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(Greek) This is a word with much-debated nuances. The root is hetaira, one of the ancient Greek words for a prostitute, but typically more in the sense of a courtesan, i.e., a cultured professional woman who provided companionship both intellectual and sexual. The derived form hetairistriai has its earliest surviving appearance in Plato’s Symposium in the mythic story of how humans were originally dual-bodied creatures--some formed of male and female, some of two males, some of two females--and that desire is based on trying to unite with one’s “other half”. Hetairistriai (the plural) were women descended from a female-female pair, and who therefore were inclined to prefer women to men. The word appears in other Greek and Latin texts in the context of women with same-sex desires.

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.

One of the more intriguing classical Greek texts that includes f/f erotics is the mythological narrative included in Plato’s Symposium about divided beings and eros being “seeking one’s other half.” Following Boehriner’s standard approach, she begins by examining the historic and literary context of the work and discussing what the purpose of the passage is within that larger context.

It makes most sense simply to list the bits of evidence that Dover discusses. He is largely providing a catalog, with very detailed citations of sources, but without the in-depth discussion of context and interpretation that we say, for example, in Lardinois 1989 with respect to Sappho.

While the academic “queer studies” movement has analyzed a great many “high culture” works in literature and art, looking for evidence of same-sex impulses, this approach has been less useful for (or perhaps less interested in) an understanding of the ordinary lives of average people who might have had those same impulses. For this purpose, identifying lesbian motifs in works like the Roman de Silence or interpreting nuns’ adoration of vulva-like images of the wounds of Christ as homoerotic is somewhat beside the point.

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