Note from the Author: This story was written in 2014 and revised in 2015.
In honor of International Women’s Day, I wanted to share a story about a Thesis paper I wrote called “The Mark of a Tragic Lady in Ancient Greece.” I began my story with a Preface and I speak of Sappho— a poet and a lyrist that Plato referred to as ‘the tenth muse’—before I started my story at the Battle of Marathon when freedom sparked into the hearts of Greek men. Before this battle, freedom was seen as negative and only limitations were good. Anyway, I submitted this paper in my Portfolio for Admissions and acceptance to a Master of Art program at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). The focus of the paper is women, but it’s also stock full of men because if you know anything about the classical Greek woman: a world without men would not be a world worth living or dying for. Men are monumental to the story, too. At this point in time, men had complete control of everything. Hence the words ‘tragic lady’ in the title.
Women born into this ancient world in Greece, whether she was a Queen or a slave, served three roles: virgin, wife and mother. Only if you were in Egypt or perhaps when a female became a widow after fulfilling these roles could women have any sense of freedom. Even then, unless you were a goddess or a fictional female in a story, freedom was limited by Law. Laws were created by men who primarily occupied even the arts and science. Women had little options to none in regards to a professional career. Sappho was a unique woman in the ancient world because she was alone most of the year while her rich husband traveled the world working. However, before she wrote poems and played music on the Greek isle of Lesbos, she was a virgin, wife, and mother long before she openly became an artist. Even so, men destroyed most of her artwork after Sappho’s death because they wanted her power, and her voice erased from history.
“Some say that the fairest thing upon the dark earth is a host of horsemen, and some say a host of foot soldiers, and others again a fleet of ships, but for me it is my beloved.” – Sappho
For over a year, I had been writing this Thesis paper for fun in my spare time, just because I love “The Oresteia” and classical Greek plays so much. Finally, I had a reason to share it with my Alumnus when I decided to go back to grad school in 2012. Perhaps my undergraduate degree at SCAD and my transcript of success in the past also helped me to be accepted as a SCAD graduate student. However, I know in my heart that this Thesis paper within my portfolio submission is what granted me the three Academic Honors Award Scholarships I received. Reading this letter that arrived via snail mail, I recall it was a turning point for me as a Writer. I was always confident in my athletic abilities, my intelligence, and other traits I hold dear about myself. But like anyone in their youth, I was struggling with hidden insecurities and I was struggling to find a belief in my writing Voice, even if I knew I was meant to be a writer. I was confused because all my life, I grew up reading all of these great, timeless writers—masters of their craft—therefore, I felt that I did not hold a candle in their shadows. Like watching a little kid try to run hills in shoes too big for her feet. Yet even though I doubted myself, I also knew that my writing was special, even if I wasn’t a master. And while I have much more to learn in my writing skills given, I am dyslexic. When I saw that half of my tuition for my M.A. program at SCAD was paid for due to scholarships I earned based upon my portfolio: my words that came from the heart, suddenly I realized, “Nicolette, you might be better at this whole writing bit than you thought.”
Going back a little further in time to explain how I came to write this Thesis paper and my love for classical Greek plays. It all began during a class called “Greek and Roman Drama.” My Final Quarter as an undergraduate student when I was getting my B.F.A. in Writing at SCAD. Two years earlier, I had this same professor once before for a “World Masterpieces” course and he gave me a C. I still recall the final low grade in my best subject at school and realizing this professor either did not think I was smart or was giving me the grade he felt I deserved. Frankly, I was in a bad frame of mind during my sophomore year, and after taking a six-month break from college and somehow still graduating in under four years: I was back at my best. I went from making B’s and C’s, with the occasional A, to qualify for the Dean’s List 5 quarters in a row. Straight’ A’s with a high GPA in my major. During this Greek & Roman Drama class within my final quarter, not only was I confident in my major and my GPA, but I was happy and in my zone because the four-year journey was at its end. The week we began studying “The Oresteia”—a trilogy of plays written by Aeschylus— something awakened in me. I was hypnotized and disturbed by these strong, female characters written by men. Envisioning these classical Greek plays being performed outdoors for thousands of locals in Greece centuries ago mesmerized me. The power of the characters and their words enthralled me and inspired me so much I thought about the story for years after. I made an A+ in that class, and my professor congratulated me for my hard work and even used one of my assignments as a template for other students to follow and help them to interpret the ancient words of a world long gone.
