Historians often write them off as mad women. The name Maenad evenliterally translates as the “raving ones”. But these women are much more than that. They are sacred worshippers and holy priestesses to the god of wine, madness and frenzy – Dionysus.
In an ideal world, celebrating one gender should not come at the expense on another. But we are not living in an ideal world. The roles of the women in Mahabharate are defined by their relationships to the men, women are placed merely on the periphery of the epic – typecast as devoted mothers, virtuous wives and innocent maidens. Amba is a different character from the women in the epic. She had to pay the price for her courage to speak her mind against the most powerful man of the age.
The general appearances of ancient Chinese deities lead us to think of them as sober imperial bureaucrats. Mostly, they look like middle aged men dressed in official-looking robes, spending their time reading formal petitions and responding by giving stern orders to their underlings – rather like the more artistic version of our modern politicians. Although several of the most popular deities are female, gender immediately raises problems for the bureaucratic image of some important deities as governing elites tend to favor a religious practice that reflected themselves (male, old, humourless etc). Women, as well as men who are viewed to be rebels or misfits, tends to be excluded from the sites and definitions of power. But a group of joyful misfits changed all that.
Ancient cultures around the world saw the sea as a dangerous place, filled with beings who preyed upon people – especially men. The legatus of Gaul once wrote to Emperor Augustus claiming that he found a considerable number of nereids dead upon the sea-shore. Although most retelling of the Odyssey depict the sirens as little more than dangerous women leading men to their deaths, there have also been some studies that provide more depth.
Marriage is a beautiful thing. However, even the most optimistic among us will agree that marriages are challenging and takes a lot of work to maintain. It is so challenging that it takes two people to maintain a working marriage – the two people are, of course, the husband and wife who want to make it work. Some marriages maybe downright difficult, miserable and even unsalvageable at times. Even Hera, the ancient Greek goddess who were actually in charge of family and marriage, had to constantly battle the many infidelities of Zeus, her philandering husband.
While we reject the idea that brunettes are mousy or that gentlemen prefer blondes, we do have to concede that going platinum made Marilyn Monroe’s career as she lightened her brown hair early in her modeling days and never looked back. In fact, Hollywood saw the emergence of many blonde actresses from 1930’s to the 1950’s. Epitheths such as “screen siren” or “cinematic goddess” were attached to the most popular blonde actresses of the day, including Monroe herself. Her face always seemed lit from within. Her secret: facial hair. Seriously. It was actually a thin layer of downy peach fuzz on her cheeks that caught the studio lights just so and gave her the effect of a “glow”. By the magic of cinematic lighting, pale skin and blonde hair were made to look like the closest approximation of what the viewers’ imagine goddesses would look like.
Empress Euphemia’s rose from a freed slave to the most powerful woman in Rome in her time through her marriage to Justin I (450-527 CE). Historia Arcana (“Secret History”) by Procopius of Caesarea (c. 500 – c. 554) introduced the Empress Euphemia as Lupicina – a slave and a barbarian concubine of her owner.
As fire is considered to be an agent of purity and as a symbol of righteousness and truth, a sacred fire is often a place for the offering of sacrifices and prayers. Therefore, those entrusted with tending this flame often held a sacred, important and very demanding role in the culture.
Half-human half-beast creatures are found in myths and legends of nearly every, if not all, culture in the world. Although many of them made their first appearance in stories from ancient Greece, Mesopotamia and Egypt, these creatures are most likely a much older concept that was passed down over generations. Ancient Greek’s Pan, who symbolizes and rules over the untamed wild, is depicted with the hindquarters, legs, and horns of a goat while otherwise being mostly human in his appearance. One of the most popular representations of Anubis, the Egyptian god of death, depicts him as a figure with the body of a man and the head of a jackal with pointed ears holding a gold scale while a heart of the soul is being weighed against Ma’at’s truth feather. In Buddhist mythology, there is the Kalaviṅka, a divine bird with a human head who preached the Dharma through its songs and, in South east Asian mythology, two of the most beloved mythological characters are the benevolent half-human, half-bird creatures known as the Kinnara and Kinnari, celestial musicians who come from the Himalayas and watch over the well-being of humans in times of trouble or danger.
Before the first moon landing in 1969, the Chinese moon goddess Chang’e was mentioned in the Apollo 11 Air-to-Ground Voice Transcription between the Spacecraft Center in Houston, Texas and the Apollo 11 crew. The center said, “Among the large headlines concerning Apollo this morning, there’s one asking that you watch for a lovely girl with a big rabbit. An ancient legend says a beautiful Chinese girl called Chang-o has been living there for 4,000 years. It seems she was banished to the Moon because she stole the pill of immortality from her husband. You might also look for her companion, a large Chinese rabbit, who is easy to spot since he is always standing on his hind feet in the shade of a cinnamon tree. The name of the rabbit is not reported.” To this, astronaut Buzz Aldrin replied, “Okay. We’ll keep a close eye out for the bunny girl.”
These female demons have much in common. They are all physically hideous, anti-mothers in one way or another, and they are all childless or give birth in abnormal ways. They are dangerous and threaten humans with both diseases and death. But they were not always demons.
The art of dance was incorporated in many religious rituals and festivals of ancient civilizations. From the third millennium BC, ancient Egyptians started to use dance as an integral part of their religious ceremonies, using dancers to perform important events such as divine tales and celestial patterns of shifting sun and stars. In ancient Greece, dance was very freely used for public purposes until it eventually brought about the birth of the popular Greek theatre in the 6th century BC. The first person in history to be called drummer was a woman – a Mesopotamian priestess, in fact.