Have you ever heard of the heart-wrenching, questionable morality, and the romantically tragic tales interwoven into Greek mythology? For me, as a young child, I grew up adoring many of these far-fetched legends. Chronicles of drama conflicting even the highest divinities, deities whose gifts could easily shower wrath upon the seemingly puny human race, and vivid monsters who waged battles against fated heroes fastened to my fancy in a way that I recognized only one thing ever could — literature.
As you may assume, based off my odd infatuation with Greek mythology, I was not exactly a typical school girl for the majority of my educational career. I was obsessed with reading and writing, and words in Indian ink stamped across oceans of paper. I devoured the Harry Potter series, drowned in pages of Percy Jackson, and found solace in the wrecked spines of so many more books. Authors and fictional characters, it seemed, were more preferred companions than perhaps the occasional TV show and even sleep. Yes, I would get in trouble for reading too late at night.
Although, perhaps there was a cause for my seemingly odd avoidance of the TV. As a young Korean girl, I rarely experienced representation within the media. Movies my relatives gave to me of Barbie dolls and Disney princesses were pretty much a riot of fair-toned skin I didn’t see on myself or my mother. Movies I watched often starred light-skinned, blonde, lean girls that I witnessed only in school, not within the comfort of my own home or family.
I encourage any of you to try and recall more than one major, classic American film starring an Asian girl, even a Hispanic or African one, Disney or not. Tough, isn’t it? Because when I think back on notable movies directed towards children and even specifically girls, I see mostly Ariel, Cinderella, Snow White — whom, I wish to note, is named based off the fairness of her “snow-white” skin. Interesting.
With that in mind, perhaps it isn’t so odd that books were the most riveting pastime I engaged in from first grade until now. Thus, when a big, vividly painted book filled with images of gods and monsters and palaces I’d never before seen landed on my desk in fourth grade, it was perhaps one of the most welcomed gifts I’d ever received.
I opened the book, and the first thing I see is a young woman, draped in robes of champagne folds and efflorescent adornments in her shorn black hair smirking at me, pointing at her description. Her name was Persephone, and I was happy to have her explain to me her wondrously fantastical life. Daughter of Demeter, goddess of vegetation, spring, and to my pure incredulity, the underworld. So, of course, I crawled into the book and watched her tale unfold.
She was stolen away by Hades, Lord of the Underworld, but accepted her role and ruled the Underworld as queen. She happily assumed her status below the earth, and wasn’t afraid of Hades and came to love him due to her openness and innocence, ignoring the rumored reputation Hades had on Mount Olympus for her entire life. She didn’t seem to be bothered by the skin color she assumed or her physique, whereas the Barbie dolls chatting on the screen once in a while were plastic and flawless, outfits shining and high heels a constant.
Throughout Persephone’s tale, I soon came to understand that the world of Greek mythology was one of jealous godheads, arrogant heroes and even fickle morals and ethics. This, to me, was extremely intriguing. How could such miraculously spun tales consist of sneaky protagonists, mistrusting companions and gods who fought over the seemingly pettiest things? Although the tales of quarreling deities and their scandalous affairs snagged my attention, what ultimately demanded it were the feminine figures in this ancient literature.
Persephone, the first, led me to her other female companions — Arachne, Athena, Circe. Women who were renowned for their gifts and talent, wits and might, courage and selflessness. It seemed that the riveting body of Aphrodite and her flirtatious virtues, so similar to Barbie and the coy princesses on the television, were in no way, shape, or form, a match for these raw female characters. Arachne blared her courage and confidence in my face, and I stood as shocked as Athena when I learned of her prodigious talent in weaving and her courage to challenge the gods.
Through an astonishing book titled “Circe” by Madeline Miller, I learned of the power of self-worth and knowledge. Circe, a half-mortal witch, was outcast by her father, a titan, for defying him and selflessly helping a prisoner. As a result, she was forced to isolation for all eternity, but fearlessly survived with her witchcraft and defied the fragile arrogance of wandering heroes. Circe showed me bravery, guiding me to the depths of the sea to challenge a deity who had poison capable of causing immortals to writhe in torment for all eternity and humans to instantly die if a drop were to land on them. She risked her life for the fate of her son, and for her bravery she received the weapon of deadly poison.
