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.

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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!

Grad School in the Time of Corona

Pardon my French, but what a shit storm of a week it’s been.

The spread and severity of COVID-19 has taken many of us, as individuals and as institutions, by surprise. Here in the Heartland, far from the coasts where infection rates are higher, we thought we’d be insulated for a while. Spoiler alert: we were not. About 10 days ago, we were told that after Spring Break (this week), we’d be moving to online instruction for just two weeks, but staff would still come to work. On Tuesday the University mandated remote work for all non-essential (i.e. non-health care or research) personnel; on Wednesday Spring Break was extended a week, virtual instruction was extended for the rest of the semester, commencements were cancelled, and students were given 36 hours to get out of the dorms.

Of course, this head-spinning changing of plans—and the incessant pinging of new emails as a result—has been happening at schools across the country for weeks now. For undergraduates, especially those without a safety net, the confusion and panic of being kicked out of dorms is visceral. For those finishing a degree this Spring (like my husband), there is real mourning to be done over the cancellation of commencement. And for the rest of us graduate students—what happens now?

Do we push through, hunker down at our kitchen tables and immediately pound out chapter draft after chapter draft, speed-read all those dissertation sources we’ve never had the time for, now that we “have all this free time” and “don’t have any distractions”? Maybe that’s working out for some of you, but it sure as hell hasn’t worked for me.

Even though social distancing and working remotely should not have affected my routine in any major way on paper, the inability to work outside my home has had a significant impact mentally. As an able-bodied person, this is new for me. And I’m guessing it’s new for a lot of other healthy, able-bodied grad students, too.

The imperative to practice social distancing should not have affected my life or routine very much. I have become more and more introverted as I’ve aged; adopting a puppy last Fall put even more restrictions on my already limited social calendar. I already communicated with my closest friends primarily via text, phone call, or FaceTime. Basically, I don’t get out much. To be honest, when we had confirmed cases in our county but before the virus reached crisis level, I was kind of okay with having a built-in excuse to stay home for the next few weeks. But now that the danger is real and everything is shut down, now that I literally cannot go out, I find myself strangely wanting to. Add the realization that I’ll be spending my final few months in Iowa on lockdown, and you get the weird, anxious/depressed, lack-of-productivity soup that I’ve been swimming in all week.

And so I say this to all of you thesis- and dissertation-writing graduate students working from your couch today, because I need to hear it too: it’s okay to stop working and feel your feelings. It is important to grieve the freedoms that this pandemic has taken away and everything you will miss over the coming months. It is normal to be anxious and stressed about your health and that of your loved ones. It’s okay to stay in your pajamas all day and binge shows on Hulu and, you know, actually take a break this Spring Break. Because this is no ordinary Spring Break. This is a semi-quarantine brought on by a global health crisis.

You can’t wallow in your feelings forever, but you can’t skip right over them either. You have to sit with them for a while. The one luxury of being stuck at home is that unlike most of your time in graduate school, you actually have time to do that now.

I have spent a whopping 90 minutes on my dissertation this week. To be honest, most of my time not spent doing my assistantship work remotely has been spent knitting up a storm or snuggling with my puppy. At the beginning of the week I felt bad about “being unproductive” despite very few changes to my routine on paper. Now I realize that I needed this break.

Routines keep us sane, and it’s important during this time of isolation and uncertainty that we hold onto as many routines as we can. So next week it’s back to business for me, and I hope it will be for you too. I will get up and put on real clothes every day. I will sit at our desk or my kitchen table (anywhere but my bed, really) and spend a few hours getting shit done. I’ll get some fresh air, walk my dog (while keeping 6 feet from other humans), do some yoga. I’ll set myself a schedule for work, exercise, and relaxation, and I’ll do my best to stick to it.

Grad school is so hard on our physical and mental health as it is; let’s not let this pandemic make it even worse. I hope you will prioritize your mental health even as you try to get some work done. And for God’s sake, wash your damn hands.

With A Little Help From My Friends

My cohort rejoiced last Spring when all three of us passed our PhD comprehensive exams. We were ABD! We were finally free to read only what we wanted to read! But that joy quickly turned to melancholy as the Fall semester plodded on and we saw each other less and less, each of us immersed in trying to get our individual projects off the ground. And on my end at least, seeing folks from my department less often and having fewer hard deadlines meant that my productivity slowed to a crawl.

I don't want to

Dissertating is a lonely task. Gone are the days of having a seminar room full of classmates all reading a shared set of texts, working through similar problems, studying together and giving each other a leg up when one classmate stumbles. Unless you’re in a large program or very lucky, no one will really understand what you’re working on as well as you do. And when no one else is reading what you’re reading, whom do you ask for help?

The whole experience can be quite solitary and isolating. But it doesn’t have to be. In fact, for the sake of both productivity and mental health, it is vitally important that the process not be this way.

This semester, I am happy to report that my cohort has found a way to beat the isolation and get out of our lonely hermit-holes while also encouraging ourselves to actually write something on a regular basis. One of my cohort-mates pointed out that if we needed regular progress check-ins and deadlines, it would be much easier to be accountable to each other than to an adviser. So at the end of last semester we agreed that this Spring, we would send each other new dissertation pages every two weeks. They don’t have to be polished pages—they can be total crap—they just have to be in everyone’s inbox every other Friday. And on the alternate Fridays, we get together for happy hour to catch up and decompress.

