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Archive for October, 2012

Eeek! This definition of matriarchy can’t be anyone’s idea of utopia. (Source)

OK, so the title of this post is a bit of a trick question, because the answer depends on how you define “matriarchy.” (1)

In popular culture, talk of matriarchy almost always refers back to an alleged ancient woman-centered, goddess-worshiping culture that preceded most of our written historical records.  Waldorf folk sometimes repeat this idea, based in part on some of Steiner’s work, which does indeed mention women playing important roles in very ancient societies.  In the last few decades, though, there has been an enormous amount of ink spilled over whether this supposed prehistoric matriarchy ever really existed.  So what is the evidence for a paleolithic/neolithic matriarchy anyway?  And what does the debate have to do with Steiner’s views and how we as Waldorf teachers teach ancient history?

So…All aboard the matriarchy train!  First stop: backwards into prehistory.

The famous Venus of Willendorf statue (c. 25000 BCE) has become an icon of the supposed matriarchal, goddess-worshipping cultures of European prehistory. (Source)

The Myth of Prehistoric Matriarchy 

Let me preface this now by saying that others have debunked the story of a prehistoric matriarchy very thoroughly. (2)  I’m just going to summarize their work here.  And also, one other caveat: I’m not a hater.  Really.  I actually DO think that matriarchal societies exist, if we define matriarchy in the more limited way most contemporary anthropologists do.  I’ll get to that below, so if you’re a pro-matriarchy fan, hang in there.  I’m with you, sisters.

In a nutshell, the popular story about pre-historic matriarchies can generally be characterized in the following way:  since the dawn of time, humans lived in relatively peaceful, cooperative groups (some settled, some wandering).  People worshipped goddesses (or the Great Goddess), and women were seen as embodying the Goddess’ miraculous powers of birth, fertility, and regeneration.  Bloodlines were traced through the mother, and women held high positions in society as priestesses and possibly even political chiefs.  Most decisions were made by consensus, and warfare was practically unknown.  Men worked alongside women and sometimes formed hunting parties, but left major community decisions up to their better halves.   This idyllic life came to a shattering halt sometime around 5000 BCE, when patriarchal, war-like Indo-European invaders rushed in from the Russian steppes and conquered the pacific, woman-centered earlier cultures, who lacked the means to defend themselves.  The conquerors imposed their patriarchal male gods and social forms on the matriarchs, and the rest is history (and God) as we know it. (3)

“Venus” with breasts or phallic “baton”? You decide. (Source)

But, much as the foregoing account would make a wonderful movie (and indeed, there has been at least one novel written using this storyline), there are a number of problems with the narrative.  First, and perhaps most importantly, most scholars in the field of pre- and proto-Indo-European studies do not support it.  Based on lots of archeological evidence (some of it relatively recent, and therefore not available to the scholar who first forwarded the invasion theory), it’s become clear that there’s not much to support the idea that women were power-holders in pacifist paleolithic societies, much less that they were overthrown in a violent tussle with nasty, patriarchal Russians.  I won’t go over all of it here, but suffice it to say, for example, that they have unearthed mass graves with bodies containing in spear points that pre-date the alleged Indo-European invasion by several thousand years.  And a number of examples of what were originally described as “female” figures have turned out to be equivocally gendered, or perhaps even male.  (For example, some that were originally positioned upright and described as a “Venus” or “neck and breasts,” look remarkably like male genitalia when held horizontally.) (4)

And then there’s the whole goddess thing.  It is clear that many prehistoric cultures must have worshiped goddesses (though whether they ever worshiped a single Great Goddess is much more debatable).  But repeat after me: Goddesses are not women.  That is to say, just because a culture has powerful goddesses does not mean the women are in power.  This goddess/woman disconnect may seem obvious to anyone familiar with places like modern India (or for that matter, Ancient Greece, or the Roman Catholic church).  But popular ideas of matriarchy often seem to leap blithely from the prevalence of goddesses to the status of actual women.  You can find as many statues of plump, naked ladies as you want, but all that tells you is that a culture had a lot of plump, naked lady statues.   Depending on where you find them, you might be able to guess if they were temple images, household protector deities, or forms of paleo-porn; but often the exact position of the find is either unknown (in the case of many early excavations) or inconclusive (what does it mean if you find them in a garbage pit, for instance?).  And even if we know for sure that certain statues were goddesses, they don’t tell us anything about actual women in the community.  For that, we’d have to collect other types of evidence–DNA/skeleton analysis, examination of burial patterns, etc.  And so far, most of that material has favored interpretations that are much more nuanced in their descriptions of possible gender roles.

Whither Matriarchy?

You know a subject has hit the big time when it has it’s own Samuel Jackson meme.  (Source)

So, if we can’t definitively locate matriarchy in the distant, idyllic past, has there ever been a matriarchal culture?  The answer seems to be “yes,” though we need to nuance our definitions of matriarchy a bit.  To my mind, one of the most helpful discussions of the issue is found in the work of Peggy Reeves Sanday, an anthropologist who spent a number of years studying the Minangkabau people of West Sumatra, Indonesia. (5) The Minangkabau are matrilineal (with land and property handed down through the mother), though political decision-making is the province of men, and the official religion is Islam.  Most importantly for us, they (even the men) refer to themselves as “matriarchal” (matriarchaat).  At first, Sanday was puzzled by this designation, because it was clear that though women controlled property and many religious rites, men still retained important positions of political and community authority.  However, after studying the Minangkabau for many years, Sanday came to believe that it was her own notion of power that prevented her from viewing the Minangkabau as matriarchal.

Behind the Matriarchy: Power as a Shared Life-Force

Traditional Indonesian concepts of power are very different than Western, post-enlightenment views of it.  We generally think about power as something you have (and wield).  There’s someone “with” power, and someone “without” power.  There’s a finite amount of it, and somebody’s gotta be on top.  At best, we imagine a type of power-sharing in which this limited supply of power is doled out equally.  (It’s called communism, and one reason it makes so many people nervous is the assumption that there’s only a limited amount of power available, so giving you more means that I have less.)

For many people in many places and times (including galaxies long ago and far away), power has been less something you “have” and more something you tap into.

However, many other cultures (including, perhaps, the pre-Enlightenment West) see power not as something to be possessed, but as an energetic force that is manifest in both animate and inanimate objects.  Think, perhaps, of Chinese ideas about “chi” (as in chi-gong or tai-chi).  Or for you Steiner-folk, the etheric body: a life force that flows through everything.  If we switch caps and think about power as a life energy that’s available for everyone to tap into, then a couple things become clear:

1. Wherever “life” is, power is too.  That means that the people/places we as 21st century Westerners might look to as wielding the greatest power (e.g. the male political realm) might not be the people/places that another society feels teem with the greatest life-force.  For example, there may be other things or beings–natural features (rocks, streams, etc.), certain ceremonial locations, ritual words and phrases, or human bodies themselves–that are felt to be particularly potent bearers of life-power.

2. Since life is abundant and ever-present, there’s not a finite amount of power that I have to hoard for myself.  We can all tap into it, albeit perhaps, in different spheres or roles.  Nature can provide us with useful metaphors here–a web or a tree being two of the most-often used.  Each person, place, or thing in the web depends on the other parts for support.  This does not mean that we are all equal in the sense of all being the same; but it means that without each person’s role, the whole web of power (or, to use another image, tree of life) would fall apart. (6)

After considering this very different understanding of power, Sanday decided that she wasn’t finding women “in power” because she was looking in the wrong place for the wrong type of power.  Instead of defining matriarchy as “the control of political power by women,” she decided, we should look for “partnership cultures” in which there is an emphasis on “the role of maternal symbols in webs of cultural significance.” (7)  In other words, we should think of matriarchy as a culture where authority is shared between women and men, and where imagery of motherhood and nurture gives meaning to the society’s overarching structure.

Anthropologists tell us that this is not really an accurate depiction of matriarchy.

In the case of the Minangkabau, their proverb “Growth in nature is our teacher” provides the foundational reference point for all their social interactions.  Whether speaking of new life in agriculture and animal husbandry or relations among human beings, maternal nurture, not “power over” is the dominant model.  So, for instance, they believe the community as a whole needs to be tended as a mother tends her child; so do animals, plant life, the relations between the community and the Indonesian state, and the relationship between the community and the spirit world.  (The Minangkabau are Muslim, but also believe in maintaining good ties with certain ancestral spirits.) Not surprisingly, given their emphasis on motherhood, they see their practice of matriliny (tracing property and land rights through the mother’s side) as the best way to nurture families and the community as a whole.

