Legends and Myths

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Legends and Myths

Myths and legends prescribe and proscribe gender-appropriate behavior and provide categorical associations for each gender that define masculinity and femininity and, by extension, the proper spheres of activity for men and women. Myths, or narratives about gods, typically have more social power than do legends dealing with humans, queens, and so on.


When they are connected to active rituals and celebrations, myths are reinforced by both verbal and imagistic repetition. For instance, the story of the incarnation of Jesus Christ is recited aloud in countless churches each December as well as being evoked by holiday cards that depict a young mother and a newborn child in a hay-filled stable, watched over by a kindly old gentleman, a sky full of angels, and a few shepherds. The repetition of culturally significant myths often provides an occasion for exegesis that enforces gender bias, as occurs when the Christmas story is used as an occasion for sermons decrying abortion or reminding women of their social role as chaste matrons.

However, differing information can be contained in mythic narratives and images. Viewers familiar with the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation typically see Christmas images as illustrating the New Testament story of the birth of Jesus, but the imagery has its source in eastern Mediterranean religions in which a goddess (Anat, Ishtar, Isis, Astarte) was celebrated as the all-powerful force of reincarnating life. Thus, careful instruction is necessary to consolidate the unitary vision of gender found in monotheistic religions and to discourage the faithful from seeing alternative possibilities in those stories and pictures.

Because there has never been a historical monotheism centered on a goddess, monotheistic religions require myths that support a male-dominant heavenly hierarchy. That supernatural reality, it can be argued, must be reflected in a similar hierarchy on earth. Thus, the image of the Virgin Mary as a mother is employed to show that human women are ideally men's helpers rather than independent actors and to promote an ideal of womanhood that does not allow women to practice sexual agency. The early Christian Church deliberately adopted goddess iconography to encourage the embrace of the "mother of God" in place of the "mother of all the gods," but worshippers must be reminded continually that a powerful woman is really a meek helper, whereas her apparently helpless male child is the omnipotent savior.


Legends, a category that includes fairy tales, folk tales, epics, and fables, depict a greater range of possible behavior for men and women. Many legends are based on premonotheistic goddess images and therefore convey culturally subversive ideas and information. One of the most enduringly popular European legends is that of Tristan and Isolde, who drink a magic potion intended to assure deep and lasting passion between Isolde and her intended husband, Tristan's uncle, King Mark. However, once they mistakenly drink the potion, the lovers are helpless against their desires; the story centers on their failed attempts to remain true to patriarchal marriage vows in the face of overwhelming passion.

The idea of love as an irresistible, fatal power is a staple of Western poetry, fiction, and especially drama, from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet to the 2005 movie Brokeback Mountain. However, Isolde's story originally was not one of fated human love; it derives from a Celtic religious myth in which the earth goddess chooses a virile young man over one whose powers are failing, a story also reflected in the British Guinevere-Lancelot-Arthur and the Irish Gráinne-Diarmait-Fionn love triangles. Although the story has been used as a cautionary tale against the social danger posed by women's sexual activities, it shows a broader range of possible action for the heroine than can be found in the official mythos of a monotheistic culture. Isolde may be in the grip of magic, but she consummates her love.

Although sacred narratives that no longer are supported by ritual often are called myths, they are functionally legends, existing as narratives detached from religious observation. An example is the classical Greek story of Demeter and Persephone, which describes the rape of the grain goddess's daughter by the underworld king Hades, the mother's mournful withholding of the earth's fruits, and the eventual partial reunion of the devoted mother and her child.

This myth formed the basis of the Eleusinian mysteries that were celebrated in Demeter's sanctuary near Athens. The rites of that religion are unknown, having been kept secret by thousands or perhaps millions of initiates for as much as two millennia. Although the mysteries have not been celebrated for fifteen hundred years, the story survives, recorded by ancient writers and retold by modern ones, a powerful narrative of intense maternal love in which the male divinity exists only to endanger that relationship. As the story of Demeter's withholding of grain until her beloved daughter is returned shows, the range of behavior for female characters is far greater in legend and nonritualized myth than it is in myths supported by monotheistic religious ritual and practice.


Narratives and images are not employed only to encourage or prohibit gender-approved behavior by men or women. Nature itself is envisioned as possessing gender, as are specific aspects of nature, which thus become subject to cultural definitions of approved behavior. This personification of natural objects and powers is found in all cultures. The agricultural Mohawk people of the northeastern American woodlands described their major food crops as Deohako, the "three sisters," with corn, beans, and squash each having unique feminine characteristics; the Inuit saw the sun as a woman forever fleeing her rapist brother, the moon; and the ancient Germans saw the sun as a woman and the moon as a man, her husband.

Although the earth occasionally is seen as masculine, as with the ancient Egyptian god Geb, the planet most often is defined mythically as feminine. The names borne by the earth goddess were myriad: Al-Lat in Arabia, Ala among Ibo-speaking Africans, Asase Yaa among the Ashanti people of Ghana, Dzivaguru among the Zimbabwean Korekore, Prakriti among the Hindus, Spenta Armaiti among the Zoroastrians, and Ja-Neba among the Samoyeds of Siberia. She was Kadi in Assyria and the mountain dragon Mamapacha among the Peruvian Incas. In Siberia the earth was Mou-Njami, a green-furred woman in whose womb all the eyes of every creature gestated; in Mali the Bambara people called the earth Muso Koroni, "pure woman of ancient soul," and described her as a dark leopard. In Slavic paganism the goddess was Mokosh, "moist mother earth," a black-faced woman whose image survives in eastern European icons of the virgin mother Mary. Among the Germans she was Nerthus, carried in a wagon through the fields each spring. On the North American continent one finds Agischanak (Tlingit), Atira (Pawnee), Awitellin Tsita (Zuni), Estsanatlehi (Navaho, Apache), Kohkang Wunti (Hopi), Muzzu-Kummik-Quae (Ojibway), Nokomis (Algonquin), Queskapenek (Okanagon), and Tomaiyovit (Luiseño).

These are only a few of the hundreds of names for the earth goddess. Her symbolism varied between agricultural and hunting peoples, with agriculturalists tending to depict the goddess as the dark fertile soil and hunters tending to emphasize her control over wildlife. In both cases, however, the maternal aspect of the earth was emphasized, for she was depicted as the source of human nourishment, as a mother is the source of milk for her infants.

This gendering of the earth as feminine becomes problematic in monotheistic religions. Monotheism leads to dualism: When there is only one god, most of the universe must be "not god." When the god is male, whatever is female is thus not god. Similarly, culturally desired attributes (strength, intelligence, power) are connected with the masculine, whereas culturally rejected or feared qualities (weakness, emotion, powerlessness) are ascribed to the feminine. Maternal qualities thus become devalued whether they are found in individual humans, divinities, or nature. The gender of "Mother Earth" thus leads to assumptions that nature is passively available to provide whatever her children desire. Within this gender construct earthquakes, hurricanes, and similar natural events that are destructive of life or property are read as deliberate "unnatural" violence against humanity, with personified terms such as raging, battering, and furious employed as descriptors. Thus, the mythic and legendary gendering of both humans and nonhuman nature is problematic in societies based on patriarchal monotheism.


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                                         Patricia Monaghan