Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Slaves, Courtesans and Queens


In getting ready for Christmas and the number of books that were heading to my bookshelves, I decided to do a little organising. In the course of dusting everything, a book, Ancient Greece: Myth and History, literally fell on my lap. Flicking through the pages there seemed to be a pattern of why women were mentioned; they were either slaves, courtesans or queens. 

Let's start with the lowest rank, that of slave. Slaves were common fixtures in the homes of the ancient Greeks. It is believed that Sparta had more helots (slaves) than citizens or freemen. Most Athenians owned at least one slave and could do with them what they wanted, although their power over them was not absolute. It is unsurprising, therefore, that only a few ancient Greek slaves make it into history books. Rhodopis is one of them.

This Rhodopis may very well be the same woman mentioned by Bree in her post about the name a few months back. While she may have been the character in one of the world's oldest Cinderella stories, Rhodopis has other claims to fame.  She is mentioned by what many consider to be the world's first historian, Herodotus, and immortalised in a poem by Sappho. Rhodopis was the property of Xanthes, passed on to king Amasis II, and was emancipated by Charaxus, who fell in love with her. There is some dispute over whether her real name was actually Doricha (pronounced with a hard K sound) and she used Rhodopis as her professional name, meaning 'rosy cheeks' or 'the rose-like face'. Even though Rhodopis is an interesting character in history, her names remain neglected. Rhodopis may perhaps be 'too out there' for many, but Doricha is surely more usable, and may even be seen as more appealing than established names like Doris or Dorothy.

Thaïs is a well-known hetaera (a high-class courtesan also described as a 'companion'). She is famous for her connection to Alexander I, whose lover she may have been, and his general Ptolemy, whom she is said to have later married. Thais may have acquired the status of queen when her husband rose to power as King of Egypt. However, it is more plausible that she remained his mistress. Together they had three children: a daughter, Eirene (Abby wrote about the name here), and two sons, Leontiscus and Lagus. Her name has not caught on in England and Wales. In 2010 it was at #4688, with only 4 girls being called Thais. However, it was #96 in France in 2009. 

Another highly educated hetaera was Aspasia, who the author of Ancient Greece describes as Pericles' partner. Her status in the eyes of her society was that of a high-class courtesan, but she was much more than the lover of Athen's most powerful man. Aspasia was an influential adviser, noted for her intelligence and beauty. Her name, which some believe she chose herself, means 'welcome' and derives from the Greek 'aspasios'. Just like the names of the other women mentioned, Aspasia has been left behind. It's not so unfamiliar, though. It could very well be a strong alternative to the more common Anastasia.

Although the three women mentioned above moved in important circles, they were still commoners. So, what about the queens who ruled at this time. Artemisia I of Caria is one worth mentioning. She was the only female commander in the Battle of Salamis, and surprisingly-- considering that the Greeks won the battle and that she was on the Persian side-- is often portrayed well in history. Her name is probably of Persian roots, with possible meanings of 'great', 'excellent', or 'holy'. Another meaning which has been suggested is that of 'perfect'. But it is likely that there are strong connections with the more recognisable Artemis, the Greek goddess of the moon and hunting. While Artemis has been used throughout the years, Artemisia has gotten much less attention. In 2010, 7 girls were named Artemis in England and Wales, but no Artemisias to be seen. The queen also had an Old Persian name, Anahita. This was also the name of the Iranian goddess of water, and can be used as an adjective meaning 'pure' or 'immaculate'. Ancient Greek scholars referred to this goddess as Anaïtis.

http://images.metmuseum.org/CRDImages/dp/web-large/DP807559.jpgFinally, we come to Dido, founder and queen of Carthage. There is doubt as to whether she was a mythical figure or an actual historical character. Whether a mythical goddess or a maker of history, Dido's story is a sad one. She fled her home after her husband was assassinated by her brother, who had taken power over the kingdom that should've rightly been both of theirs, and she was later forced to escape marriage to a neighbouring king. To keep from marrying again, which she saw as a betrayal to her first husband, Dido threw herself into a funeral pyre. Perhaps because of such a tale, Dido has never really taken off. One does find records with women carrying the name, which is believed to mean 'virgin', but they are few.

In some sources the queen appeared as Elissa, a name that has made a constant appearance in the US charts since 1966. It first entered the top 1000 in 1933 but ranked on and off for a few years. Sadly, it seems that Elissa has steadily decline in favour, disappearing from the top 1000 in 2005. In England and Wales, it seems to be holding its own. In 2000 it was at #565, and ten years later it has kept the fairly similar ranking of #531. Clearly, it's never been part of the popular crowd, like Lisa and Melissa, but has done relatively well in the fringes. Although its meaning is uncertain, it could have emerged from the Phoenician Elishat, meaning 'wanderer'.

Images: 'Expectations' by Lawrence Alma-Tameda, 'The Slave Market' by Gustave Boulanger, 'The Death of Dido' by Francesco Allegrini.