Charm of the Ancient Enchantress: The Evolution of the Dangerous Woman

Although this month I have spoken about the Ancient Greek femme fatales starting from the sirens to Aphrodite herself, the trope did not stop there. We can also find an example in the Gospel of Matthew (14:6–9), “… on Herod’s birthday, the daughter of Herodias (Salome) danced before them: and pleased Herod. Whereupon he promised with an oath, to give her whatsoever she would ask of him. But she being instructed before by her mother, said: Give me here in a dish the head of John the Baptist. And the king was struck sad: yet because of his oath, and for them that sat with him at table, he commanded it to be given. And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison.”

File:Lady Lilith, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.jpg
“Lady Lilith”, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The independent and mysterious women that I have spoken about this month evolved to what we know as a “femme fatale” who often portrayed as a seductress, even to the point of having some sort of mystical power as an enchantress. She is a stock character of a mysterious and seductive woman whose charms ensnare her lovers, often leading them into compromising, dangerous and deadly situations. Her ability to enchant and hypnotise her victim with a spell was in the earliest stories seen as being literally supernatural as who could even imagine the all-powerful hero succumb into an embrace of a “normal” woman? Hence, the femme fatale today is still often described as having a power akin to an enchantress, vampire, witch or demon to actually have power over men.

The femme fatale achieves her hidden purpose by using feminine wiles such as beauty, charm and sexual allure. One of the most common traits of the femme fatale includes promiscuity and the “rejection of motherhood”. However, as proven by Aphrodite, a woman can be a femme fatale and a mother. It is just that motherhood does not seem to take the centre stage of her life as she goes about in her adventures and interests. This is seen as one of her most threatening qualities since “by denying his immortality and his posterity, it leads to the ultimate destruction of the male.” Again, this quality of the femme fatale that leads to the ultimate destruction of the male leaves some room for questions as, often, the femme fatale is not the one who made the first move and pursues the male. It was the male who came to her island, eat her food and erected temples in her name. So was it not the man’s desires that led to his own destruction? Another illustration of this is presented to us by the story of Shiva and Mohini.

In Hindu mythology, Mohini, a goddess who is the only female avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, is portrayed as a femme fatale, an enchantress who maddens lovers and leads them to their doom. She is worshipped throughout Indian culture, especially in Western India where temples are devoted to her depicted as Mahalasa, the consort of Khandoba, a regional avatar of Shiva.

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“Mohini” by
Raja Ravi Varma

In the southern version of the Bhagavata Purana, after Vishnu deceives the demons by his Mohini form, Shiva sees Mohini for the first time. Shiva is overcome by Kama (love and desire), becomes “bereft of shame and robbed by her of good sense.” He runs crazily behind enchanting form, while his wife Parvati looks on.

The Tripurarahasya, a south Indian Shakta text, says that when Shiva wishes to see Vishnu’s Mohini form again, Vishnu fears that he may be burned to ashes like Kamadeva by the supreme ascetic Shiva. So, Vishnu prays to goddess Tripura, who grants half of her beauty to Vishnu, begetting the Mohini-form. As Shiva touches Mohini, his energy spills from his eyes, indicating a loss of the merit gained through of all his austerities.

In the Brahmanda Purana when the wandering sage Narada tells Shiva about Vishnu’s Mohini form that deluded the demons, Shiva dismisses him. Shiva and his wife Parvati go to Vishnu’s home. Shiva asks him to take on the Mohini form again so he can see the actual transformation for himself. Vishnu again meditates on the Goddess of Shri Lalita Mahatripurasundari and transforms himself into Mohini. Again, overcome by desire, Shiva embraces Mohini to discharge his seed from his eyes which falls on the ground leading to the birth the god Maha-Shasta (“The Great Teacher”). Mohini disappears, while Shiva returns home with Parvati. 

Although the concept of an enchantress is nothing new, the real concept started to take off during the Middle Ages. As the Middle Ages often villified female sexuality, it comes as no surprise that they would make the enchantress characters act as a warning to men. Also in the Middle Ages, Eve and the Celtic legend of Morgan La Fay became popularized as the beautiful dangerous women. It was about this time also that people started to see femme fatales as slightly paranormal in nature.

 In American early 20th century films, femme fatale characters were referred to as ”vamps”. This is thanks to actor Robert Vignola who created the first “vamp” movie based on a Rudyard Kipling poem by the same name. The “vamp,” in this case was about a femme fatale who acted almost like a sexual vampire.

Despite Circe and Calypso being descrbed as “braided haired” goddesses, there was no real “dress code” for femme fatales until after the beginning of the 20th century where femme fatales embraced the look of women who are dressed all in black, with striking red lipstick. The standard red lipstick likely began with ancient Roman prostitutes who were required by law to wear blonde wigs and red pipsticks in public to advertise the fact that they were prostitutes and, therefore not looking for a husand. Around the same time in ancient Egypt, the red lipstick was a symbol of status and power for both men and women. .

