Hydna – fl.480 BCE – Scione, Greece

Ancient Greece

A deep sea diver responsible for bringing down the Persian Navy

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Hydna (sometimes Cyana) of Scione fought in the same war as Artemisia of Caria – only on the opposing side. Growing up in a seaside town, she was a strong swimmer and proficient deep sea diver.

When the Persian navy began closing in on the Greek coast in 490 BCE, Hydna and her father volunteered to help defend their Empire. Seeing that a storm was brewing, the father and daughter came up with an elegant plan of attack.

At nightfall, the pair swam for ten miles through storm-tossed waters to reach the Persian ships. Silent and unseen, they then took their knives to the moorings, cutting the ropes and dragging away the anchors.

The peninsula where Xerxes fleet were moored - near Mount Pelion

The peninsula where Xerxes fleet were moored – near Mount Pelion

Untethered, the Persian ships were defenseless against the storm and crashed against each other, causing a huge amount of damage. Hydna and her fathers’ actions prevented battle until the Persians could recoup their losses, buying time for the Greek forces.


References:

A New Classical Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography, Mythology, and GeographySir William Smith 

Description of Greece (10.19.1)Pausanias 

On Wikipedia:

Timycha – 4th Century BCE – Tarentum, Greece

Ancient Greece

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Timycha was a Pythagorean philosopher from the Spartan colony Tarentum. She and her husband joined a group of Pythagorean pilgrims who followed the teachings and ethics of that school.

One day they were journeying to Metapontum when they were invited to visit the court of Dionysius the Elder, who wished to discuss philosophy with them. The band of pilgrims knew that Dionysius was a tyrant and did not trust his intentions, so they refused the invitation and carried on their way.

The cruel king was hugely insulted, and sent his soldiers to capture the philosophers and bring them to him by force. Timycha’s group was attacked, and though they could have easily escaped by running through a field of beans, their religious beliefs forbade them from trampling upon the plants. They tried to get around the field, but were overtaken by Dionysius’ soldiers and slaughtered. Only Timycha, who was heavily pregnant, and her husband survived to be brought to the King.

Dionysius heard the story of the bean field and became curious about the taboo. He questioned the couple, who refused to speak. Pythagoreans did not share their beliefs or the teachings of Pythagoras with just anyone, and Timycha and her husband stood firm. Eventually Dionysius ordered that Timycha be tortured until she gave up the secret.

He had hoped that this would frighten the philosopher into giving up, but Timycha was made of sterner stuff. The story goes that she bit off her own tongue and spat it at the King’s feet as a show of defiance. Now he would never know.

History too, was deprived of this knowledge. There is no consensus on why the Pythagoreans avoided trampling the bean field. We do know that Pythagoras taught that all life is sacred, and his followers were vegetarians for this reason, though they were not permitted to eat beans. One theory for this is to do with the shape of the bean, and the belief that it served as a vessel to carry souls from the afterlife back to earth. Belief in reincarnation was fundamental to Pythagoreans, so the bean may have been a powerful symbol to them.

It’s not clear what happened to Timycha or her husband after this unusual incident, though they were likely put to death. Her story was told for many years by Pythagoreans and she was used as a model of courage and hailed as a martyr for the cause.


References:

The Philosophers of the Ancient World: An A-Z GuideTrevor Curnow

Explaining Pythagorean Abstinence from BeansJames Dye

On Wikipedia:

Sappho – c.630/12 – 570 BCE – Lesbos, Greece

Ancient Greece

“Some say the Muses are nine: how careless!

Look, there’s Sappho too, from Lesbos, the tenth.”

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Plato called her ‘wise Sappho’. Solon of Athens once said that he would be happy to die having learned one of her songs; Horace described her work as sacred. Sappho was as celebrated and respected for her art as any man or woman in the ancient world.

800px-Alkaios_Sappho_Staatliche_Antikensammlungen_2416_n2She was included as the only woman among the nine Greek lyric poets who were studied by the Alexandrians (Greeks) and later the Romans. Sappho is still well known today, despite much of her work being lost. There are about 200 remnants of Sappho’s poetry still in existence, all of varying lengths. As well as manuscripts copied by scholars over time, her poetry survives on papyrus fragments and pieces of pottery.

She wrote about heroic deeds and praise for the Gods – but is most remembered for her passionate love poetry and razor sharp wit:

“She keeps her scents
in a dressing-case.
And her sense?
In some undiscoverable place.”

“Vain woman, foolish thing!
Do you base your worth on a ring?”

Sappho was born on the Greek island of Lesbos to a noble family and had three older brothers. She may have had a daughter who she named Cleïs after her mother.

What we know of Sappho’s life is based on her own poetry, and the writings of a few contemporary and later Greek historians. She spent most of her life on Lesbos, though she lived during a politically turbulent era and at one point was exiled for a short time. Her fellow poet and friend Alcaeus described her as ‘Violet-haired, pure, honey-smiling Sappho’ and most physical descriptions agree that she was small and dark haired.

Sappho and her Lyre by Jules Elie Delaunay

Sappho and her Lyre by Jules Elie Delaunay

Sappho’s immense reputation surpasses many other poets of antiquity – she was called the tenth muse, was studied by Greeks, Romans and later the Victorians, odes were written to her, paintings and statues were created in her image. She is often praised for the clarity of language in her love poetry and her sharp descriptions – she is the first writer known to describe the moon as ‘silvery’.

“You have returned!
You did well to not depart
because I pined for you.
Now you have re-lit the torch
I bear for you in my heart,
this flare of Love.
I bless you and bless you and bless you
because we’re no longer apart.”

It would be difficult to discuss Sappho without stumbling upon a number of references to her sexuality. Her poetry focused on love and passion for people of both sexes. The word lesbian comes from Lesbos, the island she lived on, and she is also the origin of the word Sapphic. These words did not come to be applied to gay women until the 19th Century, and the poet’s reputation for same-sex relationships did not come about until 300 years after her death, nevertheless the rumor has become legend.

“Once more I dive into this fathomless sea,
intoxicated by lust.”

It was not uncommon for male poets such as Alcaeus and Pindar to form romantic relationships with both men and women in their social circle, so it might be assumed that Sappho adopted a similar attitude. Later philosopher Maximus of Tyre compared her relationships with women to Socrates relationships with men, claiming that they were simply ‘captivated by all things beautiful’.


References:

New Poems by Sappho – Dirk Obbink

English Translations of Sappho’s Works

In Our Time: Sappho – BBC Radio 4 programme

Great Lives: Sappho – BBC Radio 4 programme

On Wikipedia:


In Fiction:

Sappho’s Leap by Erica Jong is a fiction novel based on the life of the poet.

Erinna – c. 600 BCE – Rhodes, Greece

Ancient Greece

Deep into the wave you raced,
Leaping from white horses,
Whirling the night on running feet.
But loudly I shouted, “Dearest,
You’re mine!”

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A friend of Sappho and just as famous during her lifetime, Erinna is one of the few female Greek poets whose work is extant (still in existence).

She came from Rhodes, or one of the surrounding islands and wrote her most famous poem, The Distaff, when she was only nineteen years old. The poem is a lament for her friend Baucis, who died shortly before her wedding. The 300 line poem, which is written in hexameter verse, gives us the only information we have about the life of Erinna as she mourns her childhood fiend:

These things I
Lament and sorrow, sad Baucis.
These are for me, O Maiden,
Warm trails back through my heart:
Joy, once filled, smoulders in ash;
Young, in rooms without a care,
We held our miming dolls—girls
In the pretense of young brides
(And the toward-dawn-mother
Lotted wool to tending women,
Calling Baucis to salt the meat);

The poem is deeply heartfelt and recalls the act of weaving (a distaff is a spindle for spinning wool) using it as a metaphor for poetry and the thread of life. Erinna’s poetry gives us a rare and important glimpse into the lives of ancient Greek women as well as their relationships with each other.

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene by Simeon Solomon Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene by Simeon Solomon
Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Erinna was the most famous of Greek women poets after Sappho and was well known at least three hundred years after her death. Her praises are sung by other Greek writers, and she was compared favorably with Homer. Some biographies mention that Erinna died very young, shortly after having written The Distaff, making her accomplishments even more impressive.


References:

A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology

The Distaff

On Wikipedia:

Ennigaldi – fl. 547 BCE – Ur, Mesopotamia

Mesopotamia

The ultimate career woman, Ennigaldi devoted her life to no less than three full time occupations, including archaeologist and curator of the world’s first museum – “For the marvel of the beholders”.

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A day in the life of Princess Ennigaldi:

The Mesopotamian princess would have woken and eaten breakfast in her private quarters within the Palace at Ur, known as E-Gig-Par (now in Iran). Ennigaldi might then have gone to oversee the Priestess School which she administrated as High Priestess. The upper class women who were educated there were literate and learned a dialect known as Emesal, which was a special women’s language.

Ennigaldi was a beloved educator, spending less time than her predecessors had on the corporal punishment of her students. She herself loved to learn, and had a particular passion for history. Her father, King Nabonidus took an interest in antiques and restoration – in fact he is considered the first serious archaeologist, undertaking a number of excavations during his reign. The King clearly passed this fascination on to his daughter, who was inspired to create the first museum known to history.

The museum was built in the Palace complex, close to Ennigaldi’s living quarters. It contained artefacts excavated by her father, and some originally collected by famous Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. Many of them were centuries old by Ennigaldi’s time and she used them to educate others on the history of Mesopotamia and her dynasty’s heritage.

The antiquities were arranged neatly side by side, as in many modern day museums. Each individual piece was labelled with a description– carefully translated into a number of languages. Ennigaldi’s name is also inscribed throughout the museum as ‘Bel-Shalti-Nannar’, which is the title she was given after her ascension to High priestess. King Nabonidus shows an obvious affection and pride for his daughter, with whom he shared this common interest, writing:

I built anew the house of Bel-shalti-Nannar, my daughter, the priestess of Sin. And: May Bêl-shalti-Nannar the daughter, the beloved of my heart, be strong before them; and may her word prevail.

In her evenings, Ennigaldi would attend to her duties as High priestess. She worshipped Nanna (also known as Sin) the moon god in the Great Ziggurat of Ur, an enormous pyramid shaped Temple. She carried out her religious rituals and prayers in a small temple at the top of the Ziggurat known as the giparu, which her father had restored especially for her.


References:

The story behind the world’s oldest museumAlasdair Wilkins

Ur Excavations vol. IX: The Neo-Babylonian and Persian Periods Sir Leonard Woolley

On Wikipedia:


Notes:

Emesal – Meaning “fine tongue” or “high-pitched voice”, though often translated as “women’s language.” It is used exclusively by female characters in some literary texts. In addition, it is dominant in certain genres of cult songs.

Tomyris – fl. c. 530 BCE – Eastern Iran

Ancient Iran

“Now hear what I advise, and be sure I advise you for your good. Restore my son to me and get you from the land unharmed… Refuse, and I swear by the sun, bloodthirsty as you are, I will give you your fill of blood.”

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Queen Tomyris ruled over the Massagetae, a nomadic warrior tribe in what is now Eastern Iran. We know little of her life outside of one major military campaign in which she defeated Persian ruler Cyrus the Great. The Massagetae were famous for their skills in battle. They fought both on foot and on horseback, and were particularly adept with battle-axes. They worshipped the sun and wore armour made of gold and brass.

Tomyris had ruled alone since the death of her husband. Elsewhere, Cyrus the Great had been ploughing his way through ancient Mesopotamia. After conquering the Kingdom of Babylon which neighboured Tomyris’ lands, he was looking to expand his territory further. He sent an ambassador to Tomyris, asking for her hand in marriage. The Messagetae queen was no fool, and refused to give up her power to the Persian emperor. At once, Cyrus declared war and began building a bridge to cross the river into Tomyris’ territory.

Tomyris soon became bored of Cyrus’ building project, and sent a letter asking to move things along. She gave Cyrus the option of leaving in peace, or picking a side of the river to fight on. Cyrus was ready to call Tomyris over into Persian territory to do battle there, when one of his advisors, Croseus, chimed in with some advice that proves chauvinism is never a useful tactic. He told Cyrus that it would be a disgrace to give a woman any ground. They should take the fight to her.

Croseus also had a plan to lure the Messagetae armies into a trap – by cooking them dinner. Once they were on the other side of the river, the Persians made sure there was plenty of food laid out – as well as gallons of wine, which the Messagetae did not produce and were not used to drinking (preferring to imbibe in hashish and fermented mare’s milk, naturally). When the rival army arrived, they found not the Persians, but a delicious feast!

Unable to believe their luck, the army sat down and gorged themselves until they were too full and drunk to move. Cyrus took this opportunity to swoop in and take the incapacitated men prisoner. Among these was General Spargapises – Tomyris’ son.

When the Queen heard what had happened she was furious. She considered it a poor success to capture an army of drunken men, and threatened Cyrus that if she did not get her son back then she would give the Persians their ‘fill of blood’. When Cyrus simply ignored her, Tomyris gathered all of her forces and attacked.

The Massagetae won, destroying the Persian army. Cyrus was killed, ending his twenty-nine year reign. Once the battle was over, Tomyris commanded that Cyrus’ body was found and brought to her. Triumphant, she filled a skin with blood, sliced off her enemies head and dunked it in.

"Tomiris" by Peter Paul Rubens. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Tomiris” by Peter Paul Rubens. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

“I live and have conquered you in fight, and yet by you am I ruined, for you took my son with guile; but thus I make good my threat, and give you your fill of blood.”


References

Herodotus: Queen Tomyris of the Messagetai and the Defeat of the Persians Under Cyrus

On Wikipedia:

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: