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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Picasso's Guernica

September 23, 2016

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

“The world today doesn't make sense, so why should I paint pictures that do?” - Pablo Picasso

Last week, I attended a local seminar dedicated to understanding Picasso's Guernica. There is so much written about Guernica alone, that analysis is overwhelming. But part of the truth behind Guernica is the way that it affects each viewer. Picasso's large mural painted in response to the bombing of the innocent village of Gernika, Spain by Nazi forces and Franco's regime, represents a kind of witness that seems very important for society. And yet, I find myself unable to express how the idea of witness functions in society. The painting represents a truth, but that truth is different for everybody. I believe it addresses a level of anguish that exists within each of us – it recalls our own personal experience with tragedy. Atrocities like these make us question our own strength. Part of that strength, I feel, must come from generations of witness. In other words, these are things that we want to both remember and forget. They evolve into mythic discussions, passed on orally. It is this ripple effect that interests me. The truth of Guernica will not be the same to someone who physically witnessed it as it will to someone who has heard of it. Furthermore, the idea of trying to remember and trying to forget causes an internal conflict. I wonder how this internal conflict acts upon our memories.

Everyone connects with Picasso's Guernica in some way. Whether one feels overwhelmed, or finds it ugly, hateful, beautiful or otherwise, the massive figures in the painting act upon every viewer. I find it both ironic and not that the painting never made its way to the north of Spain. Instead, after a few travels, followed by a long stay at MoMA, the painting now resides in Madrid, the capital of Spain. In one sense, the painting need never return to Gernika, which witnessed atrocity firsthand. Those who rebuilt the town already know the utter depth of the town's pain, anguish and loss and therefore do not need to see the visual reminder. On the other hand, the powerful painting expresses something to them that very possibly only they can understand. Some claim that the painting is entirely Spanish – with the bull and the horse – while others claim that it offers universal truths.

Witness, therefore, is a type of truth-act. One that expresses some knowledge gained, though this knowledge comes at great expense. In the introduction to Ethics: An Essay on Understanding Evil by Alain Badiou, Peter Hallward writes, “[F]or Badiou, an ordinary (replaceable) individual becomes irreplaceable, becomes a (singular) subject, only through this very commitment itself; it is only the commitment to a truth-process that 'induces a subject'.”  In other words, humans become irreplaceable only after “an event”. This event need not be as grand or obscene as something like the destruction in Gernika, but an event that plants a Truth into an individual, thus making them unique. Their uniqueness cannot be reconstructed, but is now singular. Also, two witnesses of the same event may arrive at very different realities, which then creates two separate accounts of witness. Hallward continues, “[T]he whole question is precisely whether such deliberation is variable, in the sense of so many variations on some kind of minimally invariant process, or forever different, in the sense of so many inventions ex nihilo, each one literally peculiar to a given procedure.” Whether or not humans achieve connection is at the heart of Badiou's search in his essay on evil. The importance of this question cannot be overstated. It is the heart of how humans process not only memories of war-acts, but any memory, and whether or not that memory can be translated to another. In this case, I feel that Picasso's Guernica demonstrates a successful act of communication, one that functions on many levels and among many cultures. However, I am not sure if it speaks to something inherent in all humans (variable) or is unique in each response (forever different).

To me, this question strikes at the very heart of what we do, not only at Harrison Middleton University, but in all discussions. How do we make our thoughts known? We use universal reference points – just as Picasso has done with Guernica. We stick directly to one text, trying to understand that single thing from many perspectives. I believe that even our own internal reference points can mean more than one thing at any time. And perhaps this is what grows our imagination. Perhaps this is also the cause of misunderstandings. Each time that I look at Guernica, I see more. Each time I discuss it, I feel more. Essentially, then, an act of witness transfers both emotion and knowledge.

