Monday, April 7, 2008

Woman in the Naked Arena of Men

A few of us men are discussing whether either “arena” or “stadium” might be the better English translation of the Greek word σταδους in various contexts. Or whether neither. (So far it's men only discussing, which means the conversation tends more toward the dimorphic rather than the polymorphic, as Nancy Mairs might observe.)

But women have not always been allowed in stadiums or arenas or contests. Ask my wife, the marathoner, who will tell you the history of females being excluded from certain events much more recently than Adolf Hitler’s attempt to exclude Jesse Owens from the Olympic Games. (Which takes me back to the last time I was in an arena. There were 102 of us white people listening to the only black person there, telling us his personal history of once having been excluded from that place. The last time I was in a stadium, at my university, there were plenty of black and white athletes on the field but none a woman; the place is reserved for football, and football is exclusively for men). The exclusion of women, by men, from sporting events is as old as their exclusion, by men, from public speaking.

Let’s look back, and listen. The awful past (and someone else’s history) is often more palatable to us than the present (our present). Below is an excerpt from Steven Pressfield’s acclaimed Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae. (It’s a retelling of Herodutus’ history of the Spartan holding off the Persian King Xerxes. Aristotle, in the Rhetoric, writes of Xerxes’ conquest of Greece. Bible history includes this ruthless conquerer too; the book of Esther has the protagonist standing up to this man and famously speaking to him to save the Jews. More recently, Frank Miller has written has written the graphic novel 300 on which was based the bloodly film by the same name, in which Spartan Queen Gorgo speaks to the all-male council to save the Greeks).

As we all know, Aristotle despised Spartan women. He writes of them in the Rhetoric and in his other treatises, saying they had too much respect among men and that their men, therefore, were wimps.

What Pressfield offers is a plausible tale of how one Spartan woman spoke publicly and persuasively in the arena where men were competing naked. This woman, Arete, persuaded a man, the warrior Dienekes. The rhetoric is as fascinating as Gorgo’s and Esther’s.

Pressfield sets the stage (and note the novelist’s use of both English words “stadium” and “arena”):

We traversed the deserted avenues to the Olympic stadium, entering via the competitors' tunnel and emerging into the vast and silent expanse of the agonists' arena, purple and brooding now in the starlight. Dienekes mounted the slope above the judges’ station, those seats upon the grass reserved during the Games for the Spartans. (page 53)

Now, in the context of these Games, Dienekes one night relates the story of his marriage to his protégé, his “squire.” Dienekes does not want to tell the story, but he’s a bit under the influence of a long day of battling, and of strong drink:

“Dienekes drew up, his expression going suddenly sober and solemn. He declared that the story at this point proceeded into the province of the personal. He must put a period to it.”

“I [his squire] begged him to continue. He could see the disappointment on my face. Please, sir. You must not carry the tale this far, only to discard by the wayside.

“You know,” he offered in wry admonishment, “what happens to squires who spread tales out of school.” He took a draught of wine and, after a thoughtful moment, resumed.

“You are aware that I am not my wife’s first husband. Arete was married to my brother first.”

[Dienekes then reveals how he had had a secret longing for the wife of his dear brother, a great warrior named Iatrokles. The brother caught on one day, and so Dienekes nobly moved far far away to honor his brother, and Arete. He then learns of his brother’s death in battle.]

“I felt it was my doing, my brother’s death, as if I had willed it in secret and the gods had somehow responded to this shameful prayer. It was the most painful thing that had ever happened to me. I felt I couldn’t go on living, but didn’t know how honorably to end my life. I had to come home, for my father and mother’s sake and for the funeral games. I never went near Arete. I intended to leave Lakedaemon [i.e. “Sparta” but literally “Strife with Deities or Demons”] again as soon as the games were over, but her father came to me. ‘Aren’t you going to say one word to my daughter?’ He had not clue of my feelings for her, he simply meant the courtesy of a brother-in-law and my obligation as kyrios [as “master”] to see that Arete was given to a proper husband. He said that husband should be myself. I was Iatrokles’ only brother, the families were already profoundly intertwined and since Arete had as yet borne no chilren, mine with hers would be as if they were my brother’s as well.

“I declined.

“This gentleman could make no guess of the real reason, that I couldn’t embrace the shame of satisfying my deepest self-interest over the bones of my own brother. Arete’s father could not understand; he was deeply hurt and insulted. It was an impossible situation, spawning suffering and sorrow in every quarter. I had no idea how to set it right. I was at wrestling one afternoon, just going through the motions, plagued by internal torment, when there came a commotion at the Gymnasium gate. A woman had entered the precinct. No female, as we all know, may intrude upon those grounds. Murmurs of outrage were building. I myself arose from the pit—gymnos as all were, naked—to join the others in throwing the interloper out.

“Then I saw. It was Arete.

“The men parted before her like grain before the reapers. She stopped right beside the lanes, where the boxers were standing naked waiting to enter the ring.

“‘Which of you will have me as his wife?’ she demanded of the entire assembly, who were by now gaping slack-jawed, dumbstruck as calves. Arete is a lovely woman still, even after four daughters, but then, yet childless and barely nineteen, she was as dazzling as a goddess. Not a man didn’t desire her, but they were all too paralyzed to utter a peep. ‘Will no man come forward to claim me?’

“She turned and marched then, right up in front of me. ‘Then you must make me your wife, Dienkes, or my father will not be able to bear the shame.’

“My heart was wrenched by this, half numb at the sheer brass and temerity of this woman, this girl, to attempt such a stunt, the other half moved profoundly by her courage and wit.” [Pressfield reserves the word “andreia,” or manly valor, for men only, later in the novel]

“What happened?” I asked.

“What choice did I have? [The woman was more persuasive than the gods or her father.] I became her husband.”


Nathan Stitt said...

I think this has been my favorite post of yours to date. From the book excerpt to the link at elysiumgates, where I spent the next two hours reading the other pages there (and then more on wiki). Just wow. I think I'll buy that book since the paperback is $0.01 plus shipping on amazon. I'm not sure what to say at this point because I'm still processing. Perhaps after some sleep I'll re-read it all and have something else tomorrow.

Loving it :)

J. K. Gayle said...

Thanks for the comment here. I read in your comment elsewhere today that you just received Gates of Fire; not a bad price for a penny, I have to add, but if you read it, let us know what you think. Do you like it as much as I do? And, thanks, Nathan, for your other kind words--Looking forward to more conversations!