Monday, September 7, 2015

Phalli, Vulvae, Thought: Part Finale!

            A note: I kind of, sort of apologize for all the Greek in this post. But not really. I'm ridiculously proud of myself for figuring out how to enable the correct keyboard, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that my efforts at learning some Ancient Greek have enabled me to just barely type some of it without getting a headache. All poems/fragments are from Anne Carson's translation, If not, winter.

            I would be lying if I said I was satisfied with what of Sappho I have available to me. But...I sort of thrive on dissatisfaction. I am a poet before most things, and I no more want everything in the world filled out, finished, and explained with perfect clarity than I want to die and actually meet the God with whom I have such a robust, painful, and complicated relationship; meeting one's paramour is so often a disappointment.
            Still, what to do with poems who cling to life by the thread of individual words?

αὖα          dawn
μυθόπλοκος          mythweaver 
γρύτα          makeup bag
ἀλγεσίδωρος          paingiver
But then, things happen in a poem fragmented by time and matter's dissolution:
οἶον τὸ γλυκύμαλον / ἐρεύθεται ἄκρῳ ἐπ' ὔσδῳ,

ἄκρον ἐπ' ἀκροτάτῳ, / λελάθοντο δὲ μαλοδρόπηες,   
οὐ μὰν ἐκλελάθοντ', ἀλλ' οὐκ ἐδύναντ' / ἐπίκεσθαι
as the sweetapple reddens on a high branch

high on the highest branch and the applepickers forgot —
no, not forgot: were unable to reach
I really, really wish I could explicate the poem, and the incarnation we have at our disposal, as well as Carson. But I cannot. Here is what she has to say about it:
"The poem is incomplete, perfectly. There is one sentence, which has no principal verb or principal subject because the sentence never arrives at its main clause. It is one simile, whose point remains elusive since the comparandum never appears. It may be from an epithalamium, but it seems precarious to say so in the absence of the wedding party. If there is a bride, she stays inaccessible. It is her inaccessibility that is present. As the object of comparison suspended in line 1, it exerts a powerful attraction, both grammatical and erotic, on all that follows, but completion is not achieved — grammatical or erotic. Desiring hands close on empty air in the final infinitive, while the apple of their eye dangles perpetually inviolate two lines above." (Carson 1998, 27)
Perhaps the rest of the poem was gorgeous. Perhaps, had it survived intact, it would have altered the course of Western literature. Perhaps I am wrong to celebrate the magic in the interaction between the poem's words and images, and the brokenness of the body which managed to stagger its way out of time.

            In Republic, Plato uses three classes of citizen in his ideal state as an analogy for the human soul, where the warrior class stands in for the spirited part of the soul. The part which grows offended when someone has insulted or wronged you and will fight for your dignity as well as your survival. The part of you, in modern parlance, which watches out for your "boundaries."
            I don't put the word in quotes because I disparage it. Recognizing where I end and other people begin has been a major part of growing up for me. But then, is it essentially human? In hunter-gatherer societies, as well as in many more traditional horticulturist and/or herding societies, the individuals live in relationships which I think many modern psychologists would define as pathologically enmeshed. In fact, I think an argument could be made that the belief that I end anywhere is related to statism and capitalism: their methods of definition by literal delineation, by finitude.
            This conflation of the individual and the state was not Plato's innovation; at the very least, I know that the Pharoahs and the Hittite kings made a similar move in their rhetoric. But I don't know of any previous writer who went in Plato's direction: rather than the individual representing the state/kingdom in miniature, as it were, an entire city state was used to depict the complex of needs, hungers, drives, and dreams of the individual.
            The question of boundaries is paramount in erotic literature. Sappho calls Eros, among other things, λυσιμέλης: lusimelēs. Limb-loosener, or melter of limbs.
Ἔρος δηὖτέ μ᾽ὀ λυσιμέλης δόνει,
γλυκὐπικρον ἀμάχανον ὄρπετον
Eros the melter of limbs (now again) stirs me —
sweetbitter unmanageable creature who steals in
      (Sappho fr. 130)
 πόλλα δὲ ζαφοίταις᾽ἀγάνας ἐπι-
μνάςθεις᾽ Ἄτθιδος ἰμέρωι
λέπταν ποι φρένα κ [ . ] ρ . . .  βόρηται
But she goes back and forth remembering
gentle Atthis and in longing
she bites her tender mind
      (Sappho fr. 96)
Lobel and Page translate the last two lines "a hole is being gnawed in [my] vitals." Is this being-crossed-into desirable? Certainly, historically, it seems to be the very definition of desire. And when I come across it in my own life, I almost never say no. Is it pathological? Do we want to avoid pathology? And what of happiness? Because Eros seems very, very rarely to lead to happiness. Or at least, not the American version of happiness.
ὄπταις ἄμμε          you burn me (fr. 38)
ταῖςι ψῦχρος μὲν ἔγεντο θῦμος          their heart grew cold
πὰρ δ᾽ ἴειςι τὰ πτέρα                            they let their wings down (fr. 42)
Γλύκηα μᾶτερ, οὔ τοι δύναμαι κρέκην τὸν ἴςτον
πόθωι δάμειςα παῖδος βραδίναν δι᾽ Ἀφροδίταν 
sweet mother I cannot work the loom
I am broken with longing for a boy by slender Aphrodite
      (fr. 92)

The triangle is one of love poetry's most enduring formations. It allows for heightened complexity, heightened desire, but still maintains cohesion, still resists centrifugal disintegration. One of Sappho's most famous poems features a poignant triangle: the speaker*, a man, and a woman he is wooing. Its pleasure lies partly in the classical forces of the formation,** and partly in the way the poem tugs at the edges of the genders, the crosscurrents of identity, erotic lack, and social convention. Sappho paints a picture which is clear and vivid, but which also leaves vast tracts open for the reader/listener to slide in and out of the various characters.

Φαίνεταί μοι κῆνος ἴςος θέοιςιν
ἔμμεν᾽ ὤνηρ, ὄττις ἐνάωτιός τοι
ἰςδάνει καὶ πλάςιον ἆδυ φωνεί -
      ςας ὐπακούει 
καὶ γελαίςας ἰμέροεν, τό μ᾽ ἦ μὰν
καρδίαν ἐν ςτήθεςιν ἐπτόαιςεν
ὠς γὰρ <ἔς> ς᾽ ἴδω βρόχε᾽ ὤς με φώνη -
      ς᾽ ο᾽θδὲν ἔτ᾽ εἴκει, 
ἀλλὰ καμ μὲν γλῶςςα ἔαγε, λέπτον
δ᾽ αὔτικα χρῶι πῦρ ὐπαδεδρόμακεν,
ὀππάτεςςι δ᾽ οὐδὲν ὄρημμ᾽, ἐπιβρό -
      μειςι δ᾽ ἄκουαι, 
έκαδε μ᾽ ἴδρως κακχέεται, τρόμος δὲ
παῖςαν ἄγρει, χλωροτ έρα δὲ π οίας
ἔμμι, τεθ νάκην δ᾽ ὀ λίγω ᾽πιδε ύης
      φα ίνομ᾽ ἔμ᾽ αὔτ αι. 
ἀλλά πάν τόλματον, ἐπεὶ καὶ πένητα
He seems to me equal to gods that man
whoever he is who opposite you
sits and listens close
      to your sweet speaking 
and lovely laughing — oh it
puts the heart in my chest on wings
for when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking
      is left in me 
no: tongue breaks and thin
fire is racing under skin
and in eyes no sight and drumming
      fills ears 
and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, greener than grass
I am and dead — or almost
      I seem to me. 
But all is to be dared, because even a person of poverty
          (fr. 31)

            And for my next trick... I have no idea!! Which is glorious, because I tend to overplan by a mile. I usually have my next five to ten posts arranged in a neat little line in my head, so it's quite pleasant to be at loose ends. I've also been finishing a number of books — Carson's Eros: the Bittersweet, Saxon's Sex at Dusk (a highly satisfying, if somewhat disturbing, rebuttal of the shitty science and psychology of Sex at Dawn), and Alison Stone's An Introduction to Feminist Philosophy — all without starting any new ones. It's so strange to have space open in my head.
            I suspect there will be some more posts on poetry, simply because I've been in the mood lately, but I'm also trying to leave some openings for what I'll be studying in my upcoming classes. This month I start on prerequisites to go to grad school for psychology (with a heavy dose of theology, philosophy, and psychoanalysis), so I expect to have a lot of pleasurable thoughts colliding and exploding in my head in the near future. We'll just have to wait and see what makes its way in here.

