The Life and Bizarre Death of “Necro-Entrepreneur” Locusta, the World’s First Known Serial Killer

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The Love Potion. Evelyn de Morgan, 1903.

Little is known about the world’s first serial killer, which is perhaps why accounts of Locusta’s death are . . . eccentric?

Here’s what we do know: Locusta hailed from Gaul, the outer province of Ancient Rome now known as France. Trained in herbs, she mastered the system of “patronage” and made a name for herself as a reliable assassin – or as Dr. Katherine Ramsland calls Locusta’s business, “necro-entrepreneur.” [1] To Locusta’s benefit, Rome brimmed with wealthy, would-be-patrons, eager to hasten the death of rich relatives. These clients also reliably bailed Locusta out of prison when events didn’t unfold per plan.

In AD 54, Empress Agrippina, the fourth wife—and niece—of Emperor Claudius, grew tired of her uncle/husband. She conspired with Locusta to murder Claudius in order to place her son from a previous marriage, Nero, on the throne. The Emperor, however, proved a challenging mark. Not only was he armed with taste testers, he also had a ghastly habit of vomiting each meal by tickling his throat with a feather in order to indulge again—a quirk which limited the time any poison could act.

But Claudius’ habit was not a challenge for Locusta’s ingenuity. Undercover, Locusta managed to avert the taste tester and serve the Emperor death cap mushrooms, likely flavored with aconite.[2] When symptoms of poisoning appeared, Agrippina gave Claudius a feather to purge the poison, but Locusta had laced that as well.

Suffering, the Emperor called for his personal physician, Xenophon, whom the devious women also had in their pocket. So when Xenophon gave Claudius a healing enema, he added poison to the mix as well. Claudius suffered a heinous death and eventually perished on October 13.

While Locusta was subsequently imprisoned in AD 55, Nero sought to secure his throne by contracting Locusta to craft a poison to murder Claudius’ son, Britannicus. When the concoction failed initial tests, Nero flogged Locusta with his own hands.[5] Motivated, her second attempt succeeded and the pair was ready for Britannicus.

During Roman times, it was customary to dilute wine with hot water. Britannicus was served wine that was too hot and when he called for cold water, Locusta’s poison was secretly waiting in the pitcher.

Upon Britannicus’s death, Nero bestowed Locusta with pardons, lands, lavish gifts, and condemned prisoners for experimentation. He also sent pupils to study with the poison master.

But all good things come to an end. In AD 68, the Roman Senate tired of Nero’s rogue practices and the Emperor took his own life with a dagger before facing punishment. The Senate’s attention then turned towards Locusta, and without protection from the Emperor, she was convicted with an execution sentence.

Some accounts say Locusta was smeared with vaginal juices of a female giraffe, raped by a specially trained male giraffe, and then torn apart by wild animals. [1] While that tale tantalizes the imagination, it is more likely she was led through the city in chains and executed by human hands.

I first came across Locusta’s story last fall, struck by the statement the world’s first serial killer was a woman. Even as a modern, non-traditional gal, it contradicted my expectation. My mind pondered what had motivated a female from Gaul to pursue such violence. What possessed Locusta to reach so far beyond expectation, to fulfill her sadistic cravings with poison? Where would she have learned her craft? How would she have honed the alchemy? The musings manifested in my historical fiction thriller, Apricots and Wolfsbane.

K.M. Pohlkamp

References

[1] Ramsland, Katherine. The human predator: A historical chronicle of serial murder and forensic investigation. Penguin, 2013.

[2] Cilliers, Louise, and Francois Retief. “Poisons, Poisoners, and Poisoning in Ancient Rome.” History of Toxicology and Environmental Health (2014): 127.

[3] Cilliers, L., and F. P. Retief. “Poisons, poisoning and the drug trade in ancient Rome.” Akroterion 45.1 (2000): 88-100.

[4] Macinnis, Peter. Poisons: From Hemlock to Botox to the Killer Bean of Calabar. Arcade Publishing, 2005.

[5] Belcombe, H. S. “Observations on Secret Poisons.” Provincial Medical and Surgical Journal 11.4 (1847): 94.

Apricots and Wolfsbane Front CoverK.M. Pohlkamp is a blessed wife, proud mother of two young children, and an aerospace engineer who works in Mission Control. She operated guidance, navigation and control systems on the Space Shuttle and is currently involved in development of upcoming manned-space vehicles. A Cheesehead by birth, she now resides in Texas for her day job and writes to maintain her sanity. Her other hobbies include ballet and piano. K.M. has come a long way from the wallpaper and cardboard books she created as a child. Her debut historical fiction novel, Apricots and Wolfsbane, was published by Filles Vertes Publishing in October. You can find K.M. at www.kmpohlkamp.com or @KMPohlkamp

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History Carnival 163: Around the World in Fifteen Blog Posts

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A map of Cherokee country from History Imagined

Good morning, everybody! Today on DSH, we are thrilled to be hosting this month’s History Carnival, a moving showcase of some of the best new history posts from the previous month. We have a lot of great stuff for you from the ancient world to modern Britain, so grab a cup of coffee, sit back, and travel around the world with us in fifteen fascinating history posts.

China

On History in the Margins, Pamela Toler has a timely post about defensive walls in history, in particular, The Great Wall of China. While The Great Wall we know today was mostly constructed by the Ming dynasty in the Middle Ages, the walls’ first defenses were actually erected some fifteen hundred years earlier to keep out “barbarians” from the steppes.

Constantinople

On Military History and Warfare, Alexander Clark has an excellent review of Peter Frankopan’s The First Crusade: The Call from the East. While there are many history books about the Crusades, Frankopan adds to the discussion by considering the Byzantine perspective through analysis of Anna Komnene’s The Alexiad, a history of Alexios’ reign through the eyes of his daughter. The review is an informative history post in itself, and I will be adding both Frankopan’s book and Military History and Warfare to my reading list.

England

Theresa Phipps has a fantastic post on law as it was applied to violent women in medieval England on The Dangerous Women Project. While it is still surprisingly difficult to find solid resources on the legal status of women in the Middle Ages, Phipps uses primary legal documents and court records to examine specific cases of women misbehaving and explains why women were viewed as particularly dangerous. “Law, Violence, and ‘Dangerous Women.’”

In “The Otherness of Now: Contemporary History via Berger & Sontag,” George Campbell Gosling continues the discussion of storytelling and the particular challenges of writing modern and contemporary history started by John Berger and Susan Sontag on Channel 4 in 1983. Where do we as historians start, if we don’t know how the story ends? How do we analyze events that are still taking place? https://gcgosling.wordpress.com/2017/01/30/berger-sontag/

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Mucha, La Dame aux Camelias (1896)

Berlin

Ever wonder where the SS went for their vacations? No, me either. However, the story of the Wannsee villa is not just a bizarre look at a former Nazi holiday resort. The history of the villa is also intertwined with the fortunes of the Nazi party, from failed Putsch, to Final Solution, to Holocaust museum and archive. Sometimes walls can talk… The Wannsee Conference on Art and Architecture, Mainly

Paris & Prague

Brand new art blog Vermillion Goldfish made a splash (sorry) this month with its first post, an in-depth look at In Quest of Beauty, the latest exhibition of Alphonse Mucha’s work that explores the theory of beauty that inspired the artist’s iconic portraits that still grace stationary and paper the walls of dorm rooms the world over. So much more than a teaser, this post offers valuable insight into Mucha’s work and explains his personal perception of beauty. We may associate his models with theatrical costumes and gravity-defying hair, but for Mucha, beauty was all about idealized femininity and serenity of expression.

Spain

J.K. Knauss stopped by Unusual Historicals with the story of Maria de Padilla, the mistress of King Pedro of Castile. While Pedro was obliged to marry for political advantage, Maria was the love of his life. Often overlooked by historians due to her (ahem) position as mistress, Maria gave Pedro four children during his two failed marriages and spent her time founding convents and monasteries before she died of plague at the ripe old age of twenty-seven.

Malta

Catherine Kullman looks at the extraordinary notebook of British naval Commander Charles Haultain R.N. on My Scrap Album. Over a twelve year period, Haultain filled the book with newspaper clippings, pop up pictures, poetry, and personal stories of his adventures in the Mediterranean from ages twenty-four to thirty-six, such as the time he thought he found the grave of Hannibal in Malta…

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Psyche at Venus’ feet from “Love is a Monster”

Rome

Zenobia Neil guests on Writing the Past with “Love is a Monster,” a delightful post about love in the ancient world. Love in Rome was anything but romantic, where marriages were made and ended for the sake of political alliance and love was a debilitating madness. She uses the story of Cupid and Psyche from Apuleius’ The Golden Ass to argue that the dual love/fury aspects of Venus were effectively the same thing to a society that did not view love as a benevolent force, but rightly feared its potentially devastating power.

Sardinia…and Cherokee Country

On History Imagined, Caroline Warfield traces the Jacobite succession following Bonnie Prince Charlie to the House of Savoy in Sardinia. On the same blog, Linda Bennett Pennell writes about the daily lives of the Cherokee during the colonization of the United States in “When Being Civilized Was Not Enough.” History Imagined has years’ worth of fascinating social history archives and it’s well worth having a browse.

New York

If you’re out and about in upstate New York, you might consider stopping by Johnson Hall State Historic Site in Johnstown. Chris Clemens has an interesting post on Exploring Upstate about Sir William Johnson’s life from his position as British Superintendent of Indian Affairs and his relations with the Mohawk tribe (he learned their language and married a Mohawk woman) to his being awarded a baronetcy and constructing Johnson Hall. Lots of great photos of a lovingly preserved Colonial mansion.

Chicago

Michelle Cox is writing the history of Chicago, one person at a time. Her latest post, “I Wanted to Be With People,” tells the life story of Erna (Hager) Lindner, an Austrian woman who immigrated to Chicago in 1925 at the age of nineteen. Erna moved to America on her own in pursuit of a boy from her church she had fallen in love with; three months after arriving in Chicago, she found him and married him. Michelle Cox’s blog is packed with compelling stories of the everyday people that make up Chicago’s colorful past and is a goldmine for anyone interested in early twentieth century social history, and may also be useful for those tracing their family history through Chicago. elizabeth_russell

Just for Fun

Anna Castle takes a look at the postures of monarchs throughout history from an ergonomic perspective in “How to Sit on a Throne.” See right, Elizabeth Russell looks a bit too comfortable with that footstool she has found…

“The Lays of Ancient Rome”: Pompeian Pornography and the Museum Secretum

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Priapus as Mercury. Pompeii

On August 24, 79AD, the day after Vulcanalia, the festival of the god of fire, Hell came to the Gulf of Naples. Vesuvius erupted and a searing pyroclastic cloud scorched, choked, and buried the prosperous provincial Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum under thousands of tons of blistering ash and boiling mud. The thermal energy released dwarfed that of the atomic bombings of Japan, and to the witnesses and victims it must have felt like the apocalypse. ‘You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men,’ wrote Pliny the Younger, ‘People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore’ (Hutchinson: 1931, 495).

Entombed and oddly preserved at the moment of their destruction, the ruins lay undisturbed for over 1,600 years, while above them the Roman Empire fell, the Ostrogoths, Byzantines, and Lombards fought for control of the region, the early-Christian Church became established, the Kingdom of Sicily rose, the Black Death decimated Europe, the Reformation came, and Florence, Milan, and Venice became the cultural hubs of the Renaissance. Then one day in 1709, a peasant in the small town of Resina came across some interestingly coloured marble and alabaster while digging a well…

Initial excavations in search of more of the valuable gallo antico yellow marble during the Austrian occupation of Southern Italy were inconclusive and abandoned after a couple of years. Almost thirty years later, when the region was once more under Spanish control, the army engineer Roque Joaquín de Alcubierre was overseeing the building of a new summer palace for King Charles of the Two Sicilies when he discovered – or more correctly rediscovered – the remains of Herculaneum. With permission and a modest grant from Charles of Bourbon, who saw the potential for the discovery and display of Roman artefacts as a symbol of the continuing cultural significance of Naples, Alcubierre began the first serious excavation of the site. His workmen soon unearthed the amphitheatre of Herculaneum, and over the next eight years provided a steady stream of remarkably well-preserved artefacts for the new Museo Borbonico in Naples.

By 1745, however, the stream had begun to run dry. Archaeologists and engineers therefore turned their attention to ‘Cività Hill,’ a few miles south-east of the Herculaneum dig. ‘Cività’ means ‘City,’ and under the hill, where local legend suggested a lost city lie, possibly the small seaside town of Stabiae (also obliterated by Vesuvius), Alcubierre found the much larger port of Pompeii. The going was much easier as the city had been buried by ash rather than the mud that had set like concrete over Herculaneum, and the first intact fresco was found in 1748, in what appeared to be a dining room in a house that also contained a skeleton clasping Julio-Claudian and Flavian coins, with all that implies for the unfortunate occupant’s priorities during the cataclysm.

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Fresco, House of the Centenary, Pompeii

Classical Graeco-Roman culture had always been the foundation of art and learning in Europe, a model for ‘Civilization,’ with obvious parallels in particular drawn between the might of the Roman Empire in the past and the British in the present, the global superpower that would dominate the 19th century. Never had the modern world had such a direct window to the ancient as the one afforded by these excavations, but despite what scholars thought they knew about the glory of Rome, they were not at all ready for what they found in the ashes. There were sculptures, ceramics and frescoes depicting Roman deities, natural, mythical and historical scenes, and celebrating sporting prowess; there was even political graffiti carved into walls, and plenty of those clean, white marble statues so beloved by classicists, symbolising purity of body and spirit through aesthetic perfection. So far, so good; nothing Thomas Babington Macaulay wouldn’t have included in his epic poem ‘Pompeii’ or the Lays of Ancient Rome. But there was also something else, and a lot of it; and by 1758 rumours began to circulate in antiquarian circles concerning apparently ‘lascivious’ frescoes being discovered beneath the ruins.

Up until the cities of Vesuvius were excavated, Roman artefacts existed as cultural diaspora, the result often of quite random finds, and subject to millennia of subtle Christian censorship and academic classification. This meant in practice that those clean marble statues became the mark of antiquity, while anything more raunchy or challenging was lost among the acceptable works of art, or possibly even quietly destroyed. But Herculaneum and, especially, Pompeii afforded a different opportunity for historical study. By being effectively frozen in time, the descendants of Rome finally saw how their ancestors really lived, and they lived in a world surrounded by dirty pictures.

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Relief found over a door in Pompeii

Explicit sexual imagery was everywhere, in public and private spaces, and across social classes; clearly, anyone could unproblematically own and view this material. Unsurprisingly, there were ‘lascivious’ pieces in brothels; but there were also paintings depicting couples making love in a variety of positions in the homes of artisans, merchants and politicians, in the quarters of their servants and their slaves, as well as the public baths, while erect phalluses were carved into paving stones and doorways as symbols of potent protection (right), and beautifully rendered statues of deities cavorting with both animals and human beings were proud centrepieces of any fashionable piazza. Discovered in its original context, whether an individual piece was intended to titillate, amuse, or ward off the evil eye, it was apparent that this was not untypical, and that erotic art must have been common throughout the empire and an everyday part of Roman life.

A particularly impressive and representative example was unearthed at the Villa dei Papiri, a country house about halfway up the slope of the volcano, believed to have been built by Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, the father-in-law of Julius Caesar. The villa is named for its library, which contained nearly 2000 papyrus scrolls, charred but preserved, making it the most complete and intact classical library ever discovered. The villa was also notable for its owner’s large collection of statuary, which included an intact and intricately carved marble, about six inches tall, of the god Pan on his knees penetrating a she-goat (below). ‘It is impossible not to admire the expression of sensuous passion and intense enjoyment depicted on the Satyr’s features,’ wrote the French antiquarian Cesar Famin in his privately published catalogue Musee royal de Naples; peintures, bronzes et statyues Erotiques du cabinet secret, avec leur explication (1816), adding, ‘and even on the countenance of the strange object of his passion.’ He goes on to cite Herodotus, Virgil and Plutarch to demonstrate that ‘The crime of bestiality was not rare among the ancients’ (Fanin: 1871, 22).

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Pan copulating with a goat. Villa of the Papyri, Herculaneum.

And the shocking revelations did not stop there. Diggers also found ornate drinking bowl masks fashioned like mouths but with a penis instead of a tongue, several bronze tintinnabulums – a kind of hanging chime depicting a winged phallus with little bells attached to it (below right) – a terracotta lamp in the shape of a particularly well-endowed faun, icons of Priapus, fertility god, protector of livestock, fruit, gardens and male genitalia, usually depicted with a large and permanent erection (hence the term ‘priapism’), and a two-foot tall painted phallus on a limestone plinth in the garden. The Catholic archaeologists were nonplussed. In their culture, sex was the ultimate taboo, with the phallus and representations thereof completely hidden from view, let alone graven images doing it in public. Their instinct was to hide it up. King Charles himself therefore placed the statue of Pan and the goat under the supervision of the royal sculptor, Joseph Canart, with strict injunction that no one should be allowed to see it.

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A tintinnabulum

As the art historian Walter Kendrick has argued, similar artefacts found elsewhere over the centuries had very probably ‘succumbed to the zealous progress of Christianity’ (Kendrick, 1996: 10); but the sheer volume of explicit material unearthed around Vesuvius presented excavators with a problem not so easily disposed of, although some Pompeii frescoes were subsequently vandalised by outraged diggers. (We know this because contemporary records include sketches of paintings that survived the volcano but have since been obliterated.) Experts and politicians knew that these artefacts were of priceless archaeological and cultural value, and, in any event, the word was out about their collective existence. They could not be destroyed, but neither could they be publicly exhibited.

The solution was concealment. Like Pan and the goat, the erotic artefacts of Pompeii and Herculaneum were hidden. At the suggestion of Francesco Gennaro Giuseppe, Duke of Calabria and later Francis I, King of the Two Sicilies, over a hundred pieces were locked away in a special room in the Museo Borbonico known as the ‘Gabinetto degli Oggetti Osceni’ or ‘Cabinet of Obscene Objects.’ Access to these objects was limited to ‘persons of mature age and of proven morality’ (qtd in Tang: 1999, 29), which basically meant male scholars of notable social rank, who were deemed to be capable of rising above the baser instincts that exposure to these artefacts might provoke. A royal permit was required, and obviously women, children and members of the lower orders need not apply. What had begun as an Enlightenment project – the excavation of the ruins – had now become, in effect, proto-Victorian, and other ‘secret museums’ were established in Florence, Dresden and Madrid housing ‘obscene relics’ from not only Rome but also Egypt and Greece.

Thus was 19th century European culture reconciled with this erotic challenge from classical antiquity, a final invasion by the Imperium Rōmānum, unleashed from beyond the ashen grave of Vesuvius. And they needed this reconciliation, as Europe had fashioned itself in the Greco-Roman image. That this image was now demonstrably tarnished was potentially catastrophic to the collective sense of civilized identity. As historians such as Simon Goldhill, Lynda Nead and Walter Kendrick have persuasively argued, 19th century archaeologists and classicists overcame their dilemma by creating a new physical and cultural space, where both knowledge and morality were preserved, inventing the category of the ‘obscene object’ and then segregating it, with access both restricted and carefully monitored.

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Wall painting from a Pompeiian brothel

This was, in effect, a political act: the contents of the secret museums were part of classical culture, but not the part that we had inherited, and represented the dark decadence that had destroyed Rome and which the modern world must resist. Art, therefore, should only stimulate aesthetically and intellectually, never physically.

Nead, in fact, has made a strong case for the origin of the word ‘obscene’ as we understand it in the Latin term ob scena, which refers to the space off to the side of a stage (Tang: 1999, 29). While the presence of the material was not denied, museum authorities would act as if it did not exist, in exactly the same way that sex was central to the human condition yet never acknowledged in polite society. A new word was found to describe this material: pornography, from the Ancient Greek πορνογράφος ‎(pornográphos), which in turn was derived from πορνεία ‎(porneía, ‘fornication, prostitution’) and γράφω ‎(gráphō, ‘I depict’).

In 1865, the British Museum established its own Museum Secretum in order to house the erotic components of the private art collection of the antiquarian George Witt, whose bequest contained what amounted to an ‘all or nothing’ clause. Much of this material has now found its way into the main collections, but some of it is still kept under lock and key. My wife and I visited the Witt collection a few years back, while she was researching a paper, and there we saw, its access still restricted to scholars by prior appointment, a terracotta replica of the statue of Pan and the goat.

Works Cited

Fanin, Colonel. (1871). The Secret Erotic Paintings: Pictures and Descriptions of Classical Erotic Paintings, Bronzes and Statues. London.

Hutchinson, W.M.L. (ed). (1931). Letters of Pliny By Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus. William Melmoth, (trans). London: William Heinemann.

Kendrick, Walter. (1996). The Secret Museum: Pornography in Modern Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Tang, Isabel. (1999). Pornography: The Secret History of Civilisation. London: Channel 4 Books.

Suggested Further Reading

Carver, Rachael. (2011). Pompeii, Pornography and Power. Norwich: University of the Arts.

Clarke, John R. (2007) Roman Life: 100 B.C. to A.D. 200. New York: Abrams.

— (2007) Looking at Laughter: Humour, Power, and Transgression in Roman Visual Culture, 100 B.C. – A.D. 250. Berkeley: University of California.

— (2006) Art in the lives of ordinary Romans: Visual Representation and Non-elite Viewers in Italy, 100 B.C.-A.D. 315. Berkeley: University of California.

— (2003) Roman Sex: 100 B.C. to A.D. 250. New York: Abrams.

— (2001) Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art, 100 B.C. – A.D. 250. Berkeley: University of California.

Gaimster, David. (2000). ‘Sex and Sensibility at the British Museum.’ History Today L (9), September.

Goldhill, Simon. (2011). Victorian Culture and Classical Antiquity. Princeton: University Press.

Grant, Michael. (1997). Eros in Pompeii: The Erotic Art Collection of the Museum of Naples. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang.

— (1979). The Art and Life if Pompeii and Herculaneum. New York, Newsweek.

— (1971). Cities of Vesuvius: Pompeii and Herculaneum. London: Book Club Associates.

Hunt, Lynn. (1993). The Invention of Pornography: Obscenity and the Origins of Modernity, 1500-1800. New York: Zone Books.

Nead, Lynda. (1992). The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity and Sexuality. London: Routledge.

Richun, Amy. ed. (1992). Pornography and Representation in Greece and Rome. Oxford: University Press.

Dr Stephen Carver is a cultural historian, editor and novelist. For sixteen years, he taught literature and creative writing at the University of East Anglia, spending three years in Japan as Professor of English at the University of Fukui. He is presently Head of Online Courses at the Unthank School of Writing. Stephen has published extensively on 19th century literature and history; he is the biographer of the Victorian novelist William Harrison Ainsworth and the author of Shark Alley: The Memoirs of a Penny-a-Liner, a historical novel about the wreck of the troopship Birkenhead. He is currently working on a history of the 19th century underworld for Pen & Sword, and a sequel to Shark Alley.

For more from Dr Carver, visit:

Shark Alley – ‘Re-imagining the Victorian Serial’

Author Blog: Confessions of a Creative Writing Teacher

Academic Blog: Essays on 19th Literature & The Gothic

Contraception in Ancient Egypt: Hormonal Birth Control, Pregnancy Tests, and Crocodile Dung

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Cleopatra. John William Waterhouse, 1888.

Ancient Egypt was a remarkably advanced society. They had one of the first known written languages, the earliest form of paper, a 365-day calendar, toothpaste, and breath mints. Egyptians even invented eye makeup as far back as 4000 BC by combining soot and galena to create kohl. It was worn by both men and women for status as well to protect the wearer from the evil eye.

Preferring small families, they also invented enough different methods of contraception that you’d be forgiven for wondering if someone in a TARDIS gifted them with the secrets of the universe (or at least a modern health textbook).

For those who were really serious about avoiding pregnancy, hieroglyphs from the second century CE recommend castration for either gender. Surgeries such as the ovariotomy (the removal of the ovaries) were also available, if mercifully rare.

Most people depended on much less invasive forms of contraception. One of the most common was spermicide administered in a sort of tampon made of linen and soaked in acidic oils. Some minerals found in the water also had spermicidal properties when mixed with sour milk, which had the added benefit of making the vagina more acidic to make conception less likely.

Pessaries blocking the entrance to the cervix altogether could be made from the sap of the acacia tree, another natural substance with proven spermicidal properties. The modern equivalent of this would be using a diaphragm with nonoxynol-9. For a back-up method, certain plant extracts could be eaten to alter hormonal balance and inhibit ovulation, much like the birth control pills used today.

For the more adventurous woman, a medical papyrus from 1850 BCE assures us that: “Crocodile dung mixed with honey and placed in the vagina of a woman prevents contraception…”

I can only assume that this one worked by putting all parties off of sex altogether.

Unfortunately, the Egyptians had not yet invented statistics to help us to quantify the success rate of these methods, but in the event that they failed, the recipes for herbal abortificients were passed down from generation to generation.

If all of this isn’t mind-blowing enough, the Egyptians even had the first urine-based pregnancy test. Women were told to pee on some barley and emmer every day and if they grew, she was pregnant. Amazingly enough, modern tests have actually confirmed that this was a fairly accurate way to detect pregnancy.

Sadly, this kind of pregnancy test fell into disuse and the next one was not introduced until 1929.

Condoms even existed, but they were more for show than contraception. Many have been found in the tombs of aristocrats for use in the next world. Fully prepared for one crazy party, they were entombed with sheaths made of animal skin dyed bright colors and trimmed in fur.

Also strap-ons made of mother of pearl. You know, just in case.

 Jessica Cale

Saints and Whores: Thaïs, Mary, Pelagia, and Mary of Egypt

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Saint Thais. Jusepe de Ribera

Between 303 and 311CE, the Roman Emperors Diocletian and Galerius masterminded the last Great Persecution, a final attempt to exterminate Christianity altogether. It failed. By 322, Christianity had successfully transitioned, thanks to the conversion of Constantine, from being a hunted sect to becoming the undisputed state religion of the Roman Empire. The dizzying speed of this change, of Christians moving from being hunted down and burned at the stake to being installed in the corridors of power, had a vast effect on the history of the Catholic Church, the history of Europe, and on the imagination of countless people.

As a persecuted people, Christians had developed a mythology where the martyr was the ultimate heroic figure. But now it was easy to be a Christian, and no more martyrs were appearing. In the Middle East, particularly, where Christians had always been persecuted the hardest, Christian hardliners began to isolate themselves in the wilds as the first Christian hermits, monks and nuns. A literature began to spring up around them.

The Lives of the Fathers (Vitae Patrum) was collected in 1602 by Heribert Rosweyde, but it compiles texts written between the fourth and seventh centuries about these lonely desert saints. Book One ends with the biographies of eleven women. Four of these Latin stories, the lives of Saints Thaïs, Mary, Pelagia and Mary of Egypt, have the suffix meretrix.

It means whore. The word gets translated in Latin dictionaries as “prostitute” or “harlot” or “courtesan” even, but in Latin it is a swear word. It’s a slur. Men throw it at women from the classical period on. For example, in 54 BCE it was one of the slurs addressed to the Roman socialite Clodia by the lawyer Cicero in his speech Pro Caeliohe used it nine times, but then Pro Caelio is the quintessential text of Latin misogyny. Meretrix has that exact force that the more polite translations of words like it just don’t. It is an insult. It is a blot on the language. And part of the business of translation is to translate things with their appropriate force.

But what does it even mean? What did they do to cause the label to be applied to them, even after they were saints, so that through posterity, in the Catholic and Orthodox calendars, they would continue to receive the name: whore, meant as an insult?

The story of Thaïs appears to have been written at some time in the fifth century, but is set in 350s, since it features Paphnutius, a real figure active between the 320s and the 350s. Paphnutius visits Thaïs, reputedly the most beautiful of Alexandria’s courtesans, and pretends to buy her for sex. He browbeats her into repenting and publicly humiliating herself; he takes her to a convent where he seals her in a cell with her own effluent and orders her to pray a simple mantra of repentance; three years later he comes back and lets her out.

He tore down the threshold that blocked her in, but she insisted that she remain

imprisoned there, even though the door was open.
“Come out!” he said. “God has forgiven your sins!”
“I bear witness to God,” she said, “because of whom I am in here, that all of my sins appear to me as if on a tray before my eyes, and I can’t stop seeing them.”
“It wasn’t your punishment that removed your sins,” Paphnutius cried, ” but the fact that you always have the guilt of them in your mind.”

– Anon, The Life of Saint Thaïs the Whore. 3

He lets her out and she refuses, until he tells her she has been saved by her own self-loathing, and then she comes out, and, broken, she dies shortly afterwards.  

It’s only a page long. I close my eyes and I see Thaïs kneeling in her own piss and shit, blank-eyed, head-lolling, starved, only kept alive by the mantra she is forced to repeat to such an extent that when the ritual is broken, she dies in two weeks. It’s a legitimate horror. 

While (although she’s still on the calendar, 8th October) authorities think she’s fictional, of all the stories in the Lives of the Fathers, this is the one that could happen, and the one that most captured future imaginations. Anatole France’s novel Thaïs approaches the story critically and was adapted for stage and film. Michele Roberts’s account of her in her novel Impossible Saints is as bleak and brutal as the source material.

The story of Mary dates to about 370. Mary is the niece of a hermit called Abraham, orphaned, who lives with him in his little house in the desert. Mary is pestered into having sex with a nameless monk and is so consumed by guilt at having sex once that she thinks she might as well just go and do it for money, so she runs away and goes to work in a brothel. Abraham goes to get her back and they tearfully reconcile; he forgives her for everything. Saint Mary is also remembered on October 8th.

The account of Pelagia comes from the fifth century, but is again set in the fourth. A bishop sees an actor pass in the street.

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Saint Pelagia

As all of us were admiring his holy teaching, look, all of a sudden the most famous actress of Antioch passed us by, the best of the ballerinas and comediennes. She was riding on a donkey, and she was dressed so ostentatiously that you couldn’t see anything of her beneath all the gold and gems and pearls. Even her feet were covered in gold and pearls. She had a train of boy and girl slaves with her, all dressed in expensive clothes, each with a golden collar, some in front and some behind. No one could ever have enough of her loveliness. She passed by us, and the air was filled with musk, and some of the sweetest fragrances in the whole world.

–Jacob the Deacon, The Life of Saint Pelagia the Whore, 2

She is specifically what the Romans called a mima. Now in ancient theatre of the respectable kind, the comedies and tragedies, all the actors were men. Female actors did the mimes, the sacred fertility shows, and these were bawdy, and had nudity, and included simulated sex acts. Writers of antiquity tell us that these shows included actual sex acts, and that the women who performed in these shows were sex workers too, but we don’t know if that’s true. This story assumes that being an actor makes her a stripper and a porn star too. The title, added later, just labels her a whore and is done with it.

The actor, Pelagia, converts to Christianity; Satan visit her and tries to get her to recant.

He said, “Why are you doing this to me, Lady Pelagia? Why are you playing the part of my personal Judas?”

Life of Saint Pelagia the Whore, 9

She refuses, and runs away in one of the bishop’s cloaks. Three years later, the narrator asks to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Nonnus asks James to send his regards to a hermit who lives nearby called Pelagius.

I found the hermit on the Mount of Olives, where Jesus had prayed, in a modest little shack, closed off on all sides, except for a little window in the wall. I banged on the shutter of the little window, and she opened it and at once recognised me, but I didn’t recognise her. How could I have possibly recognised her since when I saw her before she was indescribably beautiful, and now her face had wasted away from her starving herself? Her eyes looked like ditches in her face.

Life of Saint Pelagia the Whore, 14

It is of course Pelagia. Shortly after she dies. When it’s discovered that the miracle-worker was in fact a young woman, the assembled people marvel, and the moral is that she’s saved because she became a man. Her day, again, is October 8th.

Mary of Egypt’s story, written by Sophronius, probably in the 630s but is again set some time in the late fifth century. Zosimas of Palestine, supposedly the world’s best monk, meets a naked old woman in the desert, who, although reluctant initially to speak, tells her story.

Her skin was completely black, all tanned by the heat of the sun, and the hair on her head was white like the clouds, and short, and like wool. And it fell no farther than the nape of her neck.

