By Stephanie Zajchowski, Ph.D.
The morning news reads like a dystopian novel. After five years of studying apocalyptic writing, I imagined I would be able to achieve an academic distance from a global pandemic in order to observe as new patterns emerge. The reality has been quite the opposite. I spend most mornings consumed by case statistics and constantly focused on caring for friends and family. The world feels heavy, laden with loss, fear, and uncertainty.
Although apocalyptic texts vividly describe the end of the world, such stories are more mythic in nature. Fantastic creatures, prophetic signs, and the pounding hooves of the four horsemen in the biblical Book of Revelation both terrify and enthrall. These images awaken the imagination in a way that pulls you out of the current situation. The crisis of the apocalypse is cathartic. The old system that can no longer be sustained is destroyed and those who remain can begin anew. In reality, the world is much more complex.
The figure that most intrigues me in the Book of Revelation is the Whore of Babylon. Adorned in sumptuous attire, holding a chalice filled with horrific things, and sitting atop a seven-headed beast, this powerful female character boldly claims her sovereignty and is subsequently devoured by the kings of the earth and the beast, the very ones she helped gain power. These images, in both their horror and their wonder, are otherworldly. Yet, if we examine them more fully, we can see how ancient narratives continue to influence social systems that affect the lives of women.
My research focuses on the ways in which female power is depicted as dangerous, even apocalyptic. As with various historical iterations of the Whore of Babylon, the threat of the collapse of civilization that is associated with “the end times” is described metaphorically with the image of a promiscuous woman. Such misogynist storytelling conflates women, sexuality, prostitution, and apocalyptic danger. Embedded in the utilization of the Whore of Babylon figure is a fear and thus repression of female power.
Although it is an ancient religious story, the Whore of Babylon character continues to appear in popular culture. For example, the biblical figure is represented playfully as the endearing Madame Tracy in the TV series based on Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s novel Good Omens. More frequently, the image is used to convey danger, as in episode 11 of the first season of the show based on Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, in which the main character is called the Whore of Babylon as she stands trial for witchcraft. I can even see the influence of this narrative in Camille Rainville’s poem “Be a Lady They Said” that went viral earlier this year. These contemporary reimaginings of the biblical story show its cultural prevalence and simultaneous ambivalence.
Religious, political, and cultural stories coalesce in the myth of the Whore of Babylon. What I mean by the term myth is not the commonly accepted definition of myth as a lie, but rather the idea of myth as a story that holds collective meaning that guides a society in some way. Disparate social systems utilize the same narrative to convey certain ideas. How these ideas amalgamate into a complex system of meaning is the focus of my work. Interested in the way that this apocalyptic myth offers cultural coherence, I began researching retellings of the story of the Whore of Babylon throughout American history. As I observed these various iterations of the myth, patterns began to emerge, which I refer to as mythemes.
One of these patterns or mythemes is the idea that the Whore of Babylon is deceptive, the embodiment of a false system of meaning. The Book of Revelation sets this tone as the Whore is introduced. When the narrator gazes upon the judgment of the “great whore” (Revelation 17.1-8), he is mesmerized by her. But the angel warns him not to be deceived, for the Whore is destined for destruction. The myth then presents the idea that although something is alluring, one should ignore this impulse and depend on the logical mind. Desire leads to danger.
We see this mytheme of deception show up again and again throughout various iterations of the image. An early example is found in one of Lucas Cranach the Elder’s illustrations that illuminated Martin Luther’s German translation of the New Testament, printed in 1522, which depicts the Whore of Babylon wearing the papal crown. Intended as a polemic against the leadership of the Catholic church during the Protestant Reformation, the image emotes distrust and corruption. The image also reiterates the idea that a powerful woman is a symbol of deception and destruction.
While these anti-Catholic sentiments may have changed throughout history, the female symbol of falseness and deception remains in the collective cultural consciousness of the United States. In 2016, Franklin Graham, son of Reverend Billy Graham, declared that First Lady Michele Obama was the Whore of Babylon. In that same year, prior to the presidential election, a poster of Hillary Clinton depicted as the Whore of Babylon was posted around Los Angeles, capturing media attention. The image on the poster is a modern retelling of the myth of the Whore of Babylon using symbols that evoke fear and distrust. Such portrayals of female leaders as deceptive and dangerous reiterate the fear of female power embedded within the narrative of the Whore of Babylon.
The myth of the Whore, along with the mytheme of deception, is also effectively utilized in reproductive political discourse to undermine a woman’s authority over her own body. In these arguments, privacy laws that allow women the ability to make their own reproductive decisions in private are said to foster deception. The myth of the Whore of Babylon is used to justify the idea that women are unable to manage their reproductive capabilities without male supervision. Governmental laws that allow for privacy, as well as for women’s reproductive autonomy, are described as “false” systems. Not only is the language used to describe reproduction considered deceptive, but women who “conceal” their actions are deceptive as well.
