Cleopatra is a name that conjures up visions of a siren wearing elaborate gold headdresses, fine linen, and thick kohl eyeliner. Generally, I think of her as a boon to dark haired women at Halloween. However, I’ve been trying to read histories and biographies of women, so when I saw Cleopatra: A Life, by Pulitzer Prize winning author Stacy Schiff, I snapped it up … at Costco for a
I enjoyed the book, although Schiff seems to interject a lot of conjecture into her writing. However, there were several things that really stirred my mind. Firstly, Schiff describes Ptolemaic Egypt as a place where a feminist would feel comfortable.
Cleopatra moreover came of age in a country that entertained a singular definition of women’s roles. Well before her and centuries before the arrival of the Ptolemies, Egyptian women enjoyed the right to make their own marriages. Over time, their liberties increased, to levels unprecedented in the ancient world. They inherited equally and held property independently. Married women did not submit to their husbands’ control. They enjoyed the right to divorce and to be supported after a divorce. Until the time an ex-wife’s dowry was returned, she was entitled to be lodged in the house of her choice. Her property remained hers; it was not to be squandered by a wastrel husband. The law sided with the wife and children if a husband acted against their interests. Romans marveled that in Egypt female children were not left to die; a Roman was obligated to raise only his first-born daughter. Egyptian women married later than did their neighbors as well … They loaned money and operated barges. They served as priests in the native temples. They initiated lawsuits and hired flute players. As wives, widows or divorcees, the owned vineyards, wineries, papyrus marshes, ships, perfume businesses, milling equipment, slaves, homes, camels. As much as one third of Ptolemaic Egypt may have been in female hands.
Reading the above, the rights that women enjoyed then seem not to different from those enjoyed by women in contemporary westernized countries.
Later in the book, Schiff goes on to discuss how Cleopatra manipulated her image to retain power. The female role that Cleopatra seems to have donned most frequently was that of Isis, as pictured in the photo of the statue. Isis was a particularly popular deity, assuming myriad responsibilities and roles.
[Isis] enjoyed nearly unlimited powers: Isis had invented the alphabet (both Egyptian and Greek), separated earth from sky, set the sun and the moon on their way. Fiercely but compassionately, she plucked order from chaos. She was tender and comforting, also the mistress of war, thunderbolts, the sea. She cured the sick and raised the dead. She presided over love affairs, invented marriage, regulated pregnancies, inspired the love that binds children to parents, smiled on domestic life. She dispensed mercy, salvation, redemption. She is the consummate earth mother, also – like most mothers- something of a canny, omnicompetent, behind-the-scenes magician.
Reading this description of Isis, I realized that this is how I tend to think of Heavenly Mother. When I think of her, which really is not that often, I like to think of her as powerful, able, competent, and caring. I have no idea why we don’t talk about her more, and I don’t buy the theory that she’s too sacred to discuss. In my weaker moments, I image her using what soft power she has to make Heavenly Father look good, while still accomplishing what needs to get done. However, I acknowledge that this isn’t a very healthy view of partnered deity, and I’ve been trying to quash it out.
Schiff goes on to ask the eternal question. Chicken or egg?
It is difficult to determine which came first, whether Isis accounted for the supremacy of women in Egypt, or whether the Ptolemaic queens reinforced her eminence. Certainly she introduced an equality of the sexes.
Which makes me wonder. How would the LDS church be different if we knew more about Heavenly Mother? Would women be full partners in practice, as well as doctrine? What if callings were received based on ability, rather than gender? Would men leave the church in droves? Or would having more accountability be better for both men and women? Of course, not every man wants less authority, and not all women want more. But what if authority always went to the one who would use it best? Just some questions that have been rattling around in my brain.
Anyway, if you have some great reading recommendations about women’s lives, I’d love to get them. Some others that I read in the last year or so included:
Annapurna: A Woman’s Place, Arlene Blum
Another Day in the Frontal Lobe: A Brain Surgeon Exposes Life on the Inside, Katrina Firlik
My Life, George Sand
Hospital Sketches, Louisa May Alcott