Caroline Schelling’s 4th Letter by Stuart Dean

Caroline Schelling

Caroline Schelling (‘Caroline’) wrote the fourth letter of hers that survives (the ‘4th Letter’) on October 7, 1778, shortly after she had turned 15, to a girl she met at boarding school who was to become her lifelong friend (Luise).  The intensity of her friendship with Luise is evident already in the 4th Letter, for she tells Luise that in writing to her she “portrays her entire soul.”  What prompted such depth of feeling for this letter relates not just to a significant moment in Caroline’s life but in every person’s life.  In the second paragraph she refers to what was most likely her first sexual relationship.  Given that context, Caroline demonstrates remarkable emotional maturity and intellectual sophistication in how she expresses herself.

She begins by referring to the “sensations of my heart,” telling Luise how she struggles to find “adequate words” to express them.  She is not, she proudly insists, an “enthusiast” who simply gives into feelings, insisting instead on the importance of “going over” (Überlegung) them herself.  Though Caroline was not taught Latin, it seems as if she had been taught the relevance to German of a Latin treatise from the 4th century CE on the method for defining words.  Caroline’s ‘going over’ her feelings before writing Luise is consistent with its methodology: first, to confront the question of whether something even exists (an sit, Existenz) and then determining, to the extent possible, what it is (quid sit, Wesen) and what its qualities are (quale sit, Eigenschaften)–i.e., its relationship to other words (grammar) and hence how it can be communicated.  

This methodology, which is applicable to a wide range of disciplines (e.g., legal argumentation, psychiatric diagnosis), is also analogous to a language theory Charles Segal argued is implicit in what remains of the writings of the 5th century BCE Sicilian Gorgias, a theory Segal related to Sappho’s poetry.  That is relevant, because given the failed sexual relationship about which Caroline writes to Luise, the 4th Letter bears comparison to two poems by Sappho (S. 31 and S. 1) that Caroline surely then knew in translation.  Caroline’s “sensations of my heart” is directly comparable to the palpitations of the heart Sappho refers to in the second stanza of S. 31.  The immediate effects are comparable; Sappho cannot speak and Caroline cannot find “adequate words.”  Though S. 31 appears to break off, S. 1 can be read as a continuation of it.  There Sappho prays for divine intervention (Aphrodite) to deal with a failed sexual relationship; the closing prayer of its final stanza is analogous to the last sentence of the 4th Letter’s first paragraph: “Lord, you who know my heart . . . fulfill no wishes that are not pleasing to you, I am depending on you!” 

In each case it would seem the answer is anticipated to be one that is not heard or read but rather felt in the heart, intuitively understood as the center point of all bodily feelings.  That would be not an abstraction from the senses but an inward intensification of them.  Such intensification becomes the basis for its outward expression not just in words, but in all forms of art.  

Caroline grew up during a time of renewed interest in ancient Greek art and particularly nude sculpture, which rightly can be taken to symbolize the belief in the sacredness of the entire human body (a belief that correlates with heart centeredness).  It is notable that the floruit of such sculpture predates Plato by almost a century and quite literally embodies principles utterly antithetical to his philosophy.  It is also analogous to another art form that predates him and that he disparaged: reciting poetry (whether or not incorporated into a theatrical production).  Poetic recitation requires fully identifying with the poet and poem to such a degree that it can be thought of as internalized sculpting.

The principles underlying sculpture and recitation are thus similar and of general applicability.  Caroline, who enjoyed (and was appreciated for) reciting poetry, makes the point in a review she wrote of a book of essays on artistic appreciation (the “Review”).  To judge art, she says, it is necessary to penetrate “deeply into the meaning and sensibility of both it and its initiator . . . surrendering oneself in quiet reflection to a disposition of loving, receptive observation . . . [to be] transpose[d] . . . into the world of the poet or artist.”  She defends the book’s use of a fictional friar to voice religious reverence for art, effectively equating artistic appreciation with religious devotion, since it is only from feeling the divine within (i.e., internalizing god as the artist) that the divine outside is to be understood.   

This was not something new for Caroline, as is evident from the 4th Letter that was written nearly twenty years before the Review.  Not only does she seem to have internalized Sappho, but the opening line of S. 31 (a man, “equal to the gods”) and the closing line of S. 1 (“my comrade,” the goddess) arguably encouraged her transition in the 4th Letter’s first paragraph from describing her feelings to Luise (psychology) to praying to God (theology).  That transition anticipates the identification of psychology with theology Caroline articulates in the Review.  

The remote antiquity of this identification and its association with goddess worship to which Sappho attests, as well as the recognition of it by Caroline at such a young age deserve attention, for it has quite a history, especially in German culture.  Goethe quoted two lines of a 1st century CE Latin poem on astrology that essentially echo it in the guestbook atop Mount Brocken on September 4, 1784: who is able to know heaven except by a gift from heaven, who finds god unless a part of the gods is within them.  It is not known when Caroline met Goethe; it has been speculated that he was the father of her first daughter, Auguste, born April 28, 1785.  In August 1784 Caroline was living in a mining town not far from Brocken.

The opening paragraph of an essay published by Caroline’s third husband in 1809, only months before her death, contains a reference to the principle of knowing the god outside from the god within, correctly noting that its connection with Empedocles proves it predates Plato.  In 1936 Heidegger characterized that essay as “one of the most profound works” of Western philosophy.  In my next post(s) I hope to show that its profundity relates to a critique of Plato (and other philosophers) that derives from Caroline and her appreciation of ancient Greek female spirituality, and not to glorifying supermen.

Stuart WordPress photoStuart Dean has a B.A. (Tulane, 1976) and J.D. (Cornell, 1995) and is currently an independent researcher and writer living in New York City.  He has studied, practiced and taught Tai Chi, Yoga and related disciplines for over forty years.  Stuart has a blog on Sappho and the implications of her poetry for understanding the past, present and future:

The German Diotima by Stuart Dean

Caroline Schelling
Caroline Schelling

The title of the essay Über die Diotima (hereafter, the ‘Essay’ (translation here (pp400-419))) by Friedrich Schlegel (hereafter, ‘Friedrich’) suggests it is focused on Plato’s portrayal of Diotima in the Symposium.  That portrayal, though, is but a starting point for Friedrich, who attempts to demonstrate that Diotima was a particular type of woman he associates with other ancient Greek women, including Sappho.  The Essay is ostensibly of little relevance today, largely because knowledge of ancient Greece has evolved substantially since Friedrich’s time.  In particular, a compelling case has been made that far from being related to ancient Greek women, Diotima is a fictional figure used by Plato “to vanquish Sappho” (Jantzen, Foundations of Violence, p193).

Yet, the Diotima Friedrich principally had in mind was not the one in Plato’s Symposium, but rather Caroline Schelling (hereafter ‘Caroline’), who was–for a time–his sister in law.  On the third anniversary of his meeting Caroline he wrote a letter to her, reminding her of that anniversary and thanking her “for everything you have done for me and my development” (Caroline was almost a decade older than Friedrich, who was then in his early 20s, and yet to establish a name for himself as a scholar).  Towards the end of his letter he asks her to read the Essay “once more and mark in pencil those passages in which you believe a small change might be necessary.”  While his ‘once more’ suggests Caroline had previously given him input, the fact that in a letter to her from almost a year earlier Frederick refers to her, somewhat flirtatiously, as the “independent Diotima” relative to her ‘god’ (Frederick’s brother, August) confirms his identification of her with the subject of the Essay. Continue reading “The German Diotima by Stuart Dean”

The First Performance of Antigone: Phaenarete’s View by Stuart Dean

Fragment of an Ancient Greek Statue (Acropolis Museum, Athens)
Fragment of an Ancient Greek Statue (Acropolis Museum, Athens)

The first performance of the play Antigone was in Athens around 440 BCE.  It is possible that Phaenarete, the mother of Socrates, was in the audience.  By then she was certainly practicing medicine and perhaps had been doing so for a decade or more.  Given the nature of her practice she would have had any number of connections that might have led to an invitation to attend (including from Sophocles himself, who was roughly the same age as she was and who is known to have been married and to have had children).

The much debated issue over whether Athenian women were even allowed to attend theatrical performances should not turn attention away from the fact that even if Phaenarete did not actually view the performance of Antigone she surely would have had a ‘view’ about it.  The basic elements of what today seems merely the myth on which it is based but which, for her, was effectively history (and thus concerned with what a woman actually said and did) would have been known to her quite apart from the play itself.  Phaenarete’s interest particularly in Antigone would have derived from its relationship of burial to the womb–literally and symbolically–and how that could readily be associated with her medical practice. Continue reading “The First Performance of Antigone: Phaenarete’s View by Stuart Dean”

Artemis As Artemisia: Ancient Female Spirituality & Modern Medicine by Stuart Dean

Detail of Artemis from a 5th century BCE Attic Vase
Detail of Artemis from a 5th century BCE Attic Vase  (Museum of Fine Arts (Boston))

The 2015 Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded in part to a Chinese woman (Tu) for her identification and isolation to treat malaria of a chemical known as Artemisinin.  The name of that chemical derives from the fact that it is found in varying amounts in the ‘family’ (technically, genus) of plants known as Artemisia.  The name of that family derives from its association with the goddess Artemis.

Because Tu’s work began in China in the 1960s it is understandable that even if she knew this about Artemisia (a term I use to refer to any one plant or all of the plants of that family) it would not have been a ‘careerbuilder’ for her to point it out to those for whom she was working.  It was bad enough that she was a woman.  At that place and time, however, if she had said or done something that could be associated with Western culture her name might not even be known today.   

Nevertheless, because those awarding the Nobel Prize are free from discrimination or intimidation, it is startling that in the explanation provided for the award no mention is made of the Western legacy of Artemisia.  To begin with, the very fact that the Prize was being awarded to a woman for a plant named after a goddess should have elicited at a sense of uncanniness that arguably deserved mention.  Be that as it may, the failure to mention that Artemisia has a long history of being used medicinally in the West not only as an insect repellent but also to treat fever–a common symptom of malaria–is simply inexcusable. Continue reading “Artemis As Artemisia: Ancient Female Spirituality & Modern Medicine by Stuart Dean”

The Mother of Socrates: Priestess, Pharmacist, Obstetrician by Stuart Dean

ParthenonBecause the dates for the life of Socrates are certain, it is safe to conclude his mother, Phaenarete, was born about 500 BCE.  She seems to have lived well past menopause and thus was certainly alive to see the start of construction of the Parthenon (447 BCE) and probably its completion (432 BCE).  As was traditional for many Greek mothers, after menopause she became a priestess, pharmacist and obstetrician.

The relevance of the chronology for Phaenarete requires some context to appreciate.  Writing had yet to be widely adopted during her life (the alphabet was not standardized until about 400 BCE).  Literary evidence in particular for the practice of medicine before and during her life is scarce. Although Hippocrates was a contemporary of her son, nothing survives of medical writings from antiquity that can confidently be attributed to him.  Parmenides and Empedocles (contemporaries of Phaenarete) appear to have been medical practitioners, but what survives of their poetry relates to nature philosophy in general and only in places to medical theory.

Hence, it is extraordinary that an account of Phaenarete’s medical practice survives in Plato’s dialogue, Theaetetus, 149a-150a (hereafter “PMP”).  Though PMP was composed by Plato in the 300s BCE, he emphasizes it is based on a transcript of an actual conversation from the late 400s BCE.  PMP records what Socrates said about his own mother.  It is as authoritative a source of information about her as it is about the origins of the sine qua non of medical practice: optimizing human reproduction.

While evidence exists for women healers in many ancient cultures, the specifics PMP provides show postmenopausal mothers were especially important to early Greek medicine.  Curiously, there was no word for ‘menopause’ itself, a fact that suggests it was thought of more in metaphysical than physical terms.  Evidence indicates it was thought of as a type of ‘virginity’ (parthenia), the metaphysical meaning of which can be detected in its association with goddesses such as Artemis and Athena (cf. ‘Parthenon’ for her temple’s name).  It marked the completion of the ‘internship’ of motherhood, the prerequisite to graduate to become a priestess of Artemis.  The name of Socrates’s mother, Phaenarete, evinces that religious context: it essentially means “Revelator.”  The Greek for “obstetrician,” maia, also evinces that context: it was also the name of a goddess.  The status such a word then connoted is lost in translating it, as many do, as ‘midwife.’ Continue reading “The Mother of Socrates: Priestess, Pharmacist, Obstetrician by Stuart Dean”

E Pluribus Unum: The Woman From Africa by Stuart Dean

Stuart WordPress photoShe’s his only savior.  African in origin, her figure bears witness to her homeland: her hair twisted in dreads, her lips full, her color dark, her chest broad with pendulous breasts, her stomach flat and firm, her legs slender, her feet broad and ample.

The passage above translates the portrayal of Scybale, the black female slave of the farmer in the poem Moretum, that as discussed in an earlier post, is the source of the phrase ‘e pluribus unum.’  It is reasonable to infer it is a self portrait.

The case for Moretum being the work of a woman (and perhaps incorporating a self portrait) begins with the very fact that it portrays a woman so positively.  Portrayals of women in such positive terms in ancient literature are rare.  The details are impressive because they seem so real.  The form of the description manifests a diagnostic technique (head to feet) well attested in ancient poetry.  That includes Sappho’s self portrait (S. 58b), which reads as if composed while standing in front of a mirror, as does this portrait. Continue reading “E Pluribus Unum: The Woman From Africa by Stuart Dean”

Why Is Pizza Round? The Black Goddess of Rome by Stuart Dean

The remains of an ancient Roman bread pie from Pompeii, carbonized in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE
The remains of an ancient Roman bread pie from Pompeii,
carbonized in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE

The poem Moretum (discussed in my last post) narrates the preparation of a meal that can be characterized in modern English as ‘pizza.’  Round flatbread is baked; to go on it, a cheese spread is mixed.  The details of the narration are such as to create a recipe of its ingredients and related cooking instructions.  

The most important ingredient, however, is not an ‘ingredient’ as such, but a shape.  The bread, the cheese, and the cheese spread are all round.  That by itself might not seem remarkable, but the Latin terminology (words from which ‘orbit’ and ‘globe’ derive) is identical to then contemporary astrological terminology.  The bread is even scored into quadrants, symbolizing, among other things, the four elements and the quadrants of an astrological observer’s circle. 

The ancient audience of Moretum would have recognized in all this the world view of the Italian poet from southern Campania, Parmenides.  Though the only poem he is known to have composed is in Greek, the combination of the fact that he likely wrote it while in Italy and that it had over the centuries since its composition become one of the most influential philosophical works of pre-Christian antiquity meant Parmenides had special importance to Romans.  It is not surprising Moretum has the same meter and many of the poetic images as are found in the poem of Parmenides. Continue reading “Why Is Pizza Round? The Black Goddess of Rome by Stuart Dean”

E Pluribus Unum and The Unrecognized Black Goddess of Rome by Stuart Dean

Stuart WordPress photoE pluribus unum (‘EPU’), which first began to be used by the U.S. in the 18th century, comes from a poem entitled Moretum that until well into the 19th century was generally attributed to Vergil.  During those centuries Latin would have been studied from what was the equivalent of today’s elementary school through at least high school.  Because Vergil is to the study of Latin what Shakespeare is to the study of English, Moretum would have been read by anyone lucky enough to receive formal education in those centuries–mostly boys–including the white sons of slave owners.

Those boys, however, would have been motivated not just to read, but to memorize Moretum.  That is because Moretum, through a variety of clues, encourages allegorical interpretations, one of which is that it celebrates the sexual intercourse of a single white farmer and his sole companion, his black female slave.  Such an interpretation requires ignoring the clues that the author thinks of such sex as rape (as anyone other than a male slave owner would); those clues lead me to think the author may have been a woman.

Illustration of Moertum (1558 Edition of Vergil's works)

Illustration of Moretum from a 1558 edition of the works of Vergil available here.

Continue reading “E Pluribus Unum and The Unrecognized Black Goddess of Rome by Stuart Dean”

Sappho, Frankincense, and Female Spirituality by Stuart Dean


White Howjary Frankincense (photo: Trygve Harris (

Sappho is the first Greek author to attest to the usage of frankincense.  The word she uses to refer to it (libanos) is what comparative linguists call a ‘loan word,’ in this case from ancient South Arabic (the root meaning of which is ‘white’), the language spoken in the only region in the world still now, as then, where the trees grow that produce the resin that is frankincense (the finest being White Howjary from near Salalah Oman).

This was long before Amazon Same-Day Prime: that frankincense even made it to where Sappho was is astonishing given the thousands of miles of desert terrain that had to be covered.  That fact plus the fact that Sappho chose to use the Arabic word for frankincense suggests it must have been of special importance to her.  How important can be seen in the power she attributes to it.  In one prayer poem (S.2, composite translation and very brief notes here) she completes a stanza by referring to frankincense burning from Aphrodite’s altars; she completes the very next stanza with a reference to ‘sleep falling.’  The parallelism implies a reciprocity: the smoke goes up, the sleep comes down and a stanza later, there is Aphrodite. Continue reading “Sappho, Frankincense, and Female Spirituality by Stuart Dean”

Aphrodite in Bagram Afghanistan & The ‘Friend of the World’ of the Flower Ornament Scripture by Stuart Dean

Stuart WordPress photo

 In the 1930s two ancient storerooms in Afghanistan near what is now the Bagram US Air Base were discovered by French archaeologists and unsealed for the first time in about two thousand years.  They contained artifacts from all over the ancient world, evidencing just how active trade then was along the complex network of routes known collectively as the Silk Road.  Among the artifacts in one of the storerooms was a plaster statuette of Aphrodite (‘Bagram Aphrodite’).

BagramAphroditeThough it is not known what the motivation originally was for acquiring the Bagram Aphrodite, its presence in Afghanistan arguably evinces an interest in female spirituality–if not in the owner of the storerooms then among some of the people in the market for which she may have been destined.  Evidence of such interest among Buddhists is to be found in the Flower Ornament Scripture (FOS), a compendium of sutras dated to approximately the same time (and possibly the same region) as the storeroom containing the Bagram Aphrodite.  Female spiritual figures, both mortal and immortal, some portrayed as having official positions, others without any, are prominent in the final chapter of the FOS, so prominent that one scholar suggests Buddhist women of the time in some way influenced its composition (see Douglas Osto, Power, Women and Wealth in Indian Mahayana Buddhism).

Continue reading “Aphrodite in Bagram Afghanistan & The ‘Friend of the World’ of the Flower Ornament Scripture by Stuart Dean”

Sappho’s Prescription For A Healthy Heart & the Taoist/Buddhist Concept of Forget (忘)

Stuart WordPress photoA two line fragment of Sappho’s poetry (S.120) reads:

But I am not one to keep venting my anger:
Rather I let some things in my heart go unspoken

Sappho’s word choices here make this as difficult as any of her fragments to appreciate in translation.  Yet, not only do those choices make attribution of this fragment to Sappho secure, they also manifest her importance in an area for which she rarely receives attention: early Greek medical thinking.  One reason her importance in that regard is largely unnoticed is that Western medicine in general has abandoned its own tradition, retaining only the nomenclature and some of the symbolism of early Greek medicine. Continue reading “Sappho’s Prescription For A Healthy Heart & the Taoist/Buddhist Concept of Forget (忘)”

Poppaea & Paul: Was This About A Female Challenge To Male Privilege? by Stuart Dean

Poppaea Sabina as portrayed on a Roman coin minted 62-65 CE.
Poppaea Sabina as portrayed on a Roman coin minted 62-65 CE.


As suggested in my first post on Poppaea it is likely she knew one or more of the women Paul refers to in Romans. Of particular interest is the woman Paul refers to as his ‘mother’ (Romans 16:13).  If Poppaea knew her she surely knew about Paul.  If that was the case, then it seems all but certain Poppaea was among those members of the imperial household to whom Paul refers at Philippians 4:22.  Corroboration of that may have been in the source(s) of an anecdote Saint John Chrysostom tells, attributing Paul’s incarceration and execution to Nero’s anger at his interaction with a woman with whom Nero was erotically involved.

Though it is difficult to place much reliance on Chrysostom’s anecdote without more knowledge about his source(s), in the aggregate the evidence for Poppaea knowing about or even meeting with Paul is relatively strong, especially when compared to the sort of evidentiary problems with which ancient historians regularly grapple.  Furthermore, it is easy to spot the issue Poppaea would have focused on (that precisely because it relates to sexuality could have led in antiquity to the sort of distortion or misunderstanding of her motivation in meeting with Paul) that may underlie Chrysostom’s anecdote: circumcision.  The problem with understanding that issue today, however, ironically relates to modern perceptions of no relevance whatsoever to the ancient evidence. Continue reading “Poppaea & Paul: Was This About A Female Challenge To Male Privilege? by Stuart Dean”

Astrology and Its Relevance to the Jewish (and Christian) Belief of Poppaea by Stuart Dean


Poppaea Sabina as portrayed on a Roman coin minted 62-65 CE.
Poppaea Sabina as portrayed on a Roman coin minted 62-65 CE.

As a follow up to my last post on Poppaea Sabina, I want to focus on Poppaea’s interest in astrology, one of the few facts about her that can be confirmed independently of the hostile (and hence questionable) depiction of her by the Roman historian Tacitus, who, apart from Josephus, is the primary source of information about her.  Indeed, she may have practiced astrology, for as Empress she was given a celestial sphere on her birthday by the poet Leonidas, who said it was a gift “worthy . . . of her learning.”  Another possible indication of Poppaea’s special interest in astrology is the fact that a large banquet hall in the Roman imperial mansion built during Nero’s reign (recently discovered), probably conceived of and designed before Poppaea’s death (perhaps with her input), had some rotational feature, effectively making it a planetarium.

Though Tacitus thus would appear to be accurate on Poppaea’s interest in astrology, there is good reason to be wary of sharing his negative opinion about it.  He never expressly explains himself on the issue, but it is not hard to spot what bothered Tacitus about astrology and hence Poppaea.  Famous for his appreciation of freedom of speech, Tacitus wistfully looked back on a time when that was a freedom enjoyed only by men.  By contrast, ancient astrology was but one part of a comprehensive philosophy of nature that viewed the entire cosmos as governed equally by male–and female–powers. Continue reading “Astrology and Its Relevance to the Jewish (and Christian) Belief of Poppaea by Stuart Dean”

Poppaea Sabina: A Victim of Domestic Violence– But Why Does That Matter Now? by Stuart Dean

Poppaea Sabina as portrayed on a Roman coin minted 62-65 CE.
Poppaea Sabina as portrayed on a Roman coin.

It has been nearly 2000 years since the Roman emperor Nero kicked his pregnant and sick wife, Poppaea Sabina (hereafter Poppaea), killing her and what was probably the near full term fetus she was carrying.  That Poppaea was murdered deliberately should not be doubted, for not long after her death Nero had her son by an earlier marriage, who was then still a minor, killed by being drowned (a fishing ‘accident’).

Given that domestic violence has a history that repeats itself with sickening regularity it is necessary to explain why this particular case should matter now.  It is because at the time of her murder Poppaea was, with the sole exception of her murderer, the wealthiest and most powerful person in the world, whose attention was curiously focused not on Italy or Rome but on Judaea and Jerusalem.  There is evidence to suggest that had Poppaea not been murdered the history of Judaism and Christianity would have been substantially different than it has been, especially with respect to the role of women. Continue reading “Poppaea Sabina: A Victim of Domestic Violence– But Why Does That Matter Now? by Stuart Dean”

The Sphere: A Symbol of Ancient Greek Female Spirituality by Stuart Dean

Stuart WordPress photoOriginally, in ancient Greek, ‘sphere’ simply meant ‘ball.’  Though its grammatical gender varied, it was primarily a feminine noun.  It is in that sense and with that gender that it bounces into Western literature in the episode of the Odyssey where Nausicaa and her companions are playing catch on a beach (Odyssey 6.100 ff).

Nausicaa is said to be conducting her companions in ‘molpe,’ a curious term that seems to refer to dancing, music and poetry as a single form of performance art.  Authorship (including possibly female authorship) and dates of individual episodes of the Odyssey remain debatable, but both from this episode as well evidence from other sources there is no doubt that in general what Nausicaa and her companions are doing here relates to an actual custom among Greek women that dates back to well before writing was adopted. Furthermore, molpe was spiritually significant.  As the conductor of its performance Nausicaa is compared to Artemis.

The reference to Artemis as one of those who ‘holds heaven’ (Odyssey 6.150), suggests that the sphere with which Nausicaa and her companions are playing may have been intended (at least by the author of this episode) to be a symbol of the celestial sphere.  That suggestion is bolstered by an appeal to what is to be found in the fragments that survive of the poetry of Sappho, who it is readily apparent considered herself as much a musician and choreographer as a poet.  That is to say, whereas Nausicaa may be a fictional persona, with Sappho we have the only direct evidence of any substance directly from an actual woman of what constituted molpe.  From how she refers to a female performer of molpe as goddess-like (S. 96), followed immediately by a comparison of yet another woman’s beauty to that of the moon, as well as other fragments of poems where either the appearance or movement of women in connection with a molpe performance is related to celestial events such as the appearance of a full moon or the movement of the Pleiades, it is clear that for Sappho choreography was in effect applied cosmology (see S. 154 and S. 34 and how it is surely echoed in a much later Latin poem here). Continue reading “The Sphere: A Symbol of Ancient Greek Female Spirituality by Stuart Dean”

The Declaration of Independence: A Misogynistic Mash-up of Greek Philosophy and Roman Law

Stuart WordPress photoRegardless of political identity in America there seems to be an almost religious reverence for the Declaration of Independence (DI).  By far the most quoted sentence from it is the one that begins “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”  Though it is hardly ‘self-evident,’ the history behind the words in these two clauses betrays the fact that they constitute a misogynistic mash-up of Greek philosophy and Roman law.

First, the Greek philosophy in the first clause.  Precisely because of how often this portion of the DI is quoted (perhaps most memorably by Martin Luther King), the idea that there are ‘truths’ that are ‘self-evident’ may seem–self-evident.  From the perspective of the history of Greek philosophy, however, such an idea is as problematic as it is peculiar and for that very reason can reliably be traced back to one source: Plato.  The most likely direct source is the introductory section of an ancient Platonic commentary on Greek mathematical methodology.

Though relatively obscure today, it was a much admired work in the Renaissance and for a few centuries thereafter, influencing a wide range of disciplines, including law.  As a consequence of that influence law was conceptualized more geometrico (in a geometric manner), with legal documents drafted (as they often still are today) with a list of ‘defined’ terms first followed by the propositions to which they relate.  Similarly, judicial decisions still slavishly follow a quasi-mathematical methodology, ‘applying’ law to the ‘facts’ of the case, as if plugging numbers into an equation, with everything set out in a sequence of paragraphs identified by a combination of Roman numerals and arabic letters (‘as applied’ in Hobby Lobby (see the majority’s penultimate paragraph)). Continue reading “The Declaration of Independence: A Misogynistic Mash-up of Greek Philosophy and Roman Law”

Contraception, Christianity & Law by Stuart Dean

Stuart WordPress photoNotwithstanding the widespread belief that contraception is not consistent with the principles of Christianity, there is no basis for it.  On the contrary, contraception was closely associated with early Christianity.

Matthew 19:12 is the only passage quoting Christ that is on point.  Christ has been speaking about family law (adultery), acknowledging here that the issue is not relevant to eunuchs, including those who castrate themselves “for the kingdom of heaven.”  At a minimum it seems problematic how this verse is to be understood today.  Yet, the evidence for Christians castrating themselves in the first few centuries after Christ comes from a variety of sources, many of which are considered to be otherwise reliable.  It is very difficult to see why Matthew 19:12 itself should not be taken both as evidence of the practice and Christ’s implicit endorsement of it.

Continue reading “Contraception, Christianity & Law by Stuart Dean”

Before Misogyny Contaminated Theology by Stuart Dean

Stuart WordPress photo

Compared to many issues related to ancient history, it is relatively easy to identify not just where and when misogyny began to contaminate theology, but  the person primarily responsible for it: Plato, who lived in Athens in the late fifth and early fourth centuries BCE. Although today Plato is not thought of as a theologian, in antiquity theology was not just one discipline among many, but rather was synonymous with philosophy as an overarching system of thought to which all else was subordinated. Conceived of in this way theology was comprised of a variety of interrelated theories that today ostensibly appear to be discrete disciplines, including biology and psychology.

There is thus little question but that the exclusion of women not just from theology but from literate culture generally up until the 20th century can to a great degree be attributed to Plato. In one dialogue he categorizes women as a subaltern species of humanity that has yet to evolve to the level of being attained by men. Consistent, in an odious way, with that biological theory, is Plato’s view of female psychology as being such that it should be against the law for women to establish private religious shrines and related rituals since they derive the inspiration for doing so from dreams, apparently incapable of the ‘serious thought’ he deemed necessary for such matters. Given that context it is hardly surprising that in all his ‘dialogues’ there is not one female participant.

Continue reading “Before Misogyny Contaminated Theology by Stuart Dean”

The Physician Luke, the Virgin Mary and the Poet Sappho by Stuart Dean

Stuart WordPress photoSince my last contribution to Feminism and Religion my interest in Sappho and her influence has led me to a detailed analysis of Luke 1:27-45 (hereafter, the “Conception Story”).  I want to share two observations from that analysis that I think will be of interest to readers of this blog.  Both relate to the generally agreed upon fact that Luke was a physician and in particular to knowledge he can be assumed to have had of female anatomy based on evidence from approximately contemporaneous sources.

My first observation relates to the fact that Luke lived during a time when the existence of ovaries in women had only recently been discovered and their function correctly understood.  While this had obvious implications for Greek medical theory, it would appear to have affected how Luke himself interpreted the source material he had for the Conception Story and hence how he told that story.  My second observation, based on what is known of Greek gynecology, is that Luke would have correctly understood that although as a medical term ‘virginity’ does refer to the physical fact that sexual intercourse has not occurred, it does not necessarily or even often have an anatomical meaning.  That observation leads directly to investigating whether ‘virgin’ as used by Luke may have a primarily metaphysical rather than physical meaning.

Though in general the ‘glory days’ of Classical Greece belonged to the centuries well before Luke’s time, that is not true of Greek medicine.  Notwithstanding promising origins in a sexual egalitarianism that was in principle consistent with modern medicine, Greek medicine regressed substantially with Aristotle, who introduced the notion that the male’s contribution to reproduction was the active one and the female’s merely the passive provision of the material for its success.  Not only did Aristotle not know of ovaries, even after their discovery it is far from clear when exactly their function was fully understood (the best evidence is about a half century after Luke).  Once that happened, however, Greek medicine moved back towards the sexual egalitarianism of its origins (the ‘two seed theory’ of reproduction), repudiating Aristotle’s theory (the ‘single seed theory’ of reproduction). Continue reading “The Physician Luke, the Virgin Mary and the Poet Sappho by Stuart Dean”

Jesus, the Woman at the Well, and the Meaning of ‘Man’ by Stuart Dean

 Stuart WordPress photoThe story in the Gospel of John of the encounter Jesus has with a Samaritan woman (hereafter, ‘the Samaritan’) at Jacob’s well (4:7-29) has attracted considerable scholarly attention.  For an overview of some of the interpretive issues raised by it there is a video of a conversation about it between H. W. Attridge and D. L. Bartlett of Yale Divinity School available on Youtube here.  I intend to focus primarily on only four verses, John 4:16-19.

Here is my translation (the underlying Greek and links to interpretive resources can be found here):

16 [Jesus] said: “go tell your ‘man’ and come back here.”
17 The Samaritan answered, “I do not have a ‘man.”’ Jesus said to her “Beautifully you said ‘I do not have a man.’
18 You have had five ‘men,’ and the one whom you have now is not your ‘man.’  You spoke truthfully.”
19 The Samaritan said to him: “Sir, I see you are a wise listener.”

My translation is intended to bring out what I take to be a play on the meaning of the underlying Greek word for man.  Before I explain exactly what the play on meaning is about I want to justify the assumption that there is some sort of play in the first place. Some have argued that the reference to the bride and bridegroom at John 3:29 foreshadows the meeting of Jesus and the Samaritan as a spiritual wedding.  The theme of a spiritual wedding is arguably also foreshadowed in how John starts the book itself, for ‘beginning’ is a feminine noun in Greek and ‘word’ is masculine, making ‘in the beginning was the word’ sexually symbolic; that, in turn, suggests that the well before which Jesus and the Samaritan stand, or the water in it, symbolizes God, or at least the spirit of God. Continue reading “Jesus, the Woman at the Well, and the Meaning of ‘Man’ by Stuart Dean”

Sappho & Early Christianity by Stuart Dean

Stuart WordPress photoGiven modern perceptions of Sappho it is, I am sure, going to seem at a minimum counterintuitive that early Christians would have had an interest in Sappho.  The issue is not helped by the fact that a story about Saint Gregory of Nazianzus ordering the burning of Sappho’s poetry has been frequently repeated both in print and online.  There is no basis for it in any reliable historical source. Mention is first made of it in the Renaissance, possibly as the result of confusing attitudes and policies of later times with those of Gregory’s time.  Whatever the explanation, it is ironic any credence was given to such a story, for not only was Gregory very interested in Sappho in particular, but he was also a keen advocate for appreciating the relevance to Christianity of art and literature generally.  A prominent figure in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Gregory is not well known to ‘Western’ Christianity, especially among English speaking Christians.  An excellent place to familiarize yourself with him is a brief talk given by John McGuckin, who is a priest, poet and scholar at Columbia University, available on youtube here.

There are a variety of possible explanations for Gregory’s interest in Sappho that relate to both his personal circumstances as well as how Sappho had been received within the Judaeo-Christian tradition in ancient times.  It is worth noting that Gregory was from what is today a region of Turkey occupied by Hittites in very ancient times.  That happens to be an area that Sappho may have had some cultural connection with, for modern linguistic analysis suggests that her name, which does not mean anything in Greek, derives from Hittite or a related ancient Turkish language.  What did ‘Sappho’ mean in Hittite?  ‘Holy one.’  I am basing this on an article by Edwin Brown that is available online here for those who want more granularity. Continue reading “Sappho & Early Christianity by Stuart Dean”

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