The rebirth of the earth during spring signals the opportunity for new beginnings. Spring is the epitome of a juice cleanse after scarfing down an entire box of Girl Scout cookies. Spring cleaning allows people to shed their hoarder habits, and finally locate their lucky socks. There’s no better time than spring to take an inventory of one’s life, and use the fresh start to focus on what truly matters.
Charles Prendergast’s painting “Untitled (Rites of Spring),” which is a part of the Art Institute of Chicago’s collection, shows a number of maidens frolicking in celebration of the season. The gold and silver leaf makes the scene sparkle and shine. Even the birds look happy. Spring is not only in the air, but in the minds and hearts of every joyful creature depicted.
The seasons progress much like the triple goddess expressed as maiden, mother, and crone. Spring is the fresh-faced maiden, unspoiled and full of opportunity. Summer becomes the mother, whose energy is shifted to her kiddies who keep her busy chasing rainbows and unicorn dreams under a sunny sky. Fall and winter symbolize the crone, who brings wisdom and sometimes icy regret, a far cry from the promise and hope of spring.
In Greek Mythology, Hades abducts a maiden named Persephone and takes her to his home in the Underworld. Her mother Demeter, the goddess of agriculture among other things, expresses her grief over the loss of her daughter by making the earth barren. Persephone’s return from the Underworld is arranged, but because of the pomegranate seeds she’d consumed there, Hades maintains a hold on her. A kind of shared custody agreement is struck, where she splits her time between Earth and the Underworld. When mother and daughter are reunited, Demeter’s icy exterior melts bringing spring. The Earth remains fertile until Persephone’s return to the Underworld come fall.
The myth of Persephone and Demeter demonstrates a new beginning. The mother-daughter relationship is ever changed by Persephone’s abduction and her seasonal return to Earth. Demeter is forced to see her daughter, not as a child, but as a woman. Absence may make the heart grow fonder. A reunion with what was once lost brings a new appreciation and gratitude. The requirement to share her daughter with Hades makes each moment with Persephone a little more special—a little more precious. Something perhaps previously taken for granted is now cherished.
In his book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life, Mark Manson encourages the reader to restrict her time and energy to the people and things that truly matter in life. Change generated by unsolicited self-evaluation beats regret, because as magical as spring may be, second chances aren’t a guarantee. Time trudges ever forward. If one fails to take advantage of the renewal spring offers, soon it’s time to pull out the boots, puffy coats, and snow shovels, and opportunities turn to might-have-beens.
Use spring to jump start positive change. Decide where best to channel time and energy. Make plans with friends and family. Dust off that To-Do list. Prioritize To-Be-Read lists and bucket lists or simply decide who and what matters most, and adjust time and energy accordingly. If things don’t go as expected, don’t worry. Persephone will be back for a return engagement bringing the gift of another opportunity for a fresh start and a bright future. Plan accordingly.
It’s no great secret that medieval literature is my favorite period of literature. I read monastic authors…for fun. I get that’s weird to most people, but the older I get, the more I realize everyone has their “weird thing.” It’s what makes people fun. And when K.P. requested that this month’s theme be about romance, my mind went instantly to one of my favorite (and weird) romance stories of the middle ages.
Well, really, it’s my favorite because it’s weird.
But also, because it isn’t just a romantic match ignited by physical passion; rather, the passion was ignited by intellectual equality. I’ve always joked I’ll find my perfect match when our hands touch reaching for the same book at Barnes & Noble…I imagine that’s what the “meet cute” was like for Abelard and Heloise.
Heloise’s uncle wanted only the best education for his niece. Contrary to many misconceptions, women could receive an education in the middle ages…provided they could pay for it. And Heloise’s uncle could. Heloise’s reputation as an intellectual–and a beauty–attracted Peter Abelard, who offered his tutoring services. The two began a passionate love affair that ended in Heloise’s pregnancy, forcing them to marry in secret–which she, knowing it would be the end to both their intellectual pathways, opposed.
Heloise’s uncle and other family members, however, believing that Abelard had ruined their kinswoman, sent a group to Abelard at an inn to attack him and have him castrated–a harsh, but poetic, punishment.
