View clip, Monumental Women, excerpt
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13th century Golden Ordos bülbül
Volcanic rock carvings in Costa Rica show sturdy and self-possessed women. Some hold their breasts in a ritual gesture of nurturing power. [Other, more monolithic pillar women have been found in Nicaragua.]
This Kemetic queen comes from the temple at Giza, near the great pyramid. Ancient Egyptian women had full property rights and acted as priestesses, traders, weavers, supervisors, and occasionally scribes.
This head is known as the Lady of Warka, or Uruk, city of the goddess Inanna. She was praised as “queen, great scribe, heroic princess.” This image may represent one of her priestesses. Sumerian records occasionally name female founders of dynasties, like Kug-Bau, “the woman tavern-keeper, who made firm the foundations of Kish.”
Some 24 centuries ago in Spain, the most impressive and numerous sculptures are of Iberian women. No one knows whether they represent priestesses, goddesses, or female ancestors. This little-known masterpiece is the Lady of Elche.
Dama de Baza
And here, seated in a winged throne, is the Lady of Baza. Many of these richly arrayed Iberian women hold libation vessels. [These fine limestone statues look like priestesses in ritual dress.]
FOUNDERS, CHIEFTAINS, QUEENS
Lawgivers and Originators [scrolling block]
Everything begins with the cultural founders:
Isis, Kybele, and Demeter were said to have taught law, culture, farming, and other technologies.
Nü Gua taught the Chinese how to irrigate with dams and canals, and also invented marriage and the whistle.
In Australia, Ngalyod is remembered as a mother, teacher, and culture-giver.
The Yoruba of Nigeria called Yemaya “our mother, the lawgiver.”
In the Philippines, Lubluban gave the first laws on ritual, property and inheritance.
The Shawnee received their laws and ceremonies and the use of fire from the creatrix Kokomtheyna.
Ptesan Wiñ, White Buffalo Calf Woman, gave the Lakota the sacred pipe and the seven ceremonies
and Estsanatlehi, Changing Woman, instructed the Dineh or Navajo.
The goddess Tökisy organized Toda clans in south India, giving them their names, ceremonies, and deities.
Two ancient women shamans of Yunnan, Mili Jide and Mupu Shaode taught the Jinuo to gather and hunt, farm and herd. [They invented stone knives, weaving, and irrigation.]
In Colombia, Dabeiba taught weaving, basketmaking, ceramics and farming to the Catío people
… and the Chibcha credit Bachué with teaching them their way of life.
In Peru, the Inca kings had female counterparts, the Coyas, who were moon priestesses. The first Coya was Mama Huaco, the “holy mother.” After the Spanish conquest, a Peruvian historian wrote of her, “She was a witch, but helped the poor.”
Sinú: four-women vessel from Betancí
In northern Colombia, the Spanish were astonished to find the country of Finzenú ruled by a great female chieftain, one of a long line.
Anacaona was the chieftain of Xaragua, the last unconquered part of Haiti. Bartolomé de las Casas described the Taina chieftain as a “graceful woman, prudent, creative and authoritative.” But in 1503 the Spanish governor betrayed her hospitality, slaughtered her assembly of chiefs with sword and fire, then captured and executed her. [Anacaona was also a poet who composed areitos, a style of ballad-dance popular among the Tainos. The only surviving areitos are hers.]
The Ghigau or Beloved Woman was head of the Cherokee Women’s Council and a member of the council of chiefs. This modern painting shows Nanyehi—Nancy Ward to the English—who became Ghigau in 1755, after courageously turning the tide of a battle.
Nanyehi 18th century drawing
Trail of Tears: Expulsion of the southeastern Indian nations
The Ghigau constantly urged her people not to sell their land, but in 1838 the US seized the Cherokee country and forced out most of its people, to walk the Trail of Tears.
The Shawnee, Miami, and Illinois had parallel systems of female and male chiefs. Women had the authority to demand an end to wars. [Female chiefs directed communal crop-planting and preparations for feasts and ceremonies.] Dual-gendered leadership is also known in some parts of Africa.
But these Indian histories have rarely been treated seriously. Often all we have to go on are irregular fragments like this one, without even a name. Her regalia suggests that this woman chief’s leadership was spiritual as well as political.
This was true of the legendary Czech seeress Libushe, who governed with her two sisters, a healer and diviner.
against this new order. Czechs remember Libushe as the founder of Prague whose historical prophecies came true.
Then there’s Hatshepsut, the most stunning exception to the rule of male pharaohs. She put on the masculine trappings of rulership:
the nemes headdress, kilt, even the braided false beard of the pharoahs.
Hatshepsut in granite
Hatshepsut held the throne for over 20 years, building magnificent temples and sending a famous naval expedition to trade with Somalia. Two other women ruled as pharaohs in their own right: Sobekneferu and Twosret.
Portrait from Ilé Ifè
This masterpiece from Ilé-Ifè portrays a Yoruba queen. The power of West African queens is legendary, from the Asantehemaa in Ghana to the Hausa warrior queen Amina, who ruled northern Nigeria from 1576 to 1610.
Yoruba Queen Mother: palace caryatid
African Queen Mothers often had their own officers, warriors, and courts. Some ruled in their own right; others, like this Yoruba queen mother, exerted power behind the throne, often nominating or choosing who would be king, and sometimes deposing him or overruling his judgments.
In Angola, the sacred throne of the BaChokwe literally rests on their ancestral mothers. Around 1600, tradition says, a Lunda chief appointed his daughter Lweji as ruler, passing over her brothers, who had quarreled over which of them would be chief.
The brothers tried to overthrow Lweji, as shown in this sculptured throne, but failed. So they left for Angola, to found the BaChokwe nation.
Certain Lunda titles—First Female Pillar, First Courageous Woman— show that men took over high offices once held by women. Some ancestral Pwo masks represent female chiefs, common in south-central Africa.
The Baulé nation reveres a female founder: the Ashanti princess Abla Pokou, who led her people fleeing across the river from Ghana into Ivory Coast. In this modern sculpture she sits on the sacred stool of the Akan.
In Guinée Bissau, wrote Amilcar Cabral: "… there were even matriarchal societies where women were the most important element. On the Bijagos Islands they had queens. They were not queens because they were the daughters of kings. They had queens succeeding queens. The religious leaders were women too..." (from Cabral, Return to the Source, Selected Speeches, 1973. Guinee-Bissau)
Japan first enters written history in Chinese accounts of Wa, the Land of Queens. Women had both religious and political authority. Around the year 200, the people turned to the old female shaman Himiko to bring warring factions to order.
Thai oral histories also ascribe shamanic powers to a queen who used a sacred drum to defend her country against an invading king. In Burma, too,
the Mon queen Camadevi, shown here, fought an aggressive suitor through the magic power of her sarong. Queens and female traders were great temple builders in Siam and Burma.
Sondok [near-contemporary golden queen's crown]
Sondok was a great queen of the Korean state of Silla, 632-47 CE, ruling in the absence of male heirs, and followed by two other queens. [Shown, a queen’s crown from the rival state of Paekche]
She built many Buddhist temples and this Tower of the Moon and Stars in Kyongju, which has been called the first astronomical observatory in east Asia.
Mamluk sultana: a medieval gateway in Cairo
Over history, women often had to overcome great difficulty to reach such power. A thousand years ago in Cairo, a Sudanese captive rose from slavery in the caliph’s harem to rulership…
… by organizing the enslaved black troops of the imperial army into a political force. Historians did not record her name, but her son became the caliph al-Mustansir. [Mamluk period, Egypt]
Wu Zetian, 625-705
When they died, Wu became the only woman in Chinese history to take the title of emperor and rule in her own right. The Confucians resisted, insisting that a woman should never rule, but Empress Wu prevailed, partly because of her popular tax reforms, but also because of her strategic skill. She ruled for 40 years.
Khmer temple relief, probably the goddess Uma
Social conditions were quite different in southeast Asia, where female chieftains, clan heads, warriors and shamans were unremarkable. Chinese travelers were amazed to find female judges, officials and scribes among the Khmer in Cambodia.
Nü Ren Guo
In Vietnam, too, the Chinese were struck by women’s freedom, so much that this artist wrote Nü Ren Guo—Country of Women—above these women drummers. And not because there were no men in Vietnam! [While some Chinese accounts of Countries of Women are clearly fantastic, others like the example below deal with historical societies.]
Chinese sources place Countries of Women in the eastern and western regions of Tibet. In 586 CE, Sui dynasty accounts describe a Nü Wang [“women’s realm”] in eastern Tibet; later Chinese records say women ruled this country until the election of a man in 742.
European colonizers were similarly shocked to find that American Indian women were not chattel, but potent economic, cultural and political forces, including female chieftains, elders, shamans, and providers. Here Aliquippiso or Aliquippa of the Iroquois League meets with Lt. George Washington.
Seneca family, Ontario
Iroquois men reprimanded male settlers for disdaining female power: "Brothers! Our ancestors considered it great offense to reject the counsels of their women, particularly of the Female Governesses. They were esteemed the mistresses of the soil.” [“Good Peter,” a member of the Iroquois League, speaking to Clinton, the colonial governor of New York.]
The Cherokee Attakullakulla, uncle to the Beloved Woman Nanyehi, distrusted the all-male envoys of colonial America,
demanding of them, “Where are your women?” The participation of women in diplomacy guaranteed peaceful intentions, while their absence was a bad sign—as events bore out.
Archaic Greek pot with Libyan influences
Political office is only one of many female spheres of power. Now we turn to the mother-right cultures, where the authority of clan mothers and women elders is embedded in the social fabric.