here marthiya: women’s distinct voice for killing men

marthiya in 20th-century England

“What would you do when someone comes to kill you?” women chanted to men. “We will kill them,” men chanted in response. Then, on September 16, 2014, in a farming village in West Africa, villagers killed eight men from outside the village. The men who were killed came to the village to teach about the health risks of Ebola. The men who were killed were local officials, doctors, journalists, and a popular pastor.[1]

Early Arabic poetry directly faces women inciting men to kill other men. A well-recognized genre of early Arabic poetry is lament for the dead. Such a lament is called marthiya. Among Arabic poets born in the pre-Islamic period, the most famous writer of marthiya is the woman poet al-Khansā. In a marthiya for her brother Sakhr, killed in inter-tribal fighting, al-Khansā described him as “a spearhead whose blade illuminates the night.”[2] Men warriors, particularly those who take on the most dangerous missions, are today also figured as the tip of the spear. They are the point of impact for a weapon that women direct.

Within human social life, and within the social life of primates more generally, women determine the issues of social concern. Women provide the criteria and judges of men’s status competition. In another marthiya for Sakhr, al-Khansā wrote:

O Sakhr, you were a full moon in which one sought light
The day you died, Glory and Selflessness passed
Today, the hopeful no longer have you to hope for
Now that you’re gone, and the basin of Death is nigh [3]

The image “a full moon in which one sought light” connects through night and light to “a spearhead whose blade illuminates the night.” Glory and selflessness are central measures of Arabic manliness. The criteria of men’s status function to make men instruments. Men provide hope for others’ interests and serve as means for preserving others’ lives.

In her marthiya, al-Khansā isn’t obscure or deferential in ordering men to kill other men. She orders men to cloth themselves for fighting other men. She sets the terms of their mission:

There will be no sleep until the horses return, stern-faced,
flinging and miscarrying fillies and colts
or until you press on, while death draws nigh,
to the homes of Husayn and Ibn Sayyār
so that you wash away a shame that has en-clothed you [4]

Her marthiya helps to create that shame. She determines when there will be peace:

I shall not make peace with a people with whom you made war
until the tar-smeared jar turns to white

Men are only the tip of the spear. Men are only those who kill and get killed. Women run the battles.

Social structure affects how women prompt men to kill other men. In the personal politics within early Arabic tribes, women poets urged men to kill other men in response to the killing of a man. In human groups created through a mediated public sphere (impersonal politics), men’s deaths are less socially significant. Media strongly favors reporting sensational crimes against women. The (fabricated) story of a women brutally gang-raped at a University of Virginia fraternity indicates the scope for such reporting.

An Arabic poem probably from the eighteenth century illustrates in different communicative circumstances different imagery for a woman urging men to kill other men. In that poem, a women declares that other men are abusing her:

If only al-Barrāq had an eye to see
the agony and distress I endure …
They fettered me, shackled me, and beat
my chaste area with a stick [5]

The poem ends with her call for war against those other men:

Say to the ʻAdnān, “You’ve been shown the way, tuck up
for retribution from the detested clan
Tie banners in their lands,
unsheathe your swords, and press on in the forenoon”
O Banū Taghlib, press on until victory
leave off the inertia and slumber
Beware: shame is at your heels, upon you
as long as you linger in lowliness

War throughout history has been predominately structured as men killing men. The poem includes an indirect death wish from the woman:

For I abhor your infringement
and the certainty of death is something to desire

In the mid-twentieth century, the first part of this poem had become an anti-colonial song well-known throughout the Arabic world. It was also featured in a popular film. The last couplet of the popular song more broadly invokes death:

Your tyranny disgusts me
My salvation is death [6]

That concluding couplet carries both the voice of the woman and that of her men. Her salvation is in her death or in the death of the other men. Disgust for tyranny spurs her men to welcome death in fighting for her.

Women have a distinct, powerful voice for calling men to kill other men. Gynocentrism and relatively little concern about men’s deaths fundamentally support women’s calls for men to kill other men. In highly monetized and mediated societies, such calls take variant forms such as white-feather campaigns, damseling for dollars, and social-outrage brigading. In early Arabic poetry, women poets were prominently associated with marthiya.[7] That reflects an important, general position of women in social communication. Women’s distress and weeping powerfully motivates men to kill other men.

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[1] The killings occurred in Womey, Guinea. The account of the villagers’ words is according to Damantang Albert Camara, a government minister and spokesperson. See Brittain (2015). Id. doesn’t describe the sex of the persons killed. In news reports, that typically means that all the persons killed were men.

[2] al-Khansā, “Eyes, well up with tears,” l. 8, Diwan, 290-302, ed. Abū Suwaylim, from Arabic trans. Hammond (2010) p. 77.

[3] al-Khansā, Diwan, 256, ed. Abū Suwaylim, from Arabic trans. Hammond (2010) p. 5. The Arabic lines are pairs of lines in the above and subsequent quotes.

Gynocentric status competition among men affects men’s sexual prospects. An anecdote concerning the pre-Islamic poet ‘Alqama:

it is said that ‘Alqama was named the stallion poet because he married Umm Jundab when Imru’ al-Qays divorced her after she deemed {‘Alqama’s} poetry superior to his.

Ibn Manzur, Lisan al’arab, f-h-l, from Arabic trans id. p. 34. Being named the stallion poet was a term of masculine honor. The better poet got the woman.

[4] al-Khansā, “Eyes, well up with tears,” l. 22-24a, Diwan, 290-302, ed. Abū Suwaylim, from Arabic trans. Hammond (2010) p. 78. The subsequent quote is from id. l. 10. The order to dress for war is in l. 13:

Fasten your waist-wrappers in order that you are ready and able
and tuck them up for these days are for tucking.

Id. p. 77. A similar figure occurs in the poem “If only al-Barrāq had an eye to see”: “tuck up for retribution.” From Arabic trans. Hammond (2013) p. 224.

[5] “If only al-Barrāq had an eye to see,” ll. 1,4, from Arabic trans. id. p. 223, adapted slightly for clarity. The subsequent two quotes are ll. 14-77; l. 8, id. p. 224.

[6] “If Barrak could see,” ll. 9-10, id. p. 215. The song is ascribed to Laylā bint Lukayz. The song was included in the Egyptian films Laylā al-Badawiyya (Laylā the Bedouin), made in 1944. That film was a remake of a 1937 Egyptian film, Laylā bint al-Sahrā (Laylā daughter of the Desert). Id pp. 215-6.

[7] While early Arabic women poets were particular associated with marthiya, id. convincingly shows that they have also written in a wide variety of Arabic poetic genres from the pre-Islamic period.

Scholars have generally regarded classical Arabic women poets as writing poetry from a “masculine stance.” Id p. 105, n. 12. That’s absurd. Hammond provides a mild dissent from that prevailing view.

[image] illustration for Arnold Bennett, “The White Feather: A Sketch of English Recruiting,” Collier’s Weekly (U.S.), Oct. 10, 1914. Thanks to George Simmer at Great War Fiction. Here’s an essay by George Simmer on white feather stories.


Brittain, Amy. 2015. “The fear of Ebola led to slayings — and a whole village was punished.” Washington Post, February 23, 2015.

Hammond, Marlé. 2010. Beyond elegy: classical Arabic women’s poetry in context. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hammond, Marlé. 2013. “‘If only al-Barraq could see’: Violence and Voyeurism in an Early Modern Reformulation of the Pre-Islamic Call to Arms.” Pp. 215-240 in Kennedy, Hugh, ed. Warfare and Poetry in the Middle East. London: I.B. Tauris.

ass for lover: failing to distinguish men’s physical masculinity

In classical literature, both Greek and Latin, women favored male asses for their large masculine member. By the Middle Ages, the status of physical masculinity had degenerated. The medieval Latin tale Asinarius figures a woman as preferring the masculine physicality of a man over that of an ass.[1] A leading medieval work of men’s sexed protest, Lamentations of Matheolus, depicts the depreciation of physical masculinity even more starkly. Masculinity was so devalued that Matheolus believed that he couldn’t confidently distinguish between a female ass and a man.

Matheolus was in bed with his wife when her male lover crept under their covers. Matheolus felt that man in their bed in the dark of night and thought he was a thief. He told his wife to hold that thief. Then he jumped out of bed and ran to get a dagger. His wife quickly switched her lover with a female ass. When Matheolus returned, he killed the body she was holding. Then in the light he saw that he had martyred his good ass Burnelle. His wife insisted that his sense of touch was mistaken and that there was never a man under their covers. In response to his wife’s declaration, Matheolus accepted and believed that he couldn’t feel the difference between a female ass and a man.[2] He had internalized the obliteration of masculinity.

