Revelation represents men as sol novus and umbra viventis lucis

According to the biblical Revelation, a great sign appeared in Heaven. That sign was a pregnant woman. She was clothed with the sun, had the moon under her feet, and a crown with twelve stars on her head. Like any earthly pregnant woman, this cosmic woman cried out painfully in childbirth. She is both a cosmic woman and every woman. Then another sign, not great, appeared in Heaven. It was a male figure of evil — a huge red dragon. A cosmic battle ensued between good and evil — between forces supporting the woman and those supporting the male dragon.[1] To the discerning rather than comic-book reader, this cosmic battle shows Rome’s “new sun {sol novus}” and Hildegard of Bingen’s “shadow of the living light {umbra viventis lucis}.” Those are figures of men living as fruitful blessings for women and for the whole world.

Ancient Roman religion associated the divinities Sol and Luna with the sun and the moon, respectively. Sol was a male divinity and Luna, a female divinity. Sol and Luna assumed aspects of the corresponding ancient Greek divinities Helios and Selene. Perhaps in part seeking to improve men’s social position, the Roman Emperor Aurelian in 274 GC promoted Sol as nominal chief god of the Roman Empire. Sol thus became “Sol Invictus {Invincible Sun}.”

Jesus and his followers contested dominant Roman symbols of divinity. Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator of Judea, crucified Jesus for allegedly presenting himself as “King of the Jews {βασιλεύς τῶν Ἰουδαίων}.”[2] Asserting such kingship would challenge the authority of the Roman emperor Tiberius. Christians claimed that God raised Jesus from the dead to a position of supreme authority:

far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. God put all things under Jesus’s feet and gave him to the church as head over all things. The church is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

{ ὑπεράνω πάσης ἀρχῆς καὶ ἐξουσίας καὶ δυνάμεως καὶ κυριότητος καὶ παντὸς ὀνόματος ὀνομαζομένου οὐ μόνον ἐν τῷ αἰῶνι τούτῳ ἀλλὰ καὶ ἐν τῷ μέλλοντι καὶ πάντα ὑπέταξεν ὑπὸ τοὺς πόδας αὐτοῦ καὶ αὐτὸν ἔδωκεν κεφαλὴν ὑπὲρ πάντα τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ ἥτις ἐστὶν τὸ σῶμα αὐτοῦ τὸ πλήρωμα τοῦ τὰ πάντα ἐν πᾶσιν πληρουμένου }

The first Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus, was divinized after his death. Greek-speaking persons in eastern areas of the Roman Empire referred to the living emperor as a god. In Corinth, a statue of the deified Caesar Augustus stood at the center of the city. Christians, however, regarded not the Roman emperor but Jesus to be the likeness of God. By the fifth century, on December 25, the Roman day of the winter solstice, Christians celebrating Christmas competed for attention with a Roman festival honoring Sol Invictus.[3]

Jesus Christ as the new sun (sol novus)

Christians have long celebrated Christmas as the birth of the sol novus Jesus. In the fourth century, Bishop Ambrose of Milan composed a Christmas hymn that proclaims:

Your cradle now shines,
and night breathes a new light —
no night shall intervene
as it would shine with everlasting faith.

{ Praesepe iam fulget tuum
lumenque nox spirat novum,
quod nulla nox interpolet
fideque iugi luceat. }[4]

In a fifth-century Christmas homily, Bishop Maximus of Turin declared:

It is good that the people should call this birthday of our Lord the day of the new sun, and so much he confirms this by his own authority, such that even Jews and pagans harmonize in this expression. We must gladly embrace this, because in the East is announced by the savior not only the salvation of the human race, but also the glory of the sun itself. So said the apostle: “so that he would renew through himself all things that are in Heaven and on earth.” If then the sun darkens when Christ suffers, it necessarily shines more brightly than usual with his birth.

{ Bene quodammodo sanctam hanc diem natalis domini solem nouum uulgus appellat, et tanta id sui auctoritate confirmat, ut Iudaei etiam atque gentiles in hac uoce consentiant. Quod libenter nobis amplectendum est, quia oriente saluatore non solum humani generis salus sed etiam solis ipsius claritas innouatur, sicut ait apostolus: Vt per ipsum restauraret omnia, siue quae in caelis siue quae in terra sunt. Si enim obscuratur sol cum Christus patitur, necesse est ilium splendidius solito lucere cum nascitur }[5]

From no later than about 600 GC, the Advent liturgy called to Christ as a new sun:

O Eastern Star, splendor of eternal light and sun of justice, come and illuminate those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.

{ O Oriens, splendor lucis aeternae, et sol iustitiae: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris et umbra mortis. }[6]

Jesus in Christian understanding brought a new light of justice and mercy to the world. He overcome the darkness of human death. Jesus is both the sol novus and the sol invictus.

Seven-headed dragon attacks woman clothed with sun and with moon under her feet (Revelation 12) in Facundus Beatus

Christians have interpreted the woman clothed with the sun in Revelation to be the Christian church clothed with the sol novus and the sol invictus. Early in the third century, the church leader Hippolytus of Rome declared:

Now “the woman clothed in the sun” indicates very obviously the church, robed in the Father’s word brighter than the sun. “Moon beneath her feet” means she has been adorned with heavenly glory like the moon. Saying “above her head a crown of twelve stars” reveals the twelve apostles, through whom the church is established.

{ τὴν μὲν οὖν “γυναῖκα τὴν περιβεβλημένην τὸν ἥλιον” σαφέστατα τὴν ἐκκλησίαν ἐδήλωσεν, ἐνδεδυμένην τὸν λόγον τὸν πατρῷον ὑπὲρ ἥλιον λάμποντα: “σελήνην” δὲ λέγων “ὑποκάτω τῶν ποδῶν αὐτῆς” δόξῃ ἐπουρανίῳ ὡς σελήνην κεκοσμημένην: τὸ δὲ λέγειν “ἐπάνω τῆς κεφαλῆς αὐτῆς στέφανος ἀστέρων δώδεκα” δηλοῖ τοὺς δώδεκα ἀποστόλους, δι’ ὧν καθίδρυται ἡ ἐκκλησία. }[7]

Proclaiming Jesus’s life, the Gospel of John declares, “the word became flesh and dwelt among us {ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν}.” The Christian church robed in the Father’s word is thus equivalent to the church robed in Jesus. Bishop Augustine of Hippo late in the fourth century explained to the people:

You know that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is the head of his body, that he is the one mediator between God and humans, that he is the man Jesus, born of a virgin, so to say in the wilderness, as we heard in the Apocalypse. … Moreover, that woman is the ancient city of God … And that woman was covered with the sun, the very sun of justice that the wicked do not know. The wicked will say at the end, “We have erred from the path of truth, and therefore the light of justice has not shone upon us, and the sun has not risen upon us.” … She was thus also clothed with the sun, and she was carrying in her womb a male about to be born. He was the same person who created Zion and was born in Zion. That woman, the city of God, was protected by his light and was pregnant with his body. She deservedly had the moon under her feet because he by his goodness trampled underfoot the mortality of the increasing and decreasing flesh.

{ nostis Dominum et Salvatorem nostrum Iesum Christum caput esse corporis sui, illum unum mediatorem esse Dei et hominum, hominem Iesum, natum ex virgine, tamquam in solitudine, sicut in Apocalypsi audivimus. … Haec autem mulier, antiqua est civitas Dei … Itaque et illa mulier sole cooperiebatur, sole ipso iustitiae quem non cognoscunt impii; qui dicturi sunt in fine: Ergo erravimus a via veritatis, et iustitiae lumen non luxit nobis, et sol non ortus est nobis. … Ergo et amicta erat sole, et gestabat visceribus masculum paritura. Idem ipse erat condens Sion, et nascens in Sion: et illa mulier civitas Dei, eius luce protegebatur, cuius carne gravidabatur. Merito et lunam sub pedibus habebat, quia mortalitatem crescentis et decrescentis carnis virtute calcabat. Ergo ipse Dominus Iesus Christus caput et corpus: voluit enim etiam loqui in nobis, qui dignatus }[8]

The great sign in Heaven was not just a good woman whom an evil male dragon attacked. She was a woman pregnant with fully male child who is the sol novus and sol invictus for the world. In the cosmic battle between good and evil, a male person is a cosmic force for good.

Seven-headed dragon attacks woman clothed with sun and with moon under her feet from Apocalypse Cycle in Liber Floridus

While the Christian church has always been gynocentric, the masculine seminal blessing was once highly appreciated. The Benedictine monk Ambrosius Autpertus in south Italy in the eight century explicitly identified the woman clothed with the sun as Mary, the mother of Jesus:

“A woman clothed with the sun,” and so to say, the ever-blessed Virgin Mary, overshadowed by the manliness of the Most High. We clearly know that to her the angel said, “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the manliness of the Most High will overshadow you,” namely, that manliness of which Paul says: “Christ the manliness of God and the wisdom of God.” And since the genus is usually found in the species, the blessed and pious Virgin herself bears in this place the person of the Church, which daily gives birth to new peoples from whom the general body of the Mediator is formed.

No miracle it is that she who would put herself forth to be the type of the Church is the one in whose blessed womb the head of the same Church deserved to be united. … It is said, therefore, that the woman is clothed with the sun, which is highly appropriate to the souls of the faithful. Are they not clothed with the clothing of whom through Paul was said: “As many of you as are baptized, you have put on Christ?” For Christ is the sun of justice and the brightness of eternal light.

{ Mulier amicta sole. Ac si diceretur, beata semperque uirgo Maria, obumbrata Altissimi uirtute, cui uidelicet dicum ab Angelo scimus: Spiritus Sanctus superueniet in te, et uirtus Altissimi odumbrabit tibi, illa scilicet uirtus, de qua Paulus dicit: Christum Dei uirtutem et Dei sapientiam. Et quia plerumque genus inuenitur in specie, ipsa beata ac pia Virgo hoc in loco personam gerit Ecclesiae, quae nouos cotidie populos parit, ex quibus generale Mediatoris corpus formatur.

Non autem mirum, si illa typum Ecclesiae praetendat, in cuius beato utero capiti suo eadem Ecclesia uniri meruit. … Dicatur igitur mulier amicta sole, quod omnino aptissime fidelium animabus convenit. An non solis amictu uestiuntur, quibus per Paulum dicitur: Quotquot baptizati estis, Christum industis? Christus enim sol iustitiae et candor lucis aeternae. }[9]

Jerome, who sympathetically understood men’s sexual desire, translated the Greek word δύναμις in the above quote of Luke 1:35 as the Latin word virtus. That Latin translation closely associates the power of the Holy Spirit with manliness. Ambrosius Autpertus rightly took Jerome’s translation to be authoritative. Manliness is a type of divine blessing associated with Christ.

Seven-headed dragon attacks woman clothed with sun and with moon under her feet in the Gerona Beatus

The great twelfth-century abbess and Christian mystic Hildegard of Bingen elaborated upon the seminal blessing that Revelation’s cosmic woman received. Hildegard understood the cosmic battle to summarize all of human history:

When the devil saw the woman clothed and knew in envy that he had been cast from Heaven, he inwardly wondered why God had given her clothing. She pulled herself away, as it is written in the Apocalypse {quoting Revelation 12:13-14}. That passage should be understood as follows. The ancient dragon saw that he had lost the location where he wanted to place his seat. He had been cast down into hellish places. He sharpened his anger against the woman, because he knew that by childbearing she was the root of the whole human race. And having extreme hate for her, he said to himself that he would never cease to pursue her until he had drowned her in the sea itself, because in the beginning he had deceived her. … However, when the ruddy time of dawn, that is when the time of complete justice, came through her son, the serpent, extremely terrified, became astonished. He had been totally deceived by the woman, that is to say the Virgin Mary.

{ cum diabolus mulierem vestitam vidisset, in invida scientia, qua se de coelo projectum cognovit, intra sciscitando ut quid Deus illi vestitum dedisset, se ipsum decerpsit, ut in Apocalypsi scriptum est … Hoc considerandum sic est: Antiquus draco, videns quia locum illum perdidisset in quem sedem suam ponere volebat, quoniam in tartarea loca projectus erat, iram suam in mulierem exacuit, quia illam radicem omnis humani generis per partum esse cognovit; et in maximo odio eam habens, intra se dixit quod nunquam cessaret illam persequendo quousque ipsam velut in mari suffocaret, quia eam primum deceperat. … Cum autem tempus rutilans aurorae, id est plenae justitiae per Filium meum venit, antiquus serpens valde exterritus obstupuit, quoniam per mulierem, videlicet Virginem, totus deceptus est. }[10]

Adam of course was equally with Eve the root of the whole human race. The fertility of Eve, like that of all women other than the Virgin Mary, depends on men. Moreover, the ruddy time of dawn is the time of the sol novus and the sol justiciae, the fully masculine man Jesus.

