powerful women

Bouboulina Of The Sea

International Women’s Day is celebrated every year on March 8th. This year I would like to celebrate the life of an extraordinary heroine called Bouboulina. I was introduced to Bouboulina in an episode of Joanna Lumley’s Greek Odyssey. I immediately felt a kinship with this seafaring warrior and wanted to learn more about her.

Laskarina “Bouboulina” Pinotsis was born in a prison in Constantinople on May 11th, 1771. Her father, a sea captain from the island of Hydra, was imprisoned by the Ottomans for his role in a failed revolution. Her mother gave birth to her in prison while visiting Bouboulina’s father. After her father’s death, Bouboulina and her mother returned to Hydra. They moved to the island of Spetses when her mother remarried.

Bouboulina had seven children and was married and widowed twice. Both her husbands (Dimitrios Yiannouzas and Dimitrios Bouboulis) were merchants, ship owners and sea captains and both were killed in sea battles with pirates. Bouboulina was forty years old when she became a widow for the second time, took over the family business, and sailed her way into history.

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Bouboulina grew up with a love of the sea and ships. Both her husbands took her on sea voyages, which was unusual for a woman at the time. She was left a fortune by her husbands and Bouboulina used her skills as a business woman, negotiator and sailor to expand her fleet and increase her fortune through ship building and successful trading.

The Ottomans tried to confiscate her property as her second husband had fought with Russia against the Ottomans. Bouboulina sailed to Constantinople to meet with the Russian ambassador. As a thank you for her service to Russia, she was sent to Crimea for safety. While in Constantinople, Bouboulina had met with the mother of the Sultan who eventually convinced her son to leave Bouboulina’s property alone. With her fortune secure, Bouboulina returned to Spetses.

Bouboulina then used her fortune to fund the Greek resistance against the Ottoman Empire. She smuggled arms and ammunition into the country on her ships and commissioned the building of the Agamemnon, one of the largest Greek fighting ships in the War of Independence. She recruited her own soldiers and sailors to serve under her command. Bouboulina not only helped fund the revolution, she also fought in the battles.

Days before the official start of the War of Independence, Bouboulina raised the first revolutionary flag on the main mast of the Agamemnon. The flag depicted an eagle, an anchor and a phoenix rising from the flames. Bouboulina led the first naval force to join the uprising. A few days later they were joined by naval forces from other islands. Under Bouboulina’s command, the united naval force began a series of successful naval blockades.

Bouboulina fought side by side with the men she led and was a fearsome opponent on both sea and land. Arriving in Tripoli just before its fall, she rode into the Greek camp on a horse. Bouboulina and her troops were greeted with loud cheers. She participated in war meetings with the generals who gave her the name of Kapetanissa, Lady-captain and Megali Kyra, Great Lady. As Tripoli fell to Greek forces, Bouboulina liberated most of the female members of the Sultan’s household.

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Although still not free from the threat of the Ottoman Empire, Greece descended into civil war. Friends and allies in the War of Independence were now enemies of the government. Bouboulina was considered a danger to the state, arrested and exiled back to her home in Spetses. She was left penniless, having used her fortune to fund the War of Independence and bitter at the post-revolution state of Greek politics.

Bouboulina was killed in her home on May 22nd, 1825 during a family dispute. Her son had eloped and armed members of the girl’s family came to Bouboulina’s home to confront her. During the ensuing argument she was shot in the head by an unidentified person and died instantly. 

But Bouboulina’s legacy lives on:
Her descendants have served the country she loved and fought for as members of the naval forces and as ministers and members of parliament.
Her home has remained in her family and is now a museum.
She has been depicted on a Greek banknote and coin.
Streets have been named after her.
A statue of her stands in the harbor in Spetses welcoming visitors to “Bouboulina’s Island.”
And most fitting of all, Emperor Alexander I of Russia posthumously granted her the honorary rank of Admiral of the Russian Navy. Until recently she was the only woman to hold this title.

I hope one day to visit her museum and raise a glass to this inspiring Kapetanissa.

Gothic Women

Because I could not stop for Death —
He kindly stopped for me —
The Carriage held but just Ourselves —
And Immortality.

