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F.F. White ([personal profile] ffwhite) wrote2013-09-23 08:57 am

On the Origins of Nerd Girls: Ancient History

In this series, I'll be talking about the relationship between females, knowledge, and society. This is a massive topic, but I feel that it is important because (as noted in an early post) some knowledgeable and vocal people are stuck with some bias about gender, especially as it pertains to those women who encroach upon intellectual authority. This is not limited to scholarly men or even to men in general, because normally any group of people who form any position of authority around anything feels threatened when another group of people tries to share that authority. This is the real biological fact of the struggle for survival, as discussed in Darwin's Origin of the Species, and has nothing to do with gender intrinsically. Gender is simply one axis by which people divide themselves, and it is a pretty arbitrary one at that, as the binary construction of gender is also flawed, but I'll have to discuss that another time.

To clarify, the thing nerds build their authority and autonomy around is knowledge, which by itself is powerful and often the source of a comfortable income, a healthier life, and much amusement. Because it is knowledge that nerds value above all else, anyone sharing some of that value/knowledge is sometimes perceived as a threat. This has innumerable historic precedents. For example, the Catholic Church still ordains only men into the priesthood, which maintains their status as a relic of historic bias. The fraternal order of Freemasons maintains its all boy club status as well, and as a society ostensibly formed for the preservation of sacred geometry, they are essentially club of nerds who also exclude women. But this was perhaps not always the status quo, so let's travel back in time and see how this prejudice has shaped itself over the millennium.

The myth of a traditional role for women

To avoid confusion, I need to clarify a few things about the ancient world and the biological basis of gender, because the social consensus on what these are is not what they actually are.

I am assuming adults are reading this, so I don't think the mystery of where babies come from needs explanation. However, the biological facts of procreation do not predetermine anything about how a species divides the labor of child rearing. Indeed, many animals treat males as a brief genetic contributor and food to nourish the fertilized female. Other animals segregate based on gender, prefer to integrate only one male in a large population of females, pair up and mate for life, or feature solitary females gathering up many males. Both genders of many species carry eggs and young, do the feeding and the rearing, or even change genders to assist population growth. The fact is, biological gender basically determines which sort of gamete an individual produces and relatively few sex-linked traits, while everything else about the division of labor is species, variety, development, and circumstance specific.

The circumstance of human existence is varied, but we can attribute the emergence of specialized people like scholars or kings to populations who required so little labor to survive and raise young that some people could spend all their time thinking, writing, creating, building, administrating, or experimenting. In fact, the progress of knowledge in a society is more or less proportional to the ratio of specialists to laborers. Specialization of this kind was made possible by the agricultural revolutions that occurred in all the so-called cradles of civilization archaeologists have identified, and the first specialists were not very specialized. In nearly every early (2nd or 3rd millennium BC) civilization, the literate and the religious were one and the same, meaning that the nerds of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Indus valley were the astrologers, mystics, and priests/priestesses as indicated by the large number of ritual objects inscribed with symbols. And it is here that we see the initial divide along the lines of gender. For some, there seems to be little distinction, but for others, the male or female (or both) were venerated as a tenant of belief, and therefore designated the rank of any nerd/mystic to differing genders respectively.

Lest we doubt this, the earliest definitive evidence we have of female priesthoods is in the earliest evidence we have of specific religious practices. Professional mourners were often women. As far back as the Old Kingdom of Egypt (3rd Millennium BC) women could serve as Hem Netjer, or high priest. The most well documented example of this was a royal lady titled God's Wife of Amen who lived in the Third Intermediate Period (1064BC-664BC). Both genders in the priesthood were required to be celibate, not to eat fish, not to wear wool, and to bath several times a day. Though I cannot speak for the people of 5000 years ago, the written records make few gender-specific requirements or distinctions in ancient Egyptian religion.

