A Few Thoughts on Virtual CAMWS 2021

Just a couple of weeks ago we wrapped up the 117th CAMWS—and the second virtual CAMWS—annual meeting. I thought this year’s virtual conference was a huge success, thanks in large part to the amazing team of CAMWS tech volunteers who helped keep everything running smoothly. In both the panels I attended live and the ones I watched after the fact, there were very few tech hiccups—no more than we ever have in live, in-person conferences, in fact. And unlike last year, when the in-person conference wasn’t moved online until half the country was already in lockdown and some of the conference leadership seemed to grouchily prefer cancelling over having a virtual event, everyone who participated in CAMWS this year seemed to have a great attitude about the whole thing!

Sure, there are some cons to virtual conferencing replacing in-person events. I used to love browsing the book exhibits at conferences, running into friends from other institutions across the country and catching up. And there was always something particularly delightful about leaving town for a conference, especially as a graduate student—not being in town meant that you couldn’t be held responsible for whatever was happening in class that week, because you were off doing important professional development—i.e., drinking at the conference hotel bar after your paper presentation. Attending a conference through my laptop screen meant that it was harder to escape those everyday responsibilities of both work and home that an in-person conference eliminates.

Despite all that, I’m still hopeful that future CAMWSes will continue to include a virtual component at the least. Accessibility in its many forms is a huge pro of virtual conferencing. Disabled classicists or those with compromised immune systems for whom travel may be difficult or dangerous can attend a virtual conference without jeopardizing their health. (This is a perk that applies to everyone else, too, as we now know, having lived through covid times.) Conference travel on top of registration fees is often prohibitively expensive for students as well—and, let’s face it, some junior faculty, too. Some departments will cover graduate student travel to conferences if the student is presenting, but if you aren’t presenting and just want to attend, you’re on your own. And even before covid, travel funds were shrinking for many of us—my own department had already warned us that they would no longer be able to guarantee travel funds for presenters after 2019. Virtual conferencing eliminates those barriers to full participation for junior scholars.

And speaking of making CAMWS accessible and welcoming to all: what a delight to see panels and workshops on this year’s program with the specific goals of understanding the experiences of current classicists of marginalized identities as well as teaching and writing about such identities in the ancient world. I attended the presidential panel “Being Black in Classics: Some Experiences and Perspectives” and was incredibly grateful to all of the presenters for their honesty and generosity. This year’s conference also featured “Teaching Transgender Identities and Gender Diversity in Classical Studies,” a workshop for discussing and gathering resources for teaching and writing about diverse (trans)gender identities in the ancient world.

This year’s CAMWS also marked my final annual meeting as a member of the Graduate Student Issues Committee. This affiliate committee does such wonderful work connecting graduate students across the CAMWS territory and providing programming that is relevant to students’ needs. I was particularly proud to have organized and presided over our panel on diverse career opportunities at this year’s meeting. (If you hurry, you can catch all of GSIC’s programming from this year on YouTube before the videos are archived.) If you are a grad student finding your way in a classics-related field, follow GSIC on Twitter and get involved!

If you have more virtual conferences to attend this year, or if you just want to be prepared for the potentially-partially-virtual CAMWS 2022 in Winston-Salem, NC, may I humbly offer this Virtual Conference Drinking Game of my own design? (I don’t recommend getting smashed in live panels and potentially typing embarrassing things in the chat, so if you are playing this game in a live panel as opposed to watching the replay, maybe consider playing with coffee or tea.)


  • A question turns out to actually just be a comment
  • A presenter forgets to unmute themselves
  • A presenter’s pet appears in their screen
  • Someone draws out the sentence, “I’m going to shaaaaaare my screeeeeen heeeere….”


  • A participant begins their question by stating that they have a two-part question
  • A presider makes a joke about seeing/meeting/being with everyone virtually
  • A lag causes participants to talk over each other


  • A participant’s fake background causes them to disappear (or objects that are really in the room to appear) in and out of the background
  • A presider cuts off a panelist for going over time

A Long Time Coming

The task of processing everything that has happened over the last few weeks and all my feelings about it seems almost impossible. For me, at least, these historic moments have dovetailed with watching powerful films in curious ways, all of it culminating in a newfound obsession with an old favorite song.

Two weeks ago we sat glued to the news for hours watching the aftermath of an attempted white supremacist coup in DC that disrupted the process of certifying our freest and fairest election on record. I watched in horror, but sadly not in shock, as politicians and acquaintances alike attempted to both distance themselves from the violence and maintain false claims of election fraud in a truly disgusting display of cognitive dissonance. We cheered in satisfaction and relief as some of the traitorous coup participants were arrested, and we held our breath in anticipation of more violence surrounding the inauguration. But yesterday, with a collective sigh of relief (and a lot of champagne), we finally reached the long-awaited end of the Great Orange Menace’s presidency and the inauguration of our nation’s first Black, Asian, and woman Vice President. (And Joe, too, I guess.)

Never getting over this moment: the swearing-in of Vice President Kamala Harris.

In this midst of all this, my husband and I watched the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? chronicling the life and work of Fred Rogers, beloved TV companion of my childhood. It was a bittersweet thing to watch, since Mr. Rogers embodied the kind of empathy that we so desperately need more of these days. The next weekend we watched Regina King’s new film adaptation of Kemp Powers’ play One Night in Miami: full of powerful actors and even more powerful writing, it was both a balm for the soul and a poignant reminder of how far we have not come over the last 50+ years. And on Monday, two days before the inauguration, we watched Sam Pollard’s documentary MLK/FBI and were horrified (but again, sadly, not shocked) at the lengths to which the fragile men in charge of the FBI went to try to sabotage Dr. King.

As a result of this coincidence of historic events, incredible acting, and massive relief at a violence-free transfer of power, I have now had Sam Cooke’s song “A Change is Gonna Come” stuck in my head for several days in a row. No matter what else I listen to, I can’t get it out. I’ve listened to and loved Sam Cooke for years, so my interest was piqued when I heard he was portrayed by the incomparable Leslie Odom Jr. in One Night in Miami. Naturally, Leslie did not disappoint. My heart soared as the film ended with a portrayal of Cooke’s performance of “A Change is Gonna Come” on The Tonight Show (which apparently did happen, though the tapes have been lost).

“A Change is Gonna Come” is Sam Cooke’s most overtly political song (and despite what the fudged timeline of the film would have you think, we do not actually have Malcolm X’s goading to thank for this song’s existence). Although it’s well documented that Cooke was inspired by “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan and the Peter, Paul and Mary cover, I find his song carries a much more powerful message of hope and call to action than Dylan’s. Dylan’s chorus — “the answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind” — seems to cop out of the persistent questions of his verses. How many roads must a man walk down? How many times can a man turn his head? Dylan shrugs his shoulders. As we’ve seen time and again, this is a pretty typical privileged response to being confronted with injustice in its various forms: “Well that’s sad, but what do you want me to do about it?”

Cooke doesn’t accept just a shrug, and he doesn’t ask vague or abstract questions in the third person about when it’s all going to get better. He refuses to shy away from the ugliness of the world, but places himself in the midst of the struggle with a consistent first-person perspective. He names specific instances of racist treatment (“I go to the movie and I go downtown / Somebody keep telling me, don’t hang around”) and those who should be allies refusing to offer help (“Then I go to my brother… / but he winds up knocking me back down on my knees”). These words could have been written last week just as easily as 50 years ago — sobering thought.

Cooke doesn’t shrug at any of this injustice. Rather, he’s exhausted by it: “It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die;” “There been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long.” There’s nothing abstract or aloof about this. This is a blunt confrontation of the toll that generations of oppression takes on the oppressed. And yet this is not a song of despair, or of hand-wringing at what potential solutions might be. Despite the exhaustion of waiting for justice, this is a song of hope and expectation: “It’s been a long, a long time coming / but I know a change gonna come / Oh, yes it will.”

I hope that the emotional whiplash of this January’s events can serve as a call to us to renew our commitments to justice — not just in the abstract, but in the real, uncomfortable, and sometimes messy ways we are asked to confront injustice in the world. May we be galvanized by the domestic terrorist attack that showed us how much work we have yet to do; may we be inspired by yesterday’s historic inauguration and the promise of an administration more receptive to progress to keep pushing for equity, justice, and accountability.

A change gonna come. Oh, yes it will.

Bye, 2020

I don’t think anyone is sorry to be showing 2020 the door this week. This year, the opening of a new decade (depending on your perspective), was seen by so many of us as the time when we would take control of our lives, take on new challenges, bring renewed energy to existing goals, cast off toxic habits and relationships, make dream careers a reality…and then it all came to a screeching halt with the rapid and deadly spread of CoVid-19. A virus that was supposed to take only a month or two to get under control has now taken millions of lives and, despite the new vaccines, shows little sign of slowing its rampage through humanity.

I was supposed to travel the country extensively this year, both for conferences and to celebrate a friend’s completion of her PhD; I was supposed to go to a James Taylor and Jackson Browne concert; none of it happened. We moved across the country in July because we had to, which was terrifying, and we haven’t been able to explore our new city the way we would have liked to. One endless work-from-home day has blurred into the next until I find myself here, on March 292nd, wondering how the entire year managed to slip away in a blur of brutality and screen fatigue.

But because everything went to shit this year, we were forced into a time of reckoning. When we were suddenly not allowed to hop onto our daily hamster wheel, the things that really matter — both good and bad — all came into sharper focus. Suddenly it became clear which relationships were worth prioritizing and which should be let go. Glued to the news or desperate for more books to read, the ways we daily uphold systemic racism and police brutality became something white people could no longer ignore. This year has been fucking brutal in myriad ways, but oddly enough 2020 did exactly what the open/close of a decade should do: it forced us to reflect, to confront, to reorient. 2020 pulled back the curtain on so much ugliness in every facet of our society and refused to cover it back up again, no matter how we begged. And now we know that we can never just “go back to normal,” because normal was literally killing us.

I don’t really do New Years resolutions, but the dumpster fire that has been 2020 has taught me a lot about who I am and what actually matters in my life. So in the spirit of the new year and new decade, in the hope of better things to come in 2021, here are some of the ugly things I’m doing my best to leave in 2020:

Body-shaming. This year I’ve made an effort to confront my internalized fatphobia, to listen to activists and friends, and to consider the times that I have body shamed people around me. My effort to change my mentality toward fatness has mostly been focused on how I react to other people; what’s holding me back is the body shaming that I direct at myself. I realized a few months ago that, despite the fact that I am living through a global health crisis as an adult woman with an adult woman’s body, I was still comparing my current body to my 19-year-old body. Why was I expecting my 28-year-old self to conform to 19-year-old Sara’s weight and measurements? Why was I disappointed in my adult body for being exactly that — the body of an adult and not a teenager? Going forward I plan to make a conscious effort to accept and love my body exactly as it is, through whatever changes it undergoes.

Bras. I used to never leave the house without one on, even if I was wearing bulky enough clothing to get away with it. That all went out the window with self-quarantining and working from home. Why wear a bra when people only see you from the clavicle up on Zoom? Sure, I have to go out in public to walk the dog, but you know what? Everybody has nipples. And everybody knows it. Bras are uncomfortable and only actually necessary for a fraction of my outfits. I’ll wear them when I want to, and no more.

Using ignorance as an excuse. It’s true that we can’t do better unless/until we know better, but it’s almost 2021. If by now we don’t know better — about our own internalized white supremacy, about misogyny, about ableism, about anti-fat bias — it’s because we have chosen not to pay attention. Ignorance isn’t a neutral position or excuse anymore. I’m done using it as one. Time to learn as much as possible, to get involved, to get comfortable being called out.

Equating productivity with work. You know what else besides work is productive? Reading for pleasure. Baking bread. Sleeping in. Playing with my dog. Sitting on my butt watching Star Trek. Why? Because these things produce a happy life for me. I am not a dissertation machine, so in 2021 I’m going to (try to) stop being disappointed in myself for not working like a machine.

Alarm clocks. Not 100% doable, but this is part of my productivity = work mentality that needs to go. Every morning my alarm goes off at 6:15, and every morning I either hit “snooze” multiple times or turn it off completely. Usually I just wait for my dog to get in my face and demand breakfast. Yet for some reason I have left this alarm on all year. At the beginning of quarantine I felt guilty for getting up an hour later than I used to. Time to kiss that guilt goodbye. Sleep is good!!

Guilt knitting. This may only make sense to the crafters reading this, but I’m guessing it will resonate. Gift knitting is a wonderful thing and I truly enjoy doing it. But there is such a thing as too much gift knitting, when it stops being a fun labor of love and starts seeming like an obligation weighing me down — which it often does. Then there’s the guilt when I look at yarn that I’ve had stashed for years and never done anything with. I decided halfway through this year that I was all done crafting out of obligation; I was only going to make things that made me happy because I didn’t need any more unhappy in 2020. That worked until Christmas….but knitting is too labor-intensive to do if you’re not enjoying the project. In 2021 I want to be more intentional about the things I make, and how and why I make them. No more guilt over knitting for myself!

Wearing pants when not absolutely necessary. Nuff said.

Whatever you’re hoping for 2021 to bring, I hope you can leave what’s weighing you down in 2020 where it belongs. Happy New Year, friends, and good fucking riddance, 2020!

Medusa, Too?

Most of you have probably heard by now about Medusa with the Head of Perseus, a 7-foot statue that was recently installed outside the courthouse in New York City where Harvey Weinstein was convicted of sex crimes. And if you’ve heard of the statue, you’ve also heard a myriad of interpretations of it, because WOW do people have strong opinions about this. For some survivors of assault, the sculpture is cathartic and empowering both in its content and its current display context. Others see its simple “flip the script” narrative as everything that is wrong with art. Some folks are angry that Medusa is conventionally pretty.

