Telesilla: Argive Woman, Warrior Poet

From Pausanias,  2.20.8-10

“Beyond the theater is the shrine of Aphrodite. In front of the foundation is a stele on which Telesilla, a poet of lyric, is depicted. Her books are tossed near her feet while she looks at the helmet she holds in her hand as she is about to put it on her head. Telesilla was famous among women and especially honored for her poetry.

But a greater story about her comes from when the Argives were bested by Kleomenes the son of Alexandrides and the Lakedaimonians. Some Argives died during the battle itself and however many fled to the grove of Ares died there too—at first they left the grove under an armistice but they realized they were deceived and were burned with the rest in the grove. As a result, Kleomenes led the Spartans to an Argos bereft of men.

But Telesilla stationed on the wall of the city all the slaves who were unable to bear arms because of youth or old age and, after collecting however many weapons had been left in homes or in the shrines, she armed all the women at the strongest age and once she had armed herself they took up posts were the army was going to attack.

When the Spartans came near and the women were not awestruck by their battle-cry but waited and were fighting bravely, then the Spartans, because they reasoned that if they killed the women the victory would be ill-rumored even as their own defeat would come with great insult, yielded to the women.

The Pythian priestess had predicted this contest earlier in the prophecy relayed by Herodotus who may or may not have understood it (6.77):

But when the female conquers the male
And drives him away and wins glory for the Argives,
It will make many Argive women tear their cheeks.

These are the words of the oracle on the women’s accomplishment.”

ὑπὲρ δὲ τὸ θέατρον ᾿Αφροδίτης ἐστὶν ἱερόν, ἔμπροσθεν δὲ τοῦ ἕδους Τελέσιλλα ἡ ποιήσασα τὰ ᾄσματα ἐπείργασται στήλῃ· καὶ βιβλία μὲν ἐκεῖνα ἔρριπταί οἱ πρὸς τοῖς ποσίν, αὐτὴ δὲ ἐς κράνος ὁρᾷ κατέχουσα τῇ χειρὶ καὶ ἐπιτίθεσθαι τῇ κεφαλῇ μέλλουσα. ἦν δὲ ἡ Τελέσιλλα καὶ ἄλλως ἐν ταῖς γυναιξὶν εὐδόκιμος καὶ μᾶλλον ἐτιμᾶτο ἔτι ἐπὶ τῇ ποιήσει. συμβάντος δὲ ᾿Αργείοις ἀτυχῆσαι λόγου μειζόνως πρὸς Κλεομένην τὸν ᾿Αναξανδρίδου καὶ Λακεδαιμονίους, καὶ τῶν μὲν ἐν αὐτῇ πεπτωκότων τῇ μάχῃ, ὅσοι δὲ ἐς τὸ ἄλσος τοῦ ῎Αργου κατέφευγον διαφθαρέντων καὶ τούτων, τὰ μὲν πρῶτα ἐξιόντων κατὰ ὁμολογίαν, ὡς δὲ ἔγνωσαν ἀπατώμενοι συγκατακαυθέντων τῷ ἄλσει τῶν λοιπῶν, οὕτω τοὺς Λακεδαιμονίους Κλεομένης ἦγεν ἐπὶ ἔρημον ἀνδρῶν τὸ ῎Αργος. Τελέσιλλα δὲ οἰκέτας μὲν καὶ ὅσοι διὰ νεότητα ἢ γῆρας ὅπλα ἀδύνατοι φέρειν ἦσαν, τούτους μὲν πάντας ἀνεβίβασεν ἐπὶ τὸ τεῖχος, αὐτὴ δὲ ὁπόσα ἐν ταῖς οἰκίαις ὑπελείπετο καὶ τὰ ἐκ τῶν ἱερῶν ὅπλα ἀθροίσασα τὰς ἀκμαζούσας ἡλικίᾳ τῶν γυναικῶν ὥπλιζεν, ὁπλίσασα δὲ ἔτασσε κατὰ τοῦτο ᾗ τοὺς πολεμίους προσιόντας ἠπίστατο. ὡς δὲ <ἐγγὺς> ἐγίνοντο οἱ Λακεδαιμόνιοι καὶ αἱ γυναῖκες οὔτε τῷ ἀλαλαγμῷ  κατεπλάγησαν δεξάμεναί τε ἐμάχοντο ἐρρωμένως, ἐνταῦθα οἱ Λακεδαιμόνιοι, φρονήσαντες ὡς καὶ διαφθείρασί σφισι τὰς γυναῖκας ἐπιφθόνως τὸ κατόρθωμα ἕξει καὶ σφαλεῖσι μετὰ ὀνειδῶν γενήσοιτο ἡ συμφορά, ὑπείκουσι ταῖς γυναιξί. πρότερον δὲ ἔτι τὸν ἀγῶνα τοῦτον προεσήμηνεν ἡ Πυθία, καὶ τὸ λόγιον εἴτε ἄλλως εἴτε καὶ ὡς συνεὶς ἐδήλωσεν ῾Ηρόδοτος·

ἀλλ’ ὅταν ἡ θήλεια τὸν ἄρρενα νικήσασα
ἐξελάσῃ καὶ κῦδος ἐν ᾿Αργείοισιν ἄρηται,
πολλὰς ᾿Αργείων ἀμφιδρυφέας τότε θήσει.

τὰ μὲν ἐς τὸ ἔργον τῶν γυναικῶν ἔχοντα τοῦ χρησμοῦ ταῦτα ἦν·

Telesilla

Plutarch, On the Virtues of Women 245d-f6 reports a version of this tale; the Suda (s.v. Telesilla) likely takes its account from Pausanias.

“Telesilla, a poetess. On a stele her books are tossed around and she has placed a helmet on her head. And When the Lakedaimonians slaughtered the Argives who had fled to a shrine and were heading to the city to sack it, then Telesilla armed the women of the right age and set them against where they were marching. When the Lakedaimonians saw this, they turned back because they believed it shameful to fight against women whom it would be inglorious to conquer but a great reproached to be defeated by….” [the oracle is listed next”

Τελέσιλλα, ποιήτρια. ἐπὶ στήλης τὰ μὲν βιβλία ἀπέρριπτε, κράνος δὲ τῇ κεφαλῇ περιέθηκε. καὶ γὰρ ὅτε Λακεδαιμόνιοι τοὺς ἐν τῷ ἱερῷ τοῦ ῎Αργους καταφυγόντας διέφθειρον καὶ πρὸς τὴν πόλιν ᾔεσαν ὡς αἱρήσοντες, τότε Τελέσιλλα τὰς ἐν ἡλικίᾳ γυναῖκας ὁπλίσασα ὑπήντησεν οἷ προσῄεσαν. ὅπερ ἰδόντες οἱ Λακεδαιμόνιοι ἐς τοὐπίσω ὑπέστρεψαν, αἰσχρὸν νομίσαντες γυναιξὶ πολεμεῖν, ἃς καὶ τὸ νικᾶν ἄδοξον καὶ ἡττᾶσθαι μέγα ὄνειδος. ἐς τοῦτο καὶ ὁ χρησμὸς πεπλήρωτο, ᾿Αργείοις λέγων· ἀλλ’ ὅταν ἡ θήλεια τὸν ἄρρενα νικήσασα ἐξελάσῃ καὶ κῦδος ᾿Αργείοισιν ἄρηται, πολλὰς ᾿Αργείων ἀμφιδρυφέας τότε θήσει.

The extant fragments of Telesilla are not much to work with (each line is a separate fragment:

ἁ δ’ ῎Αρτεμις, ὦ κόραι,

φεύγοισα τὸν ᾿Αλφεόν

φιληλιάς,

†βελτιώτας

δῖνον.

οὐλοκίκιννε

〚ποιητριαν〛

〚Τελεσ̣ι̣λ̣λα̣ν̣〛

Posts on Myth from Women’s History Month

Euripides,  Fr. 464

“Get married already, get married, and then die
Either by poison or a trick from your wife.”

γαμεῖτε νῦν, γαμεῖτε, κᾆτα θνῄσκετε
ἢ φαρμάκοισιν ἐκ γυναικὸς ἢ δόλοις.

Euripides, fr. 320 (Danae)

“There is neither fortress nor fortune
Nor anything else as hard to guard as a woman.”

οὐκ ἔστιν οὔτε τεῖχος οὔτε χρήματα
οὔτ’ ἄλλο δυσφύλακτον οὐδὲν ὡς γυνή.

Anacreontea, 24.8-13

Nature gave bulls horns
Hooves to horses
Swift feet to hares
A mouth of teeth to lions
Swimming to fish
Flight to birds
And wisdom to men.
What did nature give to women?
Beauty
stronger than all shields and spears.
A woman who is beautiful
conquers both iron and fire.

Φύσις κέρατα ταύροις,
ὁπλὰς δ’ ἔδωκεν ἵπποις,
ποδωκίην λαγωοῖς,
λέουσι χάσμ’ ὀδόντων,
τοῖς ἰχθύσιν τὸ νηκτόν,
τοῖς ὀρνέοις πέτασθαι,
τοῖς ἀνδράσιν φρόνημα·
γυναιξὶν οὐν ἔτ᾿ εἶχεν
τί οὖν; δίδωσι κάλλος
ἀντ᾿ ἀσπίδων ἁπασῶν
ἀντ᾿ ἐγχέων ἁπάντων
νικᾷ δὲ καὶ σίδηρον
καὶ πῦρ καλή τις οὖσα

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura 4.1192-1200: Sometimes Women Don’t Fake It

“A woman doesn’t always gasp with counterfeit passion
when she joins her body in embrace with a man
and holds his lips with a drawn, moist kiss.
Often she acts from her spirit and as she seeks shared happiness,
she incites him to race through the course of his love.”

Nec mulier semper ficto suspirat amore,
quae conplexa viri corpus cum corpore iungit
et tenet adsuctis umectans oscula labris;
nam facit ex animo saepe et communia quaerens
gaudia sollicitat spatium decurrere amoris.

This past month I made a special effort to post new material featuring women from Greek myth.  The results have been less than happy but have confirmed (even exacerbated) my general opinion about the tales Greeks and Romans told about women: by and large, they are terrible. This fact has always made me go through contortions to say something nice about Greek and Roman stories on women, but it is increasingly obvious that I should just give up any type of apologetics and tell students the truth: ancient myth is filled with repugnant tales that communicate and reinforce not just negative attitudes about women, but perspectives that justify and even valorize their treatments as objects and general dehumanization.

Here’s a recap of the month’s tales.

Pausanias records that Medusa may have just been a pretty woman  Perseus killed so he could take her head back and show it to his friends.

Medusa

Apollo, as many know, cursed Kassandra for not having sex with him. When she got to the Peloponnese, Aigisthos slaughtered the twins she bore to her captor Agamemnon and then Klytemnestra killed her too (so the women here either are a victim of rape, torture and murder or else guilty of murder). Shoot, even before that happened, Kassandra was dangled as a bride to help secure allies in the fight against the Greeks.

 

Things weren’t much better for her mother Hecuba who, according to some accounts, was awarded to Odysseus after the end of the war.  He had her killed by stoning when she complained to much (and after she was turned into a dog).

Polyxena

I know everyone wants to blame the Trojan War on Helen, but according to the Argives she was abducted as a child,raped by Theseus and gave her child to Klytemnestra who raised her as her own.  That child? Iphigenia. Agamemnon had to kill her so that the Greeks could find their way to Troy.

I tried to make things a little better–I found a story where Zeus is actually in love with Hera and turns into a cuckoo bird. There’s also the tale of the warrior-poet Telesilla who saves her city from the Spartans (but only because they won’t fight ladies).

The most depressing tale of all, however, features a nameless woman. In the following tale, the foreignness and gender of a woman lets the sailors just sacrifice her to save their own skins:

 

Pausanias, 1.23.5

“Because I wished to know more than another about Satyrs—who they are—I traveled to many men for stories of them. The Carian Euphemus told me that once while sailing to Italy he was led off his course by the winds and into the sea beyond in which others do not sail. He was claiming that many islands there are empty but that in others savage men live. His sailors did not want to land on those islands because, those who had landed there before had gained some knowledge of the population; but at this time, again, they were forced. According to Euphemos the islands are called Satyrides by the sailors: the people who live there have red-hair, are not much taller than horses, and have tails on their rear-ends. As soon as they noticed that the sailors were coming, they rushed toward the ship without making a noise and attacked the women on it. Finally, out of fear, the sailors threw a foreign woman overboard. The Satyrs violated her not only in the regular way but using her entire body as well.”

περὶ δὲ Σατύρων, οἵτινές εἰσιν, ἑτέρου πλέον ἐθέλων ἐπίστασθαι πολλοῖς αὐτῶν τούτων ἕνεκα ἐς λόγους ἦλθον. ἔφη δὲ Εὔφημος Κὰρ ἀνὴρ πλέων ἐς᾿Ιταλίαν ἁμαρτεῖν ὑπὸ ἀνέμων τοῦ πλοῦ καὶ ἐς τὴν ἔξω θάλασσαν, ἐς ἣν οὐκέτι πλέουσιν, ἐξενεχθῆναι. νήσους δὲ εἶναι μὲν ἔλεγεν ἐρήμους πολλάς, ἐν δὲ ἄλλαιςοἰκεῖν ἄνδρας ἀγρίους· ταύταις δὲ οὐκ ἐθέλειν νήσοις προσίσχειν τοὺς ναύτας οἷα πρότερόν τε προσσχόντας καὶ τῶν ἐνοικούντων οὐκ ἀπείρως ἔχοντας, βιασθῆναι δ’οὖν καὶ τότε. ταύτας καλεῖσθαι μὲν ὑπὸ τῶν ναυτῶν Σατυρίδας, εἶναι δὲ τοὺς ἐνοικοῦντας [καὶ] καπυροὺς καὶ ἵππων οὐ πολὺ μείους ἔχειν ἐπὶ τοῖς ἰσχίοις οὐράς.τούτους, ὡς ᾔσθοντο, καταδραμόντας ἐπὶ τὴν ναῦν φωνὴν μὲν οὐδεμίαν ἱέναι, ταῖς δὲ γυναιξὶν ἐπιχειρεῖν ταῖς ἐν τῇ νηί· τέλος δὲ δείσαντας τοὺς ναύτας βάρβαρον γυναῖκα ἐκβαλεῖν ἐς τὴν νῆσον· ἐς ταύτην οὖν ὑβρίζειν τοὺς Σατύρους οὐ μόνον ᾗ καθέστηκεν, ἀλλὰ καὶ τὸ πᾶν ὁμοίως σῶμα.

