The Women of The Iliad

Kate Spitzmiller: Remember the Ladies

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In honor of my upcoming novel, Companion of the Ash, I would like to provide an introduction to the women whom Homer included in his epic eighth-century B.C. work, The Iliad. There are many women in The Iliad, but I am focusing on four–the four who I have included in my novel.

Bearing in mind that women in ancient literature were often treated as “extras,” serving the needs of men and as a sort of window-dressing for the author, I will do my best to illuminate the characters as they were revealed to us by Homer. We have a sorceress, an unpleasant woman, and women who are incessantly sad. These were pretty much standard roles women were relegated to in ancient literature.

Women were also only given roles in relation to men–they were the mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters of heroes and villains. Women did not appear…

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The Women of The Iliad

iliad.jpg

In honor of my upcoming novel, Companion of the Ash, I would like to provide an introduction to the women whom Homer included in his epic eighth-century B.C. work, The Iliad. There are many women in The Iliad, but I am focusing on four–the four who I have included in my novel.

Bearing in mind that women in ancient literature were often treated as “extras,” serving the needs of men and as a sort of window-dressing for the author, I will do my best to illuminate the characters as they were revealed to us by Homer. We have a sorceress, an unpleasant woman, and women who are incessantly sad. These were pretty much standard roles women were relegated to in ancient literature.

Women were also only given roles in relation to men–they were the mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters of heroes and villains. Women did not appear in ancient texts as free-standing characters, unanchored to men. One exception to this is Penthesilea, the Amazon Queen, who does appear in The Iliad and other ancient works. It should be noted, however, that the Amazons as a group were described as “man-like,” and thus were given a sort of license to stand on their own as characters devoid of male counterparts–other than the centaurs, who were not fully men.

Kassandra
Kassandra was sister to Hector, Paris, and Helenus. She was the daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba. Thus, she was a princess of Troy. She was single, and, as such, served in the only real capacity a single woman could in the ancient world–as a priestess. She was also a “seer,” with the gift of prophecy. For this, she was considered insane. It is Kassandra who warned Paris not to go to Sparta because he would meet Helen, and it was Kassandra who predicted the fall of Troy at the end of the Trojan War. But she was cursed–no one believed any of her prophecies, even though they were all true.

Hecuba
Queen Hecuba appears in several ancient works, but I will focus on her role in The Iliad here. She is best known, perhaps, for being a mother–of nineteen children. These children include the heroes Hector and Paris, and the scholar and prophet (who people believed), Helenus. She was also mother to Kassandra, who she dismissed as insane. She appears in Homer’s work at prayer, and as–variously–a doting, anxious, and grieving mother.

Helen
It is on Helen’s shoulders upon which the entire Trojan War rests. We know now the famous quote, “the face that launched a thousand ships.” Well, it was also the face that brought down a great city. Helen returning to Troy with Paris was the literary cause of the Trojan War (but almost definitely not the historical cause). Homer paints her as sorrowful and regretful–perhaps even as a woman who misses her husband Menelaus in Sparta. In The Iliad, she is reunited with Menelaus in the end, after the fall of Troy and the death of Paris. She is a rather pathetic figure, considering the war is her fault.

Andromache
Andromache is the wife of the hero Hector. This connection is so central to her character that in Book 22 of The Iliad, Andromache is not even named. She is simply referred to as “the wife of Hector,” despite being a relatively major character in the work. Throughout the epic, Andromache is seen weeping and carrying on over deaths and deaths-to-come. She is portrayed as a weak woman; a woman who exists only for the purpose of providing emotional responses to her husband’s deeds. She is never given a full character of her own.

And it is to Andromache that I turned in writing my novel. I was taking a writing class in Derbyshire, England, in 2003, and the instructor asked us to answer the question, “What if?” After much scribbling and musing, I came up with the question: “What if Andromache was a strong, capable, fully-developed character?”

And, thus, Companion of the Ash was born. It is set for release this year from Spider Road Press. The story is a sequel to The Iliad, starting at the death of Hector. It is told through the eyes of a strong, courageous Andromache.

I thought, after twenty-eight centuries, she deserved as much.

The Lost Children: Vietnam

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“Rejoice O young man, in thy youth…”
– Ecclesiastes (from Platoon)

 

I had a strange thought today.

Those of you who have been reading my blog know that I have two fathers: my Dad, George, who raised me; and Jim, my birthfather.

My strange thought today was about Jim.

Jim was in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970. He was based at Lai Khe, headquarters of the 1st Infantry Division and an important base for the outer defense of Saigon. The base had a sign over its gate that read, “Welcome to Rocket City”–in part because by 1970 it was, along with Khe Sanh, one of the most heavily-rocketed bases in South Vietnam.

Jim was in the Air Force, flying back seat as the weapons specialist in an OV-10 Bronco, the Forward Air Control “plane of choice” during the war. He and his pilot served the same type of duty as army scouts–ranging far ahead from the main detachment in search of NVA and VC troops. Once those troops were located, Jim, as the weapons specialist, would mark the target with white phosphorus. Then Air Force, Marine, or Navy aircraft–or artillery–would take over.

My strange thought came as I was watching the film Platoon this afternoon. I thought I remembered how many American soldiers died in Vietnam, but I wanted to be sure, so I Googled it. It was as I remembered: 58,220. I remembered the number from my teenage years, when I was fascinated by the Vietnam War and consumed anything I could find related to it–books, movies, TV shows, magazine articles.

But I never thought about the number. I knew it was a horrific amount of people, but I never thought until today that the majority of those killed in action were just kids–average age nineteen–who would never become husbands and fathers. I thought today about all the children that weren’t born because those 58,220 men were killed.

And then I thought of myself.

Jim survived. He wasn’t shot down. He didn’t crash. Despite being in a light, slow-moving aircraft far out in front of the main group for a full year, he did not go down. He survived.

Which means I survived, too.

A strange thought, like I said.

I’m here, but the children of thousands of other soldiers are not. This is devastating.

But this also means that I may have some role to play in the world, some purpose. As many Vietnam veterans themselves say, why did I make it when so many others did not? There must be a reason.

I suppose the children of veterans of World War II and Korea may feel the same way. A certain sense of grace or luck. Just one well-aimed rocket-propelled grenade, just one loose screw on a wing or engine part, and I would not be here.

I guess, in a way, we can all say that about ourselves. We would not be here if not for the ones who came before us. But there’s something about knowing your DNA survived a war when others did not that makes it different. They are the lost children of Vietnam–the ones who were never born.

As I said, I was always fascinated by the Vietnam War, even decades before I knew Jim served there. I cried at The Wall as an eighth grader, drawing stares from my classmates on a school trip. I felt something back then, staring at the black granite, I just didn’t know what.

Maybe now I do.

His Angel

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“He didn’t want you to be given up.”

Lori, my sister-in-law, Thursday night.

She was speaking of Jim, my birth father, and words he had spoken to her years ago about me–the child he called “his Angel.”

I didn’t know any of this.

I grew up knowing I was adopted. I grew up feeling like some essential part of me was somehow wrong, somehow missing. Off-kilter, out of step with the rest of the world. If the very people who created me were willing to give me away to strangers, then who would, really, want me?

But now I know Jim wanted me. And that has made all the difference.

I’ve cried a lot the last day and a half. Tears of finally feeling accepted. Tears of belonging. Not sad tears, at all. Tears of a sort of relieved joy—a feeling of fitting in at last to the place where I came from.

I have a picture of Jim from 1969, three years before I was born. The picture was taken at Lai Khe, South Vietnam. Jim is young and blond and confident-looking, leaning against a jeep with a cigarette in his hand. He has my cheeks. He has my chin. He has my hair. One of his grandsons, too, has my cheeks and hair. Mind-blowing, after a lifetime of being physically different than everyone in my family.

I never met Jim. He died before I was able to. We had a complex relationship in the years between my finding him and his death. He never told me what he told Lori. He never told me a lot of things.

He never told me I was his Angel.

But through the years, I’ve often thought of him as mine.

I miss you, Jim. Thank you for your words. I’ve heard you now, and it matters.

 

Spiders

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In 2011, I went to Botswana. It was a two-week safari, and a dream fulfilled. I am an animal nut, so being in the Kalahari, the Okavango, and in a white rhino reserve were all ecstasy for me. I saw every African animal imaginable, with the exception of a cheetah.

But I’m not writing about the mammals today–although I could write pages and pages about the lions and the elephants and the hippos. No, today, I’m writing about the spiders.

When you go on an African safari and you’re staying in tents, you’re not permitted to go anywhere in the dark by yourself. This is for the very obvious safety reason–no tour company wants a client eaten. So, you wait faithfully for your guide–in my case, Francis–to walk you to and from your tent when the sun goes down.

One night in the Okavango, we were staying on a small island surrounded by rich, green marshland. We had gone out in mokoros, or narrow canoes, in the afternoon, and had been serenaded at dinner by snorting hippos. It was a lovely day. It was pitch black when Francis walked me back to my tent. As the only solo traveler in my group, I was often the last one dropped off by Francis. I opened the wooden door of my tent and said goodnight to Francis. He told me he’d be back for me at five a.m., and said goodnight.

I stepped into my tent and flicked on the small light by the door.

Someone had lit my mosquito coil, and it burned lazily in a red clay dish in the middle of the room. The smoke curled slowly upward, and for some reason, my eyes rose with it. The ceiling of the tent–dark green canvas gathered in the center at a large, looping knot–was covered with dozens and dozens of spiders. Big spiders, medium-sized spiders, small spiders. Spiders with spots, spiders with stripes, spiders with long, arching legs that looked like they were made for leaping.

Now, I have spent the majority of my life afraid of spiders. And at the moment that I flicked on the light in that tent, I was afraid of spiders. I’m the girl who used to scream when there was a daddy-long-leg in the shower, hoping my Dad would come in and kill it with a paper towel.

But in the Okavango after dark, you can’t leave your tent alone.

So, what did I do? I looked up at that ceiling, and I said, “I am no longer afraid of spiders.” Then, I climbed into my pajamas, slid into bed, and turned off the light.

In the morning, the spiders were gone, away back to whatever crevices of the tent they called home during the day. Francis came for me at five a.m., as promised, and we went to breakfast.

This story comes back to me now as I battle sudden-onset hypothyroidism. I have been very sick for nearly three months with extreme fatigue, weakness, and muscle pains. I am blessed to have a job that is seasonal, and I have had the time off to rest and try to get well. But Tuesday, the junior hockey season begins, and I return to work. I am not yet one hundred percent. And I am scared.

But I am no longer afraid of spiders. I stared dozens of them down in Africa despite a lifetime of fear. And so, I face Tuesday with the knowledge that I can overcome fear and I can overcome odds. I am strong–my trip to Africa taught me that in a hundred different ways.

Right now as I type, I am afraid of what Tuesday will bring, I am afraid of how I will feel physically when the alarm goes off at five a.m. on September 4th–but when the time comes, I will look at the day squarely and say, “I am no longer afraid.”

The spiders taught me that.

Ana de Osorio

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Ana de Osorio was the Countess of Chinchon, a Spanish noblewoman assigned with her husband, the Viveroy of Lima, to a post in Peru.  The assignment came in 1630, and by all accounts, Ana was not thrilled to be leaving Spain for the New World.

Very soon after arriving in Peru, both Ana and her husband came down with malaria, a mosquito-borne illness endemic to South America. Ana tried many home remedies to solve the crisis of their fever, but none worked. She soon learned of a local cure, and instructed her servants to search for the specific magical plant which would solve their illness.

Eventually, the plant was found. Its bark held the ingredient quinine, which when ingested by Ana and her husband, had them quickly on the mend.

In 1638, Ana and her husband were sent back to Spain. Ana, thinking ahead, put some of the malaria-curing bark into her luggage. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect, as they arrived in Spain just in time for a malaria outbreak there. Ana shared the wealth of her quinine bark, and cured many a sick Spaniard. Ana became famous throughout Spain as the woman who could cure malaria.