Another medieval story affirms Matheolus’s difficulty in sensing the difference between an ass and a man. A merchant had to take many business trips in the traditional, burdensome gender role of men. His wife entertained a lover while her husband the merchant was away on his business. A neighbor informed him of his wife’s affair. The husband then pretended to go on a business trip. He set watch to catch his wife’s lover. Seeing her lover in front of their house, the husband approached unrecognized and claimed that she sent him to hide her lover in a chest in the house. The husband had the lover get into the chest and locked him in. Then he went to his wife’s family and declared her betrayal. He explained:

in order that you shall not say that I blame your daughter without cause, you shall both see and touch the scoundrel who has done us this dishonor, and I beg that he may be killed before he can get away. [3]

The reference to “both see and touch” connects this story to Matheolus’s account.

ass in chest

Seeing and touching don’t matter when persons can’t distinguish between an ass and a man. While the husband was informing his wife’s family of her betrayal, the wife unlocked the chest, released her lover, and replaced him with an ass. The husband brought a crowd armed with swords and hammers back to his house. He publicly accused his wife of adultery. He proposed to kill her lover and send his wife back to her family.[4] His wife denied the charge of adultery. The husband then opened the chest. Everyone saw an ass. Everyone turned on the husband for lying about his wife. If the husband hadn’t fled, his wife’s brothers would have killed him.

With mediation from town officials and strict promises from the husband, his wife’s family relented from killing him. The husband and wife were re-united:

ever after that he was all kindness and consideration, and never did a man conduct himself better to his wife than he did all his life; and thus they passed their days together.

That’s a significantly different ending from “they lived happily ever after.” Not recognizing and appreciating men’s physical masculinity eliminates happiness.

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[1] See my post concerning Onos, Apuleius’s Metamorphoses, and Asinarius.

[2] The story is from Les lamentations de Matheolus I.421-34. From the Latin critical text, Klein, Rubel & Schmitt (2014) pp. 76-77:

Tactum confutat mulier. Probo per Framericum,
Qui juxta lectum per crines cepit amicum
Uxoris de nocte sue. “Soror! ecce latronem.”
Inquit, “eum teneas! eo quesitum pugionem.”
Sed mox uxor eum dimittit abire receptum
Illi substituens asinum, quem clam per ineptum
Isse consilium mactat vir. Martyriato
Sic asino statim lumen petit ille ; parato
Lumine Burnellum stratum videt. Inde flet, isti
Dicens: “Burnelle, bona bestia, non meruisti
Hanc mortem.” Mire culpat tactum referentem
Falsa sibi somnumque suum, fatuam quoque mentem.
Ecce, redarguitur exemplo tactus in isto
Per mulierem, que capto providit Egistho.

Cf. Van Hamel (1892) pp. 30-1 (nearly the same). The context in Matheolus is five ways in which women confound men: tongue, sight, touch, falsehood, and false belief. Sight, which immediately precedes the above story about touch, involves men not being able to believe what they see (the story of Guy, his wife, and her lover Simon). The name Egistho refers to Aegisthus, who committed adultery with Clytemnestra.

The first-century writer Latin writer Phaedrus recorded a fable similar to Matheolus’s story of Framericus. In Poeta de Credere et non Credere (Phaedrus 3.10), a husband suspecting adultery mistakenly kills his son in the conjugal bed.

The fabliau De la dame qui fist entendant son mari qu’il sonjoit (from the first half of the thirteenth century) is similar to the story from Matheolus. But in the fabliau, the husband recognizes the difference between a she-ass and a man and doesn’t kill the ass. He does, however, dream of having intercourse with the she-ass. De la dame qui fist entendant son mari qu’il sonjoit is a variant (I, manuscript B) of the fabliau Les Tresces (The Tresses). The Old French texts of both that fabliau and the main variant (II) are available as #69 in Nouveau recueil complet des fabliaux 6, Nooman (1991) pp. 209-58. An English translation of variant II is available in DuVal & Eichmann (1982) pp. 63-76. Cutting off a woman’s hair in the context of adultery and a substitute woman occurs in both Les Tresces and Decameron VII.8.

The protagonist in Nigel of Canterbury’s Speculum stultorum (Mirror of Fools) is an ass named Brunellus. Speculum stultorum, written in the late twelfth century, was a highly popular work. Klein, Rubel & Schmitt (2014), p. 77, notes that Burnelle may be a metathesis of Brunellus.

In translating Les lamentations de Matheolus into French about 1380, Jehan Le Fèvre changed the ass’s name from Burnelle to Brunel. Id. That change undoes a significant poetic choice and makes the story less wonderful.

Apparently alluding to Brunellus in the Speculum stultorum, Chaucer referred to “Daun Burnel the Asse” in The Nun’s Priest’s Tale (VII.3312–19). Burnel could also connect to the name of the ass in the Latin Lamentations of Matheolus or in Le Fèvre’s French translation. Chaucer’s version suggests that the name of the ass may itself have become a foolish game.

Brunellus, ass in Speculum stultorum

[3] Les Cent nouvelles nouvelles, story 61, from French trans. Douglas (1899). The underlying French for “you shall both see and touch the scoundrel who has done us this dishonor” is je vous monstreray à l’oeil et au doy le ribauld qui ce deshonneur nous a fait. CNN-1876 pp. 275-6. Recent English translations obscure the reference to seeing (to the eye / à l’oeil ) and touching (by the finger / au doy). For example, “I will show you the debauched fellow who is dishonoring us.” Diner (1990) p. 232. Rather than relying merely on individual deception, cuckoldry is now institutionalized in official procedures for establishing paternity.

Antoine de la Sale was probably the author of Les Cent nouvelles nouvelles. It is thought to have been first published as a printed book about 1460. I was subsequently republished many times. The subsequent quote is also from the English translation of Douglas (1899).

[4] For the illicit sex, the planned punishment of the man is characteristically more severe than the punishment of the women. Historians who claim that women were more severely punished for illicit sex than were men lack appreciation for reality. Today few even recognize that violence against men is much more severe and common than violence against women.

[image] Cuckolded and Duped, illustration for story 61 in Les Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles. Léon Lebèque, illustrator. From Douglas (1899). Brunellus, in the Speculum Stultorum, illumination from British Library Additional MS 38665, f.114v (manuscript written around 1420s).


CNN-1876. Les Cent Nouvelles nouvelles. Texte revu avec beaucoup de soin sur les meilleures éditions et accompagné de notes explicatives. 1876. Paris: Libr. Garnier.

DuVal, John, and Raymond Eichmann. 1982. Cuckolds, clerics, & countrymen: medieval French fabliaux. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press.

Klein, Thomas, Thomas Rubel, and Alfred Schmitt, eds. 2014. Matheolus. Lamentationes Matheoluli. Stuttgart: Anton Hiersemann.

Diner, Judith Bruskin, trans. 1990. Antoine de la Sale. The one hundred new tales = Les cent nouvelles nouvelles. New York: Garland.

Douglas, Robert B., trans. 1899.  Antoine de la Sale. One hundred merrie and delightsome stories: right pleasaunte to relate in all goodly companie by joyance and jollity : les cent nouvelles nouvelles. Paris: Charles Carrington.

Noomen, Willem. 1991. Nouveau recueil complet des fabliaux 6. Assen, Pays-Bas: Van Gorcum.

Van Hamel, Anton Gerard, ed. 1892. Mathéolus, Jean Le Fèvre. Les lamentations de Mathéolus et le livre de leesce de Jehan Le Fèvre, de Ressons: poèmes français du XIVe siècle. Paris: Bouillon.

oracles of Astrampsychus: understanding fate in everyday life

astragaloi (ancient dice)

Gods were omnipresent in everyday life in the ancient Mediterranean world. So too were practices of divination.[1] One tool of up-market professional fortune-tellers was a book-interpreted sortition (drawing of lots) known as the oracles of Astrampsychus. The client chose among 92 questions. Then he chose by lot a number between 1 and 10. The professional fortune-teller looked up in the Astrampsychus book the oracle corresponding to the question and the lot outcome. The oracles were arranged in the book so that the possible outcomes for a given question were widely distributed and not easily collectable. The oracles of Astrampsychus thus provided authoritative, standard, obscure answers specific to 92 different questions.

The oracles of Astrampsychus address questions that a politically and economical active, upward-striving man would commonly have in everyday life in the ancient Mediterranean world. Unlike the formulas in the Greek Demotic Magical Papyri of Egypt, a major concern of the oracles of Astrampsychus is business:

  • Will I have a share in the business?
  • Is it to my advantage to enter into an agreement?
  • Will I be able to borrow money?
  • Will I pay back what I owe?
  • Will I take a profit from the undertaking? [2]

The oracle questions make clear that women as well as men owned property:

  • Will I inherit from my mother?
  • Will I inherit from my wife?

Everyday life as seen through the oracles involved considerable concern about public positions and public institutions. The oracles address questions of obtaining the positions of agoranomos (marketplace official), oikonomos (municipal middle-manager), and decemvir (local magistrate). Accusation, prosecution, litigation, detention, and appeal are also matters of concern. So too are being held in servitude and being sold as a slave. Servitude, slavery, and detention could happen to any man merely through economic misfortune.

The oracles of Astrampsychus indicate men’s vulnerability in intimate relations. Men consulted the oracles about girlfriends, wives, and babies:

  • Will I be estranged from my girlfriend?
  • Will I marry and will it be to my advantage?
  • Is my wife having a baby?
  • Will my wife stay with me?
  • Will I be caught as an adulterer presently?

The oracle answers include many unfavorable to the client. Among attainable answers to the question “Will my wife stay with me?” nine out of ten indicate that she will leave. Three answers reveal that the wife is leaving because she’s committing adultery.

In sharp contrast to the text-based oracles of Astrampsychus, Apuleius’s Metamorphoses describes an oracular technique of oral interpretation. To make money, a roving band of devotees of a Syrian goddess created a single answer oracle. They inscribed on all lots for sortition the same words:

For this the team of oxen plows the furrowed earth, so fertile fields of grain will sprout in times to come. [3]

In choosing a lot, the oracle client inevitably got that answer. The goddess’s priests then interpreted that answer according to the client’s circumstances and interests:

if some would make inquiry as they were, say, arranging a marriage, the priests would say that the situation is directly addressed by the response: they are to be joined — the team — in marriage for the procreation of children — the grain. Should someone put the question about when to snap up some goods, they would say that the mention of the oxen was right on the money, as was the team, as were the fields that flourish in sprouting grain; if someone were anxious about setting out on some journey and wanted to secure the auspices of the gods, they would say that oxen, when joined in teams and gotten ready, are the most submissive of all four-footed creatures, and that profit is portended from the seeds in the field; were someone to take the field in war, or take to the hills to chase down some gang of robbers, and inquire whether the outcome would be productive or not, the priests would argue that victory comes in the train of this powerful pronouncement. Why? Because they would force their enemies’ necks to wear the yoke, and would receive from their raids a most rich and profitable prize.

All these prognostications are favorable to the client.[4] The priests earned much money by providing oracles from the Syrian goddess. Apuleius’s oracle satire implicitly ridicules practices of divination such as the oracles of Astrampyschus.

While divination was widely practiced and commonly taken seriously, ridicule of divination wasn’t just a matter of Apuleius’s outrageous creativity. Divination was ridiculed in jokes popular enough to be included in a compilation of jokes made in the fourth or fifth century. Among those jokes:

  • A rude astrologer cast a sick boy’s horoscope. After promising the mother that the child had many years ahead of him, he demanded payment. When she said, “Come tomorrow and I’ll pay you,” he objected: “But what if the boy dies during the night and I lose my fee?”
  • A man, just back from a trip abroad, went to an incompetent fortune-teller. He asked about his family, and the fortune-teller replied: “Everyone is fine, especially your father.” When the man objected that his father had been dead for ten years, the reply came: “You have no clue who your real father is.” [5]

The oracle at Delphi, which had great authority in elite culture, was a target of ridicule in the Life of Aesop. Divination, like healing from illness, was both disparaged and highly regarded across its many different contexts and practices.

Compared to fortune-telling today, the oracles of Astrampsychus subtly indicate a significantly different sense of fate in the ancient Mediterranean world. The oracles of Astrampsychus served men who were actively making choices and seeking to improve their economic and political positions.[6] Yet the oracles include questions that depict persons as puppets of external powers in ordinary life. Consider these oracle questions:

  • Will I purchase what is offered?
  • Will I open a workshop?
  • Will I move from this place?

These questions suggest the feasibility of the focal action. To the modern mind they imply a simple answer: that’s for you to decide. From an agentic perspective, those are very different questions from “Will I win the lottery?” Free will even in mundane affairs seems to have been tenuous among the clients of the oracles of Astrampsychus.

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Scholarly resource: oracles of Astrampsychus, in English translation, organized and made available for personal scholarly study (Excel version)


[1] For a review of divination in Greek, Roman, Jewish, and Christian culture, see Van der Horst (2002).

[2] The oracle questions and answers are translated from Greek in Stewart & Morrell (1998). That translation is from the second version (ecdosis altera) of the oracles of Astrampsychus, with the elimination of some obvious Christian accretions. I’ve reorganized the questions and answers and made them available online to aid personal scholarly study. All subsequent quotations of the oracles are from id. Critical editions of the Greek texts of the ecdosis altera and ecdosis prior are available in Stewart (2001) and Browne (1983), respectively. Pieter W. van der Horst has provided a helpful review of Stewart (2001).

[3] Apuleius, Metamorphoses {Golden Ass} 9.8, from Latin trans. Relihan (2007) p. 182. The subsequent quote is from id.

[4] Astragaloi oracles typically had a mix of positive and negative answers. However, all but one of the oracle answers found at Dios, probably from about 200 GC, are positive. Cuvigny (2010) p. 269.

[5] Hierocles and Philagrius, Philogelos (The Laughter Lover), jokes 187A and 201, from Greek trans. Quinn (2001). The full text of Philogelos is available in English translation in Baldwin (1983).

[6] Naether (2010), p. 276, describes the typical Astrampsychus oracle client as “männlich, mittleren Alters, gut situiert, verheiratet, Mittelständler, oft auf Reisen und er hatte ein Ehrenamt inne. Damit gehörte er untrüglich zu der Schicht, die man gemeinhin als die ‘Elite’ des Römischen Reichs bezeichnet” (male, middle-aged, well-off, married, middle class, often traveled, he held an honorary position. He belonged unmistakeably to the class which is commonly called the “elite” of the Roman Empire.) From Pieter W. van der Horst’s review.

[image] Astragaloi (dice) made from bone. From the second or third century. Thanks to Diana Ringo and Wikimedia Commons.


Baldwin, Barry. 1983. The Philogelos, or, Laughter-lover. Amsterdam: J.C. Gieben.

Browne, Gerald M. 1983. Sortes Astrampsychi {ecdosis prior}. Vol. 1. Bibliotheca Teubneriana. München & Leipzig: K.G. Saur.

Cuvigny, Hélène. 2010. “The shrine in the praesidium of Dios (Eastern Desert of Egypt): Graffiti and oracles in context.” Chiron. 40: 245-299+460-461.

Naether, Franziska. 2010. Die Sortes Astrampsychi: Problemlösungsstrategien durch Orakel im römischen Ägypten. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck

Quinn. John T. 2001. “45 Jokes from The Laughter Lover.” Online at Diotima.

Relihan, Joel C. 2007. Apuleius. The golden ass, or, A book of changes. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub.

Stewart, Randall, and Kenneth Morrell. 1998. “The Oracles of Astrampsychus.” Ch. 10 (pp. 291-324) in Hansen, William F., ed. Anthology of ancient Greek popular literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Stewart, Randall. 2001. Sortes Astrampsychi {ecdosis altera}. Vol. 2. Bibliotheca Teubneriana. München & Leipzig: K.G. Saur.

Van der Horst, Pieter W. 2002. “Sortes: Sacred Books as Instant Oracles in Late Antiquity.” Ch. 9 (pp.  159-89) in Pieter W. van der Horst, ed. Japheth in the tents of Shem: studies on Jewish Hellenism in antiquity. Leuven: Peeters.

Ovid castrated & called misogynist for defying goddess Cybele

Ovid, the great teacher of love in medieval Europe, today still offers men profound lessons in seducing women for mutual love satisfaction. Those lessons start with appreciating women-in-the-flesh and not worshiping women as divine. Yet foregoing women worship means defying the great goddess Cybele, who has always ruled men’s fate. Ovid was castrated and called a misogynist for that daring impiety. Men today risk being denounced by dour, dogmatic-sex moralists and being attacked by apologists for rape-culture culture. Yet as Attis and Vivek Wadhwa learned to their regret, self-castration is a mistake.

introduction of cult of goddess Cybele

With Hannibal threatening to overrun the Roman Empire, the Roman general Scipio Africanus planned a desperate attack on Hannibal in African. The Delphic Oracle instructed the Romans to welcome and worship Cybele, the great mother goddess of the earth, also known as Gaia. So they did, and Hannibal was defeated. Worship of the great goddess Cybele, which early in history arose from childish urgings of men’s hearts, thus became fully institutionalized in public life. Roman men began to turn away from sex with women. They increasingly avoided marriage.

Ovid, in contrast, wanted to love all women — blondes, black-haired ones, young women, old women, tall women, short women. He wanted them all. He later recalled:

O how dear to me and how desirable was the female sex, without which I believed it was impossible for any man to live.

He understood the importance of men’s self-confidence for seduction, so he convinced himself that the only chaste woman is one who hasn’t yet been propositioned. He loved many women. Women, even if they pretended to resist initially, came to love him.

At a bar one night, after drinking enough to be seeing double, Ovid was brought home by a lovely young woman. She embraced him tightly in her dark bedroom. Like a blind man who cares nothing for the light of day, Ovid perceived by touch that she had become a hideous old hyena-cougar. He was taken in a bed trick, without affirmative consent, with a blood-alcohol level that now defines rape, if he were she. He was a rape survivor. But no one believed his story. That’s because the great goddess Cybele decreed that only women have eyes that can see double, and only women can be raped.

Ovid objected not to the woman’s age, but to the deception. He knew that old women are more skilled in bed because they have had more men. Old women typically know a thousand different positions for love-making, practiced to perfection. They will fake sexual satisfaction without stimulation to prevent any suspicion that they can’t feel it. Old women are promising fields for amorous pursuits. All that Ovid knew and taught.

As an old man, worn out with his long, busy love life, Ovid met again the lovely young woman, now an old woman. She again showed amorous interest in him, but regarded them as too old for an affair. Ovid seduced her into his bed:

I feel her laughing and my whole body rushes into her mouth. What more can I say? Naked, I am received with much gentleness. My whole body delights in the smell of old love. What she was like, it is a pleasure to recall; and she demonstrates, in her reduced state, how fine she was in her prime. Never was a woman of such an age, especially after so many births, better than she. None was cleaner or better smelling. I am silent about what remains; it is enough to have said that we came together in bed, that in peace I was received, and in peace departed.

Ovid wished for the old woman the fullness of life in a mixture of fortunes. That’s what he had, too. Delight in old love comes from the pleasure of recalling a woman when she was young and in her prime. Memory of passion makes in old age peaceful loving.

As an old man, Ovid turned to a new life of scholarly pursuits. He explained:

I used to praise only the man to whom nature had given potency, so that as many times as he could wish, he would be able to have sex with his girlfriend. But now, I praise half-men. … I no longer wish to live as I was formerly accustomed, nor do I intend to submit my neck any longer to the yoke of all-consuming love.

Ovid called a half-man (semivir) a man who is physically unable to have sex with a woman. So, for example, a man castrated as a result of social hostility to men’s sexuality would be a semivir. But not only a semivir turns away from women. Because of gender inequality, pursuing love is much more burdensome for men than for women. Some men for that reason turn away from pursuing women. Ovid himself as an old man turned from the burden of seducing women to study of mathematics, music, astronomy, cosmology, and theology.

The great goddess Cybele convicted and punished Ovid for dishonoring old women. Cybele convicted him for insinuating that young women are more sexually attractive than old women. She also convicted him for studying books rather than servicing women sexually. Cybele ordered the Roman Emperor to relegate Ovid to the city of Tomis on the far eastern edge of the Roman Empire. That’s well known. The rest of Ovid’s punishment was revealed only in the late fourteenth-century French work of Jehan Le Fèvre:

For the true story is that he had both his balls cut off. They were bandaged and healed with pieces of flax and soft eggs; then he lived for many years and was sent into exile and transported overseas.

That work observed of Ovid: “a capon never loved a hen.” But roosters love hens. Ovid was a great rooster before he was made a capon. The great goddess Cybele had Ovid castrated merely because she envied Ovid’s women and was bitter that she never had him.

Cybele preferred boyish men. She enrolled in her service the handsome Phrygian boy Attis. His job was to protect her temple, service her without raising his masculine-patriarchal head, and remain a boy forever. Soon Attis, however, fell in love with a lovely young nymph who had neither title nor temple, but who raised Attis’s head. They made carnal joy with each other.

The great goddess Cybele, widely regarded as frigid, burned in anger at Attis’s love affair with the lovely nymph. She killed that girl. Cybele’s abuse internalized within Attis became self-hate. He blamed himself, not Cybele, for the girl’s death:

He tore at his body too with a sharp stone,
And dragged his long hair in the filthy dust,
Shouting: “I deserved this! I pay the due penalty
In blood! Ah! Let the parts that harmed me, perish!
Let them perish!” cutting away the burden of his groin,
And suddenly was bereft of marks of manhood.

In the purifying light of the sun, he looked out on the sea waves pulsating against the soft, sandy shore. He came to regret his self-castration. With tearful eyes he bemoaned his lost masculinity:

like a slave fleeing his master, so am I among
snows, and the frozen lairs of wild creatures, …
Sorrow on sorrow, again and again now complaint in the heart.
What form have I not been, what have I not performed? …
my doorway frequented, my threshold warm,
my house was garlanded with wreaths of flowers,
at the dawn separation from my bed.
Now am I brought here priest and slave of divine Cybele?
I, to be Maenad: a part of myself: a sterile man? …
Now I grieve for what I did, now I repent.

The time was too late, and the great goddess Cybele, too strong. Cybele unleashed her evil beasts upon Attis and forced him back into her temple.

Vivek Wadhwa probably knew nothing of Ovid, but he liked women. As an expert on entrepreneurship and public policy, he worked devotedly to promote women in technology. As a professor, he even invited women to come to his office and speak with him in person. His service to the great goddess didn’t propitiate; it ignited her anger. He was forced to cut off his male part, which was speaking for women.

Jehan Le Fèvre, forefather in spirit to Vivek Wadhwa, also spoke for women. He declared that Ovid, along with Homer, told false stories “especially when they spoke of women and attacked them.” Le Fèvre declared of Ovid:

we can believe and say that being hateful and brim-full of wrath, he {Ovid} blamed women after this {his castration} and never loved them afterward. … Ovid was out of control when his speech attacked women; he defamed his own self by his anger and wickedness. May the shame of it be on him

Professor R. Howard Bloch, a leading post-modern proponent of misandristic medieval scholarship, came to be denounced by other professors for his voice “gradually becoming indistinguishable” from medieval writers labeled as misogynists. Over recent decades, voluminous scholarship has revealed that “misogyny is a question not only of reading but of who speaks.” If a man speaks anything other than pure praise of the divine goddess, he is called a misogynist.

That’s how Ovid came to be castrated and called a misogynist. In today’s liberal democracies, Ovid, the great teacher of love in medieval Europe, is no longer welcomed to teach.

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The text above draws upon various works of Ovid, particularly his Amores, Ars Amatoria (Art of Love), and Remedia Amoris (Cures for Love). It also draws upon the Pseudo-Ovidian Latin work De Vetula (The Old Woman), alternately titled De mutatione vitae (The Change of Lives). It was composed between 1222 and 1268. The report of Ovid’s castration apparently originated in Jehan Le Fèvre’s Le Livre de Leesce (The Book of Gladness), written from 1380-1387. Sometime before 1376, Le Fèvre translated De Vetula into French as La Vieille.

De Vetula was a medieval best-seller. It has survived in whole or in part in nearly 60 manuscript copies. Bellhouse (2000) p. 126. It hasn’t been translated into English. Latin critical editions are Klopsch (1967) and Robathan (1968). The Latin text of De Vetula is similar in each, but the meta-texts offer different scholarly aids. Colker (1970). De Vetula has been attributed to Richard de Fournival, but Klopsch (1967), p.99, considers that attribution unlikely. Le Fèvre’s translation of La Vieille is available in Cocheris (1861) (online) and in Huchet (2010).

Le Livre de Leesce is available in a critical edition with English translation in Burke (2013). In addition to translating De Vetula, Le Fèvre also translated about 1380 the Latin work Les Lamentations de Matheolus. That work, written about 1290, is a major, under-appreciated work of men’s sexed protests. Le Livre de Leesce presents itself as a response to Les Lamentations de Matheolus. Van Hamel (1892) presents both the Latin original of Les Lamentations de Matheolus and Le Fèvre’s (relatively free) French translation.

For general discussion of the development of biographical accounts of Ovid over time, see Ghisalberti (1946), Trapp (1973), and Godman (1995), adapted in Godman (2000) Ch. 8.

Quotations above:

  1. “O how dear to me ….” De Vetula I.1-3, from Latin trans. Ziolkowski (2005) p. 106.
  2. “I feel her laughing….” De Vetula II.666-75, trans. adapted from Miller (2008) pp. 77-8, and Godman (2000) p. 331. The first line in Latin is Sentio ridentem, ruo totus in oscula. Quid plus?; the final line, Qui cum pace receptus eram, cum pace recessi.
  3. “I used to praise only the man ….” De Vetula II.6-8, III.1-3, trans. adapted from Miller (2008) p. 28, Ziolkowski (2005) p. 106.  De Vetula II.200-201 declares: “Learn how such a great change came to me, you for whom it is loathsome to bear the yoke of love.” Miller (2008) p. 34. The Latin here for yoke is iugum / iugo.
  4. “For the true story is … ” Jehan Le Fèvre, Le Livre de Leesce ll. 2710: Car on reconte en verité / Qu’on lui coupa ambdeux les couilles; / Aux estoupes et aux oeufs douilles / Furent restraintes et sanées; From French trans. Burke (2013) p. 97. The use of the word couilles (testicles) was a matter of lengthy discussion  in the Romance of the Rose. Lady Reason argued for plain-speaking about covered body parts. See ll. 6898-7198.
  5. “a capon never loved a hen.” Le Livre de Leesce l. 2708: Oncque chapon n’ama geline. Trans. id.
  6. “He tore at his body too …” Ovid, Fasti 4 (April) 236-242, from Latin trans. A.S. Kline, adapted slightly.
  7. “like a slave fleeing his master” Catallus, Poem 63, “Of Berecynthia and Attis,” excerpts, from Latin trans. A.S. Kline, adapted slightly.
  8. “we can believe and say….” Le Livre de Leesce ll. 2719-22, 2778-82, trans. Burke (2013) p. 97.
  9. Bloch “gradually becoming indistinguishable”: Pratt (1994) p. 57, n. 2.
  10. “misogyny is a question not only of reading but of who speaks”: Pratt (1994), p. 66. That phrase isn’t quoted in id, but is preceded by the statement “To quote Howard Bloch again (for who can resist invoking masculine written authority?)” The actual Bloch quote appears to be: “In attempting to identify misogyny one is to some degree always dealing with a problem of voice, the questions of who speaks and of localizing such speech.” The literature policing and judging misogyny has failed to localize even its own navel.

