MAD, BAD & DANGEROUS: THE TEMPTRESS (Part I)

Everything that reminds me of her goes through me like a spear.

— John Keats

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Some days, it must suck to be Angelina Jolie. To embody an archetype everybody wants but few people respect. To have photographic parasites crouched around each corner waiting to add the newest chapter to a very old drama: The Innocent, Prince Charming, and the Temptress who stole him away. It doesn’t matter what the human beings inhabiting the lives of Jennifer Anniston, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie do; it doesn’t matter what deeds good, bad or indifferent they perform, or how they get along when the cameras aren’t there. All three have been cast in archetypal roles. [1] And of the three of them, it’s Jolie, with her Lilithian gaze and vampiric allure, who most fully incarnates Original Sin.

The tabloid folklore of our supermarket sages plays out weekly dramas that are older than our celebrities, our markets, even our society. The misdeeds of the Scarlet Woman are, by some measures, as old as humanity itself. For whatever reasons, the archetype of a strong, sexual woman as an embodiment of Evil clings like witch-smoke to human folklore. Her confidence challenges men and women alike. She scares folks at a deep-core level. Regardless of – perhaps even because of – our progress toward some measure of equality, the war of the sexes continues, with the Temptress striding boldly through its bloody front lines.

In my previous article series, Mad, Bad & Dangerous: The Demon Lover (December 2009), we explored the wild tangle of sexual confusions and noted the dark triad, that intoxicating blend of sociopathy, manipulation and rebellion that draws (and often destroys) men and women who experience its allure. We visited three left-hand embodiments of desire – the masculine Demon Lover, the feminine Temptress and the ambiguous Androgyne – and scanned their influence on folklore, literature and life. We saw, too, how Jung’s theories of the shadow (repressed aspects of one’s self), the animus (the inner masculine principle) and the anima(inner femininity) play roles in these potent archetypes and their appeal for us. Having given the Devil his due, we turn now to his counterpart: the Temptress, a Scarlet Woman whose ageless enchantments have bedeviled men and women since the beginning of time.

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All right, I’ll tell you why the Girl gives me the creeps… She’s unnatural. She’s morbid. She’s unholy… There are vampires and vampires, and not all of them suck blood.

— Fritz Leiber, “The Girl With the Hungry Eyes”

Smart, gorgeous and self-possessed, the Temptress is raw feminine power. She radiates sex and knows how to use it. Whether she’s ruling a kingdom or undermining a god, this archetype embodies desire and its costs. Women want to be her, men want to do her, and everyone’s more than a little scared of her. Call her Lilith or Faith, Madonna or Melisande, she’ll take you from heaven to hell and leave you wanting more.

Where the Demon Lover is brutal, the Temptress is subtle. Her wild beauty and sweet beguilement lead men (and occasionally women) to ruin. She can, like Sade’s Juliette, humble male libertines or – like George R.R. Martin’s Cersei – turn continents into charnel houses. Although she seems devoted to her paramours, the Temptress is treacherous at heart. She cannot be trusted, only foresworn. Drawn from our dangerous animal instincts, she seethes with passion and ferocity. Even in the most civilized environments, the Temptress recalls the side of humanity that lusts for freedom and bridles at propriety.

Our Temptress is a lovely beast: a cat, a serpent, an owl, a fox. She shares a special bond with animals, and often becomes one herself. Like the Demon Lover, she usually boasts wild features: bird’s feet, cat-eyes, fish-tails and serpentine hair. Her passions recall tangled forests and crashing waves. Sneaky one moment, bold the next, she glides like cool streams and flares like sudden fire. Her youthful beauty contrasts with the withered countenance of her eventual fate, the Hag. In many tales, such as the English ballad “King Henry,” Spenser’s Faerie Queene, or H. Rider Haggard’s She, the Temptress and the Hag trade places in an instant. She’s the face and form of man’s desire for youth and abhorrence of mortality. Certain portrayals of the Norse Goddess Hel depict her with the supple beauty of a Temptress on one side and the raw putrescence of a corpse on the other – a fitting symbol for the fleeting bloom of life.

