Woman Misunderstood and Reclaimed
‘The heroine, as such was utterly passive. She was Ireland or Hibernia. She was stamped, as a rubbed-away mark, on silver or gold; a compromised regal figure on a throne. Or she was a nineteenth-century image of girlhood, on a frontispiece or in a book of engravings. She was invoked, addressed, remembered, loved, regretted. And most important, died for. She was a mother or a virgin… And she had no speaking part. If her harvests were spoiled, her mother tongue wiped out, her children killed then it was for someone else to mark the reality. Her identity was an image.’ – Eavan Boland, Object Lessons, 1995
Mythological tales are an escape from normality. We imagine how things could be in another world or how we might like them to be. More often than not, it appears women are portrayed how we might like them to be. Just as Eavan Boland switches from the past to the present, so too will I. By exploring myth, folklore and legend, we can get a glimpse as to how society viewed women throughout history. One thing to note about Irish mythology is that women could be portrayed as multi-faceted beings. The same Irish goddess could be a young woman or a hag, a mother or a virgin, a warrior or a seductive temptress, depending on the story being told.
The perfect woman is a myth. There are many tales of how a woman should be. Some women are made to be seen and not heard. So often women are subjects of legend and fantasy while having very little control over where the narrative brings her. There would be no story without us but yet we weren’t the ones who wrote it. Women are idealised and set upon mythical pedestals, yet quickly removed from the throne if there is any deviation from the expected. I believe these women are simply misunderstood. This may come as no surprise as throughout Irish mythology women are so often christened mysterious and yet rarely investigated.
Women in Irish mythology are often depicted as otherworldly beings who use their sexuality to seduce men and get their way. Most notably, Niamh was said to have lured Oisín to Tír na nÓg. I wonder were the connections between these stories and the view of women in society very often intertwined?
The naming of Ireland is a fascinating representation of the importance of women in society and their simultaneous invisibility. The modern Irish Éire evolved from the Old Irish word Ériu, who was a Gaelic goddess. The High Kings of Ireland were said to have been married to Ériu each year at Uisneach during the festival of Bealtaine. Ireland may also go by Banba, a sister of Ériu, which can be translated as ‘unploughed land’ or ironically, ‘place of women’s death’. Women are the mythical and also literal birthplace of this country but with little recognition or exploration into understanding who they really are. The three sisters, including Fódla, were said to embody Irish sovereignty and yet, Irish women fought and continue to fight for their own body sovereignty today.
The depiction of women in myth is even more misunderstood when we think about how the ‘great classics’ of our time were written and more interestingly, translated by men. Women’s names are further tarnished through the male translators’ misogynistic lens on top of the one that is already there. A prime example of this is Homer’s Odyssey. Instead of words that had been typically used to describe the women in this poem by male translators such as ‘whore’ and ‘slut’, Emily Wilson, the first woman to translate it into English, more accurately depicted them simply as ‘girls’. Ironically, the silencing of female voices, and the dangers of female agency, were central ‘problems’ in the poem. The Aeneid, a portion of which inspired Boland’s poem Love, was only first translated into English by a woman in 2009. 2,000 years later and women are still being misunderstood and we are continuously reclaiming our voice.
Love gives us an insight into this world where women do not have the language to portray their reality. Boland surely brings her own experiences of trying to find her voice in the male-dominated poetry scene of Dublin in the 60s to her work. What’s more, she gives voice and choice to other women. Interestingly, it was from Eavan Boland’s house in 1970 that a young Mary Robinson, first female president of Ireland, left to get married to her husband (unable to leave from her parents’ house as it was a union of which her family ardently disapproved of).
Furthermore, it is interesting to note that Ireland’s two most legendary mythical heroes, Cú Chulainn and Fionn mac Cumhaill were both taught warrior skills by women. Cú Chulainn learned his craft through the teaching of warrior queen Scathach while Fionn mac Cumhaill was taught to hunt and fight by warrior Liath Luachra. And while I remember being taught about these two men time and time again during my upbringing, these women were never mentioned to me.
Myths collide to form a narrative about women. They are not singular nor are our present day experiences of being women. They are interconnected, fused, and they need to be understood as a collective. Myths from hundreds of years ago still pervade today. We see women on TV wake up with perfect, full faces of make-up on – if that’s not a myth, I don’t know what is.
We see a re-emergence of women’s voices in the rebirth of St. Brigid that is currently taking place. I hesitate to even say re-emergence as I’m not sure if there was an emergence of women’s voices to begin with. St. Brigid symbolises new beginnings. Similarly, we are beginning to understand that which we didn’t understand years ago or simply didn’t want to understand. Stories need to be told by women and not just about them. The words need not be shadows and you must be able to hear us.
Lauren Foley is a law graduate from University College Cork and law and economics LLM graduate from Utrecht University. Her passion is gender equality, feminism and women’s rights which is reflected in her work, master’s thesis, activism (mainly previously during Ireland’s fight for reproductive freedom), speaking commitments, writing and her weekly YouTube video series. Lauren is incredibly passionate about improving the everyday experiences of women through every possible means.