I can always try to cherry-pick anecdotes like those of Aspasia–who allegedly taught Socrates rhetoric–or emphasize the beauty of Sappho’s poetry. We can expatiate all we want on the power of Greek and Roman love poetry. But the truth is, the Romans and Greeks function much better as examples to avoid.

Telesilla: Argive Woman, Warrior Poet

From Pausanias,  2.20.8-10

“Beyond the theater is the shrine of Aphrodite. In front of the foundation is a stele on which Telesilla, a poet of lyric, is depicted. Her books are tossed near her feet while she looks at the helmet she holds in her hand as she is about to put it on her head. Telesilla was famous among women and especially honored for her poetry.

But a greater story about her comes from when the Argives were bested by Kleomenes the son of Alexandrides and the Lakedaimonians. Some Argives died during the battle itself and however many fled to the grove of Ares died there too—at first they left the grove under an armistice but they realized they were deceived and were burned with the rest in the grove. As a result, Kleomenes led the Spartans to an Argos bereft of men.

But Telesilla stationed on the wall of the city all the slaves who were unable to bear arms because of youth or old age and, after collecting however many weapons had been left in homes or in the shrines, she armed all the women at the strongest age and once she had armed herself they took up posts were the army was going to attack.

When the Spartans came near and they women were not awestruck by their battle-cry but waited and were fighting bravely, then the Spartans, because they reasoned that if they killed the women the victory would be ill-rumored even as their own defeat would come with great insult, yielded to the women.

The Pythian priestess had predicted this contest earlier in the prophecy relayed by Herodotus who may or may not have understood it (6.77):

But when the female conquers the male
And drives him away and wins glory for the Argives,
It will make many Argive women tear their cheeks.

These are the words of the oracle on the women’s accomplishment.”

ὑπὲρ δὲ τὸ θέατρον ᾿Αφροδίτης ἐστὶν ἱερόν, ἔμπροσθεν δὲ τοῦ ἕδους Τελέσιλλα ἡ ποιήσασα τὰ ᾄσματα ἐπείργασται στήλῃ· καὶ βιβλία μὲν ἐκεῖνα ἔρριπταί οἱ πρὸς τοῖς ποσίν, αὐτὴ δὲ ἐς κράνος ὁρᾷ κατέχουσα τῇ χειρὶ καὶ ἐπιτίθεσθαι τῇ κεφαλῇ μέλλουσα. ἦν δὲ ἡ Τελέσιλλα καὶ ἄλλως ἐν ταῖς γυναιξὶν εὐδόκιμος καὶ μᾶλλον ἐτιμᾶτο ἔτι ἐπὶ τῇ ποιήσει. συμβάντος δὲ ᾿Αργείοις ἀτυχῆσαι λόγου μειζόνως πρὸς Κλεομένην τὸν ᾿Αναξανδρίδου καὶ Λακεδαιμονίους, καὶ τῶν μὲν ἐν αὐτῇ πεπτωκότων τῇ μάχῃ, ὅσοι δὲ ἐς τὸ ἄλσος τοῦ ῎Αργου κατέφευγον διαφθαρέντων καὶ τούτων, τὰ μὲν πρῶτα ἐξιόντων κατὰ ὁμολογίαν, ὡς δὲ ἔγνωσαν ἀπατώμενοι συγκατακαυθέντων τῷ ἄλσει τῶν λοιπῶν, οὕτω τοὺς Λακεδαιμονίους Κλεομένης ἦγεν ἐπὶ ἔρημον ἀνδρῶν τὸ ῎Αργος. Τελέσιλλα δὲ οἰκέτας μὲν καὶ ὅσοι διὰ νεότητα ἢ γῆρας ὅπλα ἀδύνατοι φέρειν ἦσαν, τούτους μὲν πάντας ἀνεβίβασεν ἐπὶ τὸ τεῖχος, αὐτὴ δὲ ὁπόσα ἐν ταῖς οἰκίαις ὑπελείπετο καὶ τὰ ἐκ τῶν ἱερῶν ὅπλα ἀθροίσασα τὰς ἀκμαζούσας ἡλικίᾳ τῶν γυναικῶν ὥπλιζεν, ὁπλίσασα δὲ ἔτασσε κατὰ τοῦτο ᾗ τοὺς πολεμίους προσιόντας ἠπίστατο. ὡς δὲ <ἐγγὺς> ἐγίνοντο οἱ Λακεδαιμόνιοι καὶ αἱ γυναῖκες οὔτε τῷ ἀλαλαγμῷ  κατεπλάγησαν δεξάμεναί τε ἐμάχοντο ἐρρωμένως, ἐνταῦθα οἱ Λακεδαιμόνιοι, φρονήσαντες ὡς καὶ διαφθείρασί σφισι τὰς γυναῖκας ἐπιφθόνως τὸ κατόρθωμα ἕξει καὶ σφαλεῖσι μετὰ ὀνειδῶν γενήσοιτο ἡ συμφορά, ὑπείκουσι ταῖς γυναιξί. πρότερον δὲ ἔτι τὸν ἀγῶνα τοῦτον προεσήμηνεν ἡ Πυθία, καὶ τὸ λόγιον εἴτε ἄλλως εἴτε καὶ ὡς συνεὶς ἐδήλωσεν ῾Ηρόδοτος·

