Megalostrata – 7th Century BCE – Lacedaemon (Sparta), Greece

Ancient Greece

Sparta was the only city state in the Greek empire that provided public education for girls. As a result, a number of ancient Greek female poets were Spartan…

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Sparta’s reputation today is that of a brutal culture which was staunchly patriarchal; exposing ‘weak’ children at birth and submitting young boys to rigorous training for war. However, unlike Athens, in Spartan society girls were reared and educated alongside boys, which included learning philosophy, poetry and Greek mythology as well as physical fitness.

It should come as no surprise then that the first female Greek poet in this project is Megalostrata, a Spartan. While any brothers Megalostrata may have had would have been removed from their home at the age of seven to take part in agoge, she would have remained at her mother’s house until the age of eighteen when she married. She would not have been expected to learn domestic tasks such as cleaning or weaving, as the Spartan’s used slaves for such menial labour. Instead, Megalostrata would have learned about governance and logistics, supervising the helots (slaves) in her household.

“Spartan woman” by Judith Swaddling – Licensed under CC0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Megalostrata grew up in a predominately female world, as at any given time at least half of the men of Sparta might be away at war. Women were social and political leaders in the Spartan community. They also studied music, dancing and poetry. It is documented by Athenian visitors to Sparta that Spartan women could sing and dance beautifully.

Though none of Megalostrata’s work survives, we know about her from Alcman, a contemporary lyric poet. He described her as ‘a golden haired maiden enjoying the gift of the muses’. Alcman further notes that Megalostrata attracted lovers due to her conversation skills – showing that her well-rounded education meant that she could hold her own in discussion with men of the time.


References:

Encyclopaedia of Women in the Ancient World – Joyce Salisbury

On Wikipedia:


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Gargi Vachaknavi – 7th Century BCE – India

Ancient India

This Indian philosopher challenged the intellectual men of her time by being one step ahead…

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Like Maitreyi, Gargi Vachaknavi is famous in Vedic literature for her intelligence and knowledge of Hindu scripture. Her story also involves the sage Yajnavalkya, Maitreyi’s husband and teacher.

 King Janaka was deeply interested in philosophy, and filled his court with the great minds of his day. Among these was Gargi, one of Janaka’s Navaratnas (nine gems). She composed a number of hymns questioning the origin of existence and was an author of Gargi Samhita.

Gargi attended the brahmayajna – the world’s first philosophy conference which was also attended by Yajnavalkya. At this congress, Gargi challenged Yajnavalkya, considered the wisest man in the world, by asking questions about the foundation of atman (soul). After several questions which Yajnavalkya answered correctly, she asked about the nature of the word of Brahman (the supreme state of being) – to this the sage became angry, and told her not to ask so many questions

“Gargi, do not question too much, lest your head fall off. In truth, you are questioning too much about a divinity about which further questions cannot be asked. Gargi, do not over-question.”


Notes:

Navaratnas – or “nine gems” was a term applied to a group of nine extraordinary people in an emperor’s court in India.


References:

The Strides of Vishnu: Hindu Culture in Historical CultureAriel Glucklich

Gargi Vachaknavi on Indianscriptures.com 

On Wikipedia:

Maitreyi – 7th Century BCE – Mithila, India

Ancient India

The Rigveda is the oldest religious text still in use, containing works by the world’s first recorded philosophers – among them Maitreyi.

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Maitreyi benefitted from living in a culture which believed that ‘a girl also should be brought up and educated with great effort and care’ (Mahanirvana Tantra). Educated and intelligent, she was called a brahmavadini (expounder of the Veda) and is one of the known female Vedic philosophers of ancient India.

This philosopher was the wife of famous sage Yajnavalkya. He was already married to a woman named Katyaayanee (who was not a brahmavadini) when Maitreyi came to her and asked if she too might be a companion to Yajnavalkya, so that she may learn from and assist him as his spiritual disciple. Katyaayanee agreed.

“Rigveda MS2097” Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The story goes that later in life Yajnavalkya planned to renounce material things and would instead divide up his worldly possessions among his two wives. He asked them both what they would like from him. Maitreyi asked her husband whether all of his wealth would make her immortal. He replied that no, it would only make her rich. The learned woman then asked for the wealth of immortality, rather than earthly goods. Yajnavalkya then imparted Maitreyi the doctrine of the soul and his knowledge of attaining immortality.

There are one thousand hymns and teachings in the Rig Veda, and at least ten of these are attributed to Maitreyi.


