The Use of Mythological Allusions in Margaret Atwood’s Poetry

Julie Mewhinney ENG4U1 October 16th, 2012 J. Edwards Mythology: Because I’m Too Jaded to Write about Love An allusion is a casual or passing reference to a famous historical or fictional character. In poetry, allusions are often used to help reinforce a point or characterize the speaker or the addressee. In the case of Margaret Atwood’s poems, “Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing” and “Sekhmet Lion-Headed Goddess of War”, allusions are used to empower and change the way we view the female speaker. This is especially obvious in “Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing”.
The poem is about a stripper, which is considered to be quite a degrading job in today’s society. Normally such a protagonist would be looked down upon and pitied by the readers, and yet through allusions to Helen of Troy (a woman widely considered to be the most beautiful of the ancient world, and also the sole cause of the Trojan War according to myth) the speaker comes off as superior to women with “respectable” jobs, and also to the men who watch her, when you would think it would be the other way around.
In using lines such as “I don’t let on to everyone, / but lean close and I’ll whisper: / My mother was raped by a holy swan” (Countertop, 59-61) Atwood references Helen of Troy’s links to the Gods of Greek mythology (her father was Zeus; he had appeared to Helen’s mother in the form of a golden swan and raped [or had consensual sex with, depending on the version of the story that you read] her), and makes her speaker seem otherworldly and goddess-like in doing so.

Instead of feeling ashamed of herself for her employment, the speaker feels superior in that she can make so many men swoon, much like Helen of Troy, and also in the knowledge that they cannot lay a finger on her; “I hover six inches in the air/ in my blazing swan-egg of light. / You think I’m not a goddess? / Try me. / This is a touch song. / Touch me and you’ll burn. ” (Countertop, 78-83). Atwood uses these allusions to aid in the acceptance of the feminist view on such a controversial subject as stripping or prostitution.
In “Sekhmet, Lion-Headed Goddess of War”, Atwood references the Egyptian goddess of war and destruction, Sekhmet, daughter of the god Ra, and various other Ancient Egyptian deities, most notably Osiris. The speaker in this poem seems to be Sekhmet herself, or at least a statue of her, much like in “Siren’s Song”, where the sirens are the speakers. In mythology, Sekhmet is the daughter of the sun god Ra, who unleashes her upon the world to bring vengeance upon those who have rebelled against him.
She goes crazy with blood-lust and begins to kill everyone resulting in her being tricked into drinking red dyed beer by the men of the day in order to stop her killing rampage. With a bit of cleaver emphasis, and a feminist viewpoint, Atwood turns Sekhmet into a proud and fearsome warrior queen, who is not content to sit in a museum with the god “…who wouldn’t hurt a fly” (Sekhmet, 2), Osiris, and who would like to go back to the days when she was worshipped, not just shown to children learning about cultural diversity.
Both of these poems utilize strong female characters in their allusions, most probably because Atwood tends to write from a feminist viewpoint and likes her woman to have ower over the men, as opposed to in the majority of society, where the view is quite patriarchal, and the men tend to hold power over the women. Helen of Troy, the femme fatale who caused one of the greatest conflicts of the ancient world, and Sekhmet one of the most revered, and certainly the most feared warrior of the Egyptian empire are strong, untouchable and confident in themselves, just the sort of woman that Atwood believes all women should strive to be like.
Because of these references, we do not see a degraded stripper who is taunted and looked down upon, or a lonely and forgotten goddess sitting in a museum gathering dust. Instead we see an unattainable woman of unsurpassable beauty, above the people who sneer at her, confident in her own skin, and a proud, fierce warrior goddess who remembers her glory days but still knows that she will never be forgotten.
Margaret Atwood uses allusions to mythological figures to the highest degree, giving protagonists that would normally be seen as weak or pitiful characteristics of such influential women; she empowers her speakers with these allusions, using them to show us a different, stronger side to cliche characters that we thought we already knew. Works Cited Atwood, Margaret. “Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing. ” Morning in the Burned House. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1995. Print. —. “Sekhmet, Lion-Headed Goddess of War. ” Morning in the Burned House. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1995. Print.

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