Arlene Kramer Richards and Lucille Spira consider the role of myths in the psychology of contemporary women

Myths of Mighty Women: Their Application in Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy

John Singer Sargent Triumph of Religion - Boston Public Library A.2 Pagan Gods, Astarte (North end ceiling vault, east half) Installed 1895 Photography by Bill Kipp 1999

It is the premise of our book Myths of Mighty Women, that the Oedipus myth which was all-important to Freudian analysts in the twentieth century is only one among many myths that can embody the unconscious fantasies that shape women’s hearts, minds and behaviour, and we explore aspects of these ancient mythic, biblical, and folk stories that have implications for contemporary women’s lives and for treatment.

Our anthology presents myths from both Eastern and Western cultures that illustrate the might of selected goddesses, fictional ancient characters, biblical women, literary figures, and real heroic women. Our authors allow the reader to see how these myths contribute to the development of the psychic life of today’s women. The challenges faced by contemporary women are echoed in the myths. Resolutions achieved in the myths point to ways that women can create pleasure and achievement in their own lives.

Themes of love, envy, aggression, sexuality, revenge, justice, maternity, and mourning are addressed. Society’s view of the aged woman and the ways that older women are presented as peculiarly powerful are discussed in the context of a psychoanalytic understanding of the ‘crone’ character of folk tales. Each author’s contribution includes a discussion by the editors that focuses on the implications of the heroic women figure for our psychoanalytic work with our women patients. How today’s women identify with aspects of mythic figures is made explicit, and ways to resolve the intra-psychic and interpersonal conflicts dramatically portrayed in myths and witnessed in psychotherapy are considered and suggested. Issues such as countertransference – including our sometimes envy of our patients – and our omnipotent wishes and fantasies that are often rooted in myths, are touched upon. Here we present and reflect upon a few excerpts from the chapters in this work:


Medea-Sandys-Medea by Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys (painted 1866-68)

‘Medea’ by Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys (painted 1866-68)

Mighty Medea: It is the unusually compelling quality of Medea—she is something “out there” in the “separate” world of story and myth—that almost forces us to react personally to the narrative. The young girl in love and the disillusioned rejected wife are to be found here, in our consulting rooms, and there, in the myth. Now as then, passion is dangerous.


Stone-carved freeze of Sumerian Goddess Inanna

Inanna, an Ancient Sumerian Goddess: Inanna has a story: she goes to visit her father, Enki, and on the way she leans against an apple tree and looks at her vulva. She applauds herself, naming herself the Queen of Heaven. This scene of Inanna looking at her vulva and declaring herself the Queen of Heaven attributes woman’s power to the awareness of her vulva and the display of the vulva leads to pride in self.

Meng Jiangnü:  The power of love to overcome both political and military power is that of a woman who is brave, and who goes her way without being diverted or misled. Thus, she can become a symbol for the analysands, who also attempt to take the path into the unknown, the terrain of their feelings, of which they are afraid. Inspired by her, they find the courage to make their own journeys into unfamiliar valleys, hills and ravines.

Taiko Drumming: Ame no Uzume, the Shinto female deity of dawn and revelery, is the originator of Taiko – an ancient Japanese folk and classical drum tradition, that was revived as a performance art in Japan by Diahachi Oguchi in 1951.  The story of Ame no Azure thereby challenges the image that many Westerners have of Japanese women as docile, domestic, delicate, submissive, graceful and feminine (arranging flowers, pouring tea or sake, subordinate to men, supremely incarnated in the image of the geisha. Wild and rampaging female energy, both aggressive and libidinal, is and is not an underground manifestation of Japanese culture – it exists at the root and is in full bloom.


Hecate: Queen of the Witches (Triple Goddess)

Hecate:  When Demeter went searching for her daughter, she did so without help from the Olympian gods. In fact, Poseidon compounded her injury by raping Demeter while she searched. The only deity who aided Demeter was Hecate, who eventually coerced Helios, the Sun God, into admitting that he had seen the abduction. While the other gods refused to get involved, and even Demeter suffered for having the temerity to search for her daughter, Hecate remained unadmonished and unpunished for her role in locating Persephone. The power of women to help each other is an aspect of this myth that has not been emphasized before.

Helen of Troy: A young woman is kidnapped and raped. A rape and kidnapping would surely impact a real girl’s development. Or was it rape? Was it her choice? The myth raises these very modern questions.

Biblical Heroines: The presence and erasure of powerful women in Scripture encodes the erasure of the goddess in ancient middle-eastern culture.  However, this erasure can itself be reversed, and the therapist, like the poet–teacher, can make use of midrash (reimagining biblical characters) in encouraging girls and women to bring to light and to action their repressed “might”.


‘Boadicea and Her Daughters’ by Thomas Thornycroft, London

Boadicea, Celtic Queen: Boadicea’s husband had tried to leave his kingdom jointly to his daughters and the Roman Emperor, and the regency to his wife. Humiliated and viciously flogged by the Romans, she led an uprising for the sake of their children, lest they be raised in slavery. Self-identifying as a quasi-goddess, she suddenly released from her dress a hare, an animal that was sacred to the Britons, as a form of divination. She used magic to protect her people.

