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.

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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.

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:

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.

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:


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: