30 October 2008


Let us honor with inspired hymns the two martyrs for truth: the preachers of true devotion, Zenóbius and Zenobía; as brother and sister they lived and suffered together and through martyrdom received their incorruptible crowns.

Today the Orthodox church calendar commemorates the martyrdom of Saint Zenobia and her brother, Zenobius.

Since this is an annual event, I won't repeat the story but point you to last year's post of 31 October (I was a day late in 2007. Shame!). Their history is complex -- not to say confused -- and it's all the fault of the 10th C Byzantine monk, Symeon Metaphrastes. Click over to that post -- Zenobia: Martyr Saint of Celicia and her brother -- and see what you can make of it. A year's reflection has not made me any wiser. You might be luckier.

There are not many images of Zenobia and Zenobius -- and one icon is uglier than the other. Here they are, though, with St Eutropia, who also met a sticky end -- and the Apostle Kleopas, one of the Seventy; he of 'the road to Emmaus' fame (Luke 24:13-33). All are celebrated on 30 October.

Speaking of icons, my next post will finally get back to Queen Zenobia. I'll be publishing a new coin find with our dear queen's image. So, lots of pictures ... and back on topic: coming soon.

29 October 2008

Mourning Zenobia Hikes

I was shocked to open my inbox and find that Zenobia Hikes had died during the night. She was only 53.

She died of complications following multiple heart surgeries.

As vice-president for student affairs at Virginia Tech, she helped shepherd the university through the days following the campus massacre on 16 April 2007.

She was a member of the group of Tech executives known as the policy group that gathered on the morning of April 16 2007 to deal with the shooting deaths of two students in a dormitory. As they were meeting, gunman Seung-Hui Cho entered a nearby hall and killed another 30 victims.

Of course, I never met her but, like millions of others, I watched her on television at the convocation held the following day. Her warmth, courage, and compassion helped rally the spirits of grieving students. And seemed to give some meaning to the madness that had happened.

Ed Spencer, interim vice-president, says, "I remember walking over to the convocation on April 17 and realizing how remarkably calm and reassuring she was, knowing what she was about to say as the moderator of ceremonies for the convocation, and we all know what an incredible job she really did for that."

And John Gray Williams, a student, remembers this: I'll never forget how inspired she made me feel when, only days after I'd met her back during my first semester here at Tech, I passed her on the Drillfield and she called out to me by name, "Oh, hello, John Gray." Really!? Did a vice president of this university of 30,000 really just remember my name? But that's how she was. If you took the time to seek her out and talk to her about any sort of student issues, she took the time to remember your name -- and the issue. She took the concerns I (and others) brought to her to heart.

Another student, Mohawk-John Woods, writes in his Live Journal, "This won't matter much to most of you non-Hokies [Virginia Tech folk], but it matters to us. Zenobia Hikes was one of the few administrators I still felt I could trust after the shooting -- and I suspect that to be true for others, too. She always worked so hard for us, and always listened."

I meant to write a blog post about her one day -- under the rubric Zenobia's Hall of Fame (21st C. AD) [sadly, I noted this morning that the link has stopped working].

I never imagined it would be a R.I.P.

But I can tell you, John Woods, her death does matter to most of us. As you said, Zenobia Hikes, you are sorely missed.

More information on this vibrant woman at In Memoriam: Dr. Zenobia Lawrence Hikes

14 October 2008

Athenian Ladies in New York

Worshipping Women: Ritual and Reality in Classical Athens (with Update)

An exhibition at the Onassis Cultural Center in New York will soon explore the many ways in which women’s religious worship contributed not just to their personal fulfilment but to the civic identity of the leading city of the Classical Greek world as well.

Worshipping Women seeks to correct "the unremittingly bleak picture that the lives of Athenian women were highly restricted when it came to the public sphere and participation in the political process. The involvement of women in cults and festivals ... was as essential for the successful functioning of the polis as that of any member of society."

I wish them luck.

Of course, a woman's life wasn't 'unremittingly bleak' but it was certainly unremittingly patriarchal. The idea of women taking part in the public business of the polis would have seemed inherently comical to Athenian citizens (males only, of course). That's what's behind Aristophanes, in some of his surviving plays, where he chuckles, gurgles, and snorts at women pretending to take on the roles of men instead of staying at home. The women are well aware of what men think about them:
Men never speak a good word, never one, for the feminine gender,
Everyone says we're a Plague,the source of all evils to man,
war, dissension, and strife
Still, as Onassis knows, the only area in which women had any power at all was in religion. Public ritual gave a woman the only chance she had (if she were respectable) to get out of the house and even, sometimes, to mingle with men. And that made husbands nervous. Especially in Dionysus’ cult, women had an outlet for worship equal or greater to that afforded to men. In the spirit of Dionysian revelry, women could become his priestesses or 'Bacchae' simply by drinking, dancing, singing, and releasing their inhibitions.

Then, there were also women-only festivals where men were excluded. Naturally, they didn't like being excluded -- but they were stuck: such rites were sanctioned by ancestral tradition. There are anecdotes and legends about men who tried to spy on women's secret rituals. After all, they had to know. They had a right to know. Unsurprisingly, the spied-upon sometimes responded with lethal fury. But not always.

The most venerable women-only rite in Athens, the Thesmophoria, held in autumn at the time of sowing, included hurling pigs into snake-filled crevices, and strict observance of sexual abstinence. Women left their homes to set up a tent city close to the site of the public Assembly of men.
Let us now devote ourselves to the sports which the women are
accustomed to celebrate here, when time has again brought round the
mighty Mysteries of the great goddesses, the sacred days....
But all they really did at such festivals, so men feared, was give vent to their legendary potential for defiance and subversiveness. And drink undiluted wine -- as Aristophanes reported, they took an oath sworn over cups of the best rich, dark wine never to mix their wine with water!
Oh! you wanton, you tippling women, who think of nothing but wine; you are a fortune to the drinking-shops and are our ruin; for the sake of drink, you neglect both your household and your [weaving] shuttle!
Men of ancient Athens surely laughed at Aristophanes' plays and this lampooning of women, but it may have been uneasy laughter. Did they really fear that their wives were secret alcoholic nymphomanics -- adulterous, lecherous, bibulous, treacherous and garrulous to boot! All vice, in short, and the curse of their husbands.
There is but one thing in the world worse than a shameless woman,
and that's another woman.
Ladies, I offer terms...

Aristophanes finally made his peace with women. At the end of his play about the Thesmophoria, he tells the troublesome matrons:

If well and truly, your honourable sex befriend me now, I won't abuse your honourable sex from this time forth for ever.

Non-abusive banter only, I am sure, at the Onassis Cultural Center 10 December 2008 t0 9 May 2009. It may well be worth a trip to the city since Greek newspapers say that many objects will be seen for the first time in New York.

Does that mean that Ladies are usually relegated to the storerooms? Surely not.

With thanks to the blog Tropaion for this alert.


Above: Statue of the Goddess Artemis,ca. 100 B.C. From Delos (found in the House of the Diadoumenos). Athens, National Archaeological Museum.

Below: A Spartan woman victor in the foot-race at the Heraean Games, ca. 460 B.C., Vatican Museum, fitting a description by Pausanias, which says that the girls competed divided into three teams according to their age. During events their hair was allowed to fall loose on their shoulders and they wore a short chiton tunic which reached down to their knees but left bare their left shoulder and breast. As in the case of male Olympic winners, the prize for them too was a wreath of wild olive as well as the right to dedicate a tablet depicting themselves at the temple of Hera.

Updated 19 December 2008:

The show has opened. See the review in the New York Times.

07 October 2008

Caves Weren't Painted in a Day!

I've heard of artists being late with their commissions, but 15,000 years to finish a painting job seems a trifle over the top.

Scientists are revolutionising our understanding of early human societies with a more precise way of dating cave art.

In several caves in Spain -- where it had been assumed that the art all dated to the same period -- new dating techniques reveal that the paintings were done in several phases, sometimes as much as over 15,000 years (25,000 years ago to just 10,000 BCE).

The dating method involves a technique called uranium series dating. It works on any carbonate substance, such as coral or limestone, and involves measuring the balance between a uranium isotope and the form of thorium that it decays into. The process is lengthy and painstaking -- researchers must scrape off enough of the calcite crust for an accurate dating, while taking care not to harm the art underneath, or even contaminate the sample with the older limestone behind the art.

"This lets us challenge assumptions about the age of cave art," says Alistair Pike, senior lecturer in archaeological sciences at Bristol University, who has helped develop the technique.

Dr Pike and his research team spent two weeks in Spain last year testing the new method in caves, and have just returned from another fortnight's expedition to sample nine more caves, including the so called 'Sistine Chapel of the Palaeolithic', Altamira cave (from which come the bison above and the animals below). The elaborate works in Altamira were thought to date from around 14,000 years ago.

It may have taken Michelangelo four long years to paint his fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but his earliest predecessors spent considerably longer perfecting their own masterpieces.

Rather than being created in one session, as archaeologists previously thought, many of the works discovered across Europe were produced over hundreds of generations who added to, refreshed and painted over the original pieces of art.

In new research published by the Natural Environment Research Council's website Planet Earth, Dr Pike reports that some of the paintings were between 25,000 and 35,000 years old. The youngest paintings in the cave were 11,000 years old.

"We have found that most of these caves were not painted in one go, but the painting spanned up to 20,000 years. This goes against what the archaeologists who excavated in the caves and found archaeology for just one period.

"It is probably the case that people did not live in the caves they painted. It seems the caves they lived in were elsewhere and there was something special about the painted caves."

Given that the researchers often had to crawl through tiny fissures to take their samples, and that some of the art is virtually inaccessible except with modern spelunking equipment, I'd say that something special is a bit of an understatement.

(Left) Black and violet painted horses overlying red figures at Tito Bustillo Cave, Asturias, Spain: it's staggering to think that the horses may be separated from the red signs -- and conceivably even from each other -- by thousands of years.

When we really absorb this new information, it must also change entirely how we look at cave painting* -- and especially its puzzling mix of representational and geometric, sign-like imagery. One single explanation -- whether shamanistic hallucinations or gender-coded bursts of consciousness -- is unlikely to stretch over so many painters over such unimaginably long periods of time.

The death knell of a universal theory for the origins of art, perhaps?

* If, that is to say, these great time differences are confirmed by future work (which may not be taken for granted: I've seen too many scientific flip-flops in archaeology to be sanguine).

And, yes, I know I'm wildly off topic but this was too good to miss. My thanks once again to The Ridger at The Greenbelt , whose Monday Science Links alerted me to this exciting story, first picked up on the blog Pro-Science.

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