To be a love goddess means that a particular beautiful woman deity occupies the role of love-influencer in humans along with being extremely powerful in that respect; if you fell in love with a tree trunk because a love goddess was pissed with you, do you think you’d fare so well? That tree trunk would never love you back. Or if a goddess influenced one to fall in love with a person who was in love with someone else, that person would also suffer (in this case, a different type of tree trunk towards you anyway); heartbreak also exists in their realm of power. There is always a goddess of love from mythology in each culture’s mythos because ancient people realized the power love has over others. Love can bring happiness or destruction.
Aphrodite of Love, Beauty, & Pleasure
Aphrodite, from Greek mythology, is the goddess of love and beauty; she was born fully formed of Cronus’ genitals mixed with his blood when cut off and thrown into the sea (Wilkinson and Philip 57). Cronus was the original father of the Greek pantheon of gods, but he tried to eat his children to avoid them taking power away from him; with the help of their mother, Cronus was destroyed by his kids who gained power through his death (Mellby). Aphrodite is part of the twelve Olympians, once worshipped in Ancient Greece then Rome (renamed as Venus) (Mills 44). She is classically portrayed as powerful though often cruel in her punishments and quite vain; Aphrodite’s beauty being challenged was an easy way to invoke her wrath (314). She is also known in mythology for having an ongoing affair with Ares, the god of war, and did give birth to four children from him: Eros, Deimus, Phobus, and Harmonia (Day 40). Aphrodite’s magical object is a girdle; this allows her power to be amplified when she wears it (Mills 44).
Frejya of Love and Death
Freyja, from Norse mythology, is the goddess of love, beauty, fertility from her roles in sagas but also associated with witchcraft (Larrington 46). Freyja also has connections to the sea like Aphrodite, since her father in Njord, the sea god; she is also twin to Freyr (46). Freya is one of the Vanir, a nature goddess (46). Her realm is the Folkvang, where half of slain warriors come to her afterlife and half go to Odin’s Valhalla (46). Her reputation for being promiscuous precedes her and Freyja is accused by Loki of having been sexually involved with every god, including her own brother, which she does not deny (47). Stories about Freyja have her cast as either being promiscuous or the prize that a giants want for their bride, which causes the gods to help her escape that unhappy fate. Freyja’s magical objects include the Brisingamen; this necklace increases her power and she also possesses a cloak that allows her to transmogrify into a falcon (46).
Hidden in the Background
As with other gods and goddesses, love goddesses from mythology tend to occupy roles in the background of mankind; they do influence events, but often indirectly or in small ways. Still, it would be underestimating their abilities not to acknowledge their power in the world of gods, demi-gods, and humans. Rick Riordan popularized mythological fiction with his imaginative Percy Jackson series then went on to write another series about another demi-god, or half-mortal/half-god, named Magnus Chase. Percy Jackson centered around Greek mythology and Magnus Chase covered Norse mythology; though the two series exist in the same fictional universe, they do not overlap very much (at least one character appears in both series). Each demi-god is dealing with his own set of troubles from sharing the gods’ and goddesses’ world. All of deities from each mythology exist in these stories, though love goddesses seem to have a continued problematic presence. Rick Riordan engages in quite a bit of love goddess-bashing; both Aphrodite and Freyja have near-insignificant roles, bringing them down in their own mythologies from previously powerful positions. He talks about them as if they are merely self-absorbed pretty creatures with no real power. Love can be powerful, as can lust; people are very much swayed by their loved ones. Desire can drive people to do insane things and even destroy themselves; heartbreak can also be the means of destruction through either rejection or unrequited love.
The Power of Love Goddesses
True power, in my opinion, comes from the ability to influence or control others and love easily occupies that role in mythology. Rick Riordan displaces the previously powerful positions love goddesses have occupied to that of insignificant, beautiful throwaway characters tossed in only because they are well-known; other authors in this same genre recognize the destructive power of love/lust in a way Riordan has yet to recognize or understand. In a possible attempt to be a feminist by celebrating other goddesses such as Athena and Artemis, Riordan is declaring that actual feminine qualities such as love and beauty are not as powerful, which praises only women who act like men or have similar qualities to those traditionally celebrated in men. Actual feminine qualities are being pushed aside, which is problematic for young minds, as if being feminine is a problem.
