The ancients feared the Strix as the worst kind of monster; a malevolent bird that would emerge under cover of darkness in order to feast on the blood and flesh of people, preferably infants. Her passage, for she was a gendered monster, was said by ancient Greek grammarian Antoninus Liberalis, the sole surviving written source attesting to her existence, to be “a harbinger of war and civil strife to men,” according to his work «Μεταμορφώσεων Συναγωγή,» a collection of brief tales about mythical transformations of humans caused by outraged Olympians. Yet the Strix was not always a nocturnally crying creature which positioned its feet upwards and head below, in order to squirt foul-smelling milk upon the lips of human infants, or disembowel them and feed upon their blood. Indeed, the myth of Polyphonte (“mass murdering”), the first Strix, sheds light on issues related to gender roles, power dynamics, societal norms and the transcending of binaries.
Polyphonte’s story begins with her rejection of prescribed ancient Greek gender roles. A granddaughter of Ares, the god of war on her maternal line, Polyphonte disdains the idea of marriage and motherhood, choosing instead to emulate Artemis, the virgin goddess of the hunt, by fleeing to the mountains and becoming one of her companions. Her rejection of marriage and motherhood challenges the patriarchal norms of ancient Greek society, where women were expected to fulfill these roles. From a feminist perspective, Polyphonte’s defiance can be considered as a rejection of the limited roles society imposed on women, even though the manner in which devotees of Artemis were able to ‘opt-out’ of traditional gender roles was heavily circumscribed.
However, no male seeks to impose the patriarchal mores upon her, or to curb her defiance. Instead, it is a woman who will administer punishment, the enraged Aphrodite, goddess of love, lust and procreation. She takes Polyphonte’s assertion of the right to choose her own destiny, albeit as a follower of another powerful female divinity, as a personal insult. Indeed, the relationship between Polyphonte and the goddesses is significant when one considers that Artemis and Aphrodite represent different aspects of femininity – one associated with independence and virginity, the other with love and desire. The conflict between these goddesses and the punishment Polyphonte receives may thus reflect the tension and societal expectations placed on women to balance and reconcile both aspects of femininity.
This tension is highlighted within the personage of Aphrodite herself. While most commonly referred to in ancient literature as «φιλομμειδής,» meaning “smile-loving” or according to Hesiod, “genital-loving,” she was also known by such epithets as μελαινίς “Black One”, σκοτία “Dark One”, ἀνόσια “Unholy”, τυμβωρύχος “grave-digger”, and most ominously for our story, ἀνδρόφονος”Killer of Men”, all of which highlight her darker, more violent nature. Consequently, while the sexuality of women is clearly delineated by Aphrodite, the fact that it is a female who is the arbiter of the manifestation of such sexuality, unsettles patriarchal expectations and results in a tension as to the malignancy of female sexuality that never quite resolves itself.
Similarly, Artemis, traditionally goddess of the hunt, of the wilderness and of wild animals, has appropriated to herself other aspects of femineity, namely virginity, but also the outcomes of Aphrodite’s preserve of procreation: childbirth and care of children. A feminist analysis of Polyphonte’s plight would thus invariably have to highlight the lack of agency that she has in her own story. By seeking freedom of choice, she becomes enmeshed within a veritable turf war between two almost omnipotent divine beings. Here, sisterhood counts for nothing. Instead, it is the power imbalances between mortals and the gods in Greek mythology, that are the primary focus. Whichever side Polyphonte chooses, she is bound to offend a higher power and when she does, because she is so low in status, the goddess to whom she has chosen to give her loyalty will not protect her, even when Polyphonte’s punishment is conceived as an attack on that patron goddess, the impotent Polyphonte being irrelevant.
When the punishment comes, it is dire. Aphrodite punishes Polyphonte by subverting the natural order of things and by othering her; making perverse, the role that Aphrodite felt Polyphonte should have adhered to from the outset: she causes Polyphonte to lose her reason and lust madly after a bear. This in turn, leads to a double othering in that she, deprived of rational thought, violates Artemis’ demand for chastity of her followers. Now that the devotee is a transgressor, she no longer belongs in her chosen world; Artemis turns the wild beasts against Polyphonte, threatening to kill her.
Aphrodite’s subversion of her narrative of lust and sexuality results in a perversion of Artemis’ preserve of powers. Polyphonte gives birth to two half-human, half-bear sons, who are monsters and thus do not transgress the binary, but exist outside it, far beyond the protection of the gods. As cannibal half-breeds they are entirely “unnatural” and it is deemed necessary by the patriarchy to eliminate this threat to the natural order, neglecting the fact that this was brought about by the highest echelons of power, or rather emphasising that those in power have the ability to efface their own transgressions by victimising the very humans they manipulate. In this way, the unnatural offspring are transformed into carrion-eating birds such as vultures by their great-grandfather Ares, while the hapless Polyphonte, is transformed into the dreaded Strix.
The Strix, though a female predator, still lacks agency, for she cannot help her nature. She remains perpetually a pawn in the power struggle between Aphrodite and Artemis, abhorrent to her erstwhile patroness, because she drains the life of a child she should, by nature protect and care for.
While grammatically gendered, it could be argued that the Strix, being an unnatural creature, exists beyond gender binaries and absolutes. She penetrates, (the preserve of the male in classical Greek thought), via her piercing the body of infants, but then also receives, (the traditional role of the woman according to the same paradigm) the flesh and blood of her prey.
Similarly, her function is an inverted parody of her original choice and an annihilation of her own femininity: while serving Artemis, she was required to be chaste. Now, as a monster, she is rendered incapable of life-giving, (whereas before this was a choice) and instead, is life-taking, the complete opposite of what a woman was expected to be, again transgressing and deconstructing binaries.
In some variants of Polyphonte’s myth, the milk dripped upon the lips of infants was not foul but nourishing, this proving no impediment to their subsequent murder. The fact that a living being could nurture and yet destroy that which it nurtures, does much to emphasize the ambivalence in which women were considered in ancient Greece: both as life-givers but also at the same time as subversive and menacing. Any apparently loving mother could be a murderer. The Strix thus exhausts the binary, representing not only phobias as to inversion but also, chillingly that nothing is ever entirely benign.
We are not aware as to the longevity of the Strix’s lifespan and whether she was immortal, another manner in which Polyphonte becomes isolated from her own humanity. We do know however that by Byzantine times, she was conflated with another monstrous being, the child-murdering Gelloudes, who according to Saint John of Damascus and Michael Psellos, “suck blood and devour all the vital fluids which are in the little infant.”
Like Polyphonte, the Gelloudes/Strix of the era were non-binary as well, as it was held by theologians of the time that a woman’s gendered nature precluded her from turning into a demon, since demons were considered to be sexless.
Unlike the ancient Strix, which after her transformation, was left to her own devices, the Byzantine Strix could be neutralised through the intercessions of the Archangel Michael, an equally sexless but grammatically gendered being, as attested by archaeological finds of countless amulets invoking his protection, or via prayer to the most powerful woman of them all, the Theotokos.
Today, the term στρίγγλα, a word derived from Strix, endures to denote a woman who does not conform to patriarchal female stereotypes and is thus stripped of her femininity. The word translates in English variously as hag, vixen, shrew or virago – a woman who is man-like. So many aeons later, the othering continues.