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Representation of a historical femme fatale

Femme Fatale: The Ancient Sex Crafts of History’s Most Alluring Women

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The seductress, or femme fatale (French for “Deadly Woman”), is one of the oldest female archetypes and although there has been great diversity in "how" she has been portrayed, she has some core traits which are found in every account. This woman is selfish and manipulative, cynical and a sexual predator, often villainous, and always a survivor. The intelligent and witty temptress has starred in movies like Gone with the Wind, Fatal Attraction, Double Indemnity,and Basic Instinct,and appears in pop-fiction as Poison Ivy in  Batman, Mystique in  X-Menand Inara in Firefly.

Creation of the Femme Fatal Archetype

The femme fatale archetype found in literature and art presents seductive and mysterious women whose charms ensnare lovers and lead them into compromising, dangerous, and often deadly situations. The folklore and myth systems of almost every ancient culture are sewn together with the femme fatale archetype and she appears at fundamental levels in ancient cosmologies, religions, philosophies, in creation myths, in the pages of ancient holy books, and in folk stories and fairy-tales. In the latter, she is often the evil step-mother, for example, in Hansel and Gretel and Cinderella.

Historically, this woman manifests inSalome, Helen of Troy, Lesbia, Visha Kanyas, Sirens, Lilith, Mohini, Scylla, Medea, Isabella of France, Hedda Gabler of Kristiania (now Oslo), Marie Antoinette of Austria, and, most famously,Lucrezia Borgia.

Portrait of a Woman by Bartolomeo Veneto, traditionally assumed to be Lucrezia Borgia – an infamous femme fatale. (Public Domain)

She dominates Arthurian legends asMorgan le Fay, is a Siren of  The Odyssey,and plays Lady Macbeth – a Shakespearean character who famously manipulated her husband into committing murder to enhance her quest for power. In Classical times, Cleopatra led the torch of feminine seduction. Shakespeare also told the story of one the greatest temptresses that ever lived, Cleopatra, of whom he stated, “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale/ Her infinite variety.”

‘Ideal Portrait of Lady Macbeth’ (1870) by Thomas Francis Dicksee.

‘Ideal Portrait of Lady Macbeth’ (1870) by Thomas Francis Dicksee. (Public Domain)

Queen Cleopatra: Femme Fatale of Ancient Egypt

Cleopatra was born in 69 BC to Pharaoh Ptolemy XII ‘Auletes’ and became the very last pharaoh of Egypt because her "liaisons" gave Rome control of Egypt after her death. Cleopatra had two famous lovers: Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony - both incredibly powerful Romans. But the temptress' ambition and seduction, which first augmented her empire's prestige, would later bring about her, and Egypt’s, downfall. In 1866, Jean León Gérome painted Cleopatra with Julius Caesar, an allegorical piece based on the codes of seduction of one of history’s most successful temptresses.

‘Cleopatra and Caesar’ (1866) by Jean León Gérome.

‘Cleopatra and Caesar’ (1866) by Jean León Gérome. (Public Domain)

Powers of a Femme Fatale

The earliest stories tell of powers to hypnotize victims with magic spells and potions; hence, the femme fatale. This woman often took the form of the seductive fairy queen who whisked mortal men away to the land of thesidhe for cycles of seven years. Today she is most often portrayed a semi-mythical seductress, a witch, an enchantress, a vampire, or a demon wielding supernatural sexual control over men.

In reality, the arts of seduction around the world were closer aligned with the practice of "sleekid lies" and "coercion," rather than mystical powers. A common trick was to imply that she was caught up in a life-threatening situation and was a victim needing help, thus activating a man’s ego.

‘Chivalry’ (1885) by Franck Dicksee.

‘Chivalry’ (1885) by Franck Dicksee. (Public Domain) Damsel in distress – a powerful tactic of a femme fatale.

One of the most common traits of the femme fatale was"promiscuity" and themes revolving around the "rejection of motherhood.” This particular trait was seen as one of her most threatening qualities - since denying males motherhood, was to control male immortality, thus, it was feared by the church as potentially leading to “the ultimate destruction of the male.”

This type of woman was a common figure in the European Middle Ages - highlighting the dangers of unbridled female sexuality. The Biblical figure of Eve, the enchantress Morgan le Fay, and The Queen of the Night in Mozart's The Magic Flutereflects her muted presence during the Age of Enlightenment.


