Folklore Lecture Six: Men and Women

In this lesson, we will explore some cross-cultural images of men and women in folklore.  In so doing, we will also look at the ways in which folktales provide models both for the development of individual female and male identities, and for their social and personal integration.

Powerful Women

One of the first things we can see in the reading material for this lesson is the striking image of women presented here, as capable, ingenious, and physically strong and adept.  Further, we see this image of women even in the folklore of cultures in which women’s actual roles are quite constrained, as in the case of the Chinese swordswomen.  With respect to the latter, there are undeniably some Chinese stories which indicate how women (or men, for that matter) should “stay in their place.”  But the images of women expressed by the Chinese swordswomen are also far from unique in Chinese folklore.  The latter has its share of powerful mothers (including Tao, or Mother Nature, herself), clever and courageous young girls (such as Gum Lin, who gives her village new life by a confrontation with a dragon), and strong “spirit women,” who range from dangerous ghosts who entrance and then kidnap men to their amazing kingdoms, to the much-revered Chinese goddess of compassion, Kuan-Yin.

And in fact, the Chinese examples are not unique.  We find images of powerful women in the traditional folklore of all human cultures–even those in which women’s actual social roles are most confined.

This is not to say that folklore does not reflect its culture of origin.  Without question, we will find more images of powerful women in Native American folklore than in the folklore of Central Europe or Arabic cultures; more images of women’s power and ingenuity in the folklore of small-scale African societies than in highly stratified Asian ones.

Indeed, a comparison of cross-cultural images of women in folklore gives us a reasonable view of women’s actual cross-cultural roles.  For instance, whereas women’s (and children’s, for that matter) roles as helpless victims are quite common in European fairytales, such roles for women or children are virtually non-existent in Native American folklore.  (I cannot think of a single example in the hundreds of tales I have read or heard).

In this sense, the ways in which the stories of the Chinese swordswomen reflect their culture, while also providing alternative women’s images, are most interesting.  By day, the swordswomen are shown as living nondescript and complacent lives (even as the traditional roles of some Chinese women would have them do).  But by night, they reveal their true power and spirit (we might say their true “feminine” selves), as they determine their own identities regardless of their family affiliations and constraints, and at once struggle with wondrous physical skill and mental ingenuity for the cause of social justice.  Thus, in contradiction to their everyday roles, we have their night behavior, as a kind of mythological “dreaming,” if you will, of feminine possibility.  And this is “dreaming” in which the assumption of their real power by women remedies not only the injustice social stereotyping does to the women themselves, but the injustices their society has done to others within it, even as the thusly freed women dedicate themselves to fighting injustice at every level of their society.

In sum, we may say that Chinese folklore (and the folklore of many other cultures, as well) both reflects and extends the images of women as expressed in the everyday roles of women in society.

A Sense of Human Possibility

To repeat, whereas folklore reflects the mores of its culture, it also expresses a sense of human possibility that extends beyond those same mores.  I would like to address this issue both from the psychological and the historical perspective.  Let us take up the psychological perspective first.  Even as ritual serves to “open up” human possibilities, some of which stand in decided opposition to the order of “things as they are,” mythology may serve the same function.  In the case of peoples with a sophisticated integration of storytelling into their everyday lives, such “opening up” of human possibilities (providing a critical perspective on “things as they are”) is quite conscious.

A case in point is the way in which Native American folklore was used to gain perspective on the appearance and effects of whites on Native American societies.  As an example that directly addresses the issue of women’s roles, we have the way in which a Skokomish man (from the Olympic Peninsula) gave us back our own mythology with this kind of critical social reading.  He told the visiting missionary a version of our story of Adam and Eve in which Adam was the father of the white man and Eve, the mother of the Native American, since the latter freely gathered food to feed her peoples, thus incurring the vengeance of the white God for the violation of his fences and property lines.

Who tells the stories of a culture also makes an obvious difference in the images they present of particular parts of a population.  Robert Bly states that there is a dearth of sexist images in the folklore of Europe that was traditionally passed down by women.  But even where the use of mythology to provide a critical perspective on its society is not openly conscious, mythology itself is (as Jung would put it) a kind of collective “dream” of a society–and that dream contains not only a reflection of what is, but of what is possible.  Thus mythology always gives us more than a reflection of the social mores of a particular culture at any given moment.

Certainly, there is ample legitimacy in interpreting male and female images in folklore in the fullness of their psychological meaning.  Legitimacy enough so that we might simply stop there.  But to do so would be to ignore another part of the reason why we find such strikingly strong images of women in folklore from around the world.  Even as world folklore, taken together, may be said to be the “dream” of the “collective unconscious” of humankind, that dream must come from somewhere.  It is not simply “out of our heads” (even out of our most human needs, our most essential and insightful visions of ourselves) but out of our experience.  And in the case of the images of women in world folklore, out of our actual historical experience.

Contemporary archaeological and anthropological research tells us that our own culture (and that of other “stratified” societies) actually constitutes a radical departure (contrasting even with our own most ancient histories) from the characteristically human way of doing things, and especially in terms of the ways such stratified societies structure women’s economic, psychological, and political positions.  Evidence indicates that our most fundamental human experience over the million years that Homo Sapiens have lived on earth has been in small scale societies which were egalitarian rather than hierarchical, which were peaceful rather than warlike (the recently “discovered” Tasaday did not even have a word for “war” in their vocabulary), and in which men and women lived on an equal and reciprocal basis.  The latter has caused Riane Eisler (author of The Chalice and the Blade, a study of ancient European history and social relationships) to term this root kind of human society a “partnership” society.

It is a matter for speculation (and beyond the scope of this discussion) what caused the massive change in social arrangements that created the triplets of social stratification, warfare, and declining women’s status.  What is important for the topic of this lesson is for us to understand that the folklore that depicts men’s and women’s identities and their relationships gives us insight both into our most intimate psychological needs and our very real possibilities–even as it reflects our human historical experience.  Those who wish to explore this matter further might check out Call to Connection (Kammen and Gold), who discuss “bringing sacred tribal values into modern life” in concrete forms– involving, for instance, CEO’s of contemporary corporations.

Men, Women, and Mythology–Three Points

Let us turn to a further discussion of the insight folklore offers us on the topic of men and women and their relationships.  I would like to address three points here: mythology’s presentation of the development of masculine and feminine identity, its presentation of our relationships to one another as men and women, and its presentation of models for the integration of the “masculine” and “feminine” aspects of our society and each of our individual personalities and women’s identities.

(1) With respect to the first issue, the development of distinct male and female identities, we have the folklore of “initiation.”   Initiation this type, either as actual ritual or depicted in folklore, describes the rite of passage from childhood to adulthood in which the child or young adult goes on a quest that determines his or her separate (and either male or female) identity.  Chinen mentions this in your reading, comparing the life passage at adolescence with the life passage (and its entirely different kind of initiation).  Joseph Campbell’s well-known Hero with a Thousand Faces describes the stages of this journey to find one’s individuality, as depicted in folklore throughout the world.  These stages include the awakening, in which the “hero” feels the need to move beyond the familial home and inheritance, the wandering, in which  the hero sets out on his or her journey, confrontation with the shadow, in which the hero confronts the dangerous spirit that will gift him or her with their special power (this is a dangerous point in the tale, where the idealization of adolescence must accept the reality of a complex world and give up control over that world: in Christian literature, this stage is called the dark night of the soul); dancing with the shadow, or warrior stage in which the hero learns to accept this reality and take it into him or herself, and bringing the gift back home to his or her people.  Along the way, the child is aided by the mentorship of a human or spiritual elder.

In stories of initiation, as indicated, protagonists strike out on their own, leaving behind their former society in order to develop their unique identities.  In rituals of adolescent initiation in many cultures, this “leaving behind” of society entails intimate identification with nature.  In the adolescent “vision quest” undertaken by members of many Native American groups, young men and women went out into the wilderness by themselves to wait for the special vision that would determine their future.  In the traditional Chehalis vision quest, for instance, the seekers must await their vision alone in the wilderness until all the “smell” of humanness is gone from them.  Even after traditional Chehalis culture had been radically changed by Euroamerican contact, it was said that spirit power could still be found “if there was wilderness yet.”  Here (as in the tales from our readings), nature represents that special geography in which the adolescent becoming an adult must learn to be at “home,” must find his or her personal power.  But it is also that lonely place in which the protagonist must find his or her own separate identity as against all that society has given him or her.  It is that “wild” personal place in which personal spirit and personal power resides.

Note that in all cases, such tales allow us to make a distinction between gender (how any society conceives of masculinity and femininity) and what is female and male by nature.  Indeed, given the wide range of social roles attributed to men and women in different cultures, there is little that we can say of male and female nature.  In any event, such biological analysis has no place in the anthropology class this is.  (Just a little forewarning in terms of your upcoming assignment:  you will certainly be counted down if you write about masculinity and femininity as if you are discussing biological fact).

(2) Now we turn to the sphere of the relationships between men and women.

Many tales portray post-adolescent relationships between men and women in terms of the interdependence of men’s and women’s roles–a necessary interdependence, moreover, that is learned in the course of the tales.  In such tales from Eastern Europe, remnants of what the archaeologists Maria Gimbutas has called the ancient “Goddess Culture” (Eisler’s “partnership society”) of this area were often preserved, since they depict strong and “wild” women, whom men must learn to accept for their personal power in order to utilize their own masculine power.  Such stories–such as the story “What Does a Woman Want”? from medieval Europe, which you heard at orientation, reflect the historical experience both of women’s oppression in the context of developing complex societies, and the necessary reliance of men and women upon one another in everyday life, as well as some historical traditions of women’s power that differ radically from complex societies at large.  These tales tend to be good-natured in making their points, using the humor that Chinen sees as part of “mature” tales.

As contrasted with tales of adolescent initiation, in which finding one’s own identity is the point of the tale, these are adult tales, in which one’s identity has been firmly established–and the job is now to recognize the identity of the other in order to be able to establish relationships with him or her.  In both of these stories, male protagonists (with no little help from female protagonists) must learn to see women as they are by recognizing women’s intellectual capabilities.

As is characteristic of this type of tale, the identities and social roles of the protagonists (since they are mature) are already decided at the outset. In settling into their roles (in finding out exactly what to do with their personal talents in the social roles they are assuming), male protagonists must learn from women and vice versa. What is portrayed in these humorous tales, in turn, is a classic mythological theme in many different cultures.  In a more serious form, this theme is expressed in the East Indian tale of  Savitri (whose name means “wisdom”) and Satyavan, in which Savitri has trouble finding a mate because her beauty, her spiritual authority, and her intellectual capacity, threaten the men of her kingdom.  She enters upon a pilgrimage in which she seeks her own mate, and finds Satyavan (who is not threatened by, but appreciates her qualities), and they fall in love.  The “prize” Satyavan receives for his recognition and love of Savitri is no less than life itself.  For Satyavan’s sake, Savitri talks the God of Fate out of his plans, which include a tragic and early death for Satyavan.

(3) Further, we may look at the integration of men and women in folktales not only in terms of the relationship between men and women in society, but as the integration of the “male” and “female” parts of the self.

Carl Jung has said that every person we dream of represents not only that person, but is also symbolic of some aspects of the dreamer’s own personality.  To this way of thinking, a dream of my mother, for instance, would be more than simply the dream of my mother as a person.  By this analysis, the “mother” in my dream also represents a part of me: perhaps my own feminine authority, my feminine nurturance, or my own process of aging (whereby I assume the role my mother once had).

