Sexuality in Antiquity

Introduction

The purpose for creating this website was to examine how we look at sexuality in antiquity, particularly homosexuality; even more specifically, lesbianism. The way in which Western scholars (Freud, Foucault) understands homosexuality -or sexuality at all- is a modern construction that would have not existed conceptually the same way in 7th c BCE, Lesbos, or at any other time or location. Therefore, when thinking about sexuality in the past or queering figures (applying a construction of sexuality onto a subject of the past) it is important to understand the perspective or ‘lens’ that is being used.

Sappho

Sappho is a subject that is often queered, or discussed about as if her woman to woman relationships are the same or could be the same as the romantic relationships between women in the 21st Century. Very minimal information is actually known about Sappho, except for her geographical location in time, potentially her daughter’s name and thus mothers name based on one of her poems, and that she had a brother. Sexuality can become a complex topic and is a very individual experience. How could a subject with so little known about her be said to have a sexuality that there is more to than my or your understanding of?

“The greatest problem for Sappho studies is that there’s so little Sappho to study. It would be hard to think of another poet whose status is so disproportionate to the size of her surviving body of work.”

Sexuality in the West

In the North American systematic construction of sexuality, desire is essential. That is, desire is the driving and sole factor of sexuality. Homosexuality then, is essentially a ‘deviant’ from heterosexuality. It is meant to have the same ideologies of romantic love or romantic intimacy as a heterosexual relationship but between the same sexes. Furthermore, lesbianism is a deviant of male homosexuality. Homosexuality was seen as ‘inverted’ – a male ego inside of a woman’s body or a woman’s ego inside a male’s. Therefore, the lesbian identity comes with connotations of man-hating, defiance, aggression (as opposed to the heterosexual female’s passiveness) and promiscuity (as opposed to the heterosexual female’s chastity.) This is a rather medical and limited construction of lesbianism, and definitely does not line up with real experiences of real lesbians. Of course, each individual has their own experience of sexuality and putting on strict boundaries for such an experience ends in having several contradictions.

Sexuality and the constructions of homosexuality can change depending on where one is in the time, political system and location. Also depending on the class, status, race and age of a person, the ways in which sexuality and gender is expected to be expressed/performed can also change.

That being said . . .

Because these constructions are not static, it must be known that applying this medical understanding of lesbianism onto the relations –which were not explicitly sexual – that Sappho had with other women is objectively incorrect, as her relations do not necessarily have the sexual desire for a woman that lesbianism suggests.

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Simeon Solomon, Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene, 1864

Another Understanding of Lesbianism

If we look at lesbianism as a continuum, or rather a happening of relations between women identified peoples that are intimate but not necessarily romantic or platonic, this could be accurately applied to Sappho or her work based on what is currently known about either.

Though not explicitly desire-motivated, Sappho did appreciate women and the relationships she held with them, as well as the female space of which she existed in. I believe that for this reason, feminists identify with Sappho and her ‘progressive’ views on women relationships (defying the concept that women are constantly in reproductive competition). But do we know if she was the only woman in this space and time that saw these relationships as intimate? Or was this just the way in which women had relationships?

But look at her poems!

Often, Sappho becomes the point of reference when discussing sexuality in antiquity, and has become famous because she confused everyone that wanted to understand her sexual orientation. She becomes a figure that is not appreciated for her work, but for her ‘mysteriousness’.

Her decidedly genius works proposed content including nature, old age, love, and relationships. This gives insight to how Sappho as an individual, therefore potentially how other women around her lived and saw their surroundings (though not necessarily). For this reason, continuing to search for, interpret and translate her fragments is important, but not with the motivating factor to pin down her sexuality.

Bibliography:

Ober, Josiah. (2003) Conditions for Athenian Democracy.  The Making and Unmaking of Democracy, Lessons from History and World Politics.

Paur, Jaspir K. I would rather be a cyborg than a Goddess: Becoming Intersectional in Assemblage Theory. Project Muse.

Kantsa, Venetia. (2002) Certain Places Have Different Energy: Spatial Transformation in Ereos, Lesvos. A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies.

De Lauretis, Teresa (1991). Queer Theory: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities An Introduction. A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies.

Black, Joel. (1998) Taking the Sex out of Sexuality: Foucault’s Failed Hirtory. Larmour, David H.J. Miller, Paul Allen. Platters, Charles. Rethinking Sexuality: Foucault and Classical Antiquity. (42-60) New Jersey. Princeton University Press.

Rich, Adrienne. (1996) Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence. Feminism and Sexuality.

Viziel, Alain. Incipit Philosophia. Larmour, David H.J. Miller, Paul Allen. Platters, Charles. Rethinking Sexuality: Foucault and Classical Antiquity. (61-84) New Jersey. Princeton University Press.

 

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3 thoughts on “Sexuality in Antiquity

  1. I love how you made it so easy for the reader to understand the connection between sexuality and the era. The structure of the website made it so simple to see the relation between the different crucial women in Antiquity. My favorite part is how you make the argument first of how Sappho was not a lesbian, but then go on to actually define what they thought of lesbianism in Antiquity and when her poems were being found, and maybe explore the fact that she was. I thought it was so clever so say that “She becomes a figure that is not appreciated for her work, but for her ‘mysteriousness’.” Sappho has always intrigued me for several reasons, and I really appreciated how you went into detail about her poems and her, as a crucial woman in antiquity. Maybe what I would have wished to see more of her poems and relate it with the example that you had. Overall, nicely done!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. It is certainly an interesting topic. Obviously the ancient Greeks had a very different understanding of sexuality than we do today. So, to describe Sappho as simply a lesbian (with all the modern connotations) is problematic. But whether or not she was a lesbian, her poetry does point pretty clearly to a desiring and romantic aspect to her relationships with other women. See, for example, http://www.sappho.com/poetry/sappho.html#not one word where she tells the girl leaving her not to forget her or the gifts they gave to Aphrodite together (Aphrodite being not so much the goddess of love, but of erotic love). It is true that Sappho is of interest for more than just her sexuality. But her sexuality is also interesting because, if her poetry does refer to romantic relationships with other women, this would tell us something about how such relationships were understood by the involved parties and individuals living in that society in general (assuming she was writing for an audience meant to sympathize with her grief over companions lost). And it is not true that applying a medical understanding of sexuality as desire on past figures is ‘objectively incorrect.’ That is precisely the understanding of sexuality we can apply to past figures, as it is biological rather than social (we can point to specific physiological difference relating to sexual preference, and human biology hasn’t changed that much in the last three thousand years). It is only if we reduce their relationships to such a desire or assume that they saw themselves as fitting into neat categories of homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual (i.e., as defined by these desires) that we can be said to be objectively mistaken.

    Liked by 1 person

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