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Renaissance Lesbians--the truth is stranger than fiction! (Source)

Renaissance Lesbians–the truth is stranger than fiction! (Source)

It’s hard to believe I haven’t posted in nearly a year.  My first year of full-time teaching kicked my butt–so much fun, but so many lesson plans to make!  Now that I can take a breather, I finally have time to post here about some of the amazing women from history I’ve discovered in the last year–many of them the result of insightful questions asked of me by my students.  This particular post comes about because while we were studying Renaissance artists and authors, Fiona asked (apropos of Michelangelo and Leonardo): It seems like there was some sort of more-or-less openly gay culture in the Medici courts.  What about lesbians?  Do we know anything about Renaissance lesbians?

Darn it!  I’d been so focused on providing examples of female writers and artists that I’d overlooked the sexual orientation piece!  And I was embarrassed to admit that day that beyond knowing they MUST have been out there, I had no actual examples of Renaissance lesbians to provide. (1)

So…off I went to do some research, and the first example I came across was so wonderfully strange, so incredibly surreal, that, dear readers, I knew not only that I would bring it back to class, but that I would eventually share it with you here.  Nothing I’m about to write is new–whole books have been written about these wonderful characters from history: the Tuscan nun Sister Benedetta Carlini, her young lover (also a nun), and a randy male angel named – wait for it – Splenditello, who possessed Benedetta from time to time, and whose supernatural presence presumably both explained and condoned her lesbian relationship (at least in Benedetta’s own eyes). (2)

Although I pictured Splenditello looking like this, according to Benedetta, he was an eight or nine-year-old boy.

Although I pictured Splenditello looking like this, according to Benedetta, he took the form of an eight or nine-year-old boy. (Photo Source)

Splenditello, the Best Alter-ego Ever

Yes, that’s right.  Benedetta believed that she was possessed by a male angel named Splenditello.  I’m not sure if the name sounds more like a low-sugar Nutella substitute or a dominatrix.  All I know is that if I ever live out my fantasy of being a DJ in a New York City club, that will be my nom de guerre.  And I’ll wear a black catsuit with a cape and wings while in the DJ booth.

Ahem… back to Renaissance history.  Benedetta and her fabulous alter-ego Splenditello would remain unknown to us were it not for the work of historian Judith Brown, who discovered the transcripts of church inquests into Benedetta’s mystical claims while doing research in the Florence city archives.  Dating from 1619-1623, these investigations were carried out by a series of local and papal officials not because of Benedetta’s lesbian relationship (at least not at first), but rather, because she claimed to have had a series of increasingly fervent visions and mystical experiences.  Church authorities were bent on determining whether or not Sister Benedetta’s exceptional religious life was the work of God or of demonic forces.

Benedetta: The Life of an Ordinary Woman?

So who was Benedetta, anyway?  As far as we know, she was just plain folk–the daughter of a middle-class villager from one of the numerous hamlets that dot the Apennine mountains. That, in and of itself, makes Benedetta special.  We have so few accounts of “regular” women’s lives before relatively modern times.   And then there’s the fact that though we possess a fair number of references to lesbian conduct (especially by finger-wagging male authors of church moral codes), we can count on fewer than 10 fingers the number of pre-modern, detailed accounts of lesbian love affairs.  Thanks to those nosey inquisitors, we have nothing if not a wealth of details about Benedetta’s (and her young lover, Bartolomea’s) love life.  So in some ways, Benedetta represents a rare glimpse into the life of an “ordinary” Renaissance woman.

Apparently, Benedetta's fantasy lives on in lesbian wedding photography. (Source)

Apparently, Benedetta’s fantasy lives on in lesbian wedding photography. (Source)

Except for that angel thing.  That makes Benedetta (or should I say, Splenditello?) just a little bit special.  Apparently, though Benedetta was given to the Theatine nuns at age nine, she was not content to remain an anonymous country girl alongside her more urbane fellow sisters.  Far from staying in the lower position indicated by her humble village birth, she quickly rose to a position of prominence within the convent based on the splendor of her visions.  While in trances, she spoke in the voices of angels, or even of Jesus; at times, she even seemed to her sisters to take on the appearance of a young man.  Eventually, she even displayed the stigmata (the wounds of Christ) on her hands, feet, side, and head.

At least at first, many of her sisters and local church officials were persuaded. But the visions were also accompanied, at times, by painful episodes of diabolical temptation and pain.  Benedetta’s superiors were both amazed and alarmed by her “visitations,” so they assigned her a younger companion, Bartolomea Crivelli, to share her cell, observe her during her visions, and provide whatever assistance Benedetta’s unusual situation required.  (It was Bartolomea who initially confirmed that Benedetta’s stigmata had appeared as the result of a visit from Christ himself on the night of the second Friday of Lent, 1618.)

As Benedetta’s stature in the convent grew, so did the outrageousness of her visions.  By 1619, she was the abbess, delivering sermons to the assembled nuns while they scourged themselves with whips in an attempt to purify themselves.  To give some perspective, even without the whips, Benedetta’s preaching alone would probably have earned her the suspicion of the various male church authorities: women were not permitted to preach.  Benedetta, however, neatly side-stepped that rule by insisting that it was not she herself who was preaching; she was merely speaking in trance while possessed by a (male) angel.  Further night-time visitations followed–Catherine of Siena appeared, as did the aforementioned Splenditello, a beautiful boy in a white robe.  Each time, these “visitors” didn’t so much appear to Benedetta as take up residence in her body. In her voice they would issue commands (don’t eat meat, eggs, and milk products), or dole out praise (usually for Benedetta herself). One time, Bartolomea reported, Jesus visited, tore out Benedetta’s heart, and then three days later, replaced it with his own.  Bartolomea had confirmed this rather startling encounter by feeling a deep “void” when she placed her hand on Benedetta’s chest.

Nobody Likes a Bridezilla

Benedetta should have heeded this advice: nobody likes a bridezilla. (Source)

Benedetta should have heeded this advice: nobody likes a bridezilla. (Source)

Eventually, though, Benedetta’s visions went too far.  In May of 1619, Jesus appeared to Benedetta insisting on, not just marrying her, but marrying her publicly, and with a very specific bridezilla-like set of wedding demands: the guest list, the decorations, the precise (and elaborate) specifications for the procession and ceremony.  And to top it off, when the nuptials were finally performed before her incredulous sisters, Christ (speaking through Benedetta, of course) insisted that his new bride be made “empress of all nuns.”   Apparently her sisters disagreed, for as Judith Brown noted laconically in her book, “The investigation began the next day.” Frankly, it’s hard to imagine they put up with her demands for as long as they did.  Scourging with whips?  OK.  Ripping out hearts?  No problem.  Wedding with Christ that ends in demands for coronation?  Whoa there, girl.  You’ve gone too far now.

As is the case for so many of us, Benedetta’s weak spot was her addiction to antipasti.

At first, the ecclesiastical authorities who were called in upheld her visions, but over time, her claims began to crumble.  Some nuns who spied on her through a keyhole saw her pricking herself in the hands with a needle–evidence that her “stigmata” was self-produced.  And then the (extremely Italian) climax: Benedetta, who claimed to be too saintly to eat meat, was spotted sneaking salami and mortadella on the side.  Who could blame her, really?  What’s the point of being Italian if you can’t enjoy a little antipasti?  But that was it.  The church determined it was time to get to the bottom of this salami-eating bride of Christ.

You’ll never look at a sappy angel statue the same way after learning the tale of Splenditello. (Source)

Sister Bartolomea was questioned, and under oath, revealed that Benedetta (in the guise of Splenditello), made passionate love to her.  (And, perhaps even more touchingly, taught her how to read.)  According to the records, he called Bartolomea his beloved as he touched her breasts and kissed her.  Benedetta’s young companion claimed that she was an unwilling recipient of Splenditello’s affections, and perhaps for this reason, was never censured for her role in the affair.  Benedetta, on the other hand, was imprisoned within the convent until her death, 35 years later.

Which is Worse: Lesbianism or Demon Possession?

It seems fairly clear from the archival material that Benedetta was imprisoned for fraud, not for her lesbian activities.  That’s not to say that her relationship was condoned–the lesbian sex certainly was censured and produced as further evidence of her overall unreliability.  However, what’s interesting to note about the entire episode is how relatively little scandal is attached to the lesbian behavior.  Honestly, Salami-gate (as I like to call it) appears to have been more damning in the eyes of the church authorities.  Whether that’s because lesbianism was regarded as a relatively minor sin, or whether the magnitude of Benedetta’s false claims was so great that they eclipsed the other elements of her tale is difficult to tell.

Reports of “possession” were making both Protestant and Catholic authorities increasingly nervous. By the 1680s, posters like these were commonplace. (Source)

It’s certainly true that by Benedetta’s time, issues of demon possession and witchcraft were becoming ever more prominent.  The counter-reformation, which pitted the Catholic church against the various new religious groups that blossomed after Luther’s reforms, highlighted questions of religious authority.  When someone made new religious claims, the Church wanted to know who was speaking.  Did the mystic in question really speak for Christ, or did some more nefarious element stand behind his or her words?  Was his or her message Truth with a capital T, or superstition?

The latter was a category of thought that had gained new importance in the climate of scientific inquiry heralded by the Renaissance thinkers.  Protestant reformers and Catholic counter-Reformation preachers alike hurled accusations of superstition at one another: the Catholic mass was superstitious in its insistence on the physical transubstantiation of the bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood; reformers within the Catholic church were sometimes labeled “superstitious” when they advocated for greater freedom to interpret the scriptures; women who previously had held sway in their villages as herbal healers and midwives were deemed superstitious because their traditions didn’t find a basis in either Catholic dogma or Protestant scripture.  In this light, Benedetta’s attempt to ground her own authority in the seemingly unquestionable guise of male angels and Christ himself seems understandable.  At least, sort of.

Catherine of Siena's mystical marriage to Christ, as depicted by Giovanni di Paolo, c. 1460.

Catherine of Siena’s mystical marriage to Christ, as depicted by Giovanni di Paolo, c. 1460.

As several scholars have noted, Benedetta’s claims might have passed muster a century or two earlier, when female mystics (and indeed, mystics of all sorts) were less likely to produce a paranoid reaction on the part of a Church that was now being dragged apart by sectarian violence.  But then again, perhaps the audacity of Benedetta’s claims would have done her in irregardless.  It does seem that both the increasing narcissism of her visions and the demands made on her fellow nuns were her undoing.  Other nuns had had visions of being wed to Christ (most notably Catherine of Siena, who “visited” Benedetta and may have inspired her own nuptials).  But these other women were noted for their humility, a trait that does not appear to have been Benedetta’s forte.

It’s also true that just as Benedetta grounded her transgressive claim to authority in mystical garb, so too she grounded her transgressive sexuality the same way.  Her excessive religious experiences were what first created the conditions for her to have a round-the-clock female companion in her cell; “Splenditello” and his cherubic charms then wrapped the two women’s lesbian affair in a feathery halo of angel light.  Whether or not her lover Bartolomea really felt coerced into the relationship or was simply cowered by the Church authorities into disowning it, we’ll never know.  One thing’s for sure: for a short time, Benedetta created an enchanted fantasy world in which she could enjoy a same-sex relationship with another lower class woman.  Not only that, but she could work those very interactions into a complex imagery that very nearly secured her position as abbess of a convent full of her socio-economic “betters.”  Plus, she left us a story that seems to put the oomph into that old chestnut, “the truth is stranger than fiction.”  It’s hard to believe her story hasn’t yet been made into a softcore period drama featuring two young Hollywood starlets. (3)

Lesbians in the Classroom

So, to circle back to the question of teaching: what, if anything, does the story of Benedetta offer our students beyond a ripping good yarn?  Well, to begin with, there’s that.  She’s got to be one of the more colorful figures from history–one who, like so many women from the past, would have been overlooked had it not been for the work of a diligent female historian.  That alone should recommend her inclusion among the canon of “historical figures we love to hate/hate to love.”  For every Alcibiades or Billy the Kid, there’s a Sister Benedetta waiting to be found.  We owe it to our students to present them with rip-roaring tales of female hucksters and bad girls just as much as we feed them better-known tales of male ne’er-do-wells.

This t-shirt makes the point well.  (Source)

This t-shirt makes the point well. (Source)

But perhaps more importantly, there’s the fact that, as I mentioned before, Benedetta and Bartolomea’s affair is one of a handful of pre-modern lesbian sexual relationships we have detailed information about.  Finding a way to work in those few examples we do have is vital for the overall academic and social health of our classrooms as we strive to diversify our curriculum.   Making sure we include gay and lesbian figures in our canon can often be as simple as mentioning the sexuality of figures we already teach–from Alexander the Great to Leonardo da Vinci and beyond.  It doesn’t add much in the way of extra work or prep time, and it makes visible what has so often remained hidden or secret.  More importantly, it can give wind to the wings of the kids in our classes who need help claiming and owning their own identities.

But for the history of women and lesbians, we usually need to dig a little deeper.  We know so little about the sexual relationships of pre-modern women that we have to be more actively on the lookout for those few examples available to us.  Benedetta is one of those rare women.  And not only that, but her story fits nicely into the Waldorf curriculum.  Almost every Waldorf high school does a block on Renaissance/Reformation history.  (As do many public schools.) And in that block, one inevitably winds up addressing the way the Church fractured and fought about questions of authority.  Benedetta is a beautiful example to single out as a representation of the tensions and complexities of the period:  a middle-class Catholic girl tries to gain authority within a system that was stacked against her on multiple counts.  She manages to “play” the system for awhile, working every possible angle to achieve her ultimate ends, which appear to have been two-fold: to become abbess (and possibly “empress”) of the convent, and to win Bartolomea’s affections.  And she succeeded at both before her own sense of inflated worth tripped her up.  When she finally fell, she fell hard, and was condemned by the Church authorities to a pretty miserable end.  But the fact that there were women out there who “played the system” and very nearly won can inspire our students, who are so often on the verge of becoming disillusioned by the sheer weight of the historical inequities suffered by women, the poor, and the many others oppressed by Renaissance and Reformation religion and politics.

I know my own students, when I brought them this story, whooped with glee when they heard the name “Splenditello.”  Their faces hung slack-jawed when I described to them Benedetta’s increasing demands for glory, and her daring courtship of Bartolomea in the guise of the cherubic boy.  And they let out a groan of pity when I revealed Benedetta’s fate.  The whole thing took about five minutes of class, but it was certainly the high-point of the day.  Though they may forget the details of Benedetta’s tale (though I doubt they’ll forget the name “Splenditello”), they won’t forget the most important point of the story, the one that answered Fiona’s question that day we studied the Medici:  lesbian women certainly DID exist in the Renaissance, Fiona.  And some of them were ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS.

—–

1.  A caveat here: I realize that classifying same-sex behavior during the European Renaissance as “gay” or “lesbian” is neither historically accurate nor optimal, given the different ways both gender and sexuality were figured in that period (and varied dramatically region to region).  However, it’s both quicker than all the longer ways of designating homoerotic/homosocial behavior, and, perhaps more importantly, it’s more true to high school classrooms.  In my experience, most high school kids fundamentally want some sort of connection to the people they study.  Kids either questioning their own sexuality or trying to figure out their response to how our own culture treats people in same-sex relationships don’t necessarily want to hear about how same-sex relationships were DIFFERENT historically–they’re often looking for confirmation that someone out there before them experienced something SIMILAR to what they’ve been going through. (Or witnessing around them.)  This is not to say that there’s no place for the discussion of how sexuality has been envisioned differently at different times in history; it’s just to note that these questions tend to be loaded for high schoolers, and should be approached with a gentleness that might not be as vital when talking to adults or even college students.

2.  The definitive book about Sister Benedetta is Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, by Judith C. Brown (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).  A great summary and review of the book can be found in the NYTimes archives: Frederika Randall, “Divine Visions, Diabolical Obsessions” The New York Times, January 19, 1986.  See also Stephen Greenblatt’s review in the London Review of Books, No. 8. Vol. 11.  June 19, 1986.  There’s also a terrific, very readable overview of Medieval and Renaissance lesbianism in both Europe and the Near East here; it includes (towards the end) some rather racy quotes from the inquest conducted against Benedetta.

3.  It has, however, been made into a play that was performed at the 2006 New York Fringe Festival:  Vanda, “Vile Affections: Based on the True Story of Benedetta Carlini,” 2006.

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Hildegard didn't have to fly to get a bird's-eye view of the cosmos.  Her visions took her to the heavens and back. (Source.)

Hildegard didn’t have to fly to get a bird’s-eye view of the cosmos. Her visions took her to the heavens and back. (Source.)

A word to the wise: in case you haven’t been following the thread of this series on Hildegard von Bingen, the medieval visionary nun, you should check out my first and second posts (first one on her life and times, second one on her Big Idea).  It will make the following much easier, well, to follow.

God as Verb

When last I left you, we had examined Hildegard’s use of the term viriditas, a word she is often described as using to denote God’s generative, or “greening” power.  However, I’d taken the step of expanding the interpretation of viriditas slightly.  I’d related it to other words and images she uses frequently–fiery power, Reason, life, wind-tossed flame.  And I’d suggested that Hildegard uses viriditas (among other words and images) not to describe the actions or power of God as a Person (that is, as a noun), but rather, to situate God Him/Herself in that in-between area of matter and energy.  In other words, Hildegard experiences God as verb.

Thank goodness others have gone before us to part the seas of theological conundrums. (Source)

Thank goodness others have gone before us to part the theological waters. (Source)

Now, once we start talking about God as noun vs. God as verb, we’re treading into fairly deep theological waters.   Luckily for us, there are others who have gone before to part the seas, and they’ve made it relatively easy to understand.  So hang in there.

In order to explain myself (and Hildegard), I’m going to borrow here for a moment from David A. Cooper, who has written about Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah in his aptly entitle book, aptly God is a Verb:

“The closest we can come to thinking about God is as a process rather than a being.  We can think of it as “be-ing,” as verb rather than noun.  Perhaps we would understand this concept better if we renamed God.  We might call It God-ing…. a mutually interactive verb, one which entails an interdependency between two subjects, each being the object for the other….Moreover, creation should not be treated as a noun.  It too is an interactive verb; it is constantly creation-ing.  And, dear reader, you should not treat yourself as a noun–Joan, or Bill, or Barbara, or John.  With regard to God as an interactive verb, you are also verbs; you are Joan-ing, Bill-ing, Barbara-ing, or John-ing in relation to God-ing.” (1)

Hildegard, like so many other great minds, was interested in that place where matter and energy meet. (Source.)

Hildegard, like so many other great minds, was interested in that place where matter and energy meet. (Source.)

This understanding of God seems, to me, to shed light on Hildegard’s often baffling array of metaphors.  In each of her terms (fiery power, viriditas, Reason), she is fundamentally pointing to the living activity inherent in them.  And this is where we need to be very careful in understanding her.  She is NOT saying that nature (stones, plants, humans, etc.) exists as fundamentally dead or inert matter that is animated by some sort of ubiquitous life energy (á la the Jedi “Force”).  That would actually be relatively easy for us to grasp.  We’re all very familiar with the idea of matter (inert) and energy (animate).

But that’s a fundamentally dualistic way of looking at things. Hildegard takes us a step further.  She is inviting us to step from duality to unity–to see creation itself as “creation-ing” (to steal Cooper’s word) and God as “God-ing.”  Let’s look again the first passage I quoted in my last post:

“The viriditas of the earth and plants greatly thrive in the morning, because the air is cold and the sun is warm.  And the herbs very strongly suck viriditas, like a lamb who sucks milk, because the heat of the day is barely sufficient to…cook and fortify the day’s viriditas so far as it is made fertile for the producing of fruit.” (2)

You see what she’s doing here?  The herbs “suck” viriditas from the air; they “cook” viriditas so it’s available to produce fruit.  So, yes, God’s viriditas is filling and animating them, but the plants themselves are also playing an active role in “drawing” the viriditas down.  In other words, viriditas seems to somehow encapsulate the exchange between God and creation–a moment-by-moment “God-ing” that brings the universe (herbs, earth, lambs, fruit) into being.   Viriditas is not a thing, it’s a movement. (3)

Back to the Word

Apparently dualism generates its own internet memes.  (Source.)

Apparently the problem of dualism is widely-enough known to generate internet memes. (Source.)

But it’s important to watch your step, here.  We have to constantly guard against our tendency to see the world in dualistic terms, matter and energy.  It would be easy to fall back into a pattern of seeing God (noun) and creation (noun) with some sort of action (verb) between them.  Hildegard’s insight is to continually invite us to see them as parts of one and the same process–the process of the Word, which she associates with Reason (and sometimes with Wisdom). (4)  Taking a moment to look at how she uses the term “Reason,” can give us an extra window into what she’s trying to tell us.

So…Let’s take a second look at part of the longer passage I had quoted in my second post, where Hildegard speaks with the voice of the divine being she saw in a vision:

“I am life.  I am also Reason, which bears within itself the breath of the resounding Word, through which the whole of creation is made.  I breathe life into everything so that nothing is mortal in respect to its species.  For I am life.  I am life, whole and entire [vita integra]…all life has its roots in me.  Reason is the root, the resounding Word blooms out of it.” (5)

A fiery-looking neural map of the brain. (Source.)

A fiery-looking neural map of the brain. (Source.)

For Hildegard, then, Reason is the link between God (here, represented as the Word) and creation.  (6) Reason is the root of life–the life that lives in and flows out of God, and the life that lives in and flows through creation.  Reason is not opposed to matter (á la Cartesian dualism); rather, it is the basis of it all, a fiery life flow that is constantly “God-ing” and “creation-ing” our whole universe into being.

A Reasonable Question

So, you might wonder, does Hildegard’s divine Reason have anything to do with our own capacity as humans to reason?

So glad you asked.

For Hildegard, human reason is not only the link between humans and God, but actually an aspect of the very lifeblood of divinity itself, flowing in and through us, bringing us into being moment by moment.  As such, it is an essential part of our nature:

“This life is God, who is always in motion and constantly in action, and yet this life is manifest in a threefold power. For eternity is called the ‘Father,’ the Word is called the ‘Son,’ and the breath that binds both of them together is called the ‘Holy Spirit.’  And God has likewise marked humanity; in human beings there are body, soul, and reason.” (7)

“Every human soul endowed with reason exists as a soul that emerges from the true God….This same God is that living fire by which souls live and breathe.” (8)

Reason, fiery power, viriditas--for Hildegard, it's all good. (Source)

Reason, fiery power, viriditas–for Hildegard, it’s all good. (Source)

For Hildegard, then, humans possess a threefold nature modeled on the activity of God Him/Herself, with one of those parts made up of the very Reason that is the root of the Godhead itself.  The soul’s rational activity is therefore not so much modeled on God’s divine Reason (as we see in later Enlightenment notions of reason); it is divine Reason.  Our rational activity is God Him/Herself at work in us. (9)

Making over our Minds: Hildegard and Steiner

Once we’ve looked closely at Hildegard’s understanding of Reason, it’s clear that for her, Reason wasn’t just a tool her intellect deployed.  Rather, she felt, lived, and experienced her own thinking as a communion with the spiritual realm.  Perhaps that’s not terribly surprising to us–after all, she was a visionary, and we expect such extraordinary experiences from mystics.  However, what’s interesting is that she clearly expects her audience, to some degree, to be able to follow her.  She expects them to experience, in some real sense, their own Reason as an active, living, “flow” of God.  She expects them to actually participate in divine Reason. (10)

(Source.)

For Steiner, the death of God was not irreversible. He believed we could develop our capacity to experience phenomena directly, overcoming the subject/object dichotomy that is built into post-Enlightenment modes of consciousness. (Source.)

This is not, to say the least, how we usually experience our own intellectual activity on a day-to-day basis in the 21st century.  As Nietzsche famously announced, God is dead and we killed him.  It’s hard for any of us these days to think of our own thinking activity as something that connects us to God, much less as God him/herself at work in us.

As always, the philosopher and founder of Waldorf education, Rudolf Steiner, had something to say about this matter.  (Is there anything the man didn’t weigh in on?) In effect, Steiner took Nietzsche’s observation one step further, pointing out that the way in which our minds now work, the very way we cognate, no longer allows us to participate in this living, spiritual flow unless we take extra steps to overcome the subject/object divide that is built into our current mode of cognition.

That’s a tad dense, so let me unpack it for you a bit.  Steiner’s idea was that the way the modern post-enlightenment mind thinks presupposes a divide between observer and observed; this, he held, has not always been the case for all humans in all times and places.  I would point out that Hildegard’s work is one of those places where we can see the rift between earlier modes of consciousness and our own.  Her expectation that her audience will be able to experience their own cognition as an inflowing of the Divine is fundamentally foreign to our own experience of our thinking activity.

The Jesuit priest and scholar Pierre Teilhard de Chardin would have agreed with both Hildegard and Steiner.  (Source)

The Jesuit priest and scholar Pierre Teilhard de Chardin would have agreed with both Hildegard and Steiner. (Source)

What Steiner offers us, though, is a little glimmer of hope.  Rather than throwing up his hands and bewailing the fact that we can no longer experience our own thinking as a Divine inflowing, he, first of all, notes a few places where we DO have access to forms of non-dualistic thinking–poetic and artistic inspiration being paramount among them.  He then also offers us the insight that all our thinking is, when you get down to it, non-dualistic.  We cannot understand ourselves as a separate subject without thinking; in order to even perceive ourselves as the subject who is thinking about that object (or idea) over there, we already have to be thinking.  So thinking, in effect, gives rise to both subject and object.  It exists prior to or outside of the dualistic realm.  As such, Steiner argues, it can therefore can be understood to be a fundamentally spiritual activity. (11)

Even Homer Simpson's thinking connects him to the spiritual realm.  (Source)

Even Homer Simpson’s thinking connects him to the spiritual realm. (Source)

And this is where I think Steiner and Hildegard would find themselves in agreement: it is not so much the ideas (nouns) that result from thinking that bring us closer to the Divine; it is the act of thinking (verb) itself that is an experience of the Divine.  Whether you are thinking about God or thinking about those delicious donuts sitting on the table in front of you, your act of thinking is what connects you to the spiritual realm, not the content of your thoughts.  (12)

The question, to my mind, that both of them raise for us is this: once we see how the very activity of our thinking connects us to the Divine, how do we choose to use or develop our cognition?  Should we continue to go around as usual, thinking about ourselves (nouns) and the stuff or people around us (nouns), as though the dualistic mirage is the truth?  Or do we choose to develop that side of ourselves that can always remain alert to the fact that what is transpiring at any moment is, in fact, a verb? A you-ing and me-ing and God-ing (and even donut-ing) that is fundamentally beyond subject and object.

Hot off the presses--the first issue of Waldorf Covergirl!

Hot off the presses–the first issue of Waldorf Covergirl! (Source for background photo.)

Steiner, of course, had an answer.  He said that we should engage in those activities–art, poetry, music, meditation, close observation of nature–that are most likely to help us surmount that subject/object divide.  With practice, he held, the type of intuitive thinking that characterizes those activities will become more habitual, and in fact, may lead us to higher forms of cognition that we normally plaster over with all our dualistic nonsense.  (Well, he didn’t put it quite that bluntly, but that’s what he meant.)  And if we look at Hildegard’s own life, we can see that she spent it doing precisely those things Steiner identifies as exemplary of non-dualistic intuitive thinking:  composing breathtakingly beautiful music, writing poetry and dramas, illustrating her visions, meditating and praying, examining the herbs and natural remedies around her and writing extensive treatises on them.   In fact, you couldn’t really imagine a better poster-child for Steiner’s program–not even Steiner himself.

And that, my Waldorf-inspired friends, is why it behooves each and every one of us to learn about and teach Hildegard every chance we get.  ‘Nuff said.

—–

NOTES

(1) Rabbi David A. Cooper, God is a Verb: Kabbalah and the Practice of Mystical Judaism. New York: Riverhead Books, 1997. pp.69-70.  I should note here that in using Cooper’s work, I’m not suggesting that there’s a direct link between Hildegard and Kabbala (though the thought is interesting, given the time period she’s writing and the possible theological works to which she might have been exposed).  Rather, I’m using Cooper because I’ve found his description of God as verb the easiest to understand and most clearly written.  I think his discussion of Kabbalist understandings of the Divine helps illuminate both Hildegard’s work and Steiner’s.
 For more on Hildegard von Bingen, other medieval Christian writers such as Bernard of Clairvaux (with whom we know she corresponded), and Kabbalah, see Peter Shäfer, Mirror of His Beauty: Feminine Images of God from the Bible to Early Kabbalah.  New York: Princeton University Press, 2004.  
And of course, I can’t end this note without mentioning that the original statement “God is a verb” seems to have been made by Buckminster Fuller in 1963, in his book No More Secondhand God.  I don’t know whether or not he was familiar with Kabbalah and/or other forms of medieval mysticism, though the fact that he was a Unitarian and the grandson of the major transcendentalist figure Margaret Fuller opens up the possibility that he might have been familiar with these or other similar ideas.

2) Hildegard von Bingen, Physica, pdf, pg. 164.  You can find it online here.

3)  Indeed, you do sometimes see viriditas translated simply as “greening,” though most translators put another word like, “power” or “force” on the end, in order to be consistent with the original Latin form.  However, I think that it’s precisely this impulse to make viriditas into a “thing” (i.e. a noun) that makes it so difficult to grapple with what Hildegard trying to say.  If we were to translate viriditas as a gerund (that funny grammatical construction that hovers in the realm between verb and noun, as in “I enjoy playing football”), it might be easier to get at what she’s trying to describe.

4) By “The Word,” of course, Hildegard is referring back to the beginning of the Gospel of John (“In the beginning was the Word…”).  The history of the complex theological relationship between the Word, Wisdom, and the other parts of the Trinity is way too complicated to go into here, since attempting to relate Wisdom (usually, for linguistic reasons, depicted as feminine) to the Godhead has always been a potentially incendiary topic.  One brief example will have to suffice:  my former professor (and Syriac scholar) Susan Ashbrook Harvey once told me that the original Syriac feminine ending for “Holy Spirit” had been expunged at a certain point in late antiquity, thereby complicating further efforts to relate this aspect of the Trinity to Wisdom (which is feminine in both the Greek and Latin, as well as the Syriac).  Apparently, a wise, female Holy Ghost was just too much for the Syriac fathers to take.

In Hildegard’s case, she seems to move between the Son/Word, the Holy Spirit, and Wisdom rather fluidly, a fact that has made her somewhat of a darling of contemporary feminist theologians.  Hildegard plays pretty fast and loose with her terminology, though, sometimes even seeming to equate the Holy Spirit and Wisdom with the Virgin, thereby opening up some interesting theological possibilities for how the Virgin participates in the life of the Trinity.  For instance, compare these three brief passages from her songs: Hildegard on Wisdom in O Virtus Sapientiae: “O moving force of Wisdom, encircling the wheel of the cosmos/ Encompassing all that is, all that has life, in one vast circle….” Hildegard on the Holy Spirit in her song O Spiritu Sancto: “Holy Spirit, making life alive, moving in all things, root of all creating being…”.  And then, to Mary in De Sancta Maria: “Hail to you, O greenest (viridissima) branch!  You budded forth amidst breezes and winds in search of the knowledge of all that is holy…Because of you, the heavens give dew to the grass, the whole Earth rejoices, Abundance of grain comes from Earth’s womb….”  I’d argue that Hildegard is not trying to be systematic here in the way modern theologians (feminist or otherwise) might want her to be: rather, she is trying to capture something that inheres in all these different understandings of God–namely, the flow of divinity that is constantly creating and sustaining the universe.

5) Hildegard of Bingen’s Book of Divine Works with Letters and Songs, Vision 1:2.  p. 10.  ed. Matthew Fox.  trans. Richard Cunningham.  Santa Fe: Bear and Company, 1987.

6) In formulating her theology, Hildegard probably drew on ideas of Reason popularized by the late Roman Christian philosopher Boethius, whose work On the Consolations of Philosophy was beginning to be circulated more widely in her time.  Boethius was very influential among later mystical writers, who used his differentiation of intellect (intellectus) and reason (ratio) in order to better explain their experiences.  She may be leading the pack here, though.  Other great thinkers who took up Boethius’ ideas about Reason during this time were mostly associated with the (heavily neo-Platonist) cathedral school at Chartres–Gilbert of La Porrée, Thierry of Chartres, and Richard of Saint-Victor.  The latter wrote extensively on mystical experience and reason, and he was writing at the same time as Hildegard.  This is a rare case where the work of a female writer is much better known and explicated than that of her male contemporaries–probably precisely because her writings were not nearly as (let’s face it, boys) mind-numbingly dull.  For more on twelfth century notions of reason, M-D Chenu, Nature, Man, and Society in the Tweltfth Century. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997. pp. 75ff.  Chenu also has a fascinating account of the Hermetic and Muslim sources of neo-Platonism–raising a whole other set of questions about the various streams that flow together to inform Hildegard’s work.

7) Divine Works, Vision 1:2.  Fox, p. 11.

8) Divine Works, Vision 10:2.  Fox, p. 224.

9) It’s important, as I hinted above, to differentiate Hildegard’s view of Reason from Enlightenment understandings of reason as a critical intellectual tool.  Back in Hildegard’s time, we’re not only pre-Descartes (“I think, therefore I am”), but over 100 years prior to Thomas Aquinas and the revival of Aristotelian philosophy.  The Deists and other Enlightenment fans of reason are a good 600 years later.  Whereas the Enlightenment thinkers tend to deploy reason as a tool that “I” (the subject/noun) can use for determining whether or not God (another noun) exists, Hildegard experiences Reason as a flow of “God-ing.”  This shift from an imminent spiritual Presence to the centrality of a separate human “self” is one of the defining moments in the evolution of consciousness.

