From Girl to Goddess
Chapter by Chapter
Introduction: What is the Heroine’s Journey?
A comparison of the differences between the hero’s and heroine’s journeys and a discussion of the questions this book will address.
Chart: Comparison of Models
Section I: The Journey
Cupid and Psyche (Roman)
An exploration of the archetypal journey through ancient legend.
…To Modern Day
The Wizard of Oz (American)
A similar overview in modern children’s fantasy.
Section II: Steps
Everyone has read the stories of Cinderella, Puss in Boots, Snow White, and Rapunzel, and other Grimms’ heroines. However, Cinderella began as The Golden Fish, in the folklore of ninth century China. Puss in Boots appears in a far different guise in the Persian Jewish tale “A Woman of Valor,” while Rapunzel’s near-cousin can be found sunbathing on a Tahitian island, awaiting her handsome prince. Even today, great creation myths of Inanna and Isis shadow the stone walls of ancient temples. These are world tales, not just stories retold by the Grimms Brothers and Andrew Lang. After combing hundreds of collections, I’ve tracked down the most entertaining versions from every major area of the world. Since I’m exploring the most primitive messages of the ancient tales, I’ve chosen to use the oldest possible versions, retold in my storyteller’s easy-to-follow style. These appear at the beginning of each chapter to provide examples and set the scene.
It’s a Girl! The World of Common Day
Little Burnt Face (Ojibwa) AT 510 Cinderella
The tale begins in the humdrum world of kitchen chores and powerlessness. The heroine lives with an absent mother and brutal stepmother. The father figure, if there is one, is equally obstructive. More than anything, the girl longs for an escape, an adventure. Here the story begins.
Twenty Uses for Tornados: Call to Adventure
The Wild Swans (Denmark) AT 451 The Maiden who Seeks her Brothers
A chance at freedom or devastating act of destruction propels the heroine from her place of safety and into the frightening world of the spirit. Without this catalyst, Cinderella would remain trapped and inert in her kitchen forever.
Fear of the Forest: Refusing the Call
The Journey (Tahiti) AT 310 The Maiden in the Tower
Here, the maiden faces the unknown. The evil witch represses her, confining her to their solitary island and forbidding her human contact. This artificial childhood cannot last forever. The mother has grown too overprotective, too fearful for her daughter’s safety to let her venture forth. At the same time, home represents safety and security, a place the daughter is loathe to leave.
Dude, Where’s My Sword? Mentor and Talisman
The Golden Fish (China) AT 510 Cinderella
While heroes almost always receive a sword (wand, lightsaber…) from their kindly old mentor, girls wield household objects. One message is that girls shouldn’t fight. Heroines, in fact, mostly quest nonviolently, using cleverness and fortitude over Excalibur. Perhaps in the days of tales by the fireside, the girls looked on wistfully as their brothers rode off to war. “There’s magic in our lives, too,” their grandmothers would say. “We can disguise ourselves as men and pick up swords, be warrior queens like Mab and Atalanta, or we can follow our own path.” Thus, actions in the so-called “women’s domain” save the men and propel the women toward heroism.
Crossing Over: The First Threshold
Bull-of-all-the-Land (Jamaica). AT 425C Beauty and the Beast
Beauty enters the Beast’s world of magic and wonder, representing an introduction to the sensuous delights of romance. For other heroines, this crossing over represents danger, a battle against supernatural enemies. Finally, the heroine must surrender her reliance on logic and willingly enter the world of emotion and fantasy. This journey into her own unconscious lets her claim her own needs and desires.
All the Better to Guide You With, My Dear: Allies and Enemies
Vasilissa the Beautiful (Russia) AT 510 Cinderella
Animal helpers and advisers generally represent part of the heroine’s psyche, pointing out things she doesn’t notice and teaching her how to outwit her adversary. They guide her, bolstering her courage when the quest seems daunting. In the world of the mind, a comb becomes a forest barrier, a cat, a talking companion. All is alive as it shelters or threatens.
Prince Charming: The World of Eros
Brunhilda (Germany) AT 410 Sleeping Beauty
Sleeping Beauty stories trace the growth from child to woman. Often the destructive mother rejects this change, and so tries to frighten the girl, or initiate her too fast, to eliminate her as a rival and keep her trapped in childhood. Only when the princess is ready can she awaken to womanhood, ready to marry the prince who arrives just as her eyes open to wisdom.
