Exalted Motherhood, Prized Infants: From Pagan Rome to Christianized Europe (Part 1)

by K.P. Kulski

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.

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Roman woman laboring in a birthing chair – Ostia

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.[1] 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

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Wolf nursing the mythological founders of Rome – Romulus and Remus

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.”[2]

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

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Pero Nursing Cimon – Pompeii

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.

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Livia

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 00bed8f0387dcaec1669e71fab387b3dthe 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.

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Featured Image: Neaera Reading a Letter Catullus (Henry John Hudson)/ Photo Credit Bradford Museums and Galleries

[1] Soranus. Gynecology. Translated by Owsei Temkin. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1956), 80.

[2] Claudius Aelianus. “XXIV: Of a Father Who Accused His Son of a Capital Crime.” University of Chicago. Accessed April 1, 2018,   http://penelope.uchicago.edu/aelian/varhist1.xhtml#chap34

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

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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.

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[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

Cleopatra the Alchemist: Sketch of a Philanthropist

By: Victor Cypert

Among the philosophers and scientists of antiquity, the name of Hypatia comes readily to mind when we consider the women in that category. Yet other contributors left their mark on our understanding of the world and one of them, Cleopatra the Alchemist, selflessly gave the Western world a beneficial apparatus that can still be found in laboratories today.

Exactly when Cleopatra lived, we can’t be certain. Estimates place the time of her birth somewhere between the first and fourth centuries of the Common Era. We do know that she lived in Alexandria, Egypt, and that she was regarded as a master of the alchemist’s art. Yet her history is suffused with mythology, and the popularity of her name leads to confusion with the famed last queen of the Ptolemies and other similarly named women who made their own contributions to the world (among these, most notably, is Cleopatra the Physician.)

For the ancient alchemist, the greatest of transmutations didn’t involve base metals becoming silver and gold. Rather, the alchemist sought the means of turning plants and minerals into useful medicines. Then, as today, the alleviation of suffering was big business and alchemists who won fame and glory did so not because of their mystic mutterings, but through the efficacy of their cures.

In The Dialogue of Cleopatra and the Philosophers, a meeting between the great woman sage and a group of her male peers occurs. In this meeting, prompted by the men assembled around her, she “casts light” on a number of natural mysteries. Her understanding of the material world amazes and slightly terrifies her audience, among them mythic Ostanes who taught Egyptian magic to the rest of the Hellenistic world. Here she makes an analogy between the goal of the alchemist (the transmutation of base matter into something useful) and natural growth in the vegetable and animal kingdoms. Her erudition clear, no trace of chauvinism exists in her audience who listen attentively and recognize her wisdom.

The Chrysopoeia of Cleopatra, a single scroll of vellum containing mystical diagrams with precious little explanation, reveals an understanding of the trade secrecy that surrounded alchemy and the other early sciences. The image of a serpent devouring its tail, a cypher wheel, and an astronomical event captivate the reader with their obscure meanings. Yet among the enigmatic doodles, one image truly stands out.

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The Chrysopoeia of Cleopatra

            Among the pure symbols of the “Royal Art” a single image seems to offer some connection to material reality. Two circles connected by a long neck, topped with triangular protrusions, appears to depict an early distillery called an alembic, and it’s this piece of equipment that solidifies Cleopatra as one of the great humanitarian scientists of all time.

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The Alembic of Cleopatra

            To the alchemist, distillation lay at the heart of the science. Producing spirits for the tincturing of herbs required special equipment, and the alembic provided a way to obtain the solvent needed for the manufacture of beneficial elixirs and medicinal stones.

The mystic treatise known as The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus, being the central instruction for all alchemical endeavors, describes the process of environmental evaporation and condensation, though it does so through a thick veil of symbolism. In offering a diagram of her alembic, Cleopatra sought to make the alchemical art easier for the practitioner without revealing the true meaning of the Tablet. It’s a coup of epic proportions, the equivalent of large pharmaceutical company today giving away a valuable patented medicine for the sake of the betterment of humanity.

While Hypatia will continue to be considered the paragon of the ancient woman of science, Cleopatra the Alchemist should be regarded as one of the first philanthropists to make her name and fortune in the tech sector. Retaining the alembic’s design for herself and her students would have given her an edge in the manufacture of reliable medicines, placing her in a position to travel, teach, and heal a wide variety of ailments. But rather, she opted to transmit her thought, sow her seeds broadly, reveal her design, and let her peers make their own discoveries.

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A modern-day alembic

 

REFERENCES

Day, Kat. “Women Who Ignored the Limits.” The Chronicle Flask. 26 March 2013. https://chronicleflask.com/2013/03/26/women-who-ignored-the-limits-five-famous-female-chemists/, Retrieved: 8 July 2017.

Debus, Allen G. Man and Nature in the Renaissance. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1978. Print.

Goodricke-Clarke, Nicholas. The Western Esoteric Traditions. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.

Linden, Stanton J. The Alchemy Reader: From Hermes Trismegistus to Isaac Newton. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010. Print.