As y’all know, I’m working on a ritual for feminine sovereignty, and I’m making some headway – I’ve been researching ancestors to uplift and trying to get more than just names, because to empower them, we need to link them to their deeds. Even before I got much into this, I suspected that this was a Freyja-fueled conspiracy, and even more so now, because the subject of beauty has come up for me, and it is something that I’m not particularly comfortable with. I’m gonna be blunt, and please keep in mind that this is me unpacking my baggage, so if you view beauty differently than me, please feel free to talk about said differences, because it would probably be to my benefit, and maybe that of someone else reading.
For me, beauty isn’t fun. I know women who talk about using their femininity against men, and I have issues with it. On some level, I consider it lazy. (yes, I know that this is a respectability politics thing playing out in my head, but it’s there, so why the fuck not acknowledge the toxic thoughts?)
Why? I’m pretty. Some people even think I’m beautiful, and if I unpack this a bit, I consider myself attractive, but not because of my looks, and if someone compliments me solely on the basis of my physical form, I often reject it – not to their faces of course, just in my head, because in said head, if you think I am my outer shell, you’ve missed the damn point. And if you asked me, I’d say it’s just genetic luck that I have a pretty face and why is that worth rewarding?
But if I prod at this some more, my intelligence is the same damn thing – whether or not you’re smart is a genetic lottery coupled with the lotteries of luck and privilege. Maybe you’re lucky and you have a quick mind, and your family has enough money or the right skin tone and you can go to college and develop your intellect. But really, it’s as arbitrary as beauty.
And yet beauty is far more loaded for me, and for a lot of women. In telling the story of my rape, I’ve had other women come forward and talk to me about how their rapist said some variation of what mine said to me: ‘You’re so beautiful, what did you think would happen?’
And in that context, beauty doesn’t feel like power, it feels like something that we have that’s been conscripted by our abusers to level against us. It’s a weapon, but it’s not our weapon, not anymore.
I belong to a Freyja-centric study group online and one week, one of our questions about Her was regarding an aspect of Her that we were uncomfortable with. I didn’t answer it at the time, because I didn’t quite know how to articulate it, but it’s not Freyja’s sexuality, or Her deathwork, or Her magic – it’s Her beauty. It’s the beauty that inspires people to do terrible things to obtain it that makes me recoil. It’s a power that I’m loathe to look at, let alone touch. And because my Gods are the Helpingest Helpers, it was suggested that I ought to read up on Helen of Troy, so I did.
Helen had a cultus for over seven hundred years. From Bettany Hughes’ book, Helen of Troy, the Story Behind the Most Beautiful Woman in the World:
“The Spartan city-state recognised that its prominent ancestor – whose remembered life comprised a series of rites of passage – was an expert in sex. Beautiful Helen was not shamed because of this. Instead she was considered well placed to foster the development of young Spartan girls. And so she stood at the heart of state-sponsored rituals – rituals that aimed to socialise the city’s adolescents, to turningénues into good wife material, to lead them from the state of parthenos, virgin, to nymphe, newlywed.
An islet in the River Eurotas was, almost certainly, the site of Helen’s cult worship by Spartan virgins. Located near the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia, this marshy area, a liminal place – half-water, half-land – was called the Platanistas, after the plane trees that once shaded it. Here the river banks are wide and flat, the mud firm. It is a natural athletics ground.
Ritual dancing in honour of Helen was practised at the Platanistas by Spartan girls from the 7th century BC onwards. The displays aimed to replicate those performed by Helen herself when she was a youngster growing up in the city. In the Sparta museum there are racks of grimacing terra-cotta masks 4 reminiscent of gargoyles carved in medieval churches – some believe that these grotesques were used to hide the faces of the adorants as they danced and sang to each other.
To honour Helen the virgins were left alone together throughout the night. Their rituals would have been heady, pulsating affairs, throbbing with adolescent energy. They danced in the hours of darkness, paused, and were back again just before sunrise for more. There was torchlight, drinking and almost certainly sumptuous feasts.6 The celebrants whirled their way from childhood to maturity, starting the night as innocent virgins who by dawn had been transformed into ‘beautiful’ young women ready for marriage. The dances, it seems, were intended to drum out of the earth and the air some of Helen’s sublime appeal: ‘kharis’ is the Greek word.5 7
Kharis is the root of ‘charisma’ and ‘charismatic’ and can simply mean grace or charm. But the original Greek also has a more sexualised connotation – a grace which ignites desire. Kharis was a gift of Aphrodite, the goddess of sexual love. It is that quality of raw seductive power that Helen possessed above all others. The girls who danced at the Platanistas – led on by the example of their presiding spirit, Helen – were experiencing a rite of passage that made them beautiful in that they were becoming charismatic, sexually mature and sexually available. For them, Helen was not the most ‘beautiful’ woman in theworld, she was the most erotic.
These all-female orgiastic rites inspired by Helen’s story8 have been immortalised by the Spartan poet Alcman. In the 7th century BC, Alcman wrote Partheneia, choral odes that were practised by groups of girls in secret and then sung as part of choral and gymnastic contests. These Partheneia were a central part of the Spartan girls’ education, and were learnt and performed by one generation after another. The poems exalt female beauty – particularly the beauty of blondes. They laud the physical achievements of the Spartan woman.”
Keep in mind, Helen is twice-raped in her stories – Theseus and Paris are both named as her assailants. I’m fascinated and confused by this practice – in our culture rape survivors are considered defiled and I cannot imagine a scenario where we would celebrate a woman’s sexuality without any kind of guilt or intimation that she was asking for it. Today, what do we do for a rape survivor? Little to nothing. We’re left to seek therapy, if we even have access to that. Few rapes are reported, even fewer are reported or prosecuted.
I’m still sitting with this. I’m not sure I’m ready to deal with this, but yanno…Freyja.
Me: can we not?
Her: NOPE :D