* The tendency is to read the speaker as Sappho herself. This is in fact how I read the poem. With the exception of the very tiny fragments (which is actually most of her work), I feel like it is fairly easy to tell when Sappho is taking a "higher" tone — i.e., is composing for a wedding or other such occasion, and is therefore speaking with a persona which may be very different from her own — and when she is speaks from her own heart. I may very well be being presumptuous.

** My favorite triangle of all time being I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Phalli, Vulvae, Thought: Part 5

            It would be disingenuous of me — writing a couple of posts about Sappho at the end of a series on homosexuality/homoeroticism in Ancient Greece — to try to deny the power of the questions around Sappho's sexuality. Was she, or wasn't she? We want to know. After all, this is the woman who originates the term lesbian, a term which has no correlate amongst gay men.
            But these are troubled waters. Often when a minority or disempowered group claims someone as their own — a move which they are not only entitled to, but which may also be vital to the psychological survival of some of their members — that someone gets relegated. That someone gets reduced. So DuBois wrote about Black people. De Beauvoir was a lady philosopher. And Wilde* was just so flamboyant, we can't expect what he said to apply to normal people. We titter, or assume that what they said has no bearing for those of us outside of that group. Descartes, though. Bertrand fucking Russell. Now those were Philosophers. They were after universal truths.
            One strategy — often employed by well-meaning folk who fit more comfortably into the audience intended by those real Philosophers — is to pretend to ignore the difference. Or maybe sometimes the well-meaners do succeed, though I would argue they do so by eliding the difference subconsciously. But perhaps writers and professors are right to simply say, for example, that Hannah Arendt was one of the most important political philosophers of the twentieth century. Perhaps they are right to ignore that she was a woman, to pretend that this doesn't mark her as extraordinary, to avoid at all costs the suggestion that her gender may have even shaped her philosophy.
            I want to first say that I completely understand why people employ this strategy. We are living in times highly charged by rhetoric debating sexuality, gender, race, and any number of markers of outsider status. I understand why men often look unsure, when we are locked in a philosophical debate, as to whether gender and its implications for philosophy are up for discussion. If I bring up my work as a doula in a conversation on embodiment, it seems downright silly to pretend that gender doesn't shape us as philosophers. But if not, and I voice an opinion about, say, Picketty's book, is it sexist to ask if my opinions are shaped by my experience as a woman? I see the wheels turning, and I completely sympathize, because the same wheels are screaming through my mind when I talk philosophy or politics or economics or even a goddamned cookie recipe with a person of color.
            But here's the thing. Let's return to Arendt for a moment. Because Hannah Arendt was also a Jew. And in the US in general, and the Northwest and Northeast in particular, being Jewish has become so normalized that now we openly discuss the ways that Jewishness has shaped people. My best friend is hands down one of the best debaters I've ever come across. When asked about his rhetorical abilities, he will often mention that his mother was Jewish, his grandfather a Jewish attorney and judge, and that he marinated in the culture of analysis and vigorous debate as a kid. This is just as normal as me talking about growing up Calvinist, or someone else mentioning the ways that Catholicism shaped their worldview.
            We're not just talking about the easy potshots here, like Woody Allen and Philip Roth; these are artists who declare their Jewishness from the rooftops.** We can now respectfully talk about how Freud and Spinoza were shaped, and how their thinking shows this novel perspective, or offers that unique contribution. We can talk about it because in our clearer moments we see how we are all shaped, how no one is "neutral," no one is "unflavored," while the rest of the world is somehow just like us but with added flourishes.
            I don't want to deny the reality of anti-Semitism, which is real and even thriving in some quarters. But I do think that in some regions of the world, a line has been crossed, and being Jewish — and owning the shaping power of that — is no different than being raised Catholic.***
            I couldn't speak for LGBTQ people and say they are to that point. It feels like that point is just around the corner, but considering that hate violence is still very real — and a particularly real threat for non-white LGBTQ individuals — I don't want to ring their victory bells for them.
            But in considering the problem of Sappho's sexuality, here are my hopes.
            I am hoping we have reached a point where we admit that she was most likely, at the very least, not straight (as we know it). And that we can avoid turning her queerness into her entire identity.
            I am hoping that we can see the beauty and innocence of a feminine sexuality allowed to thrive in its own pathways. That we can revel in the sensuality of her poetry, at the absolutely brilliant prosody, and acknowledge that her sexual desires and choices undoubtedly shaped her creative and intellectual impulses and development, the same way Socrates' sexuality, his ugliness, his wealth, and his physical power shaped his.
            We — and by "we" here I very much mean educated, upper-class, white folk — we typically don't read Shakespeare and think, "Well, but this is for such a small percentage of the world! Straight White Dudes only! Most of the world isn't Straight White Dudes, so this must be too narrow to be relevant." No. We defend it. We argue for a quotient of universality. We argue for the value of the craftsmanship. We argue for all we're worth the preciousness of the facets of the human psyche that Shakespeare managed to reveal.
            Anyone who considers herself a thinker, a serious reader, a lover of human culture and its artifacts, should be willing to do no less for Manjhan than she would for Plato; no less for Adrienne Rich than she would for John Milton; no less for Langston Hughes than she would Dante Alighieri; no less for Yvonne Rainer than she would for George Balanchine.

            A few words about Sappho and her work: if you haven't read Sappho yet, you don't yet know the language of desire. I mean it. Go buy this and this. The first is Anne Carson's translation of Sappho's fragments, and the second is basically a short book-length meditation by Carson on Sappho's poetry. Carson gets Sappho. Everything about sex and love and the gods and moonlight and weddings and beauty and abandonment and ecstasy and basically everything ever will be explained. Seriously. She might be better than the Song of Solomon. Also, for what it's worth, I don't actually buy that Sappho was a lesbian (as we know the term). I read her as bisexual. She's just so damned affectionate and appreciating of both male and female beauty. Most of the overtly erotic poems do seem to be about women, but I sense desire in her words about men as well. I could be wrong, obviously. But that's the vibe I catch.
            As I mentioned in an earlier post, Sappho lived well before Socrates. Interestingly, she lived right around the time democracy was becoming a thing in Athens, but there's a very important point to keep in mind here: Sappho was from Lesbos. Lesbos is, by ancient standards, nowhere's near Athens. In fact, it's much closer to modern day Turkey. I know I really belabored this in the earlier posts, but it's important to not accidentally turn "Ancient Greece" into a monolithic culture it never was. Athens was mind-bogglingly repressive towards women, even by ancient standards. Lesbos had a reputation for having women who were as enthusiastic about going down on women as they were about blow jobs; obviously, this could have been, er, tongue in cheek, but the main point I want to make is that Sappho doesn't seem to have felt the difference that we see when we look at her as a "lesbian" or "queer" or "bi" writer. She seems to have just fallen in love, a lot, and been really enthusiastic about it. I know I may be idealizing a bit, but that's about all I can extrapolate from her poetry. There's not a lot of angst. There's not a lot of, "But what if they find out??!" In fact, I can't see any of that. I can't see any fear. Which opens up intriguing possibilities.
            Sarah B. Pomeroy, the best authority I've been able to find on the topic of women in the Ancient World, writes this about Sappho:
Many modern scholars have vehemently denied that Sappho's sentiments occasioned overt erotic activity. The Greeks certainly realized that Sappho wrote about the sexual activities of women. Few fragments survive from this portion of her work: on one papyrus fragment the first five letters of olisbos (leather phallus) may be read with near certainty. Part of another poem preserved on parchment relates: "on a soft bed you satisfied your desire." "You" in Greek can be masculine or feminine, but Sappho is not known to have written erotic poems to men. In Greek literature generally, references to the women of Lesbos connoted unusually intense eroticism, both homosexual and heterosexual. Anacreon, writing in the generation after Sappho, complained that the girl from Lesbos whom he desired "gapes after some other woman." The homosexual reputation of Lesbian women was the theme of Lucians fifth "Dialogue of the Courtesans," written in the second century A.D. On the other hand, in Athenian comedy the verbs lesbiazein and lesbizein ("to play the Lesbian") and other references to the women of Lesbos connote enthusiasm for all sorts of sexual experiences and "whorish behavior." (Pomeroy 1975, 54)
So my next post will be focused on Sappho, and also on Carson's work interpreting her. Then I will be starting on prerequisites for a graduate degree in psychology, which means my infrequent posts may become even more infrequent. But alas. I am human, and I move at a human pace.

