“She’s A Lady…” (Female Archetypes in the Western Tradition)

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In examining heroic archetypes, I am struck by how few examples there are of heroic female characters in ancient narratives. Heroic male protagonists abound in the pre-Shakespearean canon, and they usually fall into distinct categories (warriors, teachers, fools, tricksters, etc.). By contrast, the heroines of the ancient world are not so easy to categorize, and their roles in a narrative often overlap into multiple areas—much like real life! Even among people who write about the topic, there is little consensus as to which categories exist or where individual characters should be placed.

One way we could approach the topic of female archetypes would be to start in the middle of the Western literary tradition and see what came before and after. In medieval Romances, for example, a woman is depicted as either an innocent maiden, a wife/mother, a temptress, or an old crone. Today, this pattern continues to hold sway, even in modern TV dramas and sitcoms (consider Gilligan’s Island or Desperate Housewives).

Maidens are certainly a staple of many fairy tales, like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Repunzel. Princess Leia falls into this role (at least until the gold bikini episode), and some would argue that Hamlet’s love interest, Ophelia, is an innocent victim (although the jury is still out on her among critics). Other times, the maiden serves as a Platonic ideal of friendship and companionship, such as Dante’s Beatrice. For many, it is the girl’s innocence that adds to her appeal (think Nancy Drew, Lewis Carroll’s Alice, or Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz). Of course, there is also the type of maiden who is described as a “waif”—a poor girl who suffers at the mercy of the cruel or indifferent world around her. The Little Match Girl, Cinderella, and Jane Eyre fall into this category.

Like maidens, the character of the dutiful wife and mother has plenty of literary precedent. Among the Classical deities is Hera, the mean-tempered but long-suffering wife of Zeus. Penelope faithfully keeps the Ithican home fires burning while her husband, Odysseus, is gone for twenty years. Welthow serves drinks to Beowulf’s men while her husband, king Hrothgar, listens to the warriors’ speeches. And who can forget Elizabeth Bennet’s quirky mom in Pride and Prejudice or the ever-pleasant June Cleaver?

Another female archetype is the woman in charge—the boss or the crusader. The Greek goddess, Athena, is a good example of this, as is the Wife of Bath from The Canterbury Tales. Antigone of Greek tragic fame and the Biblical Esther are the two earliest examples of civil disobedience, and they demonstrate a woman’s ability to undermine male authority through their courage and their wits. Modern writers have crafted plenty of women who are in charge: Wonder Woman, Lara Croft, Emma Peele from The Avengers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Xena are good examples.

Along the same lines as the woman in charge is the survivor, with the main difference being these gals do not get to dictate the terms of their circumstances. Moll Flanders and Hester Prynne overcome enormous odds to emerge heroic at their end of their stories, as do Scarlett O’Hara and Celie from The Color Purple. Others like Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Madame Bovary, and The Awakening’s Edna Pontellier are not so fortunate, although many see them as making heroic—albeit, controversial—choices.

Of course, where would the heroic stories from both the past and present be without a temptress? The earliest piece of literature known to exist, the Epic of Gilgamesh, includes a harlot who seduces Enkidu, thus causing him to fall from grace. Odysseus faces not only the Sirens but also Circe (who turns Odysseus’ men into swine) and Calypso (who imprisons Odysseus and his men for seven years). The Romantic poet, John Keats, immortalized the siren-esque figure of “La Belle Dame sans Merci” (“The Beautiful Woman Without Pity,” a title Keats borrowed from a fifteenth century French poet, Alain Chartier). Lolita functions as a temptress in Nabokov’s tale, as does the Lady of the Castle in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (although she is also portrayed as a faithful wife, making her one of the more complex characters from the medieval tradition).

Other female characters use their feminine powers and personalities to destroy. Storytellers and theologians sometimes blame Eve for humankind’s downfall, and Pandora’s mistake echoes these same sentiments. Delilah uses her womanly charms to trap Samson. Salome conspires with her mother, Herodias, to trick Herod into killing John the Baptist. Shiva is the Hindu destroyer, and Morgan Le Fay devotes her life to undermining everything her stepbrother, Arthur, tries to build. Helen of Troy functions as both a temptress and a destroyer in bringing about Troy’s downfall, and likewise, Guinevere’s involvement with Lancelot unravels the chivalric fabric of Camelot.

Old crones are not as common as many of the other female archetypes, but they certainly have their place in narratives. Fairy tales are replete with wicked old witches, and many of them seek to do harm to innocent maidens. Modern sitcoms have made ample use of older women, but usually in a more positive sense. Alice from The Brady Bunch, Aunt Bea from the Andy Griffith Show, and Granny from The Beverly Hillbillies are all reliable caregivers, and their role is to function as protectors and advisors to the younger cast of characters.

To me, it is interesting that in ancient stories, most of the female archetypes exist not so much in the human sphere but among the deities. It is not until after Shakespeare that narratives begin to incorporate females who display the same level of complexity as their male counterparts, and this became even more the norm after Jane Austen, the Brontes, and other eighteenth and nineteenth writers brought the novel into its own as an art form. Today there is certainly no shortage of literature written by, for, and about women, but even so, these writers continue to borrow from types and forms that have existed for centuries.

I am sure there are many other categories of female character types I’ve overlooked in this brief overview. So let me know what I’ve missed so that we might continue the discussion.

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About Scott Shields

Years ago, I left the Midwest for the deserts of Arizona. Since then, I have worked in the grocery business and as a high school English teacher. Literature and writing are my passions, and I try to share my love of the written word with my students each day.


  1. I think the primary reason so many of the earliest archtypes of women (Eve, Virgin Mary, Helen of Troy) were relatively one-dimensional or flat compared to the depth of male characters is that most works of literature that survive today were produced by men. And, men don’t naturally perceive, or perhaps appreciate the complexity of feminine emotions. Emotions and motives are the key elements that give any character depth, male or female. I read once that it was interesting how in Anna Karenina, Tolstoy glossed over her sexual experience with Vronsky. The decision to leave her husband and forfeit her place in society was a monumental one, and to skirt around the “emotional pay-off” of that decision shows a reluctance to grapple with the messiness of the feminine perspective. Tolstoy leads us to Anna’s ultimate undoing, but with very little examination of the highly charged emotions that would accompany her path. It’s easier to paint a stereotype when the writer is unable or unwilling to dig beneath the surface. Why male writers in history (ancient and present) have been uncomfortable delving into the complicated emotions of complicated women is a much bigger issue, one that needs many hours of therapy.

  2. Eric Bahle says

    @Rose713. True enough as far as it goes but there are more archetypes available than The Iliad or Le Morte d’Arthur, works whose target audience was a warrior aristocracy (men). In fairy tales there are a myriad of heroes who are girls or women. I read an essay making a convincing case for Fairy Tales as the feminine side of Myth, with female heroes and villains and likely female authors.