Hildegard intimately associated women and men. In a vision, she saw love appearing like Revelation’s cosmic woman clothed with the sun:

I also saw something like a most beautiful young woman. She was shining with a face of such splendid brightness that I could not behold her fully. And she wore a cloak whiter than snow and brighter than stars. She was shod with shoes like those of the purest gold. In her right hand she held the sun and the moon, and she caressed them lovingly. On her breast there was an ivory tablet, on which appeared in shades of sapphire the image of a man. All creation called this woman lady-lord. But she herself began to speak to the image that appeared on her chest: “I was with you in the beginning, in the day of your manliness and with the brightness of the saints. I bore you from the womb before the morning star.” And I heard a voice saying to me, “The young woman whom you see is love. She has her holy dwelling in eternity.”

{ Vidi etiam quasi pulcherrimam puellam in tanto fulgore splendidae faciei fulgentem, ut eam perfecte intueri non possem. Et pallium candidius nive et clarius stellis habebat. Calceamentis quoque velut de purissimo auro induebatur. Solem autem et lunam in manu dextera tenebat, et eos suaviter amplexabatur. In pectore etiam ejus tabula eburnea erat, in qua species hominis sapphirini coloris apparebat, et omnis creatura puellam hanc dominam nominabat. Sed et ipsa ad speciem, quae in pectore suo apparuit, dicebat: Tecum principium in die virtutis tuae in splendoribus sanctorum, ex utero ante Luciferum genui te. Et audivi vocem mihi dicentem: Puella haec quam vides, charitas est, quae in aeternitate tabernaculum habet. }[11]

This woman doesn’t objectify and appropriate the sun or dominate the moon. She caresses both of them lovingly. Moreover, she doesn’t magnify herself, but associates herself with the man whose image adorns her chest.

seven-headed dragon attacking woman in medieval illustration of Revelation 12

Hildegard of Bingen appreciated men and understood that men belong with Revelation’s cosmic woman on the side of good. Hildegard explained:

When God looked upon the adult male human, that human pleased him very well, because God had created him according to God’s own image and according to God’s own likeness. God had created him such that through the trumpet of his rational voice, he would announce all of God’s miracles. For the adult male human is a complete work of God, because God is known through him, and because God created all creatures for his sake. God granted to him to preach and bring praise to himself with the kiss of love’s truth through rationality.

But the adult male human lacked a helper similar to himself. Therefore God gave to him a helper who was the mirror-like form of woman. In her all of the human race was latent. In her the force of God’s strength was produced, just as in the first man the force of God’s strength was made.

Man and woman were thus put together, one with another, such that the work of one is for the other, because a man without a woman could not be called a man, nor could a woman without a man be named a woman. Woman is necessary for man, and man is an aspect of woman’s consolation, and neither of them could exist without the other.

{ Cum autem Deus hominem inspexit, valde bene ei placuit, quoniam secundum tunicam imaginis suae, et secundum similitudinem suam illum creaverat, quatenus per tubam vocis rationalis omnia miracula ejus pronuntiaret. Homo enim plenum opus Dei est, quia Deus per eum cognoscitur, et quoniam Deus omnes creaturas propter illum creavit, eique in osculo veri amoris per rationalitatem ipsum praedicare et laudare concessit.

Sed ipsi adjutorium similitudinis suae defuit. Unde et Deus illi adjutorium, quod speculativa forma mulieris fuit, in qua omne humanum genus latuit, quod in vi fortitudinis Dei producendum erat, sicut et primum hominem in vi fortitudinis suae profecerat.

Vir itaque et femina sic ad invicem admisti sunt, ut opus alterum per alterum est, quia vir sine femina vir non vocaretur, nec femina sine viro femina nominaretur. Femina enim opus viri est, et vir aspectus consolationis feminae est, et neuter eorum absque altero esse posset. }[12]

Hildegard perceived such seminal insights from what she called “the shadow of the living light {umbra viventis lucis}.” That shadow parallels the shadow by which the Holy Spirit overshadowed the Virgin Mary.[13] Women can receive men’s seminal blessing both in body and in mind.

Dragon attacking woman in the medieval Silos Beatus

On its surface, Revelation’s cosmic battle between good and evil might seem to devalue and marginalize men. The Virgin Mary’s husband Joseph shepherded Mary and the child Jesus to Egypt to escape Herod.[14] Herod, who sought to kill the child Jesus, corresponds to the evil male dragon in Revelation. Joseph, in contrast, was a good man. Revelation’s account of the woman clothed with the sun excludes a figure corresponding to Joseph. Moreover, the archangel Michael and his angel comrades fought with the dragon in Heaven and cast him down from Heaven. Fighting and dying in wars is a gender norm oppressively imposed on men.

dragon attacking woman in the medieval Trinity Beatus

In Revelation, men’s enlivening and redeeming importance isn’t explicitly recognized. That’s an actual, perennial social pattern. The Christian church historically has identified with Mary, “Mother of the Church {Mater Ecclesiae}.”[15] However, in Christian understanding, the church, the woman clothed with the sun, bears the sol novus. That sol novus is Jesus, a fully masculine man. Moreover, the great Christian mystic and community leader Hildegard of Bingen pointed to the umbra viventis lucis. That life-giving shadow represents seminal blessing from the Holy Spirit. Without seminal blessings from the Holy Spirit and from earthly men, the church would expire in aridity.

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[1] The Revelation to John (The Apocalypse), chapter 12. Here’s an introduction to Revelation. For freely available modern commentary on Revelation 12, (2002) and Smith (2011).

[2] E.g. Mark 15:26. The subsequent quote above is Ephesians 1:21-3.

[3] On divine titles for the Roman Emperor, Price (1984). On the deified emperor in contrast to the Christian god in Corinth, Long (2016). On why Christmas came to be celebrated on December 25, Nothaft (2012) and Schmidt (2015). Evidence for the public celebration of Christmas on December 25 exists from no earlier than the 330s. The precedential relationship between a festival of Sol Invictus on December 25, if there actually was one, and Christmas isn’t clear.

The sun and moon played important roles in Hebrew medical astrology. On the relationship between traditional Roman religion and Jewish-Christian beliefs, Rahner (1957) Chapter 4. In a homily delivered about 592 GC, Pope Gregory I rhetorically declared to his fellow Christians, “With what name is the sun designated other than the Lord, and with what name is the moon other than the Church {quis enim solis nomine nisi Dominus, et quae lunae nomine nisi ecclesia designatur}?” Gregory the Great, Homilies on the Gospels {Homiliarum in Evangelia}, Homily {Homilia} 29.67, Latin text from Patrologia Latina 76 (part 2) columns 1218-9, my English translation. Gregory’s statement implicitly suggests tension with traditional Greco-Roman belief in Helios-Sol and Selene-Luna.

Melito’s Key to Holy Scripture {Melitonis Clavis Sanctae Scripturae}, an eleventh-century work wrongly ascribed to Melito of Sardis, has a Marian-Christological interpretation of the moon and the sun: “The moon fosters the sun, while the sun itself gives spendor to the moon {luna fovet solem cui sol dedit ipse nitorem}.” Latin text from Rahner (1957) p. 167, my English translation. The twentieth-century bishop Fulton Sheen, analogizing Jesus and Mary to the sun and the moon, declared, “The Blessed Mother reflects her Divine Son.” Sheen (1952) pp. 73-4.

Christians associated the moon with the church, but not in the context of Revelation 12. However, just as for the woman clothed with the sun of Revelation 12, perceptive and faithful Christians have emphasized the church mediating a seminal blessing. “The church shines not with its own light, but with the light of Christ {fulget Ecclesia non suo sed Christi lumine}.” Ambrose of Milan, Six Days {Hexaemeron} 4.32.

[4] Ambrose of Milan, Come, redeemor of the peoples {Veni redemptor gentium}, stanza six, Latin text from Preces Latinae, my English translation. Many English translations of this hymn, as well as recordings, are readily available online.

Ambrose’s words look forward to Jesus rising from the dead at Easter. A early sermon in the school of Augustine of Hippo declared, “Through the sign of the cross you are conceived in the womb of your holy Mother, the Church {per signum crucis in utero sanctae Matris Ecclesiae concepti estis}.” Pseudo-Augustine, About the symbol for Christian students {De symbolo ad catechumenos}, Latin tex from Patrologia Latina 40.659D, English translation from Rahner (1957) p. 78.

[5] Maximus of Turin, Sermon 62, “On the birthday of Our Lord Jesus Christ {De natale domini nostri iesu christi},” lines 1-10, Latin text from Mutzenbecher (1953), my English translation. On “renew through himself,” cf. Ephesians 1:10.

[6] This is one of the Advent “O antiphons.” The “O antiphons” are attested in The Book of Responses {Liber Responsalis}, dating from about 600 GC. That book is attributed to Pope Gregory I.

The “sun of justice” is a phrase from Malachi 4:2. In a Christmas homily questionably attributed to John Chrysostom (which isn’t the same as his homily on the date of Christmas), the author declares that Christmas makes Bethlehem like Heaven: “instead of stars it received angels hymning, instead of the sun it makes room for the indescribable Sun of Justice {ἀντὶ μὲν ἀστέρων ἀγγέλους ὑμνοῦντας δεξαμένη, ἀντὶ δὲ ἡλίου τὸν τῆς δικαιοσύνης ἀπεριγράπτως χωρήσασα}.” Ancient Greek text from Patrologia Graeca, volume 56, column 385, my English translation, benefitting from those by Bryson Sewell and by an uncredited translator.

More generally, the figure of Jesus as the sol novus arising at Christmas became a commonplace:

The theme permeates Christian writing on Christmas from the late fourth century on. Ambrose uses the phrase sol iustitiae (‘sun of righteousness’) from the Messianic prophecy in Mal. 4: 2, and suggests that the winter solstice symbolizes a new beginning, the start of our salvation (Hexameron 4.5.24). Similar themes are found in Gregory of Nyssa’s and Augustine’s Christmas homilies.

O’Daly (2012) p. 334 (commenting in the context of Prudentius’s Cathemerinon 11).

[7] Hippolytus of Rome, Treatise on Christ and the Antichrist, from section 61, ancient Greek text from the Catholic Library, English translation (modified insubstantially) from Jacobs (n.d.). Jacobs translated Norelli (1987), but that Greek text doesn’t differ substantially from the Greek text used here. The Ante-Nicene Fathers includes an English translation by Stewart Dingwall Fordyce Salmond.

Although he is regarded as an important theologian, little is known about Hippolytus of Rome. He lived from about 170 to 235 GC. He apparently wrote Treatise on Christ and the Antichrist in 202 GC.

[8] Augustine of Hippo, Exposition on Psalms {Enarrationes in Pslamos} 142, “Sermon to the people {Sermo ad populum},” section 3, Latin text from Patrologia Latina 37.1846 (alternate source), my English translation.

Writing about 555 GC, Primasius, Bishop of Hadrumetum in Roman Africa, commented on Revelation 12:1:

This temple in Heaven, this woman clothed with the sun and the moon under her feet, that is the church clothed with Christ. Because of his love, she is trampling on all things that are changeable.

{ hoc templum in caelo, hoc mulier amicta sole et luna sub pedibus eius, id est ecclesia Christo induta, propter eius dilectionem mutabilia cuncta calcantem. }

Commentary on the Apocalypse {Commentarius in Apocalypsin}, Latin text from Adams (1985) p. 178, my English translation.

During the first millennium of Christianity, many learned authors wrote lengthy commentaries on Revelation. Perhaps the earliest is an early sixth-century commentary in Greek known as Explanatory Notes about the Apocalypse {Scholia in Apocalypsin}. This commentary is now attributed to Cassian the Sabaite, the abbot at the monastery of Sabas in Palestine. For a critical edition, Tzamalikos (2013). Another early commentary is Pseudo-Oecumenius, Commentary about the Apocalypse {Commentarius in Apocalypsin}, written about 600 GC. For a Greek text and English translation, Hoskier (1928) and Suggit (2006), respectively.

