From Nefertiti To Isolde: What The Women Who Came Before Us Knew About Beauty, Joy, And Virtue

We've all heard of Nefertiti, Queen of Egypt, mother of Tutankhamun, famed for her beauty and the exquisite bust so symbolic of that ancient civilization. But do we know what her name means?

By Hannah Owen4 min read
James Archer/Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The ancient Egyptian word nefer meant "beautiful" or "good" or "happy." Scholars agree the name Nefertiti means "The Beautiful One Has Entered." Whether nefer was used to mean only one thing at a time – the way rose today sometimes means "got up" but sometimes means the flower – or whether it was used to embody all three definitions at once is anyone's guess. But I like to think it was the latter: A woman is beautiful because she is good and happy; she embodies a higher manifestation of beauty when she adds joy and virtue to the mix.

Bust of Nefertiti in Neues Museum, Berlin. Philip Pikart, CC BY-SA 3.0/Wikimedia Commons 
Bust of Nefertiti in Neues Museum, Berlin. Philip Pikart, CC BY-SA 3.0/Wikimedia Commons 

The ancients were keen on female happiness as a key factor of feminine charm. "She laughs at the times to come," as it says in the Bible. In Arthurian legend, virtue and femininity are almost synonymous (though we must add, for the sake of the ever-present critic, that masculine virtue had its place as well; it simply went by another name – chivalry). Camelot's heroines, like the demure Enide and playful Blancheflor, are introduced as being so virtuous it adds a glow to their beauty. This theme is picked up by J.R.R. Tolkien in his renowned The Lord of the Rings series, in which nearly every female is introduced under an aura of dusty sunlight.

But is the connection between the timeless trio of beauty, virtue, and happiness among womankind true? Were the ancient Egyptians and Medievals on to something? Or is this a leftover from a patriarchy that feared and sought to control female sexuality? (My current favorite feminist cope.)  

Spousal Joy Is a Reflection of the Marriage

In For Women Only, author Shaunti Feldhahn takes us on her journey of understanding the male mind. As a novelist penning a story with a male protagonist, she recognized she'd have to put in the work to understand the male psyche to write a compelling character, and so began a deep dive into male psychology.

For Women Only is a result of her research. After surveying several of her guy friends, Feldhahn decided she needed to do a real sociological survey, and she graciously walked us through her findings. As it turns out, men can be pretty competitive, with each other but also personally. And one way a man will feel like The Man is by knowing he's a good husband. Some indicators are obvious (is she responsive and engaged in the bedroom?), while others are more subtle (what kinds of things does she say to him?). Feldhahn found that a surprising number of guys took complaints very seriously as indicators that they were failing as a husband. Couples can take it as solid advice: Use your words wisely! To put it simply, complaints and negativity tell him he is failing; a happy wife tells him he's doing great. 

One Arthurian legend illustrates this dynamic, the story of Erec and Enide. Much admired for their supreme masculine and feminine beauty, this smitten couple weds early in the story. Erec is so pleased with his beautiful wife that he rarely leaves her bedroom. But this emasculates him in the eyes of the court. Sure, a knight should excel in courtly love, but he is also bound to civic duties towards king and country. When Enide discovers she is the reason for her husband's fall in reputation, she complains aloud. Erec mishears and misunderstands her, and he sets out on an adventure. Clearly, it is his job to restore to his wife, as well as the kingdom at large, what the author calls the Joy of the Court.

Arthurian legends are known for being over-the-top and dramatic, but according to Feldhahn, many men do feel some sense of personal responsibility to ensure joy in his home. A good man is drawn to his beloved's joyful demeanor and wants to protect it. Our ancestors may have considered this when they wrote in the old wedding vows, that marriage was for "mutual joy" and "encouragement in times of adversity." 

Beautiful, Virtuous Women Make Men Better

Porn is poisonous for the male brain, no question about it. And hook-up culture is dreadful for women. Yet both have seeped into our culture, to the point that we are largely desensitized to the nude female form, whether it's in the latest show everyone's watching or on the magazine covers at the grocery store. Isn’t it strange that it’s so normal to feel pressured for sex on a first date these days?  

Women with a sense of privacy – an impulse to save sex for a committed relationship, say, or who prefer to cover parts of their body they view as intimate – can sometimes feel that their values make them invisible. If it’s so easy to find sex elsewhere, why would any man pursue a woman who makes it hard for him? And of course, there are guys like that; there are men who will walk away as soon as they learn you will give them "nothing." Despite this, good men still exist. And a classy, virtuous woman, a woman who respects herself, respects men, and has standards, is thrilling to such a man. You don't have to compete with porn stars to get a good man's attention – your character and self-respect are rare and valuable to him. 

The Medievals knew this and wrote extensively on it. In the Camelot-adjacent legend of Tristan, Blancheflor is one such example. In Gottfried von Strassburg's version of the tale, Blancheflor is described as "a girl so lovely you never saw lovelier" and that any man who gazed upon her "loved woman and noble qualities better after." The story tells us how the sexes bring out the best in each other. At the jousts that Blancheflor and her girlfriends love to frequent, the ladies' beauty is noticed and admired by the knights: "This heavenly vision … exalted many a noble heart." Such beauty undeniably has a virtuous component, and it spurs the knights on to reach for the stars. The more the knights excel at their tournaments, the more the women praise them, and the cycle continues. These tournaments are where Blancheflor meets King Rivalen – they get married, and she gives birth to their son Tristan.  

“God Speed” by Edmund Blair Leighton (1900). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
“God Speed” by Edmund Blair Leighton (1900). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

When he grows up, Tristan meets the love of his own life, the feisty Isolde. Her beauty is also described as a thing that lifts up others because of the virtue and nobility captured in her face: "Whoever looks Isolde in the eyes feels his heart and soul refined like gold in the white-hot flame; his life becomes a joy to live." This kind of attraction is hyperbolic in the fullest Arthurian sense, of course, but it's also passionate, romantic, and starkly in contrast to the modern attitude that sees the good girl as the boring one. What's more, her beauty has a creative power; she "makes others beautiful, she adorns and sets a crown upon woman and womankind. None needs to be abashed because of her." This kind of girl inspires Tristan to go and slay his dragons.

No matter what hook-up culture says, a virtuous, beautiful woman will always have that kind of power. It’s an attractive, uplifting, unstoppable force.  

Closing Thoughts

Living the good life isn't boring or backwards. Pursuing the good, the beautiful, and a sheer joie-de-vivre? That's just smart, affirmed by wisdom ancient and modern. 

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