Hadn't you noticed?
Due to time constraints I'm going to limit my post to looking at Gorgons and Hags, but there are seriously countless other examples out there.
You're probably familiar with these mean 'bitches', who hail from Greek mythology (Medusa, Stheno and Euryale). Depicted most often on ancient vases as three sisters, with wings, broad ugly heads, large staring eyes and pointed tongues, gaping mouths and pig tusks - they are most recognised for their hair, which is comprised of living snakes. According to this particular legend, these Gorgons were the offspring of two minor sea deities.
Legend has it that the blood taken from the right hand side of a gorgon can re-animate the dead, but blood taken from the left is instantly fatal.
The most commonly known Gorgon was Medusa.
The ancient Roman poet Ovid (43BC-17AD) dismisses the notion that Medusa originally the offspring of sea deities, but suggests in his collection 'Metamorphoses' - that she was beautiful woman. According to Ovid's poems the lovely Medusa had many male human admirers, but alas, had also caught the eye of Poseidon, god of the sea.
One day, the god found her alone and 'ravished' her (read this as 'raped' - as he was so overcome with passion he couldn't control himself) at one of Athena's temples... Infuriated by this desecration of her temple, Athena turned Medusa's gorgeous hair into hideous snakes, and made her ugly (enter the bore tusks and bug eyes). Everyone who laid eyes on Medusa subsequently was turned to stone.
It doesn't really seem very fair really does it? I'd be kicking Poseidon's butt, not Medusa's... but hey I'm not Athena...
Medusa was ultimately killed by Perseus, and her head returned to Athena, who used it on her own shield as a protective talisman.
Stemming from this, it became tradition to place a carved stone Gorgon head above doors and on walls, coins, shields and grave stones in the hope that it may ward off evil.
We've seen Medusa recently in 'Percy Jackson and the Lightening Thief,' and several other films, and all are depicting her as a decidedly malevolent character. Which wasn't necessarily how she started out. I personally feel a bit sorry for her.
There is however, another line of thought. Some academics argue that the Gorgon is actually a holy image of female power and wisdom.
- Her eyes, unblinking and staring, possibly could symbolise her ability to see the truth.
- Her pig tusks could come from 'sacred pigs' symbolic of rebirth, which were sacrificed to Athena.
- Her snake-hair a symbolic reminder of the life cycle; birth, death and regeneration, as the snake sheds its skin and grows again.
Whatever you believe, gorgon mythology is certainly fascinating.
It is unsurprising that Hags (sometimes called Crones) crop up in a multitude of countries. The most common description of a hag is of an unattractive older lady with malicious intent. Hag mythology is characterised by the presence of bad dreams, or uncomfortable sensations during sleep. The traditional hag myth revolves around old ladies being responsible for the poor sleep of their targeted victim.
It is believed that most Hag myths have been derived from explanations of a condition known as 'sleep paralaysis' (also known as Old Hag Syndrome!) in which a person feels a weight on their chest and experiences difficulty breathing. Succubi and Incubi are also characterised by this sensation. However the Hag mythology has evolved into more corporeal creatures such as Banshee, Baba Yaga (and their variants).
Why is it women who are so frequently maligned in these myths?
Well I have a little theory.
In ancient times (and in some modern traditional societies) men die earlier than women and those surviving men (one would assume) be the wisest and cleverest and most able to give advice to the younger generations on running the community (in a patriarchal society at least). Which is why old men in myths are usually described as being guides and seers of truth.
Women however, live longer than men as a general rule. Therefore, those women past their useful childbearing years must do something to remain useful in a traditional society or else they are not worth the food they are fed (sad but true).
Therefore women who could heal others and were wise would be kept and looked after (enter the archetype of the old woman healer). However, those older women who were sly, and tricky could equally survive using wits and deceit - and it is those individuals I believe the negative hag myths have evolved from.
In addition to my "life-expectancy and usefulness theory of Hag evolution", I also believe that myths are created as moral tales to teach people societies 'norms' and in still fear to ensure co-operation. So, what could be more scary than a mother figure being twisted and made into monster? I'm certain it was that twisting of the natural order of motherhood and grand-motherhood, that has made Hag myths so popular and so frightening for people in times past.
If you're wondering is there a male equivalent to the Hag myth, you'll find yourself sadly disappointed. Most old male characters in mythology are either tricksters (never souly malevolent) or benevolent teachers and guides.
It all seems rather unfair doesn't it?
If you're interested in some unusual hag myths, make sure to google, the Batibat (Philippines), Phi Am (Thailand), Boo Hag (post colonial America), Nocnitsa (Poland), Mare/Mare (Scandinavia).
On that note, I bid you a magic Thursday.
Nicola E. Sheridan