Praxilla – 5th Century BCE – Sicyon, Greece

Ancient Greece, Uncategorized

“My friend, look out for a scorpion under every stone…”

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Praxilla was a famous lyric poet who wrote hymns and drinking songs (scolia). She was enough of a celebrity that a bronze bust was sculpted in her honour, and her songs were sung at parties for over three hundred years.

Praxilla was so well known that the playwright Aristopanes parodied her poetry in two of his plays – indicating that he both knew her work and expected his audiences to be familiar enough with Praxillion verse to laugh at his spoofs.

Of course, everyone is a critic, and Praxilla was later mocked for her hymn to Adonis which read:

Finest of all the things I have left is the light of the sun.

Next to that the brilliant stars and the face of the moon,

Cucumbers, apples and pears.

"Sikyon ancient Theatre"  Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Sikyon ancient Theatre”
Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Comparing the beauty of the night sky to cucumbers was considered somewhat misplaced, giving rise to the proverbial expression ‘Sillier than Praxilla’s Adonis’. However, when it is considered that the Greek for cucumber ‘sicyos’ is very similar to the name of Praxilla’s hometown of Sicyon, a case can be made that this was actually a clever pun.

Strange and silly or clever and original, Praxilla achieved fame and praise for her writing across the Greek world for centuries.


References:

Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome: An Anthology – I.M. Plant

Girls and Women in Classical Greek WritingMatthew Dillon

Selected fragments of Praxilla’s writing on Stoa.org

On Wikipedia:

Timarete – 5th Century BCE – Athens, Greece

Ancient Greece

“She scorned the duties of women and practiced her father’s art…”

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Timarete is the first woman painter in recorded history. We know very little about her life, other than a short note about her from Pliny, a later Greek historian.

She was likely born in Athens, the centre of the Greek empire. Her father, Micon the Younger, was a painter and sculptor who was celebrated for his work on the Stoa poikile in Athens. It was extremely rare for Athenian women to take up a trade, and Pliny mentions only six female artists in his Natural History.

Timarete was best known for her panel painting of Diana, goddess of the hunt. Greeks considered panel painting to be the highest form of art – above sculpture or pottery.

Timarete would have painted with wax and tempera, creating portraits and still-lifes. The wooden panels were mobile and often displayed publicly in the first known art exhibitions.

Sadly, there is no Greek panel painting surviving today, due to the perishable nature of wood and other materials used. It is known that Timarete’s portrait of Diana was well loved and on display in Ephesus for many years.


Notes:

  • Stoa Poikile – Painted Porch. This monument would later be the birthplace of the philosophical school of Stoicism.

References:

The Natural HistoryPliny the Elder

Wikipedia:

Telesilla – fl. 510 BCE – Argos, Greece

Ancient Greece

This woman was renowned for her poetry, but also legendary for her bravery as a warrior…

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The life of Telesilla was distinctive in many ways. As a young woman, she suffered from ill-health and travelled from her homeland Argos to Delphi to visit the Pythia. The Oracle told her: τὰς Μούσας θεραπεύειν – Serve the Muses. So when Telesilla returned to Argos she devoted her life to poetry.

Only two lines of any of Telesilla’s poetry remains – part of a song meant for a chrorus of women to sing, but she was well known during her lifetime for her talents.

However, she was to be remembered for another reason…

In 510 BCE, Cleomenes of Sparta invaded the Argives. The men of Argos left for battle and were slaughtered, leaving Argos undefended. Cleomenes and his army of Spartan warriors began to march towards the city.

Spartan warrior "Cratère de Vix 0011 cropped" by Michael Greenhalgh Licensed via Wikimedia Commons

Spartan warrior
“Cratère de Vix 0011 cropped” by Michael Greenhalgh Licensed via Wikimedia Commons

Fortunately for Argos, the Pythia had spoken another prophecy which would be fulfilled by Telesilla:

“the time shall come that the female conquers in battle, driving away the male and winning great glory in Argos. Then many wives of the Argives shall tear both cheeks in their mourning.”

With the Spartans closing in on the weakened city, Telesilla sprang into action. She gathered all of the slaves of the city, as well as elderly or young men who were usually excempt from service, stationing them at the city walls. She also armed all of the women of Argos, placing them in position for battle and standing at the head of the army.

When the Spartans arrived and saw Telesilla’s army, they made a battle cry in an attempt to frighten them. But Telesilla’s troops stood firm, and fought bravely. Eventually Cleomenes realized that he could not face the shame of being defeated by an army of women, and nor could he defeat them in good conscience, so he ordered the Spartans to leave the city.

It is said that after her victory, a statue was built in Telesilla’s honour. The statue portrays her placing a warrior’s helmet on her head, with her poetry scattered at her feet.


References:

Pausanias Book 2: 20:8 

On Wikipedia:

Tanaquil – fl. c. 616 – 579 BCE – Rome, Italy

Ancient Rome

This Roman queen’s shrewd political decisions were so successful that it was believed she was a prophetess…

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Raised as the noble daughter of a powerful Etruscan family in modern day Northern Italy, Tanaquil expected great things for her future.

She married the equally ambitious Tarquin, who was unfortunately the son of a foreigner – meaning that he could never achieve true power in Etruria.

Tanaquil found a solution – she suggested that they move to Rome, which at the time had no dominant aristocracy and therefore plenty of opportunity.

The legend goes that while they were on the road to Rome, an eagle swooped down and plucked the hat from Tarquins head, before flying back and returning it. Tanaquil encouraged the idea that this was an omen and proof that the Gods wanted Tarquin to achieve kingship.

In Rome, Tarquin and Tanaquil quickly moved up the social ladder, eventually becoming close friends with the King himself, Ancus Marcius, who appointed Tarquin guardian to his children.

Fortunately for Tarquin, the King died when his children were still too young to succeed him. Tarquin took his chance and was elected King of Rome, ruling for 37 years.

Tanaquil

Rendering of Tanaquil from Giovanni Boccaccio’s ‘Famous Women’ – Licensed via Wikimedia Commons

During this time, Tanaquil did not rest on her laurels….

One day she heard a strange story about Servius Tullius, the son of one of her slave women. It was said that while he was sleeping, his head had become surrounded by mystical flames which did not harm him. Tanaquil believed that this meant Servius would be king one day, and took him into her care, raising him as her own son.

When King Tarquin was murdered by the sons of Ancus Marcius in a violent attempt to reclaim the throne, Tanaquil acted quickly. She hid her husband’s body and announced that the King had simply been wounded – and furthermore that he had proclaimed Servius his regent until he recovered. The cover-up worked, and once Servius had proved his capability, Tanaquil announced Tarquin’s death.

It is also said that when Tanaquil arrived in Rome she changed her name to Gaia Cirillo. She was so fondly remembered and respected that any new bride who entered the royal palace would announce their name as ‘Gaia’ to honour her.


References:

Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology by Sir William Smith

On Wikipedia:

Theano – fl. 6Th Century BCE – Athens, Greece

Ancient Greece

“Better to be on a runaway horse than a woman who does not reflect…”

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Much mystery surrounds the figure of Theano – questions about whether she was the wife, daughter or pupil of Pythagoras, or whether she was one person or many. What remains is evidence of women learning, teaching and writing about Philosophy.

The strict constraints which governed women’s lives in ancient Greece restricted their participation in just about every activity outside of the home – including philosophy. Women philosophers we do know of were often family members of male philosophers, which is why it is not surprising that Theano is credited as Pythagoras’ wife, or that their three supposed daughters, Damo, Myia and Arignote were also philosophers. As Greek women, Theano and her daughters did not have the freedom to move about society or explore education; it was likely their direct contact with philosophers that led them to become engaged in the study.

Pythagoras ran the first philosophical school which encouraged women to study. Pythagoreans believed that the ability to reason was not affected by gender, and there is a legend that Pythagoras himself was taught by a woman. Putting aside the controversies surrounding Theano’s existence, where she came from, or who her husband was, she is representative of a number of Pythagorean women philosophers during this time.

Theano would have shared Pythagoras’ belief that numbers can illuminate the nature of things and that mathematics could be used to show harmony in the universe. She would also have believed in reincarnation of the soul, arguing in one of her attributed works that transmigration of souls was essential to restore justice to the universe. “If the soul is not immortal then life is truly a feast for evil doers who die after having lived their lives so iniquitously.”

Though Theano’s surviving work is of uncertain authorship, writings believed to have been written by her are:

– Pythagorean Apothegms

– Female Advice

– On Virtue

– On Piety

– On Pythagoras

– Philosophical Commentaries

– Letters


References

Encyclopaedia of Women in the Ancient World – Joyce Salisbury

On Wikipedia

Theano

Corinna – 6th Century BCE – Boeotia, Greece

Ancient Greece

Terpsichore summoned me to sing

Beautiful tales of old,

to the white-robed women of Tanagra

and the city delighted greatly

in my voice, clear as the swallow’s.

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Corinna was a poet who was renowned in her own lifetime as well as later antiquity. Like Myrtis of Anthedon, she was from the district Boeotia. Unlike other female poets of the time, who wrote love songs, Corinna’s topics included war and heroisms.

“But I myself sing the excellent deeds of male and female heroes”

Her poetry had a wide appeal and prompted the critic Antipater of Thessalonica to call her ‘an earthly muse who possessed much poetic talent’. She wrote lyric poetry to be performed at celebrations and focussed on re-telling local myths, comparing the deeds of the gods to human behaviour.

Ancient sources tell us that Corinna may have been a teacher and rival of the famous poet Pindar. Aelian describes Corinna beating Pindar in five poetry competitions, causing the humiliated poet to call her a sow. Pausanias says that after one of these defeats a statue was erected in Corinna’s honour.

Only fragments of Corinna’s poetry survive today, mostly written on papyrus.


References

Encyclopaedia of Women in the Ancient World – Joyce Salisbury

Corinna of Tanagra and Her AudienceMarylin B. Skinner

On Wikipedia:


Notes

In Greek mythology, Terpsichore is one of the nine muses and represents lyrics and dance.

Myrtis – 6th Century BCE – Anthedon, Greece

Ancient Greece

Trigger warning – Rape

A number of lyric poets emerged from Boeotia in Greece in the sixth century, of which Myrtis is the earliest…

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Myrtis came from a very small town in the Boeotia district, and possibly travelled, as she is sometimes described as the teacher of Pindar and Corinna, both highly esteemed Boeotian poets.

Unfortunately, none of Myrtis’ poetry has survived, though Plutarch paraphrased one of her works, mentioning that she wrote a story explaining why women were forbidden to enter a sacred grove in Tanagra, which was dedicated to the heroic Eunostos:

The story goes that a woman called Ocna fell in love with Eunostos, but he rejected her advances. Furious, Ochna went to her brothers and told them that Eunostos had raped her. Ochna’s brothers murdered Eunostus and were captured by his father. Feeling guilty, Ochna admitted that she had lied and killed herself by throwing herself from a cliff. Her brothers were sent into exile.

We have evidence that Myrtis competed with Pindar, considered one of the greatest poets of his time. She was described as ‘sweet-sounding’ and ‘clear voiced’ by contemporaries.


Notes:

Lyric poets are so called because they usually spoke or sang their verses accompanied by music and often played a lyre.


References:

The Woman and the Lyre: Women Writers in Classical Greece and RomeJane McIntosh Snyder

On Wikipedia:

Xu Mu (许穆夫人) – b. 690 BCE – Kingdom of Wei, China

Ancient China, China

Living in feudal China, Lady Xu Mu is considered the earliest poet of note in Chinese history, but this politically astute woman is also known for defending and rebuilding her homeland…

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Lady Xu Mu was often homesick. She lived with her husband, Count Mu, in the state of Xu, but longed for the Kingdom of Wei, where she had grown up. Her father was Duke Wei Xuan, ruler of Wei, and though Xu Mu had accepted she must make a political marriage, she had not approved of an alliance with Xu. Intelligent and educated, Lady Xu Mu did not believe that Mu would be an effective ally if Wei was ever in need.

With a long slender bamboo

I fished the shores of Qi

Can’t help thinking of that river

And the land so far from me.

On the left the fountain gushes

On the right the river flows

Far away the girl has travelled,

From parents, brothers and home.

“EN-WEI260BCE” by Philg88 – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately, Xu Mu had been correct in her prediction. In 660 BCE Wei was attacked by enemies in the North. Xu Mu received word that her brother, Wei Yi, had been killed in battle and his body mutilated. Upset and afraid for her people, Xu Mu begged her husband to send reinforcements to Caoyi – again, as she predicted, he refused.

Xu Mu could not bear to leave her people in distress, and resolved to help with or without her husband’s permission. She gathered supplies and took a chariot to meet her other brother, Duke Dai, calling for aid from neighbouring states on her journey. Count Mu was not happy with his wife’s disobedience, and sent his agents to stop her and bring her back. Forced to travel back to Xu under duress, the Princess wrote scathing poem Speeding Chariot, for which she became most famous:

The wheels turn fast, the horse trots on,

I return to my brother in Wei,

A long, long way the carriage has come,

To Caoyi, my homeland to stay.

The Lords who follow me, far and long,

Have caused no little dismay.

Harshly, though you may judge me,

From my course I will not veer.

Compared to your limited vision,

Do I not see far and clear?

Harshly, though you may judge me,

My steps you can never stay.

Compared to your limited vision,

Am I not wise in my way?

I walk the land of my fathers,

The wheat fields are green and wide,

I’ll tell the world of my sorrow,

All friends will be at our side.

O listen, ye Lords and Nobles,

Blame not my stubbornness so!

A hundred schemes you may conjure,

None match the course that I know.

Fortunately, all was not lost as the powerful state of Qi responded to Xu Mu’s appeals for help and came to the rescue of the kingdom of Wei. The Kingdom rebuilt their capital elsewhere and thrived for another 400 years – remembering Lady Xu Mu who brought supplies, rekindled hope and gained military aid in their time of need.


References:

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

Lady Xu Mu – poet and patriot

On Wikipedia: