The Graces--Graeco-Roman

Creativity is a gift expressed by all peoples, male and female, elderly and middle-aged and young. It is expressed in an infinite diversity of ways--painting, sculpting, building, dancing, composing and playing music, whittling, singing, tending gardens, decorating homes, designing clothes, playing board games and card games and sports, exploring science and studying mathematics, computer programming, sculpting pottery, baking and cooking, and writing. No doubt, there are other means of expressing creativity which have yet to be discovered. Even within the few means listed here, the diversity is stunning: Though one may not know which is a Picasso and which a Georgia O'Keeffe, which is Rossini and which is aboriginal Nigerian, which is a Ming Buddha sculpture and which a Navajo kachina--the differences between these are obvious.

The emphasis in the West has long been on the creative impulses of the male--men have designed buildings and bridges, ships and airplanes, expensive clothing lines and complex scientific equipment; they have painted and sculpted masterpieces; they have sailed beyond the edge of the world and climbed the highest peaks. Yet women, too, have found means of expressing their creativity--some in realms long considered "masculine," others in arenas long considered "feminine." Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace (1815-1852), was skilled in geometry, astronomy and analytical engineering; Kyung-Wha Chung (born 1948) is recognized as one of the great violin prodigies of her generation; Coco Chanel (1883-1971) worked as a milliner and nurse before founding her world-wide perfume and fashion empire.

Women have been creative in ways as diverse as men; they have been scientists, artists, sculptors, dancers, poets, cooks. In her own way, each has revealed an aspect of the full feminine potential. In many cases, they achieved their creative potential through fortunate circumstance--they were born into wealthy families, to fathers who supported unusually-gifted daughters, or they married husbands who supported their endeavours; in many cases, too, they succeeded by their own efforts alone, through their own determination and courage. Often times, women in such circumstances have disobeyed the unwritten and written edicts of society as to what a woman's proper place and proper skills are to be; as such, many Muses have crossed the line into Amazon territory.

Presented here are a few tales of Muses, their origins and their contributions to the artistic culture of humanity. They are divided into roughly nine categories--artists, dancers, musicians, singers, courtesans, explorers, scientists, writers, and religious--though here, too, there is much cross-over. As always, comments and criticism are welcome. Please mail me.

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To Amazons

The Artists The Dancers The Musicians
The Singers The Courtesans The Explorers
The Scientists The Writers The Religious

The Artists

Art is a broad concept, and very much a relative one. Some favor Salvador Dali, while others consider him just plain weird. Some love the classical lines of Botticelli, while others think he's boring. Some are moved by the abstract lines and shapes of De Kooning, while others see blobs of paint. My consistent use of the masculine pronoun is revealing: though there have been quite a number of women artists over the centuries, few are well-known outside of artistic and academic circles. Of the six women artists I have chosen to profile here--Camille Claudel, Artemisia Gentileschi, Eva Gonzales, Frida Kahlo, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Kuan Tao-sheng--only two are fairly well-known; the other four may be known by name only, and not by their work. Bear in mind that this is but a microscopic sampling of women's artistic output.


Born in La Fere-en-Tardenois, France, Camille Claudel is most well-known as the sister of poet Paul Claudel and the mistress of sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917). Yet she was also an artist in her own right, and quite a talented one. Claudel decided on sculpture as her passion at an early age; then, in 1884, she was introduced to Rodin. She worked as his student and model from 1884 through 1898; sometime during those years, they became lovers. Theirs was a fiery and unstable relationship. Art historians believe that Claudel contributed whole figures, carved with great mastery, to Rodin's body of work, especially his Gates of Hell commission. She received no credit for these figures. She continued to sculpt following her break with Rodin, finally achieving renown of her own around the turn of the century. During the last decades of her life, however, Claudel suffered from mental instability; from 1913 on, she was confined to various institutions.


She was born in Rome, the precocious and talented daughter of painter Orazio Gentileschi. His daughter's talents soon surpassed his own, however, and so Orazio searched for a tutor who could continue his daughter's education. In 1612, he chose the well-known landscape artist Agostino Tassi. It was not many months before Tassi tried to seduce her; Artemisia said no; Tassi raped her. When Orazio Gentileschi learned of the rape, he ordered Tassi to marry his daughter. Tassi said no, and so was taken to court by the humiliated father. Despite repeated torture on the witness stand (the better to ensure the veracity of her testimony), Artemisia stood by her claim of rape. "As long as I live," the survivor said, "I will have control over my being." Five months passed in this way. Tassi was ultimately convicted, served eight months in prison, and was acquitted on appeal.

Following the trial, Artemisia settled in Florence, where she became the first woman to join the painters' guild. A brief marriage resulted in a daughter, Palerma, who also painted.

Artemisia found her own way to deal with her rape: she painted--moving scenes of human tragedy and daring, with brilliant highlights and deep blacks. Her favorite (therapeutic) subject was the Biblical tale of Judith beheading Holofernes; six such canvases survive, one of which now hangs in the Uffizi.

In 1638, having apparently reconciled with her father, she traveled to Britain. There, she assisted him on a commission for King Charles. And it is there, in Hampton Court, that we find a self-portrait she left to posterity.

It was clear she knew her own worth. For much of her life, Artemisia lived independently, guiding her own career. A few years before she died, Artemisia sought to silence a critical aristocratic patron who thought true artistic skill outside a woman's means. She sent him a painting and attached the simple statement: "This will show your Lordship what a woman can do."

EVA GONZALES (1849-1883)

She was born in Paris, a dazzling beauty. Like Camille Claudel, Gonzales decided early in life that she would be an artist; Gonzales, however, chose painting. She studied first with Charles Chaplin, who also tutored the painter Mary Cassatt. At age twenty, she was approached by Impressionist artist Edouard Manet, who requested permission of her family to paint Gonzales' portrait. She was first his model, then his pupil, and she alone was permitted to sign "Pupil of Manet" on her entries to the French Salon. Two of her works include "L'Enfant de Troupe" (1870) and "La Nichee" (1874). In 1876 she wed the artist-engraver Henri Guerard. She died in 1883 of complications from childbirth, one day after the death of Manet.

FRIDA KAHLO (1907-1954)

She was born in Coyoacan, Mexico, in 1907, the daughter of a Jewish German father and Catholic Mexican mother. As a child, she decided she would be a doctor when she grew up; but a terrible car accident at age fifteen destroyed those dreams. She turned to painting during her long convalescence; over the course of years, she developed her own unique Surrealistic style. Her paintings are of vibrant color and imagery. Many celebrate the culture and heritage of Mexico. Many are of shocking theme, dealing with the pain and suffering of women. Many are self-portraits. Poet and essayist Andre Breton described Kahlo's work as "a ribbon around a bomb."

In 1928, she married the artist Diego Rivera. Their marriage was exciting and unstable; they divorced, then remarried. Together and separately, Kahlo and Rivera mixed with a group of well-known artists and radicals, including Trotsky.

Kahlo participated in the International Exhibition of Surrealism in 1940, and in 1946 won a prize at the Annual National Exhibition at the Palace of Fine Arts. Four years after her death, in 1958, the Frida Kahlo Museum was opened in her house in Coyoacan.

GEORGIA O'KEEFFE (1887-1986)

She was born in the small, middle-American town of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. During the early decades of her life, O'Keeffe studied at several prestigious art institutes, including the Art Institute of Chicago. She later headed the Art Department at West Texas State University.

From 1918, O'Keeffe devoted all her time and energy to painting. In 1924, she married Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), photographer and art dealer.

Her paintings are some of the most admired in the world. Though best known for her detailed depictions of flowers (such as "Black Iris," 1949), her prolific hand and creative mind also produced cityscapes, abstract geometric shapes, and desertscapes--"Summer Days" is the best known.

KUAN TAO-SHENG (mid-thirteenth century)

Kuan is one of China's greatest bamboo artists. Bamboo painting had been invented some two centuries earlier by another woman artist, Fu-jen; according to legend, Fu-jen suffered from insomnia; one night, she spied the shadows of bamboo trees cast by the moonlight against her window; taking pen and ink, she began to trace the beautiful shapes on the windows of rice paper.

Now, two centuries later, bamboo painting was one of the highest forms of Chinese artistry. And Kuan and her husband Chao were recognized as great bamboo artists. After the Mongol conquest of China, Kublai Khan took an interest in native culture. He commissioned numerous works of art--many from Kuan. According to her husband's fond memoirs, Kuan recieved "imperial favors as abundant as rains." Some of that admiration may well have come from explorer Marco Polo.

Kuan's finest work, "Bamboo Groves in Mist and Rain," resides now in the National Palace Museum of Taipei, where it can be admired by all.

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The Dancers

The art of dance varies greatly over time and geographic distance: from the erotic dancing of temple women to the classical ballet of Kiev to the fan dance of Japan to the waltz of nineteenth century America, humanity has used movements of the body to express hatred, love, courage, tragedy, dignity, divinity and deviltry. Few ancient dancers are known by name; and, as in the case of classical Greece, dancing was often only a part of the woman's life, not her sole occupation. Profiled here are six dancers--Agnes De Mille, Isadora Duncan, Loie Fuller, Martha Graham, Izumo no Okuni, and Tamara Karsavina--but only one lived prior to the nineteenth century. Much more research is needed in this field.

AGNES DE MILLE (1909-1993)

She was born in the city of New York in 1909, a niece of famed film director, Cecil B. De Mille. She attended and graduated from the University of California, then traveled to London, where she joined the dance troupe of Marie Rambert. In 1941, she choreographed "Three Virgins and a Devil." Attracted by the glamour of Broadway, she returned to New York. Over the next decades, Agnes De Mille went on to choreograph such musical favorites as "Oklahoma" (1943), "Carousel" (1945), "Brigadoon" (1947), "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" (1949) and "Paint Your Wagon" (1951). Not just a choreographer, however, Agnes De Mille was also known as an eloquent and witty public speaker; she also contributed to television and film, and penned three books: "Dance to the Piper" (1952), "The Book of Dance" (1963) and "American Dances" (1980).

ISADORA DUNCAN (1878-1927)

She is one of the world's most famous and talented dancers. She was born Angela Duncan in San Francisco in 1878. Ancient Greece was her inspiration; she drew from that culture's music, art and mythology to develop a new, fluid and controversial style of dancing. She drew on such everyday movements as running, skipping, hopping and running, as well as traditional styles, to create a graceful whole. Creative and ambitious, she continued to develop her style while also founding schools in Berlin, Salzburg, Vienna and Moscow. Her personal life was filled with passion and tragedy. Her liberal views on marriage and women's rights caused a scandal. She married several times, including the Russian poet Sergei Yesenin (1895-1925), who later committed suicide. A devoted mother, she was devastated when several of her children were killed in an auto accident. Duncan herself was accidently strangled when her long scarf tangled in the wheels of her car. She published her autobiography, "My Life," in 1926.

LOIE FULLER (1862-1928)

She was born Marie Lousie Fuller in Fullersburg, Illinois. She began her career as an exotic dancer in the popular vaudeville shows of the time; from 1865 to 1891, she worked as a circus performer. Then, in 1891, she traveled to Europe. There, she garbed herself in yards of swirling silk to dance before multicolored, multidirectional lights; it was a dance of sensuality, color and darkness, and it was a sensation. In 1900, she appeared at the Paris World Fair. She choregraphed more than one hundred dances, some of which were group pieces. Artists fought to win her as their model, including Toulouse-Lautrec and Auguste Rodin. She founded a dance school on 1908.

MARTHA GRAHAM (1894-1991)

Her name is almost synonymous with modern dance. She was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1894. Traveling to Los Angeles, she studied with the Denishawn School and appeared in vaudeville and revue. After appearing with the Ruth St Denis and Ted Shawn companies, in 1926 Graham made her independent debut in Manhattan. Greatly influenced by the composer Louis Horst, Graham began to develop her own style of dance, which used every aspect of mind and body to convey emotion, purpose and thought; spoken dialogue, decor, choreography and music were unified with this body/ mind whole to dramtic effect. "Lamentation" (1930) and "Frontier" (1935) are among her better known early works. In 1930, Graham founded the Dance Repertory Theater, where she began to train her company in her own method.

Graham's most famous ballet is "Appalachian Spring" (1958). It grew out of her intense interest in Native American mythology and life, and the pioneer spirit of early America. Much of Graham's work was based on reinterpretation of ancient myths (such as "Clytemnestra" in 1958) and historical personages.

She was director of the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance from 1927. Her style of dance has been widely adopted by schools and individuals throughout the world.

IZUMO NO OKUNI (1573-1614)

It was a woman who developed Kabuki, a fact little known even to many Japanese. In the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries of the common era, Izumo no Okuni was a performer in dance and religious dramas. Much like troupes of actors toured Medieval Europe and the circus toured nineteenth century America, Okuni's troupe wandered Japan. It was not for themselves alone, however: they were raising money to aid in rebuilding a religious shrine. While on the road, Okuni thought, questioned and exchanged ideas. From her discussions, especially with a well-known comedian of the time and a samaurai, came the blending of mime, classical drama and religious drama which we know as Kabuki. Four hundred years later, it remains the most popular form of Japanese theater. The public adored Okuni, particularly when she appeared in her trademark black priest's robe, swords belted to her sides. It was also Okuni who decreed that men must play female roles and women must play male roles--a tradition since overturned: now, only men appear on stage.


She was born Tamara Platonovna Karsavina in Saint Petersburg, Russia. She trained with the Imperial Ballet under Enrico Cecchetti, and joined the famous Maryinsky Theater in 1902. In 1909, she became one of the original members of the Sergei Diaghilev Company; during which time she created roles in ballets written by Michel Fokine and Vaslav Nijinsky. Married to a British diplomat, she moved to London in 1918, just after the Revolution. She remained associated with the Russian Ballet, however, guest-dancing with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes and advising on productions of his ballets. Karsavina served as Vice-President of the Royal Academy of Dancing until 1955. She also penned several books, including "Theatre Street" (1930), "Ballet Technique" (1956) and "Classical Ballet" (1962).

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The Musicians

Music is an ancient form of artistic expression; it may originally have been a form of religious devotion. Since those days, it has evolved into a diversity of forms, many of which have since faded away. A few styles of music include symphonies, jazz, allemande, Baroque, gavotte, nocturne, sonata, canticle, the gagaku ensembles of Japan, the gamelan orchestras of Indonesia, the mariachi of Mexico, wind quintets and raga. Instruments are equally diverse; the four basic groups of wind, brass, string and percussion appear in forms varying from clarinet to alpenhorn to shiwaya, from trumpet to ophicleide to sackbut, from cello to biwa to oud, from kettledrum to dhola to bodhran. Some music is meant to be played alone, while other styles are accompanied by dance and/or song. During the European Middle Ages, for instance, wandering troubadors composed music on their harps or lyres to accompany songs of love, daring and tragedy. Unfortunately, all of the women musicians profiled here--Lili Boulanger, Fanny Crosby, Lucia Dlugoszewski, Annie Fischer, Diamanda Galas, and Kay Gardner--are of the modern era.

LILI BOULANGER (1893-1918)

She was born in Paris in 1893, the younger sister of composer-conductor Nadia Boulanger. Nadia encouraged and supervised Lili during her early years. Lili went on to study at the Paris Conservatoire. In 1913 she became the first woman to win the Prix de Rome with her cantata "Faust et Helene." Other compositions include "Pour les funerailles d'un soldat" (1912), "Du fond de l'abime" (1914-1917) and "Vieille Priere bouddhique" (1917). During the First World War, she returned to France to care for the families of musicisns who had been called away to fight. Plagued by ill health most of her life, she died in 1918 at the age of twenty-five, leaving behind an unfinished opera based on Maurice Maeterlinck's "La princesse Maleine."

FANNY CROSBY (1820-1915)

She was born Frances Jane Crosby in Southeast, New York in 1820. Blind from infancy, she became a teacher at New York City's Institute for the Blind. She also worked as a missionary to New York's Lower East Side. She composed some six thousand hymns, including "Safe in the arms of Jesus" (played at President Grant's funeral), "Pass me not, O Gentle Savior" (a favorite of Queen Victoria) and "Rescue the perishing." Evangelists Dwight Moody and Ira D. Sankey both acknowledge a great debt to her.


She was born in Detroit in 1925 (others say 1931 or 1934). A multitalented, intelligent woman, she studied piano at the Conservatory (1940-1946), and physics and premed at Wayne State University (1946-1949). She studied under both Grete Sultan and Edgard Varese, the latter of whom influenced Dlugoszewski's interest in unconventional music and instruments. Her lyrical, poetic music was first recognized by literary figures John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara. She received acclaim with the recording of her trumpet piece "Space is a Diamond" (1970) and the vocal/orchestral movement "Fire Fragile Flight" (1973).

ANNIE FISCHER (1914-1995)

Renowned for her renditions of Beethoven, Mozart and Schumann, Fischer was born in Budapest in 1914. She trained at that city's Academy of Music under both Ernst von Dohnanyi and Arnold Szekely. In 1922, she made her debut with Beethoven's C Major Concerto. From 1926 to 1939, she toured throughout Europe, winning many competitions, including the first International Liszt Competition (1933). In 1936, she married Aldat Toth. Because Fischer was Jewish, the couple soon fled to Sweden, where they remained during World War II; during this period, Fischer turned to teaching. In 1946, the couple returned to Hungary and Fischer resumed touring and recording. She was awarded the Kossuth Prize in 1949, 1955 and 1965. Also that year, Fischer was named an Honorary Professor of the Budapest Academy of Music.

DIAMANDA GALAS (born 1955)

She was born Dimitria Angeliki Elena Galas in San Diego in 1955. A child prodigy, she performed Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1 with San Diego's Symphony Orchestra while still in her teens. From 1974 to 1979, she studied both music and biology at the University of California, San Diego. Galas' work has ranged from improvisation to premiere interpretations of Globokar and Xenakis; her work is generally radical and emotionally intense in nature. She wrote "The Singer," a blues and gospel piece in 1990, but her greatest work is "Plague Mass" (1990-present), a musical-theatrical piece inspired by the AIDS epidemic.

KAY GARDNER (born 1941)

Music and healing were often combined in ancient times; Kay Gardner is rediscovering that connection. She is a conductor, composer and lecturer. During such presentations, she discusses her interest in music as a means of healing. Her compositions include "The Cauldron of Cerridwyen" (1978), the opera "Ladies Voices" and the albums "Mooncircles" and "Rainbow Path." In 1990, Gardner published a book (with music) entitled "Sounding the Inner Landscape: Music as Medicine."

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The Singers

Song (simply another form of speech), music and dance are three forms of artistry which have been intimately intertwined since the most ancient of days. It is not a great leap of imagination--though a compelling one--to join music with the stories of heroism, tragedy, love and divinity told round the fire. Singing may have begun as simple chants, perhaps magical spells/prayers for a good hunt or a fruitful harvest. As human society developed, more time and resources came to be devoted to the arts and less to the necessaries of survival; as human understanding of the mathematics of music developed, more complicated compositions were created; and as new instruments were invented, the combination of song and music and dance became more complex--hence the modern Broadway musical and the traditional Kabuki of Japan. Anyone can sing--how well is relative. Profiled here are six women generally recognized as truly gifted Muses: Ada Crossley, Celine Dion, Melissa Etheridge, Aretha Franklin, Korinna, and Loreena McKennitt.

ADA CROSSLEY (1871-1929)

She was born Ada Jemima Crossley in Tarraville, Australia. Though she had sworn to her parents never to sing in opera, she left for London in 1894 to study under Sir Charles Santley, and later Madame Blanche Marchesi. She made her debut in Queen's Hall in 1895. It was only after standing in for the indisposed Clara Butt (on short notice), that Crossley attracted attention. She was immediately in demand for performances all over Great Britain, and gave five command performances for Queen Victoria. She toured the United States in 1902-1903, and Australia in 1903-1904 and 1907-1908. Her fluency in seven languages served her well as she established her reputation as an international recording artist. Her repertoire included not just operatic arias, but also hymns and folk ballads. Though she performed little by the time of the First World War, she agreed to many charity performances.



Born in Leavenworth, Kansas in 1962, Etheridge is one of the few openly lesbian celebrities in the United States. Her first album, "Melissa Etheridge" (1988) was nominated for a Grammy. Her second album, "Brave and Crazy," was released the following year to excellent reviews. It was her 1992 album, "Never Enough" which earned Etheridge fame: she won Best Female Rock Performance for her single "Ain't It Heavy." She won again in 1995. From that time on, her albums sold in the millions and her concerts sold out. Etheridge and her partner have recently become Mothers of a son, an event which caused a great deal of furor and discussion (pro and con) in the United States.


She has been called The Queen of Soul and Lady Soul. She was born in Detroit, the daughter of a well-known preacher and gospel singer. Franklin was well established on the gospel circuit before signing her first contract with Columbia Records in 1960. She recorded several albums with Columbia, but it was only after moving to Atlantic Records in 1967 that she achieved her true potential. With producer Jerry Wexler at her side, Franklin made use of both her piano skills and gospel background; results included "I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You" (1967) and "Lady Soul" (1968). Albums include the gospel "Amazing Grace" (1972), "Almighty Fire" (1978), "Get It Right" (1983) and "Aretha" (1986). Her best-known songs include "Natural Woman" and the lively, shoe-tapping "Respect."

KORINNA (c. 500 BCE)

Little is known of her life and less survives of her work. She came from the Tanagra region of Boeotia, Greece. She was a rival of the great poet, Pindar; according to legend, she taught Pindar in his youth, then competed against him when he had grown. Of her substantial works, only long fragments of two poems remain. They are lyrical pieces (song written to accompany the lyre) derived from Boeotian folklore, written in octosyllabic lines and five- or six-line stanzas. The poems describe a singing contest between the mountain Deities of Cithaeron and Helicon, and the marriages of the daughters of Asopus. The titles of other works, quoted by other authors, have survived: "The Return of Orion", "Iolaus" and "Seven Against Thebes." In her lifetime, and long after her death, she was considered one of the greatest of the Greek lyrical poets.


