Female Archetypes: The Divine Feminine

I am puzzling over female archetypes again in preparing for Nano. My WIP has mythic elements and I’ve been doing research, reading parts of The White Goddess, The Golden Bough, and The Hero with a Thousand Faces. I am troubled that female archetypes, and the feminine spiritual journey, are almost universally defined by their relationship to men, or male gods.

Robert Graves defines the elemental feminine archetype in The White Goddess as the three-faced female principle–lover, mother, crone. He describes the great war between matriarchal earth goddess religions and the patriarchal religions that won the war and have ever since stamped down any reemergence of raw feminine power.

This strikes an elemental chord in my soul. When the hero begins his journey it has absolutely no reference to the feminine. He goes on a spiritual journey to save the world. There is no equivalent heroic female quest.

As a writer I’m looking for those stories of the feminine that have the mythic power of the hero’s journey that George Lucas tapped in Star Wars.

Reading Robin Hobb recently I can see how she’s drawing on mythic female archetypes, as have other fantasy writers with female warriors, like Elizabeth Moon or Robin McKinley, or writers like Patricia McKillip or Gregory Maguire, who have been retelling the great fairy tales–like Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella and Snow White.

Amongst the gooey new age-y drivel online about wolves and Lemuria, there is some marginally useful stuff for writers beyond Freud and Jung and the Myers-Briggs test. For example, this listing of male and female archetypes. In 2000 I went to the Pikes Peak Writers Conference in Colorado Springs and the romance writers there had a similar list to the third one here. The one that has stuck with me ever since was “The Plucky Kid,” or I think the Colorado group may have called her “The Buddy,” the character played by Terri Garr or Jean Arthur, “come on, you can do it!” But who is she buddy to, who is she encouraging?

Thelma and Louise was so powerful because this was a female buddy movie. But once again, see, they launched their journey because of an attempt by the male to subjugate and dominate the feminine. Their journey ended with their own self-destruction. There was only one way out of the labyrinth and that was to jump off the mountain. They refused to submit to the masculine construct.

Like Anna Karenina who struggled for self-actualization and despaired. In fact, all those great 19th century novelists saw woman’s predicament clearly. They brought their women to full, rounded, passionate and thoughtful life but could not bring them safely out of the labyrinth.

Or Fried Green Tomatoes, two women who love each other and protect each other and try to live independent fulfilled lives without the constant threat of men, in this case by quietly eliminating the male threat.

When a woman tries to escape, she cannot shake her male-referenced plight until she becomes the crone, the wise woman, the repository of tribal knowledge, like Jessica Tandy in Fried Green Tomatoes, beyond the lure and trap of sexuality. Or unless she bears a sickle and spills the bull’s blood to make the earth flower, as Mary Stuart Masterson did as Izzy.

My friend and writing partner Susan and I worked with the Celtic selkie myth in our screenplay, Never Touched Her. The selkie is a shape-changing seal, who comes out of the ocean one night to sit on the rocks and change to a woman. A fisherman sees her and steals her skin, so that she cannot change back to a seal and return to the sea. She goes to his home, keeps his house, bears his children, until one night she finds her skin, and without a backward glance, leaves his house, abandons her children and returns to the sea, like Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Another powerful example of the universality of myth that Campbell, Graves, and Frazer all elucidate.

The Greek goddesses, like the gods, were jealous, lustful, vengeful, generous at times, fickle. Artemis is a nice archetype, the huntress, the virgin, although of course the male is always hunting her, tempting, trapping, her with silver apples. It’s interesting that Athena, wisdom, is a goddess, not a god, and not yet a crone. The Greek gods certainly think with their manhood for the most part. Aphrodite, of course, love, sex, beauty, fertility. Persephone, the embodiment of the rape and captivity of the female principle. Demeter, earth goddess. I am just rambling now.

I just googled female archetypes images. Pretty interesting. Marilyn Monroe, another Anna Karenina. A sexy nurse. A girl sucking a candy.

This anime one is the waif as white goddess perhaps? Anime in general seems turned on by waifs with super powers. In fact, what about female superheroes, like Storm? The White Goddess for sure.

Oooh, check it out. Sigorney Weaver in Alien. Angry mothers in a fight to the death. I love it! Now that’s what I’ve been looking for!

This divine feminine principle is the mythic essence of ardent female friendship. And every actualized thoughtful woman I know attests to the power of those friendships. Like The Four of Us, best friends from college–Susan, Eva, Ginny and me. Or the passionate friendship of the women who went to Camp Miramichee as girls, where we learned to succeed or fail on our own merits and with our own strength and wits without any reference to men whatsoever.

Lionesses hunt while the male lions lie around and roar occasionally, when they’re not eating their rivals’ cubs. We should all tap our inner lioness and come roaring our of the dark night of the soul, ready to hunt.

Reading Update:

20-22 Liveship Trilogy: Ship of Magic, Mad Ship, Ship of Destiny, Robin Hobb
18-19 Forest Mage & Renegade’s Magic, Robin Hobb
17. Shaman’s Crossing, Robin Hobb
16. The Book of Murder, Guillermo Martinez
15. The Likeness, Tana French
14. The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd
13. Tales of Old Whitehaven, Leigh Anne McCorkle
12. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Steig Larsson
11. In the Woods, Tana French
10. Ysabel, Guy Gavriel Kaye (should have been published as YA)
9. The Savage Garden, Mark Mills
8. What the Dead Know, Laura Lippman
7. The Magic Thief, Sarah Prineas
6. Savvy, Ingrid Law
5. Coraline, Neil Gaiman
4-4.5 A Storm of Swords and A Feast for Crows, George RR Martin
2-3. A Game of Thrones, and A Clash of Kings, by George R.R. Martin
1. Jennie, The Romantic Years, the first volume of an old biography of Lady Randolph Churchill, Winston Churchill’s mother, an American.

45. The Way We Live Now, Anthony Trollope
36-44 Heaven to Betsy, Betsy in Spite of Herself, Betsy Was a Junior, Betsy and Joe, Carney’s House Party, Betsy and the Great World, Betsy’s Wedding, Emily of Deep Valley, Maud Hart Lovelace
30-35 Betsy-Tacy, Betsy Tacy and Tib, Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill, Winona’s Pony Cart, Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown, Maud Hart Lovelace
24-29 The five books in The Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper
8-23 All 16 books in Mazo de la Roche’s Jalna series
1-7 Harry Potter, 1 through 7.

56 thoughts on “Female Archetypes: The Divine Feminine


    Just quick — for me, THE great literary expression of the Feminine Hero is Alice in Wonderland. She is raised in a culture that doesn't prepare her for her life; she descends into madness and chaos; she learns the physics of her new world without giving up the lessons of her old world; she wins NOT by duking it out with someone (a TOTALLY male construct — that's why Aliens and Thelma and Louise are just male wet dreams to me) but by drawing a boundary and collecting and focusing — and projecting — her emotional power. AND the whole story has nothing to do with men. Men don't get her into it – men don't get her out of it; men aren't the goal or the obstacle; the gender of the characters is esentially irrelevant.

    I like the Greek Goddesses — but it's already late in the transition from Earth Goddess to Sky God – and, I agree with you, the male principle as baseline – reference point – is already too established. Only Athena is free – and she is, as you point out, hunted.

    This was great! There's so much more to comment on — it was so rich — but I'm at the office, and better jump. Thanks — !


  2. Oops. ARTEMIS was hunted. Athena had to dispose of enemies (Poseidon and others) like all the other god/desses had to. But – I think she found cooler ways than hand-to-hand (man-o a man-o as I put it in a King of the Hill script once…)combat.


  3. Yes, Alice. I remember you talking about this. True. Good one. Written by a perhaps pedophile and definitely oddball male, of course. But the tapping of primordial imagery is nonetheless amazing.

