Posts Tagged ‘girls’

Statue of a Spartan girl warming up for a race. c. 500 BCE

Statue of a Spartan girl warming up for a race. c. 500 BCE (Source)

It’s mid-August, and I’m in the midst of preparing for the upcoming school year, so I don’t have time for a long blog entry right now.  However, I couldn’t resist passing on this lovely poem by Alcman, a (male) Spartan lyric poet from the 7th century BCE.  I thought it might be of particular interest to all of us who are teaching either the 5th or 10th grade, since in Waldorf schools, those are the years that we focus on Greek history.

Apart from Sappho’s poems, we have very few depictions of ancient Greek girlhood that don’t involve somewhat depressing images of girls and women being confined to the house, in scenarios more reminiscent of the Taliban than the “glory that was Greece” depictions that were popular among the Victorians.  (Who, not incidentally, had their own program of repression they were famous for imposing on women.)

However, as is well-known, Spartan girls were different.  Spartan women were given much greater liberty than in other Greek city-states; they were even encouraged to exercise heartily and dance in public.  Of course, all this was for the greater aim of making them strong, healthy child-bearers for the State–not exactly the same goals we have in mind when we encourage our daughters and students to develop their physical abilities.  But if we’re looking for pictures of a free, relatively uninhibited (for the time period) ancient Greek girlhood, look no further than Sparta.

Alcman’s poem is precious to us in this regard–he not only extols the beauty of two individual Spartan girls (Agido and Hagesikhora), he also gives us a wonderful picture of girls as a group racing (presumably in a foot-race), and the crowd cheering them on, often by name.  Another terrific aspect of the poem is his imagination that he himself is one of the girls in the choir singing at the race.  Such a beautiful, awe-inspiring picture!

A statue from the temple of Artemis at Brauron.  There, young girls between 5-10 years old, served the goddess and, apparently, had some time to play as well.  (Source)

A statue from the temple of Artemis at Brauron. There, young girls between 5-10 years old, served the goddess and, apparently, had some time to play as well. (Source)

Without further ado, then, here is the poem.  It is a part of a longer piece, of which much is just in fragments.  Luckily for us, the part that survives the best is the part about the girls.  The translation comes from this excellent site that focuses on women and gender issues in the ancient world.

And I, I sing of Agido,

Of her light.  She is like the sun

To which she makes our prayers,

The witness of its radiance.

Yet I can neither praise her nor blame her

Till I have sung of another,

Sung of our choirmaster,

Who stands among us as in a pasture

One splendid stallion

Paws the meadow, a champion racer,

A horse that runs in dreams.


Imagine her if you can. Her hair,

As gold as a Venetian mane,

Flowers around her silver eyes.

What can I say to make you see?

She is Hagesikhora and

Agido, almost, almost as beautiful,

Is a Kolaxaian filly running behind her

In the races at Ibeno.

A Pleiades of doves they are

Contending at dawn before the altar of Artemis

For the honor of offering the sacred plow

Which we have brought to the goddess.

They are the white star Sirius rising

In the honey and spice of a summer night.

Neither abundance of purple

Can defend us with its glory,

Nor golden snakes engraved with eyes and scales,

Nor bonnets from Lydia and brooches,

Nor our sweet violet eyes.

Nor can Nanno’s hair, Areta’s goddess face,

Thylakis nor Kleësithera,

Nor Ainesimbrota to whom we cry                     

Let Astaphis be ours,

Let Philylla look our way sometimes,

Damareta and the lovely Wianthemis,

Keep back defeat unless

Hagesikhora alone, our love,

Be our victory’s shield.

And she is, she is our own,

The splendid-ankled Hagesikhora!

With Agido, by whose side she lingers,

She honors the rites with her beauty.

Accept her prayers O gods,

For she is your handiwork,

Perfect of her kind.


And I, I, O Choirmaster,

Am but an ordinary girl.

I hoot like an owl in the roof.

I long to worship the goddess of the dawn

Whose gift is peace. For Hagesikhora

We sing, for her we virgin girls

Make our lovely harmonies.


Enjoy the rest of your summer.  To my fellow-teachers, bon courage in the weeks ahead!

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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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