Women’s Origin Stories

I woke up thinking more about the question I asked earlier—Who Gets to Write History? More specifically who gets to write a woman’s history? Why do we yearn for women to be the heroines of their own stories, the guardians of their own destinies and not just an add-on in the lives of men? Who are our women warriors? Where are our Origin Stories? While it is true that we all begin life in a woman’s womb, we seem to forget the most powerful of origin stories begin, in our mother’s sea of life.

The Thinking Queen Lewis Chess piece 12-13th century

The chess piece above is from the Lewis Chessman. The Queen’s head, resting upon her hand, speaks to me of  mix of concentration, patience, boredom, amusement, and wisdom. She holds in her hand the horn of abundance. In a game of chess, surrounded by men, the women are few, but alas the most powerful pieces on the board, they bide their time…

As a teenager, within my cultural tradition there were not many female origin stories. Studying Ancient History and Greek Mythology in Junior High was a joy for me to connect heroines with power and intelligence. The older the culture, the closer we get to a time when feminine power was revered and celebrated. I am drawn to these traditions— Native American, African, Celtic and Viking Stories where women’s power is venerated or even celebrated. Strong women with self governance and power, isn’t that what we all want? But what are we to do when for the past 1,000 years or more men have written the histories, the genealogies and the stories? Pick up any 19th century History of any county in the United States—how many biographical sketches of women do you find?

What does this mean as a family historian and genealogist?  What happens when half the stories are missing? Where do we women belong, in our own histories? How many women in my family have asked these questions? This is not ancient history. Women gained the right to vote a mere 101 years ago in the United States on August 18, 1920, when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was finally ratified, declaring for the first time that women, like men, deserve all the rights and responsibilities of US citizenship. How many of us celebrate this day? My great- grandmother, Lulu, did. We know because she wrote about it in her diary.

In Outlander when Claire meets with Adawehi, the medicine woman, Giuhua translates for her, “My husband’s grandmother says you have medicine now, but you will have more, when your hair is white like hers, that is when you will find your full power.”  Many ancient cultures have the leitmotif of wise old women or crone goddess. Whether the Indian, Kali, goddess of death and destruction; the West African, Asae Yaa, woman of the earth; the Celtic, Cerridwen, keeper of the cauldron; or the Native American, Grandmother Spider Woman, the old wise woman, who gave us the sun and fire; they are all emblematic of the power of the female and her creative life force and yet they have little place in written history. Which brings me around to another point I make often—evidence is not enough. Facts are not enough. They are dead without the stories to bring them to life. Perhaps it is a deep seated need to reunite with the earth, to acknowledge the dual forces of nature both female and male, creative and destructive, that draws me to the ancient wisdom traditions. Their truth speaks to me, as it must to everyone who seeks. I have no desire to subjugate men, or diminish their stories in order to give voices back to my female ancestors. I just want to hear what is missing.

So how come in the western tradition we are denied these female role models and origin stories? We have but a handful of outspoken women in early New England and they were often mistreated for stepping out of their lane [speaking outside of the Puritan orthodoxy] such as Mary Dyer or Anne Hutchinson. But they are hardly the stuff young girls today aspire to. In 2016 I had the good fortune to visit the Celts art and Identity Exhibit at the National Museum of Scotland and there to see the Gundestrup Cauldron discovered in a Danish bog dated between 150 BC-50 BC.  It is much more massive in person than you might imagine at 37 inches in diameter. It is decorated inside and out, but I wanted to focus on the panel with the goddess/woman below who has two bird above her head, a smaller woman plaiting her hair, another woman to her right and another bird in hand [variously described as doves or cuckoos]. She is thought to represent the goddess of fertility Venus.

The Gundestrup cauldron is a richly-decorated silver vessel, thought to date to the 1st century BC, placing it into the late La Tène period. It was found in 1891 in a peat bog near the hamlet of Gundestrup, Denmark Photo by Knud Winckelmann CC

In Norway the cauldron also called the “seething cauldron”, because from its fire and ice coalesces new life. Mircea Eliade writes “ According to celtic people the cauldron is comparable to the horn, or vessel, of abundance.” There are 2 dogs in this panel and celts believed dogs to be healers of the body and soul. Some argue the dogs represent the constellations canis major and minor and the fallen man the constellation Orion. Whatever the meaning the artisans intended I am glad to see women depicted in a powerful way.

So here is the challenge fellow genealogists, how are we to tell the stories of all the unsung heroines in our trees. How are we to pay homage and justice to the women that made our lives possible? The older I get, the whiter my hair, the more urgent the need to find answers in their lives. I challenge you to take a female ancestor and build her a life, out of whatever scraps you have. Listen to the whispers as she calls to you.

Kelly Wheaton © 2022 All Rights Reserved.

5 Comments on “Women’s Origin Stories”

  1. Another wonderful post! As I research the stories of my Sheldon ancestors I have often wondered about the women. Especially those who settled in the wilderness of Canada in the late 1700s. What were they thinking??! My mother wrote about her life from her youngest days to when she went off to college. That’s a treasure. Now I am in the process of writing memoir essays of my own.

  2. Pingback: My Woman Warrior: Pioneer Mother Catherine Adeline Stewart Murphy Mosier | Wheaton Wood

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