    And I was thinking of Joan of Arc and Boaedica, female warriors and in the latter case a warrior/queen. Proof on the one hand that women can be heroes and proof on the other that the heroic myth is male. They are just women who became “as good as” men. Like Hillary.

    And I was thinking about the lionesses and hunting. But the reason the lioness hunts is to preserve the pride, not conquest or individual aggrandisement. And because we live under the rule of the Sky God, who defines our cultural norms, that is not as exciting or stirring.

    But I was thinking of a reference in one of those links to Shelob and Sam. The hero and the malevolent evil queen. But the text actually has Sam expressing an almost feminine ideal, when he compares Sam to the small creature who fights an larger enemy tooth and claw, hopelessly, to defend a fallen loved one. Is that courage male, female or human? Isn't that what we're really searching for is the elusive wholeness? Are those who find it the bodhisattvas, Jesus, Buddha? Is that enlightenment, when the right and left halves come together?


  4. Damnit! Not enough time. This is the ONLY thing I'm interested in right now!!!! Not really responsive — except for the wholeness thing — which is YES YES YES! I think for you and me — (and many others, of course) — who embody a strong MALE principle, it's all confused. The freedom to EXPRESS that maleness becomes part of Feminism — a political freedom for women — but I don't think it's really Feminine, you know what I mean? We ARE so “both” — that our urgency to experience wholeness on that level is probably more extreme than most.


  5. I've never defined the hero(ine) in terms of gender, but rather as that small person you mention in that last comment. The common thread being not the elements and phases of the classic heroic cycle so much as a small person facing a big challenge they have every probability of being crushed by, but facing it anyway because it's the Right Thing To Do. This of course says more about me than it does about literature. But by my definition I've got plenty of heroes of both genders. 🙂

    However, as far as archetypes go, I have always found it interesting that the triple-aspect female developed at least somewhat independently in diverse and different cultures. People like to complain about Hollywood and the Girlfriend Role, but classically speaking, I think the multi-faceted-female is a much more developed character than the linear male-on-a-quest.


  6. Yes, Jen, you are right. The three-part goddess is much more complex than the hero/god like Hercules or Jason, which is a brawny archetype, who also get a bit a divine feminine help along the way whispered in his muscular ear. Not that I don't love Odysseus. Now there's a nuanced hero, wily and untrustworthy, more cunning than strong, more survivor than conquerer.

    And I love that cleaving straight to the basic good children's book (or any book/story) line: an appealing character engaged in a righteous cause against overwhelming odds. It really is human rather than gendered, isn't it?


  7. I don't think so. I mean – OF COURSE it's human — because we're all a mix of male/female principles — but if we're talking about ARCHETYPES — then no. The female is in three parts because she's the mother of the male, then the consort of the male, then the widow of the male – and oops! Time to start shtupping her son again. The King is dead – long live the King. He IS linear. She's enveloping – swallowing – creating – destroying. There are no “quests” or “enemies” or anything — there's Life and Death. FOR THE SPECIES. Absolute Survival. Which – you gotta admit – makes her essence harder to capture in narrative… Except for in some monstrous way — the ALIEN in Aliens.


  8. In a sense — that's why the Red Queen (in ALICE) is also the face of the goddess — because she's senseless, mindless life force. The extreme end of the female principle gone berserk — like the rogue soldier is a male extreme. Alice is preserving order. The physics of HER universe; the rules of HER culture; the integrity of her own body, you know!? One pill makes you whatever… The goddess IS the body. The physics. The culture. The god runs around doing stuff inside it all.


  9. But what does this leave us with as writers? Shelob as true archetype, impossible to capture on the page except as horror or some kind of dense forest with a cave in it that radiates something–or the list of male-referenced roles: the buddy, the waif, Barbara Stanwick in The Postman only Rings Twice, or the mother in Psycho?


  10. Just left another long comment and lost it somehow, about chthonic elements and my recurrent dreams of the unbearable evil in The House Out Back. What the heck is that?