Although obscure, this small collection of examples shows that the myth of the Whore is entangled with religious and social systems that influence cultural ideas about gender, sexuality, and reproduction. Ultimately, the myth of the Whore of Babylon provides coherence and meaning in American cultural storytelling and is worthy of more attention.
The criticism of women in these examples is fueled by the myth of the Whore of Babylon, but it also reflects the shadow aspects of the cultural system. In order to abide within our cultural paradigm, one that is often religiously infused in the U.S., we repress the parts of our humanity that are not accepted by the collective, and we project these actions deemed profane onto the “other.” As the myth of the Whore of Babylon shows, fear of uncontained sexuality and even desire itself (particularly when it argues with a cultural system) is projected onto women. Such projections entangle erotic power with female power and ultimately justify systems and attitudes that oppress women.
Erotic power is an archetypal energy that is part of the collective human experience. Following Eros, be that to a lover, a creative endeavor, or a new journey into the unknown, is sensing the urge to live beyond logic and societal expectations. This drive to life belongs to us all.
Understanding this archetypal energy, one can see how the myth of the Whore of Babylon is a demonization, a condemnation of Eros, the Lover archetype. The Whore is the shadow or negative side of the Lover archetype, driven by the urge to power and dominance, creating depravity and destruction. Such negativity is the danger that arises when one does not respect the call to live a life that is soul-filling.
The positive side of the Lover archetype revivifies and promotes life.  We see a current reflection of the spectrum of the Lover archetype in a capitalist economic system that requires endless consumption held in tension with concerns for safety that say life matters more than anything. If we live only to serve the capitalist system, then the soul’s sensuous call to life is left unheard. Following the sacred pull of the life-force itself is the antidote to power-hungry consumption.
The allure of erotic energy is as much a call to men as it is to women. Human desire is not apocalyptic danger in the guise of a promiscuous woman. It is the movement of the soul engaged in the energy of life. As we observe the pandemic rearranging the world we once knew, this life energy is also creating a world we have yet to imagine. This time offers the opportunity to re-evaluate social and economic structures that no longer serve collective life. I am reminded that the Greek root of apocalypse is disclosure, uncovering, an unveiling. Apocalypse is a time of chaos that ultimately reveals something new, transforming apocalyptic destruction into the erotic energy of creation. On a deeper level, an apocalypse is a revelation—a call to life.
 Zajchowski 2-3
 Blackmun 1
 Ernst 1; Sabo 1
 Moore 1
 Moore 1
 Pearson 155
 Pearson 155
*For a womanist analysis of the Whore of Babylon see Shanell T. Smith’s The Woman Babylon and the Marks of Empire: Reading Revelation with a Postcolonial Womanist Hermeneutics of Ambiveilence. Fortress Press, 2014. See also, Clarice J. Martin’s “Polishing the Unclouded Mirror: A Womanist Reading of Revelation 18:13.” From Every People and Nation: The Book of Revelation in Intercultural Perspective, edited by David Rhoads, Fortress P, 2005, pp. 82-109.
Blackmun, Piper. “Franklin Graham Compares Michelle Obama to Apocalyptic ‘Whore of Babylon.’” The Business Standard News, 11 Sep. 2016, bizstandardnews.com/2016/09/11/franklin-graham-compares-michelle-obama-to- apocalyptic-whore-of-babylon/.
Ernst, Douglas. “Hillary Clinton ‘Above the Law’ street art by plastered across Los Angeles.” The Washington Times, 29 Aug. 2016, www.washingtontimes.com/ news/2016/aug/29/hillary-clinton-above-the-law-street-art-plastered/.
Moore, Russell. “Abortion and the gospel | ERLC.” Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Church, 19 Sep. 2016, erlc.com/ resource-library/articles/abortion-and-the-gospel.
Pearson, Carol S. Awakening the Heroes Within: Twelve Archetypes to Help Us Find Ourselves and Transform Our World. United Kingdom, HarperCollins, 1991.
Sabo. “First Female POTUS: Above the Law & Out of Touch.” Unsavoryagents, 29 Aug. 2016, http://unsavoryagents.com/?projects=evil-hillary.
Zajchowski, Stephanie Smallwood. The Mythology of the Whore of Babylon in Contemporary Reproductive Politics. Diss. Pacifica Graduate Institute, 2019.
Biblical quotes from The New Oxford Annotated Bible: NRSV with Apocrypha. 3rd ed., edited by Michael D. Coogan, Oxford UP, 2007.
Stephanie Zajchowski, Ph.D., is a mythologist and certified Spiritual Director. She is the co-founder and Community Curator of the Fates and Graces Mythologium (www.mythologiumconference.com), a conference for mythologists. Stephanie holds a doctorate in Mythological Studies with an emphasis in Depth Psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute (PGI) and serves as Treasurer on the executive board of the PGI Alumni Association. Her academic work focuses on the deconstruction of psychological and religio-cultural structures that influence perceptions about female power. She lives in North Texas where she works with women to help liberate them from stories that bind and write into stories that set them free. Read more about her work at www.stephaniezajchowski.com