Research and the Dissertation: Getting Back to Basics by Michele Stopera Freyhauf


Freyhauf, Durham, Hahn Loeser, John CarrollHistory is written by the victors – this is something that we all know, or at least should know. I apologize in advance for being elementary in my discussion, but I think one thing that scholars tend to do too often is assume our readers or audience has a firm grasp on what we are talking about. With this topic, I am not assuming.

When studying artifacts from past civilizations, an interesting phenomenon of using spolia as a demonstration of conquest is commonplace. If a conquered country’s deity is placed on the bottom of a column, or even turned a different direction, the significance usually means that deity is demoted or inferior – this is found in the Hagia Sophia (especially under the structure). If spolia is found whereby a country adds their deity (even if that deity is their ruler) to another country’s monument, then there is a coexistence or combining of empires with the conquesting ruler in prominent view, even substituting past rulers. This is best demonstrated on the Arch of Constantinople whereby Christian symbols and the likeness of Constantine was incorporated into an arch that once displayed the victories of Marcus Aurelius and Domitian. If you are interested in this topic, please see my article “Hagia Sophia: Political Symbolism in Stones and Spolia” in Popular Archaeology magazine.

As I study cultural syncretism and archaeology as part of my dissertation research, I continually see goddesses and learn about their many manifestations or adaptations in neighboring culture. While this is definitely known–and knowing that–part of my methodology is trying to look at history as a means of reclaiming the feminine voice that was erased or subordinated in the biblical text. I had an epiphany that collided with this notion of spolia and conquest.  I saw that I can use archaeology and artifacts along with history (and anthropology) to enhance my work and research when looking at oppressed groups, especially women. Again, this may seem like a very simple leap, but the point of even going through this exercise is to make a point: sometimes we get so caught up in the complexities of our research, linguistic and narrative analysis, and other exegetical tools that we fail to see the very obvious. Sometimes the simplest answers can be staring us in the face and we forget to look there first. It is, I guess, more about getting back to basics.

While I am not ready to disclose specifics about my dissertation, I will say that in my quest to look at an oddity in the text, I began to spend a tremendous about of time looking at various cultures from the Babylonian exile to Second Temple period – burials, epitaphs, funerary inscriptions, writings, etc.  Yet I failed to start at the most obvious place – Babylon.  It was there that I found a unique goddess, one new to me anyway, and that discovery may transform the way I look at the particular topic I considering. It is an exciting possibility and, if relevant, could bring to light another feminine figure that was rewritten into the text as a man. I guess with regard to my findings and discovery, we will see so stay tuned!

Michele Stopera Freyhauf is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies and a Member of the Centre for Catholic Studies at Durham University as well as an Instructor at John Carroll University’s Department of Theology and Religious Studies. Michele has an M. A. in Theology and Religious Studies from John Carroll University, and did post-graduate work at the University of Akron in the area of History of Religion, Women, and Sexuality. She is also a Member-at-Large on the Student Advisory Board for the Society of Biblical Literature and the student representative on the Board for Eastern Great Lakes Biblical Society (EGLBS). Michele is a feminist scholar, activist, and author of several articles including “Hagia Sophia: Political and Religious Symbolism in Stones and Spolia” and lectured during the Commission for the Status of Women at the United Nations (2013 and 2014). She also wrote “The Catholic Church and Social Media: Embracing [Fighting] a Feminist Ideological Theo-Ethical Discourse and Discursive Activism” that appears in the recently released book, Feminism and Religion in the 21st Century: Technology, Dialogue, and Expanding Borders, edited by Gina Messina-Dysert and Rosemary Radford Ruether. Michele can be followed on Twitter @msfreyhauf and @biblicalfem. Her website can be accessed here and is visible on other social media sites like LinkedIn and Google+.

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Categories: Archaeology, Bible, General, Goddess, Myth, Women and Scholarship

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5 replies

  1. Although I had heard the phrase “the spoils of war,” I never thought about it until about 10 years ago I heard a professor talking about “spoila” without any indication that he was making any kind of moral discernment. It struck me then that the use of the Latin term created distance and pretty much excluded the hearer from wondering whose culture and whose stuff and whose people were being “spoiled”–defaced, destroyed, carried off, raped, murdered, enslaved.

    The victors are more insidious than we yet recognize.

    I will be looking for your next installment. Wondering what you found.

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  2. Good luck with your research! Your explanation of the use of the word “spolia” (which I assume is a plural noun–lots of spoils) makes me think of the work of Marija Gimbutas and the backlash against that work. Why are goddesses–and women–so often turned into the spoils of war? There’s another dissertation topic!

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  3. This is a fascinating and fertile subject and I am thrilled to see you working on it!

    In Vajrayana Buddhism the prominent modus operandi has been, at least in the Padmasambhava legends, to subdue the antagonists by converting them into VIP defenders of the faith-which legend conveniently aligns historically with the reign of the Mongolian Empire!

    The “mundane” dieties absorbed from Vedic, Siberian, and indigenous Tibetan historical cultures are at the bottom of the ‘totem pole’ only because those above them are more exalted with supramundane divine attributes (the former are considered powerful but typically not fully enlightened and thus not, by definition in the Buddha ranks). Similarly, they are positioned pointing outward from gates as fierce portal protectors, giving a constructive if not noble channel for any martial inclinations and proclivities.

    What is most intriguing to me, however, is the way the Latin word “spolia” is the scholarly lingua franca, conveniently sanitizing it of its inherent association with gang rape, mass murder, burning individuals and whole villages alive, and in the process smothering any residues of historical resentments, which relics still plague our dysfunctional human family system in political, social, cultural, and economic domains, not to mention our blood-thirsty appetites for endless violence and war.

    I look forward to your dissertation and will be forwarding your paper to a Mongolian Buddhism scholar!

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  4. “I saw that I can use archaeology and artifacts along with history (and anthropology) to enhance my work and research…”

    Thanks for your insights, Michele, interesting and creative. As regards your epiphany and the use of artifacts, my work is already in the arts, so it’s not odd, but still I can’t do research without images. And in that regard, I happened upon a figurine on the Net recently of the great mother goddess from ancient Crete, dated ca. 1200 BCE. I’ve linked my name here to the artwork — an enchanting lady with a bird headdress, full of loving-kindness and a playful spirit. At the site she plays the part of Rhea, mother of the gods.

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