Women Who Fly

Goddesses, Witches, Mystics, and other Airborne Females

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Serinity Young
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , February
     2018.
     376 pages.
     $29.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780195307887.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Serinity Young’s Women Who Fly: Goddesses, Witches, Mystics, and Other Airborne Females, is a cross-cultural, multi-period, feminist study of flying women in myth, literature, ritual, and history. Through examination of sky-going females evident within the religions and iconography of the Ancient Near East, Europe, and Asia, as well as in shamanic, Judeo-Christian, and Islamic cultures, the author creates a typology of flying women through history that culminates in an examination of 20th century fictional airborne women and real female aviators.  

Young seeks to construct “a history of religious and social ideas about aerial females as expressed in legends, myths, rituals, sacred narratives, and artistic productions” as well as to examine “the symbolic uses of women in mythology, religion, and society that have shaped, and continue to shape, our social and psychological reality” (9). To achieve this, Young ranges broadly through world religion and mythology, focusing on the trope of flying women, highlighting their similarities and differences, and identifying characteristics that are shared between various religious imaginations over time.

The book introduces the concept of female flight through one of the earliest stories on the subject: an ancient Chinese legend about the emperor Shun (ca. 2258–2208 BCE) which features flying women who are associated with sexuality and the bestowal of blessings, such as sovereignty and supernatural powers, upon a male hero. These characteristics prove to be a prominent theme that continues throughout the book, appearing in diverse cultures and periods.  

As well as being connected to sexuality, flying women from many cultures were associated with death, rebirth and immortality; however, over time they were increasingly constrained, domesticated, and made into “handmaidens of male desire and ambition” (4). This is evident in the stories about Norse Valkyries, Hindu and Buddhist apsarās, yoginīs, and dākinīs, European witches, and even the 20th century cartoon heroine Wonder Woman. Frequently, the act of having sex with men results in the loss of aerial women’s ability to fly and of their power, and leads to their captivity and domestication, as is evident in the stories Young includes of swan maidens and fairy wives. 

Despite this grounding of airborne women within much world mythology and literature, Young proposes that flying women are actually female counter-heroes who are indifferent to patriarchal values and point back in time to an earlier, pre-patriarchal era and non-patriarchal sources of knowledge. Young sees the loss of power and autonomy in stories about flying women as a decrease in female religious and social power over time. She claims that supernatural flying women can be identified from prehistoric times, citing a female figure from Predynastic Egypt dating to ca. 3500–3400 BCE (the Naqada IIa period) with a birdlike face and upraised curved arms (6). While the constraining of avian women by men is a theme throughout this book, it is not all bad news. The airborne females studied here – whether supernatural or mortal – are often free and sexually autonomous, and can be unpredictable, generous and empowering or withholding and destructive.

As Young explains, there are a large number of stories, images and rituals centred on flying females, in contrast to a paucity of males who fly – the latter are often granted the power of flight by females. The stories of flying women invite us to re-consider women as heroes, rather than as heroines (a term usually associated with the performance of traditionally identified female sex roles). Flight is a profound expression of freedom, an escape from domestication or the limits of the flesh. The ability of airborne women to shape-shift from earthly into heavenly beings blurs the boundaries between species, between heaven and earth, immanence and transcendence, and earthly and divine realms. Flying women who arouse desire and terrify, such as Lilith, can be seen as empowering in their monstrous femininity (Barbara Creed, The Monstrous Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis, Routledge, 1993). The actualisation of myths about aerial woman by female shamans with their bird costumes and magical flight, and mystics with their negation and mortification of the flesh, produce exceptional, unique women who reject the traditional constrictions of the female gender and even transcend the mortal condition of earth-boundedness.

This is an ambitious work with many fascinating examples of flying women. The inclusion of so many cultures in which airborne females appear certainly convinces the reader that it was a universal trope. Because the study incorporates such a long period of time and wide cultural expanse, however, not every single region or period is treated equally or completely successfully, although the criticisms in this regard are minor. As a specialist in Asian religions, Young’s coverage of flying women within Hindu and Buddhist cultures appears to be the most erudite. Conversely, in regard to the treatment of the topic within the Ancient Near East and Mediterranean, while the evidence is mainly perfectly convincing, there are a few minor problems.   

Despite these quibbles, Women Who Fly: Goddesses, Witches, Mystics, and Other Airborne Females convincingly presents evidence for aerial females in mythology, ritual, literature and art through history, as well as examines the symbolic meanings of flying women, and concludes that such “female imagery is used to conquer and control a fear of female power” (252). Iconography is one of the main sources of evidence for flying females and the book includes almost fifty images, but puzzlingly no list of figures. Nevertheless, Young’s cross-cultural, multi-period, multidisciplinary and comparative approach to the evidence for flying women successfully introduces disciplinary specialists to examples of the concept of airborne women within cultures or time periods that they probably would not usually investigate. It is also suitable for a general readership. The many examples of flying women examined in this book persuasively demonstrate that the trope of the aerial female, in various manifestations, is shared across religions and through time.    

About the Reviewer(s): 

Caroline Tully is an Honorary Fellow in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne.

Date of Review: 
February 24, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Serinity Young is a research associate in the Department of Anthropology at New York's American Museum of Natural History. She is also Adjunct Assistant Professor of Classical, Middle Eastern, and Asian Languages and Cultures at Queens College.

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