Mother, maid, and witch: Hellenic female archetypes in modern British literature

Martha Celeste Carpentier, Fordham University


The predominance of matriarchs in modernist literature coincides with a new orientation to classical myth and drama, revolutionized by late 19th century research into primitive ritual. Frazer described a primitive world dominated by sexual mothers and their consorts, ritually lain to engender her fertility. However, Frazer was one of a community of scholars using anthropology to reinterpret classical literature. Jane Harrison, for instance, discovered the priority of early Greek matriarchal cults over the patriarchal Olympians, and explored the genesis of these chthonic mothers, witches, and maidens. With her disciples, Gilbert Murray and F. M. Cornford--known as the "Cambridge Anthropologists"--she formulated the "ritual theory," describing the origin of Greek drama in Dionysian ritual. Evidence of Harrison's influence on modernist writers has been ignored. To understand Molly Bloom's archetypal role as matriarch--and, in "Circe," as witch--we need to look beyond Homer's Olympians, to the more ancient matriarchal cults as delineated by Harrison, the myth of Demeter and Persephone and their ritual worship, the Eleusinian mysteries. In "Circe," Bloom experiences the witch's ritual purgation and ascends from archetypal scapegoat to hierophant, the Eleusinian priest who will lead Stephen to Molly and to creation. Bloom and Stephen are reborn in "Ithaca" through a symbolic union with the earth-mother, Molly/Demeter, and maiden-daughter, Milly/Persephone, that exactly parallels the ritual at Eleusis. Eliot's female archetypes evolve from the harpy-like witches of the "Sweeney" poems, to the maiden goddesses, Agatha and Mary, of The Family Reunion. However, unlike Joyce, Eliot's source was Greek tragedy, defined by Harrison as a later development, when the ancient ritual "bottles" had been filled with the "new wine" of Olympianism, with its worship of the spiritual father, Zeus. Critical opinion that Eliot failed to render classical themes and dramatic conventions meaningful in a modern setting, has prevented a detailed comparison of The Family Reunion to its model, Aeschylus' Oresteia. Yet Eliot tells the same psychological and mythic tale of the son who rejects, or "murders" the mother in order to embrace a patriarchal godhead, and his characters cannot be truly understood without comparison to their Oresteian counterparts.

Subject Area

British and Irish literature|Cultural anthropology|Classical literature|Comparative literature

Recommended Citation

Carpentier, Martha Celeste, "Mother, maid, and witch: Hellenic female archetypes in modern British literature" (1988). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI8818455.