“…you, like a goddess renowned, in your songs she took most joy. Now she is unique among Lydian women, as the moon once the sun sets” (Sappho Fr. 94 and 96)
- Male Homosexuality
- The Invisibility of Female Sexuality
- Sappho and Lesbianism
- Ovid and Heterosexualization
“Sappho represents, then, all the lost women in literary history, especially all the lesbian artists whose work has been destroyed, sanitized or heterosexualized” (Susan Gubar, Spphistries, 56)
When exploring the ancient Greek ideas surrounding homosexuality one is bound to come across numerous accounts of male same-sex relations. However, very little is known about female same-sex relations or even female sexuality in general. The only well-known source of lesbianism from ancient Greece appears initially to be Sappho.
“For same-sex relations between females, the literary sources are not as many” (Andre Basson, Greek and Roman Sexuality, 127)
Sappho’s writings are extremely limited, even being disputed among scholars as far as sexuality is concerned. Only within the last half-century has there been strong interest in female and queer sexuality historically. It is known lesbianism and queer relations happened during ancient Greece, yet their documentation or their acknowledgment during this time is extremely limited. Ancient Greece was a patriarchal society that neglected women, as a result, women’s lives were not always documented realistically. Consequently, Lesbianism in ancient Greek society was misunderstood and largely unaccounted for. This is evident through the social focus on male sexuality. Second, by the invisibility of female sexuality. Along with the heterosexualizing of lesbian relationships.
2. Male Homosexuality:
Male homosexuality in antiquity was widely excepted in antiquity. There was the value of man’s overall dominance and a celebration of their sexuality. In Greek society the act of sex as they understood it required penetration. This resulted in the inability to comprehend female sexuality, especially lesbianism.
Homosexuality was a distinct relationship which usually included an older man and younger boy. The older men took in young men or boys to be mentored in intellectual pursuits, but also for them to be their submissive sexually. There was a value of man’s overall dominance and celebration of their sexuality.
3. The Invisibility of Female Sexuality:
Female sexuality throughout ancient Greece was largely invisible. Where men experienced sexual liberties, women’s sexuality was concealed. Their sexuality was restricted to benefiting the polis and bearing children.
“marrying for love was not absent from society completely, however, it was presented as a duty of women, in which they were to bear children” (T. K. Hubbard, Popular Perceptions of Elite Homosexuality in Classical Athens, 48)
“personal desire was expected to take a back seat when it came to the interests of the polis” (Andre F. Basson, GREEK AND ROMAN SEXUALITY: A NEW LOOK AT THE ANCIENT SOURCES, 127)
Marriage was seen as the only place where women could express their sexuality. Even then it was suppressed, demanded and abused for male gain and control.
“Thus, while fidelity in marriage was demanded of the female, it was only expected of the male” ((Andre F. Basson, GREEK AND ROMAN SEXUALITY: A NEW LOOK AT THE ANCIENT SOURCES, 127)
This not only proves a male-centered liberty around sex but also suppresses and denies women’s sexual desires, exploration, and freedoms altogether. Andre Basson continues to describe the union of marriage as one where it was demanded of women to faithful and men only were expected to do so (126). Men experienced more sexual liberties than women throughout antiquity, specifically ancient Greece. While women’s sexuality was invisible and suppressed to male binaries and submission.
“Thus, while fidelity in marriage was demanded of the female, it was only expected of the male” (Andre F. Basson, GREEK AND ROMAN SEXUALITY: A NEW LOOK AT THE ANCIENT SOURCES, 126)
Lesbian women’s sexuality was largely misunderstood whereas male homosexuality was publicly celebrated. Women’s sexuality was limited, especially that which was incomprehensible in a male-centered society such as ancient Greece. There is very little documentation of lesbian and queer women from antiquity. Even the sources that we have, such as Sappho, are disputable.
4. Sappho and Lesbianism:
“The truth is, I wish I were dead. She left me, whispering often, and she said this,
‘Oh what a cruel fate is ours, Sappho, yes, I leave you against my will.’
And I answered her: ‘Farewell, go and remember me, for you know how we
cared for you.” (Sappho Fr. 94 and 96)
Sappho is the most known and used source when referring to female sexuality especially that of lesbianism. As a testament to how invisible female sexuality is, Sappho’s work was and continues to be debated and questioned based on her sexuality.
There is some clarification needed when referring to Sappho’s work. Sappho writes regarding the island Lesbos and the lesbians that inhabited. However, Lesbian at this time did not refer to homosexual women, instead, it meant someone who was from the island of Lesbos.
Maria Theresa writes in “Early Greek Poets Lives: The shaping of The Tradition”, “being a lesbian woman did not imply a female homosexual, but rather a lustful woman who freely indulged in sexual behavior; the term comes from the Greek verb “lesbiazein,” meaning “to fellate” or “play the whore”. Yet, even with this clarification we still see the limiting of female sexuality within this misconception. Lesbianism (by today’s definition) is constantly denied legitimacy because it was believed unnatural in ancient Greek society.
5. Ovid and Heterosexualization:
Ovid is a well known Latin author of Roman and Greek mythology, writing from the first century BCE.
“Mares do not burn with love for mares or heifers for heifers: the ram inflames the ewe: its hind follows the stag. So, birds mate, and among all animals, not one female is attacked by lust for a female” (Ovid, Metamophoses)
Ovid describes an idea common in ancient Greek along with ancient Rome, that female homosexuality is simply not possible. By his understanding which was common in antiquity, women being sexually attracted to women was fundamentally impossible. Societies were male-centered resulting in an obsession with male sexuality and perspective of sex. Relations were phallocentric and requiring then, a male or masculine actor. This lead to women’s sexuality only able to be understood with men. Creating the idea that women could not have sex with women. When a relationship between two women arouse it was dismissed or as displayed in Ovid’s writing of Iphis, perceived or changed to fit the hetero norm. Women’s relationships were then heterosexualized to fit the norm by masculinization and dismissing.
Ovid provides an example of this in his writings of Iphis and Ianthe. Ovid describes the life of Iphis, who was born female but to save her life, her mother pretended she was a boy. She grew up and fell in love with a girl who in turn fell in love with Iphis not knowing she was female. Iphis longed to marry Ianthe and comes to request being turned into a man. Her wish is granted, and they marry. However, it is clear in the story that Iphis envisions a wedding with two brides. Yet, because of the binaries understood at this time, this was not a plausible outcome for Iphis to even be able to imagine. She too held the ideas of her society, in that lesbian relationships cannot exist and that they, in turn, cannot satisfy. this resulted in Iphis’ transition being written to fit the heteronormative idea of marriage. One that can be understood in a male phallic centric ideal of sex and relationships. Lesbian and queer relationships were heterosexualized to fit the binary held in ancient Greece. Female same-sex relations were not within the Greek understanding of sex. Therefore women’s experiences were adapted to fit the narrative.
Throughout ancient Greece, homosexuality was widely accepted. However, there were limitations to its acceptance. It was restricted to men, specifically older elite men with a younger subordinate. When examining female homosexuality much like all female sexuality one’s findings become quite narrow. Lesbianism in ancient Greek society was misunderstood and largely unaccounted for. This is evident through a social focus on male sexuality. Second, by the invisibility of female sexuality. Finally, this can be seen through the heterosexualizing of lesbian relationships.
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