One thing that distinguishes human animals from non-human animals is death rituals and ceremonies. One thing that made me a feminist, was the complete lack of human respect for women’s systematic ritualised rapes/deaths. In the early 1980s, I went to one of the ‘Women Against Rape in War’ remembrance walks on Australia’s nationalistic war day – ANZAC Day (April 25th). I was young, I had no idea the scale of the hatred and violence which would be directed at the women who marched way-back at the rear of the formal military parade, to just lay a wreath on the war memorial cenotaphs, in memory of our own war dead and injured.
To ceremonially lay a memorial wreath for women, was a “sacrilege”, up there with treason. The scale of the violent police enforcement, the vandalism of our wreaths, the abuse from the crowds lining the march, claiming we were ‘insulting our boys’ and should be treated as ‘traitors’ etc – led me to a truth about how women are not ‘human’ enough to deserve the respect of a human death ritual. Even when women are attacked and slaughtered in this way systematically and en-masse. No monuments or memorials for ours. When I read about the medieval European witch-burnings, I was also struck by the fact that in additional ‘insult’– the women were not allowed any death rituals at all. Families were not allowed to collect any remains, or hold ceremonies of their own. Desecretion of the dead is women’s lot.
Robert Graves, in his Greek Myths, interpreted the scene of Penthesilea’s death (by Achilles) in the Trojan War somewhat differently to other historians. However, they all agree that Achilles speared Penthesilea and dragged her off her horse. When he removed her helmet, he was stuck by her “beauty” and fell in “love” with her corpse. It is also agreed that another of his war captains publicly mocked Achilles’ “love” of the slain Amazon, and then Achilles killed him too. While they all agree to this point, the stories disagree on what happened to her body. In one account her corpse was dragged in the dirt behind a chariot for three days and three nights. Graves interpreted Achilles “love” as that of practising necrophilia on her body, in public ceremonial, ritual humiliation of the defeat of the Amazon queen and her army. Many accounts have that Achilles “love” for her was so strong, that in his own death – Penthesilea’s spirit willingly (‘lovingly’) joined Achilles to guard his tomb. Even in death, she was still a woman, cursed to serve her murderer and defiler for eternity in the afterlife. He could Rest-in-Peace, but she could not.
There are many interpretations of the autumnal Samhain pagan ritual, (halloween). My own personal favourite story, is the one that on the darkest night of the year the Triple Goddess, in her Crone aspect leaves the Underworld and walks the Earth in tears, mourning and grief for all those who died in the previous year. As She leaves the Underworld She leaves the gates open, and all the spirits of the dead wander the earth too, unhappy and lost, (continued in the Catholic tradition of All Saints Day on November 1 – when people traditionally visit the graves of their loved ones). She needs to be ‘tricked or treated’ (teased or gifted to make Her smile) in order to prepare Her for return to the Underworld to gather up the dead spirits and care for them to Rest-In-Peace until the time for their rebirth/resurrection in the Spring. Around communal fires folks would ritually honour the deaths that had occurred, as well as prepare for the deaths which come in the winter. For winter was the most likely time that the ill and the ageing elders might meet death, and autumn after the last harvest might be the last time people could come together before the winter set in. Elders also had the longest memories of who had died, how and when. So gifts and jokes would be spent on the elders at this time to share comfort in memories and stories of the dead. Then, as now, old women largely outnumbered old men.
There are other stories, not so comforting. In my own version of a “Tale of Two Cities”, I revisit the legends of the founding of Prague and Rome.
Founding of Prague: Legend of 7th century, the Slavic princess Libuše, the youngest of three daughters of the ruler Krok. Libuse was the prophetess and her elder sisters, the healer Kazi and the priestess Teta. (Triple Goddess metaphor). She was chosen by her father as his successor. Although she proved herself as a wise chieftain, the male part of the tribe was (very) displeased that their ruler was a woman and the male-dominated tribal council, insisted she take a husband. Libuse related a vision wherein she saw a farmer with one broken sandal ploughing a field. She told her councilmen to seek out this man and they found Přemysl. Libuše married him and Přemysl the Ploughman thus became their ruler; (and the one remembered as the true ‘Hero’ of the story) and birthed a son, the beginning of the Premyslid dynasty of Czech rulers.
A legend says that one day Libuše had a vision. She stood on a cliff overlooking the Vltava river, pointed to a forested hill across the river, and proclaimed: “I see a great city whose glory will touch the stars.” She instructed her people to go and build a castle where a man was building the threshold (in Czech práh) of a house. “And because even the greatest noblemen must bow low before a threshold, you shall give it the name Praha”. Soon after birthing her son, she apparently committed suicide by throwing herself in the river.
So much for the common version of the legend. In 2009, the Czech film “The Pagan Queen” about the legend of Libuse, failed miserably at the box-office and among critics. I found it a wonderfully refreshing film of the legend:
“A controversial film about the end of the old pagan world in central Europe, the Pagan Queen is based on the Czech legend of Libuse, the Slavic queen of 7th century Bohemia. Libuse ruled as a woman over the tribes of the region with her two beautiful sisters Kazi and Teta and an army of women under the command of her best friend, the Amazon Vlasta. When the peaceful community of farmers is under attack by raiders and split into different factions of power hungry landowners/nobles, Libuse is forced into marriage. Desperate, she chooses a common ploughman Premysl, to become her husband and king. Soon Premysyl takes over the kingdom and rules with an iron fist, enslaving the formerly free farmers. But Libuse’s Amazon commander, Vlasta, (who is secretly in love with Libuse) refuses to follow the new leader, and with her maiden Amazon army, declares war on the men of Bohemia. (They lose the war, badly) In the end, a prophetic vision of the future of her lands and her city torn apart by (male) cruelty and war, causes her so much grief, Libuse commits suicide. This approach to the legend, caused a massive scandal in the Czech Republic during the theatrical run of the film, and limited its release internationally” (from Imdb.com ).
