Let’s Get the Party Started: The Feast of the Thesmophoria and Laughter

By K.P. Kulski

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Ancient Greek representation of Iambê, the Goddess of Humor

Harvest is a time of celebration and plenty. It is a time when the wealth of a civilization pours forth, is stored, stacked, preserved and consumed. For many ancient civilizations, the crop itself was an embodiment of the death of the god, the sacrifice of a male deity in order to feed the masses. Leaving a mother goddess, who is represented by the earth to go through the winter months solitary. In the ancient Greek world, the mother goddess Demeter must relinquish her daughter Persephone to the underworld for the winter. The world transforms from fruitful to barren for the season.

As desolate as this sounds, there is more to it. According the Hymn to Demeter, a text imagesimportant to the Eleusinian Mystery cult, the goddess was indeed desolate without her daughter. She was in great mourning when Hades stole away her daughter Persephone. When Demeter later stayed at the hall of a great queen, she remained depressed and despondent, unable and unwilling to find joy in anything. “Unsmiling, not partaking of food or drink, she sat there, wasting away with yearning for her daughter…”[i] This story is horribly tragic. This is about a mother’s loss, one that she could do nothing to change.

You’re probably wondering when I’m going to start talking about partying. The feast of Thesmophoria was exactly that, a party that was meant to reenact the exchange between Iambê and Demeter. Oh, and this party had one very specific guest list – no one else but adult women.

Demeter Mourning PersephoneSeeing Demeter’s state, Iambê, true to her nature began to tease the mother goddess by telling jokes. Her use of humor brought a smile to Demeter, then eventually the mother goddess found herself laughing and enjoying herself. “Iambê, the one who knows what is dear and what is not, started making fun. Making many jokes, she turned the Holy Lady’s disposition in another direction, making her smile and laugh and have a merry thûmos.”[ii]

How does this fit together? How can a mother, stricken with sorrow over the loss of her daughter, find it alright to laugh, to find some measure of happiness?

The ancient Greek women who attended the Thesmophoria reenacted Iambê’s actions by telling jokes of their own. The feast was meant to be fun, a place to let go of social graces and to bring laughter, including raunchy jokes. It was a moment to let go of pain, responsibility and burden. Temporary release, but a release nonetheless.

'Thesmophoria'_by_Francis_Davis_Millet,_1894-1897

Without the presence of men and children, these ancient Greek women were free from labels that were defined women’s roles by men and family. She is a woman, among women. In the Hymn, Iambê demonstrates camaraderie with Demeter and dearly wishes to please the mother goddess. She wishes to give Demeter some joy, any joy in a difficult time. Today, there is plenty of scientific evidence of the healing effects of laughter, it is even used by counselors and psychologists as a technique to help patients. Modern humorist Erma Bombeck said, “There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.” Most comedy today hits on painful experiences, with witty observations that reveal how absurd the truth really can be.

So each year, women in the ancient Greek world got together, had a party and sought to make each other laugh. There is much more to the rituals and celebrations of the Eleusinian Mysteries and a great deal of it remains…well, a mystery to us. However, the Thesmophoria remains my favorite. Perhaps it’s because a part of me wishes we had something just like it today.

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[i] “Homeric Hymn to Demeter.” trans. Gregory Nagy, University of Houston, Accessed 08 Sep 2018, http://www.uh.edu/~cldue/texts/demeter.html.

[ii] Ibid.

Dualistic Identities and the Goddesses of Dark Places

by K.P. Kulski

In ancient mythologies, goddesses dominate the dark depths of the Earth. Early civilizations based particularly in Mesopotamia, the Mediterranean and Europe strongly associate the Earth with primordial forces of creation. In past articles I’ve discussed the ancient associations with wombs and the underground. Yet these are extremely cyclic and dualistic. Essentially, in the eyes many ancient belief systems, one cannot have death without birth, birth without death.

In the same vein, mother goddesses are just as prevalent as goddesses of death. Whether it be the womb or the grave, both sides have dark overtones. But understandably, goddesses of death also reign over the underworld, therefore have direct a connection with darkness. We tend to see death/dark goddesses as counterparts to goddesses that represent life or the living. I’d argue that we are thinking about it in reverse and instead those goddesses of life are counterparts to death. In some cases, such as Nyx (which I will discuss more below), dark goddesses are not directly linked to death, but instead with the lack of life and light. Or even a state that existed before creation. So importantly, these are goddesses that existed and reigned long before life itself.

Burney-ReliefThe Sumerian Ereshkigal is one of the earliest examples of an underground death goddesses. She is featured prominently in the Descent of Inanna, as her sister who ultimately slays Inanna and hangs the body on a meat hook along the wall of the afterlife. Inanna’s journey to the underworld is a process of stripping away parts of herself, culminating eventually in the stripping of her very life. Ereshkigal slays her sister because all those who enter the underworld must experience death. “She who receive the me of the underworld does not return. She who goes to the Dark City stays there.”[1] It hits on the great mystery almost all of us wonder, what happens after life? If anything? Of course, the answer to this comes with great cost.

The Norse goddess Hel, dwells in Niflheim where she presides over the dead who were not chosen for Odin’s Valhalla or Freyja’s Fólkvangr. Meaning, she presides over the dead who did not die in battle or do not have what would qualify as a noble death. Hel’s realm doesn’t offer the feeling of continuance like Valhalla and Fólkvangr, it is a rather final, inglorious, an eternal state of dark. Even Baldur, one of the most loved of the gods cannot easily escape Hel’s realm. When the gods sought his return to the living, Hel declared she would only allow it if all things grieved for him. Note, she held dominion over death and not even the gods could make demands of her. Of course, someone wasn’t all that big of a fan of Baldur and did not grieve, so he continued to be quite dead.

The Greek goddess Nyx mentioned above, is an excellent example of a goddess of darkness, or in this case, specifically the goddess of the night. While she is not Myths_and_legends_of_Babylonia_and_Assyria_(1916)_(14801964123)specifically linked to death, her nature is ultimately both primordial and dualistic. She existed before the world was created. Her identity is both the absence of light as well as the absence of order and one can further compare a symbolic connection to life and death cycles. Interestingly enough, Nyx is believed to have been the mother of the incarnations of light and day. Again, the dualistic existence is prominent. Cycles are of utmost importance as one exists alongside the other.

The Greek goddess Persephone contains this dualistic nature within one figure. She is both the goddess of spring (and therefore renewal and life), but cyclically dwells with her husband Hades in the underworld. Her absence on the surface brings the seasonal “death” of Autumn and Winter. (Check out other Unbound articles on Persephone here and here.)

These goddesses held such power that even the other deities in their pantheons were not immune from them. Burial of the dead is much like returning to the womb, to the dark sacred space of mystery.

To the ancients, the two states weren’t much different.

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[1] Diane Wolkstein and Samuel Noah Kramer, eds., Inanna Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns From Sumer, (New York: Harper & Row, 1983), 61.

Featured image credit: Demonic Paradise 

Persephone and the Discomfort of Darkness

by Carrie Gessner

Imagery is one of the most important and versatile aspects of fiction. Especially in fantasy, we tend to default to symbolizing goodness with light and evil with darkness. Just consider Star Wars (which I classify as space fantasy). Not only are the villains aligned with the literal dark side, but the major bad guys—Darth Vader, Palpatine, even some stormtroopers—are decked out in black. Anakin’s clothes start out as tan and light colors but slowly turn darker as he approaches his alliance with the dark side itself. Visually, this can be fantastic shorthand, and not just in movies. We use it in fiction all the time, too.

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Proserpine by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1874

Outside of the black-and-white, good-and-bad binaries, though, darkness embodies uncertainty, and uncertainty makes us uncomfortable. What could be more uncertain and uncomfortable than the prospect of what happens to us after we die? It’s a question people have been wrestling with for millennia, as evidenced by the some of the stories that have survived thousands of years. One of the most well known in the western world is the Greek myth of Persephone, sometimes known as Proserpina or Cora.

Together with her mother, Demeter, Persephone represents the natural agricultural cycle—the planting and sprouting of seeds followed by the maturation of the harvest. The last piece of the cycle, the coming of winter and dormancy of the natural world, comes later on, following Hades’s abduction of Persephone (courtesy of the earth splitting open and a golden chariot). In her grief for her missing daughter, Demeter ceases to perform her godly duties and allows the earth to wither.

