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LHMP #221 Gorman 2001 Thinking with and about ‘Same-Sex Desire’


Full citation: 

Gorman, Jill. 2001. “Thinking with and about ‘Same-Sex Desire’: Producing and Policing Female Sexuality in the ‘Acts of Xanthippe and Polyxena’” in Journal of the History of Sexuality 10:3/4 pp.416-441

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This article examines the plot and narrative structure of the 4th century Christian Acts of Xanthippe and Polyxena (AXP) within the context of the genre of Greek romance novels of the time. A high-level summary of the structure of a Greek romance is “two souls who are--or wish to be--joined together, who go through adventures, separations, and trials that test their commitment and devotion to each other, and are rewarded by being (re)united and enjoying an ongoing social union.” The Greek romance operated within a pagan context, but the narrative structure was borrowed for Christian folk-literature such as the apocryphal acts of the apostles. In structure, the story of Xanthippe and Polyxena follows most of the romance novel pattern: the two women enjoy a loving and devoted relationship, are parted by force, and Polyxena, at least, experiences abductions, escapes, and other adventures typical of a Greek heroine before finally being reunited with Xanthippe. At which “...seeing Polyxena, [Xanthippe] was overcome by an unspeakable joy and fell to the ground; but Polyxena embracing her and caressing her for a long time brought her back to life.”

In other important respects, AXP diverges from the romance formula, including the fact that shortly after their reunion, Xanthippe dies, entrusting Polyxena to the oversight of the apostle Paul. And even while creating parallels with the romantic couple of the Greek novel, it undermines and condemns their desire for each other. This relates to Brooten’s (1996) exploration of how early Christian writings marginalized and disparaged relations between women.

The article discusses how the treatment of same-sex relations in late antiquity is more often concerned with social power and knowledge than with specific sex acts. So how might the framing of X&P as a romantic couple serve some other discursive purpose? Gorman considers the question in four parts: how the narrative frames Xanthippe and Polyxena as the protagonists of a romance novel; how conflicts about gender shape the understanding of their bond within the text; what a Foucaultian analysis says about the sociopolitical agendas around women’s same-sex bonds; and how this depiction of commitment between women adds to our understanding of female same-sex relations in the late antique world.

AXP can be viewed as consisting of two narrative halves: the first telling the story of Xanthippe and how she separates from her husband after the arrival of the apostle Paul and her conversion. The second half tells the story of the beautiful young Polyxena who is abducted from Xanthippe’s bedroom in the middle of the night and, after many other adventures, abductions, and perils, achieves Christian baptism and returns home, still safely a virgin. The rupture of Xanthippe’s marriage follows the standard plotline for Christian ascetic texts. But the relationship between the two women then takes up the tropes and expectations of a romance. Xanthippe loves Polyxena for her youth and beauty, using the same language as m/f romances. [Note: also the same tropes used in age-differentiated m/m Greek romances.]

Following the standard romance plot, the two women enjoy their time together initially (Xanthippe reads religious writings to the younger woman while alone together in her bedroom) and a prophetic dream establishes that it is Polyxena’s destiny to receive baptism. Delighted about this, Xanthippe goes to tell Paul, leaving Polyxena vulnerable to abduction by a jilted suitor. This starts a long serious of events following the standard romance plot in which the lovers are separated and experience extreme grief, even to the point of desiring death if they cannot be reunited. Even some of the adventure motifs are standard recurring tropes from the romance genre, such as when Polyxena throws herself overboard from a ship to escape her abductor and is rescued by sailors, or the regular threat of politically powerful men who want access to the “heroine” figure (the part played by Polyxena).

Gorman notes another similarity with the romance genre in how the relationship between the protagonists is framed as one of equality and reciprocity, rather than being expressed in social hierarchies. In the more typical heterosexual novel, this often results in a male protagonist who appears relatively passive and a female protagonist who regularly acts on her own behalf.  In AXP, we see the same mutual affection and desire for reunion. Xanthippe follows the “male” role, remaining at home and taking action toward their reunion primarily via fasting and prayer, while Polyxena is proactive, though regularly at the mercy of the male figures contending for control of her fate.

As in the romance plots, the decisive action toward plot resolution is displaced onto a secondary character whose motives do not involve erotic desire--in this case a friend of the apostle Paul who finally delivers her back to the grieving Xanthippe. Another parallel is in the adventuring character forming secondary attachments during the separation who support her in her goals. In romance novels, this is often a temporary alliance with a desiring male character. In the case of Polyxena, it is a bond with the slave Rebecca who is baptized alongside her by the apostle Andrew and with whom she lives until another abduction creates a secondary rupture--one that the secondary partner laments while the primary partner returns to the original quest.

Another structural parallel is in how the separations and adventures are revealed at the end to be due to divine plan (whether that of pagan gods in the romance texts, or of the Christian god in AXP). What originally appeared to be arbitrary suffering turns out to be deliberate actions by a deity to demonstrate a moral lesson. Though in the case of Xanthippe and Polyxena the lesson is stated simply as “Thus we must be troubled, my daughter, that we may know our defender, Jesus Christ.”

The novel structure typically ends after the reunited protagonists enjoy a happy life together followed by one of them passing on dying wisdom by means of a last kiss. AXP rewrites this formula in a way that reinforces the exclusive and committed bond between the two women, though by short-circuiting the “happy life together” step. When Polyxena returns, Xanthippe joyously runs to meet her, is overcome by “unspeakable joy” and swoons, after which Polyxena “embracing her and caressing her for a long time brought her back to life.” The other characters, including Xanthippe’s husband and the apostle Paul literally stand back to allow focus on this reunion. Xanthippe then offers her dying wisdom, telling Polyxena of what she’s done through fasting and prayer to protect her (despite being told by the apostle that these actions were unnecessary). By shifting the dramatic “dying wisdom” scene that is traditionally assigned to husband and wife instead to Xanthippe and Polyxena, the story completes the framing of the story as that of a romantic and desiring bond between the two women.

The analysis now turns to how this narrative framework is used to “police” the female same-sex relations it depicts, including a consideration of who the primary audience was and for what purpose the story was employed.

Throughout the story, men in authority regularly disrupt the interactions between the two women, with the implication that they cannot be allowed to manage their own sexualities (even if that sexuality is the choice of virginity). Polyxena is, functionally, passed from hand to hand by men with authority over her. The struggle is not her ability to determine her own fate, but a struggle between Christian and non-Christian men for control over her. (It is noted that the original jilted suitor who sets the adventure in motion is never actually punished in the story for his action, but is redeemed by receiving baptism.) The final disruption is Xanthippe’s death, leaving Polyxena to rely on the protection of the apostle Paul to continue in her desired virgin state rather than either enjoying a continuing bond with Xanthippe or being allowed control over her own fate (as was the case for other apocryphal female figures such as Thecla).

The attitudes of the primary characters toward the purpose of the events of the story is contrasted. Xanthippe  believes that she needs to perform severe asceticism in order to (magically) protect the abducted Polyxena. Polyxena believes her trials are due to her having offended God and therefore must be endured to achieve redemption. But the male authorities, including the apostle Paul, proclaim that the misfortunes were all divinely willed and determined and had nothing to do with either of the women’s own actions.

While the divine meddling in Greek romance novels was typically resolved with the implication that the reunion of the lovers was divinely willed and that it restored the desired social structure, the message of AXP appears to be that the abduction and threats against an innocent young woman were, themselves, divinely willed. The idea that the women had any power to redeem their lives or protect themselves is treated as contrary to the “official” male authorities interpretation of divine will. At the same time that  ascetic narratives appeared to encourage women to take charge of their own lives by choosing chaste or virgin lives and Christian baptism, they undermine the idea that women can understand the purposes of those choices, or even that their fates are something they are able to choose.

Another potential reading is that, in producing a female romantic couple at the center of AXP, the narrative is actually “policing” something entirely different from that relationship. The Greek novel structure was also regularly appropriated in the apocryphal Acts of the Apostles for narratives pairing up a Christian male apostle and an elite ascetic woman who was previously involved with a non-Christian elite man. This is turned into a pseudo-romantic triangle with the non-Christian man retaliating against the apostle to create the narrative crisis. Within this structure, the original depiction of the restoration of marriage and civic ties being the desired “happy ending”, is replaced with the disruption of marriage and carnal relationships as the desired and approved outcome.

The “romantic triangle” does not involve contention between two equivalent suitors for the woman (one of whom has the benefic of a romantic bond), but rather a contention between the traditional virtues of civic duty (marriage and child bearing) represented by the pagan men and the new ideal of Christian asceticism that rejected traditional civic values.

This doesn’t mean that male and female audiences for these stories might not take different messages away from them. Women might easily envision a Christianity that offered them power over their own destinies and social equality to the apostles, as in the Acts of Paul and Thecla with its bold heroine who crops her hair, puts on men’s clothes, and achieves the right to teach and perform baptisms. Stories such as AXP might be seen in this context as a suppression of such images of female leadership and egalitarian claims. The contrast between Thecla and Polyxena is striking. Thecla eagerly takes on male clothing in order to control her own sexuality, while Polxena does so only at the urging of male protectors. Thecla is shown as receiving Paul’s blessing to go out and preach, while Polyxena willingly commits herself to staying at Pauls’ side for her own protection. Was AXP then part of an indoctrination program to control women’s expectations within the ascetic community, while still encouraging the participation (especially the wealth and prestige) of elite women in those communities?

In looking for evidence of same-sex desire within AXP, the author turns Halperin’s theories about “pre-homosexual” categories applied to men: effeminacy, pederasty, friendship, and passivity. Within this framework, the category of reciprocal love between (male) social equals provides a context for portraying passionate same-sex love that avoids social reproach. The love between Xanthippe and Polyxena could be seen in this same context. But the traditional view of women as envisioned within a subordinate position to a man (father, husband, or religious leader) complicates the matter. In the context of social equality, X&P make a better argument for Boswell’s pantheon of same-sex saintly pairs than his example of Perpetua and Felicitas who inhabited a social hierarchy of mistress and servant.

Several other theoretical approaches to interpreting same-sex relationships in the early Christian world are discussed. Whether or not X&P’s relationship can reasonably be interpreted as erotic, it can easily be seen as a threat to patriarchal structures. If the ideal position for women is in relation to a male authority, then the bond between X&P needed to be disrupted in order for both of them to accept their roles as brides of Christ. There is clear evidence from instructional writings for ascetic communities that authorities were concerned about the potential for female same-sex friendships developing into erotic relationships. Thus stories such as AXP that undermine the idealization of such relationships may have been part of how such concerns were addressed.

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