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Covering the region equivalent to modern Greece in south-eastern Europe, but also the larger scope of Greek-speaking cultures, especially in the Classical period.

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.

I rather like the conclusions chapter—neither a rote summary of the analysis nor an unrelated philosophical excursion. Boehringer starts by noting that there’s an inherent anachronism in defining the scope of the book in terms of modern categories. Whether you consider that scope to be “female homosexuality” or even the narrower “love and sex between women”, the definition assumes the existence of a category that the research has yet to demonstrated existed in classical Greece and Rome.

Those familiar with the corpus of classical references to sex between women may have noticed a gap in the material covered up to this point. In a chapter labeled “Epilogue: Lucian and the saturation of signs” Boehringer tackles Lucian’s Dialogue 5 from Dialogues of the Courtesans, in which the narrator describes her sexual interactions with a female** couple who present themselves as “married”.

One particular woman’s name crops up in relation to several references to tribades, creating a confusing implication that a specific tribade named Philaenis was part of Roman history. In this section, Boehringer dissects out the origins, traditions, and contexts that connect the name Philaenis to sex between women (as well as other sexual contexts). This is a long, complicated discussion and I will skim over some parts.

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.

The second topic in this chapter is another work of Plato, and once again a deep context is needed to interpret what the mention of f/f sex actually means for Greek realities. The Laws takes the form of a conversation between three men about what laws are needed for the governance of the ideal city. This is a different take than the one Plate put forth in the Republic. The Republic was more of an idealized thought experiment. The Laws is more of an exhaustive, practical plan of action (but still a purely hypothetical document).

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.


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