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 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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
Mary Ann Crouch
Theresa Drye (a child)
Mary Lyn Eichen
Captain Mary Therese Klinker
Doris Jean Watkins
I usually write about ancient women on this blog—women from Classical times—because I’ve always felt like their contribution to history has been forgotten. But I recently came upon the story of another woman, a modern woman, whose story I think has also been forgotten. And I want to share her story with you because I think it deserves to be told.
Sharon Ann Lane. First Lieutenant in the United States Army. A nurse stationed at the 312th Evacuation Hospital, Chu Lai, Vietnam in 1969.
Sharon was born in 1943 in Ohio. She graduated from high school in Canton in 1961. After high school, she attended the Aultman Hospital School of Nursing, where she graduated in April of 1965. She worked at a civilian hospital before joining the U.S. Army Nurse Corps Reserve in April of 1968.
She received her army training at Fort Sam Houston in Texas, where all army nurses trained in the 1960s, graduating as a second lieutenant in June of 1968. Her first assignment as an army nurse was on a tuberculosis ward at the Army’s Fitzsimons General Hospital in Denver, Colorado.
On April 24th, 1969, she received orders sending her to Vietnam.
Sharon was sent to Chu Lai, the home of two army hospitals in the first half of 1969—the 27th Surgical Hospital and the 312th Evacuation Hospital. Sharon was originally assigned to the Intensive Care Unit of the 312th, but a few days later was moved to the Vietnamese ward. There, she cared for women, children, and the occasional POW. It was not an assignment most staffers wanted, but Sharon repeatedly declined offers of transfers to other wards.
In addition to her twelve-hour shifts on the Vietnamese ward, Sharon spent her off-duty time working with critically injured American soldiers in the Surgical Intensive Care Unit. According to those who served with her, she was “adored and respected” by everyone in the hospital.
Early on the morning of June 8th, 1969, the Viet Cong attacked the 312th with 122mm rockets. Sharon was just finishing up her night shift on the Vietnamese ward, when one rocket struck Ward 4—her ward. Sharon was struck with shrapnel in the chest and throat, and killed instantly. She was twenty-five years old.
Sharon was the only female American military member killed by enemy action in the Vietnam War.
Although seven other nurses died in Vietnam, their deaths were the result of accidents or illness. Sharon gave her life the way so many of her patients had—at the hands of the enemy.
Following her death, Fitzsimons General Hospital renamed its recovery room in honor of Sharon, and a statue of her was erected in front of Aultman Hospital, where she had been a nursing student. Roads in Denver, Colorado and in Belvoir, Virginia have been named for her.
Approximately five thousand nurses served in-country over the course of the Vietnam War, most living in tough conditions doing a brutal job. They have been dubbed “Angels of Mercy” for their work.
But Sharon truly is an angel, if you believe in that sort of thing. She would be seventy-four today, retired from a long career as a nurse, most likely. But instead, she lost her life at a young age doing hard work for a country that, at the time, had little in the way of gratitude.
Thank you, Sharon. And God bless.
Two weeks ago, I sat in Livia’s dining room.
Not her actual dining room, but within the four painted plaster walls that lined her dining room two thousand years ago and now are located at the Museo Palazzo Massimo in Rome. And as I sat there surrounded by those four walls, I wondered what those walls had heard, what they had seen. I wondered about the woman who called upon the Imperial painters to create a dining space that gave the illusion to her guests that they were eating al fresco. I was mesmerized by the paintings; drawn to this woman whose taste was so much like my own. Who was she? What was she like? What did she and her women friends discuss in this room? Their children? Their men? Their joys and their sorrows?
And so I decided to write about Livia, one of the most famous women in Roman history. Wife to Augustus, first emperor of Rome, mother to the emperor Tiberius, grandmother to emperor Claudius, and great-grandmother to emperor Caligula.
When she married Augustus (at the time, Octavian), she already had a son (Tiberius), and in the fifty-one years of marriage to Augustus, she had no other children. Her role, however, was that of counsel to her husband, and she gave him wise political advice and support throughout his reign as emperor. This was wildly unusual for the times, as women were considered to be outside the sphere of politics for much of the span of Roman history. For this alone, we should admire Livia.
Livia lived humbly, despite her status as empress. She was the role model for the Roman “matrona” or matron. She wore very little jewelry or makeup, often made her own clothing and that of her husband. Augustus even gave Livia the (then) outlandish right to govern her own finances and dedicated a public statue to her.
When Augustus died in AD 14, he bequeathed one-third of his estate to Livia, and he also adopted her into the Julian family dynasty, giving her the honorific title of Augusta. All of these things meant that Livia was able to maintain her power after her husband’s death, and as the mother of the new emperor, Tiberius, she still maintained a position of importance in the empire in any case.
There are tales from ancient sources that tell of tensions between Livia and her son Tiberius during his years as emperor. It is even said that Tiberius’ retirement to the island of Capri was an attempt to get away from his mother. At Livia’s death in AD 29, Tiberius refused to return to Rome and vetoed all the honorifics the Senate wished to bestow upon Livia. However, thirteen years later, during the reign of Livia’s grandson Claudius, all of her honors were restored and her deification was completed.
Women spoke her name during their sacred oaths, her statue was erected beside her husband’s at the Temple of Augustus, and races were held in her honor. Her ashes remained beside her husband’s in his temple until the Sack of Rome in AD 410, when they, like his, were scattered.
Painted wall from Livia’s dining room, Palazzo Massimo, Rome, Italy. Author’s photo.
Read More: Empress of Rome: The Life of Livia by Matthew Dennison.
Many of those of us who grew up in the United States studied the British East India Company in school, but what we learned was only part of the story. The truth, for the Indian people, was that the East India Company represented an oppressive force, colonialism, and the taking of freedom.
The first Indian to begin an armed rebellion against the British East India Company was Kittur Rani Chennamma. A woman.
Rani Chennamma was born in the small village of Kakati on October 23, 1778. From a young age she was trained in horseback riding, sword fighting, and archery. She rose to be Queen of Kittur in Karnataka, southern India, and married Raja Mallasarja.
Rani Chennamma and the Raja had one son, who died in 1824. Following the death of her son, Rani Chennamma adopted a son named Shivalingappa, and named him heir to her throne.
The British East India Company refused to acknowledge Shivalingappa’s legitimacy as Rani Chennamma’s heir and exiled him, using a policy stating their complete authority over all things political in India, but Chennamma defied the order. She sent a letter of protest to the British leadership in Bombay, requesting a reinstatement of her adopted son, but she was refused, leaving her without an heir.
In response to Rani Chennamma’s perceived rebellion against the East India Company, the British attempted to confiscate the treasure and jewels of Kittur, which we can value today at around 1.5 million rupees. The British attacked Kittur with a force of 20,000 men and 400 guns.
At the start of the war, in October 1824, Rani Chennamma’s forces prevailed and the British took heavy losses. One of their leaders, John Thackeray, was killed and two British officers were taken as hostages.
A deal was made, and Rani Chennamma released the hostages under a truce with the British that stated that the war would end. But the British continued the war with even more soldiers. Chennamma fought fiercely, but was captured and taken prisoner. She was brought to the fort at Bailhongal, where she died after five years of captivity on February 21, 1829.
Rani Chennamma grew to become a legend in India. During the freedom movement, her resistance to the British became the subject of plays, folk songs, and stories.
A prestigious girls’ school was founded in honor of her, with a mission statement that includes the goal to “impart sound learning for girls…in a social context where the cause of women was totally neglected.”
On September 11, 2007, a statue of Kittur Rani Chennamma was erected at the Parliamentary Building in New Delhi. The statue was unveiled by Pratibha Patil, the first woman President of India.