Those scholars of folklore who follow Jung see the “dream” of the “collective unconscious” that is mythology in a parallel fashion.  Here the characters in any folk story represent the portions of our “self” which we need to integrate in our personal lives.  Robert Bly states that the characteristic “marriage” (“and they lived happily ever after”) at the end of European folktales indicates the psychic integration of male and female that has occurred in the context of those folktales.

Take the common European fairytale plot in which a frog is really an enchanted prince or princess waiting to be transformed to original beauty by a person of the opposite sex who breaks the spell by kissing, agreeing to marry, or actually marrying them.  To Bly and other Jungian analysts, this enchanted creature represents a part of ourselves we have rejected as ugly and unacceptable.  In turn, we can only “break the spell” by accepting, recognizing, and integrating the “creature” (thereby transforming the enchanted prince or princess to their original beauty).

Note that this process entails an acceptance of a “creature” who appears other than oneself in the tales: the acceptance of an “ugly” man by a woman, or vice versa.  This same theme of the acceptance of the “other” also occurs throughout world folklore with a large number of different variations.  There is the common beggar or outcast who must be recognized as the actual prince or princess of a society.  There is the theme of the young person who must recognize and accept an “ugly” older person.  (In our own folklore, the ugly elder has often been enchanted; in the African tale from our reading, the elder person is diseased and must be healed by the ministrations of the younger person in order to be able to share her power with that younger person).  Conversely, there is a common theme (this occurs in folktales from virtually every culture I know of) of the younger person who must be accepted by an older one.  (In the latter tale type, the “youngest” son or daughter, who is originally conceived of as weak, unresourceful, and/or witless is the one who is characteristically shown to be the true hero.)

In all these tales, we have a repetition of the same lesson.  That which is “other” than ourselves (and which we might thus be tempted to reject as weaker, worthless, or even downright repulsive) yields incredible power to us when we recognize and embrace it both on its own terms and as a projection of our own possibility).  On the other hand, if we do not accept it, all manner of havoc breaks loose.  Note what happens to some of the girls at the hands of the river monster in our African tale.  They have no power against this monstrous male voice because they have rejected the old woman who appears feeble and diseased (unlike their young, healthy–and tragically vain–selves).

The Need for Integration

If one rejects the “other,” does not set it on equal terms with oneself (indeed, as a possible part of oneself), one grows comparatively weak.  True strength, by contrast, in both individuals and in society, is obtained by learning from this “other.” That is, men must learn to accept what society terms the “feminine” part of themselves, and women must learn to accept their “masculine” parts in the tales we see analyzed in Chinen.

By contrast, in the Jungian sense (and certainly folklore repeats this insight), when we reject those different from ourselves (those who are perhaps assigned “lower” social status by the culture), we also reject a most essential part of ourselves, of our own human personality.  If we reject the elderly, we also reject our personal aging process, for instance.  In seeing children only as sub-adults, rejecting them for what they can teach us as well as what we are responsible for teaching them, we may also be rejecting the spontaneity, playfulness, and creativity within ourselves.  And the same is true for man and woman, in their own reciprocal “otherness,” especially in our own culture, in which men and women are given such different social roles and attributed with such different emotional expression.

In a man’s seeing a woman as “less than” himself, we may get a reading of what he rejects in himself.  Perhaps his nurturance, his vulnerability, his compassion, his emotional responsibility for the feelings of others, his social as well as individual centeredness. Similarly, a woman may reject “male” energy because she is legitimately angry at her oppressive social role and her economic constraints, but also because she has not assumed (even as the society may deter her from assuming) her personal power, courage and individual risk-taking.

In the larger picture, of course, all of these emotional qualities “need” one another, in both society as a whole and in individual personalities.  Power without nurturance, courage without compassion, risk-taking without social responsibility (just as nurturance without power, social responsibility without personal risk-taking, compassion without courage) are all sorely, sometimes even dangerously, deficient in the repertoire of human emotion and action.

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