“Thank you” is not enough.
We failed them.
“Thank you” is not enough.
We failed them.
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.
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.
Anyte of Tegea lived in the beginning of the third century BC in southern Greece. She was listed by first-century literary critic Antipater of Thessalonica as one of the Nine Earthly Muses – an honor she shared with Sappho and Telesilla of Argos. Antipater also gave her what was quite possibly the greatest of all compliments of the day, calling her the “female Homer.” More of her work has survived to this day than works by any other female Greek poet.
Anyte was one of the first Hellenistic poets to write in praise of country life, emphasizing the natural world in her work. She was best known for her epitaphs, especially those for young women and animals.
Several of the epitaphs she wrote are tailored to young women who died unwed. In Hellenistic Greece, marriage was considered the most important event in a young woman’s life, so dying unwed was considered a great tragedy:
“I mourn for the maiden Antibia, to whose
father’s house many suitors came, drawn by
Report of her beauty and wisdom. But
Whirled away the hopes of all of them.”
Anyte’s description of the deceased young woman’s wisdom shows the importance Hellenistic families placed on the education of their daughters.
In addition, her epitaphs for pets were very popular, and she was sought after to write them for families who had lost beloved pets.
Here is one of Anyte’s epitaphs for a pet dog:
“You died, Maira, near your many-rooted home at Locri, swiftest of noise-loving hounds; A spotted-throated viper darted his cruel venom into your light-moving limbs.”
While other poets were focusing on the gods or on war, Anyte was writing about the natural world and its relationship to humankind. Here she writes of the relationship between the sea and sailors from the perspective of a statue of Aphrodite:
(on a temple of Aphrodite looking out to sea):
“This is the site of the Cyprian, since it is agreeable to her
to look ever from the mainland upon the bright sea
that she may make the voyage good for sailors. Around her the sea
trembles looking upon her polished image.”
Today, we are used to poets who have written about the natural world. What would the panoply of Western poetry be like, after all, without Robert Frost, William Wordsworth, or John Keats? And it was Anyte who began that long Western tradition of writing about nature and wild things. She was a woman who broke away from the traditional standards of poetry and went her own way, forging a new tradition that thousands of poets followed afterward. Frost, Wordsworth, and Keats all owe a little bit of something to Anyte, for she truly was a Muse.