Enrichment and Inspiration for Beta Sigma Phi Sisters from Marilyn Ross
By Helena Carus
International Honorary Member
(The following article appeared in the January, 1938 issue of The Torch.)
"Writing about Diotima for the sisterhood of Beta Sigma Phi is as difficult as writing about Santa Claus for the children at Christmas time. For Diotima is very real to us, real in beckoning us onward with her torch, real as the type of interpreting priestlike woman.
Perhaps Diotima never existed except in the imagination of Plato. The only words which refer to her are these in the Symposium where Socrates says, "I will rehearse a tale of love which I heard from Diotima of Mantineia, a woman wise in this and many other kinds of knowledge, who in the days of old, when the Athenians offered sacrifice before the coming of the plague, delayed the disease ten years. She was my instructress in the art of love."
Scholars say that Diotima's name, which means "intimate of God" would mark her as a work of Plato's imagination. They say that he, in honesty, could never have put into Socrates's mouth the exposition (detailed explanation) of his own idealism, for Socrates was a critical enquirer (seeker) after reality, known for this realism by his contemporaries and so described by his disciple Zenophon, as well as in derisive (humorous, mocking) fashion by the comedian Aristophanes.
If we may take the liberty of imagining how Plato went about composition, we should say that he felt it fitting to put his highest and best, his doctrine of the ideal Beauty, into the speech by Socrates, his revered master, at this dinner party where each guest gave a discourse (talk, or speech) on Love. He must have considered several possibilities in the persons whom Socrates might quote in giving this doctrine quite foreign to the realist's own point of view. Perhaps a Delphic (of an ancient city in ancient Greece) or an Olympian priest presented a possible character. No doubt he discarded the idea of an Orphic (of a philosophical school) seer (one who supposedly foretells the future), for although many myths of the followers of Orpheus shine through Plato's text, the Orphics were ridiculed in that long-ago time much as the classicists of nowadays discard their probable influence on Greek thinkers. No doubt an artistic consideration led to the choice of a woman as giving the most delicate play of contrast in the story, for in the preceding speeches at the dinner one man after the other had presented the most diverse masculine views of love. By putting his lovely symbol of an advancing comprehension of the divine Beauty into a woman's mouth, Socrates's speech was lifted to a peculiar eminence as climax for the whole book. Peculiar, I say advisedly, for the position and regard of women among the Athenians of the fifth century B. C. would not satisfy us, not even their praise of the unusual and brilliant Aspasia.
But here, from Plato, the man whose influence colored Christian thinking so deeply that our very prayers contain his thoughts, is tacit admiration of the best in woman expressed with such art and such extravagance as to be almost incredible. We should be grateful. Of course Diotima should bear the torch of the ideal before us as we follow her.
But I knew nothing of the aims and hopes of our great sisterhood five years ago. It was then that Diotima appeared to me to be the ideal Greek priestess. I was seeking a protagonist (the main character in a drama or novel) through whom to show the manner in which Greek symbols probably illumined the hearts of the artists of that century, when the genius of mankind reached a strange height of expression never since surpassed.
In the writings of anthropological students of ancient Greece I had experienced an exciting insight. I felt as though I had seen how religious symbols had become bone and body of the Greeks in the pantomime and dance through which their religion made itself real to the people. This seemed to me the spur to the imagination, the link between the real and the imagined, this emotional link, which explained the power of their art.
If you think of primitive magic and dance, which instead of being arborous (within a bower of trees) somehow contained the elements of pure beauty, you see an emotional state which could produce high art. There are two books about our Navajo Indians where you will find the same elements of religious emotion and art combined as existed in ancient Greece. They are the novel "Laughing Boy" by Oliver La Farge, and the children's book "Waterless Mountain" by Laura Adams Armer.
The tomes (large books) which show this same state of incipient great art as it existed in ancient Greece are not novels. They are hard to read. But out of me they struck the sparks of a children's book still unpublished and my novel "Artemis, Fare Thee Well."
