The Goddess and the Princess: Why Diana Endures

Twenty-five years after her untimely death, the legacy of Diana, Princess of Wales, better known as Princess Diana, lives on. For cultural and gender studies scholar Jane Caputi, who considered Diana’s iconic status in the years immediately after her death, the image of the former royal draws its power and longevity from mythology, specifically the parallels between the narratives of Diana, the goddess, and the life of Diana Spencer, the woman. Princess Diana’s popularity and power “relied on endless layers of background from older tales that infuse memory, color, nuance, soul, and metamorphic power into the surface narrative,” writes Caputi.

The ancient goddess Diana evolved as a “folk” deity, seen as the protector of the lower classes, the goddess of the people, a role that the public also assigned to Diana Spencer. “Values ​​associated with Princess Diana include compassion, love and recognition of the primacy of ordinary people,” Caputi notes.

Then-Prime Minister Tony Blair posthumously dubbed Diana the “people’s princess” for her common touch. Instead of serving as an “icon of whiteness, privilege, race, and class superiority,” Caputi argues, Diana herself saw her role as an advocate for those “rejected by society,” with whom she felt an “affinity”: those diagnosed with AIDS, landmine victims and homeless youth. Of course, she is not mutually exclusive. Diana was (and is) arguably a symbol of white privilege and class superiority, while also exercising an empathy that made others feel that she was more “of the people” than “of the establishment.”

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For those with less favorable views of Diana, there was the ancient construction of the Great Bitch (“The multiple boobs/breasts of Diana of Ephesus refer to these origins,” explains Caputi). Hecate-Artemis (Diana) was represented in the Ionian period as a “bitch giving birth”, and the word may have become an insult in Christian Europe due to its association with this destructive and vengeful goddess of wild animals.

Caputi shares art historian Simon Schama’s reaction to an interview with the Princess of Wales that was televised in 1995 as part of the BBC docuseries, Panorama. Schama explicitly evokes the mythological Diana in reference to the personality of the princess: “Treat her badly and she will give you a quiver full of arrows”, she suggests. Drawing on animal imagery, he characterizes Princess Diana as “having changed from a desperate mute swan to a bird of prey…an exterminating angel.”

“Such hyperbole reflects the threat Diana posed in manifesting the most denied, feared, and potent aspects of archetypal sacred feminine power,” writes Caputi.

Princess Diana’s brother Charles has also been instrumental in forging his late sister’s mythology. At her funeral, he emphasized the connection between the goddess and her princess, describing her as “the hunted, not the huntress.” The mythological was further concretized with the thirty-six oak trees, referencing Diana of Nemi’s oak grove in ancient times, lining the road to Althorp, her childhood home and place of her burial. Her grave rests on an island, inaccessible to the public. Facing the island, a Doric temple displays Diana’s name and silhouette. Caputi writes,

Pilgrims visit, bring flowers, and written and sketched prayers and memories to a Diana whom we might recognize as an emerging deity, both old and new. Althorp is public only during the months of July and August, opening on the day of her birth and closing the day before her death. August may soon be heralded again as the holy month of the Goddess Diana festival.

The “myth-religious” behavior around celebrity culture (worship and idolatry, ritual sacrifice and scapegoating) can show how mythical traditions are “antecedents of contemporary ideas”. Twenty-five years after an admittedly tragic death, a new breed of celebrity culture fueled by social media, nostalgic pop culture, and recent tumultuous events in the British royal family have made the Diana myth relevant again: Diana as victim, Diana as victor, Diana as guardian angel, Diana as avenging angel. “It is the myth, the archetype and the icon that allow the expression of concepts and emotions that would otherwise be remote or ineffable”, offers Caputi. The resistance of the Diana myth perhaps also demonstrates how we still struggle to make sense of her life and her death, and our reactions to both.

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