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.

_______________________________________________________________________________________

[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.

Death, Lust and Fire: The Many Aspects of Women in the Ancient World

by K.P. Kulski

Winter is the cold, long dark. George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, made popular by the Game Thrones television show has even thrust the phrase, “winter is coming,” into common use. Many people complain of the snow, ice and frigid temperatures, longing for the warmer seasons or to finally, “move somewhere tropical,” where they can escape the ache in their bones.

But ancient belief systems did not compartmentalize their experience of the year into good or bad categories. They were simply folded into seasons, times of particular purpose for either agricultural or pastoral peoples. Winter was indeed the cold, long dark. It was threatening and required preparation in order to survive. But it was also a time of rest, of slowed movement, kinship and fire.

Women’s lives and roles were much the same. The trajectory of marriage and motherhood as the singular destination of women was not popularized until Christianity took hold. Instead, women of the ancient world existed in multiple spheres, in many 1280px-John_Bauer-Frejaroles, sometimes in sequence, sometimes simultaneously. There wasn’t a common of locked-in fate or unalterable identity that was held for a lifetime. Certainly there were exceptions, just as there were exceptions to the marriage/motherhood role of Christian Europe. These were viewed as parts of a woman’s life. The ravages of disease, childbirth and violence most likely helped promote this, as women who survived could easily find themselves a mother or wife one moment and not the next. Since the emphasis on virginity and sexual faithfulness did not hold the strength it did in the Christian world, this additionally contributed to freedom of movement for women into many roles.

This is most clearly demonstrated in the myriad of identities held by female divinity. In last week’s article, E.J. articulated the many aspects that the Celtic goddess Brigid held. From prophetess, poetry, midwife to smithy, Brigid seemingly did it all. Some goddesses

800px-Tjängvide
Tjangvide Stone – Warrior welcomed to the Norse afterlife

seemed to embody aspects that were in conflict, such as the Norse Freyja who traditionally is attributed as the goddess of love, but whose roots are clearly in early fertility worship. She is not only the patron of love, but of lust and death, picking first from the glorious Viking dead to reside in Folkvangr, near her home.[1]

The Hellenic stele inscription that serves as our theme for this month, also describes the life of woman who not only was a mother, but a priestess for multiple deities as well as serving as a patroness, possibly as a mentor. The multiple aspects of ancient goddesses reflected well the reality of a woman’s life—varied, often changing but all part of the same person.

Hailed in neo-pagan beliefs is the concept of the triple goddess, described as the “maiden, mother, crone.” This refers to three major phases of a woman’s life based on age and roles she may play. These aspects are derived from many examples of ancient divine figures, but more importantly the number three when referring to female roles. Ancient divinity abounds with triple aspect goddesses.

The Norns in Norse mythology held dominion over even the Viking pantheon. Loosely, they represented what has occurred, what is currently occurring and what will occur. The Ancient Greek mythos includes The Fates who oversee the thread of life, spinning, measuring and finally cutting the lives of mortals. Even the Celtic Brigid with her manyMorrigan identities is segmented into three aspects where she represents the maiden, mother and crone. The dark and often chilling Celtic goddess Morrigan is among those who play seemingly competing roles as she represents both war and fertility. Sometimes “Morrigan,” is instead a title that contains three goddesses: Badb, Macha, Nemain.[2] These associations are varied as at times these aspects are depicted as sisters of Morrigan and in others they represent goddesses of war and death with hazy lines between their specific roles.

There are many arguments that could be made for social improvements that came along with the establishment of Christendom, or conversely the degeneration of society due to the loss of ideas from the pagan world. There is a fascinating relationship between the ebb of pagan beliefs, the rise of Christianity and the value of women (where value varies significantly on the role of wife and mother). However, to the credit of many ancient pagan societies, the female identity was originally fluid and changing. Ultimately acknowledging the realities of life and women’s place within a community, culture and in the great divine.

______________________________________________

[1] “Freya the Goddess of Love.” Norse Mythology. Accessed 18 NOV 2017. http://norse-mythology.net/freya-the-goddess-of-love-in-norse-mythology/

[2] “Morrigan.” Encyclopedia Mythica. Accessed 18 NOV 2017. http://www.pantheon.org/articles/m/morrigan.html

Brigid, the Goddess of Wisdom and Everything Else

by E.J. Lawrence

I love studying mythology. Since we generally live in a society that brushes myths off as “mere superstition” and “just stories,” we run the danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater; of denying the truth of mythology simply because it does not line up with our understanding of the facts.

But facts and truth are not the same person. They are siblings–they share blood, and perhaps DNA, but are two distinct, unique beings.

For if mythology were “mere superstition,” we should have no need of any fiction, for fiction–and mythology especially–are not just stories which allow us to escape from this world. Rather, they are stories that allow us to understand it. Few stories do this better than creation myths.

There are those who say all creation myths are the same. There’s something to that–but only because they do not vary by kind; still, they do vary somewhat by degree.

180px-The_Great_Holker_Lime_at_Holker_Hall_-_geograph.org.uk_-_271197
The Great Holker Lime at Holker Hall (John Clive Nicholson)

But in considering our November theme of women who have experienced much and done much, I could think of no mythological figure who fit this theme better than the Celtic goddess Brigid, whose role is pivotal not only to the Celtic creation myth, but to the culture as a whole. Brigid literally translates to “Exalted One,” and we find that though Brigid is a well-rounded goddess, what makes her truly exalted is her thirst for wisdom.

The Celtic creation myth, much like other myths such as the Greek or Norse traditions, has supernatural figures that exist before the gods. In Celtic mythology, Danu–the “Mother Goddess”–and Bíle–the sacred oak–fulfill these roles. Into the void, Danu sends her divine waters to the thirsting oak, and from the oak come two acorns. The first is Dagda, “Father of the Gods”; the second is Brigid, the “Exalted One.”1

St._Brigids_Well_Cullion_WellwithStationinBackground
St. Brigid’s Well

Brigid becomes the mother of many gods. She was known for imbibing from the holy waters of her mother, Danu, and thus grew in wisdom.2 In this is a beautiful picture of the historical significance of wisdom being passed from mother to daughter and continuing through generations. Because of Brigid’s willingness to drink from her mother’s fountain–being nourished by her both literally and figuratively–she became one of the most accomplished goddesses of mythology, overseeing healing, craftsmanship, smithing, poetry, war, and so forth. As one mythologist puts it, “she excelled in all knowledge.”3 Many mythologists believe that it was her understanding that the secret to all wisdom came from her mother which granted her access to such knowledge and insight. This again points back to a culture that values the voices of women as being voices of wisdom. Without these voices, we, the children, cannot hope to attain the heights or enter the secret places of discernment.

1200px-Rossetti,_Dante_Gabriel_-_La_Ghirlandata_-_1871-1874
La Ghirlandata (D.G. Rossetti)

That isn’t to say the Celtic culture is the only one who understands this. Indeed, it seems many ancient cultures had similar ideas; the entirety of Proverbs 31, from the Judeo-Christian tradition, is a king reciting a series of lessons his mother taught him, including to stand up for those who cannot defend themselves and to look for a wife who “speaks with wisdom and…faithful instruction.”4 Can you imagine how much different the world might be if we sipped from the fountain of wisdom which came before us?

Brigid is “exalted,” revered, listened to, believed. Not simply because she is a goddess; she enjoys her stature because of her thirst for wisdom and because she is relentless in her pursuits. Though she is the goddess of war, she is also the goddess of poetry, two perhaps contradictory pursuits that she, being steeped in wisdom, understands how they connect. In one story, she tells her children to go and people the world, but to beware their cousins who are all the inverse of their grandmother (what’s a myth without a battle between good and evil?). It’s in this war that one of Brigid’s own sons (Ruadan) is killed, and Brigid shows that even the exalted can be brought low. Yet, from this defeat, rises a new form of song, keening, showing Brigid’s other face–the face of emotion. Of Poetry:

“But after the spear had been given to him, Ruadan turned and wounded Goibniu. He pulled out the spear and hurled it at Ruadan so that it went through him; and he died in his father’s presence in the Fomorian assembly. Brig came and keened for her son. At first she shrieked, in the end she wept. Then for the first time weeping and shrieking were heard in Ireland. (Now she is the Brig who invented a whistle for signalling at night.)”5

Her symbols are fire, water, snakes, and oxen. She is goddess of the home, and goddess offire-1629975_1280 the battlefield. Goddess of the flame, and goddess of the well. Goddess of those who create, and goddess of those who destroy. It’s almost as though there is no end to her multi-faceted being. In some versions of the legend, she is a three-part goddess, and each part represents a different aspect of her nature. Her wisdom is the seed for all else; it allows her to understand, to empathize, to learn, to seek, and to do.

It’s hard to believe Brigid would be quite so renowned and exalted if she had not first sought wisdom and discernment from the waters which flowed from heaven and “showed her children that true wisdom was only to be garnered from the feet of Danu, the Mother Goddess, and so only to be found at the water’s edge.”6 Whatever one might say about the factual nature of this statement, the truth of it cannot be denied; in fact, it’s the old paradox repeated in story after story, “mere myth” after “mere myth”–in order to ascend the heights, we must first humble ourselves at the feet of another. Only then can we obtain the wisdom necessary to know what true potential is.

 

  1. Ellis, Peter Berresford. Celtic Myths and Legends, London, 1988, pp. 25.
  2. Ellis, pp. 26.
  3. Ellis, pp. 26.
  4. The Holy Bible, New International Version, https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Proverbs+31&version=NIV

5. Cath Maige Tuired, translated by Elizabeth A. Gray, line 125, http://www.sacred-     texts.com/neu/cmt/cmteng.htm

6. Ellis, pp. 26.

Pythia of the Womb of Life and Death: The Significance of the Oracle at Delphi

by K.P. Kulski

I count the grains of sand on the beach and measure the sea.