Writing is my greatest artistic skill; out of all I can do. And I must honor my life calling and continue to excel in my writings. Ultimately, the arts and humanities are my life callings and I’ve known this since I was a little girl. Even as a child, I knew that I was an old soul who’d live many lives in the past, and I knew in my heart in this life, I would be an artist.
“Sweetest mother, I can weave no more to-day, For thoughts of him come thronging, Him for whom my heart is longing — For I know not where my weary fingers stray.” – Sappho
Everyone has a different life path. And I hope all women find their life path and honor their life calling, whether it’s to be a wife, mother, artist, athlete, florist, doctor, model, chef, writer, scientist, teacher, and so on… Sometimes I am very saddened by the emotional and mental violence amongst women. Sometimes I get repulsed by how women tear one another apart, aggressively or passive-aggressively, because they feel inferior, jealous, or afraid of another woman. When we could instead lovingly and healthily empower each other by knowing we can all be great, we can all be beautiful, and we can all be strong. Women do not have to cut another one down with words or actions of violence and hatred to feel bigger or better. We must find the strength and confidence within ourselves. And when we do falter, we must ask ourselves why we feel threatened by another woman. We must all find a way to feel good about ourselves and love ourselves. To empower ourselves by believing in ourselves. It is my girlish hope that women will start to be more loving to one another. Because even though we have more rights than we ever did centuries ago, it is still a man’s world, and women need not make life any harder than it already can be. There should be no “us versus them” (them, as in the men). But there should most certainly not be hatred amongst our gender towards one another. How can we earn respect from everyone while we disrespect one another? Doesn’t even make sense… I can’t control anyone around me, even if I can persuade at times. Still, in my personal life, I have a zero-tolerance policy for vindictive and viperous females in my social circle. Having said all this, to be without sisterhood is not a life worth living.
I need women in my life just as much as I need men in my life; yin and yang. “There is the sea, and who will drain it dry? Precious as silver, inexhaustible, ever-new, it breeds the more we reap it –tides on tides of crimson dye our robes blood-red. Our lives are based on wealth, my king, the gods have seen to that.Destitution, our house has never heard the word.I would have sworn to tread on legacies of robes, at one command from an oracle, deplete the house –suffer the worst to bring that dear life back!”(Aeschylus, “Agamemnon”).
To end my rant. There are so many things that make women beautiful. And while the soul is our strongest feature, it’s not tangible. It’s of another realm, and we can only touch souls, figuratively. So I think it’s essential for us to ask ourselves: Where do my most extraordinary powers and beauties come from, and how will I share it? For me, my greatest beauty and most significant force of power—sometimes even my darkest asset—is my heart. My mind is blessed, but it’s my heart that’s made of titanium and marshmallows, sugar and salt, fire and water: Mercury and solace. And I hope this excerpt I share below will touch the heart of anyone who reads it, especially the women of the world today.
Today I registered for my final quarter to complete my Master’s degree and the Senior Capstone project. Ten more weeks, and then it will be the end of a two-year journey. Blood, sweat, and tears have gone into this. For two years, I haven’t been on vacation nor even left the city for more than a few hours—I’ve been powering through work and graduate studies—on top of my intense, melancholy life. I worked three jobs. Since I feel very nostalgic and evocative today, I wanted to share a few quotes from my Academic life. I was thinking about the beginning of this journey. During the admission process for my Masters, I submitted a portfolio of publications and a Thesis paper alongside my application. My Thesis compared and contrasted mortal versus immortal women within the ancient world of Greece. It compared and contrasted the roles and historical existence, of mortal, non-fictional women—versus the historical roles and existence of female characters in the arts and mythological stories within the classical Greek plays… The paper was 35 pages long, and even though it’s unpublished—the project is still legally tied to my name as SCAD owns the rights and it’s forever preserved in my transcripts. None of this is from my paper, except the quotes. Regardless, I will focus on this one scene and one fictional female character from “The Oresteia.”
“The Oresteia” is a trilogy of plays that include the following: “Agamemnon”, “The Libation Bearers”, and “The Eumenides”. The following quotes I infused into one are from the first play. In preface to this quote I will give you a visual:
The first play begins with King Agamemnon returning home from war—his army had defeated the Trojans after a grueling ten years of battle. The sole reason he went to war was that his mistress was ‘stolen’ from him by a young foreign Prince—and his ego simply couldn’t take the blow. Wanting to seek revenge, sadly, the winds are not in his favor when his army intends to set sail. So the King seeks the gods. When the god Apollo says, the only way the winds will blow is if the King sacrifices one of his daughters. The King lures his daughter, Iphigenia, away without her knowing what’s to come—and he slits her throat. Sacrificing his child solely for his mistress, his ego, and to make the wind blow in his favor to crush his opponent’s spirit. The grief-stricken mother of the child, Queen Clytemnestra, his wife, has been waiting at home for ten years—mourning for ten years and calculating the murder of her husband and her King. Wanting to avenge her daughter’s death as well as seek revenge for the public humiliation he inflicted. She wants the crown, and she’s waiting like a watchdog. When she finally sees the ships sail in, Queen Clytemnestra is about to crawl out of her skin with delirium, excitement, and rage. The wise old men of the palace (mentors of the king) are terrified of her. Watching her prance boldly around the castle just like a King, even sitting on his throne. Knowing what a crazed, heartbroken woman, wife, and mother are capable of—let alone a fierce Queen like Clytemnestra. It made them fear her every move… As you’re reading the text—when King Agamemnon arrives, you can see that all he can think of is to show off his new mistress and celebrate his defeat. He is not thinking of the daughter he murdered, or the wife and Queen he left behind. Nor the fact his wife and Queen has a new lover. As the reader watches the arrogance and blindness of the King while he unknowingly walks to his death—it’s almost bone-chilling to read. Queen Clytemnestra welcomes him with kindness and adoration. She tricks him and lures him into a ritual bath with the pretenses she’s going to bathe and honor him. But as he undresses and enjoys the bath, Clytemnestra wraps Agamemnon in robes before throwing a fishnet around him as if to trap him like an animal. Then, taking an ax, she hacks off all four of his limbs, one-by-one as he screams to death and struggles to break free. A dishonorable death for a King–defiance to the gods and goddesses—not to mention extraordinarily violent and out-of-character behavior for a woman of the ancient world. The transformation from the seemingly quiet, demure, submissive Queen to a murderess that will defy the gods is both terrifying and hypnotizing. Some critics say she is a murderess and a villain–others say she is a murderess & a hero. You’ll have to read all three plays to decide… And now for the quote, which came right after she committed the crime:
“Words, endless words I’ve said to serve the moment – now it makes me proud to tell the truth. How else to prepare a death for deadly men who seem to love you? How to rig the nets of pain so high no man can overleap them? I brooded on this trail, this ancient blood feud year by year. At last my hour came. Here I stand and here I struck and here my work is done. I did it all. I don’t deny it, no. He had no way to flee or flight his destiny our never-ending, all embracing net, I cast it wide for the royal haul, I coil him round and round in the wealth, the robes of doom, and then I strike him once, twice, and at each stroke he cries in agony – he buckles at the knees and crashes here! And when he’s down I add the third, last blow, to the Zeus who saves the dead beneath the ground. I send him that third blow in homage like a prayer. So he goes down, and the life is bursting out of him — great sprays of blood, and the murderous shower wounds me, dyes me black, and I, I revel like the Earth when the spring rains come down, the blessed gifts of god, and the new green spear split’s the sheath and rips to birth in glory! …. And you, you treat me like some desperate woman. My heart is steel, well you know. Praise me, blame me as you choose. It’s all one. Here is Agamemnon, my husband made a corpse by this right hand – a masterpiece of Justice. Done is done… And now you sentence?– you banish me from the city, curses breathing down my neck? But he – name one charge you brought against him then. He thought no more of it than killing a beast, and his flocks were rich, teeming in their fleece, but he sacrificed his own child, our daughter, the agony I laboured in love to charm away the winds of Thrace. Didn’t the law demand you banish him? – hunt him from the land for all his guilt? But now that you witness what I’ve done and you are ruthless judges. Threaten away! I’ll meet you blow for blow. And if I fail the throne is yours. If god decrees the reverse, late as it is, old men, you’ll learn your place,” (Aeschylus, Agamemnon).”