A myth is essentially a culture’s fundamental worldview in narrative form, defining and explaining the values and ideals of the day, often told in dramatic fashion through the activities of gods and goddesses. In early times, these figures were often named for natural elements such as Poseidon for water, Apollo for sun, Aphrodite for desire, justifying powerful forces beyond human control. Myths were expressed in speeches, poetry and plays, told repeatedly in the oral tradition and adapted to the needs of the times, gradually becoming part of literature and lore. They were less practically factual than they were a means to shape social behaviour and religious thought. Today, myths are understood to be part of every culture, referring to the underlying patterns of a society’s goals, fears, ambitions and dreams. Mythological themes are often used as frameworks for modern storytelling and expressed through a variety of media to audiences all over the world.
Joseph Campbell has been referred to as the father of modern mythological studies, comparing myths through time to create a “monomyth”, a universal structure for storytelling that has been used across time and geography, what he calls “the hero’s journey”. His story structure has been used countless times in movies, including Star Wars, Indiana Jones, The Matrix and The Lion King, and in the television series Community. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces Campbell explains that as humans we need some way of describing the unfathomable, the ineffable, and we do that through the use of metaphors found in myths. These metaphors allow us to describe the transcendent beyond words, the psychic unity of darkness and light, conscious and unconscious, masculine and feminine that bring us into wholeness.
Inasmuch as Campbell’s monomyth reflects the underlying social patterns through the ages, it also reflects a masculine bias toward the hero, the male adventurer who is supported by female nurturers, guides and challengers on the road to replacing the patriarchal father as head of the kingdom. So although included in his interpretations, the feminine and particularly the dark feminine is underplayed and deserves highlighting for its distinctive perspective in myths through the ages.
The Dark Feminine is represented by what I have called the Discarded Other, that core part of our psyche we have repressed, held in the shadows of the unconscious. If we do not turn inward to recognize this essential hidden quality in ourselves and expose it to the light, the powerful dark energy can erupt into consciousness bringing with it a fiery rage, fear, greed, prejudice or addiction. Our attachment to the monomyth and our resistance to its feminine counterpart leave our current culture dangerously out of balance.
Many of the feminine goddesses embody this dark energy and its potential for fiery eruption. For example, Kali, the black Hindu goddess of death and violence, stands with her multiple arms arrayed for battle on the body of her husband the lord Shiva. As with many of the feminine myths, she has a light counterpart, Parvati, who is said to have shed her dark skin to create Kali, the fierce Other.
Sekhmet is another powerful warrior goddess, portrayed in Egyptian mythology as a lioness with a red sun, the colour of blood, on her head, her role to protect justice and balance in all things. She represents a fiery power and harsh strength that can be destructive. Her sister counterpart is Hathor, a gentle, friendly other side who is full of joy, laughter and dance.
In the Christian tradition, there is the Black Madonna, the dark feminine counterpart to the Virgin Mary. Statues of the ancient Black Madonna have been discovered throughout Europe, representing the dark pole of the feminine, the unconscious, mysterious and unpredictable. She is said to have descended from Isis, the Eqyptian goddess, as both divine and nocturnal. However, only the pure light of the Virgin was incorporated into the sacred texts, discarding the threatening dark sister.
There are numerous other powerful dark female goddesses worth exploring: Lilith in early Jewish mythology, Medusa in somewhat later Greek mythology, or Pele of Hawaiian mythology. One of my favourites is the goddess Hestia, or Vesta to the Romans, who was fire itself, representing the warmth of hearth and home rather than a fiery spirit.
The twinning or sisterhood repeated in these different mythological traditions symbolizes the integration of darkness and light, the unconscious and conscious, the masculine and feminine qualities brought together. One of the oldest and best-known feminine myths is the story of Innana and her dark sister Erishkagal. I tell it fully here with a process and some end notes to give a sense of how a myth can portray the integration of polarities, and can be allegories for life and death, the seasons, the sun and moon, and other mutual relationships.
Which of the feminine myths might be a parallel to your story? You might do some research online to find the one that mirrors your journey. Or you might decide as part of your writing to create your own myth. How would it look?