The protean nature of women comes through in the Temptress’ legendary talent for shape-changing. Renaissance accounts claim that witches could become cats, hares, ravens or owls; an Italian name for witch is strega, from strix – “screech owl,” the name given by Classical Romans to shape-shifting female magicians. (A related word, strigula, is a Romanian name for “witch,” “vampire” or both.) A Scottish witch-charm asserts “I sall goe intill a hare…” the form most commonly attributed to witches in British folklore. Deadly Temptresses are often called “black widows,” a curse recalling the association of wise women with Grandmother Spider. Dangerous beauties are infamous for their feline qualities – just ask Catwoman! And while Circe may have brought out the inner pig in men, it’s the serpent whose associations, from Lilith to Inanna to Eve to Duessa to Lamia to Mystique of theX-Men films, seem most appropriate to this slippery character.

In Japan, hosts of spirits take on lovely female forms. Although the Asian “dragon lady” is an invention of American pulp writers, shape-shifting yōkai (“demons/ spirits/ monsters”) appear as snake-women, cat-women, bat-women and especially fox-women. Although Japan’s vulpine kitsune can be of either sex, most tales present them as comely yet treacherous girls. “Any woman encountered at night,” tradition asserts, “may be a kitsune.” The most dangerous among them, kitsune-yako, are outright malicious, with a reputation for blood-drinking and baby-eating. Fox-spirits may even possess a previously virtuous woman; such kitsunetsuki twist a girl’s limbs, sharpen her appetites and transform her into a lusty Temptress.

Although she wields magical powers, our Scarlet Woman depends more upon guile than upon force. Like the Demon Lover, this tempter demands a certain degree of consent. Yet unlike her masculine counterpart, the Temptress rarely cares much about the object of her presumed affections. Instead, she coldly discards him when his purpose has been served. As an avatar of rejection, she’s often literally a castrating bitch, neutering men on every level that matters.

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I have found a woman more bitter than death… because that is natural and destroys the body, but the sin which arose from woman destroys the soul… More terrible than death, again, because bodily death is an open and terrible enemy, but woman is a secret and wheedling enemy.

— Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, De Malleus Maleficarum

In Jungian terms, our Temptress is a potent symbol of theanima. Often suppressed in men, this unconscious feminine quality demands recognition. To get it, the anima may seduce a man, subvert his world and take his most cherished powers away. Depending on that man and his culture, she might reflect guilt, desire, terror, or (often!) all three.

For women, the Temptress symbolizes power mixed with threat. That dark beauty often shakes the world of another, more innocent woman, challenging her to be more assertive. (Witness the Jennifer/ Brad/ Angelina triad.) To triumph, she must face the Temptress and possibly even, as in the end of the film Fatal Attraction, destroy her. A woman might also choose to become a Temptress herself, but there’s nothing “safe” about her path. There’s prosperity to be found there, but only for those who, like Jolie, are prepared to pay its price.

Gender politics form the foundation of this archetype. To oppressors, she’s a figure of revenge; to the oppressed, a vicarious liberation. Church fathers fulminate against Eve and her serpent while their daughters secretly dream of becoming both. As Jane Billinghurst writes in Temptress: From the Original Bad Girl to Women on Top, “The temptress is a composite of fact and fancy created by men and exploited by women.” Men who fear feminine power rage against the Temptress, the Witch, the Enchantress. When women are beaten, burnt, stoned to death or splashed with acid, the Temptress is used to justify that violence. Men, say the apologists, are weak vessels of divine favor. To earn their true place at God’s hand, they must withstand the Temptress and banish her from sight. As much as some men would like to live in that heavenly boy’s club, though, those damn women keep messing up the plan! With the sloppy feelings they engender and the burning lusts they inspire, the other half of humanity insists on reminding Man of his place on the living earth.

