Influential Women: Sammuramat to Semiramis – From History to Myth

Queen Semiramis was a mythical queen who appears in many myths, legends, works of art and literature through the ages.  She was was believed to have evolved from a real, historical Queen Sammuramat who ruled the Neo-Assyrian Empire for a brief period.   Here we look briefly what is known of the historical Queen Sammuramat and her transformation to the mythical, semi-divine, Queen Semiramis.

QUEEN SAMMURAMAT

Sammuramat ruled the Neo-Assyrian Empire in the ninth century after her husband, King Shamshi-Adad V, died until her young son Adad-nirari III came of age in 806 BC.  It is not clear whether she ruled as regent or in some other capacity but it was only believed to have lasted for five years.  According to the myths Semiramis ruled for 42 years as queen regnant but it is necessary to separate the historical from the mythical in thinking of Sammuramat.

Although much of her prestige may have come through being the wife and queen of King Shamshi-Adad V, history shows she briefly had great political influence over a great empire.  This stretched from the Arabian Peninsula in the south to the Caucasus Mountains in the north and in the west as far as Cyprus and in the east western Iran.   She was highly regarded by her subjects and neighboring states and appeared to have been a good ruler in what ever capacity she reigned. Like many other powerful and famous rulers throughout history her achievements were embellished, exaggerated and added to.  In the centuries after her death she became a mythical or legendary figure and given the name Semiramis.

EVIDENCE OF HER EXISTENCE

Not all archaeologists and historians are convinced of the existence of Queen Sammuramat.  Those who are point to four pieces of evidence they claim prove she once existed.  Two of these are statuettes found in the ancient city of Nimrud in Iraq.  These are dedicated to the Babylonian god of knowledge and writing named “Nabu” and both mention her name.  The other pieces are two stellae; one from Kizkapanli, situated in modern day Turkey and the other from Assur in Iraq which mention her.

Stele of the Assyrian queen Shammuramat, from AssurOsama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg), CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

When considered together these show she was highly esteemed and exercised an unusually high degree of political power for a woman of that epoch.  The Assur Stela inscription reads,

“Sammuramat, Queen of Shamshi-Adad, King of the Universe, King of Assyria; Mother of Adad-nirari, King of the Universe, King of Assyria.”

FROM HISTORY TO MYTH

The classical historian, Herodotus, in the fifth century B.C. used the Greek form of her name, Semiramis, which helped perpetuate her memory.  It is by this name she is perhaps better known today.   According to some traditions an entity known as Semiramis was the wife of the mythical Nimrod who reputedly built the Tower of Babel.  This entity does not appear to be the same character as the Semiramis who evolved from Sammuramat though there may have been some conflation through the ages.

After her name was Hellenized she became the subject of many enduring myths and legends as an Assyrian queen.  In this role she was the semi-divine daughter of the dove and fish goddess Derceto of Askalon, who in shame of conceiving a baby by a mortal flung herself into a lake.   Her body transformed into that of a fish while her head remained human.  Her baby girl was fostered by doves and grew up to become Semiramis.

In some legends she plays the role of the beautiful “femme fatale” in tragic love storiesbut in others she is a formidable commander and military leader winning impressive battles extending her empire greatly.  She is also cast as a great civil ruler who built the walls of Babylon and other monuments throughout her domain.

The Greek scholar, Diodorus Siculus, enlarged upon her legend inventing an exaggerated and inaccurate account of her life and deeds.  He claimed Semiramis was born in Ashkelon, now in modern day Israel and was the daughter of the Syrian goddess, Derceto, who many scholars see as a version of the Phonecian goddess Astarte and the Babylonian goddess, Ishtar.

RAISED BY DOVES

Her father was a mortal and her mother in shame of falling in love and conceiving with a mortal man abandoned her baby who was then raised by doves.  Eventually she was adopted by the chief shepherd of the king of Assyria and named Semiramis and grew up to be a woman of great and rare beauty and intelligence.  

One day while inspecting the royal flocks Onnes, the royal governor of Syria came across her and struck by her beauty gained her adoptive father’s consent to marry her.  After the wedding she went to live with him in Nineveh.

When Onnes was sent on a military mission to central Asia to besiege the city of Bactra by King Ninus of Assyria he began to miss her badly.  Therefore, he sent a message asking that she join him.  When she arrived the siege was still in place but she came up with a strategy and led an attack that gave her husband and his army the victory.

When King Ninus heard about how she had formulated the winning strategy and led the attack he wanted to meet the rare female with such military ability.  Ninus was completely besotted by her beauty falling in love with her at first sight.  He ordered her husband to exchange his wife for one of his daughters but Onness refused.  Ninus was determined he would marry her and subjected Onnes to terrible threats causing him to take his own life.  Ninus got his way and Semiramis became his wife and queen of Assyria. 

BUILDER AND COMMANDER

According to Diodorus she embarked on a number of large civil projects including the rebuilding of the city of Babylon along the Euphrates River, including the royal palace, the temple of Marduk and the city walls.  Other Greco-Roman authors such as Strabo credit her with creating one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon though this is not supported by evidence.

Variations of her name were applied to many ancient monuments in Anatolia and Western Asia often with little or no evidence they originated with her.   She was also credited with building the city of Van as her summer residence and may have been known as Shamiramagerd (city of Semiramis).

MILITARY CONQUESTS

According to Diodorus Siculus after the completing works in Babylon she turned her attention to the empire.  She launched several military campaigns in Persia, Libya and North Africa.  Furthermore, in an act of supreme ambition she organized and launched an invasion of India ruled by King Stabrobates. This was an incredibly difficult and risky operation and would prove although she was a capable and formidable commander and general she was not invincible. 

Nevertheless, she was very bold and inventive conceiving a daring plan of deception to use against Stabrobates.  She instructed her craftsmen to construct a herd of fake elephants by covering camels with the dark hides of buffaloes.  In this way she initially managed to give the impression she had a formidable battalion of real elephants to unleash in battle.   Initially, this deception was successful in an attack but her enemy strongly counterattacked. Her army was routed with the survivors forced to retreat back over the Indus River.  The invasion failed disastrously and she was injured in the fighting.

THE ORACLE OF AMUN

While campaigning in Africa she had consulted an oracle of the deity Amun.  The oracle predicted her son Ninias would conspire to supplant and kill her.   According to Diodorus this was to come true and after her failure in India on discovering her son’s plot she decided to hand over power peacefully to him rather than fight him for the throne.  However, other historians give differing versions of her death.  Some say she threw herself on a burning pyre while others say her son killed her.

ARMENIAN TRADITION

In Armenian tradition, Semiramis, was often portrayed negatively because of her military successes against Armenia.   One of the most well known Armenian legends about her is her romance with a King of Armenia known as Ara the Handsome.    Armenian traditions say Semiramis had fallen head over heels in love with him and proposed marriage.  To her dismay he refused and in a display of extreme petulance she mustered her army and made war on him ordering her commanders to capture him alive. She was victorious but contrary to her explicit instructions Ara was killed in battle.  

Semiramis was reputed to be a sorceress and the death of Ara had left her in an awkward position.  She did not want to continue warring with the Armenians who were now determined to avenge their leader. Therefore she came up with a plan to end the war.  She openly prayed to the gods to raise Ara from the dead but secretly disguised one of her lovers as him.  When the Armenians arrived for battle she presented him to them claiming she had raised him from the dead by her love for him.   The deception convinced the Armenians he was alive and ended the fighting.  There is also a tradition that she actually succeeded in resurrecting Ara and there is a village not far from Van called Lezk where his resurrection allegedly took place.

INGREDIENTS FOR A GOOD TALE

Her legend has much in common with other myths from the region that tell of great leaders or powerful people.  There is the theme of her divine origin being born of Derketo, the goddess and then abandoned at birth to be found and brought up by animal or bird foster parents. 

The evolution of Queen Semiramis from Queen Sammuramat provided an example for other female rulers to follow.  Her legendary and mythical status was achieved possibly because it was unusual in patriarchal societies for females to be allowed to shine or display their intelligence and talents.  According to these traditions, she proved herself to be a as good or better than males in her governing abilities, civil building works and military prowess.  This was unusual and may be part of the reason why she was elevated to such status.  Her mystique and appeal lasted for centuries after her death and was the inspiration for many works in art and literature. Perhaps because of her legendary beauty and reputation, or maybe, just because she was a woman, she was often cast in erotic and immoral roles. 

Over the ages her achievements became embellished and exaggerated and new stories emerged about her.  In many ways the little that was known about her added to her mystique and after her death the myths and legends grew. In later times was held as a model for good female rulers who exhibited similar characteristics as her and such as Margret I of Denmark, and  Catherine the Great of Russia who were called Semiramis of the North after her. 

Throughout the ages the mythical Queen Semiramis evolved a long way from the original historical Queen Sammuramat but such is the stuff that legends are made from.

© 29/09/2021 zteve t evans

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Celtic Warrior Queens: Boudica of the Iceni

This article was first published on #FolkloreThursday.com, 8th October 2020, titled Celtic Warrior Women: Queen Boudica of the Iceni by zteve t evans.

Queen Boudica

Queen Boudica, ruler of the Iceni people of Britain, was famous for leading a violent uprising against Roman rule. She was married and had two young daughters whose names are unknown. Her husband Prasutagus had ruled as a client-king of Rome and his realm was roughly the area of modern Norfolk. As a client-king he had entered into an alliance with Rome which allowed him to rule and receive Roman patronage in return for recognizing its overall authority and keeping law and order. When he died he left his kingdom jointly to the emperor and his two daughters, perhaps hoping to avoid trouble.  Despite this, his kingdom and property was annexed by Rome and his family maltreated, sowing the seeds of rebellion among the Britons. According to Tacitus, Boudica was beaten with rods, her two young daughters raped, and the estates of the Iceni nobles confiscated. This spurred Boudica to lead a bloody rebellion against the might of Rome.

Suffragettes

As a woman, widowed with at least two children, the qualities that people would traditionally call female were plain to see. Yet after the maltreatment inflicted upon her and her young daughters by the Romans, other, less ‘traditionally female’ qualities emerged, transforming her into a powerful, avenging force. Qualities of leadership, intelligence, aggression, courage and assertiveness in a struggle to free her people came to the fore. Such attributes were seen as subversive for women to openly display in a patriarchal society, but were some of the very qualities that the suffragettes were keen to promote as acceptable in women to help and inspire their struggle against the system.

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Queen Cordelia of the Britons

426px-cordelia_-_william_frederick_yeames

Cordelia by William Frederick Yeames – Public Domain

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, the legendary Queen Cordelia was the youngest daughter of King Leir, of the Britons.  She was unfairly rejected by her father for telling him a truth he should have known.  Instead, he bestowed his favor upon her two sisters who falsely proclaimed their love for him for personal gain.  It’s a story of how love, loyalty and forgiveness triumph over lies, deceit and greed and how a woman took up arms to fight in support of the father she loved and became one of the legendary warrior women of the Britons.  

The daughters of Leir

Geoffrey tells us that King Leir had three daughters, Goneril, Regan and the youngest was Cordelia who was his favorite.  As he approached old age he decided he would marry off his daughters and divide his kingdom up between them.  Calling his advisors to him he asked for their advice and they told him to give his kingdom to those who loved him the most.  Leir called his daughters to him and asked how much they loved him.  Goneril and Regan fawned before him and flattered him greatly exaggerating their love for him.

Cordelia’s refusal

When Cordelia, his youngest and favorite daughter came before him she refused to do the same as her sisters, insisting that he should not need such false proof of her great love for him which she showed every day.  However, Leir’s advisors counseled him to divide his kingdom between Goneril and Regan and give Cordelia nothing as she would not answer him and furthermore refuse to find her a husband.  Leir listened to them and did what they suggested and married Goneril and Regan to the Dukes of Cornwall and Albany giving both a huge wedding dowry.  Goneril married Duke Maglanus of Albany and Regan married the Duke of Cornwall.

Cordelia’s punishment

Cordelia got nothing and when Aganippus who was the King of the Franks courted her and asked for her hand in marriage Leir refused to pay a wedding dowry.  Aganippus told Leir his love for Cordelia was not dependent on a dowry or anything else he could give as he loved her anyway.  All he wanted was his permission, which was granted.  So Cordelia left her father and married Aganippus and moved to his court in France and they lived there happily.

Goneril and Regan betray Leir

When Goneril and Regan married they received half of Leir’s kingdom and his wealth between them. They would get the other half on his death but their husbands usurped the throne taking all for themselves.  Marglanus gave Leir a retinue of sixty knights but his daughter, Goneril, halved this after two years.  Leir went to Regan thinking she would support him better but she cut his retinue further to five men.   Disappointed, Leir went back to Goneril to plead for more but she reduced his retinue to a single man to protect him.

Leir goes to Cordelia

With his own daughters abusing and humiliating him in this way Leir fears for his life and goes to France to seek out Cordelia.   Arriving outside of her court and not knowing what kind of reception to expect after his own treatment of her he sends her a message of his arrival asking to see her.  Cordelia, rather than being vengeful at his treatment of her in the past welcomes him and has him bathed and dressed in Royal fashion.   She gives him a large retinue of men to support him and he is received with honor by her husband, Aganippus, the King of France.  Aganippus, makes him a regent of France and promises along with other French nobles to restore his throne to him.

Cordelia the warrior

King Aganippus raises an army and along with Cordelia and Leir lead it into battle against the usurpers of Leir’s realm, Regan and Goneril and their husbands.  They successfully defeat them and win back Leir’s realm.   Although Leir had previously left half his kingdom to Regan and Goneril with them getting the other half when he died this was revoked.

Leir’s death

Leir ruled his kingdom for three more years before dying and when her husband died Cordelia returned to Britain.  She was crowned Queen and succeeded him.  She buried Leir in a shrine underneath the River Soar dedicated to Janus and held a feast every year in his honor.

Queen Cordelia

Cordelia was to rule as queen for five years in peace but her two sister’s sons Marganus and Cunedagius came of age and inherited their father’s dukedoms.  They resented Cordelia because she had defeated their fathers and because she was a woman.  They claimed that if anyone should rule it should be them and they took to war to defeat her. Although a woman, Cordelia was a warrior and fought many battles.  She led her own army against them fighting herself on many occasions.

Cordelia’s death

Eventually, her nephews defeated, captured and imprisoned her where she died.  She was succeeded by her nephews who split the realm into two.  Cunedagius ruled the country southwest of the River Humber and Marganus ruled the country to the northeast of the River Humber.  Eventually, they fought against each not being satisfied with what they got and Cunedagius defeated and killed Marganus.

Legacy

Although the works of Geoffrey of Monmouth are not regarded as reliable historical evidence today they were highly thought of in his time and into the 16th century before it became discredited.  Whatever the historical facts may be it is the human characteristics demonstrated by Cordelia of love, loyalty and forgiveness and her willingness to go to war for her father despite his foolishness, set against the failings of Goneril and Regan that resonate through the ages.

© 29/06/2016 zteve t evans

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Copyright June 29th 2016 zteve t evans