Taming the Beast: Shapechanger as Lover
Tam Lin (Scotland)
In the game of love, the hero and heroine each view their partner as a shapeshifter. This “other half” they must cleave to has frightening mood swings and unpredictable desires. Physically, the two genders are opposites, with contrasting desires and emotions. Hence, many tales describe enticing swan maidens from the sea or taming beastly monsters into Prince Charmings. Marriage is a great achievement, signifying the world of adulthood and responsibility. Once found, the lover must be saved, redeemed, and protected with the heroine’s strength.
The Dark Side of Passion: Devourer as Lover
The Brahman Girl That Married a Tiger (India) AT 312 Bluebeard
Notorious Bluebeard marries women one after the other. When each fails his test and opens the forbidden room, he murders her. Yet opening the forbidden door is not frivolous feminine curiosity. The young woman must open the door onto the truth of whom she has married: a mass murderer. At that moment, she discards her sheltered existence for true understanding. While feminine curiosity and disobedience to a man’s orders may have been a crime in less enlightened times, readers should, in fact, celebrate this desire for knowledge and truth. Only through performing the forbidden act can the woman change innocence to growth.
Unholy Marriage: Confronting the Father
Catskin (England) AT 510B The Dress of Gold, of Silver, and of Stars
To a young girl, the father is a godlike force. At the tale’s conception, he has all the power, the girl, none. The king of “Catskin,” banishes his daughter, thus commencing her adventure. When she returns, a married, triumphant queen, she finds him pitiful and dying. She learns her father is mortal, fallible, and all too human. He has lost his power and she has gained it, eclipsing him forever.
The Deepest Crime: More on Confronting the Father and the Subtext of Abuse
The Armless Maiden (Xhosa, Africa) AT 706 The Maiden without Hands
This tale is known as type 706, featuring mutilation and incest. The father, like every other character in myth, represents part of the self. He is a force for tyranny and domination, the opponent in gender warfare. The predator, he not only mutilates the woman’s body but attempts to destroy her soul. This ultimate crime, the opposite of life-giving, must be conquered and absorbed into the self if the latter is to survive. Why was this story shared around the world? It must answer human needs, as victims of abuse hear the triumph of eventual marriage, motherhood, and wholeness, even in a male-dominated world. The grotesque violence of this controversial tale shows the horror of this trauma, still uncomfortably present in our modern society.
The Endless Summons: Descent into Darkness
Inanna (Babylon) Creation Myth
At the crux of every heroine’s adventure lies the descent into the innermost cave, where the heroine absorbs the underworld’s mystical secrets. Only through death can she learn to live. In the darkness, she faces her true nemesis, the submerged shadow of her desires, and conquers it, in order to return to the world of light.
I’ll Get You, My Pretty! Confrontation with the Deadly Mother
The Little Slave Girl (Pentameron, Italy) AT 709 Snow White
A theme that often surfaces in these stories is the daughter’s supplanting the mother. When spring arrives, the crone, symbolic of deathly winter, must surrender dominance to the maiden. The crone is sterile by necessity, past menopause with grown children who reject her guidance. The witch, or “Terrible Mother” has already diminished from the triumphant mother to the aging crone, useful only as a teacher. Now the witch may lose even that last crumbling bastion. Like the witch-queen of Snow White, the crone seethes that she is no longer fairest in the kingdom. Therefore, she plots the heroine’s destruction.
Beloveds Reunited: Reward
Wahwee and Nerida (Australia Aborigine) Creation Myth
Triumphant, the heroine wins what she has sought for so long. She snatches her lover from the Fairie Queen’s horse, or saves her child from certain death. She may find the brief romance she’s sought for so long. Still, the quest has not ended, until she returns safely home.
Of Carpets and Slipper: Flight
Lanjeh (Morocco) AT 313 The Girl as Helper in the Hero’s Flight
Once the heroine has “Seized the sword” and accomplished her goal, she often must leave in a great hurry. Vasilissa exemplifies this perfectly, dropping comb and mirror to deter pursuit. Likewise, Cinderella and Donkeyskin run away from their balls. In this tale, the flight and escape are the vehicle by which the heroine wins or saves the prince. Finding the prince is laudable, but only safely escaping with him can bring them happiness.
