Helen of Troy

Helen of Troy should really be called Helen of Sparta since she was born in Sparta and was a Spartan princess. She was also a Mycenaen – part of the culture that swept into Bronze Age Crete. This period is probably fifty years after the period I am writing about but I did research into it anyway. We know a bit more about the Spartans and they were supposed to have been influenced by the Minoan civilization.

With that said, most of the Mediterranean cultures were influenced by this great civilization – maybe not in accordance with the wishes of the leaders since in Sparta laws were passed forbidding perfume, cosmetics and jewelry. However, girls were also educated at state expense and encouraged to be physically active. They also married later than many of their peers in other countries so maternal and infant mortality was less. They were also the scandal of Classical Greece since the women had so much more freedom than the poor wives in Athens. Although named for a Goddess, Athena, the women were kept closeted in their homes weaving with no company but slaves and other women. Even in Sparta, though, patriarchy ruled and the women had much less influence than those in Crete.

But I digress.

I think everyone knows the basic story:  that Helen was the most beautiful woman of her age. She was married to Menelaus, brother to Agamemnon. She was either abducted or chose to run away with Paris. (It doesn’t much matter if she was innocent. For most of the intervening centuries she has been considered a harlot.)They fled to Troy and a great war was fought that lasted more than ten years.  The war is the basis of the Iliad. As everyone knows, Troy was considered a myth until Schliemann excavated it.

Here’s what I did not know about Helen.

Another familiar myth is Leda and the Swan. Zeus takes the form of a swan to rape Leda. The child created by this union was Helen. Her beauty was frequently ascribed to her divine paternity. Because Zeus took the form of a swan, Helen was born from an egg. I am not kidding. Besides the painting that shows her rising from an egg, an artifact reputed to be a piece of the eggshell was a sacred object.

Since everybody in these stories are related, Helen’s half-brothers were the twins Castor and Pollux and her half-sister was Clytemnestra, wife to Agamemnon.

 

The Minotaur

I’m sure most of us know something about Theseus and the Minotaur. Here’s the backstory. The Greeks revered Zeus. Poseidon wanted to be honored too so he sent a white bull to Minos, the King of Crete. Minos’s wife Parsiphae fell in love with the bull. She tasked Daedalus (yes, the inventor with the wax wings whose son was Icarus) to build a special wooden box in the shape of a cow. Once inside the box, she had intercourse with the bull. Nine months later she bore a half-man, half-bull. The Minotaur.

The myth reeks of patriarchy and a desire to, in modern parlance, throw shade on Cretan beliefs.

First, in Crete Zeus was not the primary God. He was an upstart, more akin to a harvest God, who died and was reborn.

We also don’t know if Crete had a King. Certainly it was a goddess centered, matrilineal culture. Many archeologists have assumed Crete had kings, but for decades these archeologists were men. Men, moreover, who lived with a strongly patriarchal structure. It is possible the Priestess’s consort acted as a wanax, or governor. Kingships came with the Mycenaeans.

Third several ancient cultures revered the bull or, in Indo-Europe the horse. One of the rites was mock intercourse with this symbol of fertility by the Queen/Priestess. This act was supposed to guarantee good crops, lots of livestock and of course healthy children for the coming year.

But what about the Minotaur?

Well, many many ancient and not so ancient cultures employ masks in religious rites. Animals are a frequently the subject.  Is it so far a stretch to believe that the Minotaur is a masked man involved in a religious rite?

Besides painting Theseus as a hero (which I dispute but more about that later), this myth spins Crete as decadent and deserving of conquest. By the Myceneans, naturally.

Bull-leaping and Theseus

Bull leaping is probably one of the most well-known -if not the most well-known – image of the Minoan civilization. Most people believe the account written in the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. It is important to remember the Greeks (the Mycenae and forward) borrowed a lot from other cultures. The civilization on Crete was very important. With that said, the Minoan civilization was Goddess centered while the Mycenae were patriarchal and that made a huge difference in how the invaders viewed the rites and rituals they saw.

In the Theseus myth, Minos exacts a tribute from Athens of 7 young men and 7 maidens to face the bull and perform bull-leaping. Minos’s daughter Ariadne falls in love with Theseus and gives him a ball of string to find his way through the labyrinth under the city and kill the Minotaur, (The creation of this beast is another story). Theseus does so, thereby freeing himself and the other tributes from Crete. He takes Ariadne with him but abandons her on another island. Great guy.

While tributes may have been pressed into service as bull-leapers, the bull-leaping was an integral part of the religious ceremonies. The bull was a sacred animal and the Cretan youth performed. Secondly, there are no labyrinths underneath Knossos and it is thought the pattern of building residences – all interlinked and connecting rooms – gave rise to the myth of a labyrinth.

And although labyrinth now means maze, the labys (the root of the word) was the iconic Cretan double axe. It had nothing to do with mazes.

Lastly, there is a lot of speculation about Minos. Was he a king? Perhaps after the Mycenae arrived, a kingship was established. Was he a consort of the High Priestess who, it is now thought, was the earthly representative of the Goddess. The Priestess chose a – or many – consorts. There is now some thought that he or other men served as a wanax and kept the wheels of the government running.

Zeus and Dionysus – Cretan Version

The Cretan Zeus is not quite the same as the Classical Greek version of the God. For one thing, the Cretan Zeus is more of a harvest God who is born again each spring and dies in the Fall. Since Classical Greeks thought all Gods and Goddesses should be immortal, they changed the attribute of the God whose name they’d taken and declared all Cretans are liars. They kept, however, the story of his upbringing in a cave after his father, Cronus in Classical Greek mythology, swallowed all his children since one was prophesied as his killer. Zeus was nursed by a nanny goat – or one of several other animals. Take your pick. I’ve now read several variations. His crying was masked by the Kouretes, a group of armed men who clashed their weapons together to hide the cries.

So what does this have to do with Dionysus? Well, the Cretan Zeus is more like Dionysus. A harvest God followed by ecstatic worshippers.

When I was in Greece at Delphi I asked our tour guide why Dionysus was so different from the Classical Greek Gods. They do not embody the Dionysian wildness and several represent rationality. She didn’t know but I have the answer now. Dionysus is a very old God. He is named in the linear B tablets. And in many, if not most, of the other Middle Eastern Bronze Age religions there are other Gods like him.

These early beliefs were concentrated on fertility – not just human fertility although in Bronze Age Crete the High Priestess, as an earthly representation of the Goddess, represented that fertility. Ritual intercourse was practiced not only in the Mediterranean but as far away as Norway. For these early farmers, fertility among the livestock and of course a good harvest meant the difference between life and death.

Goodreads Giveaway

 

I am excited to announce I am giving away 10 copies of Cradle to Grave. Of all the books I’ve written, this is my favorite. I began working on it just when my first grandson was born and my research into the poor laws and the plight of orphans made me acutely conscious of the vulnerability of children. Go on Goodreads to try for a copy.

The Shakers and Herbs – Part 2 – Medicinal Weeds

Many of the plants we despise as weeds actually have qualities that render them useful as medicines, dye plants or more. Take the humble dandelion, for example. First of all, it is not native to North America but was brought over by the first colonists. The leaves are edible and I’m sure most people have heard of dandelion wine. Using it as a dye produces a reddish color. I’ve also read, although never tried it, that if a woman who believes she might be pregnant urinates on the leaves and they change color, she will know she is expecting.

Medicinally, the dandelion is recommended for diseases of the liver, constipation and uterine obstructions. It should be collected when the plant is young. A freshly dried root can be used as a tonic for stomach troubles.

Broadleaf dock root, a common visitor in my yard, can be used as a purge and a tonic. The Shakers shipped great quantities of this root. In 1889, some forty four thousand pounds was shipped to one firm in Lowell Mass from Enfield, New Hampshire. Since at that time the root was selling for about 50 cents a pound, the community must have made quite a bit.

Skunk cabbage was another plant used successively as a treatment. A stimulant, the root was used for nervous irritability (not sure what this means) and whooping cough, asthma, chronic rheumatism and spasms.

Burdock leaves were used as a cooling poultice.

I’m sure you get the idea. Some of the other weeds they harvested and sold are: Butternut bark (the hulls of the nuts make a yellowish gray dye), elder flowers (tasty as well as medicinal), Yarrow, hoarhown, bugle, crosswort (or boneset) and many more.

They also made combinations as lozenges and syrups. Their cough medicine included wild cherry bark, seneca snakeroot with rhubarb and a tiny amount of morphine. (The Shakers also grew the opium poppy and sold the raw opium at tremendous prices.) Another popular offering was Tamar laxative. Among other ingredients it included Tamarind, prunes, fruit of cassia and sugar. The resulting paste was dried and cut into lozenges.

Interestingly, they also sold concentrated sarsaparilla syrup. Sarsaparilla is also known as wild licorice.

Although the Shakers were a religious community, they were also canny – but honest – businessmen and women. Next up, the marketing and selling of the herbs.

Better lives for women

I tend to think of the 1700s as static in terms of women’s lives but of course it wasn’t. Although Colonial women spent significant time spinning, weaving (if they had a loom) and making candles, as the century wore on households transitioned from frontier living where everything had to be made in-house to a time where necessities could be purchased. Of course the coastal cities like New York, Philadelphia and Boston enjoyed a higher standard of living even before the Revolution. Clothing or fabric, furniture and other luxuries were imported from England and the daughters of affluent households, well staffed with servants and/or slaves, had no need to use the wheel. They did ‘fancy’ work: embroidery of other decorative needlework.

But I digress.

By the late 1700s even rural communities, even in Maine, had access to items which could be purchased – such as dress goods – that would make a woman’s life easier. (Salem with its fast merchant ships and ties to the Orient, imported cloth of all kinds from cotton muslin to silk, cashmere shawls from India and more. Some of these goods made it away from the coasts. It is no surprise to learn that Salem at this time was the wealthiest city in the United States.) Labor could be hired to help in the fields and in the house. Will Rees, traveling weaver, was not the only (male) weaver who went from house to house plying his trade. (Women weavers were bound to their homes.) Spinners could also be hired, Usually widows or unmarried daughters in a large family, these women would spin for an agreed upon price.

But what about the frontier women. The frontier continued to push west and, by the late 1790’s, was pushing past Pittsburgh. Contemporary observers of Pittsburgh were vastly critical of the dirty streets, through which hogs ran unheeded. Most of the houses were wood or frame, but brick was beginning to take over. Glass for windows was imported at large expense. For women, moving to town no matter how dirty, made their lives less arduous. Tasks could be given over to the candlemakers, the washerwomen, dressmakers and shoemakers. Galatin (an important figure during the Whiskey Rebellion) was a weaver. By 1807 there were six professional bakers. In fact, by the 1800’s, the wealthy began building mansions outside of town and Pittsbugh began offering social and cultural opportunities.

The frontier had moved west to Ohio, Kentucky and Illinois.

Housecleaning – 1798

Besides all the other tasks involved in keeping house, wives also kept the house clean. As much as they were able – the standards of cleanliness were lower than ours. (I think women of the the past, both recent and long ago, would be stunned by the clorox infused wipes we use.) But there were no vacumn cleaners then, only brooms and they were mostly twigs or broom grass tied to a pole. The Shakers again invented a machine that tied on the straw for a more modern broom – and their brooms were highly prized.

But I digress.

The brooms had to be used to sweep the dirt and the floors were scrubbed on hands and knees with the harsh soap I mentioned earlier. What about carpets? Yes, they were swept. But every Spring well – run households had an annual and dreaded Spring Cleaning. All carpets were taken and beaten thoroughly to rid them of the accumulated dust, dirt and other unsavory objects.

Floors and windows, if the house had them, were washed and bedding was aired. Anything silver was polished, and not with the handy silver wipes either. Elbow grease was the common technique. Curtains were washed and rehung.

Children were impressed into helping and more affluent women hired help, usually unmarried girls from around the neighborhood. Spring cleaning usually took several days and contemporary accounts, especially from husbands, express frustration and annoyance at the disruption.

But the lot of women, and the work expected of them, was improving. See next week’s blog.