Perspective and Perception: The Evolution of Attolia in The Queen’s Thief Series

by Carrie Gessner

Perspective is one of the most powerful tools available to writers. It defines the reader’s entry point into the story and shapes their view of the characters. One of my favorite examples of this can be seen in The Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner. The series, which is currently made up of five books with a sixth planned, was inspired by ancient Greece. In Turner’s world, three small countries occupy a peninsula off of the main continent—Sounis in the west, Attolia in the south, and Eddis plunked between the two.unbound 02.jpg

The first book in the series, simply titled The Thief, is told in first-person from Eugenides’s perspective. He’s a teenaged thief whose only chance at getting out of the Sounis prison is to try to steal a mythical stone that is said to confer on the holder the throne of Eddis. Although Eugenides, known as Gen, is the main character of this book, it’s a tertiary female character who makes only a minor appearance toward the end—the queen of Attolia. Her given name is Irene, but in Turner’s world, leaders take on the name of their country. Gen is in prison—again—when he finally meets Attolia, whom he describes as follows:

unbound 0.jpg“Standing in the light, surrounded by the dark beyond the lanterns, she seemed lit by the aura of the gods. Her hair was black and held away from her face by an imitation of the woven gold band of Hephestia. Her robe was draped like a peplos, made from embroidered red velvet. She was as tall as the magus, and she was more beautiful than any woman I have ever seen. Everything about her brought to mind the old religion, and I knew that the resemblance was deliberate, intended to remind her subjects that as Hephestia ruled uncontested among the gods, this woman ruled Attolia.” [1]

This seems like a lot to unpack, especially if you’re not familiar with the series. Our brief glimpse of Attolia tells us two important things—she’s beautiful, and she’s powerful. However, as Gen points out just a page later, though Attolia is beautiful, she is less than kind—to the point of ruthlessness. There are even stories of how she poisoned her husband on their wedding day in order to claim the throne.

Through Turner’s deft use of Gen’s first-person point of view, readers are exposed to the tension among these three countries as well as his strong and poor opinion of the queen of Attolia. Consequently, it’s easy to side with him and dislike her. So imagine the reader’s surprise when Turner gives Attolia a point of view in book two, The Queen of Attolia, titled after the character in question. If she is ruthless, it is because she has had to be. “I inherited this country when I was only a child, Nahuseresh,” she says. “I have held it. I have fought down rebellious barons. I’ve fought Sounis to keep the land on this side of the mountains. I have killed men and watched them hang. I’ve seen them tortured to keep this country safe and mine.” [2] Perhaps Gen is right when he says she’s not kind, unbound 03but perhaps she was never given the chance to be.

By using Attolia’s point of view, Turner makes it clear that Gen’s initial assessment, though not wrong, isn’t the whole picture. Through her point of view, we get passages such as this: “She thought of the hardness and the coldness she had cultivated over those years and wondered if they were the mask she wore or if the mask had become her self. If the longing inside her for kindness, for warmth, for compassion, was the last seed of hope for her, she didn’t know how to nurture it or if it could live.” [3] We find that the true Attolia is a far cry from the stony-faced queen she presents to others.

Although Turner’s series offers a fully realized fantasy world as well as twisting plotlines, its biggest strength lies in the characters. I can give only a brief glimpse of Attolia’s development, especially because each installment comes with its own revelations and surprises, but I hope it’s enough to illustrate how our perception as readers is directly influenced by the perspective(s) a writer chooses. I don’t think anyone relishes being proven wrong, but in this particular case, the journey Turner takes us on in order to prove us wrong about Attolia is more rewarding than being right.


[1] Turner, Megan Whalen. The Thief. Puffin Books, 1998.

[2] Turner, Megan Whalen. The Queen of Attolia. Harper Collins, 2000.

[3] Ibid.

Not Below: The Rebellion of Lilith and Eve

by K.P. Kulski

When taking a deeper look into the stories of Lilith and Eve, understand that organized religion was an important part of creating order within early civilizations. When I say “civilization” I’m referring to settled towns and cities that are permanent places of human dwelling. In the prehistoric world human life was mostly nomadic in nature, with belief systems that fit into that lifestyle.

The Ancient Greeks, a significant influence on Western social ideas concerning

Pandora
Pandora

patriarchy (that’s a whole other article to explain), asserted that women needed to be restrained for the good of civilization. “Zeus eventually puts an end to the successive overthrowing of kings by conspiracies of wives and sons. Establishing a patriarchal government on Olympus. Zeus introduces moral order and culture…”[1] They believed that women were more animal-like, subject to base instincts, sexually wild and would destroy civilization if not properly controlled.[2] As my friend E.J. likes to say, “social ideal does not equal social reality,” so certainly there are plenty of examples of women in Ancient Greek society who were not at all controlled.

But the idea was there. If there is a fear that women can dismantle civilization, what role

1024px-MAN_-_Venus_&_autre_-_grottes_de_Menton
Venus figurines of Balzi Rossi circa 24,000-19,000 BCE (Italy)

did women play before civilization was established? As evidenced by Lilith, early civilizations like both the Ancient Greeks and the Israelites expressed concern over patriarchal order, which became synonymous with civilized order. Nomadic groups became “barbaric” and “uncivilized.” In these early groups women seemed to have had at least a place of respect, if not reverence or even dominance.

Could Lilith and Eve’s story have more to do with the fear of the ruin of civilization and a return to equality of the genders?

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Venus of Willendorf circa 24,000-22,000 BCE (Austria)

Many of the earliest artifacts found in and around Europe, Asia Minor and the Middle East depict an array of what is known as Venus figurines dating from this prehistoric time period.

Don’t let the name mislead you, these figurines have little to do with the Roman goddess Venus. Instead these date from prehistory, the Paleolithic to the Bronze Age, a time long before the Roman Republic. Most famous (and bearing the same misleading name) is the Venus of Willendorf. The depictions of women are carved from stone, antlers, bones or shaped from clay and fired.

So why am I talking about all this? You thought this was an article about rebellious women? Bear with me.

These figurines may represent something far bigger than the shape of a woman crafted into the perfect handheld icon. Certainly, the exaggerated focus breasts, hips and the pubic triangle, seem to indicate that these were for fertility,

450px-Museu_arqueologic_de_Creta24
Minoan Snake Goddesses circa 1600 BCE (Crete)

but this not certain. It is important to note that these figurines are found throughout Europe – Germany, Austria, Italy, France and Russia to name a few. Further, they have strong connections to other symbols and figurines found in the early Mediterranean cultures like the Minoans of Crete and places like Çatalhöyük in Turkey. These connections and the wide-ranging areas they have been discovered may indicate something much bigger than reverence of fertility alone. They could represent a social ideal, a wide-spread reverence for womanhood—sacred

Catalhoyuk figurine
circa 6300-6000 BCE (Image credit: Çatalhöyük Research Project)

womanhood, socially equal, or even superior womanhood.None of this is definitive, but the sheer amount of Venus figurines point to something focused on women.

In Jewish mythology, Lilith was the first woman created by God. The earliest written form of her story appears in the early Middle Ages (between the 8th to 10th centuries), but is much older. It is no surprise however, that it was written during a time that marked significant struggles for new social orders. As Adam’s wife, Lilith refused to have sex in the missionary position saying to Adam, “We are equal to each other inasmuch as we were both created from the earth.”[3] Before you get caught up in the Kama Sutra of sexual positions, realize the story has much more to do with social dominance. Lilith didn’t just have a problem with how she and Adam engaged in sex, she had a problem with the inherent idea that she was, “fit only to be in the bottom position, while I (Adam) am to be the superior one.”[4] When Adam refused to treat her as an equal, Lilith left him with all the credit card bills and the Garden of Eden mortgage and went out to find herself in the great unknown of the world beyond.

So here we are, Lilith decided she was equal and wasn’t going to put up with Adam’s ideas of superiority. Not so demonic is that? Ok hold on to this information, you’re going to need it to put together the pieces of what the conflict was really all about.

Adam complained to God, “the woman you have given me has run away.”[5] Note the concept here that Adam has ownership over Lilith as seemed sanctioned by God. So Lilith ran away and God seemed compelled to “give” Adam another wife.

Then came Eve.

Lilith isn’t in the Bible, but Eve is and unlike Lilith, Eve is rather cooperative with Adam. She doesn’t spend much time fighting with him and seems to accept her relative lower Diaporama-Adam-Eve_0_445_334position. However, Eve is ultimately tempted and finally eats the forbidden fruit. When she does this, she was not transgressing Adam, instead she was transgressing God by accessing the Tree of Knowledge he has forbidden. God in these stories is the ultimate male power who has exerted order and established a great place to live (i.e. civilization). Eden has inadvertently rejected the social ideal of her subservience, by not only disobeying God, but also through the desire and obtainment of knowledge. Because of Eve’s disobedience (and of course Adam too) they are cast out of Eden.

Oh no! A woman has caused destruction of civilization that the Ancient Greeks feared.

The mythological Lilith became a demonic power after leaving Adam. There are many forms her legend has taken over the ages – the cause of sickness in infants, an evil spirit, a lamia, a spirit that brings death and destruction, a succubus and a hyper-sexualized temptress that brings ruin to men who can’t help but desire her. Sometimes all or some of these ideas are wrapped together. These concepts of Lilith go all the way back to Sumer, indicating that Lilith was a shared cultural idea, as the prehistoric Venus figurines were a shared cultural idea.

The metamorphosis and focus on Lilith’s refusal to adhere to the social order set out before her, indicates a strong patriarchal reaction to (at the very least) a much more egalitarian value system between genders. With the establishment of civilization and increasing successful births rates due to settled lifestyles, the importance of woman waned before the need for a definitive social order in the face of the increased population centers. With the increase of things to own and wealth to accumulate (things difficult to do in a nomadic culture), a system of inheritance rose up. No longer could possessions be passed communally since communities were much too large in this structure. Familial relations over community relations become more important for the purpose of passing on goods and property. In order to determine familial relations, a formal system of mating (marriage) had to be established as well. In a patriarchal structure this amounted to essentially ownership over their spouse(s) as well as their offspring.

So…

Lilith is what happens when a woman refuses to accept a lower position.

Eve is what happens when a woman desires knowledge.

A whole lot of blame. (Really Adam you couldn’t just be bottom sometimes?)

Ultimately, Lilith isn’t quite the demon she is made out to be. Eve isn’t quite the betrayer she is made out to be. Instead they represent some of the earliest fears of female agency.

Arguments we continue to hear today when women’s rights are discussed, argued over and… well, are also demonized.

_______________________________________________________

Endnotes

[1] Sarah B. Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves. (New York: Schocken Books, 1975) 2.

[2] “But the woman took off the great lid of the jar with her hands and scattered all these and her thought caused sorrow and mischief to men.” “Pandora: Hesoid, Works and Days.” Theoi Greek Mythology, Accessed 02 June 2018. http://www.theoi.com/Heroine/Pandora.html

[3] “The Alphabet of Ben Sira: The Story of Lilith.” trans. Norman Bronznick. Jewish and Christian Literature, Accessed 02 June 2018. http://jewishchristianlit.com/Topics/Lilith/alphabet.html

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

Hell Hath No Fury Like a Woman Deceived: Clytemnestra’s Revenge

By: E.J. Lawrence

True Crime shows are my guilty pleasure. I love a good detective mystery…the “who done it” and the reveal scenes and trying to figure out how it all happened…it’s exciting to try and put all of the pieces together to solve the mystery along with the detective. But for me, the why is always more important than the how. I find myself constantly drawn to the motive, and am most often let down when the detective looks at the camera and says, “He won’t talk, so I guess we’ll never know why he did what he did.”

In most murder mysteries, at least on the true crime shows I watch, we often get the how (Col. Mustard hit him over the head with a candlestick as he entered the ballroom), but are so often left without the why (they seemed like such good friends…what could ever drive him to murder?). That’s the beauty of fiction–it can satisfy our need to know both the how and the why. To wrap up our “women who murder” theme, I would like to turn to one of my personal favorite stories: The Oresteia by Aeschylus. This trilogy contains one of the most famous murderesses in mythology–Clytemnestra, who murders her husband Agamemnon and tries to kill her own son Orestes. But unlike those True Crime shows, we are never in the dark about why she kills…She wants revenge.

To be completely fair, Agamemnon’s entire household is cursed. His father, Atreus, murdered his own nieces and nephews then (*gag alert*) fed them in a stew to his twin brother. Cannibalism in Ancient Greece was definitely in the top “deadly sins,” so the gods put a curse on the house of Atreus, and–due to Fate–Agamemnon never stood a chance in the first place.House_of_Atreus_family_tree

But Clytemnestra’s story begins a bit later, right before the Trojan War (as all great Greek myths do). Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus has just had his wife kidnapped by some Trojan idiot named Paris, and Menelaus launches the famous thousand ships after her (we’ll definitely cover Helen another time). The problem, however, is that Agamemnon has somehow offended Artemis, and without her blessing, their ship will never make it to Troy. Her demand? The sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter, Iphigenia.

This poses some problems in Greek mythology. After all, the Olympian gods aren’t really the human sacrifice types, and so this story generally puzzles mythologists. It also opens the door for a wide variety of interpretations of exactly what happened to Iphigenia. Perhaps she was sacrificed. Perhaps Agamemnon began the sacrifice, but Artemis swooped in at the last moment and saved her. In either case, the stories all agree on one thing: Agamemnon lied to his wife, Clytemnestra, telling her that Iphigenia was to be married off to Achilles (or some soldier), then took her daughter away where Clytemnestra never saw her again.

The winds were lifted, and Agamemnon’s ship sailed on to Troy…but Clytemnestra was left only with the rumors that her husband had sacrificed their eldest daughter just to go fight a war he had no business meddling with in the first place.

So it’s easy to understand why, with her husband gone for ten years, Clytemnestra had time to move on, find a new man, and of course, plot her revenge. The new man was Aegisthus, a cousin of Agamemnon’s, and here’s where the story gets a bit fuzzy, depending on which version of the myth you’re reading. Since I started out by mentioning The Oresteia, I’ll give you Aeschylus’s version…but it’s not entirely complete. In Ancient Greek theatre, all violence took place offstage, which means that even in Aeschylus, we don’t see anything; we only hear about it after the fact.

What we know is that when Agamemnon arrives home, he’s greeted warmly by his wife and invited inside. Then there’s some screaming, Agamemnon’s new slave-girl runs in, there’s more screaming…the guess is left to the audience. The play makes it clear that Clytemnestra and Aegisthus had planned this murder for a long time–possibly ever since Clytemnestra lost Iphigenia those ten years ago.

