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Heroides: Sappho (Ovid)

LHMP entry

This paper looks at the evolution of how the word “lesbian”, originally simply a geographic/ethnic identifier meaning “person from the island of Lesbos” came to pick up a separate meaning of “female homosexual.”

Gilhuly begins with a (very brief) discussion of the abstract uses of locational and geographic language, how geographic signifiers very often acquire secondary meanings rooted in some association with the place (e.g., “Spartan accommodations”), and how classical Greek writers were highly prone to developing these sorts of metonymic geographic shorthands.

Ovid’s major contribution to classical mythology was to bring individual stories together into a single literary work with a unified theme. As stated in the opening lines, that theme for him was “bodies changed into new forms”. When addressing the sub-theme of love, the stories included the pursuit of a desired object, impossible or forbidden loves, and the disappearance of the beloved. The individual episodes are tied together by groups of related motifs and by cross-commentary within the stories themselves.

For Rome as for Greece, the category of biological sex was secondary to status based on class (free versus unfree) and nationality (resident versus foreign). Sex had legal and social relevance primarily for the free-born citizen class. Sexual practices were judged and categorized based on social status and the nature (and roles) of the sexual act. This system did not generate any categories corresponding to “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality”.

This article examines 17th century French author Madeleine de Scudéry’s reworking of the legend of the Greek poet in Histoire de Sapho, and how it centers female friendship. The work depicts a woman-centered society in which women’s friendships are the organizing idel even for relations between men and women. Friendship is discussed as intimacy, inseparability, devotion, and passion within the context of the précieuse cultural movement.

[Note: in this summary, I’m going to be interspersing my own commentary without necessarily calling it out with square brackets, although I may use brackets to set off some comments. The next LHMP entry includes a scholarly response to this article that appeared in the same volume of the journal and shows that some of my questions were also raised at the time.]

Introduction by Marilyn B. Skinner

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