The Isle of Women
Once upon a time, thousands of years ago, on the island of Lemnos, there were no men. Or rather the men that were there were all taken or gay, unless, of course, they were taken and gay. Those no one wanted had been driven away or killed. Those who were killed had it coming. This left few options for the women of Lemnos who wished to have children. They had to wait for passing ships to stop for a visit or for a storm to force the ships to land. The sailors never stayed long, but if the timing was right, sometimes some of them would leave a piece of themselves behind.
But, all in all, life on Lemnos was pretty good. The taken, gay, and taken and gay men stepped in as fathers and uncles to all of the children of Lemnos, and all of the women were aunts to their friends’ children. Life wasn’t always easy for the single mothers of Lemnos. They all agreed that it wasn’t exactly how they’d imagined their futures. But, all in all, life was good. They were content to remain mateless in a sea of friends and family who loved and supported them.
One day, a warship was blown off course and landed at Lemnos as so many vessels had done in the past. The men aboard this ship were on a quest. They were of the new society that was gradually, but surely replacing the egalitarianism found on so many of the independent Greek islands. Patriarchy had not yet reached Lemnos. The men of this new ship had famous names, names that were passed down from generation to generation so that we remember them still today. Laërtes, Bellerophon, Nestor, Orpheus, Perseus, Philoctetes, Peleus. There were demi-gods on the crew. Phlias and Eurymedon, Castor and Pollux, Neleus and Heracles. And, of course, there was the man who led this group of heroes. Iason. As with the crew, the name of the ship was passed down from generation to generation so that we remember it still today. The Argo with its crew of Argonauts.
The Argonauts were Real Men. They were happy to expound upon the topic of Real Men to anyone who wished to listen. Real Men are warriors. Real Men sail warships. Real Men go on quests for golden fleeces. They saw the men of Lemnos and scoffed. It was clear to the Argonauts that the Lemnian men were not Real Men. The women of Lemnos, on the other hand, were definitely Real Women. They just needed to be tamed. They just needed to lose their foolish notions that men were not necessary. By men, of course, the Argonauts meant Real Men such as themselves. Only Heracles, despite all his womanizing, was wary of the prospect. While his crewmates dallied with the Lemnian women, he urged the Argonauts to resume their quest. He feared his friends were losing the traits that made them Real Men.
Eventually, the Argonauts did leave. And, for a while, life returned to normal on Lemnos. Some of them women gave birth to children who were conceived during the visit of the Argo. But the island could only stay isolated from the changes taking place in Mediterranean society for so long. They were conquered in many ways. They were conquered when some Lemnian men decided they wanted to become Real Men. They were conquered when some Lemnian women decided they would be better off under the protection of Real Men. They were conquered when Real Men landed on the island and decided to stay. The peaceful, egalitarian society of Lemnos ultimately disappeared.
Breaking Down the Myth
The myth of Lemnos comes to us mainly through the myth of Iason and the Argonauts. (Yes, you are probably more familiar with the Latinized version of the name Jason.) The original legend tells of how the women of Lemnos were cursed because they stopped sacrificing to Aphrodite. All of their husbands left them for women on a nearby island. In revenge, the women of Lemnos killed all of the men on the island, although one did escape. The princess Hypsipyle helps her father stow away in a chest that she sets floating out to see. (Yes, it’s very tempting to start in on comparative mythology here. Moses, anyone?) The Lemnian women live quite happily without men until the Argonauts arrive. The Argonauts and Lemnian women carouse, all save Heracles who thinks this is nothing more than a distraction. Iason eventually calls the crew back to the ship, and they leave but not before Iason has a chance to impregnant Hypsipyle with twins. It is said that a new race was created from the many offspring conceived during the Argo’s layover.
Obviously, I have written my own version of this story. Like so many of the places mentioned in Greek mythology, Lemnos is real. And it does appear to have been a center of what we frequently today call goddess-worship. That term is probably not completely accurate. This was a polytheistic society in which male and female gods were worshipped. Aphrodite is an ancient goddess. She was worshipped before she became a member of the Greek pantheon although we might not see the most ancient statues of her as being the Aphrodite we know today. She was, above all, a fertility goddess, frequently depicted with many breasts, a far cry from the modern standard of feminine beauty she later became. It is telling that it is specifically Aphrodite who is being worshipped, or not, on Lemnos. It has been suggested that perhaps the reason Lemnos is described as an isle without men is because at the time the myth was evolving, Lemnos was an isle without patriarchy. For simplicity, though, I’ll continue to describe this earlier religion as goddess-worship.
This period of Greek mythology can be read as a change in religion and a change in society. Crete, once a center of goddess-worship, becomes home to the evil king Minos and the monstrous Minotaur. Zeus and his fellow Olympians overthrow their parents and assume the roles of chief gods. Heracles travels about as he completes his labors, all of which can be read as a destruction of aspects of goddess-worship. At Delphi, Apollo kills Python, the snake being a symbol for female wisdom. Now instead of Gaia (or Mother Earth), a male deity is now the god behind the prophecies of the famous Oracle at Delphi. (Again, comparative myth, anyone? Sound at all similar to the Garden of Eden?)
This is the time that patriarchy took over both religion and society. Time became linear instead of circular. Wars became more common. (If time is circular, there’s no point in killing your enemies; they’ll just come back. But if time is linear, once they’re dead, they’ll stay dead.) Not everything was bad. We got science, literature, math, and philosophy after this change. We also got democracy. Sure, the ancient Athenians would probably laugh at our crazy idea that more than just rich free men can and should participate in a democracy, but they gave us the starting point. I am not seeking to undo all of the good that has come out of patriarchy. I am only seeking to reclaim the good that the onset of patriarchy crushed. We’ve been working our way back to Lemnos. My grandmother’s generation brought us closer than my great-grandmother’s generation did, and my mother’s generation brought us even closer. And now it’s my turn to keep moving us forward to Lemnos. Time is circular after all.
Some Thoughts on Medea
I double-majored in history and classical civilization. There’s just so much that I love about Greek mythology that I just can’t leave it alone.
I’ve talked about how Lemnos can be viewed as one of the myths about the rise of patriarchy. There’s more to the story of Iason and the Argonauts that is in keeping with this idea.
Iason brings back a wife along with the Golden Fleece. Most people today simply know her as the woman who murdered her children because her husband left her for a younger woman. That’s right, Iason brought Medea back to Greece. There is, of course, much more to the story of Medea than that she murdered her children. I bring her up because she comes from a civilization similar to the one I describe on Lemnos. It is not a strict patriarchy in which women have no say. She still possesses great knowledge and personal strength, which is why she is seen as a witch in Greek mythology. These are not acceptable traits for a woman to have in a patriarchal society, so she must be something other. While she chooses to marry Iason, she chooses to follow him to what is to her a foreign land, she learns that his society is not as accepting of her beliefs. Had she been at home or on an island like Lemnos, her sons would have been cared for no matter what her marital status, no matter who their father wanted to marry. In the patriarchal structure of ancient Greek aristocracy, her sons would never survive. They could someday choose to be pretenders to the throne that their father held simply because he married the princess. Her children should be the rightful heirs. Medea’s children would have no life without their father, and to please his new family, he could no longer acknowledge them. Medea chose to kill them swiftly to save them from their futures. Killing her husband’s fiancée? Yes, that was pretty much pure revenge.