Medea the Mother: This aspect of the myth describes the dark side of motherhood. It also deals with the mother’s unconscious phantasies of power and aggression. We discuss the feelings aroused in both men and women by maternal power, and the psychic mechanisms they use for dealing with them, such as envy, fear, and devaluation of motherhood. This chapter questions why a woman’s inner life continues to remain a closely-guarded secret despite all the efforts female analysts have made since Freud to cast light on the prevailing darkness. Or is a woman’s ability to give birth something so powerful that men—and even women—must deny it?

The Mother of Safety is the Phantasied Mother of Power: The author of the chapter relates how, after her husband died she dreamt she was descending into the Grand Canyon, down deep thin steps, with her husband ahead of her. She shouted out for him to wait. On awakening, she realised again how safe she had felt with him, how much a bodyguard and partner representing safety he had been.  This sense of falling, and an awareness of height and the abyss, is an inborn trait, requiring appropriate caring to mitigate the fear. The mother who represents safety provides calm holding. The fantasy and belief in the mother being able to create safety is easily transferred to a selected partner, and is a common attribute in the selection of the ‘good enough’ partner.


From Molly Bloom’s famous soliloquy at the end of James Joyce’s novel ‘Ulysses’

Molly Bloom: This glimpse into the midst of things may help us to fathom Joyce’s gamble on her, her husband’s abidingly detailed fascination with her, and her lasting fame. Through the windings of the book she has been a source of entertainment and pride to Leopold, the powerful magnet of his regrets, guilts, pleasurable self-punishments, and attempts at recovery. But, for the most part, except as we might have gauged her more complexly through Leopold’s thoughts, she has been the stuff of gossip and wish.

The Crone:  Who is the crone? Witch, hag, gorgon, sorceress: she is most often identified by physical characteristics that repulse and wound. Her yellowed shark teeth bite and ravenously consume; her sagging teats, colder than winter, provide no nourishment; her matted hair is a tangle of poisonous snakes; her nose a hook; her eyes turn us to stone; her sharp-nailed fingers emit a dangerous curse. Yet, she is as respected as she is terrifying, capable of managing large kingdoms and executing complex schemes, all the while cackling at her own secret wisdom. She is a crank and a pain, but a lovable one, to whom all are loyal. The crone is the representation of the post-menopausal female in the eyes of younger women and men.

Athena, Antigone, and their Modern Avatars: In our ever more cyber-focused and metrosexual universe, women’s prowess in science and finance is undeniable. With technology mushrooming as never before in history and women working on a par with men, with brainpower supplanting physical strength, and with third-party childcare and other outsourcings of maternal functions, physical strength matters less and less in structuring gender relations and politics. It may take some time for human nature to catch up with human civilisation, but the adaptive advantage of male dominance may be becoming obsolete.

Heroines and Mythology of Contemporary Girls: Hushpuppy, Buffy, and Juno are mythological heroines for many contemporary girls. Resilient, resourceful, and spirited, they are seen as having out-of-the-ordinary, sometimes superhuman, strength in a world that poses dangers. Each pursues her individuality and gains a strong sense of self-agency. To varying degrees, contemporary heroines cope mightily with faulty parental attachment, looming perils, and waves of id and superego pressures. Their hard-won battles include many losses but they ultimately embrace their intellectual, sexual, and physical powers. They prevail and grow. Perhaps they have even out-distanced the goddesses of long-ago myths.

427740b124c6e930765c768652306a8f  girl_power_by_principeeric  juno


Conclusion: In the journey through psychoanalytic psychotherapy, many sources can be used to help the patient towards her solution to her individual quest. In our sections on the implications of myths for psychoanalytic psychotherapy, where we view the mythic stories through the lens of a wide range of psychoanalytic theory, we keep Helen Meyers’ pioneering contribution in mind. She beautifully demonstrates how Freud’s theory becomes richer as it draws upon the extensive repertoire of analytic contributions available to today’s analysts. While Freud asked, “What do women want?” we ask, “What does a woman need?” We answer: the right to control her body, mind, and the sense that she will be treated justly. The devil is in the details; to read more about each of these mythic stories and our ideas about the implications for psychoanalytic psychotherapy read: Myths of Mighty Women: Their application in Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy. 

Arlene Kramer Richards and Lucille Spira

With contributions from: Ronnie Ancona, Irmgard Dettbarn, Merle Molofsky, Philip Matyszak, Alicia Ostriker, Frances Thomson-Salo, Elina Reenkola, Patsy Turrini, Paul Schwaber, Elizabeth Haase, John Munder Ross, Ellen Sinkman, Henry Schwartz

Myths of Mighty Women: Their Application in Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy, edited by Arlene Kramer Richards and Lucille Spira, is published this week by Karnac Books.

“When Demeter went searching for her daughter, she did so without help from the Olympian gods.” Martha Wainwright’s dramatic interpretation of of the last song Kate McGarrigle (her mother) ever wrote, Proserpina,  illustrates the power of women to help each other and the enduring legacy that female creativity bestows on all of us.

3 thoughts on “Arlene Kramer Richards and Lucille Spira consider the role of myths in the psychology of contemporary women

  1. Bravo!!!
    How relevant this book is. Yes, it is about women’s needs not wants. The basic needs every woman is entitled to but alas not all are awarded. I can not wait to read the book in its entirety. What a welcome addition to our psychoanalytic field’s
    Literature. Way to go!


  2. Pingback: Ronald Britton discusses his new book ‘Between Mind and Brain’ |

  3. Pingback: International Psychoanalysis » Blog Archive » Psychology Sunday: Arlene Kramer Richards

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