Female Monsters Oedipus Sphinx Detail
Gustave Moreau, Oedipus and the Sphinx (detail), 1864. Oil on canvas, 81 ¼ × 41 ¼ inches. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Female monsters have always had a place in popular culture. Yassana Croizat-Glazer examines how they’ve captured our imagination over time.

Halloween has always been my favorite time of year. Properly executed, it’s an opportunity to indulge in some childish mischief, creative costuming, excellent film watching, and the consumption of choice candy (I’m talking to you, peanut butter cup) and all this merriment without the pressures of so many other holidays—you feel me, Thanksgiving? But 2020 was raining—scratch that, hailing—on our (East Village) parade, compelling us to get creative in how we reimagine Halloween socializing this fall so that safety remains a priority. 

My kid’s expression would have melted a bag of candy corn when I told her there would be no trick-or-treating this year. I’ve promised her a long-anticipated movie and a candy treasure hunt instead, all to be enjoyed as her alter-ego of choice, which turns out to be a pumpkin. Her decision (pleasantly) surprised me since it’s so authentically Halloweeny, which got us talking about the origins of the holiday and eventually about how so many popular “characters” once started out as something altogether quite different. “What about mermaids?” she asked, round-eyed and eager for a thrill. 

Female monsters: Greek siren vase
Attributed to the Siren Painter, The Siren Vase (detail), c. 480 BC–470 BC. Greek (Attic) red-figure stamnos. Terracotta, H. 13 ¾ × D. 15 inches. British Museum, London.

What about mermaids indeed. The marshmallow-sweet incarnations that frolic on my daughter’s backpack are a far cry from the merciless creatures from which they originated. In Ancient Greece, those creatures were known as sirens and they were initially depicted with human heads resting on bird-bodies which gradually acquired breasts and arms. The poet Homer wrote of how they used their song to lure unsuspecting sailors to their death, and how “there are bones of dead men rotting in a pile beside them and flayed skins shrivel around the spot” (Odyssey, 12: 54–56). Their death could only be brought about by a mortal managing to survive hearing their deadly song, which is precisely what Odysseus succeeds in doing, because after all, what good is a hero unless he can do mind-boggling heroic things. A vase now in the British Museum shows the moment described by Homer when Odysseus, having told his crew to protect their ears with beeswax, advances into the domain of his feathery female foes while strapped to his ship’s mast. Unable to claim him through their chanting, the sirens ultimately drown.

Steeped in a deep-rooted fear of women as master-beguilers, siren myths persisted into the medieval period when the notion of a mermaid as half-woman, half-fish increasingly gained traction. But mermaids were by no means the only water-related female monsters to capture the medieval imagination, which incidentally is pretty unbeatable when it comes to fantastic beings (Don’t believe me? Check out a bonnacon when you have a moment). 

female monsters: Melusine spied in her bath by her husband Raymondin
Melusine spied in her bath by her husband Raymondin, from the Roman de Mélusine, attributed to Couldrette, after Jean d’Arras. 15th-century illuminated manuscript, BNF Fr. 24383, f. 19. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris.

Melusine belongs to that category as well, and her legends are both plentiful and colorful, though the most famous account was penned by 14th-century French author, Jean d’Arras. In his version, Melusine starts out as a fairy but has a falling-out with her mom, who gets creativity points for punishing her daughter by dooming her to take the form of a half-woman, half-serpent every Saturday. Fortunately for Melusine, there’s a loophole: if she can marry a man who will never spy on her on Saturday, then she will bear a great and noble lineage and die a human Christian. Enter Raymondin, whom she meets by a fountain and becomes her trusting husband, for which he is rewarded with all manner of successes. 

Steeped in a deep-rooted fear of women as master-beguilers, siren myths persisted into the medieval period when the notion of mermaid as half-woman, half-fish increasingly gained traction.

All goes swimmingly, forgive the pun, until gossip drives Raymondin to grow suspicious of his wife and to spy on her in the chamber to which she customarily retreats on Saturdays. Several manuscripts recording the tale feature an illustration of the climactic moment when Raymondin catches sight of his wife in a large tub, combing her hair and seemingly unbothered by the splashing serpent tail she has instead of legs. The couple somehow manages to get past this, and things remain stable until the day Raymond publicly blames Melusine for one of their ten sons’ monstrous transgressions, referring to her as a “very false serpent.” As a result, Melusine loses all hope of becoming completely human and instead transforms into a serpent/dragon-like creature that flies out the window, returning only to feed her youngest sons at night and to wail upon the death of her descendants. And you thought Daenerys Targaryen was tough. 