-Sophronius, Life of Saint Mary of Egypt the Whore, 7

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Mary of Egypt. Jose de Ribera

She says she’s from Egypt. She was promiscuous from a young age. That’s it. She slept with anyone who asked.

I took nothing from anyone for it; now that I was mad with passion… I fulfilled my sexual needs for free. I was evil! And don’t think I took nothing because I was rich – no, I lived by begging, and sometimes working as a weaver.

-Life of Saint Mary of Egypt the Whore, 13

So in fact, she was explicitly not a sex worker. She just liked sex.

She one day decided, she says, to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and worked her way across by sleeping with all the men on the boat. At Jerusalem, she found herself barred from the temple by an invisible wall. She prayed for forgiveness and a vision of the Virgin Mary told her to go to the desert. She bought three loaves of bread and retreated into the desert. The bread miraculously kept her going for fifteen years.

Illiterate, she now knows the Bible by heart. She levitates, walks across rivers. Zosimas visits her a couple more times and on the second time finds her dead. An angelic lion appears and writes her name on the ground: Mary of Egypt. The lion buries her.

The Orthodox church in particular honours Mary of Egypt in the week before Easter. They say the moral of her story is that even the greatest of sinners can become miracle workers.

But what was her sin, exactly? She liked sex. She slept around. In the society I live in, it is no big deal. But back then, that made her the worst. It earned her the label, whore.

And in all of these stories, all of which are supposed to be about redemption, the slur sticks in the title (and I don’t think it’s an accident that the three of them share a feast day). In the same way that Ebenezer Scrooge isn’t remembered as a byword for the redemptive power of Christmas, these four women get “whore” attached on the top line of the permanent record. It never goes away.

Howard David Ingham is a writer, poet and artist. He has an MPhil in Late Latin Literature and once got hired by the British Government to do something secret. He writes regularly at Chariot. His book, The Age of Miracles is still funding on Kickstarter.

The Ketubah, an Ancient Marriage Contract

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The Wedding. Moritz Daniel Oppenheim (1861)

Marriage is a contract. In terms of religion, a couple that marries enters into the default contract defined by their faith. When two people agree to marriage in the absence of a written contract, they also accept the default contract provided by the state and its laws.

The state’s contract is essentially economic, despite the romantic glow in which modern culture dresses marriage. Anyone who does genealogical research quickly realizes that the recording of marriage followed closely on the recording of deeds and wills, which are among the earliest recorded personal contracts. Other records—birth, death, even divorce—came much later. Marriage and property are deeply enmeshed in law, impacting inheritance and ownership. In our modern era, other economic factors impacted by marriage laws include tax breaks, benefits, and entitlements.

1740

A ketubah from 1740.

These laws and customs have not always been kind to women. Not long ago, English Common Law, under the doctrine of coverture, held that a married couple was one person under the law. That person, of course was the husband. A woman gave up all legal right—even the right to her own children—when she married. In that arrangement, it isn’t difficult to understand the need for marriage settlements, particularly among the property classes. A contract designed to assure a woman and her children would have some financial means of support in the event of widowhood provided at least some protection where the law didn’t.

In our own day, pre-nuptial agreements spell out property rights, particularly among the super wealthy in a similar manner. Couples also may establish contracts that spell out everything from the division of labor to the custody of pets.

Long before any of that, the Jewish marriage contract, or ketubah, provided all married women with the security of certain financial arrangements. The earliest know example of a ketubah dates to 440 BC. Because such documents were legal rather than religious, they were written in Aramaic rather than Hebrew, and this one is no exception. It outlines settlements paid to the bride’s father and the amount both families contributed to the dowry. It explicitly names the wife as the beneficiary in the case of the husband’s death.

At no time in history has the ketubah had anything to do with purchasing a bride. In Judaic law husbands did not have property rights over their wives. The ketubah is a “charter of women’s rights in marriage and men’s duties.” A ketubah is not, actually, a contract between husband and wife. It is traditionally a document in which witnesses verify the groom has met his obligations and may marry, and that the bride has freely accepted his proposal. The witnesses testify that the groom will meet all human and financial obligations, “as Jewish husbands are wont to do.”

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A ketubah from Gibraltar, 1826.

The elements in a traditional ketubah are:

  • Date, place and names
  • Testimony that the proposal has been made
  • Promise of basic support to “honor, provide, and support.” The promise of food, clothing, and conjugal rights are a woman’s right and a husband’s obligation and considered so fundamental to marriage they would be required even without a contract. This is the heart of the contract.
  • Promise of specific amounts to the wife in the event the marriage terminates (designed as a deterrent to divorce in a male dominated society)
  • Testimony that the bride has accepted the proposal as outlined above.
  • Promise of a dowry given to the bride by her father including such items and valuable she might bring to her new home. The groom’s acceptance is noted and he provides and additional gift to the bride.
  • Testimony that the groom agrees to a mortgage or lien on all his belongings including “the mantle on my shoulders,” to meet the obligations of the contract should it become necessary.

The promise of the woman’s conjugal rights is interesting because of the contrast to other religious traditions. In Jewish tradition marriage is holy, and not entirely, or even primarily, intended for procreation. The Torah Genesis 2:18 states “it is not good for man to be alone,” indicating companionship as the goal of marriage. Refraining from marriage is frowned upon in the Jewish tradition.

persia1879

A Persian ketubah, 1879.

In “An Open Heart,” my contribution to the Bluestocking Belles’ 2016 holiday anthology, Holly and Hopeful Hearts, Adam proposes to Esther privately first to make sure she is willing. She accepts his proposal publicly when it is put to her by a matchmaker, but begins to question the elements of the ketubah. To the horror of the matchmaker and her elders, she and Adam agree to add clauses about the education of their daughters. Esther demands that they receive equal opportunity for at least Judaic learning within the family, while the two of them continue to support women’s education more broadly.