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The Courtesans

The choice of courtesan as a category of Muse no doubt strikes many readers as odd. But my choice is actually quite logical: in the traditional sense of the word, a Muse was a person (usually a woman) who inspired the artistic endeavors of another (usually a man). Many courtesans, or mistresses, have inspired their patrons down through the ages. But I have also chosen courtesans for another reason: in ancient times, prior to the ascendency of Christianity and Islam, the priestesses of temples served as dispensers of karuna, or charis. Charis was mother-love, kindness, tenderness, sympathy, spiritual enlightenment, sensuality, healing, and conversation. Sex was only part, though an important part, of these priestesses' lives. They were skilled conversationalists, educators and healers, loyal daughters of the Goddess (whatever Her local name), and dispensers of Her grace, Her charis, Her "charity." In those days, a harlot was a holy woman and Goddesses such as Ishtar called Themselves "Compassionate Whore." As revealed in the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, these women were considered a civilizing influence: when the beastly Enkidu terrorized the countryside, the Goddess Ishtar sent Her priestess to have sex with him and take him back to the city, a civilized man. In the West, true courtesans existed only in the ancient world; the practice was briefly revived, in slightly altered form, in 17th and 18th century France, when courtesans held glittering literary salons. The practice also continued in altered form in the East, among the Japanese geisha. A few of these courtesans include Aspasia, Tullia d'Aragona, Veronica Franco, Lais, Phryne, and Stephanie Saint Aubin. The world could do worse than to revive this ancient custom.

ASPASIA (fifth century BCE)

She was called Aspasia of Miletus, a Greek city which grew up on the Aegean shore of Asia Minor; it was a city famed for its philosophers, queens and courtesans. Aspasia was one such courtesan, intelligent, beautiful and vivacious. Sometime around 445 BCE, she left Miletus for Athens. Being a foreigner, she was not restricted by oppressive custom, as Athenian women were: shockingly, she entertained politicians, philosophers and artists in her home, which contributed to her own growing knowledge. Though held in high regard by Socrates and his fellows, she was lampooned in the comedy and satire of the playwrights, who resented and feared her private activities and public influence. In 445 BCE, she became the mistress of the great statesman Pericles. In response to her influence, Pericles encouraged the arts and architecture, industry and commerce of Athens; it was due partly to her influence that the Parthenon was built. Pericles' political enemies sought to harm him indirectly by charging Aspasia with impiety, but their campaign failed. After Pericles' death in 429 BCE, Aspasia won the affections of one Lysicles, a powerful and influential cattle dealer. Nothing of the rest of her life is known.

TULLIA D'ARAGONA (1510-1556)

Born in Rome in 1510, little is known d'Aragona's early life. In later years, she became noted for her succession of lovers, her poetry, and her glittering Florentine salon, a center of politics, poetry and art. A few of her works have survived, including "Dialogo della infinita di am re" (or "Dialogue on the Infinity of Love," 1547); and "Il meschino d'il guerino" (1560), a narrative poem. Her "Dialogo" has recently been translated into English and republished by the University of Chicago Press. It is highly recommended, as other the other works in the series (all tracts by or about women in early modern Europe).


She was born in Venice in 1546; it is known that she married a doctor, but was widowed young and left with a son to raise. She seems to have turned to courtesanship both out of financial necessity, and because she enjoyed sex. She was well-known to, and corresponded with, many of the prominent political and literary figures of her day. During these years, she also wrote poetry. While in the Petrarchan style, her writings are undeniably erotic and celebratory of female sexuality. In 1575, she published her best known collection, "Terza Rima," which rejects the ideal of female chastity and submissiveness, and even argues for the superiority of women over men. Her "Lettere" (1580), includes one letter which looks at the harshness and retchedness beneath the glamour of the courtesan's life. She also produced brilliant capitoli, which satirized the Italy of her day. Sometime in her thirties, Franco gave up courtesanship, and seems to have founded a hostel for other women leaving that life. Her works are now being translated into English, and will soon be available through the University of Chicago Press.

LAIS (fourth century BCE)

Lais was a common name in ancient Greece, much as Sarah is today. There seem to have been at least two courtesans with this name, each of whom associated with the great men of her time.

The first Lais came from Corinth, a center of the cult of Aphrodite; Apostle Paul complained constantly about the rampant sexuality still evident in his day, a sexuality the Greeks would have considered natural and sacred. This first Lais spent some time in Athens, where her lover Myron immortalized her in marble, while she carried on a war of one-liners with another lover, the playwright Euripides.

The second Lais was equally skilled in the art of love, and charged accordingly. The philosopher Aristippus, a follower of Socrates, could only afford her for two months out of the year. She also tended the needs of the Cynic, Diogenes. She modelled frequently for Apelles, a noted painter of the ancient world: she was the centerpiece of his now-lost masterwork, "Aphrodite Rising from the Sea."

PHRYNE (fourth century BCE)

She was born Muesarete in Thespiae, in the region of Boeotia. She was nicknamed Phryne ("toad") because of her wan complexion. Highly skilled in the erotic arts, she soon became one of the wealthiest women in the ancient world: after the walls of Thebes were destroyed by Alexander the Great in 335 BCE, Phryne offered to rebuild them--provided the walls were inscribed with the words "Destroyed by Alexander the Great, rebuilt by Phryne the hetaera." The Thebans turned her down.

Artists and sculptors loved her: olive skin, dreamy eyes, and voluptuous-yet-innocent figure. Apelles portrayed her in his "Aphrodite Anadyomene." Praxiteles, one of her lovers and the greatest sculptor of his day, carved her as "Aphrodite of Cnidus"--the first nude statue of the Goddess. The statue brought accusations of blasphemy, but it was not until later, on charges of corruption, that Phryne was brought to court. Conviction would have brought the death penalty. Another lover, the orator Hyperides, defended her; when he sensed that the verdict was going against them, Hyperides ripped off Phryne's gown to the waist. She was acquitted.

Phryne also knew the value of art: on one occasion, lover Praxiteles told her she could choose from among his works as a gift. But he refused to tell her which he thought the best. At that moment, a servant ran up, shouting that his studio was on fire. Praxiteles was heard to groan "No, not my Satyr and Love." It had, of course, all been a ruse. And Phryne went away with her gift.


She was born Stephanie Ducrest de Saint Aubin in Champceri, France, in 1746. At sixteen, she was married to the Comte de Genlis, making her Comtesse de Genlis. Due to her marriage, Saint Aubin was introduced to the royalty of France, including the Duke and Duchess of Chartres. She was appointed the Duchess' lady-in-waiting, and soon became the Duke's mistress, a not-uncommon occurence in noble circles.

As part of her lady-in-waiting duties, Saint Aubin was in charge of the royal children of the Duke and Duchess. As part of their education, she penned four volumes of plays entitled "Theatre d'education" (1779), as well as nearly one hundred volumes of historical romances for the delight of herself and other noble ladies.

In the 1790's, France descended into the Terror of the Revolution. While Saint Aubin managed to escape France, both her husband and lover were executed at the guillotine. By 1796, the Terror had passed. Eager to return to France from her travels, Saint Aubin wrote "Precis de la conduite de Mme de Genlis depuis la Revolution," a chronicling of her activities meant to allay the suspicions of the Republican government. She was allowed to return. Napoleon was so great an admirer of her work (particularly the "Mademoiselle de Clermont" of 1802), that he awarded her a pension. Over the next forty years, Saint Aubin wrote copiously in praise of the ancien regime, revived the historical novel as a reputable genre and completed ten volumes of "Memoires" (1825).

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The Explorers

Exploration has long been a man's domain, at least in the history books; brave men set off to cross an uncrossed plain, climb an unclimbed mountain, and in doing so prove their virility and manliness (by the standards of the time). Unfortunately, history books have, until recently, made little mention of women explorers. Vague mention was made of the hundreds of anonymous women pioneers who crossed the Atlantic and the "Great Desert" of the central United States; little mention was made of the Polynesian women who crossed vast expanses of ocean to settle new islands. True women explorers, who set out in search of adventure and knowledge and glory, are even less known. The women profiled here--Alexandra David-Neel, Isabelle Eberhardt, Etheria, Mary Kingsley, Sacajawea, and Lady Hester Stanhope--set out on their course of exploration for a variety of reasons: religious devotion, a craving for knowledge, curiousity, and just to prove that they COULD.