Eve. (Public Domain)

At this time, an entire gnostic view of female sexuality was revived, wherein Adam and Eve were related to eastern concepts of kundalini sexual energy. Underlying sexual precepts from the mystical Jewish Kabbalah were fused with the arcane of the tarot and knitted onto systems of energy flow described in Tantra, which we will discuss later.

She flourished in the Romantic period and later in the gothic novel, particularly in The Monk, which featured Matilda, a powerful femme fatale who later manifests as the vampire in Edgar Allan Poe's Brides of Dracula. The Marquis de Sade, believed this individual symbolized the “best qualities of Women” and his novel Juliette is among the first where the femme fatale triumphs over man.

Three Categories of Femme Fatale

While researching the lives and times of historic femme fatales I decided to list all their key attributes and psychological tendencies, to better expose the most prevalent qualities of femme fatales. I needed a cross-section of devilish female, as close to random as possible, so I appealed to my Facebook network for the names of histories best/worst Femme Fatales. With this list, which was close enough to random to warrant the exercise, I defined three categories: Political and Military Leaders, Intellectuals, and Artists and Adventuresses.

A common trait found in all three categories of the femme fatal archetype is that they all used their bodies and brains to achieve personal goals. But before the selfish motivations of later practitioners, the ancient arts of Courtesanery and Seduction were once treated as “high philosophy,” with deeply-divine and highly-academic associations. These advanced and serious psychological disciplines had consistent sets of principals which were detailed in hundreds of forgotten books, scrolls, and manuscripts. Beginning in cave shrines tens of thousands of years ago, men have always sought the same “experience” of woman; and besides easing our hearts, they have incited mystery, danger, awe, intrigue, and terror.

Alexandre Francois Xavier Sigalon - The Young Courtesan.

Alexandre Francois Xavier Sigalon - The Young Courtesan. (Gandalf’s Gallery/CC BY NC SA 2.0)

Ancient, Semi-mythical Origins

Generally, at first, men want to be led down romantic, unpredictable paths lined with stars and lit with fireworks, however, after six or eight months, once the oxytocin leaves his body, this is when the seductress come into her own, as the show must go on. Prolonged success was assured through strict adherence to codes of seduction and love, for example, the  Ars Amatoria.(English: The Art of Love), an instructional elegy series in three books written by the ancient Roman poet Ovid in 2 AD. It teaches basic male and female relationship skills and techniques.

According to arch-temptress Ninon de Lenclos, “it takes a hundred times more skill to make love than to command an army” and formal arts of seduction are found in every ancient civilized culture. They all have origins in goddess worship, about which Elizabeth Prioleau wrote; “the core themes of sexuality were infused in the human libido with deeply mystical impulses.” And when holy texts describe "mortal men praying to earth angels" and "embracing them in heaven," this is another reference to the old ways, when sexuality and spirituality were two poles of the same concept. This is evident in Vedic India (1500-500 BC) where the central devotion of early Neolithic cults was to the goddess of all “known and unknown wisdom” and the "highest splendour of the yoni" was the “flame of intelligence.”

Goddess Matangi - Hand Colored Lithograph Print, c1880's. (Public Domain)

Sexual behavior, its socio-political impact, and its regulation and taboos, have had a profound effect on societies since pre-historic times. Sexuality was a 'way of the gods'and having sex was holy - the moment of orgasm was thought of as communing with the deities. Early cultures associated having sex with supernatural forces, and religious architecture and arts are intertwined with such depictions.

Sexual imagery is found on statues,pottery, paintings, sculpture, dramatic arts, religious buildings, monuments, and in music. Thousands of years before the written word, ancient societies extended their sexuality and sexual practicesinto the surrounding landscapes and at important dates in agricultural and ritual calendars people got hyper-sexualized and spiritualized at natural places perceived as abundant with the magic energy of fertilization.

Native American fertility rituals took place at this large sandstone yoni. (Author provided)

Native American fertility rituals took place at this large sandstone yoni. (Author provided)

Sacred feminine wisdom and the mysteries of fertility were studied and ritualized for 10’s of thousands of years, but over the last 3000 years this reverence of female sexuality was constructively de-powered by the patriarchal church in the western world. This was not the case in the east, where female energy was, and still is, perfectly equal to male energy, just perceived as being charged with polarizing spiritual properties, as is evident in theYin-Yang symbol when interpreted against sexual themes.

Taoist Sex is the ancient Chinese equivalent of India's Tantric Sex. But whereas the latter is the "Way of the Goddess," Taoist Sex Rites focus more on enhancing the health and longevity of the male practitioner. And while the ancient sexual instructions given in the Indian Kama Sutra heighten and prolong the pleasures of the "female," the Taoist equivalent is aimed at maximizing pleasure in males.

Khajuraho Monuments to Enhance Ritual Sex

Ancient Indian Vedic cultures took sexual rituals to an entirely different level, much of which is today regarded as - just wrong! Located in deep jungles, the 10th century Khajuraho Monuments are a group of Hindu and Jain temples in Madhya Pradesh comprised of purpose built sex temples and carnal chambers. Every square inch of wall has been carved with tens of thousands of highly graphic sexual images to enhance the ritual environment.

From depictions of men having sex with animals, to one woman - 20 men group sex encounters, these ancient Vedic rituals were hyper-theatrical, complex arts where orgasms were timed, held, and released at key stages within the ceremonies. It was in this research and developmental period, where sex was corresponded with spirituality, that the seeds were sown for what later became the internationally bestselling love guide - The Kama Sutra.

Erotic carvings at Khajuraho.

Erotic carvings at Khajuraho. (CC BY SA 2.0)

In all ancient systems where love and sexuality were analyzed and categorized, it was taught that to achieve effective and sustained seduction, a woman must first activate, then keep stimulated, all of a man’s senses.

A concept arose at the core of the esoteric traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism, that co-developed about the middle of the 1st millennium AD, called “Tantra," meaning “instrument of the body” and to "loom" or "weave." Although an entire exotic and erotic industry has grown round the word “Tantra” it has very simple origins. It was a spiritual journey of self-development involving work with kundalini energy, chakras, yoga, and other esoteric areas. Putting elements of all these ideas together, women could raise, lower, manage, and control the flows and release of energies in themselves and their partners.

‘Tantra thangka – centre’.

‘Tantra thangka – centre’. (Alice Popkorn/CC BY NC SA 2.0)

There exist many ancient systems of sexual seduction, but most Tantric systems begin with a process called "eye-gazing," where you and your partner stare deeply into each other’s eyes and apply shared breathing techniques, directing energies within each other’s bodies. Both ancient and modern systems of eye-gazing require participants to set a joint intention, with agreed potential outcomes or goals. Tantric seductresses consciously developed and used their "own senses" to enhance their connections to the physical world and to alter their partners’ realities. And where modern western Tantra focuses mostly on orgasm, the original intent was on understanding of the complete sexual experience.

Meditational efforts in Hinduism and Buddhism attempt to unite experiential reality with a “center” within each of us, a universal fulcrum, believed to be charged with powerful sexual energy known as Kundalini. This concept was visualized as a serpent goddess who lies coiled at the base of our spines, waiting for us to unlock her energy through a combination of meditation, yoga, and selfless acts of love. The guru Avdhoot Baba Shivanand described the rising of the Kundalini as “an expansion of the brain,” claiming the “dormant” sex spirit uses only "six percent of the brain’s capacity" to interpret reality, where the enlightened spirit uses "94 percent."

The Continued Allure of the Femme Fatale

Since stories have been told, women have devised and developed carefully considered psychological systems specifically to seduce men. As a result, it seems that male led religions and philosophies have developed deeply-misogynistic opinions of women, presenting them asevil seductresses trying to lead them astray. Intelligent, knowledgeable and wise women were demoted to witches with "otherworldly sexual powers" which they used to entrap otherwise godly men.

Myths and legends of female vampires and sirens luring men to their death, were all crafted by "men" - in what appears to be a fearful response to feminism, a kind of defense system designed to protect men’s insecurities by casting strong women onto a scrap heap of “evil seductresses”. And while many women might agree with that last sentiment, a rising number of others, will have me as being entirely wrong - becausethe femme fatale archetype is, to many, an icon of female independence and perspicacity - the grandmothers and precursors to modern feminists.

Femme fatale comic style graffiti

Femme fatale comic style graffiti (Public Domain)

In today's world, where the paramount struggle is to hold another person’s attention for more than a few seconds, the most sexy and attractive quality a woman can have, in my humble opinion, is simply to be in the "present," and to be attentive to what we say, no matter how dull! Now that is one sexy attribute that you can take home to mum, as its non-fatal!

Top Image: Representation of a femme fatale. Source:Andrey Kiselev/Adobe Stock

By Ashley Cowie

Updated May 11, 2021.

Ashley Cowie is an author, researcher, explorer, film-maker, and blogger about lost cultures and kingdoms, ancient crafts and arts, the origins of legends and myths, architecture, iconography, artifacts and treasures. Visit

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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