12.29.2008

Gender in Ancient Sparta

Patriarchal systems existed since paleolithic times, rendering the art of machismo and paternal power. Male dominance was defined by the patriarch as the fundamental unit of power in ancient society. The clan was only as strong as its male head of the household, building and influencing a generation of sturdy and brisk men who would soon take over the roles that defined them. However, if men inherited this machismo, women enabled it. Women were expected to tend to their men, submit to them, and raise them. But they also proved themselves the purveyors of this masculinity, sometimes engaging in cross-dressing practices, prostitution, and even serving in wars against enemy militias. Nowhere is this more evident than in ancient Spartan society. Spartan society stretched the envelope for women, displaying an implicit gender-bending reality in a society that Aristotle labeled "lawless". Furthermore, ancient Spartan women partook in many interesting social practices that people of today's standards would have undoubtedly labeled perverse.

Who were the women of ancient Sparta? What were their roles? And how did they manage to relieve themselves of their 'feminine' duties? Spartan women were gymnasts, acrobats, prostitutes, priestesses, and mothers. They were expected to marry by the ripe age of 13 and bring many a Spartan man into this world. However, their dexterity and durability were just as important as their role as mothers. They were expected to attend public school focusing on the arts and physical prowess. As they neared sexual maturity, Spartan women were almost always kidnapped or 'taken' for marriage. Immediately before intercourse, the bride's head was shaved and she would lay down in male clothing awaiting her bridegroom's advances. A huge stretch from the fairy tale romances of our day. This gender-bending ritual was key to Spartan male machismo. A mingling of the sexes was unheard of in ancient Greece, and for a man to engage intimately with a woman, it had to be in private and she had to look like a man, for fear that their union may be 'found out'.

The Spartan woman's main duty was to uphold Homeric values such as arete, or excellence, by breeding strong Spartan males. In doing this, she displayed her loyalty to Sparta, and became a key enabler to Spartan hegemony over the Peloponnesus and the local Messenian helot population. She inherited the right to hold property once her husband was away at war, thus managing the fiscal and proprietal issues of the estate. This was unheard of in other regions, particularly Sparta's neighbor of Athens, where women were expected to stay in the domestic realm and avoid fiscal matters. Euripedes exemplified Athenian female drudgery in his play Medea. His protaganist, the female Medea laments, "They [Athenian men]... say we lead a safe life at home, while they do battle with the spear. What imbeciles! I'd rather stand to arms three times than bear one child."


Throughout a Spartan woman's lifetime, it was understood that she would engage in sexual practices much like her male counterparts. She was a product of the city-state or polis, and thus belonged to everyone. She was expected to have a healthy sexual appetite, and enjoy sex much the same way as a man. This helped to spur the population and satiate the sexual desires among men and women. Although sex was key to male machismo, it was encouraged to be under the control of the men. Something that Spartan women had no qualms with. This perhaps may be why Sparta was less engaged in homo-eroticism, something quite rampant in ancient Greek society. Aristotle blamed the fall of Sparta on their women and found the freedom of women most vile. He argued that Sparta would forever be plagued with bad luck as long as women held power. He wrote, "Again, the license of the Lacedaemonian women defeats the intention of the Spartan constitution, and is adverse to the happiness of the state."


Interesting, the role of gender still resonates debate today. The debate of whether or not women should have the same claim to leadership and physical prowess as that of a man remains. Sparta initiated this gray area of gender that will always be imbedded in social discourse. No doubt, the debate began with ancient Greece and is still construed today.



Sources:

Frost, Frank J. Greek Society, Fifth Edition. University of California, Santa Barbara, 1997.
Ancient History Sourcebook: Aristotle: Spartan Women: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/aristotle-spartanwomen.html

11.06.2008

The Gupta Realms

The Indian civilization is thousands of centuries old. What do we in the west know about this ancient civilization? What has Indian culture brought to our world history and how can we better our societies by incorporating Hindi customs to our everyday living?

