Tonight I want to bring some odd elements together. This morning was stubbornly unproductive, but I’ve been percolating all day on a series of themes, ideas, and symbols that I think could potentially bear fruit, if you’ll forgive the bad reference to the title. Recently, I sighed and gave up my quest to resemble the iconic Feminine role model in my life–my mother. She’s gentle and sweet and so extraordinarily good. But her brand of strength is ill fitting for me. She isn’t a fierce creature. She’s a wall flower. Her strength is that of endurance, not defiance. So, come along. Let’s talk about ferocity, love, and domesticated fruit.
Atalanta as the Icon of Fierce Women
There’s a Greek myth about a woman named Atalanta. As usual, rather than going through the story itself, I’ll provide a couple of links and you can read up on her at your own pace.
For the purposes of this segment, she represents the Fierce Woman, the iconic, untouchable, chaste female who eludes the traditional paths open to women in many cultures. While her story comes from Greece, there are echoes of such icons in other Traditions from Ireland to India. There is something dazzling about a mature woman of childbearing years who scorns the paths laid out for her, whether by magical coincidence or through some difference innate to her being.
Atalanta was dedicated to Artemis, Goddess of wild things and hunting. In fact, her backstory paints her as raised by wild creatures, an initiate of the secrets of the natural world, and a formidable huntress and warrior. Her patroness warned her that if she ever succumbed to masculine blandishments, she would lose her Self, her identity. How might we see this in realistic terms?
When we enter into a romantic relationship, it is often the case that we sacrifice certain elements of ourselves for the overall happiness of the union, dimming aspects of our personality to suit our mate. While some might see this as a necessary sacrifice of all women, I would argue that this is one of the tools of Patriarchy. Surely, in this age of Feminism, such sacrifice–when enacted in direct violation of what we choose for ourselves, done for the comfort and at the behest of another–is no longer legitimate. And yet, still I see it constantly. I fear it, on my own terms, for reasons I’ll talk about farther down.
I want to use the story of Atalanta to signify the unwillingness to relinquish the feminine Self, the fierce excellence, as the price for connubial bliss. While those who challenged her to race and failed lost their lives, how might we see the need to settle for nothing less than equal excellence in a prospective mate as a signifier of a strong woman? In realistic terms, why is it necessary not to seek a Master but an Equal? There is also a winnowing process inherent in the telling of the story. Those who cannot prove their worthiness are cast aside. They are wholly unsuitable, irrespective of other traits they might possess.
Apples, Shifting Gears, and Spiritual Virginity
The symbol of the Apple is one associated with love in several cultures. Apples are botanical cousins to roses–all in the Rosaceae family–which are flowers often given in symbolic fashion during a romantic relationship. But that bit of trivia is only the beginning of this tale. How far down the Rabbit Hole shall we venture tonight? The Love Apple is another antique name for the tomato, once thought to be deadly because of its relationship to Nightshade–the Solanaceae family.
Apples are also significant in their staid domesticity. First, because if you know your domestic history, then you can understand that no apple as we know it can ever be said to be “wild.” At best, there are feral apple trees, once part of grafted orchard plantations. The appearance of the Golden Apple, a sweet and delicious prize cast by the protagonist of the myth, signifies the distraction from the path of fierce and direct passionate living. Atalanta is a pure woman, a ferocious creature dedicated to her path of personal excellence. And yet, in spite of her misgivings about retrieving the apples cast as a distraction, Aphrodite influences her heart to go after them. I would ask you this: should we read this aspect of her story as a scene crafted by Patriarchy, or should we interpret it from a Feminist perspective, permitting her the right to desire a shift in her own path?
Atalanta may be seen, not as the dupe of male lust, but as supreme commander of her own destiny, and the transition from the Maiden aspect of her femininity into the full flower of mature womanhood. Her virginity should be interpreted not simply in the physical, sexual context, but also within the sphere of her psychological existence. Until the appearance of a worthy match–albeit one who attained worthiness laterally, rather than through direct physical excellence–she was dedicated, focused, uncaring of her appeal. Her mindset was that of a devoted athlete or craftsperson, and treated solely with her own life. It was, in simple terms, both exclusionary and exclusive. In order for her to shift from this mode to the next, she must face a symbolic death of Self.
Death as a Symbol of a Chosen Parting With the Self
And here, we can see the truth in the words of Artemis, without succumbing to rather curmudgeonly masculine-centered interpretation. I think, that in order to fully embrace our lives as fierce, fiery, creative women, we must also embrace the experience of death, which comes to us many times in life. As a fierce woman, I have to accept that I have yet to relinquish my spiritual and emotional virginity, however long in the past the loss of my physical innocence may be. In a way, I deeply identify with Atalanta, with Mother Durga–Kali in her virginal form–and ultimately with Artemis.
I must accept that–while it was never consciously an intention–in all my travels, in all my experiences in and out of the bedroom, I have never loved another human being quite as much as I love everything about language and writing. In this, I have put off accepting the symbolic death of the virginal self, the ferocious maiden hunter. I have never met one equal to myself. I am cringingly aware of how pompous that sounds, but I have to admit it. It is no less than true. And yet–I long for an equal. I have never given up hope that they might find me, best me, and in doing so, claim the prize I know myself to be. Let’s pause for a moment of internal writhing at my own arrogance.
“Sometimes the one who is running from the Life/Death/Life nature insists on thinking of love as a boon only. Yet love in its fullest form is a series of deaths and rebirths. We let go of one phase, one aspect of love, and enter another. Passion dies and is brought back. Pain is chased away and surfaces another time. To love means to embrace and at the same time to withstand many endings, and many many beginnings- all in the same relationship.” ~Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype
I won’t say that I’m turning over some new leaf of humility. That, I think, is simply not in character for me. Humble me through critique of my art or my intellect. I’ll freely accept criticism there. But how I see myself isn’t likely to change anytime soon. Nor do I think I want it to. I want to be unabashedly fierce, excellent, meteoric in my path. It’s been long enough that I have tried to conceal my nature from myself and others. I think, at least for a little while, I’ll whip you honestly and openly.
I wish to set myself a good, old fashioned challenge–three tasks, feats, riddles, or whatnot–to prove my worthiness as a human being to myself. Perhaps through my acceptance that I am not a gentle, sweet, quiet woman but a bombastic, shameless fiery salamander–who is also somewhat clumsy among delicate things–there will be room in my personal narrative for Death to come naturally to this aspect. Before, there was no room for such an occurrence, because I kept myself locked away.