From Girl to Goddess
Reviewed by Janet Brennan Croft
[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 115/116.]
Anyone who has steeped their imagination in myth has undoubtedly encountered Joseph Campbell’s famed account of the hero’s journey, as described in his The Hero with a Thousand Faces—the pattern of the hero’s separation from his home, initiatory adventures, and gift-bearing return found in tales and stories from around the globe. As deep and compelling as Campbell’s work is, however, many female readers have felt it lacks something—specifically, an understanding that the heroine’s journey is something different, perhaps parallel in many ways to the hero’s journey but still not entirely explained by Campbell’s theory, with quite different challenges along the way and with a different ultimate goal. In the introduction to her compelling new book, Valerie Estelle Frankel describes it this way:
The heroine’s journey is a path of cleverness and intuition, buoyed by water and earth. It is a path of circular logic, of kindness, of creativity so forceful that the world shapes itself to a wish. It is a path of birth and patience, or guardianship, but never of passivity. Women’s work, nowadays devalued as folk craft and biological urges and time wasting, is the work that has conquered and preserved nations. It is as White Buffalo Calf Woman told the Lakota women: The work of their hands and the fruit of their bodies keep the people alive. “You are from the Mother Earth,” she said. “What you are doing is as great as warriors do.” This is the path of the great mother goddess, destroying mountains and creating civilizations. And each woman journeying toward insight, toward adventure, toward motherhood, toward wisdom is following this path, just as great Astarte, valiant Judith, passionate Isolde, and even sweet Cinderella once did. “It is important to realize we are not women channeling the goddess or pretending to be her—we are the goddess pretending for a single lifetime to be a mortal woman.” (10)
From Girl to Goddess is an attempt to remedy this lack in Campbell’s study by providing a template for the woman’s hero journey through a broad-ranging study of female-centered myths, stories, folktales, and the occasional historic archetype. Other books have also offered insightful analysis of female-centered tales and religious history—for example, Jean Shinoda Bolen’s Goddesses in Everywoman, with its Jungian take on seven key archetypes based on the Greek goddesses; Riane Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade, analyzing the significance of the historical shift from partnership to dominator societies that accompanied the displacement of early goddesses; or Clarissa Pinkola Estes’s Women Who Run With the Wolves, focusing exclusively on the “Wild Woman” archetype—and Frankel draws upon these sources and many others in this area. But her book differs from these in its organization and its inclusiveness. Drawing of a lifetime of voracious and decidedly multicultural reading, she harnesses the world’s folktales and myths to illustrate the heroine’s journey step by step, delineating the “universal journey of women” (9).
The first half of the book is organized around the stages of this journey, with chapters on growing up, the journey through the unconsciousness, meeting the other, facing the self, and goddesshood and wholeness, with each chapter further broken down into that step’s individual phases or likely variants and each illustrated with one primary and usually several secondary tales. For example, one of the phases or variants of “meeting the other” is the lover as shape-changer; Frankel first tells the Scottish tale of Tam Lin, whose lover Janet must win him from the queen of the fairies, then investigates the similar stories of Cupid and Psyche and Beauty and the Beast, gleaning from all of them lessons about questing for the animus and accepting the other in another person or lover.
The second half of the book deals with archetypes and relates them to the cyclical nature of the woman’s journey—the journey as circle or spiral. The familiar Maiden, Mother, and Crone are joined by a fourth image, the Spirit Guardian, represented by the dark of the moon. Particularly useful and intriguing is Frankel’s pairing of each phase of these archetypes with their mirror-opposites—princess with destroyer, seductress with trickster, wife and mother with widow. As with the book’s first half, a primary story illustrates the archetype, bolstered by additional tales and analysis; thus the seductress, the woman who chooses her own lover(s), is primarily illustrated by Aphrodite and Freya, but also by the Loathly Lady.
Does From Girl to Goddess succeed in addressing the neglect of the feminine in The Hero with a Thousand Faces? I think it is the best attempt that I have seen so far, and a book that will repay re-reading and meditation at least as well as Campbell does. If nothing else, her charts of the parallel elements of the hero and heroine quests on page 5 and of the woman’s life journey and the cycle of female archetypes mapped onto phases of the moon on pages 176-7 provide an excellent compact framework for the visually-minded for the study of the feminine in myth.
I recommend From Girl to Goddess highly. Frankel’s truly global choice of tales and her analysis of them is outstanding. It is a book to turn to for deepening one’s understanding of myths and stories about women and their underlying structures, or more personally to better understand one’s own journey or the journeys of the women in one’s life. The extensive bibliography is a great service to readers interested in this topic in itself; I greeted old friends with delight while highlighting item after item to track down later. I look forward to more from Frankel; this book could have been twice as long and still not exhausted its subject or the reader’s desire for more, more, more stories.