But (and this is an important but) Minangkabau women are actually NOT “in charge” in a modern, Western sense.  They have certain areas of influence and responsibility (mostly religious and domestic), but the political realm remains the domain of the men.  (Interestingly, the men themselves are perceived as themselves having a “maternal” nurturing role with regard to community politics.)  So, if we set out to look for a culture in which women were the political leaders, the Minangkabau would fail the “matriarchy” test.  However, as Sanday defines it, in a true matriarchy, power is actually shared between the sexes, who are each perceived as taking on nurturing roles in their different spheres of influence. (8)  This is consistent with the concept of power we discussed above–in which power flows through everything, and is available to be tapped into by anyone.  Women tap into it (and even foster its growth) in ceremony and domestic matters; men tap into it (and foster its growth) in the political sphere.  The two are equally important nodes in the web of life, but the dominant imagery used is one of maternal nurture.

Back to Prehistory

A sampling of “Venus” figurines from Eastern Europe. (Source)

So what does this redefinition of matriarchy tell us about pre-history?  Well, to be honest, nothing definite.  We still are faced with all the problems of data interpretation that bedevil the popular ideas of goddess-centered matriarchy.  However, it does give us a new way to imagine what might have been the case in some of the societies we’ve unearthed.  For instance, we might take another look at the figurines associated with a specific time and place, and see if we can discern any patterns that might lead us to believe that maternal imagery and motifs of growth and nurture predominate.  If so, we might take another, closer look at the physical evidence for matriliny–for instance, if families tend to be buried with maternal relatives or not.  If we were then able to see that a culture apparently practiced both matriliny AND overwhelmingly used images of maternity and nurture in their art and physical culture, then we might be able to conjecture that such a group showed signs of being matriarchal in Sanday’s more narrowly defined way.

Of course, that’s not something that I, a lowly blogger, can do.  That work rests with archaeological specialists and paleo-anthropologists.  But looking at contemporary matriarchal cultures can give us a vivid image of what may have been the case in some prehistoric settlements, and in the end, it may not look so different from what some of the milder prehistoric matriarchy proponents have been saying all along–shared power, emphasis on maternal imagery, matrilineal property lines.  But we’ll probably have to jettison the idea that any such culture was a radical feminist Garden of Eden, or that such narrowly defined matriarchal societies were in place for thousands of years across wide swaths of the paleolithic world (as opposed to being specific to certain cultures/sites and not others).

Steiner and Prehistoric Women

Here’s one idea of prehistoric women that we can probably dismiss. (Source)

Circling back to Steiner’s thoughts on women in prehistoric times, I find it interesting what he does and doesn’t say about women’s roles.  It’s not exactly clear what sources lie behind his depiction of long-ago cultures: certainly some of it draws on his contemporaries’ ideas about what geological formations might have looked like in the distant past (including land bridges and the positions of earlier continental systems).  And, given Steiner’s voracious intellect, we can probably assume that he knew of the seminal work of Johann Jakob Bachofen, the Swiss scholar whose 1861 book Mother Right: an investigation of the religious and juridical character of matriarchy in the Ancient World was the first to put forward the idea that there had been a matriarchal, goddess-centered ur-religion that held sway in prehistoric times.

Given these two probable influences on Steiner’s thought, I actually think it’s interesting what Steiner didn’t say.  For instance, he doesn’t talk about women as political leaders and he also doesn’t mention anything about goddesses.  Rather, he talks about how women took the lead in religious ceremonies and helped “order and arrange the little groups” (of nomadic clans)–something that sounds, perhaps, like matriliny.  He also speaks of the power of nature that flowed in and through the consciousness of both men and women, and how women took the lead in interpreting the “voices” that seemed to speak to them from the natural elements.  The men’s leadership, he postulates, came about as a result of the work the women did in the religious/natural sphere.  All of which, to me, sounds remarkably like the type of society Sanday describes in her work.  While we can’t be sure what prehistoric societies actually looked like (or how well they correlate with Steiner’s picture), I do think it’s interesting that he doesn’t give an image that goes whole-hog into the matriarchal ur-myth espoused by either Bachofen or 20th century pre-historic matriarchy enthusiasts.

How to Teach Matriarchy

So, to get back to the title of the post: to the question, “Matriarchy–fact or fiction?”,  we can give the unequivocal answer “Yes!”  It is both/and–a fabulously successful (but untrue) fiction, and a less well-known, more narrowly defined, but ultimately (at least to me) more satisfying fact.  But how to teach something this complex to high school students?

The debates on prehistoric matriarchy offer us a fabulous chance to stretch our students’ imaginations regarding the limits of patriarchy and matriarchy, and to teach them the ways in which raw data can lead to multiple interpretations.   I like the idea, for instance, of presenting the students with some of the relatively raw archeological data–figurine images, a few archeological site maps (found in the Goodison and Morris book cited in note 2), perhaps a little bit of info regarding evidence for hunting/gathering vs. sedentary agriculture at a given site over time.  Then, with that data, conduct a small-group exercise that has them try to make sense of the information they have–how were the communities structured?  who led the groups? what gods did they worship?  what led to the community’s demise?  Then finally (perhaps in the next session) after the kids report back briefly their group’s theories, present 2-3 interpretations of the same data by different scholars.  (9)  Then sit back and watch the opinions fly about “Matriarchy: fact or fiction?”

See?  Our proto-Indo-European foremothers did have a far-reaching impact, even if it turns out they didn’t rule the world in quite the way we might have hoped.

——

NOTES

(1)  Before we even start, we need some sort of brief “disambiguation” (to use a wiki-word) of the word “matriarchy” itself, since the whole issue can be very confusing.  Very quickly: matriarchy refers to a society where women rule.  Different people have different ideas about what “ruling” means–control of political structures, control of food production and how it’s distributed, etc.  Popularly, though, “matriarchy” is usually used to mean a situation where women are in positions of authority and dominance, with men taking the back seat (sort of the flip-side of patriarchy, which we all know too well).   Matriliny, on the other hand, means a society where descent (or sometimes property) passes through the mother’s line.  But please beware:  cultures can be matrilineal while still being patriarchal.  Just because you trace bloodlines, or even property, through women does not mean that women rule the roost.  Case in point:  the American South imposed a matrilineal system on slaves so that children born of female slaves would also be unfree.  However, despite the ambitions of Scarlet O’Hara, at no time was the South in any sense a “matriarchy.”    For a great discussion of this whole matriliny vs. matriarchy issue, see the Jonathan Jarrett’s blog entry on this topic.

Interpreting paleolithic images is difficult–is this a goddess, an early pornographic image, or both (or neither)? (Source)

(2) The best, most readable resource on matriarchal pre-history myths is Cynthia Eller’s book The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why an Invented Past Won’t Give Women a Future.  Boston: Beacon Press, 2000.  You can read the first chapter online here, and access a book review that contains an excellent summary of the whole debate here.  If you’re specifically interested in the issue of interpreting so-called “Goddess” figurines, then there is an excellent essay by Ruth Tringham and Margaret Conkey entitled, “Rethinking Figurines: A Critical View from Archaeology of Gimbutas, the ‘Goddess’ and Popular Culture.”  in Lucy Goodison and Christine Morris, eds.  Ancient Goddesses: The Myths and the Evidence.  Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999. pp 22-45.

(3) Eller covers all of this in great detail in her book.  I should mention, though, that even the theory of an armed invasion by chariot-driving Indo-Europeans is just that–a theory (that was most forcefully put forward by the archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, the “mother” of the contemporary matriarchy movement).  No one denies that Indo-Europeans had chariots (or arms), but there are several different scholarly opinions about how that technology made its way to the different corners of the world.  Other theories involve the spread of farming and the transmission of technological advances (like chariots) through non-military means.  Also, even folks who do support the armed invasion theory do not necessarily believe that the displaced societies were pacifist matriarchies.  There seems to be a good deal of evidence that armed conflict existed way before the supposed Indo-European invasion.  But again, if you want more detail, read Eller’s book or the first two chapters of Goodison and Morris (see note 2 for full references).

A neolithic figurine with hermaphrodite forms. (Source)

(4)  Another important point made by Tringham and Conkey (see note 2) is that these statues don’t even tell us, for instance, if the societies thought of gender in the same way we did.  For instance, there are a number of sites where non-gendered statues far outnumber both male and females statues, or (in at least several instances) where there are statues of a third sex.  In other words, we don’t even know whether these cultures thought of gender as binary or not, much less what they thought of women.

(5) Peggy Reeves Sanday, Women at the Center: Life in a Modern Matriarchy Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002.

(6)  Sanday, 231-235.  Her work on power draws heavily on ideas put forth by the anthropologist Benedict Anderson, who also studies Indonesia (albeit the island of Java).

(7) Sanday describes matriarchies as belonging to one of three possible  types of “partnership societies” (i.e. cultures that are relatively non-hierarchical): egalitarian (in which gender differences are not symbolically marked), diarchic (which have a “pervasive system of symbolic gender dualisms”), and matriarchic (which are based on a maternal model).  In other words, you can have power-sharing societies without matriarchy per se–an interesting point to consider when we think about paleolithic/neolithic cultures. While this idea of “power as life-force” may be common to many cultures, it does not, in and of itself, mean that women are necessarily dominant, or even particularly valued.  There are plenty of indigenous and/or non-Western cultures all over the world which think of power along these lines but still have social structures that oppress women.  I’m thinking, for instance, of the Amazonian Mundurucú tribe or certain Australian aboriginal groups, both of which have customary laws that punish women by beating or gang rape if they overstep “female” bounds.

(8) Also, I should note that there are other anthropologists out there studying equally interesting matrilineal modern cultures, some of which may fit Sanday’s more narrow definition of a matriarchy.  Some interesting societies to check out are the Mosuo/Na people of Western China, the Khasi of Northeastern India, and the Qiang of the Tibetan plateau.  There is an organization that studies modern matriarchies, but in my personal opinion, they seem too interested in making sweeping generalizations.  However, they are an interesting source of material as long as you double-check their facts against more scholarly resources.

(9) To my knowledge, there are no lesson plans available online that cover prehistoric matriarchy.  There are, however, some very good resources for prehistory in general.  Using them, plus the ideas contained here, one could probably put together a good 2-4 day portion of a main lesson that would cover paleolithic/neolithic times.

Here are some of the better prehistory lesson plans available online:

  • Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute has an excellent site about North American prehistory.  It’s activities are really hands-on and perfect for a Waldorf classroom–many can be adapted to prehistory of any kind, not just North America.
  • A second resource is the NY Times lesson plan on recent archeological discoveries in Africa (covering early hominids).
  • Then there’s also the NIH lesson plans about paleolithic cave art that could provide a great complement to a lesson on prehistory.
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Malala Yousafzai (Source)

So just in case you were wondering if gender inclusion in the classroom is still an issue, let’s take a moment to keep in our hearts (and if you’re the praying type, prayers) the 14 year old girl just shot today by the Taliban because she had the audacity to advocate for girls’ education.

Malala Yousafzai was on a bus filled with fellow schoolgirls when the vehicle was stopped and a man asked for her by name, pulled out a gun, and shot her in the head twice.  Apparently, she’s been on the Taliban hit list for some time and the group has made clear that if they she survives this attack, they’ll try again.

Malala was targeted because she has become a visible symbol of girls education in an area (the Swat valley in Pakistan) where the Taliban have put women and girls under fire.  She has been featured in a documentary about female education (be warned: the doc has some very disturbing scenes), written a diary for BBC about her struggle to attend school, and has received a number of prizes for child activists, both in her own country and internationally.

What does this mean for those of us who are lucky enough to live, teach, and attend school in areas where access to education is not restricted by gender?  To me, it’s pretty simple:  there are people (some of them actively organized into multinational armed gangs) who want to erase women.  From public spaces, from history books, from life-saving professions like the one Malala wants to pursue.  Real women and girls suffer every day from this attempt at active erasure.  It’s not a metaphor for them.

Our task, therefore, is to strive as hard as we can to keep women visible, in history, in the classroom, and in everyday life.  Our classrooms are our own very small, very subdued, but very real battleground.  With every child or teen we teach, we have an opportunity to transmit values of equality and peace.  And we have the chance to “bring back” some of the women who have been erased from many tellings of the story of humankind.  These invisible sisters of history are Malala’s predecessors.  Some of them were prominent and well-respected in their day and others, like Malala, were forcibly silenced, or even killed, for their acts of self-expression.

So while we may not have much direct impact on events in Swat, Pakistan, we do have a duty to make an intentional effort to address issues of gender in our own classrooms.  Malala Yousafzai would expect no less.

And lest you think this is all very noble, but not central to Waldorf education in particular, I’ll leave you with Steiner’s prescient words, written in his seminal work The Philosophy of Freedom way back in 1894:

So long as men debate whether woman, from her “natural disposition,” is fitted for this, that, or the other profession, the so-called Woman’s Question will never advance beyond the most elementary stage. What it lies in woman’s nature to strive for had better be left to woman herself to decide… To all who fear an upheaval of our social structure… we need only reply that a social structure in which the status of one-half of humanity is unworthy of a human being stands itself in great need of improvement.

Amen, brother.

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The rather racy poster for a German conference on Perpetua. (Source)

So my last entry, about Vibia Perpetua, first diarist in human history, left you all hanging. (Yes, I know… you couldn’t sleep a wink for thinking about it.)  I had gone over the facts of her life as far as we know them, which could roughly be summarized thus:  a young, upper-class Carthaginian woman is arrested by the Romans and thrown in prison to be fed to wild beasts, and while imprisoned, winds up revolutionizing literature as we know it by inventing the diary.

Diarist, Schmiarist.  Who Cares?

So… Perpetua was the first diarist.  Her work is a virtual treasure trove of juicy historical detail–it tells us a great deal about early Christian communities, life in North Africa in the 2nd century CE, relationships between Roman fathers and daughters, and much more. (1)  But, assuming the vast majority of us are not writing doctoral dissertations on Roman Carthage, what real import does her diary have for us?

Oh, Perpetua!  Let me count the ways…

First, for the teachers and/or women’s history buffs among us, her diary gives us a tantalizing clue about Roman women’s literacy, and perhaps literary history in general.  And then, more broadly, it tells us something about the shift in human consciousness that occurred sometime in the first few centuries CE–a shift towards a more “interior” form of religion that Rudolf Steiner thought was emblematic of the late Greco-Roman era, and of Christianity in particular.  More on that below.  First, let’s consider the Roman ladies.

Roman Women: Perhaps not as mute as sometimes thought

Portrait of a young girl with pen and book, from Pompeii, c. 60 CE

Because we have so few examples of literature written by Roman women, it has sometimes been supposed, (even by scholars who should know better) that most of them were illiterate.  Or at best, literate, but not writers of anything other than the occasional letter.    That’s simply untrue.  There’s actually a good deal of evidence that many, if not most, upper class women could read and write.  (2)  However, though we have lots of references to the fact that they could write, we don’t have a lot of evidence for what they actually did write.  Even for the women who were publicly recognized as authors, we have depressingly few surviving texts.  Later male copyists were not kind to women.

With Perpetua, we have a very rare window in.  And here’s what’s interesting about her: neither she nor anyone else in the text thinks it’s odd that she took the time while in prison to write down the ins and outs of her daily life.  In other words, no one is surprised that she keeps a diary.

Without Perpetua, would there have been a Margaret? For centuries, women have reflected on faith, dreams, and daily life in their diaries.

This tells us that writing, and perhaps even diary-keeping itself, was something a woman of her social position might normally be expected to do.  We simply can’t know whether other Roman women kept diaries that have not survived to us, or whether Perpetua’s diary was a one-time flash of brilliance emitted before her bloody end.  But it’s an intriguing thought, and certainly worth noting, that if none of her contemporaries remarked on her diary-keeping, it may indicate that some women did it as a matter of course. (3)  Might the diary have been one of those few arenas for writing that even “virtuous” upper-class women were allowed to pursue?

And, even more tantalizing: if diary-writing originated as a specifically “female” occupation (precisely because it was concerned with the minutiae of daily home life and was generally not circulated to the public), is Perpetua’s diary an example of women’s private writing bursting forth to create a whole new genre of literature?  We may never know for sure, but Perpetua lets us wonder. (4)

Perpetua Breaks Barriers, Human and Divine

Perpetua’s diary has another, possibly even greater, significance.  It gives us a glimpse into the moment when human beings were beginning to think of themselves, and their relation to the divine, in a new way.

Did matching outfits like these put the final nails in the coffin of the Roman state religion?

Rudolf Steiner, the 20th century philosopher and founder of Waldorf education, described the first few centuries CE as a time when people felt that the gods had somehow become more distant, or less accessible, than they had been in previous centuries. (5)  In the ancient world, religion had long centered around acts of offering and sacrifice (including to the king or emperor himself), but for a growing number of people, these acts became less imbued with meaning–perhaps because religion had become increasingly controlled by and connected to the imperial state.  They sought new types of religious experiences, ones that were not so intertwined with the power of Rome.  I mean, really…once you had an emperor building gold statues of himself as a god and dressing up in matchy-matchy outfits with it, who wouldn’t be looking for a new religion on the block?  (BTW, I’m not joking about the statue.  Caligula anticipated by about 2000 years the matching outfits beloved by aged Floridians.)

In the first few centuries CE, a number of religious practices arose that offered their adherents something different, something that hearkened back to the religious experiences of ages past, when people felt that the gods had moved in and among the living in more perceptible ways.  From magic and alchemy, to revivals of ancient mystery cults, to gnostic sects and relatively new religions such as Mithraism or Christianity–what they all shared was that practitioners felt they experienced the deity (or deities) directly, in an inward way.

Despite featuring a Nordic god, this poster pretty much sums up how the Roman state viewed Christianity. (Source)

Perpetua’s work provides a beautiful example of this movement back towards a personal experience of the divine.  And even further:  her diary perfectly captures the idea that following God might involve listening to an “inner voice” that could conflict with the outer demands of family and state.  This was utterly bewildering to the people around her who were invested in the Roman state religion (including her father). What did she mean by claiming she was obeying God?  It was sheer nonsense.  To be a pious woman, she had to follow the will of her father and carry out her obligations to the state, including participating in the requisite festivals and sacrifices (and not as bull-fodder). (6) That’s what piety meant: doing what was required of you by the representatives of the gods.

And even more ridiculous to the average “Roman on the street” would have been this: Perpetua’s claim that she (and her god) were somehow victorious when she clearly was not. (7) It simply didn’t make sense to think of being fed to lions as anything other than a defeat–not only of Perpetua, but of her deity.  It’s obvious: if your god is so great, how come you’re being gored by that bull? (8)

Perpetua’s diary takes pains to demonstrate how heaven’s logic might not conform to earthly expectations at all–how her arrest and imprisonment (and even her final death) could be evidence of her greater, inward victory.  And she does this in a way that is eminently personal.  She didn’t write a philosophical treatise on why the Roman state should be dismantled, or a long letter with moral exhortations to fellow-Christians.  Instead, she kept a minute account of her day-to-day inner and outer life as an expression of the inner workings of the Holy Spirit.

This was new.  And revolutionary.  And in my humble opinion, something that she might not have achieved if she had been male.  Lots of men (and some women) before her had reflected on the inner voice of God, on what it means to follow God, and on what it means to be a “victor” in God’s sight–usually in the form of philosophical treatises or letters of advice.  And plenty had recorded their dreams in temple inscriptions and books of dream interpretation.  Still others wrote letters to each other about their daily lives (“Today so-and-so said such-and-such to me; the next day we went to the forum,” etc.)  But no one had brought it all together in a diary as “my story” before–a text where inner thoughts, dreams, and experiences of the divine, are interwoven with daily life.  It took, perhaps, a Roman woman–someone who was “supposed” to confine her writing to the private sphere–to bring all these different threads together in a text that so perfectly captures the revolutionary inwardness of the late Roman period, and shows how diametrically opposed this new interiority could be to the priorities of the imperial state.

This, Perpetua did perfectly.  Her diary stands, therefore, not only as a witness to her own particular courage in subverting Roman gender, familial, and imperial norms, but also as a testimony to the way in which a specifically female voice could so eloquently paint a picture of the changing religious experiences of the time.