Pomeroy, Sarah B. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. New York: Shocken Books, 1975. Print.

* Well...*ahem* Wilde was. A bit.
** Though this stage may be a necessary part of the process.
*** I am, I know, grossly oversimplifying and glossing over an enormous problem, which I call the Problem of the Table. Those with the most privilege — namely, white people, and especially white, straight men — tend to think of ending the problems of prejudice as being a problem of just getting everyone to The Table. The Table being their table. They want to share. I think their hearts are often in the right place. But what I am more and more hearing from less privileged folk — and especially Black and LGBTQ activists — is that they are building their own tables, and they would like to stop having people steal from their tables. They would prefer their tables not get burned down, thank you, and they'd like it if we didn't hog all the fucking wood. In other words, our table isn't the only one, and in fact, lots of people don't even want to sit with us, we're that lame. Most frighteningly, most people might eventually decide our table is the lame table. Or something. It's a sloppy metaphor, but it's the image that keeps coming to mind these days. It could be argued that all that happened to Jews — and to Catholics, for that matter — is they got officially brought to our nice White Table. I'm not currently equipped to have that conversation. Part of me doesn't buy it, but another part of me has to admit that in the hundred years or so that we've seen the position of Jews change significantly, we haven't welcomed in a new world order. This problem — of White straight people trying to make social justice a problem of just getting everyone to our relatively unchanged table — is an absolutely massive problem.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Phalli, Vulvae, Thought: Part 4

The Name of a Thing that Isn't

            Plato's Symposium gives us the only Classical Attic reference to female homosexuality. Dover explains it a bit:
Classical Attic literature refers once, and once only, to female homosexuality: 'Aristophanes' in Pl. Smp. 191e derives hetairistriai from that category of original double beings who were all female. The word is not attested elsewhere, any more than its masculine analogue hetairistē clearly means a woman who stands in a relationship to another woman comparable to a male relationship of hetairēsis. (Dover 1978, 172)
            Dover here is referring to the following story. I've chosen to summarize Plato's version, as it is a bit long, but it's well worth reading if you ever choose to grab a copy of Symposium. Which, obviously, ever Westerner in the world should do:

            "In the beginning," so to speak, there were three genders. Male, female, and a combined gender. (Admittedly this still sounds like two, but bear with me.) Humans were actually round, with their backs and sides forming the outside of the circle, and with their genitals also on the outside. They had four hands, four legs, and two identical faces on a single head.
            They were incredibly powerful, so much so that they were able to threaten the seat of the gods. Zeus and the other Olympian gods met in council and decided on a solution: Zeus would split every human into two parts, thereby weakening them, while simultaneously doubling the number of beings offering sacrifices to the gods. Win-win!!
            And as he spoke, so he did. Zeus split all the humans into halves. He instructed Apollo to twist their faces 'round to the other side, so they could see the site of their woundedness, of their loss. Apollo also healed their wounds by pulling the skin together from the rest of their bodies, over onto what we call the stomach, much as a purse might be cinched up. He smoothed out most of their wrinkles, but left a few around the stomach and navel, to remind them of what had happened to them in the past.
            But alas, each half missed its other half so much, they longed only to be re-unified. Their essence had been split. They embraced and proceeded to do absolutely nothing but grasp one another desperately. They began to starve to death. After all, the loss of one half of one's own self begs the question: what is left to live for in such a barren existence?
            Humanity began to die out. But Zeus felt pity for the pathetic creatures, and came up with some solutions. First, he moved their genitals around to the front. Previously, procreation had been unrelated to sexual intercourse; their genitals were on the outside of their bodies, and they had intercourse with the ground in order to produce offspring. By moving the genitals and introducing intercourse, Zeus gave humans a pleasurable way to spend their time. When they embraced, sex would provide a temporary release of all their pent up longing for their other half. This would allow them to get back to work, and get back to those sacrifices of course.
            And so this is where homosexual men and women came from, as well as heterosexuals. Men and women who are descended from the combined gender are heterosexual. Men who descend from the male gender are attracted to men; and women descended from the female gender are attracted to women.

