ancient woman artist invented relief portrait in love for boyfriend

Across the historical record, men have much more frequently and ardently expressed love for women than women have expressed love for men. What accounts for the long history of women’s relative reticence in expressing heterosexual love? Expressing love for men doesn’t require rare material resources or extensive education. Anyone, in any circumstances, can express profound love for men. Nonetheless, scholars today have gone so far as to disregard men’s feelings, hurt men’s self-esteem, and devalue men’s lives. This oppressive gender culture isn’t inevitable. In fact, with strong, independent action, a woman in ancient Corinth expressed love for her boyfriend. Unjustly marginalized in dominant art history, she should be credited with originating bas-relief portraits and making art herstory.

Women artists in the ancient world didn’t engage only with women. The eminent first-century Roman scholar Pliny the Elder described outstanding women artists learning from men, painting men, and teaching men:

Timarete, the daughter of Micon, painted the very ancient panel picture of Artemis at Ephesus. Irene, daughter and student of the painter Cratinus, painted a young woman at Eleusis. Irene also painted Calypso, Theodorus the Juggler, and Alcisthenes the Dancer. Aristarete, the daughter and student of Nearchus, painted Asclepius. When Marcus Varro was a young man, Iaia of Cyzicus, who remained unmarried, painted in Rome pictures with a brush and also drew with an engraver on ivory. She made mainly portraits of women, as well as a large picture on wood of an old woman at Neapolis. She also made a self-portrait with a mirror. No one else had a quicker hand in painting. Her artistic skill was such that she obtained much higher prices than did the period’s most celebrated portrait painters, that is Sopolis and Dionysius, whose pictures fill the galleries. A certain Olympias also painted. The only fact recorded about her is that Autobulus was her student.

{ Timarete, Miconis filia, Dianam, quae in tabula Ephesi est antiquissimae picturae; Irene, Cratini pictoris filia et discipula, puellam, quae est Eleusine, Calypso et praestigiatorem Theodorum, Alcisthenen saltatorem; Aristarete, Nearchi filia et discipula, Aesculapium. Iaia Cyzicena, perpetua virgo, M. Varronis iuventa Romae et penicillo pinxit et cestro in ebore imagines mulierum maxime et Neapoli anum in grandi tabula, suam quoque imaginem ad speculum. nec ullius velocior in pictura manus fuit, artis vero tantum, ut multum manipretiis antecederet celeberrimos eadem aetate imaginum pictores Sopolim et Dionysium, quorum tabulae pinacothecas inplent. pinxit et quaedam Olympias, de qua hoc solum memoratur, discipulum eius fuisse Autobulum. }[1]

Theodorus the Juggler and Alcisthenes the Dancer probably were celebrities. Asclepius was a god of medicine. Women artists’ paintings of these men probably didn’t express personal love for them. Women artists, like other professionals, understandably made paintings that would sell well.

painting by Joseph Wright of Derby showing the Corinthian woman-artist at work

Artists, however, aren’t necessarily confined to their financial interests. In ancient Corinth, a woman now commonly known as Kora of Sicyon designed the first bas-relief portrait in love for her boyfriend. Pliny explained:

Butades of Sicyon, a potter at Corinth, was the first to invent shaping likenesses from potter’s clay. This work was for his daughter, who was captivated in love for a young man. When the young man was leaving to travel abroad, she inscribed in outline on a wall the shadow of his face from a lamp. Her father pressed clay on this and made a bas-relief. He set it forth with rest of his pottery to harden by fire. This bas-relief reportedly was kept in the Shrine of the Nymphs until Mummius destroyed Corinth.

{ Fingere ex argilla similitudines Butades Sicyonius figulus primus invenit Corinthi filiae opera, quae capta amore iuventis, abeunte illo peregre, umbram ex facie eius ad lucernam in pariete lineis circumscripsit, quibus pater eius inpressa argilla typum fecit et cum ceteris fictilibus induratum igni proposuit, eumque servatum in Nymphaeo, donec Mummius Corinthum everterit, tradunt. }[2]

This women of ancient Corinth has been credited with originating painting.[3] More importantly, this great woman artist pioneered a new way of expressing love for men. She shattered shackles of gynocentrism to expand forms of art.

black and brown chalk drawing of the Corinthian woman-artist at work: Vincenzo Camuccini, The Invention of Painting.

Expressing love for men has always been a daring endeavor. Consider, for example, the eminent Roman landscape painter Studius:

Examples of his paintings are noble villas accessed across marshes, tottering men with women on their shoulders, trembling with them being carried according to a promise, and many other paintings of such liveliness and very flippant wit.

{ sunt in eius exemplaribus nobiles palustri accessu villae, succollatis sponsione mulieribus labantes, trepidis quae feruntur, plurimae praeterea tales argutiae facetissimi salis. }[4]

Depicting Roman men’s subordination to women as men literally carrying women on their shoulders covers social criticism with flippant wit. Everyone must be wary. Women who simply appreciate men with their female gazes can cause men dire harm. For example, Gobryas, an elderly Assyrian military leader serving Cyrus the Great, reported:

Once the Assyrian king was drinking with my son and another of the king’s companions. The other was Gadatas, the son of a man much more powerful than I. The king had Gadatas seized and castrated, only because, as some say, the king’s concubine had praised his companion. She said that Gadatas was handsome and that the woman who was going to be his wife would be happy. But as the king himself now says, it was because his companion had made a sexual advance to his concubine. So now Gadatas is a eunuch, but he is a ruler, for his father died.

{ ἑνὸς δὲ ἀνδρὸς πολὺ δυνατωτέρου ἢ ἐγὼ υἱόν, καὶ ἐκείνου ἑταῖρον ὄντα ὥσπερ τὸν ἐμόν, συμπίνοντα παρ᾿ ἑαυτῷ συλλαβὼν ἐξέτεμεν, ὡς μέν τινες ἔφασαν, ὅτι ἡ παλλακὴ αὐτοῦ ἐπῄνεσεν αὐτὸν ὡς καλὸς εἴη καὶ ἐμακάρισε τὴν μέλλουσαν αὐτῷ γυναῖκα ἔσεσθαι· ὡς δὲ αὐτὸς νῦν λέγει, ὅτι ἐπείρασεν αὐτοῦ τὴν παλλακίδα. καὶ νῦν οὗτος εὐνοῦχος μέν ἐστι, τὴν δ᾿ ἀρχὴν ἔχει, ἐπεὶ ὁ πατὴρ αὐτοῦ ἐτελεύτησεν. }[5]

Falsely accusing men of attempting to “seduce” women has occurred far too often throughout history, as has gender bias in punishment for sex crimes. The Assyrian king’s accusation against Gadatas should be regarded as questionable. In any case, when expressing love for men, women must be aware of castration culture and seek to limit its harm to men and women.

The Corinthian woman-artist at work in David Allan's painting, "The Origin of Painting"

By the seventeenth century, the young Corinthian woman’s portrait of her boyfriend became understood as a sincere act of love at the origin of painting. The god of love Cupid guides this woman’s hand in Charles Le Brun and François Chauveau’s engraving printed in Paris in 1668. In Joachim von Sandrart’s engraving printed in Nuremberg in 1683, Cupid hovers above the woman’s head and apparently instructs her. Alexander Runciman’s painting “The Origin of Painting,” made in Scotland about 1772, has Cupid guiding the woman’s hand in tracing her boyfriend’s figure on the wall. To ensure that viewers don’t miss the meaning, on the wall is engraved the text, “behold the Greek woman-inventor, who has love as her master {amore magistro inventrix ecce Graia}.”[6] The English writer William Hayley in 1781 celebrated love, the Corinthian woman, and her sympathetic father:

Oh! LOVE, it was thy glory to impart
Its infant being to this magic art!
Inspir’d by thee, the soft Corinthian maid
Her graceful lover’s sleeping form portray’d:
Her boding heart his near departure knew,
Yet long’d to keep his image in her view:
Pleas’d she beheld the steady shadow fall,
By the clear lamp upon the even wall:
The line she trac’d with fond precision true,
And, drawing, doated on the form she drew;
Nor, as she glow’d with no forbidden fire,
Conceal’d the simple picture from her sire:
His kindred fancy, still to nature just,
Copied her line, and form’d the mimic bust.[7]

Between 1770 and 1820, art depicting the young Corinthian woman engraving her boyfriend’s shadow became a common motif broadly described as “the origin of painting.”[8] A woman expressing love for her boyfriend in ancient Corinth thus eventually acquired great significance in art history.

The Corinthian woman-artist tracing her boyfriend's silhouette in engraving in Charles Perrault's book La peinture

With the development of universal education and well-developed markets for symbolic works, the legacy of the ancient Corinthian woman artist expanded in different ways. Clara Erskine Clement, a member of a prominent and wealthy family in New England, crowned her career as a widely read art historian with her book, Women in the Fine Arts from the Seventh Century B.C. to the Twentieth Century A.D., published in 1904. Her book included a lengthy entry on the ancient Corinthian woman artist:

Kora or Callirhoë. It is a well-authenticated fact that in the Greek city of Sicyonia, about the middle of the seventh century before Christ, there lived the first woman artist of whom we have a reliable account.

Her story has been often told, and runs in this wise: Kora, or Callirhoë was much admired by the young men of Sicyonia for her grace and beauty, of which they caught but fleeting glimpses through her veil when they met her in the flower-market. By reason of Kora’s attraction the studio of her father, Dibutades, was frequented by many young Greeks, who watched for a sight of his daughter, while they praised his models in clay.

At length one of these youths begged the modeller to receive him as an apprentice, and, his request being granted, he became the daily companion of both Kora and her father. As the apprentice was skilled in letters, it soon came about that he was the teacher and ere long the lover of the charming maiden, who was duly betrothed to him.

The time for the apprentice to leave his master came all too soon. As he sat with Kora the evening before his departure, she was seized by an ardent wish for a portrait of her lover, and, with a coal from the brazier, she traced upon the wall the outline of the face so dear to her. This likeness her father instantly recognized, and, hastening to bring his clay, he filled in the sketch and thus produced the first portrait in bas-relief! It is a charming thought that from the inspiration of a pure affection so beautiful an art originated, and doubtless Kora’s influence contributed much to the artistic fame which her husband later achieved in Corinth.[9]

Although the only surviving ancient evidence about the ancient Corinthian woman artist essentially consists only of the one passage in Pliny, Clara Erskine Clement documented many additional claims about this woman artist. The Corinthian woman became widely known as Kora (apparently from the ancient Greek for “young woman {κόρη}”), or less commonly, Callirhoë (apparently from the ancient Greek for “beautiful stream {καλλίρρους}”).[10] Her grace and beauty, her modesty, her association with flowers, her many men-admirers, and the amorous young man becoming her teacher and then her husband all reflect ideas of love and gender prevalent among the northeastern American elite late in the nineteenth century.