Notes:

  • Veda means knowledge and Rig means praises. The Rigveda is one of the four sacred texts of Hinduism, known as the Vedas.

References

Women-philosophers.com – Maitreyi

Four Famous Female Figures of Vedic Literature

On Wikipedia:

Maitreyi

Rigveda

The Pythia – 8th Century BCE – 395 CE – Delphi, Greece

Ancient Greece

For centuries, hundreds of women sat in the temple of Apollo at Delphi, peering through smoke and predicting the future…

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These women spoke with philosophers, kings and shepherds alike, and their prophecies made them arguably the most influential women in Greek and Roman society. Commonly known as the Oracle of Delphi, The Pythia was the name for a priestess who made prophecies.

Famous Roman orator and politician Cicero once noted that ‘no expedition was undertaken, no colony sent out, and no affair of any

“Priestess of Delphi” by John Collier – Art Gallery of South Australia Website Webpage – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

distinguished individuals went on without the sanction of the oracle’. Supplicants would journey from far and wide to the temple of Apollo, which sat above a mystical spring where a naiad supposedly lived. Once they arrived, they might have been interviewed by the priests who took care of the temple’s administration. They then took part in rituals and presented gifts to the temple.

Supplicants would have travelled up a winding path to reach the oracle, bearing laurel leaves, an animal sacrifice and a monetary fee. Carved into the stone entrance were the words; ‘Know Thyself’ and: ‘Nothing in Excess’. The Pythia would be seated on a three-legged stool, perforated with holes, above a cleft in the earth from which rose the sacred pneuma. She would have held a laurel branch and a dish of spring water. Once the question was asked, she would inhale the vapours and commune with Apollo. Descriptions of the Pythia’s trance vary; she would seem to enlarge, her complexion would change, she would pant and convulse and her voice was described as inhuman.

Croseus and the Pythia:

In 560 BCE, King Croseus of Lydia created a trial or all the oracles in the known world. He asked them to predict what he was doing on a specific day. To make his test extra hard, he did the weirdest thing he could come up with and boiled lamb inside a tortoise shell. The Pythia said:

‘…The smell has come to my sense of a hard shelled tortoise boiling and bubbling with a lamb’s flesh in a bronze pot: the cauldron underneath it is of bronze, and bronze is the lid.’

The Oracle of Delphi was thus proclaimed the winner. The next task Croseus set for her was to ask her advice on his planned war with Persia. The Pythia predicted that if he went to war with the Persians, a great empire would be destroyed. Satisfied, Croseus mounted a campaign against the Persians. As the Pythia had predicted, a great empire fell – that of Croseus.

We don’t know how the Pythia was chosen, only that once one woman died, a new priestess took her place. She was always a local from Delphi but that is where the similarities between the various oracles end. The Pythia may have been a young virgin or an old widow, rich or poor, noble or peasant, sometimes she was highly educated and sometimes she was unable to write her own name. The role was still a coveted one, as priestesses had freedoms many Greek women could only dream of. They could own property, earn a salary, were free from taxation and permitted to attend public events.

The office of the Pythia died out with the advent of Christianity in Rome and Emperor Theodosius I, who ordered all pagan temples to close. The very last known response was given to Oribasius, a doctor working on behalf of Emperor Julian I. The sad last statement from the woman who sat in the temple at Delphi was:

‘Tell the emperor that my hall has fallen to the ground. Apollo no longer has his house, or his mantic bay, or his prophetic spring; the water has dried up.’


References:

Encyclopaedia of Women in the Ancient World – Joyce Salisbury

On Wikipedia:


In Fiction:

In both the graphic novel and film 300, King Leonidas visits the Oracle of Delphi. Both depictions place heavy focus on the use of drugs/narcotics to produce a prophecy.

The Double Tongue – William Golding

Shammuramat– fl. c. 811 – 808 BCE – Nimrud, Assyria

Assyria

During the 9th Century BCE, Assyria became the most powerful state in the world. Made up of twelve modern day countries, the Neo-Assyrians are considered the first true empire. Shammuramat was the first woman to rule it.

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The length of her reign is disputed – between three and seventeen years. What is known, is that Shammuramat was the wife of King Shamshi-Adad, and after he died she ruled as regent for her son, Adad-nirari.

“Queen Semiramis”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

The Queen’s memorial stela (funeral slab) was found along those of kings and governing officials, an unusual honour for a woman at the time. Further evidence of her power includes dedications made in her name.