The Ascension of Hecate: Apotheosis
Demeter and Persephone (Greece) Creation Myth
To achieve the greatest success, the heroine becomes a “goddess” herself. In this way she achieves enormous power and becomes a guardian for the next generation. While this acknowledgement in the external world is more important to the male hero, many heroines achieve inner ascendancy and outer recognition together. Persephone spends half her time as a maiden and flower princess, helping Demeter as fertility goddess of the harvest. The other half, she rules the dead as a crone. This dichotomy is perplexing, but less so if we understand the message contained here. Persephone is maiden and flower-goddess, death-crone and queen of the damned. This duality does not represent a split, but a converging; Persephone returns each spring and dies each autumn because she has mastered both worlds.
True Power: Mistress of Both Worlds
Izanami (Japan) Creation Myth
Izanami in Japanese Shinto tales represents the balance between life and death. Once the great mother goddess of creation, she descends to the underworld and refuses to let her husband, Izanagi, carry her away. In the underworld, she has grown beyond motherhood into a new level of power and understanding. When a creation goddess becomes goddess of death, she controls both worlds in a unique balance of power and understanding. In this way, the mistress of both worlds comprehends the delicate balance between innocence and experience, death and life.
Section III: Archetypes
Heroines take a multitude of forms, and this section delineates these one by one, examining tricksters, mothers, wives, daughters, peasants, and queens.
Smart Girls Rule! The Ordinary Heroine
Shahrazâd and Dunyâzâd (Middle East)
Our dearest heroines are Dorothys, Lucys, Lyras, Coralines and Megs. Rather than goddesses, tragic princesses, or vicious warriors, they are simple, good-hearted girls, armed only with wit and everyday courage. While unclear how to lift a sword, they solve riddles and make friends wherever they journey. They steal our hearts with their simple defiance of overwhelming odds and they triumph, again and again.
Strength and Honor Clothe Her: The Wife
Isis and Osiris (Egypt) Creation Myth
The wife seeking to rescue her husband travels through the pages of numerous tales. Loyal and self-sacrificing, she offers up everything she has to rescue him from imprisonment, or even the confines of death.
Don’t Heroines Get a Break from Those 3 AM Feedings? The Mother
“The Lion’s Whisker” (Africa) Motif Type B848.21
The heroine’s goal is to become a complete mother, resplendent with power. If her family is shattered, by either grief or remarriage, she cannot become whole without assembling the pieces. In the case of this tale, the child is not hers until the end. She, likely an untried maiden, has inherited this family. She cannot succeed simply through kindness; she must quest for the wisdom to become a true mother to her stepchild. In so doing, she earns his love with effort and patience in a story reminiscent of our everyday struggles.
DaVinci Code and Sangreal: The Goddess
Cipactli (Mexico) Creation Myth
The “goddess archetype,” is represented by powerful, magical women such as Glinda and Galadriel. This archetype is always a peripheral character in the story—often a main character but never the heroine. The goddess is always the font of power; she rarely grows or changes. The fairy queen does not go on quests or adventures; instead, she rules her queendom and dispenses advice and aid. Other times, she is selfish and kidnaps mortals to please her. Yet, benevolent or capricious, she is the source of beauty, power, and often nature.
Don’t Bet on the Princess: The Prize
Deirdre (Ireland) from The Tain
The princess wants the perfect husband—one who is powerful and handsome, a strong provider for her children. These heroines do not struggle between possible suitors (as do the warrior women). When offered a choice they instantly pick the “best” man and end the decision right there. After Zeus has tricked his way to Hera, after the prince has battled thorns to waken Sleeping Beauty, after Ivan has leaped miles on a magic horse, what is there to do but say yes? This, too, is a struggle for the animus and complete identity. More than this, it is the “quick fix” of happiness and identity through marriage. Cinderella is no longer the drudge: she is the queen. Eliza is freed from her task and can find happiness with her husband. Beauty is no longer a prisoner of the puzzlingly sensitive beast; she is his princess. Like Hera, queen of the gods, these women seek marriage as the final attainment of their goals.
The Right to Choose: Divine Whore
Ali Baba (Middle East) AT 676 Open Sesame
Another archetype appearing throughout literature is that of the temptress. She is a “bad girl,” a woman who has discarded conventional morality and proper behavior to control men through her dangerous sensuality. In men’s stories, these are the evil succubae, women like Morgan le Fay and Lilith. Is this their only possible role? Morgiana saves Ali Baba by dancing a sensual dance and then stabbing the head of the forty thieves. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, the harlot, Shamhat, is considered an artist, skilled enough at her profession that she can turn Enkidu from a beast-man into a rational being. Aphrodite travels the world, proud, naked, and glorious. For every Morgan le Fay who seduces the innocent Arthur, another woman embraces her feminine sensuality in order to prosper in a male-oriented world.
The Other Right to Choose: The Thwarted Mother
Crystal the Wise (Chile) AT 891 The Man Who Deserts His Wife and Sets Her the Task of Bearing Him a Child
As previously discussed, marriage is not enough for the heroine. She must grow into a triumphant mother figure, with children to carry on after her. Sometimes, the antagonist is not the witch, but the husband, particularly a neglectful one. In this set of tales, the lady, though an abandoned wife, is smart and self-motivated. She wants her husband back and gets him back. Her husband is the childish one, not valuing her, but holding onto petty grievances. The wife succeeds not only in having children, but also in coaxing her husband to mature and accept his role as the head of a family. In this way, she creates a family by fashioning a husband, not just giving birth.
Mu Lan’s Sisterhood: The Warrior Woman
The Hunter Maiden (Zuni)
The warrior maiden differs from these other heroines in that she travels on the hero’s journey, not the heroine’s. Still, she deserves a chapter, as she is most often the “strong woman” readers visualize. She is the woman who dresses as a boy and rides to war, the one who says, “If a man can do this task, I can do it, too.” Yet, even while cutting herself off from many aspects of femininity and wielding a man’s weapons, she still follows the same journey as her quieter sisters. One possible mate for the warrior woman is a partner and equal, though this match often ends in tragedy. The other choice for mate is the sensitive man, the one who is the woman’s true animus. By accepting the gentle suitor, the warrior woman grows into a strong, balanced person who defends her young with a wildcat’s tenacity.
Double Double: The Witch
In a number of stories, from variants on Sleeping Beauty to The Six Swans, the heroine’s mother-in-law hides or kills the heroine’s child, and then blames the heroine, naming her a witch and smearing her mouth with blood. Just as the heroine represents life-giving and creative power, the witch figure murders and destroys the new life. Worse yet, she seeks to cast her own shadow over the heroine, blaming her for the destructive deed. Only by meeting the witch on her own terms can the heroine persevere. In Jungian psychology, the witch is a personification of evil which eventually consumes itself. The witch symbolizes the destructive power of the unconscious, opposite to the heroine.
Sisters: Lesbianism in Folklore
Bearskin Woman and Grizzly Woman (Blackfoot) Creation Myth
Though it can be hard to spot, homosexuality appears in numerous tales. Zeus and Apollo compete for the handsome cupbearer, Ganymede. Artemis frolics with her maidens. Achilles disguises himself as a girl, and later falls in love with his companion, Patrocles. The Hindu Mahabarata features men changing into women. A number of young ladies disguise themselves as huntsmen and pageboys. And several Native American tales, including this one, explore lesbianism. Though the villagers censure them, the couple finds away to live together as bears, and finally constellations, in the end. All relationships have their place in fairy tales, offering advice on how to form a successful family.
Mrs. Fox and her Cronies: Trickster
A Woman of Valor (Persia) AT 545B Puss In Boots
Female tricksters appear rarely, surprisingly, yet persistently throughout folklore. The trickster is earthy, sexual, and full of mischief. This character steals and lies to achieve his (pardon the pronoun) desire, but the desire of an affair, a shiny object, a good dinner is hardly the making of legends. Trickster stories offer a laugh, a bright moment in a dull world. The trickster rarely grows or changes: he/she has a simple goal and spends the story trying to achieve it.
A conclusion of all the heroine’s journey offers: empowerment and identity, knowledge and love of the family. Through her internal dominion and reunited family, the heroine learns the most important lesson: that while her husband may rule the castle, she protects all within it with nurturing strength and inner magic.
Section IV: Further Reading
A selection from the master index of fairy tales, sorted by content, along with archetypes and motifs in folklore.
This list covers the heroine’s journey in popular fiction, children’s literature, retold fairy tales, and modern fairy tales. There are similar lists of ancient heroine’s journey epics and folktale collections, along with a list of secondary sources and commentary.