The red lipstick resurfaced in America in the 1900s, as the women’s suffrage movement advanced and women embraced lipstick as a symbol of feminine identity and defiant empowerment.

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Charm of the Ancient Enchantress: Circe and the Glamour of Independence

“Circe and Her Guests”, by ROOSDY

“There was a time when divine Calypso kept me within her arching caverns and would have had me to be her husband, and another time subtle Circe confined me in her palace and would have had me for husband also. Yet neither of them could win the heart within me.” Odysseus says to King Alcinous.

The thing that I like about Circe is how self-sufficient she is. She has her own house which she manages to her liking, she is surrounded by her books and potions and she turns rude guests into animals. She manages this while still letting Odysseus believe that he was the one who dumps her and that she is the one who is not good enough to win his heart – thus keeping his heroic ego intact.

Like Calypso, Circe is also “a goddess with braided hair, with human speech and with strange powers”. She is the daughter of Helios, the sun-god and Perse, Oceanus’ daughter. Odysseus and his men brings the ship to the shore of her island, disembark and for two days and nights lay there “eating out our hearts with sorrow and weariness,” Odysseus says.


On the third day, Odysseus takes his weapons and hastens up to a vantage-point, hoping to see some human handiwork or to catch the sound of some human speech. “I climbed a commanding crag, and from where I stood had a glimpse of smoke rising from the ground. There were gleams of fire through the smoke, and at sight of this I wondered inwardly whether to go and look. But as I pondered, it seemed a wiser thing to return first to my vessel on the beach, give my men a meal and then send them out to spy.”
Later, Odysseus divides his crew into two companies, and gives each its own leader. He captains one and Eurylochus the other. Then they shake the lots in a bronze helmet, and the lot that leaps out was that of Eurylochus. So he goes on his way with twenty-two men with him. In the glades they found the palace of Circe, built of smooth stones on open ground. Outside, there were lions and mountain wolves that she had bewitched by giving them magic drugs.

From the outer doors, the men can hear Circe singing with her beautiful voice “delicate, gleaming, delectable, as a goddess’ handiwork needs must be – a goddess or a woman, moving to and fro at her wide web and singing a lovely song that the whole floor re-echoes with.”

Then the peeping men made themselves heard and Circe invites them in. The all enter except for Eurylochus. After playing the role of a good hostes, Circe turns the men into pigs. “And now the men had the form of swine – the snout and grunt and bristles; only their minds were left unchanged. They shed tears as they were shut in.” However, Circe is not going to let them starve. She still feeds them.

Eurylochus comes back to tell the others what happened. Odysseus gets his sword and bow, and asks him to guide him back by the same path. But Eurylochus is too scared. So Odysseus allows him to stay on the ship while he goes to see the woman.

“And with that,” Odysseus says, “I left the ship and shore and took the path upward; but as I traversed those haunted glades, as I came close to Circe’s house and neared the palace of the enchantress, I was met by golden-wanded Hermes; … He seized my hand and spoke thus to me : ‘Luckless man, why are you walking thus alone over these hills, in country you do not know?” Hermes helps Odysseus by giving him a magic herb. “She will brew a potion for you, but with good things she will mingle drugs as well. Yet even so, she will not be able to enchant you; my gift of the magic herb will thwart her. I will tell you the rest, point by point. When Circe strikes you with the long wand she has, draw the keen sword from beside your thigh, rush upon her and make as if to kill her. She will shrink, back, and then ask you to lie with her. At this you must let her have her way; she is a goddess; accept her bed, so that she may release your comrades and make you her cherished guest.” In short: trick her, threaten her and sleep with her.

Later, after Odysseus follows all Hermes’ advice, he is treated by Circe’s hospitality. “She bade me eat, but my heart was not on eating, and I sat with my thoughts elsewhere and my mind unquiet.” Odysseus says, because “what man of righteous thoughts could bring himself to taste food or drink before winning liberty for his friends and seeing the men before his eyes?”

Circe then releases Odysseus’ men and send them all off on their way. Perhaps noticing that since they arrive they have done nothing but eating her food and demand things from her.

I will leave the story there. But this is what we can learn from Circe. She lives alone happily and makes herself a wonderful home. Of course, men comes and go and she could have had them as her husband/companion. But she has standards. Odysseus’ men are noisy and greedy so she turns them into swines. Even then she still treats them kindly by giving them food and letting them live. Odysseus only manages to get close to her with Hermes’ help, but even then she quickly realises that she is giving Odysseus much more than what he could ever offer her in return. So she says “… is your mind then set on further perils, fresh feats of war?” and sends him on his way.