There were certain considerations to be met in the planning of my novel. Classical scholars quarrel with the anthropologists as to all this primitive magic which I felt to be the background for Greek artists. Archaic ritual would, however, pass uncontested in Arcadia, a backward land even in the great fifth century B.C. Therefore the locality of Diotima's home town led me to approach her in true humility, hoping that I might tell her story in a manner beautiful enough so that I could not be reproached for using Plato's sublime (noble, exalted) woman. In her life as I have told it are gathered together the experiences and the symbols illuminating them which I felt might have made her son a great artist. And in Arcadia we know only of music as the art of the people. The Delphic records show a boy of Arcadia winning the prize for flute playing, which I have tried to describe as happening to Diotima's young son.
Now, to comment on the story of the priestess's life as I have imagined it. And let me say that the beautiful tale told itself, leaving me with the sense that I had been merely the mouthpiece or the pencil recording it. My only effort was to be true to the material, to let no clashing modern term or word escape into the text. For instance, weeks and hours were unknown to the Greeks; they had no butter, no oranges nor lemons at this period; a preview used to mean a premonition, but has been now completely appropriated by a very modern idea.
My Diotima is the leader of the young fleet huntresses who in myth and legend are the companions of the virgin goddess, Artemis. Into the picture of that hunt went the vase-paintings, the friezes of all the collections in the museums. How could it have been other than the poem of young womanhood, just as true of our young athlete today as of the Arcadian girls?
The intruder is told of in a legend of the country next door to Arcadia of Olympia, where the great games were celebrated. But in the legend the punishment for sacrilege was that which these girls only threatened.
The love-story, with its setting of utter poverty and simplicity, is just what we know the loving contriving (devising, managing) brave wife capable of in our own American pioneering. Here in the cave shines the illumination by means of poetic symbols which to my mind constitutes the way in which the interpreting priestess-woman can make a paradise of any desert. And Diotima's happiness in motherhood was no greater than that which each young mother finds, today, as well as long ago. We see this happiness in the young mothers in our chapters. I see it in the mothers of my little school. But let them interpret, delve deep, draw upon the symbols of poetry, and the happiness is deepened, sharpened.
Then comes the famine, the likeness of our depression. Diotima does what the women of our time do daily. She shoulders the burden of earning the family living. Being the priestess-poet, she does it in her particular way, but there are a thousand ways, and loving women have used them all.
Now we come to the tragedy in the book, for which so many of my friends have scolded me. All I can say in excuse for it is that in my original notes, a little card with half a dozen points, already stood the words, "psychological tragedy." I felt that the "loss of life and limb" occurrence was too common in that ancient world to be fit matter for tragedy, unhappy and pathetic though it always must be. And I know that the greatest sorrow to any loving wife comes through her husband.
There is a wise old woman among my friends who in youth was an ardent feminist of the Susan B. Anthony type. She maintains that more than frequently men disintegrate with age and trouble in just such a way as Diotima's husband. It is out of her experiences that the realistic touches come which make plausible the strange Greek setting of the vengeance (retribution) of the follower ghost. This ancient superstition lives on, students say, in country districts in modern Greece, and most of us know by hearsay at least the novel embodying the legend, "Dracula."
At last we come in my story to the natural widening of the sphere of influence of a priestess as gifted in interpretation as Diotima. I have set together Demeter legends (goddesses of the fruitful earth, protectresses of social order and of marriage) from the most diverse sources in Diotima's prayer at the seed-time festival, which seems to me a sort of climax in her life. I would have liked to leave untouched--I felt it was too bold--the whole of Plato's use of my beautiful woman. I thought perhaps I might say, "And so to Plato," and leave it to the reader to read or reread the Symposium. But friendly critics would not have it thus. "Twould be an anachronism (out of its proper historical time). Plato wasn't born yet at the end of your novel." Perhaps they were right. Very few persons would have been led to reading Plato who did not already know him. At best I have read the immortal speech of Socrates to my sisters in my particular chapter. Therefore I remain content to have been bold with Plato. Any beggar may look at the stars.
What fun it was when the book came out and all the critics praised it. All my friends and many strangers were kind and made me feel proud. Then suddenly the educational director of a newly formed chapter in Beta Sigma Phi asked me to come and talk to her girls. She told me how interesting it had been to her personally to find a life of Diotima in a book almost simultaneously with finding the seeress (one who supposedly foretells the future) herself in the ritual of the order.
Then my dear young sisters inducted me also into the mysteries, and included me in many pleasant meetings serious or joyous as the occasion suggested.
And at last with these words I am privileged to greet many thousand sisters, to whom in an unusual sense, Diotima herself has led me.