This will not be a discussion of the myths of some stone-age matriarchal culture, but rather, an examination from one subjective standpoint--my own, of course--of the relationship between social myth, social reality and female possibilities. My use of certain terms may well be too imprecise for the professionals among you, but we creative souls are well known for our ignorance of the rules of the critics. Actually, I see it as my solemn duty to leave the role of referee up to them and stick to games of the imagination. That is true poetic license.
I use myth here in the sense of social or cultural myth and not in the sense of tales of gods and heroes. To give you an example of what I mean: one of our cultural myths is that anyone who tries hard enough can--and will--succeed. Or, more recently, that communism is the root of social injustice and democracy is the cure. These beliefs are so widely held that they come to resemble fact in the communal mind. But to what extent do cultural myths and symbols really reflect society? When we look at our society, we can see that many of our myths are wish-fulfillment --but even that tells us something about the society that dreams such dreams. The American Dream is the American Myth--what does that tell us about ourselves? Our Dream is the fantasy of an individualistic, capitalistic society, and the uncritical literary presentations of the story of the poor boy who gets rich are its myths--as are the true stories that stick to the basic plotline. And although they may not be reflections of American reality, they are reflections of American ideals.
What kind of a cultural myth does a monolith like Portlandia suggest? Putting woman on a pedestal has a history going back several centuries and is usually tied up with locking her in a gilded cage. Powerful images of womanhood, however, both in art and literature, frequently burst the bounds intended for them and take hold of the imagination in a way that transcends the will of their creators. The Statue of Liberty has more symbolic power than any other statue in the country. Or to give you an example from literature--Anna Karenina was intended to be a moral example of an immoral woman. She certainly got the better of Tolstoy there. But what do myths with decisive female figures tell us about the societies that told those stories? Were there perhaps more possibilities for women in such societies? Were they more respected, treated differently?
Let me tell you a story, a celtic fairy tale, in a shortened version, of course; I'm not here to tell you stories but to improve your minds. Although I am quite convinced the one does not exclude the other. And besides, telling stories is what I do best, or at least I like to think so. The story is an old Irish one called "Diarmait and the Love Spot."
Diarmait and several other heroes were out hunting too long one day when it started to rain and they were forced to seek shelter. Eventually they discovered a cottage in a valley none of them had ever set foot in before. The inhabitants of the cottage were a magnificent sheep, a cat, an old man, and -- of course, what else could it be, since every story has to have its love interest -- a beautiful young girl with flaming red hair and such an enticing smile it made the men's hearts beat a little faster. After a tussle with the sheep at the dinner table, which I won't bother to tell you about, the four heroes were ready for bed. The old man informed them they would have to sleep with the beautiful young girl because there was so little room in the house. As the tale specifically states, they wouldn't have been strong, healthy men if that hadn't kept them awake and waiting.
Finally, the girl entered the room and undressed to go to bed. For a while, the four companions lay quite still, all of them hoping the others were already asleep. Goll's willpower proved to be weakest. He crawled over to her and begged to be taken to her bed. The maid looked at him with her soft, seductive eyes and whispered, "Oh, Goll, I was yours once, but it will never happen again. Go back to your bed." Grinding his teeth in frustration, Goll returned to his pallet. Once again all was still. Then Osgar decided to try his luck, but he hadn't even reached the girl when he heard her voice call out of the darkness telling him to return to his bed as well.
After a while, Conan got up and crept toward the girl's bed. Intending to be especially clever, he said coaxingly, "Beautiful fairy princess, you are irresistible; as lovely as the clouds reddened by the morning sun over Slieve Bloom. If you give yourself to me, I will sing your praises the rest of my life."
"Dear Conan," the maid answered, I do not need your praises. I no longer care for you after you have already possessed me."
Conan was confused and muttered a curse. But what could he do? Love is impossible to force, so he trudged back to his bed of straw.
Finally Diarmait, quite hopeful after she had refused the others, crept to the bed. The girl was sitting up and her fire- red hair fell down her shoulders. She stretched out her arms to him and whispered, "Diarmait, I have been waiting for you. I wish I could give myself to you, but I must refuse you as well. I can never return to those who have once possessed me. My name is Youth. But it is difficult for me to send you away. You will not leave without a sign of my love."
The girl caressed his forehead and said, "I have marked your brow. From now on, no maid and no woman will be able to see you without loving you."
And that is how Diarmait O'Duibhne got his love spot.
Now, what was interesting for me about this story, and the reason I'm telling it, was not Diarmait's love spot, but Conan's reaction after he was refused. It actually was a bit of a shock to me as I read the story for the first time. Because as every civilized person knows, "love" certainly can be forced and is commonly known as rape. Of course, this is a mythic story, and we are dealing with Youth and not some normal girl, but I sincerely doubt if Zeus would even have considered thinking twice before taking what he wanted, Youth or no Youth. Those Greek and Roman gods were specialists at rape. I'm not claiming the ancient Irish were not familiar with the phenomenon, but just think of what the implications are of a hero reflecting, "Love is impossible to force." What would a society have been like that told erotic stories in which the woman's refusal is respected? Stories of warrior women who teach male heroes the arts of war? Was it a matriarchy, as some feminist historians like to postulate? Probably not. If there ever was a true matriarchy, a land in which women ruled, then it was probably before recorded history. Unless, perhaps, there is a sliver of truth to the fables of the Amazons.
Since we have very little knowledge of celtic culture, and none whatsoever of Amazonian literature -- if there ever was such a thing -- let's turn to stories and societies we are more familiar with. Shakespeare's plays, for example, with their astonishingly strong, fascinating female protagonists, were written in an age which was quite conscious of the capabilities of women, one woman in particular. It was the age of a strong, respected queen. And later, while Americans were producing tales of individualistic heroes out to conquer the continent, Europeans were more interested in stories of marriage and adultery, stories imbedded in relationships and society. Such examples do seem to indicate a correspondence between dominant fictional forms and recognizable tendencies in society. Perhaps the conclusion is not too farfetched that whenever "matriarchal" as opposed to exclusively "patriarchal" cultural myths were in vogue, women usually were better off.
But if predominant literary forms reflect ideology, does it work the other way around? Can the creation of new stories change the way we see ourselves, the way we see others, our dreams and our desires? Obviously, stories can and do change along with ideological changes, but which comes first, the society or the story? You can't create a true picture of social conditions of a certain time and place by examining the literature, but you can discover what moved people, what they thought was important, how they saw themselves. Literature is full of typical idealizations and typical plots. And I mean all literature. Fiction, autobiography, history -- all forms of narrative expression tend to force incidents and individuals into acceptable conventions. A contemporary biography of Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Gaskell, a novelist herself, emphasizes Brontë's final fulfillment in marriage. Marriage, mind you, and not Jane Eyre. So here you have a hugely successful novelist being confined in narrative by the restrictions on female fictional possibilities of her era: female protagonists were not successful novelists, they were either happily or unhappily married. In realistic narrative of the Victorian age, it wasn't enough that a story be possible, it had to be probable.
Many contemporary writers are trying to get around the limits of probability and create new stories for women. Many of those new stories make use of matriarchal symbolism and take place somewhere on the far side of realistic fictional forms. Beyond the old limits, but with old materials used in a new way, a conscious process of myth-making is taking place. Is that a contradiction of terms? Can myth, that symbolic narrative of the collective unconscious, be created consciously? I don't claim to have the answer. But if myth is as absolute as Jung pretends it is, then we should be able to understand other cultures instinctively.
Cultural myth, at least, seems to be constantly redefining itself. Far from fixed, especially in this age of rapid change, our cultural myths are regularly discarding old images and stories and replacing them with new. So why not participate in the process consciously? If we want to change our lives, we have to change the myths first.