A century after Ana brought quinine to the Old World, famous Swedish botanist Linnaeaus developed his Latin-naming structure for plants and animals. In a honor of Ana, Countess of Chinchon, he named the quinine plant’s genus Chinchona.

In British India and elsewhere in the tropical British Empire, gin and tonic was consumed because of the quinine found in tonic water, thus preventing malaria in the consumer.

 Although it has been replaced in modern times by artemisinin medications, today, quinine is a major preventative treatment for malaria worldwide. It is on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medications.

All because of the discovery of a woman you’ve probably never heard of—Ana de Osorio.

Uppity Women of the Medieval Ages

Quinine

 

Operation Babylift

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Following on the heels of my post about First Lieutenant Sharon Ann Lane, I wanted to write about the heroism of another group of women at the end of the Vietnam War.

In the spring of 1975, commercial aircraft leaving Saigon were filled to capacity. The military, out of necessity, began offering seats on cargo planes to American civilians in an effort to get them out of the country.

But there was a special group of civilians, not quite Americans—yet. Vietnamese orphans, who had families eagerly waiting to adopt them in the United States.

Orphanages in South Vietnam were suffering gravely from a lack of basic medical supplies and food, and aid workers were scrambling to try to get as many orphans back to the United States as they could. The problem was transportation.

USAID (Unites States Aid to International Development) eventually came through and promised three Medevac flights for the orphans to be sent from a base in the Philippines.

But the day after this promise was made, April 4th, 1975, aid workers were told that one of the world’s largest planes was to be sent instead—the C-5A cargo plane. President Gerald Ford had heard about the plight of the orphans and authorized the use of the giant plane for what was soon termed “Operation Babylift.”

The plane was massive—six stories high. Under normal circumstances, it carried helicopters and tanks. It was not suited to carrying passengers. For this reason, aid workers decided that only children three years of age and older would be sent out on the C-5A, because only they could be properly secured.

Twenty-two infants were sent, however. They were chosen from among the very strongest, and were secured in the seats of the troop compartment of the plane.

Fifteen minutes after take-off, as the plane was approaching its cruising altitude, the back doors blew out. The pilot was skilled enough that, despite a lack of rudder control, he was able to turn the plane around and head back to Saigon. But he was unable to control his rate of descent, and the plane impacted in a rice paddy outside Saigon at 350 mph.

Approximately 130 passengers and crew were killed, including an estimated seventy-three children and thirty-eight women. All of the women who died worked for various U.S. government aid agencies at the time of the flight, with the exception of Laurie Stark, who was a teacher, and Captain Mary Therese Klinker, an Air Force flight nurse assigned to Clark Air Base in the Philippines.

The goal of these women was to get a group of orphans to loving homes in the United States, and they died in service to that goal. They should be remembered for their heroism. And the children should be remembered, too, for the lives they could have lived here in the States, after spending their early years in a country marked by war.

I was three years old in 1975, and I’m adopted. Were I born in another place and in other circumstances, I could very well have been on that plane.

To the women and children of Operation Babylift: we remember.

The Women:

Barbara Adams 
Clara Bayot
Nova Bell
Arleta Bertwell
Helen Blackburn
Ann Bottorff
Celeste Brown
Vivienne Clark
Juanita Creel
Mary Ann Crouch
Dorothy Curtiss
Twila Donelson
Helen Drye
Theresa Drye (a child)
Mary Lyn Eichen
Elizabeth Fugino
Ruthanne Gasper
Beverly Herbert
Penelope Hindman
Vera Hollibaugh
Dorothy Howard
Barbara Kauvulia

Captain Mary Therese Klinker
Barbara Maier
Rebecca Martin
Sara Martini
Martha Middlebrook
Katherine Moore
Marta Moschkin
Marion Polgrean
June Poulton
Joan Pray
Sayonna Randall
Anne Reynolds
Marjorie Snow
Laurie Stark
Barbara Stout
Doris Jean Watkins
Sharon Wesley

Virtual Wall

Operation Babylift Memorial