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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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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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