She was born in Paris in 1868. Fascinated by the East, she studied Sanskrit in Sri Lanka and India. Also an acclaimed singer, she worked as an operatic diva. She married Phillippe Francois Neel, an engineer, in 1904. She continued her operatic tour until 1911, when she returned to India. There she met the Dalai Lama and began her study of Tibetan Buddhism. And so was born her determination to visit Lhasa, the holy capital of Tibetan Buddhism.

She stayed one winter in the cave of a holyman; there, she met the man who would be her life-long companion and servant, Yongden. Having traveled illegally to Tibet, she was expelled from India in 1916; she traveled from there through Burma, Japan and Korea; she arrived in Beijing in October of 1917. Together, David-Neel and Yongden traveled another two thousand miles to the Kumbum monastery near the Koko Nor, then on through northern Tibet, Mongolia and across the Gobi Desert. Disguised as a Buddhist pilgrim, she finally arrived in Lhasa. In 1927, David-Neel published "My Journey to Lhasa." The two returned again to Tibet in 1934, but were forced to leave ten years later by the Japanese advance. They retired to Digne, France, were David-Neel died in 1969, aged one hundred.


As she was born in exciting circumstances, so she lived. She was born near Geneva in 1877, where her mother, a Russian general's wife, and fled with her anarchist lover. Reared in the manner of a son, Eberhardt spoke six languages, including Arabic. In 1897, Eberhardt and her mother traveled to Bone (now Annaba), Algeria, where both converted to Islam. It was at this time that Eberhardt began exploring the Sahara, disguised as an Arab. Though a lover of all things Arabic, Eberhardt was nonetheless an agent of the French government. After a failed assassination attempt on her life, Eberhardt was expelled from Morocco; she returned triumphant after her marriage to the Arab, Slimene Ehnni. She died tragically in 1903, drowned by a freak desert storm while reporting for an Algerian paper on General Lyautey's campaign.

ETHERIA (fourth century CE)

Little is known of her personal life: she was an abbess, or nun, possibly from Spain. In the fourth century of the common era, she organized a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Egypt, Asia Minor and Constantinople. While on the journey, Etheria kept a detailed journal. A manuscript of this journal was created in the eleventh century, lost, and rediscovered in 1884. Etheria'a account is filled with vital geographical information about the land and religious sites; it is also an important source on early Christianity. Thanks to Etheria, we know much more about this time and place then we otherwise would.

MARY KINGSLEY (1862-1900)

She was born Mary Henrietta Kingsley in Islington, London; her father was the traveller, George Kingsley; her uncle, the writer Charles Kingsley. She read voraciously of her father's extensive scientific library. After her parents became invalids, Kingsley took over the running of the household; and, after their deaths in 1893, she went on the first of two journeys to West Africa. There she lived among and traded with the natives, while retaining her European dress, despite the climate. She explored the coastal regions of Zaire and the Congo, southeastern Nigeria, parts of Equitorial Guinea, the French Congo and Gabon; the territories she explored included lands inhabited by reportedly cannibalistic tribes; she had several life-threatening experiences. After her second journey in 1895, Kingsley wrote "Travels in West Africa" (1899). A second book, "West African Studies," also appeared in 1899. As British colonial interest in Africa grew, she was consulted by the government as an expert on African culture. She died in 1900 of enteric fever, while serving as a nurse in the Second Boer War.

SACAJAWEA (c.1786-1812)

Also known as Bird Woman, she was Shoshone. Captured at the age of twelve, she was sold as a slave to the French-Canadian trader, Toussaint Charbonneau. They eventually married. When Charbonneau joined the Lewis and Clark expedtion in 1804, Sacajawea accompanied her husband, their infant son upon her back. She was the only woman on the expedition, and proved invaluable as a guide and interpreter. When the expedition excountered hostile tribes, Sacajawea worked to allay suspicions and negotiate for horses, food, trade goods and information. She has deservedly achieved folkhera status in the United States. Her death is surrounded by some mystery. Some claim she died in 1812; others, that she left her husband and returned to her people on the upper Missouri, where she died in 1884.


She was born in 1776, the eldest daughter of Charles, Earl of Stanhope. Her uncle was William Pitt, the British Prime Minister, and in 1803 she left to live with him. She acted as his hostess, and was his most trusted confidante. On Pitt's death in 1806, the king awarded her a pension, but Stanhope preferred not to settle down: she missed too much the excitement of public life. In 1809, she was devastated by the deaths of both her brother, Major Stanhope, and lover, Sir John Moore. She left Britain, arriving eventually in the Near East. She toured Jerusalem, lived with the Bedouins of Palmyra for a time, and finally settled on Mount Lebanon. Stanhope adopted the manners of her adopted people; intervened in the politics of the region; and gained a certain power over many of the region's tribes, who regarded her as a sort of prophetess. She died in poverty in 1839, having spent much her money on causes both worthy and unworthy.

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The Scientists

Like exploration, science has long been a male domain. Few women scientists have been credited with their discoveries, until recently; many were given only a cursory biographical note as the mistress, sister, wife or daughter of some famous male scientist. So it is with the women scientists profiled here--Maria Cunitz, Emilie du Chatelet, Williamina Paton Fleming, Hypatia, Ada Byron King and Sonduk. Women, it was generally believed, were incapable of the higher thinking and logical thought processes necessary for science. Balderdash. Read on.

MARIA CUNITZ (1610-1664)

The daughter and wife of doctors, Maria was blessed with a precocious, intelligent mind and an excellent education. She was born in Silesia in 1610. Now a province of Poland, Silesia was at that time a war-torn state, populated by Poles, Germans, Austrians, Hungarians, and others, and bitterly fought over by the surrounding nations. Despite this, Cunitz's father managed to provide her with studies in math, medicine, and astrology. She was soon fluent in seven languages and reading the great scientific and historical works of other peoples.

Cunitz was also fortunate in her choice of husband: Elias von Loven, who encouraged his wife's intellectual endeavours. After marriage, Cunitz continued her studies, while also venturing into history, poetry, music and painting. When the Thirty Years' War descended upon them, Cunitz and her husband took shelter in a religious cloister, where she set to work simplifying the tables of planetary motion recently published by Johannes Kepler. While she found and corrected many errors in Kepler's work, she also introduced many of her own. After the publication of this work in 1650, Cunitz's reputation as an intellectual was established. She spent the remaining years of her life delightedly engaged in scientific debate with her fellows over exactly how the planets DID move.


She was born Gabrielle Emilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil in Paris in 1706. At her father's side, she learned Latin and Italian; after her marriage to the Comte du Chatelet-Lomont in 1725, she turned her attentions to mathematics and the physical sciences. The Comte, more interested in military matters, left his wife to attend to her own interests; they saw little of one another. As well as her scientific studies, Chatelet was also an expert equestrienne, gambler for high stakes and translator of the classics. A sensual woman, she wore extravagent dresses of cloth-of-gold and cloth-of-silver, with bodices so low cut that her nipples were visible.

In 1733, Chatelet was introduced to the Great Man of the age, Voltaire; they quickly became lovers, attracted to one another not only physically, but also intellectually. Voltaire joined his lover at her husband's estate, which soon became a center of philosophical, literary and scientific activity. Together, they built a laboratory and studied the natures of fire, heat and light. It was Chatelet who realized the connection between heat and light, conceiving that each must be a form of motion. While "Institutions de physique" (1740) and "Dissertation sur la nature et la propagation de feu" (1744) are both important works, her most lasting has been the translation into French of Newton's "Principia Mathematica."

After many years together, the physical side of their attraction to one another cooled. Chatelet fell in love with a young soldier named Saint Lambert, who was ten years her junior. On September 1, 1749, Chatelet gave birth to a daughter by Saint Lambert; she died seven days later.


