For my December pick, I decided to go with an article that matches the season–my April article on Mary titled “Of Hope and Expectation.” I enjoyed writing this one because I love seeing how mythology and story structure help us better understand and explore the world we live in. When we use the phrase “life’s not a fairy tale” as some sort of platitude to mean “life doesn’t always end happily,” it’s because we’ve forgotten that not even all fairy tales have “happy” endings, or even expected endings. But they do have right endings. Just because the story ends unexpectedly does not mean it ends wrongly. And just because darkness seems to have won doesn’t mean it has. We are living a story right now. The belief in a meta-narrative gives us hope that, in the end, all will end right.
When Constantine became Roman Emperor in 306 AD, it was to a transforming Empire. His official conversion to Christianity was reflective of the strong spread of the religion into Roman culture.
This form of Christianity held a strong Roman identity, the spread having first moved through the aristocratic classes. Remarkably, Constantine legalized the collection of exposed infants for the purpose of enslavement. While the option of slavery is potentially horrific, Constantine’s act of legalizing such activities is a significant shift in social perspectives on babies. He would later outlaw the practice of infant exposure altogether. What has become known as the Christmas story, glorifies the potentiality of the infant Jesus with associations of hope. Constantine’s ruling indicates that infant life is worth preserving, even in conditions of slavery without other options.
The Church would eventually equate infant-hood as the moment humanity was the closest to the divine, being newly emerged into the mortal world, theologically asserting that infants exemplified purity. By 787, we see the establishment of the first orphanages in Christianized regions of Italy. In Milan, the Archbishop had a special revolving cradle installed so women could anonymously leave children. Interestingly, this acknowledges social stigmas surrounding women who either had children out of wedlock or were unable to care for their child. Clearly indicating that at this point, infant exposure was not generally practiced and the involvement of a male head of family in the decision to keep or reject a child, such as the paterfamilias was diminished or nonexistent. Further, the Church had developed authority in the matter and became particularly concerned with preserving new and unborn life. An Anglo-Saxon penitential dating from the late 7th century states:
Women who commit abortion before [the foetus] has life, shall do penance for one year or for the three forty-day periods or for forty days, according to the nature of the offence; and if later, that is, more than forty days after conception, they shall do penance as murderesses, that is for three years on Wednesdays and Fridays and in the three forty day periods. This according to canons is judged [punishable by] ten years.
What we see here is a significant transformation. The Roman concept of abortion that essentially considered newborns in a late stage of fetal development and acceptance of infanticide changed to the Early Medieval belief that life began during pregnancy. This argument is quite familiar to the modern world, where political pundits frequently argue over the moment when life and therefore personhood occurs.
But it wasn’t just a sense of heightened morality and compassion instituted by religious conversion that created these changes. After the failings of partible inheritance, primogeniture developed, a system of inheritance that depended on first-born children of the sovereign. This system was not only in the interest of the ruling family, but to the fiefdoms of early Medieval Europe who also practiced primogeniture in their own households. In the post-Roman world, hyper-localism reigned in order to maintain pockets of stability. Broken systems of inheritance or uncertain heirs often led to fractured support of the elite classes who contributed to military power. When this happened, the already tenuous balance would shift and ultimately led to grabs for power, conflict and war. The birth of heirs, became overwhelming stressed for the preservation of social and economic order.
Additionally, the Church called for the spread of Christianity. The call came from a religious and spiritual motivation. But it also came from the intent to establish Western Europe as a region that essentially played by the same political rules. While the Roman Empire held the original authority to recognize claims of kingship to Western European kingdoms, in its absence that authority transferred to the Church in Rome. This resulted in the concept of “Christendom,” religiously described as a vision of God’s kingdom on Earth that politically bolstered the claims of kings and lords as well as preserved the Church itself. Church leader, Augustine intentionally promoted higher rates of childbirth in Christian marriages as part of building Christendom.
The value and role of motherhood rose greatly in prominence. Women continued to have limited legal rights, and due to the need to ensure the true stock of any children born to her, women’s access to easy movement became limited. Power for elite women, was derived from her family, husband and particularly her position as mother of male heirs. Mothers were responsible for the basic indoctrination and instruction of their children into Christian values. Oddly enough, mothers became the backbone of the perpetuation of their own suppression, but also the elevation of children as important parts of the social order. Advanced education for boys, occurred after this period by male instructors.
So strong came the drive for the birth of male heirs, other children and mothers suffered. The Church recognized not only this struggle for women, but how the practice could diminish survivability of other children in a world where infant and child death were common place. Further, the Church noted that infants who were nursed by a healthy mother had greater chances for survival. In the late 6th century, Pope Gregory I insisted that women should not only nurse their own children, but husbands should abstain from intercourse with their wives during that period. This reveals a basic understanding that nursing promotes infant health, but with new pregnancies, milk tends to dry-up.
Further, her husband ought not to cohabit with her till that which is brought forth be weaned. But an evil custom has arisen in the ways of married persons, that women scorn to nurse the children whom they bring forth, and deliver them to other women to be nursed. Which custom appears to have been devised for the sole
cause of incontinency, in that, being unwilling to contain themselves, they think to scorn to suckle their offspring. Those women therefore who, after evil custom, deliver their children to others to be nursed ought not to have intercourse with their husbands unless the time of their purification has passed, seeing that even without the reason of childbirth, they are forbidden to have intercourse with their husbands while held of their accustomed sickness; so much so that the sacred law smites with death any man who shall go into a woman having her sickness.
This statement from Pope Nicholas in the late 9th century echoes many of the same sentiments.
“A woman’s husband should not approach to lie with her until the infants, to whom she has given birth, have been weaned. But a depraved custom has arisen in the behavior of married people, that women despise nursing the children whom they have born and hand them over to be nursed by other women; and this seems to have happened solely because of incontinence, since those who refuse to restrain themselves, despise nursing those to whom they have given birth.”
Simultaneously, we see a rise of iconography in glorification of Mary, particularly in
the role of exalted motherhood. Resulting in the first popularization of the “Nursing Madonna,” which often enmeshing local pagan beliefs. This type of Marian depiction would continue well into the Renaissance. But if we look at its development with what would become secular law, we can see that Mary became not only revered, but an example for motherhood. Additionally, infants were no longer results of disposable fertility and that the relationship between women’s freedoms and the value of infants are interestingly linked, with often unexpected outcomes.
A woman gives birth in the Roman Empire. It is in the pagan era that has only seen the light touches of the religion known as Christianity, just enough for the foreign religion to seem odd and at times annoying. Some people whisper that Christians hold meals where they dine on flesh and drink blood.
This Roman woman doesn’t care much for those things, especially now, she’s crossed the threshold into motherhood. Perhaps she’s thought of herself as a mother a bit too soon. She looks toward the midwife as the woman inspects the newborn, pulling at the red limbs, feeling for strength and signs of illness. Did he cry loud enough? The midwife nods to herself and brings the child to her, where the woman performs her own amateur inspection.
The structure of the Roman family surrounded a male head – the paterfamilias. This man literally held the power of life and death over members of his family. When an infant was born to the household, he often relied on the expertise and report of the midwife to determine if the child would be accepted into the family at all. Rejection meant the infant would be exposed and would ultimately die. If the child was lucky or unlucky, depending on your perspective, he/she would be found and picked up to be raised as a slave.
There were several things that went into this decision, the most obvious being the infant’s health and form. A child that appeared sickly or weak, or was born malformed was likely rejected by the paterfamilias and left exposed to the elements and wild animals. This practice, cruel to modern audiences, was a sensible act in the perspective of Roman society, which greatly valued accomplishment and success over potential.
The paterfamilias also had to consider the family’s resources as well as the planning of
inheritances. If the family would be financially challenged or the addition of another child could disrupt an already well-distributed and portioned inheritance among the current members of the family, he may also choose to order the infant to be left to exposure. Mothers had little legal say in such decisions.
As a modern audience, this system is horrifying. Yet to Romans, while it could be difficult, it was part of the weight the paterfamilias was expected to bear. Even adult family members could be, in extreme situations legally executed. In one source, we are given the perspective of a paterfamilias on such decisions.
“For when in my Garden I prune and cut off the lower branches which grow about the Lettice, the mother and root of them is so farre from being grieved threat, that she flourishes the better, and becometh both fairer and sweeter.”
For Western civilizations, whose cultures have been reshaped by the evolution of primogeniture and Christianity, it is difficult to understand the cultural perspectives of Roman society. Modern Western culture greatly values potential. We see abilities as innate and present from birth, we often celebrate natural-born talents over accomplishments. We particularly hail intelligence, something the individual has no control over. The Romans thought well enough of intelligence, but it was like finding a wad of fine clay, a raw material and its final form unpredictable.
For the Romans, potential held little value. The process of becoming something was not particularly important, instead the arrival, the achievement of success was the defining factor of value. Infants are the epitome of undefined potential. There is much possibility as well as the possibility of nothing at all, either from infant and child death or simply
lack of ability or some character flaw. The Roman story of a daughter Pero, who breastfed her father Cimon jail is a great example. Despite the creepy imagery, to the Romans this story was a celebration of Pero’s dedication and loyalty to her father—the paterfamilias. For anyone who knows about milk production, we have to understand that she would have nursed her father at the expense of her infant.
Another part of the weak value system surrounding infants was the fluidity of familial relations in terms of birthright—in that the station of birth did not determine ownership of the inheritance of titles or wealth. Blood relation was not absolute. For example, it would have been ludicrous for an exposed infant to somehow survive and grow to adulthood and attempt to return to claim connection or inheritance from their birth family. That sort of thing was an element of fantastic stories instead of daily realities. Additionally, Romans frequently practiced adoption of both children and adults. Adoption was the cementation of clan affiliation and loyalty, a binding as close as family ties. These arrangements had less to do with charity, but more often the loyalty and demonstrated capabilities of the adoptee who would often become a designated heir. Or the establishment of a heir in the absence of children.
To a lesser degree, but still important, these bonds could also be created through marriage. However, marriages were broken relatively easily, especially among the elite for more advantageous matches, there was little care if there had been children from the previous marriage. The first emperor of Rome, Augustus had Livia’s marriage dissolved so he could marry her himself while she was still pregnant with her then-husband’s child. The inheritance of property or titles did not necessarily follow family lines, but instead, clan loyalty and could be designated and re-designated by the paterfamilias at will. Neither was there any particular hierarchy based on birth order.
All of these factors contributed to small importance placed on a family to produce children, as well as a low emphasis on motherhood, especially when attached to a woman’s identity and societal expectations. While women held limited formal legal and political power, they were not seen as mere vessels of childbirth and had access to education and freedom of movement. When it came to education, the real factor was wealth. In government, women were not at all invisible and were often figures of significant influence. They held roles that could vary, as wives and mothers, but also serving time in religious life or the pursuit of education. Most upper class women hired wet nurses to provide milk for their infants, choosing to free themselves from the duty. There is some evidence that points to the possible existence of a wet-nurse marketplace, where potential women to fill the role could be interviewed and hired.
Certainly, there were differences in families on how much say a woman held over the acceptance or rejection of her newborn into the family and therefore life. Depending on the paterfamilias some women most likely were allowed to make that decision, or heavily influenced a decision. There were women who likely agonized over a malformed child, fought the decisions of their paterfamilias and others who were more accepting over it. The way Romans saw infants seems to indicate that they may have viewed infant exposure as equal to a late stage abortion or even an act of mercy for a sick infant or a household with financial constraints.
Before the popular spread of Christianity, Roman women enjoyed greater value as part of the Empire for their family connections and individual demonstrated capabilities. Small esteem was placed on women as mothers comparatively and even less on an infant’s life.
The importance of these roles would be reshaped with the spread of Christianity. The Western European world would create a system that depended on blood-relations and the birth of heirs. As a result, women lost significant personal freedoms, gained singular value as mothers and the birth of children would become of utmost importance.
In the next part of this series, I will discuss how these things changed, the effects on society and the new realities of exalted motherhood.
The ancient world often portrayed its wisdom figures—whether literal divinity or personification of virtue—as feminine. The Greeks gravitated toward this in the form of Athena, wisdom-warrior goddess, and later in the form of Sophia, one of Plato’s four cardinal virtues. Yet before these two more renowned figures was Metis.
Hesiod’s Theoganyplaces Metis among the second generation of Titans. She is the daughter of Oceanus and Tethys, and her siblings numbered in the thousands. Hesiod calls her the wisest among both gods and mortals. Zeus took her as his first wife, perhaps desiring to have constant access to her counsels as he was establishing his rule. However, Metis was prophesied to bear children who would inherit her great wisdom and who could potentially overthrow Zeus. To prevent this, Zeus deceived Metis into transforming herself into a fly, whereupon he swallowed her, unaware that Metis had already conceived a child. For Zeus, it was enough that he had corralled Metis in such a way that she would never bear her fated children but would still “devise for him both good and evil.”
Lodged in the belly of her husband, Metis did not sit idle. She crafted weapons and armor for her daughter, Athena, and when she sprang from Zeus’s head on the banks of the river Trito, she was fully matured and battle-ready. Pindar, in his Seventh Olympian Ode, tells further that Hephaestus split Zeus’s head with an axe so that Athena could emerge, perhaps because the smithing of Metis was so painfully cacophonous to the thunder god.
Neither Hesiod nor Pindar shed any light on how Zeus was able to trick Metis, and so here we enter the realm of speculation. Could it be that Metis perceived her husband’s fears in light of the prophecy and, rather than leaving him and risk the world crumbling into chaos in her absence, altered herself to perpetuate the effects of her own wisdom in Zeus’s rule? She knew his might alone would not be sufficient to maintain order. Into his depths she went, creating a somewhat blurred symbiosis of masculinity and femininity from which issued Athena, out of her mother’s womb first but then her father also—a womb containing a womb.
This dependence of rulers on feminine wisdom is carried over into Plato’s Republic, where he envisions the head of his utopia as a philosopher king, a friend to the feminine embodiment of Wisdom or Sophia. Plato also calls Sophia the noblest of the parts of virtue in his Protagoras.
A similar personification of Divine Wisdom as feminine can be found in the Hebrew scriptures. The first chapter of Proverbs entreats the hearer to heed Wisdom’s voice and avoid disaster. Some of the early Christian Fathers, including Justin Martyr and Origen, would eventually attempt to marry Platonic philosophy with these passages, describing the Divine Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) as an aspect of the Logos—the pre-incarnated, cosmic Christ—from John 1. Here in Christianity, too, is the universe born and sustained through the partnership of masculinity and femininity.
Thus, when vehicles change—Greek mythology to philosophy to Christianity—Divine Wisdom, following in Metis’s metamorphosing footsteps, changes with them. Yet always, in whatever form, she persists as a creative force, a vital bulwark against disorder.
By the early portion of the 1st century, it seemed that all the world knew of Rome and its might. Further, it knew of the great Caesar Augustus that reigned at the helm of the Roman state. But in the land of Kush, at the edges of Western interest, this was not the case. The feeling was mutual, or more accurately, mutual disinterest and ignorance, neither Rome, roman culture or the man that ruled it meant very much to the Kushites or their great queens, the Kandake.
