The mythology of women working together

One of my favourite stories in Irish mythology is called ‘The Only Jealousy of Emer’ – the Emer in question being the wife of the great warrior (but not so great husband) Cú Chulainn. I love it because it wonderfully subverts the usual ‘betrayed wife’ narrative, and the other cultural narratives which (even to this day) suggest that women can never really trust each other, but can only ever be competitors.

But before we go on, a brief summary of the story, which appears in the body of tales that are referred to as the Ulster Cycle. At the time of these events, Cú Chulainn has been married to the beautiful Emer for some time, but has proven to be constitutionally unfaithful. One day, he is with his companions by a lake at Samhain, when a pair of beautiful white birds, joined together by a red chain, fly over. The birds are in fact Fand, the wife of Manannán mac Lir, and her sister Lí Ban.

In order to offer them as a gift to a woman who loves him (no, unfortunately it’s not his wife) Cú Chulainn hurls stones at the seabirds, one of which passes through Fand’s wing feathers. Later, Fand and Lí Ban return in their female forms and confront him on the shore of the lake. They beat him with sticks until he falls ill and lies in his sickbed for a year, unable to rise.

Cú Chulainn eventually regains his health by the favour of Fand, when he reluctantly agrees to travel to her Otherworldly island and help her in a battle against her foes. Cú Chulainn and Fand then become lovers.

Cú Chulainn’s wife, Emer, hears of this, and for once decides she cannot tolerate this new betrayal. Furious, she travels with a group of other women to Fand’s island, with a plan that they will attack the couple and kill them with knives. But when Emer meets Fand and sees the strength of her love for Cú Chulainn, she decides instead to give him up. Fand, touched by Emer’s generosity, and realising that Emer is in fact a wife who is worthy of him, decides instead that she will give up Cú Chulainn, and return to her own husband. And so Manannán shakes his magical cloak of mists between Fand and Cú Chulainn, so that they may never meet again. Cú Chulainn and Emer eventually drink a draught of forgetfulness, brewed by the druids of Ulster, to wipe the entire sequence of events from their memories and allow them to live in harmony again.

I loved this story the first time I heard it. I loved the idea that each of these two women, jealous of each other at first, saw the other’s worth, and acted then out of a surprising but genuine generosity of spirit. I love the idea that, at that point, the man – the original focus of the mutual jealousy – became largely irrelevant. To me, this is not a story about Cú Chulainn – I’ve never had much time for him, to be honest; he’s one of the least sympathetic of all Irish heroes. It’s a story about Fand, and Emer. Two women who were competitors – until they looked at each other properly for the first time, and saw that actually, they weren’t.

The story resonates with me because, the older I get, the less tolerance I have for women who make a practice of constantly competing with other women. It’s exhausting, and pointless, and unpleasant. And yet it happens all the time. It begins at school, when we’re very young, and it continues, it seems, when we should be old enough to know better. It happens whether or not the person being competed with is competitive in return. Fortunately, in my own case, I’m more blessed by wonderful women friends and acquaintances of all ages who celebrate the ways in which our paths both converge and diverge, than I am blighted by the ones who only ever want to compete. But the latter have loud and discordant voices, and can stop a harmonious melody dead in its tracks.

The evolutionary perspective on female competitiveness suggests that this behaviour (whatever form it might take in the present day) emerged originally out of an instinct which drove us to find the ‘best’ (genetically speaking) mate. But whether the motivation for competitiveness today is sexual or social, whether it is about love or career, the behaviour usually consists of relentless self-promotion combined with subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) put-downs aimed at the perceived rivals. We see this kind of behaviour in so many of our fairy tales – when the ugly stepsisters try to keep Cinderella downtrodden and disheartened in order to win the hand of the prince; or when the new queen in ‘Snow White’ is jealous of her stepdaughter’s beauty, and tries to turn her father against her. It’s a negative trope, on balance: there’s little in the average fairy tale to reassure a young girl that supportive women are often really quite easy to find. There are examples in traditional fairy tales of sisters supporting each other – think of the wonderful Scottish stories of Kate Crackernuts, or Peerie Fool – but I can’t think of too many stories about women who aren’t actually related. Instead, fairy tales seem hell-bent on teaching us that the people in the world we should fear most are other women.

There’s another school of thought, emerging from feminist psychology, which suggests instead that competition among females is driven not by biological imperatives, but rather by cultural considerations: in other words, it’s due mainly to the fact that women, born and raised in a male-dominated society, internalise the inherently competitive male (patriarchal) perspective and adopt it as their own way of being in the world. This certainly makes sense when I consider that people my age and even older often bear the brunt of the competitive instincts of women who are younger than us. And there’s a mythological precedent for that, too: think of Arachne, in Greek mythology – a talented mortal weaver who challenged Athena, goddess of wisdom and crafts, to a weaving contest. This professional (rather than sexual) hubris resulted in her being transformed into a spider.

In an article in the New York Times, Emily V Gordon proposes a third theory: that competitive women aren’t really competing with other women, but are actually competing with themselves. ‘For many of us,’ she says, ‘we look at other women and see, instead, a version of ourselves that is better, prettier, smarter, something more. We don’t see the other woman at all.’

Whatever the cause, psychologist Lynn Margolies suggests that there are other social and cultural factors at work here. ‘Because women learn that they are not supposed to be competitive and win at others’ expense,’ she writes, ‘their natural competitive spirit cannot be shared openly, happily, or even jokingly with other women. In such situations, when aggression cannot be channeled into a healthy, positive edge, it becomes inhibited and goes underground. What could have been healthy competition becomes a secret feeling of envy and desire for the other to fail – laced with guilt and shame.’

Amidst all this talk of competition, there’s something very real and comforting about the story of Emer and Fand. It’s especially real to me because once upon a time I experienced a variation on it in my own life, and found that, when two women look each other in the eye and assess each other’s worth, someone who originally seems like a destroyer really can be transformed into an ally and a friend. Old myths are often derided by people – usually people who don’t care to delve into them and explore their context – as reflecting ‘primitive’ concerns and ideologies. But every now and again a story comes along which makes me understand just how wise our ancestors sometimes were.

The truth is, we need to be over the social and cultural paradigms which tell us that individual competitiveness – the desire to be the most beautiful, the cleverest, the most charismatic, the one with most boyfriends or most followers on Facebook, the one who ‘owns’ a particular subject matter or even an entire mythology, for heaven’s sake – is a good basis for a life. Let’s actively start looking for allies rather than enemies (and trust me, allies can be found in the most surprising places). Let’s also stop measuring ourselves against others, and instead measure ourselves against ourselves, and our own unique sense of calling: our intuition about what we were born to be and do in this world. Let’s make that the focus of our aspirations, because of all of the many wonderful things that a true calling can be, it’s unlikely to be something which tells us to concentrate our greatest energies on defeating whoever we perceive to be our greatest rival today. And indeed, the cultural paradigm which tells us we have to compete with each other rather than cooperating with each other is all tied up with the other destructive myths we’ve been taught we must live by over the past several hundred years: the myths of progress, endless growth, endless achievement, domination – the myths which have landed us and the planet into precisely the messes we’re in today.

If any of you can think of any European myths and fairy tales where women are supportive rather than competitive towards each other, please do share them in the comments below!

18 thoughts on “The mythology of women working together

  1. A wonderful piece Sharon, thank you. Each time The Art of Enchantment arrives in my mailbox I know I have a treat, and settle down for some downtime to take it in and enjoy. Something new is always revealed. Thank you.

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    1. I immediately thought of the striking differences between European folk tales and what I learned about Australian Aborigines and wonder if the differences have more to do with the basic social and economic structure of each culture. In Australia, the indigenous women work cooperatively, gathering food in groups and the only jealousies seem to be sexual. An interesting note: In some tribes women are not allowed to play the didjeridoo and those that break that taboo are cursed: they will only have male children 🙂 Small plug: find this and other interesting tidbits in my book, Inside Out Down Under: Stories from a Spiritual Sabbatical.