female monsters: Playing card with Wild Woman and Unicorn
Master ES, Playing card with Wild Woman and Unicorn, 15th century. Engraving, 3 7/8 × 2 11/16 inches. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Misogyny creeps up in Melusine’s tale in many ways, from the tried and true trope of the bathing lady who is an object to be spied on, to the idea that women are naturally deceitful and so best assumed guilty. And yet, admiration of female strength is also at play—after all, members of the French royal house of Lusignan claimed to descend from Melusine, whom they credited with building their impressive castle (of which virtually nothing remains today). In fact, historically, female monsters were not always portrayed as altogether “bad” and often had more complex characters, or a nature that evolved over time. The so-called “wild woman” is a good example of this. With her cohort the wild man, she was borne in part from a visceral fear of the vast, mysterious forests of central Europe. Where untamed nature ruled, it was believed that so too did untamed behavior, giving rise to a myth of violent, forest-dwelling people dressed only in their long hair and foliage, who engaged freely in intercourse and liked to cannibalize “civilized” children. 

Originating in Ancient Egypt as a creature with a human head atop a lion’s body, sphinxes served primarily as tomb guardians, the most famous of which still watches over the pyramids at Giza.

By the 15th century, however, the wild people’s image was improving, not least because of growing urbanization and a newfound nostalgia for the natural world’s fresh air and lack of stifling constraints. Wild people were increasingly presented as tight-knit families living in symbiosis with nature and untouched by urban evil. A 15th-century German playing card raises interesting questions about shifting attitudes toward the subject. It shows a wild woman sitting on a rock, one hand resting on a unicorn’s neck and the other holding its leg. According to convention, only a virgin was capable of taming a unicorn, so what are we to make of a wild—traditionally wanton—woman doing so? The image may partly be understood as a celebration of the wild woman’s relationship to wilderness in all its beautiful, unrestrained glory, of which unicorns were symbolic, among other things. 

There is also an erotic dimension here, courtesy of her long flowing locks and bold gaze, and the unicorn’s phallic connotations. But that is not to say that our leaf-clad lady was cast as a purely lascivious creature in this context. Rather, the pair may have been meant to be understood as mutually subjugated by the constraints of (civilizing) fidelity—as two beings ensnared by amorous commitment which their intertwined bodies (and other imagery from the period) suggests. 

Female Monsters: Oedipus and the Sphinx
Gustave Moreau, Oedipus and the Sphinx, 1864. Oil on canvas, 81 ¼ × 41 ¼ inches. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Another female monster to have captivated artists is the sphinx. Originating in Ancient Egypt as a creature with a human head atop a lion’s body, sphinxes served primarily as tomb guardians, the most famous of which still watches over the pyramids at Giza. The Ancient Greeks gave the sphinx wings and emphasized her femininity, as well as her deadly nature, often showing her dispatching her (male) victims. Sophocles’ tragedy, Oedipus Rex, also drew attention to the sphinx as a bloodthirsty female monster, ultimately feeding the imagination of artists across hundreds of years. French Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau was one of several 19th-century painters who depicted the tension-filled moment when Oedipus encounters the sphinx that had been terrorizing Thebes by devouring all those who failed to solve her riddle: “What goes on four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon and three in the evening? (the answer is man, who crawls as an infant, walks as an adult, and uses a cane for support in old age). While his contemporaries typically showed the two confronting each other with some distance, Moreau had his sphinx cling to Oedipus’s taut body, her claws suggestively close to his groin while the decaying remains of her past victims lie scattered beneath them. The artist exploits the notion of the sphinx as both destructive female and seductive other, creating a fantasy rich in layers of meaning. Oedipus’ unwavering stare into the sphinx’s eyes reminds us that he will reply correctly and cause her demise, though ultimately this victory can’t prevent his own tragic destiny (killing his father and sleeping with his mother). 

Although heralding from different places and times, all the female monsters I’ve mentioned here share in common a capacity to elicit particular fears, namely the fear of the unknown and that of the disruption of the “natural order” of things—and by extension the destabilization of patriarchal authority. To be frightful, these creatures needed to be powerful, and while that power was historically defined largely by men, in more recent years, several women artists have turned to female monster imagery and found impactful ways of making it their own. Among them, I’ll cite Argentinian Surrealist Leonor Fini (1907–1997), who painted everything from witches to frightfully beautiful monsters of her own invention, and Kara Walker (b. 1969), who in 2014 erected a monumental sphinx drawing on Mammy stereotypes inside the Domino Sugar Factory as a commentary on America’s history of slavery and racial violence. Only the future will tell what trajectories images of historical female monsters will take in art and pop culture; my hope is that they will be frequently revisited and reinvented, and through this process that we’ll gain new and interesting ways of positively expressing female agency.