Perhaps in the days of tales by the fireside, the girls looked on wistfully as their brothers rode off to war. “There’s magic in our lives, too,” their grandmothers would say. “We can disguise ourselves as men and pick up swords, be warrior queens like Maeve and Atalanta, or we can follow our own path.” From there emerged stories of spinning (Rumpelstiltskin), gardening (Rapunzel), weaving (The Wild Swans), housework (Cinderella), washing clothes (East of the Sun, West of the Moon), holding a loved one (Tam Lin), caring for relatives (Red Riding Hood), child rearing (Electra), and marriage (nearly all of them).
As Campbell notes, generally the male is questing out in the world, while the woman quests in the home. Still, actions in the so-called “women’s domain” save the men and allow the heroines to accomplish their goals: Electra achieves vengeance on her mother, Clytemnestra, for slaughtering her father only by raising her young brother and protecting him. Janet must clasp Tam Lin in her arms whatever shape he takes in order to steal him away from the fairy queen. More daring folkloric heroines use Shakespeare’s “bed trick.” Many, like Rumpelstiltskin’s heroine, guess riddles. All of the heroines accomplish their quests without violence, valuing shrewdness and fortitude over Excalibur. “The point is not that women must stay in the kitchen. The point is that in the ordinary, in the familiar, we will find the tools we need and in the humble, we find transformation.” A simple kitchen fire and pot are magical, turning eggs into omelets, and flour and sugar into gourmet cakes.30 From here comes women’s magic of the home.
The tale of how Oonagh cleverly protects her household and husband Finn from the giant Cucillin demonstrates the power of “hearth craft,” even at defeating the most powerful of adversaries. Cucillin, whose footsteps shake mountains, comes seeking Finn, and Finn is terrified of losing the fight. Oonagh hides her husband, and when Cucillin arrives, she explains that Finn has already gone to meet him. Then, using a skilled combination of Irish bluff and blarney, she describes her husband as the most ferocious man ever to walk the earth. As Cucillin starts to regret his visit, Oonagh asks him to do a few chores in exchange for hospitality, chores she assures him her husband would do were he home. Cucillin cannot refuse.
She has him lift the house up and turn it to reduce the wind exposure, and clear the side of a mountain to provide the house with a spring. As a reward for his help, she generously bakes him “Finn’s bread,” but he cracks his teeth on the griddle she bakes into it. Then, as he groans in pain, she asks him to check on the baby, and Finn, hiding in the cradle, bites off the finger that gives Cucillin all his magical strength. Suitably chastened, Cucillin departs, never to return.
Oonagh outwits a giant while staying at home with her husband hiding behind her. She even does some vast remodeling, determined to use all the giant’s abilities in practical ways, before stripping him of them. This is woman’s valor — using wit and hidden domestic magic to cow her enemies.31
The taletellers never confused the woman’s domain with passivity. Among the Aztecs, who ranked their afterlives by heroism, warriors who died in battle ascended to the same heaven as mothers who died in childbirth. These heroisms are comparable, as the mother gives over her own life for another’s, for the good of the tribe.32
Heroes wield their gifts in a more straightforward world, where their powerful swords kill antagonists and defend the helpless. Heroines, however, live in a more treacherous, shifting world, where even their mentor can seek their death. Just as the outdoor world threatens the hero, the interior world of the home offers shocking treachery for the heroine, which she must defeat in order to rule. Only through valor and ingenuity, not swordplay, can the heroine survive this surrounding threat to one day preside over her own household.
Journey through the Unconscious