Corinthian woman-artist tracing her boyfriend's silhouette in painting by Joseph-Benoit Suvée

As ideas of love and gender changed significantly across the twentieth century, so too did representations of the ancient Corinthian woman. Judy Chicago’s iconic Dinner Party, composed from 1974 to 1979, includes the name “Kora” on its Heritage Floor. Associated text explains:

In Pliny the Elder’s Natural History (C.E. 77) and other ancient sources, the potter Dibutades of Sicyon and his daughter Kora (also called Callirhoe) are credited with the invention of modeling in relief in the seventh century B.C.E. The story goes that Dibutades had a young apprentice with whom Kora fell in love. On the night that her lover was to complete his apprenticeship and leave, she used a piece of coal to trace his portrait on the wall. Her father saw the drawing and filled it in with clay, thus creating the first relief, which reputedly remained on the wall for 200 years.[11]

The Dinner Party apparently is indebted to Clara Erskine Clement or a closely related source for particular details: the name Callirhoe, the young apprentice preparing to leave after completing his apprenticeship, and the piece of coal. The gendered context, however, differs significantly. The Dinner Party features a dinner table setting for 39 women of noteworthy achievement, with no men. Its Heritage Floor shows the names of 999 women of noteworthy achievement, with no men. Judy Chicago explained that the women’s names on the Heritage Floor convey:

how many women had struggled into prominence or been able to make their ideas known — sometimes in the face of overwhelming obstacles — only (like the women on the table) to have their hard-earned achievements marginalized or erased.[12]

This iconic art of gender inclusion is the centerpiece of the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. Surely not merely opium for the masses, it influentially signals the health and vitality of public discourse today.

The ancient Corinthian woman who lovingly traced her boyfriend’s shadow exemplifies the artistic woman leadership that can make dying societies fruitful and young. Expressions of women’s love for men too often have been suppressed or marginalized. Not surprisingly, men’s love for women dominates the historical record of expressing heterosexual love. That can change. With appropriate support and encouragement, women can achieve gender equality in love expression and eternally advance human welfare.

Minoan bull-leaping fresco from the Knossos Palace, Crete

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[1] Pliny the Elder, Natural History {Naturalis Historia} 35.147-8 (section 40), Latin text from Rackham (1952), my English translation, benefiting from that of id. Following Linderski (2003) pp. 83-7, I’ve amended Calypso, senem to Calypso, where the later is equivalent to the rare accusative variant Calypsonem. Calpyso thus indicates a painting of the goddess Calypso, not a woman painter.

[2] Pliny, Naturalis Historia 35.151 (section 43), sourced as previously. Mummius destroyed Corinth in 146 BGC. Pliny went on to credit Butades with inventing a common form of ancient architectural ornamentation:

Butades invented adding red earth to the material or modeling out of red chalk. He first placed masks as fronts to the outer gutter-tiles on roofs. Initially he called these low-reliefs prostypa. Later he likewise made high-relief ectypa. Ornaments on the pediments of temples originated from these. Because of Butades, these are called plastae.

{ Butadis inventum est rubricam addere aut ex rubra creta fingere, primusque personas tegularum extremis imbricibus inposuit, quae inter initia prostypa vocavit; postea idem ectypa fecit. hinc et fastigia templorum orta. propter hunc plastae appellati. }

Naturalis Historia 35.152 (section 43), Latin text and English translation sourced as previously.

Probably between 177 and 180 GC, Athenagoras of Athens apparently drew upon Pliny’s account of the history of art. Describing the making of idols, Athenagoras declared:

Images were not in use before the discovery of molding, painting, and sculpture. Then came Saurius of Samos, Crato of Sicyon, Cleanthes of Corinth, and the Corinthian maid. Tracing out shadows was discovered by Saurius, who drew the outline of a horse standing in the sun. Painting was discovered by Crato, who colored in the outlines of the shadows of a man and woman on a whitened tablet. Relief modeling was discovered by the Corinthian maid. She fell in love with someone and traced the outline of his shadow on the wall as he slept. Then her father, a potter, delighted with so precise a likeness, made a relief of the outline and filled it with clay. The relief is preserved to this very day in Corinth.

{ αἱ δ’ εἰκόνες μέχρι μήπω πλαστικὴ καὶ γραφικὴ καὶ ἀνδριαντοποιητικὴ ἦσαν, οὐδὲ ἐνομίζοντο· Σαυρίου δὲ τοῦ Σαμίου καὶ Κράτωνος τοῦ Σικυωνίου καὶ Κλεάνθους τοῦ Κορινθίου καὶ κόρης Κορινθίας ἐπιγενομένων καὶ σκιαγραφίας μὲν εὑρεθείσης ὑπὸ Σαυρίου ἵππον ἐν ἡλίῳ περιγράψαντος, γραφικῆς δὲ ὑπὸ Κράτωνος ἐν πίνακι λελευκωμένῳ σκιὰς ἀνδρὸς καὶ γυναικὸς ἐναλείψαντος, –ἀπὸ δὲ τῆς κόρης ἡ κοροπλαθικὴ εὑρέθη (ἐρωτικῶς γάρ τινος ἔχουσα περιέγραψεν αὐτοῦ κοιμωμένου ἐν τοίχῳ τὴν σκιάν, εἶθ’ ὁ πατὴρ ἡσθεὶς ἀπαραλλάκτῳ οὔσῃ τῇ ὁμοιότητι– κέραμον δὲ εἰργάζετο–ἀναγλύψας τὴν περιγραφὴν πηλῷ προσ ανεπλήρωσεν· ὁ τύπος ἔτι καὶ νῦν ἐν Κορίνθῳ σῴζεται) }

Athenagoras of Athens, Embassy for the Christians {Πρεσβεία περί Χριστιανών / Legatio Pro Christianis} 17.3, ancient Greek text and English translation (modified insubstantially) from Schoedel (1972). Athenagoras’s Legatio is also called his Apology or Plea for the Christians. On Athenagoras, Williams (2020) Chapter 9.

After Pliny wrote, an entrepreneur in Corinth perhaps put forward a claimed relief of the Corinthian woman. In particular, Pliny’s Naturalis Historia may have generated new fame for her. Athenagoras, who was not highly knowledgeable about painting, perhaps referred to this new Corinthian tourist attraction. Besides Pliny and Athenagoras, no other pre-medieval reference to the pioneering Corinthian woman artist is known.

[3] In a recent book, a well-known art critic declared: “The Roman historian Pliny the Elder … even asserted that the art of painting originated with a woman.” Higgie (2021) p. 3. Pliny himself was hesitant to address the origin of painting and expressed uncertainty about it:

The question as to the origin of the art of painting is uncertain and it does not belong to the plan of this work. The Egyptians declare that it was invented among themselves six thousand years ago before it passed over into Greece — which is clearly an idle assertion. As to the Greeks, some of them say it was discovered at Sicyon, others in Corinth, but all agree that it began with tracing an outline round a man’s shadow and consequently that pictures were originally done in this way, but the second stage when a more elaborate method had been invented was done in a single color and called monochrome, a method still in use at the present day. Line-drawing was invented by the Egyptian Philocles or by the Corinthian Cleanthes, but it was first practiced by the Corinthian Aridices and the Sicyonian Telephanes — these were at that stage not using any color, yet already adding lines here and there to the interior of the outlines

{ De picturae initiis incerta nec instituti operis quaestio est. Aegyptii sex milibus annorum aput ipsos inventam, priusquam in Graeciam transiret, adfirmant, vana praedicatione, ut palam est; Graeci autem alii Sicyone, alii aput Corinthios repertam, omnes umbra hominis lineis circumducta, itaque primam talem, secundam singulis coloribus et monochromaton dictam, postquam operosior inventa erat, duratque talis etiam nunc. inventam liniarem a Philocle Aegyptio vel Cleanthe Corinthio primi exercuere Aridices Corinthius et Telephanes Sicyonius, sine ullo etiamnum hi colore, iam tamen spargentes linias intus. }

Naturalis Historia 35.15-6 (section 5), Latin text and English translation from Rackham (1952). Elsewhere, Pliny states that painting was invented:

by Egyptians, and in Greece by Euchir the kinsman of Daedalus according to Aristotle, but according to Theophrastus by Polygnotus of Athens.

{ Aegypti et in Graecia Euchir Daedali cognatus ut Aristoteli placet, ut Theophrasto Polygnotus Atheniensis. }

Naturalis Historia 7.205 (section 56), Latin text and English translation from id. For classical sources concerning the history of painting in Greece, Reinach (1921) Chapter 3, and Overbeck (1868) pp. 67-9.

[4] Pliny, Naturalis Historia 35.117 (section 37), Latin text from Rackham (1952), my English translation, benefiting from that of id and Ling (1977) p. 1.

[5] Xenophon of Athens, Cyropaedia / The Education of Cyrus {Κύρου παιδεία} 5.2.28, ancient Greek text from Miller (1914), English translation (modified for ease of readability) from Ambler (2001).

[6] On love at the origin of painting and the woman artist of Corinth, Muecke (1999). Charles Le Brun and François Chauveau’s engraving on the origin of painting is shown above. Joachim von Sandrart’s engraving of the origin of painting in the Latin edition of his Teutsche Academie, printed in Nuremberg in 1683, is freely available on For a color image of Alexander Runciman’s painting of the origin of painting, Cannady (2006) Figure 22. For Runciman’s preliminary wash and a more detailed monochrome image, MacMillan (1973) Plates 88 and 105. The text engraved on the wall is to the viewer’s left of the boyfriend’s head. For the transcription of the Latin text, Rosenblum (1957) p. 282.

In today’s scholarship, a very important issue is iconography relating to the mythic goddess of love Cupid:

These paintings demonstrate extremes in the representation of the maid of Corinth as an artist: in the one she is merely the chaste cypher of Cupid’s impetus to art; in the other she is the female artist, herself eroticized for a masculine gaze and impelled by her own urges, whose creative act in tracing the shadow is itself a mere echo of her parallel gesture of physical desire. … The popularity of the story of the Corinthian maid is registered through this proliferation of images representing the origin of art, but no single interpretation of the female artist dominated. The maid sometimes appears to be actively motivated by human desire alone, sometimes to be the passive recipient of Cupid’s active direction; the scene is sometimes highly intimate, with only the girl and her lover present, sometimes public, though still within the domestic sphere, with other human figures in attendance. This flexibility in imagining the origin of art equally suggests flexibility in imagining the female artist. The images allow for a range of imagined autonomy, of posited relationships between the woman as artist and her muse, and the woman as desiring lover and her object.

King (2004) pp. 634, 636. In the Aeneid, Cupid inflames Dido with love for Aeneas. Nonetheless, Dido isn’t a “chaste cypher.” More generally, women should not regard men as their serfs or their objects.

[7] Hayley (1778) Epistle I, vv. 124-137. In note iv to verse 126, Hayley accurate described the ancient source texts. Some manuscripts of Pliny’s Naturalis Historia have the potter-father’s name as Dibutades of Sicyon. Butades of Sicyon is now generally regarded as a better reading. On editions of Hayley’s poem, Rosenblum (1957) p. 284, note 41, which doesn’t mention the 1778 edition or the 1779 edition.

The brief reference to Pliny’s account of the Corinthian woman artist in Hayley (1778) inspired the English author Amelia Opie to write a poem entitled “Epistle supposed to be Addressed by Eudora, The Maid of Corinth, to Her Lover Philemon, Informing him of her having traced his Shadow on the Wall while he was sleeping, the Night before his Departure: Together with the joyful Consequences of this Action.” King (2004) p. 630, and p. 648, n. 3. For a critical edition of the poem, King & Pierce (2009) pp. 63-73 (poem 55). Opie’s Corinthian woman artist, whom she calls Eudora, is understand in today’s scholarship as today’s ideal woman:

In her interpretation, Opie depicts a woman of extraordinary creative power, who is both domestic and political, uniting private elements of erotic desire and domestic satisfaction with public issues of the civic function of art. … Like Eudora’s drawing and sculpture, Opie’s “Maid of Corinth” can be seen as offering an aesthetic venue for the exploration and articulation of female desire and as suggesting the power of art to transform potentially socially transgressive private acts to public artistic benefit.

