Illustration: Kate Hazell

Inside the mythological roots of the "wicked Stepmother" trope

Ancient stories, whether we know them or not, have a kind of purchase in our consciousness. Just look at how our culture portrays stepmothers...
October 7, 2019

We all know about stepmothers in fairytales. Think of the word stepmother, and there’s always that dread word “wicked” hovering behind it, unspoken but present.

I’m a stepmother myself, of sorts, in that my partner, the classics professor, has children. But I don’t tend to use the term: I’ve never done anything that I consider to be actual parenting. There are lots of us out there tentatively forging relationships with the offspring of loved ones, not quite knowing how to refer to ourselves, ploughing on without a rulebook, and with only terrible storylines to go on. I hadn’t connected this particularly with classical myths until recently, when it occurred to me that stepmothers get an even worse press in Greek mythology than they do in Grimm’s fairytales.

Take Phaedra, for example. In Euripides’ play Hippolytus, Aphrodite, goddess of desire, makes her fall in lust with her stepson, the titular character. Not because she’s done anything wrong, but as a kind of elaborate punishment for the young man, who is a celibate follower of Artemis. Phaedra’s nurse encourages her to confess her attraction to Hippolytus, and it goes badly wrong. He rejects her brutally, and gives a long, spectacularly misogynist speech on the evils of women, my favourite part of which is when he says that it would be better if men could leave money at temples in return for baby boys, bypassing the requirement for women altogether. After his outburst Phaedra, perhaps unsurprisingly, hangs herself, but not before leaving a suicide note accusing Hippolytus of having tried to rape her. So: there’s your sexually incontinent, dishonest, vindictive stepmother.

The sorceress Medea is another thoroughly wicked stepmother. Ovid’s Metamorphoses, among other sources, tells the story. After the events of the famous Euripides play—namely her killing her own children—she flees to Athens, where she marries the king, Aegeus. They have a child. But Aegeus already has a son, Theseus, whom he sent away as a baby, leaving him a sword buried in a stone (yes, that old trick). When he grows up, Theseus manages to wrench the sword from the stone and turns up at Aegeus’s court. Medea works out who the young man is before anyone else and, fearing for her own son, hands him a cup of poison. In the nick of time, Aegeus recognises the hilt of the sword and knocks the cup out of his hand. So there’s your jealous, murderous, witchy stepmother.

My third and final exhibit (and it is a spectacularly broad field—I could go on) is not actually a stepmother, but the ghastly prospect of one: this is Euripides again, this time his play Alcestis, in which the titular queen, a byword for virtue, sacrifices her life. On her deathbed, Alcestis makes her husband Admetus promise not to marry again. A stepmother, she says, will be a harsh, oppressive enemy to the children, crueller than an adder. So there’s your nasty, angry, poisonous stepmother.

Such stories, whether we know them or not, have a kind of purchase in our consciousness. They sit deeply in our culture. They are tales that just feel comfortable to us—like the young woman who performs impossible tasks to marry the handsome prince, or the ordinary child who turns out to be the son of the king. Of course, these stepmother myths are also deeply inaccurate and unfair. Now, where did I put my magic mirror again?