa only as the monster with a head full of venomous snakes and a gaze which turns humans into stones. On the contrary, her story is much more than this. She was the Greek goddess Athena’s sister, who was sexually assaulted by the Greek God Poseidon. Instead of being sympathised with, she was blamed by the people for this deed. Athena, then, turned her into the monster we know of today. Her head became a trophy for various male warriors, who hunted for her relentlessly in order to prove their own worth.
Now, if we dissect this narrative, it reeks of patriarchy. Firstly, it shows female rivalry and victim blaming in case of exploitation by men. Secondly, the fact that her head, the centre of all her knowledge and power, is chased by men to satisfy their own egos, is the epitome of what happens when female power tries to question male authority. Even now, she is famous for being a hideous monster and not a victim or a strong headed woman; this shows how threatened toxic masculinity feels by the mere mention of women who bested them.
Coming to Indian mythology, there is mixed representation of women. From the mighty Goddess Durga and the all knowing Goddess of education Saraswati, to the largely famous representation of Goddess Laxmi always being at the feet of Vishnu, serving him. Coming to folk tales, there’d be no Ramayana without Surpanakha, a woman largely known as being lewd and the antagonist. On the contrary, she was just a woman who wasn’t afraid of admitting her attraction towards a man, an act which was considered as a taboo. This same villainizing of women finds its way even in the 21st century whereby, a woman who is clearly comfortable with her sexuality is still seen in a judgemental light.
In the same tale, Sita, despite being the victim of a kidnapping, was the one who had to walk through fire, quite literally, in order to prove her purity to her husband. Men fighting to protect their wives, waging wars and then putting them through trials to prove their loyalty is a reality even today, in different ways. Women and their honour are therefore portrayed as properties of their male kin members. These women merely play the role of the household’s weakness for the enemy to take advantage of. Epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata have been used by upper castes to subjugate women for several centuries.
There are millions of other stories in mythologies all around the world, that have highlighted women in a negative light, as creatures who can’t stand up for themselves and if they do, it’s only to be branded as the villain. The portrayals and consequences incurred by these mythical female characters transcend into the treatment of women in reality.
It’s high time we start to question the seemingly negative female characters and start realising that most of them were only invented to validate patriarchy. We must also highlight the few pleasant portrayals of women in mythology and encourage more positive retellings. Storytelling is a great medium for teaching morality and it’s our responsibility to ensure that it no longer perpetuates harmful stereotypes— especially against women.
Written by Shruti Saraf for MTTN
Edited by Ishita Sharma for MTTN
Featured Image by Rafal Gorniak