The_Murder_Of_Agamemnon_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_14994
The Murder of Agamemnon

There’s something satisfying to me in this story that is often missed in those True Crime documentaries–we actually get the why and the how all at the same time. Clytemnestra feels justified in her actions, and gladly tells the details of how she murdered her husband and his slave-girl. When the Chorus rebukes her for being so “shameless,” she replies:

I am no shallow woman, whom ye mock.

With unconfounded heart, albeit ye know,

I speak; and whether thou wilt praise or blame,

‘Tis one to me. Lo, my right arm hath wrought

The handiwork of justice : he is dead,

My husband, Agamemnon. He is dead!1

By calling her murder “the handiwork of justice,” she makes her position as judge and jury plain. She then goes on to tell the Chorus that she didn’t recall any of them speaking out against the injustice her husband wrought when he sacrificed their daughter. Where there was no justice, she would take it for herself. She then goes back even further, stating that she did it even for the children Agamemnon’s father slew,2 arguing her case to the Chorus, who represents the interest of the audience.

The Chorus does not buy her reasoning.

Her son Orestes, eventually comes home and learns from his sister Electra what has happened. According to the custom, Orestes as the eldest son is responsible for avenging his father’s death. However, killing a blood relative was a mortal sin…it’s what got his house cursed in the first place. So, the question for the rest of the play becomes primarily one of logic: Given those two premises, what action should Orestes take? Avenge his father by killing his mother and angering the gods? Or anger the gods by not avenging his father’s death?

(Ancient Greek writers certainly took the whole “be cruel to your characters” advice to heart.)

Clytemnestra_by_John_Collier,_1882
Clytemnestra by John Collier (1882)

Orestes takes the first option, but Clytemnestra does not let him take her without a fight. Rather, as Orestes storms his mother’s room, Clytemnestra is there to meet him. Again, no onstage battle ensues except for an exchange of words and arguments, then they exit…and only Orestes returns, his mother’s blood on his hands. In some versions of the story, it’s clear she would rather fight to the death, willing to kill her own son rather than be killed–so she meets him at the door with a battle axe (I’m almost ashamed to say how awesome I find this image–her son is coming at her with a sword, and she meets him with a battle axe. Gutsy.). This was likely meant to show how cold-hearted she was, but I think it gives us another insight, as well…it shows how strongly she believed in her “cause.”

 

In any version of the tale, but perhaps especially Aeschylus’s version, Clytemnestra is intelligent and fierce. She argues with sound logic and makes a strong case that her murder is justice, rather than revenge. She is patient, waiting over ten years to exact her revenge (or justice, depending on how one looks at it), and she does not go down without a fight.

However, in spite of all of this, Clytemnestra’s tragedy is that she’s still just a pawn in the great game of Fate. Agamemnon’s house was cursed before she got there, and the only way to lift the curse was through her son, Orestes, being tormented by the Furies in retaliation for her own murder. And that only came after a lengthy (a whole play’s length, actually) courtroom scene where Orestes pleads his case before Athena. Was it justice? Or revenge? And how thin is the line between them?

And if the difference between the two is motive, then what had been Clytemnestra’s true motive? Or Agamemnon’s? Or Atreus’? No one in this family (except perhaps Iphigenia) is innocent of another family member’s blood, after all.

In those True Crime documentaries I love so well, there’s a similar theme–when a motive is discerned, it’s seldom unique. The motives of jealousy and revenge have withstood the test of time. But no one pleads that to the judge. Rather, everyone justifies themselves in their own mind. After all, justice is “an eye for an eye,” and if one feels their eye has been taken, don’t they deserve the right to enact the same on the offender? Yet, as the tragedy of the House of Atreus so well illustrates, perhaps an eye for an eye really does make the whole world blind…

-0440_Orestes_Killing_Klytaimnestra_Altes_Museum_anagoria
Orestes Killing Clytemnestra by Anagoria

 

  1. The Oresteia, https://archive.org/stream/oresteiaofaeschy00aesciala/oresteiaofaeschy00aesciala_djvu.txt, 38.
  2. Ibid, 44.

 

Medea: The Power of Progeneration

By Ava de Cenizas

For Jason, she betrays her father, kills her own brother, and abandons her home of Colchis. In Corinth, she murders her sons as vengeance against Jason and then escapes in a serpent-drawn chariot sent by the sun-god Helios. King Aegeus of Athens grants her sanctuary. But when she nearly tricks Aegeus into poisoning his own son, Theseus, she flees again. In this final flight, Medea breaks free of Greek mythology, unconquered to the last.

It is a unique fate for a woman who murders her sons. Greek mythology is not so kind to

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Figure 1

its heroes. They do not die peacefully with past glories dancing in their head. Wine had soured in Jason’s mouth when a rotted spar from his ship Argos strikes him, the unfaithful husband, dead. King Aegeus throws himself from the high acropolis of Athens, believing Theseus defeated. Theseus lives long enough to see his beloved wife and son into their graves. Hercules burns himself on his own funeral pyre, accidently poisoned by his wife, before Zeus allows him into the stars. Odysseus’s son murders him; Oedipus is blinded; and Antigone, hounded into insanity.

Medea is no heroine, but neither is she a Minotaur to be vanquished. Instead, she is elemental – a wind that drives demi-gods to victory or to the bottom of the sea. What element she signifies is revealed by the men around her, the men who use Medea. When she enters the stage, Medea is ruled by her heart from the first. Jason wields that love to achieve his goal: stealing the golden fleece from Medea’s father. Without Medea’s power, Jason will not succeed. She tells him how to defeat each of her father’s traps, and when the lovers escape Colchis, it is Medea who dismembers her brother to prevent the King from following.

And Jason uses Medea as much as he can. He marries Medea and asks that she regenerate his aging father into a full vibrant life. Medea gives Jason healthy sons. Having borne him two legitimate heirs, though, Jason considers Medea a spent force to be cavalierly disposed once she is no longer useful. He throws Medea over for the daughter of the King of Corinth. The King of Corinth, at least, has the sense to banish Medea; Jason never considers that the power he used to capture the golden fleece and his future might take it from him.

Medea laments the position of a wife, forced aside, but she is not powerless. She strikes a deal with King Aegeus to save herself: She will give him sons. Aegeus sees Medea as the power through which he can ensure his dynasty continues. Medea fulfills her end of the bargain, a bargain Aegeus revokes when his own long-lost son, Theseus, arrives. Like Jason, though, Aegeus cannot end Medea – she escapes with their son.

0102
Figure 2

While Medea is “passion” and an “anti-mother,” this simplifies her. She is the power of progeneration. She promises a future. Her fire protects Jason and regenerates his father to good health. She grants Jason two male heirs, a precious gift when children were not certain to survive to adulthood.  She gives the same to King Aegeus. When Medea seeks to destroy, she cuts off that same future, beginning in Colchis. Medea kills her brother, her father’s heir. She kills Jason’s sons. She kills the King of Corinth’s daughter. She tries to destroy Theseus as well, so that her children with Aegeus are the future.

And here lies the genesis of her immortality. As dangerous as she may be, without Medea – without the power to progenerate – there is no future for kings or paupers. Jason and Aegeus used Medea to advance their cause, conscious that same power could destroy it. The power itself, though, one might try and tame the wind.

 

References

Figure 1: Medea by Alphonse Mucha, 1898. This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1923.

Figure 2: Here, Medea saves Jason’s father Aeson. By Girolamo Macchietti – The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=154202. This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1923.