Now couples routinely modify the traditional text to reflect their beliefs going much farther than Esther and Adam. One site lists texts for Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Interfaith, Same Sex, Secular Humanist, and Sephardic marriages as well as a “write your own” option. Couples generally sign the ketubah shortly before the wedding, as do two witnesses. The document becomes a family treasure, often a work of art in fine calligraphy that is framed and hung in the home.

holly-and-hopeful-hearts-2Caroline Warfield grew up in a peripatetic army family and had a varied career (largely centered on libraries and technology) before retiring to the urban wilds of Eastern Pennsylvania. She is ever a traveler and adventurer, enamored of owls, books, history, and beautiful gardens (but not the act of gardening). She is married to a prince among men.

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Sources

Encyclopaedia Britannica: Coverture

Ketubah.com: The Origins of the Ketubah.

Lamm, Maurice. The Marriage Contract (Ketubah). Chabad.org.

Rich, Tracey. Marriage. Judaism 101.

Cleopatra’s Eyeliner (Recipe)

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Men and women pictured wearing eyeliner in the tomb of Nakht, 15th Century BC.

Not only were cosmetics used in Ancient Egypt, but they were considered to be so important that they were among the few items buried with the dead for use in the afterlife. The Egyptians were remarkably advanced and along with face masks and exfoliants, they also had effective anti-aging cream made from frankincense (an anti-inflammatory) and puncture tattooing not unlike what we use today. Perhaps the most famous of Egypt’s contributions to beauty, however, is eyeliner.

Eyeliner, or “kohls,” were worn by men, women, and children of all social classes. They were black or green, and made from galena (ore of lead) or malachite (green ore of copper) mixed with oil and applied with wood or ivory. Kohls were believed to have healing properties by invoking the protection of Ra and Horus, and may have actually worked to prevent disease. Eye infections were common when the Nile flooded, but the lead-based makeup was so toxic that it killed infection before it could reach the eye. In addition to its antibacterial properties, the copper ions in the malachite protected the eyes from sunburn.

Although eyeliner was very common, today we probably most associate this iconic style with Cleopatra, a woman of such legendary sex appeal she is still very much a presence in popular culture today. Plutarch tells us that she was not exactly a beauty, but her presence and charm made her irresistible. Goodness knows it would take both to win over both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony and pass yourself off as the reincarnation of the goddess Isis. She had mad language skills (speaking at least nine languages), a signature scent (henna oil), and wicked awesome eyeliner.

This Halloween, why not have a little fun with history and make some Egyptian eyeliner? Whether you’re rolling yourself in a carpet to seduce a foreign dignitary or just passing out candy to trick-or-treaters, give yourself a little ancient world smolder with this modernized recipe developed from Sally Pointer’s in her magnificent The Artifice of Beauty.

Fortunately for us, this recipe does not include lead or anything known to be toxic. Before applying anything to your face, please do a patch test on your arm in case you are sensitive to any of the ingredients. You don’t want to mess around with your eyes!

img_6542Kohl Paste

2 teaspoons of cosmetic grade black iron oxide
1 milliliter of liquid gum arabic*
.5 milliliter of vegetable glycerin
.5 milliliter of boiled water, cooled
Small sterile jar

Mix the gum arabic and glycerin into the iron oxide powder, then add water a drop at a time until the mixture turns into a smooth, thick paste. You can apply it immediately or allow it to set.

*Pointer’s recipe uses ½ teaspoon of powdered gum arabic, but I could not find this so I substituted the liquid version.

img_6547-1-editedNotes:

The Egyptians applied this with ivory or wood, so I used a toothpick (pictured) because I’m difficult. You will probably get better results using an eyeliner brush. I used the toothpick to stipple the liner all around my eyes, and extended the line with the wider end of the pick. This liner is as easy to rub off as put on, so it’s more effective to build it up slowly, allowing it to dry as you go. It dries quickly and the color is very dark. It wears surprisingly well, but will flake easily if you rub it. Mercifully, it is very water-soluble and will come off will come off with soap and water.

img_20161008_201950In addition to the eyeliner, I am also wearing a dark green eye shadow the color of malachite (pictured right). Although depictions of Cleopatra often show her wearing a bright, peacock blue color on her eyes, malachite is actually a vibrant emerald green.

I ordered the iron oxide for this recipe off of Amazon, thinking I could find the other ingredients easily enough around town. Unfortunately, gum arabic is not that easy to track down. After trying several stores, I found some liquid gum arabic in the watercolor paint section of Michael’s. I used vegetable glycerin I found in the skin care section of Whole Foods. All of the ingredients can be found easily online if you have time to order them.

Verdict

If you don’t happen to have the ingredients lying around, this project might be on the expensive side. The iron oxide was about $13 with shipping, the gum arabic $17, and the glycerin $7. For $40, you could walk into Sephora and buy pretty much any eyeliner(s) you’d like that would deliver similar results and last longer. This is not very cost-effective, but if you want to know what it’s like to fix your own kohl paste and how it feels drying on your face (for research or just curiosity), it’s a fun way to spend an afternoon.

Jessica Cale

Sources

Bhanoo, Sindya N. “Ancient Egypt’s Toxic Makeup Fought Infection, Researchers Say”. The New York Times.

Lucas, A. Cosmetics, Perfume, and Incense in Ancient Egypt. 

Pointer, Sally, The Artifice of Beauty.