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Women in Ancient and Medieval Europe Lecture 1 - Osher Lifelong Learning at UNM
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Women in Ancient and Medieval Europe Lecture 1 - Osher Lifelong Learning at UNM


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Traditionally, classes and textbooks on Western history have had little to say about the lives of women in Western civilization. This lack of attention was largely due to the fact that women were …

Traditionally, classes and textbooks on Western history have had little to say about the lives of women in Western civilization. This lack of attention was largely due to the fact that women were officially excluded from politics and the military in such formative civilizations as Classical Greece and Rome, as well as being excluded from official positions within the early Christian Church. In fact, when women did draw the attention of historians in the Classical and Medieval eras, it was usually because these women were transgressing accepted norms in these male-dominated, hierarchical societies. However, as we now know, women contributed to these early societies in very important ways, not just as wives and mothers but, occasionally, as political leaders and even military figures. In this class, we’ll examine the political, social, and cultural forces that shaped women’s lives, and we’ll examine the lives of a few of the remarkable women who challenged these forces, both successfully and unsuccessfully.

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  • 1. Map of the ancient Near East, from Lynn Hunt, The Making of the West, Volume 1.
  • 2. Mesopotamian goddesses • Ashnan—goddess of grains • Ama-arhus—goddess of fertility • Damkina—goddess of earth mother • Ereshkigal—queen of the underworld • Gula—goddess of healing and medicine • Inanna/Ishtar—goddess of love, war, and fertility • Nammu—the primeval sea • Nanshe—goddess of fishing, justice, prophecy, fertility, protector of the needy • Nidaba—goddess of astrology and learning writing • Ninhursag/Ki—mother goddess, goddess of childbirth • Ninkasi—goddess of alcohol • Ninlil—goddess of the air and grains • Ninsun—goddess of dreams and cows • Sirtir—goddess of sheep • Tiamat—primordial goddess involved in the Sumerian creation myth – Enuma Elish (When on High…): Tiamat, Apsu, and Enlil/Marduk
  • 3. Inanna/Ishtar Left star symbol associated with Inanna, Louvre Museum, Paris, c. 1200 BC; right cylinder seal depicting Inanna as the warrior, British Museum. • Goddess of love, fertility, and warfare, associated with the planet Venus • Ishtar’s descent to the underworld – Tammuz/Dummuzi
  • 4. Ereshkigal Relief in British Museum, London, c. 1800-1750 BC. • Ruler of the underworld
  • 5. Egyptian goddesses • Bast—goddess of fertility, childbirth, and perfume • Hathor—originally the vengeful eye of Ra; later goddess of music, dancing, joy, fertility • Hatmehit—fish goddess • Isis—goddess of fertility and healing, Hatmehit was one of her early forms • Ma’at—goddess of truth, justice, and balance • Menhit—goddess of war • Meshkent—goddess of childbirth and midwifery • Neith—goddess of the hunt, war, and weaving and domestic arts • Nephthys—goddess of death, decay, and the unseen • Nut—goddess of the sky, a symbol of resurrection and rebirth • Satet—goddess of bountiful floods • Sekmet—goddess of destruction and war, fought sickness and disease • Seshet—scribal goddess and librarian, responsible for accounting, astronomy, mathematics, and historical records • Tefnut—goddess of water and fertility
  • 6. Bast Left statue in the Louvre Museum, c. 650-350 BC; right statue in the British Museum, London, c. 650-350 BC. • Goddess of fertility, childbirth, and perfume
  • 7. Isis holding the infant Horus Statue in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, c. 650-350 BC. • Goddess of fertility, healing, and rebirth • Isis-Osiris rebirth myth – Seth
  • 8. Ma’at Left image of Isis from the tomb of Seti I, c. 1300 BC; right statue of Ma’at, Egyptian Museum, c. 650-350 BC. • Goddess of truth, justice, and order
  • 9. Depiction of the judgment of the deceased: Ma’at is represented by the feather on the right side of the scale; Isis and Nephthys stand behind Osiris on the far right. From the Book of the Dead of Hunefer, British Museum, c. 1275 BC.
  • 10. Nephthys Statue of Nepthys from the Louvre Museum, Paris. • Goddess of death, decay, and unseen
  • 11. Nut Image from the ceiling of the tomb of Ramses VI, Valley of the Kings, Egypt, c. 1140 BC. • Goddess of the sky, a symbol of resurrection and rebirth • Egyptian creation story – Amun-Re, Nut, and Geb
  • 12. “The earth and sky were intermixed and chaotic; the universe was formless, as if rebelling against order.” Image from the Greenfield Papyrus, British Museum, c. 950 BC.
  • 13. Seshat Relief in the Brooklyn Museum, c. 1900 BC. • Goddess of writing, associated with astronomy, mathematic s, accounting, and historical records
  • 14. Map of the ancient Mediterranean, from Lynn Hunt, The Making of the West, Volume 1.
  • 15. Minoan snake goddess Figurine in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Crete, c. 1600 BC.
  • 16. Gaia Image from the Antikenmuseen, Berlin, Germany, 410-400 BC. • Mother goddess, strongly associated with the earth and fertility • Consort of Uranus • Mother of Rhea and Chronus
  • 17. Rhea Statue in the Getty Museum, Malibu, California, c. 50 AD. • Mother goddess and fertility goddess • Mother of Zeus/Jupiter, Hera/Juno, Poseidon/Neptune, Had es/Pluto, Demeter/Cere s
  • 18. Demeter Statue in the Museo Pio-Clementino, Musei Vaticani, Vatican City. • Goddess of agriculture, fertility • Mother of Persephone (R. Prosperina) – Persephone’s abduction by Hades/Pluto • Associated with Elusinian mysteries
  • 19. Demeter Left image from the Badisches Landesmuseum, Karlsruhe, Germany, 480 BC; right image from the National Museum, Athens, Greece, 450-425 BC. Demeter with grain Demeter (right) and Persephone (left)
  • 20. Athena Frieze of the mourning Athena, original in the Acropolis Museum, Athens, Greece, c. 460 BC. • Goddess of wisdom, warfare, and women’s handicrafts • Athena Parthenos, Athena the Virgin • Patron goddess of Athens and Sparta – Athena’s sacred snake said to inhabit the temple in Athens • Romanized as Minerva
  • 21. Athena Image from the University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, 460-450 BC.
  • 22. Artemis Statue in the Louvre, Paris, France, c. 325 BC. • Goddess of the hunt, associated with important events in women’s lives • Romanized as Diana
  • 23. Artemis Left image from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA, 470 BC; right image from the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Firenze, Florence, Italy, 570-560 BC.
  • 24. Hestia Statue in Museo Torlonia, Rome, Italy, c. 470 BC. • Goddess of the hearth and home • Often depicted as a living flame • Romanized as Vesta
  • 25. Hera Image from the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, New York City, NY, c. 500-475 BC. • Queen of the gods, consort of Zeus, goddess of fertility • Mother of Ares/Mars by Zeus; gives birth to Hephaestus/Vulcan independently
  • 26. Aphrodite Statue in the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia, 420-410 BC. • Goddess of love and sexuality – Born from sea foam • Married to Hephaestus, but has affair with Ares • Romanized as Venus
  • 27. Judgment of Paris: l-r Hera, Athena, Aphrodite, Hermes, and Paris Image from the Antikenmuseen, Berlin, Germany, 440 BC.
  • 28. Female cultic practices • Cult of Athena in Athens – Panathenaea, the Parthenon • Eleusinian mysteries – A chief priest and two priestesses, one dedicated to Demeter and one to Persephone – The melissae (bees) • Thesmophoria—a Demeter cult for women only • Games of Hera—women’s version of the Olympic games • Fortuna – Fortuna Virginalis, Fortuna Primigenia, Fortuna Muliebri, Fortuna Virilis • Cult of Vesta, Vestal Virgins • Cult of Ceres • Cult of Bacchus/Dionysius – Bacchanalia; after 186 BC, Roman men forbidden to participate • Cult of Isis and Serapis – Hellenized version of the Egyptian gods Isis and Osiris • Cult of the Magna Mater/Cybele--imported into Rome c. 200 BC