Due to slight technical difficulties this week, we are going to take this opportunity to cross-promote our friend @greekhistorypod and his podcast on “The Two Goddesses”–Demeter and Persephone, one the goddess of the harvest, the other the goddess of the seasons. One can’t exist without the other, right? Enjoy!
Perspective is one of the most powerful tools available to writers. It defines the reader’s entry point into the story and shapes their view of the characters. One of my favorite examples of this can be seen in The Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner. The series, which is currently made up of five books with a sixth planned, was inspired by ancient Greece. In Turner’s world, three small countries occupy a peninsula off of the main continent—Sounis in the west, Attolia in the south, and Eddis plunked between the two.
The first book in the series, simply titled The Thief, is told in first-person from Eugenides’s perspective. He’s a teenaged thief whose only chance at getting out of the Sounis prison is to try to steal a mythical stone that is said to confer on the holder the throne of Eddis. Although Eugenides, known as Gen, is the main character of this book, it’s a tertiary female character who makes only a minor appearance toward the end—the queen of Attolia. Her given name is Irene, but in Turner’s world, leaders take on the name of their country. Gen is in prison—again—when he finally meets Attolia, whom he describes as follows:
“Standing in the light, surrounded by the dark beyond the lanterns, she seemed lit by the aura of the gods. Her hair was black and held away from her face by an imitation of the woven gold band of Hephestia. Her robe was draped like a peplos, made from embroidered red velvet. She was as tall as the magus, and she was more beautiful than any woman I have ever seen. Everything about her brought to mind the old religion, and I knew that the resemblance was deliberate, intended to remind her subjects that as Hephestia ruled uncontested among the gods, this woman ruled Attolia.” 
This seems like a lot to unpack, especially if you’re not familiar with the series. Our brief glimpse of Attolia tells us two important things—she’s beautiful, and she’s powerful. However, as Gen points out just a page later, though Attolia is beautiful, she is less than kind—to the point of ruthlessness. There are even stories of how she poisoned her husband on their wedding day in order to claim the throne.
Through Turner’s deft use of Gen’s first-person point of view, readers are exposed to the tension among these three countries as well as his strong and poor opinion of the queen of Attolia. Consequently, it’s easy to side with him and dislike her. So imagine the reader’s surprise when Turner gives Attolia a point of view in book two, The Queen of Attolia, titled after the character in question. If she is ruthless, it is because she has had to be. “I inherited this country when I was only a child, Nahuseresh,” she says. “I have held it. I have fought down rebellious barons. I’ve fought Sounis to keep the land on this side of the mountains. I have killed men and watched them hang. I’ve seen them tortured to keep this country safe and mine.”  Perhaps Gen is right when he says she’s not kind, but perhaps she was never given the chance to be.
By using Attolia’s point of view, Turner makes it clear that Gen’s initial assessment, though not wrong, isn’t the whole picture. Through her point of view, we get passages such as this: “She thought of the hardness and the coldness she had cultivated over those years and wondered if they were the mask she wore or if the mask had become her self. If the longing inside her for kindness, for warmth, for compassion, was the last seed of hope for her, she didn’t know how to nurture it or if it could live.”  We find that the true Attolia is a far cry from the stony-faced queen she presents to others.
Although Turner’s series offers a fully realized fantasy world as well as twisting plotlines, its biggest strength lies in the characters. I can give only a brief glimpse of Attolia’s development, especially because each installment comes with its own revelations and surprises, but I hope it’s enough to illustrate how our perception as readers is directly influenced by the perspective(s) a writer chooses. I don’t think anyone relishes being proven wrong, but in this particular case, the journey Turner takes us on in order to prove us wrong about Attolia is more rewarding than being right.
 Turner, Megan Whalen. The Thief. Puffin Books, 1998.
 Turner, Megan Whalen. The Queen of Attolia. Harper Collins, 2000.
Born six hundred years before the common era, Sappho exists solely within two poems and a few lyrical fragments. As a result, the contours of her story reflect the feverish desires of the paternalistic Greco-Roman culture more than any accurate historical knowledge of the preeminent poetess herself. Her admirers lauded her poetry. Plato, theorized as a proto-feminist, called Sappho the tenth Muse. In more modern times, the early Church transformed her titillating love of women into the perversions of a pre-Christian culture. But to us, she shows another face: Sappho as the educated woman lighting the way for a younger generation.
We know that Sappho was born in mid 600 B.C.E. She spent a sizable portion of her life in the city of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos. Despite the speculations of her sexuality, Sappho was likely married, although not to Kerkylas of Andros, a coarse joke from Sappho’s afterlife in Roman comedy. The name roughly translates to “Dick All-cock from the Isle of Man.” Her daughter was named Cleis. She had several brothers. Or so we think.
Literate, Sappho belonged to an elite family. The dialect Aeolic her medium, she wrote and sung in a sophisticated meter that now carries her name, Sapphic. The subject, often the love of a woman:
Iridescent-throned Aphrodite, deathless
Child of Zeus, wile-weaver, I now implore you,
Don’t–I beg you, Lady–with pains and torments
Crush down my spirit….
And to Sappho, Aphrodite promises:
Now she runs away, but she’ll soon pursue you;
Gifts she now rejects–soon enough she’ll give them;
Now she doesn’t love you, but soon her heart will
Burn, though unwilling….
Did Sappho cultivate young naïve women as her acolytes? Did she indoctrinate them into the cult of the goddess of love? Did the “her” in Sappho’s lines even exist?
The true nature of this salacious love has swamped discussion of Sappho’s relation to major cultural and political forces on Lesbos during her lifetime. But recent scholarly work attempts to extract Sappho from the hedonism. She is enthroned as the leading member of a circle of highly educated, aristocrat women bound by love, loyalty, and polity. Sappho’s words now seem clever political criticisms of rival families rather than frivolous love. Amid the conflict in Mytilene, Sappho and her family fled Lesbos for southern Italy, willingly or banished.
Every new discovery of her lyrics tucked away in the lining of a sarcophagus tantalizes us with more hints, not answers. The “true” Sappho remains veiled.
But she is not lost. If “[e]very age creates its own Sappho” as the “metonym for all women,” then from her sparse history, let us reclaim this. In a sphere dominated by the erudite male, who pontificated on all aspects of society, including the woman’s role, Sappho seized power through the act of writing and song . And those stodgy men expressed “rapturous admiration for her exquisite style.” Even if the ensuing two thousand years have garbled the message, Sappho’s impact remains indelible on Western literature. Whether she wrote luscious poetry to beguile her female lover or as political satire, Sappho spoke her own truth. So should we in our own writing.
Ava de Cenizas
When it comes to the fragments of poetry that remain from Sappho, “There are lies (the handbooks), damned lies (the ancient biographies), and statistics.” Parker, H. Sappho’s Public World. In Women poets in ancient Greece and Rome. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press (2005).
Mendelsohn, D., “Girl Interrupted: Who was Sappho?” The New Yorker (Mar. 16, 2015); “Sappho,” Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/Sappho (accessed April 15, 2017).
Parker, H. “Sappho Schoolmistress,” Transactions of the American Philological Association, Vol. 123 (1993).
 “Sappho’s Hymn to Aphrodite,” The Stoa Consortium, http://www.stoa.org/diotima/anthology/vandiver.shtml#meter (accessed April 15, 2017).
 Parker, H. “Sappho Schoolmistress” Transactions of the American Philological Association, Vol. 123 (1993).
 Katz, M. “Sappho and her Sisters: Women in Ancient Greece,” Signs Vol. 25, No. 2 (Winter 2000).
The Persephone myth has resonated with women generation after generation. I can think of no other myth with more retellings, ranging from Disney classics like Beauty and the Beast, to classic literature-turned-Broadway shows like Phantom of the Opera, to dozens of contemporary retellings like my novel, Persephone.
Persephone is a fascinating figure in mythology. She goes from a nameless maiden (Kore) picking flowers in a meadow, to Hades’s queen (Persephone), to the terrifying ruler of the Underworld (The Iron Queen). But through the entire transition, she never gets to tell her own story. The myth goes into Hades’s motivations, his negotiations with Zeus, Demeter’s panic, Ascalaphus’s trickery to get Persephone to eat the pomegranate seeds, random nymph bystanders, and villagers seen along Demeter’s quest. Every person in the story gets a voice except Persephone.
Her lack of her voice, her thoughts, and fears, and feelings, plucks at our subconscious, insisting there is more to the story. Is it any wonder there are so many retellings trying to fix that problem?
It’s a story that demands to be told.
And for too many years it was told wrong. Her role reduced to that of a victim. Very few versions of the myth go into her role in the Underworld afterward. How it was widely acknowledged throughout Greece that Hades was a bit of a pushover, but do not mess with his wife. She was feared, revered, and had entire cults dedicated to worshiping her name.
It’s a common problem for women in history, mythological and otherwise. Look at Helen Keller. If you walk up to a random person off the street, they can likely tell you she was blind and deaf, they can probably tell you her first sign, and the name of her teacher, but what they aren’t likely to know are the legion of accomplishments to her name. Like Persephone’s story ends when she emerges from hell for a portion of each year, reunited with her mother, Helen’s story often ends with her ability to communicate unlocked.
Greek mythology is a very good microcosm for the way women are treated in history. Though the women in Greek mythology were powerful and complex, they were often reduced to a single, definable (often passive) trait. In popular culture, Athena isn’t known as the war goddess she was, but the goddess of wisdom, known for popping up and giving heroes advice. Persephone is a victim, not a queen, Hera is a jealous lunatic, not the God-Queen, Aphrodite is painted as a whore. That’s it. That’s her entire role. While Zeus and Poseidon somehow get left off the hook for their ridiculous levels of promiscuity. If mentioned, it’s never their sole defining trait.
I figured it’s about time the stories of these amazing, powerful, flawed, and complex mythological figures got told right. So, I wrote the Daughters of Zeus series, starting with Persephone’s myth. I take Persephone from the innocent maiden picking flowers all the way to her rise as one of the most feared goddesses in the Pantheon. My next trilogy tackles Aphrodite. The other gods and goddesses make appearances all throughout the series in their full complexity. I took liberties transitioning the myths to modern day, but I remained true to the spirit of the original myths. I am not the only author envisioning these myths for a modern audience, nor are my versions perfect. But they are full of powerful women with different flaws and strengths, leaning on each other as they navigate the horrors of a pantheon steeped in patriarchy.
You should check it out.
by K.P. Kulski
As so many things do, this begins with a story…
Many stories in fact, but I’m going to start out with just the one.
In 508 BCE, the great Spartan King Cleomenes joined forces with the exiled family of Cleisthenes in the hope of overthrowing Hippias, the tyrant of Athens. (Take a breath, I know that was lot of ancient Greek names.)
King Cleomenes managed to get himself to the acropolis, the central and most important part of the ancient Athenian polis, also the location of the holy temple of Athena. Weary and looking for a moment of spiritual reflection, Cleomenes, King of Sparta enters to the holiest place in the city of Athens, to pray. I imagine he opened the temple door, ready to step into the welcome cool dim within when he heard an angry female voice. An angry and powerful female voice, accustomed to being obeyed.
An Athenian priestess rose from her seat within and is said to have shouted, “Spartan stranger, go back. Do not enter the holy place.”1
She harnesses the power of the divine and exists in liminality, between the living and the dead.
This Athenian priestess is not given a name, not like the males in the story. She doesn’t stick out individually, but her strength, conviction and divine authority is enough to get King Cleomenes thrown out of the temple. She, like many women throughout history harnessed a special mystique, a voice that does not sway to the demands and wants of a king, conqueror or the greater society.
She harnesses the power of the divine and exists in liminality, between the living and the dead. With mere words she has toppled kingdoms, flicked away the pride of overzealous politicians and directed the focus of entire civilizations. She accomplishes these things with no significant wealth or army at her disposal. Through the authority of her own female divinity she is the sacred vessel of supernatural knowledge. What she has to say, whether a king likes it or not, holds the weight of powers more significant and more powerful.
This is not unique to the polytheistic world. As Christianity rose to predominance, it brought with it the identity of sacred women as powerful figures. If you think about it, Mary’s pregnancy was a rebellion. While married to Joseph, Mary gives birth to the son of the divine, instead of her husband’s offspring. Her own immaculate conception further cements the concept of her sacred feminine before she even conceives Jesus. She exists outside the normal conventions of society and gender restrictions simply do not apply to her.
As Christianity rose to predominance, it brought with it the identity of sacred women as powerful figures.
Classical works, embraced by medieval Europe created a natural dilemma for the Christian devout. If these works were to be celebrated and revered, scholars could not ignore the blatant references to pagan gods. Taking one of their favorite classical writers, medieval thinkers harnessed the prophetic presence of the Cumae Sibyl in Virgil’s Elcogue. The Sibyls, an extension of the classical Greek oracle tradition, played a similar and significant prophetic role in ancient Rome. Virgil’s mention of the Sibyl’s words, most likely meant as a propaganda outlet for Augustus, were interpreted by medieval scholars to have been
oracular visions of the coming of Jesus Christ and the ultimate establishment of Christendom. Yet it is interesting to note that Christians of this age viewed the prophesy of the Cumae Sibyl as a frightening example of female paganism. This is a fascinating conflict, despite rejecting paganism itself, they acknowledged the power of the female prophetess. Christian scholars were convinced that Sibyl, by divine power, had foreseen the birth of Jesus and through extension rejected Roman pagan authority.“By Destiny’s unalterable decree. Assume thy greatness, for the time draws night, Dear child of gods, great progeny of Jove!”2 While the Sibyl represented a pagan belief system, medieval scholars recognized that she held a special power, especially if she foresaw the coming of their Lord.
Even from the lowest rungs of society, she commands with the voice of the gods and becomes a goddess herself.
In 1492, the Maid of Heaven, Joan of Arc met with the Dauphin of France, Charles VII. France was at this time, a shadow of itself, a kingdom on the verge of complete annexation. English ambitions to rule over France seemed only a hair’s breadth away from realization. Charles himself was not in a strong position. But something about Joan, a commoner who somehow managed to obtain a chance to meet with him, the Dauphin, moved Charles to invest in her rebellion. It was of course, in his interest and whether Charles himself was religious moved or inspired by Joan, cannot be definitively decided. Nonetheless, if Joan was a mere political gambit for Charles, she still appealed to a multitude as a figure of French resistance. This is in great part because of the figure she cut into the collective French identity – a virgin girl in direct communication with God.
As seen above, this model is quite familiar, a female who is a conduit to the divine which can only be achieved because of her gender. This embodiment goes beyond divine inspiration, but to the very pores of her being. She is symbolic of the divine and therefore cannot be ignored. Even from the lowest rungs of society, she commands with the voice of the gods and becomes a goddess herself.
We can see those connections of female divinity to the very dawn of civilization, where sacred womanhood is not to be underestimated. This is reflected in the very stories of the divine, contained with the feminine— a sacred looming power.
So, I leave you with these powerful and daring words of the first known author, Sumerian priestess Enheduana as she exalts her goddess Inana:
“At your battle-cry, my lady, the foreign lands bow low. When humanity comes before you in awed silence at the terrifying radiance and tempest, you grasp the most terrible of all the divine powers. Because of you, the threshold of tears is opened, and people walk along the path of the house of great lamentations. In the van of battle, all is struck down before you. With your strength, my lady, teeth can crush flint. You charge forward like a charging storm. You roar with the roaring storm.”3
1. Herodotus, The Histories, trans. Aubrey De Selincourt (London: Penguin, 2003), 337-338.
2. Virgil, “The Eclogues,” The Internet Classics Archive, http://classics.mit.edu/Virgil/eclogue.4.iv.html.
3. Enheduana, “The Exaltation of Inana,” The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/cgi-bin/etcsl.cgi?text=t.4.07.2&display=Crit&charenc=gcirc&lineid=t4072.p7#t4072.p7.
When I first brought up the notion of doing a blog that focused on women’s roles in ancient literature and history, K.P. Kulski and I tossed around several ideas of what we could call the site. I kid you not (this is how we knew this relationship was fated), she suggested “Antigone” at about the same time I was thinking it.
Ultimately, we decided on “Unbound” (playing off of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, and also the idea of the binding and unbinding of hair), but I just couldn’t shake the Antigone reference, and how, when I first read the Ancient Greek play, Antigone became one of my top ten literary role models. Even though she is from a time centuries (millennia!) past, she now seems more relevant than ever. Thus, it seemed fitting for Antigone to kick off our look at great women in literature.
“She never learned to yield,”1 the chorus tells Creon in Antigone, referring to the titular character. Another translation says, “to the storm she bendeth not”2; and still another, “she knows not how to bend before trouble.”3
That line can pretty much tell you everything about why she is my literary role model. If you’ve never before read Antigone, you should. Right now.
Or perhaps, you can knock it out later… it’s a very short read, and you’ll find links to three different translations at the bottom of this post. I first encountered this play as a sophomore in high school, and I found it so incredibly…modern. I mean, no one can accuse the Ancient Greeks of being feminists — certainly not by modern standards, in any case. But Antigone offers us one of the most powerful female characters in all of literature.
To give you some context, Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta. Yes, that Oedipus–the one who killed his father and married his mother through a tragic act of fate. Side Note: I remember when we read Oedipus Rex as seniors, the boys were super grossed out. It was funny as a student. Then I became a teacher, and my department chair said, “Have them read this.” And that was the most uncomfortable teaching experience of my life.
That’s beside the point — you came to hear about Antigone. Antigone had two brothers, Polyneices and Eteocles. These two brothers went to war and killed each other, leaving no direct heir of Oedipus to take the throne (gotta love a good Greek tragedy). Creon, Jocasta’s brother, is the next in line, ordering that Eteocles (whose side Creon agreed with) would receive a hero’s burial, while Polyneices (whose side Creon did not agree with) would receive no burial whatsoever, and be left to the birds and dogs. Ouch.
Now, you have to understand a few things about Ancient Greek culture to fully get the weight of this. The main point being, no burial = no afterlife. Creon isn’t just saying Polyneice’s body can be eaten by carrion birds . . . he’s saying Polyneice’s soul can never find rest. He’s damning him to an eternal punishment, one not confined to physical torment. The spiritual torment in this case is far, far worse.
Furthermore, whoever attempts to bury the traitor’s body will himself be condemned as a traitor. Angered by this denial of her brother’s soul, Antigone resolves to bury him, sneaking out at night and sprinkling dirt on his corpse. The first night, the sentries brush off the dirt and then report the act to Creon, who flies into a rage, accusing his guards of doing it themselves and threatening their lives if they don’t bring forth the perpetrator.
They soon catch Antigone in the act, as she goes back to bury her brother’s body again. She’s brought before Creon and condemned to death. Everyone, including his son (Antigone’s fiancé), tries to reason with him, but Creon, in the throes of power, is beyond reason.
In true Greek tragedy fashion, the play ends with the death of everyone Creon has ever loved, leaving him, the tyrant, alone with the realization that he is the instrument of his own suffering.