[9] Ambrose Autpert {Ambrosius Autpertus}, Commentary on the Apocalypse {Expositionis in Apocalypsin}, Book 5, on Revelation 12:1a, Latin text from Weber (1971a), my English translation. On the words of Paul, cf. 1 Corinthians 1:24, Romans 13:14.

Ambrosius Autpertus’s interpretation of the woman clothed with the sun (Revelation 12:1) as being the Virgin Mary was highly influential. Revelation 12:1 became a reading for the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Christian liturgical calendar. On Marian iconograpy in Revelation, Garcia Mahiques (1995) and Garcia Mahiques (1996).

Ambrosius Autpertus is sometimes credited with having “introduced a Marian reading” of Revelation 12:1. Newman (1987) p. 113, n. 75. Similarly Klein (1992) pp. 168-9. However, a Marian reading of Revelation 12 was already known to Methodius of Olympus, who died in 311 GC. Rahner (1957) p. 162. From the earliest centuries of Christianity, the woman clothed with the sun has been interpreted as the church and the Virgin Mary: “these two forms of interpretation are closely connected with one another.” Id. For some Marian references in the early fathers of the church, Llasos (2019).

Tychonius, an important Christian theologian living in northern Africa and active late in the fourth century, implicitly linked the cosmic woman with Jesus’s mother. Tychonius’s view is attested in the writing of Cassiodorus, a sixth-century Roman statesman and monk. See Cassiodorus, Connections in the Apocalypse {Complexiones in Apocalypsin}, section 16 (connections in Revelation 11:15). A Latin text is available in Patrologia Latina 70:1411 (alternate source).

Haimo of Auxerre, a Benedictine monk writing in the ninth century, explicitly associated Revelation’s cosmic women with both Mary and the church. For Haimo, Heaven is the church — the body of the mother of the Lord. He declared: “Moreover, the blessed Mother of God herself in this place reveals the Church’s person {Ipsa autem beata Dei genitrix in hoc loco personam gerit Ecclesiae}.” Haimo of Auxerre, Explaination of the Apocalypse in Seven Books {Expositio in Apocalypsim libri septem} (previously attributed to Haymo of Halberstadt), Book 3, explanation on Revelation 12, Latin text from Patrologia Latina 117:1081, my English translation. Haimo, like Autpertus, associated the woman clothed with the sun with the Holy Spirit overshadowing Mary to incarnate Jesus. Id.

In the ninth century, the monk Berengaudus of Ferrieres (north-central France) identified the woman clothed with the sun as the church:

And a great sign appeared in Heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. This woman represents the Church.

{ Et signum magnum apparuit in coelo, mulier amicta sole, et luna sub pedibus ejus, et in capite ejus corona stellarum duodecim. Haec mulier Ecclesiam designat }

Berengaudus of Ferrieres, Exposition on the Seven Visions of the Book of the Apocalypse {Expositio Super Septem Visiones Libri Apocalypsis}, on Revelation 12:1, Latin text from Patrologia Latina 17.874C-875D, my English translation. The woman clothed with the sun, according to Berengaudus, also represents Mary, the mother of Jesus:

And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she had given birth, he would devour her son. We can also understand Blessed Mary by the woman in this passage, because she is the mother of the Church, and because she gave birth to him who is the head of the Church. She is also the daughter of the Church, because she is the greatest member of the Church.

{ Et draco stetit ante mulierem, quae paritura erat; ut cum peperisset, filium ejus devoraret. Possumus per mulierem in hoc loco et beatam Mariam intelligere, eo quod ipsa mater sit Ecclesiae; quia eum peperit, qui caput est Ecclesiae: et filia sit Ecclesiae, quia maximum membrum est Ecclesiae. }

Berengaudus, Expositio Super Septem Visiones Libri Apocalypsis, sourced as previously. On Berengaudus, Knibbs (2019) and Visser (1996).

[10] Hildegard of Bingen, Book of Divine Works {Liber Divinorum Operum} / On God’s Activity {De operatione Dei} 11.5.16, Latin text from Patrologia Latina 197.915b-c (alternate source), my English translation. The currently best Latin edition, Derolez & Dronke (1996), wasn’t readily available to me. For a high-quality English translation of Liber Divinorum Operum, Campbell (2018). For a low-quality translation in the “you go girl” spirit, Fox (1987).

Hildegard of Bingen was “one of the most brilliant and original minds of the entire Middle Ages.” Dronke (1965) vol. 1, p. 66. Like other great medieval women writers, Hildegard had loving concern for men. She composed Liber Divinorum Operum from 1163 to 1173. This visionary work was her final book.

Hildegard’s interpretation of Eve having deceived the devil follows the literary motif “deceiver deceived.” That motif also appears in Hrotswitha’s plays and Hildegard’s Ordo virtutum. Weiss (2016). The literary motif “lover’s gift regained” is related to the motif “deceiver deceived.”

A scholar described Hildegard’s identification of Eve with the woman clothed with the son as “against all precedent.” Newman (1987) p. 113. However, Berengaudus in his ninth-century Expositio Super Septem Visiones Libri Apocalypsis expanded John’s revelation to encompass “all of sacred history since creation.” Visser (1996) p. 3. Hildegard thus thematically followed Berengaudus’s commentary on the apocalypse.

[11] Hildegard of Bingen, Letter {Epistola} 30, “About Abbot Adam of Ebra to Hildegard {Adami Abbatis de Ebra ad Hildegardem},” Hildegard’s response, Latin text from from Great Library of Lyon about the Holy Fathers {Sanctorum patrum bibliotheca maxima lugdunensis} via Patrologia Latina 197.192d-3a (alternate source), my English translation. For an alternate English translation of part of this passage, Donke (1965) vol. 1, p. 67.

[12] Hildegard of Bingen, Liber Divinorum Operum 1.4.99, Latin text from Patrologia Latina 197.885b-c, my English translation. Hildegard understood children to be generated from the man’s love for the woman:

When therefore God created Adam and sent sleep upon him, Adam experienced great love in his sleep. God made a form for the man’s love, and thus woman is man’s love. And as soon as the woman was formed, God gave to the man his creative manliness, so that by the man’s love, which is the woman, she might conceive children.

{ Cum ergo deus Adam creavit, Adam dilectionem magnam in sopore habebat, cum deus soporem in ipsum misit. Et deus fecit formam ad dilectionem viri, et sic femina dilectio viri est. Et mox cum femina formata est, virtutem illam creationis deus viro dedit, ut dilectione sua, quae femina est, filios procrecaret. }

Hildegard of Bingen, Causes and Cures {Causae et curae}, Book 2, “About the creation of Adam and the formation of Eve {De Adae creatione et Evae formatione},” Latin text from Kaiser (1903) p. 136, my English translation. The currently best Latin edition is Moulinier & Berndt (2003), which wasn’t readily available to me. For an alternate English translation, Berger (1999) p. 111.

Unlike modern scholars devoutly believing in the socially constructed myth of patriarchy, Hildegard understood men’s subordination to women. Alluding to the sin of gyno-idolatry, Hildegard explained why the Devil tempted Eve:

The Devil saw that Adam burned so strongly in love for Eve such that if the Devil himself conquered Eve, then whatever she said to Adam, Adam would do that.

{ videns etiam quod Adam in caritate Evae tam fortiter ardebat ut si ipse diabolus Evam vicisset, quidquid illa Adae diceret, Adam idem perficeret. }

Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias 1.2.10, Latin text from Führkötter & Carlevaris (1978), my English translation, benefiting from an uncredited English translation. For an earlier Latin text, Patrologia Latina 197.392A.

With exceptional courage and integrity, Hildegard described how the Devil got Eve and Adam expelled from Paradise:

At first the Devil seduces Eve, so that she might blandish Adam to the extent that she wins his assent, since she more quickly than any other could lead Adam into disobedience, because she was made from his rib. Thus woman quickly overthrows man, if he does not shrink in fear from her and easily accepts her words.

{ Evam primum seduxit, ut ipsa Adae blandiretur, quatenus ei assensum praeberet, quia ipsa citius Adam quam alia creatura ad inoboedientiam perducere potuit, quoniam de costa illius facta fuerat. Quapropter mulier virum citius deicit, cum ille eam non abhorrens verba eius facile assumit. }

Scivias 1.2.10, sourced as previously. Like the work of the great Hildegard, the brilliant mid-twelfth-century dramatic masterpiece The Play of Adam {Le jeu d’Adam} also squarely recognized the problem of men’s subservience to women.

[13] In her gynocentric, goddess-oriented work, Newman translated umbra viventis lucis as “reflection of the living light.” She explained:

Although the standard medieval Latin glossaries do not give the meaning “reflection” for umbra, Hildegard uses this word to denote images reflected in the fons vitae, literally a shining pool or fountain. The umbra viventis lucis is a “shadow” with respect to the lux vivens itself, but because it is brighter than the light of common day, “reflection” (with its emanationist overtones) is the better translation.

Newman (1985) p. 164, note 5. The fons vitae is literally the “fountain of life,” from which words and images were transmitted to Hildegard. The fons vitae has an obvious figural correspondence to men’s penises. Translating umbra as “reflection” is a domineering interpretation of Hildegard. That translation also implicitly devalues men’s sexuality.

Respect for Hildegard as a great woman mystic demands translating umbra in the way most conventional for her time and place. The central medieval Latin meaning of umbra — “shadow” — is thus the better translation. Moreover, Hildegard’s use of umbra apparently alludes to Luke 1:35. In that verse, an angel prophecies that “the manliness of the Most High will overshadow {virtus Altissimi obumbrabit}” Mary. “Vision, then, for Hildegard is a question of faith in its aspects as God’s gift and as human response.” Orthmann (1985) p. 63.

Contrived ambiguity seems to provide Newman with a pretext for her interpretive aggression. Consider the movement from “ambiguity” to declaring what “Hildegard understood”:

the ambiguous umbra connotes foreshadowing as well as overshadowing: both the preexistence of all beings through their exemplars in the divine Wisdom and the inspiration that reveals these exemplars to the prophets. Taking her own experience as a model, Hildegard understood obumbratio paradoxically as illumination: the prophet, a “mere shadow,” is overshadowed by the divine light, which enables her to see that light in which all being is foreshadowed.

Newman (1987) p. 53. Perhaps that’s what Hildegard thought and did. However, such though and action seems to me inconsistent with Hildegard’s profound appreciation for men’s sexuality. To serve her interpretative objective, Newman seems to invoke ambiguity in a context where the indicated ambiguity is scarcely relevant:

Obumbratio is, however, a profoundly ambivalent metaphor. On the one hand, it can denote grace, shelter, refreshing coolness, protection from too dazzling a light; but, on the other, it suggests sin, ignorance, error, and death.

Id. p. 106. Sin, ignorance, error, and death have extremely remote relation to the specific context of Mary encountering an angel in Luke 1:35.

[14] Matthew 2:13-5. Mary’s husband Joseph shouldn’t regarded as a cuckold but as a saintly servant of God.

[15] “Mary and the Church are one.” Rahner (1961) pp. 59, 109. Ambrose of Milan described Mary as the model for every Christian:

But blessed are you also, because you have listened and believed, for every believing soul conceives and gives birth to the Word of God and acknowledges his work. Would Mary’s soul be in all souls, so as to magnify the Lord, and Mary’s spirit be in all spirits, so as to praise God. If according to flesh one mother is Christ’s mother, according to faith nonetheless Christ is the fruit of all. Every soul receives the Word of God, as long as the soul keeps its chastity spotless and undefiled by shame. Every soul therefore is able to magnify the Lord, just as Mary’s soul magnified the Lord and her spirit exulted in God her savior.

{ Sed et uos beati, qui audistis et credidistis; quaecumque enim crediderit anima et concipit et generat dei uerbum et opera eius agnoscit. sit in singulis Mariae anima, ut magnificet dominum, sit in singulis spiritus Mariae, ut exsultet in deo, si secundum carnem una mater est Christi, secundum fidem tamen omnium fructus est Christus; omnis enim anima accipit dei uerbum, si tamen inmaculata et inmunis a uitiis intemerato castimoniam pudore custodiat. quaecumque igitur talis esse potuerit anima magnificat dominum, sicut anima Mariae magnificauit dominum et exsultauit spiritus eius in deo salutari. }

Ambrose of Milan, Commentary on the Gospel According to Luke {Expositionis in Evangeliam secundum Lucam} 2.26, Latin text from Schenkl & Schenkl (1902) pp. 55-6, my English translation. An earlier Latin text is Patrologia Latina 15.1561. Ambrose here is commenting on Luke 1:44-5. For other pre-modern commentaries, see Glossae Scripturae Sacrae-electronicae and Catena Bible.

The historical importance of Mary to the Christian church has been vastly under-estimated. One Marian scholar even declared:

the idea of the Mother of God as prototype of the Church is an exceptional one in the main stream of medieval theology; the relationships between Mary and the Church never become a major preoccupation with medieval thinkers of the first rank.

Cunningham (1958) p. 53. That’s a faulty scholarly judgment. It’s also consistent with a more general scholarly problem with gender. Henry Adams presented medieval history with more integrity than did Georges Duby.

[images] (1) Jesus Christ as the “new sun {sol novus}”: the Holy Face adored by saints Benedict and Paul. Illustration excerpt (color-enhanced) from James le Palmer’s encyclopedia, Every Good {Omne Bonum}, section “Absolucio-Circumcisio.” Made about 1360 to 1375. From folio 16 of British Library, Royal MS 6 E VI/1. Alternate image on Wikimedia Commons. Other images from Omne Bonum are readily available. (2) Seven-headed dragon attacks woman clothed with sun and with moon under her feet (Revelation 12). Illustration (detail) from Beatus of Liébana / Facundus Beatus, made in 1047 for Ferdinand I, King of León, and the Queen Sancha. Preserved on folio 186v of Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional, Ms Vit.14.2 (alternate source). (3) Seven-headed dragon attacks woman clothed with sun and with moon under her feet in glossed Apocalypse made a few years before 1250. Image from folio 19v of Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Fr. 403. On this manuscript, Lewis (1990). (4) Dragon attacks woman in the Gerona Beatus. From folio 171v of Gerona Beatus made in 975 in the San Salvador de Tábara scriptorium. Manuscript preserved in Gerona Cathedral, Spain, as Catedral, Núm. Inv. 7 (11). (5) Dragon attacks woman. From folio 14v of the Chantilly Apocalypse made about 1444 to 1471 and preserved as France, Chantilly, Bibliothèque et Archives du Château, Ms. 724. (6) Dragon attacks woman in the Silos Beatus. From folio 147v of Silos Beatus made from 1091 to 1109 at the Monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos near Burgos in Spain. Preserved as British Library, Add MS 11695. Popular article about the Silos Beatus, and more scholarly information part one and part two. (7) Dragon attacks woman in the Trinity Apocalypse. From folio 13r of the Trinity Apocalypse, made about 1250 and preserved as Cambridge, Trinity College MS R.16.2. (8) Dragon attacks woman from Apocalypse cycle in Liber Floridus by Lambert of Saint-Omer. Illustration from folio 39r of manuscript made in the third quarter of the thirteenth century and preserved as Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Latin 8865. On the Apocalypse cycle in Liber Floridus, Woodward (2010).

Among the images above, those from the Facundus Beatus, Gerona Beatus, and Silos Beatus are of a common type known as a Beatus Apocalypse, or Beatus. About the year 776, the Spanish monk Beatus of Liébana in northern Spain wrote Commentary on the Apocalypse {Commentaria in Apocalypsin}. Beatus of Liébana probably was the abbot of the monastery of Santo Toribio de Liébana in the Kingdom of Asturias. He was highly learned and familiar with leading Christian scholars preceding him. Beatus was also well-connected. He corresponded with Charlemagne’s eminent scholar Alcuin and with royalty of Asturias.

In writing the twelve books of his Commentaria in Apocalypsin, Beatus combined the text of Revelation with relevant textual comments from earlier Christian thinkers, including Irenaeus of Lyon, Tychonius, Gregory the Great, and Isidore of Seville. Following the first edition of 776, Beatus made subsequent editions in 784 and 786. All were illustrated. On these editions, Steinhauser (1995). Thirty-five manuscripts of the Beatus Apocalypse have survived. Twenty-seven of those are illustrated. Here’s a list of the manuscripts, and a set of facsimiles. For a critical edition of the Latin and an English translation, Gryson (2012) and O’Brien (2013) / O’Brien (2016), respectively.

dragon attacking woman in the Apocalypse cycle in Liber Floridus


Adams, A. W., ed. 1985. Primasius Hadrumetinus. Commentarius in Apocalypsin. Corpus Christianorum. Series Latina 92. Turnholti: Typographi Brepols.

Berger, Margret. 1999. Hildegard of Bingen: on natural philosophy and medicine: selections from Cause et cure. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer.

Cambell, Nathaniel M., trans. 2018. Hildegard of Bingen. The Book of Divine Works. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2018. Table of Contents.

Cunningham, Francis L. B. 1958. “The Relationship Between Mary and the Church in Medieval Thought.” Marian Studies. 9(8): 52-78.

Derolez, Albert, and Peter Dronke, eds. 1996. Hildegard of Bingen. Liber divinorum operum. Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Mediaevalis CCCM 92. Turnhout: Brepols.

Dronke, Peter. 1965. Medieval Latin and the Rise of European Love-Lyric. 2 vols. Vol. 1Vol. 2. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Emmerson, Richard K. and Bernard McGinn, eds. 1992. The Apocalypse in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press.

Fox, Matthew, ed. 1987. Hildegard of Bingen’s Book of Divine Works with Letters and Songs. Santa Fe, NM: Bear & Company.

Führkötter, Adelgundis and Angela Carlevaris, eds. 1978. Hildegardis Scivias. Corpus Christianorum. Continuatio Mediaevalis, volume 43 and volume 43A.Turnhout: Brepols.

Garcia Mahiques, Rafael. 1995. “Perfiles iconográficos de la Mujer del Apocalipsis como símbolo mariano: Sicut mulier amicta sole et luna sub pedibus eius.” Ars Longa. 6: 187-197.

Garcia Mahiques, Rafael. 1996. “Perfiles iconográficos de la Mujer del Apocalípsis como símbolo mariano (y II): Ab initio et ante saecula creata sum.” Ars Longa. 7-8: 177-184.

Gryson, Roger, ed. 2012. Beati Liebanensis Tractatus de Apocalipsin. Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, volumes 107B and 107C. Turnhout: Brepols.

Hoskier, H. C. 1928. The Complete Commentary of Oecumenius on the Apocalypse: Now Printed for the First Time from Manuscripts at Messina, Rome, Salonika and Athos. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan.

Jacobs, Andrew S. n.d. “Hippolytus, On Christ and Antichrist.” Online.

Kaiser, Paul, ed. 1903. Hildegard of Bingen. Hildergardis Causae et curae. Lipsiae: in aedibus B.G. Teubneri.

Klein, Peter K. 1992. “Introduction: The Apocalypse in Medieval Art.” Chapter 7 (pp. 159-199) in Emmerson & McGinn (1992).

Knibbs, Eric. 2019. “Berengaudus on the Apocalypse.” Pp. 135–162 in Eric Knibbs, Jessica A. Boon, and Erica Gelser, eds. The End of the World in Medieval Thought and Spirituality. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lewis, Suzanne. 1990. “The Enigma of Fr. 403 and the Compilation of a Thirteenth-Century English Illustrated Apocalypse.” Gesta. 29(1): 31–43.

Llasos, Marwil N. 2019. “Marian Interpretation of the Woman Clothed with the Sun according to the Fathers of the Church.” The Marian Blogger. Posted October 8., 2019.

Long, Fredrick J. 2016. ‘“The God of This Age” (2 Cor 4:4) and Paul’s Empire-Resisting Gospel at Corinth.’ Pp. 219-269 in James R. Harrison and L. L. Welborn, eds. The First Urban Churches 2: Roman Corinth. Atlanta: SBL Press.

Moulinier, Laurence and Rainer Berndt, eds. 2003. Hildegard of Bingen. Beate Hildegardis Cause et cure. Berlin: Akademie Verlag. Introduction.

Mutzenbecher, Almut. 1953. Maximi Episcopi Tavrinensis Sermones. Corpus Christianorum. Series Latina 23. Turnholti: Typographi Brepols.

Newman, Barbara. 1985. “Hildegard of Bingen: Visions and Validation.” Church History. 54(2): 163–75.

Newman, Barbara. 1987. Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Norelli, Enrico, ed. 1987. Ippolito. L’anticristo = De Antichristo. Firenze: Nardini.

Nothaft, C. P. E. 2012. “The Origins of the Christmas Date: Some Recent Trends in Historical Research.” Church History. 81(4): 903–11.

O’Brien, M. S. 2013. Beatus of Liebana. Commentary on the Apocalypse (Translated): Part 1 – From Christ with Love. Amazon Kindle.

O’Brien, M. S. 2016. Beatus of Liebana. Commentary on the Apocalypse (Translated): Part 2 – Four Horses and the Lamb. Amazon Kindle.

O’Daly, Gerard J. P. 2012. Days Linked by Song: Prudentius’ Cathemerinon. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Review by Catherine Conybeare.

Osborne, Grant R. 2002. Revelation. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Orthmann, Brother James. 1985. “Hildegard of Bingen on the Divine Light.” Mystics Quarterly. 11(2): 60–64.

Price, S. R. F. 1984. “Gods and Emperors: The Greek Language of the Roman Imperial Cult.” The Journal of Hellenic Studies. 104: 79–95.

Rahner, Hugo. 1957. Griechische Mythen in Christlicher Deutung. Rhein-Verlag AG. Translated by Brian Battershaw (1963). Greek Myths and Christian Mystery. New York: Harper & Row. Citations above are to Battershaw’s English translation.

Rahner, Hugo. 1961. Maria und die Kirche. Innsbruck-Vienna: Tyrolia-Verlag. Translated by Sebastian Bullough (1961) as Our Lady and the Church. London: Darton, Longman & Todd. Citations above are to Bullough’s English translation.

Schenkl, Carl, and Heinrich Schenkl, eds. 1902. Ambrose of Milan. Expositio Evangelii Secundum Lucan. Vindobonae Wien: F. Tempsky.

Schmidt, Thomas C. 2015. “Calculating December 25 As the Birth of Jesus in Hippolytus’ Canon and Chronicon.” Vigiliae Christianae. 69(5): 542–63.

Sheen, Fulton J. 1952. The World’s First Love. New York, McGraw-Hill.

Smith, Cynthia Anne Miller. 2011. Apocalypticism Eschatology and Revelation 11:19 — 12:18: Conquering Chaos and Evil during the Apocalypse. Master of Arts Dissertation, University of Georgia.

Steinhauser, Kenneth B. 1995. “Narrative and Illumination in the Beatus Apocalypse.” Catholic Historical Review. 81(2): 185-210.

Suggit, John N., trans. 2006. Oecumenius. Commentary on the Apocalypse. Washington, D.C: Catholic University of America Press.

Tzamalikos, Panayiotes. 2013. An Ancient Commentary on the Book of Revelation: A Critical Edition of the Scholia in Apocalypsin. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Visser, Derk. 1996. Apocalypse As Utopian Expectation (800-1500): The Apocalypse Commentary of Berengaudus of Ferrières and the Relationship between Exegesis, Liturgy and Iconography. Leiden: Brill.

Weber, Robert, ed. 1971a. Ambrosius Autpertus Opera ,Part I. Expositionis in Apocalypsin, Libri I-V. Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Mediaevalis, vol. 27. Turnholti: Typographi Brepols Editores Pontificii.

Weber, Robert, ed. 1971b. Ambrosius Autpertus Opera, Part II. Expositionis in Apocalypsin, Libri VI-X. Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Mediaevalis, vol. 27A. Turnholti: Typographi Brepols Editores Pontificii.

Weiss, Sonja. 2016. “Cloud and Clothe : Hildegard of Bingen’s Metaphors of the Fall of the Human Soul.” Acta Neophilologica. 49(1-2): 5–18. Alternate source.

Woodward, Elizabeth. 2010. Illustrated Apocalypse Cycle in the Liber Floridus of Lambert of Saint-Omer. Master of Arts Thesis, Florida State University.

Gorgias’s defense of Helen: sophism for self-centered beauty

One woman, the beautiful Helen of Troy, motivated massive violence against men in the Trojan War. The Iliad emphasizes this stark lesson about men’s folly with Helen’s self-centered, self-pitying lament at Hector’s epic-ending funeral. Men ardently desire to be heroes for women. Men desiring to be heroes for women shapes not only violence against men but also verbal competition. Herodotus’s rational, historical assessment of the Trojan War is thus less insightful than Gorgias’s defense of Helen.

Herodotus, a thoughtful, research-oriented historian of the fifth century BGC, with good reason regarded the Iliad’s story about Helen to be implausible. Herodotus noted that King Proteus of Egypt built a shrine to Aphrodite the Foreigner in Memphis. No other shrine to Aphrodite had that epithet. Herodotus conjectured that Aphrodite the Foreigner referred to the beautiful, lustful Helen of Troy.

To test his conjecture, Herodotus asked Egyptian priests about Helen. They explained that when Paris and Helen were sailing away from Cythera, a storm blew them ashore on the Nile’s bank. Having heard that Helen and Paris had adulterously eloped and stolen her husband Menelaus’s goods, King Proteus had them arrested. Blaming the man for having “seduced” the woman, Proteus was outraged at Paris’s behavior. Proteus confiscated Menelaus’s goods, ordered Paris to leave immediately, and didn’t allow Helen to leave with him. Paris thus returned to Troy without Helen.[1] In short, according to the Egyptian priests, Helen of Troy was never in Troy. She was in Egypt.

Egyptian priests said that the Trojan War arose from the Greeks’ suspecting the Trojans of lying. Herodotus reported:

When I asked the Egyptian priests whether the version told by the Greeks of what had happened at Troy was mere fantasy, they replied with a story that they insisted had been obtained by making enquiries of Menelaus. After the abduction of Helen, a great army of Greeks made for the land of the Trojans to aid Menelaus. There they disembarked and set up camp. Then they sent to Troy messengers, one of whom was Menelaus himself. Once the embassy had arrived inside the city walls, its delegates demanded the return both of Helen and of all the goods which Paris had stolen and carried off, together with justice for the crimes that had been committed. The Trojans’ response was the one which they would never cease to give, under oath or not: namely, that they had neither Helen nor even the goods in question, since the whole lot were in Egypt. The Trojans said that it would therefore be most unjust if they were obliged to compensate the Greeks for what was actually in the possession of Proteus, the king of Egypt. The Greeks, who assumed that they were being made fun of, promptly put the city under siege, until finally it was theirs. Even with the city in their hands, however, there was no sign of Helen. Instead, all the Greeks could uncover was the same story as before. Believing it at last, the Greeks sent Menelaus himself to visit Proteus.

{ εἰρομένου δέ μευ τοὺς ἱρέας εἰ μάταιον λόγον λέγουσι οἱ Ἕλληνες τὰ περὶ Ἴλιον γενέσθαι ἢ οὔ, ἔφασαν πρὸς ταῦτα τάδε, ἱστορίῃσι φάμενοι εἰδέναι παρ᾽ αὐτοῦ Μενέλεω. ἐλθεῖν μὲν γὰρ μετὰ τὴν Ἑλένης ἁρπαγὴν ἐς τὴν Τευκρίδα γῆν Ἑλλήνων στρατιὴν πολλὴν βοηθεῦσαν Μενέλεῳ, ἐκβᾶσαν δὲ ἐς γῆν καὶ ἱδρυθεῖσαν τὴν στρατιὴν πέμπειν ἐς τὸ Ἴλιον ἀγγέλους, σὺν δέ σφι ἰέναι καὶ αὐτὸν Μενέλεων: τοὺς δ᾽ ἐπείτε ἐσελθεῖν ἐς τὸ τεῖχος, ἀπαιτέειν Ἑλένην τε καὶ τὰ χρήματα τά οἱ οἴχετο κλέψας Ἀλέξανδρος, τῶν τε ἀδικημάτων δίκας αἰτέειν: τοὺς δὲ Τευκροὺς τὸν αὐτὸν λόγον λέγειν τότε καὶ μετέπειτα, καὶ ὀμνύντας καὶ ἀνωμοτί, μὴ μὲν ἔχειν Ἑλένην μηδὲ τὰ ἐπικαλεύμενα χρήματα, ἀλλ᾽ εἶναι αὐτὰ πάντα ἐν Αἰγύπτῳ, καὶ οὐκ ἂν δικαίως αὐτοὶ δίκας ὑπέχειν τῶν Πρωτεὺς ὁ Αἰγύπτιος βασιλεὺς ἔχει. οἱ δὲ Ἕλληνες καταγελᾶσθαι δοκέοντες ὑπ᾽ αὐτῶν οὕτω δὴ ἐπολιόρκεον, ἐς ὃ ἐξεῖλον: ἑλοῦσι δὲ τὸ τεῖχος ὡς οὐκ ἐφαίνετο ἡ Ἑλένη, ἀλλὰ τὸν αὐτὸν λόγου τῷ προτέρῳ ἐπυνθάνοντο, οὕτω δὴ πιστεύσαντες τῷ λόγῳ τῷ πρώτῳ οἱ Ἕλληνες αὐτὸν Μενέλεων ἀποστέλλουσι παρὰ Πρωτέα. }[2]

According the Egyptian priests, Menelaus and Helen thus reunited in Egypt and returned to their home in Sparta.

Helen returning with her husband Menelaus to their home in Sparta

Herodotus rightly regarded the Egyptian priests’ account of Helen to be more reasonable than that of the Iliad. Herodotus explained:

Speaking personally, I do not doubt the Egyptian priests’ account as it relates to Helen. For surely, had she indeed been in Troy, then she would have been handed back over to the Greeks, whether Paris wished it or not. Neither Priam nor the rest of his family were so mentally defective as to willingly put themselves, their children and their city in peril, simply so that Paris might live with Helen. And even if we grant that this might perhaps have been their initial attitude, nevertheless, with the onset of hostilities, there was a slaughter of Trojans at the hands of the Greeks so prodigious that Priam himself, if the evidence of the epic poets is to be trusted, was losing some two or three or even more of his sons every time battle was joined. My supposition must surely be correct that the effect of these circumstances would have been to convince Priam, had he been the one who was living with Helen, that she simply had to be given back to the Achaeans. How else, after all, was he to be rid of the evils hemming him in? Nor is it the case that Paris was the heir to the throne, and might therefore conceivably have been operating as regent during Priam’s dotage. Rather, it was Hector, who was both older and more of a man than Paris, who stood to inherit the kingdom upon the death of his father. Thus it would hardly have been proper for him to indulge his brother’s lawlessness, not when Paris was bringing such suffering upon Hector himself and upon the entire Trojan people.

{ ἐγὼ δὲ τῷ λόγῳ τῷ περὶ Ἑλένης λεχθέντι καὶ αὐτὸς προστίθεμαι, τάδε ἐπιλεγόμενος, εἰ ἦν Ἑλένη ἐν Ἰλίῳ, ἀποδοθῆναι ἂν αὐτὴν τοῖσι Ἕλλησι ἤτοι ἑκόντος γε ἢ ἀέκοντος Ἀλεξάνδρου. οὐ γὰρ δὴ οὕτω γε φρενοβλαβὴς ἦν ὁ Πρίαμος οὐδὲ οἱ ἄλλοι οἱ προσήκοντες αὐτῷ, ὥστε τοῖσι σφετέροισι σώμασι καὶ τοῖσι τέκνοισι καὶ τῇ πόλι κινδυνεύειν ἐβούλοντο, ὅκως Ἀλέξανδρος Ἑλένῃ συνοικέῃ. εἰ δέ τοι καὶ ἐν τοῖσι πρώτοισι χρόνοισι ταῦτα ἐγίνωσκον, ἐπεὶ πολλοὶ μὲν τῶν ἄλλων Τρώων, ὁκότε συμμίσγοιεν τοῖσι Ἕλλησι, ἀπώλλυντο, αὐτοῦ δὲ Πριάμου οὐκ ἔστι ὅτε οὐ δύο ἢ τρεῖς ἢ καὶ ἔτι πλέους τῶν παίδων μάχης γινομένης ἀπέθνησκον, εἰ χρή τι τοῖσι ἐποποιοῖσι χρεώμενον λέγειν, τούτων δὲ τοιούτων συμβαινόντων ἐγὼ μὲν ἔλπομαι, εἰ καὶ αὐτὸς Πρίαμος συνοίκεε Ἑλένῃ, ἀποδοῦναι ἂν αὐτὴν τοῖσι Ἀχαιοῖσι, μέλλοντά γε δὴ τῶν παρεόντων κακῶν ἀπαλλαγήσεσθαι. οὐ μὲν οὐδὲ ἡ βασιληίη ἐς Ἀλέξανδρον περιήιε, ὥστε γέροντος Πριάμου ἐόντος ἐπ᾽ ἐκείνῳ τὰ πρήγματα εἶναι, ἀλλὰ Ἕκτωρ καὶ πρεσβύτερος καὶ ἀνὴρ ἐκείνου μᾶλλον ἐὼν ἔμελλε αὐτὴν Πριάμου ἀποθανόντος παραλάμψεσθαι, τὸν οὐ προσῆκε ἀδικέοντι τῷ ἀδελφεῷ ἐπιτρέπειν, καὶ ταῦτα μεγάλων κακῶν δι᾽ αὐτὸν συμβαινόντων ἰδίῃ τε αὐτῷ καὶ τοῖσι ἄλλοισι πᾶσι Τρωσί. }

Herodotus showed good reason in relation to Helen and the Trojans. However, Trojan men and Greek men, like many men through history, acted with bad reason in relation to a woman. That’s the story of Helen in the Iliad.

Helen and Paris leaving Cythera

Although regarded as extremely beautiful, the Iliad shows Helen to be a horrible person. She treats her second husband Paris with contempt after her first husband Menelaus thrashed him on the battlefield. Helen’s character is most fully exhibited at the funeral of Paris’s brother Hector, whom Achilles killed in battle. All of Troy mourned Hector. Underscoring women’s dominant social position in archaic Greek society, the Iliad concludes with three women speaking laments for Hector. Those lamenting women are Andromache, Hector’s wife; Hecuba, the queen of Troy; and ultimately Helen. Helen’s crowning role in lamenting Hector recalls her having motivated the Trojan War and thus Hector’s death within it. Helen’s lament for Hector is self-centered and self-pitying:

Hector, far dearest to my heart of all my husband’s brothers!
Indeed my husband is godlike Paris,
who brought me to the land of Troy. I wish I had died before then.
This is now the twentieth year from the time
when I went from there and left the land of my fathers,
yet never have I heard evil or spiteful word from you.
But if any other spoke reproachfully of me in the halls,
a brother of yours, or a sister, or a brother’s fair-robed wife,
or your mother — your father was ever gentle as if he had been my own —
yet you would turn them with speech and restrain them
by your gentleness and your gentle words.
So I wail alike for you and for my unlucky self with grief at heart.
No longer have I anyone else in broad Troy
who is gentle to me or kind. All others shudder at me.

{ Ἕκτορ ἐμῷ θυμῷ δαέρων πολὺ φίλτατε πάντων,
ἦ μέν μοι πόσις ἐστὶν Ἀλέξανδρος θεοειδής,
ὅς μ᾽ ἄγαγε Τροίηνδ᾽: ὡς πρὶν ὤφελλον ὀλέσθαι.
ἤδη γὰρ νῦν μοι τόδε εἰκοστὸν ἔτος ἐστὶν
ἐξ οὗ κεῖθεν ἔβην καὶ ἐμῆς ἀπελήλυθα πάτρης:
ἀλλ᾽ οὔ πω σεῦ ἄκουσα κακὸν ἔπος οὐδ᾽ ἀσύφηλον:
ἀλλ᾽ εἴ τίς με καὶ ἄλλος ἐνὶ μεγάροισιν ἐνίπτοι
δαέρων ἢ γαλόων ἢ εἰνατέρων εὐπέπλων,
ἢ ἑκυρή, ἑκυρὸς δὲ πατὴρ ὣς ἤπιος αἰεί,
ἀλλὰ σὺ τὸν ἐπέεσσι παραιφάμενος κατέρυκες
σῇ τ᾽ ἀγανοφροσύνῃ καὶ σοῖς ἀγανοῖς ἐπέεσσι.
τὼ σέ θ᾽ ἅμα κλαίω καὶ ἔμ᾽ ἄμμορον ἀχνυμένη κῆρ:
οὐ γάρ τίς μοι ἔτ᾽ ἄλλος ἐνὶ Τροίῃ εὐρείῃ
ἤπιος οὐδὲ φίλος, πάντες δέ με πεφρίκασιν. }[3]

Helen doesn’t lament the horror of seeing Achilles kill Hector and then abuse Hector’s dead body. Helen doesn’t lament that Hector, along with numerous other men, died in a foolish war over her. Helen doesn’t lament that the Greeks are likely now to destroy Troy. No, Helen, crying hot tears, laments that no one else will be kind to her like Hector was. She laments that others will now freely reproach her. The poor privileged dear! Helen earlier called herself a “horrible, evil-intriguing bitch {κῠ́ων κᾰκομήχᾰνος ὀκρυόεις}.”[4] While showing little direct concern for others, at least she rightly characterized herself. Helen’s self-centered, self-pitying lament for Hector in the Iliad emphasizes men’s bad reason in relation to women. Innumerable Trojan men and Greek men died fighting for the horrible woman Helen.

Criticizing even a horrible woman like Helen isn’t propitious for gaining honor, influence, and wealth within gynocentric society. No one has understood rational, self-interested men’s speech better than ancient Greek sophists. In the fifth century BGC, the sophist Gorgias assailed those who blame Helen for the massive violence against men of the Trojan War. Gorgias declared:

As for me, I wish, by providing certain argumentation in my speech, to stop the blame for Helen, who is being defamed. I wish to demonstrate that those who blame her are liars. I wish to show the truth and to stop their ignorance.

{ ἐγὼ δὲ βούλομαι λογισμόν τινα τῷ λόγῳ δοὺς τὴν μὲν κακῶς ἀκούουσαν παῦσαι τῆς αἰτίας, τοὺς δὲ μεμφομένους ψευδομένους ἐπιδεῖξαι καὶ δεῖξαι τἀληθὲς καὶ παῦσαι τῆς ἀμαθίας. }[5]

Gorgias thus positions himself as a man defending a woman. That’s a propitious position for social acclaim. With abstractions and elaborate rhetoric, Gorgias obscured the reality of what occurred:

Born of divine parents, Helen obtained beauty equal to the gods, beauty that she obtained receiving it and not hiding it. And she instilled in very many men very many longings for love. By means of her one body she brought together bodies of many men who had great ambitions about great matters. Among these men were ones who possessed an abundance of wealth, others renown for ancient nobility, others renown for the vigor of their innate strength, and others for the power of their acquired wisdom. They all came together, driven by the love that desires victory and by the invincible desire for honor.

{ ἐκ τοιούτων δὲ γενομένη ἔσχε τὸ ἰσόθεον κάλλος, ὃ λαβοῦσα καὶ οὐ λαθοῦσα ἔσχε· πλείστας δὲ πλείστοις ἐπιθυμίας ἔρωτος ἐνειργάσατο, ἑνὶ δὲ σώματι πολλὰ σώματα συνήγαγεν ἀνδρῶν ἐπὶ μεγάλοις μεγάλα φρονούντων, ὧν οἱ μὲν πλούτου μεγέθη, οἱ δὲ εὐγενείας παλαιᾶς εὐδοξίαν, οἱ δὲ ἀλκῆς οἰκείας εὐεξίαν, οἱ δὲ σοφίας ἐπικτήτου δύναμιν ἔσχον· καὶ ἧκον ἅπαντες ὑπ’ ἔρωτός τε φιλονίκου φιλοτιμίας τε ἀνικήτου. }

All these worthy men came together to kill each other. Helen provided the motive for the Trojan War. The men participated because they valued Helen more than themselves. Nonetheless, according to Gorgias, Helen should not be blamed for motivating the Trojan War:

How then ought one consider the blame for Helen as being just, given that, whether she did what she did because she had fallen in love or had been persuaded by speech or had been seized with force or had been constrained by divine constraint, on every count she is acquitted of the accusation?

{ πῶς οὖν χρὴ δίκαιον ἡγήσασθαι τὸν τῆς Ἑλένης μῶμον, ἥτις εἴτ’ ἐρασθεῖσα1 εἴτε λόγῳ πεισθεῖσα εἴτε βίᾳ ἁρπασθεῖσα εἴτε ὑπὸ θείας ἀνάγκης ἀναγκασθεῖσα ἔπραξεν ἃ ἔπραξε, πάντως διαφεύγει τὴν αἰτίαν }

Social norms favor women getting all the credit and none of the blame. Certainly men deserve blame for lacking self-esteem. Men too often have lacked a sense of their value as fully human persons — persons fully equal in value to women.

Isocrates, highly estimates ancient Attic orator

Gorgias’s student Isocrates, celebrated as one of the ten leading Attic orators, went beyond Gorgias in praising Helen. Isocrates also implicitly criticized Herodotus’s reasoning about the Trojans returning Helen to the Greeks:

What man would have rejected marriage with Helen, at whose abduction the Greeks were as incensed as if all Greece had been laid waste, while the barbarians were as filled with pride as if they had conquered us all? It is clear how each party felt about the matter. Although there had been many causes of contention between them before, none of these disturbed their peace. For Helen, however, they waged so great a war, not only the greatest of all wars in the violence of its passions, but also in the duration of its struggle. In the extent of their preparations, it was the greatest war of all time. And although the Trojans might have rid themselves of the misfortunes which encompassed them by surrendering Helen, and the Greeks might have lived in peace for all time by being indifferent to her fate, neither so wished. On the contrary, the Trojans allowed their cities to be laid waste and their land to be ravaged, so as to avoid yielding Helen to the Greeks. The Greeks chose to remain in a foreign land to grow old there and never to see their own again, rather than leave Helen behind to return to their fatherland. And they were not acting in this way as eager champions of Paris or of Menelaus. No, the Trojans were upholding the cause of Asia, and the Greeks that of Europe, in the belief that the land in which Helen resided in person would be the more favored of Fortune.

{ Τίς δ᾿ ἂν τὸν γάμον τὸν Ἑλένης ὑπερεῖδεν, ἧς ἁρπασθείσης οἱ μὲν Ἕλληνες οὕτως ἠγανάκτησαν ὥσπερ ὅλης τῆς Ἑλλάδος πεπορθημένης, οἱ δὲ βάρβαροι τοσοῦτον ἐφρόνησαν, ὅσον περ ἂν εἰ πάντων ἡμῶν ἐκράτησαν. δῆλον δ᾿ ὡς ἑκάτεροι διετέθησαν· πολλῶν γὰρ αὐτοῖς πρότερον ἐγκλημάτων γενομένων περὶ μὲν τῶν ἄλλων ἡσυχίαν ἦγον, ὑπὲρ δὲ ταύτης τηλικοῦτον συνεστήσαντο πόλεμον οὐ μόνον τῷ μεγέθει τῆς ὀργῆς ἀλλὰ καὶ τῷ μήκει τοῦ χρόνου καὶ τῷ πλήθει τῶν παρασκευῶν ὅσος οὐδεὶς πώποτε γέγονεν. ἐξὸν δὲ τοῖς μὲν ἀποδοῦσιν Ἑλένην ἀπηλλάχθαι τῶν παρόντων κακῶν, τοῖς δ᾿ ἀμελήσασιν ἐκείνης ἀδεῶς οἰκεῖν τὸν ἐπίλοιπον χρόνον, οὐδέτεροι ταῦτ᾿ ἠθέλησαν· ἀλλ᾿ οἱ μὲν περιεώρων καὶ πόλεις ἀναστάτους γιγνομένας καὶ τὴν χώραν πορθουμένην, ὥστε μὴ προέσθαι τοῖς Ἕλλησιν αὐτήν, οἱ δ᾿ ᾑροῦντο μένοντες ἐπὶ τῆς ἀλλοτρίας καταγηράσκειν καὶ μηδέποτε τοὺς αὑτῶν ἰδεῖν μᾶλλον ἢ ’κείνην καταλιπόντες εἰς τὰς αὑτῶν πατρίδας ἀπελθεῖν. καὶ ταῦτ᾿ ἐποίουν οὐχ ὑπὲρ Ἀλεξάνδρου καὶ Μενελάου φιλονικοῦντες, ἀλλ᾿ οἱ μὲν ὑπὲρ τῆς Ἀσίας, οἱ δ᾿ ὑπὲρ τῆς Εὐρώπης, νομίζοντες, ἐν ὁποτέρᾳ τὸ σῶμα τοὐκείνης κατοικήσειε, ταύτην εὐδαιμονεστέραν τὴν χώραν ἔσεσθαι. }[6]

Compared to the Iliad, Isocrates engages in crude myth-making. Compared to Herodotus, Isocrates is completely unreasonable. Such failings don’t lessen the acclaim for a speaker discounting innumerable men’s deaths to praise a woman.

Read with compassion for men’s lives, the Iliad powerfully questions men’s subordination to women. Men’s subordination to women isn’t rational. It defies belief in history like the reasoned history of Herodotus. Men’s subordination to women is an outcome of symbolic power in social discourse. Achieving gender equality depends on enough persons learning to read discerningly great literature such as the Iliad, the Aeneid, and fine medieval poetry.[7]

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Read more:


[1] Herodotus, Histories {Ἱστορίαι} 2.112-5. The sixth-century Greek lyric poet Stesichorus also asserted that Helen remained in Egypt. Other early Greek poets similarly challenged the Iliad’s account of the Trojan War. Richardson (1993) pp. 26-8.

[2] Herodotus, Histories 2.118, ancient Greek text from Godley (1920), English translation (modified) from Holland (2014). The subsequent quote above is similarly from Herodotus’s Histories 2.120. For an amazingly detailed, ultra-rigorous translation of these verses, Campbell (2015).

On the objective merits of Herodotus’s history of the Trojan War, Neville (1977). Not a narrow-minded empiricist, Herodotus had a sophisticated understanding of myth’s importance. Baragwanath (2012).

[3] Homer, Iliad 24.762-75, ancient Greek text and English translation (modified) from Murray (1924). One scholar tentatively observed, “Helen’s self-absorption here perhaps gives insight into the self-indulgent passion with which she and Paris carelessly sparked the war to begin with.” Perkell (2008) p. 105. Contrasting Andromache’s lament with Helen’s lament, Perkell noted, “Hektor has in some sense ultimately protected the wrong woman.” Id.

Some textual witnesses to Iliad 24.764 indicate that Helen wished “Paris had died before then.” But modern authorities favor the alternate textual witnesses indicating that Helen wished that she had died before then. That reading, as well as Iliad 24.763-4 more generally, are best interpreted to express Helen’s self-focus and self-pity. Carvounis (2007).

[4] Iliad 6.344. On Helen’s related self-characterizations, see note [7] in my post about Helen verbally abusing Paris. Punning on Helen’s name in Greek, the chorus in Aeschylus’s fifth-century BGC tragedy Agamemnon {Αγαμέμνων} sang that Helen brought “hell to ships, hell to men, hell to cities {ἑλένας, ἑλάνδρος, ἑλέπτολις}.” Agamemnon v. 689.

[5] Gorgias, Testimonia, Part 2: Doctrine (D), Encomium of Helen (D24), from section 2, ancient Greek text and English translation (modified insubstantially) from Laks & Most (2016). The subsequent two quotes above are similarly from Gorgias’s Encomium of Helen, sections 4 and 20. Here are Greek texts of Hermann Diels (1922) and Friedrich Blass (1908, Teubner), and English translations by LaRue Van Hook (1913) and by Brian R. Donovan (1999). Gorgias, from Leontini in Sicily, was a student of Teisias. Gorgias came to Athens on an embassy in 427 BGC.

[6] Isocrates, Discourses 10. Helen, sections 49-51, ancient Greek text and English translation (modified insubstantially) from Van Hook (1945). Isocrates remarked about Gorgias:

This is the reason why, of those who have wished to discuss a subject with eloquence, I praise especially him who chose to write of Helen, because he has recalled to memory so remarkable a woman, one who in birth, and in beauty, and in renown far surpassed all others. Nevertheless, even he committed a slight inadvertence — for although he asserts that he has written an encomium of Helen, it turns out that he has actually spoken a defense of her conduct.

