Feminist - Medusa
FeminismsSexuality and Gender

Why Revisiting Myths and Legends with a Feminist Perspective is Important

As a boy, I remember being amazed by tales of Robin Hood but there weren’t nearly as many heroic women. The Amazons, to me, remained a distant concept, interesting warriors who were somehow relegated to the background in favour of men like Achilles. A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes shows how a legendary tale can be revisited with a feminist perspective to develop the character of women affected by war or marked by a legend who beforehand remained merely two-dimensional. 

We’ll start with the legend of Amazonian warriors such as Penthesilea who fought the Greeks in the Trojan War and inevitably died to Achilles’ blade. The poet Virgil described Penthesilea as a Bellatrix (female warrior) who “dared to fight men”. As though that were something a woman shouldn’t do and is then ‘punished’ in a way by dying at the hands of a man. Indeed, Quintus Smyrnaeus (thought to have lived 4th Century AD) in Book 1 of Posthomerica mentions Tisiphone rallying women together to fight the Greeks alongside the Penthesilea. 

“From Troy afar the women marvelling gazed at the Maid’s battle-prowess. Suddenly a fiery passion for the fray hath seized Antimachus’ daugther, Meneptolemus’ wife, Tisiphone. (…) Let us too face the fight which favoureth none! For we, we women, be not creatures cast in diverse mould from men: to us is given such energy of life as stirs in them. (…) Then let us shrink not from the fray see ye not yonder a woman far excelling men in the grapple of fight?”

(Quintus Smyrnaeus, ‘The Fall of Troy, Book 1’ (1)

Yet when Quintus Smyrnaeus talks of the women rallying, he compares them to a hive of bees; not heroes (heroines) eager to save themselves and their city from captivity. Also, rather than reveling in their eager spirit, he depicts Theano as crying out to “stop their maddened feet”. 

As stated earlier, Penthesilea is killed apparently quickly by Achilles according to Quintus Smyrnaeus’ account, and her tragedy could be interpreted as a warning against women ‘daring’ to fight and choose their own destiny especially as it follows Tisiphone’s rally cry that is cast down as madness. It begs the question as to whether Quintus Smyrnaeus would have depicted untrained men eager to fight, in the same way. 

Away from the glorified battlefield, Natalie Haynes gives a voice to the women of Troy in A Thousand Ships. This is an important instance of revisiting the legendary stories of Troy with a feminist perspective. Haynes creates a sense of heartbreaking loyalty to Odysseus through letters written by Persephone and goes on to depict captured princess who narrowly avoided being raped by her captor through her use of poison.

Haynes draws away from a male-written narrative as A M Keith in ‘Engendering Rome: Women in Latin Epic’ explains: “A displacement of women from culture to nature functions to naturalise their subordination within the Roman social order.” She was explaining that in Roman epics, the female characters were assimilated into the Roman landscape, whereas men were presented as emerging from nature and mastering it.

Analysing antiquity through a feminist lens

Maria Dahvana Headley explains how translations can be altered by a patriarchal perspective to depict women as monsters. For example, in Headley’s Beowulf: A New Translation how a translation of Beowulf by Frederick Klaeber defines the Old English ‘aglaeca’ as hero, but ‘aglaec-wif’ as “wretched or monster of a woman” but as Headley explains, ‘aglaec-wif’ is merely the feminine form of ‘aglaeca’.

Headley furthers her point when she mentions that a typo in the original text was taken to mean ‘sea-wolf’ by Klaeber but could just have easily been ‘sea-woman’ where the same character was elsewhere referred to as ‘ocean-woman’. This demonstrates that ignorant patriarchy or conscious oppression where the translator’s bias has become involved in the text and so happens to the patriarchal society of a century ago. 

Another, perhaps more recognisable, example of women portrayed as monsters would be Medusa. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Medusa was once beautiful, had many suitors, and was admired for her hair over all else. Neptune, god of the seas raped her in Minerva’s temple (As A. S. Kline’s translation states) and paradoxically, Minerva punished Medusa by changing her hair into snakes after turning away from the scene; implying that the goddess stood still when she could have prevented the rape and then punishing the victim. 

Feminist - Medusa

Moreover, the gods send a man to kill Medusa, a rape victim punished for being raped, and he does so, but only when she’s in deep sleep and therefore not dangerous. Not forgetting that this shows Perseus wouldn’t have been able to kill her in a fair fight and morbidly takes her head for a trophy. This reeks of the patriarchal idea that women should be punished and men, in this case, portrayed by Neptune, are not held responsible and even become ‘the hero’; represented by Perseus. 

Grendel’s mother in Beowulf became converted into a monster through re-designed translation and the rape of Medusa seemed to be ignored as though whether women suffer is inconsequential. Natalie Haynes is one example of a talented woman making educated depictions of women in myth as more than just toys for conquerors or adornments in palaces. 

What if all little girls had heard the legend of heroic Tisiphone leading women into battle against an unyielding and better-trained army? What if girls had more examples of Penthesilea or well-developed representations of women who deal with the selfish acts of men and survive despite suffering horrors, were included in the legends that blew my mind when I was a child? 

Natalie Haynes’ A Thousand Ships does a service to history where traditionally those who recorded history (think history is written by the victor but the victor was always a man) wouldn’t allow women to be portrayed as more than hollow characters created to reinforce the patriarchy in their present. Revisiting myths and legends with a feminist perspective can help unearth silent strength despite the horrors men have visited upon them. 

This writer believes that revisiting these myths and legends serves to highlight the women who had previously been delegated to the background. To show that humanising Medusa as a victim is a good reason to fight against patriarchy is that it will try to villainize women who dare to think and act for themselves.