“Wow, E.J.,” you say. “That sounds morbidly depressing, and what on earth does that have to do with this blog you’ve set up, celebrating the roles of powerful women in literature and history?”
I’m so glad you asked. Antigone, at its core, is about the dangers of pride and overreaching. Creon believes himself to be the ultimate law, but Antigone knows the laws of the gods are higher, and she resolves herself to follow them, not Creon. To say Antigone is courageous almost understates her resistance. Here, I’ll try and show you what I mean:
Antigone proves that there is no fear in doing the right thing. Okay, that sounds a bit moralistic. I get it. Yet…that’s the beauty of her story. Standing there, before Creon–the man who holds her life in his hand–and saying, “All these men here would praise me if their lips were not frozen shut with fear of you. Ah, the good fortune of kings. Licensed to say and do whatever they please!”4
Dang, girl. She not only tells him she’s not backing down, but she calls out Creon’s tyranny and the cowardice of the men around her, all in a single breath.
Creon responds in kind, saying that she is the one guilty of a crime, not them.
She persists with “There is no guilt in reverence for the dead.”5
Everything about her says she stands on solid moral ground. Ultimately, the tragedy of this play is Creon’s, not Antigone’s. Sophocles makes it clear that Antigone follows a law that exists above even the King of the land, and in following the natural law (the law of the gods), Antigone, for all Creon’s bluster, is right.
There’s nothing overblown about her rightness; no real smugness or flying at Creon in a rage. No fear or even anything close to backing down.
She doesn’t have to.
And that’s why I love Antigone. Her strength is more than just some flippant human nature rebellion against authority; rather, she stands firm in her conviction that true justice prevails.
In the end, Antigone, her fiancé Haimon, and her aunt Euridice all lie dead because of Creon’s rash decree, and we the audience are left with these final words from the Chorus:
“There is no happiness where there is no wisdom
No submission but in submission to the gods.
Big words are always punished,
And proud men in old age learn to be wise.”7
The reasoning in this last stanza, even when compared to varying translations, is so poetic. You can’t be happy without wisdom; wisdom means being humble; “proud men” can never stay that way. Therefore (to honor the Greeks and make this a syllogism), pride is always foolish. In the end, natural justice will prevail, raising up the humble and laying low the prideful fools.
I mean, for a tragedy, it actually ends on a great note of hope. The common English proverb says, “Pride goes before a fall.”8 It’s reassurance that, in the end, the proud engineer their own destruction.
I like happy endings. Hopeful conclusions. Stories where doing the right thing means the good guys win. But sometimes, life doesn’t always work out that way.
Still, even though Antigone’s story ends in her death, her untimely demise in no way detracts from her boldness, her conviction.
Do the right thing. Always. The world promises you no reward for it, but it does promise you self-respect.
“I dared,” Antigone says when Creon expresses surprise that she defied his decree. “[Yours] was not God’s proclamation… I knew I must die, even without your decree. I am mortal…This death of mine is of no importance; but if I had left by brother in death unburied, I should have suffered. Now I do not.”6
Incredible. Her refusal to suffer under tyrannical, unnatural law is what gives her freedom and peace. When she lives under the freedom of doing what is right, no one, not even a king, can has the power of death over her. No wonder she will not yield to Creon’s storm…the power he holds is far less sufficient than her own.
May we all stand as strong in the storm.
- Fitts, Dudley and Robert Fitzgerald. Antigone. Line 376. https://mthoyibi.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/antigone_2.pdf
- Murray, George Gilbert Aimé. Antigone. vv. 477-500.
- Jebb, R.C. Antigone. no lines.
- Fitts and Fitzgerald lines 369-372
- line 406
- lines 399-403
- lines 1039-1042
- Though the common phrase is “Pride goes before a fall,” the actual verse states: “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” Proverbs 16:18, The Holy Bible, New International Version