The rebirth of the earth during spring signals the opportunity for new beginnings. Spring is the epitome of a juice cleanse after scarfing down an entire box of Girl Scout cookies. Spring cleaning allows people to shed their hoarder habits, and finally locate their lucky socks. There’s no better time than spring to take an inventory of one’s life, and use the fresh start to focus on what truly matters.
Charles Prendergast’s painting “Untitled (Rites of Spring),” which is a part of the Art Institute of Chicago’s collection, shows a number of maidens frolicking in celebration of the season. The gold and silver leaf makes the scene sparkle and shine. Even the birds look happy. Spring is not only in the air, but in the minds and hearts of every joyful creature depicted.
The seasons progress much like the triple goddess expressed as maiden, mother, and crone. Spring is the fresh-faced maiden, unspoiled and full of opportunity. Summer becomes the mother, whose energy is shifted to her kiddies who keep her busy chasing rainbows and unicorn dreams under a sunny sky. Fall and winter symbolize the crone, who brings wisdom and sometimes icy regret, a far cry from the promise and hope of spring.
In Greek Mythology, Hades abducts a maiden named Persephone and takes her to his home in the Underworld. Her mother Demeter, the goddess of agriculture among other things, expresses her grief over the loss of her daughter by making the earth barren. Persephone’s return from the Underworld is arranged, but because of the pomegranate seeds she’d consumed there, Hades maintains a hold on her. A kind of shared custody agreement is struck, where she splits her time between Earth and the Underworld. When mother and daughter are reunited, Demeter’s icy exterior melts bringing spring. The Earth remains fertile until Persephone’s return to the Underworld come fall.
The myth of Persephone and Demeter demonstrates a new beginning. The mother-daughter relationship is ever changed by Persephone’s abduction and her seasonal return to Earth. Demeter is forced to see her daughter, not as a child, but as a woman. Absence may make the heart grow fonder. A reunion with what was once lost brings a new appreciation and gratitude. The requirement to share her daughter with Hades makes each moment with Persephone a little more special—a little more precious. Something perhaps previously taken for granted is now cherished.
In his book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life, Mark Manson encourages the reader to restrict her time and energy to the people and things that truly matter in life. Change generated by unsolicited self-evaluation beats regret, because as magical as spring may be, second chances aren’t a guarantee. Time trudges ever forward. If one fails to take advantage of the renewal spring offers, soon it’s time to pull out the boots, puffy coats, and snow shovels, and opportunities turn to might-have-beens.
Use spring to jump start positive change. Decide where best to channel time and energy. Make plans with friends and family. Dust off that To-Do list. Prioritize To-Be-Read lists and bucket lists or simply decide who and what matters most, and adjust time and energy accordingly. If things don’t go as expected, don’t worry. Persephone will be back for a return engagement bringing the gift of another opportunity for a fresh start and a bright future. Plan accordingly.
It’s no great secret that medieval literature is my favorite period of literature. I read monastic authors…for fun. I get that’s weird to most people, but the older I get, the more I realize everyone has their “weird thing.” It’s what makes people fun. And when K.P. requested that this month’s theme be about romance, my mind went instantly to one of my favorite (and weird) romance stories of the middle ages.
Well, really, it’s my favorite because it’s weird.
But also, because it isn’t just a romantic match ignited by physical passion; rather, the passion was ignited by intellectual equality. I’ve always joked I’ll find my perfect match when our hands touch reaching for the same book at Barnes & Noble…I imagine that’s what the “meet cute” was like for Abelard and Heloise.
Heloise’s uncle wanted only the best education for his niece. Contrary to many misconceptions, women could receive an education in the middle ages…provided they could pay for it. And Heloise’s uncle could. Heloise’s reputation as an intellectual–and a beauty–attracted Peter Abelard, who offered his tutoring services. The two began a passionate love affair that ended in Heloise’s pregnancy, forcing them to marry in secret–which she, knowing it would be the end to both their intellectual pathways, opposed.
Heloise’s uncle and other family members, however, believing that Abelard had ruined their kinswoman, sent a group to Abelard at an inn to attack him and have him castrated–a harsh, but poetic, punishment.
After this, Abelard and Heloise agreed to surrender to a monastic life. Yet, it is this life that leads them to engage in a series of letters which demonstrate their intellectual brilliance. They can no longer be physical lovers, but they can still love what fiercely attracted them to one another in the first place–the other’s mind. Though the letters, Problemata, and the relationship, are products of their time, and must be viewed thus, there is a very present equality in this relationship that seems almost ahead of its time.
For two people as passionate as Abelard and Heloise, one can only imagine how difficult their forced separation was. Yet it is evident from their correspondence that this separation split them in body only, not in heart, mind, or soul. Still, the pain of the physical separation is decidedly present in these letters, especially because, though they might see one another again, they would never be able to communicate on the same level they once had. They must find a new way to relay their passions for one another. In her letters to Abelard and in Problemata, Heloise seems to find a new way to reassess the relationship by attempting to adjust to her new life, going back to their beginnings, and manipulating the subject matter.
In her letters to Abelard, Heloise makes it clear that though she lives a monastic life, she does not feel it as she ought; rather, she does it for his sake (69). Still despite her claim that she is “sighing” over her lost love, and not her sins (68), she does make an astounding effort in her new life by engaging Abelard in various theological matters, as she does in Problemata. After Heloise’s letter to Abelard claiming her distress at their situation, Abelard replies by telling her the reasons they must endure this trial and asking that she speak no more of it. In her reply, Heloise consents to not mention it, and immediately turns to other subjects. But before doing so, she notes that Abelard “has it in [his] power to remedy my grief, even if [he] cannot entirely remove it” (93). She agrees to make the attempt for his sake, but by ending the subject thus, she not only gives herself the final word, but also lets him know her feelings toward his request without seeming ungrateful. It is, in a sense, a very diplomatic way of ending a conversation that respects Abelard without debasing herself. She holds him as equal, and expects the same in return.
Another way that Abelard and Heloise seem to renegotiate their relationship is by
returning to the origin of the relationship itself. They met over books, and Abelard notes that what drew him to her was her “gift for letters” (10). Once they begin their renegotiation, they return to that intellectual conversation. Problemata is an intellectual text in itself, in that Heloise poses theological questions and inconsistencies, and Abelard replies with his thoughts. Similarly, in their letters, after Heloise agrees not to mention her pain, she turns to Abelard and asks again for his tutelage. She wants him to come and teach her and the other nuns about the history of their order and to help her create a Rule by which they should live (94). This is a renegotiation in that in their original relationship, while Abelard was her tutor, they did much more than study. Now, it seems, he can teach her all he knows, and they can each focus on each other’s intellect, since the major physical aspect of their relationship is off limits.
A third way they reassess their relationship is through their “question and answer sessions.” In Problemata, Heloise is asking all the questions, but these questions, though not theologically simple, do not paint Heloise to be at all ignorant of their answers. A lawyer’s mantra is “Never ask a question to which you do not already have the answer.” This seems to be Heloise’s thoughts in Problemata, as well. She asks questions and sets up Abelard’s brilliant answer, so that she has created a dialogue piece that works kind of like a jigsaw puzzle: each piece fits together perfectly. She uses similar tactics in her letters to Abelard, posing questions to him which she—regarded as intelligent in her own right—could answer, but it seems her point is to distract herself and Abelard from their pain and turn to “more important” subjects (93). One such example in her letters that is vaguely reminiscent of Problemata is when she asks Abelard about idleness: “But was not Mary sitting idle in order to listen to the words of Christ, while Martha was working for her as much as for the Lord?…(110). This question sounds like her questions in Problemata, but in this instance, she goes on to answer it herself and even compare it to those in monastic life who chant and read God’s word, but never meditate on it (110). In this way, she manipulates the subject matter of their correspondence to distract from their physical separation and re-focus their energy on more intellectual (and, for the time period, read “higher”) matters.
Their first few letters definitely portray the pain Abelard and Heloise felt at their forced separation, but this does not mar their overall relationship. As Heloise shows Abelard she is adjusting to her life in the convent (whether or not she actually is), their relationship continues and evolves, showing not only each person’s intellectual prowess, but that each of their individual minds is strengthened when they are united as one.
Two heads really are better…especially when they respect the other’s intellectual capacity.
Abelard, Peter. The Letters of Abelard and Heloise. Betty Radice, trans. Penguin Books, 1974.
Fortescue-Brickdale, Eleanor. “Abelard and Eloise.” Golden Book of Famous Women, Hodder and Staughton, 1919.
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.
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.
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.)
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…
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.