Artist Jim Ru’s interpretation of the “couple” (Source)

Now, just for fun:  Who knew?  In recent years, Perpetua (along with her slave Felicitas) has become a patron saint of lesbian couples.  Given how strange some of the traditional saint associations are (e.g. St. Fiacre, who because he could reputedly heal hemorrhoids, is now patron saint of STDs), Perpetua and Felicitas’ stint as a lesbian couple is probably neither more nor less far-fetched than many others.  And it’s nice to think there’s a patron saint for everyone.  (Saints Sergius and Bacchus are the patrons of male couples, and there seems to be some evidence that they really were lovers in real life.)  Here (and scrolling down through my notes) are some contemporary icons of the happy female couple.  The last one is by far the raciest (I gotta keep you reading to the end somehow)  It was done way before the LGBT Christian movement gained traction–by a 19th c. male Australian artist who apparently specialized in naked women in chains.  As one contemporary blogger writes, it’s what the two women might have looked like as an inter-racial couple sleeping nude in prison.

——-

NOTES

(1) Joyce E. Salisbury does a nice job of summarizing the relationship of Perpetua’s diary to other literary works of her time period, including Hellenistic romances, early Christian tracts and letters, and texts on dreams and dream interpretation.  Perpetua’s Passion: The Death and Memory of a Young Roman Woman. New York: Routledge, 1997.  pp. 92-98.

Artist Maria Cristina’s depiction of Perpetua and Felicitas  (Source)

(2) This website, though a bit hard to read and written from a Christian perspective, does a nice job at collecting many of the ancient Greco-Roman references to literate women in one place.  Another excellent (and much more scholarly) resource is I.M. Plant’s book, Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome: An Anthology.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004.  It’s a great source for teachers, since it collects in one place all the writings of Greco-Roman female writers, and gives a 1-2 page introduction to each figure.

(3) Even the rather grumpy Plutarch, who warned that “a virtuous woman’s speech should be private,” allows his hypothetical perfect female the possibility of speaking and writing privately to her family. Plutarch was a Greek from the 1st c CE who became a Roman citizen, and wrote on a number of topics, including the correct deportment of women.  This quote comes from his Moralia, 142c-d.  You can find the whole passage online here.

(4) It’s interesting to note that the second diary-like text we have was also written by a woman–Egeria, a Spanish Christian pilgrim who traveled to the Holy Land in the early 380s CE.  She wrote to a group of sisters (sorores, who may or may not have been nuns) about her travels in and around Palestine, focusing on her daily activities and the sights she saw.  It reads more or less like a travel diary.  You can read the whole diary online here.

(5)  This dissatisfaction with the state religion and rise of new/revived religious traditions has been noticed by other scholars too–it’s not simply a “Steiner thing.”  Writing 50-some years after Steiner, eminent classicist E.R. Dodds characterized the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE as the “Age of Anxiety”–a time when individuals felt a growing division between earthly life and the celestial world, and longed for union with the divine.  E. R. Dodds. Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965.  Joyce Salisbury gives a great overview of his main arguments in her book Perpetua’s Passion.  (pp. 22-32. See note 1 for full reference.)

Artist John Darcy Noble’s rendition of the saints. (Source)

(6) Perpetua, like all Roman women, remained under the control of a male her entire life.  Roman women were legally bound to obey the pater familias (legal male head of the family) under the system of patria potestas (power of the father).  By Perpetua’s time, most Roman women never left their father’s power, even after they married (though sometimes marriage contracts were written up in such a way that she was transferred to her husband’s authority.) There were occasions in which a woman could be “emancipated” from male authority, but these were relatively rare.

(7) It’s interesting, here, to consider some earlier Jewish texts on martyrdom, including 4th Maccabees (dating from the 1st centuries BCE-1st century CE, before the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE).  These texts are in no way diaries, but they do portray the persecution and death of Jews at the hands of Romans as victories–in the case of 4th Maccabees, the victory of the victims’ self-control over their fear.

19th c. artist George Hare’s depiction of a beatific Perpetua and Felicity sleeping in each others’ arms. Robert Mapplethorpe has nothing on this guy.  (Source)

(8) Steiner spends some time considering this counter-intuitive argument in one of his lectures, “Three Streams in the Evolution of Mankind,” which he gave in Dornach in 1918.  He focuses particularly on the logic of Tertullian, a Carthaginian church father who was roughly contemporaneous with Perpetua, and who may even have been the author of the introductory portion of her diary that was added after her death.  For his consideration of the general religious climate of late antiquity, see Lecture One of his work, The Fifth Gospel (1913).  Both texts can be accessed through the Rudolf Steiner online archive, here.

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