I certainly haven’t produced all good writing this semester. Nor have I produced that much: my first submission to the group in January was just an outline of a chapter (and my chapter organization has since changed drastically, so…). But at least I’m writing, which I hadn’t really done since October. And the more I just sit down and actually write something, anything, I hope the more good ideas and usable pages I’ll generate.

Ron Swanson_typewriter

We talk about the necessity of support networks for graduate students all the time; it’s really vital to maintain family contact and friendships outside your work as much as you can. But the support of people who are in the trenches with you, who really understand what you’re going through even if they don’t know the ins and outs of your specific topic, can make all the difference. Many universities, including mine, have dissertation accountability/support groups that work across departments and colleges, which can be incredibly helpful if you’re struggling to find motivation to get moving on your writing projects. But I hope that you’ll also find support, commiseration, and accountability when you need it within your own cohort as well.

Four years of coursework and intense exams really bonded my cohort and brought us close. There’s no way I would have gotten this far in my PhD work without them, and there’s no way I’m finishing without them either.

The amazing SEE cohort

Ancient Exchanges is here!

If you translate and/or teach ancient literature and/or create original artwork, I have news for you!

Here at the University of Iowa, my friend Adrienne Rose has spearheaded the creation of a new journal devoted to literary translations of ancient texts: Ancient Exchanges. Each issue will feature side-by-side English translations and translator’s notes, as well as a pedagogical essay for our series “In the Classroom,” which may be a guide for or reflections on using literary translation and Ancient Exchanges as pedagogical tools.

The first issue will focus on the ancient Mediterranean (primarily ancient Greek and Latin texts), but subsequent issues will expand to include the ancient world globally. We will accept literary translations from original ancient language texts including, but not limited to: Old Arabic, Aramaic, Assyrian, Coptic, Classical Chinese, Greek, Hebrew, Old and Early Middle Japanese, Latin, Old Norse, Sanskrit, Sumerian.

The best part: submissions are currently open for the Fall 2020 issue! For the full submission guidelines, including how to format your submission emails and documents, check out the journal website here, but here’s the highlights:

For translation and essay submissions:

  • poetry: up to 7 poems;
  • prose: up to 4,000 words;
  • drama: up to 15 pages;
  • reviews: up to 2,500 words
  • In the Classroom: up to 1,500 words

Submit a single document in .doc or .docx format that includes:

  • both the original and the translation in a copy-pastable format (i.e., we prefer not to receive pdfs);
  • 50- to 100-word biographies of both author and translator;
  • a short note on the process of translation (refer to published notes in Exchanges for ideas)

For visual media submissions: Photos or scans should be at least 1000 × 1000 pixels in size, and 72 dpi resolution. Please submit in .jpg format.

Reach out to any of us Ancient Exchanges staffers at if you have questions. We can’t wait to see what you all submit!

Your Holiday Gift Guide for that Special Graduate Student in Your Life

It’s that time of year again: along with all the delights of holiday treats and festive music and tacky sweaters come awkward conversations with your family and friends who don’t know how to ask you how your graduate program is going, but still feel obligated to do so. In an ideal world, Uncle Tim will just give you a reassuring side-hug while he refills your wine glass to the brim, but we all know that you’re not getting off that easy. Sometimes that well-meaning uncle will ask how long til you graduate (a bad idea); sometimes that old church friend will ask about your plans and prospects post-degree (a worse idea). When they do that, and you feel the tide of despair and rage rising in your chest, hand them this holiday gift guide and remind them of the other reason for the season: giving to those less fortunate like you, dear graduate student, who are plagued by anxiety, a too-high caffeine tolerance, and an advisor who does not understand the meaning of “break.”

Arranged from least to most expensive (kind of), I humbly offer this guide to buying the grad student in your life gifts they will love and/or actually need.

Nerdy socks


No matter what your grad student’s nerdy jam, there are socks out there to proclaim it to the world.

Tote bag


If your dear grad student has to lug piles of books back and forth from library to home to class and back again, they might as well do it in style.

Book stand

book stand

To help combat that early onset osteoporosis.
Daily planner/calendar


Make impossible to-do lists and write everything down so your grad student can keep track of exactly how far behind they are at any given moment.

Lap desk

lap desk.jpg

It’s hard to get out of bed some days. This way, the dear graduate student in your life won’t have to.

Electric kettle


Grab one that plays a happy tune to take your grad student’s mind off their growing workload and sense of despair!



Maintaining sanity in graduate school requires alcohol. If you care about your graduate student, you will help them maintain sanity in whatever form is most appropriate for your budget, be that a nice bottle of whiskey or a subscription to the Wine of the Month club. Just go for something a little nicer than the two-buck Chuck your grad student is buying for themselves.



Big enough to hold all the library books your grad student is hoarding, but skinny enough to fit in their tiny living room.

Espresso maker


Your grad student needs it, you can afford it.

Charitable donations

No, I’m not talking about writing your grad student a check for Christmas (though I’m sure their smoking credit card would thank you profusely for that!). Every discipline worth studying in graduate school touches on a part of our larger society that deserves your solidarity and your financial support. If your grad student studies science, donate in their name to a program supporting girls or traditionally underrepresented peoples in science; if they’re an English PhD, donate some books to your local public library. If your grad student is a classicist like me, give to The Sportula in their honor so that junior scholars just scraping by can get help with the (sometimes astounding) costs of school.