            And so here we are. Onto the second half of a series of posts I've been writing on homoerotic desire in Ancient Greece. The first half were on male homosexuality.* So now, of course, the second half will be on female homosexuality.
            And yet, something felt off as I read and re-read the story. And unfortunately, my summary masks the details I think are important here.
            In Plato's account, Aristophanes** explains the reasons for the relocation of the male genitalia in the m-m gender; describes some of the virtues and benefits of male homosexuality; and even develops an idea about the mechanism of male homosexual love and desire:
His reasons for doing this were to ensure that, when couples embraced, as well as male-female relationships leading to procreation and offspring, male-male relationships would at least involve sexual satisfaction, so that people would relax, get on with their work and take care of other aspects of life. (Symposium 191c)
And any men who are offcuts from the male gender go for boys...These boys are the ones who are outstanding in their childhood and youth, because they're inherently more manly than others. I know they sometimes get called immoral, but that's wrong: their actions aren't prompted by immorality, but by courage, manliness, and masculinity. They incline towards their own characteristics in others. There's good evidence for their quality: as adults, they're the only men who end up in government. (Symposium 191e-192a)
No such explanation is given for female homosexuals. I want to first make the point that there seems to be little malice for such women; it could easily be argued that Aristophanes is describing one side of the story, and that it simply is obvious that the inverse is true for women.
            But there is where I located my problem: women are the inverse of men. Because, in the manner of Jung's absurd Electra complex, the treatment lesbian desire is given amounts to something like, "Oh, um, yes. Women. Well, the women are, ah...just the reverse of the men." In fact, even my thinking in writing this series betrays a bit of the same drive towards symmetry. For that it what the lesbians in Aristophanes story are for: to keep the tale balanced. To keep it symmetrical.
            Now, the parallels between lesbian desire and gay male desire are not lost upon me; it would be foolish to deny this. But there is one more detail to Aristophanes' story that makes me feel not quite friendly towards his description of women. From his description of the combined gender:
There was also a third [gender], which was a combination of both the other two. Its name has survived, but the gender itself has died out. In those days, there was a distinct type of androgynous person, not just the word, though like the word the gender too combined male and female; nowadays, however, only the word remains, and that counts as an insult. (Symposium 189e)
The word androgyne "counts as an insult." Specifically, an androgyne was a man — the representative of a human, a person, a someone — who was effeminate, in a bad way. An androgyne was not someone who's biological sex and/or gender was ambiguous. It was an insult for cowardly — i.e., too-much-like-women — men.
            This side comment of Aristophanes captures the entire story's slant perfectly: males are normal. Males are the norm. Male desire is the norm. Male bodies are the norm. Women are a kinda shitty variation on this.
            I know I have mentioned Kenneth Dover's book Greek Homosexuality here. It is an excellent text, and the first place I would point someone interested in the subject. However, even Sir Dover is limited by the sheer lack of material:
That female homosexuality and the attitude of women to male homosexuality can both be discussed within one part of one chapter reflects the paucity of women writers and artists in the Greek world and the virtual silence of male writers on these topics. (Dover 1978, 171)
And this, unfortunately, sums up the topic pretty well. There is simply very little to be said, because everything was being said by men, and they seem to have either ignored the psychological experience of being a lesbian, or to have downright despised them. Asclepiades mentions two Samian women who
are not willing to enter upon the (sc. practice?) of Aphrodite according to her rules, but desert to other things which are not seemly. Mistress Aphrodite, be an enemy to these fugitives from the couch in your domain!
And this comes from a man who boasts of the strength of his desire for young men.
            Another clue pointing to the vacuum comes from Aphrodite, Eros, and some of the terms for sex. Dover points out that in Hellenistic literature (remembering, of course, that this was much later than Attic Greece), there was a belief that Aphrodite inspired heterosexual passion, Eros inspired homosexual male passion, and....absolutely no one inspired homosexual female passion because, presumably, they don't have any. Or they don't exist. You can kind of take your pick here.
            From Aphrodite's name we also have the word aphrodīsia, which denotes copulation. Paidika aphrodīsia being the term for homosexual male intercourse, and "child-begetting aphrodīsia being heterosexual intercourse. Again, there is nothing for lesbians.
            For me, the saving factor in all of this is that little detail. It fascinates me, though, in a rather more poetic way. While the Ancient Greeks were careful to distinguish between men fucking men, and men fucking women — while they were enthusiastic about sex involving men, and ready to be disciplined in their moral and litigious structures for it — there is no word for lesbian sex. Which means that whenever it happened — and of course it happened — this was a thing happening as far outside of Plato's carefully analyzed and articulated world as can be imagined. It's almost like...two women having sex is like...I don't know, God or something. It's like it's so far outside of verbalized, conscious reality, it's a living void. I may be romanticizing it. I have a deeply held belief — which lesbians can choose to either chuckle at or be irritated by — that I would be a markedly better poet and philosopher if I were a lesbian. There is something about the radical outside-ness of female homosexuality that I've always suspected would give me a clarity and distinction of vision that I simply can't claim, being as interpolated as I am into heterosexual — and very-male-dominated — sexuality and desire.
            Again, I know I may be romanticizing this. And certainly I would never suggest that just doing something sexually deviant would give you some kind of profound knowledge. It would probably teach you something; but whether that knowledge would prove to be helpful — to say nothing of being precious, which is the unreasonably high standard I try to hold my desired knowledge up to — seems dubious. But I do think that having an identity which sets someone outside of the norm gives them a unique angle from which to view life. Witness the contributions of Jewish, Black, and Queer philosophers over just the past 50-100 years.
            I'm only going to put up one more entry in this series, and that, thankfully, will be almost entirely about Sappho. I have included virtually all I could glean from four books on the subject of female homosexuality in Ancient Greece in this one post, and anyway, we could all use a little more Sappho in our lives.

* Note that I have here moved to using the term "homosexuality," or "homosexual" as opposed to "homoeroticism" or "homoerotic". At the beginning of this series of posts, I explained why I was using "homoerotic". The reasons that actual homosexuality — i.e., something closer to "being gay" — are at play seems fairly obvious given Plato's account. The term genetic doesn't seem entirely appropriate when discussing the ancients; perhaps innate, native, or indwelling would be more appropriate. But the modern term would probably be genetic. Aristophanes is describing something like sexual orientation or identity.

** Not the playwright.

      Dover, K. J. Greek Homosexuality. New York: Vintage Books, 1978. Print.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Phalli, Vulvae, Thought: Part 3

            I would apologize for the break. Except I've been enjoying it very much.
            Part 3 of however many, with diversions also forthcoming.

Relation of Sex to Power

Older Man/Younger Man

            As I mentioned in the last entry, the starting point for a discussion of homoeroticism in Ancient Greece is still Sir Kenneth Dover's Greek Homosexuality, originally published in 1978. There, Dover argues for a relatively codified framework for sexual relations between men. And as I also mentioned, Hubbard argues that a strict formation — the erastai-erōmenos pair — was not ubiquitous.
            Hubbard makes a fair point that we have ample evidence, both literary and visual, that romantic and sexual relationships between men who were close in age did occur. On the one hand, I can appreciate his point: we still don't have scholarly consensus on what homoeroticism would have looked like, across whatever spectrum it undoubtedly displayed itself in.
            However, Hubbard goes a step too far and, I think, shows his hand. First he points out that not all same sex relationships between men adhered to the erastai-erōmenos structure. But he then goes on to argue that even when an older man was in love with a younger man, we shouldn't be too quick to read the erastai as being in the position of power:
To the extent that literary texts display a power differential, it is rather to emphasize the powerlessness and even emotional helplessness of the lover and a privileged position of control occupied by the beloved youth... Even poems in which a lover congratulates himself on becoming free of a youth's tyranny...or admonishes the youth to beware of the future...reflect a sense of desperation on the part of an unsuccessful lover. (Hubbard 2003, 11)
I just... I just don't even know where to begin. Hubbard's blindness here took my breath away when I read the above passage. "A privileged position of control"? The issues I have with Hubbard here are several:

      a)  First, in considering any individual pair of men, we would have to distinguish between slaves and freeborn Athenian boys, as well as consider the propertied (or not) status of the beloveds in question. The authors and artists who so lavishly declared their passion often fail to give us this information. For their purposes, it hardly mattered of course, but for the lives of the young beloveds, the questions of property and citizen status were paramount.

      b)  Even for a freeborn citizen erōmenos, we must remember the pedagogical aspect of the relationship. The whole argument for why the relationship was advantageous for him was based on the fact that the older man had access to political connections, power, and resources which the younger man lacked.

      c)  For a slave who was being sexually pursued by a landed aristocrat, Hubbard's argument reads as a blatant insult. For a freeborn citizen erōmenos, who could plan on inheriting from his own family, the consequences of rejection were not (necessarily) dire. For a slave, retaining the affection of the older lover could very well be a matter of survival.

            For the purposes of my humble blog, I mostly wanted to point out two things. Firstly, even an extremely intelligent modern scholar can have blind spots, and Hubbard's here is glaring. Only a person in a position of power could ever look at someone they are lusting after* and think the object of desire actually possesses more power than they do.
            And secondly, we as modern readers of Ancient Greek history, literature, and philosophy should never forget that power was just as real — and just as life-shaping — as it is now. In patriarchy/kyriarchy/hierarchy/what-have-you-archy, power is distributed unevenly. It just is. Things like monetary and property resources, political connections, race, gender, language/accent, familial ties, religious affiliation... all contribute to place people in a ranking system.