After this, Abelard and Heloise agreed to surrender to a monastic life. Yet, it is this life that leads them to engage in a series of letters which demonstrate their intellectual brilliance. They can no longer be physical lovers, but they can still love what fiercely attracted them to one another in the first place–the other’s mind. Though the letters, Problemata, and the relationship, are products of their time, and must be viewed thus, there is a very present equality in this relationship that seems almost ahead of its time.
For two people as passionate as Abelard and Heloise, one can only imagine how difficult their forced separation was. Yet it is evident from their correspondence that this separation split them in body only, not in heart, mind, or soul. Still, the pain of the physical separation is decidedly present in these letters, especially because, though they might see one another again, they would never be able to communicate on the same level they once had. They must find a new way to relay their passions for one another. In her letters to Abelard and in Problemata, Heloise seems to find a new way to reassess the relationship by attempting to adjust to her new life, going back to their beginnings, and manipulating the subject matter.
In her letters to Abelard, Heloise makes it clear that though she lives a monastic life, she does not feel it as she ought; rather, she does it for his sake (69). Still despite her claim that she is “sighing” over her lost love, and not her sins (68), she does make an astounding effort in her new life by engaging Abelard in various theological matters, as she does in Problemata. After Heloise’s letter to Abelard claiming her distress at their situation, Abelard replies by telling her the reasons they must endure this trial and asking that she speak no more of it. In her reply, Heloise consents to not mention it, and immediately turns to other subjects. But before doing so, she notes that Abelard “has it in [his] power to remedy my grief, even if [he] cannot entirely remove it” (93). She agrees to make the attempt for his sake, but by ending the subject thus, she not only gives herself the final word, but also lets him know her feelings toward his request without seeming ungrateful. It is, in a sense, a very diplomatic way of ending a conversation that respects Abelard without debasing herself. She holds him as equal, and expects the same in return.
Another way that Abelard and Heloise seem to renegotiate their relationship is by
returning to the origin of the relationship itself. They met over books, and Abelard notes that what drew him to her was her “gift for letters” (10). Once they begin their renegotiation, they return to that intellectual conversation. Problemata is an intellectual text in itself, in that Heloise poses theological questions and inconsistencies, and Abelard replies with his thoughts. Similarly, in their letters, after Heloise agrees not to mention her pain, she turns to Abelard and asks again for his tutelage. She wants him to come and teach her and the other nuns about the history of their order and to help her create a Rule by which they should live (94). This is a renegotiation in that in their original relationship, while Abelard was her tutor, they did much more than study. Now, it seems, he can teach her all he knows, and they can each focus on each other’s intellect, since the major physical aspect of their relationship is off limits.
A third way they reassess their relationship is through their “question and answer sessions.” In Problemata, Heloise is asking all the questions, but these questions, though not theologically simple, do not paint Heloise to be at all ignorant of their answers. A lawyer’s mantra is “Never ask a question to which you do not already have the answer.” This seems to be Heloise’s thoughts in Problemata, as well. She asks questions and sets up Abelard’s brilliant answer, so that she has created a dialogue piece that works kind of like a jigsaw puzzle: each piece fits together perfectly. She uses similar tactics in her letters to Abelard, posing questions to him which she—regarded as intelligent in her own right—could answer, but it seems her point is to distract herself and Abelard from their pain and turn to “more important” subjects (93). One such example in her letters that is vaguely reminiscent of Problemata is when she asks Abelard about idleness: “But was not Mary sitting idle in order to listen to the words of Christ, while Martha was working for her as much as for the Lord?…(110). This question sounds like her questions in Problemata, but in this instance, she goes on to answer it herself and even compare it to those in monastic life who chant and read God’s word, but never meditate on it (110). In this way, she manipulates the subject matter of their correspondence to distract from their physical separation and re-focus their energy on more intellectual (and, for the time period, read “higher”) matters.
Their first few letters definitely portray the pain Abelard and Heloise felt at their forced separation, but this does not mar their overall relationship. As Heloise shows Abelard she is adjusting to her life in the convent (whether or not she actually is), their relationship continues and evolves, showing not only each person’s intellectual prowess, but that each of their individual minds is strengthened when they are united as one.
Two heads really are better…especially when they respect the other’s intellectual capacity.
Abelard, Peter. The Letters of Abelard and Heloise. Betty Radice, trans. Penguin Books, 1974.
Fortescue-Brickdale, Eleanor. “Abelard and Eloise.” Golden Book of Famous Women, Hodder and Staughton, 1919.
