The maiden archetype refers to a repeating trope in stories and mythologies that is said to transcend cultures and societies.
A maiden is seen as a young single woman who is transitioning from childhood to womanhood. She embodies a number of both childlike and adultlike traits:
- Childlike traits that the maiden embodies include as playfulness, energy, innocence, youthfulness, and wonderment.
- Adult traits that she embodies include flirtatiousness, seduction, and adult beauty.
This motif is evident in ancient mythical figures, such as the Greek Goddesses Hebe and Persephone. We also see here in a range of 20th Century literature pieces, such as the Disney princesses Cinderella and Rapunzel (Mercree, 2019; Smith, 2016).
Maiden Archetype Definition
The maiden archetype is one of two major female archetypes, the other being the mother.
As Woodward and Denton (2013) argue:
“There are two major Western archetypal images of females: the mother and the maiden. The “mother” archetype embodoes attributes of warmth, nurturance, comfort and security […] The “maiden” archetype emphasizes youth, beauty, enchantment, and seducation.” (Woodward & Denton, 2013, p. 278)
Amy Mercree’s work in A Little Bit of Goddess ass that this maiden may also represent adventure and untamed emotions:
“The Maiden represents all the youth and potential for growth that is shown in the earliest stages of life. […] The Maiden aspect is curious, an adventurer in the new world […] As is often the case with youth, the Maiden is open and untamed in her emotions and actions.” (Mercree, 2019)
Victoria Schmidt (2007) argues that the maiden archetype tends to care deeply about her relationship with her mother, enjoys being helpless and dependent upon others, and is gregarious. Schmidt also notes some feats of the maiden: having to make her own decisions, being harmed, being ignored, and being trapped by a controlling job or relationship.
Based on her cares and fears, she tends to be motivated by safety and security and by being “different, special, or talked about” (Schmidt, 2007).
Others may see her as “young, inexperienced and aloof” although men are likely to “see her as sexy and childlike, a woman they can control and rescue” (Schmidt, 2007).
Maiden Archetype Examples
1. Snow White (from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”)
Archetype: The Innocent Maiden
Snow White is the epitome of purity, kindness, and naivety. With her gentle demeanor and trusting nature, she quickly endears herself to animals, the seven dwarfs, and the audience.
As an Innocent Maiden, Snow White’s inherent goodness is juxtaposed against the wickedness of the Evil Queen. Her trusting nature leads her into danger, consuming the poisoned apple, and needing rescue. Despite this vulnerability, Snow White’s unwavering goodness influences those around her, inspiring protection and loyalty from the dwarfs.
2. Ariel (from “The Little Mermaid”)
Archetype: The Wild Maiden or The Free Spirit
Ariel is a mermaid princess with a passionate curiosity about the human world and an intense desire for freedom and love. She’s headstrong, rebellious, and willing to make significant sacrifices to pursue her dreams.
Ariel’s free spirit propels the story forward, as her desires lead her to make a risky deal with the sea witch, Ursula. Her journey centers on finding balance between personal desires and familial responsibilities. Ariel serves as a catalyst for change both underwater and on land, ultimately bridging two worlds together.
3. Luna Lovegood (from the “Harry Potter” series)
Archetype: The Mystical Maiden or The Enchantress
Luna is an enigmatic student at Hogwarts, often perceived as ‘loony’ because of her quirky demeanor and firm belief in creatures and phenomena others deem imaginary. However, beneath her eccentric exterior lies a deeply insightful and compassionate individual.
Luna’s otherworldly qualities often serve as a source of guidance and revelation for Harry and his friends. While she may not always be in the main action, her moments in the series provide clarity, spiritual insight, and a unique perspective. Her unwavering faith in the unseen and her connection to the more magical and mysterious aspects of the wizarding world add depth and intrigue to the narrative.
4. Belle (from “Beauty and the Beast”)
Archetype: The Intellectual Maiden
Belle stands out in her village due to her love for reading, her desire for adventure, and her independence. While she is physically attractive, it’s her intellect and kindness that truly define her.
Belle’s role in the story revolves around looking beyond superficial appearances and understanding the true nature of the Beast. Her intellectual curiosity and open heart enable her to see the Beast’s humanity, which eventually breaks the curse. As an Intellectual Maiden, Belle challenges societal expectations, valuing substance over superficiality and championing the power of genuine connection.
5. Ophelia (from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”)
Archetype: The Tragic Maiden
Ophelia is gentle, loyal, and deeply in love with Hamlet. As the narrative progresses, the political and emotional turmoil around her causes her immense distress, leading to her eventual madness and tragic end.
Ophelia’s descent into madness serves as a stark reflection of the corruption and chaos that permeate the Danish court. Her tragic arc amplifies the play’s themes of betrayal, madness, and the destructiveness of political intrigue. As a Tragic Maiden, Ophelia embodies the consequences of being caught in a web of deceit and manipulation, a poignant symbol of innocence lost in a treacherous world.
Critique of the Maiden Archetype
I can’t conclude this article without first presenting the postmodern critique of some manifestations of this archetype: the maiden is regularly positioned as the subject of the male gaze.
This girl, framed in many traditional media texts as in desperate need of protection and desiring the attention of the masculine man, feels very much a creation of male screenwriters seeking to create the perfect woman.
Many postmodern writers have, consequently, attempted to upend this motif by centralizing more nuanced narratives about the coming-of-age stories of women, presenting raw and realistic stories about women’s experiences that are relatable to women and not just a fabrication for men to “see her as sexy and childlike, a woman they can control and rescue” (Schmidt, 2007).
But at the same time, many women do identify with this woman, and of course, their identification with her should not be negated, either.
See Also: Examples of Postmodernism
Hauke, C. (2012). The unconscious: Personal and collective. In The handbook of Jungian psychology (pp. 54-73). Routledge. (Source)
Jung, C. G. (1957). The Undiscovered Self: With Symbols and the Interpretation of Dreams. Princeton University Press.
Mercree, A. L. (2019). A Little Bit of Goddess: An Introduction to the Divine Feminine. Union Square & Company.
Rijo, S. (2023). The Archetype Code: Unveiling your true self. Sergio Rijo.
Schmidt, V. (2007). 45 Master Characters. F+W Media.
Smith, C. (2016). Jack the Ripper in Film and Culture: Top Hat, Gladstone Bag and Fog. Palgrave Macmillan UK.
Woodward, G. C., & Denton, R. E., Jr. (2013). Persuasion and Influence in American Life (7th ed.). Waveland Press.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]