Classically Powerful Goddesses
Love can cause discord, especially when unrequited or when a person is spurned by a lover; heartbreak and rejection have a destructive nature. Greek mythology has its own examples of this: Herakles (also known as Hercules), the women of Lemnos, and Psyche are all no stranger to her wrath. Herakles seduced a favorite lover of Aphrodite, Adonis, and in jealous response, she poisoned him through his wife, Deianeira; his wife believed she was receiving a love charm against Herakles being unfaithful to her from the goddess (Day 40). Instead, the robe given to her was soaked in blood that poisoned Herakles; Aphrodite was not above using deception to punish those she desired to (Day 41).
The women of Lemnos angered Aphrodite when they did not pay a proper tribute to her power so she cursed them; these women became deeply ugly to their husbands, who would not sleep with them and eventually went looking for pleasure elsewhere (Mills 314). This sequence of events led to the Lemnos women murdering their husbands in jealous rages (an apparent specialty of Aphrodite’s) (314).
Psyche was a woman unlucky enough to be compared to the goddess; mortal men were dumb enough to worship her instead, abandoning shrines dedicated to Aphrodite (Day 40). In retaliation, Aphrodite ordered her son, Eros, to make Psyche fall in love with a monster; the god fell in love with her himself, married her in secret and would not let her see his face (40). The curiosity was killing her, so she saw his face one night while he slept but oil from her lamp woke him; he left Psyche after admonishing her (40). She wandered earth searching for her lost love and Aphrodite gave her many cruel, difficult tasks to further punish the poor girl (40). Eventually, Psyche was made a goddess and married Eros but not before Aphrodite ran her ragged (40).
Freyja functions as a very important goddess in Norse mythology and wears many hats in her various roles: fertility goddess in matters of love/lust, the prize of the gods, goddess of wealth, inventor of magic, and decider of warriors’ fate (Groeneveld). Freyja was the goddess to call upon if one wanted to become pregnant or ensnare a lover in love or lust (Groeneveld). The rites to invoke Freyja into one’s love life involved using magic, contacting spirits, and shamanism.
During the Aesir-Vanir war, before the Vanir were assimilated into the Aesir, the Asgard walls were damaged from fighting each other; Freyja sent Mimir’s head to the Aesir as an act of war (Wilkinson and Philip 116). Another story tells of a mysterious builder offers to rebuild the walls within three seasons but wants the sun, the moon, and beloved Freyja in return (94). Loki was able to trick the giant in disguise by distracting his horse by transforming into a female horse, and the giant could not complete the work (95). I use this example because it shows how Freyja was very much prized in Asgard; the gods all banded together so she was not forced into a marriage even if it benefitted them. Though she is depicted several times as needing to be saved from giants trying to marry her, it was always through the gods’ choice to help her that she is “saved”; a different working of that source material from my perspective is that she easily had powerful gods do the work for her. It could be seen as manipulative, but I prefer “resourceful”; she did not want to marry them and the men of Asgard were all too willing to help her. There is nothing wrong with using the help one is offered, especially when the gods often made the messes she was forced into when a giant wanted her hand.
Freyja also commandeered wealth in Norse mythology since her tears were made of gold, the connection to her and money became synonymous (Groeneveld). Snorri Sturluson explained that it was Freyja who taught the Aesir and humans magic called seiðr; she also picks half of the dead to come to her realm in the Folkvanger, cementing her as a goddess of war and/or death (Groeneveld).
Aphrodite & Freyja’s Kids
The less-admirable qualities of love goddesses are played up by Rick Riordan to demonstrate the potency of power within demi-gods. The children of love goddesses are explained as being insignificant; in the Percy Jackson series, the kids of Aphrodite are narrated as being only interested in checking themselves out. Annabeth Chase, a daughter of Athena, tells Percy that, “if you’re a child of Aphrodite…you’re probably not a real powerful force. The monsters might ignore you…But for some of us, it’s too dangerous to leave [the camp]” (Lightning Thief 96). Children of Aphrodite are also said to be “boy-crazy” (Titan’s Curse 98) and stereotypically like things to be “pretty” (Battle of Labyrinth 32).