When the summer months roll around and the time comes to shop for a new bathing suit, we take several things into consideration. “Do I want a one or two piece bathing suit? How much does it cost? How will I look in it?” And while several factors go into deciding whether we should wear a bathing suit, we take for granted whether we can wear it. If you’ve never looked at a swimsuit and asked yourself, “could I be thrown in jail for wearing this” then you probably owe that to Annette Kellerman.
Born in Australia in 1887 to classical musicians, Annette Marie Sarah Kellerman suffered from rickets, a disease characterized by soft, weak bones that can bend under pressure.At age six she was walking with the aid of steel leg braces similar to those depicted in the movie Forrest Gump. Doctors suggested enrolling her in swimming courses and her parents did so, the aquatic equivalent of giving Serena Williams her first tennis racket.
Finding water much easier to navigate than land she dove headlong into her new hobby and by age 13 her legs showed no sign of weakness. By age 15 she’d won her first race. She didn’t know it at the time but she was on a path that would challenge what it meant to exist as a woman in public.
It would be no exaggeration to say that 1800’s swimwear for a woman closely resembled
gothic lolita cosplay. Full-on dresses, with high necklines, elbow length sleeves, voluminous tea-length skirts and bloomers underneath. It was heavy, and in some cases the hem was even weighted to prevent the skirt from flying up while in the water.So, possessed of the radical notion that swimming draped in yards and yards of wool was impractical Annette designed a new women’s swimsuit. It was very similar to men’s swimwear at the time; a skirtless, sleek and practical romper.
Its debut did not go as planned. Her intention was to be efficient rather than immodest, but the form-fitting nature of her attire made it obvious that there was in fact a woman under there. When she strode out to the waterside she drew a shocked and jeering crowd, was immediately arrested by police and charged with indecent exposure.
Annette won her case, arguing successfully as to the impracticality of women’s swimwear, and with that trial she gained a measure of freedom for herself as well as a place in history.Aquatically inclined women everywhere owe her a debt of gratitude, for without her forging a trial they might still be hitting the beach dressed like sexy Puritans.
While her impact on women’s attire is what she’s most known for, to focus on it exclusively would be to downplay the extent of her creativity and innovation. With her clear-tank swimming exhibitions, Annette Kellerman is widely considered to be the progenitor of synchronized swimming. When her athletic fame allowed her to transition over to film she broke barriers there as well, becoming the very first Hollywood actress to film a nude scene. She is the world’s first professional mermaid, having designed and created her own mermaid’s tail with which to perform both live shows and later onscreen. Later in life she became a prolific author as well, publishing several books on swimming, as well as articles on nutrition, fitness, beauty, and an anthology of children’s stories.
When six year old Annette Kellerman first dipped a toe into the water it was not her plan to become an activist. But in a world where simply being a woman can be an act of rebellion she had the courage stand up for herself and earn a place in history the way so many great women do; by demanding the freedom determine her own limits.
The theme of “On Stage” takes a darker turn this week as I expand into film. The Limehouse Golem is a 2016 film adapted by screenwriter Jane Goldman and based on Peter Ackroyd’s 1994 novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, which was also published as The Trial of Elizabeth Cree. I can’t talk about it without giving away secrets, so be aware that spoilers abound!
The story opens with Elizabeth Cree (portrayed by Olivia Cooke in the movie), “Little Lizzie” as she’s known in the stage circles, being accused of poisoning her husband, John, a reporter and playwright, based on the evidence that she prepared his nightly draught, which was laced with poison.
In the midst of Lizzie’s trial, Inspector Kildare (Bill Nighy) gets handed the nigh-unsolvable case of the Limehouse Golem, a series of seemingly random and unconnected murders in the Limehouse district of London. The clues lead him to a journal, ostensibly written by the Golem, and Kildare latches upon John Cree as the number-one suspect. He believes if he proves that Cree was the Golem, Lizzie could argue that he committed suicide because of his crimes and the charges against Lizzie could be dropped.
To untangle the mystery, we have to learn more about Lizzie’s life. She grows up in poverty with an abusive mother whose work brings Lizzie into the path of abusive men. Once she escapes that situation, she finds herself in the realm of Dan Leno, a real-life historical figure known for performing female roles in drag. Of Leno, Lizzie says, “He portrays the suffering of women. My gender becomes inured to injustice. We expect it until we can greet it merely with a shrug…. The line between comedy and tragedy is a fine one.” In one scene, we see Leno singing a song as an abused wife. He pulls out a knife and sings, “He blacked both my eyes without warning, but I’ll be waiting for him tonight.”