“The Chariot” by Emily Dickinson

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I left school when I was young but returned six years later to finish high school. I was delighted when the first poem we studied in English Literature was “The Chariot” by Emily Dickinson. Those opening lines haunted my mind and wound their way into my soul. When it came time for me to tell the class what I thought, the only person surprised at how much I loved the poem was our teacher. With scorn in her eyes she looked at me and said “I hope you are not one of those people who romanticises death?” Ummm …

My mouth dropped open as my classmates looked at me, looked at our teacher, then looked back at me. I was dressed in my “uniform” of long black dress and pointy witch shoes. My film noir tones of long black hair, black shadowed eyes and unnaturally white face were broken by the slash of bright red lipstick. The only thing brighter was my blood red Dracula medallion. I thought the answer to her question was pretty obvious. But as I looked at my classmates and then back to my teacher, the words that came out of mouth were “No, no I’m not.”

My classmates smirked, knowing it for the lie it was, but understanding the reason. I felt like Peter denying Jesus but I needed to pass the class. I was afraid that if I answered truthfully, she would think I was silly and mark me down. Her relieved sigh made me think I was right. When she then launched into a brutal attack on “people who romanticise death,” I knew I was right. I passed the class and went on to university where I continued my gothic pursuits. It was a lonely path in 1980’s Australia. Happily the world has changed!

I was going to continue this post by talking about a gothic art exhibition I went to, but I’m taking a different path. Thanks to the awesome Christine at witchlike, I found out that February is Women in Horror Month. I can’t believe I didn’t know this! One of the goals of WiHM is to celebrate women in the horror genre. As part of this celebration I thought I would share some of the beautiful paintings Anna Gerraty did for our Dracula Tarot. I began work on the tarot deck when I finished university. I was so lucky to find Anna, an artist more at home in the world of fairy than vampires and horror. Happily she was seduced by Dracula as so many of us are. Her paintings combine her whimsical fairy roots with the romance of the Victorian era and the horror and blood of the vampire.

Lady of Knives

Lucy Westenra as the “Bloofer Lady” – 
a newly turned vampire who drinks the blood of children

 

Countess of Goblets

Mina Harker becoming a vampire

 

Eight of Goblets

Mina Harker being marked as unclean by Van Helsing while the Weird Sisters implore her to 
“Come, sister. Come to us. Come! Come!”

 

Can you resist the siren call of our sisters in horror? I know I won’t!

Maleficent Obsession

I’m not surprised that witches rarely get to speak their own truths in popular culture. It seems when they do, they don’t have anything positive to say about men in power.

Following on from Wicked comes the movie Maleficent. Based on fairytales and the Disney Film Sleeping Beauty, the film is Maleficent’s version of what really happened in Sleeping Beauty.

There are so many ways of approaching and analysing this film. One easy way is to discuss it in three parts:

The Early Years

Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Retold

The Ending

It’s a classic narrative structure – beginning, middle and end. But what happens in these sections is not necessarily classic, nor expected.

The first part sets the scene. There are two worlds that live side by side. The Fairy World, called The Moors, which is magical, rich, peaceful and free of rulers. Over the river is the Human World, which is not magical, has rich and poor people, is warlike and ruled by a tyrannical King.

Stefan, a poor, young human boy, goes to The Moors to steal some of their precious jewels. He is caught and meets the young Maleficent who is a winged and horned fairy. The two, who are both orphans, form a friendship that, over the years, turns to love. Or does it? On her 16th birthday Maleficent is given a gift of “true love’s kiss” by Stefan. However, he then goes back to the human world and pursues a life of politics and no longer visits Maleficent. Maleficent is heartbroken but grows up to become The Moors’ strongest and most powerful fairy. Scenes of her soaring through the sky on her majestic wings, towering above the land like an archangel, emphasise her power and majesty. Consequently, although they don’t really have rulers, she becomes a leader and defender of the Moors.

When the human King decides he wants to conquer The Moors and take all their wealth, he is met in battle by Maleficent. The King and his warriors are quickly overpowered by Maleficent, her magical powers and her tree army. Back in his castle the defeated, mortally wounded and humiliated King offers the throne to the man who can kill Maleficent and bring him her head. Standing by his bed is Stefan – what will he do?