Oracle at Delphi – 560 BC

220px-John_Collier_-_Priestess_of_DelphiShe stands close to associations with the Earth, the musty damp womb of the dirt where decay and birth exist simultaneously. You can find her only after a journey, you can hope she will proclaim that you are destined for greatness or give clarity for your decisions, but she may also give omens of dread, of doom or mere unsatisfying riddles. Whatever she utters, for ill or good, are the words of divinity.

delphi-ancient-city-ruins-greece-mainland-tour-europe-dp7874493-1600_0Read the great mythologies of Ancient Greece and you will encounter over and over the Oracle at Delphi, the Pythia. She dwelled at a place that must have seemed to the ancients was the opening to the womb of the Earth itself, a seam from which the vapors arose giving the Pythia the power of prophesy. Her words can be found in many sources from the ancient world. But there’s so much more to the existence of the Pythia that captures my imagination, it is what she represents—a remnant of even older belief systems.

serpentThe serpent brings instinctive fear. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is the Devil, in the form of a serpent who tempts Eve, who, along with Adam are cast out from the Garden of Eden as punishment. The Medusa of Ancient Greek mythology with her head writhing with nest of serpents could turn a man to stone. Early civilization abounds with the association of women with serpents, something that continues into the Ancient Greek world. The very title “Pythia,” is a reference to themedusa great Python, the serpent beast who originally guarded the Delphi site.

Snakes frequently nest in crevices and the underground. They emerge from the Earth itself, as if born forth from a womb. Much like humanity, they can be beneficial but are also dangerous. The Oracle is the conduit, much like the Earth, or a mother for what thing that emerges. She is the womb of prophesy, just as filled with potential and uncertainty as humankind. While controversial, the studies of Marija Gimbutas bring entirely worthwhile connections. If the serpent is representative of what can emerge from the Earth, what other connections can we find? Gimbutas says upon death European Neolithic cultures may have believed, “new life grows from the remains of the old…symbolically, the individual returned to the goddess’ womb to be reborn.”[1] She goes on to place a direct correlation between what she calls the “tomb as womb.”[2] That is to say, in death everyone returned to the womb of the Earth and then ultimately were reborn.

The site at Delphi likely represented that regenerative cycle, further because of the presence of the fault line within. The Pythia was further reported to have drank from a spring that ran underground and back to the surface near Apollo’s temple.[3] The spring is yet another strong cyclic signifier. The mythological story of Apollo slaying the Python of Delphi and claiming the site as his own also points to this cultural memory. Some have argued that Apollo acts as a patriarchal symbol slaying a matriarchal belief system. If we interpret the serpent and Earth as female symbols, it is not hard to see a patriarchal connection to the slaying of the Python.

virgil_solis_-_apollo_python“Then Phoebus Apollo boasted over her (Python): Now rot here upon the soil that feeds man! You at least shall live no more to be a fell bane to men who eat the fruit of the all-nourishing earth…but here shall the Earth and shining Hyperion make you rot.”[4]

But even as Apollo takes control (by force) over prophesy, he cannot eradicate the origins of the Delphi site. Note that the Pythia, like many oracles in the ancient world, was a female specific position. While the Ancient Greeks believed that Apollo gave the words of prophesy to the Pythia, the oracular significance remains female. Joan Breton Connelly asserts that, “the Pythia Pythia Aegeus Themis Delphi[1]exerted considerable control over the oracles that she delivered,” and that while male priests existed they did not perform as oracles and further were not the ones who were the subject of attempted bribery.[5] Meaning, they had little control or influence over the Pythia and further, she likely was quite purposeful when she delivered her highly influential answers.

I suppose, some things don’t change after all.

____________________________________________________________

[1] Marija Gimbutas, The Living Goddesses (Berkley: University of California Press, 1999), 55.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Joan Breton Connelly, Portrait of a Priestess (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 76.

[4] “The Homeric Hymns.” Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns and Homerica. Accessed 28 OCT 2017. http://omacl.org/Hesiod/hymns.html.

[5] Joan Breton Connelly, Portrait of a Priestess (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 78.

Featured-Malta’s Neolithic Underground (Jaunting Jen)

As a prelude to my post next week on Ancient Priestesses, I’d like to feature the fantastic blog of Jaunting Jen. Not only is she a military veteran (a girl after my own heart), a history teacher but also a world traveler.

Heritage-Maltas-Photo-of-the-HypogeumI’ve added Jaunting Jen’s post on her exploration of Malta’s Underground Temple. There is some uncertainty on the purpose of the space (it is Neolithic after-all) but there are indications of an early oracle presence. If you are familiar with ancient history, oracles are usually female priestesses and play an important part in ancient cultural awareness.

I urge you to take a look at Jaunting Jen’s blog and enjoy this particular post. I think you will find that Malta’s underground temple leaves a delicious sense of mystery.

Malta’s Neolithic Underground – Jaunting JenJen-avat

(All images sourced from JauntingJen.com)

Compassion “For Such a Time as This”

by E.J. Lawrence

Etymology is a hobby of mine. I not only relish the history of people, but I also relish the history of the words they use. So when I thought of this month’s theme–“compassion”–I wondered where such a word even came from.

Of course, compassion implies more than just a strong feeling–what we usually think of when we think of the word “passion.” It usually means a call to action–the feeling must drive the person in some way to do something. To have compassion is to not just feel sympathy, but act upon the sympathy one feels.

Spirit_of_Compassion
The Spirit of Compassion
(1931) Raynor Hoff

Which brought me back to the etymology–where does this word even come from? if “com” means “with,” and “passion” is a “strong feeling,” does compassion mean to do things with a strong feeling?…Yet I am passionate about writing; I am passionate about relationships; I am passionate about leaving a better world. I would say I do most things “with passion.”

But that does not always mean I am compassionate.

“Com” could more nearly be translated as “together” while the root of the word “passion” is Latin passio, “suffering; submission.”

Compassion–Suffering together.

Perhaps even…With submission to suffering.

Compassion is more than a feeling; it is a belief held so strongly that one must submit oneself to suffering in the effort to alleviate, or even share, another’s pain. It is willingly shouldering a burden that isn’t one’s own.

Compassion–I not only suffer for you; I suffer with you. If your pain is in my power to alleviate–even if it causes me physical or emotional torment–I will do whatever I must.

Then why, on a blog dedicated to praising active heroines, would we choose such a subject of abject humility?

I, for one, believe in the old paradox that “the last shall be first, and the first shall be

Spirit_of_Compassion2
Spirit of Compassion as a Doctor (Epcot)

last,” even though our modern society does not do a very good job of lifting up the humble. However, come to think of it, no society in history has done a great job of recognizing those people among them who daily lay down their lives for others. Sometimes it seems as though the loud, the proud, and the pompous receive all the praise.

But those who are compassionate know that praise is not warranted or required. The compassionate do not show compassion out of a need for praise or desire for reward; in fact, if they did act out of such motives then, by definition, they would not be compassionate. They would be opportunists. Compassion is not, and cannot, be about tit-for-tat. Compassion is about seeing the humanity and brokenness of another, and joining in that humanity and in that brokenness.

Compassion involves, by necessity, an act of humility. The focus of being compassionate is not to reap rewards or call special attention to oneself or one’s own pain–or even the pain of another. True compassion is silent, unassuming. It is caring more for the good of another than for one’s own good. It is kneeling down to bring another up.

Compassion also involves bravery and faith that the act of submission to suffering will lead to an alleviation of the same.

This was the hardest month I’ve had yet in terms of choosing the woman in literature or history about whom I wished to write. However, when I truly thought about the meaning of the word “compassion,” and determined that compassion by definition involves humility, bravery, and faith, one woman kept repeating over and again in my mind: Queen Esther.

Esther
Queen Esther (1879) Edwin Long

During the time of the Persian Empire, Esther was a Jewish exile living in Babylon. In her time, the Persian king was a man named Ahasuerus, also known as King Xerxes. Esther is perhaps most well-known for winning a beauty contest–when the king wants to choose a wife–because he deposed the last one for refusing to come when he called her (Esther 1:19)–he calls all the virgins in the land to him, and ultimately selects–you guessed it!–Esther (2:9).

She wins the contest and gets a literal crown…that came with some small measure of power.

However, Esther was Jewish, and not Persian. A dangerous heritage. At the behest of her guardian, Mordecai, she doesn’t reveal her ancestry to the king.

So the plot thickens. Haman, the king’s adviser, does not like Mordecai because he will not bow down whenever he (Haman) passes by, so Haman devises a scheme to have all the Jews in the land eradicated (3:6). When Mordecai hears about this, he puts on sackcloth and ashes to weep for the fate of his people. Esther’s response? “She sent clothes for him to put on instead of his sackcloth, but he would not accept them” (4:4). Then she tries sending one of her men to Mordecai to ask him what is wrong. When Mordecai explains the edict and pleads for her help, Esther is frightened; if she goes to the king without first being called, her life is forfeit (4:10). Mordecai replies by saying that she is the one with the power and position to help “and who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (4:14). Her argument is that she is powerless; Mordecai’s argument says the opposite.

Faced with this choice, Esther decides there is but one option. She has compassion on her people by telling Mordecai to fast and pray for three days, as she does the same, and at the end of those three days, she would go to the king to plead on her people’s behalf: “And if I perish, I perish” (4:16).

Though the word “compassion” is not used, we know from Esther’s response that she humbles herself–by fasting and praying with her people, she willingly abandons her position as queen in order to suffer with them. For those three days, she says, they will suffer together.

Her response is also brave. She recognizes the danger and the potential torment, even death, that she will receive if the king does not have mercy on her. Yet the suffering of others drives her to action, gives her motivation. And she is willing even to perish for their sake.

Finally, her response is faithful. Her loyalty to her people is firm. She will not leave them to die, and though she could easily claim her position as queen and turn her back on her people, leaving them to suffer without her, she does not do this. Rather, she says they will pray and fast for three days, and then she will go to the king “even though it is against the law” (4:16).

“And if I perish, I perish.”

She could only make such a bold statement if she was humble, brave, and faithful. But she could also only make such a statement if she loved her people. And that, to me, is the most compelling, and mysterious, aspect of compassion. Compassion is born out of love. Not duty, not a desire for fame, or a desire for gain. To be truly compassionate, we must be willing to get into the dirt with someone else; to feel cuts and bruises with someone else; to give up our desires in order to aid another; to give up our own comfort and safety to reassure another.

