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Full citation: 

Altman, Meryl. 2009. “Parthenoi to Watch Out For? Looking at Female Couples in Vase-Painting and Lyric” in CAMWS. [Note: this is from a conference proceeding. The word Parthenoi is in the Greek alphabet]

Publication summary: 

A methodological discussion of how to interpret images of paired women in Classical Greek art.

Contents summary: 

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 author leads us on a discovery tour involving one particular kylix, first showing the interior image, which was what the author initially had access to, which shows two young women, one holding the other by the wrist and leading or pulling the other forward. The second holds writing equipment in her other hand. Scholars have generally described it fairly neutrally: either as a school scene, based on the writing equipment, or as a scene of unwilling persuasion. The author admits that she was first attracted to the image due to the potential interpretation of the women as a romantic couple. But she admits that it was wishful speculation at the time the idea occurred to her.

At a later time, the author described the vase to another scholar who immediately responded, “Oh, the one with the courting couples of women on the back!” Returning to the object and viewing the much more extensive scenes on the underside of the bowl, it becomes much more difficult to see the interior figures in isolation as non-erotic. The female figures around the underside are shown in a variety of poses that reflect a recognized vocabulary of courtship in male pederastic art. Each couple involves one woman eagerly persuading and the other being more reticent. The dress and gestures are also recognizable as involving symbols of courtship.

This leads to a consideration of how the entire decorative program of Greek vase art must be considered in order to interpret the individual elements. The context provides cues and clues to the meaning of images that may otherwise seem generic. Several examples of pottery with similar programs of heterosexual courting or sexual couples are offered as comparison.

Returning to the original kylix the author discusses both the real difficulties and artificial barriers to interpreting female figures in Greek art. There are circular arguments regarding the nature or profession of women depicted in art, based on assumptions that respectable women would not be so depicted, therefore any woman shown in a scene must fall outside of social respectability. No woman in a vase painting--according to this position--can be interpreted as typical, and therefore the art does not represent women as a class. Alternately ,the author considers the position that some put forth that images of two women together in Greek art always represent a parody or a joke--that the image can never be representative or sincere. This argument is based on assumptions about the user the object (a drinking vessel used at symposia), based on the position that women did not attend symposia or similar types of gatherings, therefore the intended viewership have been men and must be interpreted through a male gaze. [Note: it’s clear that the article’s author is challenging many of the underlying assumptions here.]

The author compares these problems of interpretation with the scholarly reception of poetry describing female couples or female romantic interactions, most notably, of course, Sappho, but also touching specifically on Alcman’s Partheneion. However, the author reserves for a later article a more extensive comparison of the depictions of female couples in these paintings and in poetry. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, that later, more in-depth study has not been written.

The remainder of the article is taken up by additional description of the artwork, including an observation that the pairs of figures around the underside of the bowl could potentially be read as a temporal progression of a single relationship, given the variation in how the couple interacts and the arrangement of their garments. Alternately these variations could simply indicate different possibilities for a courting couple. The article includes many illustrations about half of them in color.

In the final discussions, the author notes that Sandra Boehringer’s study of classical female homoeroticism does not include these specific images and that they contradict some of her claims about how female eroticism is depicted in ancient Greek art. The images also address questions of whether female same-sex relations in classical Greece were less hierarchical than those of male couples, with these artistic depictions suggesting greater similarities to the hierarchy in other courting couples, while poetry suggests a more egalitarian depiction. But a wider study of depictions of female couples or at least pairs of the women in Greek art of a wide variety of styles and eras suggests a range of relationships--some showing asymmetric interactions and others showing a more mirror-like relationship.

In conclusion, the images provide a strong case for the legibility of female romantic or erotic couples in Greek art that is not always apparent in other surveys of the topic.

[Note: the article is available online here and is worth downloading to see the art.]