Power Consolidation/Distribution

            In considering how male homoeroticism would have impacted women, the reader is, as with almost all things Ancient Greek, confronted with the problem of documentation. For reasons which may or may not be causally linked, Athens had a flourishing literary scene and was highly litigious and it generally sucked for women. Which means we have the best documentation of what life was like for women in Ancient Athens, as opposed to other contemporary cities. Maybe life was much better as a Corinthian woman, or a Theban; maybe not. If you were ever interested in reading a book on the situation of women in the Ancient world, I strongly recommend Sarah B. Pomeroy's book Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves. In fact, if you just feel like reading an actually measured study of something to do with women, I would be hard pressed to think of another suggestion. Pomeroy is well aware of the inherent sexism of academia, but she is also conscious of the ways that feminism can find the things it wants to. (I myself am certainly guilty of this flaw.) In the book, Pomeroy over and over again says possibly the sexiest thing a scholar can say: "Well, we know fragment X, and fragment Y, but we can't really make any conclusive statements based on so little." Be still my heart.**
            Pomeroy, while reminding us how little we know about women in the Ancient Greek city states in general, has done a good deal of research on Athens and Sparta in particular. Spartans weren't big on writing things down, but their fellow Ancient Hellenes were quite keen on talking about the Spartans. (If I'd lived in the time of Leonidas, I would, too.)
            As I was reading about Athens' manifestations of (male) homoerotic relationships, a thought kept popping into my head. Something along the lines of, "Barely disguised misogyny." Because rather than stopping to consider whether their under-education of women — not to mention their under-nourishment, which was a big surprise to me — might be the reason the women weren't their intellectual equals — and rather than questioning a system which consistently paired men with girl-wives who were literally young enough to be their daughters — the ancient Athenians simply affirmed to themselves that women were dumb. The occasional woman who wasn't, such as the odd Aspasia or two, was perceived as an aberration. (Note that Aspasia wasn't from, nor was she educated in, Athens.) Athenian men wanted, as I would assume most normal humans do, equals in mind and thought. Sexual relationships with educated, well-fed young men, who were not only permitted to exercise but were encouraged to do so, were a shortcut to such relationships of equality. Meanwhile, upper class women were rationed less food, forbidden from public exercise, and educated only in the activities and needs of the home; hardly a recipe for female intellectuals. Lower class women were in roughly the same position — as far as the real or potential erastai was concerned — as a male slave. That is, available sexually, but not someone to whom anything was socially or politically owed.
            Such were my thoughts both as I read Hubbard's collection, and as I started Pomeroy's book. One potential outcome of the pedagogical pederasty in Athens was an even more radical consolidation of power than I previously realized. By denying women the ability to interact with men, and solidly establishing homoerotic relationships as a norm amongst men, even aristocratic women were largely shut out from the circles of power. One can condone or condemn the historic use of sex as a tool to gain access to power, but either way, it is a time-honored method for women to get what they want. Having this tool's effectiveness curtailed means that even the women we would expect to see doing moderately well — that is, the freeborn, aristocratic women — remain almost entirely silent in Athens.
            Sparta, though, seems to have potentially had a different outcome to their own practice of pedagogical pederasty. Because of how Spartan society was set up — with young Spartan men living in their syssitia, even remaining for several years after they married, and Spartan women having property rights and education — the effect of pedagogical pederasty may very well have been to free up the women. Spartan women were literate and numerate, and were (in)famous amongst contemporaneous Hellenes for speaking their minds. Spartan men were frequently away on military campaigns, while the citizen women stayed home and ran the city state. Because Spartan society assumed that the healthier and better educated the women were, the better off the newborns would be, Spartan women had the resources to do something with the freedom that pederasty gave them. And with less concern about rivals threatening their access to resources, the women may have enjoyed an effective distribution of power.


            Because I believe the pervasiveness of chattel slavery, "the glory that was Greece," and hierarchy in general are not entirely unrelated, I want to spend a moment dwelling upon this before I'm done with the subject of male homoeroticism.
            I believe I mentioned this in the first entry on this subject, but my interest here is slightly prejudiced: I notice, over and over again, that modern Americans and Europeans frequently smirk comically, and possibly even wistfully, when the subject of sexual relations between men in Ancient Athens and Greece in general comes up.
            A young boy who is owned by a pimp, and leased out to be fucked on the ground by men with the resources to gratify themselves, hardly represents a symbol of sexual freedom and the generous spirit of love. A slave who serves wine to wealthy assholes — like, say, Plato himself —at Symposia, where the men famously got raucously drunk, and has to submit to whatever sexual desires the citizens may have that night... not him either.
            On the one hand, it would be overly simplistic to assume that all homoerotic relationships were characterized by an enormous power differential, or were by their nature abusive. I want very much to believe — and in fact I do believe — that a tiny handful of human beings throughout time have lucked out enough to both fall in love, and to have that love sanctioned, no matter the genders concerned. Some Ancient Greek citizens consistently felt attracted to men, were able to enjoy their sexuality, and even to form satisfying long-term relationships with their lovers. This has, in my opinion, not been the case for enough non-heteronormative people. But the portrait that emerges when one digs even a fraction of an inch under the pseudo-liberal idealization of Athens is one of coercion and the blindness of privilege; not free love and a celebration of erotic pleasure.
            Ancient Greece's advances were made possible by leisure; a leisure that would not have been possible without the extensive use of slaves. The same power dynamics that enabled people like Plato and Socrates and Solon and Herodotus to sit around contemplating, processing, and forming innovative ideas radically disenfranchised boys and young men.*** Some would get lucky enough to possibly get together enough money to purchase their own freedom, although we don't have a good sense of how prevalent that eventuality was. The only question this leaves me with, before I do move on to women's sexuality in the Ancient Greek world, is to what extent such a power differential is still the case. I am currently typing away on what, from a global-historical perspective, is a very expensive device. Only I didn't pay what it's probably actually worth, because it was assembled by Chinese workers whose lives seem to have sucked pretty bad. And I promise you the money I paid for my clothes didn't get evenly distributed amongst the people who actually made it, and the designers who drew it.

* And realistically, any older lover who threatens a younger person with punishment for not returning their love is in the throes of lust and not love. This is a frequent cry of the "enslaved" older lover in Attic poetry.

** My generation is so facetious, I never know how my odd little statements come across. I'm not being sarcastic. Pretty much the way to my heart is to say things like, "Nothing is so impossible as a conclusive statement."

*** Obviously women were also completely, radically disenfranchised, but I read so much feminist literature, I'm never in danger of forgetting it. I do think that sometimes feminism forgets the abuses men suffer.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Phalli, Vulvae, Thought: Part 2

Dear Interwebs:
      I finished this post almost a month ago, but recent events in my life have disrupted my interest in writing in an online environment.  I'm still planning on finishing this series, and I will probably write at least one blog post giving some explanation if I do decide to take an actual break.  But for now, here is part two of Phalli, Vulvae, Thought.


Attitudes Over Time

Pedagogical Pederasty and δημοκρατία

            The most commonly discussed homoerotic relational structure in Archaic Greece is that of pedagogical pederasty.  Waterfield's introduction to Symposium provides a basic outline of the pederastic relationship:
Typically, the objects of male homoerotic desires were young boys in their teens, between the ages of puberty and growth of a proper beard.  A good-looking boy could expect to have a number of older erastai (lovers, or literally men feeling erōs for him). They would each pursue him, and try to persuade him to consummate a sexual affair, while he was expected to be coy and to resist their blandishments.  The boy might, of course, eventually be won over by one of his lovers, but even then there was no equality of desire.  He was expected to be merely passive, to let the man have his way, to 'gratify' the lover (as the Greeks tended rather delicately to put it):  the lover would achieve the enjoyment at least of conquest and of sexual release, while the boy might at the most reciprocate with philia (loyal affection or friendship), which would be due for the lover's patronage (for future political advancement, perhaps), rather than for his sexual attentions.  That is why only the older man is a 'lover', while the boy is merely an erōmenos — an object of the lover's erōs.  (Waterfield 1994, xvi)
Waterfield's explanation doesn't get at the pedagogical aspect of the relationship, however, and it should not be minimized.  Many scholars locate the origin of pederastic relationships in initiatory rituals, which implies that they were seen as conducive to the maturation of the young men who would one day be leading and defending their various city states.  The social and political introductions and connections the erastai  provided could prove vitally important; they may have even, in some instances, lasted well into the future, long after the sexual aspects of the relationship had (probably) ended.
            It should be noted that Waterfield has based his explanation on the work of Sir Kenneth Dover.  Dover's book Greek Homosexuality is considered one of the essential scholarly works on the topic, and one of the first to attempt an objective study.  However, there is still no scholarly consensus on exactly what form homoerotic relationships took.  While Dover and Waterfield emphasize the older man/erastai-pubescent boy/erōmenos structure, Hubbard points out that we have a good deal of literary and artistic evidence for other expressions of (male) desire:
It is often assumed that same-gender relationships followed a stereotypical pattern and set of protocols in ancient society:  in classical Greece this would take the form of pedagogical pederasty associating a man (usually before the age of marriage) and a freeborn boy... The texts, however, reveal a much wider diversity of relationships in terms of both age and status.  While these "non-normative" relationships are sometimes attacked in the texts as eccentric or inappropriate, even the "normative" forms of same-gender involvement are treated with hostility by certain sources.  What the evidence establishes is that a variety of behaviors occurred with sufficient frequency to be worthy of notice, even if disapprobatory.
Green homosexual activity, despite popular misconceptions, was not restricted to man-boy pairs.  Vase-painting shows numerous scenes where there is little or no apparent difference in age between the young wooer and his object of well as graphic scenes of sexual experimentation between youths.  Early poets such as Theognis and Pindar make it clear that youths were attracted to and slept with other youths of the same age... 
The youths named as men's favorites in Athenian oratory are all meirakia, a term generally used of those in the eighteen to twenty-one age-group.  Philosophers, in fact, preferred older youths, who were capable of a higher level of intellectual engagement; the early Stoics thought that a suitable beloved could be as old as twenty-eight.  Aristotle claims that relationships based on love of character often continued after the loss of the beloved's youthful beauty.  Xenophon reports that Menon, a Thessalian general, had a bearded beloved; similarly, Philostratus praises his beloved's beard.  (Hubbard 2003, 4-5)
            So we do see some diversity in the types of homoerotic pairings in Archaic and Classical Greece.  One factor, however, appears to remain consistent:  the social sanctioning of any same-gender relationships was a feature of the aristocracy.  In the Classical period, in particular, we have Aristophanes to give voice to the popular opinion of homosexuality.  It is not a positive one, to say the least.
            But why?
            This leads me to one of the details that caught me off guard in my research:  because homoerotic relationships of any kind were almost exclusively associated with the upper classes, the more democracy took hold, the less sanctioned were same-gender sexual pairings.  Vase paintings depicting pederastic courtship scenes and sexual experimentation remain common until about 460 BCE, which parallels the celebration of pederastic relationships in poetry.  After this time, the vase paintings and poetry become much more sedate.
            Which brings me to my awful little timeline.  Let us pause a moment before we officially move on to Awful Little Timeline.  This fucker took me a long time to figure out.  I would apologize for it, except I can't imagine how long it would take to do a better job creating digitally (this is digital, right?) something that is so fucking easy to do by hand.  I particularly like how the guestimate of Homer's life (spanning roughly 250 years) gets only one notch on the whole line.  And needless to say, Ephialtes and Socrates should overlap, as should Solon and Sappho, but I have no idea how to make that happen.  Everything is equidistant below, so try to imagine spacing things out more appropriately:

Solon (beginnings of democracy in Athens)
1100 BCE - 850 BCE
640 BCE - 560 BCE
470 BCE - 400 BCE
730 BCE - 650 BCE
630 BCE - 570 BCE
460 BCE 
First textual evidence for homoeroticism
Ephialtes severely curtails Areopagus

            I think I have been guilty of this as well, but it is a misnomer to think that there was a heroic revolution in Ancient Athens, followed by a peaceful, egalitarian epoch of self-governance.  Democracy (δημοκρατία) — much like, I believe, all political changes that stick — took time to develop.  Important moments in the development of democracy in Athens include:

  • Solon opened the position of Archon to all citizens of Athens, with property ownership restrictions, and sets up the 400 member Boule as a counterweight to the Areopagus (which was entirely aristocratic) in the early 6th century
  • In the mid-6th century, Peisistratos seizes power three separate times, overthrowing the still young democracy
  • In 508 BCE Cleisthenes abolishes the traditional four tribe system by which the Athenians were divided for government purposes, and replaces it with the 10 "tribe" system, based on demes, or geographical divisions of the city
  • Around 462/1, Ephialtes reduces the powers of the Areopagus; around the same time, the membership was extended to the lowest levels of propertied citizens
I'm not going to go further into the historical details, but the Wikipedia page on the subject offers a decent summary.  (And just FYI, I really am someday going to talk about women in Ancient Greece, which is why Sappho is on there.)
            So why was it that as democracy took more and more of a hold of Athenian society, pederasty — and homoerotic relationships in general — become less and less popular?  It seems to have been predominantly an issue of association.  Because pederastic relationships were associated with the upper classes of Athenian aristocracy, they smacked too much of privilege for the rest of the Athenian populace to continue tolerating them.  Hubbard also makes the argument that only the upper classes had the time and energy for such dalliances, but I find that difficult to believe.  It honestly doesn't take that much time to have sex, and I for one don't buy that homoerotic desire never arose in any lower class Athenian individuals or communities.  Still, in terms of visibility, any kind of homoerotic relationships existed only amongst the aristocracy.*  It was, as it sometimes still is, perceived as a vice of the wealthy and leisured classes and as such, an aspirational Athenian democrat could only hope that its existence would be stamped out.  Also, given that homosexual relations do not produce children — and given that it does appear that copulation and procreation are at the very least strongly linked — labeling homoerotic desire as "unnatural" was as common and easy a way of demonizing it as it often is today, and popular playwrights like Aristophanes exploited this to the fullest extent.  Hubbard offers a summary of a scene from Clouds:
One of the denizens of Socrates' Thinkery, named "Better Argument," describes at length the archaic ideal of modest, orderly, muscular, athletic boys who defer to their elders.  "Worse Argument" counters him by justifying a life of dissolution and adultery; even if one should be punished, as adulterers sometimes were, by having radishes or other foreign objects rammed up one's anus, one would be none the worse for it, since most of Athens' intellectual and political elite are already "wide-assed" due to having engaged in pederastic relations as boys.  Better Argument admits defeat in the debate, as he too belongs among this group.  The implication is that having been penetrated as a boy changes one's anatomy (and character) for life, and that even active pederasts like Better Argument have never really ceased being "wide-assed" passives.  (Hubbard 2003, 87)
The term "passives," of course, is one created by humans who like penetrating things with their penises for those humans who like being penetrated with penises.  I myself have never found the activity to be all that "passive," but perhaps I am verging off point.
            The question of penetration is vitally important to the Ancient Greeks.  While it was awful to be a young man who quietly submitted to penetration by an older lover, it was downright perverted for an adult man to continue to play the, as Hubbard puts it, "passive role."  Even the pederast, or as Dover calls it, the erastai, receives censure because it could be assumed that he would have submitted to penetration in his youth.  This is a point that I will come back to somewhat in my next post, so it is simply worth noting here that the disgust accrues to the partner being penetrated, not even to the act of penetrating another man anally, or even of enjoying the pederastic role.  Presumably, some adult men might continue to enjoy anal penetration well past their youth, and this, to the Ancient Greeks, was disgusting and demeaning.
            All the details of pedagogical pederasty — the pederastic courtship rituals; the association between pederasty and the gymnasium (an upper class venue); the gift-giving and lavish banquets thrown by an erastai for his erōmenos; even the pedagogical aspect, which was obviously only a real option and help to the aristocracy — everything contributed to an overall rejection by the lower classes of pederastic relationships.  With every step of ground gained by the new democracy, homosexuality came in for more and more ridicule and moral judgment.
            In my next post I am going to (I think) mostly focus on the questions that all of this raises for me, specifically in relation to the development of Western philosophy generally and even of historiography.  For now, I will close with a brief interpretation of an important story in Athenian mythology, that of Aristogeiton and Harmodius, or the Tyrannicides, as they became known.  If you're unfamiliar with the story, the Wikipedia article provides a basic outline:
One common story pattern is of pederastic couples whose love and desire to impress one another led them to sacrifice themselves courageously in assassinating, or attempting to assassinate, a tyrant.  The paradigm here, of course, is the Athenian story of Harmodius and Aristogeiton, whose actions were popularly supposed to have resulted in the overthrow of the Peisistratid tyrants in the late sixth century.  However, Thucydides and Aristotle...both offer consciously demythologizing accounts of the incident that demonstrate its relative unimportance in the ultimate overthrow of the tyranny; as Thucydides notes, the tyrant Hippias' cruelty actually grew worse after the assassination of his brother.  What is significant, therefore, is not the incident itself, but the fact that it was interpreted so widely to have a greater significance than it did:  one can perhaps see an attempt by mainly upper-class enthusiasts of pederasty (whose sympathies might otherwise be suspected of being undemocratic) to contextualize their practices as integral with Athens' developing democratic constitution by granting pederasty a prominent place in the democracy's foundational mythology.  (Hubbard 2003, 56)

