Women have played significant roles in the mythology of various cultures throughout human history. Some women in mythology have possessed magical powers, ranging from the ability to predict a person’s fate to determining that fate themselves. Ordinary women in mythology often accompany male heroes; others are heroic figures in their own right. Some creation myths offer a primary female figure who is the mother of the human race. In the mythology of many cultures, creator goddesses likewise give birth to all of existence.
The roles of women in mythology vary depending on the culture and the era. Many of them, however, have similar characteristics in numerous world mythologies; these are called archetypes. A common female archetype is the wise woman who offers advice or predictions of the future, analogous to the wise old man, who plays a similar role. A sinister version of this archetype is the witch, such as the Weird Sisters who predict doom in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. These characters are based on mythological figures, including the Moirae, or Fates, of Greek mythology, who determined human life and death.
Some women in mythology, such as Andromeda from the Greek myths, existed only to be rescued by heroic figures such as Perseus. Others were more proactive; Ariadne, lover of the Greek hero Theseus, provided him with a sword and a ball of twine so he could slay the Minotaur and escape the great maze called the Labyrinth. Such women are not to be trifled with; Medea aided the Greek hero Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece, but when he betrayed her for another woman, she retaliated by murdering their children. This is famously portrayed in Euripedes’ classical Greek tragedy Medea. In many myths, Medea was an enchantress, uniting her with the witch archetype.
Numerous women in mythology were portrayed as goddesses. The Greek pantheon includes Artemis, goddess of the moon; Athena, goddess of wisdom; and Aphrodite, goddess of love. In Hawaiian mythology, Pele is the goddess of volcanoes. Buddhist traditions of the Far East revere Guanyin as a bodhisattva, an enlightened being who helps others achieve wisdom. Some goddesses are the subjects of heroic legends of their own. For example, the Babylonian goddess Ishtar descends into the underworld to rescue her lover from death.
In Greek mythology, Pandora was the first woman, who accidentally released the troubles of the world by opening a forbidden box. This has parallels with the Biblical story of Eve and the Norse legend of Embla, both considered the progenitors, or parents, of all humanity. In other traditions, such as Hinduism and Sumerian myths, a mother goddess gave birth to the cosmos, literally or otherwise. This corresponds to the real-life role women play in the procreation of the human race. Some scholars believe these mother-goddess beliefs were once widespread, but were supplanted by patriarchal religions early in human history.