Symbolically and literally, women are life incarnate. Without Mama’s womb and nourishment, the higher animals (man included) cannot exist. This dependence breeds a gallery of archetypes, from the Fairy Godmother to the Hag, and a vast helping of resentment, too. Many worldviews imagine that Man’s philosophy strives toward some distant rational perfection, while Woman’s earthiness grounds us in the here-and-now. Real people, naturally, are far more complex than that, but the realm of archetype and folklore employs bold and simple strokes. In that realm, the Temptress is elemental. She’s fire, stone, ice and sea. She lives, like Lilith “in the wild wastes” and dwells, like Circe, near the shores of transformation. The Temptress rises, as Grendel’s mother does in the film Beowulf (where she’s played by Angelina Jolie), from the most conflicted currents of human consciousness. A shadow of the anima, she steps dripping from the dark waters of imagination and breaks man’s weapons by using them against him.

The unequal war between Man and Woman frames each Temptress tale. For while the Demon Lover is a figure of undisputed strength, the Temptress – clearly his inferior in physical might – is an agent of subversion. Her ability to cut a man off at the knees (or the scalp, neck, or other vital part) with sex-appeal is literally awe-full. Biblical Delilah could chop the strongest man alive down to size, while her soul-sister Salome could wrap a kng around her finger and turn the world’s holiest mortal into dinner decorations. Aphrodite cuckolded the God of Smiths; Inanna cheated the God of Wisdom. This gorgeous catastrophe [2] upends the ideal world of masculine supremacy, and this talent makes the Temptress sublime.

For men and women both, the Temptress holds life and death in her smile. She can breed demons, slay prophets and literally turn men into beasts. Her vitality can entrance you even when – as she appears in Stoker’s Dracula, August Derleth’s “The Drifting Snow” or F. Marian Crawford’s “For the Blood is the Life” – the Temptress is undead. A cautionary archetype for girls (especially in tales like Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen”), this gorgeous creature remains a walking doom for Man. Although he can slay her with phallic arrows (as in the film Van Helsing), defang her with a stone (as Coyote does in the Ponca-Otoe tale “Teeth in the Wrong Places”), even conquer her with charisma (like Conan or James Bond) or violation (as in the manga series The Rapeman – ironically created by female cartoonist Keiko Aisaki), a strong man still can’t resist her. The seductive legions of mermaids, sirens, kitsune, vamps, succubi, enchantresses, nymphs, naiads, selkies, Medeas, Mélusines, Red Ladies, Black Ladies, Blue Ladies and all the ladies in between evoke the primal tension between eros and thanatos – qualities named for male gods but attributed almost universally to women.

(To be continued...)

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. 

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NOTES

[1] My partner Sandra and I have since concluded that this mythic press-pageant is, in reality, a deliberate publicity campaign conducted by the three stars and their agents. If so, it has worked beautifully, as hardly a week goes by without some media outlet mentioning at least one of the three of them… and if you look at the cultivated images of those three stars, they fit the mythic roles of that trinity, either by design or by inversion. Given the intense amount of thought given to superstar image-crafting, I believe this long-term saga has been deliberate on their part. 

[2] Greek katastrophē, from katastrephein to overturn, from kata- + strephein: “to turn.” Webster’s. 

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About Satyr

Award-winning fantasy author, game-designer, and all 'round creative malcontent. Creator of a whole bunch of stuff, most notably the series Mage: The Ascension, Deliria: Faerie Tales for a New Millennium, and Powerchords: Music, Magic & Urban Fantasy. Lives in Seattle. Hates shoes. Loves cats. Dances a lot.
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2 Responses to MAD, BAD & DANGEROUS: THE TEMPTRESS (Part I)

  1. Pingback: MAD, BAD & DANGEROUS: THE ANDROGYNE (Part I) | Satyros Phil Brucato

  2. Arcee E says:

    Notably, of all of your Mad, Bad & Dangerous articles, I find the temptress to be the most compelling (pun maybe sort of intended). It brings up a lot of really interesting thought points. Thank you, again, for re-posting it here. 😀

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