Serinity Young. Women Who Fly: Goddesses, Witches, Mystics, and Other Airborne Females. Oxford University Press, 2018.
This is in many ways a joy of a book – certainly an unusual joy for an academic feminist book. Without ever resorting to the tedious or impenetrable jargon (oh mercy!) so beloved of far too many grant-seeking scholars, it delivers a hard-hitting historical analysis in plain, but glowing, English. In fact, one of its joys – no doubt already discovered by many grateful dissertation and essay writers – is that it positively bulges with memorable quotable quotes. For a reviewer, it’s an embarrassment of riches, but a very welcome wealth. But - ha! - for once, I’m not going to lay these jewels out for you. That’s what the book’s for.
Obviously, I love it, but it had to win me over. I’m not a great fan, for example, of Wagnerian folklore and tend to get a bit impatient with female mystics whose idea of both fun and godliness is to starve themselves to death. Yet the Valkyrie and St Elisabeth/St Hildegard/St Teresa passages of this book held my attention (and I can’t say fairer than that), while I addressed with more predictable delight the chapters concerning goddesses, witches and female aviators. (Or ‘aviatrixes’ as the then establishment insisted on calling them, to highlight their weirdness. That’s OK because they don’t now, just as I’m thrilled to say the odd creatures known as ‘Editrixes’ or ‘authoresses’ are actually extinct.)
This is the first book to explore the flying woman in everything from Norse and Greek mythology through the witch hysteria to modern pop culture, and peer down at the attitudes that created and surrounded them through the unforgiving microscope of a modern feminist anthropologist. And yes, that really should intrigue rather than bore – or terrify…
Certainly, ‘The common element in the lives of aerial women is their uniqueness; they are the exceptional women, almost beyond mere mortals in their outstanding characteristics or abilities. They are women who have come close to rejecting the limitations not only of being female, but of being human.’
Yet even goddesses or supernatural beings are all too often brought down to earth – or to size anyway – by the machinations or betrayals of men. Few of these powerful and rare flying females are permitted to maintain their lofty characteristics, just as – on a much more mundane, but very real level – women who soared beyond their domestic expectations in ‘men’s work’ during both World Wars found themselves banished back to enforced drudgery when the boys came home. Only then, having tasted freedom and achievement, life tied to the scullery and nursery was even less attractive. Imagine what a come-down – literally and figuratively – it must have been for a goddess to thud back down to earth after being tricked by her human lover.
That’s not to say, of course, that men are the only tricksters around. Female fairies such as Morgan la Fay and innumerable other sprites have infamously toyed with man’s reality to their very destruction, often through seduction of industrial efficacy. Indeed, one of the reasons the witchfinders found it easy to spread the libel that Satan loves to make women his agents was that women already had something of a reputation for wiliness and subterfuge in order to get their way. (But with so few options in competing with men – duelling, warfare, commerce and academia being closed to them - what else did they have but their seduction and scheming?)
With all the stories of flying goddesses – and other women who soared above the usual expectations – one might reasonably expect the average housewife to have been inspired to rise above the ordinary over the years. Obviously we don’t know just how much the ancient Norse sagas got under the skin of Scandinavian girls, or how legends of classical goddesses fired up the imaginations of later Greek and Roman women. Not much, one suspects. They had too much to do dipping laundry in urine (brings it up nicely) and dodging black eyes from drunken menfolk. And they probably couldn’t read anyway.
Amelia Earhart, who ‘did all she could to advance other women’, found it impossible to pass on the baton of her achievements, which remained exceptional, glass-cased, almost mythical (although her mysterious early death only added to her fable). In this book we note that ‘Decisively, the various divine women… never translated their power into a higher status for women in social reality because most religions disempower actual women while empowering imaginary ones. In effect, female imagery is used to conquer and control a fear of female power.’ (Indeed, abuse of real women by modern pagan goddess-worshipping men is not unknown.)
Interestingly, the Norse warrior goddesses had earthly counterparts – touched on all too briefly here – in the ‘shield maidens’: real female soldiers who fought alongside the men in battle and who were accorded similar funerary rites. Not mentioned here is the fact that the recent discoveries on Scandinavian islands of shield maiden graves – women buried in full armour together with weapons of great expense and status, and even with horses to carry them off to the afterlife glories of Valhalla – have highlighted the reality of what had once seemed merely a myth. Perhaps it goes without saying that until the routine use of archaeological DNA testing on human remains similar graves, as in parts of Siberia, were traditionally assumed to belonged to great male warriors. Even the discovery of these few shield maiden graves is obviously the tip of a rather significant iceberg.
In religion, we find female mystics such as St Teresa of Avila or Hildegard of Bingen, experiencing ‘flight’ as part of a rapture that provides a mystical release from often crippling physical torment. The author notes wryly that women experienced the sacred through their bodies, while men did so through their intellects. This dichotomy is also seen in the witch persecution hysteria, where although men indulging in ritual magic – or sorcery – had become an acceptable intellectual hobby, when unlettered women experienced the conjuration of spirits for themselves it was automatically Satanic.
‘Witches’ were usually wayward or unusual women, often unconcerned with nurturing either a husband or a family, and exhibiting a behavioural freedom that was so unthinkable as to be ungodly. One English ‘witch’ – not mentioned here – fell foul of the local worthies by enjoying what we would call surfing the waves. Not even men did such a thing back then! Unsurprisingly, she and her surfboard ended up on the same fire.
Female shamans, operating on behalf of ancient, traditional tribes, often dress as men, though actually certain male shamans also choose to dress as women, a gender fluidity that has long been acceptable for such special communicators with the gods. Yet even so, this shows that it’s not deemed normal for ordinary women to turn shaman.
We also meet the strange world of angels, or ‘God’s messengers’, usually depicted and thought of as muscular winged males – until Victorian sentimentality helped popularise the slightly creepy chubby cherubs with their knowing leers so beloved of tombstone decor. Another Victorian innovation was the term ‘angel of the house’ – or the lady of the residence; all goodness, docility and religious obedience. Rarely has such an apparently flattering term hidden such a Pandora’s box of suppression, neglect and abuse. Their metaphorical angelic wings were protective of the children and the home, but not in the fierce way of ancient winged goddesses such as Isis – more ineffectual mother hen.
We even – tentatively, it must be said – dip a toe into the world of female superheroes. We meet Superwoman, who the author insists on calling ‘Princess Diana’, though we really could have done with much more on this subject, especially given the extraordinary depth and breadth of Jeffrey J. Kripal’s work on the subject of superhero mysticism. (And, come to think of it, surely there’s a couple of paragraphs in the whole story of the real Princess Diana, which if not exactly spanking new, would at least fit with the overall theme of women who rise and fall – and rise again?)
Most of the women in this book fly metaphorically, or only too literally, as with Ms Earhart. (There’s some mention of the resistance to female astronauts, though this does seem rather out-dated. And where’s the apparently small but telling fact that female astronauts were expected to wear suits designed for men…? Not such a tiny detail if you’re expected to wear one and carry out extra-vehicular activities, such as patching up damage to the exterior of a space shuttle.)
Some of the real women – as opposed to the goddesses, like Nike, or the Valkyries – however, were said to fly for real, without benefit of rocket thrust. They levitated and they flew, and were, occasionally, witnessed to do so. But as witches were said to fly to their unholy Sabbats, often on broomsticks, even flying female saints were regarded with considerably more suspicion and distaste than flying men (such as St Joseph of Cupertino).
Actually, any women who drew attention to their holiness tended to have unenviable outcomes. Bernadette of Lourdes and the children of the Fatima vision – and other girls who encountered the divine in such sensational fashion - were swiftly secured behind convent walls. Presumably before they could say or do anything that deviated from the Vatican’s party line, or – heaven forfend! – be personally and properly honoured in their lifetime for their sanctity.
Every chapter of this book is an eye-opener – obviously for men – but also for women, as it traces the rise and often the fall of flying women through myth, legend and social and religious history. Sometimes we’re surprised at how the ancient stories from Islamic or Japanese traditions overlap, and often saddened by the humbling of the heroine who has dared to fly. As ever, the fiction is informed not only by fact but by the attitudes that create the fact.
And today, the headline for an item on my newsfeed reads: ‘Game of Thrones has betrayed women who made it great.’ It was ever thus. -- Lynn Picknett
Lynn Picknett is co-author, with Clive Prince, of When God Had A Wife: The Fall and Rise of the Sacred Feminine in the Judeo-Christian Tradition, (December 2019)