* This should not be taken to ignore the widespread sexual exploitation of disenfranchised, young male slaves.  While such practices were also widespread, I would not constitute such exploitation as a relationship.  I am here primarily dealing with (at least ostensibly) voluntary relationships entered into by two individuals who could do otherwise without risk to their material needs and survival.

      Waterfield, Robin.  Introduction.  Symposium.  By Plato.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 1994.  Print.

      Hubbard, Thomas K., Ed.  Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: a Sourcebook of Basic Documents.  Berkeley:  University of California Press, 2003.  Print.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Phalli, Vulvae, Thought: Part I

I tried my damnedest to just write a short, succinct post.  Or rather, I've been trying for weeks to write a short succinct post.  Which of course means it has blown up into a multi-part piece.  Hopefully someone else out there is as fascinated by sex as I am.

What?!  You are!!?!  No way!!

An Introduction

            How does sexuality shape our minds?  Certainly, we can see a link between the typical gender binary, and binary thinking in general, though the question perhaps remains open as to which comes first.
            But beyond the obvious uses of simplified labeling — good/bad; black/white; on/off; no/yes — what aspects of sexuality — what currents of desire or, conversely, harbors of stillwater, where the libido rests, cool and safe — erode, deposit into, and smooth the minds of a society to conform with the given norms?  How does desire relate to power?  To perception?  To knowledge?
            It seems to be widely known that homoerotic relationships played a huge role in shaping the culture of the Classical period of Greece.  This is the time period that gave us much of what we think of as "Ancient Greece," though not all.  I have noticed time and again that even Americans with very little historical education know about homosexual/homoerotic relationships in this epoch.
            But what role(s) did homoeroticism play in the development of philosophy, theology, literature, and politics?  And how did homoerotic desire speak itself in the various milieux of Classical Antiquity?  For we must guard against the lazy assumption that social institutions, expressions, or ideologies we have labeled with familiar-sounding terms, in radically different times and places, will look like the institutions, expressions, etc., currently going by those same names in our own time and place.  In the Introduction to his translation of Plato's Symposium, Robin Waterfield opts to not even call what we are talking about "homosexuality":
I use the less familiar term 'homoeroticism' because not many Athenians were actually homosexual in the sense of being inclined to love only members of their own sex:  Pausanias and Agathon in our dialogue, with their lifelong affair, were exceptions rather than the rule.  More commonly, the same people were sexually inclined towards members of both sexes.  (Waterfield 1994, xv)
You may have noticed that I have adopted Waterfield's convention, and I will attempt to stick to it throughout.  Also, I want to note that this post, and probably the next one as well, are going to deal exclusively with male homoeroticism. The evidence regarding lesbianism is different (and much more scarce) than that for male homoerotic relationships, and I think that lesbian relationships are interesting in a very different way.  I could go on a very long diatribe here about what I perceive as the fallacy of conflating woman-to-woman sexual intimacy with man-to-man sexual intimacy under one classification, but I shall refrain for the moment.  What was started as a one-post project has evolved into something much bigger, so I intend to work several different threads.
            But first, because I have already been dancing around chronology terms a bit, some clarifications on the historical period in question.

Attitudes Over Time

"Ancient Greece"

            First, a confession:  I am as guilty as anyone of linguistic sloppiness when it comes to old Mediterranean stuffs.  In defense of the sloppiness, I will say that the term most often used — that is, the term in question:  "Ancient Greece" — does cover a period of specific developments in poetry, theater, philosophy, and mathematics.  Homer and Plutarch may well have been separated by as much as 1200 years, but what we generally understand as the referent of the term is the birth of Western civilization.  While very good arguments exist for the vast influence of North African and Mesopotamian thinkers and artists, I do believe we see, in the vast swath of time and place we call Ancient Greece, the first layers of what would become the European psyche.
            So that is all to say:  yes, the term is sloppy, but I believe there is a there there, and that most Westerners still grasp the broad strokes of it.
            My confession and defense aside, in order to discuss sexuality in the epoch in question, greater specificity will be required.  My apologies for how awkwardly the timeline below sits, but I can't stand tiny lettering:

"Ancient Greece."  Wikipedia.
            I am here almost exclusively interested in looking at the top bar, that is, the historical periods. In particular, the Greek Dark Ages, the Archaic Period, and the Classical Period.
            To begin, I'd like to clarify where two of our major data points fit in on the timeline above.  Homer, author of The Iliad and The Odyssey, is placed variously at around 1100 BCE and 850 BCE.  That is a pretty broad range, but it does place him well into the Greek Dark Ages.  Plato lived from about 430 BCE to 350 BCE, which places him in the Classical Period.
            The book I will be drawing on most heavily throughout this essay is an amazing anthology:  Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: a Sourcebook of Basic Documents, edited by Thomas K. Hubbard.  It includes everything from fragments of poems and plays to ancient graffiti and court documents.  In the introduction, regarding the changes over time, Hubbard says this:
Most previous discussions of Greek and Roman homosexuality, although distinguishing between the two cultures, tend to treat each culture synchronically, as if attitudes and practices were relatively uniform over time.  However, reflection on the various social practices of homosexuality and swings in public attitudes toward it in Western societies just in the second half of the twentieth century should caution us against such static assumptions in the case of ancient societies, which bore witness to many equally wrenching social and political transformations.  (Hubbard 2003, 14)
            Starting in the further reaches of our timeline, in the Greek Dark Ages, I want to first deal with what I believe to be a misconception regarding Homer and dating the rise of established homoerotic relationships.  Specifically, regarding Achilles and Patroclus in The Iliad.
            I know, I know.  We moderns like to smirk knowingly at Achilles and Patroclus.  I myself have never been convinced that their relationship was sexual.  All you have to do is travel outside of the US and Europe to see how much more comfortable the rest of the world's humans are with expressing same-sex — but non-sexual — affection.  Achilles and Patroclus clearly, genuinely loved one another.  But to assume that that love was sexual/romantic in nature is, I believe, to project our own prudishness back onto them.
            This point will be relevant over and over to this discussion, but I should acknowledge that a lack of evidence is not evidence of lack.  In other words, it is of course entirely possible that homoerotic love was a common practice amongst Greeks in the Homeric period, and that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers, and we just have lost all the texts that would make that seem more plausible.  But almost as soon as we do start to see textual evidence of it (much later than Homer), there is a corresponding opprobrium of said sexual activity; contrary to popular opinion, homosexuality was not universally accepted and celebrated.  Given this, in order to continue to argue that Achilles and Patroclus are lovers, we would probably have to argue that their homoerotic relationship was so culturally normative in the earlier time period — in Homer's time period — that no specific information about the relationship is needed; everyone just knew they were lovers, and it wasn't until later that Greek culture began to judge the behavior as immoral.  However, given the liberal way in which men describe the beauty and physical attractions of the women they rape, kidnap, and murder, it seems implausible to me that Homer would remain so silent on the subject of Patroclus' sexual attractiveness to Achilles, or vice versa, if homoerotic relationships were so normal.
            Another possible line to take is that Achilles and Patroclus are lovers, but the author needed to code their relationship very carefully for fear of censure.  But then, this still flies in the face of the common modern assumption that homosexual relationships were normative and enjoyed broad acceptance.  Also — and this is perhaps just a snobby, privileged lady talking here — I get a little tired of casual retroactive projection.  That is, pick someone you don't like.  Gay people, you say?  Oh, well, Hitler was totally gay.  Oh, wait, no; you like gay people??  Oh.  Whoops!  Hitler was super straight.  I meant Shakespeare.  Yeah!  Shakespeare was totally gay!  Anyone you don't like?  Liberals?  Oh, my friend, such a deal I have for you!  Fucking Stalin.  No, seriously.  He was a Socialist!  Like Obama!!  Obama is like Stalin's Muslim nephew or something!
            My larger point is that we can find absolutely anything we want if we look hard enough.  Sure, it can be fun.  And people can absolutely miss things because of the frame of reference from which they are reading a past culture.  But if Achilles and Patroclus are lovers that are carefully coded to protect the delicate ears of Ancient Greeks, I am next going to be asked to believe that The Iliad is also somehow anti-racist and anti-authoritarian.  Which is bullshit.