She was born Williamina Paton Stevens in Dundee, Scotland in 1857. Married young to James Fleming, she emigrated with him to Boston in 1877; but the marriage failed. To support herself and her child, Fleming became a domestic for Edward Pickering, the Director of the Harvard College Observatory.

Mr. Pickering did not fail to notice her intelligence or curiousity. In 1881, Fleming joined the research team at the Observatory, where she often collaborated with Pickering. Some authorities argue that the dual nature of the star Beta Lyrae has been wrongly credited to him, rather than Fleming. The Pickering-Fleming Technique, used to make the discovery, is still utilized by astronomers today: it involves the study of thousands of celestial photographs. Fleming also discovered new stars, categorized 10,351 of the stars of the "Draper Catalogue of Stellar Spectra" (1890), and also discovered ten of the twenty-four novae sighted before her death 1911. Perhaps the crowning achievement of her life was her admittance to the Royal Astronomical Society: she was the first American woman to be so honored, and so paved the way for others.

ADA BYRON KING (1815-1852)

She was born in Picadilly Terrace, England, the daughter of Lord Byron and Annabella Milbanke. She never knew her father: her parents' marriage was a failure, and he left Great Britain not long after her birth. Ada grew up in a household populated by free-thinkers, radicals, philosophers and scientists. Her mother, Annabella, was deeply involved in efforts to improve education, especially women's education, agricultural and industrial reforms and abolition. Annabella was close friends with suffragette Barbara Bodichon, Irish reformer and artist Anna Jameson, social reformer Mary Carpenter and American abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, and introduced her daughter to each of these women and their radical ideas.

Ada thrived in such surroundings. Her mother encouraged her daughter to teach herself geometry, which she quickly mastered. Tutors were soon brought in to guide precocious Ada in her studies of astronomy and mathematics. Such tutors included Augustus de Morgan, London University's first Professor of Mathematics.

In 1835, Ada married William King, the Eighth Baron King. When he succeeded to the Earldom in 1838, Ada became Countess Lovelace.

During the course of her too-short life, Ada contributed much to science, mathematics, and even the future study of computer science and computer programming. She translated "Sketch of the Analytical Engine," (1843), an analysis of computer pioneer Charles Babbage's analytical engine by Italian mathemetician L F Menabrea; she included many additional explanatory notes of her own, including how the engine could be programmed. ADA, the high-level universal computer programming language, is named in her honor.

HYPATIA (c. 370-415)

She was born in Alexandria, Egypt, some time around 370 CE. Her father was Theon, a Hellenistic Egyptian writer and commentator on mathematics who taught at the famed Museum in Alexandria. The Museum would be less a museum to the modern student, than a university: it housed two libraries of more than one million scrolls, facilities for teaching and laboratories for research.

Gifted and doted on by her father, Hypatia thrived at the Museum. She studied philosophy, science, religion, mathematics, poetry and the arts. While in her teens, she traveled to the greatest school of the Classical world: the NeoPlatonic Academy at Athens. There, she became acquainted with the philosopher Plutarch the Younger, and his daughter, Asclepigenia. Word reached Alexandria of Hypatia's intellectual prowess; when she returned to the city of her birth, she was immediately offered a position at the Museum.

While at the Museum, she collaborated with her father on several of his writings, and penned many of her own: some include commentaries on quadratic equations and conic sections, none of which survive. She also improved on the hydrometer, to faciliate research. All this, while teaching geometry, astronomy, philosophy and general mathematics. Admiring students--Pagan, Jewish and Christian--traveled from throughout the Roman Empire to study with her. She was approached frequently with offers of marriage, but refused all with the words: "As a philosopher, I am wedded to the truth."

Beautiful, witty and eloquent, Hypatia moved in influential circles--and for this, was resented and feared by Cyril, Archbishop of Alexandria. A NeoPlatonist, Hypatia lived in an increasingly Christian world. In 391 CE, a mob of monks destroyed the great Serapeum, a temple dedicated to the Greco-Egyptian God, Serapis, which also housed one of the Museum's libraries; works of science, philosophy, art, geography and medicine were lost forever.

Then, in 415 CE, they attacked Hypatia herself. As a respected Pagan, and a single, influential woman, she was the focus of much of the Archbishop's hatred. A mob of rioting monks, perhaps driven to frenzy by one of Cyril's sermons, dragged Hypatia from her chariot and into a church. There, they tore her apart. They dragged the remains of her body into the city square, where it was burned for all to see.

SONDUK (610-650)

She was the daughter of a King, born in Korea in 610 CE. She early showed an aptitude for observation and critical analysis: when she was seven, her father received a gift from the Emperor of China. It was a beautiful painting of peonies, accompanied by a box of the flower's seeds. Sonduk commented that the flower was beautiful; it was a pity, though, that it had no sweet perfume. Her father, brow knit in confusion, asked her how she could know that, since she had never seen a peony. Sonduk replied that, if the flower possessed a perfume, there would be butterflies and bees in the painting; there were none. The seeds were planted, the flowers grew, and Sonduk was proven correct. Sonduk's father was delighted at his daughter's intelligence, particularly as he had no other prospective heirs.

During her fourteen year reign as Queen of Korea, Sonduk put her mind to use maintaining the realm. Though this was a war-torn era for Korea, Sonduk nonetheless managed not only to keep her nation in one piece, but also send Korean scholars to study in China. Her greatest scientific achievement was the construction of the Tower of the Moon and the Stars, the first observatory in the Far East. It still stands today, in Kyongju, South Korea, ancient capital of the Silla Dynasty.

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The Writers

Written language is merely an extension of spoken language, and language is one of the factors which determines our humanity: a means of communicating complicated ideas and emotions. No other animal has language; other animals, especially higher mammals such as whales, can indeed communicate relatively complicated ideas, but it is doubtful they carry on great theological or scientific debates as humans are wont to do. Writing was invented at approximately the same time in four different areas of the world: pictographs appeared in about 3300 BCE in the Nile Valley, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, and the Huang He Valley. Centuries later, it was independently created by the peoples of Central America. Writing is the driving force of civilization and progress; it gives visible form to humanity's dreams and ideas; it records commandments and laws; it allows the listing of food and goods and property for the purposes of taxation. Writing originally was a skill practised only by the educated and (usually) wealthy. The women profiled here--Kamala Das, Marie de France, Soledad Acosta de Samper, Christina Rossetti, Ntozake Shange, and Lady Murasaki Shikibu--while educated, were not all wealthy. Only in recent centuries has any effort been made to educate the majority of the population, and then only in industrialized societies. The illiteracy rate in still-Developing Countries is staggering.

KAMALA DAS (born 1934)

She was born in the southern Indian state of Kerala in 1934. Her family was a literary one, being noted for its writers. Her poetry, written in English, is held in high regard in literary circles; it is sensual, emotive and technically accomplished. Her novel, "Alphabet of Lust" (1977) is a remarkable work, for which she has been much criticized by other Indian women for "departing from traditional norms." Most of Das' prose is written in her native language, Malayalam, and translated by herself into English; the most notable example is her autobiography, "My Story" (1976). It is generally considered to be one of the most important autobiographies written by an Indian woman.

MARIE DE FRANCE (c.1150-1190)

She was born in Normandy, France, sometime around the year 1150 CE. There is some conjecture as to her actual identity, as her name may be a pseudonym; she may actually have been a close relative of Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine amd Queen of England.

Marie was the first person to write in French vernacular. She spent most of her life in England, at the French-speaking court, and at Eleanor's Court of Love in Aquitaine. Her two greatest works are her "Twelve Lais" (c. 1167) and her "Fables" (c. 1170). The lay (plural lais) was a form of medieval French poetry composed of octosyllabic verses. Marie's lais were of the chivalric tradition, recounting tales of heroic Knights, noble Ladies, magic and impossible love. Around 1190, she also translated into French the "Tractatus de Purgatorio Sanctii Patricii" (Saint Patrick's Treatise on Purgatory). She was and still is considered one of the greatest writers of her time. Her "Twelve Lais" have recently been republished in a beautifully illustrated children's volume.


She was born in Bogota, Columbia in 1833. A determined and intelligent woman, she was one of the pioneers of the Colmbian feminist movement. She edited "La Mujer" from 1878 to 1882. A prolific writer, she penned more than forty-five novels, historical romances and biographies under such pseudonyms as Aldebaran, Bertilda and Olga.

De Samper's most famous work is "Los Piratas en Cartagena" (The Pirates of Carthage, 1885). It is a vividly written and convincing novel, highly recommended to any who can find an edition, either in Spanish or English translation.


She was born Christina Georgina Rossetti, the daughter of writer Gabriele Rossetti and the sister of famed poet/painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. She was given an excellent at-home education; it was expected that she would become a governess, but she soon became something of an invalid and recluse. Initially, her illnesses were likely psychosomatic or feigned: she lived in an era in which women of her intelligence found little creative outlet.

Due as much to her connections as to her own determination, however, Christina saw her work published. Her first pamphlet of poetry was published by her grandfather while Christina was still in her teens. She published "An End" and "Dream Lane" (1850) under the pseudonym Ellen Alleyne. Her first and best-known collection, "Goblin Market," appeared in 1862. "The Prince's Progress" (1866), "A Pageant and Other Poems" (1881), "Time Flies: A Reading Diary" (1895) and "The Face of the Deep: A Devotional Commentary on the Apocalypse" (1892), followed. She also penned "Sing Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book" in 1872; it was illustrated by Arthur Hughes. To this day, she remains one of the most respected and admired Victorian poets.

Early in her life, Rossetti had been engaged to the painter James Collinson. But, being a devout Anglican, she broke off the match after he returned to his Catholic roots.

NTOZAKE SHANGE (born 1948)

She was born Paulette Williams in Trenton, New Jersey in 1948. She moved to Saint Louis, where racial discrimination, segregation and other difficulties drove her to several suicide attempts. She went on to attend Barnard College and the University of Southern California. In 1971, she returned to her Zulu roots and took her present name.

In 1975, Shange presented what has come to be called a choreopoem on Broadway. "for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf" exemplifies Shange's unique style of playwrighting, which combines dance, music and African-American themes. In the case of "for colored girls," actress/dancers, distinguished by the color of their outfits, express different aspects of the African-American experience and history.

Other productions include "A Photograph: A Study of Cruelty" (1977) and "Spell #7: A Geechee Quick Magic Trance Manual" (1979). Shange has also written novels, including "Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo" (1976), and "Betsey Brown" (1985), which recounts the experiences of one Southern black family during the school integrations in the 1950s; and poetry, notably "A Daughter's Geography" (1983).


She was born around the year 970 CE to the Fujiwara family, one of the most powerful in Medieval Japan; her real name is unknown. She was married young and widowed at age twenty-one; about this time, she became lady-in-waiting in the Empress Akiko.

Like many aristocratic ladies of her day, Murasaki kept a "Nikki," or diary. Beautifully written, it has proven to be invaluabel to scholars studying late Heian Japanese society.

Lady Murasaki is best known, however, and rightly so, for her novel, the first great work of Japanese literature; some consider it the greatest of all. Her "Genji Monogatari," translated as "The Tale of Genji," is a delicately written, complex piece which recounts the life of one Genji, a member of the aristocratic class. Exquisitely detailed, it is used today by anthropologists and historians to study the life and mores of that time period

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The Religious

Religion is an integral part of the human experience; even atheists, who deny the existence of any sort of Higher Power, are affected by religion in their very denial of it. Religious experience is as diverse as the geography of the earth, as the speech of its people, as the colors of their skin. Religion is molded by and itself affects such factors as geography, regional flora and fauna, clothing, politics, economics, neighborly relations, history, war and genocide, gender relations, and gender definitions. Religions vary in specifics but agree to an amazing degree on general points: belief in something beyond the physical world as we know it; a code of moral conduct; and a belief in the inherent dignity of men and women. The longevity of specific religions is amazing: the faith of ancient Egypt lasted for some three thousand years before finally falling to a combination of cultural and political change, oppression and invasion. Profiled here are six women noted for the eloquence of their belief--Hildegard von Bingen, Mirabai, Nelly Sachs, Owl Woman, Rab'ia al-Adawiya, and Sappho. They are teachers and writers and preachers whose words have captured the essence of faith.


She is one of the most famous of Western mystics. She was the tenth child born to a noble family in Bockelheim, in the Holy Roman Empire, in the year 1098 CE. From her earliest days, Hildegard had clairvoyant experiences; at the age of five, she accurately predicted the markings of an unborn calf. Her gifts inspired fear and resentment in those around her, and Hildegard soon learned to hide them. At the age of eight, she was "tithed" to God and sent to live with a Benedictine recluse/holy woman named Jutta. She lived with Jutta for many years, locked away in a tiny cellar . At the age of fifteen, she entered the Diesseberg convent, and succeeded as abbess in 1136; sometime around 1147, Hildegard moved her nuns to a larger convent at Rupertsberg, near Bingen. She was an able leader of the community, seeing to her charges' physical and spiritual needs

It was only in 1141 that Hildegard made public once again her clairvoyant experiences. Her first book, "Scivias," was written over the course of the next decade, during which time her visions and proclamations were authenticated by both Bernard of Clairvaux and Pope Eugenius III--without whose support she likely would have been declared a heretic. Her fame grew, and common people, merchants, nobles amd kings from throughout Europe sought her advice; Hildegard was even heard to chastise the Holy Roman Emperor himself for supporting a false Pope. At the age of sixty, she began the first of four speaking tours--an unheard of endeavour for a woman of any age; and this, despite frequent illness and the paralyzing migraines which accompanied her visions.

When she died in 1179, Hildegard left a great and diverse body of work. Besides her "Scivias," she also penned the "Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations," a Latin liturgy for her nuns, which accompanied music Hildegard herself had composed. She also penned treatises on natural science, medicine, herbs, ethics and cosmology. The Feminine-as-Divine appears throughout her work, and Eve, Mary and the Church-as-Mother are for Hildegard essential elements in God's plan of salvation.

The following is one of her poems, as translated by Barbara Newman.


Alleluia! light
burst from your untouched

womb like a flower
on the farther side
of death. The world-tree
is blossoming. Two
realms become One.

MIRABAI (1498-c.1565)

She is the most famous of northern India's bhakti poets. Bhakti is a movement within Hinduism which stresses personal devotion to one aspect of the Divine; many Hindus consider Christianity to be a form of Bhakti, with Christians devoted to that aspect of the Divine which manifested in Christ. Mirabai devoted herself to the Divine manifestation of Giridhara, known for His miraculous lifting of a mountain.

Mirabai was raised in the household of her grandfather, Rao Dudaji. She was well educated and married young to the Crown Prince of Mewar. She soon came to reject her mortal husband, however, and claimed Giridhara as her true mate. There are legends that her husband's family tried twice to assassinate Mirabai, and that she refused to commit suttee at his death. She eventually took up the life of a wandering ecstatic, singing songs in praise of her Lord. Her poems are sung to this day throughout India, varying according to the traditions of the singer.

Mirabai's poems weave a tapestry of passion and longing: ecstatic passion in the presence of her Lord and longing despair at His absence. The threads of abandonment and union weave in and out, often blurring one into the other. The following, as translated by Robert Bly, is such a poem.