The Inklings (clockwise from upper left: JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Charles Lewis, and Owen Barfield) (Source)

Barfield was a member of the famous Oxford literary group The Inklings, who met every Tuesday to drink beer and discuss their latest works. Clockwise from upper left: JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Charles Williams, and Owen Barfield. (Source)

(10) Anyone familiar with the work of Owen Barfield can see here that I’m plainly and unabashedly stealing his language to describe Hildegard’s experience.  Barfield coined the incredibly illuminating and helpful term “participation” to describe the state of consciousness in which “self and non-self are identified in the same moment of existence.” (Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances, New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1965. p 32, note 1.)  Barfield argues that for modern humans, this form of perception that is “nearer to unity than dichotomy” is fairly rare–he gives the examples of “semi-subjective” realms such as intuition, panic, or irresistible semi-conscious urges (e.g. sexual drive) as the few places in which we still experience ourselves to be under the influence of some power external to ourselves, and yet simultaneously wholly a part of us.  On the other hand, he notes that linguistic and cultural evidence reveals that humans in earlier eras experienced this feeling of unity with the exterior world on a regular basis–indeed, for much of history, humanity seems to have experienced the world with precisely this form of monistic consciousness.  If you’re interested in delving further into Barfield’s insights, his seminal work Saving the Appearances is probably the best place to start.  The Owen Barfield Society also provides helpful links to many resources on Barfield’s work.

11)  Steiner’s views on cognition are pretty heavy philosophical stuff.  If you’d like to delve deeper into his understanding of thinking as a fundamentally non-dualistic, spiritual experience, his very dense, but extremely enlightening book Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path is the best place to start.  If you’d prefer something a little less, shall we say, abstruse, Owen Barfield’s book Romanticism Comes of Age picks up many of the same ideas, but is a much easier read.

12) Interestingly, Steiner only mentions Hildegard explicitly once, as far as I can tell–in his fourth lecture on “Man in the Light of Occultism, Philosophy, and Theology,” (given in 1912) where he gives an account of the different types of mystics.  He doesn’t really describe the content of any of her work (though it’s obvious he must have read her in order to be able to place her within a continuum of different types of mysticism).  What little he says is not terribly flattering: he says she has “good and beautiful impulses but…also a considerable measure of ordinary earthly instinct and desire, and this taints [her] mystical feelings and perceptions.”  (Access the online version of the lecture here.) He then goes on to compare Hildegard unfavorably to Mechthild of Magdeburg, a later female mystic, whom Steiner believes “expresses herself always with a certain touch of humor.”  The irony of this criticism is that it comes from a man who, though apparently jovial enough in person, left a body of scholarship which is rather heavy and often difficult to read, to put it mildly.  Steiner wrote that at least some of his own works were meant to be difficult to penetrate, the idea being that the individual had to wrestle with the ideas in such a way as to spur them beyond usual categories of thought.  As I’ve said in previous posts, I wonder if Hildegard’s shifting vocabulary and enormous body of work are attempts to do much the same thing.

I should mention, though, that there is one other place where some people believe Steiner was referencing Hildegard–in a passage from 1924 where he links an unnamed medieval female “visionary…who unfolded truly wonderful insight into the spiritual world.”  He notes that this unnamed nun had no outward conflicts with orthodox Christianity, but that later, her brand of “deeply personal Christianity” found no place in received Catholic tradition.   He then links this female mystic’s oeuvre with that of Vladimir Solovyov, a late nineteenth-century Russian mystic who experienced profound visions of Sophia (Divine Wisdom).  Given the very brief description provided by Steiner in the text, his unnamed nun certainly could be Hildegard; but then again, his words could also apply to any number of other medieval female mystics, not the least of whom is Julian of Norwich.  I think it is therefore difficult to say for certain whether he was revising his earlier assessment of Hildegard or whether he had in mind a different medieval visionary entirely.  In any case, I think that once you read both Steiner and Hildegard closely, it’s obvious that there is a true affinity between them–not only in the content of their thought, but in the way in which they lived their lives as mystic polymaths whose spiritual experiences in no way excluded them from a full immersion in all the problems and activities of this world.

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Hildegard recording one of her visions, from a manuscript of her work "Book of Divine Works."  Source.

Hildegard recording one of her visions, from a manuscript of her work “Book of Divine Works.” Source.

So, after a hiatus of a few weeks (during which time I co-taught a class on Dante and was down with the flu), I’m back with another post, inspired by my time spent considering medieval cosmology.  Here’s the deal, yo: Hildegard von Bingen is the most crazily comprehensive and erudite philosopher-cum-mystic you’ve (probably) never heard of.  So read on, and prepare to be impressed…

Name: Hildegard von Bingen

Birthplace/Dates:  Bermersheim, in Rheinhessen (in what is now Germany); 1098-1179.

Occupation/Claim to Fame:  Where do I begin?  Hildegard was a visionary who wrote extensive works of mysticism, philosophy, astronomy, and medicine.  She also carried on correspondences with popes, kings, and prominent theologians of her day.  She composed breathtakingly beautiful music (which is how she is most widely known today), supervised illuminations of her visions, wrote dramas, and invented her own language.  It is nearly impossible to overestimate the breadth and depth of her work, or its importance in its day.

Her particular importance to Waldorf teachers:  Hildegard perfectly captures the medieval way of looking at the world.  In particular, her ideas of the macrocosm/microcosm and of the principle “as above, so below” can be used in any number of lesson blocks relating to the Middle Ages–history or literature.  Plus, Rudolf Steiner mentions her specifically as an important historical figure.  So we really have no excuse to not include her in our lesson plans.

Where she fits into the Waldorf curriculum:  HS 11th grade Medieval History; 11th grade Dante block (as a background for Dante’s world-view); 6th grade Medieval History; 11th grade History of Music; any time you are doing History of Science/Medicine.

If you read only one thing by Hildegard, I’d recommend: Peter Dronke’s chapter on her (which quotes extensively from her works) in his book, Women Writers of the Middle Ages.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.  pp. 144-201.  Or, alternatively, you could use a reader that contains selections of all her many writings.  Two good readers are Fiona Bowie and Oliver Davies, eds. Hildegard of Bingen, Mystical Writings.  New York: Crossroad, 1995; and Carmen Acevedo Butcher, Hildegard von Bingen, a spiritual reader.  Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2007.  Both have helpful maps and chronologies.  For some online excerpts, try this site, which has a brief bio followed by selections from her works.

Hildegard Stands Alone

hildegardryan

Ryan Gosling’s down with Hildegard–are you?

Most people these days, if they know Hildegard at all, know her as a composer, since her work has become fairly popular among early music lovers.  Others might have heard her mentioned as one of many female mystics of the middle ages.  Though she is both of these things, she is so much more–so much, in fact, that it can be difficult (not to mention overwhelming) to try to sum her up in one or two blog entries.  But I’m going to give it my best shot.  Hildegard, if you’re reading this somewhere, forgive me for my manifold sins of omission as I attempt to encapsulate your work.  But girl, there’s just so damn much of it!

In fact, in preparing to write this post I racked my brains to find someone to compare Hildegard to in terms of the sheer breadth and depth of her work.  There certainly aren’t many other medieval figures (male or female) that easily come to mind in comparison.  Even authors like Aquinas didn’t attempt to write medical tracts and compose music (not to mention cookbooks and morality plays) alongside their theological work.

The three figures I finally came up with as possible comparison points?  Aristotle, Goethe, and Rudolf Steiner.  I later read another scholar compare her to the medieval Islamic philosopher Averroës (and also Goethe).  Someone else said Avicenna.  So, ok, there were some other medieval writers who are just as impressive, but I mean, come on!  When you’re being compared to Averroës, you KNOW you’re a big deal.  So I’m not just making this stuff up.  She really is all that AND a bag of chips, as my sister would say.

Hildegard, The Early Years

So who was this nun about whom we know so little these days?  Hildegard started life as the 10th child of a couple, who, in keeping with medieval custom, gave her for the church as a “tithe,” since she represented 1/10th of the children they had produced.  At age eight she was “enclosed” in a cell with an older religious woman named Jutta, who taught her rudimentary Latin, how to chant Psalms, and all the other things a female hermit would need to know.

The chamber of an anchoress (called an "anchorhold") at a small church in Hislip, England. Source.

The chamber of an anchoress (called an “anchorhold”) at a small church in Hartlip, England. Source.

The practice of enclosure, though strange to us now, was fairly common during that period.  (English female mystic and theologian Julian of Norwich is perhaps the most famous example of this practice.) Women called “anchoresses” would live in cells (called “anchorholds”) adjoining the wall of a church, praying the liturgical hours, living a simple life, and offering prayers and advice to churchgoers.  The role of an anchoress fell somewhere between that of a nun, a hermit, and a lay person; though they never left their anchorholds and focused all their attention on God, they did have regular contact with the outside world through the window of their enclosure, which gave onto the church, and sometimes through an exterior window, through which they could consult with parishioners. They also often retained a servant girl who went out to do shopping and other daily tasks, leaving them free to focus on the prayer and contemplation that was their raison d’être.   Apparently Hildegard’s teacher Jutta was rather popular, because she accepted so many girls under her tutelage that they all eventually moved to a separate facility that became a convent.  When Jutta died in 1136, Hildegard was elected abbess–a position she retained until her own death in 1179.

Hildegard receiving one of her visions (depicted as fire raining down from heaven) and dictating it to her male scribe, Volmar.

Hildegard receiving one of her visions (depicted as fire raining down from heaven) and dictating it to her male scribe, Volmar. Source.

Ever since she was a toddler, Hildegard had experienced visions.  She was only three when she “saw so great a brightness that my soul trembled; yet because of my infant condition I could express nothing of it.”  She apparently did not lose consciousness during these visions, but, as she writes, “whenever I saw these things deep in my soul I still retained outer sight, and… heard this said of no other human being.”  (1)  Perhaps related to these visions were the migraine headaches Hildegard suffered throughout her life–she writes in several places of the “frequent illness” that she suffered that “wore my body out and made my powers fail.”  Much scholarly ink has been spilled over whether her visions can be reduced to simply the side-effect of the migraines.  To my mind, the issue of headaches or no is a red herring.  I mean, really–I don’t know any other migraine sufferer who has gone on to produce canons of work comparable to Hildegard’s, so even if the visions and headaches were related, her experiences (and more importantly, what she made of them) can’t be explained away so neatly.

During her own time, at least, Hildegard was widely known and well-regarded, though she didn’t “come out” as a visionary until she was middle-aged.  As a child and teen, Hildegard writes, she did occasionally speak about otherworldly things that seemed strange to others.  On occasion she even predicted future events.  But she revealed the source of her otherworldly knowledge (her visions) to no one save Jutta.  Even after the elder nun’s death, Hildegard hid her visions from her superiors, until finally, at age 40, she experienced “painful pressures” that led her to believe she must reveal her experiences to her male superior.  He immediately had her write them down and, taking them to his superiors for verification, they were eventually pronounced genuine–the product of “that gift of prophecy which the prophets of old had proclaimed.”  Within a few years, her writings went so far as the Pope, who read them out “with joy” to an assembly of high churchmen at Trier in 1147-48.  He then wrote Hildegard a letter commanding her to write her visions down more systematically so that they could be disseminated among the theologians, churchmen, and laypeople of the day.

Hildegard, the Teacher

Like another "Hil," Hildegard von Bingen's advice was sought by people from all walks of life.   Source.

Like another “Hil,” Hildegard von Bingen’s advice was sought by people from all walks of life. Source.

The effect of this Papal commendation was immediate and far-reaching.  Within a few years Hildegard was carrying on correspondences with all the major figures of her day–kings, theologians, and scholars from all the major universities, as well as common laypeople who sought her advice.  Although she was careful to always distinguish that, as a “poor, little figure of a woman,” her power came from God and not from herself, she did not exactly shy away from doling out advice.  Quite the opposite.  She clarified points of theology for the scholarly superstars of the day in Paris, and even went so far as to upbraid King Henry II of England in a letter written before the murder of Thomas à Becket: “the foul habits of others overwhelm you and you become entangled in them….Shun this, with all your might.” (2)  Henry, apparently, did not give her sufficient heed.

If Hildegard’s opinion was widely sought-after in her day, it was with good reason.  The woman had something to say about everything, from the deepest theological mysteries to what you should feed a sick person in wintertime.  (Spelt porridge, in case you were wondering).  She expounded her ideas about God and the universe in several volumes: Scivias, her first book of visions; The Book of the Rewards of Life, a proto-Dantean look at the afterlife; and The Book of Divine Works, a later magisterial work that laid out a systematic mechanics and meaning of the cosmos.  There is just so much to cover in these works that you’ll have to wait for my next post to get the gist of what she wrote about there.  Suffice it to say, for now, that she believed that the entire cosmos, including the human being, was permeated by and continually upheld by the divine.

We have Campbells, they have Hildegard.  Source.

We have Campbells, they have Hildegard. Source.

As if her weighty tomes of visions and theology weren’t enough, she also produced learned commentaries on medicine that were at the cutting edge of medieval understandings of the human body.  Indeed, hers is the first medical description of the female orgasm that we have on record, leading one to wonder exactly how, as a life-long nun, she came about that intimate piece of knowledge.  (Given the complete absence of evidence that she ever strayed from the religious fold, scholars conjecture she pieced it together from accounts by her nuns and other women in the community.)  Her medical work has been called “materialist,” because she was quite committed to understanding the human body via the actions of the four elements.  This view came to be mainstream in later years, but at the time she wrote, it represented a fairly avant-garde use of the neo-Aristotelian corpus coming out of the Near East and Moorish Spain. (3)  Hildegard, however, was not interested in medical theory in the abstract; her works are filled with actual recipes for tinctures, herbal preparations, and other “on the ground” advice for physicians. This interest in the practical details of life characterizes her work as much as the high-and-mighty visions of the cosmos.  Apparently, her fame as a cookbook-writer must still be strong in Germany, where her name must conjure up images of good, down-home cooking, judging from the label on this soup can.

Hildegard, the Artist

The list of her accomplishments just goes on and on.  She wrote and directed plays–in fact, most scholars believe her “Ordo Virtutum,” composed in 1151, is the oldest medieval morality play by over a century.  This makes her the inventor of an entirely new type of drama, one that we think of as prototypical of the medieval period.  (Steinerfolk, take note: all those mystery dramas at the Goetheanum have their origin in Hildegard!)

As well as being the first morality play, “Ordo” is also the only one that has survived to us with both script and music relatively intact.  (Hildegard wrote both.)  The plot is relatively simple–a human soul (Anima) struggles between the Virtues (sung by 17 solo female voices) and the Devil.  (There is also a chorus of Patriarchs sung by men and a chorus of Souls sung by still more women.)  The work provides a lovely illustration of the practical application of her more theoretical writings on music.  For instance, the devil only yells or screeches, since according to what Hildegard wrote elsewhere, the devil cannot sing or produce mellifluous speech, music being thoroughly permeated by the divine.

And speaking of divine melody…Hildegard’s liturgical music has a soaring beauty that is clearly inspired by her visions of the heavens.  As you might expect from so accomplished a master, Hildegard’s work stands head and shoulders above traditional chant or plainsong–almost literally.  Just listen to how the voices swoop up to the heavens:

Her musical compositions must have appealed to the generations that came after her as well; the only medieval composer for whom we have as complete a canon of works is the famous 12th century monk (and legendary lover) Peter Abelard.

Her poetry, written on religious themes common to the middle ages, likewise reveals her unique way of looking at the world.  As with many 12th century thinkers, Mary plays a pivotal role.  But we also hear Sophia, Divine Wisdom, extolled in feminine form; and Love herself is rendered in the feminine and assigned a high place in Heaven.  Here’s a sample of one of my favorite verses:

Hildegard's depiction of Mother Wisdom, from the manuscript of her Scivias.  Source.

Hildegard’s depiction of Mother Wisdom, from the manuscript of her Scivias. Source.

O power of Wisdom!

You encompassed the cosmos,

encircling and embracing all

in one living orbit

with your three wings:

one soars on high,

one distills the earth’s essence,

and the third hovers everywhere.

Praise to you Wisdom, fitting praise! (4)

Hildegard, the Wrestler

Of course, life was not always sweetness and light for Hildegard, even once she’d achieved great fame.  She struggled several times with the church authorities over issues related to her convent.  In fact, the initial move of her convent from one town to another was over the objections of the monks associated with the establishment.  She also argued (this time, unsuccessfully) with an archbishop over the appointment of his sister, one of her favorite nuns, as Abbess of a different convent.  But her greatest challenge came in the last year of her life, when she decided to bury a patron of hers whom she had judged repentant in consecrated ground.  The man (whose name we do not know) had been excommunicated, possibly as a heretic.  Hildegard believed the man had changed his ways, but the authorities stood firm: until he was disinterred and reburied in unholy ground, her entire convent would remain under interdict–unable to say the daily offices or celebrate Mass.

This was a huge blow for Hildegard, and she didn’t take it lying down.  Instead, she fired back letters to the Archbishop and his prelates, arguing that she had had a vision that forewarned a “terrible and lamentable danger” would come down like a “dark cloud” upon those who forced the removal of the body.  She went on to give a very sly defense of her actions that contrasted the “upright men” who had ordered the interdict with the potential “feminine harshness [and] injustice to the sacraments of Christ” her nuns would be engaging in if they were to follow through with the orders to disinter the body.  In other words, she was not going to give an inch.  Eventually, the Archbishop relented, and six months before Hildegard’s death, lifted the interdict.

Dorothy was not the first person to go over the rainbow--Hildegard beat her by about 750 years.  (But didn't take a dog along with her.) Source.

Dorothy was not the first person to go over the rainbow–Hildegard beat her by about 750 years. (But didn’t take a dog along with her.) Source.

Hildegard passed away at the age of 81, having previously told her nuns that her life was nearing its close.  When she died, wrote her faithful monk admirers, two rainbows appeared in the sky over her room.  They widened and reached up to the four corners of the earth, and a full moon illumined the point where the two arcs crossed.  A red cross appeared there, surrounded by multicolored circles of light, in each of which a small cross reposed.  He wrote: “It is worthy of belief that by this sign God was showing how bright was the splendor with which he was illumining his beloved one in heaven.” (5)

That seems as good as any a place to leave off this post.  Next time, I’ll try my best to encapsulate some of the major themes of Hildegard’s work, as well as give suggestions for teaching, and a brief look at her significance for Waldorf teachers and students of Rudolf Steiner.  (Phew!  Wish me luck!)

—–

NOTES

(1) Gottfried of Disibodenberg and Theodoric of Echternach, Vita Sanctae Hildegardis, quoted in Peter Dronke, Women Writers of the Middle Ages.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984. p. 145.  When she says that she “heard this said of no other human being,” Hildegard is probably referring to the fact that many of the most famous visionaries lost normal consciousness when they saw their visions, whereas she retained full awareness of what was going on around her, “seeing” her visions inwardly, in her soul.

(2) Hildegard, “Letter to King Henry II of England,” quoted in Fiona Bowie & Oliver Davies, Hildegard of Bingen, Mystical Writings.  New York: Crossroad, 1995.  p. 140.

(3) To give you an idea of the timeline here, Hildegard very slightly predates her rough contemporary Averroës, who helped popularize the work of Avicenna and other Muslim Aristotelian scholars.  This means that in all likelihood she had other sources for her Aristotelian understanding of the elements and their relation to the human body.

(4) Barbara Newman, Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine, Univ. of California Press, 1978, p. 64.

(5) Gottfried and Theodoric, Vita, quoted in Fiona Maddocks, Hildegard of Bingen: The Woman of her Age.  New York: Doubleday, 2001.  p. 249.

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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.

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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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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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Women in the Waldorf curriculum and beyond...

Quests of the Dragon and Bird Clan

Women in the Waldorf curriculum and beyond...

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“Maybe that’s enlightenment enough: to know that there is no final resting place of the mind; no moment of smug clarity. Perhaps wisdom...is realizing how small I am, and unwise, and how far I have yet to go.” ― Anthony Bourdain

Zenobia: Empress of the East

Women in the Waldorf curriculum and beyond...