This list’s subject matter is not “first women” in the sense of “first ladies”, but rather females deemed to be the first human women by various scientists and/or adherents of diverse religious faiths. A common aspect of ancient civilizations is the establishment of origin myths tied into religious beliefs of peoples. More recently, however, academics have challenged these theological arguments for mankind’s origins by instead focusing on evolutionary developments in the history of humanity. Yet, even scientists have identified at least three different ancient ancestors of modern man that also have been considered “the first woman” in history, or at least the oldest identifiable one. This list presents the most well-known examples of supposed first women from both various religions and mythologies as well as according to modern scientists. The list is presented in order of familiarity and is thus not necessarily in order of which woman the author or this website declares most likely to deserve the title of “first woman”.
10. Mitochondrial Eve
Scientists speculate that 200,000 or so years ago, probably in East Africa (in the same region of the world where early hominids Ardi and Lucy were found), the most recent matrilineal common ancestor of all living humans existed. Her real name, if she had one, is of course unknown, but she has been designated as “Eve” in reference to the believed first woman in the Christian and Jewish Biblical Book of Genesis. This hypothesis of a common ancestor for all living humans is something suggested as well in the season finale of the re-imagined version of Battlestar Galactica with the character Hera Agathon, also known as Isis. In that series ender, the survivors of the Galactica crash on Earth around 150,000 years ago. When Hera’s remains are discovered in modern times, she is believed to be the progenitor of humanity.
Ardi, which means “ground/floor”, refers to the 4.4 million years old fossilized skeletal remains of an Ardipithecus ramidus discovered in Ethiopia in Africa. A college student discovered Ardi’s skeleton in 1994. Subsequent work was done by a team of expert anthropologists and biologists, including Kent State University’s Owen Lovejoy and The University of California’s Tim D. White. What makes Ardi scientifically significant is the completeness of the remains, the most for any early hominid species and even more so than the earlier and better known Australopithecus afarensis known as “Lucy”. On a personal note, because I earned my Master’s degree from Kent State University and work as an adjunct on their Stark Campus, I recall quite well the buzz of this discovery. Cleveland’s Plain Dealer newspaper, for example, had a fairly impressive and extensive article on the discovery, including drawings, a map, color photographs, and a nice timeline of Ardi versus Lucy’s place in evolutionary history. Given Ardi’s age, she does not, of course, look exactly like a modern human, but rather as a step in our direction.
After 3.2 million years, 40% of Lucy’s skeleton remains as the most famous example of an Australopithecus afarensis. Maurice Taieb (born 1935), a French geologist, discovered Lucy in Ethiopia in 1972. He subsequently formed an international research expedition to study the remains and the area in which they were found, enlisting the cooperation, for example, of the curator at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History named Donald Carl Johanson (born 28 June 1943) and renowned British archaeologist and anthropologist Mary Leakey (6 February 1913 – 9 December 1996). Because the team of scientists while at camp played a tape recording of The Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, they named the long-deceased “woman” after the more recent song. The discovery of Lucy set the stage for the subsequent work on Ardi. Owen Lovejoy, who also worked on Ardi, helped to reconstruct Lucy. Moreover, Tim White also assisted Mary Leakey as well and in fact is best known among academics for his work with Johanson concerning Lucy. As such, despite Ardi being older and more complete than Lucy, the discovery of Lucy nevertheless set in motion the chain of events that led to Ardi’s discovery as well. The question is, however, do we consider these prehistoric hominid’s as “humans” in the sense that Ardi and Lucy should be characterized as “women”?
In ancient Persia, the major religion was Zoroastrianism. For Zoroastrians, Mashya was the first man and Mashyana was the first woman. Allegedly, this first man and woman grew from the branches of a tree that emerged out of the corpse of a genderless primeval beast killed by a female demon. Talk about a tree of life! Ultimately, this first couple had fifteen pairs of twins who spread around the world to become the various races. Yet, for most readers of this website, as predominantly Anglophone members of “Western Civilization,” I suspect Zoroastrianism may not be as familiar as say Norse or Greek mythology and certainly not as much as Christianity. As such, familiarity with Masyana is largely limited to Iran or scholars of ancient history and theology.
In Norse mythology, the first woman created by the gods is known as Embla, consort of Ask, which means “ash tree.” It is unknown what “Embla” means, although some think it may mean “elm tree” or vine. English scholar Benjamin Thorpe (1782 – 19 July 1870) has suggested a parallel between Mashya and Mashyana with Ask and Embla in the sense of both myths concerning the first man and woman being “tree-born”. According to thirteenth century writings, the famous Norse god Odin aided these first mortals with various gifts. They then, as with their Persian counterparts, become the progenitors of all races of humanity. Although Scandinavia has become predominately Christian, nevertheless, a statue of them sculpted in 1948 still stands in Sölvesborg, Sweden.
