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Mythology for the Millennial: This Holi, it's time to re-examine the story of the seemingly villainous Holika

The myths around Holi have a lot more to do with hubris than with evil women, and yet the festival is named after a wicked aunt whose only crime was to help her brother get what he wanted.

The biggest crime these myths — whether we're talking Greek or Roman or Christian — could offer was women who wanted to kill children. What could be more absurd to the ancients? After all, women bore the babies, they were supposed to feed and nurture them, all the most ancient gods were, in fact, mother goddesses. Before we could name the sun and the wind and later, before we could count on gods to rescue us from situations, all ancient people turned to mothers, not named, just mother goddesses to protect them from the nameless things that went bump in the night.

Holika, as you may know, was sister to a king called Hiranyakashipu, a sort of asura, about whom there is a lot more information available than his sister. His brother was killed by Vishnu's boar avatar, and seeking revenge, Hiranyakashipu goes off to pray to Brahma to be completely invincible, i.e, not killed by a human or an animal, not killed in the daytime or night, not killed on land or in space, not with an animate or inanimate object and not killed inside a house or outside. But, as I've mentioned before, those godly loopholes are tricky little things, which meant (spoiler alert) Vishnu did kill him eventually, as his Narsimha avatar: half man half lion, in a doorway (not inside a house or outside!) at dusk and puts the king on his lap (not land or space) where he tears him open with his fingernails. It sounds like the answer to a riddle.

 Mythology for the Millennial: This Holi, its time to re-examine the story of the seemingly villainous Holika

Devotees walk around a bonfire during the Holika Dahan ritual, as part of Holi celebrations. REUTERS

Anyhow, Holika comes into this because while Hiranyakashipu is off worshipping, the gods attack his kingdom and abduct his pregnant wife, and she's given a lot of Vishnu propaganda which eventually trickles down to her fetus, a sort of ancient version of Baby Einstein, and when the baby is born (a boy called Prahlada), he is a full on Vishnu worshipper. Hugely hurt by this betrayal, his dad tries to kill him off many times, including asking his sister Holika to jump into a bonfire with him. Holika apparently was protected by this boon that made her fireproof, but when she got into the fire with Prahlada on her lap, she burnt to death and he survived.

And that's why we have Holi! Because a possibly powerless woman was forced into colluding to kill her nephew.

The standard theory is that Holika was an evil villainous woman who would have enjoyed watching Prahlada burn, but there's no evidence supporting this. Let's say you were a maiden aunt (no mention of her husband and children, so safe to say she's either unmarried or widowed), living with your brother who you already know is kind of psycho, not to mention all powerful. He's so sociopathic, he's tried to kill his own kid a hundred times. If this same brother told you to jump into a pyre with your nephew, what choice would you have?

At least Holika got a festival named after her. Lamia, another child-eater from Greek mythology, gets none of this sympathy. She was a beautiful woman once, some say she was a queen, who Zeus took a fancy to. You don't actually say no to Zeus, because he was got pretty shirty when he was denied things like sex with women who weren't his wife. But you also didn't want his wife to find out because she would totally curse you as well — so damned if you do, damned if you don't. In this case, Lamia had several children by Zeus before she was discovered by Hera who forced her to kill all her babies, causing Lamia to go nuts and on a baby-killing rampage. Hera also took away her ability to sleep, so it's no wonder that Lamia turned into a “monster”. Zeus, finally interfering in this situation after all his kids are dead and the woman he's slept with has gone mad, offers her the boon of eyes she can take out of her skull whenever she likes, so she doesn't have to see all the time. Since the original myth, Lamia-capital-L became lamia-lowercase, a class of monsters that ate babies, and all because of one woman forced to do evil by someone more powerful.

Of course, Holi is an easier word to say than oh, Hiranyakash (if the festival had been named after him) or Prahla. But I think it's time we took back the myth from the idea that this woman was just evil for evil's sake. People rarely are, even when they are mythological people, invented to teach people moral lessons. Perhaps it's time to take back Holika.

Read more from the 'Mythology for the Millennial' series here.

Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan is the author of several books, including The One Who Swam with the Fishes: Girls of the Mahabharata. She tweets @reddymadhavan

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Updated Date: Mar 22, 2019 10:31:54 IST

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