Most of us are familiar with Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, beauty and pleasure. Aphrodite was a woman of exceptional beauty with an allure capable of captivating every God in heaven. All gods feared that Aphrodite’s beauty will lead to rivalry amongst them and might even be a cause of war. Such was Aphrodite’s artistry. She had many lovers, the most well-known being Adonis.
A story from the Greek Mythology, tells us about the cause that led to the Trojan War. In the Judgement of Paris, Eris had thrown an Apple of Discord as a prize of beauty amongst the three Goddesses – Hera, Athena and Aphrodite. When Zeus assigned Paris to make the choice, the Goddesses tried to bribe him. Hera offered him supreme power, Athena offered him wisdom and glory in the battle and Aphrodite offered him Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman in the world, as his wife. Inflamed by desire and Helen’s beauty, Paris handed the Apple to Aphrodite. This enraged the two Goddesses and the eventual abduction of Helen by Paris brought about the Trojan War.
This brings us to our second character, Helen of Troy. According to Greek mythology, Helen was considered to be the most beautiful woman in the world. She had many suitors who would often compete with each other to win her hand in marriage. Legend speaks of her marriage with Menelaus and her involvement with Paris, either by abduction or seduction, is doubtful.
Both these women of exceptional beauty are ancient archetypes of what we call the Femme Fatale which refers to Fatal Woman. These women are ferociously talented and are wholly dedicated to the art of deceit and crime. These women use seduction and beauty to charm men into achieving their hidden purposes. They are mysterious in their manners. They have the ability to caste their spell and ensnare their lovers into situations that may be dangerous. Morally ambiguous, femme fatales are often viewed as promiscuous.
Hindu mythology talks about celestial nymphs, more commonly known as Apsaras, who stand as epitomes of beauty and elegance. Apsaras are ethereal beings who can change their shape and form. Their references are usually made as dancers in Kings’ courts who sometimes, even seduce them.
Menka was one such Apsara who was considered to be the most beautiful Apsara in heaven. She was called upon by Indra, the God of thunder, to visit Vishvamitra and distract him from his meditation. Indra was afraid that Vishvamitra’s devoted meditation would make him more powerful than himself. Thus, in order to distract him from his meditation, Indra sent Menka to seduce him. When Vishvamitra saw Menka, he was enchanted by her beauty and grace. The sweet tinkle of her payal distracted him from his prayer. She sang and danced for him and successfully incited his lust and passion. Seeing her endless beauty he stopped meditating and fell in love with her.
When Vishvamitra learnt of Indra’s devious plan, he cursed Menka to be separated from him forever. Before leaving, Menka gave birth to Vishvamitra’s daughter, Shakuntala. She left Shakuntala at sage Kanva’s hermitage and returned back to heaven.
Portrayed as another archetype of a femme fatale is Mohini, the female incarnation of Vishnu. The Mahabharata narrates a story in which the Devas and the Asuras were fighting for Amrit, the nectar of immortality, resulting in the Asuras taking all of it for themselves. Vishnu then took the form of the beautiful enchantress, Mohini, and seduced the Asuras into giving her the Amrit. She used her allure and danced to incite desire among the Asuras thereby tricking them. One of the Asuras, Rahuketu disguised himself as a Dev when Mohini was distributing Amrit among the Devs. When Surya and Chandra informed Vishnu of Rahuketu’s mischief, he used his Sudarshan Chakra to slay Rahuketu’s head from his body. Since then, the decapitated body came to known as Ketu and his head Rahu.
Mohini, the divine seductress was the cause of the death of Bhasmasur, the Asura. Bhasmasur was a great devotee of Shiv and had performed great penance to obtain the boon of immortality from him. Shiv, however, refused to grant him immortality and in return gave him the power to touch whosever head and turn them to ashes. When Bhasmasur saw Parvati, Shiv’ wife, he immediately fell in love with her. He tried using his power to turn Shiv to ashes but Shiv asked Vishnu to help him.
