Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Enchantress

So we all know that mythology, as a general rule, prefers the male hero over the female one; ancient cultures were all about some dudes heading out to conquer in the name of awesomeness, sword in hand and muscles a-bulging, but the ladies seldom get the same opportunity. (Although a few do. Get it, Anat.) Women are certainly present, and we don't lack tales in which women are the heroes of the story or the major actors who get things done, but they usually do it with less punching and more emphasis on what various ancient cultures considered "womens'" talents - things like guile, magic or their feminine attractiveness. So today we're going to talk about one of the most excellent of all mythological femme fatales - the divine Mohini.

Mohini is the archetypal lady of irresistible charms in Hindu mythology; as the only female Avatar of the god Vishnu, she was created when the deva and asura collaborated to churn the Ocean of Milk in order to beguile the evil gods into being cheated of their share of the divine amrita. She used her incredible beauty to convince the asura to give her the amrita and then distract them while she distributed the amrita to the deva, keeping them charmed until they had been excluded without even realizing it, and when the asura Rahu was the only one with the ability to focus up and try to sneak in and steal the amrita by posing as a deva, Mohini lopped his head off before the sacred nectar could get all the way down his throat, denying him true immortality.

But the fun doesn't stop there. Whenever the special charms of an incredibly hot and crafty lady are called for, it's Mohini who steps up to the plate and solves problems of universal import and major difficulty. In another myth, the asura Bhasmasura gains the power to turn any living being instantly to ash by touching them on the top of the head after performing penance for Shiva, and immediately sets about trying to use this power on Shiva himself in order to steal Parvati for his own. When Mohini appears before Bhasmasura, her beauty is so great that he immediately falls for her and begs her to be his wife, but she claims that she is such a devotee of dance that she will only marry him if he can exactly mirror all her dance moves and thus prove himself to be her perfect mate. Enchanted, Bhasmasura agrees and dances alongside Mohini until, too enraptured by her movements to pay any attention to what he's doing, he imitates her putting her hand on her own head and kills himself with his newfound power.

Bhasmasura isn't the only demon that Mohini takes out with her irresistible badassness, either. When the asura Virochana receives the crown of good fortune from Surya and immediately begins abusing it to dethrone the deva, Mohini works her wiles on him (literally, he "falls into the whirlpool" of her beauty) until he pledges to give her whatever she asks, and when she asks for his crown and the head that it sits on, he beheads himself at her request before even thinking about it. When another asura, Araka, threatens to conquer the countryside because his incredible asceticism has made him strong from the power of his mighty chastity, Mohini simply appears and marries him, and when after three days his vows of chastity are well and truly destroyed, he is easily slain by Krishna, another of Vishnu's Avatars. When the divine prince Iravan must be sacrificed to the Pandavas to ensure victory and demands that he be given a wife before he dies, it is Mohini who fulfills his request and spends a night with him, convincing him to offer his sacrifice to aid Krishna instead of his enemies. When a group of sages foolishly begin to consider themselves deities because of their great spiritual powers, she teams up with Shiva to drive them mad with desire and make them chase her through the forest. And in the Ramakien, the royal Thai version of the epic Ramayana, when the asura Nontok uses a vajra given to him by Shiva to begin wreaking havoc it is Mohini who appears, charms him into dancing with her, and eventually tricks him into breaking his own legs, whereupon she kills him with a promise that a later Avatar, Rama, will also destroy his reincarnation as Ravana in the future.

Most famously, even Shiva is not immune to Mohini's considerable allure; after seeing her bewitch the asura at the Ocean of Milk, he can't stop thinking about her and eventually begs Vishnu to see her again (or, in some versions, prays to other deities that he can see her again). When she appears, he loses all ability to function and begins chasing her all over the world (much to Parvati's dismay), attempting to grab hold of her, but she eludes him and he eventually ejaculates on the ground, whereupon he is overcome by shame at the realization of his lack of self-control. In another version, he successfully catches her but isn't able to complete the act of copulation thanks to his own overeagerness; and in yet another, he fathers several children on her, but she keeps him at bay from marrying her by forcing him to constantly go home and ask his wife for permission in a series of escalatingly unacceptable demands, eventually turning back into Vishnu so that Shiva realizes the folly of his endeavor and pledges to take care of the children.

Basically, Mohini is an unstoppable force of sensuality with the power to take down entire kingdoms and destroy demonic forces that menaces even the gods, and she does it with quintessentially female powers that have no equal among her male heroic counterparts. It can be tempting to write Mohini off as not really being female because of her status as an Avatar of the male god Vishnu, but that would be inaccurate - Mohini is female (although many people can and do discuss the implications of her connection to Vishnu and what that might mean in terms of dual-genderism or fluid sexuality), and Vishnu becomes her when femininity is what is called for to solve a problem or overcome an obstacle. Mohini is powerful explicitly because she is female; her myths imply that the power of bewitchment and fascination is a feminine one, and that while masculine heroes may win the day through cleverness, persistence or strength of arms, they cannot compete with a woman in the arena of allure and manipulation. And Mohini certainly is a hero. Her exploits prove that beyond a shadow of a doubt. All that differs is her weapon of choice.

Mohini isn't alone in the annals of myth, either. The idea of the fatally attractive female, who can destroy the most powerful with the slightest effort and who can and does shape the course of heroic events, is one that pops up around the world over and over again. When you're out on the Hero's Journey, never let anyone tell you that you can't win the day with a pretty smile and a cunning plot. Odds are, they're afraid of you doing just that.