What Ancient Greek Goddesses Can Teach Us About Femininity
The Ancient Greeks created mythologies about goddesses to map out the human experience and illustrate patterns of our behavior.
These myths are tools for insight into our personalities. While the goddesses were imaginary, the archetypes of the ancient world can describe patterns in our personalities that we can still relate to in our modern lives.
In Goddesses in Everywoman, Jean Shinoda Bolen, M.D., uses the goddess archetypes to help us get to know our feminine nature. She describes the goddesses as fractures of a whole woman — each of the seven goddesses make up a potential part of a woman’s personality. As you read this article, you’ll likely relate to several of the goddesses at the same time, and see parts of yourself in many of them. The goddesses illustrate multiple parts of our personalities. With this in mind, we can use these characters to gain a better understanding of our strengths and weaknesses as a woman.
Bolen puts the goddesses into three categories: virgin goddesses, the vulnerable goddesses, and the alchemical (transformative) goddesses.
The Virgin Goddesses
The virgin goddesses are Artemis, Athena, and Hestia. Artemis is the goddess of the hunt, Athena the goddess of wisdom, and Hestia the goddess of the home. These goddesses are independent, self-sufficient, and not vulnerable to falling in love. These archetypes are not describing literal virginity, but are the part of a woman that is “unpenetrated” by a man — the part of a woman that doesn't need male validation and exists in her own right.
The word “virgin” in this regard means uncorrupted, unused, or pure (think of the term “virgin soil”). The virgin goddesses were not victimized by anyone in their myths, and they illustrate the need a woman has to be autonomous, competent, and oriented towards achievement.
Artemis: Goddess of the Hunt and Moon, Competitor, and Sister
Artemis was the goddess of the hunt and moon. An archer, her domain was the woods. She's often depicted next to a stag, holding a bow and arrow and wearing a moon crown (she was known as a light-bearer). She roams the forest with a band of nymphs, protecting small creatures of the forest. She was considered the goddess of women in childbirth, and women would pray to her during labor.
Artemis represents the independent feminine spirit and is perhaps the most feminist of all the goddesses. She is very sisterly, and women who relate to this archetype consider their friendships with other women very important.
An Artemis woman loves to network with other women. Mentoring younger women is in line with this goddess archetype. An Artemis woman charts her own course and is secure in herself. Marriage is pretty far from her mind — she doesn’t want to be settled. An Artemis woman may pursue a man, but as soon as the man wants some emotional vulnerability or depends on her, the thrill of the “hunt” is over and she will move on. She denies her own vulnerability and need for another.
She needs to self-reflect and turn her gaze inward. This will help her to become aware of her need for love and to develop the relationship-oriented side of herself.
Athena: Goddess of Wisdom
Athena, goddess of wisdom, was a virgin goddess, dedicated to chastity. She was Zeus’s daughter, and her myth says that she “sprang from her father’s forehead a fully grown woman.” This is meant to illustrate her cunning wit, sharp intellect, and adult temperament. She was often depicted with an owl (a classic symbol of wisdom). Activities associated with Athena are crafts, and things that involve foresight, planning, and execution. She represents tangible results and practicality, rationality over emotion. Whereas Artemis represents the untamed wilderness, Athena’s spirit is found in the city.
Athena was considered the defender of the patriarchy. Defending masculinity is an Athenian trait. The protector of heroic men, the goddess Athena is often depicted with a shield that has the head of Medusa on it. Athena suggested Perseus kill Medusa by using mirrors to see the reflection in his shield and avoid her gaze. It was Athena who guided his sword hand to kill her.
An Athenian woman is ruled by her head instead of her heart and is very apt at strategy and logical thinking. This is not “acting like a man,” but an Athenian quality that many women possess. She thrives in school, business, science, the military, or political arenas.
An Athenian woman is very independent and often doesn’t have many close relationships with women. She gravitates towards successful men and can come across as distant to other women.
A woman who identifies with this archetype may have to work to cultivate her emotions and develop her spiritual growth. She can be a bit cold and clinical and may have to pull in other archetypes in order to soften. Remember that she was born a full-grown woman — an Athenian woman will have to cultivate her childlike self. She needs to play, laugh, and be silly.
Hestia: Goddess of the Hearth and Home
Hestia is the goddess of the spirit of home — more specifically, the fire that burned on a round hearth in ancient Greek homes. She isn't typically depicted as embodied, as she is a spirit. You won't often find representations of her in art. She represented the living flame at the center of the home, temple, or city. She made places holy when she was there, and she was a spiritually-felt presence that provided warmth and the heat required to make food.
A sacred fire goddess, Hestia provided the home as a sanctuary for people to return to and bond. Hestia is totally absorbed when she does something, and she's able to get us to focus our values on what's truly meaningful.
A Hestia woman loves to tend to her home and loved ones. She doesn't see tending to the house as a chore. She may like to bake bread, meditate, pray, clean, or light candles. Hestia women have an inner source of light and strength, and they're not egotistical but very generous towards those they love.
The dimension of the feminine that involves homemaking as a source of meaning and peace and warmth is diminished in modern life. Hestia has been forgotten and dishonored as feminism has gained popularity. With life-long institutions such as marriage becoming less common, a Hestia woman can be at a disadvantage.
She may not thrive in a competitive environment like a workplace. She enjoys adding a woman’s touch to the office or serving coffee more than battling it out in strategy sessions. She appreciates the economic support she gets to take care of a household, whether from a husband or a job. She prefers to entertain at home and loves to create an atmosphere for her guests.
