The Woman who would be King (apologies to R. K.)

For reasons I cannot fathom, people delight in scaring themselves on Halloween. It is bewildering. If I ever felt the need to recalibrate my terror-o-meter, I would simply drive to the local grocery store. Life in Central Florida is surreal enough.

And yet, the astute readership of Bible Lands Explorer demands holiday-sensitive material. So for their sake, I have created the following exercise:

First, find a piece of paper and a pencil.

Second, write a list of five things that scare you.  

Third, wad up that paper, throw it away and finish reading this entertaining and holiday-sensitive article.

Did your list include vampires, the Buccaneers offensive line, or people who give fruit instead of candy for treats? Did you see something at CiCi’s buffet bar that you can’t unsee (no matter how hard you try)? Undoubtedly, there is the category of scary and then there is the category of terrifying. Can we venture deeper into the abyss?

I’m thinking about the woman who would be king.

And no, it has nothing to do with Nancy Pelosi, although it may explain why Paul Ryan dodged her hug.

A deftly executed hug-dodge. Well played, Paul. Image from here. Accessed Oct 31, 2015.

And no, the trope is not confined to the present. The ancients had their own version of the frosty maiden.

Consider the legacy of Semiramis, aka Shamiram, aka Semiramide. Whether this character is a literary invention (claims Robin Lane Fox), an embellished heroine (claims Georges Roux), or something fluttering between these two poles, is impossible to determine from this distance. The one thing that is certain (and Halloweenishly relevant!) is the way her legacy was demonized.

Paul Orosius (AD 385-430) was a Christian from the region of modern Portugal who hobnobbed with the likes of Augustine and Jerome. He was also the author of a general world history that became one of the hottest reads of the Middle Ages. He minces no words in his description of Semiramis. Recounting how she regularly killed her lovers (by possibly burying them alive, see our She was a Man-Eater), Osorius writes in pulsating prose:

“This woman, ablaze with lust and thirsting for blood, lived amid unending fornication of murder” (From Seven Books of History against the Pagans 1.7).

It is a delicate sentence, to be sure, and not the kind you want to find on the front page of the morning paper.

Semiramis by William Story (1872). This larger-than-life statue reclines in the Dallas Museum of Art. This image was found here. Accessed on Oct 31, 2015.

Orosius’s claims are rooted in classicists' stories. Consider just one moment in her life: the way in which she relieved Ninus of the Assyrian throne. Three options present themselves.

The first is the most positive. It comes from the hand of Gnaeus Pompeius Trogus, a Roman historian of the first century BC. In a preserved epitome (a “Readers Digest condensed version") of his work, he describes how Ninus and Semiramis produced a son. Then Ninus died. Because Semiramis feared turning the crown over to a boy, she took it for herself. To hide her gender (she did not believe the world of deep antiquity was ready for woman leader), she dressed like him, tunic, turban and all. It worked; everybody thought she was her own son! Eventually, though, her true identity was leaked. But to her surprise, this only increased the admiration of the populace for her. As Trogue Pompey presents it, she, “being a woman, surpassed not only women, but men in heroism” (1.2). Wowzer!

Diodorus of Sicily (1st c BC) gives a second account of how this woman would be king (see our She was a Man-Eater). In his version, Semiramis was married to the governor of Syria, who was serving with King Ninus on the Bactrian front (between modern Afghanistan and Tajikistan). The governor missed his wife deeply and asked her to come visit. This she did; but while she was there she demonstrated such bravery and daring that Ninus requested that the governor give her to him as wife. The governor refused. Then the king did what kings and college administrators and fast food restaurant managers are wont to do: he threatened to poke out the governor’s eyes. This inspired a frenzy of madness (again, note the holiday appropriateness of this material) and the governor hung himself, “partly out of fear of the king’s threats and partly out of his passion for his wife” (Bibliotheca Historica II.6). In this way, Semiramis was joined to Ninus and achieved royal power. Only later does Diodorus sneak in the bit about her illicit loves, murderous behavior, and hankering for White Castle sliders (I just threw that last part in to see if you were really reading this; it is a cunning trick that students often play on me.).

Still from the 1963 movie, “Slave Queen of Babylon.” Yvonne Furneaux plays the role of Semiramide. Image from here. Accessed Oct 31, 2015. 

We give the last word to the Greek tattler and Roman citizen Plutarch (AD 46-120). In his “The Dialogue of Love” (see section 753 of The Moralia), he criticizes men who allow themselves to become "slaves" of flute girls, ballet dancers, cheap tambourine players and the like (eye roll). This happened to King Ninus whose heart was captured by a lowly servant girl, our Semiramis. He was infatuated; she despised his obvious weakness. Stupidly blinded in this way, he granted the Syrian's wish to wear the crown for a day. Moreover, the king issued strict orders that everyone obey her word exactly as they would obey his. No exceptions. Semiramis took the crown, seized the opportunity and issued the order: Ninus was chained and put to death. Clever, eh? This is how her long and violent rule began.

This original ice queen and her legacy of disguise, deception, and mayhem make for appropriate Halloween (or, for that matter, election season) reading. I pull the covers over my head. I am terrified.