There is no other rationale for doing such things than unconditional love.

To finish the story of Esther, the king grants her petition and does not order her execution. She pleads her case to the king, and when Haman tries to plead with Esther, the king believes his adviser to be making a move on his wife, and instead orders Haman’s execution. But Esther’s trials are still not over; she makes one more petition to the king: To reverse Haman’s order and not kill her people. The king grants her petition.

And so it seems Mordecai was right–Esther was placed in her position “for such a time as this.” She loved her people and was moved to compassion; she chose to suffer with them, when she could have chosen comfort. Her love was an abiding love.

In our “times such as this,” when suffering abounds, may we find such a love. And may we shine its light in our compassion for others.

 

Work Cited:

New International Version. The Holy Bible. https://www.biblegateway.com/

 

 

DIG: A History Podcast

Enjoy my post on Pocahontas last week?

Wondering about the crazy ol’Colonial times?

I highly recommend the DIG podcast featuring 4 female historians that bring enlightening and quite entertaining (also scandalous) information to light on all aspects of American History.

Like…

Puritan Sex?

Did they go there?

Oh yes, verily.

Dig Podcast – Puritan Sex

Twitter: @dig_history

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To Feed the Enemy: The American Histrio-Myth of Pocahontas

by K.P. Kulski

This is will be my second post on a historical figure featured in Disney films. Maybe I’ve been more influenced by Disney than I’d like to admit. As usual, the film does not follow the history, but serves to heighten the mythological story of a real person.

We don’t know how Pocahontas felt, or her motivations in her story, but what we know pocahontas-dp_5151about her is quite a story unto itself, but she’s become more than just that. She’s a figure of compassion, tragedy and encapsulates the destruction of the Native American peoples’ way of life at the hands of the Europeans. Pocahontas remains a noble figure even in the face of violence and hatred. Somehow she remains personally, above the fray. Her history is obscured by time, but the mythology of the part she played is simultaneously romantic, poetic yet voiceless. There is never a moment in the records that we “hear” Pocahontas speak. But she plays a big role in the awareness of two prominent colonists, John Smith and John Rolfe.

According the famous story put forth by the unreliable John Smith, she saved his life at the very moment her father, the Chief Powhatan had sentenced Smith to death by putting herself between the instruments of death and Smith.

“…as many as could laid hands on him (Smith), dragged him to them, and thereon laid his head, and being ready with their clubs to beat out his brains, Pocahontas, the king’s Four_Pocahontas_paintingdearest daughter, when no entreaty could prevail, got his head in her arms, and laid her own upon his to save his from death.”[1]

There’s a lot doubt surrounding Smith’s story, especially since it grows more elaborate with his own retellings, but there is something that rings true about what we do know about Pocahontas, she had compassion. Well, ok, maybe we can’t even go as far as to say that. Maybe what Pocahontas had was mere curiosity. But just the same, the colonists of Jamestown, who had failed to plant crops in order to survive and instead embarked on rabid searches for gold, recorded a young Pocahontas bringing them gifts of much needed food. Pocahontas, which was a nickname, possibly meaning “little playful one” was only about twelve years old at the time.

Jamestown had an exceedingly difficult start. Much of it had to do with the colonists disinterest in planting crops, as well the swampy mosquito ridden area they had chosen to establish themselves. These things were quite the recipes for disaster. Out of 500 settlers in 1609, only 60 were left by the spring of 1610.

I can only imagine that the Native Americans in the area must have felt a sense of Powhatan-from-Map-of-Virginia-196x300disbelief over the Englishmen’s folly. While the relationship between the settlers and the Powhatans were shaky at best, Pocahontas, young and representing her people arrived with life saving food. She was the face of possibility between the two cultures. There were attempts to garner positive relationships. These often failed, mostly through cultural misunderstandings, external pressures and pure aggression. Nonetheless, Pocahontas was painted as a figure that stood outside of all this. Her gifts of food were seen as acts of kindness.

This compassion would not be rewarded, Pocahontas’s bridge building seemed to be focused on John Smith. Then again, Smith has claimed to be the focal point of many international women. Nonetheless, when he returned to England because of an injury, relations between the settlers and Native Americans turned into openly hostile.

The final chapter of the European recording of Pocahontas’s story was one that united two cultures. Though marriage and the birth of her son Thomas Rolfe, she would embody the possibility of unity. Yet again, this only seems possible through her kidnapping and conversion to Christianity — unity utterly on European terms.

Kidnapped by the settlers who hoped to trade Pocahontas for comrades held by her Pocahontas-at-Court-of-King-James.-Photo-Library-of-Congressfather as well as weapons, her previous kindness was easily forgotten. However, her father the Chief was not interested in a trade of any kind. So Pocahontas remained with the settlers, eventually becoming Christian, adopting an English name (Rebecca), marrying and having a son with the widower John Rolfe.

We don’t know what Pocahontas thought of all this and how willingly she submitted to it. Possibly, it was a choice for personal reasons, perhaps she saw an opportunity for peace between her people and the English, or she could have been forced or coerced into it all.