Featured Image: Medea by Artemisia Gentileschi – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54717055

This article is drawn from the following sources:

“Medea,” Encyclopedia Mythica. Encyclopedia Mythica, 3 Mar. 1997. Web. 14 May 2018.

Worthington, Ian. “The Ending of Euripides’ ‘Medea,’” Hermes, 118 Bd. H. 4 (1990), pp. 502-505. (http://www.jstor.org/stable/4476790).

Flory, Stewart. “Medea’s Right Hand: Promises and Revenge,” Transactions of the American Philological Association, Vol. 108 (1978), pp. 64-74.

(http://www.jstor.org/stable/284236).

 

Under Tawaret’s Protection: Childbirth in Ancient Egypt

by Jennifer Della’Zanna

To detail any customs in Ancient Egypt is difficult because the dynastic period of this ancient civilization starts in roughly 3100 BCE and ends with the death of Cleopatra in 30 BCE, and known predynastic history goes back to 5000 BCE [1]. Within this context, two separate kingdoms often existed within Egypt, sometimes ruled by foreign leaders.

Tawaret 1
Tawaret (Image ©The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Religion, cultural norms, and governmental regulations, all of which can affect the role of mothers and children in a society, underwent sometimes tumultuous changes that affected all or parts of the country in those millennia. Therefore, anybody who makes sweeping generalizations about childbirth, motherhood, and the role of women in ancient Egyptian society can expect to face harsh criticism. Yet, the dearth of knowledge about women’s matters in any patriarchal society is really at the heart of generalization, and we can only go with evidence we have. As far as medical papyri go, the most extensive date to about 1500–1600 BCE, although one that holds several details about childbirth may date as far back as 2000 BCE. Still, a 500-year span of medical knowledge in such a long history is a rather narrow slice of information about a people –especially considering parts of the older papyri have clearly been copied into later ones [2]. That said, the basics of childbirth haven’t changed that much in humankind’s history.

While medical papyri have given us insight into treatments for women’s conditions and diseases, there is not a whole lot of information about the usual, uncomplicated birthing process. This is because it was not considered a medical condition. The Egyptian physicians were not generally present for most birthing episodes. There is also no known word for “midwife,” as we know it today, which many people consider as the historical alternative to having a doctor present. Most likely, women who had been through the process acted as assistants during birth, and the number present, as well as their experience levels, would have risen with the status of the expectant mother.

It is widely believed that Egyptian mothers gave birth in a squatting position, as some still do around the world. In 2001, archeologists uncovered a 3700-year-old birthing brick, which confirmed what they’d seen in paintings and drawings, and is similar to those used in communities that still practice this type of birthing technique, such as in this picture from the Basti region of India [3],[4].

JDZ1
(Image ©Janet Chawla)

Childbirth, like much of daily life in ancient Egypt, was a largely religious experience. Perhaps most telling about the importance of this event, and fertility in general, is the number of deities whose influence was attached to it. Meskhenet, whose pictograph is literally a birthing brick with a human head on it, was one of the important childbirth deities, who also was called upon to read the destiny of the newborn and is often shown accompanying the newly dead when their souls are weighed against Ma’at, perhaps to indicate their birth into the afterlife [5]. Others included Hathor, Isis, Osiris, Tefnut, and Heqet. Bes is also often associated with childbirth, although this dwarf god (not goddess), is a deity of war. His association with childbirth came about mainly because he is considered a protector of women and children. So, he may have been invoked more often after the birth to protect both new mother and child from the many harms that could arise in the early months after delivery. However, the one called upon most frequently seems to be Tawaret, who was thought to help women with sexuality and pregnancy, but was specifically protective of laboring women. It is Tawaret, often depicted as an upright, pregnant hippopotamus, who is featured prominently on apotropaic wands and knives that were used as talismans during the birth process. As with Meskhenet, Tawaret appears again at the end of life, guarding the mountains in the west, which stood at the edge of the land of the dead.

JDZ2
(Image ©Glencairn Museum)

The medical papyri give us details about recipes used for treatments in cases of difficult births, ways to determine the sex of a baby and whether a woman was fertile, and even for methods for contraception, but they also reveal the magical spells used during childbirth. It is here that we see many of the gods and goddesses called upon at once to help with difficulties common to women of the time. The beliefs in the papyri about childbirth are sometimes astoundingly insightful. In modern times, we count 282 days from the time of the last menstrual cycle as the number of days of gestation. Egyptians estimated anywhere from 271–294 days. They also believed that the menstrual cycle ceased because the blood was being used to sustain the embryo [6].

Although rituals and traditions change from culture to culture, and over time, childbirth is one time in our lives where they continue to be practiced. Stories from women who are already mothers are passed down, activities that help with one aspect or another of childbirth, and even talismans continue to be important parts of bringing our children into this world. We shouldn’t be surprised that the experience was similar 3500 years ago, and we shouldn’t expect that it will change all that much in the future.

 

References

[1] History.com staff. 2009. “Ancient Egypt.” http://www.history.com. Accessed April 15, 2018.

[2] World Research Foundation. n.d. “The Oldest Medical Books in the World.” World Research Foundation. Accessed April 15, 2018. http://www.wrf.org/ancient-medicine/oldest-medical-books.php.

[3] Chawla, Janet. 2012. “Birth Bricks Old and Older.” Matrika. June 5. Accessed April 19, 2018. http://janetchawla.blogspot.com/2012/06/birth-bricks-old-and-older.html.

[4] University of Pennsylvania. 2002. “Eurekalert.” Archaeologists uncover 3700-year-old ‘magical’ birth brick in Egypt. July 25. Accessed April 19, 2018. https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2002-07/uop-au3072502.php.

[5] Seawright, Caroline. 2001. “Meskhenet, with Renenutet, Both in Human Form.” The Keep. May 7. Accessed April 19, 2018. http://www.thekeep.org/~kunoichi/kunoichi/themestream/meskhenet.html#.Wti734jwZhE.

[6] Parsons, Marie. 2011. “Childbirth and Children in Ancient Egypt.” Tour Egypt. August 4. Accessed April 19, 2018. http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/mothers.htm.

 

Exalted Motherhood, Prized Infants: From Pagan Rome to Christianized Europe (Part 2)

by K.P. Kulski

When Constantine became Roman Emperor in 306 AD, it was to a transforming Empire. His official conversion to Christianity was reflective of the strong spread of the religion into Roman culture.

This form of Christianity held a strong Roman identity, the spread having first moved through the aristocratic classes. Remarkably, Constantine legalized the collection of exposed infants for the purpose of enslavement. While the option of slavery is potentially horrific, Constantine’s act of legalizing such activities is a significant shift in social perspectives on babies. He would later outlaw the practice of infant exposure altogether. What has become known as the Christmas story, glorifies the potentiality of the infant Jesus with associations of hope. Constantine’s ruling indicates that infant life is worth preserving, even in conditions of slavery without other options.

