Beyond Katniss: transmutation of the female archer

“The Archer Lady” Bydgoszcz, Poland (subject unknown)

The female archer is a figure we’re pretty used to seeing in our modern symbolic landscape — so much so that as I was reading this article, I almost didn’t notice when its author referred to the concept of the female bowman as “a modern feminist symbol.”

To be clear, I’m not taking issue with either the article or the eponymous film it describes, simply using them to illustrate a point. The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen is perhaps the most visible example of this trope, but Brave’s Merida and The Chronicles of Narnia’s Susan Pevensie are other immediate examples.

In part, we can attribute this image to the simple fact that a bow is a ranged weapon, and therefore keeps its bearer out of immediate danger (or that’s the idea). High King Peter and King Edmund get swords; Queen Lucy (the youngest Pevensie and — due to her prepubescence — no threat to the male establishment) is given a self-defense dagger, but primarily uses her healing cordial; Queen Susan gets the bow, and a horn to summon help. If Peter and Edmund are of a battle-appropriate age, certainly Susan should be, too — yet the bow keeps her back, away from most encounters.

This incredibly telling of the position Susan’s gender dictates, as is her royal title. The other three siblings have epithets of Magnificent, Just, and Valiant, while Susan is Gentle. She’s a support figure at best.

Of course, Susan is also the only Pevensie not to be featured in The Last Battle, and that’s indicative of her role most of all — that of mature woman who has not renounced the physical aspect of existence. A woman who pays attention to her own identity and appearance (something that’s been shoved down our own throats for centuries, yet is used to undercut us whenever our grooming proves inconvenient). A woman who presents such a problem to the back-and-forth between hierarchic patriarchy and independent feminism that Lewis literarily banished her as an example: a new Abrahamic Eve, neutered and left to her isolation outside Aslan’s heaven.

An empowered female presence who is at peace with the world cannot be liberated by the celestial male aspect. She doesn’t require rescue at his hands to complete her identity; she is herself whole. Yet the male gaze has for millennia cast her in respect to itself, denying the female aspect agency in its need for control.

This brings us to the other part of the equation: the historicity of the image itself, the woman with bow in hand. Western culture adores its classical roots, so it isn’t terribly surprising that we can trace the female archer most directly back to the ancient Greek figure of Artemis, the virgin huntress. Of course, the Artemis we know was considerably worked over by syncretization — that is, the process of reconciling different religions when cultures come into contact — as this mythic “sacred family” was aligned and their cultures integrated (forcibly or otherwise).

Hellenic thunder-god Zeus was the patriarch, dethroner of his own father; Apollo, god of music, was his father’s true son, gaslighting and dooming his priestess Cassandra for all time when she wouldn’t sleep with him. Purported ice bitch Hera, goddess of marriage and women, was a pre-Hellenic figure who’d been “married” to Zeus to assimilate her into his canon (likely explaining her humorless demeanor); though titaness Leto was Zeus’ first wife and the divine twins’ true mother, Hera easily supplanted her within this tradition.

Artemis’ status as stepdaughter to this masculine heritage is enforced by her very virginity; though she enjoys the company of her hunting companion Orion, in one story her twin Apollo tricks Artemis into killing him, thereby preserving her chastity. Her connection to the divine is through her father, for though she retains a connection to her mother, Leto is certainly no Olympian. Her authority is patrilineal, her true mother a mere Hellenic cast-off.

The myth in which Artemis turns lecherous human peeper Actaeon into a stag (leaving him to be devoured by his own dogs), however, is of a different tenor than the enforced Apollonian virginity, speaking to the fate of those who would dare approach divine power unprepared. Here it is not the act of sex itself that is at issue, but consent.

If we peel back more storied layers, we find that Artemis was a derivation of one of the most ancient deities of all: the Paleolithic Goddess of Wild Animals of the hunt, a figure who required no male counterpart. She is no claimed daughter or mother, but a direct symbolic descendant of the most ancient traditions, representing both deerslayer and the slain deer itself in the chaotic renewal of nature.

Ultimately, then, Katniss and Merida, Serafina Pekkala and Tauriel and all the rest of our female archers are links in this mythic chain that stretches back to Iraqi ceramic art from 4000 BCE.

Our modern bow-woman is a symbol who was locked up within the patriarchal family structure, but who is — like all symbols — still evolving, and capable of breaking free. As women fight tooth and nail for our equality on a corporeal plane, those icons we choose to represent us are changing. The range the bow itself speaks of is being closed by powerful, close-quarters figures who are capable of wielding swords instead of being held back from the fray. So while the modern female archer is, indeed, retaking the power that was stolen from her, she is also mutating into new and unique forms, becoming ever more powerful.

This isn’t to throw shade at the Katnisses and Meridas of the world; they’ve served a great purpose, bringing us closer to that ancient truth of equality between genders, of cultural roles that don’t depend on what you wear or have between your legs. Katniss was in many ways the modern culmination of this image, her own tale recontextualized from that of the fourteen Athenians — seven female and seven male — offered up to Crete (narrative sacrifices like the fourteen sons and daughters of Niobe that were killed by Artemis and Apollo for their mother’s hubris — a very patriarchal move indeed).

Yet we have to acknowledge that a new symbolic power is rising in modern pop culture, recontextualizing the ancient line. This is the power of Arya Stark and Brienne of Tarth, of Michonne, of Maeve Millay and Dolores Abernathy, perhaps even Diana Prince (though the lattermost, of course, remains to be seen).

Earthbound forces have been too held captive within our culture, and now they are finally breaking forth on a mass stage. These are women of the sword and the close-range gun, fighters who require no male equal in order to demonstrate their power. They represent nature, chaos, the hunter who will not be brooked by patriarchal reproach. They are independent. They have will.

For those of us who would champion this paradigm shift, it is certainly possible to nudge sociocultural paradigms, restoring the ancient, chthonic power to equal stead with the celestial lineage that holds sway in Western culture. She finds her footing most frequently in cult mythology, in geek narratives that are more symbol than reality, and this is where we can help her best. By encouraging her influence to grow through stories, to reclaim the feminine aspect — and perhaps, to help us light our own way forward as we strip away the dusty pages of patriarchal history and embrace the chaotic, unbound nature that lies within us all.