with the very long but accurate subtitle: From Deer Woman and Mami Wata to Amaterasu and Athena, Your Guide to the Amazing and Diverse Women from World Mythology.
And readers, what a guide! I’m ngl, as a cis woman myself, I’m always at least subconsciously looking for the woman in the work, to see how women are depicted in the oldest tales, i.e. in world mythology. Most of the classics I read as a child treated women as either veritable saints who weren’t meant to be questioned, or quixotic beings treated with the distinctly othering perspective of “women, am I right?” Either way, women were a category that the usually male author (or otherwise fed-up female author at the mercies of a male-dominated press) presented as some exotic, often chaotic being, unknowable and mystifying, unlike all those relatable, heroic dudes.
This has, ofc, gotten better in recent decades, but no volume has been quite as diverse, as global and, frankly, as empathetic and curious about the motivation of women in myth as this terrific book. Divided into three parts — Goddess, Heroine, Monster — Women Of Myth illuminates and discusses 50 figures, from those as well known as Athena and Baba Yaga to the more obscure warriors of Central America and the seductive drowning spirits of North Africa. The lens that Jenny Williamson & Genn McMenemy, creators of the Ancient History Fangirl podcast, use is one that heavily incorporates historical context along with modern research to disprove crusty stereotypes of what women were and weren’t allowed to do way back in the day.
And not just cis women, as there are a number of trans and nonbinary mythological figures presented here as well. The women in this book run a full spectrum of representation, from kind to cruel, from sex-positive to jealously virginal, from self-sacrificing to casually destructive. It’s a wonderfully nuanced look at all the many ways women are and can be.
One of my favorite things about this collection, as a world mythology buff, was how the usual myths those of us most familiar with a Western/temperate weather canon know — the universal flood; death and resurrection resembling the turn of the seasons — had its fascinating counterparts in less publicized mythos. In particular, the tale of Corn Mother, the First Woman of Abenaki and Penobscot creation stories, was at once gruesomely different and intimately familiar, as her sacrifice for her people was repudiated or, at the very least, strongly declined.
Speaking of familiar, I’m gonna deviate from my usual review practice here to bring up a monster from my own cultural background that would not be out of place in this collection: the Malaysian pontianak. Much like the El Naddaha or Aicha Kandicha, she appears to men as a pale, attractive figure wandering by herself in the dark; unlike those creatures, she isn’t tied to a body of water, but is often seen on the outskirts of jungles. Any man who approaches her is at risk of having her kill him by draining his blood, if he’s lucky, or by eviscerating him and eating his organs if he’s not. Thus are Malaysian men taught not to bother women going about their business, using a tale of the monstrous to subtly advance a woman’s right to be left the hell alone (not that it always works, but the aim is noble!) (Also, sorry for the interlude, I’m just always so psyched to share the pontianak’s story!)
Getting back to the book actual, I have to rave as well over just how beautiful it is. Sara Richard does an amazing job of illustrating many of the 50 subjects, and Sylvia McArdle’s interior design is phenomenal. It’s a gorgeous package for the smart, entertaining and enlightening contents — bonus, too, for being written in a manner that’s thoroughly accessible even for people with limited knowledge on the subject. If you have any interest in global mythology, this book is a must-have for your collection.
Women Of Myth by Jenny Williamson & Genn McMenemy was published February 21 2023 by Adams Media and is available from all good booksellers, including