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    2. Thank you, Lesley! Writing here has been a little thin on the ground recently because of the need to focus on finishing my new book, but I’m hoping to get into a more regular pattern again soon.

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  2. Yes, great article… and I completely agree with your thoughts.. I like Mr Fox and the Robber Bridegroom (2 versions of a similar story), for the older woman helping out the younger – and helping her to save her life…

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  3. I was reading about an old French early version of the little red ridding hood tale where she escapes the werewolf and is helped by the washer woman at the river while he is hindered by them.

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  4. Another wonderful offering! Thank you, as usual.

    As for other examples of women working together instead of in competition, author Maria Kvilhaug’s fiction is filled with all varieties of female relationships, but its main undercurrent is major support and respect among women. These novels are based on the Rus, Vikings, Norse mythology, and Icelandic sagas. Maria is a Norse scholar and an incredible storyteller. Her Oseberg Priestess series is some of the best fiction I’ve read. In particular, “My Enemy’s Head,” book 2, draws upon cross-cultural spiritual and mythological examples of women supporting women in a hostile patriarchal world. It’s graphic, but well researched and so well done. Offhand, I cannot recall all the myths, legends or sagas, as they are seamlessly interwoven into the plot, but there are many.

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  5. Thank you, Sharon this is a greatly important and sensitive reflection on women’s darker side of relating to each other through competitiveness and the stuck places it usually results in … It is so good to hear a tale with a good outcome too … though I can think of even better one (they should both have ditched him and run away together)

    Strong women, in their many forms, even perceived to be stronger, wiser, to possess that which is desired etc., are often on the receiving edge of this sort of dynamic – jealousy … and it is a hard one to untangle from … It is something that troubles a lot of us, especially women who put themselves out, who are consciously visible in community but also in quieter circles, in all levels of women to woman relating.

    And your right it is hard to think of many tales that outline this dynamic esp in Europe … it’s like a big blank wall. Another one … we need to try and re-member!!

    Broader afield I think of the three graces / three witches and their variations. I like the Greek Graeaes (3 sisters) who shared an eye and a tooth … they must have gotten on pretty well, must have been pretty co-operative, to do that for their 100,000 years … Another one that didn’t go so well is the Inanna and Ereshkigal (Sumerian) story. There are undertows of conflict in that story, spelled out as their differences, not really jealousies but misunderstandings, where one woman was shunned whilst the other, was hurting sounds like a version of jealousy to me… and Inannas handmaiden Ninshubur, who helps rescue her, those two were a good team. Also great women friends and lovers in more contemp herstory. Alice B Toklas and Gertrude Stein … these women become modern myths. Re Inanna and Ereshkigal … being jealousies is often a shutdown space that highlights difference and then differences are often said to be the reason for the conflict …

    … and there are all the women at the well, listening to each other, helping with each other’s lives and kids and families … all the stories so thickly carpeting community and culture and her story that nobody thought they were special. Women have always worked together. The story of agriculture … midwifery, herbalism, maybe some cooperative stories are too big to tell… to fit in a mouth.

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    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Majena. Yes, I’ve had a couple of especially unpleasant ongoing experiences with this kind of thing over the past few years and it’s very draining. Given that I spend so much time writing about all of the ways in which women can work together to change the world, it makes me doubt, sometimes. But that’s never a reason for giving up! – especially given the richness which is possible in genuine female friendships, which I’m also very blessed to know.

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  6. The very idea of someone thinking they can ‘own’ a subject or especially a mythology is madness! Those stories belong to everyone, that’s how they’ve survived. It’s paranoia gone mad…

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    1. Kate Forsyth explores the women working together in her version of Kate Crackernuts, which will be in Vasilisa the Wise & Tales of Other Brave Young Women, out later this year.

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