It is uncertain when the Kush royal heredity moved from male to female, but we do understand that a series of women headed the state as independent sovereigns. These women were rulers by their own right, not by widowhood, regency nor marriage. Additionally, Kandakes did not lose or diminish their power when they married or bore sons. Instead, it was the husband who took up the position as consort. It is from the period of Kandake rule that we have a significant collection of art and inscriptions that depict the nature of their authority. In these the queen often towers, sometimes in the throes of smiting her enemy. In others, her hands are lifted in religious devotion. In all of them, she is the central or only theme of the work. If husbands appeared at all, they were small in stature compared to their queens, if a male appeared of any significance is was most often the Kandake’s son. Frequently, consorts went completely nameless in the record.
She often towers, sometimes in the throes of smiting her enemy, in others, her hands are lifted in religious devotion.
Kush already practiced a form of matriarchal succession common among the cultures of East Africa (and beyond) where royal males inherited rule through their mothers. These mothers were female relatives of the king, often a sister. It is thought that the title of
Kandake meant “queen mother,” revealing the preexisting importance of the position and offering an easily identifiable reason for the transition to singular female rule. The importance of women goes beyond the royal world, but includes a special regard for the role of wives and mothers in society. Many societies recognize motherhood as a crucial position yet it occupies a support role to male authority. In Kushite culture women were esteemed as vital monolithic entities that were active in both domestic and public worlds. Further, roles were fluid particularly when it came to power. Female roles within society embodied strength, an attribute needed for ruling a kingdom.
It appears that in Kushite culture, women were esteemed as vital monolithic entities that were active in both domestic and public worlds.
When the Romans and Kushites finally crossed paths at Premnis, a fort located near the Nile in Upper Egypt, it was the Kandake Amantitere who led her forces and brazenly brought them down the Nile and into Egyptian territory. Kushite women were known to arm themselves in everyday life, so the appearance of a queen a the helm of a military effort is not surprising. According to Roman accounts, “the Candace attacked the garrison with an army of many thousand men.” Dio Cassius recorded the Kush army “with Candace as their leader, ravaging everything they encountered.” Kandakes were not gilded rulers, decked in lace, delicate and breakable. Formidable in spirit as well as appearance, Strabo paints a picture of Amantitere that captures the imagination: masculine and in possession of one eye, having lost it is some unknown circumstance. 
Perhaps from gender egalitarianism, depictions of Kandakes belie beauty standards of the inheritors of the Hellenistic world as well as Egyptian ideals. Instead we are shown images of strong capable bodies. UNESCO describes a relief of Shanakdakhete, the first known true queen, as a women with, “a wide and powerful body adorned with many jewels…these traits which combine the promise of fertility and the exterior signs of wealth, symbolize prosperity and power.” Kandakes harnessed feminine vitality and strength, there doesn’t appear to be a need for symbols of male authority nor titles to legitimatize their rule. The adherence to a separate standard is interesting as it is clear from artwork that Kushite culture had strong Egyptian influences, this included the adoption of several Egyptian deities.
Perhaps from gender egalitarianism, depictions of Kandakes belie beauty standards of the inheritors of the Hellenistic world as well as Egyptian ideals.
What stories and images left to us about these remarkable women only serve to inspire and leave us curious. What can Kush society teach us about the role of women in modern society? What things can it teach us about beauty standards? Just to know these stories and even to discover their faults would be a pursuit of new and worthy perspectives. While we can only continue to wonder, we can learn from what we do know: that women’s social roles were places of authority and that strength carried Kandakes to power.
We can be further inspired by the discovery of the stone head of Caesar Augustus buried at the entrance of Kandake Amantitere’s palace, where she tread over it with the confident legs of a monolithic and uncompromising queen.
 Also called Nubia. This region is part of modern day Sudan and Ethiopia as well as the location of a series of significant historical kingdoms (such as Axum).
