The Scarlet Woman is, amongst other things, a title given to the Whore of Babalon – a figure who’ll accompany the Apocalypse, a woman full of lust who has been shagging powerful leaders and drinking the blood of saints. She’s quite without shame – and in the Revelation of St. John appears in the company of dragons and devils and really doesn’t give a rat’s arse.
Feminist revisionism sees her as a symbol of released female power. That would have put the wind up the misogynist church, if they knew that eventually women would have had quite enough of being beaten and burnt for being tooclevertoouglytooprettytoosullentoosexynotsexyenough. For not having babies, or not having the right kind of babies, or preferring to kiss girls not boys or wanting to get an education or an orgasm or an income or a room of one’s one.
Goddesses who might have provided an alternative role-model were systematically destroyed, and their spokeswoman Our Lady, the Virgin Mary was really just offering sympathy. She might have a word with God, but really, her hands were tied.
Everything the goddess touches changes though, and towards the end of the 19th Century the Scarlet Woman, Babalon began to make an appearance.
Long red hair had been associated with Mary Magdalen and by extension, other Fallen Women. The Pre-Raphaelite artists loved their ‘Stunners’ and would use them extensively as artists. These woman are often somewhat strange in their beauty; unconventional, disturbing yet possessing a sensuality and (c)overt sexuality that saturates the canvas as much as the richly coloured paint. These artists were admitting these women were sexy. And where artists go first, everyone else eventually follows. To be fair, I don’t think there are many Pre-Raphaelite paintings where the women are expressing their freedom and power. There are quite a few where the women are mad or sorceresses, but not really running wild with the wolves.
Next comes the Celebrity.
Here’s The Divine Sarah. Tiny, scratty, Jewish at a time when that could cause difficulties. She had red hair courtesy of the henna plant and wore too much perfume. She happily had sex with all kinds of men and quite often she did it for fun, not just because it would help her career. Sarah Bernhardt was one of my first heroines. She slept in a coffin to get used to the idea of death and when she’d had a leg amputated was strapped to the scenery on stage (did I mention she was an actress? I expect that I was assuming you knew). Her personal motto was “Quand meme”, which kind of translates as “whatever”.
I read her biography at an impressionable age. She impressed me with her passion for life and I knew (or thought I knew) that I’d rather be Sarah Bernhardt than Saint Bernadette.
One thing leads to another and I discover Luisa Casati, Isadora Duncan and Anais Nin.
That’s Luisa Casati.
Again the wild hennaed hair, only now we can add kohl-rimmed eyes and an interest in art and magic.
What comes first I wonder? Do we aspire to be more like these women so we copy their look? I honestly don’t think that’s true – it’s something else, a kind of recognition of a kindred soul, a sister, a mother, a tribe.
Here’s Vali Myers
happily shagging her boyfriend in front of the camera, talking to her totem fox (alive or dead, it didn’t matter), creating art and just taking huge juicy bites out of conventionality.
I’m too much of a coward to live a Vali Myers life, but oh god I loved her and wailed out my heart when I refused to be more Vali. (too scared, too cautious, too unimaginative, too mundane). Happily, handily there’s the Kate Bush model, and I joined her gang instead.
Wild, hennaed hair? yes.
Kohl-eyed, slightly mad, sexy, clever, on-my-own-terms, witchy? yes.
Kate Bush however likes a nice cup of tea, by the Aga, with the Incredible String Band on the record player. She’s not (I assume) having sex against the rough bark of a tree all the time as Vali Myers might.
I see so many, many women who are using the Scarlet Woman template to some degree or another. I’ve a theory that every single one of us is manifesting Babalon. Babalon the Great, the goddess of the New Age. Some of us do it better than others – I fell in love and had babies and am hesitant to throw away comfort and security (I’ve tried it but I’m a coward). We read tarot cards and challenge the judgemental. We love our bodies and if we don’t, we encourage ourselves to. We treat animals with respect and fear falling into mediocrity. We explore the huge mysteries and embrace life.
We tend not to be victims, even if we suffer. We look for the other perspective, even if it is initially scary or distasteful. We push the boundaries. We ask provocative questions and explore unusual solutions. THIS IS NOT ALWAYS EASY.
Of course She, the Scarlet Woman, appears in the Tarot. She was there long before Dante Rosetti saw Elizabeth Siddall or William Blake saw his Vision.
Her name in the tarot is Strength, or (much less frequently) The Enchantress. Above is a version of the Marseille deck (c. 15th century)..a lion emerges from between her legs. She’s either opening or closing its jaws, depending upon your point of view. The wild animal between her legs is her source of power. Is she supressing it? I suppose for centuries she was intended to be doing exactly that. In Crowley’s deck she’s shown as Babalon the Great, riding the Beast. He calls this card ‘Lust’.
She’s just giving herself up to the whole end-of-the-world apocalyptical orgy!
The thing is, few human drives are as powerful as sex. Lust can change everything, you can lose everything in a moment. If Buddha teaches us that happiness comes from eliminating desire, he’s on to something.
In my personal experience, the only thing I’ve experienced stronger than lust is the love I have for my children. Yet I’ve known precious friends whose lust overwhelmed even that, and I say that without judgement. Because of sexual desire, I’ve abandoned homes, careers, lands, friendships. Yet because of desire I’ve created or discovered different homes, careers etc.
One friend said to me that her life was easier having moved past the menopause, she no longer felt motivated by the need for sex. It no longer arranged her time, her dress, her relationships. I wondered then as I wonder now if that will be true for me?
I am a coward, so I almost certainly won’t be sharing my personal explorations of that here at The Djinn Palace BUT as a watered-down version of a Scarlet Woman, in awe of Babalon and endlessly curious I promise that I will still be investigating!
I want to see old ladies like me cheerfully admitting to feeling sexy, to their being acknowledged as being sexually attractive by others (is that a big ask? It feels as if it is) and also acknowledging that all that power has been transformed into something else entirely. ALL THAT POWER – where does it go? When female power isn’t defined by what men find attractive (ok I know about the polarities, but I don’t mean that, I mean conventional ideals) and we move beyond the mammalian imperative.
I think when that happens BABALON will most definitely be in the house.