Representing the Wise: A Gendered Approach

The first volume of the new series Melammu Workshops and Monographs has just been published. Three ANEE members contributed to the book: Sebastian Fink as co-organizer of the workshop and co-editor of the volume, and Raija Mattila and Saana Svärd as authors of articles on male and female sages in Akkadian sources.

The first Melammu Workshop “Representing the Wise: A Gendered Approach” was organized by Stéphanie Anthonioz and Sebastian Fink, and was hosted by the Catholic University of Lille. A team of twelve scholars from Europe and Canada met in Lille in May 2016. See the original program here.

Our initial endeavor was to ask how female and male representatives of the wise – female and male sages – were conceptualized in antiquity and whether there was a clear difference between female and male wisdom. The workshop followed a kind of historical chronology starting from Mesopotamian and Egyptian sources, continuing west through the Levant and ending with Greek and Roman documentation.

While it seems very modern to speak about gendered wisdom, a passage in Plato reveals that already the ancient Greeks had their ideas of male and female wisdom:

Why, take the case of Thales, Theodorus. While he was studying the stars and looking upwards, he fell into a pit, and a neat, witty Thracian servant girl jeered at him, they say, because he was so eager to know the things in the sky that he could not see what was there before him at his very feet. The same jest applies to all who pass their lives in philosophy. (Plato, Theaetetus 174a)

A philosopher, according to Socrates, can be rather a strange man when he has to deal with things that are of no interest to him, "the things at his feet and before his eyes". The Thracian servant girl, despite her low social status and her lack of philosophical wisdom, can teach a lesson to the first philosopher Thales. While he deals with the heavens and the stars, he still is a living person who somehow has to cope with this world.

The book covers male and female representations of the wise in Sumerian and Akkadian Literature, in Egypt, in the Hebrew Bible, in Greek and in Roman sources and thereby provides its readers with a broad comparative perspective to gendered representations of wisdom.

If there is one observable general tendency, then it is that male representation of wisdom is part of an historical and social development where more and more power was taken by males, the ideal of wisdom was defined by males and therefore representations tended to be masculine. If we understood the idea of a gendered approach in a strict sense, we could even distinguish between male and female wisdom, as in most societies in antiquity woman and man had their ideal roles.

Stéphanie Anthonioz, Sebastian Fink (eds.) 2019. Representing the Wise. A Gendered Approach. Proceedings of the 1st Melammu Workshop, Lille, 4-5 April 2016. Melammu Workshops and Monographs 1. Zaphon: Münster.