Sister Maeve Hughes's book - Epic Women: East and West' is a new contribution on women studies. Her study covers the whole gamut of Indo-European literature with a special emphasis on India and Ireland.
In comparison with the number of male characters the number of outstanding women characters are small. A few women characters that are found in ancient literature have not received as much attention of scholars as they deserve. Not only in modern times in olden times too the redactors of the Indian epic and of heroic sagas generally tend to ignore to fully develop the women characters.
Some of the female characters of the Mahabharata profoundly impress us by their sagacity and forthright stand against injustice that a woman suffers in a male dominated society. In a remarkably spirited speech Sakuntala exposes a perfidious husband who tries to shirk responsibility to his wife (.Adi 68-69). Draupadi is well- known for her grasp of legal rights of women (Sabha 60). Again, there is a female wandering ascetic, Sulabha who enters into philosophical debates with Janaka (Santi 308).
Sister Hughes has discussed the women characters in all aspects in the perspective of Indo-European literature. The portrayal of women in ancient poetry, she finds, rises above all geographical, cultural, linguistic and all other limitations that have sought to obscure the original features of women characters.
The present work of Sister Hughes was published under the name of Mary Alice Hughes in two instalments in the Journal of the Asiatic Society Vol. 34 Nos. 1-2 and Nos. 3-4 (1992). I hope this book will be appreciated by scholars.
Epic Women: East and West sets out to take a long, wondering, feminine look at some of the remarkable women characters in Indo- European heroic literature generally regarded as the work of male poets, handed down in its early, oral stage mainly by male storytellers-bards, filidh, kavis. The banfilidh (women storytellers) are not on record in large numbers. This work is an attempt, no more, to recognise and appreciate the common traits an some of the differences, that distinguish the poets' handiwork when they create characters such as Medb and Madhavi, Draupadi and Deirdre, sita, Helen and Kriemhild. It looks for links between the eastern and western limits of the Indo-European world in the heroic age. It seeks to present the portrayal of woman in the poetry of that age as one arch of a bridge spanning space and time, transcending limitations cultural, political, linguistic, that have, in the course of the
centuries, intruded themselves into the creative world of imagination,
song and poetry. It seeks to catch a glimpse of the universal significance of poetry that cuts across all barriers.
The use of the term 'poetry' in relation to heroic literature may be questioned, for not all the sagas and epics have come down to us in verse form. There is, perhaps, more prose than verse in the Tain Do Cuailnge, one of the major texts under discussion. To equate poetry with verse, with mere measured syllables and end rhymes (to paraphrase Milton), hardly does justice to the term that stands for the choicest expression of the richest and farthest flights of human creative imagination. While in no way denying, or even questioning the value of metre, rhythm and rhyme, it is perhaps, the quality of imagery in any creative writing that raises it to the level of poetry. We have only to recall the blank verse of Virgil or Milton, and to consider the range that the notion of 'vers Iibre' has given to modern poetry to realise that any justifiable definition of poetry must look beyond the parameters of rhyme patterns and regular measure and focus rather on the imaginative tone and the rivetting image. If this is conceded, then there is more poetry in the Tain Do Cuailnge than literally meets the eye.
There is movement, colour, fantasy, romance, assonance. alliteration, simile, metaphor, paradox, extravagance; there is poetry in plenty even in the prose of the 12th century monastic scribe, who re-created the saga from the scraps of damaged manuscripts that survived the Viking raids. The long verse poems that we find interspersed throughout the prose narrative may have been copied directly from intact manuscript or have been recorded from the oral renderings of some filidh, The Celt, the Gael, is a born poet. One has only to listen attentively to the turns of phrase in the daily speech of rural Ireland to catch the flash of imagination, the neat balance of tone and rhythm, the unexpected inversion of syntax, the wry humour that reveal the poetry of the heart which is the heart Of poetry. John Millington Synge caught the lilt of this language in the Aran Islands and we hear it throughout the 'poetry' of Maurya's lament for her
dead sons. Yeats' poetry lingers on the ear and in the mind more for phrases like "pools that scarce could bathe a star" and the lakeside stillness of Innisfree where
" ... peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of morning to where the cricket sings" or the dancing syllables of a title like "The Fiddler of Dooney", than for his Spiritus Mundi or Byzantium. A similar poetic idiom is discernible in colloquial Bengali (and every Bengali, too, is a poet 1 )
It is this interpretation of 'poetry' that underlies the application of the term to all the heroic literature mentioned in this study, the Bible included. For which body of literature has an epic work of the dimension of that collection of writings, spanning nearly a millenium, which Christians call The Book and which purports to recount God's intervention in human history? It deals with nearly all the themes listed for the Gaelic storyteller's graduation to the independent practice of his art-plunderings, raids, battles, voyages, visions, wooings, adventures. feasts, loves, conceptions, births, sieges and violent deaths. It deals with the special relationship between a people and their God: it has long stretches of prose narrative and books of undeniable poetry; it has imagery that has inspired poets of every race and generation. It is no affront to literary form to class the Bible as a great epic.
