A few days ago I wrote a blog on Elena Lucrezia Carnaro Piscopia, the first women to earn her doctorate. When looking for images of her I came across this one:
Now if you know anything about her or read my blog, you know that she wanted to be a Benedictine nun, and took a vow of chastity when she was eleven years old that she kept her entire life. So the above illustration of her scantily dressed with one breast completely exposed isn’t quite seemly.
This got me thinking about images of other ancient women that I’ve come across. That most of the artists have been men is not surprising. While it may be okay for some women to be intelligent and educated, powerful and capable, it seems they should also be hotties – beautiful, voluptuous, and ready for action (with said men, of course), however I’m thinking their readiness should not involve overt action on their part, but a willingness to wholly surrender to obvious masculine charms.
What is disturbing is when women artists also create these hottie notable women. Is that wishful thinking for their own appearances? My drawn or painted famous women would be haughty rather than hottie, I think, and that probably wouldn’t be accurate either. Of course, authenticity in looks isn’t possible when depicting someone from ancient times, but I wish that fact wasn't license to get silly, regardless of prevailing artistic styles.
|The iconic Cleopatra|
Elizabeth Taylor, 1963
When I was a young girl I passionately wanted to be an Egyptologist. My goals were to find the bodies of Cleopatra and Alexander the Great, both of which I was sure were my genetic ancestors as my grandmother was Macedonian. (I can't honestly say I've completely given up in that belief.) By age ten I had read everything I was capable of reading on them, and had drawn maps where Cleopatra could’ve been buried, the places that had been excavated, and my own personal notes where I intended to look. That never came to pass, but I still keep up with the scholarship on her. For anyone who has ever read up on her, it seems certain that she was not a conventional beauty, but very charismatic and the dictionary definition of attractive. But historical sources for information on her begin with Plutarch, who was born seventy-six years after she was dead, hardly an eyewitness account.
|Coin of Cleopatra VII, circa 51-30 BCE.|
However, there isn’t much said by the classical writers on her beauty. The only reliable portraits of her are on her coins, and they are not all that becoming. But this was a woman who slept with and bore the children of two of the most powerful men of her time, and the Roman accounts we are left with can only explain that by her licentiousness and wantonness. In other words, to Roman eyes, she had to be a total, mesmerizing slut or why would two of their greatest leaders involve themselves with her? But she probably wasn’t so promiscuous or wayward. She probably spent her time learning (she was very educated), ruling, and keeping alive - a recurring focus in her life. So I had to LOL when I read this on a blog:
“The Roman (Julius Caesar) was though, not the only man in Cleopatra’s life and bed. Legends say that her appetite for sex was voracious – she slept with as many as 100 Roman noblemen in one night. Cleopatra had sex with thousands of men. And isn’t that in the fairness of the scheme of things of the universe – after all, wouldn’t it be unfair if the sexiest woman ever to have slept in a man’s bed had done so with any number fewer than that?”
My vulva, the horn,
The boat of Heaven,
Is full of eagerness like the young moon.
My untilled land lies fallow.
As for me, Inanna,
Who will plow my vulva?
Who will plow my high field?
Who will plow my wet ground?
As for me, the young woman,
Who will plow my vulva?
Who will station the ox there?
Who will plow my vulva?
Sappho fares no better. The ancient Greek poet was born some time in the early 7th century BCE on the island of Lesbos. Little of her work is extant, and less is known of her life. Her poetry shows love and passion for both genders, but her name lends itself to the word sapphic and her island home to the word lesbian, both used to describe female homosexuality. In 7th century BCE, the erotica expressed in her work was not unusual or uncommon, and other poets of the time expressed themselves similarly. She was also married and had a daughter. Or so we think...
|Sappho and friends (including mermaids), circa late 19th/early 20th century|
Édouard-Henri Avril, aka Paul Avril, a French painter and illustrator
best known for his erotic art. Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.
In 2008, three citizens of Lesbos went to court in a futile attempt to outlaw the use of the word "lesbian" to refer to anything but a resident of the island of Lesbos. The image below is of a very petulant and serious, bare-breasted Sappho. I have only attempted to write poems fully clothed, which may be why they aren't very good.
|Image from Sappho's profile on Facebook.|
Olympias was a Molossian princess (a tribe from Epirus) who married King Philip II of Macedon. Legend has it that the night before she consummated her marriage, she dreamt of a thunderbolt that pierced her womb, igniting a fire that spread and was suddenly extinguished. No surprise their son grew up to be Alexander the Great.
|Image of Olympias from calendar by Alexia Sinclair.|
Olympias was said to be very beautiful albeit treacherous, as became a Macedonian, then later a Ptolemaic queen. She had first met Philip when they were initiated into a mystery cult, and has always been associated with magic, sex, and snakes. The story goes that Alexander went to a famous oracle when in Egypt, concerned with the rumor that his mother had mated with a snake. The oracle is said to have allayed his fears and confirmed that Zeus, indeed, was his father.
|Zeus seduces Olympias. Fresco by Giulio Romano 1526-1534,|
Palazzo del Te, Mantua, Italy.
Going back to Egypt, specifically Alexandria, a female mathematician named Hypatia lived and taught math, philosophy, and astronomy there in the 4th century CE. She was murdered by a Christian mob, often interpreted as a conflict between religion and science, but most likely for political reasons. It appears she invented the plane astrolabe, the graduated brass hydrometer, and the hydroscope with a man who was her student, then her colleague.
|Hypatia by Charles William Mitchell, 1885|
Above she is depicted assumably lecturing, hand held in the air to make a point, as she chastely covers her pubic area and right breast with her long reddish hair, having stripped herself of her gown and thrown it on the ground. Such a passion for math is commendable, and I'll bet her classes were SRO with lots of pupils waiting to crash her courses. In reality, she was said to have donned the clothes of a scholar rather than women's dress.
|Click on this site for clearest image.|
The illustration above by Khan Amore shows the "plurality of divine proportions to be found in the most beautiful, harmoniously-proportioned human bodies." Never has the concept of "the golden ratio" been so memorably depicted. The Hypatia illustrated above this image would most likely agree.
I'll end with Boudicca, queen of the Iceni tribe who lead an uprising against the Romans. Her husband, Prasutagus, left his kingdom to his daughters and the Roman Emperor when he died. Instead the kingdom was annexed and Boudicca and their daughters were flogged and raped. Boudicca led the Iceni and several other tribes in revolt.
|Image of Boudicca from calendar by Alexis Sinclair (see Olympias above).|
The image above is de rigueur dress for leading an army, I guess. Never having military ambitions of my own, I'm far from an authority on military dress. I guess showing your breasts would distract the enemy and allow your minions to obliterate them, if they can stop from gaping themselves. Britain has a cold climate though, and I think more clothing would be necessary, and all that hair would definitely get in the way.
Boudicca was eventually captured, the revolts ended, and she was either killed or died of illness. The two Roman writers, Cassius Dio and Tacitus, offer different endings. Her story was made legend during the Renaissance, and Boudicca became a cultural symbol in the United Kingdom. The image below shows her resting on her laurels, so to speak.
There are not enough facts about women from ancient history, and it seems the ones we do know about are so mythologized and sensualized. I am currently reading Stacy Schiff’s new book Cleopatra: A Life and I will leave you with my new favorite quote from the book: “And in the absence of facts, myth rushes in, the kudzu of history.”