In “Women Who Fly: Goddesses, Witches, Mystics, and Other Airborne Females” Serinity Young argues that tales of flying women, widespread throughout the world’s mythologies, should be interpreted as visions of female emancipation from the constraints imposed by patriarchal cultures: As she says, “the ability to break free of the earth and to soar is a profound expression of freedom.” The many stories Young retells prove her point and are fascinating in themselves.
“The human desire to break through earthly restraints took many forms,” she writes. “It could be achieved through dreams or ecstatic experiences; by ascending a mountain, tree, ladder or ritual pole; through self-cultivation, asceticism, or spiritual discipline; or through rituals. Multiple terms exist for the varieties of aerial experience, including magical flight, transvection, bilocation, ascension, assumption, and apotheosis.” Transvection, in case you wondered, “refers to being carried through the air by another entity, for example a witch.” Bilocation is the ability to be in two places at once. The most glorious of all assumptions is, of course, that of the Virgin Mary’s bodily ascent into heaven. Symbolically speaking, flying creatures are messengers, passing freely back and forth between the heavenly realm of the gods, the Land of the Dead, the Other World of the fairies and the familiar earth most of us are bound to.
Young opens her book with reflections on the Louvre’s famous sculpture of the winged but headless Nike — commonly known as the “Victory of Samothrace”— and ends with a chapter on aviators such as Amelia Earhart and Hanna Reitsch. In between one finds discussions of many of the most famous females of myth: the Middle Eastern goddess Isis, Adam’s first wife, Lilith, Homer’s Circe, the vengeful sorcerer Medea, the Norse Valkyrie Brunhilde, and the witchy Morgan le Fay of the Arthurian romances, just to name a few. Young also examines swan-maidens, fairy-brides and succubi, as well as Christian and Daoist mystics, female shamans and even the comic book superheroine Wonder Woman. Being a specialist in Middle Eastern and Asian mythologies, she relates numerous accounts of aerial women from Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist tradition.
Take, for instance, one of the stories about the Sufi mystic Rabi’ah al-’Adawiyya. One day a Sufi master named Hasan sees Rabi’ah near a lake and, to show off his supposed spiritual superiority, throws his prayer rug onto the surface of the water, then invites her to join him in prayer. Instead, Rabi’ah tosses her prayer rug into the air and flies up to it. “Come up here, Hasan,” she cries, then adds that they should be above such competitive foolishness and apply themselves to the real business of loving God.
Besides female ascetics and saints, Young regularly points out examples of what she calls the “monstrous-feminine,” figures such as Medusa, the Sphinx, the Harpies, Medea and the Furies. In these creatures we see “the demonization of aerial females” and “the male need to make these independent beings into monsters and destroy them. . . . It seems there is nothing more perverse and ugly than an independent woman.”
Much early myth and literature — Aeschylus’s “Eumenides” is a good example — dramatizes the displacement of matriarchal religions by new belief systems privileging male deities. This pattern of appropriation — or should we say misappropriation? — recurs in cultures around the world. By the time of the European witch craze of the 15th to 17th centuries, women who “were not under the rule of a man. . . must be under the rule of the devil. It was inconceivable that they could be autonomous.” Still, it has always been easy for men to believe in witches. As Young observes, from the perspective of a male, especially a married male, the members of the other sex are “shape-shifters par excellence, changing from desirable, young, acquiescent women into ruthless shrews.”
While Young’s occasionally academic tone may limit her audience, this provocative but convincing book certainly belongs on, or at least near, the shelf containing some of the most intellectually exhilarating books I know. I’m thinking of such masterworks as Vladimir Propp’s “Morphology of the Folktale”; Claude Levi-Strauss’s studies in structural anthropology (especially “The Story of Asdiwal”); Robert Graves’s crazed but wonderful historical grammar of poetic myth, “The White Goddess”; Carl Jung’s papers on the Anima, Shadow and other archetypes; Joseph Campbell’s classic “The Hero With a Thousand Faces”; and, not least, that encyclopedia of pagan ritual, J.G. Frazer’s “The Golden Bough.” I’d also add to the list two works of modern literary scholarship: Northrop Frye’s myth-based, and now rather neglected, “Anatomy of Criticism” and Marina Warner’s tour-de-force analysis of the fairy tale, “From the Beast to the Blonde.”
One last point: “Women Who Fly” shows how relevant even seemingly arcane scholarship can be to contemporary life. Young does this by simply unpacking the meanings of “a single motif or trope in the human imagination — that of women not defined by the restrictive gravity of men’s wishes or desires, but women whose ability to fly empowered them to impose conditions on men, or to escape roles they found constricting,” For centuries patriarchal cultures reflexively aimed to keep down or marginalize defiant and powerful females. Not for much longer. During the last half century, and particularly during the last year, more and more women can finally say that from now on, baby, the sky’s the limit.
Michael Dirda reviews books every Thursday for The Washington Post.
By Serinity Young
Oxford. 358 pp. $29.95