Well what he does ushers in the main part of the movie – the reworked Sleeping Beauty. But before we get to Disney, we have to watch something quite traumatic and quite extraordinary. And now sadly I have to issue the inevitable SPOILER ALERT. The rest of the discussion will give away nearly everything in the film so if you don’t want to know what happens, watch the movie and then come back here 🙂

Stephan returns to Maleficent to warn her about the King. It is as though the years of separation have never been. Or that’s what Maleficent thinks. Stefan says he will stay now and offers her a drink. Those of a suspicious mind like me suspect that the minute she drinks that drink she is doomed. Sadly, we are right. Maleficent is drugged and falls asleep. Stefan grabs his knife and gets ready to kill her. But he can’t. Instead he cuts off her wings and takes them with him. When Maleficent awakes and finds out what has been done to her she screams and that scream resonates through the cinema, down our spines and into our souls. It is this scene that has been most discussed since the movie’s release, but what has actually happened?

Many have questioned why there is such a scene in a film that will be seen by children. Some reviewers point to its allegorical link to date rape. Others have drawn links to the mutilation of female bodies. Some braver reviewers, following on the theme of female mutilation, have mentioned the actor Angelina Jolie’s recent double mastectomy and drawn links there. What do I think?  All of the above. But twelve years of feminist psychoanalytic film theory can’t stop me from thinking of Freud, and with Freud comes Oedipus and castration. Although the mutilation scene in Maleficent is almost text book Freud, there is no way I will go into a discussion of oedipal/castration theory – I still sometimes wake in the middle of the night, terrified I’ll have to read Jacques Lacan again! But it is an interesting way of exploring the film, if you’re into that stuff 🙂

Stefan believes that by taking Maleficent’s wings, not only has he won his place as next in line to the throne, but that he has disarmed and nullified a powerful threat. But rather than disempowering Maleficent, all he has done is take away a form of mobility from her. Granted it is a magnificent and spectacular form, but that is all it is. She still has all her magical powers and thus remains powerful. Maleficent uses a crow, Diaval, to be her wings and bewitches him into human form when she needs information. When Diaval brings Maleficent the news that King Stefan is having a christening for his daughter Aurora, we move straight into a new version of Disney.

Maleficent arrives, uninvited to the christening. She may lack wings but her all black outfit and magnificent horns exude power. Horns were an ancient symbol of power before christianity turned them into a symbol of evil and the devil. Ironically, some of the women at the christening are wearing those medieval hats that make them look like they have horns, but they don’t. The women in the human world are powerless. The only powerful woman in the room is Maleficent. She has two real horns – double the power! And she wields that power!

Maleficent curses the baby Aurora to prick her finger on a spinning wheel spindle and fall into a permanent sleep on her 16th birthday. Stefan pleads with Maleficent to undo the curse. She says she likes to see him beg and makes him get down on his knees. He does. The camera pans around the room to show the disapproving faces of his subjects. He then begs her. Maleficent relents. She will allow the curse to be broken but only by “true love’s kiss”; a vicious dig at Stefan’s birthday gift to her all those years ago. She leaves and chaos ensues.

King Stefan demands the destruction of all the spinning wheels in the kingdom and sends Aurora off to live with three pixies. It’s never explained why these three pixies from The Moors are there and why they obey the impotent King Stefan. Perhaps not surprisingly, they are completely inept at their job. If left to their guidance and care, baby Aurora will never make it to her 16th birthday.

This is where the film takes a major turn. To make sure her curse will come to fruition, Maleficent, in secret and from the sidelines, steps in and helps raise the baby Aurora. During the years that follow she forms a close bond with the girl and realises that she doesn’t want her to be cursed. She tries to revoke the curse but her own words – “no power on earth can undo this” – come back to haunt her. She fails and Aurora will go on to fulfill her cursed destiny. But we all know that Aurora will be woken by “true love’s kiss”. Or will she?

As she approaches her 16th birthday, in quick succession Aurora meets a young prince, finds out the truth about Maleficent and her curse, discovers that it is her father who betrayed Maleficent and took her wings and returns to the castle in time to prick her finger on a spindle and fall into a cursed sleep. Maleficent brings the young Prince Phillip to the castle to undo the curse. He kisses the sleeping Aurora. Does she wake? Well no. Both Stefan and Maleficent believe that there is no such thing as true love – their own relationship proves that. So what happens? Aurora is awoken by “true love’s kiss” but it is Maleficent’s kiss that wakes her. After waking up, Aurora decides to live with Maleficent in The Moors and the two try to leave the castle. But one last fight remains.

