Cheris Kramarae, and Paula Treichler
Nefertiti, Cleopatra, Agrippina, Lilith, the list goes on and on. This list is the list of women in history that have been vilified for their use of sexuality and in some cases even demonized. This negative social construct towards women in power and embrace their sexuality has been a trend that has been documented since issues between men and women first began in the history of literature. The poem “Christabel” written by Samuel Coleridge exemplifies this concept with the distinct contrast of the virginal Christabel and the seductress Geraldine. What about power and sexuality portrayed by a woman makes it so inherently evil?
Feminism at its core “advocates equal rights for all women (indeed, all peoples) in all areas of life: socially, politically, professionally, personally, economically, aesthetically, and psychologically.” (Bressler 144). Feminism is also concerned with removing patriarchal or male influence from various works. Since a man can never understand a woman or a woman’s struggle, how can be properly right about women or women’s issues? It is this concern with l’ecriture feminine, or “creation of a female language” (Bressler 160) that states that this is where the negative female archetypes stem from. It is the patriarchy that is responsible for the vilification of females and female sexuality.
“Christabel” is a poem written by Samuel Coleridge about a young girl named Christabel who comes across a woman in the woods and invites the woman in thinking that the woman is merely injured and lost. This woman is Geraldine. Geraldine is at first seen as weak and helpless but proves to be a dynamic force of sexuality and evil. Geraldine is most likely a lamia or succubus. A succubus is a “lascivious she-demon… She copulated with men in their dreams, and sucked out the essence of their souls(semen). Nocturnal emissions were always attributed to the attentions of she-demons who ‘cause men to dream of erotic encounters with women, so the succubae can receive their emissions and make therefrom a new spirit’” (Walters 960 ). While Christabel throughout the poem is called “sweet”, “lovely lady” and even in one line the writer evokes to “shield sweet Christabel!” (Coleridge 88). Geraldine’s intentions are seen quite early on her evil nature is described line after line “And Christabel saw the lady’ eye, and nothing else saw she thereby…” (Coleridge 86) and that when Geraldine’s entered the house, the dog barked, the fence shook and candles went out, all signs of evil entering a home. Evil also must be invited; this rule applies not just to vampires but to lamia and succubae as well.
This was the first clue to most readers of the work that Geraldine was not who she seemed. And whilst in the midst her of pure seduction and subsequent destruction over the house Geraldine even finds time to seduce Christabel “’In the touch of this bosom there worketh a spell, which is lord of thy utterance, Christabel! Thou knowest to-night, and wilt know to-morrow, this mark of my shame, this seal of my sorrow…” (Coleridge 89). The other key clue was when the bard told the king of his dream involving the serpent and the dove, two classic symbols of the dichotomy between good and evil “’And in my dream methought I went to search out what might there be found; and what the sweet bird’s trouble meant…when lo! I saw a bright green snake coiled around its wings and neck. Green as herbs on which it crouched…” (Coleridge 96). Green is a colour naturally used to depict vile and wicked things. Witches often have green skin, green snakes are often thought to be the most poisonous. While doves, pure and white are seen as innocent and peaceful. Contrastingly doves are seen as naïve and snakes as knowledgeable in forbidden ways. Similarly snakes are associated with male sexual energy and male sexuality. Often times females in a position of power are depicted as very masculine or having masculine traits. Doves are seen as mostly innocent no sexual connotation to them. That is another trait of woman is that innocent that is meant to remain intact for the rest of their lives.
Now, why does Geraldine, a strong and powerful force on her own need to be evil? Why does her use of sexuality to gain power seen as so negative? The negative female archetypes have existed since writing began: the femme fatale, the seductress, the witch, the cause of man’s downfall. But it was not always this way. In Ancient Roman and Greek mythology, priestesses are seen as strong and independent forces, goddesses are often just as strong or even in some cases stronger than their male counterparts. This strong feminine character is embraced and even worshiped in some cults and cultures. So this is not an entirely Western concept, it would appear to be more of a social construct. Certain groups and societies demonize female power and sexuality.
Geraldine’s evil nature cannot simply be a plot device; it cannot simply be that she was meant to foil the virginal Christabel. It is then possible that her evil was driven as a product of male writers who don’t know anything more than just that pluralistic view of the female. Society has shown us that apparently the only sides to women are the pure-hearted virgin or the crazed evil sex fiend. History has given us examples of both, the pure women that are strong and able to stand on their own like Eleanor Roosevelt or Queen Victoria. There are others that embraced their sexuality and used it to full advantage and are often demonized for it, such as Lilith and Agrippina. This is why it is possible that the polarization of the feminine is there. History has given us examples on to what can be seen as either extreme.
This story reminded me in more way than one the story of Adam’s first wife Lilith. The Kabala teaches of a first wife of Adam and her legend seems to shed light to the root of the demonization of female power and sexuality Adam’s first wife was a relic of an early rabbinical attempt to assimilate the Sumero-Babylonian Goddes Belil-ili, or Belili, to Jewish mythology. To the Canaanites, Lilith was Baalat, the ‘Divine Lady.’ Hebraic tradition said Adam married Lilith because he grew tired of coupling with beasts, a common custom of Middle-Eastern herdsmen…Adam tried to force Lilith to lie beneath him in the ‘missionary position’ favored by male-dominant societies…Lilith sneered at Adam’s sexual crudity, cursed him, and flew away to make her home by the Red Sea” (Walters 541-2 ) Even in different cultures Lilith is not seen as a negative force but a woman who simple was strong and worthy of worship.
It was not until the writers of the Bible came about that the story was turned into one of degradation and disobedience. She simply wanted to be sexually equal to her husband and then was banished for demanding equality. She then found equality in the one place a woman could and that was at the time in the occult. Lilith found power with demons and went on to spread her legacy elsewhere.
Now the modern woman does not have to be concerned with having to sell her soul to demons because her mate wants to be on top but the idea hasn’t faded from modern vernacular. Women who are strong are vilified; they are put down and degraded. They are more likely to remain single or retreat to the comfort of other women in relationships to seek equality and understanding in a society that preaches equality but shudders away at a display of strength.
This dichotomy hasn’t vanished, and the worst part is that it may never vanish. We are not entirely sure why is happens. Why some cultures praise women and others stand to keep them down. We are not sure why some feminine traits are glorified and others feared. The cult of the sacred feminine isn’t dead, it has merely been repressed. Feminism’s main goal is to achieve equality for women in all respects and regards and the concern for the modern feminist is to now work at re-achieving that sexual liberation and equality we were able to gain in the 1960s.
It would be letting male writers get off to easily to simply chalk this all up to social construct. Perhaps it comes down to men’s own inability to understand the complexities of the feminine thus promoting the concept of the women’s writing. Perhaps only a woman can write about women’s issues and about women in general. Men cannot possible understand how we so delicately on the razor’s edge the average woman can balance sensuality, power and intelligence. What it comes down to is that no one can fully understand a woman’s whiles and it isn’t our place to assume that such delicate balancing acts are meant to be delegated to the realm of evil. Nor does that mean women are supposed to be innocent little virginal beings that feel nothing stronger than immense joy and utter despondency due to the absence of a male partner or male figure. When we find the answer it well may change how writers address women in works or just well leave writing about women to women authors. The key is that the lesson we learn from the dichotomy of the ‘wicked’ Geraldine and the innocent Christabel in Coleridge’s poem “Christabel” shows that male writers throughout history have had difficulty playing the fine line between strong women and evil succubus-like individuals. This balance can only be achieved through time and knowledge on both sides, men learning that feminine charm doesn’t have to be evil and women learning that men’s ignorance towards understanding our complex nature is not as easy to explain as we think.
Appelbaum, Stanley. English Romantic Poetry: an Anthology. Mineola, NY: Dover, 1996. Print.
Bressler, Charles E. . Literary Criticism. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007. Print.
Walker, Barbara G. The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. San Francisco, 1986. Print.