The Church would eventually equate infant-hood as the moment humanity was the Edict-of-Constantine-the-Great-by-Arrigo-Minerbi-closest to the divine, being newly emerged into the mortal world, theologically asserting that infants exemplified purity. By 787, we see the establishment of the first orphanages in Christianized regions of Italy. In Milan, the Archbishop had a special revolving cradle installed so women could anonymously leave children.[1] Interestingly, this acknowledges social stigmas surrounding women who either had children out of wedlock or were unable to care for their child. Clearly indicating that at this point, infant exposure was not generally practiced and the involvement of a male head of family in the decision to keep or reject a child, such as the paterfamilias was diminished or nonexistent. Further, the Church had developed authority in the matter and became particularly concerned with preserving new and unborn life. An Anglo-Saxon penitential dating from the late 7th century states:

Women who commit abortion before [the foetus] has life, shall do penance for one year or for the three forty-day periods or for forty days, according to the nature of the offence; and if later, that is, more than forty days after conception, they shall do penance as murderesses, that is for three years on Wednesdays and Fridays and in the three forty day periods. This according to canons is judged [punishable by] ten years.[2]

What we see here is a significant transformation. The Roman concept of abortion that essentially considered newborns in a late stage of fetal development and acceptance of infanticide changed to the Early Medieval belief that life began during pregnancy. This argument is quite familiar to the modern world, where political pundits frequently argue over the moment when life and therefore personhood occurs.

tumblr_m5we9n8Qkj1r3kvyio1_500But it wasn’t just a sense of heightened morality and compassion instituted by religious conversion that created these changes. After the failings of partible inheritance, primogeniture developed, a system of inheritance that depended on first-born children of the sovereign. This system was not only in the interest of the ruling family, but to the fiefdoms of early Medieval Europe who also practiced primogeniture in their own households. In the post-Roman world, hyper-localism reigned in order to maintain pockets of stability. Broken systems of inheritance or uncertain heirs often led to fractured support of the elite classes who contributed to military power. When this happened, the already tenuous balance would shift and ultimately led to grabs for power, conflict and war. The birth of heirs, became overwhelming stressed for the preservation of social and economic order.

Additionally, the Church called for the spread of Christianity. The call came from a religious and spiritual motivation. But it also came from the intent to establish Western Europe as a region that essentially played by the same political rules. While the Roman Empire held the original authority to recognize claims of kingship to Western European kingdoms, in its absence that authority transferred to the Church in Rome. This resulted in the concept of “Christendom,” religiously described as a vision of God’s kingdom on Earth that politically bolstered the claims of kings and lords as well as preserved the Church itself. Church leader, Augustine intentionally promoted higher rates of childbirth in Christian marriages as part of building Christendom.

The value and role of motherhood rose greatly in prominence. Women continued to have limited legal rights, and due to the need to ensure the true stock of any children born toIsabela_richard2 her, women’s access to easy movement became limited. Power for elite women, was derived from her family, husband and particularly her position as mother of male heirs. Mothers were responsible for the basic indoctrination and instruction of their children into Christian values. Oddly enough, mothers became the backbone of the perpetuation of their own suppression, but also the elevation of children as important parts of the social order. Advanced education for boys, occurred after this period by male instructors.

So strong came the drive for the birth of male heirs, other children and mothers suffered. The Church recognized not only this struggle for women, but how the practice could diminish survivability of other children in a world where infant and child death were common place. Further, the Church noted that infants who were nursed by a healthy mother had greater chances for survival. In the late 6th century, Pope Gregory I insisted that women should not only nurse their own children, but husbands should abstain from intercourse with their wives during that period. This reveals a basic understanding that nursing promotes infant health, but with new pregnancies, milk tends to dry-up.

Further, her husband ought not to cohabit with her till that which is brought forth be weaned. But an evil custom has arisen in the ways of married persons, that women scorn to nurse the children whom they bring forth, and deliver them to other women to be nursed. Which custom appears to have been devised for the sole

Nursing Madonna
Nursing Madonna 6th Century. From:   Corrington, Gail. “The Milk of Salvation: Redemption by the Mother in Late Antiquity and Early Christianity.” The Harvard Theological Review 82, no. 4 (Oct 1989): Plate 5.

cause of incontinency, in that, being unwilling to contain themselves, they think to scorn to suckle their offspring. Those women therefore who, after evil custom, deliver their children to others to be nursed ought not to have intercourse with their husbands unless the time of their purification has passed, seeing that even without the reason of childbirth, they are forbidden to have intercourse with their husbands while held of their accustomed sickness; so much so that the sacred law smites with death any man who shall go into a woman having her sickness.[3]

This statement from Pope Nicholas in the late 9th century echoes many of the same sentiments.

“A woman’s husband should not approach to lie with her until the infants, to whom she has given birth, have been weaned. But a depraved custom has arisen in the behavior of married people, that women despise nursing the children whom they have born and hand them over to be nursed by other women; and this seems to have happened solely because of incontinence, since those who refuse to restrain themselves, despise nursing those to whom they have given birth.”[4]

Simultaneously, we see a rise of iconography in glorification of Mary, particularly in

Nursing Madonna 2
Nursing Madonna 6th Century. From:   Corrington, Gail. “The Milk of Salvation: Redemption by the Mother in Late Antiquity and Early Christianity.” The Harvard Theological Review 82, no. 4 (Oct 1989): Plate 5.

the role of exalted motherhood. Resulting in the first popularization of the “Nursing Madonna,” which often enmeshing local pagan beliefs. This type of Marian depiction would continue well into the Renaissance. But if we look at its development with what would become secular law, we can see that Mary became not only revered, but an example for motherhood. Additionally, infants were no longer results of disposable fertility and that the relationship between women’s freedoms and the value of infants are interestingly linked, with often unexpected outcomes.

 

 

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[1] Donna Schneider et al. “Founding Asylums, Almhouses and Orphanages: Early Roots of Child Protection,” Middle States Geographer 35, (2002). 94. Accessed on April 3, 2014, http://geographyplanning.buffalostate.edu/MSG%202002/11_Schneider_Macey.pdf

[2] “XIV Penance for Special Irregularities in Marriage.” In Love, Sex and Marriage in the Middle Ages: A Sourcebook. Edited by Conor McCarthy. (New York: Routledge, 2004), 49.

[3] Gregory I. “To Augustine, Bishop of the Angli.” Book XI, letter 64. Catholic Encyclopedia: New Advent. Accessed April 4, 2018, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/360211064.htm

[4] “ The Responses of Pope Nicholas to the Questions of the Bulgars AD 866,” Medieval Sourcebook. Fordham University, Accessed April 4, 2018, http://www.fordham.edu/Halsall/basis/866nicholas-bulgar.asp

Exalted Motherhood, Prized Infants: From Pagan Rome to Christianized Europe (Part 1)

by K.P. Kulski

A woman gives birth in the Roman Empire. It is in the pagan era that has only seen the light touches of the religion known as Christianity, just enough for the foreign religion to seem odd and at times annoying. Some people whisper that Christians hold meals where they dine on flesh and drink blood.

This Roman woman doesn’t care much for those things, especially now, she’s crossed the threshold into motherhood. Perhaps she’s thought of herself as a mother a bit too soon. She looks toward the midwife as the woman inspects the newborn, pulling at the red limbs, feeling for strength and signs of illness. Did he cry loud enough? The midwife nods to herself and brings the child to her, where the woman performs her own amateur inspection.

birthing_chair-1
Roman woman laboring in a birthing chair – Ostia

The structure of the Roman family surrounded a male head – the paterfamilias. This man literally held the power of life and death over members of his family. When an infant was born to the household, he often relied on the expertise and report of the midwife to determine if the child would be accepted into the family at all.[1] Rejection meant the infant would be exposed and would ultimately die. If the child was lucky or unlucky, depending on your perspective, he/she would be found and picked up to be raised as a slave.

