Antiquity, the Ancient Past and the History of the Silenced Woman of Elizabeth I

Graphic by Juliette Baxter

CW: violence, domestic abuse, sexual assault, explicit rape.

“We’re stormy, and that which is ours breaks loose from us without our fearing any debilitation. Our glances, our smiles, are spent; laughs exude from all our mouths; our blood flows and we extend ourselves without ever reaching an end; we never hold back our thoughts, our signs, our writing; and we’re not afraid of lacking.”

– The Laugh of Medusa (written by Hélène Cixous, translated by Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen)

In the 21st Century, pre-conceived understandings of society often lie embedded within ancient and Hellenistic civilisations, such as the great Roman, Greek and Persian Empires. The female deities which emerged from such civilisations often epitomise traditional femininity. These deities are, more often than not, the very reason for a modern ‘addiction’ to femininity and its nuances. This addiction to the female form created a romanticised objectification of women, which manifests in pleasure and sexuality. Yet, these are the women who embody strength and vitality; these are warriors, mothers, and lovers, they are the moral compass within the community and the reason for centuries of praise and provocative power in spirituality. Female deities such as Hera, the goddess of marriage, stability and fertility, or Athena and Artemis, goddess of wisdom and justice, and wilderness and freedom respectively, epitomise the values desired by most in antiquity and the contemporary. The influence of such individuals transcends societies, history and particularly language; the Egyptian deity, Hathor, representative of love and nurture, became the Roman Goddess Venus. Throughout ancient literature, Venus is interchangeable with Aphrodite, the Greek Goddess of love, fertility and victory, indicative of the widespread appreciation for such figures. The appreciation of these personalities stems from the guidance and morale they provided in such grotesque societies – and whilst they were praised and adored, they are ironically not representative of the experiences of women in these civilisations. This paradox of female praise in misogynistic societies is particularly difficult to ignore.

Dame Winifred Mary Beard, a Cambridge English scholar and classicist, traces the origins of misogyny to the period of antiquity. The notion of female silence is explored in her book Women & Power: A Manifesto. The text explores the uncomfortable acceptance of women being hushed at the hands of ‘lurid’ men. It exemplifies the story of Telemachus, son of famed Odysseus from Homer’s Odyssey, in which it is blatantly implied that silencing a woman was once inextricably linked with ‘growing into one’s manhood’. This is epitomised in the text when Telemachus’ brutality and violence against women are glorified.  After his return to the kingdom, Odysseus requested he murder the maids who were fooling around with the suitors of Penelope, Odysseus’ wife, in order to assert power throughout the kingdom. Moreover, in Ovid’s ancient poem Metamorphosis, the story of Io, a young priestess of the Goddess Juno (Hera) reiterates this notion. The story articulates Io’s affair with Jupiter (Zeus), Juno’s husband and King of the Mount Olympus. In order to prevent their secret getting out, Jupiter has her transformed into a cow. This very action, reducing one to an animal, reducing her to one of, if not, the lowest tier, in society at the time, typifies the silencing of ‘misbehaving women’. Another example is the story of Echo the nymph. She is ordered by Jupiter to distract Juno, whilst he was escaping yet again another scandalous situation with another woman. Echo’s continuous chatter, and arguably her tendency to gossip, is utilised in order to distract Juno – and ultimately is her downfall. Once Juno becomes aware of her intentions, she removes her voice so that she only has the ability to echo the voices of others – she is drained of free thought and expression. Again, due to the actions of Jupiter, another woman is subject to the wrath of Juno.

One of the more confronting tales of antiquity is the Athenian Princess Philomela’s tongue removal to prevent her speaking out against her “heroic” rapist. Whilst the myth itself has a multitude of variations, they pretty much all follow the same progression: Athenian Princess Philomela, daughter of Pandion the King, is raped by her sister’s husband, Tereus. After meeting her, Tereus finds her “so beautiful that he can’t take no for an answer”, and submits to his desire. After the attack, he has her tongue removed to prevent her from speaking out against him and tells her sister that she has been killed. Whilst Philomela’s tale is woven into a tapestry, and eventually given to her sister in order to call out Tereus, the tale still reveals the Hellenistic and barbaric hand under which women lived during the period of antiquity. These actions are targeted in order to prevent women from speaking up or acting against masculine power structures. This very notion is synonymous with the feminist movement; it’s about breaking these norms and breaking this systematic, and often internalised, structure, which inhibits the ability of women identifying individuals to flourish – in educational, professional, social and political spheres.

Yet the movement of feminism is hardly a movement devised during antiquity. It is becoming ever more prominent in the discourse surrounding our politics, literature, the arts, social movements, the economy, sports and even religious entities – just to name a few. But, it’s these fables that have arguably enabled the 21st century normalisation of cutting women off in conversation, or in an extreme case, paying women not to speak out in a time of scandal, i.e. Stormy Daniels and Trump.  Moreover, the contemporary normalisation of this has facilitated the base on which modern day misogyny thrives. The reaction from feminist groups and women to the issues coming to light seems to be perceived as a damaged and out-of-tune- violin, rather than an acknowledgment of frustration. Time and time again, women are perceived as ‘whiney’ or ‘broken records’ for continuously speaking out. If women such as Uma Thurman, Rose McGowan, Gwyneth Paltrow or Heather Graham hadn’t spoken against Weinstein’s actions, or if Stormy Daniel’s allegations hadn’t have been in the public sphere, by nature of their perpetrators, the cases most definitely would not have gained the traction. Yet, we find ourselves in this cyclical struggle. The silencing of women, or the dismissal or ridiculing of women speaking out, has its roots in antiquity. These barbaric and Hellenistic inclinations – removing one’s tongue and reducing one to an animal – whilst not immediately comparable to the ridicule experienced in the 21st century, are ultimately one in the same.