Consider “evil”. Through its mere pronunciation what does the power of this word conjure? The emotions, thoughts, and stories immediately summoned are legion, but for many of us, somewhere lingering in the back of our minds is original sin and the Fall of Man. “[For] the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said unto the woman… [if you eat of the tree] then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as the gods, knowing good and evil. And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat” (King James Bible, Gen. 3:1-5). If you are reading these words in English, than it is almost guaranteed you are familiar with the preceding passage. By the very essence of being born in western culture, our minds have been conditioned to accept (although historically false) that from the very genesis of man on this planet, all women fall under the same archetype as the first mother and are represented as “eve-l” (origin in Middle Dutch). This concept has long lived as the predominant line of thought in our society. Even now in our supposed progressive thinking, the heroic woman of modern fiction is so often depicted as merely the shadow of the so-called heroic man, fighting and killing with great skill and efficiency. Perhaps she is the femme fatale, wielding her sexuality with dangerous expertise, but most commonly, she condescends to the simple love interest, available as decoration, but unfortunately rendered impotent by the writers in thought and influence as a “damsel in distress.” The problem is these are shallow and two-dimensional representations of who women really are; and are less depictions of reality, than the antiquated fantasies of a misogynistic order of “alleged” spiritual authoritative men with a clear aim to suppress women’s power and influence.
The genesis of the English language took place in almost perfect synchronicity with the fall of Rome and the monumental rise of the primitive Christian church to the supreme power of the papacy. Starting in 325 A.D. with the counsel of Nicea, a massive re-evalutation of values took place with a clear aim to displace Paganism. In 596 A.D., Pope Gregory sent St. Augustine to Britain and subsequently converted the King of Kent (primarily through his marriage), who then allowed for the establishment of monasteries. It was in these monasteries that the English language took root. The monks used their translations of Latin, French and Germanic texts to infuse their ideals within the British culture. As exemplified in the texts of Beuwolf through Grendel’s Mother, Lady Bertilak, Morgan la Fey and Gwinevere of both Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Morte Darthur, English fiction became a primary vehicle of subversion to progress the tenants of Christianity over Paganism, most prominently identified in the demonization of women as evil.
From the Christian standpoint, Paganism is a very broad term. It’s essentially come to represent anything other than Judeo/Christian beliefs. But the Paganism referred to in the context of the Anglo-Saxon world was slightly different from other forms due to its Celtic origins. Although the Celts are classified as patriarchal largely due to the warlike nature of their times, within the Celtic religion the leadership consisted of both male and female priests, Druids and Druidesses, in roles of equal weight.
This point of view towards equality in spirituality came under attack when the Church of Rome, incredibly misogynist with their literal “boys only” leadership and wielding an intolerance characterized with a “[disdain] to capitulate with the enemy whom they were resolved to vanquish,” was taken with the resolution to defeat this cultural ideology (Gibbon 549). Women in their role as “priestesses” were now interpreted as sorceresses and witches and their actions were classified as maleficium, an act of official heresy. But persecution was not enough. The Church sought an actual cultural change. So what better place to demolish “women of power” than in the heroic epics representing the ideals of the “new society” now conveniently being translated from Latin?
The manifestations of this new subterfuge can be seen throughout the text of Beowulf: “A fiend out of hell, began to work his evil in the world. Grendel was the name of this grim demon … [of] Cain’s clan” (“Beowulf” 44) From the very beginning, the word “demon” (the Greek “daemon” subverted from its original meaning of angel) appears in relationship to Cain. Through the use of this word, the antagonist is associated with Pagan beliefs, which now fall directly in sync with the first “evil” of Christian mythology. The story Beowulf finds its origins in the spoken tradition of the Anglo-Saxons and it is highly unlikely Grendel was always represented in this way. Immediately one can see the effect of the Christian monk’s translation, inscribed with an extra-judicious “religious” fervor.
In this spirit, we receive the following line: “Sometimes at pagan shrines they owed, offering to idols… that in their heathenish hope; deep in their hearts they remembered hell” (45). These lines are really the key for the rest of the text. Paganism is equated directly to “hell” and therefore evil. Read within this context, Grendel’s mother, the “monstrous hell-bride” and mother of “daemons”, could be seen as the very personification of paganism (69). In her subsequent battle with Beowulf, the absolute idealization of everything machismo, even divinely supported by “Holy God” (75) and wielding a magic sword (a classic Jungian phallic archetype) that “only Beowulf could wield” (75), she is defeated, having her head severed from her body. “The swordsman was elated” and stood over her body, sword dripping in her blood (75). The ultimate male had defeated the hell-born woman, who interestingly enough gave birth to Grendel with immaculate conception. With Grendel’s mother dead, interpretation of the Anglo-Saxon ideals can be extracted from the descriptions of the women remaining: women, although murderers in their hearts, are “less cruel-minded, after … married” (83), for “whoever she … who brings forth this flower of manhood… can say that in her labor the Lord of Ages bestowed a grace on her” (61). Or in other words, a woman’s place is in the home.
