You’re not too smart. I like that in a man.
— Matty Walker, Body Heat
Far beyond the Fertile Crescent, the Temptress and her kin bedeviled frail humanity. The Greek hills, forests and seas teemed with seductive nymphs, bloodthirsty maenads, voracious sirens and savage Amazons. Norsemen spoke in hushed tones of gold-hoarding Rhine Maidens, slaughter-loving Valkyries and the icy halls of Hel. Camelot shuddered under the carnal treacheries of Guinevere, Viviane and Morgan le Fay, while vain Queen Maeve washed Connaught in blood and sent black ravens to bring down Cuchulain. Romanian peasants feared the capriciously vampiric ielles and their mistress Aripa Satanei, Queen of the Bad Spirits. Irish folk trembled when the bean-sidhe howled for the death of someone dear. Hone-onna, the skeleton woman, cloaked her bony form in beautiful skin. The Black Lady Demoiselle Noire de Gruchy drew young men into her tower, then transformed them into plants or disemboweled them, draping her hedges with their intestines. The Snow Queen Scheefraülein captured lovers with shards of frozen desire. Given the hordes of demonic ladies and their enchantments, it’s a wonder mankind survived at all!
Most Temptress legends display distinct elements of masculine guilt and weakness: maenads and Amazons forsake male-run societies, while sirens and mermaids lure men “over the side” of a well-run ship. The cecaelia (“octopus-girl”) snares unwary men with her tentacles, just as Death-Bringing-Woman devours her suitors from the genitals on up. Like legends of the male Demon Lover, Temptress stories often demand complicity on the part of the injured party. To succumb to her is to display weakness and be destroyed by it. (Incidentally, succumb shares the root-word of succubus – a word which means “to lie beneath.”)
This weakness could bring mighty men low – just ask Arthur, Merlin and Lancelot! Such allure reaches beyond the realm of myth and into our own world. In his Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans, Plutarch mocks Mark Antony for his infatuation with real-life Temptress Cleopatra; following the lead of Octavian’s propaganda (which emphasized the role of eunuchs in the Egyptian court), Plutarch proclaimed that Cleopatra “awaken(ed) and kindle(d) to fury passions that as yet lay still and dormant in his nature, to stifle and finally corrupt any elements that yet made resistance in him…” Similar accusations were leveled at Lucrezia Borgia, Eva Perón, Veronica Franco and Marilyn Monroe, among many others. Bill Clinton marred his legacy with “Lewinskygate,” while manlyAh-nold lost conservative brownie points for marrying a Kennedy. And then, of course, there’s Angelina Jolie, the tattooed ambassador who still can’t shake the scarlet mantle. “There has always,” notes Jane Billinghurst, “been the pervasive feeling that men, the rational sex, impose order, whereas women, the emotional sex, subvert it.”
Conquering the Temptress has traditionally been a sign of male power. The Buddha, it is said, dispelled the demon-king Mara’s beautiful yet infernal daughters Tanha (“Craving”), Raga (“Passion”) and Arati (“Aversion”). Theseus “subdued” the Amazon Queen Hippolyta after Heracles stole her girdle. Conan the Barbarian wades through wenches like it’s going out of style – ironic, considering that his creator Robert E. Howard was a shy (if burly) mama’s boy whose biggest fans are teen-age men. His pulp-fiction descendents have followed suit, most notably the antiheroes of John Norman’s Gor novels. “I knew,” says Norman’s female Captive of Gor, “that he was dominant over me… It had to do with the fact that he was totally masculine.” In this archaic yet pervasive patriarchal view, the Temptress will chew you up and spit you out unless you can “man up” and take her down.
Castration anxiety provides a major theme in Temptress tales. Sampson and the Baptist receive close shaves from hot women, while the galli priests of Kybele emasculate themselves for her sake. The so-called “brides” of Dracula bend over Jonathan Harker, and although Stoker never says as much, their sharp teeth may be heading lower than his neck. Maenads fling bits of various Greek heroes every-which-way. And then there’s the penis tree, a bizarre concept from Italian witchcraft tales that appears in that gynophobic opus, theMalleus Maleficarum. According to Kramer and Sprenger, witches “sometimes collect male organs in great numbers, as many as 20 or 30 members together, and put them in a bird’s nest, or shut them up in a box, where they move themselves like living members, and eat oats and corn.” A medieval mural discovered in Tuscany depicts such a tree, and although these tales seem absurd in our era, so-called “witches” are being harassed and killed in parts of Africa even now – with magical castration being used as a common accusation against them.
This fear becomes most apparent in tales of the dreaded vagina dentata (“vagina with teeth”). Commonly found in the legends of Oceana and North America, this beauty has an unfortunate bite. Several Coyote tales find him dealing out rough trade to such Temptresses; he spears one through “the lower mouth” with a flaming branch, then takes another and knocks out her teeth with a rock. A similar folktale from Bastar tells of a rakshasa’s daughter with vaginal choppers; she could assume the form of a tigress, and lived with twelve tigers of her own. After castrating a man, she would feed him to her cats. This Temptress, though, made the mistake of killing six brothers; the youngest sibling bashed her teeth in with an iron pipe, then cursed her to become a chamgedri – a monster that eats, copulates and eliminates through the same hole. More recently, Mitchell Lichtenstein’s 2007 movie Teeth gives the legend a darkly comical spin. The misogyny in such tales is almost palpable. Small wonder, then, that Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues evoke that image with a feminist twist!
For obvious reasons, our Temptress often wants revenge, either for personal wrongs or for slights against her sex. Medea is the quintessential example of this trope, avenging Jason’s bad behavior by slaughtering their kids. Hard-edged Faith from Buffy the Vampire Slayer takes her harsh life out on everyone within reach. The defiled ex-lover of Lucy Taylor’s “Flesh Artist” is justified in her wet revenge. Sometimes even a “good girl” must play the Temptress; confronted by the gynocidal Elf-Knight, Lady Isabel seduces him and then, as he sleeps, inflicts a well-earned death. Rough justice, it seems, may wear a beautiful disguise.
I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.
— Jessica Rabbit, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Is the Temptress misunderstood? We find that perspective inThe Mists of Avalon, where Morgan le Fay becomes Morgaine, slandered priestess of the Great Goddess. Jessica Rabbit reallydoes love her Roger, even if she’s drawn bad. “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes,” in Harlan Ellison’s tale, is “determined as hell never to abide in that vale of poverty her mother had called purgatory for her entire life.” Along a similar theme, the gender-switching immortal Anna from Graham Masterson’s “Changeling” shows men what it’s like to be a sexy woman in their world. “Let no one think me,” says Medea, “a weak one, feeble-spirited… but rather, just the opposite, one who can hurt my enemies and help my friends; for the lives of such persons are most remembered.”
The most memorable power of the Temptress involves taking Man’s weakness and directing it against him. Turning his world inside-out, she inverts hierarchy, changes shape, shifts expectations and drinks his potency dry – all with his consent! Like Madonna, whose Temptress career has spanned three decades, this character claims power from out of powerlessness. With it, she can open gates, breed monsters, even change the world. In time, this Bad Girl might even become an avatar of virtue – on her own terms, of course! The tabloids may rage, but Angelina Jolie’s still smiling. She’s got the guy, the goods and some literal goodwill to boot. Temptress or not, her legacy looks secure.
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
— T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
Hans Christian Anderson, “The Snow Queen” (1845).
Jane Billinghurst, Temptress: From the Original Bad Girl to Women on Top by (Greystone Books, 2004).
Francesca Lia Block, “Ice,” The Rose and the Beast: Fairy Tales Retold (HarperCollins, 2000).
Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Mists of Avalon (Del Rey, 1982).
Jacqueline Cary, The Kushiel’s Legacy series (Tor, 2001-current).
Aleister Crowley, De Arte Magica (Holmes Publishing, 1987).
Pierre Dubois and Claudine & Roland Sabatier, The Great Encyclopedia of Faeries and The Complete Encyclopedia of Elves, Goblins and Other Little Creatures, (Simon & Schuster, 1996/ Abbeville Press, 2005).
Harlan Ellision, “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes,” I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream (Pyramid Books, 1967).
Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz, eds., American Indian Myths and Legends, (Pantheon Books, 1984).
Rosemary Ellen Guiley, The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft (Facts on File, Inc., 1989).
Judika Illes, The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft(HarperElement, 2005).
George R.R. Martin, The Song of Ice and Fire series (Bantam, 1996-current)
Graham Masterson, “Changeling,” in Hot Blood: Tales of Provocative Horror, ed. Jeff Gelb and Lonn Friend (Pocket Books, 1989).
Arturo Pérez-Reverte, The Club Dumas (Vintage International, 1996).
Marquis de Sade, Juliette, or Vice Amply Rewarded(1797-1801).
Lucy Taylor, The Flesh Artist (Silver Salamander, 1994).
Oberon Zell-Ravenheart, ed., Green Egg Omelette: An Anthology of Art and Articles from the Legendary Pagan Journal, (Career Press, 2009).
This entry, along with its related parts, was the first of a three-article series originally published in Realms of Fantasy Magazine between 2009 and 2010. All rights are reserved by the author. Permission granted for linking or re-posting with attribution, but explicitly denied for publication without prior arrangements with the author.