Boehringer, Sandra (trans. Anna Preger). 2021. Female Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome. Routledge, New York. ISBN 978-0-367-74476-2
Chapter 1a Archaic Poetry
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I forgot to include this last bit of the introductory material. The author discusses the scope of the work and the nature of the evidence. The late cut off is to exclude Christian texts. But the types of data vary across the scope and this corresponds to different attitudes towards f/f sex. So the analysis can’t entirely be a comparison across eras or a clear picture of development over time.
Chapter 1: Myth and Archaic Lyric Poetry
While Boehringer emphasizes that male and female relations and experiences cannot be taken as parallel, a study of the Archaic era must inevitably examine male/male institutions and practices. Studies of Archaic Greek same-sex practices are often filtered through a lens of morality that leads scholars to emphasize or obscure certain aspects. But even the classical sources that commented on Archaic practices can’t be taken at face value, especially in the case of Athenian authors writing about Sparta.
We get a basic overview of the social institution of pederasty and the different attitudes and experiences of it, particularly with respect to theories that it was the remnants of an older “rite of passage” rather than a primarily erotic practice.
[Note: In using the term “pederasty” here, both Boehringer and I am referring to an ancient Greek cultural practice that has a very different connotation than the modern use of the term, which carries an inherent implication of sexual abuse and moral condemnation. Let us not lose track of the fact that a lot of historic cultural attitudes toward sex would be considered abusive and morally problematic today. So in asking that readers accept this particular term as neutral in its historic context, there is no intent to transfer that acceptance to unrelated modern meanings.]
The evidence for female parallels to pederasty is scanty and not contemporary. The evidence for female coming-of-age rituals is more plentiful, which is another line of thinking regarding the context of Archaic poetry.
The most explicit reference to a system of female pederasty is Plutarch’s 2nd century CE commentary on Spartan practices of seven centuries earlier. Plutarch was summarizing and interpreting sources now lost to us, but may also have filtered them through his own understanding and purposes. But what he describes is a system in which virtuous (the wording makes it clear these are established community members) adult women love (using a form of “eros”) maidens (parthenai) and worked to make their beloved (eromenon) a good person. There was no rivalry if two women loved the same maiden, but rather it was a basis of friendship between them.
This passage establishes both that this practice was parallel to that of men, and that the lover-beloved relationship was asymmetric and to some extent pedagogical. But one can question whether Plutarch was describing practices accurately or simply assuming them. One can also question whether his interpretation of a desexualized mentor relationship was descriptive or an imposition of his own values.
The other passage often interpreted as referring to a more sexual female pederasty is similarly of late date (first century CE) when Athenaeus says that among the Spartans it was customary to have intercourse with young girls “as with young boys”, but the parallelism is highly ambiguous. Who is having the intercourse? Adult women (paralleling both roles in m/m pederasty)? Or the same adult men who are having intercourse with boys? (Keeping in mind that m/m relations typically involved interfemoral intercourse, not penetration.)
The analysis moves on to the many historic interpretations of Sappho and how we have far more material speculating on her life then we have from her. She has been variously interpreted as a teacher, leader of a maiden chorus, leader of a “thiasos” (a religious society), or a poet who performed at symposia (drinking parties). Each theory presents different interpretations of her audience and the cultural context of her work. For example, interpreting fragment 31 (“He seems like a god”) as an epithalamium – a praise song for a bride - has different implications then viewing it as a personal expression. These questions are even more complicated when applied to the work of the male poet Alcman.
Given the fragmentary and difficult nature of Sappho’s and Alcman’s poetry, Boehringer begins by looking at the larger context of love and desire expressed in Archaic poetry. In general, the “eros” of this general genre of poetry expresses “sweetness” drawing comparisons with the experience of sleep, liquidity, and music or song. Eros is the experience of an external force, with the lover at its mercy. Eros instills desire, which is expressed as aspiring to beauty and valor. It transforms the lover against their will. Eros acts through the gaze, not by physical contact. Erotic poetry typically expresses the state of activated desire and seeking; the focus is on pursuit, but not on resolution or fulfillment. The beloved is typically elusive. The relationship is inherently and eternally asymmetric as a pursuer and a pursued.
Alcman was a spartan of the seventh century BCE whose poetry is interpreted as referencing certain Spartan festivals. His work is fragmentary but two long pieces belong to a genre called “partheneia”, songs meant to be sung by a chorus of young women. Written by a male poet, they are written in the first-person plural, meant to be understood as the voice of the female performers.
Within these poems there are two long sections that may express amorous sentiment between women. In both cases the poems praise specific named women, speak of the feelings they inspire in the singers, and express the singers’ desire to have the women notice their desire and respond to it. In one, two women are named as the subject of these feelings and, if the song is an epithalamium, one scholar has proposed it may celebrate the union of the two women. By many, the songs are interpreted as depicting an institutionalized hierarchical homosexual “stage of passage”, in which the performers are in the role of lover. Others see the performers as young women expressing the public voice of the community. Yet others see the sentiments as expressing, erotic desire but in a formalized public context rather than as a personalized declaration of love. That is, they are formal eulogy but expressed in the form of individual desire. Other interpretations, different in detail, are reviewed.
If one focuses on the “fiction” inherent in the words of the poetic texts, four things are clear. The poetic persona expresses an amorous or erotic feeling. That feeling is experienced by women. The object of the feeling is a woman. And the feeling is claimed to be the experience of the speakers. The specific imagery of the praise is relevant. The speakers describe their own beauty and virtues but protest that they feel unworthy of interest from the woman they praise. They catalog women they have desired in the past, but claim the current desire surpasses those experiences. The beloved’s gaze provokes overwhelming desire that is not answered. The self-descriptions make it clear that the “persona” of the song is female.
Another one-word fragment from Alcman further supports the image of a concept of female pederasty in Sparta: “aïtas”, the feminine plural of a masculine noun which has the same meaning and reference as “eromenos”, the younger beloved in a male pederastic relationship. There is no context for interpreting the specific meaning of the feminine word, but an erotic context can be assumed though not the social structures and rituals it might reference.
In summary, Alcman’s partheneia songs are clear expressions of homoerotic desire or attraction because they use the established vocabulary and tropes of erotic love within a context establishing both lover and beloved as female. The language is conventional, but all erotic poetry of the era is conventional. The poems cannot be taken as an expression of individual, personal desire, despite the first-person language, but the very public and formal context of its performance indicates that homoerotic desire between women must have been a normal, excepted aspect of society. The feelings the women express are an integral part of the image of social harmony and stability that is the underlying theme of the genre.
Sappho was a near contemporary of Alcman, though a direct correspondence of cultural practices between Sparta and Lesbos cannot be assumed. Little is known directly about her personal life except that she probably belonged to one of the island’s aristocratic families, that her family seems to have been involved in political conflicts, and that as a result they went into exile in Sicily. All other interpretations of her personal life are read into her poetry.
She wrote a large body of poetry, of which only fragments and one complete poem survive. Even the genre classification of her work is based on later interpretations. Many of the poems are expressed in the first person, but as we see with Alcman, although this may be intended to attribute the sentiments to the performer, it cannot be assumed they are the sentiments of the author, even when identified as such, as in the ode to Aphrodite. The Sappho-persona in such poems exists within the erotic trope of always desiring without response, or recalling a distant or past love, never a moment of present requiting. Aphrodite may promise a future reversal, but in the moment of the poem, the Sappho-persona is endlessly suffering the pangs of unrequited eros. Yet the retrospective poems offer memories of sweetness and the pleasures of love. Eros is both sweet and violently disruptive. It enters through the gaze and is provoked again by visual memories. The Sappho-persona dismisses her own virtues and attractiveness and despairs of having her desire returned.
The experience of physical desire is highlighted, but there are a few direct, unambiguous sexual images – a feature sometimes fastened upon to dismiss the erotic nature of the work. (Though some scholars have pointed to words and phrases that may be poetic metaphors for sexual experiences.) But references to sex only through euphemism is a general feature of erotic poetry of the time, so this cannot be used to uniquely deny sexual implications to Sappho’s writing.
As with Alcman, the contents of Sappho’s poetry would have been understood within her own social context as unambiguously referring to erotic and sexual love between women. And as with Alcman, there is a complete absence of concern about moral or social judgment, or that the feelings are in any way outside social norms. The sadness and despair that is sometimes expressed is an inherent trope of the genre of erotic poetry, and appears regardless of the genders of the participants. Nor is there anything in Sappho’s work that suggest eros between women was considered qualitatively different from eros in other contexts.
Anacreon lived in the 6th century BCE and was born in Ionia, but lived in a variety of Greek communities. Like Sappho, he was prolific but his poems survive only in fragments and his “biography” has been read into the subjects of the poems, often involving love and symposia. His work mostly uses a first person “persona” and often uses the fiction of spontaneous commentary on the context of performance. His expressions of erotic longing are often humorously self-deprecating and include sexual innuendo, but never direct sexual terminology.
This self-deprecation features in a poem in which the Anacreon-persona laments that Eros attracted his attention to a “girl from Lesbos” but she spurned him for having white hair (i.e., being old) and the girl directs her attention to “another”. The word for “another” is grammatically feminine, so there is potential ambiguity between “another (girl)” or “another (hair)” - hair being grammatically feminine. The girl’s attention is described as “gaping (at)” and some have seen a double-entendre for the reputation of women of Lesbos for practicing oral sex. Yet others see the reference to Lesbos as reinforcing an interpretation of “another” as indicating a woman. But would mention of Lesbos have created either of these implications at the time?
There is a brief digression regarding the verb “lesbiazein”. Boehringer points out that it has no semantic connection to female homosexuality except via common reference to the island of Lesbos. The verb literally means “to do as the inhabitants of Lesbos do” and is one of a set of geography-inspired sexual verbs that typically refer to a negatively-evaluated practice attributed to the people of the region by their neighbors. The context of use of “lesbiazein” indicates that the action was considered shameful, and that it was not exclusive to women. Furthermore, there are contexts that define and distinguish “to phoenicianize” (perform cunnilingus) and “to lesbianize” (perform fellatio). This last strongly suggests that “lesbiazein” would not be used for sex between two women. The verb seems to have been popularized in fifth century Athenian comedy when there was conflict with Lesbos.
While Lucian’s Dialogues of the Courtesans makes an unambiguous connection between Lesbos and sex between women, that comes from a much later date.
During Anacreon’s era, Sappho’s name was not used to reference sex between women. This lack of a contemporary linkage between Lesbos and sex between women has been used to argue that Anacreon’s poem could not be indicating that the girl spurned the poet-persona for another girl. But the lack of a semantic connection does not exclude the interpretation that the girl being from Lesbos and her preference for a girl could be independent elements in the poem. The poem is deliberately a humorous “twist” but the ambiguity of that twist could easily be a design feature rather than a problem to be solved. Anacreon includes a number of references and echoes of Sappho’s work in his poems, often playfully reworking or exaggerating her imagery. Not only is the girl in the poem from Lesbos, but she is “fancy-sandaled” using a word form from Sappho’s dialect, not his own. All together, this suggests that the reading in which the girl desires another girl is an allusion to the content of Sapho’s poetry, not to an association of Lesbos in general with female homosexuality. There is no condemnation of her preference inherent in the poem, only the poet-personas self-deprecating regret but she didn’t choose him.