Though its fame is recent, the sculpture was completed back in 2008 by Luciano Garbati. The work existed in relative obscurity until 2018, when it was hailed as “a symbol of feminist rage” and thus closely tied (by the media) to the rise of the #MeToo movement in the popular consciousness. I will say that my initial split-second reaction was basically triumphant feminist rage. But my next-second reaction was more like, “Wait…where’s her vagina? WTF kind of feminist symbol is a Barbie vagina?!” So, a different kind of feminist rage. And one in which I’m not alone, though it is amazing to me how many people are more angry about Medusa’s nudity than they are about her anatomically incorrect nudity. Garbati went to so much trouble to make the breasts and figure realistic; are vaginas really so offensive that he couldn’t continue the realism there?

Please notice the distinct lack of vagina. Is this what men think we look like under our clothes? Do they think vaginas are scary and/or ugly? For girls who see this statue, what does this tell them about their bodies?

The statue’s rise to fame alongside the Me Too movement and its current placement in Lower Manhattan have caused many people to misinterpret the statue as a symbol of Me Too. But it is not at all symbolic of Tarana Burke’s Me Too movement, and attempts to say otherwise are misguided and misinformed about both the sculpture’s place in art history and the true purpose of Me Too.

Text of Burke’s caption: I have been sent this @nytimes article several times in the last day or so. For those who haven’t seen it – this statue of Medusa holding the severed head of Perseus has been placed across from the courthouse in Manhattan.
Normally I let these things pass but I just feel the need to speak on this.
This statue of Medusa holding the head of Perseus has been dubbed by some, including apparently the sculptor, as a tribute to the ‘me too.’ Movement and it could not be more INACCURATE.
First, let me say as a survivor, if this feels cathartic to you – I’m not taking anything away from that. However, this Movement is not about retribution or revenge and it’s certainly not about violence. It is about HEALING and ACTION.
But let me tell you what the Movement is also not:
People who don’t identify as women experience sexual violence.
Children experience sexual violence
and MEN experience sexual violence.
This statue doubles down on the idea that this Movement is about hunting down men. It also ties our healing to revenge and casts the semblance of justice that comes from the judicial system as retribution as opposed to accountability.
Even in this article the sculpture says that Medusa was raped by Poseidon but she’s holding the head of Perseus.
None of it is right. This isn’t the kind of symbolism that this Movement needs and honestly, if the sculptor wanted to pay tribute to the ‘me too.’ Movement he should have given me a call and I would have told him to take a clue from @breakthesilenceday who built the first ever Survivors Memorial recently unveiled in Minneapolis. It pays honor to the courage and strength of survivors of sexual violence on whose backs this movement is built. It provides a beautiful space for respite and restoration and doesn’t involve harm doers in any capacity. He could have even created something to memorialize the women who have stood outside of that courtroom in beautiful solidarity.
This monument may mean something to some folks but it is NOT representative of the work that we do or anything we stand for. Be clear.

Ultimately, whether you like Garbati’s sculpture or not, its artistic choices, its current display location, and the attempts to connect it to a movement that was not the actual context for its creation combine to make this an excellent example of why displays of public art really need to be accompanied by good labels to give context. Maybe then, at the very least, people wouldn’t be so confused about why she’s holding Perseus’s head instead of Poseidon’s.

But if you, dear reader, are one of those people confused about whose head Medusa is or should be holding, allow me to enlighten you.

The myth of Medusa is a sad one. In Ovid’s version in the Metamorphoses, Medusa was a beautiful young woman who was raped by Poseidon in Athena’s temple. Athena was furious that such an act defiled her temple. But as was usual in antiquity and all too common now, all that rage was directed squarely at the victim rather than the perpetrator. Rather than try to punish her fellow god, Athena punished Medusa by transforming her into a monstrous creature with snakes for hair whose stare would turn any living creature to stone. (Lots of people will have you believe that Medusa’s gaze would specifically turn men into stone, but the sources don’t support that. It’s just that Medusa only ever petrified men because only men were stupid enough to try to get a close look at her.)

Medusa lived in exile (in some versions, with her sisters who were also monstrously transformed), cut off from all human society forever. Rather than become an object of pity, men continued to consider her body as an object for the conquering: killing Medusa was the new object of every would-be hero. Of course her petrifying gaze conquered all of them, until Perseus came along. He managed to behead Medusa by only looking at her reflection in his shield, in which her gaze was rendered innocuous. Ovid also has Perseus kill Medusa while she sleeps, which fits the tradition when confronted with monsters (think Odysseus blinding Polyphemus), but makes him decidedly less impressive in my book. Perseus kept Medusa’s head in a special bag, since her eyes maintained their petrifying power even in death, and used it as a weapon to defeat the sea monster sent to destroy Andromeda.

Unknown artist, late 1st c. BCE. Wall painting of Perseus and Andromeda in landscape, from the imperial villa at Boscotrecase. Housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by yours truly, 2019.

The story of Perseus “defeating” Medusa and using her power to rescue Andromeda has been a popular theme in art since antiquity, even in our own times with the 1981 film Clash of the Titans and the (truly dreadful) remake in 2010. The Italian Renaissance was no exception to this, of course. More than one artist tried his hand at this theme, but the most famous version remains Benvenuto Cellini’s bronze sculpture, Perseus with the Head of Medusa, housed at the Loggia in Florence.

Benvenuto Cellini, 1545-1555. Perseus with the Head of Medusa. Wikimedia Commons. Please note the anatomically correct genitalia.

This work was commissioned by Cosimo I de’ Medici, a great-grandson of Lorenzo de’ Medici (the Magnificent). Cellini needed the work to make a statement of the Medici’s power over Florence, so placing Perseus and Medusa’s petrifying head in a loggia already filled with marble statues made a playful but powerful statement. Even Cellini’s method made a statement of grandeur: monumental bronze statues of the day were cast in several pieces and then put together, but Cellini took the much more difficult (and thus more impressive) road of casting the sculpture all in one piece. Cellini’s statue stands on a marble base with scenes from the story of Perseus and Andromeda on each side; figural bases were common in antiquity but not in Cellini’s time, so this was both an innovation and a nod to ancient tradition. Notice, too, that Perseus is trampling on Medusa’s nude headless corpse. Perseus is shown definitively as a conquering hero, a destroyer of monsters and protector of women and social order. (Barf.)

If you have done any study of European art history, or any travel in Italy, you know about Cellini’s Perseus. And if you know about Cellini’s Perseus, then it was immediately obvious to you what Garbati’s Medusa was trying to do. This is a textbook flip-the-script, in many ways: though some details of stance are changed, all Garbati has really done is reverse the roles. Medusa does not hold Poseidon’s severed head, as some people seem to wish she did, because there is no statue of Poseidon holding Medusa’s head. And there is no statue of Poseidon holding Medusa’s head because Poseidon was not her killer (at least not directly).

Garbati’s Medusa is in dialogue with art history as much or even more than it is with ancient Greek mythology. Garbati’s Medusa fits Western beauty conventions because Cellini’s Perseus fit Western beauty conventions. Medusa is nude because ancient heroes were always depicted nude, and Renaissance painters and sculptors followed that precedent. Perseus holds Medusa’s head aloft as a weapon; Medusa’s only weapon is her sword, her petrifying gaze rendered static so we who view her full in the face are not in danger. Perseus is triumphant, a conqueror who saw only a monster in Medusa; Medusa is somber, a victimized, mutilated, and outcast woman who has killed in self-defense.

Of course, Garbati’s Medusa fails to live up to its goal in a few key ways, number one being the Barbie crotch. (Why, whyyyy the Barbie crotch?!?) Although flipping the script can be a powerful method of making viewers confront their preconceived notions of gender, it is really only useful as a first step toward dismantling internalized patriarchy. Although portraying powerful women refusing to take any shit feels cathartic, we know that very little real progress can be made when women and femmes simply replicate the power structures and methods of our oppressors. In some ways this Medusa does us a great service in pointing out all the ways in which our society is still very backward when it comes to the treatment of women’s bodies, because it plays into some of those outdated cultural narratives.

Art is in the eye of the beholder. A sculpture that holds deep emotional meaning for me may mean nothing to you; neither of our feelings are invalidated by the other’s. Garbati’s Medusa is a response to and engagement with the Western art historical tradition, nothing more or less. To attempt to make her more than that, to attempt to make her represent the entire Me Too movement which is built on rejecting violence, distorts both the sculpture and the purpose of the movement.

Lanam fecit and Craftivism

Women in antiquity were so much more badass than they get credit for. Because we hear almost exclusively from men in the surviving literature, our portraits of women in antiquity are sketchy and highly biased (as we saw with Clodia Metelli). The tombstones of Roman women usually focus on their virtues as wives, mothers, and homemakers, including the common phrases domum servavit, lanam fecit: “she cared for the home, she spun wool.”

Weaving was a symbol of feminine virtue and chastity: a “good wife” stayed home, spinning thread and weaving clothing for her family. The prime example of this from Latin literature is, of course, Lucretia: Livy recounts the legend that the princes and leading men of Rome decide (late at night, in a fog of alcohol and competitive spirit) to pay surprise visits to their wives to see what they got up to when no one was watching. While other wives and daughters are enjoying a girls’ night out (nothing to be ashamed of, unless you’re an uptight Roman), Collatinus’s wife Lucretia is sitting in the front hall of their home, her maids around her, hard at work weaving and spinning despite the late hour (Livy 1.57). Everyone is forced to agree that Lucretia is the most virtuous and pure of all their wives. Of course, Collatinus’s desire to show off his wife results in disastrous consequences for Lucretia, but her suicide solidifies her legacy as the quintessential chaste wife. For the duration of Roman society, weaving remains the ultimate symbol of feminine virtue.

The Relief of Ulpia Epigone, Rome; early 2nd century C.E. Notice the wool basket that Ulpia uses as a footrest — a subtle signal of her homemaking virtues. Image from Eve D’Ambra, ed. Roman Art in Context (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1993), fig. 37.

But even our male-dominated literature hints at the power of such cottage industry. Greek myths memorialized tales of women who used their weaving as a means of storytelling, or as a way to claim power within their own household. Penelope held off the gang of suitors in her house by telling them that she would choose a new husband after she finished weaving her father-in-law’s burial shroud; by day she worked at her loom, and by night she unraveled her progress. This trick worked FOR THREE YEARS, until they finally caught her unweaving one night (Od. 2.93ff).

Dora Wheeler (American), “Penelope Unraveling Her Work at Night.” 1886. Wikimedia Commons, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
This work, memorializing the power of textile production, is itself a textile: it is made of silk embroidered with silk thread.

Helen of Troy is often vilified for betraying her husband and thus her womanly virtue, but the first time we see Helen in the Iliad (3.125), she is sitting in the hall, weaving a double-thick purple cloth and embroidering it with the battles between Trojans and Greeks. Within the Iliad itself, we see that Helen is weaving her own Iliad, simultaneously reclaiming her virtue and her voice in telling her version of the story.

In Book 6 of the Metamorphoses, Ovid tells two tales of powerful weaving: Arachne and Philomela. Philomela is raped by her own brother-in-law. When she threatens to tell her sister (his wife) about what he has done, he cuts out Philomela’s tongue and keeps her locked up. But apparently weaving is so integral to female existence that even prisoner-women have access to looms and wool: in captivity Philomela weaves a tapestry that reveals what has happened to her and sends it to her sister, who deciphers the message, rescues Philomela, and exacts revenge on her husband by killing their son and serving him up in a stew. Philomela regains her voice and freedom through weaving.

Arachne is a humble girl from Lydia with nothing to recommend her except her incredible skill in spinning and weaving, so great that wood nymphs leave their homes to watch her work and that she’s said to rival Athena’s own skill. The goddess of weaving comes to challenge Arachne, and the girl does not back down. Athena weaves a tapestry depicting the naming of Athens after herself, as well as motifs of mortals who suffered for challenging the gods as a warning to Arachne. Arachne, on the other hand, weaves the crimes of the gods: she depicts Zeus, Poseidon, and Apollo disguising themselves to rape mortal women. Athena rips up the tapestry, beats Arachne, and changes her into a spider, but not for being unable to match the goddess’s ability: she can find no fault with Arachne’s skill, and this infuriates her (Met. 6.129-130). Not only did Arachne not lose the contest, she exposed the gods’ crimes to boot: that is why Athena punished her.

Greek terracotta lekythos showing women weaving at a loom, spinning wool into thread, and folding a finished cloth. 550-530 BCE; attributed to the Amasis Painter. Metropolitan Museum of Art (Creative Commons).

If women’s fiber arts held such power in myth, we can comfortably infer that they held at least some similar power in real life as well, though few literary records of it survive. Despite being consistently undervalued, fiber arts throughout western history were much more than a way to clothe the family: weaving and embroidery gave women a chance to tell stories their own way, as well as to gather in community and build each other up. This aspect of craft is alive and well today, in what is generally referred to as craftivism.

Modern craftivists express their identities and beliefs through the objects they craft. Craftivism can manifest at every level of a created object, from sourcing environmentally friendly fibers or found/recycled materials, to the design process, to the imagery itself, to the display context. Craftivism ranges from the anti-capitalist/anti-sweatshop intent to make one’s own clothing, to public knit-ins that protest injustice or raise awareness of gendered space and unpaid labor, to crafting pieces that challenge injustice or celebrate social change, to simply using a crafting context as an opportunity to discuss solutions to social and political problems.

Although craftivism happens everywhere that crafting happens, my personal awareness of it comes primarily from Instagram: as a knitter and crocheter myself, I follow several artists and designers that subscribe to a craftivist ethos. In the rest of this post I’ve highlighted just a few of the exemplary instances of craftivism that populate my feed. Penelope would be proud of these folks.

The Knitorious RBG is a sweater knitting pattern by designer Park Williams.

The Social Justice Sewing Academy “empowers youth to use textile art as a vehicle for personal transformation and community cohesion and become agents of social change.”

Jessie Telfair, a Black woman from Georgia, was fired from her job because she tried to register to vote. She made this quilt some twenty years later (in the early 1980s) as a response. The quilt is now on display at the American Folk Art Museum.

Empower People 2020 is a craftivism movement that aims to unite crafters in all media to seize the pivotal moment that 2020 has become in the United States and work for social justice.

In addition to this shawl pattern in honor of Juneteenth, Shay also designs size inclusive garment patterns.

Voting activism + an app that makes knitting patterns accessible. Hooray for Knitrino!

I think the book cover says it all here.
The iconic Lady in Orange, Gaye shares her knits and wisdom, and calls us in to “stand in the gap.”
Grace Anna Farrow (@astitchtowear) embroiders powerful famous quotes and calls to action.

Part of craftivism is remembering the crafting ancestors who came before us. In that spirit, let’s close by remembering and valuing the work that women like Claudia did:

Hospes quod deico paullum est asta ac pellege /
h{e}ic est sepulcrum hau(d) pulc(h)rum pulc(h)rai feminae /
nomen parentes nominarunt Claudiam /
su<u=O>m mareitum corde deilexit s{o}uo /
gnatos duos creavit horunc alterum /
in terra linquit alium sub terra locat /
sermone lepido tum autem incessu commodo /
domum servavit lanam fecit dixi ab{e}i

Stranger, what I say is short; stand and read through it
This is the hardly-beautiful tomb of a beautiful woman
Her parents named her Claudia
She loved her husband with all her heart
She bore two sons, one of whom
she leaves on earth, the other she placed under it
With pleasant speech but respectable gait
she cared for her home and made wool. I have spoken; move along.

CIL 06.15346

On Shame

In high school, I had a friend from band who was a year ahead of me. My junior year, his senior year, we would pass each other in the hall almost every day between fourth and fifth period, and almost every day he’d stop to give me a hug. He wasn’t more than a few inches taller than me, but he was strong, so when he wrapped you up in a hug, you felt safe, protected, loved. (I also had a low-key crush on this friend for most of the time we knew each other, which was the other reason I loved this daily ritual.)

So almost every day I’d get my hug, and ask “How are you?” And almost every day, he would respond, “I’m Black, but that don’t matter.” I couldn’t understand why this was always his answer. I thought he was being funny. Most days I would laugh. Sometimes I would say, “If it doesn’t matter, why’d you say it?” — to which he’d shrug and walk on. Only in the last few years have I begun to understand why he said that every day, and to be ashamed of myself for being so clueless as to laugh.

He may indeed have been making a joke, but he was also naming the fundamental problem with our (my) we-don’t-see-color, race-doesn’t-matter, racism-is-always-blatantly-obvious upbringing. He was Black. Of course that mattered. To some people, it was and would continue to be the only thing about him that mattered. “Why bring it up?” I’d ask him. As if he would have the time or inclination to explain the non-stop abuse of racist infractions big and small to which he was subjected every day as a Black male teenager growing up in a post-Jim Crow South, where White people were doing their damndest to pretend the last 400 years never happened. My laughter and dismissal merely reinforced that I was completely oblivious to the White supremacy I’d been raised up in.

I am not telling this story because I am now A Good White Person Who Gets It. I’m telling this story because when I realized how much I screwed up that interaction, not just once but every day for an entire academic year, I was too ashamed to talk about it or even really think about it for a long time. In fact I avoided thinking about any of the many times in my life I’ve perpetrated racism. I allowed my guilt to keep me silent, even in conversations with myself. By not confronting my own racism, I let myself believe that I was a Good White Person. How many of you White folks reading this can relate? Every one of you has memories of your own that shame you, that you avoid thinking about because it makes you uncomfortable. And you probably think that you’re the only one.

We are programmed from the time we can talk to not talk about these things to avoid embarrassment. But our silence and our shame is what keeps White supremacy so strong. The system needs us to stay silent in order to maintain its charade of invisibility, like the Wizard of Oz hiding behind his curtain. But our avoidance and denial of our own racism only perpetuates the problem. White silence is White violence.

I know that posting this piece at all risks re-centering my own White voice, drawing sympathy for myself instead of for the cause. I do want to be clear that I do not expect forgiveness, from this particular friend or any of my other Black friends, because I am not owed the forgiveness and trust of Black people. If you, dear White reader, are tempted to pat me on the back for doing the bare minimum of owning up to my mistakes, DON’T. Instead, use that energy to go read one of these pieces generously written by Black people about (anti-)racism, and/or donate to Black Lives Matter, and/or join a protest against racist police brutality near you. And don’t expect anyone to pat you on the back for those efforts, either.

It is important for us White people to know that no one doing anti-racist work is alone in these uncomfortable feelings, but also that our discomfort is NOTHING compared to the discomfort of existing while Black or as a person of color in a White supremacist society. We will never heal ourselves, never repair the racism we’ve perpetrated, never achieve justice in our world, if we let our discomfort keep us from confronting and dismantling the White supremacy within ourselves. We have to be vulnerable in order to grow.

It’s time to listen to what BIPOC have been telling us for years. It’s time to do the really uncomfortable, really important work of self-examination and study. It’s time to stop expecting a pat on the back from BIPOC for every tiny step we take toward being less terrible people. It’s time to do more than just talk and actually get out in the streets, give money, call out our friends and family on their racism and be open to getting called out on our own racism. Yes, it’s uncomfortable. Yes, we will keep feeling guilty for our mistakes. But the only thing to really be ashamed of is letting that guilt prevent us from doing the hard work.

The Princess Bride is a Greek Novel: Part Two

Another full-length blog post on the Greek novels and The Princess Bride?? Inconceivable!

Last week we talked about the frame narrative, historical past setting, pirate encounters and fake deaths, false identities and disguises, and the episodic plot that are all common to both this late 80s favorite and the ancient Greek romance novels. Today we finish off our comparison between The Princess Bride and Chariton’s novel Chaereas & Callirhoe with four more parallels, so settle in for some sidekicks, subplots, and melodrama:

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  • Rival suitors and marriages

So remember that bit about Buttercup being engaged to Prince Humperdinck instead of Westley? Buttercup makes sure that Humperdinck knows she does not love him, but she is just a farm girl, and what the prince says, goes. We aren’t privy to exactly how their engagement came about, but we can be sure that refusing Prince Humperdinck would have been dangerous for Buttercup and her family. (Of course it turns out that Humperdinck isn’t really into Buttercup either, he’s just using her, but that doesn’t diminish the powerlessness of Buttercup’s situation.)

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So too in our ancient novel, after Callirhoe is sold as a slave, she finds herself backed into a corner: her new master Dionysius is desperately in love with her and wants to marry her. Callirhoe wants to refuse but can’t tell him that she is already married, since slaves were not allowed legal marriages. But as she debates what to do, Callirhoe discovers that she is pregnant by Chaereas. For a female slave who had refused to sleep with her master to turn up pregnant by another man would be downright dangerous. For the safety of her child, Callirhoe has no choice but to marry Dionysius.

Eventually, of course, Chaereas finds out that Callirhoe is not only not dead, but in fact remarried; the dispute over whether she should stay with her first or second husband ends up going all the way to the Persian royal court for the Great King to decide. What could go wrong there?

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  • Helpful sidekicks

Every Batman needs a Robin, and every Greek novel hero has a best friend and sidekick without whom he would never be reunited with the heroine. In Chariton’s novel, Chaereas’s best bro is named Polycharmus. Chariton says they are like Achilles and Patroclus in the Iliad, the most famous (and controversial) bromance in Western literature. Polycharmus talks Chaereas out of suicide several times throughout the novel and is even sold into slavery with Chaereas, where Polycharmus completes both their allotted portions of work each day to save the despairing Chaereas from beatings. There’s no way Chaereas’s story would have had a happy ending without Polycharmus.

Even the antagonists get sidekicks in Chariton: the Great King of Persia is supposed to settle the dispute between Callirhoe’s first and second husbands and decide who gets to keep her, but of course he finds himself falling for her beauty in the process. Although the King never actually tries anything with Callirhoe, he does send his closest advisor to talk to her and figure out if she might be open to him making a move.

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And where would Westley be without Inigo Montoya and Fezzik? Sure, they try to kill him at the beginning when they’re working for Vizzini, but when Westley is “mostly dead” from being tortured at Prince Humperdinck’s hands, it’s Inigo and Fezzik who rescue him, take him to Miracle Max for a cure, plot to help him rescue Buttercup, and carry him when he’s too weak to stand. It’s safe to say that Westley would not have been a successful hero without his sidekicks, either.

As in Chariton, the movie’s bad guy gets a sidekick too: Prince Humperdinck’s six-fingered right-hand man, Count Rugen, encourages and enables Humperdinck’s worst tendencies. Count Rugen takes Westley off Humperdinck’s hands and tortures him under the guise of research. He’s a vicious character, but you have to admit that he has Humperdinck’s back….until his own past comes back to haunt him.

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  • Sad subplots

Many of the Greek novels feature secondary characters with tragic pasts, but since Chaereas & Callirhoe isn’t one of them, we’ll have to turn to a different novel instead. Achilles Tatius’s novel Leucippe & Clitophon actually has multiple tragic subplots: the first is the hero Clitophon’s cousin and mentor, Kleinias. Kleinias gives his boyfriend a horse as a gift, but when the young man takes it out to ride the first time, he is thrown from the horse and killed. Our narrator actually includes the entire story of the young man’s death and Kleinias’s private lament blaming himself for giving his beloved the horse that killed him.

Later, when our hero and heroine are fleeing to Egypt, they meet a young man Menelaus, who tells them his own sob story about being held responsible for the death of his boyfriend. (Personally I think both these stories are part of the ancient novel genre’s heterosexist agenda, but that’s a discussion for another post.)

Our sidekicks in The Princess Bride have their own sad subplots as well. We don’t know much about Fezzik’s past except that he used to be “unemployed in Greenland,” which doesn’t sound like fun — though the book goes into more depth about Fezzik’s time in various fighting rings before he met Vizzini. Inigo’s 20-year quest to avenge his father’s murder, on the other hand, is a tragic subplot so compelling that he gets the most memorable line in the movie, which he says six times:

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  • “This is true love. You think this happens every day?”

In the Greek novels and in The Princess Bride, our star-crossed lovers are periodically separated and reunited during the course of the story. After Callirhoe’s apparent death and kidnapping, and after Chaereas’s search for her results in slavery, they meet in the court of the Persian King, where they are able to see each other but not speak directly. They are separated again by the war which breaks out in Egypt, and finally reunited for good when Chaereas finds Callirhoe among his captured women and they return to Sicily in triumph. 

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Likewise, Buttercup and Westley are separated for five long years, during which the presumed-dead Westley goes from pirate prisoner to captain’s protégé and Buttercup gets engaged to an evil prince. They are temporarily reunited when Westley returns to rescue Buttercup from Humperdinck’s hired mercenaries, but separated again when Buttercup agrees to return to Humperdinck if he spares Westley’s life (a deal which Humperdinck does his best to break). Finally they are reunited when a recovering Westley, Inigo, and Fezzik storm the castle, rescue Buttercup, and ride off into the sunset.

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There you have it, friends: definitive proof that The Princess Bride and Chaereas & Callirhoe are basically the same story. I genuinely believe that if more classicists realized this fact, more of them would be studying and teaching the novels. Seriously, what better way to get students interested in ancient literature than assigning them to watch movies like The Princess Bride and Ladyhawke as homework?? You heard it here first, people. If you need me I’ll be designing my future undergrad course on the Greek novels and 1980s fantasy-romance movies.

The Princess Bride is actually an ancient Greek novel.

Lest any of you think I am trying to stir drama: I am not saying that William Goldman, author of The Princess Bride, plagiarized his whole delightful book. I am saying that the general story, as laid out by Grandpa in the opening of the 1987 movie adaptation, has been around forever: “fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles.” Of course this may remind you of the Odyssey, and rightly so, but only slightly less well known is this: it corresponds even more closely with the Greek romance novels written in the first few centuries CE.

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Even the opening scene of Grandpa reading a book to his sick grandson and peppering it with commentary reminds me of the Greek novels: Achilles Tatius’ novel Leucippe & Clitophon, for example, begins outside the main story, as Clitophon agrees to tell the tale of his amorous adventures to a stranger. This is a device as old as time: the One Thousand and One Nights, The Canterbury Talesand Decameron are all stories within a story, characters spinning yarns of varying length and detail to pass the time, or to distract each other from what is happening around them, such as illness.

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Fred Savage & Peter Falk make up the outer frame story of The Princess Bride (1987)

The parallels with Greek novels inside the main story of The Princess Bride are much more striking, and there are a lot of them, so we’ll just cover Part One today. I’ll use the Greek novel we think is the oldest, Chaereas and Callirhoe by Chariton (1st century CE), as our main point of comparison, but I’ll bring in other ancient novelists occasionally where the parallels fit.

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Haters of PDA, never fear: the Greek novels are generally pretty chaste. The novels’ heroes (for the most part) and heroines keep it in their pants until marriage, whether they want to or not. In two of the novels, including Chariton’s, the couple actually gets married at the very beginning of the story before their separation begins, but even so, we see little more than a kiss or two.

Behold, definitive proof that The Princess Bride is modern America’s ancient Greek novel:

  • Historical Past Setting

The Princess Bride is essentially historical fiction: it is set in medieval or early modern Europe, in the made-up countries of Florin and Guilder. Similarly, Chaereas & Callirhoe takes place in the 5th century BCE and includes historical places and figures: the heroine Callirhoe is presented as the daughter of Hermocrates, a general from Syracuse who played a role in defeating the Athenians’ Sicilian Expedition during the Peloponnesian War.

  • “Murdered by pirates is good!”

In the Greek novels, the sea is always a dangerous place, and expeditions usually end in either shipwreck or capture by pirates. In Chariton, Callirhoe is taken from her tomb in Syracuse by pirates and sold as a slave in Ionia (modern-day Turkey). Why was she in a tomb in the first place? Chaereas thought Callirhoe was cheating, and in his rage he kicked Callirhoe in the stomach, knocking the wind out of her so she seemed dead. This of course is another trope of the novel: the fake death, or Scheintod.

In The Princess Bride, Westley sails off to seek his fortunes, but his ship is attacked by the Dread Pirate Roberts. Westley is presumed murdered; Buttercup despairs and declares she will never love again. Of course, this is a Scheintod: we know that the hero can’t die in the first 15 minutes of the movie, but we also don’t know how or when Westley will show up again. Which leads to my next parallel…

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“You’re the Dread Pirate Roberts, admit it!”

  • False identities and disguises

What’s an adventure romance without a little good case of mistaken identity? Near the end of Chariton’s novel, Chaereas mistakes his beloved Callirhoe for one of the Persian women he’s just captured, and she mistakes him for an Egyptian general. Callirhoe finally recognizes Chaereas by his voice, and a joyful reunion ensues. In Heliodorus’s Ethiopian Tale, the heroine disguises herself as a beggar so that she can make her way across the Egyptian countryside unnoticed; her disguise is so good that the hero doesn’t recognize her until she speaks their code word. In Achilles Tatius’ novel, the heroine is sold into slavery: with her shaved head, tattered clothes, and scarred back, the hero can see only a slight resemblance to his beloved and only discovers for certain that it is her when she writes him a letter.

In The Princess Bride, Buttercup is kidnapped by mercenaries (very Greek-novel-esque) and then “rescued” from those mercenaries by none other than the Dread Pirate Roberts. By his attitude and carriage and little eye mask that really doesn’t hide his face convincingly, Buttercup is convinced of his identity as the man who killed her Westley. She does not realize that the Dread Pirate is in fact her beloved Westley until he cries out his signature phrase to her: “As you wish!”

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  • Episodic adventure

In The Princess Bride, the lovers face strange and exciting obstacles in their quest to be reunited: a sword fight, a giant fight, a lethal battle of wits, the dangerous terrain of the Fire Swamp, capture, torture, revival by grouchy miracle man, and storming a castle. The progression of adventures and obstacles doesn’t necessarily make sense. Each new adventure that the hero and his friends must face is seemingly random; there is no logical reason for the Fire Swamp and its many terrors, or a giant fight, or for the subplot of Inigo Montoya’s quest for revenge against Count Rugen — and yet.

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The ancient novels are the same way; each new adventure episode is introduced seemingly by chance. Pirates just happen to notice Callirhoe’s expensive funeral and decide to raid her tomb, where they find her alive; Chaereas and his best friend Polycharmus are in the wrong place at the wrong time while looking for Callirhoe and get sold into slavery, and they only escape execution by the skin of their teeth, because someone hears Polycharmus lamenting about Callirhoe. War just happens to break out in Egypt in the middle of the court trial for who will be Callirhoe’s husband, giving Chaereas the opportunity to beat the Persian King and get Callirhoe back.

There is no rhyme or reason to the heroes’ wanderings in any of the ancient novels, but if getting back together were straightforward and easy, the books would be no fun at all. The happy ending isn’t the interesting or good part, it’s all the stuff in the middle that counts.

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There is more to talk about here, but I can feel your eyes glazing over already, so here ends Part One of our exploration of the wonderful world of “Sara’s dissertation topic meets The Princess Bride memes.” See you next week for Part Two!

Half a Bee, Philosophically*

*must, ipso facto, half not-bee.

Minoan bee-goddess Melissa/Mellona, Wikimedia Commons

If you have studied much Egyptian, Greek, or Roman literature, you’ve probably noticed that the ancient Mediterranean folks loved bees. Like, really loved bees. The earliest evidence of apiculture (bee-keeping) comes from ancient Egypt, circa 2500 BCE, where honey was produced at temples and the bee was the symbol of the king of Lower Egypt. Before humanity figured out how to ferment grape juice into wine, we drank fermented honey (mead); even after we figured out how to make wine, we flavored it with honey.

Once you start noticing it, you’ll see that bees show up everywhere in Greek and Roman literature. Bees are model citizens of communal living; a bee-like woman is the perfect wife; bees feed infant gods; bees are related to prophecy; bees miraculously spring from the carcasses of oxen. Also, they’re just adorable.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of all the times ancient writers discussed bees; this is just a highlight reel of my personal favorite ancient bee moments, in no particular order.

1. Hurts so Good: Achilles Tatius, Leucippe & Clitophon 2.7 (ca. 2nd c. CE)

I’m writing my dissertation on the Greek romance novels, so this one has to be first. After several pages of making eyes at each other, our protagonist couple finally steal some kisses. The hero Clitophon has just seen the heroine Leucippe reciting a charm over one of her servants who suffered a bee sting, so Clitophon pretends to have been stung on the lip. As Leucippe recites the charm over his “wound,” their lips touch, and after a few moments of this, Clitophon kisses Leucippe for real:

At this she started back, crying: “What are you doing? Are you saying a charm too?” “No,” said I, “I am kissing the charmer who has cured me of my pain.” As she did not misunderstand my words, and smiled, I plucked up my courage and went on: “Ah, my dearest, I am stung again, and worse: this time the wound has reached my heart and needs your charm to heal it. I think you must have a bee on your lips, so full of honey are you, and your kisses sting. I implore you to repeat your charm once more, and do not hurry over it and make the wound worse again.”

2. The Bee Woman: Semonides of Amorgos, On Women (7th c. BCE)

To say that I like this poem would be a lie. It’s a prime example of the kind of terrifying, blinding tirade of misogyny that gets women and femmes assaulted and killed to this day. But for what it is (an insight into Semonides’s pitiful dating life), it’s well crafted, and it gives us a sense of how early the woman-as-bee trope appeared in Greek literature. Semonides describes seven types of women, likening each one to a different animal (an ass, a weasel, a monkey, etc.). All of them are highly unfavorable descriptions, except the last one:

Another is from the bee. The one who gets her is lucky,
since on her alone blame does not settle.
Under her management his livelihood flourishes and increases,
and she grows old in love with a loving husband,
the mother of a handsome and distinguished family.
She stands out among all women
and a divine grace surrounds her.
She takes no pleasure in sitting among women
in places where they talk about sex.
Such women are the best and the most sensible
whom Zeus bestows as a favour on men.

Omphalos stone, Wikimedia commons

3. Nectar of the Gods: Callimachus, Hymn to Zeus (3rd c. BCE)

The ancient Greeks loved honey and the bees that produced it so much, they believed they were worthy to be part of baby Zeus’s raising on Mount Ida:

…and [the nymph] Adrasteia laid you
in a cradle of gold, and you sucked at the rich teat
of the she-goat Amaltheia, and ate the sweet honey-comb.
For suddenly on the hills of Ida, which men call Panacra,
the works of the Panacrian bee appeared.

