Female Archetypes in Greek Mythology

Archetypes have a bad reputation. They’re two-dimensional. They’re limiting. They’re predictable. And when it comes to myths, especially myths as ubiquitous as Greek myths, they’re so deeply embedded into our collective consciousness that they have become cartoonish and stereotypical.

They can for sure be all of these things. Getting locked into a stereotype is a death knell for any character. As writers the last thing we want is to produce protagonists whose reliance on archetypal qualities turns them into stock characters.

But because we carry around these Jungian archetypes in our hive-mind, we know that our readers also recognize and relate to them. So why not use what has already been so conveniently deposited into our crania?

My name is Suz, and I am addicted to myth. That means archetypes are constantly swarming around me, hanging onto my sleeve, yammering at me, tripping me, and distracting me from things like work and writing and weeding the flowerbeds.

If they’re going to niggle away at me like hungry ghosts, I’m going to put them to work.

Since I don’t want to write dull stock characters any more than you do, I need these archetypes to inform and underlie my characters, make them familiar and relatable without being predictable.

The best way to get your archetypes off their lazy asses and put them to work is to fall down the seductive rabbit hole of research and get to know them. Once you’ve explored the nuances of your archetypes, you’re in a much better position to oversee them and make them start to pull their own weight.

If you can elude the siren song of research-instead-of-writing, your archetypes can become an invaluable writing tool. They are lazy and will try to reassert their stodgy outlines, but if you’re armed with a good solid background of their origins you can kick their conformist asses out of their comfort zone and turn them into recognizable but excitingly new beings with which to populate your next oeuvre.

So many of the most well-known and well-worn archetypes come from Greek myth. The Innocent Maiden. The Nurturing Mother. The Warrior. The Overbearing Father. The Creepy Uncle. The Besotted Swain.

They show up everywhere, of course, from the Eddas to Shakespeare to South Park, like the scuttling cockroaches they are. The Greeks didn’t own them. But since Greek myth is such a foundation for Western civilization, it provides an enormous pool of them — an endless source of archetypes for us to play with.

Women in Greek myth tend to be dismissed as victims of patriarchy. Modern feminists rightly eschew the cultural ‘lessons’ many of the myths seem to impart about women needing to be tamed and re-sexualized into their proper place of subservience. Since myth is a living entity, it is hugely positive that so many women are taking the archetypal Greek female characters and re-writing them into powerful, pro-active roles.

It’s only a problem if we then make the leap that because we have lifted ourselves out of the muck of chatteldom, that the myths are wrong and the archetypes skewed and women always behaved as we would want them to today, with the reactions, instincts and underlying morality we want to impart to our long-dead sisters.

We want to rewrite the female archetype, and in doing so we try to rewrite history.

The temptation is real.

What I propose to do in this series of blog posts on the subject of female archetypes in Greek history is to invite you to dive in more deeply with them. The Great Truths embedded within the old myths haven’t changed, although society has changed (yay!) beyond what any of our fore-sisters would have believed.

Women in the old myths were ancient Greek women. That means they lived and abided by the rules of their society, and when they broke those rules, they did so knowing the censure it would bring down upon their heads.

But they were also women, no less vibrant, intelligent, vicious, scheming, loving, resourceful, and nuanced as we, their distant daughters. And those traits are also in the archetypes.

Through exploring the archetypes in all their conflicts, dilemmas, and contradictions we can develop relationships with the characters from whom the archetypes sprang.

And that’s where our stock characters cast off their shrouds of dull conformity and begin to weave original stories.