Further complications were still in store as women’s roles developed over the years. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, we are introduced to two very different types of women. First, we have Gwinevere, who “not one stone outshone the quartz of the queen’s eyes” (“Sir Gawain” 187). The Gwinevere of Sir Gawain is the embodiment of beauty, purity, compassion and femininity. She represents the impossible standard of the Holy Virgin. But then there’s introduction to Lady Bertilak and Morgan la Fey; the former a trickster and a temptress, the latter “so adept and adroit in the dark arts, who learned magic from Merlin (Celtic Paganism)-master of mystery”– essentially the wily whore and the wicked witch (236). This dual split in the nature of women is what is commonly known as the Madonna/Whore complex.
In the story, Sir Gawain is caught in the middle of Morgan la Fey’s sadistic game and in the end falls short of honoring the code of chivalry he had sworn to uphold. However, he’s a man and only human. The Green Knight offers him a double-standard and comforting words: “But no wonder if a fool finds his way into folly and be wiped of his wits by womanly guile- it’s the way of the world. Adam fell because of a woman, and Solomon because of several, and as for Samson, Delilah was his downfall, and afterwards David” (235). Sir Gawain takes solace in his words, for even the best of men fall to evil women. “If only we could love our ladies without believing their lies” (235). Facetiousness aside, the overt misogyny within these “stories of courtly love” is absolutely striking! It would be overly presumptuous to attribute these ideas directly to the poet of the text himself, but the attitudes and views expressed within Sir Gawain and the Green Knight can be assimilated as representational of medieval society. And this impossible standard of “Holy Virgin” or bust, has been the source of incredible tribulation that women have carried for hundreds of years in the form of oppressive stereotypes.
The Gwinevere of Morte Darthur further enhances these archetypes. In this story, suspiciously penned by Sir Thomas Malory as an act of penance while in prison for an act of-as we are required by modern precedence to appropriate empathy to the perpetrator through the use of the word “alleged”- rape, Gwinevere is depicted as the fulcrum between the love and lust of two men that becomes the catalyst of a war that ultimately decimates the “Golden Age of Chivalry.” King Arthur, now a symbol of Jesus Christ himself, feels he must exact vengeance against Gwinevere (not Lancelot), starting a war which brings down the entire kingdom and the Knights of the Round Table. The interesting thing about this story is the allusion of Gwinevere and Lancelot to Adam and Eve. Their carnal sin essentially gets them cast out of the graces of God (Arthur) requiring them to leave the garden (Camelot) and live in toil (war) among the “weeping and wailing” of the damned (Malory 488).
Once again, women are depicted as “evil” or like Eve. Arthur dies foolishly, meeting his end while spitting in the face of fate attempting to exact vengeance. But for his wisdom and purity, Arthur is carried away by the Four Queens (representing the four rivers of the Tree of Life) to the underworld and “men say he shall come again and he shall win the Holy Cross” (496). Gwinevere, on the other hand, spent her final days in a nunnery, repenting for looking upon Lancelot with “[her] worldly eyes” (496). She had repented and prayed fervently with all her heart to be buried next to the man who would have murdered her for following her heart. And thus we see, once again, how Gwinevere, like Bathsheba, Delilah, Helen of Troy and their Great-Grandmother Eve, through her carnal desires destroyed everything.
It is important to recognize how absurd such a conclusion sounds in our times. But these female archetypes of Madonna/Whore, scapegoat, homemaker, etc., are well established within our culture and appear again and again and again. Even our female superheroes such as Wonder Woman, who supposedly breaks with these specific archetypes adheres to another, being a warrior who essentially can fight like and beside men. Is this our definition of the feminine hero? Do women truly dream to be “boltered in the blood of [their] enemies” for fortune and glory as the ultimate definition of their equality (“Beowulf” 50)? So what is the true feminine hero? Do we even know? Is it something yet to be re-discovered? Or perhaps created? We don’t even have to look that far. We see them every day. They are incarnate in women who rise above the archetypes, the stereotypes and the oppression. These women carve their own paths out in stone, regardless of the fact the world is in large catered to men by men for men.
Story is a reflection of the times. And just as these stories and established archetypes of antiquity show us where we’ve come from, they don’t of necessity have to reflect where we’re going. The time has come for these outdated “virtues” to crumble as we cease to objectify half the human race and approach women with subjectivity, realizing that every woman has faced and are facing incredible odds in navigating the double-binds of our male dominated world; many of whom even manage to maintain an elegant grace and inner strength in the face of adversity. In that context, perhaps a re-evaluation is in order. Gwinevere loved no matter the consequences. Grendel’s Mother honored the code of the times in her son’s honor. Morgan la Fey showed the futility of extremism. And Eve was expelled from the garden, seeking wisdom to “become as the gods” (Gen. 3:5). Adam was content to remain in his infantile state. But Eve chose to grow into maturity by facing the hardship and toil of life. Perhaps it’s time that we learn from her archetype and follow in Eve’s footsteps, as Adam did; listening to our inner “daemons” and embracing our nature as half “Eve-l” or like Eve, in order to lead us into wisdom and knowledge.
“Beowulf”. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Edited by Stephen Greenblatt, 9th Edition, W.
W. Norton and Company, New York, 2012.
Gibbon, Edward. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Vol. 1. Everyman’s Library, New York,
The King James Bible. Salt Lake City, Utah: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1989.
Malory, Sir Thomas. “Morte Darther”. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Edited by Stephen
Greenblatt, 9th Edition, W. W. Norton and Company, New York, 2012.
“Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Edited by Stephen
Greenblatt, 9th Edition, W. W. Norton and Company, New York, 2012.
Photo by Samira Morrar, @raising_windhorse