It is believed that Shammuramat was the inspiration for the Greek legend of Semiramis, a warrior Queen who rebuilt Assyria.


References:

Women Rulers Throughout the Ages: An Illustrated Guide – Guida Myrl Jackson-Laufer

On Wikipedia:

Tausret – d. 1189 BCE – Thebes, Egypt

Ancient Egypt

Ruling during the Trojan wars, Tausret was the last woman to rule Egypt as Pharaoh until Cleopatra VII, over 1000 years later.

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The story of Tausret (also known as Twosret or Ta-Usret, meaning powerful one) and her rise to power is in many ways very similar to her predecessors Sobekneferu and Hatshepsut, though she only ruled for a fraction of the time Hatshepsut did – approximately two years.

Like the two female Pharaoh’s who came before her, she was first the wife of a King; Seti II. When Seti died, he left behind only a ten year old boy, named Sitpah, as heir.

“Twosret” by en:User: John D. Croft – English Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Like Hatshepsut, Tausret was regent on the behalf of the boy-king. This continued for around six years, before Sitpah died in his mid-teens. At this point, Tausret was the logical choice for Pharaoh, with her royal connections and experience in power. Similarly to Hatshepsut and Sobekneferu, Tausret used both female and male iconography to refer to herself in statues and carvings.

While her reign as an independent Pharaoh lasted around two years (c.1191 – 1189 BCE), there is evidence that she included Sitpah’s reign as her own, making it seem as though she ruled for close to eight years. The reason for this may have been Sitpah’s shaky parentage – which is still disputed. We know that he was not Tausret’s son, nor was he likely to have been Seti’s child. He may have been a nephew or cousin. Sitpah’s apparent illegitimacy may have been the cause of a civil war which marked the end of the 19th dynasty. Tausret’s absorbing his reign into her own might have been a way of asserting her own kingship, as her royal blood was not under question.

We do not know how Tausret’s reign ended – whether she simply died, or was overthrown by Setnakhtre, who founded the 20thdynasty. What we do know is that he really disliked her. He took over her tomb (which she shared with Seti), removed her body and plastered all of the walls, removing any trace of the female king.


References:

Chronicle of the Queens of Egypt: From Early Dynastic Times to the Death of Cleopatra – Joyce Tyldesley

Tausret: Forgotten Queen and Pharaoh of Egypt – Richard H. Wilkinson

Theban Tomb Mapping Project

On Wikipedia:

Fu Hao – d. c.1200 BCE – Yinxu, China

Ancient China, China

Prophetess, consort and commander of armies…

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King Wu Ding had a lot of wives. This Shang dynasty ruler gained allies by marrying a woman from each tribe neighbouring his kingdom, amassing a harem of no less than sixty women, who were considered his property. It was in this fashion that Lady Fu Hao arrived at the Royal palace. An intelligent and capable woman, she was not happy to settle for slavery. This lady had a plan.

Step 1 – Rise through the ranks.

The royal palace was a miniature matriarchal society, in which every wife had her place. Fu Hao put her politically astute mind to use and soon navigated her way through the hierarchy, becoming closer to the king – and his power. She did not stop until she had achieved the place of royal consort. Now she had some influence.

Step 2 – Become a Priestess.

“Shang dynasty inscribed scapula” by BabelStone. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Rituals in feudal China were under the control of the King, as sacrifices and oracle casting were highly respected tasks. As a kingdom constantly defending its borders, foreseeing the future was of utmost importance.

The ancient Chinese read prophecies by inscribing questions onto hollowed-out tortoise shells and ox bones, before heating the bone or shell until it cracked. These cracks were then interpreted as answers. These items are known as oracle bones, and it is from these artefacts that we know about Fu Hao’s life.

Inscriptions on the bones not only speak of her later triumphs on the battle field, but that she herself prepared oracle bones and conducted special rituals on behalf of her king, elevating her status further to High Priestess.

Step 3 – Become a General.

Religious power was not enough for Fu Hao, who had a more exciting life in mind, beyond the palace walls. It is thought that the royal Lady may have come from a warrior tribe, as Fu Hao soon impressed Wu Ding with her extensive knowledge of warfare and her quick thinking. Wu Ding further expressed his trust and faith in Fu Hao when he appointed her head of his army.

Bone inscriptions describe Lady Fu Hao leading a number of successful military campaigns during a time when war against neighbouring territories was commonplace. The Shang enemies, the Tu Fang, had fought for generations, until Fu Hao defeated them in a single battle. She was also responsible for the first known large-scale ambush in Chinese history – defeating the kingdom of Ba.

