The Traditional Heroine

Last week I spoke about the development of the female hero from a masculinized woman into a woman who is allowed to retain her normal social roles.  This week I would like to focus on the woman’s contribution to adventures.  If women were not traditionally the heroes in the classical sense then certainly they had other roles beyond being the prize or the damsel in distress.

Characters who qualify for study here are reasonably numerous; many are even famous for their alternate functions.  Medea, Niniane, and even Athena spring to mind immediately.  There are more; Signy from Norse myth, Medb from Irish myth, Morgan from the Arthurian corpus among a host of others, but the first three will work well to make my point.

Athena is the goddess among them, it should be remembered of war as well as wisdom.  But she is not a fighter; she is rarely presented as even wearing armor.  What she does do is guide the hero and  provide him with the tools he needs in order to accomplish his quest.  She arranges for Perseus to find the Medusa and for Bellerophon to capture Pegasus.  She helps Tydeus in his career as well.

Medea and Niniane, too, guide and protect their respective heroes.  Medea advises Jason on how to deal with the fire-breathing bulls her father would have killed him with.  She also arranges for the Argonauts’ safe journey from Colchis by killing her brother and leaving his cut up pieces in the sea to be picked up.  Niniane serves as a useful advisor to Arthur in the latter part of his reign, helping him with his decisions and later arranging for his transport to Avalon for healing.

As a rule, the perception has been that a woman (as opposed to a god) had to be underhanded and break ties of loyalty in order to help the hero.  She has in effect been portrayed as a stereotype that we are comfortable with; fickle in her emotions.  Males do this, too.  Loki seems genuinely interested in helping Odin while not hesitating to have Baldr killed and spawning the three greatest threats to Asgard in his spare time.  Midas is one of the best kings of Greek mythology, until he makes that wish about gold.

I’ve chosen these two characters intentionally, they are among the most notorious people in myth and legend for the perception of them as foolish or at least lacking foresight.  But for women such qualities are o.k., because that’s all they can do.

Two things to be taken from this.  First, that women were not traditionally  perceived as helpful in the hero’s quest and so the only way they were acceptable in that role was if they were using deception and cruelty.

Second, the simple invention of the superheroine is a huge step in our social progress, to be sure.  However, I don’t like that we have patterned it after the male superhero.  Women think differently, behave differently, are heroic differently.  I look forward to the day when they are properly represented as different.

About Cian Beirdd

I live with my kitty, and encourage his tuna and catnip addictions. I have a website as well;
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