Still, American imaginations have been enticed by the story of Pocahontas, both history and mythology. While we will never know exactly what she thought of the things she experienced, we continue to be curious and remain fascinated by her.

John Rolfe said, “I utter the effects of this setled and long continued affection (for Pocahontas)…”[2]

Us too John, us too.

ENDNOTES

[1] “Captain John Smith is Saved by Pocahontas, 1608,” Eyewitness to History, http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/johnsmith.htm (2003).

[2] “Letter of John Rolfe, 1614,” Virtual Jamestown, http://www.virtualjamestown.org/exist/cocoon/jamestown/fha/J1047.

Otrera: The First Queen of the Amazons

by Kaitlin Bevis

Demigoddesses were rare in Greek mythology. The few mentioned tended to be some variety of nymph. One exception of that trend were the Amazons.

Hippolyta is a notable figure in Greek mythology made all the more famous by the Wonder Woman franchise, but she was not the first queen of the Amazons. Her mother, Otrera is most frequently credited with founding the Amazon nation.

Amazons
Departure of the Amazons (Claude Deruet)

In some versions of the myths, Otrera is the daughter of the eastern wind and consort to Ares. In others, she’s a daughter of Ares. She is credited with the creation of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus.

In short, she was an awesome figure in mythology. So why haven’t more people heard of her?

I made it my mission to change that by incorporating her into my Aphrodite trilogy. Her matter-of-fact level-headedness was a much-needed addition to Medea’s tragic naiveté and Aphrodite’s divinely skewed view.

VR

Here’s one of my favorite scenes featuring Otrera:

“OKAY, LET ME get this straight,” Otrera said the next morning as we were getting ready.

Aphrodite and I rolled our eyes at each other and moved to either side to give her some counter space in the bathroom. If the three of us had to share a cabin with only one bathroom, at least it was a big bathroom. A mirror ran the length of the entire wall, reflecting the crowded strip of marble-patterned countertop and two sinks. A space about as wide as a hallway separated the countertop and the wide Jacuzzi tub, and the walls of the bathroom and shower stall came together to form a semi-private room that tucked the toilet out of view.

Otrera had taken the news that Aphrodite was a goddess in stride, but when it came to the plan Aphrodite and I had come up with, Otrera had been “getting this straight” all night and most of the morning.

If Otrera noticed our eye-rolling, she didn’t comment on it. “You want to do something stupid in hopes that if you get Narcissus angry enough, you’ll get thrown into the hidden hospital wing. Then you’re going to search the top-secret, guarded lab and find the Lord of the Underworld while you’re in there. Once that’s done, you want to have Medea teleport all the weapons and poisons away before summoning a pissed-off goddess to our island?”

“I’m open to other ideas.” Aphrodite’s lips pulled back in a way that somehow looked more like an animal baring its teeth than a smile.

My hand paused midway between my powder compact and my face as I studied Aphrodite in the mirror. She still looked like Elise, but she’d changed somehow. Maybe it was just because I knew who she was now, or maybe it was just that she was covered in scabbing scrapes and fading bruises. But she didn’t look like the demigoddesses I’d seen. There was a quiet power to her. A determination. The shock had faded and left something, someone, dangerous in its place. Someone other.

I’d never seen her at full strength. The poison had already leached away most of her powers before we met. But now, I found myself wondering. Was she like them? Poseidon and Persephone? Was she so filled with power that she almost seemed to glow with it? Was my attempt to join the Pantheon, my proclamation that I was what came next, laughable to her? Swallowing hard, I resumed applying my makeup, suddenly self-conscious.

Rein it in a bit, Medea. Right. I could feel myself over-attaching to Aphrodite. Latching on to her like I had Jason, far too much, far too fast. Normal people didn’t do that. But I couldn’t seem to stop myself. If you build her up too much, you’re setting her up to let you down. But it was like a train hurtling toward a broken bridge just beyond the bend. I saw the disaster looming, but I couldn’t seem to make myself jump the track.

Otrera remained unimpressed. “You do realize they’re just as likely to kill you as lock you up if you do anything too drastic, right?”

“If Narcissus lets me die, he loses his scapegoat,” Aphrodite reasoned, scowling when she caught a glimpse of her reflection in the mirror. “And he definitely can’t let any harm come to Medea. She’s his escape route.”

What did she look like when she wasn’t disguised as Elise? I tried, and failed, to imagine her without her tousled hair that somehow made the just-out-of-bed look unobtainably sexy. Her gold skin was darkened with bruises, cuts, and scrapes, her hawkish eyes perpetually narrowed with frustration or anger. Every feature was so uniquely her that I couldn’t imagine her looking like anyone else. How had I ever mistaken her for the model in all those pictures? Her every mannerism was different from the Elise behind the makeup tutorials I’d watched before her arrival on the island.

“If they cross any major lines,” Aphrodite continued. “If they do anything they might actually look back on and regret, then Narcissus risks losing the crowd.”

“Let’s assume you’re right.” Otrera reached under the cabinet for her lotion. “What happens once you get thrown in there? You’ll be under guard, and you’ll be locked up. How does that help us get off the island?”

“That’s why she has to get locked up with me.” Aphrodite jerked a thumb toward my reflection in the mirror. “She’s linked to the Steele and the poisons. I can talk her through ‘porting them away once we’re behind the shield.”

I nodded, like my input held any weight with either of them.

It should. It had during the chaos of yesterday, but now that they’d both latched onto their own idea of the best way to handle things, no one else’s input mattered. Not each other’s, and definitely not mine.

Hush now, sweetie, the grown-ups are talking, their tight faces seemed to say when I interrupted with questions or suggestions. It wasn’t right. My input should be the be-all and end-all. Not only was I the linchpin in Aphrodite’s plan, but I was the method of escape in Otrera’s. Part of me resented the way they dismissed me. Like just because I was younger than them—well, physically in Aphrodite’s case since she was only what, three?—my ideas were somehow invalid.

But unlike Jason, I could tell I was more than a tool here. They might just see me as a naïve kid, but I mattered to them as a person. So maybe I wasn’t where I wanted to be, but I was still leagues ahead of where I left.

Last time you were willing to settle for “better than where you left”, you ended up impregnated by a lying psychopath who used your blood to torture people. Maybe it’s time to set your standards higher.

“Why not just shred the shield?” Otrera stepped back from the counter. “Medea said she could teleport through the shield protecting the island. The one protecting the hospital can’t be much stronger.”

Medea is right here, I wanted to point out. Instead, I studied myself in the mirror, searching for what they saw when they looked at me. Dark hair; strange, frightened eyes; young; small for my age. I wouldn’t take me seriously either, but at the moment, I was stronger than either of them.

Shouldn’t that count for something? My fingers itched to write in my journal. Everything was so much clearer when I wrote it down. But I hadn’t had a chance. They’d been right here all day, all night, all morning. Writing about them while they were just a few feet away felt wrong.

Today, I promised myself. I’d make time today. I had to get my thoughts in order before we did anything. When I turned my head to look at Otrera, my neck objected with a phantom pinch of pain. Scowling, I rubbed at it. Last night, I’d been unable to stomach the thought of sleeping in the bed Jason and I’d shared after I abandoned him to the Pantheon. So, I’d pulled out the couch bed. Otrera had spent yesterday afternoon rearranging Jason’s office space, also known as most of the living room, to make room for her mattress. That was smart of her. The damage from the uncomfortable night of tossing and turning on the couch had long since healed, but the memory still hurt.

Aphrodite claimed my bed. After changing my sheets and complaining about the lack of pillows, she’d sprawled out on the king-sized bed with nary a thought to me or Otrera and crashed until she woke up in the middle of the night screaming bloody murder. Otrera and I both pretended that hadn’t happened, but I desperately wanted a few minutes alone with Otrera to talk about what we’d heard last night. The way Aphrodite screamed, how long it had taken her to calm down. I’d never heard anything like it before, and I never wanted to again.

Aphrodite sighed, stepping back from the countertop, apparently giving up on her reflection. “Look, they are going to know the second we mess with the shield. But if Medea and I can get ourselves placed behind the shield, they won’t know anything is wrong until they’re disarmed.”

“It’s a matter of seconds,” Otrera argued.

“Assuming she’s back at full strength,” Aphrodite replied, like “she” wasn’t standing right next to her. “I don’t know how long it takes to recover from moving a land mass.” The twist in her lips told me what a stupid idea she thought that had been.

But it had worked, hadn’t it? It had hurt like hell, but it had worked. I arched a brow at her in my reflection.

“If we try it your way,” Aphrodite said to Otrera, “we risk alerting everyone to what we’re doing, then being stuck there with no way to ‘port ourselves or the weapons out. With my way, it’s all one shot. If it doesn’t work, no one even knows we tried, so we live to try another day.”

“It’s a moot point at the moment,” I reminded them, finally working up the nerve to speak. “I’m still pretty burnt out from moving the island yesterday.” Feeling the power missing from my body last night was part of what had kept me tossing and turning. It was like a physical ache. After a few hours’ rest, I could feel some growing tendrils within me, but not enough for what Aphrodite was talking about.

Concern flickered in Aphrodite’s eyes, and she nodded, her face dead serious. “We can’t risk draining your powers completely. So we’re going to have to wait a few days.”

Days?” Otrera objected. “Yesterday, we were looking at escaping this island as soon as possible. Why not get out of here as soon as Medea’s recovered, then teleport back in when her powers are completely back? Hell, let’s meet up with the Pantheon and bring one of them with us if you’re worried Medea can’t manage all of that. Everyone wins! We’re safe, you’re reunited with your . . . brother.” Otrera cringed as though she’d tasted something foul.

Aphrodite glanced up at the ceiling as though she was praying for patience, and I wondered who that particular prayer would be directed to.

“I told you last night, divine genetics—”

“Don’t work that way,” Otrera said by rote. “They pass on power. The incest taboo is a human thing that makes total sense because of the way mankind works, but you’re all different and special. Yadayadayada. I’ve spent the last two and half years of my life on an island full of super inbred demigods. I’ve heard the spiel. It doesn’t mean it’s not gross.”

I fought back a smile. I’d always wanted to live out scenes from my favorite TV shows. And now, here I sat, listening to my roommates, my two best friends with wildly different personalities, who cared about each other more than they dared to admit, gripe at one another. I realized that as long as I ignored the death, the destruction, and the terrifying stakes, this was the happiest I’d ever been.

“You wanna know what’s gross?” Aphrodite challenged.

I stepped in before there could be actual bloodshed. “Otrera, if we do it your way,” I pitched my voice loud to drown out their bickering, “they won’t owe us. And you and I need them to owe us.”

“Exactly,” Aphrodite said. “An entire island popping up in Poseidon’s domain isn’t going to go unnoticed for long. Once he finds us, the rest of the Pantheon will follow. If we neutralize the threat before they get here, it will be better for everyone.”

Otrera still looked like she wanted to argue, but a glance at her watch cut her off short. “I’m on breakfast duty today.” She scowled at the watch, as if she could make it turn back time through sheer force of will. “Do not—” she held up a finger to me and Aphrodite in warning “—do anything stupid until I get back.”

Aphrodite bristled at the order, but I shot her a quelling look as I followed Otrera through the tiny cabin. I couldn’t set foot in the living room without running into bedding. The three of us living here made for some pretty cramped quarters.

I loved it.

“We won’t,” I lied.

(From Book 6 of The Daughters of Zeus series, Venus Rising)


 

 

 

Part 2 – Hua Mulan: East-West With Honor

by K.P. Kulski

Camaraderie in the military is necessary for the smooth function of operations. It tends to develop easily because military life is a series of routine hardships. This sentiment intensifies as the experiences intensify, particularly in combat. Current politics have made quite a spectacle over the concept of transgender military service. I don’t necessarily believe Mulan was transgender, or at least is depicted as transgender. However for my analysis here, whether she was or was not, doesn’t really matter. What matters is the implicit commentary of her story that demonstrates the importance of military camaraderie over gender concerns.

The story depicted in the ballad reveal an important sentiment that is applicable to the presence of transgender people in the military. Given the quality of the individuals, who like Mulan, serve in a capacity that is revealing of their character and capability, the identity that is formed from respect, admiration, and deep non-romantic love that is so often framed by combat veterans, is outside of the realm of gender, but within the realm of the greater human experience. Mulan’s story and blurred gender identity shows the mulan-montagereader that she is greater than the sum of her private parts, that she’s a whole person, that her actions have been the most important part of her existence. The reaction of her fellow soldiers, is initial surprise, but without change in their demeanor or respect for Mulan.

If we examine the ballad in a feminist lens, that looks at her female specific experience, we can find further interesting commentary. In modern society, we are aware of studies devoted to understanding the occurrence of under promoted women. Whether it be women who are more qualified, yet are surpassed by less qualified men on the ladder to success, or women who are paid less than their male counterparts, there is a sense that to be successful as woman, it requires at least twice the effort and qualifications.

This idea isn’t lost on the world of Mulan. In the ballad, Mulan serves faithfully for twelve years, earning the great respect of her comrades-in-arms. It took twelve years for her to develop a respect that would lead to unquestionable respect of her person, without social considerations of gender.

However, she is also upheld as an example of honor and grace for her lack of interest in power. Her motivations remain pure till the end. She can be compared to the Khan, the ultimate symbol of male power. Notice the play on words, the focus on the title “daughter,” throughout the poem, “they ask Daughter who’s in her heart, they ask Daughter who’s on her mind.”[1]

Mulan’s status as the definitively female, “daughter” does not change at the end when she returns home, “When Father and Mother hear Daughter is coming, they go outside the wall to meet her, leaning on each other.”[2]

hua-mulan (1)Who is the other prominent figure in the story? Well, oddly enough it is, “the Son of Heaven,” a reference to the Khan. It is him she meets at the end of her service and he asks her what she wants so she can be rewarded for her service and the only thing she asks is for a horse to return home. She does not seek a post as a minister or other high rank. With her lack of desire for power and only desire to return home, reflect on the idea that she never really changed, that she had always been “daughter,” despite leaving home. Along with the simultaneous existence of gender identity, Mulan also embodies opposing ideas: fierce warrior, loyal daughter; male power, rejection of male authority, soft and hard power.

With all this considered, when I take a look at the costume of Disney Mulan in the toy store, I’m baffled. It’s not the dress itself, but that the very thing Mulan is defined by, the determination to pick up a weapon, to break gender conformity and demonstrate her own power is completely lacking in the doll. It is the same as taking the ice away from Elsa and painting her with motifs of fire. I love that Mulan exists in popular culture and that has been brought to Western society through the Disney films. In fact, as a part Asian woman in a Western culture, I greatly appreciate it. As I dig further into Mulan herself, there remains, quite a bit about her, said in only 31 couplets that is strangely loud, profound and relevant to our times. She was a woman who decided to go to war. But really, what did she fight for and against? What did her battlefield look like?

[1] “The Ballad of Mulan.” Asia for Educators. http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/ps/china/mulan.pdf

[2] Ibid.