The Smithsonian Magazine recently published an article titled Why So Many Mythological Monsters Are Female by Nora McGreevy. It is a contemporary feminist attempt at understanding mythology through a variety of prominent female scholars.
While it states that a surprising number of monsters are female, it neglects to mention that there were also many male monsters such as: Basilisk, Cerberus, Cyclops, Manticore, and the Minotaur.
The main takeaway from the article is that mythological female monsters illuminate men’s ancient patriarchal fear and distain of women. Yes, there was a patriarchy. It was prevalent in ancient Athens and not so much in Sparta. But I ask, is this simplistic conclusion the whole story?
The Smithsonian article quotes Madeleine Glennon, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Female monsters reveal more about the patriarchal constraints placed on womanhood than they do about women themselves.” I say, shall we then ignore Athena? After all, she was the one who punished Medusa and made her a monster. Was Athena not a woman? No man constrained her in the patriarchy.
Furthermore, author Jess Zimmerman is quoted: “Women have been monsters, and monsters have been women” and “Greek mythology [had] a heavy, heavy influence on Renaissance literature, and art and Renaissance literature [have] a heavy influence on our ideas now, about what constitutes literary quality, from a very white, cis [gendered], male perspective”
Does Zimmerman not understand that people were not ‘white’? They were their cultures, their city states (such as Athenian or Spartan), and/or their countries/ethnicity (such as Hellenic). But there was no ‘white’ until recently.
And “cis-gendered”? Does she expect past centuries and the ancient world to have as many trans people as we do today (the opposite of cis)?
Did she forget that the Greeks recognized Pride? Why does she not celebrate Sappho who was a great lesbian poet? Why does she not acknowledge that Aphrodite and Hermes had a non-binary child?
I agree that ‘perspective’ is culturally biased. We read ancient stories through the lens of our contemporary culture. Yet, as Zimmerman would be frustrated by cis-male Arthur Evans who imposed his early 20th century British culture on the Minoans, she imposes her contemporary American female neurosis on Greek mythology. The results are interpretations that distort and disempower.
A case in point: Lamia’s story is one of sorrow at the murder of her children by Hera. As a result, she painfully travels the world in search of other people’s children to eat. Zimmerman interprets Lamia: “To deviate in any way from the prescribed motherhood narrative is to be made a monster, a destroyer of children.” I ask how Zimmerman explains the many psychologically satisfied, whole, virgin, childless women in Greek Mythology? In addition, I challenge Zimmerman to compare and contrast Lamia to the German male mythological person, the Pied Piper, who also stole the village children. Lastly, I question, why did Aristophanes give Lamia testicles in his plays and, thus, make her gender neutral? Or shall we just conclude that Lamia just didn’t want to be a mama housewife? This is when I feel the need to enter an eye roll emoji.
The ancient Greeks had 12 (13) Olympians, six were female and six (seven) male.
Yes, Hestia stepped down to give her seat to Dionysus. She was the flame rarely portrayed in ancient art. She didn't need the stories and drama of Olympus. She was content in the center of the home where family is. She didn't need the power, glory, and gossip of the mountain. She was peace and internal energetic warm wisdom (unlike Athena who was intellectual wisdom of the mind).
Because there are so many characters in the ancient world, it's easy to cherry pick. Zimmerman references, Women of Classical Mythology which is a dictionary 462 pages long of literally thousands of female characters. How then was she able to form her conclusions on women in ancient Greece by a handful of monsters?
Where are the next wise contemporary storytellers of women’s mythology such as Clarissa Pinkola Estés (Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype), Jean Shinoda Bolen (Goddess in Every Woman), or Marija Gimbutas (The language of the Goddess)?
Where are todays feminists teaching our girls the history and tales of Hypatia, Sapho, Aspasia, Antigone, Spartan women, the Amazons, Artemis (the champion of women and girls), Athena (the wise warrior), and Demeter (the best mom!)? Where are the storytellers talking about the all-female muse team (Thalia, Urania, Melpomene, Polyhymnia, Erato, Calliope, Clio, Euterpe, and Terpsichore)?
Dear Jess Zimmerman, you say, “women have been monsters, and monsters have been women, in centuries’ worth of stories.” Women are much more than monsters in the ancient world! We are more than victims of misogyny.
If we as a society focus on the smallest half empty raki glass, we ignore the power of the female. We disempower our girls who are the future. I, a Greek-American feminist who loves my ancestors, will teach my girls their Yiayias were not just monsters and that our ancient cultural stories speak of many ways to be a full, powerful, and beautiful woman.
Penelope Eleni Gaitanis Katsaras is a mother, former public school teacher, former art professor, and studio artist from Queens, NY.