The final battle between King Stefan and Maleficent is brutal. Stefan has remembered from his time in The Moors that the fairies can be burned by iron. He traps Maleficent in an iron net and prepares to kill her. Weakened and trapped she puts up a good fight but she is overwhelmed. Meanwhile upstairs, Aurora finds Maleficent’s wings in a glass case. She breaks the case and the wings find Maleficent and attach themselves to her. She is made whole again and given a means of escape. Stefan realises his daughter has helped Maleficent and he grabs Maleficent’s leg as she escapes through the window. They continue their fight. Maleficent bests him but rather than kill him she suggests they just let it go. Stefan can’t and makes a final attack which sees him plummet to his death.

We now enter the very short finale – the happy ending. Maleficent and Aurora are in The Moors. The place is beautiful and light, for it became a cold, dark place after Maleficent lost her wings. Aurora, whose name means Dawn, has brought light back to The Moors and restored Maleficent’s broken heart. Maleficent holds a gold crown in her hands and proclaims Aurora Queen of both the Moors and the human world. The two worlds are finally united. Prince Phillip watches from the sidelines. He and Aurora will possibly get married but the power structure in that relationship is vastly different to Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. Phillip did not awaken Aurora and is therefore not her saviour. Phillip is also a Prince whereas Aurora is now a Queen, of not one realm but two. In Maleficent, the power in both realms has been given by and taken by a woman. It would seem that in this world true power comes from women and to women.

Although the happy ending is the shortest part of the film it packs the biggest punch. From the moment Maleficent awakens Aurora, the bond between mothers and daughters and the power of female friendships takes on new meaning. In Maleficent, true love is that between a surrogate mother and her child. Maleficent, rather than fear or resent the younger Princess, as so many fairy tale step-mothers and witches do, happily passes on her position of power to the next generation. Aurora is also given one last source of power. The narrator informs us that it is she, Aurora, and not Maleficent, who has told us this tale. And that is a powerful voice to have – the voice of narration. By working together, Maleficent and Aurora achieve mighty things. Maleficent gets back her stolen wings, her broken heart is healed and her realm restored to its former glory and Aurora becomes a Queen of two realms.

Maleficent would have us believe that it is not men who wield personal, political or magical power but women. If this is what they have to say, is it any wonder powerful, magical women have been kept silent for so long?

 

waiting to brew

waiting to brew

Wickedly Wicked

I missed the musical Wicked when it first came to Melbourne so when it returned I made sure I went. I decided not to read the book the musical is based on so I had no idea what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised!

What a spectacular show! Everything about the production was brilliant. The colours, the lights, the sets, the steampunk iconography, the costumes, the characters, the acting, the songs, the story. I could go on but all I’ll say is if you get a chance, see it.

As blown away as I was by the spectacle, that small part of me that is an academic analyst was analysing everything I was seeing and hearing. Again, I wasn’t disappointed. Fourteen years ago I completed eight years of study – my topic – the image of the witch in film. I haven’t written much on witches since then. Happily, Wicked has ignited that part of me that has been waiting for a witchy spectacle worth writing about.

Warning – Spoiler Alert! If you don’t want to know what happens, stop reading now 🙂

It’s Not Easy Being Green

It’s amazing what will stay with you most. For me it was the political story unfolding. While I expected Wicked to focus on the witches from The Wizard of Oz, I wasn’t expecting such a poignant analysis of politics and government. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, as witches and politics have been partners since the beginning of time.

The figure most affected by the politics of Oz is Elphaba, who is portrayed as an evil and wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz. In Wicked she is wicked, but she is not evil. True evilness in this musical is left to the politicians, the rulers and their willing accomplices.

Elphaba is wicked because she won’t bow down to the power of the Wizard of Oz. She rejects his ideas for Oz and uses her magic to help the people and animals he is trying to oppress. Elphaba believes that animals are equal and is appalled at the political situation erupting in Oz that seeks to disempower animals by caging them and taking away their voice. Basically she challenges the wizard’s rule and authority and for that she is branded not just wicked but EVIL.