Founding of Rome:a.k.a. ‘The Rape of the Sabine Women’. While many variations of this legend of the founding of Rome exist, they are all based on the large-scale mass rape of women, and starting with twin infant boys, Romulus and Remus. Mother and boys were put to death by some Kingly dude, who feared they would contest his rule once they grew up. Like most male heroes of myth, they had a miraculous birth and/or miraculous delivery from death as infants. *yawn*. In this case, the infants were exposed but found and suckled by a she-wolf, until found later by a shepherd and his wife, who raised them as shepherds. When they grew up they learned the truth, and killed the King who wanted them dead and went off to found a city. They argued over which of the “Seven Hills” of Rome would be the site of their new city, having a war about it, and Romulus won. He is credited with being the first Roman emperor, setting up the first ‘Senate’, and ‘legions’ etc. In the early years, this new city attracted exiles, refugees, various homeless vagrants from famine or disease, criminals and runaway slaves. Nearly all men. No women.
Bit of a problem, no women, no babies, nobody to do all the shit-work. Romulus holds a big festival to honour Neptune, and invited several neighbouring tribal groups to attend the festival, which they do, bringing all their clan and kin with them. The Sabine women who happened to be virgins (– 683 according to Livy, a so-called “reputable” source of ancient times – which begs a question of their counting methods) – are kidnapped and brought back to Rome where they are forced to “marry” Roman men. That is, abduction and mass rape. War with the Sabines started, as the Sabines wanted their women back (or more likely, to be paid a hefty bride-price for them!), and the war was going very badly for both sides – and in the famous legend, the abducted, raped Sabine women, offered themselves up “willingly” as free “brides” to the Romans. The oft-repeated moral of the tale, is designed to illustrate the women’s ‘nobility of sacrifice’ for peace.
Such willingness to become sacrificial tokens, especially in men’s wars, is just littered throughout history. Another example, is the death of Iphigenia, the 14-year-old daughter of Agamemnon, one of the Greek kings who sailed off to wage the Trojan war. He sacrificed his daughter to appease the wind gods, to allow his ships to sail. There are pages, and pages, and pages of Iphigenia’s speech in which she so willingly offers herself up to be “honorably” slaughtered on an altar. Not only does Iphigenia want to please her father, but she also forgives him for making the decision to sacrifice her. She revels in her own “nobility” and sees this as a patriotic cause. Iphigenia’s “honorable” death means the men can sail to Troy and protect their own women. If the men did not get to Troy then all the Greek women would be raped and possibly killed. But its OK for that particular fate to fall on the Trojan women… and we all know it was Helen of Troy’s fault anyway…
But back to mass rape/murder/sacrifice of females to the Greater Glory of Man (sic). Although I do include major one-off massacres like the 1989 Montreal students and the 2006 Amish school girls’ murders, and various infamous ‘serial killers’ who tend to specialise in serial sexual torture/murder of women — in this post, I am more focussed on the large-scale actions of mass rape and murder, which have been so normalised, invisibilised and trivialised, and so dehumanised that we are not even allowed the humanity of giving the respect of remembering them. We are not allowed to mourn our dead and injured. We are not allowed to name our dead or injured.
So many countries and nation-states have raised monuments to an “Unknown Soldier” who was found in some battle or other, or war memorials, all sombre and respectful. Or spending huge sums to uncover battle gravesites, and giving the long-dead soldiers the respect they are due. Not so women. We women are not ‘human’ enough. Not only must our deaths be the most cruel, the most degrading, the most dehumanised forms of cruelty enacted for male entertainment, but the most inhuman and inhumane, and so must our deaths be unrecognised as ‘human’ deaths – not even important enough to rate the most basic of “human” death rituals. Women’s mass-graves lie unremembered, forgotten and lost. One of the few exceptions is covered in the Japanese books (and film) “Sandukan 8”, about the women trafficked into prostitution in the 1920s in colonies such as Borneo, following their stories through to the end of WW2. In the sequel “Graves of Sandukan” a modern women’s history scholar travels to Borneo to find their graves and pay her respects. Many were buried near isolated swamps and laid deliberately with their heads turned away from the direction of Japan. The women had to bury each other in secret. Not even allowed to say they exist, let alone hold mourning rituals — where is the respectful Minute-of-Silence for the 200+ year long women’s holocaust of European women? A few years ago, the audience at a soccer match in England were asked to respect a Minute-of-Silence for local prostituted women murdered by a serial killer, and the organisers were mocked and publicly shamed for it! Or the women of Bosnia-Herzegovina? Or the WW2 ‘comfort’ women of both Europe and Asia? The women of Colombia, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Congo, Sudan (the list is endless). Many years of hard work by feminists finally achieved the legal ‘Naming’ of some of these mass horrors a ‘War Crime’, but few war criminals have ever stood accountable for it.
To name just a few – I’m sure we can all think of more, like Canada’s “Highway of Tears”, and Vancouver’s Downtown East Side Missing Women, and let us never forget Mexico’s femicide capital – Cuidad-Juarez las muertas de Juárez (“The dead women of Juárez”).
The least we can do in honouring their humanity, is Re-Member Them. Every war memorial parade, every monument, every war memorial needs to be occupied by remembrances of the women, every anniversary, every autumn on the darkest moonless night – we should remember them – wherever we are.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,
We will remember them.
- LEST WE FORGET.