For some time I had found myself reacting to the word “heroine” and the subsequent attempts to strengthen a woman’s claim to heroic qualities with such cobbled words as “she-ro.” This last one irked my sensibilities as a wordsmith and seemed even weaker, just as weak as heroine, that diminutive assigned to all strong women for centuries. Men “gave” it to us, this feminized version of hero. It’s a gesture of inclusion, but so weak, it seemed to me. It held no water for me.
My curiosity led me to many places, searching for that water of strength, for something, I knew not what. I have many, many reference books, and in many of them, when I looked up the word “hero,” what I found confirmed my feeling that the word assigned to brave, strong women, that word “heroine,” was not only unnecessary, but was a result of something that was stolen, or at the very least, borrowed and never given back. When I looked up the word, “hero,” I found that Hero was a woman, a priestess of Aphrodite. I looked up from the information I’d found, and knew that I had to help reclaim her name – not only for her, but for all women who find themselves ducking out from under a weak appellation. Let me tell you her story…
Hero was given by her parents to serve as a priestess to Aphrodite, the Goddess of beauty, fertility, and sexual love. One of Hero’s many duties included attending a festival, dedicated to Aphrodite. Hero’s beauty was legendary, and many young men swooned at the sight of her, including the beautiful youth, Leander. He fell hard for her, and she for him, and before she left to return to her sacred work at Sestos on the European shore of the Hellespont, they agreed to meet every night, all summer long. Leander swam across to her night after night, guided by the lamplight from Hero’s tower. One night, during a terrible storm, her light was blown out, and Leander lost his way and drowned. He washed up the next morning and lay at the foot of her tower. Out of her mind with grief, Hero threw herself from the tower, joining her lover on the rocks below. In the subsequent poems and operas and various tellings-of-the-tale, the word hero is transferred to Leander and his valiant deed, his nightly swim. We never hear of our Hero again, nor does her name stay with her. Her name was lost to her, and if we do not know her story, it is lost to us as well.
In Old French, the word “reclaim” originally meant: “to call back the hawk.” In this regard, and out of great respect for the original power of words, I have made it my mission to call back the hawk and place it on Hero’s arm. So whenever you hear or read the word “heroine,” please reclaim Hero’s name, Hero’s hawk. It’s a great and powerful teaching moment. Hero Was A Woman is now a song and will be found on this new cd I am wrestling to the ground, like the blessed angel it is. Perhaps we women will find some clarity in this story, and in this reclamation, and above all, a proper name for our strength and courage in this world.