18.10.03, Beringer, Sight of Semiramis

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Margaret Schleissner

The Medieval Review 18.10.03

Beringer, Alison L. The Sight of Semiramis: Medieval and Early Modern Narratives of the Babylonian Queen. Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies. Tempe, Arizona: ACMRS, 2017. pp. xiv, 248. ISBN: 978-0-86698-542-0 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Margaret Schleissner
Rider University

The extraordinarily rich Semiramis material can be found in a variety of genres (history, legend, mythology, and literature) from Late Antiquity to the Early Modern period and beyond. Alison Beringer's wide-ranging, original, and rigorous study focuses on the tradition up to the seventeenth century (25). Rather than present a chronological overview, this investigation is organized around a central theme, that of seeing and being seen (15). The author employs the notion of "narrative openings," borrowed from Ann Marie Rasmussen, narrative nodes (topics or motifs) that invite further elaboration (39). A multivalent and liminal figure, Semiramis defies such binary categories as divine/mortal, human/animal, and male/female (11). Narrative plurality and fluidity, Beringer finds, define the figure of the Babylonian queen.

A detailed analysis of Diodorus Siculus's account of Semiramis's life in the Library of History (first century BCE) establishes a point of departure or "baseline" narrative with which to compare later representations. Beringer identifies a number of "narrative openings," for example Semiramis's uncontrollable passion, her tendency to outperform all others, her image as a "manly woman," her military and architectural expertise, and her use and abuse of language vs. visual forms of communication. Noteworthy in this narrative are Semiramis's various attempts to manipulate her public image through monumentalization. Translated from Greek into Latin and into German by the mid-sixteenth century, this text provides the named source for later (selective) treatments in two sixteenth-century German Meisterlieder (38).

"Manipulating the Sight and Site of Royal Bodies" describes the anxiety Semiramis experiences with regard to what others see, while "Viewing the Royal Body" depicts the anxiety of viewers seeing her. In the former, the link between power and the visual is revealed in instances of cross-dressing (where the royal body is covered or removed from view), maternal incest (with its inversion of gender roles) and statue-building, each of which features tension between public image and private reality. In several examples, Semiramis ascends to the throne by hiding the body of her husband or son. Semiramis attains and retains power as long as she controls what is seen, whether by disguising, displaying or removing the royal body (97).

In the following chapter, seeing Semiramis's decomposing corpse or her shade gives rise to anxiety on the part of the beholder in a Meisterlied by Georg Danbeck and in an anonymous, pre-eleventh-century Latin poem. Seeing Semiramis alive, on the other hand, poses a mortal danger to men in a pair of Meisterlieder by Hans Sachs from 1554, based on Diodorus Siculus in the translation of Johannes Herold ("The marvelous birth of Semiramis" and "The marvelous wedding of Semiramis"), as well as in a Byzantine romance, known as The Narrative of Alexander and Semiramis. All of these texts, moreover, in some way entail a competition between linguistic and visual modes of communication.

Finally, "Semiramis as Viewer" examines the Semiramis story in a single text, the South German Weltchronik of Rudolf von Ems (ca. 1250). Rudolf's version of the Semiramis story forms part of a Christian world history from creation until the author's own times (167). It begins with the story of Semiramis's husband, King Ninus, who (re)founded Nineveh, conquered all of Asia except India and inadvertently invented idolatry by creating and honoring an image of his dead father (178). Semiramis, as queen, surpasses her husband in terms of conquests and city-building. But she responds to her husband's death by taking lovers and putting them to death, and attempting to seduce her own son, leading to his act of matricide. Both idolatry and incest, in this reading, constitute inappropriate acts of visual substitution for a dead king (180). Rudolf's version of the Semiramis material is illustrated in three manuscripts from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Two of the manuscripts contain three pictures each, one of the physical union between lovers where the identity of the male figure (husband, son or lover) is unknown, and two executions (Semiramis overseeing an execution of a man, and being executed herself). A third manuscript contains only the two execution scenes, shifting the emphasis from sex to power (195). The two pictures in this manuscript, however, are preceded by a miniature featuring the idolatry introduced by Ninus, underscoring the idea of the misuse of images that is central in Rudolf's text (196).

With the exception of Semiramis herself, there is a notable lack of female viewers or objects of vision within this corpus. This, along with other motifs commonly associated with her (supernatural birth, androgyny, military prowess, empire building, insatiable sexual desire, incest, etc.) makes Semiramis appear all the more singular. Held up as an exemplary female ruler or reviled as a violator of social norms and destroyer of men, Semiramis instructs and fascinates.

Appearing in ten songs by seven poets from 1544 to 1634, Semiramis, as a city builder, may have held special appeal in the urban context of the so-called Meisterlieder of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries (26-7). In an appendix, Beringer provides transcriptions of six previously unpublished Meisterlieder discussed in her text. In this survey of treatments of Semiramis from East and West over many centuries, Beringer pays close attention to the unifying thread of visuality and displays unusual depth and sensitivity, erudition, and meticulous scholarship.

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