The Vulnerable Goddesses
The vulnerable goddesses are Hera, Demeter, and Persephone. These three goddesses represent the traditional roles of women — wife, mother, and daughter. Hera is the goddess of marriage, Demeter the goddess of grain and emphasized as a mother, and Persephone, Demeter’s daughter, was the Queen of the Underworld. These goddesses are relationship-oriented, very different from the one-in-herself virgin goddesses, and their identities revolve around a significant relationship. They express a woman’s need for bonding and affirmation, and these goddesses were often victimized by the male gods.
Hera: Goddess of Marriage
Hera was Zeus’s wife and ruled over the heavens and earth with him. A jealous goddess, Hera was constantly upset by Zeus’s many affairs. She reacted to the humiliations she experienced with rage or withdrawal. She represented women’s yearnings to be a wife, but also the vulnerability of being tied to a man who is unfaithful.
A woman with an active Hera archetype feels incomplete without a marriage partner. A Hera woman may be somewhat content with a committed relationship, but she has a strong longing for marriage itself.
A Hera woman may experience psychological difficulties in over-identifying with the role of wife — this means her mood and temperament are dependent on the state of her marriage and her partner. When her desire for marriage is not met, getting a man is her chief source of motivation and grief. She may diminish her previous personal interests after marriage, or she may bloom and become a very happy wife. Many Hera women project perfection onto their man, and then become bitterly disappointed and angry when he doesn't live up to her expectations. She's at risk of trying to change him and may become “shrewish.”
Demeter: Goddess of Grain, Nurturer, and Mother
Demeter is the goddess of grain and agriculture. She's the maternal archetype or the “mother earth” archetype. She's a nurturer and provides nourishment physically, spiritually, and psychologically. Persephone was her daughter.
A woman with a Demeter archetype longs to be a mother, and if she is a mother she finds it very fulfilling. This archetype drives women to nurture others, and Demeter women find fulfillment in caregiving and providing. Demeter loves to offer food, and she finds immense pleasure in providing nourishment. A woman with an active Demeter archetype will love to cook for her family.
Demeter was the most generous goddess in Ancient Greece, and she gave humanity agriculture. She's the solid and dependable earth upon which people live and thrive.
A lot of Demeter women resent feminists for devaluing motherhood. They want to be mothers and nurturers and resent that women are now expected to work outside the home.
A Demeter woman is at risk of being overbearing. Jung called this the “devouring mother” archetype. While nature nourishes us, she can also destroy us. A Demeter woman has to be careful not to be overcontrolling or infantilizing of her loved ones, particularly her children.
Persephone: Queen of the Underworld
The story of Persephone is a story of the transformation of the unconscious into the conscious. Persephone is Demeter’s daughter. She's a maiden goddess, associated with symbols of fertility such as the pomegranate and the flower narcissus, which lured her into the underworld.
Persephone was picking flowers in a field one day when she spotted an exceptionally beautiful narcissus flower. As she bent to gather it, a hole opened up in the earth and Hades emerged in a golden chariot drawn by black horses, grabbed her, and plunged her down into the Underworld with him. Demeter heard her daughter’s cries, and searched for her daughter for nine days and nine nights over land and sea. While Demeter mourned, no crops grew on earth for the humans.
Finally, Zeus sent Hermes, the Messenger God, to the Underworld to bring Persephone back so that Demeter would stop her anger. Hermes found Persephone sitting next to Hades on a couch, and Hades gave her some pomegranate seeds to eat before she left.
When Demeter saw Persephone, she was ecstatic. She ran to her daughter and asked her if she had eaten anything while she was in the Underworld. Persephone told her she had, and Demeter sadly realized Persephone would have to return to the Underworld for a third of every year from then on.
Demeter restored fertility and life to earth, but not during the time when Persephone went to Hades. To the Greeks, Persephone’s descent and her mother’s grief while she was away is what caused winter on earth.
The Underworld in the myth represents the deep parts of the psyche. When a Persephone archetype is active in a woman, she can integrate both the conscious and the subconscious parts of her personality. She has the ability to mediate between worlds, and she can navigate the darkness. She can read those who are “abducted” and have lost sight of reality. Once a Persephone woman has plunged into her own darkness, explores the depths, and returns to reexamine the experience, she can become a guide for others.
The Alchemical Goddess
Aphrodite: Goddess of Love and Beauty
In Bolen’s book, Aphrodite is in her own category as the goddess of love and beauty. She's best known as Venus, her name in Roman mythology.
Aphrodite was the most beautiful, sensual, and seductive of all the goddesses. She was often described as “golden” by the Greeks, which meant “beautiful.” She was associated with doves, lovebirds, roses, sweet fragrances, and fruits. To the Greeks, Aphrodite is the creator of beauty, love, and life. Aphrodite had many lovers and many offspring. Her archetype represents women who seek intensity in their relationships rather than longevity, and women who value the creative process and are open to change.
Aphrodite married Hephaestus, the god of craftsman. Their marriage may have symbolized art, which is born from uniting beauty and craft. Aphrodite’s archetype encourages women to be creative and procreative .
Aphrodite women are very artistic. A woman with this active archetype will move through creative projects frequently, loving variety. She will always find something new to do that fascinates her. She loves sensory experience, so she may be a painter, a dancer, a writer, a musician, or a poet. She enjoys the flow found in the moment, and her focused consciousness creates beauty in the world.
An Aphrodite lady has a fiery element to her personality and is very extraverted. Due to this, she may be mistrusted by other women. There are drawbacks to living so thoroughly in the moment — she may be impulsive and will need experience to learn from her actions.
Maybe you're a strong Artemis archetype, but you want to develop your Demeter side and foster your nurturing instincts. Maybe you’re a Hestia, and you love to work within the home, but you want to develop your Athena and get involved in planning local community projects. The goddess archetypes are a fun way to give us insight into our personalities as women.