Dan Leno’s career paves the way in the story for Golem’s journal, which features multiple passages referring to murder as “pantomime in its purest form.” About the first murder, the Golem writes, “But I was a beginner, an understudy, not yet ready to take the stage. An artist must perfect his craft, and tonight I would start with a small, private rehearsal,” by which the Golem means—kill a prostitute. One entry says, “[The victim] was a player waiting for a role. Of course, I obliged her. The public yearned for the next installment, and one should never keep an audience waiting.” Another says, “Ratcliff Highway was a tour de force,” referring to two multiple-victim murders committed by John Williams in 1811. In a macabre sort of homage, the Golem performs murders at the same location, and “as an actor may take home a program as a souvenir, so I returned with a blood-soaked shawl belonging to the clothes seller’s wife.”
As the Golem is terrorizing Limehouse, Lizzie finds acclaim and acceptance on the stage of the music hall, but there’s only so far she can go. As a woman, she’ll never be taken seriously as an actor. “We’re clowns, Dan,” she says to Leno. “We’ll be forgotten.” As Kildare recognizes and points out, she doesn’t want to be saved “by any man.” During one of their interviews while Lizzie is in prison awaiting her sentencing, she says, “What I deserve is to live freely and in death be remembered for my accomplishments, not as the wife who poisoned her husband, my name forever tethered to his.”
If you haven’t guessed by now (and I certainly didn’t my first time watching the film), here is the big twist of the story—Lizzie is the Golem. Early in the trial, she says, “My husband was adept at presenting a false face to the world.” The prosecuting lawyer responds, “And that is something you would understand, is it not, Mrs. Cree? Playing a role?” It’s not until the story’s final reveal that we understand how true this statement is—and not simply because of her life on the stage. In every meeting with him as he attempts to save her, Lizzie plays a role for Kildare. In fact, she never stops playing a role—that of the ingénue, a woman whom men are drawn to protect, only to realize she neither wants nor needs protection.
Instead, what she wants is lasting fame. She continues to discuss her case with Kildare because she appoints him as the keeper of her story. This will make his career, and her career will make her infamous. When he finalizes realizes this, he denies her last wish by letting her hang for John’s murder and by burning the written confession that she—not her husband—is the Golem.
Lizzie cannot achieve power as a woman, as her true self, even though she performs as a man on stage. Instead, she seeks that power by creating and performing the role of the Golem, whom everyone assumes is a man. In a ghoulish and awful way, she proves herself to everyone who underestimated her and her gender. As she murders one man, she even says, “Oh, I know, I know. Few would think a woman capable of such artistry.” And while I find myself appalled at her lack of remorse and can’t condone her crimes, such a character—one who so readily blurs the line between stage performance and reality—certainly makes for an exciting story.
All quotes from The Limehouse Golem. Director: Juan Carlos Medina. Screenwriter: Jane Goldman. Based on the novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem by Peter Ackroyd.
Featured image: Bill Nighy as Inspector Kildare and Olivia Cooke as Lizzie Cree in The Limehouse Golem. http://www.imdb.com.
In the 6th century, known for her sharp intelligence and political acumen, the Byzantine Empress Theodora was a force to be reckoned with.
Even today, there is something about Theodora that continues to draw attention. She was a unique figure in the Byzantine world. A woman who not only occupied a high position within the Empire, but appeared to have ruled just as much as her husband, the Emperor Justinian. In some sources it is suggested that she may have been a co-regent. The pair was the quintessential “power couple,” and their match appears to have been one created around love as well as reliance and respect of each other’s capabilities.
While all of this is exceptional, more surprising is that Theodora did not come from a prestigious or politically powerful family. Instead she came from quite a low position within Byzantine society. The great Theodora, long before she took the throne was an actress. While our modern world tends to exalt actresses who rise to high levels of fame, actresses of the Byzantine world did not inhabit a position of respect or particular adulation. If anything, since actresses were often also sex workers in the Empire, the profession was considered despicable one.