{ διὸ καὶ τὸν γράψαντα περὶ τῆς Ἑλένης ἐπαινῶ μάλιστα τῶν εὖ λέγειν τι βουληθέντων, ὅτι περὶ τοιαύτης ἐμνήσθη γυναικός, ἣ καὶ τῷ γένει καὶ τῷ κάλλει καὶ τῇ δόξῃ πολὺ διήνεγκεν. οὐ μὴν ἀλλὰ καὶ τοῦτον μικρόν τι παρέλαθεν· φησὶ μὲν γὰρ ἐγκώμιον γεγραφέναι περὶ αὐτῆς, τυγχάνει δ᾽ ἀπολογίαν εἰρηκὼς ὑπὲρ τῶν ἐκείνῃ πεπραγμένων. }

Isocrates, Discourses 10. Helen, section 14, sourced as previously. Isocrates declared of Helen, “should she not be praised and honored, and regarded as far superior to all the women who have ever lived {πῶς οὐκ ἐπαινεῖν χρὴ καὶ τιμᾶν καὶ νομίζειν πολὺ τῶν πώποτε γενομένων διενεγκεῖν}?” Id., section 38. Such is the gendered way of sophists through the ages.

Many modern scholars in writing about Helen have worked essentially as students of Gorgias and Isocrates. Helen thus becomes a great poet, overcoming the shackles of gender to make Hector a hero:

At the end of the poem, Helen is not only a mourner but also a composer, a real contributor to the creation of epic poetry. Her weaving in Iliad 3 tells her story within the larger frame of Homer’s story. Her lament sings the glory of Hector within the larger frame of Homer’s song. In this instance, Helen employs the only recognized form of public speech available to women, to make sure that the memory of Hector will not die with him.

Pantelia (2002) p. 26. According to another scholar, Homer, who was remarkably in tune with modern gynocentric discourse, created Helen, queen of Sparta and princess of Troy, as a heroic woman-victim:

Homer creates Helen as a complex and suffering figure with a good mind, who strives for autonomy, expression, and belonging, within and despite the many constraints to which she is subject.

Roisman (2006), from abstract. Helen is a great woman for all she does, including characterizing herself as a “horrible, evil-intriguing bitch {κῠ́ων κᾰκομήχᾰνος ὀκρυόεις}”:

Her greatness lies in the many acts by which she asserts her freedom and autonomy even as her power to choose her actions is clearly limited: in her letting Priam know that she does not consider Troy her home, even though she is dependent on his good will; in the silence and invisibility she assumes when she is forced to go to Paris’ chamber; in her lashing out at Paris even though she will obviously have to go to bed with him and in her persistent distancing from him; in her affiliation with Hektor not only for his kindness but also for the respect in which he is held; and in the unique perception of him that she brings to bear in her lamentation. Her greatness lies, too, in her taking responsibility for the war, whereas Paris had denied his responsibility, and in her refusal to accept the definitions imposed on her by Aphrodite and Paris, instead persistently defining herself as a woman capable of shame and restraint.

Id. pp. 33-4. By this accounting, Helen probably ranks as greater than Empress Theodora. A scholar argued that the great Helen is a goddess, albeit a goddess “without serious regard for mortals.” Blankenborg (2022).

[7] Richardson observed:

It can also be argued that the Odyssey itself, in its implied ideals of survival at all costs, homecoming and domestic harmony, forms the first commentary on — and criticism of — the Iliad. What is clear, at any rate, is that the composer of the Odyssey has learnt a great deal from the extraordinary achievement of the earlier poem, and his work may well be seen as a poetic reflection on the Iliad, as well as a complement to it.

Richardson (1993) pp. 25-6. The Odyssey is better understand as presenting in a different way the Iliad’s concern for devaluation of men’s lives relative to women.

[images] (1) Menelaus takes Helen back to their home in Sparta. Attic black-figure amphora painting, made by the Amasis Painter c. 550 BGC. From Vulci in central Italy. Preserved as item 1383 in Staatliche Antikensammlungen (Berlin, German). Source image thanks to Bibi Saint-Pol and Wikimedia Commons. (2) Helen and Paris leaving Cythera. Painting by Guido Reni. This painting is commonly mistitled, “The Rape of Helen.” That title is as plausible as “The Rape of Paris.” Preserved as accession # INV 539 and MR 288 in the Louvre Museum (Paris). Photo thanks to Shonagon and Wikimedia Commons. (3) Isocrates, highly esteemed ancient Attic orator. Plaster copy of a head of Isocrates, thought to date to the third century GC, from Villa Abani, now in the Puskin Museum (Moscow). Source image thanks to shakko and Wikimedia Commons. Here’s another ancient Roman bust of Isocrates held in Berlin’s State Museum (Neues Museum) .


Baragwanath, Emily. 2012. “Returning to Troy: Herodotus and the Mythic Discourse of his Own Time.” Chapter 12 (pp. 287-312) in Emily Baragwanath and Mathieu de Bakker, eds. Myth, Truth, and Narrative in Herodotus. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Blankenborg, Ronald. 2022. “‘Sort of human’? The Divinity and Humanity of Homer’s Helen.” Synthesis. 29(1): e116.

Campbell, E. H. 2015. “Herodotus on the Trojan War: 1.1.0-1.5.4 and 2.112.1-2.120.5. A New Translation, with Text, Commentary, and Preface.” Commentaries on Greek and Latin Literature. From the SelectedWorks of E. H. Campbell. Campbell’s Commentaries: Amherst, MA.

Carvounis, Katerina. 2007. “Helen and Iliad 24.763-4.” Hyperboreus. 13(1-2): 5-10.

Godley, A. D., ed. and trans. 1920. Herodotus. The Persian Wars. Loeb Classical Library 117-120. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Holland, Tom, trans. and Paul Cartledge, introduction and notes. 2014. Herodotus. The Histories. New York: Viking.

Laks, André and Glenn W. Most, ed. and trans. 2016. Early Greek Philosophy, Volume VIII: Sophists, Part 1. Loeb Classical Library 531. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Murray, A. T., trans. Revised by William F. Wyatt. 1924. Homer. Iliad. Loeb Classical Library 170 and 171. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Alternate source for Murray’s translation.

Neville, James W. 1977. “Herodotus on the Trojan War.” Greece & Rome. 24(1): 3–12.

Pantelia, Maria C. 2002. “Helen and the Last Song for Hector.” Transactions of the American Philological Association. 132(1/2): 21–27.

Perkell, Christine. 2008. “Reading the Laments of Iliad 24.” Chapter 5 (pp. 93-117) in Ann Suter, ed. Lament: Studies in the Ancient Mediterranean and Beyond. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Richardson Nicholas. 1993. The Iliad: A Commentary. Vol. 6 Books 21-24. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Roisman, Hanna. 2006. “Helen in the Iliad; Causa Belli and Victim of War: From Silent Weaver to Public Speaker.” American Journal of Philology. 127(10: 1–36.

Van Hook, La Rue, ed. and trans. 1945. Isocrates. Evagoras. Helen. Busiris. Plataicus. Concerning the Team of Horses. Trapeziticus. Against Callimachus. Aegineticus. Against Lochites. Against Euthynus. Letters. Loeb Classical Library 373. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

gender symmetry in disparagement in Sumerian texts

Men have long been subject to more disparagement, including dehumanizing invective, than have women. Men historically have been figured as dogs and treated like pigs. Invective against men has even supported castration culture. Harsh disparagement of men can be found in Sumerian texts from Mesopotamia about four thousand years ago. Sumerian texts, however, include some similar forms disparaging women. To advance gender equality, modern societies must strive to imitate and expand the ancient Sumerian practice of gender symmetry in disparagement.

Consider, for example, a Sumerian text that harshly disparages and dehumanizes an unnamed man. Stringing together a wide variety of insults, the text begins:

He is good seed of a dog, offspring of a wolf!
He is stench of a mongoose, an unruly hyena cub, a fox with a crab’s covering,
a monkey not pleasing to its homeland, its judgment confused.
His face is disfigured, his judgment is muddled, his intelligence is (X).

{ a dug3-ga ur-ra u2-numun ur-bar-ra-kam
ir dnin-kilim amar kir4 cu nu-zu ka5-a bar kucu2ku6
ugu2ugu4-bi kur-bi-ce3 nu-sag9 jalga-bi suh3-a
muc3-me-ni dim2 hul jalga-ni i3-lu3 dim2-ma-ni X }[1]

This man is called a cripple, a brazen thief, and a son of hound. He’s charged with spreading evil talk, being quarrelsome, and never calming quarrels. With any apparent sense of irony, the man being insulted is said to speak with an “evil mouth {ka hul}.”

Other Sumerian texts dehumanize men in ways from specifically contextual to broadly applicable. In a dialogue between contending scribal-school officials, one characterizes the other in their work context: “an idiot stretches out linen for the bugs {lu₂-tumu eḫi-e gada ba-an-la₂}” and “a pig weaves a counting cloth { šaḫa₂ tu₉u₂-tu-gu-um al-tuku₅-tuku₅}.”[2] Taken from that work context, “idiot” and “pig” readily serve to disparage men generally. Another Sumerian text thus calls a man “a fool {lu2 lil2-la2}” and “a pig splattered with mud {cah2 lu-hu-um-ta su3-a},” as well as “a dog {ur}.”[3]

Women are similarly disparaged in Sumerian texts. A diatribe against a woman begins with the same term used for a disparaged man, “the evil mouth {ka ḫulu-a}.”[4] Like the man who is a brazen thief, a woman is characterized as “having no shame {teš₂ nu-tuku}.”[5] Particularly telling is the gender-symmetric treatment of dogs. A diatribe known as “Woman perfecting evil” calls a woman a “horny dog {ur-˹gi7˺}.”[6] In a dispute between two women, one calls the other, “a dog raising its paw, always after men {⸢ur⸣ šu zi-ga egir mu-lu-ne-⸢ka⸣}.”[7] If men are dogs, women are also dogs in Sumerian literature. Moral failings match across gender: “an unfaithful penis matches an unfaithful vagina {jic3 lul-la gal4-la lul-la-ke4 ba-ni-in-sig10}.”[8]

In contrast to ancient Greek and Latin literature in which men’s genitals are figured much worse than women’s, Sumerian literature gender-symmetrically disparages both. A man is disparaged as having “flaccid penis, blocked butt, a single testicle hanging down {ŋeš₃ per gu-du keše₂ šeri AŠ tu-lu}.”[9] A woman is similarly sexually disparaged:

distorted butt, small vulva, extremely long pubic hair!
thick genitals, person with blocked up, sick womb!

{ gu-du zar/zara₅ galla₄la tur siki galla₄la gid₂-gid₂
pe-zi₂-ir ḪAR lu₂ ša₃ la₂ pa₄-ḫal-la }[10]

A “flaccid penis” corresponds to a “small vulva” in suggesting sexual nonfunctionality. A “blocked butt” is similar to a “distorted butt” and a “blocked up, sick womb” in indicating unhealthful blockages. Such terms don’t generally characterize Sumerian references to genitals. Sumerian love poems describe women’s vulvas with earthy physicality and praise them for being sweet. Moreover, women in these poems ardently seek sexual intercourse with men and delight in receiving men’s penises. Genitals could be disparaged in Sumerian literature, but at least such disparagement was gender-symmetric in significant ways.

Streams of insults directed against men and women are summarized similarly. For men, a summary rhetorical question derides the man’s masculinity: “And you, you are a man {u3 ze4-e lu2-lu7-me-en}?”[11] Insulting a woman uses a similar rhetorical question, “And you, you are a woman {u3 ze4-e munus-me-en}?”[12] Sumerian culture valued both women and men. Individual persons in that culture valued these different gender identities.[13] Valuing one’s own gender identity makes such gender-categorical insults effective.

Gender symmetry in some forms of disparagement in Sumerian literature doesn’t imply gender equality in disparagement generally. In a Sumerian text, a father castigates his disobedient son at length:

Numbskull, windbag, fingernail, toenail, liar, windbag, burglar, foul-mouthed man, stinking man, rude, rabid man, drooling idiot … crippled, foul-smelling necromancer, stinking oil, stinking man … stinker, stinking milk, stinking butt that stinks and stinks again, a dog that sniffs the ground, windbag.

