Let’s face it: most religions, both in real life and pop culture, seem to be made up of a hierarchy of men leading other men. But most religions actually have many important influential and powerful female figures, yet upsettingly, they are often ignored, forgotten, or even rewritten in order to maintain sexist notions about women.
Now you might be thinking, how is geek culture in particular going to incorporate female religious figures? Exactly the same way geek culture interprets male religious figures. Sometimes literal angels or gods are featured in movies or TV shows. Sometimes characters symbolically or allegorically represent one of these figures. There is no reason that female religious figures can’t receive the same treatment as the male ones.
So here are, in no particular order, my top five female religious figures that need to be incorporated more into our pop culture.
Judith is the central character in the Book of Judith, one of only three books named after a woman in the Bible. In this Book, the Israelites are being threatened by the Assyrians, but the men do not trust that God will save them from the invaders. Frustrated with this, Judith, with the help of her handmaiden, goes to the enemy camp and promises Holofernes, the Assyrians’ leader, that she will give him information on the Israelites. After gaining his trust, she is allowed into his tent while he’s drunk and she decapitates him, then takes his head back to her fearful countrymen. After that, several men attempted to marry Judith but she remained
unmarried until she died.
For Judith, I would have a character symbolically or allegorically represent her in a fantasy novel similar to Lord of the Rings or Chronicles of Narnia. It often seems like religious-inspired fantasy novels struggle to find badass female characters to help fight the forces of evil in the name of good. So instead, what we are usually given are bland mother figures, love-lorn girlfriends, and, of course, evil temptresses. But with Judith, we have a female character who didn’t just live a pure and virtuous life but actually actively fought against the evil which threatened her people. I really have no idea why she isn’t used more often.
Durga is an aspect of the Goddess Parvati and wife to Shiva. Her name means “the invincible” and she is considered the mother of the universe. Durga was manifested when evil forces, led by the demon Mahisasura, threatened the gods and control of the heavens. Each of the gods offered a part of their power to create her, and each formed part of her body. She was also granted many weapons by the gods; then she defeated Mahisasura and his demonic commanders. She rides on the back of a lion and is said to control the fate of all.
Durga is extremely multifaceted, as she is a mother figure, a lover, and a badass warrior. Many young adult fiction novels rely heavily on Abrahamic religions or Wicca and Neo-Pagan religions in order to create their world’s mythology. With each new book or series, authors try to re-imagine these same religious beliefs or figures in an attempt to be fresh. Yet why attempt to re-imagine the same religions and stories when we could just look to different stories from other faiths? Durga is just scratching the surface of amazing female divinities that exist in Hinduism. It would be great if authors would start relying on these stories rather than doing the same old things.
The wife of Mohammad and the woman who is considered the mother of Islam, Khadija was married three time before she met Mohammad and was also a successful merchant. Before even meeting Mohammad, she was considered a great woman who helped and cared for the poor. She later hired Mohammad as one of her traders. While in her employment, one of Khadija’s servants saw angels surrounding him and told Khadija he was the expected prophet of the people. Khadija later had a dream about Mohammad that encouraged her to propose to him, despite having received proposals from other powerful men in society. She was said to be the first convert to Islam and often guided and advised Mohammad.
In a lot of fantasy, women are often depicted as the wives or mothers who must help support the powerful male figure in their quest. The usually have no life, motivation, or purpose outside of helping, but with Khadija we see this trope utterly trampled. Though she does support, guide, and advise Mohammad, Khadija is a leader herself. She is not passive and submissive but active in her support of Islam, in her business, and in her relationship. I would love to see a fantasy story where a character like a queen or a revolutionary represents Khadija either symbolically or allegorically. That would be awesome.
A part of the trinity of moon goddesses in Greek mythology, Hecate is the goddess of the dark moon, the crossroads, and magic. She is said to ride a chariot drawn by dragons and is powerful enough that even Zeus doesn’t mess with her. When Persephone travels to the underworld to be with her husband Hades, Hecate is the one who guides her down to the underworld. With her mysterious nature and magic, she is one of the most interesting goddesses in Greek mythology.
Hecate is an easy one because so many fantasy shows use Greek mythology—yet Hecate is vastly underused. Hecate is wild and dangerous, but also knowledgeable and kind; in other words, she has the potential to be a very well-rounded, well-developed character. It would be great to see her in shows like Supernatural, especially with her connection to crossroads and the underworld. It also amazes me that she isn’t incorporated more in fantasy that involves witches, since she is a patron of magic and witchcraft. Using her in these stories would not only allow for a positive portrayal for female religious figures, but would give the story an interesting and complex character.
Thecla was a Christian saint. Her story is recorded in the Acts of Paul and Thecla, a book that was not included in the Biblical canon because of its power and popularity among women. Thecla met Paul when he was sentenced to be killed in Iconium. She was caught visiting and being taught by him while imprisoned. She was sentenced to be burned at the stake but was saved by God. After she escaped, a man attempted to sexually assault her, but she fought him off and was sentenced to death for attacking him.
However, the lioness who was meant to eat her instead protected her from the other beasts. Thecla baptized herself and others and preached the Gospel with Paul. Like the other ladies on this list, she’s badass.
Often in fantasy, when a religion that is symbolic of Christianity is written into the world, the leader is almost always male—most likely because of the patriarchal structure of Christianity today and the minimizing of female figures from the past. Wouldn’t it be great if the religious leader was female for once, perhaps even directly based on an actual female leader from the early church? Not only would this educate people, but Thecla would be a great character to recreate in a fantasy setting. A woman leading her faith despite all kinds of opposition from the government and even family, maybe with a talking lioness best friend who travels with her and protects her from harm. Yeah, don’t tell me that wouldn’t be sweet.
Most religions aren’t as patriarchal as the media makes them seem, and until people learn that religion can provide strong female role models too, we’re just going to continue getting Michael the archangel (and Lucifer, etc) over and over and over again. Christianity and Paganism get used over and over again in fantasy, so I would suggest, if writers are going to use these same stories, that they explore the faiths a little more in order to find the female religious figures and feminine spirituality that is severely lacking in our media. Furthermore, looking beyond Pagan and Christianity would be extremely beneficial, not just to keep writing fresh, but to allow more opportunities for writers to explore strong religious women. It’s getting old watching and reading the same old religion-inspired patriarchal stories, especially when I know there are awesome feminist religious figures out there whose stories need to be told.