There were several things that went into this decision, the most obvious being the infant’s health and form. A child that appeared sickly or weak, or was born malformed was likely rejected by the paterfamilias and left exposed to the elements and wild animals. This practice, cruel to modern audiences, was a sensible act in the perspective of Roman society, which greatly valued accomplishment and success over potential.

The paterfamilias also had to consider the family’s resources as well as the planning of

Bronze-Statue-of-the-Founders-of-Rome-with-their-Wolf-Mother-at-the-Capitoline-Museum-1418053816841
Wolf nursing the mythological founders of Rome – Romulus and Remus

inheritances. If the family would be financially challenged or the addition of another child could disrupt an already well-distributed and portioned inheritance among the current members of the family, he may also choose to order the infant to be left to exposure. Mothers had little legal say in such decisions.

As a modern audience, this system is horrifying. Yet to Romans, while it could be difficult, it was part of the weight the paterfamilias was expected to bear. Even adult family members could be, in extreme situations legally executed. In one source, we are given the perspective of a paterfamilias on such decisions.

“For when in my Garden I prune and cut off the lower branches which grow about the Lettice, the mother and root of them is so farre from being grieved threat, that she flourishes the better, and becometh both fairer and sweeter.”[2]

For Western civilizations, whose cultures have been reshaped by the evolution of primogeniture and Christianity, it is difficult to understand the cultural perspectives of Roman society. Modern Western culture greatly values potential. We see abilities as innate and present from birth, we often celebrate natural-born talents over accomplishments. We particularly hail intelligence, something the individual has no control over. The Romans thought well enough of intelligence, but it was like finding a wad of fine clay, a raw material and its final form unpredictable.

For the Romans, potential held little value. The process of becoming something was not particularly important, instead the arrival, the achievement of success was the defining factor of value. Infants are the epitome of undefined potential. There is much possibility as well as the possibility of nothing at all, either from infant and child death or simply

PeroCimon
Pero Nursing Cimon – Pompeii

lack of ability or some character flaw. The Roman story of a daughter Pero, who breastfed her father Cimon jail is a great example. Despite the creepy imagery, to the Romans this story was a celebration of Pero’s dedication and loyalty to her father—the paterfamilias. For anyone who knows about milk production, we have to understand that she would have nursed her father at the expense of her infant.

Another part of the weak value system surrounding infants was the fluidity of familial relations in terms of birthright—in that the station of birth did not determine ownership of the inheritance of titles or wealth. Blood relation was not absolute. For example, it would have been ludicrous for an exposed infant to somehow survive and grow to adulthood and attempt to return to claim connection or inheritance from their birth family. That sort of thing was an element of fantastic stories instead of daily realities. Additionally, Romans frequently practiced adoption of both children and adults. Adoption was the cementation of clan affiliation and loyalty, a binding as close as family ties. These arrangements had less to do with charity, but more often the loyalty and demonstrated capabilities of the adoptee who would often become a designated heir. Or the establishment of a heir in the absence of children.

To a lesser degree, but still important, these bonds could also be created through marriage. However, marriages were broken relatively easily, especially among the elite for more advantageous matches, there was little care if there had been children from the previous marriage. The first emperor of Rome, Augustus had Livia’s marriage dissolved so he could marry her himself while she was still pregnant with her then-husband’s child. The inheritance of property or titles did not necessarily follow family lines, but instead, clan loyalty and could be designated and re-designated by the paterfamilias at will. Neither was there any particular hierarchy based on birth order.

220px-Livia_Drusila_-_Paestum_(M.A.N._Madrid)_02
Livia

All of these factors contributed to small importance placed on a family to produce children, as well as a low emphasis on motherhood, especially when attached to a woman’s identity and societal expectations. While women held limited formal legal and political power, they were not seen as mere vessels of childbirth and had access to education and freedom of movement. When it came to education, the real factor was wealth. In government, women were not at all invisible and were often figures of significant influence. They held roles that could vary, as wives and mothers, but also serving time in religious life or the pursuit of education. Most upper class women hired wet nurses to provide milk for their infants, choosing to free themselves from the duty. There is some evidence that points to the possible existence of a wet-nurse marketplace, where potential women to fill the role could be interviewed and hired.

Certainly, there were differences in families on how much say a woman held over the acceptance or rejection of her newborn into the family and therefore life. Depending on 00bed8f0387dcaec1669e71fab387b3dthe paterfamilias some women most likely were allowed to make that decision, or heavily influenced a decision. There were women who likely agonized over a malformed child, fought the decisions of their paterfamilias and others who were more accepting over it. The way Romans saw infants seems to indicate that they may have viewed infant exposure as equal to a late stage abortion or even an act of mercy for a sick infant or a household with financial constraints.

Before the popular spread of Christianity, Roman women enjoyed greater value as part of the Empire for their family connections and individual demonstrated capabilities. Small esteem was placed on women as mothers comparatively and even less on an infant’s life.

The importance of these roles would be reshaped with the spread of Christianity. The Western European world would create a system that depended on blood-relations and the birth of heirs. As a result, women lost significant personal freedoms, gained singular value as mothers and the birth of children would become of utmost importance.

In the next part of this series, I will discuss how these things changed, the effects on society and the new realities of exalted motherhood.

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Featured Image: Neaera Reading a Letter Catullus (Henry John Hudson)/ Photo Credit Bradford Museums and Galleries

[1] Soranus. Gynecology. Translated by Owsei Temkin. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1956), 80.

[2] Claudius Aelianus. “XXIV: Of a Father Who Accused His Son of a Capital Crime.” University of Chicago. Accessed April 1, 2018,   http://penelope.uchicago.edu/aelian/varhist1.xhtml#chap34

Metis: Mother of Wisdom

by Meagan Logsdon

The ancient world often portrayed its wisdom figures—whether literal divinity or personification of virtue—as feminine. The Greeks gravitated toward this in the form of Athena, wisdom-warrior goddess, and later in the form of Sophia, one of Plato’s four cardinal virtues. Yet before these two more renowned figures was Metis.

Housefly_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_18050Hesiod’s Theogany[1] places Metis among the second generation of Titans. She is the daughter of Oceanus and Tethys, and her siblings numbered in the thousands. Hesiod calls her the wisest among both gods and mortals. Zeus took her as his first wife, perhaps desiring to have constant access to her counsels as he was establishing his rule. However, Metis was prophesied to bear children who would inherit her great wisdom and who could potentially overthrow Zeus. To prevent this, Zeus deceived Metis into transforming herself into a fly, whereupon he swallowed her, unaware that Metis had already conceived a child. For Zeus, it was enough that he had corralled Metis in such a way that she would never bear her fated children but would still “devise for him both good and evil.”

Lodged in the belly of her husband, Metis did not sit idle. She crafted weapons and armor for her daughter, Athena, and when she sprang from Zeus’s head on the banks of the river Trito, she was fully matured and battle-ready. Pindar, in his Seventh Olympian Ode[2], tells further that Hephaestus split Zeus’s head with an axe so that Athena could emerge, perhaps because the smithing of Metis was so painfully cacophonous to the thunder god.

Pallas_Athena_by_Franz_von_Stuck
Pallas Athena by Franz von Stuck (1898)

Neither Hesiod nor Pindar shed any light on how Zeus was able to trick Metis, and so here we enter the realm of speculation. Could it be that Metis perceived her husband’s fears in light of the prophecy and, rather than leaving him and risk the world crumbling into chaos in her absence, altered herself to perpetuate the effects of her own wisdom in Zeus’s rule? She knew his might alone would not be sufficient to maintain order. Into his depths she went, creating a somewhat blurred symbiosis of masculinity and femininity from which issued Athena, out of her mother’s womb first but then her father also—a womb containing a womb.