{ saĝ-DU-a lu2-tumu šu-si ĝiri3-si lu2-lul lu2-tumu lu2 la-ga e2 buru3-buru3 lu2 sikil du3-a lu2 hab2-ba-am3 na-ĝa2-ah lu2 mu2-da eme za3-ga bar-bar sag šu zi bi2-ib-du11-ga sag ur3-ur3 lu2 hu-hu-nu ir-ha-an du11-ga ir-hul-a i3-hab2 lu2 hab2-ba ir-ha-an-di pil2-pil2-la2 x-hul-a ga-an-šub niĝ2-tur hab2-ba-am3 ki-sim gu-du hab2-ba in-ur5 in-da-ur5 ur-gi7 saĝ us2-sa si-im-si-im al-ak-e lu2-tumu }[14]

No record exists of a father speaking similarly to his disobedient daughter. Later Assyrian literature developed even more pungent disparagement of men. Bel-etir, son of Iba, is called a “shit bucket of a fart factory {išpīk zê ṣarritim}.”[15] Gender equality will not be achieved until women are similarly insulted, or both men and women are always treated with dignity and respect.

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] He is a good seed of a dog (Diatribe C) (t.5.4.12) vv. 1-4, cuneiform transliteration (composite text) and English translation of Sjöberg (1972) (modified insubstantially) via the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, second edition (ETCSL). The “(X)” indicates a lost term. The subsequent quote, “evil mouth {ka hul},” is similarly from He is a good seed of a dog, v. 9.

[2] Two scribes (Dialogue 1), vv. 14, 15, cuneiform transliteration (composite text) and English translation of Matuszak (2019b) via DSSt: Datenbank sumerischer Streitliteratur {Database of Sumerian Dispute Literature}. For a monograph on this text, Johnson & Geller (2015).

This text comes from the context of the Old Babylonian “Tablet house / House in which tables are assigned {Edubba / e2-dub-ba-a},” c. 1800-1600 BGC. On disputes in the Edubba-a, Ceccarelli (2020). For a related text, The advice of a supervisor to a younger scribe (E-dub-ba-a C) (t.5.1.3).

[3] A diatribe against Engar-dug (Diatribe B) (t.5.4.11) vv. 1, 8, 17, cuneiform transliteration (composite text) and English translation of Sjöberg (1972) via ETCSL.

This and related diatribes and disputes likely from the Edubba-a probably were sung or performed. Ceccarelli (2020) pp. 49-51, Matuszak (2023) p. 608. In November, 2020, the Zipang collective performed a Sumerian literary debate between two women (apparently an adaptation of Two Women B) at Being Human: A Festival of the Humanities, a UK national humanities festival. The Zipang collective also performed this debate at the Fourth Workshop on Gender, Methodology and the Ancient Near East, June 3-4, 2021, based in the University of Helsinki, Finland. This workshop apparently excluded meninist perspectives.

[4] Matuszak (2016) p. 230. The Evil Mouth {Ka hulu-a} has not yet been edited or published, but Matuszak has a forthcoming edition. For further discussion of this text, Matuszak (219a) and Matuszak (2023).

[5] Two Women B, v. 30, cuneiform transliteration and English translation via DSSt. The insult text of tablet MS 2865 similarly describes a woman: “She has absolutely no shame, she’s acting there as if she were the mistress of the house {teš2 nu-tuku-e nin e2-a-gen7 mi-ni-in-AK}.” Matuszal (2016) p. 231.

[6] Woman Perfecting Evil, v. 4, from Matuszak (2023) pp. 607-8. Woman Perfecting Evil also has not yet been edited. Matuszak has an edition forthcoming. In context, “horny dog” apparently implies a licentious dog.

[7] Two Women B, v. 155, via DSSt. The subsequent verse declares, “The young men, who live in the city quarter, can’t sleep because of her {⸢mu-ru⸣-uš tur dag-ge₄-a til₃-la u₃ ⸢nu⸣-[mu]-⸢un⸣-ši-ku-ku}.”

Ancient Mesopotamian texts could use “prostitute,” appropriately contextualized, as disparagement for a woman. In Two Women B, one woman called the other woman “a prostitute {kar-ke₄}.” That woman brought a lawsuit and sought a verdict against this offense:

She called me a whore.
She caused my husband to divorce me. Grant me a just verdict!

{ kar-ke₄ ma-an-du₁₁
dam mu-un-taka₄ di ge-na dab₅-mu-ub }

Two Women B, vv. 170-1, via DSSt.

Whether women prostitutes existed in ancient Mesopotamia has recently become bitterly disputed among scholars. Matuszak tactfully footnoted:

While this is not the place to review the discussion revolving around the term kar-ke₄/ḫarimtu, it is clear from 2WB 152 et passim that kar-ke₄ is employed as a swearword (‘whore!’) and alleges extra-marital sex, since the woman so called is repudiated by her husband on the grounds of adultery accusations.

Matuszak (2019a) p. 261, ft. 19. More obliquely, Matuszak elsewhere footnoted:

One of the protagonists calls the other a kar-ke₄, which in this context can justifiably be translated as ‘whore.’

Matuszak (2016) p. 230, ft. 4. Discussing a treaty between the Assyrian king Aššur-nerari V (reigned 755–745 BGC) and Mati’-ilu, king of Arpad, another scholar footnoted the translation of ḫarimtu:

There has been some debate regarding the translation of ḫarimtu as prostitute. Julia Assante argued for its reinterpretation as a single woman, who operates free of direct male authority, rather than a prostitute (1998). Jerrold S. Cooper more recently presented the case for its translation once again as prostitute (2016a: 211–212). In this text, prostitute seems the most likely translation, given that the imagery is placed to insult Mati’ilu and imply the loss of both his sexual potency and agency.

Konstantopoulos (2020) p. 365, n. 26. Discussion of prostitution in ancient Mesopotamia seems to me a quite telling intellectual debacle. See notes [3] and [5] in my post on men and female prostitutes from ancient Mesopotamia to medieval Europe. On the continuing influence of this intellectual debacle, see note [25] in my post on Enkidu and Shamhat.

[8] Proverbs: collection 1, Segment D, 6.1.159 (l. 42), cuneiform transliteration and English translation via ETCSL.

[9] Two scribes (Dialogue 1), v. 11, cuneiform transliteration (composite text) and English translation of Matuszak (2019b) via DSSt. “This is one of the classic lines of Sumerian scatalogical invective.” Johnson & Geller (2015) p. 107. Johnson & Geller, however, have a significantly different translation of Two Scribes, v. 11: “(You have) a penis stuck up your ass, with only one testicle hanging down.” Id. Knowledge of Sumerian is still regrettably less than perfect. Further scholarly progress should clarify this classic insult.

[10] Two Women B, vv. 148-9, cuneiform transliteration and English translation via DSSt. Similarly, “no man who sleeps with her takes pleasure in her (too) small vulva {galla4la tur-tur-ra lu2 nu2 da-a-ni la-ba-an-ḫul2-l[e]}.” The Evil Mouth {Ka hulu-a}, text Ax i 17, from Matuszak (2019a) p. 263. In medieval European literature, in contrast, women sought to make their vaginas smaller.

Recognizing the mutuality of heterosexual relations, an Early Dynastic (dating about 2900-2350 BGC) insult associated female sexual unattractiveness with male sexual failure:

she who causes (the penis) to be shriveled

{ ḫáš/ḫaš4 giš-bír / ⸢mu-ḫa⸣-ab-bi-ir-tum }

BT 9,20′ / ED 78, Sumerian / Akkadian transliteration and English translation from Klein (2003) pp. 142-3.

[11] Dialog 2, v. 75, cuneiform transliteration of Manuel Ceccarelli via DSSt, English translation from Matuszak (2023) p. 609.

[12] Two Women B, vv. 102, 120, cuneiform transliteration and English translation from from Matuszak (2023) p. 609. The DSSt translation has, “And you, you belong to womankind?!”

[13] Cf. Konstantopoulos (2020), which doesn’t recognize women’s gender advantages and adopts a totalizing myth of patriarchy. Sumerian literary debate poems depict the ideal role for men as being a scribe, and the ideal role for women as being a homemaker. Many more opportunities thus existed for women to be recognized as “ideal women” than for men to be recognized as “ideal men.” Mutuszak discussed this issue in a podcast entitled, in accordance with dominant gynocentric imperatives, “Misogyny and the ideal Sumerian woman.” See Thin Edge of the Wedge, Episode 2.

[14] The Father and His Disobedient Son / Der Vater und sein missratener Sohn, vv. 147-158, cuneiform transliteration and English translation (modified insubstantially) from De Zorzi (2019) p. 223, based mainly on Sjöberg (1975).

[15] Lackey of a dead god, incipit “O Bel-etir, you kidnapped catamite, doubly so” (SAA 3.30), Assyrian text from Livingstone (1989) p. 66, English translation from Foster (2005) p. 1021. For an excerpt with notes and commentary, De Zorzi (2019) p. 227. This text is from the seventh century BGC. Id. p. 226.

[image] Stef Connor and Phoebe Haines performing their adaptation of disparaging the man Engardu based on the Sumerian text Engardu the Fool / Diatribe Against Engar-dug. Via YouTube.


Ceccarelli, Manuel. 2020. “An Introduction to the Sumerian School Disputes: Subject, Structure, Function and Context.” Chapter 3 (pp. 33-55) in Enrique Jiménez and Catherine Mittermayer, eds. Disputation Literature in the Near East and Beyond. Berlin: De Gruyter.

De Zorzi, Nicla. 2019. ‘“Rude Remarks not Fit to Smell:” Negative Value Judgements Relating to Sensory Perceptions in Ancient Mesopotamia.’ Pp. 217-252 in Annette Schellenberg and Thomas Krüger, eds. Sounding Sensory Profiles in the Ancient Near East. SBL Ancient Near East Monographs Series 25. Atlanta, G: SBL Press.

Foster, Benjamin R. 2005. Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature. Third Edition. Potomac, MD: CDL Press.

Johnson, Justin Cale and Markham J. Geller. 2015. The Class Reunion: An Annotated Translation and Commentary on the Sumerian Dialogue, Two Scribes. Leiden: Brill.

Klein, Jacob. 2003. “An Old Babylonian Edition of an Early Dynastic Collection of Insults (BT 9).” Pp. 135–149 in Walther Sallaberger, Konrad Volk, and Annette Zgoll, eds.Literatur, Politik Und Recht in Mesopotamien: Festschrift Für Claus Wilcke. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.

Livingstone, Alasdair. 1989. Court Poetry and Literary Miscellanea. State Archives of Assyria, v. 3. Helsinki, Finland: Helsinki University Press.

Konstantopoulos, Gina. 2020. “My Men Have Become Women and My Women Men: Gender Identity and Cursing in Mesopotamia.” Die Welt Des Orients: Journal for the Study of Christian Social Practice. 50(2): 358–75.

Matuszak, Jana. 2016. “‘She Is Not Fit for Womanhood’: The Ideal Housewife According to Sumerian Literary Texts.” Chapter 13 (pp. 228-254) in Brigitte Lion and Cécile Michel, eds. The Role of Women in Work and Society in the Ancient near East. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Matuszak, Jana. 2019a. “Assessing Misogyny in Sumerian Disputations and Diatribes.” Pp. 259-272 in Agnès Garcia-Ventura and Saana Svärd, eds. Proceedings of the Second Workshop on Gender, Methodology, and the Ancient Near East. Barcelona: Edicions de la Universitat de Barcelona.

Matuszak, Jana. 2019b. “Es Streite Wer Kann! Ein Neuer Rekonstruktions- Und Interpretationversuch Für Das Sumerische Schulstreitgespräch ‚Dialog 1‘.” Zeitschrift Für Assyriologie Und Vorderasiatische Archäologie. 109(1): 1–47.

Matuszak, Jana. 2023. “Humour in Sumerian Didactic Literature.” Pp. 597-612 in Robert Rollinger, Irene Madreiter, Martin Lang, and Cinzia Pappi, eds. The Intellectual Heritage of the Ancient near East: Papers Held at the 64th Rencontre Assyriologique International and the 12th Melammu Symposium, University of Innsbruck, July 16-20, 2018. Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences Press.

Sjöberg, Åke W. 1972. “‘He Is a Good Seed of a Dog’ and ‘Engardu the Fool.’” Journal of Cuneiform Studies. 24(4): 107–19.

Sjöberg, Åke W. 1973. “Der Vater Und Sein Missratener Sohn.” Journal of Cuneiform Studies. 25(3): 105–69.