Today is Memorial Day, which I observe in my personal religious calendar as the Feast of the Mighty Dead. (I honor my personal beloved dead–deceased family members both human and otherwise–at Hallows.) Included among the ranks of the Mighty Dead for me, for the purposes of this holiday, are not only those spirits with whom I have a more personal, interactive connection (such as Anne Boleyn), but also all of those “larger than life” figures whose examples and wisdom have contributed to my life in some way. Some of these are people who I suspect I may have greater involvement with in the future (since apparently ancestor worship is becoming a more intrinsic part of my path lately), but all of them are those who I feel deserve some kind of recognition from me, but who I may not actually get around to honoring at any other time.
My list is rather eclectic, and–now that I’m typing it out to notice–is currently limited to women, possibly because I am one. (There are no deeper, feminist agenda-driven motives; being female, I don’t think it’s astonishing that I can relate more easily to historical women than to men, however much I may admire some of the latter.) Conspicuously absent are any of the “usual suspects” from the (mostly male) roll call of heroes generally touted in heathenry; I haven’t omitted them from my practice deliberately, simply because none of them have ever spoken to me, either literally or figuratively.
Right now the list incudes: Thorbjorg (the “little seidhrkona” of the Saga of Erik the Red), Mechtilde of Magdeburg and one or two of the other female medieval mystics (I’m sure they could never have imagined that their impassioned, almost erotic writings about marriage to Christ would offer support and solace to pagan god spouses), Queen Wealtheow from Beowulf (who may or may not have been an actual person–but then, the same can be said of Thorbjorg; both individuals stand for a historical type–the seidhrkona and the Migration-era folk-queen, respectively–whether or not they themselves existed), Elizabeth Southerns, aka Mother Demdike (the 17th century English cunning woman who was charged as one of the “Pendle Witches“), Queen Elizabeth Woodville, wife of Edward IV of England and mother of the princes in the Tower (herself an alleged witch, and almost certainly the daughter of a witch, with water-goddess ancestry), Eleanor of Aquitaine, Emma, the Norman queen of England who married first the Anglo-Saxon king Aethelred and then the Danish Cnut (are we seeing an Anglo-centric theme emerging here?), and…Cleopatra VII, the last Ptolemaic Queen of Egypt.
Actually, Cleopatra is sort of in a category all by herself–in many ways, but specifically in the sense that she at one point played a huge part in my life. In fact, she was my first role model and the first historical person with whom I fell in love–at the age of seven, which was also when I began my first attempt at writing a book about her, an endeavor that continued off and on well into my twenties. (I even named my daughter Alexandria, in honor of her city.) The book was never completed, but for more than ten years of my life Hellenistic Egypt occupied the obsessive place in my thoughts and reading materials that England (from Anglo-Saxon times to the 1600s) does now, with Cleopatra herself being arguably my first dis (though I wasn’t aware of that word or concept at the time). It’s appropriate, then, that I recently got a copy of the stunning new biography Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff from our fabulous local library, and that I’m spending quite a bit of time over this long holiday weekend reading it (in between planning jewelry designs, experimenting with herbal formulations, tending my garden, and playing with polymer clay).
If you have even the slightest interest in Cleopatra, you NEED to get this book. I hadn’t intended to read it from cover to cover (its subject being not quite the obsession she was for me at one time), but after the first page or two I was hooked. It’s quite true, as one reviewer said, that the author is incapable of writing a boring sentence; she has skillfully reminded me of why Cleopatra fascinated me so in the first place, as well as all of the things she has still to teach me–at the same time as enrapturing me with her luscious descriptive prose and making me chuckle with regularity at her satirical wit.
Here’s a brief excerpt:
“A capable, clear-eyed sovereign, she knew how to build a fleet, suppress an insurrection, control a currency, alleviate a famine. An eminent Roman general vouched for her grasp of military affairs. Even at a time when women rulers were no rarity she stood out, the sole female of the ancient world to rule alone and to play a role in western affairs. She was incomparably richer than anyone else in the Mediterranean. And she enjoyed greater prestige than any other woman of her age, as an excitable rival king was reminded when he called, during her stay at his court, for her assassination. (In light of her stature, it could not be done.) Cleopatra descended from a long line of murderers and faithfully upheld the family tradition but was, for her time and place, remarkably well behaved. She nonetheless survives as a wanton temptress, not the last time a genuinely powerful woman has been transmuted into a shamelessly seductive one.”
So these are some of the people I am honoring today, with toasts and libations of my home-brewed lemon balm and red clover mead. What about you? Perhaps you don’t choose today as the time for honoring them, but I’d be interested to hear who some of my readers include among their own chosen ancestors, or Mighty Dead.