King (2004) pp. 630, 648. That’s not at all a transgressive interpretation.

[8] Rosenblum (1957) pp. 281-2. Affirmed by Levitine (1958) p. 330. A dog, symbolizing loyality, occasionally was included in the compositions. Rosenblum (1957) p. 284, calling the dog Fido.

Men have also created images of women that they love. The ancient Greek sculptor Pygmalion of Cyprus carved a woman in ivory and then fell in love with her. She subsequently acquired the name Galatea. The medieval Romance of the Rose brilliantly adapts the legend of Pygmalion and Galatea. In 1827, Auguste Jean-Baptiste Vinchon and Nicolas Louis-Françe Gosse made a grisaille The Origin of Drawing {L’origine du Dessin} for the Louvre’s Musée Charles X. In that grisaille, the man traces the outline of his beloved woman. A man artist tracing the silhouette of his beloved woman also is shown in an emblem that Jean-Charles de La Fosse made in 1768, as well as in Antoine-Claude Fleury’s The origin of painting {L’origine de la peinture} (c. 1808), and in a painting by Karl Friedrich Schinkel in 1830. On this iconography, Levintine (1958) p. 330. Schinkel’s painting inspired an etching by Julius Caesar Thaeter in 1839. Nonetheless, among art depicting the origin of painting, the woman artist has dominated.

About 1784, Gilles-Louis Chrétien pioneered a mechanized means for quickly creating multiple silhouette portraits of a sitter. Such machines and their products became known as a physionotraces / physiognotraces. At least thirty profile portraitists using physiognotraces were active in New England between 1790 and 1810. The operator of one physiognotrace reportedly made 8,000 silhouettes about 1802 in the U.S. Bellion (1999). Men were among the operators of physiognotraces.

In myth, women have continued to dominate the origin of painting. The prominent art gallery operator Almine Rech, who runs galleries in Brussels, London, New York, and Shanghai, recounted the myth for her 2023 exhibit “Feeling of Light”:

The most famous myth about the birth of painting is probably the one told by Pliny the Elder in his Natural History c. 75 AD: the story of Dibutade’s daughter, the young woman who drew the outline of her lover’s shadow in charcoal on the wall of her house before he left for a long journey, capturing his silhouette to give his presence the illusion of eternity. This woman, whose first name Pliny omits to mention {sic}, was the first painter in history. Kora of Sicyon — her actual name {sic} — created painting as an antidote to absence and disappearance, and invented an art whose necessity has been continually affirmed ever since.

It is to this woman that we owe the invention of representation, the form we give to the impossibility of forgetting. Kora of Sicyon thus made it possible to offer an ultimate attention, a final light to an image before it disappears, this famous “feeling of light” of which the poet and painter Etel Adnan speaks.

From Almine Rech’s online exhibit documentation for “Feeling of Light.”

[9] Waters (1904) pp. 200-1. Featuring Kora in the first page of her introduction, Waters underscored the authenticity of the story of Kora:

We have some knowledge of women artists in ancient days. Few stories of that time are so authentic as that of Kora, who made the design for the first bas-relief, in the city of Sicyonia, in the seventh century B.C.

Id. p. xi. Waters provided an account of “Kora or Callirhoë” with a few additional colorful details in Waters (1887), Part II (Sculpture), pp. 20-1.

Clara Erskine was born in 1834 in privileged circumstances among the New England elite. Clara was born in St. Louis, Missouri, where her father, a businessman, had temporarily brought his family. When Clara was two, her family settled in Milford, Massachusetts. Milford was the hometown of Clara’s mother, Harriet Bethiah Erskine. Clara’s family spent much time among the New England elite in Boston and Cambridge. Her family hired private tutors to educate her. She apparently learned to read Greek and Latin, and had speaking, reading, and writing knowledge of German, Italian, and French. Von Lintel (2013) pp. 41, including p. 41, n. 9.

Clara Erskine married the wealthy Boston businessman James Hazen Clement in 1852. She had five children, traveled extensively, including to many countries of Europe, India, China, and Japan. She also developed a career as a professional writer. She became a “talented, respected, and prolific art historian,” and her books achieved “widespread popularity … across American.” Von Lintel (2013) pp. 63, 50. She was a strong, independent professional:

Waters was bargaining with publishers for higher royalties and better contracts, and was willing to drop one firm to establish a relationship with another house where she felt her books would be more effectively “pushed” or marketed. She grew to take pride in the fact that her publishers “knew that [she was] in a position to be independent,” and that she was well versed in the workings of the book business. She even voiced her opinions about the difficulties of working with publishers, whom she called “a cranky and trying race.” Lacking institutional support from a university or museum, Waters drew upon her business acumen and strong personality to promote her position as a published art historian.

Id. p. 45, footnotes omitted. Clara Erskine’s husband James Hazen Clement died in 1881. In 1882 she married the wealthy Edwin Forbes Waters. He was both an author (see, e.g. Waters (1878)) and the owner of the Boston Daily Advertiser.

[10] The Corinthian woman is called “Cora of Sicyon” in Francisco Pecheco’s The Art of Painting {El Arte de la Pintura} (1649). King (2004) p. 651, n. 29. That name, which isn’t in Pliny, seems to be a mistranslation of Athenagoras’s account, which is probably a Greek adaptation of Pliny. See “Corinthian young woman {κόρη Κορῐνθῐ́ᾱ}” translated as “Core” in Athenagoras’s Πρεσβεία περί Χριστιανών 17.3 in Humphreys (1714) p. 173. In the mid-nineteenth century, B. P. Pratten translated that phrase as “Corinthian damsel” and noted “Or, Koré. It is doubtful whether or not this should be regarded as a proper name.” See text in the Anti-Nicene Fathers, Vol. II. Crehan (1956) and Schoedel (1972) both translate that phrase as “Corinthian maid.” The name Callirhoë for the Corinthian woman is a relatively rare tradition with no known ancient textual basis.

The Corinthian woman has also been commonly called Dibutade, Dibutades, and Dibutadis. See, e.g. the National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.) teaching resource on the “Greco-Roman myth of Dibutades.” Dibutade and associated names are inferior textual readings of her father’s name in Pliny. Based on surviving manuscript evidence, the best reading in now judged to be Butades. The corresponding name of the Corinthian woman’s father in Athenagoras is Boutades. The modern myth of Dibutades, which is far more extensive than the Greco-Roman myth, surely should be of interest to teachers and students.

Whether Butades of Sicyon and his daughter were actual historical figures in Corinth isn’t clear. The time in which Butades of Sicyon and his daughter reportedly lived in Corinth isn’t stated or known. Minoan frescoes in Crete, which include painted, outlined figures, date to the first half of the second millennium BGC. On the history of Greek painting, Rumpf (1947).

[11] Documentation for the Dinner Party’s Heritage Floor name Kora on the website for Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art.

[12] Quote attributed to Judy Chicago in the documentation for the Dinner Party’s Heritage Floor on the website for Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. This grand narrative is now pervasive. For example, it’s featured in the publisher’s blurb for a woman’s book on women’s self-portraits:

Until the twentieth century, art history was, in the main, written by white men who tended to write about other white men. The idea that women in the West have always made art was rarely cited as a possibility. Yet they have — and, of course, continue to do so — often against tremendous odds, from laws and religion to the pressures of family and public disapproval.

In The Mirror and the Palette, Jennifer Higgie introduces us to a cross-section of women artists who embody the fact that there is more than one way to understand our planet, more than one way to live in it and more than one way to make art about it. Spanning 500 years, biography and cultural history intertwine in a narrative packed with tales of rebellion, adventure, revolution, travel and tragedy enacted by women who turned their back on convention and lived lives of great resilience, creativity and bravery.

Higgie (2021), publisher’s blurb. Clara Erskine Clement Waters probably would regard this 2021 woman’s book on women’s self-portraits as parochial, juvenile, and ridiculous. For a similar example of current hackneyed rhetoric, McCormack (2021). AI systems now seem to be mass-producing this sort of work across the Internet.

The popularity from 1770 to 1820 of paintings of the Corithinian woman now known as Kora originating the art of painting might be related to gendered sentiment. A leading scholar of this legend stated:

To explain the popularity of this legend (a popularity which even extended to textiles), one should mention still another tendency of the period, expecially in France. This was the prominent role of women painters around 1800, witness such notable examples as Angelica Kauffmann, Elisabeth Vigée-Liebrun, Adélaide Labille-Guiard, Constance Mayer, and David’s now famous pupil, Constance Charpentier. It was only natural that the many women painters of an era which so often disguised itself in antique clothing should be proud that Greek legend held the inventor of their art to be a woman, a fact which is rarely overlooked in the early pages of subsequent histories of women artists

Rosenblum (1957) p. 288. The now vast body of work on gender and art seems not to have explored this point.

[images] (1) The Corinthian woman artist at work. Excerpt from a painting by Joseph Wright of Derby. Originally titled “The Origin of Painting,” now commonly titled “The Corinthian Maid.” Wright painted it between 1782 and 1784 for the eminent English potter and businessman Josiah Wedgwood. Preserved as accession # 1983.1.46 in the National Gallery of Art (Washington, DC), Paul Mellon Collection, with the image rightly contributed to the public domain. (2) The Corinthian woman artist at work in a black and brown chalk drawing by Vincenzo Camuccini. He made this drawing, titled “The Invention of Drawing,” about 1816-1820. Preserved as accession # 46283r in the National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa). Purchased in 2014 with the support of the Friends of the Print Room Trust, National Gallery of Canada Foundation, in honour of Mimi Cazort, Curator of Prints and Drawings from 1970 to 1997. (3) The Corinthian woman artist at work in a painting by David Allan. Allan made this painting, titled “The Origin of Painting” / “The Maid of Corinth” in 1775. Preserved as accession # NG 612 in the National Galleries of Scotland. Presented by Mrs Byres of Tonley 1875. Here’s a print based on the painting. (4) The Corinthian woman artist tracing her boyfriend’s silhouette in an engraving in Charles Perrault’s book The Painting {La peinture} (1668). The composition is based on a painting by Charles Le Brun, and the engraving is by François Chauveau. Image from Muecke (1999) p. 298. Perrault’s La peinture is a poem in praise of Charles Le Brun, the director of the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture {Académie royale de Peinture et de Sculpture} from 1655 until his death in 1690. La peinture concludes with a story of the origin of painting. It tells of a young shepherdess on the island of Paphos tracing the silhouette of her beloved man with Love’s guidance. An engraving by Pieter Schenk in 1693 duplicates that of Charles Le Brun and François Chauveau. Schenk’s engraving was printed in The Cabinet of Fine Arts or Collection of Prints, engraved after the Paintings of a Ceiling where the Fine Arts are Represented {Le Cabinet des Beaux Arts ou Recueil d’Estampes, gravées d’apres les Tableaux d’un ceiling ou les Beaux Arts sont representés / De Schatkamer der Vrye Konsten of Verzameling van verscheidene Printen, gegraveerd na eenige Zolderstukken, in welke deze Konsten vertoond worden}. It’s preserved as accession # BI-1904-39 in the Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam, Netherlands). Image on Wikimedia Commons. (5) The Corinthian woman artist tracing her boyfriend’s silhouette. Excerpt from painting that Joseph-Benoit Suvée painted in 1791. This painting is known by the title “The invention of the Art of Drawing.” Preserved as accession # 0000.GRO0132.I in the Groeningemuseum (Bruges, Belgium). Source image via Wikimedia Commons. Additional resources: collection of art similarly depicting the origin of painting, another curated collection, and a list of works. (6) Minoan bull-leaping fresco from the Knossos Palace, Crete. Made between 1600 and 1450 BGC. Preserved in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Heraklion, Crete. Source image via Wikimedia Commons.


