emotional /romantic bonds between women
This chapter begins with a discussion of what is known about Sappho, her poetry, and her reputation among her contemporaries in ancient Greece. The tragically fragmentary nature of the written legacy of her work is traced, including the nine volume collection lost in the 9th century and the recovery of fragments of her work from papyrus sources in the late 19th and 20th centuries.
In the second half of the 18th century, women established themselves as writers of novels in dramatic numbers, thus the genre is imbued with a diverse array of women’s concerns. The novels discussed in this book tell stories often at odds with the official cultural narrative. Within that diversity, they contribute to a common tale of women’s options and how they negotiate them.
This article is a conference proceeding rather than written for publication, therefore it has a somewhat more informal flavor than usual. It takes a methodological approach to questions of how to interpret images of two women in classical Greek art that would be interpreted as involving courtship motifs if the figures were two men or a man and a woman.
The focus of this article, in Andreadis’s words is “a class of women and behaviors described by their contemporaries in ways that coincide with our modern ‘lesbian’.” There is still much uncertainty within that description as to how these women and their society understood these concepts, and Andreadis’s thesis is that as such behaviors begin to be framed in public discourse as transgressive, women who engaged in the same behaviors but wished to be viewed as “respectable” developed a coded language to express sexual feelings in the language of female friendship – a shift that Andreadis labe
Ovid also composed one of the longest texts dealing with love between women from the Roman period—the story of Iphis, also from the Metamorphoses. In brief, a poor man of Crete tells his wife they can’t afford to raise their expected child if it’s a girl. So a girl child would be killed. The child being a girl, at the recommendation of the goddess Isis, the mother conceals its biological sex and raises it as a boy. The name Iphis is given and noted as being a name that might be borne by either gender.
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”.
Comic drama of the fifth and early fourth century BCE do not touch on f/f relations, but a later fourth century comedy by Amphis has a humorous treatment of the myth of Artemis and Callisto. In his version, Callisto is unaware that the Artemis she had sex with was Zeus in disguise, so when the goddess demands an explanation for her pregnancy, she says the goddess herself is responsible. Artemis, enraged – not by the pregnancy but by Callisto’s insistence that she was impregnated by the goddess – changes her into a bear.
Asclepiades of Samos was a poet of the late fourth/early third century BCE, best known for his epigrams, especially those on erotic topics. The epigram as a poetic style, was just coming into popularity and an understanding of the conventions and forms of the genre are essential to interpreting the one epigram referring to f/f erotics.
This section of the chapter looks at patterns of reference and silence across various types of media to try to interpret the absences of representations of f/f sex. Different genres had different implicit rules about what could or could not be depicted. For example, visual arts that depicted m/m sex invariably stuck to the “ideal” of a desiring older man and a passive youth. Human men were not depicted in scenes with deprecated sexual practices, such as performing oral sex, but such scenes might show a satyr performing the male role, “standing in” for the human man.