This dependence of rulers on feminine wisdom is carried over into Plato’s Republic[3], where he envisions the head of his utopia as a philosopher king, a friend to the feminine embodiment of Wisdom or Sophia. Plato also calls Sophia the noblest of the parts of virtue in his Protagoras.[4]

A similar personification of Divine Wisdom as feminine can be found in the Hebrew scriptures. The first chapter of Proverbs entreats the hearer to heed Wisdom’s voice and avoid disaster.[5] Some of the early Christian Fathers, including Justin Martyr and Origen, would eventually attempt to marry Platonic philosophy with these passages, describing the Divine Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) as an aspect of the Logos—the pre-incarnated, cosmic Christ—from John 1.[6] Here in Christianity, too, is the universe born and sustained through the partnership of masculinity and femininity.

Thus, when vehicles change—Greek mythology to philosophy to Christianity—Divine Wisdom, following in Metis’s metamorphosing footsteps, changes with them. Yet always, in whatever form, she persists as a creative force, a vital bulwark against disorder.

Jacques_Louis_Dubois_-_Minerva
Minerva by Jacques Louis Dubois

[1] http://www.theoi.com/Text/HesiodTheogony.html#n30

[2] http://www.bartleby.com/library/prose/4043.html

[3] http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.html

[4] http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/protagoras.html

[5] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Proverbs+1%3A20-33&version=NRSV

[6] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+1%3A1-5&version=NRSV

Daphne’s Laurel Tree and the Me Too Movement

by K.P. Kulski

In ancient awareness, trees have continually played an important role in symbolism across the world, through many cultures and belief systems. Some examples include the Celtic Tree of Life, the Norse Yggdrasil (symbols particularly popularized in the neo-The_Ash_Yggdrasil_by_Friedrich_Wilhelm_Heinepagan movement of modern day), the Bodhi Tree, its very name meaning the awakening or enlightenment of Buddha, and the Tree of Knowledge of the Judaic tradition. In each depiction, there are strong connections to humanity and the human experience. While the divine, or immortal may be connected to the tree, it is often in a human-like capacity that ascends into some type of enlightenment (in the case of monotheism, knowledge that leads to disaster). This can be explained by the idea that the tree is a mirror of humanity itself – ever rooted to the Earth by reaching for something greater, something higher, caught in a state in-between.

As symbols of humanity, there are plenty of male and female connections to them. However, there are very specific demonstrations of female links that seem to be Stone_Buddha_covered_in_tree_rootsrepetitive in Western culture. I’d like to examine these through the lens of the Greek myth of Daphne, the nymph lustfully pursued by Apollo until she is transformed into the laurel tree in order to escape. It is a timely myth to revisit for the modern audience, as many women via the Me Too movement have spoken out against male sexual misconduct, particularly from powerful men. It has spurred not only conversations on the sexual harassment, pressure and assault on women, but questions concerning sex and power dynamics.

In Greek mythology, there are plenty of stories that feature a deity and a mortal love-interest. In many cases, the female mortal or lesser immortal (such as a nymph) is unwilling, and is subsequently seduced, pressured, tricked or raped into compliance to the god’s desires. Frequently, these women become pregnant from the encounter and face tragedies or suffer greatly because of it. Because of this, it is not surprising that women would spurn interest from a god as at least an unwelcome complication, or laurel-forest-2228307_960_720greater, a life-threatening or ruining possibility.

Daphne, faced with Apollo’s lust (which is sometimes described as love but is clearly of a purely sexual nature) rebuffs him because she has declared a life free from the complications of men in the model of the goddess Artemis. Daphne treasures her freedom and lives a life hunting and roaming free in the woods. Edith Hamilton remarks that Apollo saw Daphne in a state of physical disarray while she hunted, yet he was entranced saying, “what would she not look like properly dressed and with her hair nicely arranged?”[1]

This is a significant statement, as it alludes to “taming” something wild. The trappings of civilization, where society will ultimately insist on marriage, childbirth and domestic activities for women, are all things Daphne wishes to avoid. The pursuit of Apollo can be symbolic of the pursuit of society for women to acquiesce with societal expectations. Further, submission to male authority.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini DaphneDaphne is described as athletic and when she flees, she gives a difficult pursuit for Apollo. But he is ultimately a god, so he is able to gain ground on her. Despite Daphne’s abilities, she cannot escape Apollo’s will. We could read this as despite female abilities and potential, women cannot escape society’s will.

Except Daphne does escape. She escapes by changing form, calling upon her father who transforms her at the last minute into a laurel tree. At this point, the myth describes Apollo’s continued “love” for her and elevation of the laurel tree in his esteem. But that glosses over the significance of Daphne’s shape-shifting as a proclamation of both the extremes women’s struggle with patriarchal cultural construction as well as a dire but possible avenue of escape. Daphne’s transformation makes her untouchable, even from men of power.

But what does that mean?

The cover of trees in both history and storytelling have provided exiles from society to

The Dryad
The Dryad

practice religions of their choosing, avoid capture and to create new lives. We might first think of Robin Hood’s Band of Merry Men. Yet it is the overtures of female mysticism that are strongly associated with the woods. In Western lore, the image of the forest dwelling witch pervades mythologies, fairytales and later religious persecution. In the latter, late medieval and early modern witch-hunts believed that women witches held ecstatic gatherings in the woods under the cover of darkness where they dedicated themselves to and engaged in sexual acts with Satan. The Maenads, the cult of Dionysius (or Bacchus in the Roman period) featured similar ecstatic and sexual forest gatherings of mostly women that often resulted in acts of violence.

The forest has often been a place of hiding, where things deemed socially unacceptable were practiced. It can offer refuge, but not without threat. The Tree of Knowledge of the Judaic tradition is forbidden, but Eden partakes unwittingly in a trade of knowledge for John Roddam Spencerthe withdrawal of God’s protection. In Celtic culture, trees, or a grove can serve as a gateway to the realm of the faery, a mysterious world of amazement and entrapment, rife with equal parts wonder and danger. Such transformations and withdrawal from societal cooperation are by nature threatening to that society, but there is a freedom that can be found.

These examples have been loud ones, stories and events that often served as subconscious warnings against the desire for liberation from patriarchal structures. Yet the mythological figure of the dryad, or other faery stories such as “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” construct a different outcome. In the case of the dryad, a female nature spirit that lives within and/or is one with a tree, the transformation and womanhood coexist. If we considered Daphne’s transformation into the laurel, akin to the existence of the dryad, then indeed, Daphne not only escaped Apollo but society itself, becoming instead a protective presence.

John_William_Waterhouse_-_La_Belle_Dame_sans_Merci_(1893)I met a lady in the meads,

Full beautiful – a faery’s child,

Her hair was long, her foot was light,

And her eyes were wild.[2]

John Keats describes the faery woman – la belle dame sans merci (the beautiful lady without mercy) as Apollo may have described his sighting of Daphne as she hunted. But the power structure is different, the rules of society reversed or if you will, transformed. Here the faery woman has the power.

I saw pale kings and princes too,

Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;

They cried – ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci

Thee hath in thrall!’