Vishnu took the form of the beautiful Mohini and appeared in front of Bhasmasur. Upon seeing the attractive Mohini, Bhasmasur fell in love with her and desired to marry her. Mohini told him that she would marry him only if he would imitate her dance moves. Bhasmasur agreed. In the following days, Mohini danced and Bhasmasur imitated all her moves. The feat went on for few days until when Mohini struck a pose with her hand on her head and Bhasmasur did the same following which he was immediately reduced to ashes. Mohini had tricked him into touching his own head and ending his own life.
Both the great Indian epics talk about the various instances in which Apsaras have wooed Kings, Princes, Gods and sages in several occasions. Some of these stories even talk about Gods sending the celestial Apsaras to earth to enchant and seduce sages for their egoistic purposes.
One such story is that of Urvashi. When Indra saw the two sages, Nara and Narayana performing a severe penance, he got afraid and feared that they would become more powerful and overthrow him. He, thus, sent his Apsaras to incite their lust and break their penance. The sages were angered upon seeing the Apsaras. They struck their thighs and from them was born Urvashi, the Apsara who surpassed the beauty of all the other Apsaras. Seeing her divine beauty all the Apsaras ran away in shame. Indra, ashamed of his deed, begged for forgiveness. The sages pardoned him and sent Urvashi to Indra’s court.
This story not only talks about seduction by Apsaras but it also talks about the element of jealousy that was displayed by the Apsaras. The sages used Urvashi’s beauty to get rid of the other Apsaras who probably must have felt ‘less beautiful’, thereby, returning back to heaven in shame. Urvashi was an Apsara who was born to the immortal world and was sent to the mortal world of gods.
It was in this mortal world of Gods that King of the Chandra dynasty, Pururava, fell in love with Urvashi, the dancer at Indra’s court. Urvashi’s beauty had captivated every being in Pururava. Urvashi had come down from heaven to feel the immortal world when Pururava saw her and fell in love with her. Pururava, who was already married then, chose to distance himself from his wife for the sake of the Apsara. Pururava loved Urvashi to the extent that he readily gave up his crown for her and departed for Gandhmadan where they lived happily for the rest of their lives.
Mythology is filled with stories of femme fatales. The story of Tilottama shows how a woman’s beauty becomes a cause of discord leading to the death of two inseparable brothers. Sunda and Upasunda were two Asura brothers who were inseparable. They were great devotes of Brahma and had asked Brahma to grant them their wish of great power and immortality. Brahma refused immortality but in turn granted them power and the boon that nothing but they themselves can destroy each other.
Having attained invincible power, the two brothers starting wreaking havoc in heaven. Seeing the Asura brothers’ misuse their power, Brahma called upon Vishwakarma and asked him to create a beautiful Apsara to distract Sunda and Upasunda. Perhaps Brahma had realised his mistake of granting the Asura brothers supreme power. He had to amend his mistake and he knew exactly what he had to do.
Vishwakarma collected everything beautiful from earth, heaven and underworld to create Tilottama. She was created bit by bit from the gems and was made into a figure with unrivalled beauty. While Sunda and Upasunda were feasting with women and drinking frivolously along the banks of the river, Tilottama walked in. Enchanted by her grace and her voluptuous body, Sunda and Upasunda rushed towards her. What started as an argument to make Tilottama his wife, soon catapulted to a fierce duel between the brothers. Sunda and Upasunda ended up killing each other in the duel. Such was the beauty of Tilottama.
Vishwakarma created Tilotttama to a tee. She was so beautiful that even the Gods could hardly stop from lusting for her. In Mount Kailash, when Tilottama went to visit Shiva, he could not stop but glare at Tilottama’s beauty while his consort, Parvati sat meditating next to him. So great was his desire for the alluring beauty of Tilottama that he developed two heads on the sides and another head on the back to see her. It is also said that Indra developed thousands red eyes on his body just to see her.
Apsaras have not only mesmerized kings and sages, they have also stupefied the Gods who, although were married, did not stop from fantasizing or lusting for them. These femme fatales have found their place in every chapter of mythology. They have played important roles in shaping the very structure of mythology. Portrayed as scantily dressed and attractive figures, these femme fatales are sometimes even seen as cunning beings who use their body and beauty into attaining their objectives. Their weapons are mystery, seduction and lust. It is these elements that make these femme fatales a topic of discourse is mythology.
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