It is easy to scapegoat Elphaba as she is already different. Elphaba is born green and as she is the only green child in Oz, she becomes a hated and feared outcast. But the colour green has interesting connotations, not just in Oz, but in our world. Green is the colour of the environment movement and is associated with nature, animals, social justice and mother earth. What better colour for a witch who fights for these issues to be!

Green is an important colour for the wizard too. The wizard lives in the Emerald City where visitors and citizens of Oz wear emerald tinted glasses to view the world through false lenses. And that is the difference between Elphaba and the wizard. Elphaba is green on the outside and the inside. The wizard is just a fake charlatan seeking to control a world he has no real power over. His green credentials and green realm are as fake as his magical powers. And that is the true battle in Oz. The battle for power!

Ironically, Elphaba is born green because she is a melding of two worlds. Her mother is Ozian but her father is human. Elphaba’s real father is not the man who raised her but the man her mother had an affair with, a man with whom she drank a green potion. Elphaba’s father is the Wizard of Oz! But unlike her father, Elphaba has real, powerful magic.

Elphaba is feared not only because of her colour and her politics but also her magical powers. Elphaba is a very powerful witch – perhaps the most powerful in Oz. It is for this reason she is groomed by her tutor Madame Morrible and courted by the wizard. They seek to harness her power to help them continue to rule Oz. The interesting thing is the only people with any true, magical power are women – Elphaba, Madame Morrible and Glinda.

But for me the question has always been “why does Oz have a male, magicless ruler in the first place?” I don’t think it is ever really explained but perhaps it is a reflection on our world where women and power have a very uneasy relationship, particularly in politics! It would appear that the citizens of Oz would rather be ruled by a male figurehead with female power behind the throne rather than a female directly on the throne.

Regardless, at the end of the film, female power triumphs. But it is not Elphaba who ends up ruling Oz but Glinda the Good. Inspired by her best friend Elphaba, Glinda finally realises that she cannot stand the sickening, destructive and deadly machinations of Madame Morrible and the wizard. Glinda refuses to be their pawn. She draws on her own political and magical powers and casts the wizard out and imprisons Madame Morrible. We hope Glinda will be a wise and caring ruler. If she models herself on the Green Witch Elphaba, Oz will be okay.

Living In The Land Of Oz

I live in the land down under, Australia, sometimes called Oz. And while I can’t speak for other countries, there were moments in Wicked that struck home to me personally and politically.

We recently had our first female Prime Minister in Australia and to say that some parts of the country reacted badly is an understatement. For many she was a witch!

Julia Gillard took power from a man, toppling him while he was still leader and then becoming leader herself. An accusation often leveled at witches historically is that they use their evil powers to attempt to bring down rulers and leaders.

She is a redhead, unmarried and childless – attributes that have and would see many women labelled as witches. At one protest march banners were raised proclaiming “Ditch The Witch” complete with witchy caricatures.

Ironically one of the things that infuriated many Australians was that she eventually had to make an alliance with The Greens to hold power. In essence she made a deal with Elphaba. Consequently it wasn’t just the parliament that was hung but our own witchy leader was later (figuratively) hung too.

But the most chilling moment in Wicked is when Elphaba returns home after being declared a renegade. She asks her sister where their father is and is told that he died of shame because of what she has become. Unbelievably this is something that was said on radio about the death of Julia Gillard’s father. One of our more disgusting radio personalities suggested that Gillard’s father might have died of shame because of his daughter’s  political performance. The only people dying of shame were Australian people with a conscience.

Sadly, some of us are still ashamed as the way our government treats some of the most desperate people in the world is the same as the animals were treated in Wicked. We are caging them and taking away their voice. I suppose it’s no surprise that the man who led this movement in Oz originated in our world.

Wicked gave the witches in the Wizard of Oz their voice. They spoke their own truths and gave us a new way to look at them. It is rare for witches to have their own voice, to have their story told through their eyes, but amazingly there is another witch on the horizon who is about to tell her own story and who will finally have her own voice: Maleficent! I am eagerly waiting to hear what she has to say.

witchy cupcake

my wickedly witchy licorice and lime cupcakes

Inspired by my friend Anne Belov’s cat Mehitabel and star of The Panda Chronicles.