An ancient oracle told by a Pythian priestess says, “ But when the time shall come that the female conquers in battle, driving away the male, and wins great glory in Argos, then many wives of the Argives shall tear both cheeks in their mourning .” This oracle was later alluded to by historian Herodotus (c. 484 – c. 425 BC) and geographer Pausanias (c. 110 AD – c. 180 AD). The female whom this oracle refers to was Telesilla, a woman renowned for her leadership of Argos through its political and military crisis and subsequent re-building. Telesilla was not only a warrior but also a poet. She was evidently renowned enough that Antipater of Thessalonica, the author of over a hundred epigrams in the Greek Anthology, saw it fit to include her in his canon of nine female poets.
Calliope, muse of eloquence and epic poetry by Cesare Dandini. Christie’s ( Public Domain )
In battle, Telesilla was formidable. In his Mulierum Virtutes (Bravery of Women ), Plutarch tells that in 494 BC, when king of the Spartans Cleomenes I moved his troops against the city of Argives after killing many of the Argaean men, the younger women of Argives rose up to hold off the enemy to preserve their country. Led by Telesilla, the women took up arms and guarded the walls all around the city. Socrates reports that despite experiencing great loss in their numbers, the women fought Cleomenes and another king, Demaratus, who had managed to infiltrate the city wall and gained possession of the Pamphyliacum. The women saved the city and those who fell in battle were buried close by the Argive Road. A statue of Ares was erected as a memorial to the valor of those who died and those who survived. Legend has it that the battle happened on the seventh day of the month which is now known as the tetartou (Fourth Month). Polyaenus tells that the Argives knew this month as Hermaeus. On the first day of the month of Hermaeus, they celebrated the Hybristika (Festival of Impudence) where the women were clothed in men’s shirts and cloaks, and the men in women’s veils and robes.
Priestess of Delphi by John Collier, showing the Pythia sitting on a tripod with vapor rising from a crack in the earth beneath her (1891) Art Gallery South Australia ( Public Domain )
Telesilla, The Sickly Poetess
Telesilla, the woman who is credited in instigating the rise of the women of Argos, was a poetess. A daughter of a well-known family, Telesilla was a sickly young girl.
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Martini Fisher is an Ancient Historian and author of many books, including “Time Maps: History, Prehistory and Biological Evolution / Check out MartiniFisher.com
Top Image : – Reverie (In the Days of Sappho) by John William Godward ( c 1904) The Getty Centre LA. ( Public Domain )