I was astonished, to say the least. I can’t really imagine Barbie and her teetering heels yachting to go claim some poison for anything, really. And Athena, goddess of war and wisdom, proved to be by far the most impressive. She was born, in full-fledged “war mode,” by busting her father’s head in two.
She emitted a war cry as soon as she leapt from the womb — I mean, brain — and to top it all off, was extremely skilled in weaving and the beholder of wisdom itself. Another amazing female role to consider is Artemis. She vowed to forever stay a virgin, and her followers also took such a vow — and she was related to the “slanderous fiends” Zeus and Hades and even Poseidon, too busy with their own little rivalries and affairs to notice the real change makers on Mount Olympus.
These women showed me the limitless bounds of capability buried within me, and I soon examined the world and society around me through their eyes. I greeted knowledgeable interaction with adults eagerly, excitingly anticipating the communication gap I was able to breach in fourth grade. It sounds terribly “lame” now, but back then it was a huge milestone for my budding fourth grade self. However, most of all, I admired the women in Greek mythology for their resistance.
Greek mythology, with its gods stealing away women for wives and the hopes of fertile offspring (Zeus and Hades two major culprits) and its easily conflicting moral heroes was obviously a realm where there were frivolous and inconsistent ideologies and ethics. For example, Dionysus, God of wine, fertility, and madness, also one of the 12 major gods, was at risk of being born because of Zeus’ inconsistency of being faithful to his wife (and sister, so incest was clearly a major factor in these inconsistent Greek morals, but we’ll ignore that for now) Hera and her ever-brimming jealousy.
Hephaestus, another major god, married to Aphrodite yet betrayed for Ares because of his facial deformities, and again, inconsistent marriage. Counseling might be a good step for the Olympians, but we’ll focus in on the major female roles in this mythology. Persephone, Athena, and Circe, surrounded by these fickle ethics, never strayed from their personal virtues. Even Hera, although an overwhelmingly jealous and pretentious, was an extremely powerful goddess and triumphed over Zeus every time she punished him, and certainly established her role as queen of the Olympians.
So, what does all this feminine power entail? Well, it easily indicates potential role models for women today in society. When I ask my friends and even other adult women who their role model is, I don’t often get the answer “Persephone, goddess of spring,” or “Circe, witch and daughter of Helios” — and why not? Often the common answers are women who’ve lived among us, Harriet Tubman perhaps, or movie stars and fashion icons. Either way, although Tubman is certainly an amazing force to be reckoned with, perhaps it’s time to welcome my old Greek companions into the playing field. The women of Greek mythology have characteristics other than a pretty face and flawless hair.
They’ve got courage, confidence, wisdom, wit, integrity, and power. They are easily my female role models of choice, sustaining their amazing virtues in the face of the ever-changing scandals of Greek mythology. Sounds a lot like women and society today, no? There have been many publications of literature hinting to the conformist structures against females in society, such as “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin, and “The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate” by Jacqueline Kelly.
Humankind also has a reputation of being brutally vicious against itself and other forms of life, and all the World Wars and the destruction of the earth’s realms can come to symbolize the chaotic nature of Greek mythology’s ancient world. Persephone, Artemis, and Athena come to represent the capability of rising role models and change-makers existing in our broken society today, and I’m proud to say can act as a call to action. The world is ever-changing, but the ones who come to execute this change and the dreams of our forefathers are the children of the world. Children, young and seemingly naïve, who need role models that can fit all sorts of restrictions. Young girls from around the world who come to America, much like my grandparents towing my parents as children behind them, could grow up admiring figures who will never let them down, who educate while inspiring and show the power of mental capacity over physical features.
I ask you today to at least consider the potential Greek mythology has in changing many lives who yearn for positive female influence. Who is the Persephone or the Circe in your life, and how can you join alongside them against the ongoing strife of society today? Perhaps Greek mythology isn’t the dusty old textbook scripts we perceive it to be, but the hint of something bigger for young members of society all over the globe.