Post-feminism in Ancient Mesopotamia and Greece

Sumer, the early Mesopotamian culture in contemporary Iraq, was male dominated. Their laws clearly state that females could fill one of three social roles, all of which were defined by a male counterpart – daughter, wife, and widow. When Sumer collapsed, Babylon remained, and Ashur later rose in the north. Among ancient civilizations, the people of Babylon and Ashur were rightly considered war-like. We tend to equate this with masculine sensibilities and there is ample evidence that these civilizations had a greater interest in and emphasis on the male gender. Scribes were almost all male, and often eunuchs or slaves (or both). The civic religions of Babylon and Ashur centered on a masculine all-father, called Marduk and Ashur respectively. However, there emerged a counter-cult of female power, which centered on the downtrodden, the underworld, wisdom, and war in the cults of Ishtar/Innana. It is not well understood whether sacred prostitution was a tenant of every such group, but at least those of Uruk were called courtesans of the gods. This indicates that though male-dominated, women organized around the center of their power to use it as we have come to understand post-feminist power dynamics today. The cults of Ishtar/Innana appropriated masculine power by asserting the intrinsic attractiveness and knowledge of female life that their male counterparts could not access directly. In this way, the authority of one gender was not complete or intractable.

Perhaps more well documented is the oracles of ancient Greece, the most prestigious of which dwelt in the Temple of Apollo at Delphi and operated for much of the 1st millennium BC. The Oracle or the Pythia, was a specific order or caste within the temple, and the oracular ability to predict the future operated within the same subversive dynamic as the cults of Ishtar/Innana, providing wisdom of a perspective outside the male-dominated ancient Greek society.

Although their influence had far-reaching significance, as illustrated in Aristophanes' Lysistrata (a comic play in which the women of Greece end the Peloponnesian War by withholding sex), post-feminist strategies were insufficient to secure a reversal of power in Ancient Greece or Ancient Mesopotamia that we know of. Female rulers were few, and female nerds/priests were completely absent, written about but never doing the writing.

Persia, the Ancient Empire of almost Equality

The Zoroastrian Persian Empire, kicked off by Cyrus the Great who conquered Ashur and Babylon, were a unique people for the 5th century B.C. They did not believe in slavery and very early on placed a woman in a military leadership position next to the conqueror Xerxes. Her name was Admiral Artemisia, and although she and Xerxes lost the war against Greece, she provides solid evidence that the Persians placed a different emphasis on gender than the Greeks. In that time (called the Achaemenid period), the Persian Court had a documented hierarchy and explicit powers designated for woman of the royal house, from the top position as the King's mother through to the King's extended family. Outside of the royals, women had independent economic status like the Egyptians, earning wages in grain and wine like other laborers or merchants, and could own their own property. Tablets recovered from the court of Xerxes mention one very wealthy woman named Irdabama who held large estates of land, commanded hundreds of workers of both sexes, and possessed her own seal and title. The government of Persia also provided rations for new mothers and pregnant women, but in a less-than-equitable move more was afforded to the nurses and mothers of boys than of girls. It was not sufficient incentive to cause infanticide, however, as the birth rate of boys was only slightly higher than that of girls. However, women inherited twice as much as men from the death of their spouse or parents. Although we do not have details on divorce, evidence confirms that it happened sometimes.

But what about women as ancient Persian priests/nerds? Sadly, no. Not until 2011, when the Tehran Mobeds Anjuman (Anjoman-e-Mobedan) announced that women had joined the group of mobeds (priests) in Iran as mobedyars (women priests), were women recognized as priests. This means that although the Zoroastrian religion makes no distinctions between men and women in spiritual value or social stature, women were officially excluded from tending the sacred fires or composing religious verses until very recently.

A final word, with Joseph Campbell

Some of you may see the evidence here as that old saw about the sky father cults subsuming the earth mother cults, which is a valid interpretation of the facts but I think that is too simple. In many cases, it was convenient for some men to fashion authority for males and form a fraternal bond that attracted a lot of male support. As in Greece and Ashur, women organized as well, and after a time, this struggle between gendered loci of power became a historic precedent, and the struggle has had a profound influence on our cultures ever since. The primary point here is not that power has shifted, but that the roles people assume are often a function of that power. A traditional role for men or women is as relevant as the attitudes of a time and place. As Joseph Campbell points out when asked whether he thought the goddess had been in exile since the founding of the Catholic Church, Notre Dame is the foremost patron of over thirty cathedrals in Europe, North America, and Africa, particularly in France and former French colonies. The feminine was impossible to remove from the church despite the authority men have asserted over Catholicism. So too are women essential to the sciences and nerd culture, even if they are underrepresented in all the media, art, and history of the sub-genre. I do not know if organizations shall form around gender identity in this arena, but the potential is there, and I think women (or anyone, really) could benefit from communities that organize around whoever they identify themselves as. Difference is cause for celebration, even if that means some groups cannot integrate perfectly.

-f. f. white

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