    Jen has a chthonic monster in her banshee book. Is that a feminine archetype or something altogether different, just evil? Although the chthonic thing just meant the sacrificial blood was spilled underground.

    And something else about female characters who embody feminine principles of family, and protecting the family, the pride's hunting grounds, like Scarlett and Melanie, or the woman whose name escapes me in Cold Mountain who kept the farm going during the war. I loved her story. It was more riveting to me than the man's long walk home, also mythic, Odyssean.


  11. Hmmmm. I think a piece of it — aside from whatever role she plays in the world at the beginning of her adventure — is that she has to descend. The persephone/demester myth — whether she goes down willingly – or is abducted – or a combination of the two – she has to leave home. In that sense – Dorothy is a female hero myth. She goes somewhere insane, works with primordial forces, survives, gets back home. (that's where I always lose interest — I want her to start a NEW home in the NEW place…)


  12. Well, my Invasion novel is certainly archetypical heroine's journey then. Chaos, and a trip into the underworld. She returns above ground but there's no home to return to, and she must make a new home in a new world.

    And you haven't read all of Animist Susan, either. But I think I told you about the lioness meditation. I use that in Animist.

    I wanted to explore this mythic substrata though for Rosalita, which is an explicit mythic story.


  13. Just read your Scarlett O'Hara post. Yes – right! Protecting the home. So – then it's not so much leaving and having to get back – it's the madness of the world coming to her HOME and her having to win it back. I think the cold killer of the female hero is always stunning. But it's not the rogue soldier cold killer…it's a coldness of utter resolve. molecularly bonded intent. Failure is impossible not because of the ego — as you said earlier about the lioness hunting for the pride — failure is impossible because if she dies all life dies with her. The baby, the species, the planet – all life. The goddess isn't separate from her self, the way the god is – there's no “self” there's not “not” self. That's why she's so scary. This is cool.


  14. Have to stop — we're crossing, but all the posts work anyway! Very goddess, eh what? I've barely read ANY of Animist, and want to want to! Rosalita? Nano? What are these???!!!


  15. Rosalita began as a ghost story I wrote as an exercise in John Gardner's book On Becoming a Novelist.
    The exercise was to create two main characters for a ghost story and I came up with a middle-age black stone mason who works on Capitol Hill and his teenage Hispanic apprentice.
    Nano is National Novel Writing Month. 50K words and a finished novel in one month. I'm going to turn the short story into a novel for Nano.


  16. But what does this leave us with as writers?

    Human characters rather than archetypes, I hope. 😀 The triple aspect female, for example, isn't actually a female at all, or even a person. She's the circle of life personified. Extrapolate her out to the number of female deities in a wide range of cultures who represent both fertility and death.

    That's all well and good, but it's a concept. Concepts don't do car chases and witty dialogue. I need a person.


  17. Of course, I agree. But there comes a point when you wanna see what it's standing on.
    My characters always come first and I grasp any larger meaning later. This time with Rosalita it's so different I am trying to get at it from a different direction from the beginning, especially since she IS a demigoddess.
    And truly once I start this shit, it's hard to stop spinning into Alice's wonderland, down the rabbit hole.
    I also just realized that many war stories may follow what we're postulating as a female journey–confronting madness and senseless destruction, finding a place within to hold fast to, and making it home in the end.


  18. Those war stories ARE a female journey — I think that's a great call. Questing after a goal, basically, is male — while surviving the unsurvivable is basically female. Probably. Jen brings up the writerly point, though, of course — they ARE archetypes. Rosalita sounds cool. If she's a demigoddess, maybe you could imbue her with whichever aspect of the goddess you want — and work with it the way we work with our “talents.” Singing – painting – cooking — OH!! I must have told you about those triple goddess meditations I had when – I realized, eventually – Pluto was approaching my first house? And she gave me a sphere of power…? Familiar? If not – let's talk — too long for a blog and not something I absolutely MUST have swimming around the blogosphere with my name all over it…


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