            Moving along chronologically, we have textual evidence from Plutarch that such relationships occurred around 735-730 BCE, but Plutarch lived several hundred years after the fact.  There is also a well-known figurine from Crete, a sketch of which you can see here; it depicts two ithyphallic hunters or warriors, and is dated to the seventh century BCE.  Again, the lack of evidence is not itself evidence for a lack of sexual activity.  But various ancient sources, such as Xenophon and Aristotle, attest that homoerotic relationships began to be a social custom sometime around the seventh century, as well; Aristotle specified that it was undertaken as part of an effort at population control, though of course we cannot be sure.  Which is all to say, some time in the Archaic Period.
            Setting aside questions of when exactly homoerotic relationships may or may not have first been approved of in Ancient Greece, we have unequivocal evidence for such relations in the Archaic Period.  Archilochus, who lived from approximately 680 to 645 BCE, conveniently gave us this little fragment, in case we needed it spelled out for us:'s nature is not the same,
But each man delights his heart in something different.
...cock pleases Melesander,
...pleases the shepherd Phalangius.
No prophet other than I tells this to you.
            (Archilochus, fragment 25.1-5 West)
And Theognis of Megara presents us with all kinds of good information.  First, from Hubbard's introduction:
[The Theognid collection] is considered by many critics not to be the work of a single poet, but to represent several generations of wisdom poetry gathered together at Megara and attributed to the name of "Theognis," who may or may not have been an actual poet of the sixth century.  What can be said about this corpus is that it presents a unified persona and set of attitudes, particularly in regard to the pederastic theme:  cynical, quarrelsome, resentful, ever ready to accuse, but nevertheless helplessly devoted.  Most of th poems in the corpus are not specifically amatory, but are social, political, or ethical precepts transmitted to Cyrnus as part of his formation into an adult Megarian aristocrat in Theognis' own image.  Theognis' ever-gnawing suspicion of Cyrnus' promiscuous flirtations with less worthy men may function as an allegory for his anxiety that the Megarian body politic has deserted aristocrats like himself in favor of an endless succession of "new men," whose wealth is based on trade and commerce.  The pederastic, pedagogical, and political levels are all mutually imbricated in this collection.  (Hubbard 2003, 23)
There is so much here!  For starters, "imbricated."  When do you get to use that word?!  I know, right?  Imbricated.  Just lovely.
            Oh, right.  Theognis.  Dates for Theognis' life are very sketchy, but he is placed anywhere between the seventh to fifth centuries BCE.*  Also, Megara could very well refer to a city on the mainland of the Greek peninsula, or it could refer to at least one other city, but now I'm just getting distracted:
            Theognis 1243-44
"Let's love long."  Then go be with others.
You are a trickster, fidelity's antitype. 
            Theognis 1245-46
Water and fire will never mix.  And we shall never be
True to each other and kind. 
            Theognis 1249-52
Boy, you're like a horse.  Just now sated with seed,
You've come back to my stable,
Yearning for a good rider, fine meadow,
An icy spring, shady groves. 
            Theognis 1259-62
Boy, you were born good-looking, but your head
Is crowned with stupidity.
In your brain is lodged the character of a kite, always veering,
Bending to the words of other men. 
            Theognis 1279-82
I won't mistreat you even if the deathless gods
Would treat me better, pretty boy.
And I don't sit in judgment on petty errors.
Pretty boys get away with doing wrong.  (Hubbard 2003, 40-43)
Taking Theognis, along with many, many other writers, we can say with assurance that homoerotic relationships were normative enough in the Archaic Period for an aristocrat to be writing so openly about them.
            The point I want to drive home at this point is that we have ample evidence that attitudes shifted over time.  Because of the sloppiness I mentioned early — lumping everything from Homer to Strato under the term Ancient Greece — and because of all those — *ahem* — vases:

That a lot of dudes with hard-ons.**  Which is to say, I think we can safely assume that homoerotic relationships were normalized enough if they made it into popular media.
            Hubbard summarizes the historical shift in the evidence for institutionalized homosexual practices:
Ancient texts variously credit the Spartans or Cretans with a special role as early practitioners, particularly in what may be initiatory contexts.  Some lyric texts and the Thera graffiti may support an initiatory interpretation.  The earliest artistic evidence*** is Cretan and suggests a partnership of younger and older warriors.  Aristotle connects the introduction of the practice with overpopulation and the desire for a lower birthrate, possibly through delayed marriage.  Our earliest textual evidence is from the early seventh century, although Plutarch relates an incident that, if historical, must have occurred around 735-730 BCE.  There is no clear evidence for homosexuality in the epic poetry of Homer and Hesiod, which could support a thesis of seventh-century origins, possibly in response to population issues.  (Hubbard 2003, 14-15)
Again, this is specifically in reference to institutionalized practices.  In the next post I'll talk about what exactly pedagogical pederasty was, but it should be noted that, as in our own time, it was only specific practices which Ancient Greek society tolerated.  As we shall see later, even something as simple as being a man old enough to grow a beard, who enjoyed being penetrated by a man the same age, could set one up for ridicule at the least, and political trouble in other cases.  Homoerotic desire was by no means given free rein, and perhaps just as importantly, hierarchy — or a word I'm now toying with, kyriarchy — shaped all of the underlying structures of longing and terror, just the same as it does today.

            Next up will be something along the lines of a discussion of pedagogical pederasty, and the relationship between said institution and democracy in Athens.  Which will segue nicely into discussing further the relationships between desire and power.

* A note on tossing around terms like "seventh century BCE."  Such a phrase certainly sounds like it should mean things like "751 BCE," and "789 BCE was a great year!"  It all seems perfectly logical, until you think about counting centuries from zero.  So here I mean that Theognis could have lived anywhere from the 600s to the early 400s.  And of course, "early 400s" means things like "490" and "480."  It's awful, I know, but there you are.

** Full disclosure on the dating of these vases, though:  I couldn't find them on any reputable sites — in other words, they weren't on museum pages with the estimated dates neatly printed below.  They were all on overly-simplistic pro-gay websites, or puritanical, anti-gay sites, with no mention of where they were from or what time period.  My apologies for not being savvy enough to track them down, because I'm sure it must be do-able.  All the more trustworthy sources I can find attribute all of these kinds of vases to either the Archaic or the Classical Period.

*** This is the same figurine I referenced above.  In case you didn't get to see it...

      Waterfield, Robin.  Introduction.  Symposium.  By Plato.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 1994.  Print.

      Archilochus.  Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: a Sourcebook of Basic Documents.  Ed. Thomas K. Hubbard.  Berkeley:  University of California Press, 2003.  Print.
      Theognis.  ibid.