Step 4 – Secure a hero’s burial.

As you can imagine, Wu ding was particularly fond of Lady Fu Hao, who had made his army a force to be reckoned with, who gave him wise advice and who cast fortuitous prophecies for him. Fu Hao was rewarded

A bronze vessel in the shape of a bat, from the tomb of Lady Fu Hao, Chinese Shang Dynasty, 13th century BC

A bronze vessel in the shape of a bat, from the tomb of Lady Fu Hao, Chinese Shang Dynasty, 13th century BC

with her own fiefdom on the edge of Wu Ding’s empire.

She died before Wu Ding, and was further exalted by him in death. When her tomb was discovered in 1974, it was full of treasure – bronze, jade and fine lacquer. It also contained a full arsenal including swords, bows and battle axes. There is evidence that Wu ding sought her assistance even in death, as many sacrifices were made at this great lady’s tomb.


References:

Notable women of China: Shang Dynasty to the Early Twentieth Century – Barbara Bennet Peterson

The Tomb of Lady Fu Hao – The British Museum

On Wikipedia:

Puduhepa – fl. c. 1250 BCE – Harpissa, Hittite Empire

Ancient Turkey

A signatory of the world’s first known peace treaty, a priestess, politician, lawyer, judge, midwife and diplomat, Puduhepa ruled for seventy years and is the most influential Queen you’ve never heard of….

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In 1274 BCE, General Hattusili was returning home from the battle of Kadesh. He stopped to rest in the city of Lawazantiya, where he was welcomed by the high priest. He also met the priest’s daughter, Puduhepa, a beautiful priestess. Later that night, Hattusili dreamed of the Goddess Ishtar, who instructed him to marry Puduhepa.

The following day he returned to the temple to request the priestess’ hand in marriage, to which she assented. From that day onwards they were partners in all things. They returned to Harpissa as husband and wife, and within a few years Hattusili rose to the throne with Puduhepa as his queen (Tawananna).

“Puduhepa” by Firaktin2Kayseri.jpg: Klaus-Peter Simonderivative work: Zunkir (talk) – Firaktin2Kayseri.jpg. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The Hittite empire (now modern day Turkey) is defined by its regular clashes with the Egyptians and Hattusili was often away at war, leaving Puduhepa to run their Kingdom. Even when Hattusili was present, it was made clear that Puduhepa ruled beside him as his primary counsel.

Queen Puduhepa liked to keep busy. She retained her status as priestess of Ishtar, regularly performing rituals and offering prayers for the health of her husband and the strength of her Kingdom. She gave advice to her husband and regularly involved herself with legal cases, becoming supreme judge of the Kingdom.

While many ancient Queens took up some administrative responsibility when it came to the affairs of their kingdoms, Puduhepa also turned her focus outwards to international relations. She brokered a number of political marriages between Hattusili’s many children and the royal families of Babylon and Egypt. She was instrumental in the drawing up of the world’s first written peace treaty between Egypt and Hattusili and formed a strong diplomatic relationship with Great Royal wife Nefertari,

Hittite version of the peace treaty.

Hittite version of the peace treaty.
“Istanbul – Museo archeol. – Trattato di Qadesh fra ittiti ed egizi (1269 a.C.) – Foto G. Dall’Orto 28-5-2006”. Licensed under Attribution via Wikimedia Commons

who sent her gifts and called her ‘sister’.

‘Speak to my sister Puduhepa, the Great Queen of the Hatti land. I, your sister, (also) be well. May your country be well. Now, I have learned that you, my sister, have written to me asking after my health. You have written to me because of the good friendship and brotherly relationship between your brother, the king of Egypt, The Great and the Storm God will bring about peace, and he will make the brotherly relationship between the Egyptian king, the Great King, and his brother, the Hatti King, the Great King, last forever… See, I have sent you a gift, in order to greet you, my sister… for your neck (a necklace) of pure gold… coloured linen maklalu-material, for one royal dress for the king…’

When her husband died and her son Tudhaliya IV became king, Puduhepa did not withdraw, but continued to use her influence under the (badass) title of Goddess Queen.


References:

Historical Dictionary of the HittitesCharles Burney 

A Day in the Life of PuduhepaJudith Starkson for the Unusual Histories blog

PuduhepaJulia Richardson

The Hittites DocumentaryThe Smithsonian Channel

On Wikipedia: