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Archive for September, 2012

A medieval mosaic of Perpetua from a church in Croatia (Source)

NOTABLE WOMAN STATS:

Name: Vibia Perpetua

Birthplace and dates: Roman Carthage, North Africa; 181-203 CE

Occupation/Claim to Fame:  The first diarist in recorded history, Perpetua kept a record of her time spent in a Roman prison awaiting execution by wild beasts and gladiator.

Her particular importance to Waldorf teachers:  Besides being an extraordinarily self-possessed and courageous young woman, Perpetua is also the first person in history to keep a record of her daily activities, hopes, dreams, and fears.  From a Waldorf perspective, she’s important because she is a perfect example of what Steiner saw as one of the most innovative “gestures” of early Christianity–the privileging of the inner life of the individual and his/her relationship to the godhead over and against the dominant, often hyper-intellectual religious and philosophical traditions embodied in the power of the Roman state.  (If that last statement is a little dense, keep reading–I’ll unpack it in my next post, Perpetua, Part 2.)

Where she fits into the Waldorf curriculum:  HS Ancient or Medieval History (wherever your school places its history of Rome); 6th grade Roman History; HS English skills classes that focus on journaling and/or autobiographies.  Because of the extreme violence, I wouldn’t recommend her story for the second-grade saint tales.

If you read only one thing about Perpetua, read: Her actual diary. (It’s only about 12 pages long.)  If you get inspired and want to read a whole book about this remarkable woman, read Perpetua’s Passion:  The Death and Memory of a Young Roman Woman, by Joyce E. Salisbury.

Perpetua, One Tough Mother

Gladiators were nothing to mess with, but Perpetua was more than a match for them. (Source)

Like Enheduanna, whom I wrote about recently, Perpetua is one of these women who it’s hard to believe isn’t taught in every ancient history class (not to mention every history of literature class).  She is so important, so unique, so indubitably kick-ass, that the mind just boggles as to why she’s not everyone’s favorite ancient personality.  I mean, as if writing the first diary in recorded history were not enough, the woman also nursed her newborn son while awaiting execution in a Roman prison, successfully convinced a Roman governor to grant her fellow-prisoners better living conditions, and then, to top it all off, when she was finally fed to the wild beasts in the Carthaginian gladiatorial games, she actually GUIDED THE GLADIATOR’S SWORD TO HER OWN THROAT.  Now those are some serious lady-cajones.

Perpetua: Just the Facts

Before I get into her diary and its importance, let’s go over what we know about Perpetua’s life. (1)  Vibia Perpetua was a young woman (22 years old) from a leading Carthaginian family when she was arrested with four other people accused of being Christians, one of whom was her own female slave Felicitas, who was pregnant at the time. (2)  (There were at least three other people arrested with her as well–two free men and a male slave.)  Their arrests took place as part of a larger persecution of Christians in the years 202-203 CE under the emperor Septimus Severus.  At the time of her arrest, Perpetua was a new mother, and her concerns over her newborn son’s health and eventual fate worried her while she was imprisoned.  Interestingly,  Perpetua’s husband is never mentioned in the text–whether because she was a widow, as some scholars surmise, “disowned” by her husband because of her Christian faith, or simply didn’t regard him as important enough to write about is hard to say.

A not-very-accurate depiction of the heifer who charged the two women. In real life, they were trapped, naked, in a net to await the mad cow.  Also, notice how the women here are depicted as passive victims–not as the triumphant heroines portrayed in the diary itself. (Source)

Missing husbands aside, during her detention in prison, Perpetua and her comrades were visited by family members and members of her small Christian community.  She recorded her conversations with them, including an ongoing fight with her father, who tried repeatedly (and unsuccessfully) to convince her to renounce her faith.  Perpetua also recorded her dreams in great detail, along with her interpretations of their meaning.

Finally, after some time in prison, Perpetua’s group was tried by the governor of the province.  At the trial, Perpetua’s father publicly begged her one last time to recant her faith and sacrifice to the Emperor.  In fact, he raised such a ruckus that he was beaten by the guards for disturbing the hearing, causing Perpetua deep distress. (3)  Because the group confessed forthrightly to their faith, the governor rather quickly sentenced Perpetua and her fellow inmates to death by wild beasts.  The men were dispatched by leopards, bear, and wild boar, but the powers that be ordained that Perpetua and Felicitas should be attacked by a wild cow in deference to their female sex.  (Though not with too much deference, as they were both stripped and enclosed in nets to await the cow.)  Remarkably, the two women both withstood the charge of the heifer, and so eventually were put to death by sword. (But not before Perpetua, clad for execution in a simple tunic, stopped to tidy her hair to avoid seeming “to be mourning in her hour of triumph.”)  The final, very vivid account of their deaths was added to Perpetua’s own diary by an anonymous fellow-Christian, who says he/she completed the account at “the command…of the most saintly Perpetua.”

Perpetua, looking fabulous (and remarkably un-African), is immortalized in a cartoon for children. (Source)

Now if that ain’t a movie just waiting to be made, I don’t know what is.  (4)

So what to make of this remarkable story and the woman who wrote it?

Perpetua’s Diary: The Text Itself

Perpetua’s account of her time in prison is one of the few literary documents we have that was written by a Roman woman.  (Sulpicia’s poetry and Severa’s letters are the other two notable female literary endeavors from the Roman era.) As several scholars have shown, Perpetua’s work bears all the hallmarks of having actually been written originally as a diary–the use of the first person, informal language, repeated references to time (“after three days…”, “the next day,”  etc.), recordings of family arguments and other interactions with loved ones, and so forth.  That makes it the first diary known to us from any time or culture.  (She certainly beats out Samuel Pepys, who is often listed as the first diarist by, oh, about 1400 years.  And even another early contender for the title, the Chinese diarist Li Ao, wrote in 9th century CE.)

The text itself, entitled The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity and their Companions, can be broken down into several portions, as outlined below:

a) A brief, laudatory (and very formal) introduction written by a later person (some attribute it to Tertullian, an eminent church leader from Carthage), that also describes the dramatis personae mentioned in the diary.  This is where we get the information that Perpetua was 22 years old and from a well-born family.

b) The diary itself, which records her daily experiences in prison, and which forms the bulk of the text.

The prison cell (in the ruins of Carthage) where Perpetua is traditionally said to have been kept. (Source)

c) A short section in which her fellow-prisoner Saturus recounts his vision, writing it “in his own hand.”  (5)

d) A posthumous, detailed account of her (and her compatriots’) death, written by an eyewitness who was not necessarily the writer of the introduction, and who explicitly states that he/she is finishing the work at Perpetua’s command.

Of the four sections outlined above, only section “b” is actually, as far as we can tell, Perpetua’s diary. (6)

Like the best diaries of any time period, Perpetua’s work is startling in its immediacy.  She writes, for instance, about her initial terror at the “dark hole” of the prison, the stifling heat of the crowd, the extortion of the soldiers who guarded her (and who, after receiving some bribes from the church deacons, allowed them access to a better-ventilated area in the prison).  She writes of being thankful that her breasts have not become engorged and inflamed when she is finally separated from her son (who is given to her mother to raise).  She writes of her experiences in prayer, including a vision of her long-dead brother.  She writes of her slave Felicitas’ hopes and fears, and of the pain she suffers when her child is born prematurely.  She writes also of her own dreams–images that would be familiar today on any analyst’s couch: of ladders and dragons, of gardens and shepherds, of her brother alive again, of herself changing genders, and as a naked man, fighting with a vicious Egyptian gladiator.  In short, it is a diary that feels so fresh you can almost imagine it was written yesterday by some political prisoner of a 21st century regime, and smuggled out of prison by Amnesty International.

Perpetua was the first in a long line of famous diarists, from Li Ao and Samuel Pepys to Dostoevsky, Virginia Woolf, and, um… Bridget Jones?

And like a document smuggled out and publicized by Amnesty, Perpetua’s diary seems to have been written with the explicit intention of circulating it to the larger public–in this case, other Christians who might themselves face martyrdom one day.  But why did she choose to encourage her fellow Christians in the form of a diary, as opposed to a more standard, formulaic sermon or epistle?  We have plenty of other documents written by early Christians that take a stance on the issue of martyrdom.  Take, for example, the writings of Ignatius of Antioch, a bishop who was arrested and taken to Rome to be executed, and wrote open letters to churches while he was en route to the lions.  Or sermons by a number of Church fathers encouraging Christians to stand firm in their faith even unto death.  So why didn’t Perpetua just write inspirational letters to her peers?  What impelled her to detail her daily life in jail and, furthermore, to pass it on to others for posterity?

The answers to that question, I would suggest, are both practical (i.e. having to do with her position as a woman in Roman society) and momentous–that is, of great import in the unfolding (or dare I say “evolution”?) of human experience and consciousness.  The brilliant thing about Perpetua’s diary is that it does two things at the same time.  It illuminates a particular moment in history AND it gives us a glimpse into the human condition writ large.

And that, my friends, is where I’ll leave you hanging until next time, when we look at the significance of Perpetua’s diary–for us as teachers, and for humanity as a whole.

—–

NOTES

(1) Most of what we know about Perpetua comes from her own diary.  Aside from the diary, Perpetua’s historicity is attested to by Saint Augustine, who preached several sermons on her in the 4th c. CE.  He quotes and/or paraphrases directly from her diary, so we know that he had access to something like the text we now have today.  During medieval times, her story was known and date of martyrdom celebrated, but it seems as though the actual manuscripts were lost, since medieval accounts of her life and death seem to diverge from the diary itself.  (The manuscript was rediscovered in the 1600s.) Since the late 1900s we have possessed several Latin copies and one Greek copy of the text–giving rise to a debate about the original language of the diary.  All this background is well-covered in a master’s thesis on Perpetua by Melissa C. Perez, available online here, as well as in several scholarly books, the most recent of which is The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity, by Thomas J. Heffernan.

Perpetua (on left) and Felicitas (on right). Note the difference in skin tones, despite there not being anything in the text about their respective origins.

(2) Felicitas really merits her own page on this blog, but I’ll settle for a really long footnote since we only know of her through Perpetua’s writings.  This brave woman, a slave, was pregnant when arrested (and for most of her imprisonment).  She apparently was tortured during the trial.  Under Roman law, torture for slaves was mandatory.  Interestingly, though it was apparently ok to torture pregnant women, the diary states Felicitas couldn’t have been executed, given her condition.  (You gotta draw the line somewhere, I guess.)  As it turned out, she wound up giving birth in prison to a baby girl (and, bless her, dealing a withering verbal blow to some guards who were taunting her, even as she pushed the baby out).   After delivering the infant, she gave her over to a Christian woman to raise and went forward to her death willingly.  But the sight of milk flowing from her engorged breasts during the games caused even the hardened Carthaginian crowd to call for relief in the form of a tunic to cover her nakedness.

Judging from the title of the text (The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas and their Companions), which gives Felicitas credit as the “co-star” of the story, the slave woman’s bravery was widely acknowledged not just by her own community, but by the early church in general.  Perpetua’s diary indicates that the two women were close, something the later editors of the tale obviously picked up on and enshrined in the title.

Perpetua (on left) and Felicitas (on right). In this rather moving contemporary icon, both women are depicted with darker skin tones, but even here, Felicitas the slave is darkest.

One final point about Felicitas:  It’s interesting that in most modern depictions of the two women, Felicitas appears as dark-skinned while Perpetua is portrayed as lighter-skinned.  In actuality, we have no evidence for the skin color of either woman.  Though it’s reasonable to assume that Perpetua was of North African origin, as a slave, Felicitas could be of any background whatsoever–from having been born in Perpetua’s own household to imported from any corner of the Roman empire (including Britain or Eastern Europe) or beyond.  The idea that Felicitas is a “black” slave therefore betrays more about our own racial ideas than those of the Roman empire.  For that matter, Perpetua herself could have been “black,” since skin color was not an impediment to Roman citizenship.

(3) At the time Perpetua was arrested, being a Christian was a political crime–that is, a person’s refusal to participate in the cult of the emperor by refusing to sacrifice to him (or to the state gods) was seen as treasonous.  Whereas we might see Perpetua’s actions as primarily religious (i.e. her worship of a different god), the Roman state saw her as a threat to the political stability of the empire.  Of course, this division between political and religious is our division–neither the Roman state nor Perpetua would have separated the two.  The earliest Christians were, for the most part, pointedly rejecting the status quo of empire, gender and family norms, as well as distinctions between slave and free people.  Of course, the status of women and slaves was hotly contested even within early Christian communities, but here in Perpetua’s diary we see a woman as the de facto leader and diarist of the group.  And all the Christians, male and female, slave and free, suffer the same fate and receive the same heavenly reward.

(4)  There have, in fact, been some non-academic books and movies about Perpetua.  A Catholic company actually made a Perpetua cartoon (!) about her martyrdom, in which Perpetua’s attractive appearance rivals a Disney princess.  (Warning for those who might be tempted to show this cartoon to their kids:  like the original story, there is plenty of violence.)  There’s also a 2009 (Christian) documentary about her.  (You can see the trailer here.) And there’s also a novel about Perpetua (also from a Christian perspective): Perpetua: A Bride, A Martyr, A Passion.  

(5) It’s very interesting that even though Saturus was obviously literate, he is not the primary author of the text.  His portion comprises only a very small part of the total work, and is introduced (presumably by one of the editors) as a short “add-on” to Perpetua’s main diary, sandwiched in before the account of the prisoners’ deaths.  And Saturus’ contribution simply recounts his vision, without any reflection on the meaning (as Perpetua had provided for her dreams) or any other account of his feelings, actions, or interactions with others.  In other words, it is simply the recording of a single dream, not a diary.

(6) It seems reasonable to assume that section c (Saturus’ vision) was written at the same time as Perpetua’s.  If we take the writer of part d at his/her word, it would appear that portion was written shortly after Perpetua’s death (though we don’t actually have any external proof that this is true).  Part a, the introduction, could have been composed at an even further remove from the original diary.

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The 4th c. CE papryus that refers to Jesus’ wife (Source)

NOTABLE WOMAN STATS:

Name:  ???  (aka “Jesus’ wife”)

Birthplace and date: Palestine, allegedly the first century CE

Occupation/Claim to Fame: Being married to the Man.  (Or is that the Son of Man?  Or God Himself?)

Her particular importance to Waldorf teachers: Early Christian debates about whether Jesus had a wife are a great way to show our students: a) how diverse the early Church was; and b) how questions and issues from ancient times continue to be pertinent today.

Where she fits into the Waldorf curriculum: Bible as Literature, 10th grade Ancient History, History of Rome (or Middle Ages–whenever you address early Christianity)

If you are going to read only one article about this issue, read: The NPR interview with noted Gnosticism scholar and author Elaine Pagels.

Jesus Just Got Hitched

So, I hadn’t planned on writing about news events in this blog, but come on!  Jesus’ wife?  That’s too good to pass up.

In case you haven’t already heard the news:  the New York Times ran a piece yesterday stating that a piece of papyrus from the 4th century CE describes Jesus as saying the phrase, “my wife.”  Unfortunately, the piece of papyrus, identified by Harvard Divinity School Professor Karen King, is a tiny fragment that cuts off the words that came immediately after “wife.”   Luckily, there are some surrounding phrases on the lines above and below that might give us an idea of the context for this whole thing.  But before I launch into talking about the actual papyrus, let me back up and make a few things clear, most notably, what this discovery does and doesn’t mean, as well as why you as a Waldorf teacher (and/or person interested in women’s history) should care about this news. (1)

Harvard Divinity School Professor Karen King, holding the glass-enclosed piece of papyrus in question (Source)

First of all, as Karen King herself has pointed out, this does NOT necessarily mean that Jesus was actually married.  The papyrus in question was written 350 years after Jesus’ death in a language (Coptic) and cultural context (Egypt) far removed from the Palestine of Jesus’ time.  (A quick point of comparison–it’s roughly parallel to someone today in say, France, writing about the Jamestown settlement in Virginia, or Oliver Cromwell’s England.)  None of the earliest Christian texts refer to a wife, despite several references to Jesus’ other relatives (mother, sisters, brothers) and references to the various wives/mother-in-laws, etc. of Jesus’ disciples.  Of course, we can’t completely rule out that Jesus was married.  And it would be pretty cool if we ever did find evidence that Jesus was shacked up.  But we simply don’t have that evidence now, even after finding the papyrus.  (Sorry, Dan Brown fans.)

However, what this discovery DOES mean is that we now have definitive evidence not just that the question of women in the church was actively debated by early Christians (that, we knew already), but also that the issue of marriage was contested as well.  In other words, it is further proof that the roles of women in the early church were much more diverse (and hotly contested) than most people think.

THIS is the point that should interest us as teachers–the variety of standpoints early Christians held on a number of issues that still remain controversial today: whether priests should marry, whether women should be ordained, what women’s roles in and out of the home should be, the role of lower-class people (and even slaves) within the Christian community.  For us, the exciting thing about this find is that it gives us more chances to talk about the varied roles of women in the ancient church, and to relate ancient history to contemporary “hot topics.”

Mike Lukovitch’s cartoon (apparently the first in what I’m sure will become a veritable slew of Jesus’ wife jokes, cartoons, TV shows, etc.) (Source)

OK, now back to the papyrus in question.

The Papyrus: Part of a Gnostic Tradition

The NYTimes article has a wonderful, magnifiable image of the papyrus, along with a literal translation of the legible words.  Among these words are a reference to “my mother,” “Mary” (which, obviously, could refer to either Jesus’ mother or to any one of his many female disciples named Mary), “The disciples said to Jesus,”  “she will be able to be my disciple,” and “I dwell with her in order to…”  Tantalizing, but not enough to really nail down what exactly is going on.  Professor King rightly notes that the likelihood is that this papyrus forms a part of a Christian Gnostic tradition that was arguing for greater involvement of women in community life, over and against other communities (including those which eventually gave rise to what we now know as the Catholic church).  (2)

Gnosticism is an umbrella term we use to describe a whole range of early communities and texts that eventually wound up outside the mainstream church.  (And were, in many cases, brutally suppressed by opposing clergy and bishops once Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.)  Gnostics held a whole variety of opinions on everything from who Jesus was, who his closest disciples were, what Jesus taught, whether women should be teachers and prophets, whether God was male, female, or both, and on and on.  For a long time we only knew what these alternate versions of Christianity taught by looking at the charges the orthodox bishops leveled against them.  (So, for instance, a bishop might say, “And so and so preaches that women should get up and prophesy in the churches!  This is terrible for the following reasons….”  And that was all we knew about what the alleged “heretic” had said.)

A model walks through Berlin (in various states of dress and undress) reading a Gnostic scripture in a 2005 Prada commercial. (Source)

But since 1945, when the Nag Hammadi library (a trove of ancient codices) was discovered in the Egyptian desert, we’ve had access to a number of texts written by the “heretic” Gnostics themselves.  Many are fascinating–the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, for example, or the Gospel of Thomas.  Many are really tedious (endless catalogues of the different emanations of God as they unfolded at the beginning of time).  And many are truly mind-blowing.  (If you ever want to trip yourself out sometime, put on some psychedelic music and read the Gnostic text “Thunder, Perfect Mind.”  Or go here, to the YouTube video that puts it all together for you, complete with mesmerizing New Age graphics.  Or, if you prefer to mix your sublime and ridiculous, you might like this version, in which Prada appropriates some of the most profound and paradoxical theological poetry ever written to sell perfume.)

So in a way, given the diversity of viewpoints contained within the full spectrum of early Christianity (and not just those communities that eventually triumphed to become the church as we know it), it’s perhaps surprising that until now there hasn’t been anything that indicated the existence of a group who thought Jesus was married.  The fact that we now have proof that some early-ish Christians thought it was important that Jesus was married, and apparently were making an argument in favor of women’s greater inclusion in worship and positions of authority–all this just reinforces what we were first able to confirm over the course of the 20th century as we began to examine the Nag Hammadi documents.  And based on the tiny fragment we have, we can’t rule out (as Elaine Pagels has pointed out) that the word “wife” here is used metaphorically, as is the case in numerous other Jewish, Christian, and Gnostic texts of the time.  We simply don’t know enough to make the call.

The Bottom Line for Teachers

Jesus’ wife remains, at least for now, a mystery.

Here’s the skinny:  Jesus’ wife is likely to remain an enigmatic figure.  She is unlikely to have actually existed (though we can’t 100% rule it out, there’s a preponderance of textual and circumstantial evidence suggesting Jesus was unmarried).  But what is most interesting about this discovery is how much it resonates with issues that concern us today: the celibate priesthood, the ordination of women, the way in which questions of gender and sexuality can tear apart communities of faith.  The wife of Jesus could be a fabulous starting point for discussion of these issues in the classroom.  And for those of us who teach the Bible as Literature or Roman History, it’s a good reminder for us to include at least some discussion of non-canonical gospels when we talk about early Christian literature.   Many of the gnostic texts, including those that address the issue of Jesus’ wife and female disciples, make a good counterpoint to the sometimes oppressively male characters, stories, and rhetoric of the Old and New Testaments.  (3)

Now, just for fun: click here for a running list of the funniest Twitter hashtag posts #IfJesusHadAWife for what Jesus’ wife might have said to Him.  My favorite:  “Sweetheart, stop ending the meals with, ‘One of you will betray me.’ You’re scaring the kids!”

———-

NOTES

(1) You may well ask me at this point, who are you to pontificate thus about ancient Christian papyri?  Well, let me first give a very large caveat that I’m not in any way an expert in papyrology, and do not intend to weigh in on the authenticity of the papyrus itself.  There are others who have done that (and so far, the most scholars who are in a position to judge agree that it IS genuine).  However, papyrology aside, I did have the good fortune to do a few years of grad work in early Christianity and gnosticism with Elaine Pagels and John Gager (scholars of Gnosticism and the Greek magical papyri, respectively).  So though I’m not a papyrologist, I am generally familiar with the types of documents and communities (early Christian, gnostic groups) that were involved in these early debates about women and marriage.

(2) There are other Gnostic texts (most notably, chapter 9 of the Gospel According to Mary Magdalene) that contain scenes where the disciples are arguing with each other about whether or not Mary is a real disciple and authorized to teach.  (For the record, the disciple Levi stands up for her.)  And the Gospel of Philip contains a passage that says, “Great is the mystery of marriage!”  and also the provocative (even scandalous) assertion that Jesus loved Mary and often “used to kiss her often on the…” (the text breaks off, leaving one’s imagination to imagine exactly which body part they were talking about).  Which is all a long way of saying that it’s not unreasonable to suppose that this new fragment might belong to within a larger tradition of Gnostic gospels that address issues of gender and women’s role in community life.

(3) A good starting point for anyone wishing to explore Gnosticism further is Elaine Pagels’ seminal book The Gnostic Gospels.  It’s a good sensible look at a whole spectrum of Gnostic texts, and makes an excellent background for further understanding this exciting new discovery.

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My take on the Shakespeareisahipster meme.

So, dear readers, when we last left Enheduanna, we had learned all about her life and times and were about to embark upon an examination of her literary output–a corpus of hymns to various temples and deities that was so sophisticated and psychologically nuanced compared to other writings of the time that the eminent Assyriologist William Hallo referred to her as “The Sumerian Shakespeare.”  But given that she preceded Shakespeare by about, oh, 3800 years, it might be more apt to dub the bard “The English Enheduanna.”  In any case, don’t just take Hallo’s word for it–read on for why you, too, should care about her work.

Enheduanna’s Literary Career

Enheduanna’s literary output is divided into two main bodies of work: her temple hymns, which were addressed not to individual deities, but to the temples themselves, and her hymns to Inanna, who appears to have been Enheduanna’s favorite goddess. (1)  To do justice to Enheduanna’s theology and literary style you’d need to read the poems themselves (we wouldn’t be satisfied with an online synopsis of Shakespeare, would we?).  But I’ll try to summarize briefly here the main points as they’re relevant to our work as Waldorf teachers.

Tablets of the Temple Hymns

First, you should know what the experts (that is to say, Assyriologists) say.  They usually relate her poetry to the larger political events of her time, seeing the hymns as a unified body of work that forms part of a political campaign.  Each temple hymn, for example, is dedicated to “lugal-mu” (“my king”), and as a whole, the hymns take pains to link the religious centers of Akkad with those of Sumer. (2)  In this view, Enheduanna appears as a PR agent of sorts for her father, King Sargon, helping smooth relationships between the two peoples he was attempting to rule.  She certainly seems to have been smart enough to be in charge of such a campaign.  However, personally, I think that whatever her political motivation, the hymns themselves are so lyrical that we have to take them seriously as religious and literary endeavors, not just cagey political moves.  And more to the point, it seems significant that Enheduanna emerges as the first author in history at this point in time.  After all, if the hymns were more or less just propaganda, she could have written them anonymously.  So why put her name to them?  What’s going on?

Enheduanna’s Genius: Going “Meta” in her Poetry

Enheduanna is hereby posthumously presented with Notablewoman’s Certified Genius Award, for services rendered to the evolution of human consciousness

Here’s what’s going on: the woman was a genius.  Perhaps the most wonderful moment in all of Enheduanna’s work is when, in one of the Temple Hymns, she names herself and reflects on her own brilliance.  But unlike Shakespeare, who immortalized himself and his poetry in Sonnet 18 with the line, “so long lives this, and this gives life to thee,” Enheduanna, wonders not at the longevity of her poem, but at its sheer novelty:

the person who bound this tablet together
/ is Enheduanna / my king, something never before created /
did not this one give birth to it? (3)

The woman was hot and she knew it.  And after all, didn’t she have the right to brag a bit?  As far as we can tell, no one else had ever thought to put their name down on a literary work before.  Basically, Enheduanna went “meta” on her peers–not only did she compose a poem, but she drew attention to the fact that she, Enheduanna, had done it.  Of course, even without her name, her work would still retain its striking images and lyric beauty.  But her capacity for self-reflection is what really distinguishes Enheduanna.  (To hear a four-minute selection of her poetry read in the original Sumerian, click here, then scroll down to the bottom of the page and press play.)

For us Waldorf teachers, Enheduanna’s self-reflection is particularly interesting because she emerges as the first authorial persona in human history in exactly the era Steiner pinpointed as the beginning of human awareness of our inner emotional life. (4)  This period, which he called “Egypto-Chaldean,” spanned roughly 2900-750 BCE.   Much later during this era we see other individual authors emerge: Shin-eqi-unninni (author of the Epic of Gilgamesh, who is supposed to have lived sometime around 1600 BCE, a full 700 years after Enheduanna), Hesiod, Homer, Sappho, etc. (5) But Enheduanna was the first, and judging from her hymns, she knew it.

Enheduanna’s Complexity: Exploring Human Emotions

Apparently, Rodin’s “Thinker” should have been female.

In addition to being the first person to identify herself as an author, Enheduanna was also (as far as we can tell) the first person to write about her own inner emotional state.  As Steiner notes, cultures prior to the Egypto-Chaldean period did not distinguish so clearly between inner and outer, human and divine, emotional life and bodily experience.  And in order to examine one’s inner life, one first has to distinguish between the world “out there” and the world “in here.”  As a result, there is very little evidence that earlier cultures engaged in what we might call “navel-gazing”–the propensity to think about and reflect on our own inner thoughts and feelings.   What is new during the Egypto-Chaldean period, then, is the growing awareness that human emotional life constitutes a separate realm that is ripe for exploration. Once again, Enheduanna represents a pivotal moment in this unfolding of human consciousness.

We see this new way of thinking most clearly in her description of an enigmatic episode from her life.  Apparently, at some point fairly far-along in her career (Hallo places it during her nephew Naram-Sin’s reign), Enheduanna was thrown out of her temple and forced to live in exile on the steppe.  To add insult to injury, she was replaced as High Priestess by a man named Lugalunne, whom Enheduanna views as a usurper (whether he was a priest or king is unclear).  Enheduanna, devastated, pleaded her case plaintively in her third hymn to Inanna:

truly for your gain / you drew me toward
my holy quarters
 / I 
the High Priestess /
I 
Enheduanna /
there I raised the ritual basket
/ there I sang the shout of joy /
but that man cast me among the dead /
I am not allowed in my rooms
/ gloom falls on the day
/ light turns leaden
/ shadows close in
/ dreaded southstorm cloaks the sun
/ he wipes his spit-soaked hand
/ on my honey-sweet mouth
/ my beautiful image 
fades under dust
/ what is happening to me
/ O Suen [i.e. Inanna]
/ what is this with Lugalanne?…/ he gave me the ritual dagger of mutilation/ he said/ “it becomes you.” (6)

A Sumerian dagger, found in Woolley’s excavations (Source)

What an image.  Can’t you just see the victorious Lugalanne standing in the sacked temple, holding Enheduanna’s chin in his hand, brandishing the ritual dagger before her, and leering sarcastically, “it becomes you”?  Ugh.  Even 4300 years later, it gives me chills.

But here’s another thing that gives me chills:  Enheduanna’s heartfelt, almost diary-like poetry about the events of her life and her internal state–it’s all so very new.  It’s amazing to think about, because writing like this is so familiar to us now, even to the point of being banal.  To say that “light turns leaden” and “shadows close in” as a way of describing your own depression is no big deal these days.  But when Enheduanna was writing, no one else in the history of humankind had ever before thought to put his or her personal experiences and inner emotional turmoil on paper (or clay, as the case may be).  Truly astonishing.

Enheduanna’s Dilemma:  Old Gods vs. New Gods

If Enheduanna had a car, this might be her bumper sticker

Finally, as if inventing authorship and navel-gazing weren’t enough, Enheduanna’s writings show us a shift in the very nature of religious experience itself.   Steiner charted this movement from earlier eras, in which humans experienced the divine directly, as coterminous with the world (the world essentially was the divine), to Enheduanna’s time (the Egypto-Chaldean period), when humans began to experience the divine as “other,” or as subtly set apart from the human realm.  To use some fancy theological terms, we can see this as an evolution from an earlier pantheism (God is everything) into a later panentheism (God is in everything), the latter of which subtly supposes that God has the option of not being in everything, or that God somehow exceeds and/or transcends everything that we see around us.

Inanna in one of her less ferocious moments

Jungian analyst and scholar Betty De Shong Meador, while seemingly unfamiliar with Steiner’s work, nevertheless nicely situates Enheduanna at exactly this crux of theological history. (7) She notes that Enheduanna’s hymns to Inanna describe the goddess as wearing “the robes of the old, old gods,”  and depict her as containing all the fury and contradictions of nature and life itself– simultaneously as maiden, lover, warrior, bringer of birth and death, hunger and famine, growth and destruction.  Inanna, in short, represents the last gasp of the old order, when every aspect of life, good and bad, was felt to be embodied in the god(dess).  Enheduanna’s first Inanna hymn, “Inanna and Ebih,” relates the story of what happens when the old and new orders collide.  (And it ain’t pretty for the new gods on the block.)

In brief, the poem describes an epic confrontation between Inanna and a defiant mountain named Ebih that refuses to “praise [Inanna’s] way.”  When Inanna appeals to her father An, the head of the gods, he hems and haws, musing that he finds the mountain’s pastoral charms quite lovely.  Ultimately, An refuses to back Inanna in the dispute, referring to her (rather patronizingly, if endearingly) as “my Little One.”  At that point Inanna goes ballistic, destroying the mountain in a fit of fury that de Shong Meador translates as “bedlam unleashed.”  I won’t reproduce the full passage here, but just in case you ever feel like messing with Inanna, you might want to consider that her vengeance involved hurricane winds, arrows, choking dust, pelting stones, parching drought, poisoned trees, and flames.

Enheduanna (and Inanna) were having none of this newfangled, namby-pamby lion and lamb stuff.

Historically speaking, it’s unclear whether Ebih can be identified with an actual mountain, whether there was perhaps a rival temple or king on said mountain, and if so, if the destruction of the mountain/temple was an actual event (an earthquake, maybe?). (8)  What’s interesting for our purposes is that the rebellious mountain is depicted as a bucolic, even paradisiacal place where lions and sheep roam together, much as in the Biblical book of Isaiah.  Sounds rather nice to modern ears.  But for Enheduanna, the clearly unnatural peacefulness of the mountain marks it out as opposed to Inanna’s way.  Nature, like Inanna, encompasses both good and bad, light and dark, birth and death.  A holy mountain where lions lie down with lambs is an aberration (an insult, even!) to Inanna.  Eternal abundance and peace be damned!  Inanna annihilates it, much to Enheduanna’s obvious delight.

Of course, with the hindsight of 4300 years, we can see that the Lady doth protest too much–transcendent gods were the wave of the future, even if Inanna (in the form of her alter egos Ishtar and Cybele) did hang around for another two thousand years or so.  Oh, irony of ironies!  Precisely the type of introspective self-awareness that led Enheduanna to compose the first authored poem in history, to navel-gaze like the best psychoanalytic patient, to fume about the replacement of Inanna by newer gods–these same capacities were  slowly leading human beings further and further away from the religious experiences that had characterized earlier periods of human development, and which Enheduanna held so dear in her beloved Inanna.

It’s important to note here, that Steiner makes no judgment about these different stages of human evolution.  We’re not meant to look at Enheduanna’s work and say, “Good girl!” when she demonstrates self-awareness and “Bad girl!” when she has Inanna stomp the bejeezus out of mount Ebih.  We’re simply noting, like the best post-structuralists, that human consciousness itself is culturally contingent.  That is to say, the fact that Enheduanna was the first person to show us these facets of the human mind is important–she’s the first one because before this time, people experienced themselves and the world differently.  Her genius, and her gift to us, was to precisely and poetically capture the moment when humans first looked inward at themselves and wrote down what they saw.  Truly, we can say that Enheduanna, the world’s first author, birthed “something that was never before created.”

 And that, my friends, is why we should all teach Enheduanna to our students every chance we get.

———-

NOTES

(1) There is some question about whether all 42 of the temple hymns we have really were authored by Enheduanna herself.  Apparently, her fame as a poet caused other, later writers to use her name (a frequent practice in antiquity).  However, most scholars agree based on stylistic analysis that the vast majority, if not all of them, are hers.

(2) William W. Hallo & J.J.A. van Dijk. The Exaltation of Inanna.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968.

(3) From an online translation by Betty de Shong Meador of Enheduanna’s hymns: http://www.atanet.org/publications/beacons_10_pages/page_15.pdf

(4) It’s almost certain that Steiner didn’t know of Enheduanna’s writings, since Leonard Woolley, the archeologist who first rediscovered her work, did not even begin excavating in Ur until 1922.  I have been unable to pinpoint the date that he revealed the disk of Enheduanna to the world, but it appears that his earliest publications (for the Trustees of the British and University of Pennsylvania museums) were in the late 20s and early 30s, after Steiner’s death.  It’s even more amazing, then, that Enheduanna’s work fits so nicely with the Egypto-Chaldean period as outlined by Steiner, given that the earliest literature Steiner would have had access to was the Gilgamesh epic, which post-dates Enheduanna by about 700 years.

(5) The first named Chinese authors (many of whom are quasi-historical) appear in the 8th c. BCE;  Indian Vedic texts (the earliest of which are believed to have been compiled c. 1500 BCE) were not ascribed to individuals, and the earliest pre-Vedic Indic writing (from the Harappan civilization, which flourished in Enheduanna’s time) has not been deciphered.

(6) Betty de Shong Meador, Inanna, Lady of Largest Heart: Poems of the High Priestess Enheduanna. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000. pp. 174-175.

(7) I can’t recommend de Shong Meador’s book on Enheduanna highly enough.  It is erudite, well-written, and most importantly, really tries to grapple with the spiritual and historical significance of Enheduanna’s work.  To be sure, there are moments when she lays on the Jungian analysis a little thick, but as a readable, deep interpretation of Enheduanna (and Inanna, for that matter), it can’t be beat.

(8) William Hallo suggests that Ebih can be identified with the mountain currently known as Jebel Hamrin in Iraq.  And he reads the poems not as symptomatic of shifts in human consciousness, but as celebrations of Sargon’s triumphs over the various regions he conquered.  William W. Hallo.  The World’s Oldest Literature: Studies in Sumerian Belles Lettres.  Brill, 2010.  For the google book reference, click here.

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A detail of a carved stone disk showing Enheduanna carrying out her priestly duties

NOTABLE WOMAN STATS:

Name: Enheduanna

Birthplace and date:  Mesopotamian basin (probably Akkad), c. 2300 BCE

Occupation/Claim to Fame: High Priestess of the Sumerian moon god Nanna and the world’s first personally named author (as opposed to all previous literature, which was composed anonymously)

Her particular importance to Waldorf teachers:  As the first author to emerge from history as a discrete personality, Enheduanna perfectly exemplifies the transformation in human consciousness that Steiner described as taking place during what he called the Egypto-Chaldean period (roughly 2900-750 BCE).  Plus, she’s a fantastic poet.

Where she fits into the Waldorf curriculum: High School Ancient History Block; 5th grade Ancient History (with some content made age-appropriate, of course); any time you are discussing world literature or religions (e.g. 12th grade comparative religion)

If you are going to read only one book about her, read: Inanna, Lady of Largest Heart: Poems of the Sumerian High Priestess Enheduanna by Betty de Shong Meador.  (Austin: Univeristy of Texas Press, 2000.)  de Shong Meador’s translations are poetic and faithful, and as a Jungian analyst, she’s interested in the spiritual dimension of Enheduanna’s life and writings, as well as the academic points of interest.  You can also access some of Enheduanna’s Temple Hymns online here and here, and some of her Inanna poetry here.

Enheduanna’s Life and Times

It’s crazy how few people have heard of Enheduanna, High Priestess of the Sumerian Moon god Nanna.  After all, she has the distinguished fortune to be the first personally named author we know of in the entire history of humankind.  Moreover, her work, which comprised (as far as we can tell) 42 temple hymns and a number of longer works addressed to her favorite goddess Inanna, represent humanity’s first attempts at composing a systematic theology.  (How’s that for some credentials?)

Given how foggy we are about even kings’ personalities back in Enheduanna’s day (which, as best we can estimate, was about 2300 BCE), it’s actually quite amazing that we know as much as we do about her.  This is thanks, in large part, to her own writings, of which we have about 4500 lines of poetry.  Other evidence comes from seals found with her name on them, a stone disk carved with her image, and copies of her writings, which apparently entered the canon of Old Babylonian scribal schools as exempla of excellent literary style.

Her family

Enheduanna’s father Sargon

So, here’s what we know about her life:  Enheduanna was the daughter of the Akkadian king Sargon, who conqured a number of Sumerian city-states in the late 23rd-early 22nd centuries BCE.  The Akkadians and Sumerians were both native to the Mesopotamian valley and maintained a very close cultural interchange, including worshipping similar gods, but the two communities were linguistically distinct. Sargon’s empire united the two peoples in a not-always-tension-free rule.  When Enheduanna’s two brothers each, in turn, inherited the throne, revolts followed.  Her nephew, Naram-Sin, eventually succeeded them and unified the area once more.  Enheduanna was still High Priestess when Naram-Sin was in power, so she outlived her father and two brothers (she had at least two other siblings, but we don’t know much about them).

There is some scholarly debate over whether Enheduanna was really Sargon’s biological daughter, or if “daughter of Sargon” was simply a term used to denote her status as High Priestess under his protection.  Most scholars agree, however, that she probably was Sargon’s offspring, since appointing one of his own children High Priestess over the southern, formerly Sumerian-controlled city of Ur would have made a great deal of political sense. But though she may have been given her post because of her birth, she rocked it totally on her own merits.  She was one tough, smart, literate woman.

Her Home

Enheduanna’s “House of Light”
The ziggurat of Ur as it was then, and (below) now

With the exception of a period of exile in which she was forcibly removed from her temple (more on that in the next post), Enheduanna seems to have spent most of her adult life in the famous temple complex of Ur, which included the “House of Light”–the ziggurat of which partial (rebuilt) remains can still be seen today.  Sumerian temples were, in addition to being religious centers, the centers of economic and social life as well.  Indeed, archeological and textual evidence has shown that the earliest cities most likely arose as a crystallization of homes and structures around the central temple complex, which served as granary storehouse, food distribution site, and generally the center of marketplace and bureaucratic activity.  By Enheduanna’s time, this role was coming under increasing fire, as non-priestly bigwigs such as her father Sargon jostled for control with the priests and priestesses in charge.   This would come to a head with Enheduanna’s nephew Naram-Sin, who declared himself “God of Akkad”  and thereby assumed control of the temples as well as the political hierarchy.

All of which is a long way of saying that Enheduanna was a big deal.

Her Daily Life

The “Enheduanna Disk” depicting Enheduanna (in the flouncy dress) performing her duties, discovered in the 1920s by Leonard Woolley

What was Enheduanna’s daily life like?  As priestess of the moon god Nanna and his wife Ningal, she and her staff would have spent a great deal of time caring for them ritually–bathing and clothing the statues, bathing themselves before they approached the figures, making offerings of animals, produce, jewelry, and other materials, and keeping precise astronomical recordings of the moon’s phases.  It’s unclear whether she would have conducted some of these astronomical observations herself.  One of her poems refers to the fact that her own rooms (the “gipar” part of the temple complex) were where “they track the passage of the moon.”  The language simultaneously suggests that specialized personnel (“they”) did the actual observations, and that she had some sort of intimate part in the operation, since they were in her room (“the priestess’ rooms, that princely shrine of holy cosmic order”). (1)

In addition to her cult and scientific responsibilities, she also had a considerable agricultural enterprise to oversee.  Her title “en-priestess” referred to her capacity to oversee the fecundity of the land, and she ruled over a veritable army of farmers, fishermen, shepherds, and other livestock managers.  The incredible bounty produced by so large an enterprise made temples extremely wealthy, so much so that they also played the role of banks, making substantial loans to individuals and kings.  And in addition to her managerial responsibilities at home, she would have had to have maintained relations with other temples in the Mesopotamian valley as a sort of roving “goodwill ambassador” of Nanna (and possibly her father, Sargon).

Alabaster head, believed to be of Ningal

Still another of her duties was to act as a conduit and interpreter of dream messages from the gods.  During a period of her life when she was temporarily exiled from her temple (and replaced by a man), Enheduanna lamented, “I cannot stretch my hands/from the pure sacred bed/I cannot unravel/Ningal’s gifts of dreams/to anyone.”  (Ningal being the wife of Nanna, the moon god.)  It’s unclear whether her dream duties included the interpretation of other people’s dreams.  However, with the discovery of a ceremonial bed platform within Ningal’s part of the temple complex, it seems probable that Enheduanna’s duties would have included some form of sacred sleep after which she would interpret her own dreams as signs from the gods.

Inanna and Dumuzi get down to business

And speaking of beds…each year she would have taken part in the annual “sacred marriage” ritual, in which she was joined in union with the god Nanna.  It’s unclear whether the ritual actually involved sexual intercourse or not.  The stele of a later en-priestess refers to the aforementioned golden bed of Ningal that might have been part of such a ritual.  And certainly some of the poems of the goddess Inanna are, to say the least, on the racy side.  (In one, Inanna addresses her vulva and compares it to the new moon rising; in several others, she propositions her consort, Dumuzi, saying in one, “my field wants hoeing…I want YOU Dumuzi/your bough raised…”). (2)  But with such scanty evidence (and little of it about the moon god Nanna, as opposed to the goddess Inanna), it’s difficult to re-create actual ritual practices.  Suffice it to say, then, that Enheduanna was certainly supposed to have been intimate with the moon god Nanna, whether or not it involved actual intercourse with a human representative of the god.  And this intimacy was, in turn, supposed to assure the continued fertility of the temple lands, if not the whole of Sumer itself.  One of Enheduana’s titles (and one of her favorite ways of describing herself) was simply, “Wife of Nanna.”

Now that we’ve established a little bit about her life and times, next time, we’ll finally be able to get to the good stuff: her poetry.  (Oh, you thought that sex with the moon god WAS the good stuff?  You ain’t seen nothin’ yet, baby.)

Notes

(1) This translation is from Betty de Shong Meador’s book Inanna, Lady of Largest Heart: Poems of the High Priestess Enheduanna. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000) p. 72.  In general, de Shong Meador’s book is an excellent overview of Enheduanna (and Inanna).  I’ve used her as a source for much of the information presented here.  A source that gives a helpful account of Mesopotamian political history is Susan Wise Bauer’s The History of the Ancient World (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007).  I recommend it with a caveat:  although it is extremely helpful in setting out timelines, maps, and other basic information, it is a very narrowly political historical narrative, and needs to be supplemented by social and economic history.  In over 700 pages of text, Enheduanna doesn’t even get a single mention!

(2) de Shong Meador, p 59.

 

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Lest we forget Steiner’s context, here’s a cartoon from 1906 demonstrating a fear of “What Women Will Become”

In my last post, we considered Steiner’s discussion of what he (rather quaintly, to our ears) called “The Women’s Question,” particularly as he developed it in his 1906 lecture “Woman and Society” (Die Frauenfrage).  We left off just at the point where Steiner had completed trouncing his contemporaries’ views on women, which he demonstrated were either contradictory, culturally or socio-economically specific, or otherwise based on false assumptions about how society and gender work.

At that point, Steiner introduces a surprising twist to the discussion.  Anticipating Jung’s theory of the anima/animus by about ten years, he claims that, if considered in totality, each human being encompasses two poles, male and female.  According to Steiner, the physical body expresses only one or the other of these poles (though we might wonder, here, about transgendered people, including hermaphrodites). In the emotional life, however, he claims that we can clearly see that both stereotypically “feminine” and “masculine” qualities can, in fact, belong to human beings of either physical gender.

Aristophanes’ Original Human Being

In this description of the human being as two-poled, Steiner not only looks forward to Jung, but also backwards to Aristophanes (or, at least, to Aristophanes as channeled by Plato in his Symposium).  The ur-myth of the bi-gendered human being, Aristophanes’ tale in the Symposium proposed that the original humans were composed of two gendered parts that made up a complete whole.  (Though unlike Steiner, Aristophanes held that these two halves could be either male-female, male-male, or female-female, thus explaining the varieties of human love as we each search among our prospective lovers for our severed half.)

Steiner was less interested than Aristophanes (at least, in this context) in the effect of this double gender on human sexual behavior than he was in the way in which we can harness this dual energy to best develop our full potential as human beings.  In this emphasis, he once again anticipated Jung’s work on individuation as it relates to anima/animus.  We must consider in every human being, Steiner urges, the totality of that person’s nature, both the revealed and the hidden parts–the male and the female.  And moreover, we must strive to integrate within ourselves whichever characteristics we are “missing.”  In other words, “a complete human being” combines so-called male and female characteristics so that our external gender is complemented by an internal tendency towards the opposite traits.

But, not content to simply scoop Jung, Steiner goes on (in good Marxist Feminist form) to insist that gender discrimination is inherently tied to a culture’s means of production.  If, he argues, we find ourselves in an entrenched patriarchy, it is because materialism “impels itself towards an external culture.”  In other words, the same impulses (or discourses, if you prefer a post-structuralist term) give rise to both patriarchal attitudes that place a premium on male bodies and experiences, and our materialist/positivist culture.  The two–patriarchy and materialism–are coeval, birthed by the same forces.

Steiner turns to a somewhat counterintuitive place for evidence of the interdependence of patriarchy and materialism:  the language of mystics.  Mystics, he claims, on some level understand that our material age is a reification of “masculine” forces at work in our bodies and our world, and therefore often use feminine imagery to describe their journeys in the non-material world of Spirit.  And it is true that many female, as well as male, mystics, frame their union with the divine using female imagery.  (Though of course, there are exceptions on both sides as well–men and women who envision themselves as “marrying” or otherwise communing with a male deity or spirit. Consider, for example, John of the Cross’s somewhat homoerotic mystical imagery.)  The prime example, for Steiner, of this feminine spirituality is Geothe, whose “Eternal-feminine” leads Faust (and us) from the illusory world of material to the immaterial “event” of Presence.

Like this Hermaphroditus with Mirror, we all need to look inside and discover our inner androgyne.

If, however, you are not an accomplished mystic, and the prospect of a deeply entrenched patriarchal materialism gets you down, Steiner reminds us not to indulge in apathy or despair.  Cultures change, and it is our job, as human beings, to change our surroundings by developing ourselves to our highest capacity.  To this end, he urges us, “men and women must look on their physical body as an instrument which enables them, in one direction or another, to be active as a totality in the physical world.  The more human beings are aware of the spiritual within them, the more does the body become an instrument, and the more do they learn to understand people by looking into the depths of the soul.”  It’s a gendered version of “think global, act local.”  If you want to change the world, change yourself–become the doubly-gendered human being you are meant to be, and in so doing, you will change the culture around you.  Patriarchy, by definition, requires men and women to be adhere to strictly defined gender roles.  (Which is why the cartoon that started off this post was so rattling to early 20th century men.)

“What does all this have to do with pedagogy?”  you may ask yourself.  (And well you might ask, 1000+ words into this blog entry.)  Quite simply, it is one of our main tasks as Waldorf educators to help young people experience and develop both sides of their human nature.  We can do this in many ways–by encouraging, as Steiner did in some of his first teacher lectures, both genders to participate in stereotypically “male” or “female” crafts (woodworking, knitting, etc.); by nurturing through skillful pedagogy certain behaviors that we notice are dormant in our students (encouraging retiring students to become braver about speaking, encouraging aggressive students to become more compassionate, etc.).

A transgender bathroom sign from a Thai school. (Source)

A transgender bathroom sign from a Thai school. (Source)

But, perhaps most importantly to the Humanities teacher, we can also accomplish this by encouraging our students to “live into” the experiences of the both genders by offering them opportunities to do so in literature, story, song, film, and so on.  We all know how a work of literature can get us “inside the head” of even such as insidious a character as, say, Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert.  If we harness this power of imagination (something which, incidentally, Steiner describes as “female”) to live with and inhabit the perspectives, feelings, and bodily experiences of women as well as men, then we will have gone a long way towards accomplishing two goals:  a) countering the prevailing patriarchal/materialist world-view, and b) encouraging the students’ inner growth along the lines Steiner is advocating. (1)

So what is the “take-home” of the foregoing (rather long) re-cap of Steiner’s consideration of “The Women’s Question”?  I’ve boiled it down to six things to strive for in our classrooms:

1) Given the importance Steiner places on gender issues, it is imperative that we as Waldorf educators make an active effort to include women’s voices and perspectives in all aspects of our curriculum, from literature and history to math, science, physical culture, and the arts.  One simple first step: using gender-neutral language such as “human” or “humanity” instead of “man” or “mankind.”  This is standard practice in public schools, but has been painfully slow to catch on in Waldorf circles, perhaps because of a wish to remain faithful to Steiner’s German.  But folks, it’s time to let the ladies into the human race.

2) We need to embed women’s voices and perspectives in their specific socio-economic, political, geographic, and temporal location.  Steiner would expect no less.

3) We should expand our notions of “influence,” “power,” and “contributions” beyond those valued by our own culture and look towards ways in which women have historically exercised their personhood, power, and influence.  This will vary by geography and culture.  Be alert to ways in which women, through their domestic, religious, or economic endeavors, might be participating in networks of power that we, with our contemporary Western lenses, might not immediately see.

4) Tokenism (throwing in a brief consideration of one or two exceptional women) is insufficient to do justice to women’s voices and experiences. We need examples of both heroic/outstanding women and attention to the lives of everyday women.  In addition to covering famous queens, female authors, and other notables, put on your social history cap.  When you’re discussing cities, describe what the homes look like and what activities might have taken place in them.  Who was providing the childcare?  Who was making the food?  Who did the farming?  Who made the clothes?  Good social and economic history will address the role of women. (2)

5) As Waldorf teachers, we must nurture those gendered aspects of our own personality that are less well-developed.  Although these “hidden sides” are often qualities associated with the opposite sex, it varies tremendously from person to person.  As a form of inner work, we need to make a good and honest appraisal of the gendered qualities we most need to develop in ourselves–not only once, but again and again over the course of our spiritual and professional development.  An ongoing meditation practice can be extremely useful in helping identify areas of weakness to address.

Rosie the Riveter takes a coffee break before getting down to some serious Steiner-inspired inner work!

6) We need to be intentional about the importance of the moral/spiritual work we are doing when we engage in questions of gender in the classroom.  It’s all too easy to feel like gender inclusion is something we “add on” to our usual lesson, or that we simply don’t have time to be as inclusive as we would like to be.  But Steiner has assured us the question of inclusion is of vital importance, and is not a matter of trends.  In fact, in seeming anticipation of the accusation that he’s just espousing some sort of newfangled feminist claptrap, he emphatically declared that we “cannot solve the Woman’s question with ideas and trends!”  Rather, as he painstakingly shows, he is arguing is for the centrality of gender inclusion as a spiritual practice.  He sums up:  “In reality you can only solve it [i.e. the “Women’s Question”] by creating that concept, that disposition of soul which enables men and women to understand each other out of the totality of human nature.” (translator’s italics)

I think that last line  just about says it all.  Don’t you?  Now, let’s get to work.

Notes:

(1) The question of whether other minority perspectives might open up similar “breaches” in the patriarchal/materialist discourse is a fascinating one, and though beyond the scope of this entry, deserves consideration.  To what degree would post-colonial narratives (which disrupt the dominant discourses of imperialism and capitalism) have a similar effect on spiritual growth?

(2) It’s interesting that if we simply follow the template of Steiner’s three-fold social order when planning our history lessons (making sure to always cover the political, economic, and cultural spheres), it’s hard to completely exclude the ladies.  Hmmm…perhaps that man was onto something.

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Rudolf Steiner, 1915

As I mentioned in my last post, in addition to the reasons espoused by mainstream educators in favor of including women in the canon, Waldorf teachers also need to consider inclusion from the standpoint of Rudolf Steiner’s writings and philosophy.  Steiner, the founder of Waldorf Education, had much to say about nearly everything (agriculture, spirituality, banking, architecture, art, sport, health… the list can seem nearly infinite).  It’s not my intention here to investigate or defend every aspect of Steiner’s thought.  Rather, I’d like to re-cap some of Steiner’s main observations about gender and muse upon what they might have to say about the issue of inclusion in the classroom.

First of all, it’s important to note that Steiner explicitly addressed what he called “The Women’s Question” in several different places, most notably, his lecture “Woman and Society” (Die Frauenfrage), given in November of 1906.  On that occasion he stated point blank that the question of women’s inclusion into hitherto unintegrated portions of society “is one of the greatest present questions of our culture,” and observed that the issue involved much more than simply the admission of women into higher education and the professions, or even the question of universal suffrage.  Rather, he noted, “the issue concerning women embraces an economic, a social, and a psychological side, and many other aspects as well.”  If these two statements alone aren’t an incentive for Waldorf teachers to be diligent about the inclusion of women in the canon, I don’t know what is!

As anyone who knows Steiner’s work will attest, the man often first takes the prevailing wisdom of the day to task by pointing out its own internal contradictions, then later, adds his own penetrating insight into the mix.   In this lecture, after laying out what was at stake, he considers a number of the prevailing theories concerning women, correctly observing that in most cases they directly contradict each other.  Moreover, he goes on, if we were to look at the scientists’ and psychologists’ conclusions about women (namely, at that time, that men were the active, creative ones and women the natural followers), we would find that they are severely limited by the narrow data they collect.

Female miners, WWII

Investigation of other times and cultures, he states, would reveal women who participate in what we define as “masculine” work.  This observation about the cultural and temporal context of gender roles might seem commonplace to us now.  However, at the time, it was  incredibly advanced.   It’s hard to imagine Havelock Ellis or any of the other contemporary luminaries he mentions accepting that their theories might be culturally limited.  Furthermore, he points out (and this is an especially important point for us historians), the concept of “Woman,” even within a given culture, is  itself “an unacceptable generalization.”  Which women?  Where?  In what contexts?  Are we talking lower- or upper-classes? Steiner insists we be specific.

And then even further, he argues:  if we investigate “influential” women and conclude there are very few of them out there, aren’t we being confined by our own cultural assumptions of what constitutes “influence?”  We need to examine our own inherent biases–towards privileging public spheres over private, political power/voting over other ways of exercising influence.  If we have only confronted the issue of women’s inclusion in these last hundred years or so, that is because our culture is itself both the creator and product of conditions in which it is possible to think about arenas such as “the political” or “the academic” as abstract entities, within which the equally abstract notion of “human rights” (applicable to both male and female) can be applied.

The three stooges cause a “Rumpus in the Harem”

Here, my mind immediately went to the somewhat dismissively-named “harem intrigues” that seem to be so frequently alluded to in historians’ discussions of both ancient and contemporary polygamous court cultures.  Quite honestly, I doubt that a ruler ousted by the mother or wife of a half-sibling or other potential rival felt much difference between a female-led “intrigue” and a male-led military coup.  In either case, at the end of the day, said ruler was out.

Michel Foucault, 1926-1984

I find it exhilarating to think that Steiner understood power itself to be culturally constructed–an observation that puts him in the best post-structuralist company.  He’d be right at home, for example, with Michel Foucault’s notion of power as “relations…interwoven with other kinds of relations (production, kinship, family, sexuality) for which they play at once a conditioning and a conditioned role).” (1)  I like to think of them, in an alternate universe, sitting at the Café de Flore (upstairs in the smoke-filled back room, of course), discussing relations of power and human subjectivity.

But, to return to the subject at hand…

Towards the end of the lecture, Steiner moves from considering the various culturally determined aspects of the “woman question” (class, time period, societal context, etc.) into what he considers the heart of the matter– the essential nature of the human being.

And that’s where I’ll leave you hanging, dear readers, until my next entry.

Notes:

(1) Michel Foucault, “Power and Strategies” in Power and Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977, p. 142.

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Abigail Adams and her letter

Over 200 years ago, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John, asking him to “remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors….” Since Abigail’s time, the question of “remembering the ladies” in the canon is one that has been argued persuasively by a number of scholars in a variety of contexts.  (Tune in next time if you want to skip my re-cap here and jump to my consideration of how Steiner’s teachings are relevant to the issue.)

To me, it seems like most arguments can be grouped into several broad categories:

1) Girls are damaged by the lack of positive role models in traditional curricula, which have tended to either portray women as passive and dependent on men (or at best, an inspiration to them–for instance, Beatrice to Dante, or Pocahontas to John Smith), to limit their inclusion to a few token major historical figures such as Sappho, Queen Elizabeth I, etc.), or even to ignore them altogether.  This latter attitude of benign neglect is especially prevalent in political histories, which by their very nature, focus narrowly on one area of human interaction from which women have, for the most part, been excluded.  The lack of women in traditional literature and history curricula, so the argument goes, makes girls feel “invisible” and therefore, holds them back in their own self-development.  (Which, in turn, reinforces the overall aims and social structures of our patriarchal culture.)

The second argument is a positive corollary to the negative one outlined above:

2) Girls need to be inspired by powerful female characters and historical figures to whom they can relate, and on whom they can model their behavior.  Some also argue that boys benefit from exposure to inspirational and/or powerful female characters, since it fosters an attitude that women as well as men are worthy of respect and emulation.  This argument moves beyond tokenism (the inclusion of a few notable women as a “sidebar” to the main lesson) when the curriculum includes a broad spectrum of women as a matter of course, aiming at making “visible” the lives of women in general.  This can be achieved, for instance, by discussing the economic role that women’s (often unpaid) labor plays in various cultures, by consciously examining the roles and expectations placed on women across different cultures and times, or even by something as simple as saying, “we don’t know much about the lives of women in pre-Vedic India, but the evidence we do have suggests….”  Both types of inclusion (heroic female characters and broad-based looks at the roles of women in a given time, culture, or text) are necessary for fostering healthy self-development in girls and boys.  Put simply, we need both to be inspired by the heroic actions of the few, and to know that the humble lives of the many are valued.

The third argument is perhaps the simplest:

3) Women HAVE been active contributors to the social, economic, and political arena since the beginnings of time, so representing them is simply a matter of accurate, thorough scholarship.  In this view, introducing women and women’s accomplishments into our curricula is simply a corrective to what has historically been a sometimes unconscious, sometimes willful “blindness” on the part of (mostly male) scholars.  For example, an accurate understanding of ancient Egyptian society must try to recreate (to the best of our ability) the lives of half its population, as well as the contributions of individual women, ranging from the great female pharaohs on down to the women named in specific court documents and papyri.  The fact that reconstructing the lives and perceptions of women is often a difficult challenge does not excuse us from the attempt to do so.  And advances in historiography, which has come to include a greater reliance on evidence like court records and archaeological excavations, rather than purely textual and/or political data, have often made it possible to construct at least a broad picture of what women’s lives entailed (as in the case of ancient Egypt, for instance), even if we are left with relatively few “personalities” that emerge from the somewhat impressionistic canvas.

There are, of course, many more subtleties to the argument in favor of including women in the canon, but to my mind, they all fall broadly under one of the three arguments presented above.  And of course, Waldorf educators, like any others, should be mindful of these very persuasive arguments in favor of inclusion when considering how to structure our lessons.  However, there are even further reasons we should make efforts to be inclusive–reasons based on the philosophy of Rudoph Steiner, the founder of Waldorf education.  And it is to a consideration of Steiner’s “take” on women and gender that we will turn in the next post.

In the meantime, the following site contains a good recap of the evidence from mainstream educational sources in favor of inclusion.  (And it’s also, as you’ll see, the source for my own title to this post, “Remembering the Ladies.”)  http://www.ericdigests.org/pre-9215/ladies.htm

And here’s a link to a nice, concise response to the question of whether or not “women’s history” is really a valid endeavor: http://www.womeninworldhistory.com/current.html#Anchor-Women’s-49575

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