Ambler, Wayne. 2001. Xenophon of Athens. The Education of Cyrus. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press.

Bellion, Wendy. 1999. “The Mechanization of Likeness in Jeffersonian America.” Paper presented at the Media in Transition Conference at MIT on October 8, 1999.

Cannady, Lauren R. 2006. Materiality, the Model, and the Myth of Origins: Problems in Eighteenth-Century European Terracotta and Its Reception. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Georgia.

Crehan, Joseph Hugh. 1956. Athenagoras of Athens. Embassy for the Christians. the Resurrection of the Dead. Ancient Christian Writers, 23. Westminster, London: Newman Press, Longmans, Green & Co.

Hayley, William. 1778. A Poetical Epistle to an Eminent Painter. London: Printed for T. Payne and Son at the Mews Gate, J. Dodsley in Pall-Mall, and Robson and Co. in New Bond Street. Republished in 1781 as An Essay on Painting: In Two Epistles to Mr. Romney. London: Printed for J. Dodsley.

Higgie, Jennifer. 2021. The Mirror and the Palette: 500 Years of Women’s Self-Portraits. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Humphreys, David, trans. 1714. The Apologeticks of the Learned Athenian Philosopher Athenagoras: I. For the Christian Religion. II. For the Truth of the Resurrection against the Scepticks and Infidels of that Age. London: Printed by Geo. James for Richard Smith at Bishop Beveridge’s Head in Pater-Noster-Row.

King, Shelley. 2004. ‘Amelia Opie’s “Maid of Corinth” and the Origins of Art.” Eighteenth-Century Studies. 37(4): 629–51.

King, Shelley and John Pierce, eds. 2009. The Collected Poems of Amelia Alderson Opie. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Levitine, George. 1958. ‘Addenda to Robert Rosenblum’s “The Origin of Painting: A Problem in the Iconography of Romantic Classicism.”‘ The Art Bulletin. 40(4): 329–31.

Linderski, J. 2003. “The Paintress Calypso and Other Painters in Pliny.” Zeitschrift Für Papyrologie Und Epigraphik. 145: 83–96.

Ling, Roger. 1977. “Studius and the Beginnings of Roman Landscape Painting.” The Journal of Roman Studies 67: 1–16.

MacMillan, John Duncan. 1973. The Earlier Career of Alexander Runciman and the Influences that Shaped His Style. Ph. D. Thesis, University of Edinburgh.

McCormack, Catherine. 2021. Women in the Picture: What Culture Does with Female Bodies. First American ed. New York NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

Miller, Walter, ed. and trans. 1914. Cyropaedia, Volume II: Books 5-8. Loeb Classical Library 52. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Muecke, Frances. 1999. ‘”Taught by Love”: The Origin of Painting Again.’ The Art Bulletin. 81(2): 297–302.

Overbeck, Johannes Adolf. 1868. Die Antiken Schriftquellen Zur Geschichte Der Bildenden Künste Bei Den Griechen. Leipzig: W. Engelmann.

Rackham, H., ed. and trans. 1952. Pliny the Elder. Natural History, Volume IX: Books 33-35. Loeb Classical Library 394. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Reinach, Adolphe Joseph. 1921. Recueil Milliet; Textes Grecs et Latins Relatifs à l’Histoire de la Peinture Ancienne. Paris: C. Klincksieck.

Rosenblum, Robert. 1957. “The Origin of Painting: A Problem in the Iconography of Romantic Classicism.” The Art Bulletin. 39(4): 279–90.

Rumpf, A. 1947. “Classical and Post-Classical Greek Painting.” The Journal of Hellenic Studies. 67: 10–21.

Schoedel, William R., trans. 1972. Athenagoras: Legatio and De Resurrectione. London: Oxford University Press.

Von Lintel, Amy M. 2013. “Clara Waters and the Popular Audiences for Art History in Nineteenth-Century America.” Princeton University Library Chronicle. 75(1): 38–64.

Waters, Clara Erskine Clement. 1887. A History of Art for Beginners and Students: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture. New York, NY: F. A. Stokes.

Waters, Clara Erskine Clement. 1904. Women in the Fine Arts from the Seventh Century B.C. to the Twentieth Century A.D. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Waters, Edwin Forbes. 1878. The Great Struggle in England for Honest Government Considered in Two Lectures with Reference to Civil Service Reform in the United States. Boston: Houghton Osgood.

Williams, Daniel H. 2020. Defending and Defining the Faith: An Introduction to Early Christian Apologetic Literature. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

men in love with women in Sumerian proverbs

In ancient Mesopotamia, proverbs inscribed in Sumerian on stone tablets provide wisdom for men in love with women. Sumerian love poems use specific, physical referents. Sumerian proverbs similarly refer to specific, typical aspects of ordinary life. These proverbs acknowledge relational difficulties in love, express motifs of men’s sexed protest, and realistically affirm the importance of women to men.

Emotional relations affect human welfare fundamentally. A pair of ancient Sumerian proverbs declare:

A loving heart builds houses.
A hating heart destroys houses.

{ cag4 ki-aj2 nij2 e2 du3-du3-u3-dam
cag4 hul-gig nij2 e2 gul-gul-lu-dam }[1]

In this context, “houses” functions as a physical metaphor for “families.” Men have hearts and feelings. As these proverbs affirm, men’s hearts and feelings matter for families’ welfare. In fact, each member of a family has a heart, and each heart’s orientation to the others affects the family’s welfare. It’s not just the superficial, modern gynocentric proverb: “happy wife, happy life.”

Cuneiform tablet inscribed with the Instructions of Shuruppak, a Sumerian proverb collection

Happy in their love for men, women in ancient Mesopotamia appreciated men’s love for them. A Sumerian proverb declares:

A plant as sweet as a husband does not grow in the steppe.

{ u2 dam-gin7 ze2-ba edin-na nu-un-mu2 }[2]

Sumerian “edin-na,” here translated as “steppe,” could also be translated as “open country” or “desert.” The point seems to be that human cultivation is necessary to develop sweet husbands. Most men naturally love women. Men, however, need to learn how to love women in the way of a sweet husband. Another Sumerian proverb explains:

My husband picks the bones from the fish for me.

{ [mu]-/ud\-na-[ju10] [jiri3-pax(PAD)-ra2] /cag4 ku6-ta\ […]-/de5\-de5-ge }

A sweet husband elaborated:

With my mouth I cool the hot soup for you.
I pick the bones from the fish for you.

{ ka-ju10 tu7 bil-la2 ma-ra-sed-de3-en
ku6-ta jiri3-pax(PAD)-ra2 ma-ni-ib-rig5-rig5-ge-en }

Women in ancient Mesopotamia appreciated not only men’s kindness towards them, but also the physical qualities of men’s bodies:

A shepherd’s sex appeal is his penis.
A gardener’s sex appeal is his hair.

{ sipad jic3-a-ni
nu-jickiri6 suhur-ni }

A shepherd carries a long staff. A gardener raises plants with lush crowns. A staff and a crown are metaphors for men’s sexually distinctive penis and hairy genitals, respectively. Men historically have commonly been valued instrumentally, i.e. as tools for doing tasks.[3] Women in ancient Mesopotamia appreciated men for their masculine being itself.

Men in ancient Mesopotamia appreciated women broadly. Men appreciated women’s sensual bodies, their sexual receptivity, and their reproductive potential:

May Inana make a hot-limbed wife lie with you!
May she bestow upon you broad-shouldered sons!
May she find for you a place of happiness!

{ dinana-ke4 dam ur2 kum2-ma ha-ra-an-nu2-e
dumu a2 tal2-tal2-la ha-ra-an-ba-e
ki nij2 sag9-ga ha-ra-ab-kij2-kij2-e }

Men in ancient Mesopotamia also appreciated women’s hearts:

My girlfriend’s heart is a heart made for me.

{ cag4 ma-la-ja2 cag4 ma-dim2-/ma\ }

Moreover, women’s economic contributions to the household improved men’s welfare:

The married man is well equipped.
The unmarried man makes his bed in a haystack.

{ lu2 dam tuku a2 cu im-du7-du7
dam nu-un-tuku ce-er-tab-ba mu-un-nu2 }[4]

Most importantly, men in ancient Mesopotamia regarded women not as goddesses, but as human beings like themselves. With an ironic nod to gyno-idolatry, a Sumerian proverb celebrates women’s full humanity:

Something which has never occurred since time immemorial:
a young woman did not fart in her husband’s embrace.

{ nij2 ud-bi-ta la-ba-jal2-la
ki-sikil tur ur2 dam-ma-na-ka ce10 nu-ub-dur2-re }[5]

Men in ancient Mesopotamia, like men in medieval Europe, surely understood that a husband’s sexual obligation to his wife is much more important than an occasional fart.

Both men and women in ancient Mesopotamia chose whether to marry a particular person. A Sumerian proverb declares:

Young woman, your brother cannot choose for you.
Whom do you choose to marry?

{ ki-sikil cec-zu saj nu-mu-re-eb-kal-le
a-ba-am3 saj mu-e-kal-le-en }

Men were similarly advised:

Marry the wife of your choice.

{ igi il2-la-za dam tuku-ba-ni-ib }[6]

Given the importance of a man’s wife, a man should choose a wife wisely:

Don’t choose a wife during a festival!

{ ezem-ma-kam dam na-an-tuku-tuku-un-e-ce }

Sumerian wisdom literature further elaborates on the danger of choosing a wife at a festival:

You should not choose a wife during a festival.
Inside, it is all borrowed. Outside, it is all borrowed.
The silver on her is borrowed. The lapis lazuli on her is borrowed.
The dress on her is borrowed. The linen garment on her is borrowed.

{ ezem-ma-ka dam na-an-tuku-tuku-e
cag4-ga huj-ja2-am3 bar-ra huj-ja2-am3
kug huj-ja2-am3 za-gin3 huj-ja2-am3
tug2? huj-ja2-am3 gada? huj-ja2-am3 }[7]

A festival isn’t ordinary life. While many men enjoying gazing upon alluring dressed women, a prudent man marries a wife for her authentic self.

In ancient Mesopotamia, voices of men’s sexed protest weren’t harshly and comprehensively suppressed. A Sumerian proverb characterizes actual hierarchies of class and gender:

As a slave girl, I have no authority over my mistress.
So let me pull on my husband’s hair.

{ gi4-in-jen ga-ca-an-/ra\ /ce-er\ /nu-mu-un-na-ma-[al]
/mu-[ud-na-ju10] [ga-an-ze2-e-ce] }[8]

Despite the modern myth of patriarchy, husbands are typically subordinate to their wives. Men are taught not to complain — “take it like a man.” Nonetheless, in ancient Mesopotamia, husbands sometimes complained about demanding wives:

Like a sow was she not treated to luxury?
Was she not accustomed to demanding barley in the middle of the night?

{ megida2!-gin7 hi-li nu-mu-ni-in-ak
ji6 MAC-a-ka ce al nu-mu-ni-in-dug4-e-ce }

A common motif of men’s sexed protest is wives betraying their husbands’ secrets. A Sumerian proverb expresses that concern:

What has been spoken in secret will be revealed in the women’s quarters.

{ puzur5 u3-bi2-dug4 ama5-e he2-bur2-re }[9]

Ancient Mesopotamian wisdom realistically recognized husbands’ vulnerability in relation to their wives:

A malicious wife living in the house
is worse than all diseases.

{ dam nu-jar-ra e2-a til3-la-am3
a2-sag3-a2-sag3-e dirig-ga-am3 }

Many men don’t consider carefully the advantages and disadvantages of marrying. A proverb from ancient Mesopotamia highlights a man’s foolishness:

For his pleasure, he got married. On thinking it over, he got divorced.

{ sag9-ga-ni-ce3 tuku-am3 jalgaga-ni-ce3 taka4-am3 }

Men endure acute anti-men bias in divorce proceedings. Ancient Mesopotamian wisdom wisely urges men to think before they marry.

Sumerian proverbs offer a realistic perspective on ordinary life in Mesopotamia more than four thousand years ago. Like the Hebrew Bible, Sumerian proverbs affirm life as a fundamental blessing despite difficulties of lived experience:

Although the number of unhappy days is endless,
life is better than death …..

{ ud nu-dug3-ga cid-bi [nu]-til3
/nam-til3 nam-uc2-a dirig X […] }

Difficulties of lived experience, such as diarrhea and marital strife, require prudent, appropriate responses. A proverb provides a counter-example:

A fool who was overwhelmed by his backside
stuck his hand up his backside.

{ is-hab2 ki-bid3-/da\ [(X)] cu ca-an-ca-[ca-da]
cu-ni bid3-/da\ [ba-ni-in-gid2] }

Although a wife and having children might create difficulties for men, in ancient Mesopotamia these personal relations were regarded as fundamentally important to men’s lives:

He who does not support a wife, he who does not support a child,
has no cause for celebration.

{ dam nu-il2 dumu nu-il2
giri17-zal-ce3 nu-il2 }

This Sumerian proverb isn’t referring to “child support” as the term is known today. Being subject to paying “child support” surely isn’t reason for a man to celebrate. This Sumerian proverb concerns a husband building a home together with his wife and supporting their child with his time, attention, and work. In ancient Mesopotamia, fathers hadn’t been transformed legally into merely wallets. The ancient Mesopotamian legal regime encouraged men to marry and have children.

Inscribed in stone, Sumerian proverbs are the oldest written records of wisdom to have survived to the present. The emerging scholarly field of meninist literary criticism shows that some Sumerian proverbs speak to men as distinctively gendered, fully human beings. One must, however, avoid anachronistic literary interpretations. The pressing need to affirm men’s gender distinctiveness and intrinsic goodness has emerged only recently. Far removed from hateful social constructions such as “toxic masculinity,” the relatively wise culture of ancient Mesopotamia appreciated men’s distinctiveness and goodness even without the benefit of meninist literary criticism.

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Sumerian Proverbs t.6.1.11 11.147 (ll. 3-4), Sumerian transliteration and English translation (modified insubstantially) from the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, second edition (ETCSL). All Sumerian proverbs are similarly sourced and cited by their corpus numbers in ETCSL.

Alster (1997) is the most important scholarly reference on Sumerian proverbs, but regrettably difficult to access. For an overview of Sumerian proverb collections, Taylor (2005). For an outdated but still informative study, Gordon (1959). For an idiosyncratic selection of Sumerian proverbs, Saltveit (2007).

Subsequent proverbs above, unless otherwise noted, are similarly from ETCSL. They are t.6.1.01 1.126 (l. 6), “A plant as sweet…”; t.6.1.22 (l.33), “My husband picks the bones…”; t.6.1.03 3.112 (ll. 204-5), “With my mouth I cool…”; t.6.1.16 16.b4 (ll. 8-9), “A Shepherd’s sex appeal…”; t.6.1.19. 19.c5 (ll. 7-9), “May Inana make…”; t.6.1.01 1.91 (l. 51), “My girlfriend’s heart…”; t.6.1.01 1.12 (ll. 15-16), “Something which has never occurred…”; t.6.1.01 1.148 (ll. 18-9), “Young woman, your brother…”; t.6.1.19 19.c4 (l. 6), “Marry the wife of your choice”; t.6.1.11 11.150 (l. 7), “Don’t choose a wife during a festival”; t.6.1.11 19.d11 (ll. 14-15), “As a slave girl…”; t.6.1.08 8.b3 (ll. 5-6), “Like a sow was she not…”; t.6.1.01 1.82 (l. 37), “What has been spoken in secret…”; t.6.1.01 1.154 (ll. 31-32), “A malicious wife…”; t.6.1.02 2.124 (l. 203), “For his pleasure, he got married…”; t.6.1.25 25.5 (ll. 16-7), “Although the number of unhappy days…”; t.6.1.19 19.e3 (ll. 4-5), “A fool who was overwhelmed…”; t.6.1.01 1.153 (ll. 29-30), “He who does not support a wife….”

[2] In a testament to current intellectual narrow-mindedness, this proverb is included in Halton & Svärd (2017) because a woman apparently wrote it. Id. p. 214.

[3] In a Sumerian proverb, a man lamented:

All day long, oh penis, you ejaculate
as if you have blood inside you, and then you hang like a damp reed.

{ ud cu2-uc jic3-e a ab-ra-an
uc2 cag4-ba-gin7 gi duru5-a ab-la2-en }

Sumerian Proverbs, ETCSL t.6.1.04. 4.7 (ll. 8-9). This man apparently had an infection causing discharge from his penis and impotence. While men’s impotence is appropriately regarded as an epic disaster, a man’s being is greater than merely his sexual potential.

[4] The Instructions of Shuruppak {Šuruppag} (Old Babylonian / Standard Sumerian version), ll. 185-6, Sumerian transliteration and English translation from ETCSL t.5.6.1. For text, translation, and commentary on The Instructions of Shuruppak, Alster (2005). For an overview of the text and its development, Samet (2023) and Sallaberger (2018).

The earliest surviving version of The Instructions of Shuruppak, recorded on the Abu Salabikh tablet from about 2550 BGC, declares, “To have a wife is perfect.” Line 123, translation from Sallaberger (2018) xii.

[5] According to current scholarship, this proverb is “certainly misogynistic.” De Zorzi (2019) p. 224. In current scholarship, any literature that doesn’t support gyno-idolatry is disparaged as “misogynistic.”

[6] Of course, a man needed a woman’s agreement to marry her. In ancient Mesopotamia, just as in many other places and times, mothers arranged their sons’ marriages and were crucial advocates for sons:

My fate is her voice, and my mother can change it.

{ nam-tar-ju10 gu3-nam ama-ju10 mu-da-an-kur2 }

Sumerian Proverbs, ETCSL t.6.1.02. 2.6 (l. 17).

[7] The Instructions of Shuruppak, ll. 208-11, Sumerian transliteration from ETCSL t.5.6.1, English translation adapted from those of ETCSL and Alster (2005) p. 92. Šimâ Milka / The Instructions of Šūpê-amēli, a Late Bronze Age (1500-1200 BGC) wisdom text found in Ugarit, Emar, and Hattusa, is formally similarly to The Instructions of Shuruppak and offers similar advice about choosing a wife at a festival:

Do not buy an ox in springtime. Do not marry a young nubile woman
made up for a festival.
Even a sick ox will look good in springtime.
An unworthy young nubile woman will dress up for a festival. She will
dress up in a loaned garment and she will anoint herself with
oil that has been borrowed.

Hittite Parallel Text D (= ll. 96ʹ–100ʹ), English translation (modified) from Cohen. For ease of understanding, I have replaced “karšanza girl” with “young nubile woman” based on Cohen (2015) pp. 52-3, n. 31.

[8] Across class hierarchies in ancient Mesopotamia, women and men had similarly positions within their respective genders. A Sumerian proverb thus declared:

The ruler’s wife kneels, the female slave dies.
The ruler kneels, the male slave dies.

{ dam u3-mu-un-/si\ [gam-am3 geme2 ug5-ga]-/am3\
u3-mu-un-/si\ gam-/am3\ [arad ug5-ga-am3] }

Sumerian Proverbs, ETCSL t.6.1.09 9.a14 (ll. 18-9), English translation modified to gender-identify explicitly the male slave. Throughout history and trans-culturally, kneeling is understood as an act of status deference. This proverb suggests that the status of a slave, whether female or male, is correspondingly lowered through death.

[9] Cf. Matthew 10:27, “what you hear whispered in your ear, proclaim upon the housetops {ὃ εἰς τὸ οὖς ἀκούετε κηρύξατε ἐπὶ τῶν δωμάτων}.” Similarly, Luke 12:3.

[images] (1) Cuneiform tablet inscribed with The Instructions of Shuruppak, a Sumerian proverb collection. This tablet was written 2600–2350 BGC in Bismaya, Adab (present-day Iraq). Preserved as accession # 83 in the Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago. Source image via Wikimedia. More about this tablet. (2) “Proverb: Don’t Choose a Wife During a Festival,” a song by the Lyre Ensemble from their album The Flood (2015). On YouTube.


Alster, Bendt. 1997. Proverbs of Ancient Sumer: The World’s Earliest Proverb Collections. Bethesda, MD: CDL Press. Review by Gwendolyn Leick.

Alster, Bendt. 2005. Wisdom of Ancient Sumer. Bethesda, MD: CDL Press.

Cohen, Yoram. 2013. Wisdom from the Late Bronze Age. Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature.

Cohen, Yoram. 2015. “The Wages of a Prostitute: Two Instructions from the Wisdom Composition ‘Hear the Advice’ and an Excursus on Ezekiel 16,33.” Semitica. 57:43-55.

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.

Gordon, Edmund I. 1959. Sumerian Proverbs: Glimpses of everyday life in ancient Mesopotamia. New York, NY: Greenwood Press.

Halton, Charles and Saana Svärd, eds. 2017. Women’s Writing of Ancient Mesopotamia: An Anthology of the Earliest Female Authors. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sallaberger, Walther. 2018. “Updating Primeval Wisdom: The Instructions of Šuruppak in its Early Dynastic and Old Babylonian Contexts.” Pp. vii-xxvii in Mordechai Cogan, ed. In the Lands of Sumer and Akkad. New Studies. A Conference in Honor of Jacob Klein on the Occasion of His Eightieth Birthday. Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.

Saltveit, Mark. 2007. “The Gecko Wears a Tiara: Rude wisdom from Ancient Sumer.” Online.

Samet, Nili. 2023. “Instructions of Shuruppak: The World’s Oldest Instruction Collection.” Chapter 15 in Mordechai Cogan, Katharine J. Dell, and David A. Glatt-Gilad, eds. Human Interaction with the Natural World in Wisdom Literature and Beyond: Essays in Honour of Tova L. Forti. London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark.

Taylor, Jon. 2005. “The Sumerian Proverb Collections.” Revue d’Assyriologie et d’Archéologie Orientale. 99(1): 13-18.

Zerubbabel in Esdras hailed truth over king, wine, and women

In the first century GC, King Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee, divorced his wife. He then married Herodias, his brother’s ex-wife. Herodias’s daughter, known as Salome, was a lovely dancer. Herod saw Salome dancing sensuously at a banquet. Perhaps drunk on wine, Herod vowed to her, “Whatever you ask of me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom {ὅ τι ἐάν με αἰτήσῃς δώσω σοι ἕως ἡμίσους τῆς βασιλείας μου}.”[1] Salome asked that the head of the popular Jewish preacher John the Baptist be given to her on a platter. King Herod then had John the Baptist decapitated and served to Salome. What could determine men’s lives more than what women want? In the book Esdras associated with the ancient Hebrew bible, the great Jewish leader Zerubbabel, grandson of the king of Judah, had an answer: truth. Women and men should above all strive to live according to truth.

Salome and Herodias with head of John the Baptist on a platter

Zerubbabel foresaw the disastrous consequences of men’s subservience to women. Zerubbabel governed the province of Judah around 530 BGC under the rule of the massive, mighty Persian Achaemenid Empire.[2] Two centuries later, the relatively small Greek kingdom of Macedonia conquered the Achaemenid Empire. The king of Macedonia, now known as Alexander the Great, seized with his men the magnificent Persian capital Persepolis. With them was Thaïs, a courtesan serving one of Alexander’s highly trusted and influential generals. She effectively determined the fate of Persepolis at the Greeks’ victory feast:

Alexander and Thaïs feasting at banquet in Persepolis

While they were feasting and when the drinking was far advanced, they became drunk and madness took possession of the minds of the intoxicated guests. One of the women there, Thaïs by name and Attic by origin, then said that the finest of all Alexander’s feats in Asia would be if he joined them in a triumphal procession, set fire to the palaces, and permitted women’s hands in a minute to extinguish the famed accomplishments of the Persians.

Thaïs said this to young men giddy with wine. Thus, as would be expected, one young man shouted to form a party and light torches. He urged all to take vengeance for the destruction of the Greek temples. Others took up the cry and said that this was a deed worthy of Alexander alone. When the king had caught fire at their words, all leaped up from their couches and passed the word along to form a victory procession in honor of Dionysus.

Promptly many torches were gathered. Female musicians were present at the banquet, so the king led them all out for the party to the sound of voices and flutes and pipes. Thaïs the courtesan led the whole performance. She was the first, after the king, to hurl her blazing torch into the palace. As all the others did the same, so great was the conflagration that immediately the entire palace area was consumed.

{ καὶ δή ποτε τῶν ἑταίρων εὐωχουμένων καὶ τοῦ μὲν πότου προβαίνοντος, τῆς δὲ μέθης προϊούσης κατέσχε λύσσα ἐπὶ πολὺ τὰς ψυχὰς τῶν οἰνωμένων. ὅτε δὴ καὶ μία τῶν παρουσῶν γυναικῶν, ὄνομα μὲν Θαΐς, Ἀττικὴ δὲ τὸ γένος, εἶπεν κάλλιστον Ἀλεξάνδρῳ τῶν κατὰ τὴν Ἀσίαν πεπραγμένων ἔσεσθαι, ἐὰν κωμάσας μετ᾿ αὐτῶν ἐμπρήσῃ τὰ βασίλεια καὶ τὰ Περσῶν περιβόητα γυναικῶν χεῖρες ἐν βραχεῖ καιρῷ ποιήσωσιν ἄφαντα.

τούτων δὲ ῥηθέντων εἰς ἄνδρας νέους καὶ διὰ τὴν μέθην ἀλόγως μετεωριζομένους, ὡς εἰκός, ἄγειν τις ἀνεβόησε καὶ δᾷδας ἅπτειν καὶ τὴν εἰς τὰ τῶν Ἑλλήνων ἱερὰ παρανομίαν ἀμύνασθαι παρεκελεύετο. συνεπευφημούντων δὲ καὶ ἄλλων καὶ λεγόντων μόνῳ τὴν πρᾶξιν ταύτην προσήκειν Ἀλεξάνδρῳ καὶ τοῦ βασιλέως συνεξαρθέντος τοῖς λόγοις πάντες ἀνεπήδησαν ἐκ τοῦ πότου καὶ τὸν ἐπινίκιον κῶμον ἄγειν Διονύσῳ παρήγγειλαν.

Ταχὺ δὲ πλήθους λαμπάδων ἀθροισθέντος καὶ γυναικῶν μουσουργῶν εἰς τὸν πότον παρειλημμένων μετ᾿ ᾠδῆς καὶ αὐλῶν καὶ συρίγγων προῆγεν ὁ βασιλεὺς ἐπὶ τὸν κῶμον, καθηγουμένης τῆς πράξεως 6Θαΐδος τῆς ἑταίρας. αὕτη δὲ μετὰ τὸν βασιλέα πρώτη τὴν δᾷδα καιομένην ἠκόντισεν εἰς τὰ βασίλεια· καὶ τῶν ἄλλων ταὐτὰ πραξάντων ταχὺ πᾶς ὁ περὶ τὰ βασίλεια τόπος κατεφλέχθη διὰ τὸ μέγεθος τῆς φλογὸς }[3]

painting of Alexander and Thais going to burn Persepolis

In this account by the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus in the first century BGC, wine controlled the minds of men, including the king. The courtesan Thaïs, however, rose above the power of wine to form a reasoned plan. Diodorus’s history carefully hedges Thaïs’s leadership with formal respect for King Alexander. The woman, however, was clearly more powerful than the king in determining the fate of Persepolis at the victory feast. In subsequent Christian literature, Thaïs became a saint as a reformed prostitute.

Zerubbabel recognized the power of beautiful women over kings. A text included in a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible about the second century BGC documents Zerubbabel’s view in relation to King Darius of the Medes:

Is not the king great in his authority? Do not all lands fear to touch him? I have watched him with Apame, his concubine, the daughter of the illustrious Bartacos. Sitting at the king’s right hand, she would take the diadem from his head and put it on herself. And she would slap the king with her left hand. And at this the king would gaze at her with mouth agape. And if she smiles at him, he laughs, but if she is cross with him, he flatters her so that she may be reconciled to him. O Gentlemen, how are women not strong, since thus they act?

{ μέγας ὁ βασιλεὺς τῇ ἐξουσίᾳ αὐτοῦ οὐχὶ πᾶσαι αἱ χῶραι εὐλαβοῦνται ἅψασθαι αὐτοῦ ἐθεώρουν αὐτὸν καὶ Ἀπάμην τὴν θυγατέρα Βαρτάκου τοῦ θαυμαστοῦ τὴν παλλακὴν τοῦ βασιλέως καθημένην ἐν δεξιᾷ τοῦ βασιλέως καὶ ἀφαιροῦσαν τὸ διάδημα ἀπὸ τῆς κεφαλῆς τοῦ βασιλέως καὶ ἐπιτιθοῦσαν ἑαυτῇ καὶ ἐρράπιζεν τὸν βασιλέα τῇ ἀριστερᾷ καὶ πρὸς τούτοις ὁ βασιλεὺς χάσκων τὸ στόμα ἐθεώρει αὐτήν καὶ ἐὰν προσγελάσῃ αὐτῷ γελᾷ ἐὰν δὲ πικρανθῇ ἐπ’ αὐτόν κολακεύει αὐτήν ὅπως διαλλαγῇ αὐτῷ ὦ ἄνδρες πῶς οὐχὶ ἰσχυραὶ αἱ γυναῖκες ὅτι οὕτως πράσσουσιν}[4]

In the ancient Islamic world, all-mighty caliphs were similarly subservient to their beloved slave girls. The power of beautiful women over men typically has no limits.

Apame takes the king's crown and slaps him in the face while the god Bacchus serves the king wine

Zerubbabel had no doubt that women are stronger than kings and wine. The Hebrew chronicle Sepher Yosippon, composed no later than the tenth century, has Zerubbabel elaborate upon this truth with realistic, low detail:

The woman is stronger than wine and the king and all the plants of the vineyards from which comes the wine. And why would not woman be stronger than the king, for she bore the king and nursed him, and held him secure in her bosom and raised him and fed him and dressed him and washed his feces from him, and she chastened him, and she rules over him as a mother over the son she bore. Her fear is upon him, and he fears her scolding voice, for at times she strikes him, and other times she rebukes him. And if she takes a stick to him, he runs from her outside because he is afraid of her. Until the boy grows to be a young man, he will not forget her awe, and he will not fail to honor her, and he will respect her at all times as a son respects his parent.[5]

Every man, including a king, has a mother. Spartan mothers have long been famous for compelling their sons to fight fiercely against other men. Mary, the mother of Jesus, was the most powerful figure in medieval Europe. The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world. That hand sometimes even holds a knife against those who declare that women are not angels, but fully human beings.[6]

engraving on the power of women by Zacharias Dolendo

Men ardently love women. Even when the male gaze is demonized, men’s eyes will betray them. The medieval Sepher Yosippon observed:

If a man lifts up his eyes and sees a woman of beautiful appearance, he will lust after her beauty to make love to her, for his soul have cleaved unto her. He has set his heart upon her, and his love would not change for any price, and he would leave even his mother, who taught him, and his father, who sired him, and betray them for the love of a woman’s beauty and her shape. … Do you not know and understand that if a woman of beautiful form passes before a man carrying a precious vessel, his eyes would peer upon her — at the beauty of her shape — because his heart turns after her? If she but utters a word, he would drop everything in his hand and, with mouth agape, look upon her, for she caused his heart to be attracted to her. Who will not believe me about this and not aver the truth of women’s strength?[7]

No precious vessel is more beautiful than a beautiful woman. Men will do almost anything for women. Men engage in massive violence against men to gain status in women’s eyes. Sumptuary laws have been established to prevent men from buying extravagant luxury goods for women. Zerubbabel frankly and bluntly stated the implications for men’s gender position:

Women make men’s clothes, and they bring men glory, and men cannot exist without women. … And therefore you men must realize that women rule over you!

{ καὶ αὗται ποιοῦσιν τὰς στολὰς τῶν ἀνθρώπων καὶ αὗται ποιοῦσιν δόξαν τοῖς ἀνθρώποις καὶ οὐ δύνανται οἱ ἄνθρωποι εἶναι χωρὶς τῶν γυναικῶν … καὶ ἐντεῦθεν δεῖ ὑμᾶς γνῶναι ὅτι αἱ γυναῖκες κυριεύουσιν ὑμῶν οὐχὶ πονεῖτε καὶ μοχθεῖτε καὶ πάντα ταῖς γυναιξὶν δίδοτε καὶ φέρετε }[8]

With her loving concern for men, the great twelfth-century woman leader Hildegard of Bingen insisted that neither women nor men could exist without the other:

Woman is necessary for man, and man is an aspect of woman’s consolation, and neither of them could exist without the other.

{ Femina enim opus viri est, et vir aspectus consolationis feminae est, et neuter eorum absque altero esse posset. }[9]

Mutual necessity is a fundamental aspect of gender equality. Unfortunately, mutual necessity doesn’t necessarily change the social reality that women rule over men. How then can gender equality be achieved?

Philips Galle's engraving of the power of woman

To achieve true gender equality, women and men must subordinate themselves to truth. Zerubbabel insisted that truth is stronger than even women:

The whole earth calls upon truth, and Heaven blesses it. All God’s works quake and tremble, and with God there is nothing unrighteous. Wine is unrighteous, the king is unrighteous, women are unrighteous, all human beings are unrighteous, all their works are unrighteous, and all such things. There is no truth in them and in their unrighteousness they will perish. But truth endures and is strong for ever, and lives and prevails for ever and ever. With it there is no partiality or preference, but it does what is righteous instead of anything that is unrighteous or wicked. Everyone approves its deeds, and there is nothing unrighteous in its judgment. To it belongs the strength and the kingship and the power and the majesty of all the ages. Blessed be the God of truth!

{ πᾶσα ἡ γῆ τὴν ἀλήθειαν καλεῖ καὶ ὁ οὐρανὸς αὐτὴν εὐλογεῖ καὶ πάντα τὰ ἔργα σείεται καὶ τρέμει καὶ οὐκ ἔστιν μετ’ αὐτοῦ ἄδικον οὐθέν ἄδικος ὁ οἶνος ἄδικος ὁ βασιλεύς ἄδικοι αἱ γυναῖκες ἄδικοι πάντες οἱ υἱοὶ τῶν ἀνθρώπων καὶ ἄδικα πάντα τὰ ἔργα αὐτῶν πάντα τὰ τοιαῦτα καὶ οὐκ ἔστιν ἐν αὐτοῖς ἀλήθεια καὶ ἐν τῇ ἀδικίᾳ αὐτῶν ἀπολοῦνται ἡ δὲ ἀλήθεια μένει καὶ ἰσχύει εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα καὶ ζῇ καὶ κρατεῖ εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα τοῦ αἰῶνος καὶ οὐκ ἔστιν παρ’ αὐτῇ λαμβάνειν πρόσωπα οὐδὲ διάφορα ἀλλὰ τὰ δίκαια ποιεῖ ἀπὸ πάντων τῶν ἀδίκων καὶ πονηρῶν καὶ πάντες εὐδοκοῦσι τοῖς ἔργοις αὐτῆς καὶ οὐκ ἔστιν ἐν τῇ κρίσει αὐτῆς οὐθὲν ἄδικον καὶ αὐτῇ ἡ ἰσχὺς καὶ τὸ βασίλειον καὶ ἡ ἐξουσία καὶ ἡ μεγαλειότης τῶν πάντων αἰώνων εὐλογητὸς ὁ θεὸς τῆς ἀληθείας }[10]

Sepher Yosippon subtly signals the revolutionary implications of Zerubbabel’s dedication to truth. As in other versions, King Darius and all the assembled persons acclaim Zerubbabel’s insight about truth. In Sepher Yosippon, however, King Darius offers a particularly significant reward to Zerubbabel:

Ask whatever your soul desires of anything written in the scroll, and I will give it to you. Even unto half the kingdom I will grant you.[11]

King Darius’s reward to Zerubbabel is like the pledge of King Herod to the beautiful dancing girl Salome. King Darius, however, rewarded not the delightful dancing of a beautiful young woman, but proclaiming the glory of truth. Appreciating truth as did Zerubbabel and King Darius leads to recognizing injustices against men, criticizing women for the wickedness common to all fully human beings, and achieving the worthy ideal of gender equality in truth.

In the ancient book Esdras, Zerubbabel and two other bodyguards of King Darius compete in wisdom about power. One bodyguard declares, “The king is the strongest {ὑπερισχύει ὁ βασιλεύς}.” Another bodyguard declares, “Wine is the strongest {ὑπερισχύει ὁ οἶνος}.” Zerubbabel declares, “Women are strongest, but truth is victor over all things {ὑπερισχύουσιν αἱ γυναῖκες ὑπὲρ δὲ πάντα νικᾷ ἡ ἀλήθεια}.”[12] Zerubbabel is the wisest. The banquet experience of Alexander the Great and Thaïs, along with that of King Herod and Salome, show women governing amid the presence of wine and the nominal male ruler. As Zerubbabel recognized, only steadfast commitment to truth can save men’s heads from their intrinsic vulnerability to women’s dominance.[13]

Actress and opera singer Lina Cavalieri as Thais in Jules Massenent's opera Thais

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Read more:


[1] Mark 6:23. Matthew, a gospel apparently written for Jewish Christians, tells of King Herod promising whatever Herodias’s daughter Salome might ask. Neither gospel specifies the name of Herodias’s daughter. For Salome as the stepdaughter of King Herod Antipas, Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews {Antiquitates Iudaicae / Ἰουδαϊκὴ ἀρχαιολογία} 18.5.4.

[2] Haggai 2:21. Zerubbabel also is a figure in the biblical books Zechariah, Ezra, Nehemiah, and 1 Chronicles. Zerubbabel led the construction of the second Jewish temple in Jerusalem. According to Matthew, Jesus was a descendant of Zerubbabel. Matthew 1:12-3.

[3] Diodorus Siculus, Library of History {Bibliotheca historica / Βιβλιοθήκη Ἱστορική} 17.72, ancient Greek text and English translation (modified insubstantially) from Welles (1963). For similar accounts, Quintus Curtius Rufus, History of Alexander the Great {Historiae Alexandri Magni}, 5.6.1-7; and Plutarch, Parallel Lives: Alexander {Βίοι Παράλληλοι: Αλέξανδρος} 38.1-8. Arrian of Nicomedia, The Anabasis of Alexander {Ἀλεξάνδρου Ἀνάβασις} 3.18.11-12, doesn’t mention the courtesan Thaïs. Alexander’s general and bodyguard Ptolemy I Soter was Thaïs’s lover.

[4] 1 Esdras / Esdras A {Ἔσδρας Αʹ} 4:28-32, ancient Greek text of the Septuagint from Kata Biblon, English translation (modified insubstantially) by R. Glenn Wooden for Pietersma & Wright (2007). Subsequent quotes from the Greek 1 Esdras are similarly sourced. The King James Version and the New Revised Standard Version are alternate English translations. For an earlier scholarly translation with analysis, see 1 Esdras by S.A. Cook in Charles (1913), volume 1. Zerubbabel {זְרֻבָּבֶל} is alternately called Zorobabel or Zorobabelos.

Regarding what is commonly called 1 Esdras, the Clementine Vulgate and the English Douay–Rheims Bible call this book 3 Esdras, while in the Ethiopic version of the Bible it’s 2 Ezra. It’s also called the Greek Esdras. The name “Esdras {Ἔσδρας}” is a Greek adaptation of the Hebrew name “Ezra {עזרא}.” Jews, Roman Catholics, and Protestants today typically do not include 1 Esdras in the biblical canon, while Eastern Orthodox generally include it. References to Esdras above refer more specifically to the book variously called 1 Esdras / Esdras A / 2 Ezra / 3 Esdras in its different language versions.

1 Esdras has an uncertain origin and complex textual relations. The Hebrew biblical books Ezra and Nehemiah originally were one book titled Ezra. Those books share considerable narrative with 1 Esdras. A Hebrew version of 1 Esdras exists, but the Greek 1 Esdras of the Septuagint isn’t a Greek translation of that surviving Hebrew version. For some analysis, Böhler (2003). The Greek 1 Esdras apparently is a Greek translation of a Hebrew-Aramaic rewriting of the biblical 2 Chronicles 35–36, Ezra-Nehemiah, and 2 Kings 22–23, re-organized and supplemented. De Troyer (2020). An Old Latin version of 1 Esdras (alternate source) also exists. The Old Latin version isn’t a direct translation of the Greek 1 Esdras of the Septuagint.

Zerubbabel’s description of the strength of women and truth comes from a narrative called the “Tale / Story of the Three Guardsmen,” “Story of The Three Youths,” or “Tale of the Three Bodyguards.” It isn’t included in the Hebrew version of 1 Esdras, but is included the Septuagint and the Old Latin versions. It’s also included in Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 11.31-63, and the anonymous Sepher Yosippon, copied in the tenth century. On Sepher Yosippon, Bowman (2019). Sepher Yosippon perhaps preserves an earlier version of the story than does the Greek Esdras. Neuman (1953) p. 50; Zimmerman (1964) p. 197. The “Story of the Three Guardsmen” apparently was first composed in Aramaic in a Jewish milieu. Talshir & Talshir (1995); Talshir (1999) pp. 81-105; Talshir (2001) p. 128. On the Jewishness of the story, De Troyer (2015). Naming the third guardsman Zerubbabel and adding his culminating answer “Truth” probably were adaptations of an existing story.

Zerubbabel’s position as a bodyguard of King Darius isn’t explained in the Greek Esdras. Josephus explains that Zerubbabel became Darius’s bodyguard because the two were long-time friends. Antiquities of the Jews 11.31. In Sepher Yosippon, the prophet Daniel successfully recommends Zerubbabel to succeed him as advisor to King Darius. Sepher Yosippon, trans. Bowman (2023) pp. 29-30 (Chapter 6).

The identify of Apame and the “illustrious Bartacos” isn’t clear. Josephus states that King Darius was slapped “by Apame, the daughter of Rabezakosa Themasios {ὑπὸ τῆς Ῥαβεζάκου τοῦ Θεμασίου παιδὸς Ἀπάμης}.” Antiquities of the Jews 11.54. Sepher Yosippon callls her “Apomenia, daughter of Absius the Makedonian.” Sepher Yosippon, trans. Bowman (2023) p. 33 (Chapter 6). She perhaps was Apama, the daughter of the satrap Artabazos, who was the son of the satrap Pharnabazos II. Torrey (1910) pp. 40-5; Charles (1913) p. 31 (note to 1 Esdras 4:29).

In Leiden in 1579, Pieter Balten published an engraving “The Power of Women” by Johannes Wierix (after Ambrosius Francken). Along the bottom of the engraving are the verses:

Yet woman surpasses king and wines. She is foremother
of the king and powerful persons of the land and sea.
Prudence withdraws from her untameable love,
and lively virtue departs. See men weep when she
weeps, rejoice when she is happy, become fearless when
she drives out fear. Thus woman subjugates king.

{ Vina tamen Regemque excellit Foemina, Regis
Progenitrix, hominumque maris terraeque potentum
Illius indomito prudentia cedit amori.
Vividaque absistit virtus: illa aspice flentes
Flente viros, lactante hilares, pellente timorem
Impavidos. Ergo subdit sibi Foemina regem. }

These verses refer to Apame and the king in 1 Esdras 4:28-32. On Johannes Wierix’s engravings on the four powers, Veldman (1987) pp. 228-31.

[5] Sepher Yosippon, Hebrew text of Flusser (1981), English translation (modified insubstantially) from Bowman (2023) pp. 32-33 (from Chapter 6, “The Story of Zarubavel”). I haven’t included the Hebrew source text above because regrettably it isn’t readily available to me. Subsequent quotes from Sepher Yosippon are similarly sourced from id., Chapter 6.

An internal colophon indicates that Sepher Yosippon was composed by an unnamed author no later than 953 GC. Some scholars argue for a date in the first half of the tenth century. Bowman (2023) p. xxi. Other scholars believe that it was composed in the second or third century GC. Neuman (1953) pp. xii, 21-7, 51, 57. In any case, Sepher Yosippon’s source for the “Story of the Third Guardsman” probably predates the Greek 1 Esdras.