“An idea is a point of departure and no more. As soon as you elaborate it, it becomes transformed by thought.” - Pablo Picasso


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May 27, 2016

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

We can still appreciate many of the texts from long ago. And it is often surprising how relevant these texts still are today. So many of these ancient documents discuss some fallout from war. Edward Gibbon lists a number of major battles, dates and places in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Rarely, however, does Gibbon write out an entire text. However, he did transcribe Libanius' panegyric, written for the fall of the emperor Valens. This oration is much more powerful than a tribute to a single emperor who was neither beloved, nor worthy of adoration. Instead, this panegyric succeeds at reminding the citizens of the important qualities that founded Rome. It reminds them to appreciate the elements that are great, and work towards them. Libanius was not present at the battle, he did not know the particulars, other than what was transcribed by others. But his speech does more than represent a single battle or a single moment of time: it reinforces the idea of a commonly held belief, something strong enough to bring people together. He eloquently writes to those who are frightened and disheartened about the larger picture. His words resonate today. There are many that we could and should honor, and this piece grants us a few moments to honor the many, many men and women who have served in battle for a cause greater than themselves.

Gibbon writes:

While the impressions of grief and terror were still recent in the minds of men, the most celebrated rhetorician of the age composed the funeral oration of a vanquished army and of an unpopular prince, whose throne was already occupied by a stranger. “There are not wanting,” says the candid Libanius, “those who arraign the prudence of the emperor, or who impute the public misfortune to the want of courage and discipline in the troops. For my own part, I reverence the memory of their former exploits; I reverence the glorious death which they bravely received, standing and fighting in their ranks; I reverence the field of battle stained with their blood and the blood of the barbarians. Those honourable marks have been already washed away by the rains; but the lofty monuments of their bones, the bones of generals of centurions, and of valiant warriors, claim a longer period of duration. The king himself fought and fell in the foremost ranks of the battle. His attendants presented him with the fleetest horses of the Imperial stable, that would soon have carried him beyond the pursuit of the enemy. They vainly pressed him to reserve his important life for the future service of the republic. He still declared that he was unworthy to survive so many of the bravest and most faithful of his subjects; and the monarch was nobly buried under a mountain of the slain. Let none, therefore, presume to ascribe the victory of the barbarians to fear, to weakness, or the imprudence of the Roman troops. The chiefs and soldiers were animated by the virtue of their ancestors, whom they equalled in discipline and the arts of war. Their generous emulation was supported by the love of glory, which prompted them to contend at the same time with heat and thirst, with fire and sword, and cheerfully to embrace an honourable death as their refuge against flight and infamy. The indignation of the gods has been the only cause of the success of our enemies.

Harrison Middleton University thanks all of the servicemen and women who have defended our country.

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Los Desaparecidos

April 15, 2016

while in the midst of horror/ we fed on beauty – and that,/ is what sustained us. - Rita Dove, “Transit”


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

Something to listen to while reading today's blog: Maná, Desapariciones (a Ruben Blades cover)

A few months back, we discussed “Women in War” on our blog. Today we couple the idea of women's tactics and resources during war times with the idea of loss. The artwork included in today's blog is meant to build upon last week's discussion of war narratives. (Many thanks to Dr. Deborah Deacon for providing today's image.)

War leaves such holes within us. While we are incapable of completely filling these holes, they still demand attention. Since everyone reacts differently, the work is personal and arduous. Funerals serve an important ritual in the passage of a loved one. They offer a transition, a sense of closure. Funerals are universally recognized as important. As the body fills a space in the ground, so too does ritual fill an emotional space.

People prepare elaborate ceremonies, words, deeds, and actions, all of these performed in a rhythm. For example, the sound of Taps draws upon each of us in a unique way. We know and understand something, not everything, but these experiences draw on the deepest of our emotions. Sometimes we may not even be aware of the cultural implications underlying the funeral ritual. Yet without the ceremony, there is an additional absence, an additional unaccounted-for space. An example of the elaborateness of funeral rites comes from Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. In it, he details the burial of Alaric, the first king of the Visigoths. Gibbon writes, “The ferocious character of the barbarians [Goths] was displayed in the funeral of a hero whose valour and fortune they celebrated with mournful applause. By the labour of a captive multitude they forcibly diverted the course of the Busentinus, a small river that washes the walls of Consentia. The royal sepulchre, adorned with the splendid spoils and trophies of Rome, were then restored to their natural channel; and the secret spot where the remains of Alaric had been deposited was for ever concealed by the inhuman massacre of the prisoners who had been employed to execute the work”. They diverted a river. And yet, they revered the body of the leader so much that they include more death. There is so much death involved in death. Juxtaposed to this idea of an elaborate funeral is that of the unexplained missing persons.

An extremely complex version of loss arrives in the form of missing persons. No body, no word, no sign, no knowledge. Human brains ache for a narrative, for an end, for something more. Often the brain allows for hope even in the face of the most hopeless situation. The weight of this is often unbearable and excruciating. The lack of funeral is an important note. A lot of time and energy is spent on saying goodbye. If this ceremonial rite is denied, the emotional toll on remaining family and friends is great, to say the least.

This short paragraph from George Orwell's 1984 illustrates the idea of a person who, in Orwell's sci-fi world, suddenly ceased to exist. Orwell explains the disappearance thus: “Syme had vanished. A morning came, and he was missing from work; a few thoughtless people commented on his absence. On the next day nobody mentioned him. On the third day Winston went into the vestibule of the Records Department to look at the notice board. One of the notices carried a printed list of the members of the Chess Committee, of whom Syme had been one. It looked almost exactly as it had looked before – nothing had been crossed out – but it was one name shorter. It was enough. Syme had ceased to exist; he had never existed.” Winston laments the missing name of his friend. This chess list barely records anything, just a trace of existence. Yet, Winston speaks of Syme, identified by proper name, by recollections of personal exchange. How is it possible to have a proper name without prior knowledge of an actual being? His disappearance horrifies Winston, who is even more upset that no one else responds with outrage. Obviously, a disappearance is not uncommon in this world, but still Winston holds a few key figures in his mind. Real people worthy of more than a mere removal. He wonders if they live somewhere, exiled. Or perhaps they have been captured and detained somewhere. Questions pile on top of each other without any relief or answer. Perhaps it is for this reason that Winston begins to keep a journal.

The idea of journalling is neither unique nor revolutionary (except in 1984, where it is both). The facts of a person who 'disappears' are really never to be understood. But what happens to the family left reeling in the aftermath of such an incomprehensible scenario? The amazing truth is that the mind has the ability (almost builds the ability) to maintain contact with someone (or something) which is not present. However, in building this reality, emotions bear a heavy toll. In a paper titled, “Stitches of War: Women's Commentaries on Conflict in Latin America”, Dr. Deborah Deacon (HMU) discusses an unlikely, but effective way of dealing with some of the pain. She writes about General Pinochet in Chile: “Most of the 'disappeareds' were men and students who actively opposed the right-wing dictator, leaving wives and mothers to cope with the uncertainty of their fate. The women also had to cope with the economic and emotional uncertainty that resulted from their losses”. These women began to use embroidery on burlap sacks (called arpillera) as a way of understanding and narrating their loss. This is a sharp transition from the previous use of the arpillera, which mainly depicted landscapes and animals, but rarely people.

Personally, I love these two examples of narrative, 1984 and arpilleras. To me, they clearly demonstrate certain processes of the brain required to deal with something like loss. The women of Latin America made beautiful, colorful pieces of artwork about their own personal fear, persecution and loss. It is more than art, however. It is a narrative. An experience in journalling meant to fill space, much like a body in the ground.


This arpillera is from a workshop in Guatemala started by Ramelle Gonzalez. She had to teach the Mayan women to embroider since they previously used weaving. Polyester yarn on cotton background. Photo courtesy of Dr. Deborah Deacon.

This arpillera is from a workshop in Guatemala started by Ramelle Gonzalez. She had to teach the Mayan women to embroider since they previously used weaving. Polyester yarn on cotton background. Photo courtesy of Dr. Deborah Deacon.

This arpillera from Guatemala depicts the destruction of a Mayan village. Its vibrant colors normally hint at life and joy. Viewed from afar, the mass of green generally pleases the eye, until we begin to discriminate green plants from green soldiers. People fall amid fire, hands raised in fear and chaos. The presence of children devastates. The lower left quadrant shows a woman, child on her back, trying to stop blood from another's head wound. To write of such brutality in vibrant colors makes me think that these women wanted to allow for life among the ruins. Yet certainly, the authors of this narrative grieve deeply.

Arpilleras are a testament to life, to hope, to beauty. They survive among ruins and, I would say, they thrive. Humans pursue narrative as a form of understanding. These texts certainly represent life, in all of its diversity and strangeness. Personally, I am amazed that the authors and/or artists were capable of such emotions post-apocalypse. And I have to believe that this is evidence of the insurmountable power of the human mind, and hopefully, of love.


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