According to Norse mythology, Líf is the only woman who will survive the cataclysm known as Ragnarök by hiding in a special woodland. As such, she along with her male companion will repopulate the world. In the Middle Ages, Christian missionaries hoping to convert Scandinavians, seized upon this story as a way of reconcile the old Norse religion with Medieval Christianity and suggested that Ragnarök already happened and that Líf and her male counterpart were in fact actually Adam and Eve. Thus, we have an interesting connection of the original first man and woman in Norse mythology with the first man and woman in Persian mythology and then the new first man and woman in Norse mythology with the first man and woman in Judaism and Christianity!
In Greek mythology, Pyrrha, whose name refers to her red hair, is considered the first woman of modern man and as such shares some parallels with Líf. Whereas Líf survived Ragnarök, Pyrrha is the only woman to survive the great deluge brought forth by Zeus. Yet, perhaps a more obvious parallel is of Pyrrha and her husband Deucalion with Noah and his wife of the Old Testament in that both Deucalion and Noah build arks to survive the flood, although the Greeks end up on Mount Parnassus instead of on Mount Ararat where Noah’s ark reportedly came to rest. Yet, we also find a fascinating divergence in how Noah and his wife versus Pyrrha and Deucalion repopulate the earth.
Whereas Noah and his wife had children in the traditional way, Pyrrha and Deucalion receive rather unique instructions from an oracle to throw the bones, which they take to mean “rocks” of the mother, which they understood to be Gaia, the primordial Greek goddess of the Earth, behind their shoulders. These rocks then transformed into humans with those thrown by Pyrrha becoming women, while those thrown by Deucalion became men. In any case, it is always fascinating to see the many parallels and similarities among various mythologies and religious beliefs and many of the possible first women whether they be of Persian, Greek, Christian, or Norse origins do have some commonalities with others on this list.
In Medieval Jewish folklore, Lilith is sometimes regarded as Adam’s wife prior to Eve. Unlike Eve, who is allegedly created from Adam at a later time, Lilith is created at the same time as Adam and as such, she refused to be subservient to the first man. Thus, the two went their separate ways with Lilith perhaps spawning monsters rather than men. She has since become a major demonic figure in Western popular culture. For example, on such notable television programs as Supernatural, Lilith appears as one of the leading demons, while on True Blood, she is seen as the first vampire and worshipped by a group of vampire religious extremists.
The first woman of Greek mythology was reportedly created by the smith God Hephaestus on Zeus’s command to punish man after Prometheus gave men the gift of fire. She punished man by opening up a jar (commonly mistaken for a box) out of which came the various evils of the world. She later gave birth to Pyrrha and as such has a better claim to being first woman in the Greek tradition. Given the tremendous influence of Greek mythology on Western Civilization, Pandora has appeared in literature, sculptures, and paintings from ancient to modern times. Most recently, she appeared as a major character in the hit video game God of War III. A version of her “box” as depicted in the game was even recreated and released as part of the packaging for the Ultimate Edition of the game. Moreover, from at least 1968 to 1990, New Orleans Mardi Gras krewe, the Krewe of Pandora, has released tokens depicting Pandora on one side and various themes on the other on an annual basis. These tokens are readily available on such sites as eBay.
We started with an “Eve” and so we come full circle and end with one! This particular Eve is arguably (really, I cannot see a reasonable case made otherwise!) the most well-known “first woman” today due to the overwhelming preponderance of adherents to either Judaism or Christianity around the world. She is also alluded to in the Qur’an, although not by name. Regardless, her importance to three major religious traditions that make up the majority of the Earth’s faithful is unquestionable. Accordingly, she must rank first in our list over all nine other famous females. After all, it is her name that inspired the naming of “Mitochondrial Eve” and it is her that Medieval Christian missionaries tried to claim as also Líf. Moreover, others have drawn parallels between her role as bringing about the fall of man via forbidden fruit with that of Pandora and her jar/box. Yet, despite her negative role as the source of original sin, Eve is also considered an Old Testament female saint. Dante’s Inferno, for example, mentions the Harrowing of Hell in which Jesus raises “first parent” Adam along with other Eve and various righteous men and women from the Old Testament from Limbo up to Heaven. Thus, there is a bit of hope in the end of what otherwise might seem like a tragic beginning to womanhood. So, which of these women do YOU consider the “first” in our history and why? Or do you consider someone else altogether?