One small bone that Riordan throws to Aphrodite’s children is that they can be fierce when they feel their honor (or vanity) is at stake. When the Hunters of Artemis came to visit Camp Half-Blood, a camp to protect demi-gods, it created a schism between them and the children of Aphrodite (Titan’s Curse 78). Being Hunters, the girls are virgin-maidens who do not feel beauty or boys is as important as strength and sisterhood (78). This causes the children of Aphrodite to become enraged, and they join in wholeheartedly in attempting to stomp on the Hunters in a game of capture-the-flag (81). Traditionally, the children of Aphrodite were not very interested (according to Percy Jackson’s duration at camp) in anything except their own reflections (Lightning Thief 78). However, this is a very small plot point, and it comes to no fruition; even with a fierce love demigod defense, everyone still loses to the Hunters which reflects which Riordan feels is the stronger goddess (87).
Blitzen, a svartalf son of Freya’s, is seen as an outcast for having an interest in fashion instead of metals like dwarves normally are known for (Sword of Summer 272). Freya praises her son’s ability to pick things out but otherwise, he is not thrown any kind of bone in his characterization of being her son; he is seen a disappointment in general (272). He openly criticizes her for not wanting any more children by dwarves, that he is essentially a “receipt” for the jewelry Freya desires from the dwarves. Or maybe Freya just did not want to keep having to have sex with dwarves every time she wanted jewelry? Why is it not seen as the dwarves taking advantage of her weakness for their craftsmanship? I would not want to have a baby every time I wanted jewelry, either. Blitzen needs to reevaluate.
Self-Centered, Pretty, Throwaway Characters
Love goddesses are beautiful in other stories but also served other functions in literature, namely actually moving the story forward. Rick Riordan has them just sort of there—they neither move the story forward nor seem to serve any function except to be self-centered, beautiful wallpaper and throwaway characters that do not move the plot forward or if they do, they could easily substitute another person for all they do to the story.
Instead, Riordan plays up their uglier qualities so he can contrast them to goddesses he deems more worthy of note such as Artemis (virgin maiden, a hunter) or Athena (the wise one). Aphrodite is interested only in her own beauty, literally staring at herself the whole time/touching up her appearance when Percy meets her (Titan’s Curse 183). She has no expectation to be a good mother, if she is one at all; it is implied from their camp placements that she acknowledges that her children are indeed hers, but other than that, Aphrodite does not appear to play any kind of role in their lives. She loves a good tragic story (along with engineering them), pushing Percy and Annabeth into a love narrative but honestly, this plot point could have been accomplished without her being there (184). One could cut her out of the entire series, and it would not make a difference in storyline. Aphrodite is, however, partially responsible for Percy, Annabeth, and Grover even being alive since she votes against their disintegration after the events of the third book but is not even mentioned by name as having been there or saving their lives (288). Past that, Aphrodite is only mentioned in passing in the series. She can bring empires crumbling down with a mad attempt to run away for love, yet Rick Riordan’s treatment of a once-powerful goddess cannot stop herself from looking in a mirror for five full minutes.
Freyja seems to serve slightly more of a purpose in Magnus Chase; she transmits important information to Magnus about his quest then Riordan immediately dismantles the power/importance he has given her (Sword of Summer 272). He exposes that all Freyja wants is more dwarven jewelry (279) and that being in her realm makes one stupid (happily so) (268). After this one foray into her realm in the Folkvanger in the first book, however, Freyja does not show up again except for one more token love goddess appearance in the entire series. Riordan could have stuck a different goddess in her place, and it would have still moved the plot along is the same way. Freyja is acknowledged to have power much like Aphrodite, but neither play any real role in their respective stories no matter the power they appear to exert. Freyja is a goddess of magic, wealth, and death yet all she wants is her pretty necklace; her realm is also “mellow” in the shadow of the one run by Odin (268).
Love goddesses in his hands are seen only through the lens of being beautiful, heavily promiscuous (as if that is even a bad thing; a woman should be able to have sex without it being a problem for male authors) and/or cheaters. Aphrodite, after all, cheats on her husband Hephaestus repeatedly with Ares which Riordan never fails to point out throughout his Greek mythology series (Lightning Thief 227). Freyja also had sex with several dwarves in exchange for jewelry while her husband is missing (Sword of Summer 282). Love goddesses may be beautiful, but they fail to have any real substance on the inside. They are made to be ugly in their selfishness and portrayed as truly terrible mothers if they acknowledge their children at all; their portrayals have no true function in the mythological constructed universe when Rick Riordan has his say. Love goddesses are sideline characters that are thrown in because they are recognizable, and their power is stripped by his disdain for them. “Love is worthless”, say the Hunters of Artemis (Titan’s Curse 81). Well, Riordan’s characterizations of love goddesses are pretty worthless in terms of story or plot.
Other Authors’ Treatment of Love Goddesses
“Love is nothing to mess around with!” (Coville 136). Aphrodite’s powers in other works of fiction can leave humans powerless and even test loyalties; wars can be started over love and make people act insane. We see this in the events of the Iliad, where Paris and Helen run away together, starting a ten-year war that ends in Troy’s destruction and pretty much everyone’s death except the Greeks (Geras 82). In Troy, two sisters are pitted against each other because the older one, Xanthe, does not believe in Aphrodite’s power; she is made to fall in love with a man who comes to love her sister (Geras 105). Love, in this case, is a destructive force that causes fissures in a close sister relationship; Aphrodite is not the kindest goddess, especially when people do not believe in her. She is also invoked often throughout the novel, set in ancient times, even in conversation. Marpessa, the younger sister, can see the gods and goddesses; she watches as Aphrodite governs the love and lust Helen and Paris feel for one another (Geras 22). Also explored is the idea of how love can make a person waste away or give unwanted pregnancies; Paris is said to have wandering eyes/hands with serving girls of the palace, telling them he loves them for their bodies (Geras 50). Love can be dark and do horrific things to people when unrequited. The servants in the kitchens of Troy reflect on why Helen ran away with the Trojan prince; was it true love or encouraged by Aphrodite’s magic? (Geras 82). Aphrodite being mentioned this many times throughout the novel explains her importance along with the author’s grasp of how much love governs in the lives of humans.
Juliet Dove, Queen of Love showcases the potential mess that love makes of humans; it is very powerful and even dangerous. This story has a young girl, Juliet, become the recipient of an amulet with Eros (or Cupid), Aphrodite’s son, trapped inside that causes all to look upon Juliet to fall madly in love with her (Coville 126). Bruce Coville, the author, explains that Aphrodite may be one of the “old ones”, less involved in the matters of men but never to underestimate the power love has to give and to take (Coville 124). The explanation for Helen of Troy’s influence (from the Iliad) is that she once possessed this amulet, which caused men to die for her; this magical object, a prison for the son of Aphrodite is a powerful source of chaos and discord (126). This talisman of love punishes a woman from mythology who was said to be prettier, Psyche who is in love with Cupid but unable to be with him because he is trapped in the necklace (110). Love is considered to be insanely powerful and binding throughout the book, one tailored to children; this power is given its due against the history of the Trojan War and how if it goes wrong, people get hurt. Aphrodite is also judged as mother who callously threw her own son in a prison for betraying her when he fell in love with Psyche; however, she is redeemed in her act of forgiveness of letting Cupid out of the necklace and allows him to reunite with his long, lost love (183). She admits openly to needing to be forgiven by her son for her anger in the situation and in this way, the love goddess has grown from her tumultuous beginnings in mythology (183). The power she possesses (and the power of love) is also acknowledged and understood to be great no matter how much the world has moved on from the mythology Aphrodite was a part of.
Freyja has a much more active role in the Witches of East End series than mythological Aphrodite; this is due to her existence in the mortal world. She is not a background goddess though she is a somewhat diminished goddess (de la Cruz 2). In this adaptation of Norse mythology, the Bifrost has been destroyed and now the Vanir goddesses exist on Midgard (or Earth) as witches though their source of power is now destroyed along with their powers waning (2). However, Freya (spelled slightly differently in many modern versions) is now a bartender in a sleepy town with a talent for encouraging love through her spell-binding drink mixtures (9). She was caught in a love triangle between Loki and Balder, renamed Bran and Killian (brothers on Earth); this is a significant part of her story, but Freya also saves her family multiple times with her powers. She is fierce, loyal, sexual, romantic and powerful as a witch. Freya could easily be written as a goddess who is promiscuous, but she is instead in a committed relationship with the love of her life; they are very sexual, as one could expect from a love goddess (8). Though Freya engaged in many sexual affairs with many men and women throughout her life, she is not shamed for being what she is (48). Melissa de la Cruz does not give Freya any irredeemable qualities; Freya is both a beautiful woman and a badass witch who loves fiercely.
In Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman, Freyja is a little more in the background of the mythology but yet again, features as a prize the gods do not wish to lose; Thor and Loki go to great lengths to save her from various menacing giants who come to claim her hand in marriage. Her beauty warms the gods, as the builder says to them when he realizes he has been cheated of his prize; “And I would be leaving you here in the darkness and the cold, without even beauty to cheer you” (Gaiman 52). Freya is surprisingly cold in this adaptation, not the effusive goddess she is usually portrayed as; this is most likely because she feels Loki (who has previously stolen from her) is using her as bait (Gaiman 45). She also desires Loki’s death if she is carted off to Jotunheim, since it was his plan to agree to the giant’s demands (Gaiman 48).
Freya becomes irate when Thor suggests she marries the giant Thyrm to get his hammer back from him; her hall begins to quake with the strength of her anger and power (Gaiman 69). Thor ends up having to dress up as Freya himself to get his hammer with the help of Loki; all Freya contributes is her necklace to this farce (Gaiman 70). Freya also uses her magic to create life, giving her another dimension of power; Rick Riordan never bothered to explore her magic (Gaiman 77). This is not an adaptation of Freya to be messed with or forced into anything she does not want to do; she is a force to be reckoned with. Not simply a beautiful face though her beauty is mentioned many times (she is a love goddess, after all); this look at Freya from mythology is a welcome addition to mythological fiction because it shows she embodies qualities associated with femininity but also those of power; for her, it is not an either/or situation. Freya is very much both (McKeller).
Anti-Feminist Feminist Take
In effort to celebrate specific traits of women, Rick Riordan has taken a step back from what it appears he was trying to do, which was celebrate feminist (or equal) ideals in his goddess characterizations. By trashing the goddesses who do embody love and beauty (along with womanly characteristics like hearth/home, as Demeter is also dismissed), Riordan has spurned feminine qualities in favor of ones celebrated traditionally through masculinity: wisdom, cleverness/strategy, hunting. This is problematic because it is not feminism. Women should be able to be exactly who they want to be and embody both feminine and masculine qualities if they so wish; or simply masculine/feminine instead of both. Women are often put into boxes of what they should be by men without regard to how women feel about who they are inside (Ovadia). We can love pink, embody love or beauty and be incredibly smart/ambitious. It is not an either/or situation but a both/and situation (McKeller). Goddesses like Aphrodite and Freyja are looked up to by young women (including by me as a child); why are we not allowed to be feminine? Why can’t we be badass and beautiful? Melissa de la Cruz’s series lets her love goddess be both, bound not to cheap stereotypes of love goddesses, but she lets Freya be Freya. She did do feminine activities, but it was because she chose to and enjoyed them; Freya did not need a constant mirror image of herself to exude sexuality and beauty. Her attributes were mirrored in other ways and not by restraining Freyja into a caricature.
I did not enjoy the Percy Jackson series because it utterly roasted Aphrodite; in Magnus Chase: The Sword of Summer, the love goddess bashing was improved slightly (he also was more diverse with his cast as far as sexuality and ethnicity), so it is clear Riordan is starting to learn from past mistakes, yet he cannot stop himself from calling love weak and/or selfish. It is unnecessary to bash the goddesses some of us adore simply because love is viewed by a man as silly or a stupid power to have. Girls and boys should never be told love is nothing; they might grow up to find out the hard way that love does affect people, sometimes for the worse.
The problem here is that some children might not get past his series to find out for themselves if love goddesses are always self-absorbed, pretty caricatures with no depth. They may not come across literature written by Bruce Coville or Melissa de la Cruz to reorient their perceptions of Aphrodite and Freyja. It is not simply that Rick Riordan is a man, since this was considered: so is Bruce Coville and Neil Gaiman. It is that he himself rates love goddesses as being unimportant in the wake of other types of mythological power, yet they still feature in his books as something pretty for the demi-gods to be deeply attracted to (both Percy and Magnus have weird moments of attraction to their love goddess aunts) (Titan’s Curse 184, Sword of Summer 273). As Adelle Waldman explains the connection of male characters in fiction to beautiful female characters, the beauty of women becomes all they are:
“Beauty is often treated as an essentially feminine subject, something trivial and frivolous that women are excessively concerned with. Men, meanwhile, are typically seen as having a straightforward and uncomplicated relationship with it: they are drawn to it…Women are not only subject to a constant and exhausting and sometimes humiliating scrutiny—they are also belittled for caring about their beauty, mocked for seeking to enhance or to hold onto their good looks, while men are just, well, being men” (Waldman).
Rick Riordan has a responsibility to generations to not only just give women with celebrated masculine qualities praise; he should also acknowledge that women are often strong/smart/wise on their own, not just against the backdrop of what men are said to be. The goddesses with feminine powers should be given their due instead of compared to the goddesses Riordan deems worthier. This might have been subconscious on his part; perhaps Riordan never liked Aphrodite as a mythological figure and that is why he wrote her the way he did. Maybe he gave Freyja a little more presence in Magnus Chase because he enjoyed her more in mythology; hopefully, he is learning from the mistakes of Percy Jackson. Even so, women can still be more in his fiction, which is very popular among younger generations; he can set a better example and stop writing love to be worthless.
The danger of love goddess bashing is that women are already given overt messages about what a girl should and should not do very young; this could lead them to reject their femininity (if they are a feminine person) because Rick Riordan is being so degrading toward that sort of role (Hinkelman 18). Men could grow up to subconsciously associate femininity with weakness, selfishness, and vanity instead of seeing women as beautiful or powerful because that is how Riordan wrote them to be (Waldman). Love should also not only be associated with women because men fall in love, too. They have families and love their children as well as women; men can also have feminine qualities and there is nothing wrong with that, either. Love does have power in a world of emotional beings. Humans have hearts, and Rick Riordan should grow one or at least, grow out of his misogyny when he is writing for young, impressionable readers.
This examination grew out of the desire to figure out what Rick Riordan’s problem was; love goddesses are written by him as the most vapid creatures in the universe that care only about themselves. They are terrible mothers, have stupid powers, and possess no real power in the mythological or human worlds. Even when Riordan throws Aphrodite and Freyja a grudging bone, he quickly discredits them in some other way that diminishes their overall characterization. If he were a less popular author, the way love goddesses were written would not matter in the slightest. Riordan would be a minority in mythological fiction but because of his popularity with kids, it is problematic how he is writing about femininity. It is not helping women’s equality to tell children that love and beauty are stupid; children should be able to grow up thinking they are wonderful powers to have (if that is what they are drawn to), emulating love goddesses in their games if they choose. It is damaging to say the powers associated with being feminine are not important or powerful; young men grow up reading this series and it could translate to them seeing feminine women as not having power. It is also unfortunate for kids reading his books because they might be talked out of their own femininity (again, if that is important to the young person in question) by the way Riordan is so adamantly opposed to women being girly; it is a pattern in his books.
Love goddesses are either completely absorbed by their own reflection or selfish about something they want while demi-gods are trying to dodge death and/or prevent the end of the world; they are also explained as being horrible mothers if they bother act like mothers at all. These goddesses had real power in mythology because of their ability to control people’s minds through their hearts and Riordan’s continual love goddess bashing is stripping them of this pre-established power. Other authors from the mythological genre (young adult and fiction alike) not only acknowledge the power of Aphrodite and Freyja but also of love in general; only Rick Riordan is engaging in this takedown of femininity, in this war he is waging against love. Riordan needs to reevaluate the boxes he put his love goddesses in because they leave the possibility for younger generations to absorb messages about being feminine that are not helpful or welcome in a modern age. Everyone has their favorite gods and goddesses and favors them above others, but an author does not need to openly demean attributes traditionally associated with women; women can be powerful and beautiful if they want to be. There is no need to categorize as either/or in a time where characters are more complex; Rick Riordan’s mythological world is wonderful and imaginative, but it needs some work to be equal in stories where males are already the focus.
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