Despite this, Theodora used her experience on stage to emphasize imperial ritual, recognizing that acting and all the props that came with it could be a form of social signaling. This was especially useful when it came to her and her husband’s interactions with the aristocracy, effectively creating a visible divide and reaffirming of their authority over members of the elite.
She intrinsically understood the political danger of unchecked power among the elite classes. She was able to manage these groups through interactions that stressed their lower status in relation to her and Justinian. Theodora did not always use her authority to support her husband. In religious matters there were times that she worked directly against him in order to achieve power and influence for the monophysite faction of the early Christian Church. Further, Theodora was responsible for laws that protected lower class women from sexual exploitation in the Empire, all the while fiercely maintaining her own power and influence.
She is most famously known for her intercession during the Nika Riots, from which her husband Justinian had planned to flee Byzantium at risk of his position on the throne. It was Theodora who stopped him and wisely mentioned that those who had been in the position of power rarely survived if they were ousted. It is also recorded that she proclaimed purple (the color of royalty) was a good color to be buried in… essentially saying if she was going to die, she would die as an Empress. That was enough to dissuade Justinian and they were able to successfully regain control of the city from the rioters.
It is clear Theodora’s time as a performer gave her a unique understanding of her position as Empress and despite her lowborn social class, she carved out her own power and influence. It seems that she knowing brought the shine of “showbiz” with her as she entered into life as an imperial ruler and religious leader.
As I mentioned last week, we get the privilege of picking two of our favorite guest posts for December’s “Favorite Things” theme. Our other favorite guest post this year was from our August theme, Lady Midnight, and it was Juliette F. Martin’s “Celtic Womanhood and the Banshee.”
It’s no secret all three of us ladies at Unbound love our Celtic mythology…so this post spoke to our hearts in that regard. But it also touched on a pop culture topic that many have heard of, but few know the origin of–the screaming banshee. We learned a lot from this article about the connection between Celtic womanhood and the origin of the banshee–so we wanted to share it one more time to give even more people the opportunity to see how women in ancient Celtic culture influenced modern day mythologies!
We’re so excited there are five Mondays in December 2018. Why? Because that means we get to pick two of our favorite guest posts as part of our “Favorite Things” theme. The first of our two favorites of the year was also an April Pick–Jennifer Della’Zanna’s “Under Tawaret’s Protection: Childbirth in Ancient Egypt.”
Not only was this article super well-written, but it contained a wealth of information on a topic that isn’t often discussed–childbirth and the role of mothers in ancient society. Not just the cultural significance, but also what recent researchers are discovering about the medical side of childbirth in parts of the ancient world. This article is equal parts women’s cultural history and scientific history, showing how what two ideas we generally think of as being disparate actually aren’t…which, of course, is the purpose of Unbound. We hope you enjoy this article as much the second time around as you did the first!
This one was a hard choice! Over the past nine or so months, I’ve gotten to talk about some of my favorite books and stories as well as read new ones that hadn’t previously been on my radar. And my choice is:
I settled on this article from May, which had the theme of Motherhood and Childbearing, for a few reasons. It was fun to dig into a topic I don’t often explore either in writing or reading. I also got to do a good bit of cool research on a time in history I haven’t studied for a while. By far, the funniest fact I ran across, which ultimately was extraneous to the article, was that King Æthelred of England was known as Æthelred the Unready, which also means “poorly advised.”
But probably my favorite thing about writing this article was I got to use a historical fiction novel,Shadow on the Crown by by Patricia Bracewell, and a fantasy novel, Daughters of the Storm by Kim Wilkins. Most months, it’s hard to find both that deal with the same topics within similar time periods. Using both types of novels allowed me to see the different ways each genre approaches the depiction of its heroines, which was neat.
For my December pick, I decided to go with an article that matches the season–my April article on Mary titled “Of Hope and Expectation.” I enjoyed writing this one because I love seeing how mythology and story structure help us better understand and explore the world we live in. When we use the phrase “life’s not a fairy tale” as some sort of platitude to mean “life doesn’t always end happily,” it’s because we’ve forgotten that not even all fairy tales have “happy” endings, or even expected endings. But they do have right endings. Just because the story ends unexpectedly does not mean it ends wrongly. And just because darkness seems to have won doesn’t mean it has. We are living a story right now. The belief in a meta-narrative gives us hope that, in the end, all will end right.