4. Holy Psychadelic Conversion, Batman: Joseph & Aseneth 16 (2nd c. BCE – 2nd c. CE)

Though we can’t pin down exactly when this Jewish novella was written, we can say that it’s a fun read, just as all the Jewish apocryphal literature is. In some ways this novella is very similar to the secular Greek romances: Aseneth is the daughter of an Egyptian aristocrat; she’s so beautiful that young men across the country, including Pharaoh’s son, beg for her hand in marriage, but she loves her virgin life and scorns them all. But when Joseph (of technicolor dreamcoat fame) comes over for dinner, she falls for him instantly. She knows that Joseph will never consider marrying a non-Hebrew, so she prays all night to the god of Israel. The next day, she experiences a conversion vision involving an angel of god, a magic honeycomb, and psychadelic-colored bees:

And the man stretched his hand out and placed it on her head and said, “You are blessed, Aseneth, for the indescribable things of God have been revealed to you; and blessed too are those who give their allegiance to the Lord God in penitence, for they shall eat of this comb. The bees of the Paradise of Delight have made this honey, and the angels of God eat of it, and no one who eats of it shall ever die. And the man stretched his right hand out and broke off a piece of the comb and ate it; and he put a piece of it unto Aseneth’s mouth….And bees came up from the cells of the comb, and they were white as snow, and their wings were iridescent — purple and blue and gold; and they had golden diadems on their heads and sharp-pointed strings. And all the bees flew in circles round Aseneth, from her feet right up to her head; and yet more bees, as big as queens, settled on Aseneth’s lips.

Ephesus tetradrachm, Getty museum

5. Bees, they’re just like us!: Varro, De re rustica 3.16.4 (1st c. BCE)

This is a long one, but I promise it’s worth it. This is a didactic dialogue on agriculture: so, rich guys talking about how to run your farm. In this section, Appius Claudius (big brother to Clodia — remember her?) feels the need to prove that he does so know all about bees, despite the fact that in his youth, he was too poor to buy honey to sweeten his wine. Appius proceeds to tell you everything you ever wanted to know about bee society, how it’s not all that different from the Romans themselves, and how bees taught humans everything we know about being civilized:

“In the first place, bees are produced partly from bees, and partly from the rotted carcass of a bullock. And so Archelaus, in an epigram, says that they are ‘the roaming children of a dead cow’; and the same writer says: ‘While wasps spring from horses, bees come from calves.’ Bees are not of a solitary nature, as eagles are, but are like human beings….it is from these that men learn to toil, to build, to store up food.

… “In the first place, bees are produced partly from bees, and partly from the rotted carcass of a bullock. And so Archelaus, in an epigram, says that they are ‘the roaming children of a dead cow’; and the same writer says: ‘While wasps spring from horses, bees come from calves.’ Bees are not of a solitary nature, as eagles are, but are like human beings….it is from these that men learn to toil, to build, to store up food.

… “The bee is not in the least harmful, as it injures no man’s work by pulling it apart; yet it is not so cowardly as not to fight anyone who attempts to break up its own work; but still it is well aware of its own weakness. They are with good reason called ‘the winged attendants of the Muses,’ because if at any time they are scattered they are quickly brought into one place by the beating of cymbals or the clapping of hands; and as man has assigned to those divinities Helicon and Olympus, so nature has assigned to the bees the flowering untilled mountains. They follow their own king where he goes, assist him when weary, and if he is unable to fly they bear him upon their backs, in their eagerness to serve him. They are themselves not idle, and detest the lazy; and so they attack and drive out from them the drones, as these give no help and eat the honey, and even a few bees chase larger numbers of drones in spite of their cries. On the outside of the entrance to the hive they seal up the apertures through which the air comes between the combs with a substance which the Greeks call erithace. They all live as if in an army, sleeping and working regularly in turn, and send out as it were colonies, and their leaders give certain orders with the voice, as it were in imitation of the trumpet, as happens when they have signals of peace and war with one another.”

That whole bees-spontaneously-generating-from-a-dead-ox-carcass thing? Appius wasn’t just being a weirdo. The ancient Greeks and Romans did believe that this was how bees were born; it’s called bugonia, and it was just one more reason to love your ox.

6. Battle of the Bees: Virgil, Georgics 4.67-87, 219-221 (1st c. BCE)

You knew it was coming. This is one of the most famous and perhaps the most delightful discourse on bees in the whole of ancient literature. Virgil’s entire Fourth Georgic is a love song to bees: how they live, how they fight, how delicious their honey is, how to tell the noble bees from the lazy ones. And of course their leader is a king, not a queen, because patriarchy. After explaining where to get your bees from, how to set up the hives, and what to plant for the bees, Virgil describes how the bees will go into battle to decide which of two rival kings will reign supreme:

But, if haply for battle they have gone forth – for strife with terrible turmoil has often fallen on two kings; and straightway you may presage from afar the fury of the crowd, and how their hearts thrill with war; for the warlike ring of the hoarse clarion stirs the loiterers, and a sound is heard that is like broken trumpet blasts. Then, all afire, they flock together: their wings flash, they sharpen their stings with their beaks and make ready their arms. Round their king, and even by his royal tent, they swarm in throngs, and with loud cries challenge the foe. Therefore, when they have found a clear spring day and open field, they sally forth from the gates. There is a clash; in high air arises a din; they are mingled and massed in one great ball, then tumble headlong: no thicker is hail from the sky, not so dense is the rain of acorns from the shaken oak. In the midst of the ranks the chiefs themselves, with resplendent wings, have mighty souls beating in tiny breasts, ever steadfast not to yield, until the victor’s heavy hand has driven these or those to turn their backs in flight. These storms of passion, these savage conflicts, by the tossing of a little dust will be quelled and laid to rest.

He goes on to describe the utopian society in which bees live: each bee has a job which they fulfill eagerly; they don’t bother with marriage or sex, which would make them idle; they brave all elements in pursuit of sweet herbs; they gladly lay down their lives for the hive:

Let by such tokens and such instances, some have taught that the bees received a share of the divine intelligence, and a draught of heavenly ether…

7. Beware the Bees: Herodotus, Histories 5.10 (5th c. BCE)

One of Herodotus’s little throw-away asides we all know and love, and perhaps the only negative comment about bees that I’ve ever seen in ancient literature. In speculating why no one has settled on the far side of the river Ister (the Danube), he says:

But the Thracians say that all the land beyond the Ister is full of bees, and that by reason of these none can travel there. This is no credible tale, to my mind; for those creatures are ill able to bear cold; but it appears to me rather that it is by reason of the cold that the northern lands are not inhabited. Such, then, are the stories about this region.

not the bees

This pandemic has shown us what a world without pollution might be like, but we’ve been facing a world without bees for years. Bee conservation is literally a matter of life and death for humanity: their pollination is responsible for 1/3 of our global food supply. If bees ever started disappearing from the ancient world they way they’re disappearing from ours, you know those folks would have done all they could to keep the species going strong: bugoniae on every country estate, the Egyptian god Apis being brought to Rome in style. I can hear Cato now: apis conservanda est!