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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #79 Wilfong 2002 "Friendship and Physical Desire: The Discourse of Female Homoeroticism in Fifth-Century CE Egypt”

Full citation: 

Wilfong, Terry G. "Friendship and Physical Desire: The Discourse of Female Homoeroticism in Fifth-Century CE Egypt” in Rabinowitz, Nancy Sorkin & Lisa Auanger eds. 2002. Among Women: From the Homosocial to the Homoerotic in the Ancient World. University of Texas Press, Austin. ISBN 0-29-77113-4

Publication summary: 

A collection of papers covering classical Greece

Wilfong, Terry G. “’Friendship and Physical Desire’: The DIscourse of Female Homoeroticism in Fifth-Century CE Egypt”

This concludes the collection of papers in Among Women with a look at the rather overwrought concerns about opportunities for same-sex eroticism within Egyptian monastic communities. (Not that the perception of homoeroticism was mistaken! Simply that it appears to have been given undue attention, when you consider the regulations intended to prevent even the perception of the opportunity for it.)

Next week the LHMP will be starting on Elisabeth Krimmer's In the Company of Men: Cross-Dressed Women Around 1800. I'm finalizing details for a surprise guest-blogger on this work.

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In the 5th century CE, Taese and Tsansno**, two women living in a monastery in Southern Egypt were chastised for "running after" other women in "friendship and physical desire". This instance--with its unusual specificity of details--is part of a general discourse on women's homoerotic activities in Late Antique Egypt that is shaped by the (mostly) male monastic writers whose records survive. While this material dates from a fairly late (and geographically peripheral) part of the Roman Empire, enough continuity can be identified to use it as a window on broader Roman thought.

Egypt, at this period, was largely Christian, although with a myriad of sects and divisions. Literacy was in both Greek and Coptic (Egyptian) with documents in the latter (as are most of those considered in this article) presumably intended for a purely local audience. As the evidence under consideration comes largely from monastic contexts, it is necessarily filtered through the patriarchal and ascetic attitudes of the culture. Two specific sites provide the majority of the data, due in part to the large literary output of these institutions and to their specific involvement with women's monasticism. [See the genre of "transvestite saints" for issues of women in monastic communities in a broader scope during the early Christian era.] The group of Pachomian communities and the monastery founded by Shenute were established as women's communities in the 4th century, although there were female monastics earlier. Women may have constituted as much as 40% of Shenute's community and were a proportionate topic of his writings. Correspondence and writings about women monastics at this period and have an emphasis on the regulation and control of women's behavior and on the perception that the female communities were sources of trouble. The sexes were physically segregated in these communities but were under the same rule and the same (male) authority.

A letter to the Shenute women's community, addressing the handling of infractions, provides background for the types of concerns that were raised: deficiencies of fasting, prayer and meditation, "talking back" to elders, but also more concrete offenses such as theft, assault, lying, wearing luxurious clothing. In the midst of this, Taese is punished for "run[ning] after Tsansno in friendship and physical desire" while Tsansno is punished "because sometimes she ran after her neighbor in friendship and sometimes she lied about empty things that will perish, so that she forfeit her own soul" as well as vague accusations of pride and of setting herself up to teach others. The punishments all involve beatings on the soles of the feet with a stick. Taese 's punishment is 15 blows, on the low end of the scale (though others with similar punishment don't have their infractions specified) while Tsansno received 40 blows, more than any other in the list including those accused of theft, perhaps because her offenses included challenge to authority.

The vocabulary used for "physical desire" here unmistakably indicates eroticism in this context. While "friendship" is less obviously erotic, the vocabulary used occurs regularly in monastic writings for both men and women in contexts that indicate this is a "special friendship" with homoerotic connotations, of the type considered suspect within monastic communities. (Though the same word was positive in secular contexts.) It indicated the sort of relationship that, in the words of one polemic, leads one to "anxiously glance this way and that, [and] watch until you have found the opportune moment, then you give him what is (hidden) under the hem of your garment..." This text describes monastic men given to these "friendships" as if an identifiable subculture within the monastery, with characteristic habits of dress, adornment, and behavior.

The phrasing "run after [someone] with physical desire" occurs in a number of texts, indicating that it was a regular expression with understood meaning. Yet another passage in Shenute's writings condemns "a woman among us who will run after younger women, and anoint them and is filled with a passion or is [...missing...] them in a passion of desire and slothfulness and laughter and vain error..." And then goes on to condemn those who touch a fellow monastic "while they are asleep or while they are awake...that they might ascertain that they have reached adulthood" or those who "sleep two on a mat". Pachomius also saw peril in the opportunities for physical contact while sleeping or during mutual bodily care. "No one shall speak with his neighbors in the dark. You shall not sit, two together, on a mat or carpet. A man shall not grasp the hand of his friend or any other part of him, but instead, whether sitting or standing or walking, you shall leave an arm's length between you and him." Men were forbidden from removing a thorn from another's foot, or shaving each other, unless specifically ordered by a superior.

**The women's names include diacritic marks that I was unable to reproduce reliably here.

Time period: 

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