 

ἀλλ’ ὅταν ἡ θήλεια τὸν ἄρρενα νικήσασα

ἐξελάσῃ καὶ κῦδος ἐν ᾿Αργείοισιν ἄρηται,

πολλὰς ᾿Αργείων ἀμφιδρυφέας τότε θήσει.

 

τὰ μὲν ἐς τὸ ἔργον τῶν γυναικῶν ἔχοντα τοῦ χρησμοῦ ταῦτα ἦν·

 

Telesilla

Plutarch, On the Virtues of Women 245d-f6 reports a version of this tale; the Suda (s.v. Telesilla) likely takes its account from Pausanias.

“Telesilla, a poetess. On a stele her books are tossed around and she has placed a helmet on her head. And When the Lakedaimonians slaughtered the Argives who had fled to a shrine and were heading to the city to sack it, then Telesilla armed the women of the right age and set them against where they were marching. When the Lakedaimonians saw this, they turned back because they believed it shameful to fight against women whom it would be inglorious to conquer but a great reproached to be defeated by….” [the oracle is listed next”

Τελέσιλλα, ποιήτρια. ἐπὶ στήλης τὰ μὲν βιβλία ἀπέρριπτε, κράνος δὲ τῇ κεφαλῇ περιέθηκε. καὶ γὰρ ὅτε Λακεδαιμόνιοι τοὺς ἐν τῷ ἱερῷ τοῦ ῎Αργους καταφυγόντας διέφθειρον καὶ πρὸς τὴν πόλιν ᾔεσαν ὡς αἱρήσοντες, τότε Τελέσιλλα τὰς ἐν ἡλικίᾳ γυναῖκας ὁπλίσασα ὑπήντησεν οἷ προσῄεσαν. ὅπερ ἰδόντες οἱ Λακεδαιμόνιοι ἐς τοὐπίσω ὑπέστρεψαν, αἰσχρὸν νομίσαντες γυναιξὶ πολεμεῖν, ἃς καὶ τὸ νικᾶν ἄδοξον καὶ ἡττᾶσθαι μέγα ὄνειδος. ἐς τοῦτο καὶ ὁ χρησμὸς πεπλήρωτο, ᾿Αργείοις λέγων· ἀλλ’ ὅταν ἡ θήλεια τὸν ἄρρενα νικήσασα ἐξελάσῃ καὶ κῦδος ᾿Αργείοισιν ἄρηται, πολλὰς ᾿Αργείων ἀμφιδρυφέας τότε θήσει.

 

The extant fragments of Telesilla are not much to work with (each line is a separate fragment:

 

ἁ δ’ ῎Αρτεμις, ὦ κόραι,

φεύγοισα τὸν ᾿Αλφεόν

φιληλιάς,

†βελτιώτας

δῖνον.

οὐλοκίκιννε

〚ποιητριαν〛

〚Τελεσ̣ι̣λ̣λα̣ν̣〛