Sepher Yosippon is “one of the most disseminated works in medieval Jewry.” By the twelfth century, it was read among Jews in Palestine, Egypt, Byzantium, Spain, France, and Germany. Dönitz (2014) pp. 83-5. Because the work was continually revised, it has multiple recensions. The oldest recension wasn’t known to Flusser (1981). See Dönitz (2014).

[6] The wisdom that the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world goes back more than 4500 years. An ancient Sumerian cuneiform text declares:

The wet-nurses in the women’s quarters determine the fate of their lord.

{ emeda ga la2 ama5-a-ke4 lugal-bi-ir nam ci-im-mi-ib-tar-re }

The Instructions of Shuruppag l. 254, Sumerian transliteration and English translation from the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, second edition. This text survives on a tablet written about 4500 years ago. Moreover, the text itself characterizes the wisdom it contains as ancient.

In response to recognizing frankly women’s power, modern scholarship vacillates between discerning misogyny and triumphantly asserting women’s superiority. For example, the good man academician Blamires explored the “formal case for women” in European medieval literature. He set out that case on the basis of a stark division between misogynists (evil persons such as Saint Jerome’s Theophrastus and Rufinus’s friend Valerius) and pro-feminists (good persons led by the pioneering heroine, the proto-feminist Christine de Pisan). Blamires explained:

The formal case {for women} has a quasi-judicial flavor and expressly sets out to promote women’s cause and to exonerate them from slander. Its typical features are these: it questions the motives and morality of misogynists, who seem to forget that women brought them to life and that life without women would be difficult; it denounces antagonistic generalization; it asserts that God showed signs of special favor to women at creation and subsequently; it revises the culpability of Eve; it witnesses women’s powerful interventions throughout history (from the Virgin Mary and scriptural heroines to Amazons and modern notables); and it argues that women’s moral capacities expose the relative tawdriness of men’s.

Blamires (1998) p. 9. Denouncing antagonistic generalization while arguing that “God showed signs of special favor to women” and “women’s moral capacities expose the relative tawdriness of men’s” — that’s a rhetorical strategy that Christine de Pisan so successful made into the centerpiece of modern efforts to promote gender equality, or in other words, “to promote women’s cause.” Slandering and libeling persons as misogynists is also a central tactic in this endeavor. Misogynists are all those persons “who seem to forget that women brought them to life and that life without women would be difficult.” On modern elite scholarly reckoning, nearly all medieval men were misogynists, and many women were sub-consciously misogynists, too. With equally astonishing obtuseness and tendentiousness, Blamires identified “the single most cogent source and paradigm for the medieval case for women” to be the “Story of the Three Guardsman” in 1 Esdras (which, following the Latin manuscript tradition, he labeled 3 Esdras). Id p. 50

[7] Sepher Yosippon, Chapter 6, Bowman (2023) p. 33. Recasting the story of John the Baptist’s beheading is consistent with other material in Sepher Yosippon. In particular, Sepher Yosippon includes a parody of the story of Jesus’s virgin birth as recounted in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. It’s the story of Caesar’s chief charioteer Mundus tricking the beautiful, pious, married woman Paulina into believing that a god was having sex with her when it was really just Mundus. That story adapts the Alexander Romance’s tale of the Egyptian king Nectanebus / Nectanebo II deceiving King Philip of Macedonia’s wife Olympias into having sex with him by pretending that he was the god Zeus Ammon. Olympias thus gave birth to Alexander the Great. The story in Sepher Yosippon comes from Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews {Antiquitates Iudaicae / Ἰουδαϊκὴ ἀρχαιολογία} 18.66-80 via Pseudo-Hegesippus, On the destruction of the city Jerusalem {De excidio urbis Hierosolymitano} 2.3.2.

[8] Greek 1 Esdras 4:17, 22.

[9] Hildegard of Bingen, Book of Divine Works {Liber Divinorum Operum} / On God’s Activity {De operatione Dei} 1.4.99, Latin text from Patrologia Latina 197.885b-c, my English translation. For related discussion, references, and quotes from Hildegard, see notes 10-13 in my post on men as sol novus and umbra viventis lucis in Revelation.

[10] Greek 1 Esdras 4:36-40.

[11] Sepher Yosippon, Chapter 6, Bowman (2023) p. 34.

[12] Greek 1 Esdras 3:10-2.

[13] In Sepher Yosippon, Zerubbabel declares:

Who will not believe my words that the woman is stronger than all, for she enfeebled the strength of Sampson and made David transgress and led Solomon astray and tempted him. … Even Adam, father of all who inhabit the earth, for his wife caused him to transgress the commandment of the Lord his God.

English translation from Bowman (2023) p. 34. These exemplars of women’s strength figure prominently in medieval literature of men’s sexed protest. These exemplars in the “Story of the Three Guardsmen” seem intended to promote a favorable perception of Zerubbabel. In particular, that story indicates:

Zerubbabel will not follow in the bad footsteps of his forefathers and will surely not have a wife or concubine governing his life. A good Jewish king ought to have proper relations with the woman he loves, not succumb to her beauty, and surely not have a concubine that wants to sit at his right hand, take a crown and slap him in the face.

De Troyer (2015) p. 50. Foreign (non-Jewish) wives dominating their husbands would be of particular concern to Jewish authorities. The “Story of the Three Guardsmen” supports the expulsion of foreign wives described in 1 Esdras 8:65-92 and similarly in Ezra 9-10. Sandoval (2007).

Jewish concern to expel foreign wives has been misinterpreted through modern scholarly belief in mythic patriarchy. One scholar has described 1 Esdras as a “patriarchal text” for an “intended patriarchal audience.” Sandoval (2007) p. 215. If that’s a claim that 1 Esdras was written only for ruling fathers or men in general, that claim is most probably false. Among the author’s orthodox ritual invocations of “patriarchal order” and “patriarchal social order,” one reads of a substantive concern:

Zerubbabel understands the strength of women, one of the dangers women pose, to be their ability to make a man forsake his own cultural patrimony. … The concern with men forsaking their kin and country hence probably refers (at least in part) to a man’s potential abandonment of his inherited culture and traditions in favour of those of his wife.

Sandoval (2006) pp. 214-5. Kin and country, and the culture and traditions of a people, arise from women and men’s lives together. They do not exist because of the nominal rule of men leaders. In short, Zerubbabel is wisely concerned about women dominating men. On the “Story of the Three Guardsmen” as wisdom literature, Torrey (1910) p. 35. On Zerubbabel’s masculine wisdom in contrast to modern academic constructions of “hegemonic masculinity” and a “classical, more militaristic model of masculinity,” Groce (2018).

As Zerubbabel understood, men’s ardent love for women supports women’s dominance over men. The dominance of gynocentric ideology in academia has become so overwhelming that scholars refuse to take seriously Zerubbabel’s wisdom. See, e.g. Eron (1991). Rather than wisdom, scholars have served up mindless abstractions:

The fear of sexuality which lies behind a fear of women is part of the common heritage of Judaism and Christianity from the world of late antiquity.

Eron (1991) p. 63. As universalized abstractions, “fear of women” and “fear of sexuality” are ludicrous, objectively meaningless phrases. Zerubbabel, in contrast, described ways in which men’s ardent love for women makes women dominant over men in actual life experience.

[images] (1) Salome and Herodias with head of John the Baptist on a platter. Painted in the seventeenth century by Jan van Ryn and preserved in the Musée du Mont-de-Piété (Bergues, France). Source image via Wikimedia Commons. See also the painting “Salome with the head of the Baptist {Salomé con la cabeza del Bautista}” painted by Mariano Salvador Maella in 1761 and preserved in the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando (Madrid, Spain). Salvador Maella’s painting copied a painting that Guido Reni painted in 1631. U.S. founding father, library maker, and third U.S. president Thomas Jefferson had another copy, made after 1692, in his home at Monticello. (2) “Alexander the Great and Thaïs”: Alexander and Thaïs feasting at banquet in Persepolis and preparing to burn the city. Oil painting by Ludovico Carracci, c. 1609-11. For catalog descriptions, Brogi (2001) pp. 212-3 (work # 98) and Emiliani & Feigenbaum (1994) pp. 139-40 (work # 64). Source image via Wikimedia Commons. (3) Alexander and Thaïs setting fire to Persepolis. Fresco that Ludovico Carracci painted in Bologna’s Palazzo Francia in 1592. For catalog descriptions, Brogi (2001) pp. 161-2 (work # 50) and Emiliani & Feigenbaum (1994) pp. 83-4 (work # 38). Source image via Wikimedia Commons. Here’s a preparatory drawing by Ludovico Carracci for this fresco. Dante placed Thaïs in Hell. Dante, Inferno 18.127-36. Her reputation subsequently improved. In 1697, John Dryden wrote a poem, “Alexander’s Feast, or the Power of Music: A Song in Honour of St. Cecilia.” In 1736, George Frideric Handel set to music an adaptation of Dryden’s poem. (4) “Apame Usurps the King’s Crown.” The god Bacchus is handing the king wine, while the king’s concubine Apame slaps his face and puts his crown on her head. Cf. 1 Esdras 4:28-32. Oil on panel painting by Hendrik Goltzius in 1614. Preserved in the Musée des Beaux-Arts (Verviers, Belgium). Source image via Wikimedia Commons. (5) The power of women. Engraving that Zacharias Dolendo made in 1595-6 (after Karel van Mander). From a series of four engravings on the powers that rule the world. Source image is reference # 2023.814 in the Art Institute Chicago. The Metropolitan Museum (New York City) also holds a copy. At the bottom of this engraving are inscribed the verses:

Greatest is the power of Venus, who is united with Cupid’s arms
and his darts dipped in poison injure with evil:
they make wretched lovers without understanding,
hence fear, hence uprightness, hence shame all are absent.

{ Maxima vis Veneris, cui iuncta Cupidinis arma,
Et quae tincta malo spicula felle nocent:
Haec faciunt miseros sine sensu vivere amantes,
Hinc metus, hinc probitas, hinc pudor omnis abest. }

On Zacharias Dolendo’s series on the four powers, Veldman (1987) pp. 232-4. (6) The power of woman. Engraving that Philips Galle made in 1574 (after Gerard van Groeningen). From a series of four engravings on the four strongest powers. Source image is reference # 2023.478 in the Art Institute Chicago. At the bottom of this engraving are inscribed the verses:

Do you see Venus, accompanied by her flattering boy Cupid,
laughing as she’s watching you with tender, alluring eyes?
Whoever you are, avert your eyes if you would avoid the soul’s wounds.
She conquers all, if only by her light.

{ Aspicis ut blando Puero comitata Dione
Rideat, illicibus lene tuens oculis?
Quisquis es hinc oculos, animi si vulnera vitas,
Averte, haec solo lumine cuncta domat. }

On Philips Galle’s series on the four powers, Veldman (1987) pp. 224-7. (7) Publicity photo of actress and opera singer Lina Cavalieri as Thaïs in 1907 in Jules Massenent’s opera Thaïs. That opera is based on the novel Thaïs (1890) by Anatole France. Both the novel and the opera concern the life of Saint Thaïs. She is plausibly understood as an ancient Christian rewriting of the life of the courtesan Thaïs who led Alexander the Great in the burning of Persepolis.


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