The ancient Dravidians, a pastoral and semi-literate people, inhabited the Indus Valley as far back as 2600 B.C. It was not until the Aryan peoples (semi-nomadic warriors from the central Asian steppes) invaded northern India, pushing the dark-skinned Dravidians southward past the Deccan plateau. The Aryans were a Vedic peoples, ascribing hymns and sacrifices to their gods and incorporating a caste-system based on varna or skin color. The highest caste were the priests of this group, known as the Brahmans, who were the lightest skin shade and helped shape Hindu culture to what it is today.
The Brahmans were deeply aescetic people, worshipping the gods in public and often times chastising those who did not devote themselves to the local deities. As time progressed, the Brahmans monopolized key government posts and withheld higher knowledge from the lower castes, all to keep the power centralized within the caste system.

It was not until the rise of the Upanishads (what was later termed, the Upanishadic world view) that knowledge could seep to the lower castes. Between 500 B.C. to 1000 C.E., the Upanishads claimed universality to Brahman--making Brahman the official goal for Hindus. Atman was the self-made version of Brahman, tying the self with the universal. In fact, during the Gupta Dynasty (300 c.e. -1000 c.e.), India boasted the most peaceful and civilized kingdom in the world compared to Rome or Persia.

Knowledge could be attained through bhakti or loving devotion to one of the many gods of Hinduism (usually Shiva, Krishna, or Vishnu). Puja or purification rituals were central to Hindu bhakti and ranged from cleansing oneself in the River Ganges to pouring butter on Shiva Linga (Linga are phallic symbols pervading Hindu temples and stupas across India.) The basis of Hinduism is fertility and the blessing of abundance from the gods is exemplified in proper sexual practice and loving devotion.

Although Hinduism is polytheistic, its philosophy and orthopraxy are heavily spiritual and deeply aescetic. Meditation, karma (good and evil), dharma (rightful duty), and moksa (liberation) all bring people to their highest senses, allowing peace of mind and detachment from worldly temptations to surface. These concepts make little sense to people of the Western hemisphere, who pride their successes on material wealth and the hustle and bustle of everyday existence. In fact it is no surprise that the western hemisphere is continually undergoing spiritual poverty.

Although Hinduism castes its shadows on a varna system that has little to do with one's moral temperment and more to do with inherited class traits, the religion itself has been used among all classes in the hopes of attaining relevance with the Absolute Truth or Brahman. Could we in the west perhaps try to attain our perfected self? Maybe not in this lifetime, but we owe it to ourselves to try.

10.26.2008

Thomas Jefferson's American Legacy

When American historians recall the arduous democratic and constitutional process of this country, they often attribute this process to the determined and tenacious founding fathers. One man in particular, Thomas Jefferson, goes down in history as the 'man behind the true democratic experiment' - unconventional, private, and paradoxical. How much do Americans really know about this man who drafted the Declaration of Independence? What were his passions, fears, and beliefs for democracy? How and why is he still looked at as the 'father of American democracy?' And most importantly, would his views on race muddy his reputation as America's leading founding father?

Jefferson was complex, a young widowed man who spent most of his presidency in his room writing and reading on science and invention. He spent most of his life at his rural Virginia manor of Monticello. His tastes derived from French aristocracy and naturalistic elements engrained in the Deist ethos of the enlightenment. Not surprisingly, he despised the industrial north to the calm, tacit, and remote landscape of southern agrarian life. Unfortunately, not even Jefferson could stop the iron horse and factory landscapes of the north from encroaching on southern life.

Jefferson held complex and disillusionary concepts on race. His "Notes on the State of Virginia" in 1791 summarized the evolution of race, mirroring the ideas of the high-statured physiognomists of the day including Dr. Benjamin Rush, founder of Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. Rush developed a theory that the black skin color was caused by leprosy. None of this could be proved scientifically, but that did not stop Rush and others such as Jefferson from making hasty generalizations based on race. The Negro according to Jefferson was more emotional, less intellectual, and often times more liscentious than the average white person.
But on what grounds could this be proved? Scientist and engineer Benjamin Banneker, the first African American to publish a world almanac, reacted candidly to Jefferson's "Notes", reiterating the fact that skin color had no bearing on one's personal temperment. In fact, moreso than most presidents of the day and Jefferson himself, Banneker represented the Declaration of Independence. He consistently denounced slavery as an evil institution and questioned physiognomy as a pseudo-science with little to no true scientific evidence. If Jefferson drafted the declaration of independence, Banneker exemplified it.

Should we as Americans be shocked that a former president who publicly denounced slavery, but held slaves; wrote the declaration of independence, but studied physiognomy; wrote his "Notes" in fear of growing miscegenation, but carried on a secret love affair with half-African Sally Hemings, to be known as the founder of American democracy? Perhaps that is what Jefferson's historical legacy ought to be--American paradox. This, in fact, is what America stands for-- a democracy with un-regulated capitalism; a U.S. military with a hunger for spreading humanitarianism; a melting-pot nation with undying prejudices. Perhaps there is a little bit of Jefferson in all of us.

1.01.2008

Why Understanding the 'Other' is Essential to Understanding Ourselves


As a Christian American with Arab roots, I was raised with the essential understanding that the more we know about others, the more we learn about ourselves. Americans and many Westerners have the impression that Arabs and other cultures have a very narrow view of the world, since they come from a homogeneous and paternalistic society rooted in their own philosophies seperate from 'the West'.

However, I must contend with this viewpoint. Arab culture as well as all cultures of the world are far from homogeneous. Islam, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Sufism, Judaism, along with different cultural practices pervade the Middle East, creating a cohesive religious diversity that most societies envy. Although politics is really the point of all contention in all societies, religion has always been a significant cause for Arab identity--causing many to live their lives by their faith and practice. Even moreso, because Arabs in the Middle East come across Christians, Muslims, and Jews on a daily basis, they often times look to the other for understanding and common ground, perhaps as a necessity to better understanding themselves.

I cannot say the same for American culture. How often does the ordinary American come into conversation with someone from another faith? If so, what is that conversation like? All too often Americans prefer to stay away from the subjects of religion and politics, so when, in reality, will they ever get the chance to learn about someone else's viewpoints or religious beliefs?

As a history professor, I often times lecture on other religions different from my own. But what I come across when discussing these religions is that all Western thought seems to have assembled with Eastern philosophy at some point in time. The concepts of enlightenment, virtue, transcendence of the soul, loving the poor and your neighbor, all have Eastern roots. How else did the ancient Athenians come from a brutal helot society to that of a stable polity if not for the hellenist movement under Alexander? Was it not Alexander who adopted the ways of the Persians and Indians throughout his travels and conquests? By incorporating 'different' customs and simultaneously spreading the 'All Greek' identity, his empire flourished.

Judeo-Christian beliefs mirror these concepts. Is not the art of meditation and devotion rooted in all ancient religions? Does the Hindu who practices puja relate to a Christian who is baptized at birth? Absolutely. The symbols of purification are ingrained in all ancient religious practice--making this but one example to illustrate the interrelation of religious devotion across the east/west sprectrum.



Another point. Can Christians and other religions practice their faith and include the elements of other faiths to promote the concepts of enlightenment, devotion to God, praise to their Creator, without being labeled a heathen? Well, my answer is yes. Catholics and other Christians incorporate Judaic beliefs into their doctrines, just as Muslims incorporate Hindu or Judaic customs to strengthen their faith. The Arabic word "Bismillah" or 'In the name of God' is repeated among Muslims, Christians, and Jews alike.

I must say, if it were not for my understanding of other faiths, I would not feel so strong in my own. Although religion is a strong part of my identity, I understand its relativeness to that of the world and history. More importantly, my ancestors and family come from a part of the world where all religion must be respected in order to live harmoniously. I lose nothing by understanding and respecting other cultures and faiths, instead I gain everything.