Thursday, February 28, 2013

Jeudi: Great Spirits

In his epic the Aeneid, Roman poet Virgil tells us that the Queen of Carthage, Dido, committed suicide when her lover/husband Aeneas the Trojan adventurer, sails off to Italy and rejects their wedding vows. She is a victim of love and the gods and, despite her great authority and power as the queen of the largest nation in North Africa, she succumbs to both.

The story is a classic Greco-Roman reimagining of how women - and particularly women in power - needed to behave. The distaff side should not be ruling anything aside from their homes; Dido, Queen of Carthage, got what she deserved and at her own hand.

But what is the true origin of the story of Dido? Is she only a figment of Virgil's imagination or is there more to her than that? As Patricia Monaghan points out in Goddesses & Heroines, there must certainly be more to this Queen of Carthage than Virgil's epic. If not, Dido managed not only to live for hundreds of years but to commit suicide not once, but twice.

The Carthaginian legend of Queen Dido is very different - and quite a bit more heroic - than Virgil's version. It also points to a possible answer to the long life and miraculous self-imposed deaths of the queen. Dido it seems, like Candace and Helen, was originally a title and not a name.

According to Monaghan the word dido may come from the root dida meaning to wander. The original Dido Elissa or - even more ancient - Alitta which means "the goddess," seems to have come from the Phoenician settlement of Tyre. Bringing a band of colonists with her, Dido Alitta established a settlement that would eventually grow into the powerful empire known as Carthage. The story holds that the journey was spurred by the murder of Alitta's husband by her brother and that she brought only women with her to seek out a new home. Since the latter seems highly suspect, both "facts" can probably be left as legend.

Alitta, who was clearly a savvy business woman along with a proud leader, purchased a "hide's worth" of land on the shore of the Mediterranean from a local tribe. She then proceeded to cut the hide into thin strips and lay these out end to end around a vast holding that swept over much of a peninsula that now resides in the country of Tunis. Her first order of business thereafter was to begin building a great temple to her goddess Tanit (sometimes written as Tanith) the mother of the sky from which the people of Carthage believed they came. When the Romans invaded Carthage and beheld the beautiful statue of Tanit bedazzled with stars and holding the moon and the sun, they called her Dea Caelestis: "heavenly goddess."

The city flourished and was named after its first Dido: Cartha-Alitta or "city of the goddess." Of course envy from local rulers was inevitable and one particularly nasty cheiftain threatened war against Carthage if Alitta would not satisfy his lust. Alitta's response was swift and pragmatic; she killed herself and had her lecherous neighbor invited to the funeral.

In honor of their first Dido's brilliance and courage, the Carthaginians built a sacred grove in the middle of their city. This grove of Elissa would stand, and refresh the people of Dido's city-state, until the Romans destroyed Carthage during the Third Punic War in 146 BCE.

Header: Morte di Didone by Guercino c 1635 via Wikipedia

1 comment:

Timmy! said...

I tried to comment yesterday, but I guess it didn't post, Pauline. Anyway, what I tried to say was that this post once again proves that misogyny dates back to ancient times and sadly seems to continue to be the last bastion of acceptable prejudice in our world...