[image] Introduction of the Cult of Cybele into Rome.  Painting. Andrea Mantegna, 1505-1506. Thanks to National Gallery (London) and Wikimedia Commons. Daisy Dunn offers a good discussion of the painting.


Bellhouse, D.R. 2000. “De Vetula: a Medieval Manuscript Containing Probability Calculations.” International Statistical Review. 68 (2): 123-136.

Bloch, R. Howard. 1987. “Medieval Misogyny.” Representations. 20 (1): 1-24.

Burke, Linda, ed. and trans. 2013. Jehan Le Fèvre. The book of gladness / le livre de Leesce: a 14th century defense of women, in English and French. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc.

Cocheris, Hippolyte, trans. 1861. La vieille, ou Les dernières amours d’Ovide: poème français du XIVe siècle. A. Aubry (Paris).

Colker, Marvin L. 1970. “Book Review: The Pseudo-Ovidian De Vetula.Speculum. 45 (2): 322-326.

Godman, Peter. 1995. “Ovid’s Sex-Life: Classical forgery and medieval poetry.” Poetica. 27 (1/2): 101-112.

Godman, Peter. 2000. The silent masters: Latin literature and its censors in the High Middle Ages. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Ghisalberti, Fausto. 1946. “Mediaeval Biographies of Ovid.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes. 9: 10-59.

Huchet, Marie-Madeleine. 2010. De la Vieille de Jean Le Fèvre: traduction versifiée du De Vetula attribué à Richard de Fournival: étude et édition. Doctoral thesis, directed by Geneviève Hasenohr. École pratique des hautes études (Paris). Section des sciences historiques et philologiques.

Klopsch, Paul. 1967. Pseudo-Ovidius De vetula. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Miller, Sarah Alison. 2008. Virgins, mothers, monsters late-medieval readings of the female body out of bounds. UNC Electronic Theses and Dissertations Collection. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Pratt, Karen. 1994. “Analogy or Logic; Authority or Experience? Rhetorical Strategies For and Against Women.” Pp. 57-66 in Donald Maddox and Sara Sturm-Maddox, eds. Literary Aspects of Courtly Culture. Cambridge:D.S. Brewer.

Robathan, Dorothy M. 1968. The Pseudo-Ovidian De vetula. Amsterdam: A.M. Hakkert.

Trapp, J. B. 1973. “Ovid’s Tomb: The Growth of a Legend from Eusebius to Laurence Sterne, Chateaubriand and George Richmond.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes. 36: 35-76.

Van Hamel, Anton Gerard, ed. 1892. Mathéolus, Jean Le Fèvre. Les lamentations de Mathéolus et le livre de leesce de Jehan Le Fèvre, de Ressons: poèmes français du XIVe siècle. Paris: Bouillon.

Ziolkowski, Theodore. 2005. Ovid and the moderns. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

matriarchy in 11th-century Germany: the case of Ruodlieb

Tamar the Great, Queen of Georgia

A great king counseled the noble knight Roudlieb to marry only upon his mother’s advice. Ruodlieb’s mother advised:

I should desire, if you do, that we now call
Our relatives and loyal friends together, that
With their advice and with their loyal help you can
Find a woman to be your wife [1]

Ruodlieb didn’t rebuff, resent, or ignore his mother’s urgings to marry. He responded “very calmly.” He also acted promptly and obediently:

Tomorrow we will tell our friends and relatives
To gather here with us as quickly as they can.
If you think we should follow the advice that they
Give me, I will not fail to carry out your wish.

At that gathering to help Roudlieb find a wife, Ruodlieb spoke “just as his mother had advised.” Ruodlieb pursued marriage to please his mother. He was a leader among men, but a follower of his mother.

Ruodlieb entrusted his household to his mother for ten years. Because lords in his home realm weren’t favoring him, Ruodlieb decided to seek service elsewhere. Ruodlieb’s mother lived with him. Before leaving, he entrusted all his affairs to her. These actions occurred very early in the story.[2] The reader doesn’t know that Ruodlieb has no wife, no siblings, and his father is dead. Delaying narration of these details highlights the dominance of Ruodlieb’s mother in his life.

Ruodlieb could have entrusted his affairs to someone other than his mother. Other persons loved Ruodlieb and had long-term relationships with him. Ruodlieb left home with a squire who had served him from childhood. The house servants wept and groaned when Ruodlieb left. They joyously strained to catch first sight of him when they heard news of his return. Ruodlieb consulted loyal friends and relatives about seeking a wife. He could have entrusted his affairs to one of them. Instead, Ruodlieb burdened his aged mother with his affairs.

Ruodlieb’s emotional relationship with his mother mattered more to him than his position in broad networks of men. While in service to a foreign king, Ruodlieb received a message “from his dear mother.” The message had two parts. The first part was from Ruodlieb’s home lords. It explained Ruodlieb’s current standing among men, the need for his skills, the fall of his enemies, and possibilities for remuneration. The second part of the message was his mother’s emotional appeal to him:

My darling son, remember your unhappy mother
Whom, as you know, when you departed you deserted
Both unconsoled and widowed by a double cause.
Once by your father, the second time by you, my son.
As long as you were with me, you eased all my woes;
When you departed, though, you multiplied my sighs.

That’s a claim for sympathy with a thrust of shaming. Ruodlieb’s mother’s suffering was his fault. His mother claimed the moral high ground:

However, I decided I could bear it somehow,
Provided you could live your wretched life safe from
So many enemies who were so strong and fearsome.
Because they all have now been maimed or killed, return,
Dear son, and bring your mother’s grieving to an end.

But in the end his mother made clear it wasn’t just about her:

By your arrival gladden all your relatives,
Not only yours but all your countrymen as well.

Ruodlieb didn’t react to his lords’ message. He cried “for his lonely mother.” He grieved for her intensely. Showing the message to the king, Ruodlieb described it as deeply disturbing. He evidently wasn’t referring to his lords’ praising him and welcoming him to return. The king understood Ruodlieb’s focus, but described it much differently: “the message from your mother is extremely pleasing.”[3] The king released Ruodlieb to go home to his mother. That Ruodlieb was also going home to his lords hardly mattered.

The emotional intensity of Ruodlieb’s relationship with his mother is evident in his interaction with his mother’s goddaughter. She, a widow, looked to Ruodlieb for romance. He felt no passion for her. But he passionately sought information about his mother (her godmother):

Now, mistress, how long since you saw your godmother?
Please tell me, is she well? And does she live in peace?
Please tell me, when did she become your godmother?
Has she borne me a brother whom you raised from that
Baptismal fount, or did she raise your daughter from
The fount?

The goddaughter in response pushed the emotional level higher:

Ah me, what have you said? Do you think she has wed,
For whom her life has lost its sweetness without you?
For she has lost her vision from her tears for you. [4]

Ruodlieb in response wept. This scene, like similar scenes in the late-eighteenth-century English literature of sensibility, encourages personal characterization and identification. Almost everyone knows what it feels like to love one’s mother.

Ruodlieb’s relationship with his mother is also characterized in more stereotypically medieval ways. Consider table arrangements at the banquet celebrating Ruodlieb’s return home:

The knight {Ruodlieb} went to the table and sat down …
He did not wish to sit up at the head, however;
But like a guest sat humbly on his mother’s right,
And gladly he gave her complete authority.
Respectfully he took that which she gave to him.
She cut the bread and passed it out to all the group,
And passed to everyone a dish of special foods;
She sent around a bowl of wine, and sometimes mead. [5]

After the banquet, Ruodlieb went with “his beloved mother” to a private room to show her the treasures he had acquired during his time away from home. Excited with showing his mother his wealth, he broke open both loaves that the king had given him. Breaking the second loaf violated the king’s instructions.[6] Ruodlieb’s child-like excitement with his mother obliviated the instructions he had received from the king.

Compared to the wisdom the king gave Ruodlieb, Ruodlieb’s mother’s counsel would have been more suspect to medieval listeners. His mother portrayed the ravages of old age for a woman. Among its evocative descriptions, her portrait described effects of aging on the woman’s hair:

The golden-colored hair that once hung to her buttocks,
Bound up in separate braids and covering her back,
Sticks up grotesquely, terrible to see, as if
Her head had just been drawn, arse first, through shrubbery. [7]

Ruodlieb’s mother then declared that “age overcomes an agile man as it does woman.” Her portrait of the old man ends with his plea for death:

Death, you who are alone the end of human woes,
Why do you come for me so late? Why do you not
Release me from my prison? [8]

These paired portraits are highly literary and highly exaggerated. They seem to occur in the context of urging Ruodlieb to marry. Presumably his mother wanted him to marry a young woman before he got too old. But Ruodlieb earlier saw the loving marriage of a young man and an old woman. Compared to his mother’s words, the king’s wisdom was less rhetorical. Its validity was also realized in the course of the narrative. Moreover, the king provided wisdom as a chosen gift. Ruodlieb’s mother “did not cease giving Ruodlieb her frequent warnings.”[9] Frequent warnings tend to have the value of nagging.

A change in the depiction of Ruodlieb’s mother seems to have occurred from the middle of the penultimate surviving fragment. Ruodlieb’s mother then became a paragon of virtue:

The mother of that Ruodlieb, as best she could,
Helped Christ’s unfortunates: the widows, orphans, pilgrims,
And thus she earned that Ruodlieb be greatly blessed.
For Christ revealed to her how he would glorify
Her son. [10]

Ruodlieb’s mother was herself a widow and earlier lamented her misfortune in her son’s absence. That has no narrative relevance here.

The revelation to Ruodlieb’s mother indicated that Ruodlieb would become a king, marry, and receive greater honors. Information from a captured dwarf apparently confirmed that revelation. Ruodlieb’s mother remained humble and didn’t credit herself for her son’s forthcoming good fortune. The last words of Ruodlieb’s mother in the surviving text are pieties about giving thanks to God.[11] Earlier concern and wonder about Ruodlieb’s relationship with his mother are eliminated in the end.

Matriarchy is both subtle and beyond challenge.

*  *  *  *  *

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[1] Ruodlieb XVI.11-14, from Latin trans. Kratz (1984) p. 187. The subsequent three quotes are from XVI.19, 20-23, 41, id. pp. 187, 189. The phrase “very calmly” translates placidissime from l. 19. The greater king’s counsel to defer to mother is at V.487, p. 125. All subsequent quotes are from id. The Latin text of Ruodlieb is online. Ruodlieb wasn’t a homebody. He won a major military victory in foreign service as commander-in-chief of the great king’s army.

[2] By line 16 of the story. Id. p. 75.

[3] All the quotes in the above paragraph are from Ruodlieb V.224-90, pp. 113, 115.

[4] Ruodlieb V.1-9, p. 169 (previous two quotes).

[5] Ruodlieb XIII.10-17, id. p. 173.

[6] Ruodlieb XIII.35-60 (breaking open both loaves in private with his mother). Gold and jewels were hidden in what appeared to be loaves of bread. The king instructed Ruodlieb:

Do not break open these two loaves, my dearest man,
Until you reach your mother, whom you love so dearly.
Then in her sight alone you break the smaller loaf;
When you sit at your wedding with your bride, then break
The next.

Ruodlieb V.549-53, p. 127.

[7] Ruodlieb XV.18-21, p. 183. On the importance of a woman’s hair, see my post on Paul and Thecla, especially note [5] and Galbi (1996) preprint p. 22.

[8] Ruodlieb XV.58-60, p. 185. Release from prison has been a common, broad rhetorical figure throughout literary history.

[9] Ruodlieb XV.65-6, p. 185. The king’s wisdom given as a gift to Ruodlieb is at V.451-526, pp. 123-7.

[10] Ruodlieb XVII.85-7. Zeydel perceived that the text changed from XVII.83:

From here on, the style of the work changes. There is occasional end-rhyme (e.g. ll. 85-87; 90-91), verbs of saying are omitted, and the scansion of the name Ruodlieb fluctuates (e.g. ll. 87 and 91). The handwriting, however, does not change. Perhaps there was some lapse of time after l. 82.

Zeydel (1959) p. 153. The literary treatment of Ruodlieb’s mother also changes sharply from that point.

[11] In Ruodlieb XVII.119-28, Ruodlieb’s mother states:

Remember, son, how often in his goodness God
Has helped you and has rescued you from death itself,
And that He often helped you when you were in exile,
And let you come back to your homeland safe and wealthy.
I know that now you will obtain still greater honors,
But I fear very much to say the Lord has thus
Rewarded us for ever doing anything
Which has pleased Him — my son, beware of saying this!
What could we do, who have nothing but what He gives?
But whether you fare well or badly, give Him thanks!

Ruodlieb’s mother earlier was a much more subtle, complex character.

[image] Shota Rustaveli presents his poem to Queen Tamar of Georgia. Painting. Mihály Zichy, 1880s, Tbilisi, Georgai. Thanks to Air sign and Wikimedia Commons.


Galbi, Douglas. 1996. “Through Eyes in the Storm: Aspects of the Personal History of Women Workers in the Industrial Revolution.” Social History 21(2): 142-59.

Kratz, Dennis M., trans. 1984. Waltharius, and Ruodlieb. New York: Garland Pub.

Zeydel, Edwin Hermann. 1959. Ruodlieb: the earliest courtly novel (after 1050); introduction, text, translation, commentary and textual notes. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press.

Psycho and Aphrodite through Apuleius’s Metamorphoses

Held, so he thought, on the charge of telling tales insulting the honor of women, the young soldier was thrust into a dark cave under the guard of an old man. He wasn’t even held in a proper cage like they get in Gitmo, no, they handcuffed him to the understrut of an old metal desk pulled out of branch command in the office refurbishing. The old man was the usual drunk ex-military, retired but not tired enough not to want to chew leather, swap war stories with the boys, and pocket some cheap pay for being a hired guard. The young soldier, only a few years out of West Point, hadn’t yet had military respect starved out of him. He addressed the old man with “Sir.”

Sir, I request to be informed of the details of the charges against me. Please, please, I need JAG representation, a lawyer, a law lover who will get things right and proper. My father was a general, and nothing made him prouder than when I entered West Point. His heart would break if he knew.

After a brutal battle with the Taliban, my best buddy had his legs blown off, and we struggled back to barracks and fell into bed. In the dark of night, I sweated with flashbacks of a mortar attack and the rockets red glare and bombs bursting in air, but our flag was still there, when all of a sudden the lights in the barracks snapped on. The intruders flashed Internal Affairs badges and yanked me out of my bed and marched me away. I don’t know why I’m here, sir, I just don’t know.

The young soldier began to sob and bang his head against the top drawer of the metal desk. That caused the other drawers to rattle and metallic sounds to echo off the walls of the cave. I knew how brave those soldiers are, and deep inside my animal hide, I felt sorry for him. The old man told him to man up, chin up, and get a grip on himself. Then the old man unsteadily stood up, and with his backside to the soldier and peering with half-opened eyes at no one, saluted. He then turned to the soldier.

You’re now in the toughest battle, the battle within. Back in Desert Storm, I was deep in the desert on patrol with Jack, Jim, and Johnny, the hardest-hitting Marines that ever came out of a bottle. A hellish sandstorm blew up, the sky vanished, and we were lost within the sandy earth. I lay down to die with my gun in my hands, and I was entombed in sand. But soon, suddenly, came a monsoon. I rose, born again in that rain. You too can rise again. The victor in battle is the loser. If you’re being tried for treason, you’re a loyal soldier. Let me tell you a lovely, true story I heard from my friends. And so he began.

Back in the days before women in combat meant pencil-pushing pussy jobs, there was a feared and ferocious Taliban fighter known as Aphrodite. She was beautiful and deadly. Central command sent special ops after her, man after man. But no matter how big the gun, and no matter how tightly he bound himself to it, she would shake him until he was numb, and then behead him.

Afghan cover girl for National Geographic

Mercury grew up working in the family grocery store in rural Tennessee. To earn more money he also carried the job of the local postman. One fateful day there came in the mail a sensational issue of National Geographic. He knew in his loins right away that he would lose it. On the cover was a stunningly beautiful Afghan girl with big green eyes that drew you in like a whirlpool. Just on the cusp of manhood, he spent many hours at night in the woods spending himself with the Afghan cover girl. He never delivered the issue. He desperately wanted to find her, or at least a wild, exotic girl like her.

He marched himself to the Marine Corps recruiting office and signed away his life. Neither big nor strong, he got through boot camp by wits and twists and turns. Within the Marine Corps, he joined the Signal Service and rose through the ranks as the sort of soldier who would deliver a message to Garcia. Because of his skills as a translator and unimpressive musculature, some of the Marines nicknamed him Hermaphroditus. But Mercury was better known as Psycho for his undercover communication missions which in command review were analyzed as psychotic.

Direct Ops, jealous that Signal Service was getting more missions and more resources because of Psycho, arranged to have him sent on a mission that, by straight-book tactical plans, he had no chance of return. His mission order was concise and direct: PSYCHO SEIZE APHRODITE STOP. Aphrodite, the ferocious Taliban fighter who beheaded Adonis and whom Ares had never succeeded in reaching! Psycho, throw down your guns and leap from a cliff with the hope that the wind will bear up your head! Then you would have a better chance to live!

A National Geographic mission wound its way slowly into mountainous Taliban territory. Its goal, under the funding document that the publisher approved, was to find again the Afghan cover girl and write a sensational story. No one suspected that the head of the National Geographic mission, a man full of fake journalistic credits, was actually Psycho.

The National Geographic delegation went from village to village, showing everyone the National Geographic Afghan cover girl issue. Most of the villagers looked sullenly mystified and turned a cold shoulder. One, however, an older man with a gleam in his eye, said that he knew that girl. Psycho, with the yearning of his youth swelling up with the force of memory and imagination, asked to be taken to her. An arduous, three -hour climb through rugged, desolate terrain brought them to her isolated village.

Three heavily armed Taliban men menacingly approached. Psycho showed them the National Geographic Afghan cover girl issue, touching and emotive, acclaimed and celebrated across America. One Taliban pointed his Kalashnikov at Psycho’s head, another grabbed Psycho’s arms and pinned them behind his back, while a third pushed Psycho’s local guide away and told him to leave immediately. Then a Taliban took off his shoe and began striking Psycho in the face with the sole, back and forth, the dung of Afghan rural life digging into his cheeks. Then they emptied his pockets, stripped him to his red-blossom boxer shorts, and brought him inside a hut.

Afghan cover girl follow-up

The Afghan cover girl, now a middle-aged woman, was there. After again striking him in the face with a shoe’s sole, the men demanded, “Tell us why you are here.” Psycho, who had been silent while being crushed, declared solemnly, “So be it, I will, God willing.” Then he told his whole story, without deceit: his youth working the grocery store and delivering mail, his infatuation with the Afghan cover girl from that issue of National Geographic, his military service, and his mission. They told him, “Make peace with God and prepare to die.” He was about to be shot in the head and returned to the dust when the woman intervened. “Tie him on top of that bed,” she said, “arms and legs strapped to the corners, and then cover him with a blanket and leave him alone.”

Now it is the depths of the night, and a mild and merciful sound reaches his ears. Then, so alone and so unguarded, but tied down so exposed, Psycho is afraid for his masculinity. In fear and trembling, he lies quaking, and more than for any evil, he is in mortal terror of the unknown. And then the unknown woman is there: she had climbed into the bed, she had make Psycho her husband, and before the sun had risen she had hastily gone away. Psycho found that one of his hands had gotten free and was resting on his thigh. By the side of the bed had appeared tea, cooked lamb, a hookah, and flat bread, freshly made, it seemed. He ate a sumptuous meal for a starving man, and the hookah filled his mind with smoke. And over time, all this long time, these actions are repeated, in just this way. To be sure, this is how nature engineers such things: what was new and unanticipated had bestowed joy upon him through accustomed habit and repetition; and the sound of that indeterminate voice was a consolation in his isolation.

With the smoke from the hookah filling his mind, it drifted. If I were back in America, and there were a university in rural Tennessee, and if it had a class in classical Latin literature, and any students took it, the professor would teach that I’ve been raped, repeatedly, and through that trauma had traumatically bonded to my captors, and come to accept and like being raped. It would be like that news story of how a brutish man kept a girl, everywoman, as a sex slave for decades until she was finally rescued and educated. I chuckled and thought of National Geographic.

My one hand was free — was it free just so that I could drink tea and bring food and the hookah tube to my mouth? I sensed that the muscles of my hand and arm were moving during the night. Could it be possible, what if, what if I held her tight and wouldn’t let go, how could she fade from firm flesh to nothingness? If I held tight and didn’t let go, would that be the death of me?

He resolved to die to know if the Afghan cover girl was pressing against him in the night. In the depths of the night, the cover lifts slightly, and she slips in between his legs. He hooks his arm around her back and holds her tight. Before she had been bouncing upright, now she was tight against him and his hand was only moving slightly when it slid lower on her back. He buried his face in her black hair and in pleasure waited for the morning light.

“I am Aphrodite,” she moaned to him. The earth stopped moving for him, all the blood drained from his extremities, and it was as if he were sucked down in a whirlpool to a watery death. His pale skin turning cold blue, he pushed her face up to his. “You are the Afghan cover girl,” he whispered in a trembling voice. “I am Aphrodite,” she said again with a faint smile. She was the Afghan cover girl, she was Aphrodite — a double mission impossible, an explosion of fear and passion!  Take me now, he said, slit my throat and cut off my head, I have seized life far beyond my dreams.

God is all-powerful and all-knowing, and nothing happens but what God wills. God willed that Psycho remember his mission orders: PSYCHO SEIZE APHRODITE STOP. God willed that a week earlier Aphrodite’s husband had been killed by an IED misplaced in the sheep’s meadow. No one could better guide the Taliban to avoid American forces than a former Signal Service leader. Psycho converted to Islam, pledged his allegiance to the Taliban, and married Aphrodite. They had a beautiful boy whom they named Hermaphroditus. Psycho, by expertly guiding the Taliban away from American forces, saved many lives. Soldiers here argue about whether he’s a hero, a traitor, or just a soldier who strictly followed his orders. But no one has any doubt that Psycho has a good life, especially since we heard that Aphrodite arranged for him to have three other beautiful, loving wives.

And that was the story that the old man told, in his drunkenness and delirium, to the captive and captivated soldier. And I — standing off to one side, not too far away — I was in anguish, believe you me, because I had neither steno books nor stylus to record such a beguiling fiction.

The Prosecutor-Advocate arrived with two assistants, all in crisply pressed uniforms with badges neatly ordered in colorful rows flaring on their breasts. The young soldier tilted back his head so that his handcuffed right hand could reach it in salute, but by pulling on the understrut he caused the center drawer of the desk above him to cha-chink open like a cash register. The officers ignored the metallic rattling and addressed him.

Soldier, you are charged with three counts of failing to offer to carry the pack of a woman soldier on full retreat from fearful and ferocious Taliban fire. According to the enacted Rules of Engagement for all active-fire acts in this theater, you are to ask the woman soldier if she wants you to carry her pack, asking politely, respectfully, and without any hint of inferiority. If she says no, you are to ask her again. If she says no, then you are to ask her a third time. If she says no again, then you are free to run as fast as you can with only your pack on your back. Did you receive the Bible-thick book of Rules of Engagement in the pre-mission briefing meeting? The young soldier nodded his head vigorously, but carefully, so as not to bang his head on the metal desk drawer above. Then he sputtered, “But sir, my buddy had his legs blown off in a brutal Taliban blast.” The officer glared at him, and said only, “Do you understand your rights?” The soldier started sobbing. The officer and his assistants remained stiff and solemn.

Outraged, I ambled over and nuzzled one assistant’s fingers, held curved inwards at the bottom of his straight arm. I licked his fingers and acted as if I were just an ass hoping for a carrot. The assistant, born and bred on a farm in Arkansas, unconsciously started stroking my ears. Playing the empty-headed ass, I positioned my rear next to the officer’s legs and let loose with a strong stream of piss, drenching his pants from the knees down and dulling the spit-shine of his black shoes. He turned to his assistant and said, “Lieutenant, get that ass out of here.” I was cruelly yanked by the halter to a far corner of the cave, all the while tingling with pleasure for my good deed. The officer announced, in a voice struggling to maintain command, that they would return in an hour. Then they retreated.

The old man, the retired ex-military hired guard, took a long drink from his bottle. Then he pulled out his pistol, stuck the barrel in his mouth, and pulled the trigger.

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The story above is fictional and a parody. It’s meant as literary, social, and media commentary. War, suicides of soldiers, and the privacy of the Afghan woman famous for being on the cover of the National Geographic are serious matters. In my view, they haven’t been taken seriously enough in the past.

Fragmentary data on veterans’ suicides indicates that, as a best estimate, on average 22 veterans commit suicide per day in the U.S. Among those veterans committing suicide, more than 97% are men. See U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, Suicide Data Report, 2012, pp. 18, 22. Men’s deaths from suicides, like men’s deaths from interpersonal violence, attract relatively little public concern.

The story above is adapted from Apuleius’s Metamorphoses, 4.23-6.30. That section centers on what has come to be known at the Tale of Cupid and Psyche. The story above incorporates close adaptations of sections of Metamorphoses 5.4 and 6.25, from the outstanding English translation of Relihan (2007), also available in Relihan (2009). The later providers useful literary and philosophical context for Cupid and Psyche. Relihan’s A Reader’s Commentary on Cupid and Psyche is freely available online. My adaptation has benefited from Relihan and others’ commentary on Metamorphoses 5.4.

The Afghan girl appeared on the cover of the June, 1985, issue of National Geographic. The title of the article was “A Life Revealed: Along Afghanistan’s War-torn Frontier.” The National Geographic Society searched out and found the Afghan girl in 2002. That generated in the April, 2002, issue of National Geographic an article entitled “A Life Revealed,” with subtitle text, “Her eyes have captivated the world since she appeared on our cover in 1985. Now we can tell her story.” Wikipedia states:

a number of women who came forward and identified themselves erroneously as the famous Afghan Girl. In addition, after being shown the 1984 photo, a handful of young men erroneously identified Gula as their wife.

Afghan Girl Revealed” National Geographic interactive video and the “Afghan Girl Revealed” National Geographic slide show provide information consistent with Wikipedia’s statement and more details about the development of the story.

In 2002, the National Geographic Society established the Afghan Girls Fund (see NG1). According to the National Geographic Society:

The Afghan Girls Fund (AGF) has worked to realize the wish of Sharbat Gula—whose arresting childhood photograph graced the cover of National Geographic magazine and captured the hearts of its readers—to improve the prospects of Afghan girls and women through education. (see NG2)

By September, 2002, the Afghan Girls Fund has raised about half a million dollars. See NG3.  By December 5, 2003, the fund had raised about $832,000. See NG3. In 2008, the National Geographic expanded its effort to boys:

Beginning May 20, 2008, the National Geographic Society will undertake an important change: a new fund to expand the Society’s grant-making efforts to serve all children in Afghanistan—both girls and boys. The new Afghan Children’s Fund (ACF) replaces the current Afghan Girls Fund, a successful and purposeful grant-making program that raised more than $1,000,000 since its inception in 2002. (see NG4)

Despite considerable deterioration in conditions in Afghanistan from September, 2002, to 2008, the rate of fundraising dropped sharply after September, 2002. That’s a common pattern for the media blockbuster effect. The amount of money raised for Afghan girls and boys after 2008 was probably relatively small. Development agencies have prioritized girls and women relative to boys and men. That’s consistent with the value of attractive, vulnerable-looking women for fundraising.

The images in the article above are used under the fair use provisions of U.S. copyright law. Wikipedia documents fair-use justifications for its use of the National Geographic Afghan girl cover and the Afghan girl photograph. Those justifications are applicable here, with the purpose of an encyclopedic entry replaced by parody of the sensational value of the National Geographic story.


Relihan, Joel C. 2007. Apuleius. The golden ass, or, A book of changes. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.

Relihan, Joel C. 2009. Apuleius. The tale of Cupid and Psyche. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.

NG1: National Geographic Society. “The Afghan Girls Fund Educates Young Women and Girls of Afghanistan Stewardship Update – August 2004.” Web page, saved in Internet Archive.

NG2: National Geographic Society. George Stuteville for National Geographic News, September 9, 2002. “Afghan Girls to Benefit From NG-Sponsored Education Fund.” Web page, saved in Internet Archive.

NG3: National Geographic Society. Jennifer Vernon for National Geographic News, December 5, 2003. “Afghan Girls Fund Update: Over $831,000 Raised.” Web page, saved in Internet Archive.

NG4: National Geographic Society. “Afghan Children’s Fund to Help Educate All Young Children of Afghanistan.” Web page, saved in Internet Archive.

erotics of aridity in Hildegard’s Ordo Virtutum

The flower in the meadow falls in the wind, the rain splashes it,
But you, Virginity, remain in the symphonies of the heavenly habitants:
you are the tender flower that will never grow dry.

Along with seventeen or eighteen female solo voices, Hildegard of Bingen in her Ordo Virtutum included one male solo voice: the voice of the devil. The virtue-women and the soul-woman sing lyrical poetry. The devil-man shouts unpoetically. The play poetically figures destroying the “voracious wolf” and binding and laying low the “age-old snake”; it also refers to “man’s wantonness.”[1] Such rhetoric is common in the long and unloving history of disparaging men’s sexuality.

devil as tempter in Hildegard

Ordo Virtutum, however, is far more poetically sophisticated than caricaturing women as virtuous and men as demonic. The devil-man shouts his worldly promises. The underlying cause of the soul-woman’s fall is her incompletely formed carnal desire, her impetuousness, and her pride. Treating men as show horses merely to be ridden impetuously and pridefully in a sexual carousel demeans men’s persons. That behavior also tends to dry women’s sexuality to aridity. Storms that produce heavy wind and rain can pass through quickly to leave a scorching desert.

The virtue-women and the soul-woman remembered a man. Like a woman in love, his body encompassed them. He was the greatest of men, but had the lowest of worldly status. He knew what women are in the fullness of their carnal being. He implored God the Father to fulfill his promise:

Now remember that the fullness which was made in the beginning
need not have grown dry,
and that then you resolved
that your eye would never fail
until you saw my body full of buds.
For it wearies me that all my limbs are exposed to mockery:
Father, behold, I am showing you my wounds.

Hildegard of Bingen’s play ends with instruction to the gathered soul-women:

So now, all you women,
bend your knees to the Father,
so that he may reach you his hand. [2]

Creation is restored to greenness and flowering from moist earth when soul-women remember the man’s wounds and humbly wait for the one masculine touch.

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[1] The epigram and the three subsequent quotes are from Hildegard of Bingen’s Ordo Virtutum, ll.  109-11, 221, 481va, 55 (all sung by the voices of virtues, except 481va, which is sung solo by the voice of victory), Latin text and English trans. from Dronke (1994) pp. 160-81. In l. 110, Dronke translated Virginitas as “Maidenhood.” I replaced “Maidenhood” with the less Victorian-sounding word “Virginity.”

One of the voices of the virtue-women is illegible in the manuscripts. If that voice is different from the other virtue-women, then there are eighteen female solo voices (seventeen virtue-women and the soul-woman). On the virtues, see Dabke (2006).

Hildegard wrote Ordo Virtutum no later than 1151. She wrote it in Latin verse with musical notation that has survived. It may have been performed on May 1, 1152, at the consecration of Hildegard’s Rupertsberg convent. Dronke (1994) p. 152.

Latin texts and English translations are available online from Peter Dronke, Christine Jolliffe, and Linda Marie Zaerr (English only).  A variety of song performances are available on YouTube.

[2] Ordo Virtutum, ll. 267-9, from Dronke (1994) p. 181. The previous quote is ll. 260-66. Both are sung by the voices of virtues and souls.

In l. 267, Dronke translated omnes homines as “all you people.” However, at l. 55, he translated hominis lasciviam as “man’s wantonness.” The Latin hominis most properly means human being, female and male. Men’s masculinity, however, is often effaced in referring to men, except in derogatory contexts. Ordo Virtutum, l. 55, refers to the devil-man, hence “man’s wantonness” is the best translation in context for hominis lasciviam. Ordo Virtutum was probably performed primarily for women in Hildegard’s Rupertsberg convent. Hence “all you women” seems the most appropriate translation for the concluding address omnes homines.

In l. 264, the phrase plenum gemmarum means both “full of gems/jewels” and “full of buds.” Id. p. 151. I have chosen above the later translation. Id. notes that this image connects to the prologue’s image of a tree blossoming. Hildegard’s Hymn to the Holy Spirit, l. 12, describes wounds transformed by the Holy Spirit into jewels. The association of Christ’s wounds (coagulated blood) with jewels (sphragis imagery) occurs in early Christianity. Dronke (1970) pp. 155-6. Ruodlieb V.99-129 describes making a jewel from a lynx’s urine. Such a claim goes back at least to the first-century in Dioscorides’s De Materia Medica and Pliny’s Natural History.

Like the Song of Songs, Ordo Virtutum includes poetry of erotic love, e.g.:

Virginity, you remain within the royal chamber.
How sweetly you burn in the King’s embraces,
when the Sun blazes through you,
never letting your noble flower fall.

ll. 104-7 (voice of chastity), trans. Donke (1994) p. 169, with, as above, my translation of Virginitas as “Virginity.”

[image] The Tempter, illumination from Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias, Part II.7, Rupertsberg Codex, based on copy made at Hildegard Abbey in Eibingen, 1927-1933, via Böckeler (1954) Plate 18.  All the Scivias illuminations are online here. Campbell (2013) argues strongly that Hildegard oversaw the design of the illuminations.


Böckeler, Maura. 1954. Wisse die Wege. Scivias. Nach dem Originaltext des illuminierten Rupertsberger Kodex ins Deutsche übertragen und bearb. Salzburg: O. Müller.

Cambell, Nathaniel M. 2013. “Imago expandit splendorem suum: Hildegard of Bingen’s Visio-Theological Designs in the Rupertsberg Scivias Manuscript.” Eikón Imago 2(2):1-68. Summary here.

Dabke, Roswitha. 2006. “The Hidden Scheme of the Virtues in Hildegard of Bingen’s Ordo Virtutum.” Parergon. 23 (1): 11-46.

Dronke, Peter. 1970. Poetic individuality in the Middle Ages: new departures in poetry, 1000-1150. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Dronke, Peter. 1994. Nine medieval Latin plays. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.