Myth and Violence in the Contemporary Female Text: New Cassandras

By Sanja Bahun-Radunovic and V.G. Julie Rajan. 2011. London: Ashgate Publishing. ISBN: 978-1-4094-0001-1 (hard cover).


Reviewed by Brittany Warman, Ohio State University

[Review length: 765 words • Review posted on April 2, 2012]


Myth and Violence in the Contemporary Female Text: New Cassandras is a collection of essays edited by scholars Sanja Bahun-Radunovic and V. G. Julie Rajan. The primary purpose of the collection is to discuss the ways in which mythologies from around the world inspire women to explore both personal and historical violence through action and art. The women discussed in these essays reclaim and retell myths from all over the world for their own purposes--for activism, poetry, film, artwork, creative writing, and more. Diversity of content is a particular concern for this text and the interdisciplinary focus allows for a quite unconventional style for a scholarly volume. Critical essays on literature, history, film, and theatre are presented alongside two creative pieces--a short story and a photograph of a sculpture. Both of these works hold just as much weight as any other commentary in the text and serve as examples of the kinds of artistic creations the essays discuss. This unique combination of materials serves to, as the editors hope, “re-affirm one of the major propositions underlying [the text]” (15)--that “female artists re-appropriate myth, a traditional tool of patriarchy, as a mode of expressing their own creativity in innovative, and therefore, previously ‘unknown’ ways” (15). Myth and Violence in the Contemporary Female Text: New Cassandras, therefore, reinvents “the scholarly text on myth” itself.

The subtitle “New Cassandras” is explored in the introduction to the volume. The Greek story of Cassandra describes how the god Apollo blessed her with the ability to tell the future. However, when she rejected the god’s advances toward her, he altered his gift so that no one would ever believe her visions. Despite knowing the outcome of many horrible future events, she was ignored and eventually seen as insane (1). The myth of Cassandra, the editors explain, is appropriately invoked in a text exploring “female visionary power and female creativity” (3). She has “become a feminist icon for numerous female writers and artists worldwide” (4). These “new Cassandras” draw on mythology in an “effort to speak about or negotiate violence through ancient tropes, archetypes, and subtexts” (5) and, in so doing, “refashion the concept of myth itself” (7).

The text is divided into three sections. The first section, Myth, Violence, Border-Crossing: Global Expressions of Self and Society, contains five essays addressing the ways in which “mythological contexts” are used “to address violence and gender as they are constructed and deconstructed in global aesthetic and activist female practices” (14). The section consists of essays on the historical Furies Collective and the myth of the “angry lesbian” (Sara Warner), Patricia Chao’s novel The Monkey King (Belinda Kong), Marie Darrieussecq’s text Truismes (Sanja Bahun-Radunovic), mythology and the feminine in Indian film (Shreerkha Subramanian), and Sarah Kane’s play Phaedra’s Love (Anja Müller-Wood.) The second section of the book, entitled Of Archetypes, Creativity, and Ethics: Inscribing the Feminine in Mythology, explores “resurrecting the female creative self through the use of myth” (15). The essays in this section are on Marina Tsvetaeva’s poems “The Sibyl” and “Phaedra” (Olga Peters Hasty), Margaret Atwood’s novel The Penelopiad (Elodie Rousselot), Eugenia Fakinou’s novel The Seventh Garment (Tatjana Aleksic), and an exploration of the personal use of myth in cinema screenwriting (Sue Clayton). The third section contains the creative pieces, a photograph of Kiki Smith’s sculpture “Lot’s Wife” and the short story “Cancellanda” by Marina Warner, for which she also writes a brief introduction.

Consistently interesting and inventive, each of the essays of the volume brings a considerably different view to the overall subject at hand. The diversity, particularly globally, of both the materials examined/presented and the contributors make this text a unique and valuable contribution to the study of the ways in which women draw from mythology. The decision to include creative materials as well as scholarly materials was an inspired choice and one hopes that other texts will adopt this interdisciplinary approach in the future.

Myth and Violence in the Contemporary Female Text: New Cassandras “highlights the innovative ways in which twentieth-century and contemporary women artists and writers have addressed, re-appropriated, and created myths, in particular those that engage with representations of femininity and violence” (12), and each of the essays and creative pieces included here is a fascinating exploration of this subject. The one disappointment of the volume is that, while the work of scholars like Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell is referenced, few folklorists are mentioned throughout the essays, despite the potential relevance of their work. Regardless, folklorists, particularly those interested in retellings and re-appropriations of folkloric and mythic material, should find this text a more than worthwhile read.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.