Saying It Well...

Khrystine's favorite quotes

"If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything."— Mark Twain

Modern Muse

Modern Muse
Adriana Lima in Elle Magazine

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Femininity Throughout The Ages

Egyptian culture seemed to have a healthy respect for the feminine principle. Isis was one of the most revered deities, and also had an influence on later cultures. Several pharaohs were woman, and queens such as Nefertiti have been sufficiently revered that their names and images are with us today. Women appear as more than just slave girls in Egyptian art. Some woman even portrayed themselves with (and wore false) facial hair, which was not to deny their femininity, but rather to symbolize wisdom.
Socially, Minoan women had the same status as men, and ate with men. Many sculptures from Minoan sites portray fierce and beautiful goddesses that were fertile and strong.
Greek culture seemed to have contradictory ideas about women. Socially, women were treated as second class, with few exceptions like Asphasia and Sappho. (It should be noted however that Sappho was from Lesbos, a Greek Island that had slightly more progressive views.) Yet when one reads Greek literature, strong women abound. Lysistrata, Clytemnestra, Antigone, Medea-whatever one may think of their actions, these characters are certainly powerful. And what of the goddesses? A veritable pantheon of women. Yet one notes an interesting pattern. Excluding Persephone, the women fall into three categories: Mother (Demeter and Hestia), Sexual (Hera and Aphrodite), and Virginal (Athena and Artemis). This almost anticipates the “Madonna-Whore” Complex. We have goddesses of the hearth and earth who are necessary, kind, but have few of their own stories. Demeter’s story shows her as the ultimate good mother, who is so distraught at the loss of a child, the whole world is plunged into winter. Hera and Aphrodite use sex to get what they want, and Artemis and Athena are sometimes androgynous.
Judaism, which also has many noble female characters and even had relative protection of women’s rights when it came to divorce, failed to bring these stories to their full feminine power. There are elusive references to prophetesses in the Bible; the story of Esther is one of heroism. The flaw in Judaism is not that they completely ignored the feminine, but just that in most communities it was played down as secondary to the masculine.
Gnostic Christianity had an incredibly progressive view of gender equality. Jesus’ disciples preached that God is “no respecter of persons”, but rather sees all humanity regardless of sex, ethnicity, etc. as equal. In the Gospels of Thomas and Mary Magdalene, which Gnostics adhered to, Jesus advocated a balance of masculine and feminine power and even showed a special admiration for Mary Magdalene.
These gospels have been (and still are) rejected by mainstream Christianity. The codifying of “official” Christian scripture instead favored other writings, such as Paul’s ambiguous writings about marriage. The relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene has been played down, denied, or scandalized by many people depending on their motives and respect for Christianity in general. One Christian writer, namely this one, thinks that the denial of this relationship is unnecessary, and that whatever the extent of this friendship (or more) it is largely irrelevant to the basic theology of Christianity.
As early medieval priests in the mainstream decided to remain celibate, the role of woman again became relegated to one of sex: women are a vehicle of childbirth or of sexual pleasure, and this pleasure was deemed carnal and evil. This was supported by the two basic female archetypes that existed in early medieval Europe: Ma Donna Mary, or Eve, portrayed as a sinner and a whore. It became accepted that the “Forbidden Fruit” Eve and Adam tasted was actually sex, and that because Eve “tasted” it first, she seduced Adam beyond his ability to resist. The account in Genesis merely states that the fruit was knowledge, which may be sexual or not. This view further simplifies women as only having to do with sex, makes villainy of sex, and over simplifies characters in a book that is incredibly complex.
In the High Middle Ages, this began to shift in other realms, though the church still tried to keep a short leash on things. Eleanor of Aquitaine provided a strong female role model and supported old Celtic stories that celebrated “natural” impulses like sex and curiosity and fused them with Christian ideals of service, mercy, and sanctity. The cult of the virgin arose, honoring Mary not just in the simplified role as mother of God, but also as a strong woman who agreed to an enormous task that included supporting her son’s controversial doctrine and watching him be martyred under the brutal Roman system of capital punishment. This holistic synthesis paved the way for women’s rights up to the present, not only in the sense of community respect, but self-respect.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas: Santa, Presents, Magic and Miracles.

When I was little I asked Santa for a star. Santa, in his wisdom, said he would place one above the house for me. And there it was, Christmas night, in the Northeast.
Two or three years later, we were moving and I was sad for my star. We would be leaving it.
One night, in my new house I looked to the sky. In the Northwest, there was a star. My star. I thought I imagined it. But after several nights, it was still there. And it is right up there in the winter, every winter.
I know it's mine. I just know.
So that's why I believe in Santa Claus.
Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor of Aquitaine held the titles of duchess of Aquitaine, queen of France, and queen of England. She was known for her beauty and intelligence, influencing our ideas about romantic love and relationships to the present day.
Eleanor was the oldest daughter of Duke Guillame X Duke of Aquitaine and his wife Anor. She had one younger sister, Petronilla, and one younger brother, Agret. Aquitaine was the epicenter of European culture, and Eleanor had rare access to education. She was an engaged and intelligent student. Her mother, younger brother, and father all died when she was young, and at the age of fifteen she inherited Aquitaine, land area that was larger than the official land of the king of France. At this time she also married Prince Louis Capet of France. Shortly afterwards his father King Louis “The Fat” died from food poisoning and the teenagers became monarchs.
Louis had been prepared for a career in the Church, but became the heir to the throne when his older brother died. Meek and pious, he was an odd match for the lively and inquisitive Eleanor.
In 1141, at age 19, Eleanor offered one thousand vassals in support of the Second Crusade, led by her religious husband. She also insisted on accompanying Louis with some 300 women. Eleanor intended for her women to be nursemaids, caring for the sick and wounded. It seems Eleanor was supporting her husband, but the legends surrounding her women suggest she may have had more ironic intentions in mind. The women allegedly dressed in the fashion of the Amazons, the legendary army of women. They rode white horses and carried arms (which they did not use) and attempted to rally troops. It is interesting to note that it was after this crusade the church barred women from accompanying the crusaders in any capacity, something Louis supported. One wonders about the intentions of Eleanor’s crusade-perhaps she was staking a claim for dominance in the relationship. Perhaps she found a way to reintegrate classical, “pagan” ideas and wanted to spread them. Perhaps she meant to represent nurture, as a protest to violence. Whatever her motives, the crusades became the turning point for the royal couple’s relationship.
In Antioch, Eleanor deepened her friendship with her uncle Raymond, who was young and charismatic. They were so close that rumors spread of an affair. Raymond had more military prowess than Louis, and suggested that the Christians focus on protecting their existing presence in the Middle East, but Louis insisted on conquering Jerusalem. Louis’ plan required more time and resources, and was likely to be more violent. Eleanor advocated Raymond’s plan, and (jealous?) indignant Louis insisted she come with him to Israel. It was at this time that the young queen showed public disdain for Louis. Their marriage was illegal, she claimed, unrecognized by God, and therefore should be annulled. While many wondered if Eleanor had had sex with her uncle, she began protesting her marriage on the grounds that it was incestuous. She and Louis were relatives, as many nobles were, and their relationship was close enough to fall under the umbrella of consanguinity in the powerful eyes of the church.
Louis forcibly took Eleanor further on his crusade, which was, as Raymond had predicted, a disaster. The couple pleaded with the Pope for a divorce, but it was denied. He instead recommended they live as any other husband and wife, and the couple had two daughters. In spite of the children and other appearances of unity, both parties knew that the relationship was dissolved. Finally, in 1152, the marriage was annulled.
Thirty year old Eleanor would then marry someone much younger than herself-Henry of Anjou, who became Henry II, King of England. Once again, Eleanor found herself a queen. While Henry and Eleanor never divorced, and their marriage resulted in a large brood of eight children to her first marriages two, their relationship was equally tempestuous, if not more so. Rumors may have risen about Eleanor and Louis, but Henry was openly unfaithful to Eleanor. He even seduced one of his future daughters in law.
In 1169, Henry and Eleanor agreed that Eleanor should focus on managing the duchy at Aquitaine. Eleanor cooperated with Henry in the interest of their children, but remained largely independent in her views and responsibilities. She celebrated the glory of Aquitaine, working to keep it relatively sovereign. Eleanor once again established Aquitaine as a cultural center. Her oldest daughter Marie, now a countess, joined her to sponsor artists and intellectuals such as Chr├ętien De Troyes, who some believe was in love with Marie. Marie also wrote the famous “Code of Love” which included many feminist ideals not generally practiced at the time. Eleanor sponsored a corresponding “Court of Love” where she and other women would arbitrate romantic disputes. Their rulings influenced art and poetry, popularizing and legitimizing romantic and erotic love. The women at Aquitaine influenced these ideas in such a way that many of our current ideas about love and sex to this day; ideas like the importance of loyalty, the relation of intimacy to sex, etc.
In 1173, Eleanor’s sons revolted against their father. She supported them, and Henry imprisoned her in London for 16 years. She was released at his death. Eleanor spent her final years in Aquitaine playing matchmaker for her children and grandchildren. She had been wife to two kings, mother of two kings, and influenced art until the present day. She had traveled widely for her time. She was a model for feminine power and independence, and still is. Eleanor’s fighting spirit kept her busy and active until her death in 1204. She was eighty-two years old.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

God’s Chosen: The Jewish Character

God’s Chosen: The Jewish Character

We live in a world that worships the new. How is it that such a world would still manage to contain adherents to ancient traditions and beliefs? Beliefs that label some foods as unclean, separate men and women, and declare one group as chosen by a very concerned, emotional god? Judaism has influenced law, history, the idea of family, and even other religions and theology for over five-thousand years. Amazingly, the flame shows no signs of dying out, particularly in the United States, where more Jews reside than anywhere else in the world (“Judaism”, MSN Encarta). This is due to the Jew’s strong sense of identity: as a religion, as a race, and as God’s chosen people.

Judaism, like the rest of Western Civilization, actually began in the Middle East. Abraham, the great patriarch of Judaism, was born in Ur of the Chaldees, or modern day Tall al Muqayyar, Iraq (“Ur”, MSN Encarta). Abraham (also known as Abram, or, in Muslim tradition, Ibrahim) eventually left Ur with his family and eventually made his way to modern-day Israel, where he lived as a nomad. He also spent time in Egypt (“Abraham”, MSN Encarta). According to the Bible, a god named YHWH (called Yahweh, or Latinized as Jehovah) promised to give unto [Abraham], and to [his children], the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession;” and that through his descendants YHWH would “make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee” (Genesis 17:6-11). In return, Abraham and his children would worship YHWH, recognizing him as the one true god. As a sign of this promise, or covenant, all males who entered into it would be circumcised. This is arguably the single most important event in the development of the Jewish identity. All Jews are accepted as descendants of Abraham, and therefore have the privileges and responsibilities this dialogue implies. This shows the Jewish relationship with deity, a special, familial relationship others do not have.

Jews also believe that YHWH continued to reveal his will and laws to the leaders of the church, prophets. This adds to the special relationship they have with deity. In church services, two and one half of three hours consist of readings and prayers directly from the scriptures, particularly the Torah, or Revealed Instruction. Whilst reading from the scrolls, the spiritual leader or rabbi covers his head with a prayer shawl. The scrolls are wrapped in beautiful blue cloth, and worshippers touch the Torah as the rabbi brings it around. They also kiss their personal copies of Torah before replacing them on the shelf. These scriptures and rabbinical writings are the precious relics of Judaism. Nevertheless, is it hard for Jews to live with 500 centuries of laws in a culture that emphasizes a large dose of rebellion? As one young orthodox Jew told me, it can be. Jeff Richens says particularly in adolescence, it was hard for him to “keep kosher”, or follow the dietary guidelines found throughout Mosaic Law (Richens). “Everyone is searching for themselves, for individuality. You kind of just want to do whatever the hell you want.” Once again, the identity as the chosen people helped him stay true. “I just tell myself this is what I’m supposed to do. I hold myself to a higher standard.”

This blend of piety and confidence differentiates the Jewish character. At the church service I attended, the rabbi seemed to be training his son. This boy, only nine or ten years old, was heard praying with fervor. He was enthusiastic, something rare in generally apathetic or nervous pre-teens. He was not garish or inappropriate either. Richens assures that Jews are not superior to other people, but have entered into a covenant and therefore have an “incentive” to be better people.

This leads to a question in the history of Judaism-if Jews are the chosen people of God, why have they suffered so much persecution and hate, even to the point of genocide? Richens says succinctly, “Jews are treated like shit.” He cites current examples in pop culture. However, perhaps because Yahweh has agreed to pay special concern to the Jews, he tests them more, like an exacting professor. Richens seems to think this is the case. It is simply part of the higher standard believers hold themselves to.

One struggle the Judaists have had is the struggle for a geographic place of reckoning. Because the Jews are also the race descended from Abraham, it is possible to be a Jewish Christian or a Japanese Jew. Zionism is a philosophy held by those who believe that Jews and Hebrews should reclaim Israel/Palestine as their national homeland. The Jewish languages of Hebrew and Yiddish would be spoken, and even Jews who do not practice Judaism would be able to have a living heritage. In fact, it was (and is) mostly “secularized” Jews who advocate Zionism. At the synagogue I attended, a special prayer was said for Israel, including an invocation to stop those who fight against her. While Genesis seems to explicitly state that Yahweh intends for the Abram’s seed to have Israel, who that is and under what circumstances are hotly debated. Muslims also claim to be the children of Abraham (though through a different line), Jesus Christ was a Jew, and Christians could reasonably lay religious claim to it as well. One could also ask whether if Yahweh meant only one particular line of Abraham’s descendants, or even if he meant for these groups to be the only groups in the area.. Of course then we would have to decide whether to speak the Hebrew of the Torah, Arabic of the Koran, or Greek of the New Testament. As overwhelming as this is for an objective gentile to figure out, it is easy to see why Jews would have such strong feelings and confusion. Many Jews sit on both sides of the fence. Richens, for one, seems to think there are more important things to worry about. He compares the groups to kids who find it “hard to share”.

These struggles will, however, eventually be ended with the coming of a Savior. Some even believe that by being faithful and righteous enough, they can bring this salvation sooner. This gives the disciple of Judaism an even greater diligence and motivation in worship. It is with this hope that Jews can weather their many struggles and stay so strong.

In studying the Jewish religion and its struggles, when set against the sweetness of its people, one is easily able to see why they need a Messiah. A belief system that embraces piety and confidence, community and individuality, faith and education, hope and long suffering, Judaism’s doctrine and people impressed me greatly. In the Jewish character, we find one so great, who has suffered so much. If Jewish thought and creativity had not been suppressed, as it so often has throughout history, who knows what new developments we would have had. Perhaps when their Messiah comes, they will receive their vindication.

"Judaism”, Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2008 © 1997-2008 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

"Ur”, Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2008 © 1997-2008 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

"Abraham”, Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2008 © 1997-2008 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

Holy Bible: King James Version. Pennsylvania: The National Bible Press, 1958.

Richens, Jeffrey. Personal interview. 11 Nov. 2008.