When Zeus realizes he must intervene, he sends other gods as messengers to Demeter, but Demeter doesn’t listen. “Never would she let the earth bear fruit until she had seen her daughter” [1]. And so Zeus sends Hermes to retrieve Persephone from the underworld, but not before Hades gives her a pomegranate seed to eat, ensuring she must return to him. Rhea tells Demeter of the compromise:

Come once again to the halls of the gods where you shall have honor,
Where you will have your desire, your daughter, to comfort your sorrow
As each year is accomplished and bitter winter is ended.
For a third part only the kingdom of darkness shall hold her.
For the rest you will keep her, you and the happy immortals. [2]

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Narcissus by John William Waterhouse, 1912

Though Persephone is allowed to live with her mother for two-thirds of the year, she must return to the underworld for the remaining four months. “In Homer the underworld is vague, a shadowy place inhabited by shadows. Nothing is real there. The ghosts’ existence, if it can be called that, is like a miserable dream.” [3] What must it be like to be like to be mistress of such a place?

stqI think that’s one of the questions more modern fiction, in the form of retellings and adaptations of Persephone’s tale, likes to explore. Roshani Chokshi’s The Star-Touched Queen is a fantasy novel that’s inspired by India and Indian mythology [4], but because every culture has myths exploring the mystery of death, there are obvious similarities to Persephone’s story. The Star-Touched Queen tells the story of Mayavati, the princess of Bharata, whose fate is to be married to death and destruction. In an effort to escape war and almost certain death, Maya pledges herself to Amar, lord of Akaran, “a kingdom of impossible power” and “a kingdom that all nations feared.” All too soon, Maya realizes that Akaran is really Naraka, the realm of the dead, and Amar is “the lord of justice in the afterlife” [5]. As the story goes on, she must learn how to trust the man who decides fates and how she fits into his world.

A lot of times, when we retell myths or write stories inspired by them, we give more agency to the female characters, which is part of the reason we keep returning to them. As for why Persephone’s story in particular commands such attention, I think it has a lot to do with the liminal darkness of the underworld and the discomfort it inspires. We grow stagnant if we stay in one place for too long. Discomfort pushes us to change, and Persephone’s story is a clear representation of that process.


[1] Hamilton, Edith. Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes. Warner Books, 1999. 53.

[2] Ibid., 54.

[3] Ibid., 39-40.

[4] “Questions about The Star-Touched Queen.” Goodreads, https://www.goodreads.com/questions/766624-is-there-an-indian-myth-or-fairy-tale-this. Accessed 10 Aug. 2018.

[5] Chokshi, Roshani. The Star-Touched Queen. St. Martin’s Press, 2016. 171.

 

Recommended Sites: The History of Ancient Greece Podcast

We’re taking a week off, BUT stay-tuned for the kick-off of our July theme of Women and the Ocean next Monday.

In the meantime, if you enjoy our analysis of the Ancient Greek world, I recommend taking a gander over to The History of Ancient Greece Podcast. Their latest episode is on the “Goddess of the Young” which explores the paradox of Artemis, young women and childbirth.

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Featured image credit: The History of Ancient Greece Podcast

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.

The Face that Launched a Thousand Ships…and Helen of Troy

by E.J. Lawrence

Last month, I promised to cover Helen of Troy eventually. Since this month’s theme is “We Thought We Knew Her,” I thought it would be a good opportunity to do just that.

I certainly had an “I thought I knew her” moment with Helen of Troy when I read Homer’s Iliad for the first time. The plot of The Iliad was one my teachers had explained before, but somehow I got through school without ever having to read it. So it was an adult discovery, and boy, was I ever shocked!

Especially about Helen.

You see, I’d always heard the story of the Trojan War. The beauty contest between Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. How Paris chose Aphrodite because…well…love (*ahem* lust). How Aphrodite arranged for Paris to meet Helen. How Paris and Helen went back to his house in Troy…but Helen was already married, and her husband came after her. She was “the face that launched a thousand ships.” And, gosh, kind of a tart for leaving her husband.

And then I read The Iliad. While there were many things that surprised me in that text, I would like to focus on three misconceptions I had about Helen that were reversed in reading this text. Please keep in mind that Homer’s version of the story isn’t the only one, and thus these statements may be true in other versions. Still, Homer’s is a more holistic version, including perspectives from many of the main players in this drama which is why I find it a more “true-to-meaning” version.

Abduction_of_Helen_of_Troy_by_John_Cheere,_1700s,_loosely_based_on_an_original_by_Phillipe_Bertrand_-_Wrest_Park_-_Bedfordshire,_England_-_DSC08322
Abduction of Helen of Troy (John Cheere, c. 1700s)

Misconception #1: Helen went with Paris willingly

In truth…

Helen was tricked into leaving Menelaus, and Homer makes it clear she’s unhappy and torn in Troy. She blames herself for the war, but it doesn’t mean she’s worthy of blame.

She tells Priam, her new father-in-law:

“Would that evil death had been my pleasure when I followed thy son hither, and left my bridal chamber and my kinfolk and my daughter, well-beloved, and the lovely companions of my girlhood. But that was not to be; wherefore I pine away with weeping” (Book III.171).

He replies that she is not to blame for the war, but that doesn’t mean Helen becomes any happier. Though Priam is sincere, she doesn’t really seem to believe him.

In Colluthus’ The Rape of Helen, Paris is disguised as Eros, the god of love (most know him as Cupid, his Romanized name). Helen follows Eros, who reveals himself to Helen as the prince of Troy and “judge of goddesses” (because he’s super humble). Helen agrees to go, saying that she does “not fear Menelaus when Troy shall have known me” (305).

This does seem to suggest that she goes willingly, doesn’t it?…

Perhaps. Until one notices the name of the poem, The Rape of Helen. The word “rape” in its earliest usage could mean an unwanted sexual advance, but it actually meant more than that. Its more common meaning was to be taken by force, i.e. kidnapped. This shows that, if it were not for the interference of the gods (and Paris), Helen would not have gone of her own free will.

In Homer, Helen blames herself for the war, but Priam is there to remind her that “thou art nowise to blame in my eyes; it is the gods, methinks, that are to blame, who roused against me the tearful war of the Achaeans” (Book III).

Whether by Paris or the gods (or both), Helen was kidnapped and is not in Troy voluntarily.

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Helen of Troy (Gaston Brussiere, 1895)

Misconception #2: Helen’s face “launched a thousand ships.”

A truer way to say this may be…

Menelaus launched a thousand ships.

A lot is made of Helen’s beauty and the fact that the war was fought over her (which I’ll address below), but the fact is that many of the men fighting under Menelaus thought the war was pointless and didn’t even want to go. In The Iliad, for instance, Achilles doesn’t want to be there. He actually spends half of the book sitting in his tent refusing to fight because Agamemnon stole his slave girl (did I mention these guys were *super* petulant?). When he does fight, it’s only because Hector killed his BFF Patroclus; definitely not because he cared about getting Helen back.

Even without Homer, though, the other myths about Achilles tell us that he hid among a harem of women just to avoid being dragged into Menelaus’ war in the first place.

Odysseus pretended to be insane to get out of fighting.

For the Trojan side, Hector calls his own brother “evil” and a player (to use the modern term), and he pities Helen. In Book VI, he tells, Paris, “Thy people are perishing about the town and the steep wall in battle, and it is because of thee that the battle-cry and the war are ablaze about this city” (bolding mine), but he is always kind to Helen, and she even remarks that he and Priam alone have shown her such kindness.

Thus, it seems those closest to Paris and Menelaus know Helen is an excuse for the ships, not a reason.

Frederic_Leighton_-_Helen_On_The_Walls_Of_Troy
Helen on the Walls of Troy (Frederic Leighton, 1865) *I love how evident Helen’s pain is in this painting*

Misconception #3: The Ten-Year Trojan War was Fought over Helen

Actually…

Helen was incidental in the war.

In the poem, people often say, “we’re doing this for Helen” or “this war is for Helen,” but as the old saying goes, there are always two reasons for war: the stated reason, and the actual reason. The stated reason is Helen. The actual reason is…stupidity.

In many ways, The Iliad is an anti-war text. It certainly doesn’t shy away from showing the evils of war, as well as the impact war has on the innocent. Take, for instance, one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the poem (**SPOILER ALERT**): While Hector is being slaughtered by Achilles and his body is being desecrated, Hector’s wife is upstairs in the palace, drawing him a bath (Book XXII). The contrast of Hector–arguably the most admirable warrior in the entire text–being killed in an “unfair” manner while his wife prepares for his return from battle sends a clear message that war destroys lives and families.

The other thing to consider is how much of a moron Paris is. He’s the one who starts the whole mess by selecting Aphrodite in the first place. What Hera and Athena promise him are far more lasting investments. What Aphrodite offers is a temporary investment–Helen won’t remain beautiful forever. Even the start of the war has nothing to do with Helen, not really. Rather, it’s about Paris’ sexual gratification because Helen is never anything more than an object to Paris.

Then, once Paris gets Helen, it becomes about Menelaus’ pride. Helen almost becomes collateral damage, which is the true tragedy of the story.

One might think this is a “modern interpretation.” That perhaps the ancient readers would be able to accept Helen as the “plot device” for starting the war and her fading into the background is just a part of it.

But if that were the case, I would not be writing this post and certainly not for this blog, which aims to show the prevalence of women in ancient literature.

Because even Homer himself acknowledges on multiple occasions that it is not for the sake of Helen the person, but Helen as object that they fight. This, according to Homer, is pointless and unfair, not only Helen and the Trojan women, but to the warriors forced to fight (and die). And since she’s an object, she becomes a point of lust (for Paris) and pride (for Menelaus), and for that, many, many good warriors lose their lives–not for her sake; but for the sake of Paris and Menelaus. Who are both pretty awful. (Paris is probably more awful than Menelaus, but that’s a much longer discussion…)

Hector calls out his own brother for starting the war by being selfish: “But Hector saw [Paris], and chid him with words of shame: ‘Evil Paris, most fair to look upon, thou that art mad after women, thou beguiler, would that thou hadst ne’er been born and hadst died unwed’” (Book III).

He goes on to tell his brother that Menelaus is a better warrior, and almost insinuates that he hopes Menelaus takes him in the fight because he’s a better man than Paris ever will be.

Ouch.

It’s not only Hector who sees through to the real reason for the war, but also his father when he reminds Helen the gods are the ones who started this war. Priam avoids directly blaming his son who chose Helen, but he acknowledges the gods have stirred up this war–which does, in fact, make sense, given that it was Eris, the goddess of discord, who started the whole apple beauty contest thing.

 

Dante_Gabriel_Rossetti_-_Helen_of_Troy
Helen of Troy (Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1863)

So is Helen the femme fatale I’d always been told she was? After all, I remember learning about the femme fatale archetype, and Helen being listed as a “good example” of such a woman–a woman who seduces men to their deaths.

Yet, when digging into the story, I just cannot come to that conclusion. Helen did not lead men to their deaths. Aphrodite did. Athena did. Paris did. Menelaus did. But Helen? Helen, like most people in these Ancient Greek dramas, was merely a pawn of the gods to use in their war. The Iliad is a good representation, not just for Ancient Greece, but also the modern-day world, of how wars often begin. Not over beautiful women…but over greed and pride.

But Helen is also a reminder that, when people are treated as objects, they do not become objects. Though to Paris, Helen was a commodity to which he thought he had a “right” (since Aphrodite “gave” her to him), Helen was a person who took on pain and blame, feeling that the world was on fire because she set it.

That, of course, was not the reality. But it was her perception that no one, no matter how any times they told her it wasn’t her fault, could change. In the story of Helen and the Trojan War, everyone loses–The Trojans, the Greeks, the heroes and the kings on both sides, the wives on both sides. No one escapes this war without injury.

But perhaps Helen loses most because she feels the weight of the responsibility. She understands the yoke to which Paris has tied her, even though he does not. Though one might take some comfort in knowing that Paris dies in the war he created because his first wife–whom he cast off for Helen–refuses to heal him, no amount of pain caused to Paris can take away the pain he caused Helen. As Lady Macbeth would say, “What’s done cannot be undone” (Shakespeare V.1)…so perhaps it’s best to consider the consequences before doing something that cannot be undone.

Though history has tried to make her an archetype, a pawn, a McGuffin in the tale of the Trojan War, Homer in both The Iliad and The Odyssey gives us a fuller picture of her story and her pain. Which is why it’s so important to read the original sources rather than rely on someone else’s summary–for in summary, Helen can be flat. A femme fatale. A reason so many died.

But in reading Homer, Helen ceased being an object to me and became a person. And isn’t that the purpose of literature?

 

Sources:

http://www.theoi.com/Text/HomerIliad1.html

http://www.theoi.com/Text/Colluthus.html

http://shakespeare.mit.edu/macbeth/full.html

 

 

 

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

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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?

220px-Willendorf-Venus-1468
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.