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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #74 Rabinowitz 2002 “Excavating Women’s Homoeroticism in Ancient Greece: The Evidence from Attic Vase Painting”


Full citation: 

Rabinowitz, Nancy Sorkin. “Excavating Women’s Homoeroticism in Ancient Greece: The Evidence from Attic Vase Painting” in Rabinowitz, Nancy Sorkin & Lisa Auanger eds. 2002. Among Women: From the Homosocial to the Homoerotic in the Ancient World. University of Texas Press, Austin. ISBN 0-29-77113-4

Publication summary: 

A collection of papers covering classical Greece

Rabinowitz, Nancy Sorkin. “Excavating Women’s Homoeroticism in Ancient Greece: The Evidence from Attic Vase Painting”

The introductory paragraph to Rabinowitz’s article points up a caution in taking the conclusions of any analytical article at face value. She notes that this paper stands in contrast to her first book which looked at how the exchange of women in the plays of Euripedes “takes women out of relation to other women and places them in primary relationships with men, simultaneously strengthening relationships between men” and reinforcing compulsory heterosexuality. For this paper, she began looking for representations of women’s relationships -- the very ones she proposed as being disrupted.

* * *

Interpreting the meaning and context of Greek pottery art is far from straightforward. The modern framing as valuable “fine art” is to a large extent a by-product of the antiquities trade and it must be remembered that these vessels were originally created as a cheap imitation of fine metal utensils and, as such, might reasonably be viewed as “pop culture” works rather than the products of an artistic elite. These views make quite a difference in interpreting the depictions of women and their interrelationships with each other. In either case, the imagery is part of a coded cultural vocabulary that mediates and interprets the everyday lives the images purport to represent.

The pottery covered in this article comes from Attica from roughly 600-400 BCE, though recovered from a broad geographic area in the Mediterranean. The shapes of the vessels may be associated with specific functions (such as drinking parties, bathing, or containers for jewelry) that have gendered contexts that affect the choice of imagery. For example, certain types associated with ritual baths, perfume, and wedding rituals would have been used exclusively by women and have women predominant in the imagery. One must beware, however, of conclusions that derive circularly from premises. This applies to visual gender signifiers in the art as well as the contexts of the vessels themselves. It is a reasonable conclusion that the production of the pottery was dominated by men, leaving the question of to what extent women’s concerns and viewpoints were reflected even in pottery intended for women’s exclusive use.

When considering depictions of eroticism and desire, one must consider how women’s erotic interactions or desire for each other would be depicted, if present. Details such as whether two figures look directly at each other have erotic implications for opposite-sex pairs, but does the same interpretation apply between women? Physical interactions between women such as touching the shoulder, an arm around the waist, or sitting in another woman’s lap strongly imply intimacy and affection, less certainly overt erotic interest. Gestures between women may parallel more explicitly erotic scenes involving male couples, as in the giving of symbolic gifts such as flowers.

The bulk of the analysis first looks at vase art that depicts the homosocial aspect of women’s lives and then compares these with images that suggest a more specifically erotic reading. Social evidence for the gender segregation of Greek society in this era is mixed and while depictions of women in the later part of this period are most commonly domestic, it is clear that women were present in the public sphere, particularly in the context of religious rituals. Artistic fashion, however, affects how women are shown, as the earlier objects more frequently depicted scenes of men visiting hetairai (courtesans), and images of Amazons and maenads -- the latter clearly not implying a corresponding change in daily society. In domestic scenes, a focus on women dressing, adorning themselves, and using mirrors need not imply that these activities were a disproportionate focus of the women’s lives, as opposed to reflecting the uses to which the pottery was put (e.g., containers for jewelry and cosmetics). One key feature is that women are often depicted in groups and in relation to each other, countering a position that depictions of women exist solely for the purpose of male gaze. These contexts include dancing, attending on a bride, mourning, textile work, drawing water, or playing music.

There is a great deal of detailed analysis of the specific objects and images, but I’ll restrict the remainder of this summary to brief descriptions of key elements of the scenes.

  • Two different images showing a pair of women listening to a female musician, where one listener is leaning on or embracing the second.
  • Many scenes depict the preparation of the bride in all-female scenes, where gifts are given, or adornments and clothing are adjusted. Touching and affectionate gestures occur in these scenes and there is often a clearly erotic framing to the figures, but undeniably in the context of an impending heterosexual relationship. This need not contradict an implication of prior eroticism between the unmarried women.
  • A mythological scene centered around Aphrodite with female companions, some in affectionate contact.
  • An entire genre of depictions of maenads (with or without the presence of Dionysos) involved in ecstatic dance and close embrace. In mythology, there was a strong suggestion that maenads’ activities included same-sex orgies.
  • A repeating image of two women sharing a single mantle is found in many contexts and sometimes occurs in implied sexual contexts (based on the other figures depicted).
  • Depictions of symposia (drinking parties) typically show men and hetairai, paralleling their descriptions in literature. However some images show all-female symposia, with women (often nude) drinking together in the absence of men. It is unclear whether these are intended to show groups of hetairai or whether “respectable” women held their own women-only symposia. A few examples show the women in physically intimate conjunction. (Note that nudity does not automatically imply a lack of respectability as depictions of ritual bathing before weddings involve nudity as well.)
  • An image in the interior of a cup showing two women in the act of disrobing, one gazing over her shoulder at the other. An erotic context is implied by paired figures on the exterior of the cup (both mixed-sex and same-sex) presenting gifts to each other or holding flowers.
  • The genre of depictions of women interacting with disembodied phalluses are difficult to interpret clearly. The phallus may represent fertility in general, or represent a heterocentric understanding of female eroticism. But scenes of naked women bathing and interacting playfully in a context that includes these disembodied phalluses suggest they may also have been physical props in erotic activities. Two examples are unmistakably homoerotic, involving one woman approaching another wearing a “strap-on”, and a sexual scene in which a double-headed dildo is present.
  • An isolated image of two facing women, holding wreaths, where one touches the other’s breast and the other touches the first’s chin (a conventional gesture of romantic affection). This is an example of an image that, if involving an opposite-sex couple, would be considered unambiguously erotic.
  • An image of two naked women, one kneeling before the other and touching her genitalia (variously interpreted as sexual activity, anointing with perfume, or various personal hygiene activities).
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