Skip to content Skip to navigation

Exit, Transformed to a Bear

Wednesday, October 20, 2021 - 08:54

The most delicious thing about Boehringer's approach to this material -- and what I hoped I would get -- is a very detailed presentation not only of the cultural and historic context of the small scraps of hard data, but an analytical comparison of all the variant material related to each motif, with a discussion of how the variations speak to the central themes and how they can guide understanding of the accreted layers of interpretation and elaboration. The dive into the Calliso myth that forms the majority of what today's blog covers is a great example. But I also love the wealth of meaning that can be read into a single object with respect to the painted plate. I think I need to either make or commission a replica of the Thera plate. It will go nicely with my collection of reproduction historic pottery.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Boehringer, Sandra (trans. Anna Preger). 2021. Female Homosexuality in Ancient Greece and Rome. Routledge, New York. ISBN 978-0-367-74476-2

Chapter 1b: Myth and Archaic Lyric Poetry – Other Media

We now turn to the non-poetic sources from the Archaic era. We start with a painted plate from circa 620 BCE from the island of Thera. It shows two female figures facing each other, each holding a garland. One is touching the other’s chin, otherwise the figures are symmetric and show an equal interaction in their postures and gazes. This contrasts with the use of the same tropes for m/f or m/m couples where there is an asymmetry (in m/m couples, the person doing the chin-touching is always an older man and the one being touched is younger). But the general framework - two figures facing each other, the gifts to exchange, and the chin touch – is a universal vocabulary of an erotic advance. It is difficult to interpret the meaning of the egalitarian presentation of the women as the scene is unique. It might indicate that f/f courtship was more equal, or it might be specific to this one picture. But note that m/f and m/m scenes, which are far more common, never show an egalitarian couple.

Gaps in couple symbolism

In a brief digression, Boehringer reviews categories of depictions of erotic encounters in poetry and art. Epic poetry typically depicts male-female couples while melic poetry includes both opposite-sex and same-sex couples. But within this, some configurations are absent. Adult men love young men and young women. Adult women can love young women. But an adult man does not love another adult man, and an adult woman does not love a younger man. (Though a goddess may love a young man.)

Is there any significance to the general absence of artistic depictions of erotic scenes between women? One conclusion it suggests, given social gender dynamics, is that f/f erotic scenes were not of interest to a male audience in archaic Greece. But it’s also the case that the treatment of female homoeroticism in the Archaic period is unique relative to later eras in being celebrated similarly to other pairings and not being subject to criticism.

Callisto and Artemis

M/m relations are common in Greek mythology but f/f relations are rare – some assert absent entirely. In the remainder of this chapter, Boehringer takes a deep dive into the myth of Callisto, and teases out the themes and motifs that show it to be that rare exception.

The analysis is too detailed to summarize easily, but the overall conclusions are that the myth reflects an assumed and accepted erotic relationship between the goddess Artemis and the mortal (or nymph) Callisto which is disrupted by Callisto’s rape and pregnancy, in most versions by Zeus either disguised as, or transformed into, Artemis. This disruption results in Callisto being excluded from Artemis’s all-female community, her transformation into a bear, and her death or transformation into a constellation (or both). The myth is, in part, an origin story for Callisto’s son Arkas (who is associated with the founding of Arcadia), and is in part a symbolic narrative of the passage of a maiden in the company of other maidens, into the normative experiences of society (sex with men, pregnancy, motherhood).

There is one known classical era artwork depicting the Callisto myth: a silver vessel dating to the 3rd century CE in Spain with scenes of four of Jupiter’s transformations for the purposes of seduction/rape.

Several other aspects of the myth are touched on separately. Although there are several Greek myths with the motif of sex/gender transformation, the Callisto myth is the only one where the transformation is for the purpose of sexual access. The transformation would make no sense unless Callisto were only receptive to a female lover.

Another key motif in most of the versions of the myth is a bathing scene, during which Callisto’s pregnancy (and therefore her rape) is revealed. There is a discussion of a bathing motif being involved--in several different contexts--with the perception of essential female nature. E.g., men encountering either Artemis or Athena bathing and being punished for it. A shared trait is that the two goddesses both have external attributes of masculinity in dress or habits, and therefore these encounters reveal the contrast in sex and gender.

There is a passing note of another story similar to Callisto’s. A girl, Polyphante, rejected the sexual relations associated with Aphrodite (i.e. male-female) in favor of being Artemis’s companion. In revenge Aphrodite made her lust for a bear, which outraged Artemis who sent wild beasts to attack her. There is still an underlying theme of erotic love between women here.

Time period: