People have loved through the ages. Why is it then that so little is known about the subject? Countless books have been written and still no one knows anything for sure. It may be because every love experience is unique, and the best way to learn about love is always first-hand. Still, you can get inspired, armed or prepared (depending on your approach) for love with a little help from some ladies with a whole lot of experience. Times may have changed, but there’s a lot to learn from the babes of the past.
Sappho, mother of Western poetry, lived around 600 BC. One of Greece’s most beloved poets, she reached a stature uncommon for women of her day. Socrates praised her for her talent and intellect. Her likeness was even minted on coins. Unlike most of her contemporaries, whose subject matter was political, civic or religious, Sappho wrote about love, marriage, sex and women’s lives in a personal way.
Sappho lived on the Greek island of Lesbos where women congregated. Although no one really knows for sure, it is believed Sappho was either a priestess of Aphrodite (the Greek goddess of love, beauty and sexuality to whom many of Sappho’s poems are addressed) or that she was the mistress of a finishing school for girls.
Only fragments of Sappho’s poetry remain today, but from them we learn much about the lives of Greek girls and women at that time, as well as the nature of love. She wrote about the loss of virginity, about the passage from girlhood to womanhood via marriage, about unrequited love, loving from afar and about love at its best. It was Sappho who coined the word we know of today as bittersweet. In ancient Greek, it is closer to sweetbitter, but is perfectly described in this striking poem about love’s power:
With his venom
of limbs, Love
strikes me down
(Translated by Mary Barnard)
From Sappho, we learn many lessons about the nature of love just by reading her poetry. If we are to follow by example, it would mean complete openness about love; it would mean expressing our feelings without shame or hesitation; saying “I love you” as much as you please, because if you really mean it, it can never be repeated too much.
The idea of love as a conquest, of the victor and the vanquished, has been a theme in love relationships from ancient to modern times. Of course, love is not always war. There are times of peace and prosperity, just as there are times of stress, strategy and defeat.
For one hot babe of the past, love and power were interconnected. The last pharaoh of Egypt (from 51-30 BC), Cleopatra ascended the throne at the age of 17, during a time when her kingdom was threatened by a Roman takeover. Wisely, Cleopatra chose diplomacy over armed resistance. When Caesar visited Egypt, he was presented with a gift – an oriental carpet with Cleopatra herself (then 22) wrapped up in it. Eventually, Cleopatra became Caesar’s lover and bore him a son. After Caesar’s fall, she aligned herself with the victorious Mark Antony, becoming his lover. His adversaries eventually defeated Mark Antony, and Cleopatra knew her course had been run. She chose to take her own life, some believe, by allowing herself to be bitten by an asp.
Cleopatra wielded such influence over the powerful men she brought into her life that her opponents often labeled her a sorceress. In reality, she was smart, charismatic and powerful, but always struggling to survive. Who knows how much her relationships were about survival or love; all we know is that, for the most part, she used them skillfully. What can we learn from Cleopatra? As the old saying goes, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.
Mata Hari (meaning sun in Indonesian) was the stage name of Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, who took Paris by storm in the early 1900s as an exotic dancer and courtesan. Part Javanese and part Dutch, she fashioned an identity for herself not just as a performer, but also as a sexual dynamo. She dressed how she pleased and slept with whomever she wanted. Because many of her clients and lovers were political and military figures, she was able to travel more freely than most during World War I, which led to her downfall. Falsely accused of working as a double agent for the French and the Germans, Mata Hari was executed by firing squad.
Like Cleopatra, she came to a tragic end, but she remains an iconic figure. During a time when women were supposed to be quiet as door mice, Mata Hari set the world on fire with her brazen beauty and charismatic personality. It would be an injustice to portray Mata Hari as a victim. She lived the life she wanted and became a woman of the world. Unfortunately, it was a world not yet ready to accept her. Mata Hari teaches us to hang up our hang-ups and go for what we want.
If you ever doubted that fairy tales come true and regular little girls from places like Pennsylvania become princesses of wealthy countries in Europe, think again. Grace Kelly’s life sounds a lot like a fairy tale: this Pennsylvania Catholic girl went from modeling to lighting up the silver screen in movies like Rear Window and High Society, becoming an icon of all-American beauty (blond yet smart, wholesome yet sexy, elegant yet approachable). She led a glamorous life. But it didn’t stop there. In 1956, she became Her Serene Highness The Princess of Monaco when she was chosen to marry Prince Rainier of Monaco. It’s the stuff of storybooks, but in this case, it’s also real life.
Sometimes you have to believe in the fairytale for it to come true. Kelly’s life inspires us to cast doubt aside and shoot for the stars.
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