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.”

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“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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Sargon, Karna and Ion: Hidden Sons of Virgin Mothers

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Bronze head of a king of the Old Akkadian dynasty, most likely representing either Naram-Sin or Sargon of Akkad. 

Probably the oldest transmitted hero myth we know is from the period of the foundation of Babylonia (circa 2800 BC). It concerns the birth history of its founder, Sargon of Akkad.  He was best known for his conquests of the Sumerian city-states in the 24th to 23rd centuries BC. The Sumerian king list makes him the cup-bearer to king Ur- Zababa of Kish. Sargon appears as a legendary figure in Neo-Assyrian literature of the 8th to 7th centuries BC. Tablets with fragments of a Sargon Birth Legend were found in the Library of Ashurbanipal.

The story is translated as follows:

“Sargon, the mighty king, King of Agade, am I.

My mother was a vestal, my father I knew not, while my father’s brother dwelt in the mountains.

In my city Azuripani, which is situated on the bank of the Euphrates,

my mother, the vestal, bore me. In a hidden place she brought me forth.

She laid me in a vessel made of reeds, closed my door with pitch,

and dropped me down into the river, which did not drown me.

The river carried me to Akki, the water carrier.

Akki the water carrier lifted me up in the kindness of his heart,

Akki the water carrier raised me as his own son,

Akki the water carrier made of me his gardener.

In my work as a gardener I was beloved by Ishtar, I became the king,

and for forty-five years I held kingly sway.”

A rather similar story to the Sargon legend is also shown in certain features of the ancient Hindu epic Mahabharata in its account of the birth of the hero Karna. Karna’s story goes roughly like this:

A Yadava dynasty king named Surasena had a beautiful young virgin daughter named Pritha (later Kunti). As tradition had it, a rishi – Vedic scholar and seer – named Durvasa visited the king for a lengthy stay, who housed him as his palace guest. The king asked Pritha to personally ensure that the sage Durvasa’s stay was comfortable. Princess Pritha did her best, and Durvasa was delighted with his stay and her diligent services. Before leaving, Durvasa thanked her and gave her the Siddha mantra telling her that if she ever wants, she can use that mantra to call any god she desires as her lover.

Pritha became curious and wondered if the mantra would really work. Therefore, on one beautiful morning, as the golden sun rose, to explore, she called the sun god Surya. He came with a golden glow, dressed up in jewelry and breastplate. Surya impregnates her. Karna is thus the child of the princess and the Surya. After their consummation, the god Surya grants her the wish that after Karna’s birth she will regain her virginity.

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 statue of Karna fighting Ghatothkacha taken in Bali, Indonesia

Pritha hid her pregnancy. Later, the adaptation of the myth by A. Holtzmann, verse 1458 reads: “Then my nurse and I made a large basket of rushes, placed a lid thereon, and lined it with wax; into this basket I laid the boy and carried him down to the river Acva.” Floating on the waves, the basket reaches the river Ganges and travels as far as the city of Campa. “There was passing along the bank of the river, the charioteer, the noble friend of Dhritarashtra, and with him was Radha, his beautiful and pious spouse. She was wrapt in deep sorrow, because no son had been given to her. On the river she saw the basket, which the waves carried close to her on the shore; she showed it to Azirath, who went and drew it forth from the waves.” The couple then raised the boy as their own son. 

Later, Karna went to school in Hastinapura. He studied martial arts under the sages Drona, Kripa and Parashurama. However, he was often subjected to ridicule by his peers for being the son of a poor family. The boy Karna came to be known for his solitary habits, hard work, pious yoga before dawn every day, compassion and eager generosity to help anyone in need.

Kunti went on to marry King Pandu, who was forced to refrain from conjugal intercourse as he was cursed to die in the arms of his spouse. As her husband could not give her children, Kunti bore three sons again through divine conception. Years later, at a tournament, Karna appears to measure his strength against Arjuna, the third son of Kunti. Arjuna scoffingly refused to fight the charioteer’s son. In order to make him a worthy opponent, one of those present anoints Karna as king. Kunti later  recognized Karna as her son by the divine mark on his body and revealed to him the secret of his birth.

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Arjuna Karna final battle, Kurukshetra war, 12th-century Mahabharata relief, Hoysalesvara temple Halebidu

A striking resemblance to the entire structure of the Karna legend is presented by the birth history of Ion, the ancestor of the Ionians. Apollo, in the grotto of the rock of the Athenian Acropolis, procreated a son with the virgin Creusa, the daughter of Erechtheus. In this grotto the boy was also born. Creusa left the child behind in a woven basket in the hope that Apollo would not leave his son to die. At Apollo’s request, Hermes carried the boy that same night to Delphi, where the priestess finds him on the threshold of the temple in the morning. She raised the boy as her own and, when he has grown into a youth, made him a servant of the temple. Erechtheus later gave his daughter Creusa in marriage to Xuthus. As their marriage produced no child, the couple went to the Delphian oracle, praying to be blessed with a child. Apolo revealed to Xuthus that the first boy to meet him on leaving the sanctuary was his son. Xuthus hastened outside and met the youth, whom he joyfully greeted as his own son, giving him the name Ion, which means “walker.” However, Creusa refused to accept the youth as her son. She tried to poison him, but her attempt failed and the infuriated people turned against her. Ion was about to attack her, but Apollo, who did not wish his son to kill his own mother, enlightened the mind of the priestess so that she understood the connection. The priestess took the basked in which Ion was born to Creusa. Creusa recognized him as her son and revealed to him the secret of his birth.

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Statue of Apollo kitharoidos (“who plays the kithara”) 2nd century AD