August is Women’s Month here in SA. We celebrated National Woman’s Day on the 9th so in honour of it (a bit late, I know, oops), I decided to pay tribute to a few special ladies who have left their mark in the history of literature.
Of course, considering how many brilliant female writers there are, there is a special twist here. The following were not just ordinary authors and poets, they were pioneers of their craft. Yes, I’m going waaaaay back in time, back to ancient history. Some of these names you might know, most of them you might not. They might not be as well-known as the Austens and Brontes but they set a precedence in their communities, influencing not only their own culture but future generations of writers as well. Our histories are marked by patriarchal dominance, yet these women broke new ground and made a name for themselves. So I present to you now, legendary ladies of literature…
ENHEDUANNA (circa 2280 BCE)
Enheduanna is considered by some literary scholars to be the earliest known author/poet in history, pre-dating Homer. She was an Akkadian princess, daughter to the famous Sargon of Akkad, who lived in the ancient city of UR in Sumer.
Enheduanna was most noted for her title and role of High Priestess (‘Enheduanna’ actually means ‘high priestess, adornment of the God of the Sky’) to the Moon God Nanna. Her literary works(written on cuneiform tablets) consisted of numerous poems dedicated to the Goddess Innanna as well as a religious collection known as the Sumerian Temple Hymns.
Archaeological evidence suggests that Enheduanna was well celebrated during her time. Inscriptive seals and an Alabaster disc bearing her name were found during excavations at the Royal Cemetery at Ur.
Probably the most famous woman in ancient literature, Sappho was a Greek lyric poet who lived most of her life in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos. The exact dates of her life are uncertain but she was said to have lived during the late 7th century BCE.
Engraving of Sappho – Author unknown.
Sappho was a lyrist- writing and performing her poems with the help of a lyre. She composed her own music as well. She has also been credited with being one of the first poets to write from the first-person perspective. Her poetry centred around love and heartbreak, with its target being women. As a result, Sappho’s name has become synonymous with female homosexuality, resulting in the words ‘lesbian’ and ‘sapphic’.
Only fragments of her works have survived and therefore difficult for scholars to analyze completely. But she’s been highly praised by many esteemed figures such as Plato and Horace.
BAN ZHAO (45 – 116 CE)
Ban Zhao has the distinction of being the first female Chinese historian. Her brother Ban Gu wrote a history of the Western Han Dynasty but died in 92 CE, before he was able to finish it. His sister completed the work for him and then went on to write a very influential guide, Nu Jie – Lessons For Women. Ban Zhao also wrote poems and essays but she is most famous for her instructions on female etiquette as can be read in Nu Jie.
Most of her other works have not survived but she was said to have been knowledgeable in History, Confucian and Chinese Classics, astronomy and mathematics.
Revered for her knowledge and intelligence, she was made Lady-In-Waiting to Empress Deng Sui. At Court, Ban Zhao was instructed to educate and train the staff, the other ladies-in-waiting as well as the Emperor’s many concubines. The Empress placed her in charge of the royal library and even sought her council on political matters. On hearing of Ban Zhao’s death in 116 CE, Her Highness was said to have taken the news very badly, mourning the loss of her favourite Lady by wearing all white.
HYPATIA of Alexandria (370 – 415 CE)
Hypatia is considered as the first female mathematician and philosopher in history. A teacher of Neo-Platonist philosophy she was an intellectually brilliant woman who had many devoted students and followers.
Hypatia by artist Raffaello Sanzio(1509 – 1510)
Unfortunately when Arab conquerors invaded Egypt in the 6th century and burned the Library of Alexandria, all of Hypatia’s written works were destroyed.
Many ancient writers have discussed and quoted her work however and this is where most of our knowledge of her writing comes from.
The topic of her tragic death at the hands of Christian monks for her pagan beliefs seems to be just as popular with modern scholars as her celebrated life. The events leading up to Hypatia’s death were immortalized in the movie Agora (2009) with Rachel Weisz.
AL-KHANSA (575 – 645 CE)
Al-Khansa is one of the most famous poets in Arabic Literature. She won admiration for the elegies she had written for her father and brothers upon their deaths. Their deaths caused Al-Khansa tremendous grief and this anguish is vividly expressed in her poetry.
Her meeting with the Prophet Muhammad in 629 CE was well documented and it’s said that He himself was a great admirer of her work.
MURASAKI SHIKIBU (circa 973 CE)
Murasaki was a writer from Kyoto who served as Lady-in-Waiting to Empress Akiko(during Ichijo’s reign 986 -1011 CE).
Murasaki Shikibu by artist Hiroshige
She wrote The Tale Of Genji which is considered one of the greatest works in Japanese literature. Many scholars refer to her as one of the first novelists in modern literature.
Murasaki was known for her intelligence and writing skill from a very young age. It was this reputation that caught the attention of the Royal Imperial family and led to her appointment at Court.
Where the Tale of Genji was a work of romantic fiction, her experiences at Court led her to write The Diary of Lady Murasaki. In it she exposed the daily goings-on of Royal life but also blatantly hit out at the debauchery and misbehaviour of the affluent males whom she came into contact with.
The Tale of Genji has been translated into many languages and Murasaki herself has been the source of inspiration for many painters/artists over the centuries due to her reputation as a virtuous woman and illustrious writer.
Did I miss anyone out? Who’s your favourite lady of literature?
Side note: To all my lovely ladies who follow my blog, Happy Woman’s Month from me, no matter where you are in the world. Stay beautiful and positive. Oceans of love…
JSTOR, The Crayon, Vol. 1, No. 7. Page 106 – Hypatia
All images taken from Wikipedia Commons (in Public Domain).