Listen, my friend, this road is the heart opening,
kissing his feet, resistance broken, tears all night.

If we could reach the Lord through immersion in water,
I would have asked to be born a fish in this life.
If we could reach Him through nothing but berries and wild nuts
then surely the saints would have been monkeys when they came from the womb!
If we could reach Him by munching lettuce and dry leaves
then the goats would surely get to the Holy One before us!

If the worship of stone statues could bring us all the way,
I would have adored a granite mountain years ago.

Mirabai says, "The heat of midnight tears will bring you to God."

NELLY SACHS (1891-1970)

Nelly Sachs was born in Berlin in 1891 to a wealthy Jewish family. In the years intervening the two Great Wars, Sachs published "Tales and Legends" (1921), a collection of short stories; and several tomes of lyrical poetry. She paid little attention during this time to her Jewish heritage, regarding it with some indifference; then came the Nazis and with them a curiousity about her roots and Judaism's importance in the life of her ancestors and peers. In 1940, Sachs and a few companions managed to escape to Stockholm, just as the Nazi deporters were pounding on her door; novelist Selma Lagerlof, whom Sachs knew only via correspondence, interceeded on her behalf with the Swedish royal family. But the man whom she loved as not so fortunate, and died in the camps.

Once arrived in Stockholm, Sachs and her mother moved into a one-room apartment. She learned Swedish and became a translator of German poetry. In her own work, the Holocaust, the deaths of so many strangers and loved ones, would remain an underlying theme for the rest of her life. It is these entwined themes of horror, suffering, courage and faith which gives Sach's poetry its power and emotion. For Sachs, God was omnipresent--as in the morning dew and laughter, as He was in the ugly suffering and death of the Holocaust.

In 1966, Sachs shared the Nobel Prize for Literature with Israeli novelist Shmuel Yosef Agnon. She was commended for her "works of forgiveness, of deliverance, of peace."

The following poem is translated by Ruth and Matthew Mead.


will take the ball
from the hands that play
the game of terror.

have their own law of fire
and their fertility
is the light
and reapers and harvesters
are not native here.

Far off
stand their granaries
straw too
has a momentary power of illumination
painting loneliness.

Someone will come
and sew the green of the spring bud
on their prayer shawl
and set the child's silken curl
as a sign
on the brow of the century.

Here Amen
must be said
this crowning of words
which moves into hiding
you great eyelid
closing on all unrest
your heavenly wreath of lashes

You most gentle of all births.

OWL WOMAN (mid-19th to early-20th centuries)

The Spanish and Americans called her Juana Maxwell. She was a healer of the Papago of the desert Southwest; she lived during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; exact dates of birth and death are unknown. We know she was married, for it was following the death of her husband that she began her life as a healer.

After the deaths of her husband and several other relatives, Owl Woman was grief-striken. During this time of mourning, a spirit returned from the dead and gave Owl Woman her first medicine song. The spirits, she said, had decided that she would be a healer, and so began to teach her the songs.

Owl Woman became known to the larger world thanks to the work of Frances Densmore. An anthropologist, Densmore studied the Papago in the 1920s, recording their songs and rituals. It is also Densmore who gives us the only physical description of Owl Woman: she had "the appearance of a sybil, with a strange, far-seeing look in her eyes."

The following are two of Owl Woman's medicine songs, as translated by Frances Densmore; the first describes Owl Woman's spirit leaving her body during a shamanic trance at dusk; in the second, "light" refers to the illumination of the underworld.

How shall I begin my song
In the blue night that is settling?

In the great night my heart will go out,
Toward me the darkness comes rattling.
In the great night my heart will go out.

* * * * *

The morning star is up.
I cross the mountains
into the light of the sea.


She was born in Basra (now in Iraq), the fourth daughter of a poor Persian family. Her parents died of hunger when Rab'ia was quite young. Separated from her sisters, she was kidnapped off the streets and sold into slavery. A devout Muslim, she was always a loyal servant, and fasted and prayed as she worked. According to legend, many years after her captivity began, Rab'ia's master awakened one night to see a light of unearthly origin shining over her head as she prayed; it illuminated the whole house; the next morning, he freed her. Rab'ia left her former master and traveled into the desert to live in seclusion for a time; she eventually returned and set up a small house of retreat on the outskirts of Basra.

Rab'ia's fame as a mystic and wisewoman and spiritual teacher spread quickly. Many came from throughout the Muslim world to study with her, ask her questions, and record her answers. An ascetic, Rab'ia lived in spartan surroundings. One visitor described her earthly possessions as a pitcher with a cracked spout (for drinking and bathing water), a brick for her pillow, and the reed mat on which she prayed five times a day. Rab'ia also lived the life of a celibate, rejecting many offers of marriage from spiritual and secular leaders.

Rab'ia's poems sing of a love for God unbounded; her words evoke images of an intamcy as much sexual as spiritual. Her adoration and surrender of self to God were complete; and it was her total and unequivocal trust in this surrender of self which lent Rab'ia such authority. There is a legend told that, while on a hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca, Rab'ia's donkey fell down dead. Her companions offered to help, but Rab'ia refused. There in the desert, at the donkey's side, she asked God whether He wanted her to visit His House, or not? At that, the donkey sprang back to his feet, and Rab'ia continued on to the Holy House of God.

The following poem is translated by Jane Hirshfield.

O my Lord,
the stars glitter
and the eyes of men are closed.
Kings have locked their doors
and each lover is alone with his love.

Here, I am alone with You.

SAPPHO (seventh century BCE)

She was born on the isle of Lesbos in the Aegean Sea, sometime around 610 BCE. She may or may not have been a lesbian in the modern sense of the word. In her day, "Lesbian" meant an inhabitant of the island of Lesbos; it is because of still-contested interpretations of her poetry that "lesbian" has been applied to a woman whose primary sexual attraction is for other women; similarly, the term "sapphic" has come to be applied to anything with lesbian undertones or overtones.

Little of Sappho's personal life is known, and less of her work has survived. She has been described as short and dark--common physical charcteristics of one born in the Mediterranean. It is known that she was married, and had a daughter named Kleis, of whom she writes affectionately. She was exiled twice to Sicily, apparently for political reasons. She established a school on Lesbos for talented women; they congregated around her, and in her warm, encouraging presence created poetry, plays and dances and music. A measure of her fame can be determined by the extent to which she was quoted and copied by others; and by the fact that, as late as the third century CE, her face still appeared on the coinage of Mytilene, Lesbos. Representations of Sappho have also been found on vases, bronzes and mosaics.

She penned some nine volumes of poetry, only fragments of which survive--and these only because they were quoted by other authors; much of her work was destroyed when the Library of Alexandria burned, and by zealous, ascetic Christians. She was a keen observer of human emotion and action, and a sensual woman in her own right; of her probable affairs with some of her female students, all were transitory. Sappho was that most gifted of artists--one who captured in ink and shared with others the ecstasy, sacrality, pain and emotional suffering of the human condition. She believed in and felt the sacredness of sexuality--her own, the sexuality of others, and even the sexuality and sensuality of the Divine. For Sappho, the Divine was immanent, and was most readily experienced and joined through the emotion and act of love.

The following Sapphic hymn has been translated by Jane Hirshfield.

Leave Crete,
and come to this
sacred place
encircled by apple trees,
fragrant with offered smoke.

Here, cold springs
sing softly
amid the branches;
the ground is shady with roses;
from trembling young leaves,
a deep drowsiness pours.

In the meadow,
horses are cropping
the wildflowers of spring,
scented fennel
blows on the breeze.

In this place,
Lady of Cyprus, pour
the nectar that honors you
into our cups,
gold, and raised up for drinking.

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