 There is some uncertainty concerning the true title of the Kush queens. Some sources argue that the title “Kandake” specifically means Queen Mother and that women who held both the title of kandake and king were true independent rulers. Understanding the actualized extent of the title may not be possible until Kush hieroglyphics are fully deciphered.
Women in Anquitity: Real Women Across the Ancient World, ed. Stephanie Lynn Budin, Jean Macintosh Turta. (New York: Routledge, 2016).
 Kandake is romanized as “Candace” in some sources
A few months ago, I read the book “Mr. Churchill’s Secretary,” a fictional novel by Susan Elia MacNeal. I have read twenty books since then, but there is one scene about which I can’t stop thinking.
It haunts me.
In the first chapter of the book, a woman named Diana is coming home from where she works as a secretary for Winston Churchill. She exits the car of a stranger who has given her a ride home. When she gets out, a man is standing there in a dark mask. He tells her to turn around and put her hands on the car hood. She complies despite the fear that something is wrong. “Without preamble, she felt the hot shock of the metal blade as it pierced through her flesh and could hear the tearing as it went through cloth and skin and muscle” (MacNeal 8). She dies there, in a puddle of rain and blood, without trying to run or fight back.
It was about that time that I stumbled on the history of Boudicca, Warrior Queen of the Celts.
Boudicca was a queen of the Iceni Celtic tribe in 47 A.D. Briton was under the rule of the Roman Empire, and Boudicca’s husband was the Icenian King Prasutagus. Although he was the King of the Celts, he was also a “client king” of the Romans, and therefore had full Roman citizenship. By extension, his wife would also have been a part of the ruling class of Rome (Collingridge 173-178).
King Prasutagus died, and instead of passing his kingdom to his daughters which had been his wishes, Rome decided that the kingdom was rightfully theirs. They beat Boudicca and raped both of her daughters, the very women that King Prasutagas thought would be the queens of his kingdom. The bodily harm and the rapes were seen as great insults in both the Roman and Celtic cultures. But they were designed for one thing: to terrify both Boudicca and the Celts into submission to the Romans.
It did not work.
After hearing of what had happened to Boudicca, the Iceni tribespeople gathered near the home of their queen, “Showing their support for their queen and their hatred of the Romans” (Collingridge 184). Roman rule was tenuous at best, with a previous Celtic rebellion squashed thirteen years previous and the tentative peace only possible through King Prasutagus’s pro-Roman stance.
Other Celtic tribes joined Boudicca and made a massive army, and according to Collingridge, “There was only one response, only one plan of action – and that was to wipe out all trace of the Romans’ polluting culture and their gross abuse of every man, woman and child in the conquered territories” (Collingridge 185). Boudicca and her army attacked and razed three Roman cities. Her army was brutal and harsh, taking the lives of thousands of Britons and Romans alike in an attempt to win back their independence and freedom.
The historian Tacitus recorded Boudicca’s statement:
“Nothing is safe from Roman pride and arrogance. They will deface the sacred and will deflower our virgins. Win the battle or perish, that is what I, a woman, will do” (Pruit).
Boudicca and her army lost in a final battle with Rome, and because of that loss, Briton was then ruled by Rome for another 350 years. Of Boudica, Dio wrote, “The Britons mourned her deeply and gave her a costly burial. The Roman conquest had brought to the Iceni misfortune that ripened into disaster after their rebellion failed. But as time passed, Britannia became an orderly and respected part of the Roman empire. It remained so for another three centuries. Boudica’s people finally won what it seems they had wanted all along: respect, peace and a government that treated them with justice and honor” (Donsbach).
Boudicca died defending her rights and doing what she thought was best.
What do these two women, one fictional and one not, have to do with one another? Both of their stories end in death and that is the very point. One died without even an attempt to fight. The other fought for what she believed in.
If I had a choice, I know which one I would choose to be.