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What Are the Different Roles of Women in Mythology?

By Alan Rankin
Updated May 23, 2024
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Women have played significant roles in the mythology of various cultures throughout human history. Some women in mythology have possessed magical powers, ranging from the ability to predict a person’s fate to determining that fate themselves. Ordinary women in mythology often accompany male heroes; others are heroic figures in their own right. Some creation myths offer a primary female figure who is the mother of the human race. In the mythology of many cultures, creator goddesses likewise give birth to all of existence.

The roles of women in mythology vary depending on the culture and the era. Many of them, however, have similar characteristics in numerous world mythologies; these are called archetypes. A common female archetype is the wise woman who offers advice or predictions of the future, analogous to the wise old man, who plays a similar role. A sinister version of this archetype is the witch, such as the Weird Sisters who predict doom in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. These characters are based on mythological figures, including the Moirae, or Fates, of Greek mythology, who determined human life and death.

Some women in mythology, such as Andromeda from the Greek myths, existed only to be rescued by heroic figures such as Perseus. Others were more proactive; Ariadne, lover of the Greek hero Theseus, provided him with a sword and a ball of twine so he could slay the Minotaur and escape the great maze called the Labyrinth. Such women are not to be trifled with; Medea aided the Greek hero Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece, but when he betrayed her for another woman, she retaliated by murdering their children. This is famously portrayed in Euripedes’ classical Greek tragedy Medea. In many myths, Medea was an enchantress, uniting her with the witch archetype.

Numerous women in mythology were portrayed as goddesses. The Greek pantheon includes Artemis, goddess of the moon; Athena, goddess of wisdom; and Aphrodite, goddess of love. In Hawaiian mythology, Pele is the goddess of volcanoes. Buddhist traditions of the Far East revere Guanyin as a bodhisattva, an enlightened being who helps others achieve wisdom. Some goddesses are the subjects of heroic legends of their own. For example, the Babylonian goddess Ishtar descends into the underworld to rescue her lover from death.

In Greek mythology, Pandora was the first woman, who accidentally released the troubles of the world by opening a forbidden box. This has parallels with the Biblical story of Eve and the Norse legend of Embla, both considered the progenitors, or parents, of all humanity. In other traditions, such as Hinduism and Sumerian myths, a mother goddess gave birth to the cosmos, literally or otherwise. This corresponds to the real-life role women play in the procreation of the human race. Some scholars believe these mother-goddess beliefs were once widespread, but were supplanted by patriarchal religions early in human history.

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Discussion Comments
By Mor — On Mar 25, 2014

@clintflint - You see that even today if you want to look at characters like Wonder Woman and Superman as being part of our modern mythology. Look at how many movies Superman has had over the last few decades and compare that to Wonder Woman. And, frankly, she has a much more interesting story.

Or look at the Avengers. Of all of them, there is only one female and she is extremely popular. But has she been given her own film franchise? Nope.

And it's not like people can't enjoy a female in a leading role. Look at that TV show Xena. That was straight mythology and it went for years with two females in the lead roles. In fact, it was more popular than the male-centric TV show that it came from.

I just think it's a shame that more female characters aren't given a chance when it comes to big, mythology-type films and stories.

By clintflint — On Mar 24, 2014

There has been a really excellent marketing campaign in India, where they showed photographs of women who were dressed up as traditional goddesses, and then given black eyes or other signs of abuse. It's interesting to me that there are so many cultures where there are venerated female figures in mythology or religion, but the women are still treated very badly.

Not that mythology is often a beacon of feminism, but there are some amazing female role models in myths and legends. It's just a shame that they aren't held up by cultures the way that the male role models tend to be.

By umbra21 — On Mar 23, 2014

It's interesting, although I suppose not really surprising, how often women seem to be in charge of life and death in mythology. The classic example is the three sisters, of course, who are often shown as spinners, making the thread of life, drawing it out and then cutting it. They are usually depicted as being a maiden, a mother and a crone.

I don't know if there is a male equivalent to that. You never see the three phases of male life shown in the same way, with a youth, a man and an old man.

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