The major thrust of this study is the application of the French critic, Georges Dumezil's theory of the trivalent nature of divinity and the feminine principle of sovereignty in Indo-European literature to four outstanding women figures in heroic poetry : Medb and Deirdre from the Tain Bo Cuailnge and Draupadi Madhavi from the Mahabharata. In the course of a life-time study of ancient literatures Dumezil discovered
"Traces, more or less considerable of a similar conception of the world, of the invisible as well as the visible ... recognisable from end to end of the Indo-European world during the last two millenia prior to our era-a concept entertained by people who gave the same name to the horse, the same names to the king, the cloud and to the gods. Myths cannot be
understood in isolation from the people who relate them. They (the myths) express in images the major ideas which order and sustain social and political life, ritual, law and custom". (Introduction to Mythe et Epopee 1 )
When Dumezil moved from the sociological and anthropological study of the myths to their religious dimension he discovered that the tripartite disposition of society was reflected in. or was a reflection of man's notion of the divine order. To survive man must have right order in his social and moral relationships; be needs defence against his enemies; he needs food and the fecundity that perpetuates the race. The first function of this tripartite pattern, then, relates to the moral order and religious duties-the role in ancient times of the priest-king; the second function calls for the warrior-hero; the third requires a provider. one who tills the soil so that it becomes rich. fruitful and beautiful, one who fosters fertility of man, beast and field. Further associated with this function is the role of the healer, the medicine man.
In his study of Roman antiquity Jupiter. Mars and Quirinus (1941) the French critic undertakes an elaborate analysis of the significance and functions of these three deities. He sees in Jupiter the symbol of all that is sacred and rightly ordered in the cosmos: then very readily assigns the role of warrior, defender, hero to Mars, while Quirinus stands for productivity of the earth, its fertility, beauty and prosperity. He developed these ideas further in The Religion of Ancient Rome (1966) and found in the mythological figures of Romulus and Lucumon the human counterparts of Jupiter and Mars. The historical personage, Tatius with his industrious Sabins, their women and wealth provided the human reflection of Quirinus. In Mythe et Epopee I and Il (1968 and 1971) Dumezil presents the fruit of his application of these ideas not only to the Indian social scene but to the divine level in his analysis of the text of the Mahabharata, and also to the literature of ancient Persia and Scandinavia. In the Indian context, he sees the tripartite function of brahman- priestking, Ksatriya-warrior and Sudra-provider in Dharma, Indra- Vayu and the Asvins, and from thence at the avatar level in the Pandavas. He goes further and claims this trivalence for the gods of the
Iranians and Scandinavians. Thus he extends the scope of the notion of trivalent divinity to the entire Indo-European world.
In the present study the purpose is to show that Medb, Draupadi and Madhavi are euphemerized divinities or goddesses, who are the vehicles of sovereign power (goddesses of sovereignty), who arc: endowed with warrior-like propensities or closely linked with warrior activities, and are also figures of beauty, fertility and prosperity. They may, therefore. be considered trivalent goddesses. Deirdre, on the other hand, is presented as a problem figure in this context, one for whose sake sovereignty is lost. who brings death to her warrior consort and who produces neither riches nor offspring. Other heroic women characters are studied in less detail, but within the parameters of the roles here indicated. It is hoped that this work will provoke other researchers to go deeper into the area opened up here, and that more conclusive evidence in support of, or even in contradiction of the claims made in these pages, will be forthcoming.
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