Artemisia at Sea

March 8, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

“My men have behaved like women, my women like men!” - Xerxes

Strong women have always had a complicated relationship with history. They have been feared, reviled, loved, hated, killed, made into men, adored, and crowned (among other things). Artemisia is one such female. She married the king of Halicarnassus (now in present-day Turkey) and from the beginning Artemisia demonstrated strength and wit. After the king died, she became sole ruler. In Book VII and XIII of Herodotus’s History, he writes about Artemisia, leader of Halicarnassus and her involvement in the Greco-Persian Wars. She was an intelligent leader who spoke her mind, and these traits allowed her to become close with Xerxes, leader of the Persian efforts. In fact, Xerxes began to regard her as an advisor at a time when women rarely had a say in anything. This unique treatment of Artemisia bears pondering, as does the way that Herodotus writes of her. The first quotation below is from Book VII, 99. It reads:

“Of the other lower officers I shall make no mention, since no necessity is laid on me; but I must speak of a certain leader named Artemisia, whose participation in the attack upon Greece, notwithstanding that she was a woman, moves my special wonder. She had obtained the sovereign power after the death of her husband; and, though she had now a son grown up, yet her brave spirit and manly daring sent her forth to the war, when no need required her to adventure. Her name, as I said, was Artemisia, and she was the daughter of Lygdamis; by race she was on his side a Halicarnassian, though by her mother a Cretan. She ruled over the Halicarnassians, the men of Cos, of Nisyrus, and of Calydna; and the five triremes which she furnished to the Persians were, next to the Sidonian, the most famous ships in the fleet. She likewise gave to Xerxes sounder counsel than any of his other allies.”

Already, we have a complicated image of Artemisia. Herodotus can only describe her in relation to the men that she is among. He cannot comprehend how a female became so intelligent at battle and wise with words. She is educated to the point of men, and that becomes her bar of measure. She too, according to Herodotus, regards herself by this same measure.

A few chapters later, Herodotus notes a long speech by Artemisia. While he presents many speeches, hers stands out as a sole female voice regarding battle tactics. In fact, Artemisia makes a name for herself by acting, according to Xerxes, as a man should act. Her logic, reasonable discourse, and fearlessness promote the character traits often associated with strong men. When in Book VIII, 68, she is asked about whether or not to engage the Greeks, she replies:

“Spare thy ships, and do not risk a battle; for these people are as much superior to thy people in seamanship, as men to women. What so great need is there for thee to incur hazard at sea? Art thou not master of Athens, for which thou didst undertake thy expedition? Is not Greece subject to thee? Not a soul now resists thy advance.”

She then suggests that they stick to land which would give the upper hand to their army, and might diminish Greek resources. This advice contradicts the advice of nearly every other officer in the room. In other words, Artemisia was either completely unafraid of Xerxes, or she trusted that he would not harm her for speaking her mind. Either way, she ably and nobly offered a wise opinion. Herodotus notes that many leaders in the room thought she might be punished by Xerxes and this filled them with a kind of jealous joy. However, Xerxes praised her more than ever. After praising her ideas, however, he felt compelled to follow the advice of the majority. Xerxes himself is remarkable for publicly noting his pleasure at her wisdom.

It is strange that in making a case which asks the men to listen to a woman, Artemisia would claim the superiority of men to women. This seemingly contradicts her argument and undermines the advice of a woman. However, it also seems a skillful rhetorical tactic which demonstrates how well she understands the audience.

More than merely speaking her mind, however, she also captains her own ship. The final section of Artemisia’s story occurs during the seafight. As the fight became chaotic and crowded, Artemisia found herself pinned in by the enemy on one side and a friendly ship on the other side. She chose to sink the friendly ship. In Book XIII, 87 and 88, Herodotus writes:

“Pressed by an Athenian pursuer, she bore straight against one of the ships of her own party, a Clyndian, which had Damsithymus, the Calyndian king, himself on board. I cannot say whether she had any quarrel with the man while the fleet was at Hellespont, or no – neither can I decide whether she of set purpose attacked his vessel, or whether it merely chanced that the Calyndian ship came in her way – but certain it is that she bore down upon his vessel and sank it, and that thereby she had the good fortune to procure herself a double advantage. For the commander of the Athenian trireme, when he saw her bear down on one of the enemy’s fleet, thought immediately that her vessel was a Greek, or else had deserted from the Persians and was now fighting on the Greek side; he therefore gave up the chase and turned away to attack others.

“Thus in the first place she saved her life by the action, and was enabled to get clear off from the battle; while further, it fell out that in the very act of doing the king an injury she raised herself to a greater height than ever in his esteem. For as Xerxes beheld the fight, he remarked (it is said) the destruction of the vessel, whereupon the bystanders observed him - ‘Seest thou, master, how well Artemisia fights, and how she has just sunk a ship of the enemy?’...Everything, it is said, conspired to prosper the queen – it was especially fortunate for her that not one of the Calyndian ship survived to become her accuser. Xerxes, they say, in reply to the remarks made to him, observed - ‘My men have behaved like women, my women like men!’”

This is one depiction of an ancient woman, strong, proud, intelligent. She thrived as a female in a man’s world. There are so few accounts about women by women that we must read and reread these passages to understand the woman’s role throughout ages and cultures.

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Do We Need Heroes

September 29, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

“I think many of the stories that we tell ourselves as a society - the stories that encode our hopes, aspirations, and fears - preserve the traces of classical culture and myth and are part of our classical legacy.” - Professor Elizabeth Vandiver

Our modern day understanding of the term hero is mostly positive. We think of heroes as protectors and helpers with outstanding qualities that make them better than the average human. However, ancient Greeks thought of heroes as mostly larger than life figures with extraordinary powers. Though they relied upon their heroes to be great, they did not necessarily imbue them with morals in the same way that we would today. Having said that, in today's blog, I want to look at some questions surrounding Oedipus and then move forward a few thousand years to better understand why Dave Chappelle names Bill Cosby as one of his childhood heroes. I realize the gigantic leap that I am taking, but I wonder if the questions asked by Sophocles are similar to questions that we may ask about modern-day “heroes”.

Oedipus was born to Jocasta and Laius of Thebes. Unfortunately, before his birth, Tiresias prophesied that Oedipus would kill his father. Eventually, Jocasta and Laius decide to leave the infant out in the elements. He is, of course, miraculously rescued and raised in Corinth. His adoptive parents for some reason never tell him that he is adopted, however. So, when Oedipus receives the oracle that he will kill his father and marry his mother, he chooses to leave Corinth. (This point often perplexes me. I want to know why, first of all, his adoptive parents haven't fessed up about the adoption part, and, second, why doesn't he simply choose not to kill or not to marry. I think that is my modern sensibilities providing options which may have been absurd to an ancient society.) Either way, Oedipus travels to Thebes and has the luck of being the only one able to answer the Sphinx's riddle. This, in turn, removes the Sphinx who has been tormenting the city and they all rejoice. Unfortunately, Oedipus unwittingly fulfills his prophecy and upon realization of the oracle's truth, he blinds himself. In other words, Sophocles proposes that Oedipus was irreversibly fated or destined to this path, regardless of his prior heroics and reason.

Sophocles wrote this play around 430 BC and yet we still discuss it today. Freud perhaps boosted its fame when he named the Oedipus Complex: a psychoanalytic theory which posits sexual tensions between parent and child, thus creating a sense of rivalry in the parent of the same sex. Many other theorists and literary scholars have discussed Sophocles's play and named a variety of reasons for its longstanding interest. I wonder, however, if it has something to do with the fact that humans are complex. There is no single answer and any answer is met with a number of inconsistencies. But this, to me, seems very human. The author's creation of a hero is always artificial. No single being can live up to the idea of perfection, or be everything to everyone. I often see this with contemporary celebrities or sports stars. We put them on a pedestal which is completely artificial.

Therefore, I am curious about the construction of hero in a modern-day context. Dave Chappelle recently mentioned that Bill Cosby was one of his childhood heroes in his recent stand-up The Age of Spin. Chappelle says, “Let's not forget, I've never met Bill Cosby, so I'm not defending him. But let's just remember that he has a valuable legacy that I can't just throw away. I remember that he's the first black man to win an Emmy in television. I also remember that he's the first guy to make a black cartoon with black characters where their lips and noses were drawn proportionally. I remember that he had a television show that got numbers equivalent to the Super Bowl every Thursday night. And I remember that he partnered up with a clinical psychologist to make sure that there was not one negative image of African Americans on his show. I'm telling you that's no small thing. I've had a television show...I wouldn't have done that shit. He gave tens of millions of dollars to African American institutions of higher learning and is directly responsible for thousands of black kids going to college...not just the ones he raped. Here comes the kicker, you ready? Here's the fact that I heard but haven't confirmed. I heard that when Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and said he had a dream, he was speaking into a PA system that Bill Cosby paid for. Do you understand what I'm saying?” Chappelle's point is important because while Cosby was a prominent (and mostly positive) voice for African American people and civil rights, he was also allegedly committing heinous acts. It is impossible to square the two Cosby personalities, rapist with African American rights leader. My point is that people are complicated. I do not understand why we continue to think that someone who is really good at something must be really good at everything – morals included. There isn't any sense to be made from it, there isn't any rational approach. It is simply complicated. I also think that public pressure changes a being. Is there a sense that greatness changes into entitlement? If someone has been dubbed a hero because of one success, does that change their internal landscape? Have we, the public, unwittingly nurtured the development?

I know that my oversimplified views have no sound basis in psychology or analysis. But it seems that humans repeatedly desire the artificial and happy ending. I am wondering if this is something that we are hard-wired for, or if it is something that literature tells us is possible? I wonder if we can edit the ending, or end the story wherever we want to? For example, can we stop reading after Oedipus kills the Sphinx? Think of the happy and newly freed citizens of Thebes who invite a triumphant and glowing Oedipus into town. And yet, this too is unsatisfactory in that it cheats the true story. Sophocles knew this, and so he began the play after Oedipus and Jocasta are already married. There is already an element of fate, of tragedy. Should we, then, consider every hero as if (s)he were on the precipice of a fall? If we continue in our current understanding of hero, which Merriam-Webster lists as “a person admired for achievements and noble qualities”, then our expectations will never be met. It is as if we set ourselves up for failure, not just our heroes. As far as I know, there is not a single, defined and agreed upon list of noble qualities, though there are certainly reprehensible ones.

To put it plainly, I wonder if our definition and/or treatment of heroes needs to be redefined.

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War Narratives

April 8, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

How is honor created? Is it imperative that war narratives describe honorable people and events? Recently, I attended a conference regarding war narratives. From this discussion arose questions about the ways in which society frames our understanding of war. A truly global society is a fairly recent phenomenon. Therefore, war on the level of globalized states is also fairly new. However, war as represented in literature stretches back past the time of Homer. There is no question that works like The Iliad are masterful. The question is, rather, why the narrative of war remains mostly unchanged, while many of the factors involved in war have changed drastically. This also seems inconsistent with other narratives and with human reality itself. If story intends to add some pertinent truth to the human record, we are missing an element of truth by continuing to function within a single common narrative.

Obviously, heroic tales have power over us, revealing dramatically virtuous deeds. The virtues underlying heroes and heroic action thrills us, captivates us, grabs at our emotional center. Science fiction offers one way of re-visioning existing narratives. For example, in the novel 1984 by George Orwell, war is constant, but mostly in the background. The opponent constantly changes and no one keeps a historical record of the events. Though the war is distant and fragmented, war rhetoric, propaganda and patriotic speeches remain very visible. Complete annihilation of battle scenes leaves the novel bereft of a hero, at least a hero of such caliber as a battlefield hero. This feels unsatisfying.

Most war narratives offer a specific view of the events weighted with some emotional content and individual perspective. There is a wonderful episode in the HBO series Band of Brothers where Winters (Damian Lewis) attempts to write the report of one of his most difficult battles. In the scene, Nixon (Ron Livingston) jokingly tells Winters to stop writing a novel and just finish the report. The struggle to balance detail and fact is astonishingly hard. Obviously battle takes a tremendous emotional toll on the soldiers and each one responds differently. Therefore, having one person compose a narrative of the entire battle seems impossible. Sometimes facts do not mean anything, but emotional facts always mean something. So Winters struggles to compose the right balance of fact and emotion in his report. He gives voice to the soldiers' heroic struggles. Without his perspective, emotional facts are replaced by data, such as time, date, place, numbers.

War narratives often involve heroic characters. Most literary battles include some of the deepest, most personal and uplifting heroic actions. At the same time, however, the drama builds in the face of the absolute opposite. We remember these moments of inspiration: think of Henry V's “once more unto the breach, dear friends” speech. Imagine Braveheart, striped with blue, astride a powerful horse, shouting that he is Braveheart, the man and not the legend. As Gibbon notes in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, barbarians of different races signed up to fight with Attila simply based upon Attila's reputation (Chapter 34 and 35). Heroic leaders are made on the field of battle. They are larger than life. And as a world, we want to be inspired, we want to believe that the good guy wins. We want to believe that horror and atrocity leads to something decent, brave and good.

For this reason, the hero is an exciting, seemingly untouchable literary character. In the Syntopicon, Adler suggests that honor is built upon the ideas of both praise and blame. He writes, “Any solution of the problem must consider the relation of the individual to the community, and the standards by which the individual is appraised – by himself and his fellowmen. Honor and fame both seem to imply public approval, but the question is whether both presuppose the same causes or the same occasions for social esteem.” The idea that shame can be a motivating factor in heroism is both fascinating and scary, since public opinion can quickly sway. This element of the hero is one that is difficult to develop. It drives us into a very uncomfortable place and asks us to question two things. First, we must wonder at our deep-seated beliefs and historical records. Second, we must question the actions of people put in situations of which we have little firsthand knowledge. So, either we uproot ourselves, or we uproot our heroes.

It is possible, though that an alternative narrative exists. I would be interested to look into some Native American texts with these questions in mind. I think it would be fascinating to see if they challenge our (or your very specific) definition of heroism, or if the definitions align. Either way, the results would be enlightening. These three novels, I believe, offer a possible beginning conversation due to the inclusion of war and/or veterans:

- House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday

- Dark River by Louis Owens

- Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko


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