Mythology is part of our social history. Though not validated by historical facts, mythology presents an opportunity to explore and track the trend of a society’s growth. Hence, the portrayal of female characters in mythology presents an opportunity to understand the oppressive measures of patriarchal society.
The femme fatale is a stock character used by numerous artists and cinematographers to portray dangerous women characters. Femme fatales are usually mysterious characters who bring destruction to men by using their sexual prowess. However, the negative connotation attributed to women’s seductive powers is not a new practice – this has been common for centuries.
Mythical figures like Delilah and Menaka have been accused of bringing destruction to their male lovers. Mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, Delilah, under instructions from the Philistines, was ordered to trap the Israelite hero Samson with her beauty and charms. She was tasked with discovering Samson’s weakness. She then reveals this weakness to the Philistines, contributing to Samson’s eventual downfall.
Similarly, in Hindu mythology, there is the story of Menaka and sage Vishwamitra. Indra, (the king of gods) grows insecure of sage Vishwamitra’s growing powers. He sends Menaka, a heavenly nymph to seduce Vishwamitra and nullify his penance. Vayu (God of Winds) sweeps by and lifts Menaka’s garments as Vishwamitra opens his eyes. Seeing an almost naked woman, Vishwamitra forgets his ascetic pledge and makes love to the heavenly nymph.
Femme fatales are usually mysterious characters who bring destruction to men by using their sexual prowess.
Menaka and other apsaras in Hindu mythology have been repeatedly used as weapons to distract men in their pursuit of power. They are the ultimate forms of male fantasy: beautiful, young and always willing to seduce. Their sexual promiscuity gives them immense power and makes them alluring foes.
Such dangerous seductress characteristics can also be seen in the Greek legend of Sirens. They are described in Greek mythology as half bird and half woman creatures who lure sailors to their destruction with the sweetness of their voice. Women characters are repeatedly accused of destroying men and their ventures with the lure of their charms and sexuality.
While women characters are used as weapons in the above instances, there is another group of women characters who are depicted with a negative connotation. There are many mythical stories where the reason of conflict boils down to a woman.
In Hindu mythology, the war between good and evil in the epic Ramayana is fought primarily over the ‘honour’ of two female characters: Sita and Shurpnakha. The popular version of the myth begins when Shurpnakha proposes marriage to Ram or Lakshman.
Punishing her for her persistent advances, Lakshman cuts off her nose. Insulted, Shurpnakha runs to her brother Ravana and he pledges to avenge her humiliation. Ravana then abducts Ram’s wife Sita and here begins the long drawn battle between Ram and Ravana that ends with the conclusion of the epic.
Similarly, in the other major Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, the conflict between Kauravas and Pandavas reaches it’s peak when the Pandava queen Draupadi is humiliated in front of the royal court. All three female characters in the above incidents have no agency over their destinies or any instruments to deal with the injustices they incur.
They have to rely on the help of their male relatives. The women and their ‘honour’ are therefore portrayed as properties of their male kin members. These women merely play the role of the house’s weakness and are therefore sites for the enemy to attack.
Female characters like Draupadi who adhere to typical social roles such as that of a wife or sister are seen as weak and helpless. On the other hand, women like the apsaras who fall outside these categories are described as shrewd or dangerous.
Female sexuality plays an important role in both these cases. The first group of stock characters are illustrated as sexually charged women who use their seductive powers to entrap men. The second group of characters are never described as seductive or sexual; their sexuality is to be protected by their male kin members.
The women and their ‘honour’ are therefore portrayed as properties of their male kin members.
Though both these character groups are poles apart, they are products of the same patriarchal framework. All the characters mentioned above lack any agency over their sexuality. While in the first case, patriarchal powers use their sexuality as weapons to entrap men and in the second case, the restriction on the woman’s sexuality is seen as the family’s responsibility.
The only character who tries to break away from this framework and use agency over her sexual expression is Shurpnakha who approaches Lakshman and Ram, motivated by her own desires. However, her effort is reciprocated with an unjustifiable punishment and she is labelled forever as a villain.
The portrayals and the consequences incurred by these mythical female characters transcend into the treatment of women in reality. Even now, the most degrading and hurtful verbal attacks on women are related to slut-shaming or rape threats. The patriarchal model, therefore, propagates that women can be controlled by robbing them of their sexual agency.
Featured Image Credit: Maddy’s Ramblings