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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #96 Liventhal 1985 “What Goes on among the Women: The Settings of Some Attic Vase Paintings of the Fifth Century B.C.”

Full citation: 

Liventhal, Viveca. 1985. “What Goes on among the Women: The Settings of Some Attic Vase Paintings of the Fifth Century B.C.” in Analecta Romana Institute Danici 14: 37-52.

This article was referenced in Rabinowitz 2002 and it's so rare that my project gets to touch on visual media that I thought it would be fun to include the source article, particularly as this source article goes into a great deal of detail on how one might be able to identify homoerotic content in a not overtly sexual image.

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Here is the key scene from the piece that is being analyzed.

Greek vase painting of dancers

The primary vase that sparked this article was purchased in 1920 by the National Museum of Copenhagen from an antiquities dealer in Athens and was said to have been discovered during building operations within that city. It's a red-figured hydria (water jug) showing Pyrrhic [martial] dancing performed by women. It can't be associated with any specific artist, but is similar in style to a known type-group, based on the physical form and the arrangement of the decoration. This gives it an approximate date of 440-430 B.C.

The imagery depicts an Eros (cupid-like figure) and nine women, two of them being armed dancers. The other women include musicians and spectators, some of whom may be intended purely as background to the focal action. Both dancers wear a breast-band and one wears a sort of loincloth with ornamentation. This clothing ties the figures to depictions of the mythical athlete Atalanta but is, in fact, clothing worn ordinarily by women performing vigorous exercise, especially acrobats. In such contexts, women may wear a loincloth with no breast-band, but the figure with only the breast-band is unusual. The author speculates on possible meanings for this, including erotic display, particularly given that she is standing next to the Eros who is gazing at her.

The depiction of a crown between the two dancers suggests that they are engaged in a competition, in which case we would expect one of the other figures to be serving as judge: from the arrangement, either the flute player or one of the standing watchers. The watcher is depicted with short hair, which was used to signify several disparate types: a slave, a woman in mourning, or much less commonly, a bride. This short-haired woman is also carrying a long bag-like object, which does not correspond to the most expected objects in such a scene (a flute-case or a fillet). The author turns to other depictions of Pyrrhic dancing for clues to its possible identity.

Another hydria from a painter in the same general artistic group shows a similar pair of dancers, one performing on a podium, the other waiting to perform. This scene also has a flute-player but has a more clearly identified judge: a seated woman watching the dance while holding a scroll. The (winner's) crown is depicted over her head. There is a great deal of discussion of how the names of the figures (given beside them) provide clues to their status and roles, with the overall conclusion being that the context is that of dance instruction, most likely at a hetaira's establishment, and that the seated woman may either be evaluating or considering purchase of the dancing woman. In this case, one of the elements that argues against a women-only "gyneceum" scene is the presence of a male figure who appears to be acting as an instructor. Further, the specific type of dance is specialized enough it was not likely to be performed by ordinary women for mutual entertainment, and there are no attributes indicating a religious context.

A third hydria with a similar scene shows a professional establishment with women and girls performing a variety of dances, including a Pyrrhic dance, again with a central female flute-player. The sole male figure is a standing man tucked away at the edge of the scene, and so depicting a visitor rather than the owner or protector of the establishment.

Female Pyrrhic dancers are depicted on two types of pottery: kraters (drinking vessels) which were used at the types of (male-focused) symposia where such a dance would be performed for entertainment, and hydria: vessels for carrying water, a woman's function, though these decorated vessels were presumably not utilitarian but used to symbolize that function as a gift. The author postulates that hydria depicting naked female dancers are unlikely to have been gifts for "respectable" women, but rather were given to hetairai (or ordered by those women for themselves). The author offers an interpretation suggested by the imagery: that they may have been given as prizes for the sort of competition depicted on the vases themselves. There are depictions of hydria (especially more expensive bronze ones) given as prizes both for athletics and for music.

The author discusses the often subtle distinctions between hetairai and "respectable women" in domestic scenes. Returning to the question of the bag-like object in the original scene, held by the short-haired woman--and this is where the article becomes relevant to the current project (and so was taken up by Rabinowitz). The author suggests that this woman may have been a potential female client of the hetairai, occupying the place in the composition typically taken by a male spectator/client. (There are parallels, too, for the bag being a purse offered by this male spectator to the dancer.) One other variant on this arrangement is a dance in honor of Artemis where the goddess herself is in the position of spectator. Combined with the "competition prize" interpretation, this would suggest that the hydria may have been a special commission, depicting the female client/spectator herself, and intended as part of the reward or payment to the dancing hetaira being evaluated. Thus, one very plausible interpretation is that this particular scene represents a female "consumer" of the hetaira's performance and potential company--a role that is assumed to have erotic or sexual implications when filled by a man.

The article concludes with a brief review of information about homoerotic relations between women in the classical period.

Time period: 

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