All entries for Monday 27 July 2009
July 27, 2009
This is a translation into Spanish of a version of my poem, ‘Blodeuwedd’, a poem based on the story of the woman of flowers in the Welsh book of myth, The Mabinogion. It was made quite a few years ago through a project at UEA and the Centre for Translation in Tarazona, Spain. It was done by Eugenia Vasquez and Enrique Alda.
This entry reviews some reading around women and myth and begs the question, why are so many British and American contemporary women writers attracted to rewriting Western mythologies? Partly these thoughts come out of attending a recent Angela Carter conference at University of Northampton and Angela Carter might be a good place to start. Sarah Gamble writes in Angela Carter –Writing from the Front Line that during the 1960s Britain was opening up to new European influences. Gamble argues that ‘counterculture’ was particularly significant to Carter, because it ‘represents a strategy by which she could renegotiate the boundaries between fantasy and concrete political action’ (1997: 43). According to Gamble, ‘in the wreckage of old myths and moral values, the subversive writer is free to play’ (45). Carter believed that ‘appropriation and adaptation is really what the fairytale is all about’ (67), and ‘the relationship between the radical writer and myth […] has necessarily to be contentious because […] myths have to be argued with, dismantled through the act of writing’ (138). In Gamble’s commentary on Carter, gender is implicit, yet there is a stronger sense of radicalism being a key influence, rather than a simple or obvious feminist agenda.
Carolyne Larrington frames myth more explicitly in terms of gender in her introduction to the edited volume, The Feminist Companion to Mythology. Larrington points out that
Women need to know the myths which have determined both how we see ourselves and how society regards us. Feminist anthropologists and literary historians in recent years have discovered new evidence about how women have been perceived; they have illuminated mythical patterns and re-examined historical traditions from a feminist perspective (1992: x)
Myth becomes an important space for debate in Larrington’s view, because it offers a site from which women anthropologists, historians and writers can critique the representations and treatment of women in the past. This concords with Marina Warner’s comment in From the Beast to the Blonde that ‘The matter of the fairy tale reflects such lived experience, with a slant towards the tribulations of women’ (xix).
Sometimes in contrast to more negative representations of the past, women writers remake the tribulations of women into something more positive. For example, in her study Celtic Goddesses: Myth and Mythology, Juliette Wood notes that ‘Latterly popular feminist ideas have added a new dimension to modern Celtic mythology, and to the noble savage and mystic can be added a strong but loving matriarchal goddess presiding over a harmonious social and physical environment’ (1992: 134). In contrast to the matriarchal goddess, another type that is drawn upon in the wild woman, the Amazon, as Annis Pratt explains in Dancing with Goddesses: Archetypes, Poetry and Empowerment:
Independent of men, more animal than human, living with each other ‘in groups’, knowledgeable about healing, potentially deadly but sexually hungry although hostile to patriarchal notions of matrimony, the wild women of the Russian woods carry traits of Artemis as Lady of Wild Things, of Amazon legend, and of indigenous shamanism […] The wild women inhabit a free zone closely impinging upon culture, a zone of partially repressed paganism (1994: 285).
The trope of the wild woman is also closely associated with mythical witches and untameable or celibate goddesses like Diana, Artemis, Hecate and the Welsh Arianrhod. Thinking through Robert Graves, Pratt explains that figures like Arianrhod are attractive to women writers remaking myths because they have ‘power not only over sexuality and generation but also over language itself’ (1994: 308). This threatening type of womanhood resurrected from myth is associated by Marina Warner with modern representations of feminists. In Six Myths of our Time, Managing Monsters: The Reith Lectures, Warner compares the blaming of feminists for social ills in the modern media with the threatening women described in Greek mythology: ‘Associated with fate and death in various ways, they move swiftly, sometimes on wings; birds of prey are their closest kin […] and they seize, as in the word raptor’ (1994: 4). Warner concludes that this kind of representation can only be negative for women: ‘The mythology of ungovernable female appetite can’t be made to work for women; ironies, subversion, inversion, pastiche, masquerade, appropriation – these postmodern strategies all buckle in the last resort under the weight of culpability the myth has entrenched’ (11). In spite of the problems in remaking stories though, ‘myth’s own secret cunning means that it pretends to present the matter as it is and always must be’ (13). Although ‘at its heart lies the principle in the famous formula of Roland Barthes, that history is turned into nature’, Warner asserts that ‘contrary to this understanding, myths aren’t writ in stone, they’re not fixed, but often telling the story of the same figures – of Medea or of dinosaurs – change dramatically both in content and meaning’ (13-14).
Cavarero, Adriana (1995) In Spite of Plato: A Feminist Rewriting of Ancient Philosophy, trans. Serena Anderlini-D’Onofrio and Aine O’Healy, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Gamble, Sarah (1997) Angela Carter – Writing from the Front Line, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Larrington, Carolyne (1992) Introduction in The Feminist Companion to Mythology, ed. Carolyne Larrington, London: Pandora Press.
Larrington, Carolyne (ed.) (1992) The Feminist Companion to Mythology, London: Pandora Press.
Padel, Ruth (1992) In and Out of Mind: Greek Images of the Tragic Self, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Warner, Marina (1994a) From the Beast to the Blonde, London: Vintage.
- (1994b) Six Myths of our Time, Managing Monsters: The Reith Lectures, London: Vintage.
Welldon, Estella V. (1992), Madonna, Whore: The Idealization and Denigration of Motherhood, New York and London: The Guildford Press.
Wood, Juliette (1992) ‘Celtic Goddesses: Myth and Mythology’ in The Feminist Companion to Mythology, ed. Carolyne Larrington, London: Pandora Press: 118-136.