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,

With horrid warning gaped wide[3]

We could consider this from a negative perspective, that such a link is a sinister one, a LaBelleDame-Cowper-Lwarning to men of what could happen if women were allowed such self-direction. Indeed it hints at the very destruction of male power structures, “…pale kings and princes too, pale warriors, death-pale were they all.”

However, in its place is the woman, forced to transform in order to escape. Despite this, she has changed herself and her reality. By doing so, she has saved herself from abuse and violence, and further has claimed an unconventional power over her person, ultimately escaping patriarchal cultural requirements.

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[1] Edith Hamilton, Mythology (New York: New American Library, 1969), 115.

[2] John Keats, “La Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad” Poetry Foundation. Accessed 08 MAR 2018. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44475/la-belle-dame-sans-merci-a-ballad

[3] Ibid.

The Morrigan and the Illusion of Identity

by E.J. Lawrence

Growing up, one of my very favorite book series was The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander. I actually, purely by accident, read the series out of order. I saw The High King at my local library and thought it looked like just the sort of book I would enjoy. Little did I know it was the last book in a series. I eventually read all the other books…then read them again…and a few dozen times more after that. In fact, I just revisited them over Christmas. They deal with typical themes found in children’s literature, but one of the profound messages it contains is its message on identity–delivered both through the hero-with-no-past, Taran…and also through three shapeshifting enchantresses.

If you’re unfamiliar with the books, they’re about an orphan boy (because all great fantasies start with orphans) named Taran who is raised by a great magician. But Taran has no magic of his own; he’s only the “assistant pig keeper” who, like most children in these tales, wants to seek adventure outside of the confines of his farm. In The Black Cauldron (the book, not the Disney movie), Taran and his adventuring group stumble upon the Marshes of Morva and three old women. The old women are comical, talking about things such as whether they should eat the adventurers or turn them into toads and what-not. Naturally, this makes the group uneasy (for they do not want to be turned into toads), but draws laughter from the young audience (who finds the idea rather ridiculous).

That night, the group camps outside of the three women’s home, and Taran sneaks up to their window, only to catch a magnificent sight–the three old women aren’t old after all, but young, beautiful maidens weaving a tapestry he can’t really see.1

The next morning, the women (old, again), offer to give Taran and his friends the cauldron they seek, if Taran will give up his most valuable possession–a brooch that helps him portend the future. Yet, even as he does so, he recognizes that the three women meant him to find the cauldron, and also that they meant for him to trade his brooch for it.2 This realization makes the young man uneasy–yes, the three old women look ridiculous and sound a bit flighty and perhaps seem frail…but they possess a danger he would do well to fear.

MachaIt wasn’t until years later, on re-reading this series yet again, that I even thought to take a peek at the “Author’s Note” at the front of the book. There I discovered that Alexander drew much of his inspiration for The Prydain Chronicles from the Welsh Mabinogi, and that many of his ideas and characters were a part of Welsh legend. Who, then, are the three old women from the Marshes of Morva? The women who appear as they wish to be seen? Whose power is dangerous because it is undefined?

The Morrigan is a Welsh triune goddess whose form changes as she wills, and who, it seems, possesses a power that is feared above else. She is the goddess of war and death, whose form as the raven is an ill-omen before battle. In fact, in “The Children of Lir,” one character says just that. Aoife, after having turned the children of Lir into swans against the gods’ will, faces punishment from her foster-father. She begs that he spare her life, and he responds:

“That I will, for the snuffing out of your soul is but to show you mercy. Answer this question, for you are bound to do so: of everything that is on the earth, or above it, or beneath it, or everything that flies or creeps or burrows, seen or unseen, horrible in itself or in its nature, tell me what do you most fear and abhor?”3

Shaking, she replies:

“I fear Macha, Badb, and Nemain, the three forms of the Morrigan, the goddess of war, of death and slaughter, and most of all, her blood-drinking raven form.”4

Because she says this, he deems her punishment to be trapped in the form of a raven andMorrigan haunt battlefields forever.

And therein lies the true horror of shapeshifting–does becoming the thing you most fear help you overcome fear? Or just become fear itself?

In the case of the Morrigan, she is feared because she is unknown. She is unknown because her nature can never be pinned down. She is the goddess of war, but also a mother. She presides over fear and death, but also over love and life. She takes, but she can also give. She is an ugly hag, a beautiful maiden, a raven, a banshee. She is the “Phantom Queen.”

Even her modern moniker–“phantom queen”–gives us insight into her nature. “Phantom” means “illusory” or even something that exists in one’s mind, giving the impression that she is not actually real. The wailing on the battlefield is all misleading; the raven portending death in war is a figment of imagination. In shifting her shape to take on other identities, the Morrigan has no identity at all.

Lloyd Alexander addresses this idea in the last book of his series, The High King, when the women of Morva come back to visit Taran after he has defeated the Death-Lord. They return in the form he once spied them in–beautiful maidens. Two wore robes of shifting colors, while the third remained shadowed in a cloak of black,5 depicting the shifting nature of the Morrigan, but also the constancy of darkness and fear. He admits that he did not recognize them at first, and one reminds him they choose their form as the situation “seems to require it.”6

They tell him they have come to deliver a tapestry to him–the same tapestry he’d seen them weaving all those years ago. It’s his tapestry, with the story of his life. They did not choose the pattern, they say; he did that. They just thought he should see what the result was of his choices.7 But, he tells them, he no longer sees his path clearly, and then says, “No longer do I understand my own heart. Why does my grief shadow my joy?”8 For this, they have no answer and fade away, leaving him (and us) to question.

And therein lies the truth of shapeshifting–we fear it because it is us.

At the end of the series, Taran realizes that he is not who he was before; he did not know himself then, and he isn’t sure he knows himself now. Perhaps we do become what we fear; we change our shapes “as the situation seems to require”; we lose our identity in the sea of identities.

Corvus_albicollis_flight
By MBoy68 – Flickr: White-necked Raven, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16122866

Though Aoife lives the rest of her days as a raven, she is not burdened by the quest for identity, as the Morrigan is; as we all are. And perhaps it is not fit to think of identity as clothes we slip on and off. We fear what is illusory and crave permanence. But while permanence cannot be found in an identity that alters with the wind, perhaps it is through the illusory quest that we find our permanence. With every shape we put on, we come closer and closer to the true one.

For, as Alexander reminds his young readers, identity is perhaps more about altering our perceptions than our shapes. In Taran Wanderer, Taran goes to the Morrigan and asks for their help in uncovering who he really is. Instead, they offer to turn him into any animal he likes. Offended, he refuses their offer, and one of the women says, “We were only trying to make things easier for you.”9 It’s much easier, she seems to say, to change the outward appearance and accept that as inward reality than it is try it the other way around.

We often place value in appearances; “what you see is what you get.” And yet, so often, the outward appearance is a mask for a false identity. There is no easy answer or path for how to discern reality from illusion, but it is a journey worth taking.

 

“Is a man truly what he sees himself to be?’

“Only if what he sees is true.”10

 

Works Cited:

  1. Alexander, Lloyd. The Black Cauldron, 1965, Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1990, pp. 147-148.
  2. Ibid, pp. 160-161.
  3. Ellis, Peter Berresford. Celtic Myths and Legends, Constable and Robins, 2002, pp. 64.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Alexander, Lloyd. The High King, 1968, Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1990, pp. 285.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid, pp. 286.
  8. Ibid, pp. 287.
  9. Alexander, Lloyd. Taran Wanderer, 1967, Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1990.
  10. Ibid.